Academia is not for everyone and many PhD students (both past and present) are faced with the question of “what am I going to do with my future?” The challenge of choosing alternative career options was something that U of T Department of Immunology alumna Gloria Lin remembers very well. Now settled into a new position in industry, we caught up with Gloria to discuss her post-PhD life and what she has in store for her career.

Gloria Lin
Photo credit: Dennis Ng.

Taking on Diverse Projects

Gloria completed her PhD in Dr. Tania Watts’ lab, graduating in 2011 with her thesis dissecting the role of co-stimulation in enhancing CD8 effector and memory T cell responses. Arriving in the lab as a 4th year undergraduate student without any research experience, Gloria recalls the numerous rejections from potential supervisors and remains grateful to Dr. Watts for giving her the chance to prove herself. “I was very lucky,” Gloria reflects. “I was given good projects and I’m thankful to Tania for taking me on as a student.” The result was an incredibly productive five-year doctoral degree that culminated in six first-author publications, two first-author reviews, and seven other co-authored articles.

Of course, it was more than just luck that contributed to her success. Gloria’s enthusiasm for research was unmatched—she is fondly remembered by her labmates as one who was always willing to pick up new projects and eager to try different things; examples of her work ethic remain legendary in the Watts lab. In her own words, the key to a successful PhD is the ability to plan ahead. “Think about why you are doing this set of experiments, what you can get out of it, and what you are going to do next,” she elaborates, “…[and] when things start to go well, stagger it with other projects.” Such a bold and dedicated approach to research allowed Gloria to dabble in many different animal and disease models in the lab, expanding not only her repertoire of technical skills but also her knowledge and expertise in a variety of clinically-relevant areas including vaccination and influenza, immune exhaustion and chronic infection, and immunotherapies and cancer.

To Be or Not To Be an Academic?

After completing her PhD, Gloria chose to stay in Toronto to be close to her family and pursued postdoctoral work in Dr. Tak Mak’s lab at the Ontario Cancer Institute. Gloria describes the Mak lab as being “full of possibilities and a place to be independent,” with all the freedom and resources available to take projects in any kind of direction. Additionally, being such a renowned figure in immunology, Dr. Mak is very well connected; he often puts trainees in touch with experts in many fields for guidance or assistance, making it straightforward to set up collaborations and push research into new frontiers. Although a lot more hands-off with respect to management and often away due to travel, Gloria notes that Dr. Mak still made himself fully available to the large group of researchers and students under his wing. Gloria spent four years in the Mak lab working primarily on inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, as well as getting involved with a therapeutic team to help develop immunomodulatory agents against several diseases, including arthritis, colitis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and type 2 diabetes. The postdoc not only allowed Gloria to expand her already extensive publication record, both in academic journals and published patents, but also made her an expert in animal work and in a diverse range of in vivo disease models.

Despite years of success in academic science, Gloria started to consider other career paths. An academic career would have required a second postdoc elsewhere (almost certainly abroad since it is a valued quality that one has acquired expertise and success in new environments) and her preference to stay within the GTA presented a major obstacle. Furthermore, there would be no guarantee that she would be able to return to Toronto where faculty positions, as well as research funding, are scarce and highly competitive. Wanting a change, Gloria set her sights on breaking into industry. However, without any previous work experience, it was difficult to even acquire an interview for an industry position. Gloria sought advice by taking Dr. Nana Lee’s Graduate Professional Development Course and spent several months networking and connecting with U of T Department of Immunology alumni to learn about their experiences. She also maintained a close personal relationship with Dr. Watts, her PhD supervisor. Through one of Dr. Watts’ connections, Gloria landed an interview with Trillium Therapeutics Inc. and eventually was offered a position as a research scientist. Trillium presented an opportunity for Gloria to continue doing the research that she loves while fulfilling her desire to work close to home.

Breaking into Industry

Trillium Therapeutics Inc. is a publicly traded Canadian immuno-oncology company based in Mississauga—founded by alumni of this very department. The company develops cancer therapies and currently has a tumour-specific SIRPαFc drug in pre-clinical testing. SIRPα binds CD47, an inhibitory molecule that delivers an immunosuppressive “don’t eat me” signal that allows malignant tumour cells to escape immunosurveillance. SIRPαFc is a fusion protein that links an immunoglobulin Fc region to a portion of the SIRPα receptor so that it can act as a decoy receptor to block endogenous SIRPα-CD47 interactions, thereby enabling macrophage killing of tumour cells.

In her position as a research scientist, Gloria is involved in research and development with the goal of translating scientific findings into therapeutics. Since Gloria is still new (she started the job in September 2015), she only has one technician under her guidance and is still at the bench herself. So far, her work has mainly involved study in human cultures, but she foresees that there’ll be quite a bit of in vivo work in the near future. In fact, Gloria’s extensive experience from both her PhD and her postdoc with different animal models of infectious disease, cancer, and autoimmunity played a prominent role in landing her this current job as her expertise will be invaluable in driving the research behind upcoming developments at Trillium.

Settling in now, Gloria notes that there are some practices that take getting used to. For one, access to patient samples is more regulated in industry. One cannot just obtain tumour or blood samples from the clinic or other labs and have to instead purchase from commercial stocks, which can be expensive. Furthermore, everything is meticulously documented, from the reagent lot numbers and expiration dates to the number of passages of cell cultures. Although it may seem excessive, Gloria acknowledged that since all the data and protocols are shared on a network drive for all other scientists in the company, it becomes easier to reproduce results and troubleshoot problems. Although the transition to industry is not without its difficulties,  Gloria feels that the culmination of her doctoral and postdoctoral training have given her a foundation to adapt to and take on whatever challenges may come.

Looking ahead, Gloria is excited about her new job and hopes that she can take full advantage of it to gain more industry experience. She may not know where she will be in five years, but she still enjoys immunology and benchwork, and would like to continue her career in research. Looking back, her advice to current graduate students who may be feeling just as lost as she did not too long ago is once again to plan ahead. “If you’re not sure what you want to do, find people that have jobs already,” she says. “It’s always good to be talking to the people around you.”

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Angela Zhou

Angela is a PhD student at the University of Toronto currently studying immune responses to influenza infection. When not in the lab, she enjoys painting, wandering aimlessly, and spending quality time with good friends.

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