California is not just all sunshine and beaches. It is also an intellectual and technological hub where ambitious young minds, like U of T Immunology alumnus Christina Loh, congregate to push the boundaries of research and innovation. As a part of our ongoing efforts to catch up with the department’s graduates, we sat down with Christina to reminisce on graduate life, as well as to discuss her current post-doctoral pursuits at the prestigious Stanford University.
Christina graduated in 2011 from Dr. Joan Wither’s lab with her thesis on the identification of genetic loci that contribute to the immunopathogenesis of systemic lupus erythromatosus. Realizing her passion for science, she started looking for a post-doctoral position two years before her defence to try and frame the trajectory of her career. She describes the process of finding her post-doc as being serendipitous. It was researching for an Immunology Tonight presentation that put her in the know-how with the microRNA field. That, along with a well-timed American Association of Immunologists meeting, gave her the opportunity to network with leading researchers. She quickly secured a verbal agreement to join Dr. Chang Zheng Chen’s lab at Stanford University. The transition, however, was not without its bumps. She was forced to switch labs a year into her post-doc because her investigator could not secure tenure. “It was unexpected,” Christina recalls. She did not anticipate this outcome given his publication and funding situation. She eventually found a new spot at Stanford, in Garry P. Nolan’s lab. Christina is now in her fourth year of her post-doctoral work studying how microRNAs can modulate the global immune structure in mice. Integral to her research is the use of mass cytometry, or CyTOF, in defining these characteristics. Employing and embracing new technology, such as CyTOF, is part of the excitement of being at one of the world’s most prestigious institutions.
“Coming to Stanford has been amazing. It is above and beyond what you would expect out of a university,” Christina says. She cites the emerging technology, an engaging community of scientists and an expanse of opportunities (e.g. research, writing, and business), as integral to the incredible environment that Stanford has cultivated. “In the Nolan Lab, we describe it to be like Disneyland – the happiest place on Earth, because the opportunities (i.e. learning and research) are plentiful.” In fact, the tougher adjustment occurred outside of the lab: imagine living over 2,000 miles away from your husband. Beyond that hurdle, transitioning from a city to a suburb required an adjustment to a slower and less exciting pace of life. That being said, it’s hard to complain about the blue sky and sun. Christina describes her days off as being spent either at the city, beach, or hiking.
Making the most out of an experience
After three years, Christina sees herself as being halfway through her post-doc training. “Here, the majority of trainees that become PIs invest six years as a post-doc in single lab,” she says. “Given my experience thus far, to continue along the same academic trajectory I would need at least another three years.” She admits to being weary of this timeline. Ultimately, her trajectory is to come back to Toronto. “I want to build upon the community where I grew up. After this experience, I now have many cutting edge techniques and knowledge at my fingertips – I can pivot in many directions and this is truly exciting. Right now, it is about the research, and we’ll see what happens next. I’m going to capitalize on this experience and learn.”
True to her word, beyond the bench Christina seems to be getting the most out of her time at Stanford. She co-founded the Stanford Biotechnology Business and Finance Group. The group initiated a seminar series, which dissects the rationale for venture capital investment in biotechnology and has written several peer-reviewed articles for Seeking Alpha, an online investment platform with detailed financial analyses of various biotech companies.My actions in life are driven by personal meaning. She also engages as a healthcare consultant, and leads an interdisciplinary team of Stanford students to develop strategies for better patient care within the hospital. Christina credits all of her extracurricular activities as making her a “fuller” person; these experiences have enhanced her breadth of knowledge, teamwork, leadership and project management skills, something she could not achieve by doing lab work alone. This should come as no surprise to those who knew her at U of T. During her time in our department, Christina served two back-to-back terms as Immunology Graduate Students Association (IGSA) co-president and oversaw the creation of both our Annual Departmental Retreat and Blackboard Immunology. “I wanted to improve the graduate experience by building a more integrated Immunology Community. I joined IGSA to drive this change. My actions in life are driven by personal meaning.”
Success is in the opportunities
Given the current research climate (i.e. the glut of PhDs), there are changes that Christina would like to see in the graduate experience, such as seeing U of T better prepare graduate students for “alternative” career paths. And, according to Christina, it isn’t just the department that needs to step up to the plate. “It needs to be discussed at the Faculty of Medicine level,” she says. “There is a demand for more skills development for graduate students. Overall, the school – not just our department – needs to ask: what skills can we add to the current repertoire that will propel their success inside and outside of academia.” This is something that Stanford seems to be acutely aware of. There are so many programs for science trainees that Christina describes her experience as being like “a kid in a candy store. Stanford tries to get the best out of you by placing a plethora opportunities in front of you. There is no real pressure to have that be restricted to the academic stream.”
Looking back on her own experience in our department, Christina has one message for graduate students: “Motivation and confidence will ebb and flow, [but] as long as you have a strong support system of colleagues and mentors, you will get through it.” Looking ahead, although Christina doesn’t quite know yet where she’ll be in five years, she is filled with optimism. “I want a career within which I can grow and develop, personally and professionally. There are so many different leaps that I can take after my experience at U of T and Stanford. What is there not to be excited about?”
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