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  • Second in a series celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Beatrice Hunter Cancer Research Institute

In 2012, what had been a mini cancer course evolved into the cancer research workshop format of the past several years.  This annual workshop is organized by trainees with advice provided by a faculty advisor.  Trainees on the organizing committee gain skills in leadership, the art of delegating and organizing events.  With presentations from research leaders in their fields, to concurrent breakout sessions that focus on the complementary skills that contribute to success, this annual workshop has become a cornerstone of the cancer research training program.  On May 24th, six CRTP Alumni came ‘home’ as presenters at this year’s workshop. Their presentations covered a breadth of topics from marketing and networking to grant writing and publishing.  BHCRI staff caught up with - Tugce Balci (Pediatrics 2011), Sherri Christian (Medical Sciences 2011), Murray Cutler (Pharmacology 2012), Jeremy Roy (Physiology and Biophysics 2011) Maya Shmulevitz (Microbiology and Immunology 2009) and Kristin Tweel (Pharmacology 2011) - to hear more about their journey from CRTP trainee to where they are now.


BHCRI: What is your current position?

TB: “I am a Clinical Geneticist at London Health Sciences Centre, Victoria Hospital and an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Biochemistry at Western University in Ontario”

SC: “I’m an Associate Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Memorial University in St. John’s Newfoundland”

MC: “I am a Pharmacologist and Project Manager at Athenex, Inc. in Buffalo New York”

JR: “I’m a Research Scientist with the Atlantic Cancer Research Institute in Moncton”

MS: “Associate Professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology and the University of Alberta and Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Molecular Virology and Oncotherapy”

KT: “I’m a Business Development Officer with Genome Atlantic in Halifax”


BHCRI: What was your journey from CRTP trainee to your current position?

TB: “During my CRTP training, I understood the right path for me would be clinical training. I started taking the examinations and working on my applications during my postdoc. It was a challenging path but I was lucky to have an extremely supportive supervisor (Dr. Berman) and enough exposure gained through the training to navigate the hurdles. During my clinical residency training in Ottawa, I managed to find new mentors, start new research projects and continue publishing so that I could get back into the research world. While on a job hunt, 6 years after I left Halifax, my research experience as a postdoc came up constantly, mostly to gauge my ability to deliver as a clinician researcher. I ended up choosing a position that provided 40% research time. I am excited to see how it unfolds from here!” 

SC: “I was actually only a CRTP trainee for 8 months as I started my faculty position soon after my CRTP award.”

MC: “My love of drugs began in 1998 as a co-op student, and later work-study student, in the Division of Clinical Pharmacology at University Hospital in London Ontario.  I went on to a PhD in Pharmacology and Toxicology under Dr. David Freeman at Western, then postdoc positions at Dalhousie with Dr. Jonathan Blay and later at the University of Waterloo.  I was funded by CRTP during my postdoc with Dr. Blay.  Prior to joining Athenex, I worked in Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics at Genentech in South San Francisco and Therapure Innovations in Toronto.”

JR: “I was funded from the CRTP during my PhD, after which I went on to continue my training at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School for 4.5 years. I then left academia to work as a Scientist at a contract research organization (AGADA biosciences) in Halifax for 1.5 years. I came back to academia to work as a Research Associate at ACRI and have been here for 3 years.”

MS: “I was a CRTP member during my second PDF position. CRTP provided me unique opportunities to learn many important skills such as grant writing, group management, setting up a core facility, etc.  These skills were going to help me no matter which career I chose (see below about possible careers), as they complemented my already-developed scientific research skills. During my CRTP membership, I applied for Faculty positions and received a Faculty position with UofA.”

KT: “I realized about halfway through my PhD that research wasn’t the right path for me.  After finishing my PhD at Dalhousie, I decided to enrol in the MBA program at the Sobey School of Business. I knew I wanted to stay in science and make an impact, but I really didn't know what that would look like, although I knew I felt strongly about developing new skills and expanding my horizons career-wise. Through my MBA I had an opportunity to do a MITACS-funded internship at a local biotech company, BioVectra, which provided me with some valuable work experience. When I finished my degree I was fortunate enough to be offered a position with Genome Atlantic.”


BHCRI: What was your original career path?  i.e.: when you were in grad school or undergrad, where did you see yourself?

TB: “Since I could think for myself, I have always wanted to do genetics. I went to medical school in Turkey and dreamed of doing research one day. However, the path in front of me was a residency, then a clinical career. I got a taste for research during my residency and craved for more but there were not many opportunities. I started applying to postdoc positions abroad, which would mean abandoning a safe, yet unfulfilling path. Never did I imagine that it would actually happen or take me to where I am today. I was extremely lucky to have come to Halifax of all places. My experience here opened up so many doors and I still benefit from the connections I made during CRTP.”

SC: “When I was an undergrad, I decided to do a PhD because I knew that I wanted to understand the experiments and interpret the results that could lead to new knowledge. When I was in grad school, I was certain that I would go into industry in drug development. But after my PhD, my curiosity and need to follow-the-data led me to an academic career.”

MC: “My PhD supervisor Dr. David Freeman was (and still is) an active expert member of Western’s Human Research Ethics Board, reviewing clinical trial protocols of investigational drugs. From our many discussions it became clear that medicines were made in industry and so that is where I wanted to be.”

JR: “I had always seen myself as a researcher in Atlantic Canada. I felt I could always explain topics well so maybe teaching.”

MS: “Even as an undergraduate and graduate student, I was already aware of that (1) not every one of us can become the same thing, and (2) there are many career options aside from the typical "lawyer, doctor, professor, etc". Accordingly, although I always felt I would appreciate a professor/Faculty position, I was truly open to many careers.  However, there were certain "requirements" of a career that I felt would fit me best.  For example, for me, I felt that a career that involved creativity, leadership, and problem solving (especially using scientific method) would be good fits.  I didn't mind working long hours, but enjoyed flexibility of being able to work when I was the sharpest.  I also felt that I thrive in the "learning" environment of academia, and therefore if possible, I would seek a career that would keep me in an academic setting.  For example, I thought that being a manager of a core facility, or a coordinator for a research team, would be careers I would enjoy in addition to professor/Faculty. Still to this day, despite being very happy with my career, I sometimes wonder what other careers might suit me - I've wondered about careers in politics, starting a biotech company, and many others.  My take home message is that for me, it has never been about a single career or career path.”

KT: “Like many students finishing a BSc, I had, at one point, considered medical school.  That all changed in my fourth year of undergrad when I took a course, The Pathobiology of Disease.  My fantastic honours supervisor opened my mind to the amazing world of cancer after he taught a lecture in that course on a seminal paper detailing the Hallmarks of Cancer.  I was fascinated and utterly hooked on learning about the science of cancer. I promptly started looking for a graduate research supervisor!”


BHCRI: How do you feel CRTP benefitted you?

TB: “I did clinical training following my CRTP years, so all I know about academia, which is crucial information for my current research position, came from those years! I learned the nut and bolts of academia and gained insight into what kind of career path would most fit my skills, expectations and expertise. I met a number of very talented people and had great mentorship. So much so that I am still going back to the handouts from the workshops I attended back in 2010-2011!”

SC: “In ways that can’t be truly measured. I gained a community of like-minded but diverse individuals, all who have a passion for bettering the lives of cancer patients- just in different ways. By interacting with people from outside Memorial on a regular basis, I made both scientific and social connections that I would not have otherwise made.”

MC: “My graduate studies were focused on the pharmacokinetics of a class of chemotherapy drugs, but not the aspect of their mechanism in cancer. The CRTP gave me the opportunity to bridge over to the field of oncology and enabled me to gain experience in cancer biology. It allowed my post-doctoral supervisor Dr. Jonathan Blay to take a risk on a postdoc with little-to-no knowledge of cancer biology – something I’m eternally grateful for!”

JR: “The CRTP benefited me immensely, I remember being asked about it during my interviews for potential post doc positions. It really is one-of-a-kind and extremely valuable for junior researchers. It broadened my horizons, both for career paths and scientific ideas.”

MS: “My current career and any other career that I thought of, all require the scientific research knowledge that I received through my in-lab training... but also importantly were 100s of other transferable skills that enhance the ability to manage, collaborate, communicate, etc.  CRTP provided me opportunities to learn about, and practice, these other transferable skills.  It also provided a new venue to learn about other research projects, but distinct from my departmental seminars because CRTP focused on cancer research (while my department focused on microbiology and immunology).” 

KT: “CRTP really helped build a community for trainees in the cancer field and provided invaluable opportunities to share your work and receive feedback from that community. Through the learning sessions with local researchers, trainees and clinicians, it also exposed me to areas outside of the of basic research I was doing, such as pharmacoeconomics, which remains an interest and was one of the reasons I pursued an MBA.”


BHCRI: As a CRTP Alumni, do you have any words of advice for current CRTP trainees?

TB: “Mentorship is a two-sided exchange. Get yourself great mentors and get good at being mentored yourself! There are many excellent mentors among CRTP faculty to choose from. Remember they are busy people; you may need to seek them out and ask them thoughtful questions. Sometimes a casual chat during an event may be the best advice you ever get!”

SC: “Even if you don’t know for sure what you want to do or what type of career you want, be confident that the path you are on will get you there eventually. Sometimes you won’t know what suits you best until you are actually doing it. Learn from everyone you meet and everything you experience since you never know when those useful nuggets can help you in your life.  In fact, my toddlers taught me some of the most important things about being a good mentor, teacher, and mother.”

MC: “For those trainees interested in pursuing a career in industry, it’s beneficial to understand where their skills fit in the path of drug development and what applied analysis, whether mathematical or method-based, are used in industry. If you’re not sure, just ask!”

JR: “Stick with it. Have a 5-year plan, but don't worry if life takes you off the path to your goal. Try to assess why life has taken you there and what you have learned. Avoid distractions like the plague, always ask yourself "how is this benefiting me?" Finally, ask questions, lots of them!”

MS: “Keep chugging along and try to enjoy as much as you can. Especially the science.”

KT: “Your skills are transferrable (I promise)! But there are certainly things you can do to refine those skills, such as practicing communicating your science and networking (including leveraging your existing network) every opportunity you get.   These skills will serve you well no matter what you end up doing.”

In the almost 20 years since the Cancer Research Training Program was first established, over 250 trainees have been part of the program and now span the globe in positions that are as diverse as the individuals who hold them. BHCRI will be reviewing the CRTP curriculum this year, with an eye toward refreshing offerings, to ensure that cancer research trainees continue to have the type of experiences that will serve them well regardless of their chosen career paths.  As has been past practice, trainees as well as our investigators and supporters will be a major part of these discussions.

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