Graduate Tales: Spring 2014

image of graduating students

From left to right: Kento Onishi, Alex Albanese, Michael Same

Meet three of IBBME’s Class of 2014:

Alex Albanese (Supervisor: Warren Chan) – Alex didn’t spent all of his time in the Chan lab studying nanoparticles – he’s also been exploring everyone else’s labs! As the driving force behind the IBBME Podcast series, Focal Point, Alex has his pulse on the research conducted across the Institute. He has also been actively involved in BESA, and was an organizer of IBBME’s Annual Scientific Day.

Kento Onishi (Supervisor: Peter Zandstra) – Kento spent his doctoral program studying that most mysterious thing: the stem cell. In particular, this West Coast native researched two different pluripotent stem cell states and how they transition from one to the other, and what that all could mean for humans.

Michael Same (Supervisor: Milos Popovic) – For his MASc degree, Michael worked with Professor Milos Popovic on the use of electrical stimulation to contract muscles and help to regain function in patients with neurological conditions such as spinal cord injury and stroke. In particular, Michael was responsible for designing a control strategy for helping rehabilitate patients’ balance while standing.

What are you doing post-degree?

Alex: I’m heading to MIT to do a postdoc at the Koch Institute. I’ll be working under Sangeeta Bhatia on tissue engineering, especially of the liver, and responsive nanomaterials.

Kento: Right now I’m on a four-month internship at the Centre for the Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM). After that I’m hoping to break into industry. I’ve applied to jobs in the Bay area, and around San Francisco.

Michael: Shortly after completing my thesis defense, I began working as an R&D Engineer at Baylis Medical, a medical device company in Toronto that specializes in the use of radio frequency for various applications in the body. I’m only a month into the job, but so far I’m really enjoying it!

What are your plans for the future/your career?

Alex: When I started my PhD I was going to get the PhD and go into industry. Throughout the course of my PhD, though, I decided I was going to go into academia.

Kento: I’d really like to be a medical science liaison. Essentially, you’re a liaison between different departments in your company. You also liaise with the key opinion leaders, liaise with company and say, this is what you need to make. Then the company tries to develop a drug [to fill that need].

My intent is to get a post doc and gain more experience or some other means of getting a foot in the door. I’d also specifically like a position [as a medical science liaison] in the cell therapy realm. It’s a position that doesn’t exist yet, but I’m anticipating where things are going.

Michael: I’m excited by the prospect of developing medical devices that could meaningfully impact people’s lives.

A lot of people – including those obtaining graduate degrees – are worried about their future career prospects. Have you been worried about getting a good job after graduation or working in your field?

Alex: I think the bigger challenge is that as a PhD you’re super-specialized. If you’re working on “seal enzymes,“ for example, you might not find a job in “seal enzymes.” But the trick is to work on developing your other skills. Take a more global view of your skills and train them beyond research. It’s important to get the bigger picture: how to write, how to communicate. In that sense I’m pretty confident I’ll be able to find a job.

Kento: For me it’s just trying to end up in a spot that I want. Getting a job is not the problem: it’s getting the right one that’s important. I have a specific location in mind and a certain field in mind, and I’m worried about getting to that position in a reasonable amount of time.

Michael: Yes, I was definitely worried when I started looking for jobs, and I think I did get lucky to some extent to be able to find a job so quickly after the Master’s [degree]. It certainly is a challenge – although I was pleasantly surprised by the number of interesting job postings that I came across in the GTA in the medical research field while I was looking.

Do you think you will stay in the Greater Toronto Area?

Alex: My best case scenario would be if I could work that out. It’s going to be very competitive trying to find a foothold in academia, though. You need to carve out a niche for yourself.

Kento: No, I’d like to live in the Bay Area. There are different [biomedical] hubs that are not as big as the Bay area or Boston but the prevalence of industry there. Added to that the wet coast lifestyle, and that it’s close to home [Vancouver] it makes me want to be near there.

Michael: I would like to. I am from Australia originally but I have been in Toronto for four years now and I really like it here. Career-wise, I think that the GTA has a lot to offer. In particular, I appreciate the strong research and development culture here across the various universities and hospitals, as well as in industry through established companies and a growing number of start-ups.

What’s the most important lesson you learned during your degree?

Alex: “Finishing.” Starting projects, the first 80 percent is easy; the last 20 percent takes that extra month or year. That’s where the skill and hardships come in.

Kento: Persistence pays off. You go through your PhD and you question, “why am I getting a doctorate of philosophy?” But then you understand there’s a lot of philosophy behind it.

Michael: One of the most important things that I learned was how to think analytically and imaginatively in order to overcome problems. One of the great things about graduate school, and my lab in particular, was having the autonomy to make my own decisions, and to drive the direction of my research to a large extent. I wasn’t really used to this from previous positions and jobs, and trusting myself and my own judgment was something that I learned as I went along. I think it will put me in good stead in my career going forward.

Advice for current students at IBBME?

Alex: My one regret is I feel like I might have played it a little safe. Go big. This is your chance. Have some solid projects, because that’s your currency. But have a couple of wild cards.

Kento: It’s sounds kind of generic but don’t be afraid to fail. Things will go awry, but keep at it, make sure you don’t’ bite off more than you can chew. Focus on one thing and do it well and then move on – that’s the biggest thing I had to learn.

Michael: It’s important to trust yourself, whilst at the same time challenging and not just accepting what you hear from superiors or others, or importantly what you read in journal articles. This can be difficult at the beginning of your research, but as time goes on you will likely know more than almost anyone about the specific aspect that you are researching and it’s obviously good if you can put that to use.

Last Thoughts?

Alex: IBBME is very stimulating and collaborative. That unmistakable vibe that people put on pamphlets? It’s really happening here.

Kento: Especially in the earlier years your experience depends on where your lab is: if CCBR’s fourth floor is your floor, you’re in a very multidisciplinary atmosphere. You have a very good chance of, and outlets for, interaction. Overall IBBME has been a really good experience.

Michael: Enjoy the experience. It’s easy to just get caught up in your own research (which is something I was guilty of at times), but there is a huge amount of interesting research going on at IBBME, and it’s a great opportunity to get involved in different things (academic and otherwise), and to expand your mind.