From lab employee to PhD student: getting a head start
By Eleni Kanavas
Behrouz Moemeni is unlike most graduate students in that his experience working in a hospital-based research lab gave him a head start in his graduate studies and the field of academic research—rather than the other way around, as is typical.
After graduating from the University of Toronto with an honours bachelor of science degree in cell and molecular biology, Moemeni secured a position as a research technician in the lab of Dr. Michael Julius, vice-president of research at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI), and senior scientist in biological sciences at SRI. Two years later, Moemeni became an interim research associate in Julius’s lab; in this role, he managed the lab and did experiments. At that point, Julius encouraged him to pursue graduate studies and continue his research project in T cell signalling.
Heeding that counsel, Moemeni enrolled in the PhD program in the department of immunology at U of T in January 2008. He is now a fourth-year PhD student supervised by Julius.
Here, Moemeni describes his work experience and transition into graduate studies.
What led you to pursue a career in science?
I love solving puzzles! Working in a research lab is like solving puzzles and it’s very interesting to me. There’s something new every day. Sometimes you think you’re going in one direction, but you find something new and might end up somewhere else.
How did you end up at Sunnybrook Research Institute?
When I graduated [from] university, I was thinking about medical school, but I wasn’t sure. I did a fourth-year project at Princess Margaret Hospital, and then I found a job here at SRI as a research technician. I was working with Michael, and after a few years he encouraged me to go to graduate school because he recognized my passion for research and I was already doing the work in his lab.
How was the transition going from employee to graduate student?
As a technician, I learned a lot of background information related to immunology and about various biochemical and cell and molecular techniques. This made designing and conducting experiments as a graduate student a lot easier as I was already proficient in the necessary hands-on laboratory techniques.
What is the focus of your research project?
The focus is the examination of proteins involved in the activation of a specific subset of immune system cells, called T cells. Our studies have indicated the importance of two proteins involved in the activation of T cells, and hence the development of an appropriate immune response to pathogens and other foreign substances. We have shown that T cell activation depends on the activation of one of these proteins, which can then physically interact with the second protein leading to its activation. We now have evidence that these two proteins retain unique and interdependent roles in T cell activation, and that the absence of one or the other results in an impaired immune response.
Why is your research project important?
Our understanding of the interaction of these two proteins would enable the design of small molecules to either enhance or impede their interaction, that in turn will either enhance or inhibit T cell activation. This would lend itself to potential therapeutic impact in circumstances of immunodeficiency and vaccine delivery, or inflammatory diseases.
What advice do you have for other students?
First, they need to figure out what they want to do with their lives and why. If research is of interest, then I recommend spending at least six months in a laboratory prior to pursuing a graduate degree. When applying to graduate school, finding a good supervisor is more important than the type of research. I believe it’s essential to work with an established supervisor whose personality is compatible with that of the student’s.
What’s next for you?
My focus is on finishing my PhD. I’d like to do academic research, but I’m keeping all options open, and everything is on the table.
Would you trade this experience for anything else?
No. It’s been a really good experience with a lot of learning and growing up in the past few years, especially since I started my PhD. If someone likes learning, they would love doing a PhD program.