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Driven to Discovery

July 12, 2010

Some people find their vocation through trial and error, realizing the right fit after a series of jobs and some soul-searching. And then there are those who know early on what they want to do, and move swiftly in the direction of their chosen fields. As Alisa Kim discovers, Kelly Coultes is one of the latter.

The 31-year-old technician, who works in the lab of Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) brain scientist Dr. Isabelle Aubert, knew as a teenager that she wanted to do research. After studying biology for two years at the University of Western Ontario, Coultes transferred to the biotechnology technologist program at Seneca College. She was one of only nine students chosen for the competitive co-operative education stream, which, in her final year, gave her work experience at a pharmaceutical company and a peptide-synthesis company. Upon graduation, she took a job at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases (CRND) working for a researcher studying the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease and who was building his lab from scratch. In 2007 Coultes moved to SRI to work for Aubert, who is developing therapeutic agents for neurodegenerative diseases. Here, she describes her role in the lab and why she loves what she does.

What are your main responsibilities?

As a technician, I make sure the lab is stocked with the items needed for experiments and that the freezers are well-organized. There are so many students who are coming and going.  I make sure everything is organized because they’ll be here for a couple of years, or even just a summer, and then they’re gone. We have to know where their items are, and how we can continue that project. I also help Isabelle do the budget portion of her grants. It’s difficult for a researcher to know what we’re using, how much of it we’re using and what it costs. She relies on us for those details. I spend about half of my time doing lab maintenance work and half working on my own [research] projects.

How did you know you wanted to work in research?

In high school I had a teacher [who] got me really excited about science and research. When I was offered the position at CRND, the pharmaceutical company where I did my co-op wanted to keep me because I was already trained. I really liked the microbiology work I did there, but you do the same thing every day. In research I found there’s a real curiosity, a real drive to find out what’s going on and how to make things better, and that seemed intriguing to me.

What do you most enjoy about your job?

I love being the ‘go-to’ person in the lab. If somebody needs something, you’re the first person they come to saying, ‘I can’t find this,’ or ‘I’m trying to do this, but it’s not working—how can I make it work?’ I [also] love the people you meet.  You’re the constant in the lab. You get to see students come in and flourish in their projects. PhD students start with you—they’re young and learning and getting on their feet—and four or five years later they’re masters at what they’re doing. And then you have to give them a hug and say, ‘Good luck with the rest of your life.’ That part of it is good, but it’s tough to see people coming and going.

What is the most difficult aspect of your job?

When something isn’t working and you can’t figure out how to make it work, that’s the most frustrating thing. A challenge can be fun, but if you’ve got other things on the go and you’re stressed about something, then having something to troubleshoot can be a nightmare. It’s important to ask for help—to know when you’ve reached the threshold of ‘I’m not going to figure this out on my own with the tools I have at my disposal.’ That could mean having your supervisor contact someone across the world who’s an expert at what you’re trying to figure out.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I see myself doing the same thing. I love it. I think if you can find a good lab, then you’re never going to want to leave. The work is interesting, dynamic; it’s changing all the time. You’re only becoming better at what you do.