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With the Conclusion of Her PhD in Sight, One SRI Trainee Shares Her Plans

June 1, 2008

By Laura Pratt

The completion of a PhD is an event in a student’s life that marks both beginning and end, and elicits both elation and trepidation. The next chapter for these newly minted professionals is an as-yet unwritten tribute to making the best use of the tools at hand—and luck. Renée de Pooter has been working for seven years on her PhD in immunology with Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) senior scientist Dr. Juan Carlos Zúñiga-Pflücker, studying the first stages of T cell development in the thymus. This fall, she’ll take on a postdoctoral position at the University of Oxford with Dr. Sten Eirik Jacobsen. “I think Renée is a fantastic experimentalist and she is extremely insightful in her scientific thinking,” says Zúñiga-Pflücker. “We’re going to miss her, and our loss is Oxford’s huge gain. Her decision to go to Dr. Jacobsen’s lab is an excellent choice, which will ensure that her career continues to move in new and exciting directions. I expect her to excel during her postdoctoral period, and we will wait for her return to Canada after her time abroad.”

What was your plan when you began on your educational path?

I started in on my PhD with a view to staying in academia. In academia, you control the direction of your research. I like that you don’t have to worry about some kind of industrial corporate agenda controlling what data you’re allowed to release. I always wanted to do a postdoc.

Why are you going away?

Universities foster collaboration by recruiting from other institutions, and it’s usually encouraged that you go someplace else. One of the things that attracted me to research was the ability to work in different places. And I’ve wanted to do a postdoc with Dr. Jacobsen for a long time.

How did this posting come about?

Dr. Jacobsen was looking for postdocs and e-mailed JC (Dr. Zúñiga-Pflücker) in January. He wanted someone with experience in T cell development—an area that his lab is looking to move into—and so flew me over for an interview in March. I really liked his lab and the interpersonal dynamic there. He’s very similar to JC in that there’s a lot of collaboration between him and his students.

What excites you most?

The potential clinical applications of studying abnormal cancer hematopoesis. My work in JC’s lab was all in the context of normal development. What Dr. Jacobsen works on is trying to identify the cancer stem cells, the ones that are responsible for the hordes and hordes of progeny that are the most obvious characteristic of leukemia, as distinct from normal stem cells, and figuring out how best to target them. The more specific the therapy, the less collateral damage to the rest of the patient.

Is yours a typical post-PhD route?

I don’t think as much as (it was) in the past. I think more people are going into industry than before, because the funding situation in academia in North America has become extremely competitive. At the level of principal investigators, the percentage of successful applicants for a given grant is lower than five or 10 years ago.

How does one parlay her PhD into the next stage successfully?

To a large degree, you’re dependent on your supervisor. If you’ve published six Nature papers, it doesn’t really matter. But with a publication record like mine, you’re more dependent upon the recommendation of your mentor and how respected he is in the scientific community.

What will happen when you’re finished your postdoc?

I’ll set up my own lab. I’d like to come back here because my mom’s here and I like snow. Competition is fierce now, and it’s probably going to get fiercer unless there’s some plague that wipes out all the researchers. But I love a challenge, and I’ll be more attractive as a candidate if I go some place else for the interim. I’ll have made myself shiny and exotic.