Where Are They Now?

We track yesterday's trainees into their present-day careers

"So, what are you going to do next?"

It's a question that dogs graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, because on top of the scarcity of university faculty positions, trainees must weigh their job options in light of considerations such as family ties and lifestyle.

The following stories reveal the interplay of these factors in shaping the careers of three former Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) trainees. They also show that the time spent at SRI has had a lasting impact. Here are the journeys of these trainees—where they are now, what they're doing and why they wouldn't have it any other way.

An Industrious Manoeuvre

Sunnybrook Research Institute launched Dr. Ross La Motte-Mohs from a postdoc position to that of senior scientist at Wellstat Therapeutics in Maryland.

Photo: Juan Carlos Zúñiga-Pflücker

In the spring of 2000, Dr. Ross La Motte-Mohs moved from the U.S. to Toronto to work as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Juan Carlos Zúñiga-Pflücker, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences at SRI. Zúñiga-Pflücker invented a way of generating T cells—those building blocks of the immune system—in a Petri dish, a method now used by labs worldwide. La Motte-Mohs helped develop this technology. It has potential therapeutic applications for people with autoimmune disorders, or whose immune systems have been damaged by toxic cancer treatments or depleted by human immunodeficiency virus infection.

Seeking a change in his career, La Motte-Mohs moved back to the U.S. in December 2009 to work as a scientist at Wellstat Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He was also offered a policy position in San Francisco and an academic position in Spain. In weighing his options, La Motte-Mohs says that on top of the competitive salary, the industry position offered other advantages.

"I wanted to be closer to my family, and this job allowed me to do that while developing my career," he says, noting his family lives in the neighbouring state of Virginia. "The nice thing about industry in D.C. is that there are a lot of biotech firms and supportive structures such as the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health. There's a huge science critical mass that's based in Washington. You have flexibility to move from job to job and develop your career as you see fit."

La Motte-Mohs was quickly promoted to senior scientist. While he still does some lab bench work, 90% of his focus is on business development—taking a discovery and developing it into a product that can be sold to clients. His responsibilities include getting patents, creating business plans and analyzing his company's market niche for a product. "You can train people to execute experiments and be competent so that your efforts can be focused on seeing the larger picture. That's kind of exciting," says La Motte-Mohs from Maryland through crackly cell phone reception.

His job also affords him the opportunity to network with people within the legal, regulatory, banking and financial sectors. "Our reach is local, national and international. We're trying to tap into emerging markets like Brazil and Turkey. It's a much different network than you'd be exposed to in academia," he says.

La Motte-Mohs finds his work life regular and structured. For confidentiality reasons, he's not permitted to take data out of the lab to analyze at home. Aside from reading journals, he leaves work at the office, which wasn't possible during his postdoc. Another difference is in the approach to the science. "It's not the type of science you'd find in academia where you ask a question, get an unexpected result and you try to explore that further. In industry, you need a really solid business rationale for why you'd pursue a certain line of investigation," says La Motte-Mohs.

He keeps in touch with his former boss. They usually share a meal when they are in the same city, which is a few times a year. He also says that his time at SRI, particularly conversations with vice-president of research Dr. Michael Julius provided valuable exposure to commercialization.

He describes working in industry as a "nice change," but says he feels free to take his career in various directions. "Something I've realized is that once you make the transition from academia to industry, you can keep making transitions. I could move into government or policy, or even go back into academia. It's really what you want at that time in your life."

Academia or Bust

Dr. John Ebos started at SRI in 2000 after completing his undergraduate studies at McGill University. "I came as a summer student and didn't leave. It was a situation where I got hooked," says Ebos.

He came to work with Dr. Bob Kerbel, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences at SRI. Kerbel is a trailblazer in the field of antiangiogenic therapy, treatments that aim to halt a tumour's growth by cutting off its blood supply. Ebos took his PhD from the department of medical biophysics at the University of Toronto in 2008, and continued training in the Kerbel lab for another two-and-a-half years as a postdoc.

Dr. John Ebos (centre) joined the faculty of Roswell Park Cancer Institute in New York after spending 11 years at Sunnybrook Research Institute. He stands with his Roswell Park lab members Dr. Michalis Mastri and Amanda Tracz.

Photo: Leigh Ellis

In the fall of 2011, Ebos accepted a position as an assistant professor in oncology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. He is studying mechanisms of antiangiogenic drug resistance; specifically, how tumours adapt to treatments and how the body responds to these drugs. Ebos says the position is an ideal match in terms of interests and geography, and that he wants to foster collaborations between researchers in southern Ontario and upper-state New York. Being close to Toronto was also advantageous because it would enable him to stay in contact with family, an important network for this first-time dad.

"It's been a big adjustment and a really fun and interesting year on many different levels," says Ebos, who welcomed son Maxim last spring.

Ebos has been learning how to run his lab, at times through trial and error. "To be a PI [principal investigator] you need to not only be self-motivated and have a thick skin for scientific criticism and failure, but you also need to be a highly effective manager of personnel, budgets and, critically, of ideas," he says.

Unsurprisingly, Ebos works long hours and says that one of his biggest challenges is maintaining balance. "It's 24/7 whether you're in the lab doing it or just thinking about it. That's the nature of being a scientist doing something you love. It doesn't necessarily fit in the nine-to-five framework."

It's 24/7 whether you're in the lab doing it or just thinking about it.

While things have worked out well, getting to this point was not without its struggles. He says it was his hope to land an academic position, but not an expectation. "There's no handbook on the method or route to take. That's something everybody has to learn on their own. Every postdoc has to decide if it's not going to be this year, how many years do you put into training? I think it's a tough, tough decision. I was motivated to stay in academics for the long run."

He remembers his time at SRI fondly, not only because of the weekly soccer games played behind McLean House, but for what he learned and the close relationships he formed. He also appreciates how things have come full circle, and relates easily to students in his lab because he was once in their shoes.

"It feels surreal, and I don't necessarily want that to change because it gives me a better perspective on how a student is approaching a meeting with me. I think it's critical to be positive, because that was what was most helpful in getting me to do better. There was a lot of mentoring at SRI that made a big difference, and I want to do that here," he says.

When asked what he most enjoys about being a scientist, Ebos is quick to answer. "It's an innovative, creative experience. We get to think of new things every day. There are no limitations on what you can do in terms of putting things together. If you're really motivated, you can put together some really big things, and that's exciting and unique in terms of jobs. We're pretty lucky."

Biologist Finds Focus

After completing a postdoc in Ottawa, Dr. Alison Burgess accepted a research associate position at Sunnybrook Research Institute, where she began as a summer student and got her PhD.

Photo: Doug Nicholson

A summer studentship also led Dr. Alison Burgess to SRI. She remained here another five years, getting her PhD in neuroscience supervised by Dr. Isabelle Aubert, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences at SRI. Her thesis was on the role of polysialic acid, a molecule found in normal brain development that is also expressed by stem cells in the brain.

Just before finishing her doctoral studies, Burgess got married. While doing her postdoc at the National Research Council in Ottawa, she had two daughters, Lily, who is now four years old, and Hannah, who is three.

In September 2010, Burgess accepted a position as a research associate in the lab of Dr. Kullervo Hynynen, SRI's director of Physical Sciences. She took the job because she found Hynynen's work intriguing, and with two young children, wanted to be close to family.

She brings her biology expertise to bear on Hynynen's research on therapeutic ultrasound. Hynynen is working on a way of treating brain tumours and other brain diseases through a technique that uses focused ultrasound and microbubbles to penetrate the blood-brain barrier. Tiny gas bubbles are injected into the bloodstream and activated by ultrasound. The process is guided by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). It opens temporarily this barrier, which consists of a clump of tightly packed cells that blocks substances-bad and good-from the brain.

Burgess is evaluating the use of this technique to deliver therapies such as stem cells and antibodies to treat neurodegenerative diseases. She prepares the stem cells in culture, performs the experiments and examines changes in brain tissue after the therapy is delivered. "My role as the biologist in the lab is to study some of the mechanisms underlying how this technology is affecting the brain," she says. "I provide a different side of the story in terms of what the other types of cells are in the brain, what they could be doing and how they are responding to this treatment."

There was a steep learning curve in understanding the physics of MRI and ultrasound, which Burgess overcame by doing lots of reading after putting her kids to bed. "My first MRI experiment day was nerve-wracking. I don't think I slept the week beforehand," says Burgess. She also relies on her physicist and engineer colleagues for any knowledge gaps and they, in turn, consult her on the biology aspects.

Most days, she leaves the lab on time to pick up her kids from day care, catching up on work, if needed, in the evening. Burgess says she manages her family life and career thanks to a supportive work environment and the ability to tag-team with her husband. "If I ever have to do some more work when the kids go to bed, my husband is there to help with whatever needs to be done to keep functioning. We have a good system," she says, smiling.

Burgess says she enjoys working in translational medicine. She is eager for the technology to be used clinically, but knows it will take time. "If we can do these studies and show that it is safe and effective, we can maybe treat patients in the near future, which is really exciting, and I'm happy to be a part of it. I can see that focused ultrasound is going to be used. I completely believe in it."

— By Alisa Kim