Table of contents

SRI Magazine 2016

SRI Magazine 2016

All for one

Portrait of a lab family

Behind every successful scientist is a family; not just husbands and wives, or parents and siblings, but a lab family. When it comes to scientific training and research, this second family can turn a good experience into an unforgettable one.

Tell us about your lab family

Andrea Datu“We fight sometimes over trivial things. We get on each other’s nerves just like brothers and sisters but in the end, we all have a common goal—research—and we work it out. I really like when we’re poking fun at each other. We’re close enough to do that to each other without any feelings getting hurt.”
— Andrea Datu, research technician, Jeschke lab

Photo: Betty Zou

Nick Fischer“My favourite moments come from our annual lab beach days when we all drive up to Wasaga together, have a barbeque, swim, and play bocce ball or volleyball. This really brings the lab family together. I won’t forget the time I beat [my supervisor] Jean [Gariépy] at a virtual boxing match on Nintendo Wii for the championship title during our makeshift Christmas potluck in a conference room at Sunnybrook.”
— Nick Fischer, PhD student, Gariépy lab

Photo: Alisa Kim

Catherine Schrankel“We see ach other every day. Just going through the really high highs and the really low lows of research and publishing really forms a tight-knit group. We cook together sometimes. Every once in a while, we’ll have a lab cookout. We’ll go to someone’s house, listen to music, pick a good recipe and just hang out.”
— Catherine Schrankel, PhD student, Rast lab

Photo: Nation Wong

Dr. Marzena Cydzik“It’s like a second home. We had to learn how to live with each other. Everyone is different; everyone has different personalities. It takes a while to work it out but then it’s OK. Even though everyone has their own project, we’re always interacting with each other. Help comes from every side. It speeds up our work a lot. It’s no longer, ‘I’m working on it for my own benefit.’ We have each other’s backs.”
— Dr. Marzena Cydzik, research associate, Gariépy lab

Photo: Curtis Lantinga

The path to becoming a scientist can be difficult and lonely: hours spent in a dark room looking down a microscope; late nights in the lab processing samples; weeks holed up writing a manuscript or thesis. Your lab family understands you in ways that, try as they might, your parents and partners just can’t—failed experiments, the whims and idiosyncrasies of your supervisor, the stress of distilling three years’ worth of work into 250 words. It’s not easy, but with the right lab family it can be fun and rewarding.

When Myuri Ruthirakuhan applied to be a research assistant in Dr. Krista Lanctôt’s lab three years ago she felt intimidated by the big group of students and researchers she met. In particular, she remembers the two women who sat on opposite sides of her during the meeting. “They were asking me the more difficult questions,” she says. Fast-forward to today: Ruthirakuhan is now a first-year PhD student supervised by Lanctôt, a senior scientist in the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Program at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI). That intimidating group of people has become her second family, and those two women—PhD students Mahwesh Saleem and Sarah Chau—are like sisters to her now.

The lab family of Ruthirakuhan, Saleem and Chau is made up of fellow graduate students and research assistants in the Neuropsychopharmacology Research Group at SRI. The group is led by Lanctôt and Dr. Nathan Herrmann, who is head of geriatric psychiatry at Sunnybrook and an associate scientist at SRI. Among labs, theirs is particularly close. This intimacy is partly born of physical proximity. Thirteen people work side-by-side in two small rooms under the watchful eyes of a colossal stuffed monkey, a souvenir from a previous lab outing.

The group studies how best to manage the neuropsychiatric symptoms commonly associated with central nervous system disorders such as cerebrovascular disease, dementia and stroke. Their goal is to identify the best drug- and behaviour-based interventions to treat the mood and cognitive changes that accompany these illnesses. At any given time, the researchers are recruiting patients for clinical trials to test the effectiveness of different therapies in alleviating symptoms.

“We are a tight-knit group,” says Saleem. “We stick together and we help each other out.” As the most senior students in the lab, Saleem and Chau frequently provide guidance and support to the younger students. They read grant and scholarship applications, and act as a sounding board for new ideas. “I ask them a lot for advice,” says Ruthirakuhan. “I benefit a lot from having them in the lab.” The benefits are mutual. When Saleem is late for a meeting with a patient, she often asks Ruthirakuhan to sit and chat with her patient while they wait.

A spirit of collaboration is instilled early into new recruits to the lab. “I remember Mahwesh saying to me during my interview that you need to know how to balance working independently as well as collaborating,” says Chau. “If there’s a deadline, nobody is slacking.” By pulling together and working as a team, tasks are accomplished faster. The key to successful collaborations and enhanced productivity is the camaraderie within the lab, notes Chau. “It’s important to like the people that you work with,” she says. “That adds a layer of trust which will translate into your work.” Saleem agrees. “I also think it creates an environment where you can be more creative as well,” she says. “We come up with new ideas in terms of how to solve problems related to our projects or what’s the next step.” Members of the lab are comfortable sharing and talking about ideas openly. These fruitful discussions often lead to a clearer understanding of what’s going on and better solutions to the problem at hand.

But how do you build a trusting environment? One way is to take your team treetop trekking. The activity, which forces groups to work together to complete an obstacle course high among the tree canopy, was Saleem’s favourite outing with the lab. “It was challenging,” she says. “We had to support and help each other so you don’t fall off the tree.” With the encouragement of their friends, group members overcame their fear of heights and finished the adventure course. In addition to going treetop trekking, lab members take turns organizing social events like barbeques, dinners and ski trips. These field trips help everyone to let loose and get to know each other outside of work.

Over time, colleagues become friends and then, family. Together they celebrate personal milestones like birthdays and engagements, and academic achievements like getting a paper published and graduation. When the times get tough, they are there for each other. “Someone is always there to just sit there and listen to you when you need it,” says Saleem. “People are good listeners in the lab, which is great because once you get it off your chest, you feel so much better.”

All three women credit their supervisor, Lanctôt, and Herrmann, who serves as their advisor, for creating an inclusive and friendly environment. For her part, Lanctôt says it’s all about “hiring the right people, promoting team work rather than competition and having exceptionally good luck. I really have the honour of working with the best, the brightest and the nicest. We put so much time and heart into our research that the importance of a close group cannot be overstated. A supportive environment is not only the foundation of lab productivity, but it is also an important life lesson.”

It’s a lesson that Saleem and Chau will take with them as they prepare to graduate later this year. “We have a trusting relationship,” says Chau. “That’s something I hope to find wherever I go.” Their departure will leave a hole in their lab. “We’re losing two fantastic mentors,” says Ruthirakuhan. “It’ll take some adjusting to get used to that.” Saleem pipes up: “But then you can be the mentor.” And with that, a new family will evolve and come together as families do.

— Betty Zou

Lanctôt’s lab is supported by the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, Alzheimer Society of Canada, Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Heart and Stroke Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. Chau is supported by a Glaxo/Sunnybrook Drug Safety Award. Ruthirakuhan is supported by a CIHR Doctoral Research Award. Saleem is supported by a scholarship from the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

Andrea Datu
Nick Fischer
Catherine Schrankel
Dr. Marzena Cydzik