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Behind the scenes with Paul Oleynik

By Matthew Pariselli  •  December 2, 2019


Bio basics: Manager, Centre for Flow Cytometry and Scanning Microscopy at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI). Completed a B.Sc. at the University of Windsor and a master’s in chemistry at McGill University. Joined SRI on Sept. 16, 2019. Born in Windsor, Ont. and moved to Toronto in 2019, where he lives with his partner.

How did you become interested in science?

In high school, I had this idea of becoming an accountant and being a very normal suburban-type dad, but then I took Grade 11 biology, and it blew my mind to see how things worked. After I learned biology, I learned that biology was based on a very specific type of chemistry, so then I started edging toward biochemistry and biophysics. The University of Windsor has a great program where biochemistry and chemistry are one department. The more chemistry I learned, the more I was like, ‘Chemistry is just built up of a ton of physics.’ I particularly found interest in the physics of light, and that ties in here. Everything we do in this facility [focuses on] light as it interacts with molecules, which tells us about biology.

You said you contemplated accounting. Are there other careers or fields you thought about pursuing?

History, for sure. Knowing now that I could probably have gone all the way to grad school, I may have done history instead. I love history; I love local history. Windsor and Detroit history are amazing. It’s the longest settled European area this side of Montreal. There’s a lot of history there—very interesting and very sketchy history [laughs]. History was always something I thought of as a career, but since I focused on science in Grade 11, that was it. I knew it was something I could make into a career, I found it interesting, and what else do you need?

What about this role drew you to SRI?

When I graduated from my undergrad, I got accepted into McGill, but didn’t have a specialty figured out. There was a researcher, Dr. Gonzalo Cosa, who had a position open in his lab for grad studies. He was studying the way light interacts with molecules, which I thought was particularly interesting because you can actually see light—it’s not just a pile of numbers. I did my master’s there on fluorescence.

When I was leaving, there was a position open in Ottawa for flow cytometry and cell sorting. I didn’t know what that was, but it was essentially what I’d been working toward on my master’s—how we use light and fluorescence to study biology. Once I got that job, I worked there for almost a decade. I started as a technician, then became coordinator, then manager. When I came to Toronto, I went back to [being an] operator at SickKids, but my goal was always to be managing a facility again. When I saw this position, I said, ‘That’s where I want to be.’ Specifically, the sort of mom-and-pop shop culture of the facility enticed me. I enjoy working with the people using the facility’s resources.

What does your position entail?

A lot of little things. Operating the instruments—the cell-sorting instruments specifically—and coordinating the facility, so everything from scheduling and billing, to organizing maintenance and repairs on the instruments. There’s a total of nine instruments here between analyzers, cell sorters and microscopes, and they all have special needs and training and quality assurance. It’s a huge puzzle [laughs], but in my experience, none of them take up the lion’s share of a day. I spend a lot of little bits of my day doing each of those tiny things, but it’s a dance, and to me that’s fun. Finding ways to fit those puzzle pieces in while helping the people who use the facility is a nice challenge.

What are you most excited about doing at SRI?

Getting back into facility managing and interacting with scientists. Scientists are quirky, great people. Everyone’s got a personality. I’m looking forward to learning the personalities and seeing where I can help to get them to interact with the facility, how I can help their science. I love dealing with people.

Why do you think this work is important?

Everyone here, or everyone who has experience in health research, will tell you that health research is important for a lot of reasons. Understanding the basics, so how cells work—who knows where that can go in the future?

We all have personal stories where health has negatively affected us, so to try to make that less so in the future for everybody is important. It’s important to pursue a greater understanding of the world around us, and in this case, that’s through science. There’s a great opportunity here to have a positive effect on the world. You’re very closely tied to clinical work and patients. That’s an advantage of working at a hospital-based research institute.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I love to cook. I love to do anything related to cooking with wine. I have a sommelier certification. Wine, I don’t do anything with it professionally, but to me, it’s just as important as food to a meal. I love wine and beer. Really, [I like] anything to do with food. Toronto’s got amazing stuff. I have a Ukrainian background, so going to St. Lawrence Market is amazing. I see stuff I didn’t even see at my baba’s house [laughs].

Music has been a thing. I used to tour in bands a lot. Music is always on in the background. The first thing I did here [at SRI] was set up my speakers. I live a block away from The Opera House, so it’s bands every night, touring vans out front every day. This city is a great music city.

What one dish would you eat for the rest of your life?

I’m from Windsor, so it’s got to be pizza, but Windsor pizza [laughs]! Shredded pepperoni—that’s the key.

Your life is being adapted into a feature film. Which actor do you choose to play you?

I’ll go with the crowd—everyone says Jack Black. I obviously understand, but I don’t like Jack Black. I wouldn’t want him to play me, but I feel like I’m a loud, boisterous, laughy-type of guy who’s also large and has a beard and all the other physical resemblances [laughs]. He probably should.