Research  >  Education & training

Research the research

By SRI communications staff  •  May 10, 2019

Choosing a research institute for graduate study is not something that makes most medical science students smile. For most — those not lucky enough to be so compelled by a scientist or research area such that all other considerations fall away — the choice is difficult and often launches a uniquely personal and incapacitating series of mental figure eights. There are a few ways to break this thought-spiral — snap decision, process of elimination (if you have years to spare). But careful consideration of each institute’s strengths is the best means to a confident decision, one impervious to questioning. Really it is. So here are some important things to consider about Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI).

Research excellence

“First and foremost,” says Merle Casci, coordinator of SRI’s research trainee centre, “Students are attracted to Sunnybrook by the quality of our scientists and the calibre of their research.” Casci administered hundreds of graduate school applications over 13 years from students in the University of Toronto’s department of medical biophysics before setting up the training centre as a resource for SRI students. She notes that the offering of investigators at SRI pulls students from across U of T’s academic spectrum, a view supported by the distribution of SRI’s 144 graduate students throughout the three research platforms of Biological Sciences, Evaluative Clinical Sciences and Physical Sciences.

Doctoral student Sonam Dubey agrees: “The biggest attraction to SRI for me was the opportunity to work under the collaborative supervision of Dr. Isabelle Aubert and Dr. Kullervo Hynynen. Preclinical research in the neurodegenerative field will benefit a lot from a merger between biological and physical sciences; with that aim in mind, I sought to find a research lab that would provide me with this experience.” Aubert, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences, and Hynynen, director of Physical Sciences, are working together using focused ultrasound to deliver therapies across the blood-brain barrier to treat disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

Unique facilities

Casci also points to the open-lab concept as a draw. Lab groups work side by side in large, open spaces that house core services equipment, and ease collaboration and networking. Scientists have noted that such open spaces are important because they help students find out who their peers are and who might be able to help them as they transition into their new roles.

Sunnybrook Research Institute also has facilities and equipment that not only are extensive, but also, in some cases, unique. For example, there is the advanced machine shop and device development lab, part of the Centre for Research in Image-Guided Therapeutics. There is also a good manufacturing practices facility, a rarity at any hospital-based research institute, which is essential for translational research. Other specialized facilities and equipment include a flow cytometry and microscopy facility, multiphoton microscope and multiple state-of-the-art imaging systems. Students thus have a wealth of opportunities to learn new skills, all in one institute.

Location, location, location

While some students cite SRI’s distance from U of T as a drawback, most find attending downtown seminars and courses is not onerous owing to Sunnybrook’s free shuttle bus service that leaves every one-half hour for downtown, plus extensive TTC coverage. Indeed, many students are attracted to SRI’s location, which includes lush forest, parkland, walking trails and sports facilities. It can entail a shorter commute than travelling to downtown, depending on where students live.

“I really liked that SRI was not located in the downtown core,” says Abdikarim Abdullahi, a PhD student who is defending his thesis this year, and who worked with Dr. Marc Jeschke, a senior scientist working on ways to heal people after severe burns. “I wanted my grad training to be a unique experience and away from the hustle and bustle of the downtown core. I also loved that SRI was near Sunnybrook Park, which would allow me to take breaks in between my experiments to clear my head through walks in the park, and this also served as a great stress relief for me,” says Abdullahi.

Although the intersection of Eglinton and Bayview is messy right now, with knock-on traffic effects, once construction of the Eglinton Crosstown is completed in 2021, there will be a light rapid transit service that will make transit faster and more convenient.

Myuri Ruthirakuhan, a PhD student with Dr. Krista Lanctôt and Dr. Nathan Herrmann, who study neuropsychiatric symptoms associated with illness, shares a little-known perk. “On a non-research-related note, I really like that we have access to a Toronto Public Library here. I love recreational reading and love how close the library is to me if I ever want to check out a book,” she says.

Clinical impact

Then there is SRI’s hospital setting. “I really liked that SRI was directly connected to Sunnybrook. For my research, which involved trauma and burn patients, and given that Sunnybrook is not only the largest trauma centre in Canada, but also home to Canada's largest burn centre, it really made the SRI-Sunnybrook connection an amazing training opportunity,” says Abdullahi. “I also loved that our research wing was close to the patient [burn] clinic and the patients whose conditions we studied. This helped served as a daily reminder for researchers like myself of the clinical impact of our work,” he adds.

Dubey agrees. “Working closely with clinicians such as Dr. Sandra Black and Dr. Nir Lipsman, and getting their feedback on our preclinical work, allows grad students like me to understand the ways in which clinical translation can be achieved in a faster and more effective manner.”

“SRI’s location within a hospital is actually one of the biggest reasons I decided to do my PhD here,” says Ruthirakuhan. “A major motivation for me in conducting the work that I do is the clinical impact it will have in addition to its impact on research. Being able to advance research while benefiting patients and their families makes the work all the more rewarding.”

Bringing it all together

Abdullahi and Dubey offer final words of advice for students looking for somewhere to hang their lab coats or dock their laptops for the next four (or so) years.

“Find a good supervisor who will listen to your interests and help you further hone your passion for science. Passion is critical to the world of academia! It is more important to work under excellent supervision than work in a lab with excellent publications—the two don't always go hand-in-hand,” says Dubey.

Abdullahi counsels students to check it out for themselves. “SRI is a hidden gem that many students overlook. Many of my friends went to downtown facilities because of their location. But after they heard about the less-than-stressful commutes, the beautiful parks and the amazing research happening here, many of them would get jealous. So my advice to prospective students is, come visit SRI, explore, and then make your decision—don’t judge it before you experience all the amazing unique opportunities it has to offer.”

Students considering Sunnybrook Research Institute are encouraged to contact our scientists directly