What is the current focus of your research?I am currently focused on the business side of regenerative medicine and work at the Centre for the Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) in Toronto. It is a fantastic initiative funded by the Canadian government to capitalize on many years of investment in strong basic research by the Canadian stem cell research community. Our mandate is to translate technologies and intellectual property into commercial products and processes, to create jobs and companies in the space, and positively impact health outcomes for Canadians.
No two days are ever exactly the same, but they usually involve interacting with researchers and tech transfer offices, crafting and reviewing agreements, working with the team to perform due diligence and propose ways to advance technologies, and travelling to discuss novel technologies and expand our network.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?With respect to becoming a scientist, well it certainly wasn’t thanks to technology-driven career counseling. My high school guidance department had this computer program where you answered a bunch of questions, fed a little sheet in, and then out popped your best-suited career choices. All my friends got their lists, and when my turn came, the thing spit out exactly one option for me – upholsterer.
Yeah. Thank goodness to Mrs. Ho, an inspiring biology teacher, I enrolled into an undergraduate degree in genetics at York University in Toronto. The department there was small enough that one could get to know the professors and volunteer/work in their labs. I found very good mentors there – Dr. Marla Sokolowski first for genetics and then Dr. John Heddle for genetics, stem cells and mutation theory. I worked as a technician for John for a few years, and then, fresh from calling off a wedding and suddenly being free to go anywhere and do anything I wanted, I set off to do my PhD in Vancouver.
I did my doctorate in genetics, in mouse models of autoimmunity with Dr. Frank Jirik, and followed that with a postdoc in hematopoietic stem cell biology in Lund, Sweden with Dr. Stefan Karlsson. I recall my dad asking me if the postdoc position meant I finally had a real job. I loved my time in Sweden and had a very productive and enjoyable experience there. Despite my success in my postdoc, I became very aware that academia was not my end goal, and this is the part of the story where, to my father’s great relief, my career really started to precipitate out.
I applied for and was given an R&D position at STEMCELL Technologies in Vancouver. They were just starting their embryonic stem cell product line, and while I had never even seen an ES cell, I eagerly jumped in. I had switched fields within biology a few times and was quite comfortable doing so. Looking down a microscope at cells that were literally the masters of human cell biology was awesome. Successfully launching a media (mTeSR1) that would globally enable and ultimately change the way people cultured these cells really opened my eyes to the importance and impact of commercialization, and it remains my most fulfilling career accomplishment to date. I am very grateful to Dr. Allen Eaves and my STEMCELL colleagues for the opportunity to forge a career in this space.
How do you spend your free time?I am a mom to a brilliant and energetic six year old, and I spend most of my free time with him and my spouse Brent.
I love my garden and have a slightly obsessive hate for weeds.
My favorite place in the world is my back patio in the summer evenings with my boys. However, the season always seems too short in Toronto, so I fill in the rest of the year with love for travelling to warm places, cooking, and eating – basically all the good stuff in life.
What is one thing your peers would be surprised to learn about you?Once a year, I get totally obsessed with building and decorating a birthday cake for my son. Whether it is a train, or a racecar, an angry birds scene or ninja turtles emerging from a manhole, I am all over it. It uses a completely different part of my brain. People have suggested I should do it on the side, but I would have to charge ridiculous amounts of money for the amount of time I spend. Also I suspect that if I did it all the time, it would likely lose appeal.
I discovered the love of cake decorating while I was undergoing chemotherapy and had a lot of time on my hands to think about things like birthday cake trains. Most of my close colleagues know that I am a breast cancer survivor, and some of my ISSCR colleagues know as well — my hair was just growing back for ISSCR in Toronto in 2011. Yes, I am very young for that kind of thing, thank you for noticing.
It will be 5 years clear this September, and it is because of early detection diagnostics and drugs such as tamoxifen that my outcome is so positive. The whole experience has been both professionally and personally enlightening. I know first hand the benefits of translational research, and I carry that perspective in my work.
I also learned during chemo how to fill days without work, and I apply that perspective in – amongst other things – those cakes. Maybe next year I will take up upholstery.
What do you like most about living and working where you do?I love the energy of the Toronto scientific community. There is a drive and a buzz that you can feel in the middle of the Discovery District, right in the heart of the city.
CCRM itself has been a tremendous learning opportunity, from a scientific, business and personal growth perspective. I get to interact with some of the greatest scientific minds in the field as well as many of the most prominent and accomplished business leaders in regenerative medicine. I also get to work daily with CCRM colleagues who are some of the most insightful, positive thinkers I have ever met.
What do you gain from your membership with the ISSCR?
*[editor's note: please see the newly updated CloserLookatStemCells.org that helps patients and their families make informed decisions about stem cell treatments, clinics and their health.]