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Career Advice

Pivoting your graduate work during COVID-19

Four young scientists describe how they were able to adapt and ultimately thrive during the pandemic.

BY YOOJIN CHOI, ALEXA FITZPATRICK, SIMOUN ICHO, ANDREW ZHAI & NANA LEE | DEC 01 2020

Although most Canadian graduate students have returned back into the lab at some capacity, we had a few months of lockdown when students felt in limbo. We are going to highlight some stories below which illustrate how students are flexible, resilient and creative – skills which are highly valuable while completing a PhD  as well as for any career. The question posed to the students was: “How did you pivot your research and other work during the pandemic?”

Simoun Icho, PhD in biochemistry

Like many lab-based research students, I had to ramp down my experiments. In the days that followed, I began thinking of ways I could contribute to the “call to arms” against the virus. As a PhD student in the department of biochemistry, I specialize in drug discovery against bacterial toxins. A bacterial toxin and a virus may differ pathologically, but both enter our cells using a similar mechanism. Therefore, I sought to take advantage of this similarity and my experience in drug discovery to identify Food and Drug Association approved drugs as potential anti-viral therapies. Several months and one successful funding application later, I have learned a great deal about coronaviruses and have made significant insight into the understanding of viral entry inhibitors. Pivoting my research was both necessary and personally exciting because I believe that it is our duty as PhD students to use the skills we are so fortunate to acquire to advance healthcare research when desperate needs should arise, and it is always exciting when you are given the opportunity to exercise your skills on a new challenge.

Yoojin Choi, PhD in immunology

I believe communicating to the general public is an important skill to have as scientists. As such, I was heavily involved in science communication initiatives throughout my PhD career from high school outreach to scientific writing for the lay audience. So when the COVID-19 pandemic began to redefine everyone’s norm, I used my work-from-home time to closely follow the news and literature, especially given my background and interest in infectious diseases. I was further motivated to stay informed as I found myself editing many articles related to the current situation in my position as the co-editor-in-chief of a student-run magazine called IMMpress. I was also presented with an opportunity to serve on the COVID-19 Science Advisory Table for the Province of Ontario. Given the urgency of the situation, I found myself interviewing for the position within 10 hours of being contacted by the scientific director of the team. I got the job and now conduct literature research on selected, high-priority topics, synthesize key points and contextualize the issues in lay terms for the decision-makers on a weekly basis. Reflecting back, I believe no single event or last-minute preparations could have made me ready for this new opportunity. Rather, I attribute my success in this role to years of leading science outreach initiatives, working in the field of infectious diseases and maintaining strong connections in the science community.

Alexa Fitzpatrick, PhD in biochemistry

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I was in a unique position as a PhD student studying a type of virus which infects bacteria, known as bacteriophages. Using my experience and knowledge of viruses, I collaborated with researchers at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto who were working on developing decontamination procedures for SARS-CoV-2. I supported initial stages of development, for which we used a type of bacteriophage with similar properties to that of SARS-CoV-2. This allowed us to begin the project safely and immediately. I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to harness my skills towards an issue that has so greatly impacted our lives, as well as cultivate new connections in my academic community. I also used my time away from the lab to organize my current research goals as well as pivot more focus towards other aspects of graduate success, such as completing my course requirements and professional development.

Andrew Zhai, postdoctoral researcher

As an early postdoc I had been working on a collaborative project studying mutations in a particularly aggressive type of lymphoma, and like many scientists we started to explore ways of contributing to the fight against COVID-19 during the lockdown. As a cancer that affects white blood cells, lymphoma is closely linked to immune function. We observed that some of the lymphoma mutations we were studying could also potentially boost the immune system by helping the body generate a more diverse array of antibodies. With this in mind, we set out to design a treatment that could mimic the immune boosting functions of these mutations without triggering the onset of lymphoma. This could allow the immune system to mount a more efficient natural response to SARS-CoV2 and other viral infections.

Although this work is still very much in an exploratory stage, it goes to show how many different paths a research project can follow. We started by studying lymphoma but have now pivoted to applying our work to immune function. In graduate school, I often succumbed to tunnel vision by trying to steer my project towards a singular objective, but I’ve since learned that it can help to keep an open mind about the different potential applications that your work could have. Although the funding application for this COVID project was ultimately not granted, I found the experience of adapting my research to such an urgent public need rewarding in itself –  I even turned down another job opportunity during the process.

Yoojin Choi (immunology), Alexa Fitzpatrick (biochemistry) and Simoun Icho (biochemistry) are PhD students at the University of Toronto; Andrew Zhai was  a postdoctoral fellow (biochemistry) at the U of T and was just hired by Dalriada Drug Discovery Inc. Nana Lee is the director of graduate professional development and mentorship, and an assistant professor in the departments of biochemistry and immunology in the faculty of medicine at the U of T.

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