#UofTMed TRP Student Profile – Helen Liu
Why the Translational Research Program?
During my undergraduate program at the University of Toronto, I was fascinated with learning about new findings that scientific research could uncover. Therefore, I actively sought and pursued many research opportunities so that I too could be involved in the process of knowledge discovery. For instance, I partook in basic science research in cognitive neuroscience through my Psychology Research Specialist Program which allowed me to conduct eye-tracking experiments and elucidate aspects of statistical learning. Moreover, I was interested in being exposed to different streams of research beyond basic science. Therefore, I ventured into the realm of clinical research at Toronto General Hospital in the Multi-Organ Transplant Program. This experience not only allowed me to dig into the wealth of data captured in electronic medical records but also gave me first-hand experience interacting with patients to collect data. I found being able to put a face to the data was essential because sometimes when you are just analyzing the data it is easy to lose sight of the end goal – using scientific research to help individuals (such as the patients).
From these cumulative experiences, a question I have always had was how are the published research papers used to influence the health of the general population? In fact, a lot of research that is published is not accessible to the general population. Firstly, many papers require a subscription to be viewed. More importantly, even if a patient or caregiver is able to access the paper they may not have the background knowledge or time to understand how the experiments in the papers will help with their or their loved one’s health. Lastly, even if they overcome all these barriers to understand the experiments, how do they as patients and caregivers have the ability to influence change in healthcare? Having had these questions in the back of my mind, I spontaneously came across an email for an open house at the Translational Research Program through the Toronto General Hospital. After the open house, I realized I was interested in learning and pursuing more translational research – where I would be able to apply all the interesting research findings to real-life healthcare problems and help the end users.
Why the Faculty of Medicine at UofT?
I chose the the Faculty of Medicine within the University of Toronto because not only is it known to be one of the best graduate programs in Canada, being a student in this faculty, we also have access to innovative courses taught by leading researchers/professors in the field, and links to many hospitals/incubators within Toronto.
How have you explored different opportunities and career paths in the health sciences?
TRP has exposed me to many additional personal and professional development opportunities. For instance, just two months into the program, I was able to help out for Pillars of Health, a student-led organization that hosts biannual networking sessions, attracting up to 200 healthcare professionals from the different pillars of health (academia, government, industry, clinicians, and patients). This meaningful opportunity allowed me to see the importance of communication between the siloed pillars. Patients have a deep understanding of what their challenges are and what they want to be solved. On the other hand, researchers may have scientific findings but not know what specific challenge is the most important for a patient and lack the business skills to be able to translate the research into the clinic. Therefore, it is important to have an open space where all the pillars can communicate with one another and share their knowledge. Since I resonated strongly with the meaningful mission of this organization, in my second year of the program, I became the co-chair of Pillars of Health. This opportunity not only allowed me to develop my leadership, communication, and many other transferable skills but more importantly, it taught me the value of going against the status quo and initiating change if you think something needs to be fixed.
The TRP program also introduced me to new career options that I never knew existed. For example, from the TRP program, I learned the important role finance and business play in translating research. There are many intelligent researchers with great research ideas and findings, however, if they do not have the capital backing them to continue their experiments, they may never be able to bring their research into the market to help those who could benefit from it. Having had an interest in both business and science since high school, I was ecstatic to learn that I would be able to amalgamate both into a career. Coincidentally, just as I was looking into completing an internship where I would be able to combine both business and science in a real-life work environment, there was an internship opportunity with MaRS Innovation that perfectly aligned with my interests. This intern analyst position was meant to be focused on a program called LAB150 at MaRS Innovation– which involves scouting for exciting scientific research from the universities and hospitals within the Toronto area and evaluating the research to see if there is potential to invest up to $400k in the project for it to be further developed into a therapeutic drug. Fortunately, I was selected for this internship program and through the past nine months of the internship, I have had countless learning experiences. From expanding my professional network by meeting with key opinion leaders and attending industry conferences to learning how to conduct full due diligence on a research project. All of this would not have been possible without the support from the TRP program and the incredible mentors I have met along the way at MaRS Innovation.
What are you learning about translational research during your time at MaRS Innovation?
While actively translating research at my internship, many of the learnings from the TRP came to be true. One example is seeing first-hand that the journey of mobilizing research and its subsequent translation is not a one-person job; it requires a multi-disciplinary team, including but not restricted to basic science researchers, clinicians, drug discovery experts, technology transfer personnel, key opinion leaders, and business development personnel. Furthermore, I was able to apply some of what I have learned about the importance of intellectual property in knowledge translation and the basics of a patent search combined with additional teaching from patent experts at MaRS Innovation.
Future Education Plans and/or Career Goals
I am currently considering careers within an academic setting as well as non-academic jobs related to healthcare, biotech, and business.