Dr. Helen Petropoulos

Q: If you had to do an elevator pitch right now, how would you introduce yourself?

A: I think this is a hard question because it’s so hard to think of a two liner about my career. I think for me, I’ve always really loved research but what I’ve been passionate about in my career is the use of that research. So, how can that research really affect someone, help someone, or do something tangible. What problem can it really solve. So, I’ve taken my technical background and tried to use it in all the different work I’ve done towards the use of the outcomes of the research. There’s a lot of words around that, like commercialization, translation, implementation. You guys are learning about research right now but the cool thing about it is how did a patient have a better outcome or how did a crop grow better, or how was a lake cleaned up better. That’s really the thing that interests me about research and drives what I help to do every day at Ontario Genomics.

Q: Did you always have a natural inclination towards research throughout your undergrad?

A: Yes. I did my undergrad at Western and I was in biology. In second year, we had to take all these different biology courses and I thought biochemistry was the most fun. That’s how I decided to specialize in biochemistry. In fourth year back then, you had to do a fourth-year project in a lab. That project was really pivotal for me. It was the first time I had really done bench work, besides the 3 hour labs you do in second and third year which are so set up. They give you a question and you know what the answer of the lab will be at the end. My fourth year project was the first chance where I was doing new original research. We worked on muscle development and were trying to answer certain questions, and my project was a little piece of what are the experiments we can do to answer those questions. That was really cool for me to take my background of my undergrad and apply it to a question in science and I can do some experiments to actually answer that. So it think that fourth year project for me was a big thing that made me more interested in research. It took me along time to figure out what I wanted to do in my career. I didn’t even really know by fourth year but that really helped to spark my interest in research.

Q: Did you continue on with that project after your PhD?

A: Yes I did actually. It’s a funny story. In third and fourth year I actually thought I wanted to be a science teacher, and I applied to teachers college and I actually got in but, back then, it was very hard to get a job as a teacher. It was one of these times when everyone was coming into teachers college and then they were struggling to find full time work. So I decided that okay I like this lab that I’m working in and the research that I’m doing, so I’ll do a masters where I can continue to do this cool work and it’ll never hurt to have that graduate school under my belt and then I’ll reassess the teachers college thing in a couple of years. And then once I started grad school I really liked it. I liked the research and I wanted to do more. I wanted to complete the study that I was doing. So I almost fell into a PhD in a way because I started out as let me do this for a couple of years but then five years later I had a PhD.

Q: Was it the same professor all throughout?

A: Yes, it was. I did my grad school in the lab of Ilona Skerjanc. She was in the biochemistry department, but really it was molecular biology that we were doing. I did my fourth-year project with her, and then I started my grad school with her and then I did my PhD all the way through. I will say that about halfway through my PhD I knew I didn’t want to be a professor.I was already starting to get the itch of what’s going to happen with this research. How is someone going to use it? How is someone going to take it and benefit from it? So, I think I knew early on that I was probably looking for what we called an alternative career in science. The usual pathway is you finish your four year degree and then either go to some professional school, like medical school, dentistry, different sorts of things, or you went to graduate school and you became a professor. But I knew that probably wasn’t my path and that was not the easiest back then because there weren’t a lot of examples for what one could do. That’s part of the reason why I decided to give this talk for you guys too, because I hope you get lots of examples of people that did their PhDs, but then did something that is really different than what your professors do. I think being a professor is awesome, and I have a lot of friends that are professors and I work with professors all the time, but I knew that it wasn’t the path that I wanted to take.

The thing about being a professor is that teaching is only a part of what you do. Their research lab is mostly what drives people to go into academia. They want to continue their research and answer those questions like my PhD supervisor did, and what a lot of the great researchers I work with everyday want to do. I think that there is some security once you set up your lab and start to get grants and make a name for yourself. But, you know it’s tough being a researcher as well because you are always writing grants and trying to fund your research and your grad students, and your postdocs. But I agree. I mean I worked in pharma. When I finished my PhD, I knew I didn’t want to go into academia, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do exactly and even how to make a pivot so I thought that an industry postdoc would be a good way to do it because it’s still a postdoc, it’s using your technical background. It was with a pharma company. I was doing this bench work, but it was towards drug development in that case. There are lots of other industries that research can be a part of too. There is uncertainty in research and in industry as well. I think everybody has to sort of try and figure out what drives them and what their passion is and hopefully when you follow that you go down the right path.

Q: What would you say is your favourite part of your job?

A: So Ontario genomics is a non profit and we  support genomics research and commercialization, and translation across the province. We help researchers apply for grant money, we help researchers start up companies. We help researchers partner with bigger companies. We help companies that need research expertise but don’t have it internally to find the right researcher in Ontario to collaborate with. We are like a support group, facilitator, a matchmaker sometimes. I don’t do research myself anymore, but I work with researchers everyday to help them move their work forward towards commercialization, translation, implementation and all those things. One of the things I do right now is run a program that is a partnership between what’s called a receptor and an academic. A receptor can be a company, a government entity/Ministry, or any sort of end user of the research. For example, a company wants to improve a certain process and they need research expertise to do that, so they make a connection with a researcher at a university and they apply together for the funding to do a project together where the researcher is bringing a particular set of important expertise to the problem and they’re providing some outputs or deliverables to the company that the company can then take and move forward to either a new product or process or what they want to do in their business. It’s that connection point where companies need innovation and research to solve the problems of the market that they are in. Sometimes they have that internally, but sometimes the really strong research capability in the province and partnering with those researchers is what can help the companies  put their product on the market. That is one of the coolest parts of my job right now. Matching researchers and their expertise with companies or other users to really drive the research towards some implementation or commercialization or some output. Within that, a lot of the companies we work with are start ups. It really drives me when researchers n a university somewhere think that they have an idea for a new start up and we can help them in some way through our funding programs and advice. Build that little idea into something that will put a product on the market eventually. What’s really cool is that some of the start-ups I work with, a couple years ago they were graduate students, and a couple years before that, they were undergrads. They did grad school, and they had some area of research that they were really interested in and they had an idea and they started a company and now they are doing it. They have an idea, they have a product in mind, and they are going to put that product on the market, and they are going to do the research required for that. I think that’s really awesome. I think that there is so much great research capability and entrepreneurship in Ontario and its really awesome for me to get to help those people to attain what they want.

Q: What was your experience at Western like?

A: I really liked it. I grew up in London, and a lot of people from my high school ended up going to Western. Western is such a great school, and it was essentially in our backyard, so a lot of us did stay. Undergrad was a lot of fun, and I knew I liked science, but didn’t know exactly where I was headed towards. Teaching was my original goal throughout most of the undergrad. Grad school was really fun not only because of the research aspect and getting papers published, but answering questions about molecular mechanisms of muscle development.Also, grad school is just really fun, in terms of working in the lab, and creating friendships. We [referencing friends] used to go to the Grad Club every Friday afternoon, it was a given. There was even a Biochemistry table. With that said, grad school has some days where it is frustrating and the experiment isn’t going well, but you have a support system in the department. My boss was awesome, and other researchers and grad students were great. In grad school, I got to TA the 3rd year Biochemistry lab course, which was 3 hours twice a week. It was fun to work with the undergrads and help them learn Biochemistry, and see where the students go afterwards. Grad school was fun and stressful at the same time, but I look back now and think it was definitely fun.

Q: How did you choose your topic for grad school and find your supervisor?

A: It was the fourth year project, and I can’t remember if I chose the project or if it was assigned to me. I started the lab in my fourth year project, and muscle development originally wasn’t of any specific interest to me, but I got into it through the research. One of the fundamental questions of the lab was what makes a stem cell turn into a skeletal muscle cell, and what are the pathways and signalling factors involved. There was already a lot known, but there are other pathways you want to test. I liked starting with a dish of cells and then 7 or 9 days after seeing the muscle cells on the petri dish. I always thought about how does this ultimately help people. So for someone with muscle dystrophy, what can we provide (basic information) that can help with a therapeutic one day. A lot of the questions we were asking were fundamental questions.

Q: What was your experience in the States?

A: That was my industry postdoc, and I did that at a company called Wyeth Research which is now part of Pfizer. When I knew I wanted to do an industry postdoc it was hard to find industry postdocs in Canada—there weren’t many companies, nor position openings. I wish I could tell you that’s completely changed, but that’s not true. In terms of pharma, there is more of that industry in the States. But overall, I loved it. I lived in London my whole life, so moving to Boston was exciting. I had a boss and team that understood that I wanted to learn about the commercialization and translational process. Commercialization included deciding how to decide to move a molecule forward into a pre-clinical experiments, what programs to move forward, what targets are more interesting. In the work I had done in my grad school, I was doing basic research, but here I was thinking about how to build a drug to block a pathway, for example. It was cool for me to work in a place where the end-goal was to create something targeted for patients. It was different coming from a lab in London, Ontario and going to a pharma company in Boston just in terms of resources, etc It really solidified my drive to work on the commercialization or implementation side of research. Even though I was at the bench in my postdoc, I made the leap to leave the bench.

Q: How do you find being in the business world as a biochemist?

A: It is interesting. After my postdoc, the first job I did was in consulting. This was the first time I dived into the business world. At the consulting company – then called SHI Consulting (now Shift Health), they helped write business plans for various groups. To be honest, I hardly knew what a business plan was when I started there, but I learned on the job.  For me, I am always willing to work hard and learn. When I applied to the consulting job, I showed that I had a Phd, postdoc, and I can solve problems using the same skills I gained from grad school.

When I first started at Ontario Genomics, I was in the research group, but we weren’t doing bench research. It was really helping with projects that were funded by us, and they have to give us progress reports. And then there was an opening for business development, and I got the chance to work in that group. These companies come in and they give us an application to develop a product, and they tell us their business plan, and I assessed if it was a good investment. We talk to experts, we assess who is the competition, how will this company fit. I was still using my technical background to assess if the science is sound. It is gratifying when we invest in companies and see them grow towards being a bigger company and putting something in the market.

These were such cool questions for me to help answer and assess because this is what I was interested in myself [as a researcher] in how do you make a good innovation to make a product in whatever space you’re in.

Another cool thing about what I do is that we work across all sectors. Health is a very obvious one for genomics research but there’s also innovation in agriculture, environment, natural resources, all these sectors can benefit from different types of research that researchers do across the province. I am still using my technical background because everytime you look at an investment, you have to make sure that the science is sound. If someone wants to put the product on the market but the tech say it’s a diagnostic for a certain disease and the technology at its core doesn’t work, it’s never going to sell.

But I also do things like the market assessment, the competitive analysis, determining is this a good investment at the end of the day. That was something that was new for me but I learned it and it’s really fun! It’s truly gratifying when we get to invest in these companies and then see them grow and become bigger companies that are working towards a product on the market.

Q: What advice would you have for undergraduates?

A: That’s a good one. I’ll think of some good advice for my talk (Helen Battle Lecture on March 22nd – stay tuned!) but for now, I really do think that innovation is critical economically as well as in terms of current world issues (i.e climate change, fighting diseases, etc). Science and innovation is going to provide solutions and that starts with the basics of what you’re learning in your undergrad and that you could build on in grad school. But there are different ways to be involved in developing these solutions, whether  it is staying at the bench and doing the empirical work, maybe it’s starting your own company, or being a regulator and deciding how this technology is being used. What you are learning can be used in a lot of different ways. If you think research is for you that’s awesome and move forward and be great! But if you think there’s another way you want to contribute to that, then I would encourage you to learn about these other areas. There’s a lot of different ways you can do that – you can go to talks like the one I’m going to give, you can talk to people who work in different areas (i.e information interview – just send an email to a company/organization you’re interested in to get more information). The more you learn about these different roles, hopefully something will spark and interest you. Then you can drive towards that.

Even if that’s not the job you end up with exactly, sometimes it sets you on a path. For me, I just wanted to be involved in commercialization. I didn’t know I was going to be working for a non-profit. I didn’t know what I was going to do but I thought this was the angle I want to take and let’s see what jobs I can do to get there. I would encourage you guys to see that you are getting the foundation that you need now that you can build on in grad school as well. There’s a lot of different ways you can move forward in your career and it’s getting more information about different areas even if you don’t go down that path. It’s just going to make you better prepared for whatever you do. Keep an open mind but also know that what you’re doing right now is the cornerstone of what you will eventually become. If you stay in innovation in any sort of way, then the technical background you have in your undergrad schooling, you are always going to use it and need it (just in different ways).

Q: For students in science who are interested in pursuing business as well as research, what advice would you give to them?

A: I think education is a great thing to have and if you know that business is where you want to be, then taking an MBA is a great way to go. The more education and having that degree is never going to hurt but there’s other ways to get different types of experiences as well. It’s like, if you think you want to be a patent lawyer, then you should go to law school. Most people I work with at least have a master’s (if not a PhDor) an undergrad with an MBA, therefore education is really important and will hopefully open more doors. Even if you take a pivot at the end.

The problem-solving skills as well as research skills – gathering the data you need to make a decision –  that you learn in grad school, can be applicable at the bench and in business. At the bench you are learning to get data to say “yes this is the transcription factor involved” or “no it’s not”. When you are gathering data to assess an investment and if that is the right technology for a market, you are using some of the same core skills to answer those questions (they are transferable skills).

As researchers we learn a lot in our research careers that we can apply to other things. So when people ask whether they should go to grad school, I usually say yes not just because it’s fun but also because you hone a lot of those skills that you can then use in another way.

Q: Was there ever a time in your undergrad that you were confused about what you wanted to do?

A: Yes like I wanted to be a teacher for most of my undergrad. When I think about third year and going into fourth, really my goal was to be a teacher. That was my plan. I applied for teacher’s college at that time. The confluence of it not being a good time for teachers and really liking my fourth year project, made me say, “okay, let’s check out this research thing.” I can tell you that in first year or fourth year there was no way I would have known that this [Director, Commercialization and Programs in a non-profit] was the type of job I was going to do. Even in my postdoc I didn’t know that was the type of job I was going to do. Research just caught me in fourth year and I went on to grad school.

In grad school, I really became interested in  “how do we use this research?” When I went into the industry postdoc, it was sorta closer to what I wanted to do but I still didn’t know exactly. I just was thinking okay, how do I do research that is more applied and converts into a product. After my  PhD and my industrial postdoc, I was like okay how do I now work on the business end of science? I was pretty lucky to get that consulting job initially because it was the first role where I had left the bench and I was able to do something different.

I had a vision but I was probably confused the whole time about where I was going to go but I always knew the direction I wanted to go in. But it wasn’t easy, there wasn’t a clear path to this job. It was just a path to how do I use my technical background to be involved in the use of research and application of it. I followed a direction but in a different life, a pivot one way or another, I would have probably ended up somewhere else. But still in this space [of science] this is really what I’m passionate about and what drives me, but it could have been different type of job. So if you find something that excites you then that will help you because there are a lot of different ways to do what excites you. You want to go to work being excited about what you do. What I love the most about working at my job at Ontario Genomics is working with these really cool researchers and great entrepreneurs, and these innovative companies, and they inspire me. I want to work hard for them because I know they are going to do great things with their research and business ideas and I can help them with their funding or to build a stronger proposal, I am playing a support role in doing something great. You want to do something that drives you everyday whether that be answering that fundamental research question, putting a product on the market, or solving climate change, just try to move towards it slowly and then hopefully you’ll end up with a job that you’ll love.

Q: If you are cryogenically frozen for 30 years and then brought back to life, what would be the first thing that you would want to do?

A: Do you know the movie Austin Powers? It’s probably too old for your time but that’s a movie about a spy that gets cryogenically frozen  and they unfreeze him. So all I can think of are these really stupid comedy lines from that movie! But well, I would first want to see my family, that’s the first thing. Then I would want to know where technology was, for example, do people still use cell phones, driving cars, or is it something completely different. Is climate change still a problem? Are there better drugs for cancer?

Q: What’s your favourite place that you’ve travelled to?

A: My favourite place that I have travelled to… Well probably Greece because as you can tell from my last name I am Greek. I was born in Canada but my parents were born in Greece. I would probably say that is my favourite place but I’ve been really lucky to get to travel a lot in Europe. I’ve been to a lot of cities that I love: London, Paris, Florence. Those are three off the top of my head, and Barcelona. But, Greece first because I have family there and there’s that sort of special connection. I’ve loved a lot of places that I’ve gotten to go in Europe. The summer between 3rd and 4th year, I did a backpacking tour around Europe with friends. I highly encourage you all to do that if you can. It’s awesome! The funny thing about travel that I found is that when you’re a student, you have the time because you have 4 months of summer, but you don’t have the money to travel.  When you’re older and you have a full time job, you have money, usually, hopefully if you’re lucky, but you don’t have the time because who has free four months to travel. So, if you can travel as a student, I highly encourage you to do that. We all should be out there. The world is getting smaller and we should all go see it.

Q: If you could meet any scientist, dead or alive, who would it be?

A: Oh my gosh, that is a great question. I just went to a play two weeks ago at UofT that students wrote about Rosalind Franklin. It was very hard to be a woman in science back then. I think she is a really important example of somebody who played a pivotal role in one of the critical discoveries. DNA is one of the key pieces of research and she played a pivotal role in that but she’s never been given her due.  That was difficult and I can’t imagine what it was like for her. I think about this a lot now because there is still a ways to go in terms of gender equality in science and just generally in our society. I think in science as well, there are a lot of great scientists that are women. I work with a lot of amazing scientists everyday but there’s more that can be done. She probably had the attitude that a lot of the researchers that I work with today do. I guess maybe what I can say for myself is that she probably didn’t want to be a woman in science, she just wanted to be seen as a scientist on a team making an important discovery towards something that would change how we do research. It shouldn’t be a success story about a woman who plays an important contribution but it should be that of course men and women should and do both make contributions everyday. That’s who I would pick for those reasons. She was probably also really smart and cool. And really strong because think about what she had to do to be heard and to continue. It’s a lot better now but back then she was probably one of the only women in her department and that couldn’t have been easy.

Q: What was your favourite spot on campus?

A: It was the grad club for sure. As a grad student, every Friday afternoon we were there. Although I have been to the Spoke. I think the Spoke was actually in a different place when I was a student. But yes, I went to the Spoke many times but the Grad club played a more pivotal role in my grad school career.

Q: Did you ever listen to Rick McGhie?

A: I love Rick McGhie! I have to tell you actually, he comes to Toronto sometimes, so me and a friend from grad school went to hear him play at a pub here in Toronto maybe two years ago. It was like a blast from the past because he sings some of the same songs. It was so great! Back when I was at Western, he used to play at the Ceeps on Sunday nights. It was just so fun to go. He played at the Spoke as well then. I love Rick McGhie. I couldn’t believe he was still at it. I mean he’s a staple for all Western students. That was really fun to get to hear him here in Toronto.

The cool thing was in the crowd there was all ages. People that were in Toronto now doing professional school or they were doing grad school. There were people that were just a few years out of their degree. There were people like me that were a few more years out of their degree. There were people that were older than me. He has entertained and inspired generations of Western graduates so that was really fun. He’s awesome.

Q: Do you remember your favourite Spoke bagel?

A: No, I don’t.

Q: Where did you say the Spoke was before it moved?

A: What building is it in now? The UCC? [Yeah]. It used to be in the basement of Sommerville.

It’s funny, there was this one night where an ABBA cover band were playing at the old Spoke. This was in undergrad for sure and it was like one of the most packed nights I’ve ever had at the Spoke. We were at capacity and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Spoke so packed with people for this ABBA cover band and it was so fun. The dance floor was just people jumping up and down to Dancing Queen. I don’t know why but this was one night that sticks out in my head. I’ve been to the Spoke many times but I’ve never seen it that busy and all for ABBA interestingly.

I’ve been to the new Spoke since then and I guess it’s newer and nicer but … I’m sure it’s the same for you guys because you have a lot of fun nights there.

I’ve also spent a lot of hours in the Nucleus for sure. That was a popular spot between classes and so forth. That’s where everybody always was.

Q: What would be the first thing you save from your house in case of a fire?

A: Am I alone this house because certainly it would be my loved ones. [Assuming all loved ones and pets are safe] Probably some combination of my phone, my laptop and my passport. So much of your life is on your devices now. I think of all the photos and I think it would probably be my phone, my laptop and my passport.

Dr. Helen Petropoulos works at Ontario Genomics as Director, Commercialization and Programs. Read more about her work here.

Interviewers: Simran Jawanda, Jasmeen Ranu, Rebecca Oeyangen and Dorisa Meng