Dr. Gillian Wu, former Dean of Pure and Applied Science at York University, discusses her career trajectory from being the first female graduate student in the Department of Medical Biophysics to her doctoral work with Dr. Helios Murialdo in Molecular Genetics to retirement in January 2015. Gillian provides pearls of wisdom pertaining to genetics of the immune system, women in science, choosing a mentor, and strategies for success.


What has been the focus of your research program?

I am an immunologist and I study the genetics of the immune system and immune diversity. Specifically, I am interested in how diversity in antigen-specific B-cell and T-cell receptors are generated and their role in autoimmune diseases and cancers related to the immune system.

You’ve had a long career in science and just recently retired. Can you tell us a bit about your career path?

 I did a Master’s degree in Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto from 1967 to 1969. After these studies and marriage, I was ready for a change. We lived in the US for a period of time where we had two children. When my husband was offered an academic position in the Department of Anatomy at U of T, we moved back and I worked as a lecturer, teaching microbiology and histology to medical students. In 1980, after my children had started school, I enrolled in the PhD program in Medical Biophysics, just as it was changing its name to Medical Genetics. After my PhD, I did a two-year post-doc at the Basel Institute for Immunology in Switzerland and was offered a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Immunology here at U of T. In 1993, I moved to the Wellesley Hospital Research Institute and then later to Princess Margaret Hospital in 1998. In 2001, I was offered the opportunity to serve as the Dean of Pure and Applied Science at York, where I have been until my retirement in January 2015.

How have attitudes towards women in science changed since you were in graduate school?

When I started my Masters in 1967, I was the first and only female graduate student in the Department of Medical Biophysics. I often felt like I wasn’t wanted, and there were many cases where I was told that my presence was not wanted. At that time, the Medical Biophysics department was all men – there was not a single female faculty member. While my supervisor was very supportive of both men and women, others were not. For example, I could not go to the retreat because there were no facilities for women. It was a male only retreat. It’s remarkable how much things have changed since the 1960s. Now, there are female scientists in leadership positions in Molecular Genetics, the Donnelly Centre, Sick Kids and many other research institutes. Women in science today still face some unique challenges but I’m hopeful that circumstances will continue to improve for female scientists as we move forward.

When did you first realize that you wanted to be a scientist?

In high school. In elementary school, I was really good at math and wanted to be a detective because I loved to figure things out. In high school, I had a teacher who asked me how the egg I ate for breakfast changed into me, which got me thinking about science. From that moment on, I was hooked. I took all the science courses at school and participated in a gifted enrichment program on Saturday mornings for students that wanted to pursue science. I just loved it.

What are some of your favourite memories from your time in graduate school?

Some of the memories that stand out the most come from my interactions with Paul Sadowski. He was a professor at the time and although he wasn’t my supervisor, I relied on him greatly for advice. One of his pieces of advice was to choose a mentor and stick to that person. Another was to not do any experiments that are not publishable. Have all the controls in place in every experiment.

Another unforgettable moment came towards the end of my PhD. I had been there for three years and had published four papers, one of which was in Cell. I was ready to graduate but the department wouldn’t let me graduate because I hadn’t completed a requalification exam. At the time, there were no strict rules about having to do a requalification exam so I argued that no one had told me that I had to complete it. In the end, I graduated with my PhD without having to complete the requalification exam. But after that, the department started to make rules and write out formal guidelines and expectations.

 What advice would you give younger students on choosing a mentor?

I think the quote “To your own self, be true” is apt here. You really have to know what your standards are. All of us are smart and love science or we would not be here. Some people are really interested in pure science, some in money, some in glory, some in using the degree to get accreditation for other career goals. Picking a supervisor who is complementary to your own personality is very important. For example, if you are nonchalant and a little laid back in your approach to science, you should choose a supervisor who is very methodical and careful. You also want to be in a lab that publishes papers in good journals. Remember that good labs attract good people. When I was the graduate coordinator, I always asked students in interviews “Where do you want to be in five years?” and “What do you think you have to do to get there?” To best choose a mentor that will help you achieve your goals, you really need to know who you are and what you want.

How did your experience in the Department of Medical Genetics influence your career trajectory?

Everybody there was passionate about science. Being surrounded by high achievers, bright committed scientists, creative and hard working faculty and students was the environment I needed to excel. But, importantly, the faculty members wrote references for me. I became well known because of the people that wrote references for me. Until then, I hadn’t realized how important references are. A reference from a well-known person will be more powerful than one from someone who is less well-known. There is absolutely no question that the references I received from people like Bob Phillips, Paul Sadowski, and Rick Miller helped get me to where I am today.

What scientific discovery are you most proud of?

There are several. In the Cell paper from my PhD, I identified a natural mutation in a cell line that inhibited the secretion of immunoglobulins (Ig). It was a glycine to arginine mutation that changed the bend in the protein so that it could no longer fit into the secretory apparatus. This finding gave scientists in the field a new appreciation for protein structure and folding, and how that impacts secretion. After I started my own lab, one of my students showed that the strength of V(D)J recombination signal sequences varies. The strength of the sequence affects the binding affinities of proteins that recognize these signal sequences. That, in turn, can influence which genes will be recombined and how much and what kind of Ig and T-cell receptor diversity will be generated. Another discovery that I am proud of came from my time at York. Led by another of my students, we discovered that endogenous mutations in proteins caused them to be recognized as non-self and foreign, and thus elicit an immune response. This finding has implications for autoimmunity.

What do you think are the key elements of running a successful lab and research program?

You have to get funding, which means that you have to work on something that is fundable. You have to do something that someone values. Once you get funding, run your lab like you would run a household. Only the PI should control the money going out. A lot of new professors assume that graduate students are going to show discretion when it comes to ordering reagents for the lab. But that’s not always true and sometimes, they will order boxes of tubes simply because they can’t find them. Think of it as a benign dictatorship. You should support your students and give them the freedom to think and be creative but recognize that they are still students, after all. You should always give your students and post-docs deadlines. Make the deadlines reasonable and don’t give them a day over the deadline. In the real world, deadlines actually matter and part of your job as a supervisor is to prepare them for the real world. I would also encourage PIs to have lab parties all the time. Accommodate people with families by having them at lunch hour. It’s important to celebrate every time you publish a paper and create a fun environment.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing scientists today?

Funding. These days, biomedical research often requires big labs and lots of equipment. Our papers use to have just two or three authors but now, it’s not uncommon to see twenty authors. This means that collaborators need to sit down and decide who’s going to do what; who’s going to get credit for what; who will be first author; who will be senior author; etc… With so many granting agencies now requiring these big collaborations, how to manage big science is becoming a huge challenge. With regards to funding, it’s important to remember that if you don’t apply, you won’t receive anything. That is relevant for both grants for PIs, and fellowships for students and post-docs. There is a lot of funding available for very specific topics or demographics. Universities have research offices whose job is to look for funding opportunities, including niche ones, but not everyone knows about and uses these resources.

What do you think are the biggest differences between becoming a PI now and when you started your own lab?

When I was starting my lab, you really could start slow and just think about the science. I was awarded a grant from the CIHR and the National Cancer Institute on my first round. I just assumed that everybody would receive funding so it never occurred to me that getting funding would be challenging. Now, there are a lot more people applying and you have to think like a business person. The grants are bigger, which means you have to have more collaborations, and expectations are much higher in terms of results. Before, I didn’t used to think about how my research would impact the health of Canadians. Now, I only think about that.

What advice would you give to current students and post-docs hoping to pursue a career in academia?

Before you move on, look at job postings and figure out where universities are hiring. For example, personalized medicine and bioinformatics are two fields in biomedical research that have a lot of job opportunities right now. You need to be able to see ahead to where the field is going to be in five years. You don’t want to be in a field that’s already washed-out. Along those lines, you need to be mentally flexible and versatile to move with the field and stay in the game. During your post-doc, make sure that you have projects that you can take with you to start your own lab. You have to have something started so that you can publish within that first year and improve your chances of getting funding.

If you want to pursue academia, you should start preparing your CV early. One of the best ways to boost your CV is giving talks at other schools and institutes. If you are going to a conference somewhere, go a day earlier and offer to give a seminar at the university there. Since most departmental budgets are tight these days, they’ll be very happy to have you present a talk without having to cover your travel expenses. These talks are also great opportunities to meet other researchers and establish new collaborations. Lastly, make friends with people who are ethical. Ethics is a very important in biomedical research and something on which you should never compromise.