Scott Dixon, Assistant Professor of Biology at Stanford University discusses his career trajectory from being drawn to functional genomics research in MoGen to launching his own lab focused on cell death programs in development and disease. Scott highlights his experiences embarking on doctoral research as the first graduate student in Prof. Peter Roy’s lab, and reflects on how to make the most of your training to position yourself for an academic career in research.
Can you describe your current research for us?
In my lab we are studying the process of cell death. From C. elegans and other model organisms, we have learned that cell death is very important in sculpting tissues during development. Cell death is also misregulated in various diseases. For example, you can get too much cell death in neurodegeneration and too little cell death in cancer. As a post-doctoral fellow, I found this unusual type of cell death that was different from known types of cell death. It was dependent on iron, so we called it ferroptosis. My own lab here is studying this pathway to understand how it works and whether it is relevant in any types of disease.
When did you realize that you wanted to become a scientist?
I can’t really say that there was a particular ‘a-ha’ moment, more of a slow realization. I always thought that I would be a teacher like my parents, my aunts and my sister. Coming out of undergrad I had no real plan. But luckily I had a very good friend, Dr. David Clarke (now an Assistant Professor at Simon Fraser University), who was totally into research and absolutely committed to going to grad school. He made grad school sound like an appealing option so I decided that I would do the same thing. Once I got into grad school, I came to enjoy the work and enjoy the challenge. Over time, I realized I could maybe do it professionally, but it was a long process to come to the realization that I wanted to do this as a career.
Why did you choose the University of Toronto and the Department of Molecular Genetics for your graduate studies?
I started grad school as a Masters student at the University of Western Ontario in the laboratory of Dr. Susan Meakin (herself a MoGen alumnus from the 1980’s). When I was a year into my Master’s degree, in 2001, there were these papers coming out from the Boone and Tyers labs about using new genetic and proteomic techniques to analyze cell function on a global scale. These reports really caught my attention. At the time, I was working on a single protein governing a single function and here they were, looking at thousands of different genes and proteins at the same time. That seemed really cool and like something I wanted to do, so I decided to finish my Masters degree at Western and applied to MoGen for my PhD.
What are some of your favourite memories from graduate school?
Joining Peter Roy’s lab as his first student was very memorable. For a year, it was basically just me, Peter and a technician in the lab, so we worked very closely together. I learned a lot from him and I also got a lot done. It was fun being part of something that was just getting started.
I also met a lot of good friends in the program. Like everyone going through grad school, you share some difficult experiences, but also a lot of fun things, like going to conferences and just hanging out. I still keep in touch with many of my friends from graduate school. While we are no longer in one place, we all continue to share similar experiences as we progress through the different phases of our careers.
How did your experience in MoGen influence your career trajectory?
I had a really good training experience in MoGen. I felt like the program prepared me very well to take the next step in my career as a post-doc. The faculty members in MoGen are obviously outstanding and I had the benefit of some great advisors on my thesis committee: Charlie Boone, Joe Culotti and the late Tony Pawson. And again, working with Peter, I learned a great deal about how to do science properly. The other thing is that the University of Toronto, as I have learned, has an excellent international reputation as a top tier research institution. Wherever I have gone, people recognize that Toronto is a good training environment and they expect that you’re a well-trained scientist.
What was the most important thing you learned in grad school?
Peter taught me how to give a good research talk. I would say that’s the most important lesson I learned by far.
What was the most difficult aspect of transitioning from a post-doc position to starting your own lab as the principle investigator?
The biggest thing is that as a post-doc, or even as a senior grad student, most of your time is spent running your own experiments and you can immerse yourself and think exclusively about those things. When you’re running a lab, your life is very different. You have much less time for your own experiments and your own thinking. There are a lot of additional demands your time. For example, I teach, which is something I never had to do a grad student or post-doc. The grant writing and other administrative duties, like faculty meetings, take up a lot of your time. So your time becomes much more compressed for the science and you have a whole bunch of new things to deal with, which can be fun, but your responsibilities become much more varied.
What do you think are the key elements of running a successful lab and research program?
I’m still learning that myself! I do think a lot about my time in Peter’s lab, as his first student, and what I saw of Peter putting his lab together. I also spent a year working in Charlie Boone’s lab as a post-doc, and I also think about that, too. Charlie had (and has) a very large and established lab with a lot people in it and a lot of things going on. From both of them, I learned a lot of lessons. It’s clear that you need to be focused on both the details of individual experiments and the big-picture of where your work is going and where it might make the biggest impact. You have to know what people in your lab are doing and make sure that things are done in the way that they should be. At the same time, you also have to give people space to be independent and learn on their own. Another lesson is to make time to celebrate the successes you have in the lab. Science can be difficult and frustrating at times, so when something good happens, it is important to take the time and celebrate that with the people in your lab.
What advice would you give to students and post-docs hoping to pursue a career in academia?
It’s tough, but if you really want it, and have some luck, the opportunities are there. In fact, there are many people from my MoGen cohort that have gone on to positions in academia or are heading in that direction. One question to ask is whether you really want this job! While it is never boring, it is very challenging and can, or likely will, consume your life, especially in the first few years.
For those that want to pursue this direction, you really start laying the foundation for that in graduate school. One thing I learned is that academic hiring committees pay close attention to what you did as a PhD student. They look at what you published and whether you obtained funding as a graduate student. Also, who you worked with and what your PhD supervisor has to say about you are all important factors. You can’t just ‘turn it on’ as a post-doc. You will be evaluated on the entirety of your career, beginning in graduate school when people consider you for an academic position. So give it your best effort right from the start.