Dr. Faiyaz Notta reflects on his experience as a graduate student in John Dick’s lab and how it inspired him to pursue a career in academia. After productive graduate and post-doc studies, he is now running his own lab as an Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) Fellow and Principal Investigator at the Princess Margaret Hospital, studying the mechanism of pancreatic cancer development. Faiyaz shares advice on how to achieve an academic career and how to run a successful research program.

Can you describe your current research to us?

My lab studies pancreatic cancer development. Pancreatic cancer is probably one of the most aggressive cancers that exist. When I started my post-doc, we had all of this whole genome sequencing data from tumours and we were trying to make sense of it. We wanted to take advantage of the genomics to better understand why the disease was so aggressive.

For 20 years, there has been a model of how pancreatic cancer evolves, but it did not align with clinical observations. Clinically, the disease spreads and metastasizes very rapidly, but the scientific model that existed suggested that the disease did not actually evolve so rapidly. So there was a dichotomy between clinical observations and the model of tumor development. We decided to pursue the issue using genomics to better understand the aggressive nature of the disease.

When we studied genomic rearrangement patterns from tumours, nearly 2/3 of these cancers evolved via catastrophic mitotic errors. That means the majority of the genomic damage of the cancer does not accumulate over a large period of time; rather, most actually accumulates “all at once”, likely setting off rapid tumour growth.

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

I actually did my undergraduate degree in engineering. When I started my Master’s degree in London Ontario, I had the opportunity to meet John Dick, who would later turn out to be my PhD supervisor. It was really after meeting him and hearing him talk that I became inspired to pursue science.

Why did you choose the University of Toronto and the department of Molecular Genetics for your graduate studies?

When I met John, he mentioned that there was an opening in his lab and he directed me to the Department of Molecular Genetics. It worked out that my wife also wanted to move to Toronto. I came to John’s lab because I wanted to do something bigger.

How did your experiences as a graduate student in Molecular Genetics influence your career trajectory?

One thing you learn when you are in Molecular Genetics is that it is a very strong department. There is a broad range of investigators with vast expertise. All of them are leading experts in their respective areas. It really fosters the right kind of environment for academia, whether you decide to pursue it or not.

What are some of your favourite memories from graduate school?

I really enjoyed the rotation program of the department. At the time I joined, which seems like eons ago, Molecular Genetics was among the first departments in Canada to have rotations. While I knew that I would end up with John, it really opened my eyes to the breadth of research done in Molecular Genetics, which is really extensive and terrific. The rotation program not only helps you develop, but really exposes you to different labs and techniques. Another enjoyable memory was the retreats. On a more personal level, when I was a graduate student, Howard (the previous chair of the department) was a staunch supporter of the students and the department itself.

Looking back now, my time in Molecular Genetics was probably the best that I had. By the time you get to your post-doc, you become more serious; you are looking for a job and starting your life. In graduate school, while it is hard work to complete a thesis and get papers published, it is “protected time”. Sounds like a cliché, but my advice to graduate students is that you should take advantage and enjoy it. Everything will work out in the end.

What was the most important thing you learned in graduate school?

The main thing I learned from my supervisor is that whatever question you decide to pursue, do it well, do it with conviction, and do it deep.

Having just started your own lab, what was the most difficult aspect of transitioning from graduate school to becoming a principal investigator?

In graduate school, you are taught certain skills, and one of your primary goals is to generate data. I really enjoyed doing the bench work. When you transition to a PI, you have to let some of that go. As a PI, you have to manage the experiments and trainees, oversee a large number of projects, ensure the trainees are enabled to carry out their projects, and create an environment of learning. It is on-the-job training because you don’t perform these latter skills in graduate school.

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

Whatever you do, stay focused on the research questions you are trying to answer. It is very easy to get side-tracked towards other questions. Building a good, solid lab also depends on recruiting the right people, who will determine if you are successful or not.

The other important thing is to stay positive. The endeavor of science is to create knowledge. That means that all of us operate in the world of the blind because we can’t see what is ahead of us. It also means that a lot of experiments don’t work. But you have to stay positive and motivated because what we do is very important for society. Creating the right environment towards this goal is super important and it has to start with the PI.

It’s also very important to surround yourself with people who continue to challenge you. Regardless of who you are, building knowledge is a messy process. PI or not, everyone ends up being wrong more often than not. You have to make sure you are around people who always question you. In a constructive way of course.

Do you have any advice for students on how to choose a post-doc lab?

If you want to pursue a career in academia, you need to ensure that you choose a strong lab for your post-doc. This department trains outstanding graduate students and you are essentially independent by the time you enter your post-doctoral fellowship. The goal of a post-doc is to become virtually independent and gain more experience in writing. You have ensure that the environment you enter can support this. It is also critical that you learn something new in your post-doc. Make sure you pick something interesting as it may have to last you a lifetime.

The second point is to pick a supervisor who will cultivate your career development. Your post-doc supervisor needs to help you with what you want to do after you leave that lab. Make sure to talk to as many people both inside and outside of the lab before making a choice. Do not hesitate to ask detailed questions about the PI. You are going to be spending many years there, so you want to make sure you are in the right environment.

If you could only offer one piece of advice to graduate students and post-docs who are hoping to pursue a career in academia, what would it be?

If you want to pursue an academic career, make sure you stay passionate. Becoming an academic will give you a whole new perspective about the world of science. Seeing your trainees generate data is an awesome experience. Even more than I use to do it myself.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing scientists today?

Well, there’s the generic answer to this question which is “funding”. If you look at experiments done 10 years ago versus experiments done today, things are getting very expensive. From my own experience in single cell genomics, one experiment will run us a thousand dollars. This makes it challenging. You have to be clever in your experimental strategy and design to get things done.