Interviews with Three Recent MiNDS Alumni

Author: Vanessa Morris

Have you ever wondered what you’ll do after the Neuroscience Graduate Program? Some of you may know exactly what your next steps are while others may be unsure of what options exist for someone with a graduate degree in neuroscience. In this article, I’ve asked three alumni from the Neuroscience Graduate Program to share what they’ve decided to do after earning their MSc or PhD from the program.

1. Clinical Neuropsychology


Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Lana Vedelago and I am currently a first-year PhD student in the Clinical Psychology program at York University, in the Neuropsychology stream. My research focus is the mechanisms of substance and alcohol use disorders, which includes investigating individual differences in motivations for use combined with contextual factors.

When did you graduate from the neuroscience graduate program?

I defended my master’s degree in June 2020, and my convocation is in November 2020.

What drew you to your current career? Was that always something you wanted to pursue?

My undergraduate degree is in psychology, but I actually didn’t realize that clinical neuropsychology was a potential career path until well after completing my degree. After graduating, I started working in addictions research at St. Joe’s West 5th campus, where I was exposed to both cognitive neuroscience research and its translation into clinical practice. I was able to explore this overlap further when I joined the Neuroscience Graduate Program as it was a research-intensive program with research labs situated at West 5th. Clinical neuropsychology was the perfect combination of my background in psychology and my growing interest and experience in neuroscience.

How did your graduate neuroscience degree help get you into your current position?

I wouldn’t be where I am today without the experiences I had and the people I met through the neuroscience program at Mac. Studying neuroscience allowed me to gain the required knowledge to go into neuropsychology. The neuroscience program also provided me with extensive experience conducting rigorous, clinically relevant research at a graduate level, which definitely gave me a leg up when applying to clinical neuropsychology PhD programs.

 

What are the most valuable skills that the Neuroscience Graduate Program provided you with that you are now thankful for in your current position?

The main skills that I took away from my time in the Neuroscience Graduate Program are a better understanding of neuroanatomy and the neural basis of behaviour, more experience with research on clinically relevant factors, and more competency in navigating graduate school courses and requirements. A strong grasp of neuroscience is vital for a career in neuropsychology, so I’m glad I entered my PhD program already comfortable with this. My research skills were definitely strengthened through the neuroscience graduate program, along with a sharpening of my writing and presentation skills preparing for my master’s defence. Finally, I entered my PhD program with two years of graduate school already behind me, so it wasn’t such a harsh transition from undergrad and working life to an advanced degree program. I am also incredibly thankful for the connections I made with researchers and fellow graduate students through the program, with whom I intend to stay in contact and collaborate with as our careers progress.

2. Pharmaceutical Company

 

Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Sarra Bahna and I am working at Sunovion Pharmaceuticals as a Medical Science Liaison on their portfolio of CNS medications.  

 

When did you graduate from the Neuroscience Graduate Program?

I graduated with my PhD in 2016.

 

What drew you to your current career? Was that always something you wanted to pursue?

I have always been interested in science and health. It was not something I had known very much about while I was in school, so it was not always something that I was pursuing. I learned about the role later in my graduate/postgraduate studies.

I was drawn to the role because it was very close to science and involved new research on compounds that had the potential to make an immediate impact. My role also came with a lot of travel, which I found to be a very nice addition.

 

How did your graduate neuroscience degree help get you into your current position?

My role is to manage the field medical activities of the CNS portfolio for Sunovion, which includes all their medications for psychiatry and neurology.

My graduate degree in neuroscience helped me establish a strong scientific background to understand the mechanisms by which these medications function and the clinical implications of these mechanisms both in terms of efficacy and safety.

My degree also helped me form a strong research foundation. As the development of all innovative medications involves extensive research/clinical trials, I use this (and build on this) every day in my role as a medical science liaison.

 

What are the most valuable skills that the Neuroscience Graduate Program provided you with that you are now thankful for in your current position?

The Neuroscience Graduate Program provided me with the foundation I needed to develop my career. In addition to the scientific foundation, this program provided me with many opportunities to practice my scientific interpretation, communication, and networking skills- these really form the basis of what is needed to succeed in my role as a medical science liaison.

3. Postdoctoral Research

 

Who are you? What is your current position? When did you graduate from the Neuroscience Graduate program?

My name is Ashley Bernardo and I’m currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. I graduated from the Neuroscience Graduate Program at the end of 2019.


Please tell us a bit about your path to research and what drew you to complete a postdoctoral fellowship. Was that always something you wanted to pursue?

At the University of Guelph, I completed my Bachelor of Science with a minor in neuroscience. I then completed my PhD at McMaster in the Neuroscience Graduate program under the supervision of Dr. Ram Mishra. My graduate training was my first real exposure to conducting basic research and I loved the research I was doing. I learned a great deal about preclinical research, drug discovery, troubleshooting, and how to approach a research question. All these skills came in useful while applying to a postdoctoral position. During graduate school, despite the inevitable challenges it brings, I continuously got to be a person that genuinely loved what they were doing, and I think that really helped me see that I wanted to continue within the field. When looking for a postdoctoral position, I was really adamant about finding a job that pertained to my research interests, since I knew I enjoyed researching disease pathology and drug discovery. I was very fortunate to find a position that was open at CAMH in Toronto under the supervision of Dr. Etienne Sibille, working on molecular mechanisms and drug discovery relating to Alzheimer’s disease.


What does your typical day as a postdoctoral fellow look like? How do your research activities and responsibilities compare to those of graduate school?

So far, I’ll admit that my experience may not be typical because of Covid-19 related shutdowns. However, I have been back in the lab for a few months now and I think one of the draws to research is that every day is something different, so a “typical day” may not be easily answered. So far, I’ve spent time writing manuscripts, setting up experiments, and running behavioural work. I will also eventually be running biochemical analyses. So far, responsibilities are similar to graduate school, however, I would say there is more time spent on research since there are no courses or many other meetings. That being said, there are a lot of great research discussion outlets like journal club and seminars that are available through my current group. It has been great to teach me about the work that is going on around me since it is fairly adjacent to my PhD work. 


Please tell us a bit about your application experience. For example, how did you search for postdoctoral positions and what was your timeline for applying?

I started looking for a postdoc just before defending which is probably a little late, and even then, I was only browsing job boards to see if positions met my 2 very broad criteria: 1. I had to be interested in the research (I was not willing to compromise on this) and 2. I wanted to try to stay close to home or in Ontario. If I wasn’t able to find a position here, I knew I was willing to broaden my location to within Canada and then, if needed, internationally as long as the research was what I was interested in. I was primarily monitoring the Canadian Association for Neuroscience website which has a section for positions available. Once I successfully defended, I started checking their website daily to see if any positions were available that interested me. I was also monitoring other listings on the Society for Neuroscience website to see if there was research that interested me; however, these positions were in the United States. Eventually, I saw the opening in Dr. Sibille’s lab, which involved work I was interested in and felt I was well trained for, plus it was also in a great location. From there, I prepared my application, which, like most post-doctoral applications, included a statement of interest and my CV. I had several people edit my application because I really wanted the position and then finally submitted it. I heard back from the group and completed a Skype interview and an in-person interview. After talking to them, I felt the research they were doing would be a great fit for my interests.


What tips or recommendations do you have for current students based on your experiences?

From my experience, I would recommend browsing your options earlier rather than later. I also only looked at positions that were posted; however, after talking to a few people, if you are interested in someone’s research you should contact them directly and see if they are able to hire a post-doctoral student. There is no harm in asking and if you ask early enough, they might be able to apply for funding for a postdoctoral fellow.


What was the interview process like? How did you prepare?

The interview process was pretty straightforward. My first interview was over Skype and to prepare I probably googled 10 different variations of “Post-Doctoral Interview Questions”. I then prepared a few point form answers to questions I thought might be important to ensure I hit key points in the interview. I also read a lot of the recent papers published from the lab so that I had an understanding of their work and techniques commonly used. I went over the actual posting on the Canadian Association for Neuroscience job board and tried to read up on some of the standout topics so that I could speak to the potential work I would be completing. I also made a list of questions I was going to ask. I think it’s important to know about the lab you will be joining and their work, so I asked questions about the specific projects I would be working on and what expectations they had of their postdoctoral fellows.


What happened following your interview?

After my second interview, which was in early December 2019, Dr. Sibille let me know that they were offering me the position! I was really excited and accepted. They then sent me an offer letter and let me know about training and start dates. I started at CAMH in January 2020.


Is there anything else you would recommend or share with a student who is considering a postdoctoral fellowship?

Let your personality shine through! As cheesy as that sounds, I feel like it is an important point to make. During a postdoctoral fellowship you work as a team in the lab, so as important as it is to have the skills and knowledge to conduct research, it is also important to the lab that they hire someone that is a good fit and will work well with those currently in the lab. Building on that, I’d also recommend making your interest in the work your first priority. Passion for your work will always be apparent when you talk about it, and I personally think that really makes a difference for both the hiring process and your overall career.