BrainWaves: The Neuroscience Graduate Program Newsletter

The MiNDS of our Alumni: Dr. Jon Lai, PhD

AUTHOR: Shawna Thompson

We caught up with one of our accomplished graduates, Dr. Jon Lai, to talk about his career in neuroscience. From COVID-19 to lab lunches, check out his valuable advice for students at all stages of their graduate studies!

Jon Lai, PhD

1. Jon Lai, PhD – Current Position: Director of Strategy and Operations, CASDA

Q: What is your current position? Can you give us a brief description of things you might do on a daily basis as part of your job?

I work at the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorder Alliance (CASDA) as the Director of Strategy and Operations. For background, I did my PhD at McMaster in neuroscience before completing 2 postdoctoral fellowships; one at York University and one at McGill. These were funded by different places, but primarily CIHR throughout. Over time, I transitioned from doing basic research using pre-clinical models, which is what I focused on as part of my PhD, to more Health systems-focused work. From there I got my current position at CASDA, which is an alliance of non-profits in autism. My role is really to facilitate organizations to come together at the national level. This means helping people in non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and patient groups to communicate with politicians and scientists to make evidence-based changes in policy. It's a lot of fun because it's exciting and every day is different. In my role, I report to a board which is accountable to 100 member organizations. I oversee a team of 6-12 people, and there are different committees that work on different projects. It's similar to managing a laboratory as a principal investigator in some ways, but not research-focused. A new project that we're starting is an autism journal. We also talk to senators and MPs about how to move things forward in an evidence-based way, rather than "the loudest voice wins" which is how it works sometimes in politics. My job is basically connecting; we have to understand each group or piece enough to be able to guide them all to fit together in the best way. We do policy at a real-time level, but the day-to-day is mostly meetings.

Q: Did your graduate studies in neuroscience help you get your current position?

Somewhat, as it was part of the process that led to the next step. In addition, it affects the role I play now in nuanced ways. I'm not doing basic science research, but I do need to understand it in order to be able to coordinate. Now I can assist when things come up and help manage people who are doing that type of work.

Q: How have you had to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what do you like to do in your time off or for self-care?

CASDA is a national organization across different time zones, so fortunately I worked virtually before COVID-19 even happened and it wasn't a big adjustment to move to zoom meetings instead of in-person. I have spent a lot of time in this pandemic working to help people in other organizations adapt to virtual work and have found a silver lining in that some things move a lot faster and more efficiently in my world now that everyone else works from home too! Before COVID I had to travel quite a bit, every month I'd be on a plane somewhere in the first year of my job. There's a lot less traveling now and no commute! If you need to talk to someone in Ottawa you send them the link. One of the challenges I face now is finding it hard to "turn things off"; everyone's online now and expects you to also be, so the holiday time was a welcome moment of relaxation for me and my family. In my spare time, I also teach violin. We live downtown (lockdown central), so we go for walks sometimes to relax.

Q: Are there any skills or knowledge that you learned as a graduate student that you use in your current work?

You learn skills from your PhD, what we call "core competencies", including managing projects, analytics and more, and bring that research mind to different scenarios. In a lot of ways, it's not like a PhD; however, it is like some PhDs, because unexpected things happen every day and you just have to pivot, reevaluate, think about what's next, and keep going. Things like COVID or elections come along and change everything. There's a lot that's involved, but in my current position, I'm meeting with a lot of people and groups and getting people to work together.

Q: What were your favourite parts of graduate school at McMaster?

As a PhD student in the Neuroscience Graduate Program at McMaster, I assisted our "Meeting of the Minds" Journal club events by always being the one to pick up the pizza from Gino's Pizza. I, not-so-fondly, recall endless battles with parking enforcement officers and elaborate plans to park as close to campus for as long as possible without paying or getting a ticket. I also loved lunches with the lab, especially the chicken parmesan at Bronzie's on James Street. The Brain Body Institute was a great place to work.

Q: If you could go back to your time in the Neuroscience Graduate Program at McMaster, would you do anything differently? What advice would you give to current graduate students interested in following a similar career path?

What I did as a graduate student that was helpful (it just happened to be what I was interested in) was to try different things, take risks, learn things that you might not usually learn about, and be open to opportunities that you might not expect or wouldn't necessarily be traditional. Attending things and getting involved in different areas leads you to meet different people which opens different doors that get you to where you want to go. I recommend trying different positions and practicums, not being afraid of taking risks, and being open to learning about different things. 

Q: Have you discovered any career paths for neuroscience graduate students that you might not have been aware of earlier in your career? 

Oh wow, that's a big one. For sure! If you think about leaving traditional academic roles, you can take the skills that you got from earning that degree, market them differently, and then apply them to any position. These days graduates are going into government and science communication. Even within these fields there are so many opportunities; you could do community facilitation, social impact, social innovation, and nonprofits. There are so many things out there! I think current graduate students should connect with alumni to know what's going on and I’m happy to be a part of that with this interview as it is so important to emphasize.