Researcher Q&A: Stephanie MacAllister, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Toronto

Stephanie MacAllister is a PhD student in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Toronto. Her main specialty is toxicology and she works under the supervision of Dr. Peter J. O’Brien. She researches xenobiotics that cause liver toxicity in humans on a molecular level. She focuses on oxidative stress and studies rat liver cells. Her lab utilizes a screening technique that could be possibly used to accelerate the pre-clinical process in pharmaceutical and environmental regulatory environmental agencies that can identify methods by which specific compounds cause toxicity.

How did you get interested in this area of research?

In all honesty, I kind of just fell into it. In high school, I really enjoyed chemistry, and I actually didn’t want to do any animal work whatsoever. I did my undergraduate studies at Brock University majoring in biochemistry. I was working in an organic chemistry lab during my undergrad and I also did my undergrad thesis project in a microbiology lab. I wanted to do something that was a little more applicable and that’s when I came across pharmaceutical sciences at UofT. So I started looking up professors and their research online and Dr. O’Brien’s seemed very appealing to me.

What is a typical day like for you?

There is no typical day. For instance, when we do our specific hepatocyte work, we are involved in making buffers or performing surgery on the rat to remove the liver and extract the hepatocytes. That can take between 3 to 6 hours. Other days, we are doing literature research or analyzing data. I also work with a lot of undergraduate students, helping them develop and supervising their research projects throughout the year.

What are your favourite aspects of your daily routine/research? What are your least favourite aspects?

I socialize a lot with not just the individuals in my lab but also my colleagues that are in neighboring labs through which I get to learn about their research; this can be really fun. I enjoy researching different drugs and the various ways by which they can affect people. So the lab work itself that I do as well as the socializing and communicating with colleagues is my favourite aspect. The way that my schedule is set up allows me to broaden my academic horizons as such. As an extrovert, these are also things that are innately appealing to me.

In our research, we use a small set of specific techniques and assays when we do our experiments, so sometimes I feel less challenged in that realm. I am the type of person who likes to have a constant stream of new technical challenges to learn and grow from, but since we are using the same techniques over and over again, there is little room for growth in that regard. However, I still have so many outlets for developing and nurturing leadership, communication and teamwork skills, so there are plenty of challenges and excitement in that.

What are some challenges you see in your own field (academically, economically, culturally, or in terms of bureaucracy) personally and as part of a research community? How do you think they are best addressed?

I think that a lot of people going into research (and this is where I was at first to begin with) think that the research is going to get them everywhere, and that’s unfortunately not the case. A lot of people want to go into the pharmaceutical industry and there aren’t a lot of basic science jobs in the Canadian pharmaceutical world. You hear about all these job losses due to outsourcing to India and China. There are other jobs that are opening up in medical affairs and clinical research. However, when you’re doing basic science for your PhD, you don’t get some of those necessary skills. When employers look at a PhD student they think of the typical “lab rat” who is not able to communicate or do anything outside of pipetting. I think it’s extremely important to be able to communicate not only your research on a personal level with individuals, but also to develop those soft skills employers may be looking for, for example managing multiple projects, and having superior organizational skills.

There are some departments that focus primarily on research while others are concerned more with employability and it can be very difficult to strike a balance. However, I think my department is on the right track towards finding that balance.  Nonetheless, it still appears that not a lot of people know about the specific dynamics of the industry. There are upper-year PhD students that have no grasp of how the industry they would like to be employed by actually works. Canada remains a very small part of the pharmaceutical industry and if that’s the route one wants to pursue, you have to have the diverse skillset for it.

What would be your advice to those interested in pursuing your field of research? What do you still not know that you wish you did? Is there a particular technique or discovery that would greatly accelerate research in your field, something we can’t do today? 

If you want to do graduate research, my biggest piece of advice is to get as much laboratory experience as possible. When I came out my undergrad, I had good grades, but there were others with much better grades than me, but my professor took me because of my previous lab experience. It also gave me the opportunity to get to know professors on a personal level. I realize it’s somewhat more difficult in a larger university, but any such opportunity is worthwhile, even better if it is something you are passionate about, so you have the added motivation to go in every day.

As a researcher, it can become very easy to be consumed by work, and not be able to explore other things, and it is extremely hard to get other experiences that make you more employable. I wish I had done it throughout graduate school, but even volunteering and being involved in student organizations help.

There are some limitations that one comes across when you do your research, and my perspective on the way graduate research works is that, basically, you follow the money. So sometimes it can be quite a challenge to convince your superiors or funding sources to do extra research. It can be hard to align your interests with funding sources.

What are your interests outside of research? How do you de-stress and how does it compliment your work? 

I love cycling so I take my bike all the time to work. I have established a very good group of friends in the department that I can spend time with and vent about research frustrations. I was also involved in Pharmaceutical Sciences Graduate Students Association and the Graduate Management Consulting Association.

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