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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


Growth in biotech fuels need for researchers

By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun

Think of a health researcher. Do you see an image of a man in a long white coat squinting into a microscope? Well, there certainly are plenty of researchers out there who specialize in the physical sciences. But today, a growing number work in the social or ethical fields.

Ross Gray, a psychologist and co-director of the Psychosocial and Behavioural Research Unit of Toronto Sunnybrook Regional Cancer Centre, has worked in research for more than 15 years. In one project, he studied how dragon boating affected the health of women suffering from breast cancer.
"You feel like you're doing something important," says health researcher Ross Gray of his work.

"People think that after treatment, a woman who has breast cancer is either better or not," Gray says. "But there are ongoing physical and emotional issues. And dragon boating seems to help women deal with the anxieties of a possible recurrence. It strengthens the body. It also helps them deal with fatigue and lingering side effects."

The Canadian approach to health research has changed in recent years, according to Dr. Roderick McInnes, Anne and Max Tanenbaum chair in molecular medicine at the University of Toronto. He says that's why the Medical Research Council changed its name and mandate in 2000 to become the Canadian Institute of Health Research CIHR.

"The CIHR is the new vision of what's needed for the future," McInnes explains. "Our goal is now not only to foster discoveries in the lab, but also bring them to population and government."

Dr. McInnes talks about the four "pillars" of the CIHR -- or the four different types of health researchers included in this umbrella organization. The categories are basic lab research, clinical research, health services research and health of population research.

A lab researcher may explore biochemical or genetic issues. A clinical researcher will work with patients, possibly testing the efficacy of drugs. Health services specialists advise governments on how to improve healthcare systems. Health of populations researchers, like Ross Gray, study social issues.

The field, therefore, is wide open and can accommodate people with very different skills and interests.

But is it easy to find work?

"People need researchers out there, so if you're reasonably competent you can find and keep a job," he says.

And now is the time, Dr. McInnes asserts. "Research is definitely an excellent career opportunity. The biotechnology industry is growing and needs new researchers. And in general, the current cohort of professors is getting older. We are all going to be gone within the next 10 to 12 years, and we'll need to be replaced."

Gray says you have to be self-motivated to do this job.

"You need to have a lot of initiative because you have to generate everything yourself. You have to generate research proposals, assemble and manage teams and work well with people. I also like the fact that as a researcher, I work according to my own rhythms. I don't have to punch a clock." You also have to be patient to reap the fruits of your labour.

"Research personifies delayed gratification," Dr. McInnes says. "The goodies don't come sometimes for years, and employment depends on productivity. The people who pay you want to see results. But if you can manage that, research is tremendously exciting. You feel like you're doing something really important."

(Susan Poizner ( is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)

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