Scientist Spotlight, 6th Edition, December 2015
From Our Field…
Scientist Spotlight: Rachel Tyndale, PhD
Dr. Rachel Tyndale is a leading investigator in the nicotine field, with a scientific focus on genetic risk factors and neurobiological mechanisms associated with drug dependence. She received her PhD in Pharmacology from the University of Toronto and pursued postdoctoral training with Drs. Tobin and Olsen at the University of California Los Angeles. Dr. Tyndale currently heads the division of Pharmacogenetics at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). She is also an Endowed Chair in Addictions and Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology at the University of Toronto. She has received many awards and achievements throughout her career and in 2012, was recipient of the prestigious Langley Award from SRNT. Her leading-edge investigations with tobacco/nicotine, ethanol, opiates, benzodiazepines and amphetamines have resulted in over 235 research publications and numerous book chapters and review articles. Dr. Tyndale’s responses to the interview from December of 2015 are below.
1. Why did you choose to become a scientist?
The honest answer is probably because my marks in high school in science classes were better than in other subjects but that wouldn’t have kept me in science! I love working in a discipline which mixes logic and curiosity. It is a privilege to get to work each day in something you feel contributes positively to the world and is fun and creative!
2. Why a career in academia? What challenges and advantages have you encountered in your academic career?
It is a privilege to work in an area where you are challenged, where your goals are aligned with making a positive contribution to health outcomes, and where curiosity is embraced. It is career which is never dull! Funding is an on-going challenge. That said, given the many benefits which come from working in academia, I think the funding stands out as one of the few potentially painful aspects. Another major challenge is time-management and keeping a work-life balance. There is always an endless “to do” list!
3. What are your current research interests?
We work primarily in variation in drug metabolism and resulting impact on drug response. In the field of Addictions this can be both the drugs which cause the addiction (for example smoking) and treatment drugs, and thus many addiction behaviours are altered by variation in the rate of metabolism – for example how much someone smokes, and whether they respond well to bupropion treatment.
4. How have your research interests evolved over the course of your career?
I got my first summer studentship, during my undergraduate degree, in the laboratory of Werner Kalow, a world leader in Pharmacogenetics, and never really looked back! The area of medicine has changed over time but the investigations of variation between people has always been front and center in my research goals.
5. What do you view as the main challenges for your field? From your perspective, what do you view will be the next biggest breakthrough(s)?
We now have many decades of research indicating that genetic variation between people can alter drug response, including smoking cessation. The real challenge of this coming decade is to integrate what we know from research into real world practice.
6. What opportunities does a career in academia offer you in regard to the field of clinical pharmacology?
Ones work is readily applicable to human health – it has a very practical applicability which is lacking in many other types of academic career. Particularly with an interest in between person variability in drug response, clinical pharmacology is a natural home for Pharmacogenomics which is what I spend much of my research time focused on.
7. Do you currently or have you served as a scientific consultant for a company, as an editor for a journal, and/or a position in a scientific organization (e.g., SRNT, SfN, etc.)? Based on your experiences, what are the pros and cons participating in this respect?
I have done each of these to varying degrees. The pros include broadening one’s own horizons and seeing how other aspects of science work, contributing to the goals of your discipline (outreach, education, implementation, dissemination), and working with new colleagues. The cons are the time that is required. A major part of being in research is determining how to proportion your time, and each of these additional roles can consume a lot of time.
8. Have you achieved a balance between work and personal priorities? How do you prioritize work and non-work activities?
If you asked my family they would say no! The amazing thing about loving your work and the people you work with – students, scientists etc – is that you can devote all of your time to it! Learning to say no, balancing what you take on with what you already have on your plate is a challenge in itself – balancing that with non-work activities is even harder!
9. What is the current size of your laboratory? In your opinion, what is the best balance of postdocs, graduate students, and technicians?
I usually have around 10 graduate students, two to three postdoctoral fellows, and seven scientists and research associates in my group. I love the training aspect of being in research, and have outstanding staff; together we try to provide a good teaching environment full of options for the trainees to expand their horizons, as well as moving our research agenda forward.
10. What is the best advice that you ever received from one of your mentors?
Learn to say “no” – whether I adhere to it or not is a different question! I think one is often so taken by an opportunity, and perhaps a little flattered to be asked, that it is easy to take on too many directions.
11. What advice would you have for students starting their academic career?
Enjoy and get the most out of each stage of your career. It is often easy to focus exclusively on the end game – graduation, a paper out, a job – that you overlook how interesting and varied each of the stages are.
12. What qualities do you look for when recruiting graduate students or postdocs?
Curiosity and a keen desire to learn – energy and enthusiasm. We can provide virtually all of the other training components, but if you don’t come in with these characteristics it is pretty difficult to make a life in academia.
13. What advice would you have for postdoctoral trainees transitioning into faculty positions?
Find mentors, carve out an area of research that you truly love, learn to say no!
Find a good advisor who understands the system you are entering. They can help you identify key goals and provide you with a sounding board about time management – what to focus on when.