Close-Up on Dr. Howard Mount: On creating a graduate program by and for the individual student

Close-Up on Dr. Howard Mount: On creating a graduate program by and for the individual student

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By: Melissa Galati

If you are a graduate student in the Institute of Medical Science (IMS), you have probably interacted with Dr. Howard Mount on more than one occasion. He may have conducted your graduate school interview, welcomed you during your first MSC1010Y class, or possibly advised you during times of crisis in his role as a graduate coordinator (GC). When I sat down with Dr. Mount—who, in addition to being a GC, is also the IMS Director of Education and scientist at the Tanz Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases—I expressed my surprise that we had never interviewed him for the IMS Magazine. He responded with a small smile, “I’m more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy.” Indeed, by the end of our conversation, I had to wonder if there was any aspect of the IMS Dr. Mount wasn’t involved in.

It may or may not surprise you to know that Dr. Mount, who completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto (U of T), was initially interested in ecology. He worked for the National Research Council Environmental Secretariat throughout his BSc and MSc and became interested in behavioural toxicology. One of the earliest signs of toxicity in an organism, Dr. Mount explains, is behavioural change. He wondered whether you could infer the presence of toxic metals or organics in the water by looking at the behaviour of aquatic organisms. He envisioned that he would become an environmental consultant and work to assess man’s impact on the environment.

Instead, Dr. Mount’s enthusiasm for toxicology led him to pharmacology, specifically, how the use of certain drugs would cause long-lasting change in the brain. He took advantage of a long-standing exchange program between U of T and the Rudolf Magnus Institute in the Netherlands to study the effect of amphetamines in behavioural sensitization. When he returned to Canada, Dr. Mount spent the better part of a year trying to determine where he wanted to pursue his PhD. He ultimately chose to study with Dr. Remi Quirion at McGill University. Dr. Quirion, now the chief scientist of the Province of Quebec, is known as one of Canada’s most prolific neuroscientists. Dr. Mount’s doctoral dissertation focused on the release of cellular dopamine from mesencephalic neurons in response to excitatory amino acids.

At the end of his degree, Dr. Mount again took some time to think carefully about potential postdoctoral fellowships. He advises students considering academia to do the same due to the dramatic differences in training environments. He joined Dr. Ira Black at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “He wasn’t going to take me,” Dr. Mount recalls, “but this is where those grant proposals you write as an exercise in graduate school become really important. I happened to have a copy of a paper I had written for a course, which was also the “Future Directions” section of my PhD.” When Dr. Black asked what he wanted to study, Dr. Mount pulled out the paper and proposed the experiments he had written about. His future mentor responded with enthusiasm. Based on this experience, Dr. Mount is heavily in support of writing up a project proposal as an exercise in graduate school courses. He laughs and notes that he didn’t actually get a good grade on the paper, but, “You never know when you’re going to need these things. If it’s something that’s original, you can come back to it.”

During his fellowship, Dr. Mount uncovered a novel cell-survival pathway in Purkinje cells in the cerebellum, which are depleted in the neurodegenerative disorder ataxia-telangiectasia (AT). He continued to study AT as an independent investigator at U of T and now works on other neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). He uses animal models to look at early changes in brain chemistry associated with behavioural changes. To study the brains and signalling molecules of these animals, which are often tricky to measure, Dr. Mount uses instantaneous heat inactivation via a 10kW magnetron (a really powerful microwave) that his lab couples with neurochemical assay techniques. His students have used this approach to demonstrate early loss of noradrenaline in AD that could be restored with an alpha2-receptor antagonist, a therapy that was eventually brought into the clinic for the treatment of AD.  His lab has also used this approach to determine the ex vivo metabolic state (energetic charge) of specific brain regions, before the onset of frank brain pathology.

In addition to his research on neurodegenerative diseases, Dr. Mount is highly committed to improving the graduate school experience for students. After serving on the IMS admissions committee for a number of years, Dr. Mount was appointed to graduate coordinator in 2007. He explains that graduate coordinators are the guidance counsellors of the department, “we gravitate towards this because we like talking to students. It’s very much about sharing insights and helping people work out what they want to do.”

When I asked him what he enjoys most about this role, he answers that it’s been delightful for many reasons. He has become more aware of the diverse research at U of T, but mostly he has enjoyed listening to students and helping those in crisis. “It’s incredibly rewarding because we’ve had so many success stories—so many students who were suffering needlessly and possibly seeking help in the wrong places. The trick is, how do we get students to come in, to see a graduate coordinator, and get support from the system early?”

Most commonly, students become burnt out, particularly when they do not know what their future holds. Mental health concerns, communication problems with supervisors, and impostor syndrome are not uncommon. On this subject Dr. Mount comments, “Impostor syndrome is an interesting one because it keeps us motivated to be scholarly and rigorous in our work. It’s something that one deals with all of one’s life. I think understanding that is actually calming.” When asked if he’s experienced imposter syndrome, he responds, “Oh yea, sure. In all sorts of domains. And that’s the stimulus to study. To learn something, and not sit back and “wing it” or finesse an issue.” The trick, he says, is learning how to harness your anxieties or insecurities—to “get your butterflies to fly in formation”, to paraphrase the Robert Gilbert quote.

In addition to being a graduate coordinator, Dr. Mount is also Director of Education at the IMS. He’s continually working to modify and create a curriculum that is better for all students. When he started, he set out to redesign the IMS MSC1010Y seminar course. Students, he realized, wanted quick insights into a variety of different fields. On the other side, faculty members wanted to teach a small series of lectures (as opposed to an entire course). “We realized that people think in smaller packages, and that a lot of short courses would be possible.” The concept of modules emerged. Around 30 have been introduced over the last few years and new ones are always emerging. Modules have also provided opportunities for postdoctoral fellow participation—one of the challenges facing the community right now. There are very few sessional lectureships and most teaching assistant positions go to students, Dr. Mount explains. “How do we create opportunities for postdocs that don’t exploit their labour, but help them in their professional development?” Another way to engage postdocs is through participation in program development committees. Dr. Mount, who oversees the curriculum committee and its three subcommittees, expresses earnestly, “We want community involvement.” Many of the meetings are open to everyone and he encourages interested individuals to join the discussion. The committees discuss all aspects of the curriculum.

In addition to modifying the existing program, Dr. Mount also works on developing new initiatives. He was a key player in developing the IMS Translational Research Program, Canada’s first in-kind professional Master’s program. He is now working with the IMS’s Drs. Neil Sweezey and Norm Rosenblum on a diploma program for medical students in health science—still in approval stages—as well as thinking about how the IMS will engage in professional skills development. In particular, he stresses the importance of mentors in this process. “There’s an increasing realization that you have to [meet with] someone other than your supervisor about certain matters—particularly where you want to go in life and what ancillary skills you want to develop to round out your CV.” He envisions a system where all students engage in creating an individual plan that is not part of their thesis work, but rather entirely for their professional development. This type of program is still in its early stages but is something that many departments are interested in developing. “We’re always trying to figure out ways to engage a broader community in a thoughtful way that doesn’t detract from our mandate and ensures that we’re delivering a quality curriculum.”

When asked for a final piece of advice for students, Dr. Mount states, “This is supposed to be fun. It’s a privilege to have protected time for scientific research. When it’s not fun, something’s wrong.” Dr. Mount recalls his own graduate school experiences, which were enjoyable in large part due to a supportive network and close relationship with his supervisor—something that is sometimes lacking at U of T. But he is hopeful that there is a growing awareness of this need and that improvements in peer and faculty mentoring arrangements for students are on the horizon.