David Piccin, PhD – Taking IMS problem-solving skills from the bench to the boardroom

David Piccin, PhD – Taking IMS problem-solving skills from the bench to the boardroom

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By Anton Mihic

When presenting a final deck to a client, management consultants are taught to make their recommendations up front, and follow with the details. In this tradition, David Piccin’s advocates that IMS graduate students “who think they have no time outside the lab, do.” He insists that “it will make [them] more successful and efficient with [their] time. Get involved outside the lab!” Piccin believes that following this advice was one of the main reasons why he was fortunate enough to enjoy such a rich and rewarding PhD experience as a member of the IMS.

Originally from London, ON, Piccin studied biochemistry at McGill University as an undergraduate. At that time he developed a keen interest in the field of stem cells, and subsequently moved to the University of Toronto to pursue graduate studies. He was attracted to the idea of studying the mechanisms underlying symmetrical division of neural stem cells. Piccin joined Dr. Cindi Morshead’s laboratory and enrolled at the IMS as an MSc candidate. It was his intention from the beginning to transfer into the PhD program with the ultimate goal of becoming a PI himself. Fast-forward about six years, and with a PhD degree in hand; Piccin has adapted to a fast-paced career as a consultant at the prestigious Boston Consulting Group, is married, and has a son, Oliver. What events led to this abrupt shift in course?

As a student in Morshead’s laboratory, Piccin was given the freedom to explore new ideas and decide his own path, and his supervisor supported that vision. She was also supportive in terms of her guidance, which helped Piccin achieve specific research goals and maintain research productivity throughout his graduate studies. “I felt supported but not micromanaged.”

Piccin excelled in this environment and published three first-author articles in highly respected journals, including a key 2011 paper in the journal Stem Cells.[1] Piccin’s work has contributed significantly to the field of Wnt signaling and has helped scientists in their quest to understand the complex nature of neural stem cells. Piccin’s favorite study involved investigating progenitor cells in adult brains that were less capable of forming multipotent, self-renewing neurospheres than their embryonic counterparts.[2] He hypothesized that the younger brains possessed factors in the stem cell niche that enhance neural stem cell function. Piccin proved this hypothesis by labeling pure populations of progenitor cells (excluding neural stem cells) and overexpressing Notch. This resulted in the numbers of neurospheres formed from the adult neural stem cells to approach those reported in embryonic cells.

When asked about his proudest accomplishment as a PhD student, Piccin did not mention any of his numerous scholarships or fellowships, his papers, or his involvement in extracurricular activities. Instead, he spoke about his research. Piccin has a great sense of pride in knowing that his research had an impact on the way scientists approach problems in the neural stem cell field today. “I still have a passion for science—it doesn’t go away.”

Piccin’s interest in extracurricular life outside of the lab was not sparked for almost three years, until he became involved in a variety of student organizations including the Life Science Career Development Series (LSCDS), the SGS Graduate Education Council, and as a co-founder of the Graduate Management Consulting Association (GMCA). With a close group of like-minded friends as his support network, Piccin further enhanced the skills required for a successful career in management consulting by organizing activities and networking opportunities through the GMCA at a time when it was incredibly rare for a University of Toronto PhD to make the transition into management consulting. Piccin’s passion for his extracurricular activities faced an impasse when he felt that he needed to make a decision about his future career. In doing so, he says that one of his best supporters was his supervisor. “Most supervisors may be disappointed that you may not want to pursue a career in academia, but despite this, they will be supportive and interested in making your life more fulfilling.” Piccin continues,“As long as you show a commitment to the lab, are respectful and hard working, you will be fine.” But he cautions that “once you leave academia, it is exceptionally rare to go back.” So the decision should be made very carefully with all of the options carefully weighed. Piccin encourages students to discuss these options with their supervisor before it is final, and to allow them the opportunity to become a thoughtful participant in the decision making process.

“There is no such thing as an average day in the life of a management consultant,” explains Piccin. When a client is looking for a solution, they will hire a firm to help define the problem, as well as develop a strategy and implementation plan for addressing the issue. Piccin considers the “so-what?” of a question and its implications. He states that since commencing his career, “the learning has been tremendous, and [his] desire to think about problems has been capitalized on in a very rewarding way.” Management consulting appealed to Piccin because of its potential to have rapid and real-world impact on a client. He has successfully translated his problem solving skills into the business world, and is consistently challenged in his job to focus on high level thinking when solving problems.

Piccin stresses that while there is a recent trend for management consulting firms to hire more advanced degree candidates (such as PhDs) than in the past, the numbers are still very low. The Boston Consulting Group has become a natural fit for many of these types of candidates because of its pedigree. Every one of the 5 600 consultants at BCG worldwide come from a wide variety of exceptional backgrounds, and this is necessary to provide solutions to their clients which include many of the world’s largest companies. It is therefore not surprising that there are a few places for extraordinary PhD students in the firm that has been widely regarded as the world’s leading advisor on business strategy. Piccin explains that BCG is looking for unique and motivated individuals, and while a certain level of business acumen may be helpful, it is not necessary to show the firm that you can do the work. He stresses that one way to set you apart from the other PhD applicants is to demonstrate balance in academic and extracurricular aspects of your graduate experience. “Get involved outside of the lab!”


  1. Piccin, D., Morshead, C. (2011). Wnt signaling regulates symmetry of division of neural stem cells in the adult brain and in response to injury. Stem Cells, 29(3):528-38.

  2. Piccin, D., Yu, F., Morshead, C. (2013). Notch signaling imparts and preserves neural stem characteristics in the adult brain. Stem Cells and Development, 22(10):528-38.