Future Directions with Darlene Homonko, PhD
By: Tetyana Pekar
When Darlene Homonko completed her PhD with the IMS, she knew she wanted to be the person who explained and sold science. But she reasoned that if she wanted to pursue a career in sales, she needed to get some experience—that is, experience beyond selling Girl Guide cookies to her friends and family.
“All the advice I was getting was this: if you want to work in industry, go get a postdoc position in industry or in pharmaceuticals,” Homonko told me, laughing as she recalled the story. Exasperated, she would reply, “You don’t get it—I don’t want to work in a lab.”
Much to her mother’s horror, she took on a job working at a golf store—and she liked it. She discovered that she had a natural ability for working with people, especially in a sales environment, and she enjoyed the business and talking about golf. “I was really into golf at that time,” she explains.
Homonko grew up in a mixed francophone community in Montreal. She pursued her Bachelors of Physical Education and Health, with a minor in Biology from the University of Rhode Island. Her degree was recognized as a Bachelors of Education by the state, and when she came back to Canada, Homonko set up a physical education program at a small private school in Toronto, where she taught for a year.
During her undergraduate studies, Homonko was exposed to exercise physiology, and she realized that what she really wanted to do was study exercise science. And so, driven in part by her love of the ocean, she enrolled in a master’s program in Exercise Science at Dalhousie University.
For her master’s thesis, Homonko studied the ability of glycogen by-products to convert into glucose. The idea was to push the body to use metabolites—such as lactate—as an energy source. “How do you get Kreb’s cycle to turn so that it actually starts using waste products?” Homonko wanted to know if humans, like hummingbirds, used or could use lactate as an energy source when their glycogen stores were depleted. She found that we couldn’t. “The reality is that we are not hummingbirds; we are not polar bears; we are not grizzly bears,” Homonko tells me. “Every animal has a system that’s adaptive for them.”
After completing her MSc, Homonko started her PhD at York University, but she felt that the project wasn’t a good fit for her. After completing a year, she took a break from school to work as a laboratory technician at Toronto Western Hospital. She worked there for several years before deciding to pursue further education.
She wanted to make sure that doing a PhD and pursuing a career in research was what she really wanted to do. As she was weighing the pros and cons of further graduate education, she had the good fortune of acquiring a scholarship, and given that she really enjoyed her work in the lab, she decided to enrol in the PhD program at the IMS.
But mid-way through her PhD, Homonko realized that she didn’t want to do a series of postdoctoral fellowships and spend so many hours of her day in the lab. As much as she liked the lab, she found that it didn’t inspire her to “get up in the morning [and] make a difference.”
Adding to that realization was the fact that Homonko got caught up in a time when grant money and jobs were scarce. “Half-way through [the PhD], the funding really dried up for basic research; money started going into commercial opportunities. You have to ask yourself, if you invest this energy [to do a PhD], what is it that you expect to gain from it? For me, anyway, it gives you more options, opens doors, and develops your critical thinking—but what happens after you graduate?”
The problem for Homonko wasn’t figuring out what she wanted to do, as she had an idea; the problem was finding jobs that appropriately blended her passion for science and business. They were uncommon. But she persisted, and following her employment at the golf store, she found a position at the Milestone Medica Corporation (MMC), a $20 million fund created by RBC Technology Ventures and Research Corporation Technologies. Her job entailed identifying investment opportunities, writing up summaries, researching primary indicators of the potential investments, and sifting through the patent database.
“It wasn’t until three days later [after starting] that I realized, I’m working at RBC, I’m working at a bank, and I’m working on Bay Street. What am I doing here?”
She says the time that she was there was very special and contributed to some of the best years of her life. “It was such an incredibly inspiring environment. I got to work with fabulously talented people who I still remain friends with today. We inspired each other to succeed and it was an amazing launching pad for future opportunities.”
After the MMC fund closed, Homonko worked for a year at the University of Toronto (U of T) Innovations Foundation as their Technology Manager. In that role—among many of her accomplishments—Homonko negotiated and secured the first US-based investment of a U of T Innovations Foundations start-up company. She also managed and developed intellectual property strategies for new commercial opportunities in many industry sectors.
In 2005, she took the position of Executive Director at the Golden Horseshoe BioSciences Network (GHBN) to build a regional innovation network that united the biotechnology community in the City of Hamilton, Halton, and the Niagara region. While active, GHBN helped develop and support commercialization projects and “provides strategic direction and access to resources relating to biotechnology.”
What was a typical day like for Homonko? “In a typical day as an investor, you come in, you read about technologies; you read business plans and evaluate them; meet with entrepreneurs and scientists, clinicians, and engineers; meet people in the financial sector; speak with intellectual property and corporate lawyers, marketers, and investor relations individuals. You spend a lot of time outside of the office.”
In her present position as the Senior Business Development Manager at the Office of Technology Transfer & Industrial Liaison for Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute (SLRI), Homonko works directly with SLRI scientists to identify new technologies and discoveries that have commercial potential. A large part of her job involves working with scientists to identify what’s patentable and what isn’t. She says she loves working in a hospital. “I enjoy working with researchers and making start-up companies, trying to develop new opportunities. I enjoy being at the interface between science and business.”
The job leaves her with time for her other passion: fitness.
“I’m a fitness fanatic. I spend a lot of my free time exercising and keeping fit: running, skiing, golfing, going to the gym,” Homonko says. She dreamed of being on the Olympic basketball team when she was young, she tells me.
She doesn’t seem to mind that the Olympic dream did not come true, but maybe she’s just too busy to mind it; she is focused on training for a marathon in October.
I asked Homonko if she had any advice for graduate students, particularly for those who are unsure what career path to pursue. “You have credentials, you have skills and you have opportunity. You should take every opportunity that presents itself to you and see if there is something there that you can then create for yourself. Create a life that you’ll be really thankful that you’ve lived, and you’ll be able to give back to the people and that industry.”
“When your career eventually ends, you want to look back and say, ‘That was so fulfilling; I met some fabulous people, and I did some really good work.’”