Future Directions with Karrie Wong, PhD
By Anna Podnos
Karrie Wong has always wanted to contribute to the fight against cancer because of her own personal battle with it in the past. After graduating high school in Bellingham, a small town in Washington, Karrie was forced to take a year off due to spinal chondrosarcoma, as she underwent a major surgery and spent two months in a hospital. “Physical pains aside, it was a time that I could now look back on fondly—I met many interesting people during my two months in the hospital, read many interesting books, and ultimately became a stronger person, at least mentally,“ Karrie told me. After that year, Karrie began her undergraduate studies at UofT in the Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology (LMP) program, and went on to complete her PhD with the IMS. Karrie is now a post-doctoral fellow in Dr. Glenn Dranoff’s lab at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School.
During Karrie’s fourth year of undergraduate studies, she received the CIHR Regenerative Medicine Summer Studentship, which gave her an opportunity to delve into the field of immunology research. “Because the program was in regenerative medicine, I was actually not expecting to be assigned a cancer-related project. I guess we could call it fate, then, that Reg Gorczynski was assigned to me as my supervisor. In our first meeting he asked me what my research interest was, and I told him that I was really interested in the role of the immune system in driving and controlling cancer. He then told me about an ongoing project in the lab, investigating the role of CD200, an immunomodulatory molecule, in tumour immunity. It was a project that suited my interest perfectly, and so after a summer and one year of working in Reg’s lab as a technician, I decided to pursue my PhD with him.”
In the early days of her career, Karrie’s passion for research was evident, as she had completed her fourth-year project with LMP and had accumulated more than two summers worth of research experience. For Karrie, her decision to pursue graduate studies with the IMS was an easy one. “From my experience with research up to that point I had somehow given myself the impression that I was good at it (well, I was naïve then). I also became very interested in the role of the immune system in cancer and the potentials of cancer immunotherapy, and hence my choice to focus my PhD project on the novel immunotherapeutic target CD200 molecule for treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). In terms of a career path, I’m definitely working towards becoming an independent investigator with my own research laboratory—although I will not rule out a career in the industry either. Whether in an academic or industrial setting, I’m aiming to continue to work on developing cancer immunotherapies.”
Since the beginning of her graduate studies, Karrie saw the value of postdoctoral training for the development of a successful career in research. As such, she was careful when choosing her first postdoctoral project. “Dr. Dranoff is considered a leader in the field of cancer immunotherapy, and so it was really a no-brainer for me to apply to his lab. Luckily, because of his role as an external appraiser for my doctoral thesis, he was well-aware of my work and everything just went from there.” Karrie says that “the most important features of an enjoyable work environment are trust, passion, and fun—an environment in which colleagues would trust each other, have stimulating discussions about science, and could make jokes out of our experimental failures. Science is hard, and so an amiable, stimulating lab environment goes a long way to compensate for the daily frustrations of bench work.”
Outside of science, Karrie holds many interests, and has gone on many adventures throughout her PhD. She says, “Traveling, in particular, is very close to my heart, and I feel that it’s really important for me to explore the world. As scientists, we tend to focus on very specific things—one protein, one disease model, etc. Sometimes it’s easy to get lost amidst, say, months of a Western blot not working. One of the benefits of being a graduate student is the chance to attend international meetings—getting my abstracts selected for oral presentations (and hence travel awards) was one of my major motivations in the lab. I also travel to a new country almost every year. Because I’m a nerd, I also joined a book club—although it was more like a chatting and drinking club, as we tended to spend more time in our meetings chatting about everything but the books that we were supposed to be discussing. I also really took advantage of being an IMS student, which offered me a great selection of courses outside of my research focus of cancer and immunology—the two global health courses that I completed during my PhD studies were amongst the most enjoyable courses I had ever done. In the last year of my PhD, I decided to go out of my comfort zone—I took a painting class and a French class. I wasn’t any good at either, but being able to divert my brain to something beyond the different signalling pathways really helped me through that difficult year. Now, in Boston, I have taken up street photography, and I intend to continue to pursue these interests as my career evolves.”
Karrie’s passion for research, determination, and love of adventure have helped her achieve an academic dream, and she now has a PhD in medical science under her belt to rely on while she is looking for new cancer immunotherapies at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Her personal story will remain an inspiration to many people, showing that overcoming great difficulties can be empowering and give special meaning to the work that some of us will dedicate our lives to.