Jack-of-all-Trades: Dr. Gabriella Farcas-Chan, JD, PhD
By: Danielle D. DeSouza
If during her undergraduate degree you were to ask Dr. Gabriella Farcas-Chan if she could imagine pursuing career in law, her answer would have been an assured “no.” So how is it that this former IMS student established herself as the Vice President of Legal Affairs at a rapidly growing biotechnology company?
Farcas-Chan started her post-secondary education at the Loyola University of Chicago where she studied biology and art history. To help with the steep costs of obtaining an undergraduate degree in the USA, she participated in a work-study program that allowed her to gain valuable medical research experience while also earning an income. Although her main interest at the time was cardiac research, Farcas-Chan kept an open mind towards other research topics; when the principal investigator of her choice research topic was between grants and unable to accommodate any work-study students, she was recommended to work with a group that focused on quality of life research in lung transplant patients. They noticed that a number of problems faced by these patients, including organ rejection, were caused by cytomegalovirus (CMV), a virus belonging to the herpesviruses family. Farcas-Chan was fascinated with the literature on infectious diseases and soon became inspired to pursue a graduate degree in the field.
Under the supervision of Dr. Kevin Kain, a clinician-scientist specializing in the diagnostics and surveillance of infectious diseases, Farcas-Chan enrolled in the Institute of Medical Science (IMS). During her studies, she was an active member of the IMS Students’ Association, carrying out two terms as president. She began her thesis work examining the impact of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs on malaria, but her project soon took an interesting turn. In the midst of her studies, health officials declared the global epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a condition caused by a novel coronavirus (CoV). Approached by companies trying to develop kits to diagnose SARS as early as possible, Farcas-Chan was given an exciting research opportunity: she analyzed tissue samples from individuals that had died of SARS using real-time PCR. Using this method, she could assess viral load as measured by CoV RNA in different parts of the body. Her flexibility in taking on this unexpected project resulted in seminal work showing the dissemination of SARS-CoV throughout all major organs, not just the lungs in fatal SARS patients (1).
After completing her PhD and while working for Fio Corporation, a privately held Canadian company working to develop a portable device capable of molecular diagnosis of infectious diseases using nanotechnology, Farcas-Chan participated in a young entrepreneurship program that greatly impacted her career path. She had been heavily involved in intellectual property (IP) searches on patent databases at Fio when she attended the Biotechnology YES (Young Entrepreneurs Scheme) competition held by the UK government. This competition, aimed at doctoral students, addressed all aspects of starting a biotechnology company. Farcas-Chan was part of the only Canadian team that was selected to attend the week-long training session in Oxford, UK. Here, she was further exposed to IP law, as she began conversing with lawyers about the patent application process. Shortly after these discussions, Farcas-Chan applied to law school.
Although her first semester at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University was a difficult transition, Farcas-Chan knew that a career in law was the right move. Her goal was to do patent management in a field where she could also apply the knowledge accumulated in her graduate degree. To Farcas-Chan, going to law school was a natural progression.
Achieving her goal, Farcas-Chan is currently the Vice President of Legal Affairs at Cytodiagnostics Inc., a biotechnology company that focuses on the development and distribution of nanotechnology derived products. In speaking about this role she said you have to be a “jack-of-all-trades,” as you need to liaise between both the scientific and the law worlds. Remarkably, she is doing this while balancing family life. When I asked her how she manages to do it all, she said, “Flexibility is key. I have a hugely supportive husband and I am lucky that I have the option to work from home [to be with my son].”
So what’s next on the horizon for Farcas-Chan? In addition to continuing her work at Cytodiagnostics Inc., she would like to be more involved in teaching and, in particular, would like to be involved with the IMS. Just this past April, she was a panel member for the IMS Career Seminar Series entitled, “A Graduate Student Alumni Perspective.” In the future, she discussed the desire to develop courses for IMS students that integrate training in IP. She discussed the importance of bringing awareness to students about protecting their property: “It’s crucial. Students need to know what their rights are, especially in labs where there are collaborations with companies. Students need to make sure they’re not being taken advantage of.” She also discussed the pros of having a patent on a grant or scholarship application and said, “You never know when you have something that somebody may be interested in purchasing or using.”
When I asked Farcas-Chan what advice she would give to current IMS students she said, “I think the most important thing is to know who you are and what you want. Participate in things and go to seminars and lectures and meet people who are outside of your field.” She went on to say it is in these situations where you can have a seed planted in you for a new idea or career path, or when you will have the opportunity to network. She also discussed the importance of being involved in activities and groups outside of lab work. Throughout her education she did more than just her schoolwork, whether it was participating in research for her undergraduate work-study program, or serving as the president of the IMS Students’ Association. She said, “You should get as much as you can out of the grad-school experience.” Given Farcas-Chan’s many successes, current graduate students would be wise to take this advice whole-heartedly.
1. Farcas GA, Poutanen SM, Mazzulli T, Willey BM, Butany J, Asa SL, Faure P, Akhavan P, Low DE, Kain KC. Fatal Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is Associated with Multiorgan Involvement by Coronavirus. J Infect Dis. 2005;191:193-197.