Updated: Oct 8, 2020
By: Ahmad Galuta
Our third guest for “Unraveling the life of a student” is Kyle Malone. Kyle is currently obtaining his Ph.D. in Biochemistry, Microbiology & Immunology. His research surrounds the immune system and how it could be used to kill Glioblastoma brain cancer. Kyle has a Masters of Science in Neuroscience where he focused on profiling neurons derived from spinal cord stem cells. Kyle’s academic journey is filled with pointers that can help fresh high school students seeking guidance before entering college. I started off our interview by asking Kyle to tell us a little bit about himself including his background, academic interests, and hobbies.
“Born in Ottawa, raised in Ottawa. I haven't really moved far from where I grew up. Went to school about two minutes from my house, so didn't really have to travel all that far. I had the chance to do a PhD in Toronto, but money kept me in Ottawa. I play a lot of sports, actually started off playing hockey for about five years and I play quite a lot of tennis. I used to be very good at it and almost made it to Nationals. Now I just play several times a week. So that's the one thing I can hang my hat on and say I'm actually pretty good at it. I also like to watch a lot of movies, I have quite a big blu-ray collection going”.
After getting to know Kyles's interests and background, we shifted the conversation as I asked him to describe how his first year of university was like.
“It was interesting. It didn't exactly get off to the best start. For high school, in the last few years, you got to choose what you want to take, and you just tell your guidance counselor and they schedule it for you. For university, it was the opposite and I figured out quite late that I had to register courses myself. The first year of university was brutal because I took physics, chemistry, and bio, I think everyone in science does, and you take three five hour labs. I hadn't taken bio in high school so everything was brand new, I basically got the entire high school biology curriculum in two weeks. So having registered so late I got the worst scheduled times, 8 am every single day to 9 pm. It was a real struggle at the beginning, but like with most things you push through it and it ends up becoming easier at the end of it.”
Kyle made it very clear that there will be a major shift in how things are done from high school to university, as he emphasizes the lack of guidance in university. Kyle even goes on to state:
“Don't wait until the semester starts to register for your classes, because you'll end up with the worst schedule. Prepare for the worst and enjoy the best when it occasionally comes along.”
Keeping in mind that Kyle is completing his Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology at the University of Ottawa, I asked him what motivated him to pursue a doctorate degree.
“Well, I always wanted to be involved in cancer research or just a cancer-treatment field in general. There are two streams you can go through with medicine, become an MD or a researcher, a Ph.D., the REAL doctor. I think almost everyone going into a biological science is trying to pursue one of those two streams, probably more the former. And after doing my Masters and really getting my feet wet in terms of proper research, I found that the cutting edge stuff was in research, which ultimately swayed me to pursue a Ph.D. I think the amount of freedom you get is greater, and what you're able to contribute to the field I feel is more given you’re at the forefront. I think the bigger difference can be made as a researcher because ultimately your work feeds into what medical doctors implement. I felt I would be making more of a difference, that I would learn more in a doctorate degree because my job is, basically, to constantly be learning. Even at the end of it, if you can set up your own lab, your job is still to keep learning.”
Research is, as Kyle mentioned, an extremely important step in the medical field as it is needed in order to evolve in medicine and we do that by implementing the findings of the research. After breaking down how I could relate to his statement in regards to research in STEM, I asked Kyle to tell us a little about his own research and what his day to day looks like.
“We're basically using the immune system to fight brain cancer. Immunotherapies are probably the hottest topic, the biggest research area for cancer treatments right now. Brain cancer provides a really puzzling problem given the unique relationship between the central nervous system and the immune system. Being able to harness the immune system safely and effectively within the brain is a really interesting task. Brain cancer is just generally one of the hardest cancers to treat. It's the trickiest bugger amongst the lot. The target my lab is looking at, the inhibitor of apoptosis proteins does exactly what's on the tin - inhibiting apoptosis, cell death. It’s a great name. I don't know what the sonic hedgehog protein does. So many proteins are named with ridiculous names, but that's the main reason I joined the lab -- their protein was so well named and does exactly what it says. I’m joking of course, but it’s a bonus. So we’re looking to boost the immune system and sensitize the cancer cells specifically to cell death cues.
I do a lot of different things, but basically a few weeks in advance I'll plan out an experiment and then probably I'll just be in from eight to five every single day, seven days a week, five if I can help it, take the weekends off for mental health.”
After breaking down his day to day life as a graduate student and explaining his research, I asked him what advice he would give to young students who are considering pursuing graduate school.
“Make sure you know what you're getting yourself into. I think that's basically the only thing I can tell you, I can only talk from my own experience. Stay disciplined, and make sure you know the time and the energy commitment, and just the commitment overall that you need to succeed. You have to eat, sleep, and drink what you're studying, that’s the only way you're going to succeed in any sort of meaningful capacity. Know what you're getting yourself into, try to talk to people who are doing it in your field, and before taking the plunge ask yourself whether it’s the lifestyle for you.”
Being passionate about a topic can only get you so far, but it is how you discipline yourself that allows us to keep going on the path that we have chosen to take. Kyle makes that very clear in his previous statement. With such a powerful perspective about graduate school, I decided to ask Kyle what he believed the future of our educational system would look like and what he would change in it if he could.
“I can only talk about science. I think that they need to start getting more practical earlier on. I think they should teach a lot more lab techniques as normal parts of the curriculum. So, you have those basic biology labs, you do some basic pipetting, maybe look at a plant from different angles for six hours, but you don’t learn the techniques that are ubiquitous to every proper experiment. I think to bash out the techniques that we need to learn. That’s not just in science, even in any school program - the theory is one thing, I think an increased focus on the practical side is a must. I shouldn’t be getting into a graduate degree knowing maybe one or two techniques and still have to learn really basic stuff as a Ph.D. So like Western Blots, maybe some sort of DNA or RNA isolation and PCR. I mean, those two are probably the major ones. Western Blots, you can probably get a whole publication just doing Western Blots. Cell culture, all of it should be done as an undergraduate. So, I really think that a more practical focus earlier would be a great help to science students. Any students currently in a theory-heavy program, really”
Kyle is an accomplished student and researcher who has been through a lot, and with that in mind, I asked him what he believes his greatest success is.
“I haven't had to pay for school in about 10 years, so that's an achievement I guess! I've been paid to go to school for about a decade. But the best decision I made in my life was probably when I was in grade 10. I got a job as a data entry clerk at the hospital for the oncology department, which is a pretty coveted position now, but it allowed them to pay me minimum wage to work 40 plus hours a week, inputting data for clinical trials - real proper grunt work. I gave up my summers, I didn't hang out with people. I just worked constantly, a little 15-year old dressed like I worked an office job with a cubicle. I didn't really have much of a life during summers, but I did get my name on a bunch of publications.”
I decided to end the interview by asking Kyle to provide the readers with a few words of wisdom to inspire the young minds of our community.
“Just always be open. Don't be rigid in a way of thinking. Things change so rapidly that if you're rigid, and something changes, you're going to break. It's going to be devastating. Just be open, be open to new ideas and new things. Don't be afraid to admit that you're wrong or partially wrong and just be open to new knowledge.”
I thank Kyle for being so open about his experiences and sharing his thoughts with us about academia in an interesting and stimulating manner. A lot of what Kyle has gone through resonated with me as I come from a STEM background and understand the challenges of being a researcher in a medical field. I wish Kyle all the best in his future endeavors and can't wait to see what comes of his research!