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Dr. Lee Adamson`s top tips for young scientists

June 13, 2014

“Lee, you always pay it forward, and all of your colleagues appreciate that.”
 
That’s how Dr. Jim Woodgett thanked a scientist who started her career in 1985 at the then Mount Sinai Hospital research institute and now finds herself a role model as well as a pioneer in placental research.
 
Following a day of presentations and posters at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum’s annual retreat at Lake Couchiching, Dr. Adamson was asked to speak after dinner on May 12. She chose ‘career tips for young scientists’ as her theme.
 
 
Dr. Lee Adamson, Lake Couchiching.
 
Dr. Adamson is a Senior Investigator at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum, Director of the Mouse Physiology Core of the Centre for Modeling Human Disease, and a Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at University of Toronto. She is a pioneer in placental physiology and pathology. Her work at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum began by establishing a sheep lab for pregnancy research in the hospital, she then managed the transition to mouse models, which enabled mouse genetics to be applied to placental research. Dr. Adamson plans to retire in the Fall 2014.
Here's a tip from my mom. “Lee, there’s always room at the top!” She was not one to aim low.
My dad said, “Always do what you enjoy, and you’ll get good at what you enjoy, and maybe someday somebody will pay you to do what you enjoy.” I followed that advice.
 
I did go to University of Western Ontario for my PhD, and my supervisor gave me another piece of advice. “Lee, just make sure you get your own work done!” (I was spending a bit too much time talking to people in the lab, and curious about what everybody else was doing.) That was also very good advice.
 
And then I had some advice for myself. I was very interested in physics, and I thought, “I don’t know if I dare take fourth-year physics, you have to be pretty smart to take fourth-year physics.” So I thought, "You know what? I’m not going to clip my own wings, I’m just going to do it, and let other people tell me if I fail.” I always feel that it’s important to pursue your first choice first. If it doesn’t work out you can deal with it then.
 
Top Tips
·         Aim high
·         Work at something you enjoy
·         Don’t clip your own wings
·         Finish all your own work
·         Consider your communications from the receiver’s perspective
·         Choose your topic carefully: you will have just six-seven (five-year) grants in your career
·         Appreciate your position and your organization
Those are the mottos I was living my life by when I was a trainee in the perinatology group at Western. I was working with clinical scientists for my degree. I always enjoyed the clinical interaction and I’ve always found the interface between biology and physics the most interesting.
I finished my PhD at Western. Many of you may have heard the advice that you never do your post-doc at the same place where you did your PhD. So I thought, "Yeah, but the best group in perinatology was at Western, so why would I want to go someplace else?"
 
I then heard they were opening a new research institute at Mount Sinai Hospital, and they wanted to start a new division in perinatology. That sounded interesting, and as soon as they hired a principal investigator I wanted to be the post-doc. I contacted the director, and I sent my resume in, and I waited and waited. I heard through the grapevine who they were interviewing and they all sounded wonderful to me. Then I got a call and they said, “Would you like to come in to interview for the investigator position?” “Sure … sure, I’ll come!” I thought it was a real long shot.
 
I remember coming up the subway steps at Queen’s Park station, and standing on the corner of University Avenue and College Street. There was the university behind me, and in front of me were the research institutes of Toronto General Hospital, SickKids, and new institute at Mount Sinai. I thought, “This is the pinnacle of biomedical research in Canada, I just can’t even fathom that I could be so fortunate as to work here.”
 
Starting at Mount Sinai
For reasons best understood by the people who interviewed me, I was hired as a principal investigator. I think it was a combination of being in the right place at the right time, with the right training, because they were interested in starting a sheep lab, which was the animal model of choice for perinatal research at the time. There were not very many places in the world doing that kind of research. So I came to Mount Sinai to start the lab.
 
My advice for other people is to wait until the lab is ready and then take the position! However, nobody gave me that choice. I came to Mount Sinai Hospital and they wanted me to develop a sheep lab. Then infection control found out we wanted to have sheep in the hospital, and sheep do carry an infection that can be fatal in humans (very rare, and normally not fatal). They did have cause for concern. We had many meetings, and I found them very nerve-wracking. I was also being parachuted into empty office spaces here and there, without really a group to work with. I must say that the first two years until they finished the lab were very stressful.
 
As soon as I started I wrote a perinatal development grant with my colleagues and we got the grant, which was great news. But the clock was ticking and the lab wasn’t done. Finally, two years after I arrived, the lab opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Very exciting! Finally I was able to get to my experiments. I was working flat out as hard as I possibly could to make up for lost time, because the grant renewal was due in two years. I do remember getting home one evening and before starting dinner I went upstairs and sat on my bed to take off my shoes. Later I woke up … feet still on the floor, coat still on, shoes still on.
 
I worked as hard as I could. Sometime during that time I got a memo in the mail (before email!) to “Send your updated CV to the office.” Updating didn’t take long I’m afraid! Then six months later I got a call to go to the office.
 
I went up to talk to the director. “I have a letter here from the credentials committee and they’re recommending that your contract not be renewed.” I thought, No, it can’t be true, I’m just on the verge of getting some work done! Fortunately the director explained it to me. “Let this be a lesson to you! You sent in that CV without a cover letter. The credentials committee did not know that you did not have a lab for two years. You have to tell them.” That was a very good lesson to learn. Now whenever I submit something I try to turn my head around and imagine I’m the person who’s going to receive it. That was a very helpful lesson.
 
The experiments went well, we did get the grant renewed, and a number of people came to join us in the perinatology group and we worked with sheep for the next 10 years. It was a lot of fun playing with sheep and bottle-feeding the lambs. (People would call me and I’d answer, “Lee Adamson, Mount Sinai Hospital, and they would hear ‘Baaa, baaaa,’ in the background and say, “I thought this was a
hospital!”)
 
The mouse revolution
All the time while I was working on sheep, other people in the Institute were working on cell signaling, generating new transgenic animals, and all kinds of exciting things I would hear about at the institute seminars. I was getting a little frustrated with sheep because there are some manipulations we can’t do. In pregnancy, there are special cells called trophoblasts,that make the placenta. It is believed that abnormalities in these cells cause pregnancy disorders in humans. I couldn’t alter the function specifically of those cells in sheep to test this idea, but intriguingly, this would be possible to do using mutant mice. I heard seminars saying that some mutations cause heart disease, other mutations cause kidney disease, and I thought couldn’t pregnancy diseases be caused by trophoblast mutations? I didn’t see why not, and mutant mice could answer that question.
 
But mice had been used for genetic experiments, and very little was known about their physiology -– pregnant or non-pregnant. How could I study mice that are so small when all my equipment was for sheep? Luckily, some of my colleagues were writing a grant for a large collaborative project, and they needed someone to create a mouse physiology lab. They asked if I could do that. So I thought, I don’t have a single publication that is not on sheep, but ‘Don’t clip your own wings’ -- “Sure, sure, I can do that.”
 
The grant was successful and it was great for me because it provided all the infrastructure and capacity I needed to transition my research program from sheep to mice. For the next 10 years or so mostly we were doing basic physiology measurements in mice, understanding what works with them, seeing what we could do with imaging, what we could quantify, and so forth. Finally in the last five years we actually got down to working on mutant mice and looking at how trophoblast mutations can affect their pregnancies.
 
But there are so many mutant mice available. “What gene should I work with first? What would be the most likely candidate for trophoblast genetic defects?” I realized we really didn’t have enough information about what goes wrong with human placentas during pregnancy. That was why I started the biobank, getting some more basic information from humans so I could use that in my mouse research.
Now I’m in the situation of being very excited by the potential of using mice in pregnancy research. We have the biobank with all the specimens. Even today we’ve seen the fantastic technology and techniques for looking at pathways and genes and even whole genomes. That’s when I looked in the mirror and thought, “There’s a lot of work to do with all these resources. If I were now 30 years younger starting out, I would see that I have a lot of potential to grow into this amazing environment” … but I’m not, so I thought, “What could I do in five years?” (When I started, I thought five years was long time!)
 
I’ll go back to one other tip I was given early on in my career, and that is how short a research career is. If you actually work it out in the number of five-year grant renewals, that’s six or seven. I think it’s really important to think carefully about what ideas you want to focus on, because you really don’t have time for that many.
 
When I was a grad student I remember hearing the profs say, “The future of our field actually is in good hands, with all of you people in training,” and I was thinking “Where are you going?” But that’s what I thought today, listening to all the presentations. I thought the best course of action was, with all these great resources in place, to leave it to all the young people here and around the world to take it from here.
 
I do want to end with one other thing that I can say here because it is just us, and because I don’t need to get any more grants renewed. I feel so fortunate that I have had my position at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, because I really do think that it’s the pinnacle of the pinnacle. We truly do have a wonderful community of researchers doing amazing work in a collaborative atmosphere. It has been a privilege and a joy to have spent my career here in this institute. Thank you very much.
 
 

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