In 1998, I decided to move my laboratory from Dalhousie University to Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan. It was an incredibly difficult decision. The choice to stay or go boiled down to this: a promise for the future.
I have always wanted to be a scientist. So going to graduate school was always a clear option for me. When I applied for graduate school I had the choice between a few places, but top of my list were University of Toronto and Yale. I was fortunate enough to be accepted into both. Several people advised me that if I went to Yale, it would be easier for me later to get an academic position in Canada, so I chose Yale. I had a brilliant time for the 3 years I was in the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry.
After I completed my Ph.D., I went on to do a postdoc. I decided to take the opportunity to go to London, U.K., where I worked at the National Institute for Medical Research for 4 years and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund for two more. Both institutions had great facilities and we never wanted for anything in these labs. This was a great time for me scientifically as well as a wonderful opportunity to experience Europe.
When it came time to find assistant professor positions, I only looked in Canada. I was determined to come home. Because I was in London, I was obliged to search by scanning the ads in Science, Nature and Cell. My entire family lives in Toronto, but my search for jobs there seemed in vain. There were very few faculty positions advertised at all.
I was fortunate enough to be offered an assistant professor position in the department of biochemistry at Dalhousie University, and I started in 1996. I also managed to write my first Medical Research Council (MRC) grant application during the end of my postdoc, thanks to a very tolerant postdoctoral advisor. Just a week after starting, I received great news--I got my 3-year MRC grant and another grant from Dalhousie. The people in the department were wonderful and Halifax was a great place to live. Within a month I was lucky enough to hire a fabulous technician, Elizabeth Campbell Dwyer, and so we set about work. Although my colleagues were engaging and supportive, it quickly became obvious that many routine experiments would have to be circumvented because of the cost. I have spoken to many colleagues who also found it difficult to make the transition back to Canada after going to the U.S. or Europe for postdocs, for the same reason. It is difficult to come back from institutions that were comparably wealthy in terms of research dollars to situations where you are expected to "make do."
We had the added expense that our work required the use of high-field nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) instruments. There was one at the National Research Council in Halifax that I had arranged to use before arrival there. Unfortunately, the $20/hour cost of NMR time soon became crippling since experiments were typically run for 72 hours. We were running through the MRC grant at break-neck speed. I distinctly remember at one point that I had to tell my technician that we couldn't spend any more money until the next budget year started. She told me that it was okay, she had been through this with other bosses and we would get through it. In other words, this situation was hardly abnormal.
I wasn't suffering alone. Many colleagues were coming up with inventive ways to get what needed to be done, done. Many of us felt frustrated and downtrodden. I distinctly remember one colleague coming back from an MRC study section who, given the constraints of the budget, felt that he was left with the job of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
To add insult to injury, the Canadian dollar fell between 1996 and 1998 and that effectively caused our grants to be devalued since so many of the supplies we buy are from the U.S. Furthermore, the idea of growing from a lab of one technician and one postdoc seemed virtually impossible. In terms of the future scientifically, the atmosphere was resigned and depressing.
Late in 1997, I was approached by my future chairperson at Sinai who told me about the opportunities available in the new structural biology program he was building. The opportunities in terms of research dollars and equipment were in stark contrast to the situation in Halifax. The potential research capacity was brilliant and the labs were in a newly constructed building. Additionally, I was given free NMR time for the first 4 years, where the NMR was housed in a room adjacent to the lab. Moreover, the larger size of grants from the National Institutes of Health meant that I could see a much brighter research future. The most appealing aspect of the offer wasn't money, or even facilities. It was much more valuable to me than that--it was a promise for the future.
My lab has prospered in Manhattan. I have nine people working on a variety of projects. We are doing interesting science that, like any lab, is limited by funding; however, we have much more latitude and can often save time by spending money. I have heard from my friends who have labs in Canada, and I am glad to hear that things are improving. But it is undeniable that there is still a disparity in the ability of the average scientist to do science on the two sides of the border.
The real difficulty for many of us is resolving our contrasting wants. Do we live elsewhere and have an easier scientific life or stay in Canada, our home? For young scientists going back to Canada after working in the U.S. or Europe, I would suggest that they temper their optimism and desire to go home with a clear understanding of the potential limitations they will likely face. With any luck, one day no compromises will have to be made and the average scientist in Canada will compete on equal footing with their counterparts south of the border. And when that day comes, scientists like myself will be able to return with ease of mind.