Mad Dogs and Englishmen: A French Canadian's Journey

My transition from international postdoc to faculty is a very recent event, and I have not yet drawn all the conclusions that perspective can offer. However, it is clear to me that my choice of postdoc helped me decide to return to Canada.

I considered Cambridge an attractive option for a postdoc, because it would afford me the opportunity to travel around Europe and explore the British Isles. On a more pragmatic note, Britain was also a very good choice due to my desire to improve my English, the inescapable lingua franca of our days.

The first two years of my postdoctoral training in England were supported by the Human Frontier Science Program ( HFSP), through its long-term fellowship program. Its stipend was relatively generous, especially compared to equivalent Canadian fellowships, which do not take into account the massive variation in the cost of living between countries. The program also financially supported the costs of my move to England--welcome assistance!

For the most part, my postdoc was a smooth and enjoyable experience. There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to work in academia and to set up my own lab. The question was where. I was really well established in Britain and loved the British way of life: its people, its culture, the BBC, the pubs, and football (soccer). I almost liked the weather! Most of all, I had gathered an amazing group of friends. Many times I thought of staying in the U.K. In the end, the choice to go back to North America was far from easy and was, frankly, heartbreaking.

The deciding factor was that I had just been awarded the Hitchings-Elion award of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund ( BWF), which would not only very generously fund the remainder of my postdoc, but would even more generously support my first 3 years as faculty. The catch? BWF would pay out only if I returned to North America. I knew that this was a golden opportunity, so I decided to return. Since my big decision, many granting agencies, including the HFSP long-term fellowship and the Senior Research Fellowship of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), have adopted similar strategies to encourage fellows to return to their home countries. Hopefully, more of this kind of support will follow. It really made a difference in my case by encouraging me to return.

The other really hard choice would be to decide where in North America. After thinking about it, I realized I would always lean toward going back to Canada. However, it would not be at any cost: I decided I would only return if I could find a place that would give me the support (material and intellectual) I needed to fulfill my potential and to reward the many personal sacrifices that one has to make during the long training leading to an academic position.

I can't really explain why I wanted to go back to Canada per se; it was just a gut feeling. I felt I had to give my home country a chance first. Perhaps my choice was influenced by some unfortunate events happening in the United States at around that time: the shootings at Columbine High School, the gun lobby of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and the Kansas State Board of Education's decision to teach creationism. Obviously, none of these events are a true reflection of America, a country I love, but I can't deny they made Canada look like a land of social temperance and justice by comparison. Furthermore and perhaps most importantly, the simple fact that I am French Canadian, having grown up soaking in a collective zeitgeist anchored in the realm of the Canadian land and climate, must have played a huge part in my decision to apply only in Canada.

I applied to many institutions in Montreal and to one outside Québec--the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute ( SLRI) at the Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. The SLRI, in my eyes, is one of the premier biomedical research institutes in Canada. The SLRI offered to establish my lab in a very spacious lab on the same floor as Tony Pawson and Mike Tyers, two fantastic scientists with really impressive track records. The possible synergy I could accrue from Mike's complementary interests in cell cycle regulation and budding yeast biology were almost too good to be true. Furthermore, the Canadian government seemed to have finally decided to invest in the knowledge economy rather than in the primary sector, and it was clear that a lot of money was available to establish a relatively well-funded lab. I jumped on the occasion and never looked back.

In retrospect, my final decision was mainly based on the scientific environment. Had I also included some American institutions in my search, I might have decided to forfeit all my good reasoning about the Canadian quality of life and social justice. However, I do feel genuinely lucky to have been offered the position at the SLRI. It coincided perfectly with my desire to come back home and to be in a world-class environment. I know it is a cliché, but I was at the right place, at the right moment, doing the right thing. It seems self-evident to me that the solution to the so-called Canadian brain drain can be found only in breeding and nursing such world-class centers. Canada desperately needs a critical mass of such centers in order to reverse our collective complex of scientific inferiority. However, this will require making structural changes in the way our government invests and promotes scientific research, and I am not sure that the Canadian scientific community is ready to face these changes. [Be sure to check out our Under One Roof series on biotechnology centers in Canada. --Ed.]

For now at least, I have attained my goal of running a lab in a good institute. I am finding that establishing a competitive lab is far from easy. In fact, being responsible for other people is downright scary. Nonetheless, it is one of the most exciting endeavors I have ever undertaken.

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