MIRC alum and Assistant Dean of McMaster’s Bachelor of Health Sciences Program: Dr. Stacey Ritz brings us on her journey through many realms of academia.

From MIRC to Bay Street: Dr. Alicja Puchta tells us about her time at MIRC and how it prepared her for her career in law.

MIRC alum and Assistant Dean of McMaster’s Bachelor of Health Sciences Program: Dr. Stacey Ritz brings us on her journey through many realms of academia

Tell us about your time at MIRC

I began as a 4th year undergraduate thesis student with Manel Jordana in 1996.  I was initially planning to go to medical school, but after a few months in the lab, I was enjoying myself so much that I decided to put that off and continue in graduate school knowing that I could always come back and try medicine later; the academic career path proved really rewarding and exciting for me, and medicine fell off my radar.  After starting the MedSci MSc program in 1997, I transferred into the PhD stream in 1999 and defended my degree in 2003, all with Manel’s lab group, with a focus on looking at how cytokine expression in the airways influenced the development of allergic sensitization. 

Tell us about your career and what excites you most about it

After finishing my PhD I did a post-doc at UCLA looking at how air pollutants could trigger allergic sensitization, an area I found really compelling to work in.  I then got the opportunity to become one of the first faculty members at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, and leapt at the opportunity to come back home to Ontario.  I started my research career there leading my own lab, where we looked at air pollution effects on the immune system (particularly autoimmune disease and allergy) and respiratory function more generally, and taking our geographical context into account by looking at airborne particulates from Sudbury (which are high in nickel and other metal compounds), and studying forest fire fighters.  After several years, I began to invest more of my energy into doing some medical education research, and developing a long-standing interest in sex/gender and health research – in the last 10 years or so I’ve wound down my lab-based work and focused principally on the scholarship of sex/gender and laboratory research, along with some work in critical pedagogy in health sciences education.  I am the most excited about my work on sex/gender and lab research because I feel I’ve found a niche where I can make a unique contribution, as someone who has a depth of first-hand experience in the laboratory, and who also has a depth of engagement with feminist scholarship on sex, gender, and science.  3 years ago, I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to return to McMaster as the Assistant Dean of the Bachelor of Health Sciences (Honours) Program, a program Del Harnish had been getting up and running when I was a grad student, and where I had the opportunity to teach between my PhD and post-doc.  On the educational and administrative side of things, I am most excited by getting to teach my course on sex, gender, and health, working with great colleagues on the BHSc program curriculum, and interacting with students in the program to help smooth the bumps in their path.  It’s a really rewarding combination of activities for me.

What led you to pursue your current career?

There was a confluence of several factors and key moments that led me to where I am.  Doing a minor in philosophy as an undergrad proved to be pretty significant, because it introduced me to important concepts in the theory of knowledge, bioethics, and feminist theory, all of which reverberate in my current scholarship and teaching.  Then my 4th year thesis in Manel’s lab was a big turning point – prior to that I didn’t think I had any interest in research and my heart was set on medicine; Manel was a great mentor to me, opened my eyes to the joys of an academic career, and helped me to reconsider whether medicine was really right for me.  As a graduate student, I really enjoyed my opportunities to TA, which convinced me even more that I would enjoy a career as a professor, and getting to teach in the BHSc Program after I completed my PhD cemented that even more.  As my career unfolded, I found that the parts I found most rewarding were related to sex/gender and health research, and to teaching, and I began to shift my energies into those things, and wound down the laboratory.  I was so lucky to get the chance to come back to McMaster in 2015 and step into the BHSc Program, as it is such a good fit for my interests and strengths.

How did your time at MIRC prepare you for your career?

Being a student in the MIRC group was an important and formative influence on me.  There was a very collaborative and collegial spirit among the investigators that spilled over to the students, and we all worked together in important ways.  Journal clubs, work-in-progress rounds, and allergy & immunology seminars gave me a lot of exposure to different areas of immunology research beyond my own work in allergy, and there were lots of students around with other eclectic interests as well that kept me intellectually stimulated.  My supervisor got all of us actively involved in helping to write and review grants and papers, so I had a fair amount of experience with that by the time I had to write my own grants. 

What is a favourite memory from your time at MIRC?

There are so many!  Going to the American Thoracic Society conferences with a big ‘delegation’ from MIRC, the trips for white water rafting and Canada’s Wonderland, and all of the times we’d be working in the lab together talking about books and movies and philosophy and politics – some of my best friends in the world are from my grad school days at MIRC.  If I had to choose one favourite though, it would be the time I pulled a prank on Manel and set up his computer so that every time he launched Microsoft Word, the audio would play a 2-minute clip of him giving a talk at a conference.  He had no idea what was going on or how to fix it, LOL.  Also when I put a supersoaker in the 4C room and then drenched him with it. 

What is some advice you would give to current MIRC trainees?

Grad school is such a unique time, take full advantage of what the university environment has to offer, and explore.  You need to work and be productive in the lab of course, but life as a scholar is so much more rich and full when you can connect the dots between your scientific work and the broader social and political culture, and develop a good balance between work and leisure.

 

From MIRC to Bay Street: Dr. Alicja Puchta tells us about her time at MIRC and how it prepared her for her career in law

Tell us about your time at MIRC

I have the distinct honour of being Dawn’s very first PhD student – a badge I wear with pride, particularly because I was so fortunate to work with Dawn. Dawn was a wonderful supervisor: brilliant but thoughtful, always available for her students, and incredibly supportive. I began my time at MIRC with the intention of understanding why the elderly are more susceptible to S. pneumoniae infection. As we continued building upon prior findings, this project naturally progressed into a study of the effects of age-associated inflammation on the aging process. I was very lucky, because at the end of my studies, my body of work managed to tell a story about the interactions between many different aspects of immunity and aging, including the role of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the aging process, the dysregyulated responses these cytokines lead to in the elderly during bacterial infection, the contribution of the gut and internasal microbiomes to aging, and how different types of immune cells (including Dawn’s beloved macrophages) fit into all this.

Tell us about your career and what excites you most about it

As a litigation associate at a large Toronto Bay Street firm, my job is fast-paced, exciting, and demands a large amount of brainpower. I have the chance to engage in fascinating, high-profile work on a daily basis. But I am thrilled to work on even the smallest of cases, because it’s really the prospect of being able to serve my clients’ needs and advancing their cause to the best of my ability that gets me up in the mornings. I spend much of my time mulling how to overcome problems and tailoring the solutions to address them, be they simple and elegant ones, or creative, out-of-the box ones. The diversity of my work is another bonus: I see a broad array of cases on a regular basis, ranging from what you would expect given my background – intellectual property, including patent, copyright, and trademark matters – to things far beyond the scope of my scientific roots. Some of the issues I have worked on have touched on constitutional law, class actions, employment law, securities law, aboriginal law, and property law. Additionally, I love the advocacy part of being an advocate. Starting with compiling the legal research and factual evidence necessary to build a case, and ending with the culmination of years of work in the form of written and oral arguments before a court, I enjoy the whole process.

What led you to pursue your current career?

While completing my doctoral studies, Dawn and I sought a patent relating to some of the research I was working on. This experience provided me with exposure to the intersection between law and science. I was able to assist with the patenting process, through which I realized how readily the skillset I had gained in graduate school translated to the legal field. At first, I went into law for practical reasons: with my background, I knew I could find work on the transactional side of intellectual property matters, and three years of law school with a guaranteed job at the end appealed more to me then pursuing a post-doc for an indeterminate amount of time. But as it turned out, I fell in love with the law: the way in which the common law evolves in a very logical, principled, but people-sensitive manner; how advancing a case is all about learning from the past by applying it to the present, while thinking about the implications for the future; and, the way that the law is all-encompassing and far-reaching, touching every aspect of our lives. I got bit by the litigation bug in particular, because of the meaningful way litigation allows you to interact with general, established legal principles in the context of your client’s specific case, while potentially influencing cases yet to come.

How did your time at MIRC prepare you for your career?

My time at MIRC was invaluable in setting me up for success in a career in law. My graduate studies embedded in me a great sense of discipline, which is essential in law. My experiences of working in large teams at MIRC, where I organized and implemented projects with many moving parts and deadlines, have prepared me for doing the same in law. Although the subject matter may be different, the people management and project management skills required are the same. Additionally, much of the law is about examining precedents and applying them to solve your client’s problems; I use the analytical, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills that I developed at MIRC every day in my legal practice. Finally, as an advocate, I draw regularly on my oral and written communication skills, which I honed through many opportunities at MIRC to present findings orally and draft research articles.

What is a favourite memory from your time at MIRC?

MIRC fosters a wonderfully collaborative atmosphere that really is unique. From daily group lunches in the atrium to weekly Frisbee with the Biohazardiscs, my favourite memories from my time at MIRC (and I can’t pick just one!) all revolve around the people I interacted with. It was always nice knowing that, even if I was stuck working late and ran into a wall, someone in my lab our one of the many labs just next door would be around and willing to lend a hand.

What is some advice you would give to current MIRC trainees?

When it comes to career opportunities, and thinking about what you will do after graduate school, keep an open mind. It may seem like the path from graduate school to a career in academia is the only viable option – but it really isn’t! It wasn’t until I began exploring my options in a career in law that I realized just how wide the horizon was. Although my graduate studies have formed the foundation for a successful transition into law, it was thanks to a willingness to embrace a path less travelled (and of course thanks to a very encouraging supervisor in the form of Dawn) that I found a career that is perfectly well suited to my ambitions and interests. Making the jump was scary, but I haven’t looked back since.

Interested in learning more about Dr. Puchta’s career trajectory? Contact her with your questions at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

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