Ghulam Jalani received his PhD from the Department of Mining and Materials in 2015. His thesis research was focused on building a multi-functional platform for tissue engineering, imaging, and drug delivery. Today, he is Lead Scientist at Alentic Microscience Inc. in Halifax.
Q: What inspired you to start a PhD in materials engineering?
I was born and raised in Pakistan and did my undergrad there. Then, I got the chance to study in a Master’s program at a university in South Korea for two years. That’s where I started looking into PhDs because, in Korea, the Master’s program was extremely research-based. You basically lived in the lab. I had some good publications and had some good research background at that stage so I thought I should go for a PhD.
Q: How did you end up in your current position after your PhD?
I think my PhD was quicker than for a lot of people. I finished in less than three years, technically. My professor was very surprised when I told her I was quitting research and wasn’t even applying for academic jobs. But she was very supportive. I had decided to go into industry instead of academia, unlike a lot of other people who pursue postdocs and research-based careers. I was very clear, I wanted to see my research and my work translated into real problem-solving skills.
Q: Is that something you had decided before you started your PhD or only once you had finished?
I think it was a bit of both. I already had industrial inclinations after my bachelors—I had some experience working for a couple of companies. I think I was always made for industry, although I had a good research profile as well. My philosophy is that, wherever you are, you just do your best and see what happens. I tried to do as much as I could in the PhD, but I had a clear mind that I would end up in industry.
It has been very interesting to work in this company because it was a startup when I joined. There were only about five people there in the beginning: the CEO, the CTO, a chemist, a developer, and me, the scientist. Since 2016 we’ve built up the company, and today we are around 20 people and we are launching our first product into the market next year.
Q: And can you briefly tell us about the company?
It’s a medical devices startup. This professor in Halifax had an idea for a very innovative technology so he started a company from his lab at Dalhousie and then grew the company. The main focus is to develop smart hand-held devices which can be used at home, in clinics, and other locations where big chunky instruments cannot reach. One of the main things it does is complete blood count (CBC), which is a basic test performed when people go to the emergency room. It also has multiple other applications, which we are currently exploring.
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges for you during your PhD?
I came from a very different research environment when I arrived at McGill. It’s more independent than the environment where I did my Master’s. Professors let you do your stuff—at least Marta did—so it was a change from what I was used to in the past. In the first few months, it was challenging to find my direction and choose a project to work on. But the professors were very cooperative. Marta was very helpful and quickly identified where there were problems and helped me out with a lot of things. She reached out to other professors in the department and outside McGill. My project was very, very multidisciplinary so I had to collaborate with different people and she was very helpful in setting me in the right direction and helping me navigate those collaborations.
Q: Were there other people in addition to your supervisor who served as mentors to you during your program?
My particular project was a multi-university project, so I worked at McGill as well as the INRS research center and the Montreal General Hospital. I was working in three different labs.
At INRS, I worked with Prof. Fiorenzo Vetrone, who was my co-supervisor as well. A big chunk of my research was completed at INRS. I used enormous help from Dr. Rafik Naccache, then a postdoc in Fiore’s lab, now a professor at Concordia University. Within McGill, we had a strong collaboration with Professor Lisbet Haglund in the Surgery Department where I completed a significant part of my work. I was fortunate to work alongside Prof. Derek H. Rosenzweig who was a research associate in Prof. Haglund’s lab back then. He helped me tremendously with a lot of critical experiments. Prof. Dima Perepichka in Chemistry helped us with some of the last critical pieces in our project. We had a very good team, and it was really helpful to get to talk to them and get their opinion on things.
Q: You have a very strong research profile which you can now combine with your perspective from the industry. What advice would you give to prospective students who are trying to figure out their path after their PhD?
A lot of people traditionally think that once you get a PhD, you have no other way to go except continuing in academia, doing a postdoc, and becoming a faculty member. But that is not true anymore. There are so many other options.
I think I was very fortunate to get into a startup company. I think it’s a very, very useful experience. A lot of people might be skeptical to go into smaller companies or companies that are not yet well-established. But remember, this is the start of your career, you must gain as many skills as you can. And that is so much on display when you work in a small company because you can talk to the CEO every day, you can talk to the engineers, to the scientists, to the whole team. It’s a smaller team but it’s very, very connected so you get so much opportunity to grow and learn.
It is a challenging environment, there’s no doubt about it, because things are still being tested and developed. However, the versatility and flexibility you gain is huge, and that has a huge impact on your profile. I think startups are a great place to learn and grow your career.
I’ve worked in some bigger companies in the past where, in comparison, you get one set of duties and repeat, repeat, repeat. In contrast, in a startup or a smaller company, you have many more opportunities. If you spent four or five years in the PhD, you have learned the skill of exploring and developing ideas. If you have that skill, I think it’s better to use it than to get into a routine job that anybody can do. You’re worth much more than that.
Q: From your industrial perspective, what kinds of things should PhD students do to prepare themselves for the job market? What sets a candidate apart in an application?
Expanding your network is very crucial. Stay connected with your peers and colleagues who are already working in companies so you can get insight and see what companies are looking for.
Everybody knows that if you have a PhD, you’re established as a researcher. The other thing that companies find useful is how innovative you are. They’re looking for innovative people. If you have a patent, for example, it’s going to bump your application to the top because they’re looking for people who can think outside of the box. In your PhD, you learn how to solve problems, and being creative and being innovative when it comes to problem solving is a strong asset.
Q: Is there something you wish you knew before starting the PhD?
I think I was better prepared than many other people because I went to a very research-intensive environment for my Master’s before coming to McGill. I know a lot of people don’t get that chance, but if you do have the opportunity to focus on research during your Master’s, it can help a lot going into the PhD.
On a more personal note, you need a lot of patience in the PhD because you encounter problems every day. That never goes away. You have to remember that things will be challenging but you just have to stick to it because things will come along. I think that’s an important mindset to have, but it’s something I lacked. I really wanted to get things done and I was frustrated and stressed and that didn’t help.
Another piece of advice would be not to worry too much about publications. Yes, they are important, but if you work hard and explore things, papers can come out of nowhere. When I was at McGill, I hardly remember thinking of papers. It was just “this is a big project so let’s explore it” and along the way things looked interesting and we decided to publish them. Then the next year, even more interesting things came out and we published those too. Some people get frustrated and think they can’t publish because they don’t have good results. Don’t worry about it. Just keep working, keep collecting data, keep analyzing it, keep exploring. There is something in that data you just collected, just keep going.
This interview took place in August 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.