Mia Biondi, Clinician Scientist

Mia Biondi graduated with a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology in 2013. She is currently a Clinician Scientist.

Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology?

I did an honours research project in my fourth year of undergrad at the University of Guelph. I had never done any bench science before that in my program. I honestly just became in love with molecular biology and disease characterization. I knew I was going to do something clinical after, but clinical work is not the same as bench-based research at all. So that’s how I ended up doing my PhD in bench science—I wanted that interesting challenge. I’m a very curious person and I like figuring things out.

Q: What are some of the valuable experiences you took from graduate school?

Outside of academia, I built a network of lifelong friends and also a network of lifelong colleagues. I still continue to be in touch with so many of my friends from microbiology and they’ve all gone on to do wonderful and very different things. It’s really quite wonderful to have that network in science.

From my PhD, I felt like I learned how to learn. I certainly improved my ability to write scientifically during graduate school, and I would say the same for presenting. My boss was very hard on us when presenting, and although that seemed challenging at the time, it actually really prepared me well for scientific presentations.

Q: What would you say are important skills you learned during your PhD?

Graduate school teaches you how to fail. As a graduate student, you’re very comfortable saying, “That’s a really great question and I actually don’t know the answer, but I know where to find it.” I think it’s really important to have the confidence to say that—and having that way of thinking through things as well.

Q: Did you find sources of support during your PhD?

Certainly with the other people in my department or in the Experimental Medicine department—there’s a lot of crossover between the departments. Most people find it pretty difficult to make new friends as adults but I would say that in my school at McGill, at least at the time that I was there, it was quite easy to get to know people. Through my friends, peers, and those groups, I ended up meeting and marrying someone from my graduate studies who was also in Microbiology. We were together a lot of my graduate training, and that was my other main source of support.

Q: Who were your most important mentors?  

My PI was a very good mentor and very supportive for fifty percent of my PhD. But throughout my PhD, there was a more senior student who had a lot of biochemistry experience and also a lot of life experience, and he was honestly the mentor for all of us in the lab. He really likes to train people, and he was always there for everyone in our lab to bounce ideas off of and to answer our questions. I already had bench experience, but he trained me in biochemistry.

Q: Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to do as you left your PhD?

I definitely planned an exit strategy. If you have an exit strategy, such as getting into another program or a position, then it’s a lot easier to leave. So I knew I was going to do some form of clinical training and I knew it was not going to be medicine because medicine would have just been too long after graduate school.

Q: What do you currently do?

It’s a long story because I wear a lot of different hats and I sort of pieced together a lot of different things. So I did a compressed time-frame Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing program. I practiced for two years while I did a couple of postdocs and then I went back and did a primary care nurse practitioner degree. Since I finished, I’ve been doing primary care. I’m a nurse practitioner/science researcher at the Center for Liver Disease at Toronto General Hospital. Then I have some focused practices that are private practices in HIV prep and a focused practice on hepatitis B and hepatitis C. I also just started working at a clinical trials company because I wanted to learn more about phase one safety trials. Lastly, I teach at McMaster University in the Nurse Practitioner program.

Q: Do you have any advice for current PhD students?

I often reflect on students choosing the right supervisor. I think a lot of grad students sort of take what they can get. For example, if you find a supervisor that has funding and is in a research area that you’re interested in, you just kind of go for it. But maybe graduate students should be pickier—maybe we should be flipping it around a little bit to make it more of an equal dynamic. For example, the supervisor is certainly going to interview you, but you should really also be interviewing a supervisor and talking to your labmates. 

Q: Looking back, were there things you wish you knew sooner?

What I say to people considering graduate school is that it’s important to go into it with eyes wide open. I didn’t want to be a pure academic, but I think a lot of people did, irrespective of their field. But it’s quite difficult, and only a small percent of graduate students go on to be tenure-track professors.

Whenever I see graduate students in the lab on weekends and at midnight, I do let them know that, as much as it seems like the most important experiment, it’s not worth your health. I was the type of grad student that worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, at least my last two years because there was that push to be done. And because I was at the bench, it was very intense work—you had to physically be present. I would just say that in the end, doing those 100 experiments was probably the same as doing 20 experiments from a life trajectory and career perspective. On the flip side of that is that my PhD helped me in every other thing that I applied for later on in life—it always put me above everyone else.

Many thanks to Mia for sharing her PhD story! You can find more about her on her profile page.

This interview took place in Sept 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.