Michel Ntemgwa graduated with a PhD in Experimental Medicine in 2008. He currently works as an Acting Manager for the Non-prescription Drugs Evaluation Division at Health Canada.
Q: What made you first interested in doing a PhD in Experimental Medicine?
Growing up in Cameroon, I’d always loved studying the sciences. I obtained my Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree in microbiology. Then I lived and studied in Belgium where I obtained my Master’s degree in medical and pharmaceutical research. In Belgium, I worked at a lab in the Institute of Tropical Medicine, a World Health Organization reference Center for HIV diagnosis and treatment where I studied HIV Virology. I had always wanted to do a PhD, so I started looking at universities. Canada was an appealing destination as it also offered the opportunity to immigrate.
I got in contact with Dr. Mark Wainberg, the professor who later supervised me for my PhD. Although I wasn’t admitted yet, I had an immigrant visa for Canada under a skilled worker category. I therefore worked as his technician for a while before applying. I was so happy and that’s how my life started. After that I went into the PhD program.
Q: What were some valuable experiences you had during your PhD?
The most valuable experience I had was attending conferences. During those conferences, we learned a lot from people from other countries. Our lab was one of those that actually organized some conferences. We were in charge of selecting posters—posters that students will present during that period. I really enjoyed that because it gave me the experience of doing some review work. The latter experience came in handy when I entered the government as a drug evaluator. My professor also reviewed for journals, and sometimes gave us manuscripts to review. Our comments were thus taken into account when he did his final review. I was thus able to gain exposure to reviewing for journals before graduating.
One of the things I like about McGill is that they offer career days. Companies would come and give presentations. As a PhD student, I made sure to attend those, especially during my last year when I knew I had to leave McGill. At one point we had people from Health Canada. That’s actually how I got my job. Health Canada was doing recruitment at the time and I applied to their post-secondary recruitment program.
Q: Can you tell us more about the recruitment process?
Around September every year, Health Canada does a post-secondary recruitment. I made sure to check my email from McGill about those events. They list all the different jobs available—regulatory affairs officer, biologist, and evaluator—there are many options for students.
I was a regulatory affairs officer first before I became an evaluator. There was a process where you take an exam, and go through interviews, and then they put you in a pool of qualified candidates. Managers generally use these pools for new hires.
Q: What was your job like as a regulatory affairs officer, an evaluator and now acting unit head?
The regulatory affairs officer job was mostly about verifying the documents that companies submitted to get their drugs approved. We basically had to check if all the components of the submission package were there. You needed to know some science to do this, but you didn’t need a PhD.
The evaluator job involved reviewing applications for drug approval. I was a microbiological safety evaluator, so I was evaluating applications for drugs used in animals in the food industry. Because of issues related to antimicrobial resistance, we had to make sure that these drugs, when given to animals, would not lead to drug resistance in people that consumed them. So we made recommendations to prevent the development of antibiotic resistance by ensuring that warning statements were included on the labels before the drugs were approved. This guides livestock producers as well as the veterinarians who prescribe the drugs
I worked for about five or six years as a veterinary drug evaluator, and an opportunity came up where I could move to a higher level: a senior clinical evaluator for non-prescription drugs. The job involves review of applications for over-the-counter (OTC) drugs like acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) and ibuprofen (e.g. Advil) for safety and efficacy. Most recently, our group has been involved in safety improvements to the Canadian labelling standard for OTC acetaminophen ensuring inclusion of a Drug Facts Table, to provide instructions, warnings, and other safety information in a consistent, user-friendly format.
Now, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are reviewing a lot of applications for disinfectants for domestic and hospitals use. There are so many companies that are trying to support the Canadian health system by getting disinfectants approved for use. As acting unit head of the Disinfectants Unit since March, 2020, I am happy to be working with a group of talented colleagues and have had the opportunity to fully utilize over 15 years of virology experience that I have, to ensure that Canadians have access to safe and effective health products.
Q: If students are thinking of applying for these types of jobs, when should they start looking?
I tried to attend career fairs a year before I graduated. Normally the recruitment process is long. In the public service, it can take up to one year. It might be faster in the private sector, but in the public service it can be slow. The process involves exams, sometimes language tests, and reference checks. So I would advise PhD students to start looking one year before they finish. I was motivated to get a job as early as possible because I had a family to support. Not having a job afterwards was not an option.
Q: How did you balance having a family and doing a PhD at the same time?
It was really a challenge—most of my kids were born during my PhD. I am thankful to my supportive spouse Alechia, for not only providing moral support but also supplementing the family income since we could not rely on my PhD stipend alone. Other available government of Canada programs such as the child tax benefits were also helpful. I think this could serve as an inspiration for those who may have families and considering PhD studies to see that they can actually do it. One of the thing that I had to my advantage was that I stayed in the same field consistently. At the University in Belgium, I worked on HIV, but more on the vaccine side. When I moved to Canada, I worked on the drug resistance side. So when I started doing my PhD, I already had experience in the field in terms of techniques. Because of the experience I had before, I did my PhD in just three years.
Q: What recommendations would you give to students who are considering working in government?
I would say working in the government is a good place. There’s a good work-life balance. I would recommend looking early, at least a year before finishing. Watch for post-secondary recruitment. You can apply online on the government website.
Sometimes, when students do a PhD, they think that they need to look for a job only in a lab. And it’s true—they can get a job in a lab. But if they don’t know words like evaluator, they might not easily know that this is another kind of job they can do. As a student, I thought that after a PhD, I would have to do a postdoc. I was happy that I was able to do something different and still contribute to science without being in a lab. Overall, I feel really proud to be working in a place where I can see the effects of what I’m doing, because when I walk into a pharmacy and I see a label, I see the work that we did.
Many thanks to Michel for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find him on Linkedin.
This interview took place in July 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.