Normand Cyr, Manager of Structural Biology Platform

Normand Cyr completed his PhD in parasitology in 2012, focusing on the parasite Leishmania donovani. He is currently the Manager of the Structural Biology Platform at the Université de Montréal.

Q: What drew you to a PhD in parasitology?

I did my BSc in food science, and my Master’s in bioresource engineering. I felt I wanted to do more fundamental research and get deeper into the biochemistry of microorganisms in general. I met with my PhD supervisor, Armando Jardim, and he encouraged me about the research on parasites in general, how fascinating these organisms are. It was really the curiosity of science that drove me to PhD studies.

Q: I’m doing a PhD in food science, and I was wondering, why did you switch from food science to parasitology?

When I started my BSc in food science, what really interested me was food transformation with microorganisms: food fermentation in general, and more specifically, beer brewing. I had a chance to work in industry and see the industrial process. I always felt that there was some fundamental work that needed to be done. So I did a little bit of that during my Master’s, and then I got more interested in the biochemistry of microorganisms in general. But when you look at it on paper, it’s not always that clear!

Q: Were you able to get financial support for your research?

Yes, I had access to FRQNT, and after three years, there was some bridge funding, and during the writing process of my thesis, a stipend from my PhD supervisor. Of course, we don’t earn a huge amount of money, but we’re in the educational phase, so it’s kind of normal. And it was not an issue for me⁠—as long as you manage your finances, it’s not too bad.

Q: What about other forms of support?

We had a workshop on teaching undergraduate courses, given by the career centre, and it was very insightful. I ended up teaching undergrads later on, and it was helpful.

Q: And what about mentorship? I guess your supervisor was most important?

Yes, my supervisor was very hands-on in a positive way, always there in the lab and actually doing some lab work as well, which I appreciated. He taught me a lot of techniques.

The other profs on my committee were very supportive and gave great suggestions to try different techniques as well. Even the department encouraged me to go to other laboratories outside of the university, so I spent a whole month in Quebec City in another lab, looking at different techniques that were really key to my research project.

Q: Were there any opportunities to mentor other people?

Indirectly, mainly with new graduate students coming into the lab. We also had summer students and co-op students, undergrads, and it wasn’t often the direct supervisor working with them on a day-to-day basis, so I ended up teaching them a lot.

Q: Are there any other experiences that you had during your PhD, either inside or outside the program?

I participated in student governance through PGSS, as a representative for my institute, and one of the few from Macdonald campus. I learned a lot about student politics and politics in general, which I’ve always been interested in. It can be intimidating at the beginning to learn the protocols, but people are very understanding that you’re not used to it, so I encourage you to do it. It’s also a good way to connect with the downtown campus.

Q: Were there any difficulties balancing life and work during that time?

Not really. It was obviously a lot of time to spend on campus, and your schedule isn’t always a 9 to 5, but I got used to it. I was always able to find time to disconnect, like going to the Ceilidh Pub on Thursday night, with friends and profs. Living downtown and off campus was also good, mentally⁠—when I left campus, things were done, other than a bit of computer work.

And there were a lot of sports going on⁠—I played soccer with people from the Institute and friends. We’d do training on a regular basis, or informal games, going out and playing and having fun. That helped, both physically and mentally.

Q: What was the biggest challenge for your PhD?

It’s science in general⁠—it’s a hurdle. A good supervisor told me from the beginning that you will fail. You have to accept that to move forward. And so you find tricks for every day, even though sometimes it is very simple, like doing a transformation on the plate and watching the bacteria grow—just something that worked in that day.

Q: So what happened after your PhD?

I have done six years of postdocs in structural biology of host-pathogen interactions, at the Université de Montréal. I worked with grad students on certain subjects, and I had to train them and direct them in their projects.

And now, I manage the Structural Biology Platform. Through CFI grants, several labs got together and bought several research instruments, including a 700 MHz NMR spectrometer and a BioSAXS, multimillion-dollar tools that are critical for structural biology research. And they also hire someone to manage the facility.

So on top of maintaining the instruments, I train grad students to use them, or I can run experiments for outside users, where we get the samples from universities or companies and teach them what experiments can be done with this specialized equipment and what they can do with the data.

And what got me here? My post-doc was in structural biology, so my research became even more fundamental, going from infectious diseases to atomic and molecular details involved in protein interactions. It really led me to the work I do now. 

I think everybody finds their own path. It’s not that I started my undergrad in food science and I knew I wanted to manage a structural biology facility, fifteen or twenty years down the road. It’s more like every year my interest narrower and narrower, or moved to one side, then the other, as I was figuring out slowly what I wanted to do. 

It was being lucky, being the right place at the right time, but also, in my work, I think it’s important to know a little bit of everything, so that you can help students coming in with projects that are all different from each other.

Q: If you could go back in time to when you were starting your PhD, is there anything you’d like to tell yourself? Any advice?

I wouldn’t change the way I went through my PhD. But sometimes, you will end up spending six months on something, just because you’re interested, or you think it will work and you don’t want to listen to anyone else. But you were wrong. It’s part of the learning process as well, and it’s nice to have a supervisor that let me discover that. So I would say just continue to explore. Especially in fundamental research. You have to sometimes think outside the box or just persist in things that fail as well.

Many thanks to Normand for sharing his narrative! You can find more about him on his personal website, on Google Scholar, or on LinkedIn and see more about the offerings of the Université de Montréal structural biology platform here.

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