Ryen MacDonald graduated from the Integrated Program in Neuroscience, Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, in 2016. She currently works as a Senior Strategic Marketing Manager in prostate cancer genomics.
Q: So what made you interested in doing a PhD?
I went to Northeastern University for my undergraduate degree in behavioral neuroscience. I completed one co-op program, and my plan was to take the last year to study for medical school, but I found out that I was able to graduate earlier. Therefore, I decided I was going to do a Master’s first, then go to medical school. I went to Boston University for the first semester of grad school. I had applied to McGill but I didn’t realize I also had to secure a supervisor. So I ended up deciding to go to McGill later and transferring as a Master’s student in January. I chose McGill because of the reputable neuroscience program, and I wanted to be a part of it. Partway through the program, I was just starting a new project so I thought “I’ll just do the PhD” and I then decided to transfer directly into the PhD program.
Q: What do you value the most about your time in graduate school?
Definitely the program itself—the fact that it wasn’t all classroom-based was a big deal for me. I was in the lab probably more than 40 hours a week. I think the training that you can’t really get in a classroom that I was able to get from working in the lab really made a difference.
Looking back now, there were a lot of things I had to figure out how to do by myself, like trying to start my own collaborations or figuring out a new technique that nobody in my lab knew how to do. That helped me immensely in my career development—I feel like I’ve had an advantage because I’ve been able to just jump into things and not really worry if I knew how to do them or not.
The way that I was trained at McGill to be able to read scientific literature also really helped me in my career. I went from product management and research and development in clinical diagnostics in my first job to strategic marketing and reimbursement in prostate cancer genomics in my current job. I was really familiar with genetics and molecular biology because of my PhD, but prostate cancer was new to me and I was able to really understand the literature quickly because of the training that I had.
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges for you in finishing the PhD?
There was an issue with my supervisor and we (my fellow graduate students and I) ended up having to switch supervisors—that was a little bit difficult. At the time of the switch, I was doing a collaboration project with another lab that was at a different hospital. I was going back and forth between hospitals and it was just a terrible time. But I do have to say that the resources, the program, and the people around me really helped—everyone was very supportive of the situation and I would have dropped out if it wasn’t for them.
At the time when I wanted to give up, I just stopped going to work. I didn’t even want to be there. They basically told me to write my Master’s thesis and graduate. But I was on year 6 already, and I told myself “I did not stay here for six years to do a Master’s”. When I went to them to apologize and request to continue, they made me give my word I would give it my all. And we did it. I’m so grateful for all of them for being compassionate and fair and for understanding my situation and helping me through it. If it weren’t for Dr. Lorraine Chalifour and Dr. Josephine Nalbantoglu, I wouldn’t be here where I am today.
Q: What was your path like after graduation?
I knew I wanted to leave the lab when I was writing my thesis. So when I visited my mom in San Diego, I started applying for jobs there. I ended up getting a job as an associate product manager for a point-of-care clinical diagnostics company that makes diagnostic tests for all types of diseases. I started off as a product manager there doing both upstream and downstream marketing as well as project management. I ended up leading one of their departments for research and development. As a product manager, you work with every department, including quality assurance, regulatory, and sales. I did all of that for four years and then I moved into my current position. They were looking for someone that would be able to come in and really grasp all the science and also be able to help with managed care, reimbursement, and all of the marketing stuff that goes along with commercial marketing such as creating content to train the sales team and to provide to the physicians that order our test.
Q: What is your current position now?
I’m Sr. Strategic Marketing Manager at Decipher Biosciences—a precision oncology, prostate cancer genomics company. We have a genomic test for prostate cancer. Doctors order the test, we collect the tissue specimens from pathology from hospitals all over the country, and we perform the genomic test on the specimen. Then we send a report that tells the patient their risk of their prostate cancer metastasizing. We’re involved in a lot of clinical trials—our genomic test is studied in a lot of places right now.
I keep track of the publications and summarize the science in a way that is presentable to payers and medical policy makers in both commercial and government insurance. I take a lot of that scientific data and help with summarizing the messages that need to come across to the public, to our physicians, our clinicians, and our clients.
Q: Are there a lot of connections between the work you do now and your graduate work?
A lot of my PhD was on cell signaling pathways and looking at gene expression. I work in a company right now that is based on genomic expression. So it’s more or less very similar—that’s why I was able to pick up the science and understand it quite well, because I had a really solid foundation in genomics, genetics, and molecular biology. Even though it’s not neuroscience, it’s similar and I use the knowledge every day.
Q: What were some of the challenges that you faced after graduating?
Probably my student loans. Being at McGill and Montreal is so much cheaper than the schools in the United States. A good portion of my debt is from my undergrad. So it doesn’t even have as much to do with grad school. But my student loans are just so ridiculous.
Q: What advice would you give to someone working on their PhD right now?
I would say that even when it feels like you are going nowhere, and you’re going to work everyday, and you have no idea what you’re doing, and nothing is happening, and you don’t see the end, you just have to trust that it’ll come and just keep trying and just keep going. If you do face a problem that is not normal, you should address it as fast as you can and not avoid it. If there are challenges, I think it’s important to deal with them as soon as you realize they’re actually greater problems than normal.
The whole PhD process ended up taking longer because I had to switch projects several times and switch supervisors. There was maybe a period of several years in there that I was like, “What am I doing? My project makes no sense. I’m not going anywhere. I don’t know why I’m even here”. I felt like just quitting so many times. But I’m happy that I didn’t now.
Even though my training is in molecular biology, all of the knowledge that I learned, I use it in my job even though it’s cancer genomics. I’m able to do well in my job because of my training and also give back to the communities. I’ve been volunteering with the Alzheimer’s Association as a community educator for four years now and I’m able to help educate people and answer questions and really make a difference. It’s really rewarding to be able to use what I learned down in a place where I can help people both in my career and also through volunteering.
Q: Is there something that you wished you knew before starting a PhD?
Sometimes I wonder if I should have gone to medical school. But I really love my job now, so I don’t know that I would change anything. I know now that the work I do everyday is really making a difference. I love the science. The founder of my company is the Chief Scientific Officer and he is just unbelievably brilliant and inspiring. Our CEO is a pioneer in biotech and she is also really inspiring. The one thing I can say that I wish I did was find the (really good) resources at McGill and reach out sooner when I was struggling, before it came to the point where I almost dropped out of school. If I had done that sooner, maybe I would have finished a little bit sooner. But in the end I was able to finish my PhD. For that, I am forever grateful.
Many thanks to Ryen for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find her on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in May 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.