Taylor McLinden graduated with a PhD from the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health in 2018. He currently works as the Scientific and Quality Assurance Officer (Epidemiology and Population Health Program) at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in your field?
Early in my undergraduate degree in Biomedical Sciences, I realized that I would pursue further graduate training. I was in the honours stream of my BSc program which meant that I had to complete an undergraduate thesis project. During my degree, I had taken a number of courses in the areas of molecular biology, biochemistry, and cell physiology.
In these courses, I spent time in benchtop laboratories, learning techniques that would allow me to do basic science research. Ultimately, I completed my fourth-year thesis project examining glucose transport in cultured skeletal muscle cells from rats. This involved many late nights in the lab, pipetting away in a sanitized fume hood.
While this research experience prepared me for graduate training in a benchtop lab setting, I did not see myself doing this type of work as a career. Particularly, as a junior trainee, I found myself pondering the potential impact (or lack thereof) of my research on human health. Fortunately, during the final year of my degree, I took an elective course titled ‘Introduction to Epidemiology.’ In addition to having a fantastic professor for this course (Dr. Brent Faught at Brock University), I found myself having an intuition for many of the concepts that I was being taught; I felt as if I had potentially found my calling!
It was then that I learned epidemiologic research was largely based on population health data and statistical analysis. Therefore, instead of putting on a lab coat and heading to the fume hood, I realized that it was possible to do health research in a different way – on a computer! This suited me much better because I had always enjoyed coding in my free time. And, the rest is history: I completed an MSc in Epidemiology at the University of Guelph, enjoyed it thoroughly, and ended up pursuing a PhD in Epidemiology at McGill immediately thereafter.
Q: What kind of support did you receive during your PhD program?
I was new to Montreal when I started my PhD. Before that, I was born and raised in southern Ontario. Fortunately, during my time in Quebec, I had a supportive partner (who was from Montreal) who helped me strike a healthy and happy balance. Similarly, the long-distance support of my family and their visits to Montreal were a consistent source of comfort and inspiration for me.
Perhaps most importantly, I could not have had better PhD co-supervisors: Drs. Joseph Cox (a clinician-scientist) and Erica Moodie (a biostatistician) in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health. Whenever I felt discouraged, I took comfort in the fact that I had compassionate mentors who were invested in my success. I have attempted to emulate their thoughtful mentorship styles as I have begun to progress in my own career.
Financially, the bulk of my funding was secured from an external organization in the form of competitive awards. I also received substantial support from internal studentships through McGill’s Faculty of Medicine. At the beginning of my PhD, my department provided some first-year stipend support as well. Lastly, my supervisor, Dr. Cox, allowed me to work as a Research Assistant and Teaching Assistant during my degree. This permitted me to earn some extra income while also expanding my research and teaching skills.
Q: What were the challenges for you in finishing your PhD?
Moving away from my family and friends to a new province (Ontario to Quebec) was the biggest challenge for me. That being said, I believe it is important to prioritize the social aspects of your life as well, especially when you have moved to a new place to start graduate school. The technical aspects of the PhD program also proved challenging at times, but Dr. Moodie, my co-supervisor, was immensely supportive in this area. I also forged several lasting friendships with my fellow students as we tackled complex epidemiological problems together.
Q: What were the challenges for you post-graduation?
Similar to my move to Montreal, there have been difficulties associated with moving and adapting to another new province (British Columbia). However, these voluntary decisions to relocate for training and career opportunities have also been exciting and energizing. Overall, while it has been a privilege to have had the opportunity to follow my desired career path across Canada, it has remained important for me to establish new social connections as well.
Q: Are there any valuable experiences you had in graduate school?
There were many aspects of my PhD training that prepared me for a career as an epidemiologist. Specifically, the quantitative skills that I developed in the area of epidemiologic methodology and biostatistics have been incredibly useful. The mentorship styles of my co-supervisors have also given me examples to emulate as I have moved forward. Simply, while it is sometimes hard to appreciate in the moment, you are surrounded by some truly remarkable people during your time at McGill! With that in mind, take in as much as you can while you have the chance.
Q: What is your current position and how did you end up there?
I am the Scientific and Quality Assurance Officer (Epidemiology and Population Health Program) at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS in Vancouver (May 2019 – present). Before that, I was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the same centre (December 2017 – April 2019). During the fellowship, my rigorous epidemiologic methodology training set me apart and it led to the creation of my present position within the organization. I would also say that my teaching skills were a key factor in fostering this opportunity for me. As a newcomer to Vancouver, I was fortunate in that I was able to use the fellowship to demonstrate my value and subsequently transition into a fulfilling permanent position.
Q: What is a typical workday like?
The British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS is a semi-academic research institution and I work in their Epidemiology and Population Health Program. Therefore, I get to apply what I learned during my PhD training every day. A typical day involves planning and implementing initiatives focused on education and capacity-building in the area of epidemiologic methods. This involves many emails and meetings with students, peer researchers, clinicians, and research scientists. In addition to giving various presentations to our staff, I regularly review study protocols, conference abstracts, manuscripts, and grants as well.
Q: If you could go back and tell yourself something about your PhD journey, what would it be?
While it is easier said than done, I would tell myself ‘not to sweat the small stuff’! While I appreciated my time in Montreal, it was both a demanding experience and one that came with an expiration date – the end of my PhD. Excluding the winter months (ha!), I tend to reminisce about the vibrancy of Montreal and how special of a place it is. Ultimately, while I did squeeze a lot out of McGill and Montreal, I imagine that I could have been more present in the moments that were my PhD years.
Q: Lastly, is there anything else you would like to add?
If I could go back and do it all again, I would not do anything differently. The Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health and, in particular, my co-supervisors, allowed me to have a life-changing experience at McGill. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to study epidemiology and I will always look back fondly on my doctoral experience. For those who were a part of my journey in Montreal: thank you for everything!
Many thanks to Taylor for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find him on his website (www.taylormclinden.ca), on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/mclinden/), and @TaylorMcLinden on Twitter (www.twitter.com/taylormclinden).
This interview took place in May 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.