Ava Schlisser graduated with a PhD in Pharmacology and Therapeutics in 2014. She currently works as a Senior Clinical Study Manager.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD?
I think the main answer would be my curiosity. I wasn’t satisfied with the information that was given during my Bachelor’s. I’ve always had additional questions and wanted to know more about pharmacology. I found the mechanisms of drug action and teratology very interesting. I connected with one particular teacher, Barbara Hales—she was my supervisor for my PhD. I really liked her as an individual and also as a teacher. So when I was in my Bachelor’s, I asked her if she had any projects for undergraduates. She was interviewing students at the time and it all went upwards from there.
Q: Was your supervisor your biggest source of support for your PhD?
I would say so. Her and her husband, Dr. Bernard Robaire, were two of my most important teachers during that time. I did have a lot of other mentors that were PIs from the Department of Pharmacology that helped me along the way. I asked them to be part of my panel because they were so hard on me, but in a constructive way. I felt that I learned the most from having them ask me questions that I really couldn’t answer easily. So I felt I was going to get the most of my training by having these specialists on my panel.
Q: What would you say were your most valuable experiences?
Being a member of a society was an important part of my teratology training and my growth as a scientist. I have been a member of the Teratology Society for a while—I started with Dr. Hales in 2007 up until I graduated in 2014. Every year, I would submit an abstract based on my own research and I was chosen to give talks. Those talks were very difficult because I would be speaking in front of a few hundred people. It was fun but it was also very challenging as an individual because you have to bring everything that you’ve learned together in a concise format that is understandable, relevant, and interesting. There is also the added level of learning while being challenged by the audience. All of these elements together really forced me to grow as a researcher and as an individual. The meetings were held all over the world and I was very lucky to be able to go to places like Rio, California, and Washington. So that definitely made my experience go above and beyond my expectations.
Q: What would you say were the biggest challenges during your PhD?
The completion of those research papers. Aiming to get positive data was particularly challenging. At times, I processed tons of samples, ran so many experiments and the data was negative. That was very hard. I wasn’t able to complete a paper the way I wanted to and so I had to continuously find experiments that would prove to be adequate and then write enough so the story made sense. You really have to stretch out your arms and ask for help. Just when you think that your story is ready, someone with more experience challenges you, and figuratively speaking, throws that story out the window. Rewriting your story with the data you have and have it all make sense is truly the most difficult aspect of being a student and a scientist.
Q: Do you have any advice on how to cope with getting negative data?
You have to take the bad with the good. I didn’t focus too much on the negative. I really just tried to learn as many techniques as possible. The negative data also tells you a story—it says that this pathway is not involved and you have to look elsewhere. So I didn’t really get caught up in that. For me, mental health was so incredibly important. I wasn’t going to throw my life away to get positive data—that’s not where my heart or my mindset was. I needed to have a family balance, I needed to be able to go to the gym and to eat properly. So I wanted to take care of myself before anything was going to suffer. Not to say that my PhD was not important—it was extremely important for me, and on the same level as my mental health. I don’t think a lot of people understand how important self-care is. That is something that students sometimes lose because there’s so much pressure on them, and it can really affect you negatively in the long run.
Q: How did you transition from what you did then to what you do now?
I didn’t really have a career path in mind, per se. I knew I wanted to stay in science because I loved understanding drug mechanisms and how the body systems work together.
When I was defending my PhD, I was 5 months pregnant. That year, I gave birth to a beautiful healthy baby girl and took a year off from career searching. During that time, one of my PhD lab mates got a job at Altasciences, where I work currently, and she helped me get in. I said to myself, “Well, this is a stepping stone, let’s try and see”. Then as time went on, I realized how challenging this job really is. I felt that I was learning constantly. That is something that I need in order to satisfy myself. Even to this day, five years later, I still find myself learning on a daily basis. Another aspect that I am really passionate about is teaching. It’s funny because I didn’t want to become a Professor, but now I see myself teaching in a different setting.
I found a niche in clinical trials. I study drug actions and side effects, breaking down complex information and protocols and translating them in a way people can understand. I also mentor many students coming into the field. I am part of a bigger network of the pharmaceutical drug chain that helps individuals obtain safe and effective medications.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
I will obtain a drug protocol from a small or big pharma company, review it, change it and translate it in a way that my team can understand, and I set it up in a clinical setting. I organize a dosing schedule, a meal plan, the times of the blood draws, all safety assessments, as well as the documentation of the accrued data. It’s all-encompassing and a lot of responsibility because the safety of the people that take the medications are on the line. I have to ensure that their health is the number one priority.
Q: Were there any skills you picked up during your PhD that you use currently?
Oh, for sure. Foremost, a skill that I use daily that I learned in my PhD is translating information and presenting it in a way that people can understand. Also, my other skills I’ve learned include critical thinking, high-level organization, being technologically savvy, creating working tools and the ability to work with composure and focus under pressure. These are soft skills that definitely translate into my current life.
Q: What advice would you give to PhD students trying to navigate career options?
Mentorship is critical and not only from your direct supervisor. If you feel alone and you don’t have anyone in your circle that has experience other than your supervisor, ask around in your department or even in other departments. Look for professors that are willing to talk about your interests. Don’t be shy.
During my time at McGill, I founded a mentorship and awareness program. I recruited about fifteen professors and a handful of professionals in the pharma world. I would invite pharmacology students to attend this event and pair up with a mentor. I provided wine and cheese in the McIntyre building at McGill and the students would have the chance to talk to these professors and professionals with the hope that something would spark their interest. I ran this program for 4 years and it was very successful. I also got funding for it. I was able to match up a lot of the students with mentors.
Q: If you could go back in time to before your PhD and tell yourself a one piece of advice, what would that be?
Take more courses and broaden my horizon. Don’t just study pharmacology. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t take any business courses. I felt like there wasn’t enough time, but I definitely could have made the time.
Q: Lastly, do you have anything else to add?
I think it’s important to foster other things outside of the lab during your PhD. It’s great for mental health. Some people are lucky enough to be in a profession that they love and that is their hobby. But that doesn’t happen for everyone. Many people will accept the job for the paycheck at the end of the day. That’s perfectly OK and it may fulfill that aspect of your life. But does it fulfill all the other aspects that make you happy? That’s where your hobbies come in. That’s something that you can’t give up despite how many hours you spend at the bench and how many papers you have to read or write. You’ve got to make time for your hobbies and don’t let them die.
Many thanks to Ava for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find her on Linkedin.
This interview took place in August 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.