Ian Gerard, Radiation Oncology Resident Physician

Ian Gerard graduated in 2018 from the Faculty of Medicine in Biomedical Engineering and in 2020 from the Faculty of Medicine in the MDCM program. He is currently a resident physician in radiation oncology at McGill University.

Q: What made you first interested in doing a PhD in biomedical engineering?

I always had a strong interest in physics. I did both my undergraduate and Master’s degrees in physics. My undergraduate degree was at the University of Western Ontario in London and then a Master’s in medical physics here at McGill. I did a PhD because I wasn’t sure specifically if I wanted to go into a clinical physics position or if I wanted to go into pure academia. Crazy enough, I didn’t end up going into either. I really enjoyed doing research, especially related to medical imaging, and found a project that could expand into something meaningful and worthwhile to pursue.

Q: What is your current position now?

I started my residency in radiation oncology here at McGill. My day-to-day is much more learning about the medical side of things. But as a resident, there’s still a heavy focus on being involved in research.

Q: At what point did you realize you wanted to do an MD?

I realized that I had this knowledge gap of the clinical side of imaging. I was trying to develop tools to assist surgeons in their daily job in the operating room but I really didn’t understand their workflow properly: what was important for them, and how to properly help them treat their patients. So knowing that I was good at communicating with both sides—because I had somewhat of a clinical knowledge base and I was interested in the clinical side, and I also was able to communicate and work well with the basic science colleagues—I knew at that point that if I really want to do impactful research and to continue my learning goals, then a medical degree was probably necessary to, at minimum, supplement my knowledge in terms of improving my overall research goals and the type of research that I wanted to do in the future.

Ian reflects on his decision to enter medical school during his graduate studies.

I got my admission into medical school when I was still in the PhD program. I had a bit of a stressful first two years because when I got admitted to medical school, I initially had been on the waitlist so I opened up a few more projects, elaborated on them, and had it set up so that I would have been finishing my PhD the following year. I ended up getting into medical school but I had already started all these projects with different people who were depending on me. So that extended my PhD probably an extra year because I wanted to complete these, was also writing my thesis, and was trying to survive my first two years of medical school at the same time.

Q: How do you manage your PhD and medical school at the same time?

It was definitely a tough two years. A lot of my free time was either studying for whatever exam I had in medicine or spending time in the lab and getting the last results that I needed to finish off a paper, or writing my thesis. I made sure to not leave any loose ends on the PhD project. It was definitely a tough balance and my sleep took the brunt of it. But I guess it was sleep training for when I started clerkship in medical school. I got my PhD right before I started clerkship where I was in the hospital full time.

Q: Did you find that having a PhD was helpful to you as a medical professional?

The advantage of a PhD, especially in a basic science-based PhD rather than a clinical science PhD, is that it has given me the ability to read basic science research, know how to design experiments, and translate that into something meaningful in an efficient way.

Q: What kind of role did your supervisor play during your PhD?

I had an amazing supervisor and mentor for my PhD supervisor. His name is D. Louis Collins and he’s part of the Department of Biomedical Engineering (now the department of Biological and Biomedical Engineering). He was super helpful in every aspect of the PhD process. He was my Master’s supervisor as well. Often you’ll hear that some supervisors will push you towards a PhD, just because it’s beneficial for them for funding. But he was the complete opposite. He told me to really think about pursuing a doctorate, because it’s very different from a Master’s. The workload is very different, and the goal of the PhD is very different. He was able to guide me initially with that. He had that perfect balance of knowing when you needed help and when to give you the space to pursue your work independently and make mistakes on your own.

Q: Are there other experiences you had during your PhD that have been valuable to you in your current job?

I was very fortunate to be sent to many different national and international conferences that allowed me to network with other people in the field and other people doing different work. I built a broad network of colleagues, both in research and in medicine. I see physicians that I interacted with when I was doing my PhD six years ago that are now my supervisors or colleagues. They already know who I am in terms of my personality and my work ethic. It improves the working relationship because that trust is already there and I’ve already been able to build those relationships beforehand.

Q: Were there parts of your PhD you found challenging?

Most people in my department were in a different building so I didn’t get to interact with other colleagues in biomedical engineering too often. I didn’t know many of them very well because I came from a medical physics Master’s and was primarily working at the Montreal Neurological Institute. Thankfully, I had been in Montreal for a while at the time and I had a good social network and other colleagues in various programs that helped compensate for this challenge.

Q: Do you think you will keep doing research as you practice medicine?

I definitely see myself career-wise as a clinician scientist. Research has been an important part of my academic career and something I really enjoy. I find it so encouraging, especially in oncology, to continue pioneering the field and championing new tools, new ideas, and new imaging that will help improve treatment. Being able to have imaging knowledge, physics knowledge, and medical knowledge, and to combine those together to start doing translational work or developing new techniques to help treat patients will be a rewarding part of my career. 

Q: Would you still recommend a PhD to someone even if they wanted to go into medicine?

I would recommend a PhD to someone who is interested in research and wants to have a deeper understanding of how research is done and how the independent investigation process works. I don’t think that a PhD is for everyone because it is a lot of work and at times, it can be overwhelming. If you don’t enjoy doing research, especially in the independent setting, and you prefer more direction, it may not be the ideal degree.

But graduate work, whether it’s a Master’s or a PhD, is invaluable to anyone trying to be involved specifically in science, because most of the new evidence that we get in any field is going to be based on research. The PhD obviously gives you a much more in-depth understanding because you’re much more involved in the creation of a project and the experiments, the writing of different papers, and the overall start-to-finish of a research project.

For anyone who thinks that they would want to pursue a career as an independent investigator, it is definitely worth doing. I have zero regrets, even during the time that I had to do medical school at the same time; it was definitely worth it.

Q: Is there something you wish you knew before you started your PhD?

I would let myself know that it’s okay for a paper to get rejected. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad researcher. It’s part of the natural process of being a researcher and improving the way you do research. Everyone who’s submitted a paper at some point gets comments back that they don’t think are fair or they get a flat out rejection of their paper. It feels like all that hard work may not have been worth it because the person who is rejecting it doesn’t get to see what you’ve done. It’s never easy to feel like you’re flawed in a certain domain, whether it’s a paper that you wrote or an experiment that you designed, but, you need to learn to accept that and take the criticisms constructively to improve on what you are working on.  It will make you a better researcher and a better professional in the long run.

Many thanks to Ian for sharing his PhD narrative! You can find him at http://ianjgerard.weebly.com/

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