Inga Murawski graduated with a PhD in Human Genetics in 2009. She currently works as a Program Manager for the Translational Research in Respiratory Disease program at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in human genetics?
When I did my undergraduate degree in biology at McGill, I did an independent studies project. I really enjoyed the experience of working with different labs and getting credit for it, which was always a nice bonus. That was an easy and fun way to get involved in the research aspect of things. The whole lab experience was very different from the lab courses that were offered in undergrad. It was also a time where there were a few human genetics options being offered as 300 level courses to undergrads. So I took some of those options and that really helped me identify what was interesting to me and what wasn’t. I was working in plant genetics for my independent studies and I realized that I didn’t want to continue in that area. I wanted to do something with animals or with humans. So when I started looking for a lab to do a PhD in, I concentrated on labs that focused on certain topics or certain diseases.
Q: What kinds of community support were important to you during graduate school?
The lab that I was in was at the Research Institute of the MUHC, so we were off-campus. We were actually just next to the Montreal Children’s Hospital because we were part of that pediatrics research group. The connection to the main campus didn’t really exist. So we kind of had to create our own groups. We would go on campus to attend human genetics seminars and for our classes but all of our social groups were linked to the environment that we were in. We were also lucky because we had an open-concept lab module setup so we never felt isolated. You never had just your lab—everything was super open and super collaborative. You could go to the neighbouring labs to borrow equipment or share protocols or learn new techniques. So even though I was part of a small lab, I became part of this large community. You knew everybody within the building, which was nice.
Q: What did you value the most about your time in graduate studies?
What I really enjoyed about graduate studies and what I took away from it is that you have to not only grow as a scientist, but as a person as well. I have always been an extremely shy person and I hated public speaking. Overcoming my fear of public speaking happened during graduate school and it was simply because I had a very supportive supervisor. She pushed everybody beyond their limits. She sat with us to help us practice for our oral presentations even though she was an MD and was only in the lab part of the time because of her clinical duties.
She always made herself available to help us. My supervisor was teaching a course and I was a TA for that course. She asked me to help prepare and deliver the course material. In the first year, she was there in the room to help, but in later years, I was able to prepare and deliver the course material on my own. This was truly a valuable experience. When it came to writing manuscripts, I always wrote the first draft and then was involved in all of the edits. My supervisor gave me the ability and the opportunity to do things that ended up helping me later on. All too often, students don’t get the opportunity to help write their manuscripts, sometimes only contributing to the figures and legends. But I was heavily involved in all aspects of writing and editing. Essentially, my supervisor was a wonderful mentor that made my graduate experience just that much better.
Q: What was your biggest challenge in graduate school?
For me, it was really the communication and the public speaking. I really had to work on it, gain my confidence, and keep practicing. Practice makes perfect. That prepares you for your thesis defense as well. My supervisor always made us get involved in every single research day and conference. Even with a strict budget, she always made us attend and participate in meetings. We were blessed to have that opportunity because we had tons of presentations under our belts.
I remember during one of our first research events, it was the Human Genetic Research Day. I was terrified and I almost fainted before going up on the podium to give my presentation. I gave my presentation and it was horrible—I couldn’t answer any questions because I was too nervous. You kind of reflect on that moment and then you realize what you need to do to improve. Then you have a good mentor and supervisor who sees the potential and then who works with you to make you better. Then you go from being terrified of presentations to winning awards and prizes for presentations.
Q: How was the transition from your PhD to finding your first job?
I had a lot of support. I knew I didn’t want to go to medical school and I knew I didn’t want to continue as a postdoc. I remember going to CaPS with an undergrad summer student from my lab and we both came out of the CV writing workshop dumbfounded. We realized there’s actually an art to this—it was a big “aha!” moment for both of us.
It took a year to find a job. I had to become well-versed in putting my CV together and then well-versed in interviewing. I applied for a job at CIHR and I actually was the least qualified for the job—people that were applying for the job had postdocs or outside work experience. So even though I had a PhD, I was fresh out of my graduate degree and I didn’t have outside experience yet. They still interviewed me and it was really those other skills that came out. By then I was comfortable communicating and I had very good writing skills. I had tons of opportunities to hone my writing skills during my graduate degree. So I ended up getting the job because I could write. The job entailed a lot of document preparation, writing briefing notes, writing workshop summaries, organizing workshops, etc.
Q: What is your current job?
Now I’m back at the Research Institute of the MUHC. Not in the pediatrics group where I did my PhD, but with the respiratory group. The CIHR office moved, and I didn’t want to move to another province—my life and kids were here in Montreal. So it was time to look for a new job based in Montreal. The second time around, it only took a month to find a job because by then, I knew how to interview and put my CV together, and I also had 5 years of work experience.
In my current job, those same skills that I’ve applied in my old job, I’m doing here as well—we’re organizing events, writing documents, and helping write grants. It’s a lot of the same rules and responsibilities that I did in my previous job, but in a different environment and with a different research group.
Q: What is your typical day like as a manager of a research program?
On a regular basis, we have about forty researchers within our program. I get to manage a lot of activities as well as the grants. I’m not working for one lab, but forty different labs—big labs, small labs, basic science labs, clinical research labs—different types of research. It’s an interesting job where you have to prioritize and you have to be very organized. It’s exactly like doing graduate studies but instead of managing experiments, you’re managing your own deadlines for when grants are due, or managing documents, reviews, annual reports, and everything for the various foundations or the various institutes. It’s very interesting—there is a lot of writing and a lot of group meetings (now Zoom meetings). Every day it’s a lot of multitasking. But, it’s nice to come to work and see the labs running and the students doing research. We’re still helping out as much as we can remotely. There’s never a dull moment.
Sometimes that perfect job is the one you were least expecting to get. I didn’t know what the job was going to be like until it actually started. It was a hard transition going from a lab where you’re at your bench to a job where you’re on the phone or on the computer doing virtual networking, and then traveling to meetings. Mentally, it was a huge switch for me—it took a few months to transition.
Q: Is there something you wish you knew before you started your PhD?
I think that you do your best as long as you’re always willing to grow and do new things. I got involved in volunteering during my graduate studies—I was on the social committee at our research institute, I volunteered for Let’s Talk Science, and I was the student representative for the animal care committee. I realized that these activities were important for your CV when you’re looking for a job. So I wouldn’t have done it differently and gotten involved with more things because I did quite a few things, but maybe I would’ve done different ones. I continue to volunteer now—I’m a family partner at the Children’s Hospital and for the Ethics Committee, and I’m on the boards of my kids’ daycares and schools. You can give back to the community in different ways.
Many thanks to Inga 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.