Tuesday, July 15, 2008

New age of Researchers in Canada

There has been much made about the disparity in Funding between Canadian Universities and their counterparts in other parts of the world. In the 1990's and into the early part of this century, when the Canadian Dollar was at 65 cents, we saw a mass migration to the U.S. In the past few years, we have seen this reverse.

Now, U.S. is stagnant, and Canada has ramped up its funding, particularly in the fields of genomics and applied sciences. The funding situation in Canada has improved, much to the thanks of the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. We have seen large research buildings go up all across this country from Victoria to Halifax, and all the way in between. Every major Research University has been flush with cash spending it on large capital equipment, and undertaking huge projects.

None of this has been as impressive as what we have seen in Vancouver, with the explosive growth of the Genome Sciences Centre. With their bank of ABI sequencers, MJ Research thermal Cyclers, and massive amounts of supercomputing power, no other research group has created as large an impact (open to debate, I'm sure).

In addition, we are now seeing the likes of Canadian Researcher Tom Hudson, who used to head up the Whitehead (now the Broad) Institute in Boston, come back to Canada. He landed first in Montreal, but now heads up an exciting new group at the Ontario Insitute for Cancer Research in Toronto. One of his first major hires was John McPherson, who is another Canadian who made it big in the U.S. John headed the team at Baylor's Genome Sciences Center to take over as Director of the Cancer Genomics.

What is interesting is the complete shift in technology. Both Tom and John "grew-up" using tradition Sanger based sequencing, relying heavily on PCR and cycle sequencing to get through the mounds of DNA they needed to isolate. Now, using their Next Generation Sequencers, they are able to produce as much data in a week than Baylor or the Broad could put out in year. All of this with much less manpower.

So here we come back to the question about what is happening to the Canadian Biotech community. Newly minted Canadian BSc's, MSc's and PhD's no longer find it as attractive to go to the U.S. CFI has funded large amounts for instrumentation that no longer needs people to run them. It seems that real biology is less important these days, but an understanding of bioinformatics and data analysis are skills that are in demand. That is, if you are in the field of high throughput genomics. The whole lab bench has changed. When you walk into a lab now, you are more likely to see the researchers on their computers, than actually using a pipette.

Is this really biology? What are the essential skills needed by our newest generation of scientists, and how will Canada excel in the Global community? What options do new graduates have with their degrees?

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