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Gabrielle Boulianne: Making your work part of who you are

By Kat Kostic

Dr. Gabrielle Boulianne is a Senior Scientist in the Developmental and Stem Cell Biology Program at SickKids and Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto. Most of the time, she is investigating what regulates the development and function of the nervous system, and whether she can use fruit flies to understand the causes of human diseases, including neurodegenerative disorders and obesity.

Boulianne is passionate about education; she serves as Associate Chief of Research Training and Career Development and as Director of the Research Training Centre (RTC) at SickKids. For the past year, she has been working on creating and implementing a comprehensive curriculum for career development for all members of the Research Institute, which can be found on both the RTC and Faculty Office intranet pages. The new curriculum has been tailored to meet the needs of all staff, ranging from the undergraduate student who is new to research, all the way to the senior, more experienced faculty.

“I am delighted that we are recognizing the extensive work that has been completed by Gabrielle and her colleagues to create the new Career Development Curriculum” said Kelly McMillen, Director, Learning Institute.  “The topics have been designed to build upon one another to increase knowledge and skills in key areas for both trainees and faculty.”

Tell us about this initiative and why you found it necessary to implement it.

The RTC was originally established in 1996 in response to a need for a more coordinated and integrated approach to research training. Towards that goal, the RTC focused on understanding the various challenges of those training at SickKids and worked with trainees to support and improve their research training experiences through funding programs, and various seminars and workshops.

However, during the past decade, how we do research has changed dramatically and we also needed to change to ensure that all of our trainees, staff and faculty remained at the top of their game. It’s no longer good enough to be bright and hard working to succeed in research. You also need great communication and leadership skills. You need to understand how to make the most of your discoveries to ensure that you publish in top journals, remain competitive for funding in an increasingly difficult climate and understand when and how to market your discoveries should the opportunity arise. We want all of our staff and faculty to have access to the best training so that they have a leg up on the competition when it comes to funding and we want our trainees to be able to land their dream job. This is what we are trying to achieve with the new curriculum. We want to train the next generation of leaders who will transform research and patient care at SickKids and throughout the public and private sector.

What makes working at SickKids special?

I have always described SickKids to my colleagues at other institutions as a place that is both competitive and friendly. What I mean by that is that we all strive to be the best in the world but are willing to help each other achieve that goal. We do this as an organization by providing opportunities for growth and career development for all our staff. We also do it as individuals by taking what we learn and using it to mentor the next generation. This is what I want to encourage with the new curriculum. By providing career development opportunities to our current trainees, staff and faculty, we not only improve their performance but also train the next generation of mentors and leaders. It also helps us to recruit and retain the best and the brightest.

Is there a particular education initiative at SickKids that inspires you?

There are so many that it’s hard to focus on just one. Our leadership/management workshops were inspired and developed in collaboration with the Organizational Development Team at SickKids. AboutKidsHealth is also a great educational program for both kids and families. Mostly, I am inspired by watching individuals, who on a daily basis take the time to mentor trainees and colleagues. I personally have benefited enormously by colleagues who have taken the time to listen and help with both scientific and leadership issues and I hope I have been able to pass it on.

How do you envision education in the future?

I think there is no doubt that education will be heavily impacted by developments in technology with more emphasis on online and virtual learning experiences, which enable educators to reach large numbers of individuals. My hope is that this doesn’t completely eliminate face time since some things can only be taught in small groups or one-on-one. The challenge is finding the balance and developing formats that create great environments for people to learn.

Who was your all-time favourite educator and why?

My favourite educator was my undergraduate research supervisor. He had just joined the faculty and was probably desperate to get his lab started and therefore not too picky about what students he took in. I had absolutely no experience and was pretty green at the time and I have to admit that most of the time I didn’t understand much of what he was talking about (a combination of his heavy accent and my lack of knowledge).

However, there was one thing he said that always stayed with me. He told me that to succeed in science (and I would argue most fields) your work has to become a part of who you are and you have to take it with you everywhere you go. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have a life and can’t enjoy time with friends and family, going out for dinner and a good movie, a round of golf or whatever else you enjoy. Rather, to me it meant that your research should always be playing quietly in the back of your head. I think he was right and it’s the reason you think that you suddenly have come up with a solution to a long standing problem when in reality, you’ve been working on it for a long time.