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Cancer Genomics Researcher, Biomedical Physicist & Team Leader

Mahadeo Sukhai

Mahadeo Sukhai

Intro: Meet Dr. Mahadeo A. Sukhai, Team Leader at the Advanced Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory in the Cancer Genomics Program at the University Health Network in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Take a look at his journey to the position he now holds helping to develop better genetic tests for diagnosing cancer and personalized medicine applications.

The Story: I am Dr. Mahadeo Sukhai, a research associate in the Cancer Genomics Program at the University Health Network (UHN) hospital system in Toronto, Canada. My role combines a research fellowship, project management and team leadership where I co-manage the test development programs within the Advanced Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory (AMDL) at the UHN. The AMDL is responsible for the creation and implementation of new cancer diagnostic tests based upon genome science and personalized medicine. My position requires me to oversee a staff of 12 people.

My education and training in cancer genetics consists of a Master of Science in Pharmaceutical Sciences and a doctorate in cancer biology and medical biophysics. During two post-doctoral fellowships prior to my current position, I trained in the genomics and proteomics of cancer, experimental therapeutics and cancer pharmacology.

A normal work day involves staff supervision, data analysis and interpretation, review of clinical cases and patient reports, writing, and meetings. Even though it is common for me to spend 10 hours plus in the office, playing "catch up" with work on weekends is still typical. Because I deal with clinical cases and work on clinical trials, urgent matters often crop up during the day, so my priority has to be the clinically relevant work; this includes data analysis, result interpretation and report writing. Everything else, of necessity, has to fit in around that central priority.

I'm also involved in several Boards and professional societies. The work related to these commitments gets done around my day job where time permits, and also occupies my evenings and weekends. Each day is energizing, as it brings its own challenges, unique set of activities and circumstances —there's never any boredom!

I have the pleasure of working with a core team of people that I've worked with a very long time – including my current supervisor, who also was my PhD thesis advisor. I am lucky in that the individuals I work most closely with are people with whom I've built collaborative and personal relationships over the past decade. It's rare to be able to say that I work with my friends, but in my case it happens to be true!

When time and opportunity permits, I also teach undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Toronto, and I maintain active collaborations with colleagues within UHN and beyond. These activities help create my personal/professional network and keep it fresh.

At the conclusion of my previous fellowship, my PhD advisor approached me about this opportunity, as she thought I'd be a perfect fit and someone who could help develop the testing programs within the AMDL. This position was created specifically for me, and was based on my skills and the working relationship I have with my current supervisor. In essence, I was "poached" from my previous position – with the consent of all parties. I have now been in my current role for 15 months, as of this writing.

My scientific career has been a winding journey and that, I discovered, is entirely OK. I think everything that I do fits in a very neat package without too much imagination – but I can't take the credit for having planned it this way! I'm of the scientific generation where technologies have moved so quickly that the work I do now wasn't even foreseeable when I started my Master's 15 years ago.

I started out in genetics, and learned drug development and molecular pharmacology when I was doing my Masters and this knowledge proved very valuable during my second post-doctoral fellowship. My undergraduate degree was relevant during my PhD training in cancer genetics, and my experience in leukemia biology was of great profit throughout my post-doctoral training. My previous exposure to biomarker development comes in handy in my current job. The knowledge I'm gaining now will dovetail extremely well with future opportunities as a faculty member, should I succeed in that quest. It is easy to see how each job has prepared me for the next. Although I couldn't have predicted this path, my ability to recognize the opportunities that presented themselves, and think through how to synthesize them, was critical. Sometimes we fall into the opportunities that come our way, and sometimes we make them by virtue of our experience, skills and reputation. In my career, I've been lucky enough to have realized both.

I was born with congenital cataracts in the Caribbean, and hold the distinction of being one of a handful of congenitally blind biomedical researchers in North America. Certainly, I was the first graduate student to present my accommodation requirements at the University of Toronto. Earlier in my career, my accommodations were tremendous and expensive. I required specialized equipment, personal assistance and technology modifications. Today, I am fortunately in a position where I work with people who understand my accommodation requirements, and I have a position where I can dictate my responsibilities to some extent. Being in a supervisory capacity, most of my work is computer oriented, so my need for personal assistance at the laboratory bench, and for specialized equipment, has diminished substantially.

I love my job and I enjoy the opportunities it provides to learn new technologies. I've had to do more hands-on staff management in this role than I've done before. This has taken some getting used to, in terms of interpersonal relationships and team dynamics. Because of my organizational nature, I don't always like having to drop things I'm working on , in order to do something else that needs to be done in a "rush"– it's the nature of the job, though, and has probably been the hardest thing to get used to. However, I'm in a good place overall, and I'm using this opportunity to develop my skills further.

Even today, most youth with vision loss wouldn't consider a career in my field. Either they have been discouraged from it early by teachers and family, or they themselves consider it impossible. I understand this. I, too, had lots of people tell me I could never do what I've done, and that I shouldn't be doing it. But I am! And, I also had lots of other people who recognized my talent, interest, and passion for learning, and they encouraged and fostered this desire within me. They gave me the chance to learn and grow …and even make mistakes. My advice to anyone blind or partially sighted who is considering a career in the sciences is, first of all, make sure you're passionate about this pursuit, that you learn and take advantage of the opportunities you meet, and that you find a mentor who is passionate about helping you. With these important implements in your career education toolbox, you are sure to succeed.

The Contact: Mahadeo Sukhai

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