For the Love of the Lab: Interview with John E. Dick, PhD

John E. Dick, PhD
Dr. Dick is a senior scientist at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto, and director of the Program in Cancer Stem Cells at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR).

John E. Dick, PhD, recipient of the 2018 Mentor Award in basic science, tells us about his career in the lab – from working at “the mecca of stem-cell research” to learning how to foster creativity in his own lab.

Did you always know you wanted to pursue a career in medical science?

Not at all, and I wasn’t exposed to any type of biology or the notion that one could be a medical researcher, until after I graduated high school.

I grew up on a farm about an hour outside of Winnipeg, Manitoba, which is in the very center of Canada. I went to a small elementary school – a classic one-room schoolhouse, really – and we didn’t have biology classes. Then I went to an equally small high school, which also didn’t have biology classes. I had no idea what I wanted to do after I graduated, so I went to a community college where I ended up taking a medical radiology technician course. That’s where I first learned about anatomy and physiology, and I loved it.

At the time, I was living with a bunch of guys who were attending the University of Manitoba. (I won’t go into it, but it really was like an Animal House.) I saw them and I thought, “You know what? Maybe I could go to university for a year or two.” So, I applied and was accepted; that’s how I started down the path to becoming a biomedical researcher.

As an undergraduate, I was spending time in the lab and talking with PhD students and I again had the thought, “I can do this.” So, I enrolled in the PhD program and that was that.

When did you decide to focus in hematology?

It was pure circumstance. When I completed the PhD program, I had to decide where I wanted to do my post-doc training. By this point, I was married with two kids, so there were certain moves that were easier for our family to make. That led me to Toronto and the Ontario Cancer Institute, which is now the research division of Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

This was the mid-1980s, when the institute was the mecca of stem-cell research. James Till, PhD, and Ernest McCulloch, MD, conducted their pioneering work there in the early 1960s, which launched the modern era of stem-cell research. This was my first exposure to hematopoietic stem cells. My PhD training involved biochemistry and taking a genetic approach to figuring out why cells grew in an abnormal way; before I came to Ontario Cancer Institute, I would estimate that I had read fewer than 10 papers about blood.

It was a wonderful introduction to the blood system. One of my eventual mentors, Alan Bernstein, PhD, and his lab had published one of the first papers on gene transfer into stem cells using retrovirus vectors and everyone was energized by the promise of gene therapy. We all thought it was going to cure everything.

It sounds like you were “hooked” early, but was there any other area that you could see yourself in?

I couldn’t see myself in another career. This is all I’ve ever done, aside from a minor detour while I was a third-year undergraduate. I was working as an X-ray technician on weekends and during the summer to support myself as a student. The doctors with whom I was working were planning to set up a new clinic. They offered me an opportunity to be involved at the ground floor, and essentially, to make radiology my career. But I didn’t take that offer.

I decided a long time ago to that I wanted to stay in the lab. If an offer came my way – typically, these were for leadership positions or positions that required a more administrative role – I thought about what it meant for my time in the lab. If it meant less time there, I declined. I get my kicks at the lab and, 30 years later, I’m still doing it. Anything else is a distraction from that.

Which mentors helped you in establishing your career?

My mentors at the Ontario Cancer Institute were Dr. Bernstein and Robert Phillips, PhD – both of whom worked with Dr. McCulloch and Dr. Till.

I have such fond memories of that period of my life. Neither lab was very big – about six or seven people, a couple of techs, and a post-doc or two, but mostly students – so each fostered an interactive, collaborative environment. Dr. Bernstein was doing interesting work with Friend virus–induced leukemia. His early experiments provided insight into tumorigenesis and, combined with his lab’s work on retroviruses, they were able to perform retroviral-mediated gene transfer.

Dr. Phillips was a classic stem-cell biologist. His studies in the late 1970s and ’80s helped define the image of a blood stem cell. There was no way to track stem cells in that era, but using low-dose radiation to induce chromosome translocations, he and his team developed a new method for lineage-tracing. Dr. Phillips also was a noted immunologist, and he worked on the early development of severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) in mice.

What lessons did you learn from your mentors that you continue to share with your own mentees?

While I was finishing my time as a post-doc, Drs. Phillips and Bernstein were working on a joint project regarding gene therapy, which, understandably was a competitive area. It felt like a race; many people around the world were trying to develop successful gene therapy – to put a virus into a hematopoietic cell and cure, for example, thalassemia.

At our weekly meetings to discuss our progress, I would come in with a hotshot idea for a set of experiments. Dr. Phillips would think it over, sit back, and then explain why it wouldn’t work or how it had already been done before by Drs. Till and McCulloch in the 1960s. It happened repeatedly. It sounds disappointing, but it taught me an important lesson: Don’t reinvent the wheel.

I still see this in science today; generations of scientists forget what went on before them. They spend time and effort and resources getting to the same point that has already been reached.

They also taught me about doing an experiment for the right reasons. That was hard to remember during the era of competition to get to gene therapy. At the time though, they showed me that if somebody else gets to that crucial discovery first, it’s fine. It just means that you can now leapfrog; you can take that information and continue to advance the idea. The goal of the experiment shouldn’t be as narrow as a single success; there should be a bigger question that you’re aiming to answer.

What qualities do you think make someone a good mentor?

Mentors should be willing to share their advice freely. Dr. Phillips was a wonderful example of this. After my post-doc training, I was at SickKids, the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, where he also had moved as head of his own group. He continued to join our lab meetings and offered his perspective on the experiments we were running. In fact, our experiments that led to the identification of leukemia cells came out of discussions with Dr. Phillips at lab meetings.

He offered me tons of advice during the first 10 years of running my own lab, and he gave it without asking for anything in return. He didn’t ask for credit or coauthorship – which is important for junior faculty working in the lab. Of course, one should be acknowledged for making strong contributions to a body of work, but at some level, advice and collegiality should not be treated as currency. Today, the publish-or-perish environment has forced us into a situation where people might say, “I’m not going to lift a finger to help you unless I get authorship on a paper.” This happens before the experiments even get started!

How did you learn to become a mentor yourself? Were there any missteps along the way?

Again, it was happenstance. I never set out to be a mentor. My philosophy when I started setting up my own lab was to treat people in my lab the same way I treat people in life: Be engaging and interested and supportive of them, rather than treating them as commodities used to advance my own goals. I just wanted to treat people properly. At the end of the day, that’s what mentoring was to me.

For a while, it wasn’t a conscious effort on my part. But, after working with a few generations of trainees and seeing what they accomplished after they left the nest, so to speak, I started to take pride in the part I played in their careers. There is a special pleasure in picking up a journal and seeing a paper written by one of my former lab trainees.

Of course, I have gone through learning periods. When you start a lab, you’re not much older than the staff you’re hiring. Coming from a collegial atmosphere in Drs. Bernstein’s and Phillips’ labs, I was eager to establish a similar, non-hierarchical environment. But there are a lot of personalities in the lab. I’ve likened it to bringing together a bunch of thoroughbreds; they are all terrific in their own right, but stick them too close together and they can buck up against each other. So, at some point, I realized that what my lab needed was for me to make decisions. When it boils down to it, I am the boss. It took me a while to come to grips with that.

Still, I try to do most things by consensus. We sit, we talk, we think; we argue, we make mistakes, we bring our biases. This is important because being the leader also means trusting your team and fostering their creativity – which isn’t always easy. Science is an art; it’s standing in front of a blank canvas and trying to create something new. I have learned to let people follow their instincts, and that leads us in a direction none of us would have imagined.

If someone were to ask you for your secret to success, what would you tell him or her?

Luck. I’ve had such good fortune to work with amazingly creative people and supportive institutions.

What do you do when you’re not in the lab?

There’s more to life than work; I wholeheartedly believe that and live my life that way. Family is important, so I’ve strived to keep an achievable level of work-life balance. That balance changes at different phases of your career. For where I am now, that means spending time with our two terrific kids, who have given us four wonderful grandkids. They live close by, so whenever I get free time I spend it with them.