Where Are They Now – David Cook

At BioCanRx, we are incredibly proud of our HQP and their dedication to cancer immunotherapy research. Whether they are working on viruses in the lab or examining the socioeconomic barriers to adopting certain treatments in Canada, each one plays a unique role in strengthening our network and expertise in immunotherapy.


BioCanRx is invested in our HQP by providing them with both the training and skills they need to be leaders in academia and industry.


Where do you work now, and what is your position?


My name is David Cook and I’m a Scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa. My research is focused on understanding the complex organization of tumours and how cancer cells can adapt to changes in their environment to resistant therapies and evade the immune system.


Tell us about yourself. Give us a brief background. Who are you? Where did you go to school and what is your association to BioCanRx?


I fell into science later in my life. My high school and early post-secondary years were spent playing guitar in an emo band (I know—it was the early 2000s) and working in a recording studio. That career didn’t play out how I imagined, and I found myself looking for something new. I went to adult high school to get science credits and eventually enrolled in Nursing at the University of Ottawa. I fell in love with academics right away. It was the first time I could tailor my education to my interests. After the first year of my undergrad, I changed paths with the plan of going to medical school to be a physician.


Coming into the end of my 3rd year, I had been curious about academic research. In a serendipitous moment at the end of a lecture taught by Dr. Barbara Vanderhyden, I went to ask her a question after class. I don’t recall how, but we ended up talking about opportunities for research as an undergraduate and she invited me to meet her team. After completing my 4th year Honour’s research project with her, I never looked back. I continued into a MSc degree in the lab, and a PhD after that focused on cellular plasticity in cancer. I then went to work with Dr. Jeff Wrana at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto to study how tissue structure shapes cellular properties. In January 2024, I started my own lab at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.


Throughout my graduate studies, I worked with BioCanRx to provide cancer research outreach to hundreds of high school students from across Canada. With their support and in association with Let’s Talk Science, we developed workshops that we delivered at local high schools and organized an annual symposium for students called Let’s Talk Cancer.


What advice do you have on developing key relationships throughout your career?


Find good mentors that are invested in your growth. In science, your graduate and postdoctoral supervisors are probably the main determinants of your success. There is more to the choice of supervisor than the science they are conducting. Their responsibility is to ensure you are making continual progress towards your career goals, and you want to make sure they are equally committed to your growth as they are the science. You want a supervisor that will be your biggest cheerleader when you move on from their lab.


I also believe that success depends on building an identity independent from your supervisors. In school, we are given the impression that to succeed, we can just keep our heads down and do good work that speaks for itself. Unfortunately, science is a saturated market and many individuals competing for opportunities (e.g. jobs, grants, awards) will have done good work. Many decisions will come down to connections and reputation. It will benefit you to look beyond your work and build a strong network. Be a good colleague to those around you, have friendly conversations at conferences/events, and don’t be shy to promote yourself and your work. And don’t discount relationships with other trainees. They are connections that you can maintain throughout your entire career, they can open (and close!) doors for career opportunities, and can lead to lifelong friendship.


What does a typical workday look like for you?


Having just opened my lab two months ago, I’m still adjusting to the new routine! My responsibilities have certainly changed. Before this, my days were largely spent working on research projects. I now spend much more time working with members if the lab to oversee progress in their projects and career, seeking out and managing lab funding, and tackling various administrative tasks. It’s a work in progress, but I’m trying to establish a daily routine to manage it. As much as I can, I try to protect my mornings for any important work that requires brain power. This is when I try to get most of my reading and writing done. I try to limit meetings and “odds-and-ends” tasks to the afternoon when my energy tends to be lower. As I’m sure many can relate, I do struggle with procrastination, so I am prone to spending some late nights catching up ahead of deadlines. I’d like to get better at avoiding this though!


What do you enjoy most about your current role?


I think the most fun part of this job is getting the chance to think deeply about the science. During your training, you must balance thinking about the work with actually doing the experiments. I now spend much less time doing the work, but I get more time to think and write about each project. I also cherish the day-to-day interactions with members of the lab and colleagues at the institute.


What skills do you think are most important for someone interested in a position like yours? How can you acquire these skills or better these skills?


It’s valuable to consider both “hard” and “soft” skills. I discussed the value of interpersonal relationships above. Although we can spend over a decade training how to do science, being a scientist heavily depends on management skills. We lead a team, coordinate multiple projects, seek funding, manage budgets, promote our work at conferences, teach lectures, and more. We get no formal training in any of this. You can, however, try to gain skills in these areas during your training. Try to attend and present at conferences, ask your supervisor if you can be involved with the grant writing process, take opportunities to train or mentor junior members of the lab, read some management books.


It is also helpful to develop valuable technical skills. Although I had no formal training in it, I started teaching myself data science and bioinformatics in my MSc. I built a reputation on these skills and became a “go to” person for projects involving them. This led to diverse collaborations with other labs that both expanded my professional network and resulted in numerous scientific publications. This has all played a significant role in my career.


Do you have any advice for the younger HQP who are currently developing their career paths?


Take time to reflect and realign your career trajectory with what interests you most. Embrace evolving interests. Fight against pressures to simply chase careers for high status alone—physician, lawyer, entrepreneur. Think about the life you want to live and what you want to spend your precious time doing. In science, you may decide that you don’t want to spend your time writing grants. This is absolutely fine—an increasing number of PhDs pursue non-academic jobs. Consider opportunities in government, industry (biotech, pharma), and non-profits