Dr. Catalina Lopez-Correa is the Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) of Genome BC and former CSO of Genome Quebec. Formally trained as both a medical physician and scientific researcher, her background in biotech, pharmacy, and corporate America allowed her to travel the world while preparing her for her current position. We sat down with Dr. Lopez-Correa to discuss her journey from medicine and research to industry and funding agencies.
What are your responsibilities as CSO of Genome BC?
As CSO of Genome BC, I oversee the projects and programs we’re managing, as well as anything related to the science. We have three big departments at Genome BC: Finance, Science, and Communications/Outreach. I work with the science department, but a lot of my work overlaps with the Finance department because every project has a finance report. I also work very closely with the Outreach department we coordinate a lot of presentations, talks and public events about the application of genomic technologies in different sectors.
What is your favorite aspect of your job?
Genome BC is funding projects in many different sectors (human health, forestry, agriculture, fisheries, environment, mining, etc), so what is really interesting about my position is the variety of sectors and topics we address. There are some days when I go from a meeting about precision medicine with the Ministry of Health to the Forest Genetics Council and then to a conference coordinated by mining companies. It is very diverse. But it’s cool in the sense that it’s all genomics – that is the underlying theme covering everything. The applications of genomics are just so vast and different that it makes my days super interesting.
Is this the type of career that you always envisioned for yourself? Did you ever want to use your medical degree to become a doctor, or your PhD to become a professor?
No. I definitely wasn’t one of those people who grew up always wanting to be a doctor. I enjoyed medicine for the knowledge, but I liked the research aspect more. Then I started my masters and realized that I didn’t want to stay in academia either. I wasn’t interested in writing grants and fighting for funding my whole life. Plus the environment was so competitive and unhealthy in my lab. I did still pursue a PhD after my masters, but that was because I was interested in science and I knew that a PhD would open more doors for me. I also wanted to get a more significant understanding of genomics, science, genetics, and how these apply to medicine.
Once you realized that academia wasn’t for you, how did you transition into industry?
After I finished my PhD I got an offer from a biotech company called Genomica. They were originally based in the US, but they were opening operations in Europe in genomics and bioinformatics, so I quickly grabbed the opportunity. The position was for an application scientist and was more commercial than scientific. But the reality is that when I look back, being at a biotech company at the time of the boom in bioinformatics and biotechs in the US opened many doors for me. It wasn’t the most exciting job, but you can’t immediately expect to transition into a director or manager role after you graduate. You need that transition period where you can show people that you understand the private sector.
What other positions did you hold before joining the world of funding agencies?
Genomica eventually closed its doors, and I moved to a company called Informax as a bioinformatics consultant. From there I moved to Iceland for a position as head of cytogenetics at a biotech company called deCODE. I loved it there. The company was like a university lab that had lots of money, but without the competition of academia. I had my core facility for cytogenetics, a super microscope, and any other equipment I needed. I was no longer an application scientist trying to sell people things – I was really doing the science!
Eventually I wanted to find a job where I could mix genomics and medicine and I started hearing more and more about pharmacogenomics. I got an offer for a position in the US and that’s when I moved to North America. That’s when I was pushed into corporate America which was a very different experience.
After so many years in the research industry, why did you decide to make the transition to a funding agency like Genome Quebec?
To be honest, it was an accident. At the time, my partner and I were both living in the US. I had a green card and was working for Eli Lilly, and she was doing a masters and had a J1 student visa. Once she finished her degree she had one year to do optional professional training, but then she had to leave the country. We tried to find solutions but we decided to move to a more accepting country where we didn’t have to be worried about being chased out.
We visited Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec, and we fell in love with Canada. My partner started applying for graduate programs at the universities, and her first choice was Toronto. I wanted to go to Montreal because I speak French and the culture is so European. In the end she got accepted in Montreal and not Toronto, so that’s where we went. So like I said, it was an accident.
In the meantime, I got a position at something called Genome Quebec. I had no idea what it really was. The posting was for Scientific Director which sounded like a nice title, and it involved genomics which was my passion. I was told that I would be responsible for a portfolio of projects, but I didn’t even understand at the time that Genome Quebec didn’t do projects themselves, they helped others with their projects!
Was the transition to Scientific Director of a funding agency a natural transition for you?
When I’d transitioned from academia to industry it had been a learning process, but the biggest shock for me came when I joined Genome Quebec. There were a lot of challenges and I didn’t really understand my role. And I just came from Eli Lilly where I had my own lab, had a future, and had been very happy.
But I was also lucky with my timing. When I arrived at Genome Quebec there were some issues with upper management and both the CEO and CSO left. I took that opportunity to approach the chairman of the board and make a case for making me the new CSO. I reminded him that I was brought on because of my scientific reliability and international connections, and I outlined what I thought Genome Quebec was missing. They gave me the position as interim CSO for one year, and afterwards I was awarded the position permanently. In the end, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. First moving to Canada, and then entering the world of funding agencies. I really enjoy what I do now!
You have a lot of projects aimed at bringing genomics to developing countries. Is that something that you brought to Genome BC?
That’s more of a side project of mine. Right now I’m editing a book with a co-editor in Greece on the subject, but I do it at night and on the weekends.
We have, however, done some one-day symposiums at Genome BC and Genome Quebec, where we talk about the impact that local genomics can have if applied to developing countries. But because our funding has to stay in BC, our projects are focused on developing the genomics community in BC. However, I definitely think that genomics should be for everybody.
Do you have any advice for young scientists trying to figure out what they want to do with their degrees?
Do something you’re passionate about! If you don’t feel that you have something to contribute, or if you’re only at work because of a pay-cheque, it becomes painful. You start making a difference when you truly internally believe in what you’re doing. And that helps you persevere when things don’t work on the first go, which happens often.
Another piece of advice is that sometimes challenging situations can also be opportunities. For example, when I first moved to Quebec, I was initially depressed. I felt like I had done this incredibly generous, supportive thing by quitting my job and following my partner, and I was being repaid with a job where I was confused and unhappy. But, as I said, in the end it wound up being one of the best decisions I made in my life!
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Dr. Lopez- Correa