Journey Through Academia with Dr. Karine Auclair
Dr. Karine Auclair is now a Professor of Chemistry at McGill, and supervises a research group of 10-16 people composed of undergraduate and graduate students in addition to postdoctoral fellows. Their research aims to “find new treatments for antibiotic resistant infections and using enzymes to develop environment-friendlier processes”.
But she definitely did not start out this way.
“I come from a low-income family. My mother was an orphan, raised in an orphanage. My father did not complete grade 7. I grew up around people who had never attended university.”
Since then, Dr. Auclair has gradually worked her way to where she is now, and her personal background has only made her journey through academia a more unique and inspiring one.
Tell us about your educational background.
I was born and raised in Saguenay (500 km north of Montreal). I graduated from Universite du Quebec in Chicoutimi with BSc in chemistry. My Honor’s project consisted of isolating the antitumor agent taxol from the needles of Taxus canadensis, a shrub commonly found in the boreal forest. Unlike collecting it from the bark, which was common at the time, isolating it from the needles does not kill the tree. Next (in 1994) I moved to University of Alberta to pursue doctoral studies. I had met my current husband in my last year of undergraduate studies. He is younger than I, which meant that we had to have a long-distance relationship for 2 years before he could move to Alberta with me. The goal of my doctorate project was to understand how fungi naturally synthesize lovastatin, a commonly used cholesterol-lowering agent that my mother was taking at the time (I was taking a similar drug. We have a mutation that leads to high cholesterol blood levels). During these studies, I discovered the first enzyme ever found to catalyze a Diels-Alder reaction (a very powerful yet highly complex chemical reaction). In 1999, my husband and I moved to California, where I pursued post-doctoral studies at UC San Francisco, in a lab on the 11th floor, with a vu on the Golden Gate bridge. For 2 years I learned new biochemistry techniques while studying P450 enzymes (enzymes involved in natural product biosynthesis and in the metabolism of drugs, steroids, lipids and more). I was hired to start at McGill in January 2002.
What were some obstacles you had to conquer in academia?
Academia is a rough environment. Professors are constantly being criticized. We are criticized by students in course evaluations, and harshly criticized by other researchers when we submit scientific publications and grant applications. Nowadays, our submissions are often rejected, so we need to constantly face rejection, get over it, use the criticism to improve our documents and reapply until we are successful.
“Research is frustrating because most of the time things don’t work. It is a succession of failures, with occasional successes”
[But] publishing our research is essential to be able to attract research funding, which is essential to pay everyone in the research group (graduate students and postdocs in our lab receive a salary). We also have constant requests to review papers and grant applications, sit on committees, organise conferences, give talks, etc. It is a lot of pressure! There is too much to do. Not only is it important to learn to say no, but also to best pick what to say no to!
How has belonging to a minority group shaped your research career?
Unfortunately, as a woman in this field, I have more barriers to overcome than men. It is unfair and frustrating, but I still consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to do what I wanted to do in life! So many other factors can make a difference: timing, where you are, who you know, etc.
I was fortunate enough to do well at school and to meet teachers and professors who showed me the way. Without them, I would not be where I am today. One of my most important mentors passed away a few years ago. He was one of my organic chemistry instructors during undergrad. He made me love organic chemistry and inspired me to try my best to be a great teacher. We stayed very good friends until the end. My other mentor was my PhD supervisor. He has supported me in my goal of becoming a professor. I did not think I was good enough, but he believed in me and guided me along.
The message that I’d like to send here is that it is important to surround yourself with people who support you and stay away from those who don’t! You need career mentors, and you need a life partner and friends that will be happy with your successes (not jealous). Professors and supervisors are not the enemy. Keep good relationships with those that you like the most as their mentorship can be very precious.
What was the best piece of advice you received throughout your career?
1) In this field, you want criticism to slide along your skin like water on duck’s feathers; don’t take it personal! (I still have a hard time with this one)
2) Pick your battles
What piece of advice would you give young students wanting to get involved in research?
“Research is not research if it is not new, so you have to like changes, learning new things and not be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone.”
If research is not a passion for you, don’t do it! Research is frustrating because most of the time things don’t work. It is a succession of failures, with occasional successes. It is also very hard work. Experiments are unpredictable, so you know at what time you enter the lab every day, but you never know when you will leave.
Any final thoughts to share?
In closing, I would like to also mention the importance of “having a life”. By that, I mean hobbies and a social life. Every job has good and bad days. Having a life will help you move on. I have a husband, kids, horses, and cats. I farm trout at home, I have a small agricultural business, I do a lot of sports and I spend a lot of time outdoors.