We congratulate CRI postdoctoral fellow Etienne Gagnon, Ph.D., who was awarded the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) 2008 BIOTECanada/Schering-Plough Canada Fellowship. The award is given to the highest-ranked Canadian postdoctoral fellowship candidate in the fields of immunology, infectious and inflammatory diseases, cardiovascular conditions, allergies, and respiratory problems.
Dr. Gagnon, who is recognized for his work in the field of tumor immunology, received the prestigious honor on November 19th at the 7th Annual Canadian Health Research Awards held in Ottawa, Canada. He is a fellow in the laboratory of his sponsor, Kai Wucherpfenning, M.D., Ph.D., at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA. CRI had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Gagnon about his award and where it might lead him on his career path.
CRI: Tell us about the award and what it means to you.
Dr. Gagnon: It’s a very prestigious award, a top national award given to only one post-doctoral fellow in an entire country. Winning it shows that I am able to write a grant proposal that surpassed all of the other applications submitted during that time. Employers like to see that the people they hire in academia are able to get funding from government and private sources. I am greatly honored to have won such an award and am very grateful for the amount of doors it will open for me in the near future.
CRI: Would you please tell us about the awards ceremony?
Dr. Gagnon: There were some important ministers in attendance, and I had the opportunity to meet and mingle with the president and the vice president of the CIHR. The premiere English newspaper in Canada, The Globe and Mail, was there and one of their top public policy writers, André Picard, was the emcee for the night. I was quite lucky to have my father and the rest of my family with me. My father is a well-known scientist in his own right and has had many awards throughout his career. The highlight of the night was going onstage to receive my award and having the opportunity to thank my family for their ongoing support during the last ten years.
CRI: What was the project you described in your proposal?
Dr. Gagnon: I’m investigating how cells decide whether or not an antigen found on an antigen-presenting cell deserves a fully-activated immune response. One of the major problems tumor immunologists face is that cancer cells are able to subvert the typical immune response by preventing antigen–associated activation of T cells. In other words, “sick” cells are not recognized easily by the immune system. We are using a special imaging technique that will enable us to see the physical changes that take place within a T cell when it receives an activation signal. From this we hope to gain an understanding of how initial antigen recognition and T-cell activation occurs. Once we grasp this process, we may learn how to stimulate cancer-specific T-cells to help to overcome such diseases.
CRI: What are your current lab and sponsor like? How is this environment beneficial to you?
Dr. Gagnon: The various techniques that are used in this lab were not used a lot in my old lab, which is why I chose it. Here we focus more on antigen recognition than on antigen processing and presentation—it’s the other side of the coin, so to speak. My current primary investigator, Dr. Kai Wucherpfenning, has a very established way of working. I am learning from him how to stay well structured, how to work day-to-day, how to keep up with the literature and develop a critical understanding of the recent advances in research. We have a great work environment. The amount of expertise on the floor where I work is highly motivating—no one wants to be that person who knows less than everyone else, so everybody pushes quite hard not to be that person.
CRI: What are some of the larger challenges you face as a young researcher?
Dr. Gagnon: Funding issues are the most challenging, especially in this economy. This will impact science for years to come with start-up labs getting hit hard. It’s also tough finding new areas of research and your own niche among all of the people doing great science around the world. You don’t necessarily want to compete with 200 different labs in the world on the same subject. For a person like myself who is looking forward to starting his own lab, it’s a balance between finding research areas that are very interesting and will allow you to get funding, but not necessarily going after that highly competitive niche right from the start.
CRI: What inspires you to continue a career in tumor immunology?
Dr. Gagnon: My father used to tell me that science is 10 percent work and 90 percent luck, but if you don’t put in your 100 percent work you’ll never get your 90 percent luck. The harder you work, the more chances you have at finding something, of making something work, of identifying something that’s never been identified before. That’s a lesson that I keep very dear to me from what my father taught me as I was growing up and wanting to become a scientist. What I hope to gain from all of my experiences in immunology research is a lot of new knowledge and the eventual scientific findings that will better our understanding on how to treat these diseases.