Chapter 03: Developing a Researcher's Approach; Observations on the Current Job Market and Team Science
Dr. Mills sketches his next phase of professional training, beginning with his fellowship at Flinders Medical Center (Adelaide, Australia, 1/1976-1/1978), where he focused on immunology and beta-cell immune responses and worked with Warren Jones. He also notes that he experienced a very different "and positive"approach to professional training that he has tried to emulate. He compares the Canadian and Australian healthcare systems. Next, Dr. Mills talks about his work at the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children (Research Fellow, Division of Immunology, The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Canada, E. Gelfand, 1/1982-1/1985). This program, he explains, solidified the conceptual and administrative framework he now uses to approach research and also his attitudes toward mentoring. Dr. Mills explains some difficulties in replicating the situation at Toronto Hospital at MD Anderson. He notes that "science needs to come from the bottom up, not the top down."
The Historical Resources Center, The Research Medical Library, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center
The Interview Subject's Story - Professional Path; Professional Path; Inspirations to Practice Science/Medicine; The Researcher; Understanding Cancer, the History of Science, Cancer Research; Influences from People and Life Experiences; Professional Practice; The Professional at Work; Mentoring; On Mentoring; Education; On Education; Leadership; On Leadership; On Research and Researchers; Business of Research
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:Absolutely. Well tell me about -- so, we've talked about medical school and you did your PhD at the same time, so tell me about, a little bit more about the evolution of your research interest, evolving from this immunology perspective on fetus and mother.
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :When I moved from Edmonton to Toronto, having been an obstetrician and gynecologist, I actually moved to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, which is a bit of a challenge because the pediatricians and obstetricians sometimes are in conflict over who did or did not cause problems with babies, but it worked and this really was an immunology program and very much a basic immunology program. As I moved from there to my own laboratory, I became much more interested in the interaction between the immune environment and the tumor.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:Now are we -- we're missing a little thing here, because you were in Australia for a couple of years.
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :No, I was only in Australia for about six months.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:Oh, okay.
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :That came about as I had developed a new technology, when I was in medical school doing research, and the immunology group, one of the best in the world, with Warren Jones, was in Adelaide, and he invited me to come and do a training program with him.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:And the institution, just for the record?
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :Flinders University, which had just opened, and it actually was a wonderful experience in sort of two ways. The first is, is seeing a totally different attitude towards trainees, and probably one that I have followed. Trainees in Australia are apprentices, they're doctors in training. In contrast, in the Canadian system and the American system to a degree, there is not the sort of understanding that you are, you will be a physician, and I respect your opinion. Instead here, it's I want to challenge everything you are and think, and I want to mold you in my design and manner. And so it was absolutely wild for me, for people to ask questions and actually want to know how I answered them, rather than what I was used to, see if I can find something to pick apart in your answer. That again, was a much more interactive, collegial, collaborative environment that I was not used to.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:And treating people like a professional from the word go.
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :Well, and there were a lot of little things that were absolutely wild. I mean, there was beer and wine in the training room. If you had a glass of beer while you were on call fine, but if you went over the limit you were fired instantaneously. You were expected to behave as an adult and within reason, and it was just a totally different environment.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:What was the research you were doing there?
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :At that time I developed a new approach to measure B-cell immune responses in patients. The assay was sufficiently tricky and difficult, that while I could make it work, it was never broadly adapted. It was far too complex to be a practical assay, and so other approaches were developed that bypassed what I had put in place at that time.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:What did you learn from that experience?
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :Again, I think that the biggest piece of learning was that the way in which we trained physicians and people in the American system, really was perhaps not the best approach, and that this is the way I did it, and I got beat up by my attending and I'm going to now pass that on to the others. Education is by attack and challenge, rather than by respect, working with a colleague, building a team, and all of the pieces that I've been talking about. I think that was one of the big pieces.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:I guess I was referring specifically to, was there something that you learned, through the course of that research, even though it didn't pan out as you might have wished.
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :It was part of my overall research program and so it really had to do with the concepts, and I've mentioned them a few times. One of the things that I do is to set up new approaches and new techniques, and then share and disseminate and make them available to others in a broad basis. To me, that has been an intriguing process and it's clear, as I look at my own CV, that that statement is true, but I consider myself one of the most technology adverse people I've ever met. But, when I look at my colleagues around me, I am perhaps not as adverse as most, and I guess it's just been a series of processes where we do what we need to, and again, it's what I described earlier. By being willing to do anything, we gain breadth, but as I said, I doubt that we do anything the best in the world. We are a group that integrates across technologies and approaches.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:So, I kind of derailed you by going to the Adelaide experience, because it just looked like an interesting moment in your -- and how was it to go so far away, too? I mean, you said --well, you chose to go to Edmonton, University of Alberta, because it was home, and then you go to Australia. What was that like, experiencing being in another country?
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :Well, I can say that it was an experience. There are cases where I did things that were very silly, from not being used to the different environment. It was a great learning experience, to see how a completely different approach to medicine worked. The Canadian system is a single payer system, the federal government covers all patient care. In Australia, they had a two tier system, with everybody getting basic medical care, but you could then pay if you wished, for additional care. Intriguing, that the patients who got the best care were not those that paid for a specialist. Those were the ones that went to the hospital, to the people who were seeing more patients and seeing numbers, which mattered, and so it was a very important learning experience, to see a completely different system.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:A different medical system, yeah. Well, let's go back to your experience in Toronto. Tell me more about that and the evolution of your research.
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :Well, there are maybe two or three different parts of this that turned out, I think to be very important in where I am now conceptually. The first one is, is that I worked in a very good group, and I have attempted to rebuild, in my own group, the interactions with the different postdocs in the group and with the supervisors, and really have been unable to build an environment that is anywhere near as exciting. It is truly exciting to be a postdoc and have no restrictions on what you do, where you go. You're not worried about grants, that's your boss's problem, and so it really was an incredible opportunity. There were two really, I think important pieces, and one is, is that my boss, Erwin Gelfand, had a very good view of what science was about, about the challenges, the opportunities and how to work within that environment, but perhaps even more importantly, there were two people there. One, Sergio Grinstein, that we collaborated with, and another, Brian Williams, who just was in the lab down the road, that helped me when there was no reason for them to do so, and that really became a point of saying well, you've got to pay forward. That, I think has led to a lot of what I talked about, about building teams, about sharing, about putting technologies in place, making them available to others. I have won, I think almost every mentoring award that the institution offers. I'm not sure I consider myself a good mentor, but it really is paying attention to how you could help others, without it having to be something that benefits you directly. That was something that Brian Williams taught me. I handed him a grant of mine to look at and he said, "This is horrible, now here's what you do." I think that's the other part of mentoring. Mentoring isn't being nice. Mentoring can be tough love, and that's a little hard for people to understand. It's much easier to just be a cheerleader, but that doesn't really accomplish as much as you do saying you know hey, here's something you need to work on, this is a problem. Here are some things that are great, you have to keep them going and excited, but it is really the part of saying, I'm going to do the tough things and if somebody hates me for it that's fine, it has to be done.
Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:Tell me more about that environment, because you said it was just so exciting and you've been unable, despite effort to recreate it.
Gordon B. Mills, MD, PhD :I think that part of it is my fault. It was an environment where everybody interacted freely with each other. We criticized aggressively. I think that we had a run of over twenty papers in a row, that were accepted without substantial change, because if it got out of our Friday morning lab meeting it was at a state where it was mature and had been beat up, and we had gone over every possible weakness. Unfortunately, it has been hard to recreate that with the trainees that I have had. Most of them are not as aggressive and willing to speak up, and part of it may well be the fact that they wait for me to speak, and that's something that I've not been able to get around and build. So, I tried many times, and to a degree have decided that a different approach works now. I think it was a different time, all of the people in the lab were Canadian or American, and had come in with a very different attitude towards how you would move things forward. We now have a lot of foreign graduates who are sufficiently nervous with their language, that they just don't speak up in the same way, and also culturally, you don't question the professor. I can say that my exit interviews with visiting scientists have frequently been ones that I've gone into with dread, because I bring them in infrequently, will just let them go and do things, and I'm worried that they say well, I didn't get enough of your attention and all the rest. But they have universally said, you taught me one thing and one thing that is important; science needs to come from bottom up, not top down. The European and even more so, the Asian system, is the professor tells you what to do. They may come in and say you will do exactly this today, without any understanding of why, and that system does not use the incredible power of these young trainees, to take their creativity, to help and direct, but not to instruct. I think that has been one of the rewarding points out of saying boy, did I do the job that I wanted, rather yes, there's an environment here that says I need to build my own project, I need to figure out how to make it work, and if I fail it's my responsibility, not my boss's. I think it's an approach that has worked for me. It doesn't work for everyone, doesn't work for all of my trainees. I've had a few that said this is just not the right environment for me, and I've helped them find positions elsewhere, but it's one that has worked. I have a very successful group of trainees, and so it's been, I think a very good approach for those where it's appropriate.
Mills, Gordon B. M.D., Ph.D. and Rosolowski, Tacey A. Ph.D., "Chapter 03: Developing a Researcher's Approach; Observations on the Current Job Market and Team Science" (2016). Interview Chapters. 62.