Joining the dots: scientific consultancy

14 March 2017

Dr Audrey Ho Yee Poon has found a way to utilise and build upon her experience as a research scientist to create an intellectually stimulating career path. In 2013, she set up her own consulting firm in Montreal - where she now employs two colleagues whom she previously studied with.

Her firm concentrates on two things related to her academic foci: advising countries with limited research on lung diseases on how to get funding from pharmaceutical companies, and helping researchers to move into a different discipline while working on the same disease.

These are both issues that limit the domain of lung disease. Obtaining funding in itself, although necessary as a scientist, is a skill which is not taught. Yet grants can be difficult to come by and requirements are demanding, meaning that areas that are new to particular areas of research may struggle to obtain funding. Additionally, team grants have become increasingly common, which requires scientists to explore different areas of the disease that they are familiar with. Although this is a good thing, it does require more active collaboration and partnerships between different specialists. This is something that Audrey helps researchers to do.

Despite her role as a scientific consultant being quite different to that of a researcher, Poon believes that her experience as a researcher has been invaluable to her ability to positively impact the research domain of lung disease. Poon sees the role of consultancies focusing on different research domains as an increasingly important attribute to the scientific community - and a viable career route for research scientists. She hopes to train more consultants who will be able to help researchers to bring together their unique skills and specialties to make big differences to scientific research. As it is a specialised field, it is best suited to those with a background in research.

Like many scientists, Poon found her specialism quite by chance. During her bachelors degree she had to do an independent study and by the time she had gotten her act together, there was only one professor left who was still taking on students, and he was working on tuberculosis. Poon then took this further during her PhD research on identifying whether there are any genetic risk factors for tuberculosis that are protective for asthma. She then dropped tuberculosis and focused on asthma in her post doctorate - staying within the field of lung diseases.

Poon’s contributions to research into lung disease cannot be left out. Although her path to lung disease research and her consultancy were somewhat unplanned, they are significant. During her last fellowship - at McGill University - Poon’s group was the first to identify and publish on a process called autophagy, the process that cells use to destroy and recycle cellular components, in relation to asthma. In layman’s terms, autophagy is the recycling mechanism of a cell - the process that chews up rubbish and uses whatever can be used again in the cell. This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, went to Japanese autophagy researcher Yoshinori Ohsumi.

As exciting as Poon finds the arena of scientific research, she sees two major problems with it - which she in some part is working to resolve through her consultancy. Firstly, financial restrictions: The more advanced in your studies you become, the more specialised and difficult it becomes to continue your trajectory. Secondly, scientists tend to be too humble at selling their abilities, “the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know.” This attitude can make it hard to be entrepreneurial, as it means underselling oneself. Her advice to budding scientists: “Stand up tall, believe in yourself and don’t underestimate your ability in science!”

Dr Audrey Ho Yee Poon obtained her B.Sc and Ph.D degrees from McGill University in the department of biochemistry. She was awarded the Croucher Foundation fellowship which allowed her to pursue her postdoctoral fellowship at Channing Laboratory, Harvard Medical School in 2006.

To view Dr Poon’s personal Croucher profile, please click here.