Distinguished Scientist and Head, Cancer Genetics, Genome Sciences Centre, BC Cancer Agency

Hello Readers - this week I will tell you about how research labs work, how we obtain funds and how donors are increasingly important to what we do.

Most research labs at the BC Cancer Agency Research Centre are a lot like small businesses. Each Principal Investigator defines research goals and raises funds, mainly by writing grants to compete for federal and other external funding. Each grant proposal describes an idea and the experiments to test that idea. Grants are reviewed by panels of experts, who discuss and debate their merits before selecting the top-ranked applications for funding. The current success rate for ‘operating’ grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (Canada’s main health research funder) is about 16%, and it is not unusual to revise and submit a grant several times (taking six months to complete the application and review cycle each time), before it is funded, or abandoned. Being a Principal Investigator means you grow a very thick skin!

Research grant funding is used to employ staff and trainees. My team includes research associates who do physical lab experiments, and a study coordinator who enrolls patients and their family members into the Lymphoid Cancer Family Study. Graduate students are like apprentices learning how to do research ‘on the job’. Usually, I put forward scientific hypotheses and my graduate students disprove them! (which is how science works). 

We also use grant funds to buy supplies, software, services and computers to design and carry out experiments and interpret results. We make those results public by publishing in scientific journals and presenting at conferences.

Supervising graduate students is one of the most important roles of a Principal Investigator, and the BC Cancer Agency is a highly desirable place to be a graduate student. My colleagues and I receive inquiries from would-be graduate students every day, from all around the world, inquiring about training at the Agency. I will talk more about our graduate training program in my final blog next week.

The BC Cancer Foundation helps by providing us with a building and lab space, infrastructure and some equipment. The Foundation also supports administrative staff who, among other things, help us apply for grants. In special cases, the Foundation will contribute funds for staff and materials. Philanthropy is more important now than ever. I think donors can help the most by giving donations that are for general research use – there are many full-time researchers working behind the scenes whose work could be accelerated by additional funding. 

Next week I’ll tell you how we can learn about cancer by studying some very special healthy elderly people, the Super-Seniors. 

See you next week,
Angie