By Ciara Parsons, BA'15
Speaking enthusiastically about her work at Ontario Genomics as the Director of Business Development and Research, Helen Petropoulos, BSc’96, PhD’02, credits her passion for science and desire to mobilize research findings into real-life applications as the driving force behind her success.
Though Petropoulos now lives and breathes science, there was a time when she wasn’t so sure about where to focus her interests. As a high schooler eager to attend university for the first time, Petropoulos says she debated between pursuing English or Science for her undergraduate studies. On the advice of her high school English teacher, she eventually settled in on the idea of attending Western University to complete her honours bachelor of science degree.
Building on her initial fascination of science, Petropoulos’ interest grew as she was progressively introduced to a more diverse and specialized array of science courses throughout her undergraduate studies.
“My favourite course was biochemistry—which is what I then decided to focus on for my third and fourth year of my undergraduate studies. I thought it was really cool how genes were transcribed, and how RNA makes protein, how proteins execute work in the cells, and so on,” she said.
Receiving her first hands-on experience with research through a fourth year lab project, Petropoulos recalls the excitement she felt working in that type of environment for the first time and how it opened her eyes to the world of research.
“I loved doing the experiments and figuring out the different steps involved in the research I was completing in my lab. It was a more involved, applied approach to science which differed from the theory and course work I had previously been working on,” she said.
Hooked on biochemistry, Petropoulos decided to further her studies in the area and applied to complete her PhD with the Department of Biochemistry at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. Working in the lab of Ilona Skerjanc, PhD, she studied the molecular pathways involved in pushing cells down the skeletal muscle and other pathways throughout the body as a means of better understanding signaling involved in skeletal muscle development.
Continuing on with her research, Petropoulos pursued an ‘industry’ post-doctoral fellowship at Wyeth Research, now part of Pfizer Inc., in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she studied developmental pathways in osteoarthritis.
“Through working in an industry lab, I learned a new scientific point of view. Going from a Canadian academic lab to an industry lab was a big change because the environments and resources available were understandably different,” said Petropoulos. “The most exciting thing about my post-doc experience was observing first-hand the potential application of my work to discover better potential therapies for various illnesses and to identify targets to further study.”
Following up her work at Wyeth Research, Petropoulos accepted a role with SHI Consulting, a boutique life sciences consulting company, so that she could become more closely involved with the translational activities of science and research.
“I decided to leave the bench and work in the translational field of science because there was a lot of great research being done, and I wanted to find a way to get this research ‘out there’. Despite not having any business experience when I began working at SHI Consulting (now called Shift Health), I learned that I really enjoyed consulting. It was interesting to be able to work with so many different clients on such a broad variety of exciting life sciences-related projects,” she said.
Now, as the Director of Business Development and Research at Ontario Genomics, Petropoulos is merging her unique experiences to help researchers secure new funding for their projects, connect businesses with experts in the field of genomics and discover paths to the marketplace for scientific discoveries.
“We run a host of different programs and initiatives at Ontario Genomics, so on any given day I’m interacting with a lot of different researchers and companies across divergent sectors,” said Petropoulos. “Ontario Genomics has projects that span across the industries of health, agriculture, forestry, environment, mining and water—so I’m always learning, and constantly growing my knowledge on the amazing innovations taking place across these disciplines.”
Taking great pride in the work she does with Ontario Genomics, Petropoulos enjoys teaching others about how genomics research applies across a diverse range of application areas.
“Drawing that connection between the researchers and the companies, and having them come together and collaborate on an innovative project is an exciting outcome for me, especially when you are able to witness the progression from ‘what is genomics?’ to a synergistic academic-industry partnership. Ultimately, one of our main goals at Ontario Genomics is to drive collaborations between researchers and companies that can benefit from genomic expertise,” she said.
While Petropoulos agrees her PhD helped her to gain the critical thinking, communication and problem-solving skills required to advance in her field and find success, she says her affinity for risk-taking and inclination to explore all available options helped to carve the trajectory of her career.
As for her next steps, Petropoulos isn’t sure of what they will look like or where she will spend the duration of her career, but jokes that she “probably won’t go back to English just yet.”