The art of standing out amongst your peers

Dirk Lange, PhD

When Dirk Lange, PhD’08, was just about to graduate from Schulich Medicine & Dentistry’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, he recalls speaking to a visiting professor about how to move forward and find great success in his career. The professor encouraged him to find a niche area in research that he could become the leading expert in.

Eight years later, Lange is the Director of his own basic science research program in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Urological Sciences, and has been recognized as one of the biggest up-and-coming researchers in the field of urology. We sat down with Lange to discuss his current role, and whether or not he would pass along the same advice he once received to current trainees in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

Where were you born and raised?

I was actually born in a little town in Germany called Northeim. When I was 12 we moved to Canada, and I grew up in Oakville, Ontario.

What is your education background?

After high school, I completed my undergrad in honours biology at McMaster University. I then came to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry to start my master’s in microbiology and immunology and switched to the PhD program after a year or so.

Why did you decide to complete your graduate training with the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry?

The program and the research project I would be working on are what drew me in to the School. I worked under the supervision of Carole Creuzenet, PhD. I always wanted to do a project that was based in medicine and that had to do with bacterial infections. That’s what led me to her lab, because she does intestinal pathogen work.

Another reason I chose to study at Western is because it has a good name. It is a well-known University but not too big — it gave me the community feel that I was looking for. I quite enjoyed just going for walks around campus because the architecture is so beautiful.

Tell us about your current work.

I’m an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia in the Department of Urological Sciences, as well as Director of Basic Science Research at the Department’s Stone Centre. While completing my postdoctoral fellowship at the Stone Centre, I began building the basic science research program in kidney stone disease, and I was hired on as a faculty member in 2011.

Graduates from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology can take many paths. Why was it important that your work be related to the field of medicine?

A lot of basic scientists don’t necessarily know this, but we can have a lot of influence on medicine. I have always wanted there to be a medical aspect to my research. What I wanted to do more specifically was to contribute my basic science expertise to medicine and form a true translational research program, and the only way you can do that is by working hand-in-hand with clinicians. The environment I work in now allows me to do that.

You always hear about how we need to come up with new treatments, new therapies and new cures, but the issue that has gotten in the way of advancing this is the great divide between basic science and medicine. Medicine alone can’t do it, and basic science alone can’t do it — you need that connection, that direct link between the two. I wanted to do my part in bringing the two together.

Can you talk a bit about your current research areas at the Stone Centre?

The part of the research program that still includes the microbiology and immunology aspect is our work in the area of urinary biomaterials — indwelling devices such as foley catheters and ureteral stents. Quite a few patients with these devices can suffer from complications, as they are the leading cause of hospital-acquired infections worldwide. Through our research, we are trying to develop novel biomaterials to help prevent these issues.

The other area of our work has to do with understanding how ureteral stents affect ureteral function. One of the most common complications with ureteral stents is patient discomfort and pain — 80 per cent of patients who have a stent indwelling will experience this. Our research is taking a step back and trying to understand at the molecular level what is happening when we put a stent into the ureter because once we understand that then we can try to figure out why the pain is happening, and try to develop new drugs to target these pathways.

You recently received the American Urological Association’s Urology Care Foundation’s Joseph Segura, MD Scholarship in Endourology and Stone Management. How did it feel to receive this so early in your career?

This scholarship is given out to up-and-coming researchers whose research is believed to have the potential to significantly impact urological care in the future. It felt fantastic to receive this award, because I’m in an MD-dominated field — for a PhD like myself to be recognized at this level was a great honour.

I received the award in 2013 for two years. Once you “graduate” from this scholarship program, you send in a progress report and they will choose the next outstanding research scholar amongst those people. I was also awarded that last year, which was another great honour for me.

What advice do you have for current trainees in Microbiology and Immunology?

I get this question quite a bit as a basic scientist working in a clinical field, and what I would say first and foremost is to follow your dream. I always pictured myself where I am today, and I just followed that vision of what I wanted for my future.

It’s also important to ask yourself how you are unique. I am unique because I'm one of only a few microbiologists and immunologists working specifically in the field of urology. If you can do something that sets you apart, if you can find a niche with your research, you’ll be the expert in that area and that will allow you to have a greater impact.

When you’re not working, what do you enjoy doing?

Since moving to the West Coast, a lot of my hobbies have changed because in Vancouver we have the ocean, the mountains, we've got it all. I’ve recently taken up road biking, and my wife and I enjoy taking our dogs to the dog beach. I also do soccer refereeing. I decided to take a refereeing course and I’ve worked my way up — I’m a part of the elite refereeing program and assess and instruct other referees. I really enjoy the mind concentration that goes into it.