A Q&A with Andrew Watson

Andrew Watson

Where did you complete your graduate studies, and what field did you study?

I grew up in Manitoba, and went to the University of Manitoba for my undergraduate degree. I didn’t have much of an idea of what I wanted to study when I started, but in second year I got on to a subject I really enjoyed and was invited to apply for the honors zoology bachelor of science program. I always liked animals and biodiversity, so I decided to enrol in the program.

In my fourth year, I met a really interesting professor who I wanted to work with, so I went on to do my Masters in Zoology at the University of Manitoba, and from there came to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry to complete my PhD. I did my postdoctoral studies at the University of Calgary and at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

How did you make the transition from Zoology to Obstetrics?
I was actually referred for the job by one of my professors who thought I would be a good fit for an opening in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (OBGYN). After a rigorous three-day interview process, I was offered the job. As a biologist, it was easy to accept the offer.

Up until I applied for that job, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to working at a medical school or even an OBGYN department. However, my area of interest is in developmental and reproductive biology, so there is no question that these departments are usually housed within an OBGYN environment.

It’s hard for a professor in medicine to admit this, but my dream job was to work with assisted reproductive technologies to assist and preserve endangered animal species. However, my career has been quite fulfilling and enjoyable. Quite frankly, the reason I’ve been with Schulich Medicine & Dentistry for 24 years is because it’s a great place to work.

What research are you currently working on right now?
We’re working to improve outcomes as they relate to assisting people seeking fertility treatment within our London Health Sciences Centre fertility program. We have one of the strongest and oldest fertility clinics in Canada, with great doctors working in it.

Related to our work is the fact that we’re seeing more young people seeking out family planning needs later on in life. The average first birth age for women in Canada is almost 32. Whereas a few decades ago, families were starting when people were in their late teens and early twenties, which is when maximum fertility exists.

And even with all the advancements that have occurred during the past few decades, we have not extended the fertility window.

Our research is really focused on how we can improve these reproductive technologies and how we can assist clinicians to help their patients more effectively.

If we get down to specifics, what we’re trying to do is better characterize culture environments that eggs and gametes have to go into and early embryos are placed into as a way of allowing assisted reproductive technologies to be applied.
Another area we’re working on, which is controversial, is using cryopreserving methods on oocytes and ovarian tissue. Oocytes and ovarian tissue can be then thawed and re-implanted to sort of restore or extend fertility for women later in life.

A lot of the research we're doing right now would allow women and men to extend their reproductive period and choose family planning options well into their middle years.

What is your hope for this research? What is the ultimate goal?
The ultimate goal is to understand as much as we can about how early embryos develop and what are the mechanisms that regulate early development. We’re also trying to understanding what impact does placing the early embryo culture environment impose on that embryo.  

We’re excited about the work we’re doing since we think it is attainable to develop culture conditions that help and support the development of early embryos and foster normal pregnancies. That goal is quite tangible and moving forward.  

How did your experiences with academic leaders, such as deans, supervisors and professors as a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow shape your academic trajectory and career?
My whole career and everything that has happened in it has been the direct result of the great mentorship I’ve received at every stage of my graduate education.

I worked with three amazing people during my master and postdoctoral studies and was able to learn different things from each of them. They cared about their students, they understood that we were learners and trying to become better and they were passionate about what they were doing. Their attitude toward biology rubbed off on me.

I have tried to become the supervisor to my trainees that my supervisors and mentors were to me. I think a good supervisor always remembers that they are an educator and that they're trying to help the other person learn.

My supervisors gave me the opportunity to do things I wouldn’t have been able to if I had not met them. I owe a lot to them.

What does your role as associate dean involve?
My official role is to act as an information conduit for individuals pursuing their graduate and postdoctoral studies at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, but a big part of my job is being there for students in all of our programs and supporting them.

There have been a lot of changes, too, in the past few years and new things happening all the time. Collaboratively, I’m helping our programs to keep up with those changes so that we can focus on helping our students transition from their studies to the next steps—whatever that may be.

What advice do you seem to give the most to graduate students?
The general advice I seem to give students a lot is to be really passionate about what you’re doing, because if you’re not that tells you that you need to shift course. You have to be passionate about what you’re doing.

Students also need to be self-reflective. This will help them figure out what they're looking for from graduate school, who they are as a person and what they’re trying to achieve.

I also tell students that they need to leave room to be surprised, because from when you start to when you finish your studies, your ideas and thinking about certain things might change.

What are some differences you have seen in students in the past five years?
Students are much more specific in what they're looking for from graduate programs now. They want more certainty from their life. I think it’s a good thing that students are becoming increasingly proactive, because they have a better idea of where they want to be and how to get there.

What has been the most satisfying thing about your current role?
Being able to see the accomplishments of our students is one of the most satisfying things for me.  London Health Research Day is a great example of how bright our students are. It has some top-notch projects from students and they’re helping to advance every field of medicine that you can imagine. I revel in their accomplishments.

Outside of your academic interest, what are some of your hobbies?
Since 1984 I’ve been playing on the Society of Graduate Students softball team with a bunch of fellow graduate students, who now have all gone out and had long careers in different areas. We continue to play together every summer and we’ve developed some really close friendships.

I also like to read, mostly non-fiction and mystery novels. And like most Canadian kids, I’ve always enjoyed hockey—though, I’m not great at playing it. The Anaheim Ducks are one of my favourite teams because Corey Perry plays on their team, and I have watched him since he was on the London Knights team and brought them to the Memorial Cup Championship.