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Learning Paths Podcast
Ana Castillo Orozco

Ana Castillo Orozco

There are many steps on the path to a doctoral degree, and it’s not always clear how to get from one to the next. Ana Castillo Orozco has made the most of her experiences, whether working in the lab, teaching students, or taking a wide variety of courses to learn more about her chosen field. In this episode, Ana shares how her proactive approach has helped her in pursuing a PhD in human genetics.

Episode Transcript

Ben Rubenstein: So Ana, thank you so much for joining me here today. You know, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like from looking at your history and what you’ve studied, the kinds of roles you’ve had so far, it seems like you’ve known you were interested in science and wanting a career in science for some time. Would you say that’s right?

Ana Castillo Orozco: Yes. Yeah. If I can tell you a little bit about my background is that first I studied biotechnology engineering in Mexico and I focused on molecular biology. And at that time I used to, I got very interested in cancer because we used to read papers where we used to have lectures about the biology and genetics implicated in cancer development. But I never knew the disease beyond that because luckily I didn’t meet any patients with the disease and I didn’t have any relatives affected. So that was all the knowledge I had at the time. So when I graduated, I got involved in a nonprofit organization to help children with cancer. And those children were very special because they came from families with low income. So they didn’t have any financial means to access health care.

So this organization tried to give support to those children by providing chemotherapy services, by providing drugs and attention to them. And for example we had a school, because as you know these children came from very remote areas in Mexico. And so to come to the city for treatment, they have to quit school. So we [had] a school in that place. So it was, it was amazing. And my role in there was [that] I was a lab technician and I used to perform tests to determine the type of cancer in this, in this context the most common of cancer that we had was leukemia. So I had to determine which type of leukemia the patient had and based on that, the oncologist provided the right chemotherapy protocol. But I think this place was unique because I have been in many labs, but this is the, this was the only place where I could really interact with patients, with the children.

I used to talk with them. I used to have lunch with them, and I had, I saw so many things, like I had so many experiences. And I think that this really, it had like a profound impact on me. It was like a critical point to decide what I wanted to do in the future. So I decided like I wanted to study cancer but pediatric cancer, and to help children. And I know I remember that at that time, I was very interested in genetics and personalized medicine. So after finishing my experience in that place, I moved to the United Kingdom where I did my master’s degree in genomic medicine. And then I got experienced, a little bit of experience in bioinformatics and all that. And I was very interested in brain tumors because also we had, in that organization, we had many children with brain tumors.

So I wanted to study more of that. But luckily, I could find a supervisor in Manchester that worked with brain tumors, but it was not a brain tumor that really affected children. So I wanted to focus more on pediatric cancer. So that’s when I found that Canada had like a very strong component in the study of pediatric brain tumors. And specifically there is a very aggressive tumor that affects, it is the most common in children. It’s a tumor that grows in the cerebellum. So I made my way to McGill University where I’m currently doing my PhD in human genetics. And we work on this tumor, on this pediatric tumor. And I work in bioinformatic analysis and we try to understand how this tumor evolves to metastasis and we can find better ways to treat this disease.

Ben: Oh, yeah. I can see how, you know, that formative experience led you along to take on an increasing kind of focus in this field. I’m curious whether at any point, especially as you were, you know, working so closely with patients, whether you thought about taking a clinical path versus more of a research path and sort of how you see, whether there was a point at which you decided to focus on one more than another.

Ana Castillo Orozco: Oh, yeah. Yeah, because there we had like so many, in that place, we had many patients with different types of cancer. We had leukemia, we have brain tumors, we had retinoblastoma, we had osteosarcoma. So that’s like the main kinds of cancers implicated in pediatric cancer. But my boss was working with brain tumors, and I remember that he was trying to establish a research project based on a brain tumor in medulloblastoma. So I really got very interested because he gave me a lot of papers about that. And I tried to, and I remember that I was reticent, because I wasn’t sure that brain tumor was like the topic that I wanted to, but then he invited me to prepare a poster for a conference at that time, and I started to get more involved in this type of cancer.

So, and, and I also saw like the applications, the clinical applications that, for example, knowing, because it’s very interesting because knowing which, depending of the biology of the tumor, you can personalize treatment, because this tumor is very complex. So that’s why, like, I was like very interested in this type of tumor and also interested in the way that a clinical, like an intersection of research and clinical context can promote, or can give rise to translational research. Like doing what you know, or what you find out in the lab and try to use this information to implement that in the clinic. So that’s why, like I found very, I was very attracted to the disease and to the intersection of clinical and research components. So yeah, it was, for me, it was important, that period in my life, I think, it was critical to decide that I wanted to do that.

Ben: And once you went on to your, to complete your master’s degree, I think you also began teaching around some of these topics, is that right? Well, around genetics at least. So what was that experience like? And was that kind of always part of the plan or something completely new to you?

Ana Castillo Orozco: Good question. Well I think that learning has always been a very strong component in my life, and I think we will never stop learning new things every day and for me, I think that there is no better way for learning than teaching. And I love teaching, and I love promoting information that could be useful at some point to my students. But I was, at the time I was very interested in going right away from my masters to my PhD. But in the meantime that I was like trying to apply for my PhD, I struggled a little bit because I wanted to save money because when you apply for, for all the universities and you need to, you need to pay a lot of application fees, TOEFL exams and all that.

So I wanted to save money, so I tried to find a job in Mexico, but sometimes in Mexico, it’s difficult to find a job because there are not many opportunities to find jobs based on biological sciences. I tried to find jobs like, basically what I did in Manchester, I tried to find a job, but no, I couldn’t. So, but I had the opportunity to get involved as a lecturer at my former university where I did my undergrad. And then I, in that intersection between my master’s and PhD, I used to give lectures on genetics. And I also like, since I had a little bit more of time to do that, that’s when I took the HMX courses.

And I was amazed because I took the immunology and the pharmacology [HMX] Fundamentals courses. And it was, they were super useful because they have, they provided like a lot of animations. And then I think the most thing that I appreciated from these courses is that they had videos from real patients. And I remember that for, it was the immunology course that they provided a video of a person who was about to receive a CAR T cell therapy. And it was for me the first time that I have seen that, because you will usually see that therapy, you see it through diagrams from the website and through descriptions, but you never see it realized like that, the doctor really applying the therapy to the patient. And that was very useful for me because when I saw those videos and I explained to my students, how the CAR T therapy was performed and how it was done, they were really amazed. So yeah, for me, it was like you learned, but also you, at the same time, you learn by teaching and promoting this knowledge to the students. And it’s very fulfilling to see also the students get motivated or get inspired or get amazed by all the technology that is currently being done in this context or in this case of cancer treatment.

Ben: And I know you’ve, the HMX courses aren’t the only online courses that you’ve taken, you’ve done a number of them. And I wonder what about these sorts of opportunities appeals to you? Obviously right now, online learning is something that a lot of people around the world are doing out of necessity. You were taking online courses prior to when you maybe necessarily needed to. So what kind of stands out to you as why you chose to take the courses that you have? Is there anything in particular that you look for when trying to find these new learning experiences? Is it about the specific topics you really know you need to learn more about? Or is there something else that really stands out to you?

Ana Castillo Orozco: I think there’s so many things because I remember that my first interaction with online learning was Coursera. And I remember that I saw there were so many courses from a wide range of topics that I was very interested in because sometimes for example, when I was an undergrad student, I couldn’t fulfill my interest. I mean, I don’t want to say that the classes were not good, but sometimes I wanted to learn more about the topic. And so when I realized there was this opportunity to take online courses from top ranking universities from great teachers and professors. And I think that the thing that I enjoy the most is that you can learn at your pace and that if you don’t understand anything, you can pause and repeat the video and something that, for example, I don’t know, but when you are, when I was in my classes as an undergrad student, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t understand this stuff’ because you’re lost.

And you lost the track and then you need to find out what was the class about. And with this type of online learning experience, I didn’t have any issues because I could see all at my own pace. And also for example, I can see them at any time that I wanted to learn, because sometimes you are very tired at the time of the class, the real class. So basically like, if this is the thing that you want to do at that particular moment. And also, I enjoy the animations or the slides, those slides were very high quality. And also I enjoy that every course of this style, they have a lot of applications. And for the readings, we had a lot of material. So, yeah, I was like for me, it was, and I think since 2013, I think that was the year that I learned about Coursera, I never stopped taking courses online. So I have taken courses from edX, from FutureLearn, and of course HMX, so they have been a very strong component in my learning process, along my career.

Ben: And do you think now that you’re in this PhD program at McGill, does what you’ve learned in those various courses, do you feel like it still comes up, it still is relevant and is helpful to you?

Ana Castillo Orozco: Oh, it…all the time! They are super useful. I’ve worked, for example, right now, I need to present work about epigenetics and I took a course on epigenetics a couple of years ago, and it has been tremendously useful to understand all the concepts that I need to prepare for the work that I’m currently doing. So, yes. Yes. And for example, another thing is like, I also started to have classes about bioinformatics, and also they were very useful when I got into my master’s degree and we started to see software and all that. And I wasn’t completely lost because I already have an idea of all of, of all that knowledge and yeah. And also the HMX courses, the immunology has been very useful to understand a lot of things when I read papers about that topic and for my research project.

Ben: Yeah. I think that’s great that you’ve been proactive about understanding things that maybe, you know, you’re not just letting your programs that you’ve been in kind of just dictate, okay, this is all I need to know. And then I can move on to the next step. But, you know, here are other things that are probably going to be useful. How can I get those outside of what else I’m doing? So I think that makes a lot of sense. You mentioned kind of that period after you completed your master’s and were interested in doing the PhD and that there are a lot of steps to go through. There’s a lot of costs. And I guess for others who might be considering doing a PhD, going down that path, whether in your specific field or others, are there things you think about now that you could have done differently or just ways that you would suggest that people kind of prepare for what is likely to be not just a simple path?

Ana Castillo Orozco: Well, yeah. Yeah, it can’t, it looks like this is a straightforward process, but it’s not. It’s very difficult. It took me around one year and a half or around two to get involved finally into a PhD, basically because you need to see many things. And I think the most important is, you need to see, you need to be very, you have to have a strong desire, a strong determination to pursue a PhD because it’s not easy. It’s not easy to get into one. And once you are inside, also the path is not easy. So you need to be very consistent with all the steps that you need to do if you want to pursue a doctor degree, but basically it’s, once you have that determination, you need to see which country or which university, or, because you also, you need to find a good supervisor that can, you need to have a very good chemistry with your supervisor, because this is a person who you’re going to work with for the following five or six years.

So I think the most important is to find a project that you love, find a project that is going to be supervised by a person that has a good relationship with you. And I think that for me, the most important part was when I was writing my email to get in contact for the first time for my current supervisor. And I was so nervous because I didn’t know how to write that email. I didn’t know what to include, and I didn’t know how much time it would take for her to respond me back. And so, yeah, it was a lot of things, but I remember that I saw on the website, there’s a huge number of templates. Like how do I approach my supervisor, how to contact a future supervisor.

And I remember that I merged all the recommendations and I merged all in a single mail. And I remember when I was ready I sent it back sorry, I sent it. And I remember she replied like one hour after I had sent it. And she told me there was a student available, a position. And so I was very, very happy about it. But when I talked with her, I was very nervous because she told me that probably I was not going to be in this lab because there were another five applicants. So she told me that I’m going to continue with my interviews. So I will tell you if you’re getting it, or will help you in the future, if there is perhaps another person in McGill that can take you.

So yeah, it was a difficult time, the waiting process, but I finally, yeah, I was lucky that she told me that I was good to go, and then I applied for the scholarship. And that’s another thing that you need to be very…I just suggest to have like an Excel file with all the deadlines, because you have deadlines to apply for a PhD and then deadlines to apply for a scholarship and then deadlines, or if you want, if you see, for example, the start of your program, and you need to be in that country in that place, by that time, you need to apply for the visa before. So you need to see all these steps. So it takes time. And sometimes it’s not very straightforward and yeah, it’s like a trial and error, and I remember that McGill was not like the only university, I remember I applied for other universities as well.

So it’s okay to receive a no, it’s just a matter of, keep trying until you find a project that matches that with what you want to do and the person that has a good chemistry, the supervisor. So, yeah, but it’s difficult, well, for me, it took me that period of time. Probably there will be people that it will take less of time because perhaps it’s not going to, they’re going to pursue a PhD in the same country that they are in, or, Oh, but yeah, don’t get too stressed if this process is too long or sometimes things do not resolve as you expect. So it’s a trial-and-error thing.

Ben: Yeah. Well, I’m glad it’s ended up working out for you and it sounds like you found a good fit and the program has been good for you so far. I know it probably feels like a while off before you’re finished. But I wonder if you’ve kind of thought about what comes after, you know, will you be heading back to Mexico, are you thinking about teaching, research? Do you know what direction you want to head after you complete your degree?

Ana Castillo Orozco: Yes. I will like to pursue my postdoctoral degree after I finish my PhD, but I also, I am very keen to explore other areas. So for example, right now, like learning and teaching remain very important in my academic life. So right now I’m trying to promote the development of bioinformatics in Latin America. So I want to keep exploring, to keep developing workshops, because as you know, this thing of cancer genomics and all that, it is not possible without all the personnel and training and that you need to, and you need bioinformaticians to keep doing this type of analysis. And if you want to really have a good impact in this area, you need to have more people in Latin America that work in this area.

So that’s why I realized that this is a huge area of opportunity. So I am planning to keep promoting education of this field, because right now I think I have been able to give workshops which have impacted I think 22 countries in Latin America. So I have had people from Bolivia, from Argentina, from Peru, from Columbia, and of course, Mexico. So I’m planning to keep working on that and build us a strong community in bioinformatics. So by the time that I can use all these resources and communities to really establish research projects or collaboration projects with all these people and probably trying to do more about the children with cancer in Mexico or in other Latin American countries. So that’s like what I’m thinking that it could be in the future.

Ben: That’s very exciting. That’s great that, you have those goals of such a significant impact across so many different countries. And that’s exciting. So I will definitely look forward to checking back in with you and seeing how that’s going and learn more about that effort. That seems really important. Well, thank you so much for taking the time today just to walk me through all your experiences and you know, I think they’ve led up to some really great things. And I think your path is really going to serve as inspiration and just information for so many people who are looking to pursue their various interests related to science. So thank you so much and good luck.

Ana Castillo Orozco: Thank you for having me.

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Read more about Ana’s HMX learning experience