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Posted: 17 Jun 2011
Career Pathways: Alan Bernstein

Tell us about your current position

I have been executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise since 2008. In that role, my responsibilities include both developing and managing the Enterprise Secretariat and providing leadership for Enterprise activities. Because the Enterprise is unique, my role is unique and indeed has been evolving since I started.

I have tremendously enjoyed being the ED: the scientific and humanitarian challenges of developing an HIV vaccine are both enormous and extremely interesting and I believe passionately in the power of science to address exactly these sorts of global challenges. And second, I have appreciated so much the warm welcome and the ongoing support that I have received from the global HIV vaccine community.

What is your background/training in?

My PhD research was on a group of membrane mutants of E.coli. I isolated and mapped  mutations, isolated phage lambda transducing viruses that transduced the genes involved (tolA,B), carried out insertional mutagenesis with phage Mu, and described the cistronic organization of the locus. My postdoctoral work, in London, was with Steve Martin and Robin Weiss where I was involved in isolating and characterizng transformation-defective mutants of Rous sarcoma virus. Through a combination of genetic and molecualr approaches, we showed that these mutants were deletions that had lost the src transforming gene.  This work helped pave the way for the classic Nobel Prize-winning experiment by Varmus and Bishop on the cellular origin of oncogenes.

What other positions have you held and how have they influenced your career?

Briefly, I was a Senior Scientist at the Ontario Cancer Institute (1974-1985); head of the Division of Molecular and Developmental Biology, and then the Director of Research at the then new Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute in Toronto(1985-2000); President of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (2000-2007); and executive director of the Enterprise. What I liked: I love science; talking science; working with grad students and postdocs; writing and reading papers; thinking about science experiments and science policy; engaging lay people and politicians about the importance of science to society; and the global nature of science. I also love being on the ground floor of new initiatives and testing new ideas both in the lab and as policy. I realized early on that I don't have patience for most hands-on lab work, but I do enjoy mentoring trainees. I think the most important lesson I have learned over the years is that life, and one's career, is not a race, it’s a journey. And like all good journeys, it should meander, it should be full of surprises, be interesting, and be memorable. And like all good journeys, you should avoid the beaten path. Travel far from shore into new and uncharted territory and relish the excitement of being where no one has gone before. And finally, it’s the people you meet along the way, and who deeply matter to you, that make the journey happy and fulfilling.

Who or what had the greatest impact on your career?

Person: My PhD supervisor Jim Till (co-discoverer of stem cells) is a great scientist and human being-humble, very smart, a man of few words but lots of deep thoughts-in short, a typical Canadian prairie boy. He taught me a lot about myself and about science. Becoming President of CIHR in 2000 was a great experience. I was fortunate to be asked by the Canadian government to head up this new organization with a uniquely broad mandate and structure. I quickly learned that talking something to death is not the way to get things done. You have to have the courage to try new things, knowing that some of them will be mistakes. But the biggest mistake of all is to be paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake. As Leonard Cohen, the great Canadian poet/singer wrote in Anthem: " Ring the bells that can still can ring/Forget the perfect offering/There's a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in."

What advice would you like to share with our readers who may be early in their careers?

My sense is that young people today have great anxieties about their future and have this need to explore every possible option (usually on the web) before making a decision. My advice is  just jump into the pool. That’s the only way to know if you like swimming. Doing trumps talking. Related to this, keep in mind that we live much longer, healthier lives than ever. So, don't think that if you choose career path A, you will be doing that for the rest of your life. One hundred years ago, the rest of your life meant 10-20 years. Today it means 40-50 years. Can you imagine doing the same thing for 50 years! We now have the privilege of reinventing ourselves several times over. I think I have been privileged to have the opportunity to do just that. But we all do. And the people who I talk to who seem the most satisfied in their professional lives are those that have not pursued a straight line in their careers. As I wrote above, your career is not a race, it’s a journey. So, enjoy it! Challenge yourself. And avoid straight lines.

Second, unrelated critical piece of advice: find good mentors throughout your career-people who believe in you, listen to you, and can give you good advice. I have been extremely lucky to have had about 4 or 5 outstanding people (some scientists, some not) who have been my mentors, starting from when I was a grad student right up to today. I could not function without them.