Looking Behind the Mirror with Dr. Marianne Koritzinsky

by Sonja Elsaid

“The journey is as equally important as the destination”, echoed Dr. Marianne Koritzinsky, a Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Center, and an Associate Professor at the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Toronto (U of T).  Dr. Koritzinsky is also recently appointed Director of MSC 1010Y/1011Y Seminar Series in Translational Research course and the Member of the Institute of Medical Science (IMS). IMS Magazine interviewed Dr. Koritzinsky to learn more about her journey to becoming a successful scientist, community leader, and a mentor to many graduate students at the IMS.

Even before enrolling in her undergraduate program at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in her native country – Norway, Dr. Koritzinsky has always known that she wanted to do research in radiation biophysics. Although at that time she was very fascinated by the laws of physics, the biological revolution that was happening in the 1990s—especially our growing ability to elucidate the relationship between genes involved in metabolic and signaling pathways in disease states, such as cancer—swayed her decision to refocus her research on molecular biology.  Wanting to explore this field in greater depth and work with some of the best experts in the field, Dr. Koritzinsky traveled to Canada during her graduate training to spend six months under the tutelage of Dr. Nahum Sonenberg (Department of Biochemistry, McGill University). Dr. Sonenberg was one of the first scientists to study mRNA translation—a topic that very much intrigued Dr. Koritzinsky, and regulation of mRNA translation under hypoxia in tumor cells eventually became the theme of her research. After completing her doctoral training at the University of Oslo, Dr. Koritzinsky obtained a post-doctoral position at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, where she also received her first job working as a scientist. However, living in a small town in the south of the Netherlands did not feel quite at home.

Dr. Marianne Kortizinsky, PhD. Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Center, Assistant Professor at the Department of Radiation Oncology Director of MSC 1010Y/1011Y Seminar Series in Translational Research course and the Professor at the Institute of Medical Sciences (IMS), University of Toronto

Although Maastricht was a beautiful European town and the Dutch culture was very similar to the Norwegian, Dr. Koritzinsky found it difficult to integrate into this very much ethnically homogeneous, Dutch society. This was one of the reasons that led Dr. Koritzinsky to immigrate to Canada in 2008. Knowing that the University Health Network’s (UHN) Cancer Centre was internationally recognized for its cutting edge research in tumor hypoxia and radiation oncology, the move to Toronto was a natural choice.  For her, Toronto represented a place where people from different parts of the world came ‘to work in harmony and thrive together.’ It was in Toronto that Dr. Koritzinsky found her home, making it easier to become fully integrated into Canadian society.

At first, Dr. Koritzinsky worked as a Scientific Associate at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre at the UHN.  She also took on an Assistant Professor role at the Department of Radiation Oncology at the U of T. However, given that the Department of Radiation Oncology did not have a graduate department, and Dr. Koritzinsky wanted to supervise graduate students, in 2011 she pursued and obtained membership at the IMS, and later became an independent Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. However, her successful career path did not come without having to overcome adversity, seek advice from her senior peer scientists, and network with her colleagues.

Besides having to communicate in English, which was not her first language, one of the main challenges for Dr. Koritzinsky was having to adjust to the Canadian culture of self-promotion. Unlike in Norway, where modesty and humility were very much valued, Dr. Koritzinsky had to get used to promoting her research and nominating herself for leadership positions.  She credits her collaborators and mentors for helping her overcome this cultural difference.  Some mentors and colleagues from Dr. Koritzinsky’s network included Dr. Richard Hill (Professor Emeritus at the Medical Biophysics Department at the U of T), Dr. Michael Milosevic (Vice Chair of Research at the Department of Radiation Oncology) and Dr. Mary Gospodarowitz (Medical Director at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre). These researchers supported for instance, Dr. Koritzinsky’s application for the Terry Fox New Investigator award, of which she was a recipient in 2011. This award is usually presented to a young scientist who works in a supportive environment and who is surrounded by an extensive network of senior peers that can provide mentorship.  

Similarly, Dr. Koritzinsky credits her mentors for winning the Michael Fry Research Award from the Radiation Research Society in 2016. Again, her mentors and collaborators nominated her and provided letters of support. They generously dedicated their time to promote her career.  In fact, it is from her mentors that Dr. Koritzinsky learned to become a mentor herself to many students at the IMS.

The Journey is as equally important as the destination.

Believing that all scientists in training could benefit from learning the general fundamentals of research, Dr. Koritzinsky decided to pursue the position of the Director of the MSC 1010Y/1011Y Seminar Series in Translational Research course. As the Director of this course, a graduate student supervisor, and an advisor, she became a mentor for many. According to Dr. Koritzinsky, the recipe for contributing to student success is being able to provide a balance between challenge and support to her students. She readily challenges her students to pursue learning opportunities by presenting their research at national and international conferences, applying for awards and continuously building a network of collaborators and peers. Equivalently, Dr. Koritzinsky supports her students by providing the necessary financial aid for traveling to conferences.  Moreover, she tries to help her students build on their strengths and work on their weaknesses.  She also champions her mentees by encouraging them to seek various leadership roles either in her lab or in their communities.

Dr. Koritzinsky leads by example by being a prominent figure in her Norwegian community.  In addition to working as a Scientist at the UHN and a Professor at U of T, she serves as Honorary Norwegian Consul General in Toronto by providing consular services to the Norwegian nationals. Some of her other tasks in this role include promoting the exchange of arts and culture between Norway and Canada and hosting visits to Canada for Norwegian diplomats and politicians. As someone who has traveled a long journey to becoming an outstanding community leader and a scientist, Dr. Koritzinsky has advice to give to the IMS students.

According to Dr. Koritzinsky, the journey through graduate school is as important as receiving the degree itself.  Graduate training is not only about learning how to be a good scientist, but also recognizing that in research, our progress may sometimes stall and our methods may not work.  We—as graduate students—may experience momentary ‘failures’ with our experiments, or receive criticism from advisors that our work needs improvement.  However, the whole point of being a graduate student is acknowledging that growth is a part of the academic exercise.  By trying something new, failing, and trying something different, is the process rewarding in itself. This is what it means to be a scientist.  Developing the resilience to move forward, even when our grants don’t get funded, or when our papers get rejected, is essential to growth.  Accepting the uncertainty of scientific discovery is, therefore, an unavoidable journey that every scientist must learn to embrace and enjoy.