From PhD to MD: The Journey of Dr. Jonathan Chio Through IMS

Article by Nayaab Punjani

Graphic design by Mimi Guo

Jonathon Chio recently completed his PhD in Dr. Michael Fehlings’ Laboratory for Neural Repair and Regeneration, focusing on immunological therapies for spinal cord injury (SCI). The IMS Magazine had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathon, hereby referred to as Jon, as he culminates his seven-year long journey at the Institute of Medical Science (IMS).

Jon obtained a Bachelor in Biochemistry and Neuroscience at the University of Toronto Scarborough. When trying to find his first medical research opportunities, he Googled “U of T Summer Research Program” which led him to the IMS Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP), a search result that would guide the next decade of his life. He began in cystic fibrosis research, then his curiosity and interest in the brain encouraged him to shift gears into neuroscience. He eventually found Dr. Michael Fehlings’ research group, a lab led by a clinician scientist with a MD and PhD. This piqued his interest in the PhD route, alongside his goal of becoming a physician.

Dr. Jonathan Chio

Photo Credit: Krystal Jacques

When first beginning at the lab as a Master of Science student, he received support from former lab members, with special shout-outs to Pía María Vidal, Anna Badner, and Antigona Ulndreaj. Jon also spoke about his mentor, Jared Wilcox, who helped “ease the transition”. “He was hard but taught me how to troubleshoot experiments, read papers, how to plan out what to do”. He also advised Jon to transfer to the PhD program prior to pursuing an MD; giving him time to learn more about himself and explore other careers.

Jon’s interest in neuroimmunology specifically was fueled by an article in the magazine Scientific American, which stated “neuroscience and the immune system is a booming field” with a lot of potential. Jon’s PhD project examined the use of intravenous human immunoglobulin G (IVIg) to modulate the immune response after SCI. To facilitate clinical translation, a human molecule was used in a rat model, and three questions were answered, “finding the best dose (of IVIg), the length of time IVIg can be administered after SCI and remain effective, and how IVIg works”. He dabbled in other projects too, such as assessing tissue histology following stem cell therapy to treat SCI.

Jon looks back on some key successes and learning experiences in research, such as the late nights conducting flow cytometry that worked “on the tenth time”. He explains, “you go from pure sadness to pure joy, and at like 3:30 in the morning, the elation is magnified”. Another positive experience was Jon’s first poster presentation at an international conference in California, where he felt the impact of his research.

Besides research, Jon has been extremely involved in extracurriculars throughout IMS and other graduate departments at the University of Toronto, working with student council and assisting faculty. Through senior roles here at IMS Magazine, he was able to “see the magazine flourish and mature”. Jon also assisted the Collaborative Program in Neuroscience (CPIN) Director, Dr. Zhong-Ping Feng, with various programming such as the Brain Bee, which aims to provide high school students with “increased access to neuroscience, without having them overcome additional financial barriers”. Dr. Feng also comments that Jon played instrumental lead roles in CPIN activities with dedication to fulfilling the responsibilities and commitments that he made. Dr. Feng concluded, “I have always been impressed by Jonathon’s high energy level and outstanding multitasking ability, supporting his successes in his academic/research programs and leadership activities”.

Jon had a chance to contribute to academic mentorship in his lab and as a teaching assistant (TA) in the Human Biology Program. He aims to create an “equal playing field”, ensuring students are comfortable asking questions early on. Jon recalls one student who was struggling in class, and he tried his best to help. Despite initially dropping the course, the student retook it the next year and requested Jon be their TA. “I felt so proud because, I was actually making an impact in their life, not just in science, but their overall development…and at the end they did great,” says Jon.

“It felt nice to see how far that I’ve grown, but at the same time I realized how much further that I can go and who I can become.”

As Jon reflects upon his seven years at IMS, he mentions, “it felt nice to see how far that I’ve grown, but at the same time I realized how much further that I can go and who I can become”. Graduate school helped him develop independence and lifelong skills in “troubleshooting, perseverance, grit, and thinking on his feet”. Jon leaves three pieces of advice for future IMS students. The first is to “optimize a routine and be able to dedicate the time to optimize it”. For Jon, this involved journaling, exercise, and meditation to balance stress. Secondly, he highlights being nice to others as even little moments of active listening and encouragement can be what people need. In this regard, Jon thanks his parents for their continuous support. Lastly, he indicates the importance of embracing imposter syndrome. Most graduate students feel like they do not belong in their lab or program, but they made it so far already, which means their supervisors saw something in them. Honouring this will allow you to realize your potential to get where you want to be, so try to reframe imposter syndrome as a positive force to improve every day.

Dr. Fehlings, who is Jon’s PhD supervisor, summarizes his journey. “It has been such a pleasure supervising Jonathon. I have watched Jon emerge from a junior student fresh in the lab to an accomplished young scientist. Jon has shown an incredible level of determination in his research, and he has made very important discoveries. In addition, Jon has become a mentor in my lab to young students which is wonderful to watch. Jon is now embarking on a new career direction and is seeking to combine his PhD with a future as a physician.”

The MD chapter of Jon’s journey will commence in August 2021 at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana. He would like to be able to merge his medical knowledge with “[his] research training… to help improve patient outcomes”, truly embodying the IMS focus on bench to bedside applications. Jon hopes to gather experience in clinical research to be “able to learn both parts of the research spectrum”, with the goal of eventually becoming a Principal Investigator. We at IMS Magazine wish Jon the very best for his future goals!