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Alumnus Spotlight: Farhan Yusuf

Interview with Molecular Science graduate, catching the research bug, and working on COVID-19 with Public Health Ontario.
By: Clara Wong
May 04, 2021
Farhan Yusuf

Farhan Yusuf, Biology '17, Molecular Science '19, Laboratory Technician at Public Health Ontario

Like many young science students, Farhan Yusuf (Molecular Science ’19) had once entertained thoughts of attending medical school. But after catching the research bug during his undergrad, he stayed on to earn his master’s degree. He’s now working as a Laboratory Technician for Public Health Ontario, where he conducts clinical diagnostics and genomic surveillance on COVID-19. We recently caught up with the busy alumnus for a quick catch-up.

Both your BSc and MSc were at RU. You seemed to enjoy your academic experience here?
Absolutely. We’re really lucky at Ryerson. There’s more than one flavour of biology to explore. Grad seminars had a lot of variety (cell bio, microbio, biochem, etc). Even though many were not specific to my research, the exposure opened up my mind to many areas across science and to the potential for interdisciplinary collaborations. I loved that aspect.

How did the lab experiences change your career goals?In my third-year undergrad, I started working in the Gilbride Lab in water and wastewater microbiology. I researched antibiotic resistance in aquatic environments during my Master’s. I also got to attend conferences and publish my research. After graduation, I continued in the lab researching COVID-19 in wastewater. I enjoyed it all, dropped my ambition for med school, and ended up with a pure passion for research!

You now work for Public Health Ontario. How did your degree prepare you?
My MSc prepared me a lot more for this role. The practical molecular skills and hands-on experience I gained have been extremely useful. After graduation, the job market was really tough. But my research experience shone through in my resume and helped me land this role.

Your work now directly involves COVID-19?
Yes, initially I was involved in screening samples from assessment centres for COVID-19, both from patient samples and autopsies. Currently, I now investigate the prevalence of variants of concern (VOC) and perform whole-genome sequencing to differentiate between the different strains present in the population. I primarily work on the wet bench side but have countless opportunities to learn and lead in the lab. I’m enjoying it quite a lot!

You’ve now experienced both clinical and academic research. Any difference?
Yes. In clinical, there are lots of parameters and standard operating procedures that you have to consider and adhere to. There’s less room to wander around in diagnostics. On the other hand, I love the sense of purpose in providing a valuable service in public health, and being able to directly help patients.
With academic research, there’s a lot of freedom to explore your research interests. My grad supervisor gave me free rein. She always fostered intellectual curiosity and out-of-the-box thinking. Much of what I learned has stayed with me and transferred over into my job now — including, and in fact especially, the soft skills.

You’re big on those soft skills. Why do you feel they’re so important?
They’re the kind of skills you can’t really get from a textbook. On top of a graduate degree, communication, interpersonal and other professional soft skills can help a lot with upward mobility and dynamic career development. My lab experiences at Ryerson broke me out of my shell. I built so many connections, and cultivated that “lab family”. I got the chance to personally mentor over 20 different students, and discovered that I really enjoy working with teams and developing leadership skills.

What do you foresee on your continuing career path?
I considered getting my PhD, but decided that I want to first get my hands wet with work experience. I was lucky enough during the pandemic to land a job with an agency as big as Public Health Ontario. So, for now, I’m happy building clinical experience and diversifying my professional network. I really enjoy mentoring and leadership, and could see myself thriving in that direction with a team.