“No Experience Wasted”: Honoured Alum Karin Thacker Extolls the Virtues of Being Open to Opportunity

If you ask Karin Thacker [BSc/93, MSc /95 ] about her current job, she’ll tell you she’s right where she wants to be.

The former Winnipegger believes her position as Vice President of Global Regulatory Affairs at Gritstone Oncology (headquartered in Emeryville, California) is the culmination of every post she’s ever had, no matter how seemingly unrelated.

Growing up, Thacker says she was always interested in biology. She spent a good portion of her formative years reading biology books and watching “every nature special there was on TV.” Not realizing there were opportunities in university beyond being a doctor or an engineer, she felt overwhelmed with choice when she arrived at the UM. Thacker was ultimately drawn to the microbiology program, which ran the gamut from genetics to immunology and virology.

After completing her BSc in ’93, Thacker moved on to do her MSc in environmental microbiology under the supervision of Dr. David Burton in the Department of Soil Science.

“I was his first graduate student. The work that I wanted to do was in environmental microbiology, specifically in bioremediation. He was joining the university, setting up a lab that was focused on soil microbiology. That seemed a good fit. [My thesis was on] bioremediation of soil after a diesel fuel spill.”

Thacker’s favourite memories of the UM include the many hours spent studying (or not) in the tunnels; “breathing in the green” of the Buller greenhouse, as well as the “phenomenal teacher” she found in Department of Microbiology Professor Richard Sparling.

“I often go back to his philosophies in teaching, not just the for the science, but for his encouragement of critical thinking. As a professor, he wrote exams that were fun to take. I chose him as my undergraduate thesis advisor for good reason. He is a very good teacher, and just a lot of fun to work with.”

After university, Thacker initially took a position as an editor at a biomedical art house in Toronto which did illustrations for medical and other textbooks. Thacker’s role was to ensure technical accuracy and consistency across all illustrators. Although it wasn’t strictly a science-based job, she says the experience she gained was invaluable in understanding how to effectively communicate technical information.

Next up was a position in Toronto at the company now known as Sanofi Pasteur. Working first in bioassay development and validation, Thacker quickly moved into Regulatory Affairs, working on clinical trials and license management for the company’s viral and bacterial vaccines. She liked the fact there was largely no precedent to follow, that it was up to her to ‘figure things out’.

“To be honest that’s largely what I do now. I’ve had an opportunity to work on a series of projects throughout my career doing things no one had ever done before. So there’s no precedent to follow. Which means you can’t get it wrong if you follow the science.”

Life took her south of the border, where she joined Chiron Corporation, now part of Novartis. She felt guilty about leaving Canada. However, the move showed itself to be the right one when Thacker was asked to apply her experience with Health Canada and vaccine licensure to lead the company through a New Drug Submission for a meningococcal C conjugate vaccine to help combat a deadly outbreak of the disease in British Columbia and Quebec.

After leaving Chiron, Karin held regulatory leadership positions in a few small oncology companies in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2009 she joined Gilead Sciences in Foster City, CA. She spent the first two years in Gilead’s Global Access Program, working with governments in resource-limited settings and the World Health Organization to register current standard of care HIV therapeutics to patients in a non-profit setting. She then moved back into novel drug development, where she had the privilege of negotiating the approval of the HIV Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PREP) use of Truvada (emtricitabine and tenofovir disoproxil fumarate).

Now at Gritstone for three and a half years, Thacker feels she’s ideally situated. One of the things she enjoys the most about her role is working with a wide variety of people.

“I work with the research scientists that are coming up with these great ideas. I’m working with the clinicians, the oncologists. I work with the patent attorneys. I work with the people manufacturing the product under controlled (“GMP”) conditions. I am also the primary point of contact with the FDA, with Health Canada, other National Health authorities. My role is to help navigate new products into and through clinical trials to approval.

“Part of my job is to make sure that by the time we get to the FDA, there shouldn’t be anything terribly contentious left. We have a number of pre-meetings with the FDA to ask them questions before we conduct the studies, to to make sure we’re doing everything right. We answer all those little questions that could trip us up later on. There’s always something little that we’ve missed or that we learn along the way. We try and make sure by the time we take it to an authority, we’ve pretty much thought everything through.”

Her words of wisdom for young Microbiology students?

“Look for diversity in experience. No experience is ever wasted. Those odd opportunities that you may think ‘when would I ever use this?’ – jump at them, because you never know what you might learn or who you might work with. It was by taking some ‘off the beaten path’ projects that I got to where I am now. Be open to opportunities, even if they may not be what you think is your direct path. Sometimes the little offshoots lead you to somewhere even better.”

By Jo Davies

Careers in Science Panel and Roundtable
2020 Faculty of Science Honoured Alumni Awards

Recognizing graduates who have made remarkable contributions to discovering the unknown, inventing the future, and advancing the well-being of society.

January, 30, 2020
Marshall McLuhan Hall (University Centre)
University of Manitoba, Fort Garry Campus
3:30 pm- 5:00 pm

The event is an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to learn about careers in Science while honouring exceptional alumni and celebrating their achievements.

A reception will follow. Everyone is welcome to attend.

For more information please click here.

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