Halifax Chronicle-Herald: Grads, firms get hand from Mitacs

WHEN OLGA HRYTSENKO was finishing up her PhD in biology, the Ukraine native began looking for work in her field. But every job that piqued her interest required industry experience.

“Every single open position required industrial experience, but how do you get industrial experience no one will hire you?” Hrytsenko asked in an interview Thursday.

Then the Dalhousie University graduate discovered Mitacs, a national not-for-profit research and training organization that plays matchmaker between recent graduates and local companies.

The organization paired Hrytsenko up with a local biotechnology company, providing the 37-year-old with work in her field while helping a local biotechnology company gain a scientific researcher.

“Mitacs is like a bridge between industry and academia,” she said, noting that she started her two year internship with Immunovaccine Inc. in April. “I’m gaining great experience while working on molecular profiling of different human cancers.”

More masters and PhD graduates in the region will now have access to internship programs after the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency announced $1.2 million for Mitacs internship programs Thursday. The funding will create an extra 114 internships at private-sector companies in Atlantic Canada over three years.

Arvind Gupta, chief executive officer and scientific director of Mitacs, said the organization aims to stop the brain drain of Canadian graduates to the United States. A computer science professor at the University of British Columbia, Gupta said many of his PhD students are now working south of the border.

“We’re obviously training great people because they’re going and getting these great jobs in the U.S. But what are we doing wrong in terms of getting them to transition into Canadian society?”

Gupta said Mitacs started asking that question several years ago and has designed the organization’s internship programs in response. “We’re trying to build an innovation economy and knowledge economy that has people thinking and using their brains to generate wealth. We can’t lose all these young people.”

Mitacs creates links between highly skilled graduates and Canadian companies, Gupta said. The internships are bankrolled, in part, by the company and, in part, by Mitacs, which is funded by the federal and provincial governments.

Gupta said the internships can be as short as four months or longer if companies require longer-term research, such as the Immunovaccine project Hrytsenko is working on.

Marianne Stanford, Immunovaccine’s research director, said the Mitacs program has given the prerevenue company access to “highly motivated scientists who want to combine academic research in a company setting.”

“It allows us to co-fund these interns and really incorporate their research into the company.”

She said the company wouldn’t be able to afford as many interns without the program. Immunovaccine has three interns through the Mitacs program.

Stanford said the internships also provide graduates with a chance to “try out industry to see if that’s really where their love is or maybe they love academia.”