Career Central, Interviews

A Conversation with Dr. Andrew Baines: Doctor, Dean & Research Chair

Dr. Baines was the Vice-Dean of Medicine at the University of Toronto, he also served as the Biochemist-in-Chief of the University Health Network, and Chair of Clinical Biochemistry. Today, he is a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.

Why did you choose to study medicine?

“I was drawn by the diversity and the fact that it dealt with life. I chose medicine because of the association with the humanities, dealing with humans and being part of a long tradition of working with health and disease. It enabled one to be part of a long but evolving tradition, which dealt with human achievements, suffering and enabled one to provide some help in this.”

Your major clinical interest was nephrology – why did you choose this particular specialty?

“There were a multiplicity of reasons in that. One was a fascination with the structure, at the nephron level, where you could see the incredible architecture of the kidney – I loved the way it looked under a microscope. I was also fascinated with the way it worked, although we didn’t really know how it worked back when I was a medical student. Next, when I was doing my internship, I was frustrated by our ignorance when it came to managing problems associated with fluid balance, blood pressure and so forth. I was inspired by a very effective clinical teacher, by the name of Abe Rapaport, who was an internist, as nephrology wasn’t a sub specialty at that time yet. He was very interested in laboratory medicine and diagnosis, and captured my interested with trying to understand fluid electrolyte balance, regulation of body fluids, pH, blood pressure and so on. At the heart of all these issues was the kidney. Lastly, a family member also had kidney disease. With the advice of Abe Rapaport, I went on to do a master’s degree in what was then called clinical biochemistry. The Department of Clinical Biochemistry was the only one that was both clinical and research based at that time, and is now the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology. I did my masters with a supervisor who was an expert on the kidney. When I got there, I was put in charge of teaching the medical students clinical biochemistry, which was one of the major third year courses that had both a lecture and laboratory component. As a graduate student, I was initially in charge of the laboratory. Eventually as I became more knowledgeable about the kidney, I became responsible for teaching the kidney lectures when my supervisor decided to go to Africa and become a dean of medicine in Nigeria. He toddled off leaving me without a supervisor, and at this point I was engaged in my PhD. I then found myself practically acting as my own supervisor, because there was no one else in Toronto who knew anything about the kidney at the level of research I was doing. I was actually working with another supervisor who was a specialist in liver function, so that was interesting. Through this experience, I discovered that I enjoyed teaching and seemed to be reasonably good at it.”

What advice do you have for undergraduates today?

“I should preface my answer by saying I was born basically with a silver spoon in my mouth. I was born when universities weren’t flooded, so my experience cannot be repeated by anybody anymore, and relatively speaking it was easy to do all these things. Since university populations were expanding, the need for professors was exploding, so you could pretty much do what you wanted to to an extent that’s not possible now. I was lucky to always be funded up until I shut my lab down in 2006 – I usually had 2 technicians, 1-3 graduate students, and an occasional post-doc. Now? It’s much harder. The research now is very much a team process. It’s big business, you can’t do it on a shoe string. If you’re going to do it seriously, you’ve got to do it in a big way and you’ve got to have a lot of collaboration, teamwork. I guess what you need if you want to be successful in this, is the capacity to work with other people and also to be a leader. Young people who are looking for that challenge should take every opportunity they can with working with others and leading those enterprises and teams. One thing I think possibly helped me was that I was captain of the UofT rugby team for 3 years. You have to learn how to work with, and ultimately guide people in the direction that you think will be useful. There are certain life skills that go along that aren’t in textbooks and journals, and they are going to be very useful. You’ve got to be very persuasive in selling yourself, so you get the positions to start with, and then selling your ideas so you get the funding. There’s a lot of salesmanship involved, and you’ve got to really understand the subject, and you have to be imaginative. You’ve also got to be prepared to make use of the serendipitous events that happen to you, prepared to change course, change emphasis and not get stuck in a rut.”