Alumni Profile – Dr. Cindy Yip

Dr. Cindy Yip is currently a Global Project Leader in Immunology and Heamatology at the Global Rare Disease division of Chiesi Group. Graduated from BME in 2010, Dr. Yip completed her Masters in Systems Biology and PhD in mechanobiology research. Throughout her career, Dr. Yip continues to apply her biomedical engineering knowledge to advance patient care. Here, she sits down with writer Doris Adao, to discuss her roles and how her graduate education helped paved the way.

You were part of a COVID-19 rapid response team with the Canadian COVID-19 Emergency Department Rapid Response Network (CCEDRRN). Could you tell us more about your role?

This opportunity came up during the second wave of the pandemic when there was a urgent need to gather COVID-19 patient data to inform emergency care. I, along with a research team, worked with emergency physicians from over 50 hospitals across Canada. Our goal is to collect data from emergency department (ED) patients suspected or confirmed with COVID-19. My role is to oversee the curation and management of COVID-19 data sets.

When a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patient arrives at the ED, physicians need to consider many factors such as:

  • Whether the patients should be kept in the hospital
  • What criteria is needed to ensure patients are discharged home safely
  • When should a COVID-19 patient be intubated
  • How do other illnesses such as heart disease affect COVID-19 treatment options

Because COVID-19 is a new virus and our knowledge on COVID-19 is constantly evolving, real-world Canadian patient data is essential to the development of ED decision making tools that are relevant to our healthcare system and unique Canadian population. Therefore, in addition to managing data collection, I worked with data analysts and researchers to apply statistical modeling and analytic methods to create clinical decision tools. These tools help ED physicians in their everyday, bedside diagnostic and therapeutic decisions regarding COVID-19. At the same time, the infrastructure and processes that have been established for COVID-19 data collection and analysis could be adopted for future health crisis beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.  

What were some of the challenges that you were experiencing?

One of the biggest challenges was the lack of standardized methods across Canada to collect, store and access patient data. This is a big barrier for over a century. We really need to harmonize how health data is being collected, stored and assessed by healthcare providers, researchers and patients. Differences in health data privacy requirements at both institutional and provincial-level, and the lack of infrastructure and process often hinder our ability to create a national registry for COVID-19 patients. This further impacts our ability to create lifesaving clinical decision rules in a timely manner.

Basic questions about its prevention, diagnosis, treatment and prognosis can only be answered if health data is reliably collected, stored and accessible nation-wide. Without that, we cannot develop reliable statistical models and clinical decision rules.

While the CCEDRRN was able to establish some infrastructure and processes to collect and analyze data from patients when they were in the emergency room, to understand their safety after leaving the hospital, we have implemented protocols to conduct telephone follow-ups with patients after discharge. This has beendifficult for multiple reasons.

Telephone interviews are challenging because of language differences and often patients are too frail to conduct the interview. Some patients experienced a long recovery that left them physically and mentally unable to interact with others. Telephone interviews are labour intensive, which is a barrier when research funding is often limited. By following up with these patients beyond the emergency room visit, we can understand how well they are recovering and use this information to improve treatments in the emergency rooms for  future cases.

What did you study for your PhD project? What made you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I have always been passionate about improving health and the quality of care for patients, whether I am designing new precision medicine products for disease detection such as COVID-19  or leading initiatives in the health charity sector to drive data-driven health policies. I am also an advocate for patients and translate research knowledge to educate patients, healthcare providers, and policy makers. For my doctoral research with Dr. Craig Simmons, I was primarily interested in applying a multidisciplinary approach to better understand the etiology of valvular heart disease. My doctoral thesis studied the mechanical and biochemical factors that can contribute to the calcification of our heart cells which eventually lead to valve sclerosis.

This was the disease that affected my father and was the main reason that I was driven to pursue my PhD, along with my own curiosity to learn. I have a life-long learner mentality, even now I am still taking courses and continuing to educate myself. I always tell people that if you like science, do a master’s degree, try it out and see if it’s really something for you. If you love science, do a doctoral degree. I have always loved science and have been intrigued by the multidisciplinary way of thinking. I was able to get this multidisciplinary training during my master’s, doctorate, and post-doctorate fellowship at the University of Toronto, which paved way for my career.

Is there any key advice you would give to graduate students?

Be a team player and respect each other

No matter how much training and experience you have, always remember that no single person is as smart as a team. Great minds come together, and you will learn a lot from your colleagues, and your colleagues will learn a lot from you.

Be creative when applying your skills.

Be creative on how to apply your technical and scientific skills in each step of your career. You may never do the same experiment again in your career, but your skills are highly transferrable. For example, I used my system design skills to develop a data query management system at Heart & Stroke Foundation and my biomaterials and molecular engineering skills to design precision medicine products at Luminex Corporation and Xagenic Inc. Knowing how to apply your skills really makes you stand out.

Be modest and acknowledge learning is a re-iterative process.

Throughout the years as I designed different systems and products, many of them didn’t work out, just like experiments in graduate school. Being able to learn from the people around you and learn from what does not work is very useful. This process allows you to narrow down the number of tangible solutions to solve the most important problems.

Master your communication to both scientific and non-scientific communities.

Throughout your graduate training, you will become an expert in a given subject. The most important part is to be able to translate that knowledge so communities can benefit from what you have learned or  discovered. Your work does not end at the publication stage. Not everyone has the opportunity to go to graduate school, so remember how fortunate you are. You have the honour and responsibility of sharing your knowledge with the scientific as well as the non-scientific community. For example, outside of my day job, I serve as a scientific and patient advocate advisor for HeartLife Foundation and the Canadian Congenital Heart Alliance.

Set time aside to get to know yourself.

When I started my PhD with Dr. Simmons, I was very excited and eager to get going with my research project. It’s easy to forget about yourself! Set time aside to reflect on your experience and journey. You’re going to evolve, learn and mature, so along the way, ask yourself from time to time: “What am I good at? What do I enjoy doing? What can I do better? What are my goals? How can I contribute positively to the society?” Ask yourself these questions and this will set you apart when you pursue the rest of your life career because you’ll be working towards a fulfilling and purposeful goal at the end of the day.