Dr. Aaron Schimmer
Dr. Aaron Schimmer has been a clinician scientist at the Princess Margaret for 16 years. He's taking on a new role as the cancer centre's research director – the first practicing clinician scientist to be named to the post. (Photo: UHN StRIDe Team)

Dr. Aaron Schimmer has always balanced a variety of interests.

As a medical resident at the University of Toronto, he tried to decide what sub-specialty to pursue during internal medicine training.

"I was trying to decide between hematology and respirology, which I now recognize as being very different in terms of medical specialties, but I liked them both at the time," he says.

"In the end, I decided on hematology because I figured if I had to be up all night I'd rather look at blood films than CT scans. In hindsight, training in hematology was clearly the right choice."

That decision would kick off a career as both a physician and scientist – balancing treating leukemia patients in clinic, as well as working in a lab doing research into the disease. He is now adding one more tier into his balancing act by taking on the role as Princess Margaret Cancer Centre's new Research Director – the first practicing clinician scientist to be named to the post.

"Aaron is an outstanding clinician scientist who has demonstrated a commitment to his colleagues and to advancing the impact of Princess Margaret Cancer Centre on the global stage," says Dr. Brad Wouters, UHN Executive Vice-President, Science and Research, and a former interim research director at the cancer centre.

"His long list of personal contributions in the areas of both clinical medicine and basic research is a testament to this commitment – an essential element for success in this new role."

Despite already juggling a variety of responsibilities, Dr. Schimmer is excited about the opportunity to help the research institute move forward.

"This is a tremendous group of people and it's an honour and a privilege to be able to help facilitate and enable our group's move to the next level in terms of research impact," he says.

Schimmer in lab
In addition to treating patients, Dr. Schimmer leads a research team in developing therapies that target leukemia and leukemia stem cells. (Photo: Courtesy of U of T)

Deep roots

Dr. Schimmer's connection to the Princess Margaret began during the end of hematology residency when he decided to pursue research training and complete a PhD with Dr. Mark Minden at the cancer centre. After earning his PhD, he got additional research training through a post-doctoral fellowship at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in California.

"The two major things I remember about Aaron are the extreme focus he brought to his research and his ability to reach out to collaborators with very different areas of expertise, which I think continues to serve him well in his various leadership roles," says Dr. Minden.

Dr. Schimmer became a clinician and researcher at the Princess Margaret in 2003 and established a vibrant and highly collaborative translational research program focused on developing innovative therapeutic strategies to target leukemia and leukemia stem cells. His work has advanced compounds directly from his lab into Phase I clinical trial.

Along with his research, he's always treated patients.

"Having a clinical practice and seeing patients is tremendously gratifying because you have an opportunity to make a difference in their lives," Dr. Schimmer says.

"I think it gives me an important perspective on the research questions we ask. Being in the clinic helps me see the issues that our patients are facing and having the research lens complements how I treat patients and think about clinical problems and questions."

Growing the research program

Settling into the role he began in February, Dr. Schimmer has three main goals he believes are key to continue to grow a world-class cancer research centre.

"We want to make transformative research discoveries that dramatically change the way we understand cancer and treat our patients – here and across the world," he says.

"Second, we want to be the destination of choice for scientists from around the world. We want them to come to and stay at the Princess Margaret because we want them to believe, as we do, that we're among the world's best.

"And third, we want to train the next generation of world-leading scientists."

Dr. Schimmer adds that the level of scientific depth in Toronto is hard to find elsewhere in the world. Couple that with a very collaborative spirit and "it makes for an incredible environment to work in."

But while thinking about how to tackle these big goals and ideas, he says it's important to care about the little things that occur on a daily basis.

"Issues like where investigators put their new freezers or where to find desk space for their students may be small concerns for the institute, but are actually big issues for those people. Being able to effectively address those concerns is essential, in my opinion."

"I think to be successful you need to have integrity and a strong moral compass. With those two things, making decisions becomes relatively easy," he says.

"The goal for me is to try my best to do the right thing and that's what guides me."

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