Who’s in control? Meet the chemical engineer challenging the cell

Research

For Marc Aucoin, it all started at the University of Waterloo. Aucoin completed his BASc and MASc in chemical engineering at UWaterloo and is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

With his aptitude for biology, chemistry, and math, as a high school student, Aucoin was initially interested in pursuing a medical career. However, completing different co-op placements as an undergrad exposed him to a variety of industries that would help clarify his career path.

“My last work term was in a fine chemical company. I was making pharmaceuticals and it really excited me, specifically the opportunity to make treatments and products that could help people,” Professor Aucoin explains. Working at the National Research Council Canada in gene therapy further solidified his interests.

“You have to try a lot of different things before you know what career you’d like, and that’s what Waterloo gave me. It gave me experiences and opportunities that I cherish to this day,” Professor Aucoin adds.

Today, Professor Aucoin’s research lies at the intersection of chemical engineering, virology and immunology. His excitement towards his work is palpable. “I have a love for biology, specifically synthetic biology, and lean towards understanding the biology of systems and creating engineering strategies and approaches to manufacture antibodies and viruses.”

Aucoin

Among his projects, he is currently researching ‘enveloped viruses,’ a group of viruses that includes influenza, herpes, and HIV. “It’s quite amazing and satisfying to culture cells and watch them do things that they would otherwise not do, by changing their DNA,” Professor Aucoin says.

The Aucoin Research Group cultivates cells under specific conditions that allow them to thrive for the production of large quantities of medically-relevant products, including vaccine components. Viruses and virus-like products often need to be mass-produced for use in vaccines. The group’s expertise has attracted the attention of industry, including Sanofi Pasteur and Trojan UV Technologies.

Students

Students in his lab participate in both pure academic studies and industry-relevant work. This balance has enabled undergraduate and graduate students in Professor Aucoin’s lab to pursue their own research goals, work in the biopharmaceutical industry, or start their own companies.

With the recent Avian Influenza, Ebola, and Zika outbreaks, Dr. Aucoin articulates that viruses remain a threat, and that there is an increased need to be able to effectively undertake manufacturing campaigns to produce vaccines that will help people around the world. But it’s not just the “headline” viruses that deserve attention. Measles remain a threat for unvaccinated individuals, especially in developing nations. As this chemical engineer notes, “Viruses have been around for so many years. They’ve found ways to replicate themselves and adapt even though they’re not living.” Professor Aucoin anticipates vaccines to be the largest area of growth for the biopharma industry – an area of research where his lab excels.

For Dr. Aucoin, conducting research, discovering new things, and sharing his knowledge is what he prizes most. As he says, “Once you learn, you must share.”

For students interested in pursuing a career in academia, Professor Aucoin notes that the life of an academic is truly rewarding, providing the opportunity to teach and the flexibility to pursue one’s research interests. He adds that doctoral research is unlike undergraduate work. While the latter primarily entails studying for exams, the former means “going after something with no known solution. You need to be excited by discovery and have a sense of curiosity to explore new topics. Plus, there’s a lot of trial and error, and ups and downs… But when things do work, it’s really satisfying.”

Waterloo students interested in joining Professor Aucoin’s Research Group can contact Professor Aucoin to learn about potential opportunities.

Want to learn more about the biopharmaceutical industry? Visit Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada’s website.  

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