The University of Toronto’s Dr. Rebecca Wong, professor in the department of Radiation Oncology, exhibited the strength of U of T’s medical faculty when she was granted the first Canadian Radiation Oncology Foundation/Sanofi-Aventis Research Innovation Award in December 2010. The award, which provides $140,000 for research in colorectal and prostate cancers, is to be split among seven Canadian projects.

Dr. Wong is the head of the Palliative Radiation Oncology Programme at Princess Margaret Hospital. She also chairs a committee for the National Cancer Institute of Canada Clinical Trials Group, where she leads the development and conduct of clinical trials designed to improve cancer symptom relief and treatment.

Dr. Wong’s research focuses on brachytherapy, the insertion of radioactive material directly into the body, which has been proven effective in relieving the symptoms of cancers. She hopes to improve the medical world’s understanding of how this method can be used in colorectal cancers in the pelvis. She mentioned that, ultimately, it is possible that her research could lead to progress towards curing colorectal cancers, which are the fourth most common cancers found in Canadian adults.

Dr. Wong, who was trained in England and at Ontario’s Queen’s University, feels strongly about the excellence of U of T’s research facilities. “Arguably, [this is] the strongest centre in Canada, and certainly one of the strongest in North America,” she said.

She also describes the medical environment at U of T as dynamic. “In addition to [having] amazing colleagues to work with, we also have bright minds to challenge us in our day-to-day practice.”

According to Dr. Wong, U of T both attracts great minds and puts up few research barriers. It is clear that this combination encourages innovation and brilliance.

“Princess Margaret Hospital and the University of Toronto help to translate ideas into realities,” she explained. She continued to describe how the university does not hesitate to get students involved in research as early as possible, making them a true part of many ground-breaking projects.

Dr. Wong did say that the institution’s research funding isn’t as high as some researchers may hope. “It is relatively frugal compared to some North American centres,” she admitted. However, she went on to explain that she and her colleagues take the finite pool of money in stride. They focus on projects that ask important questions, but are not necessarily expensive to run.

Dr. Wong’s vision is that the pilot funding from the CASARIA award will help her team’s project grow into a much larger programme involving multiple institutions. While the leaders of the team will be professional clinicians, therapists, and physicists, there will be a component enabling students and medical fellows to get involved.

After receiving the grant, research will certainly take up an increasing amount of Dr. Wong’s time. However, teaching remains one of her top priorities. Direct experience with talented medical professionals, Dr. Wong thinks, is extremely important for those hoping to pursue medicine.

“Our [students] are our future colleagues, and we [as doctors] have knowledge that we can share,” she said. Her enthusiasm for teaching and passion for her work makes Dr. Wong an example of the high calibre of U of T’s medical staff.

Dr. Wong describes the satisfaction that she feels when a future doctor is fascinated with her field. “It does give great pleasure when I have students look at my practice,” she said. “At the end of the day, if they say they want to be a radiation oncologist, I did okay.”

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