From lab to real life

Sydney Loney
From the pages of Old Times Magazine: Dr. Roderick Slavcev '90 shares his approach to creating a revolutionary new COVID-19 vaccine, why the most important thing is to follow your passions — and how he got his start in science at UCC.
There’s no question science is having a moment.

In the past year alone, we've discovered stardust that predates our solar system trapped in a massive meteorite in Australia, learned that unhatched baby tyrannosaurs were about the size of chihuahuas and found a new 1,640-foot-tall coral skyscraper (along with several new species of fish) in the northern Great Barrier Reef. And then, of course, there was the unprecedented, uncharacteristically collaborative global quest for a COVID-19 vaccine, the results of which have created a new-found sense of hope and optimism not only for 2021, but for what might be possible in the years to come.

Still, a lot of people are intimidated by — even slightly afraid of — science, says Dr. Roderick Slavcev '90. "Science has a really important role to play in all things, whether you’re working in basic science or in therapeutics, which is my area," he says. "Everything is important because the more we understand, the more we can start to generate new applications based on those understandings, to the benefit of humanity and the world in general." With an MBA in biotechnology management and commercialization, and a PhD in microbial genetics, Slavcev has a pretty good sense of just what science makes possible (he’s currently working on a COVID-19 vaccine nasal spray at the University of Waterloo, where he’s an associate professor). And that passion for exploration, understanding and creating cool things all began at UCC. 

Slavcev was born in North Battleford, Sask., to immigrant parents. His father had been a doctor in Europe and was on the hunt for a residency position, which eventually landed the family in Thunder Bay, Ont. One day, his parents informed him he would be attending UCC as a boarder. "I was 12 and remember being a mixture of highly excited and extremely terrified at the same time," he says.

Sports helped relieve some of the anxiety of being away from home for long stretches at a time, and while living in Wedd's, Slavcev became an avid swimmer, played on the volleyball team and excelled at track. "As a boarder, one of the best things was having access to the gym. You could basically just grab a basketball and go play whenever you wanted to." But it was the classes — and the teachers — that Slavcev says had the greatest impact on both his life as a student and the career that came after. "Scholastically, my time at UCC had a massive role to play in any of the successes I had after that point. It prepared me beautifully for what was yet to come. I still remember some of my classes like they were yesterday."

One of those classes was calculus. Slavcev was a little worried about going into it at first, but he says his teacher, Roger Allen (who was also head of mathematics), was phenomenal. "He used to hand out chocolate bars for every challenging question that was done correctly." Calculus turned out to be Slavcev’s favourite course, even though he had never thought of himself as mathematically inclined. "It taught me that what we end up really enjoying is driven so much by the teachers we have. And it was exciting to learn — overcoming the challenges in that class gave me a great sense of self-confidence. And, of course, the chocolate helped as well."

Then there was Ancient Greek, taught by Terence Bredin. Slavcev was one of only two students. "Everyone laughed at me and thought it was totally irrelevant, considering it’s a dead language, but again, it was very teacher-driven. Mr. Bredin made class fun and interesting, with amazing stories and anecdotes that went into every element of what we learned. He turned what was ‘just a language course' into so much more." And finally, there was Modernism, a Year 13 course taught by Marshall Webb ’68 that had an impact on Slavcev’s future trips to art galleries and even informed his vacation plans, including seeing Rodin’s sculptures in St. Petersburg, Russia. "The understanding of art and literature I got from that course alone served me so well," he says. "Learning about Expressionism and Cubism, and getting through books like The Good Soldier, which was like a puzzle — it all opened up my mind to things I otherwise wouldn’t have known existed and ended up shaping some of my biggest passions."

Given his father’s occupation, Slavcev was pushed in that direction and was expected to become a medical doctor. "I rebelled pretty strongly against it," he says. "I remember a conversation with my father where he told me becoming a doctor is the highest profession there is. And I said, 'Well, what if I made the drugs that you then give to people? Isn’t that a little bit more innovative?' And that became my passion — I even think I got a little more of his approval after that."

For Slavcev, sciences always made sense, and they came easily to him. He fondly recalls doing dissections in Duncan Payne’s biology class ("Everyone else was terrified of doing them but, minus the smell, it was something I very much enjoyed"), and it was there that he was introduced to the field of molecular biology. "At the time, molecular biology was still pretty new, and I remember thinking the concept of manipulating genes and being able to control production of proteins and gene products was incredibly intriguing. It helped drive my future as a molecular biologist and geneticist."

After graduating from UCC, Slavcev went to the University of Toronto to earn a bachelor of science degree and the University of Saskatchewan for his MBA and PhD. "I had no idea where I belonged," he laughs. "While I was in Saskatchewan, I was sort of viewed as the city boy, so I didn’t quite fit in. And then when I was in Toronto, I was viewed as the prairie boy."
As a grad student, Slavcev worked as a teaching assistant and channelled some of the approaches to learning he’d picked up from his favourite instructors at UCC — approaches he’s since honed in his 13 years of teaching at the University of Waterloo. "I tend to be more coaching-oriented as opposed to didactic, which was a method that never worked particularly well for me," he says. "I like to work with individuals and orient some of the principles I'm teaching more specifically to what their own ideas and interests are. I try to lead them in directions that aren't necessarily even my areas of expertise to help them develop their own networks and their own ideas around what they're learning — to me, that’s where the greatest learning happens."

Taking a multidisciplinary approach to both learning and science is Slavcev’s specialty. In 2016, he founded Mediphage Bioceuticals, a gene delivery company that is currently helping him — and his students — develop a DNA-based COVID-19 vaccine. Currently at the preclinical stage, the vaccine can be delivered via a nasal spray to stimulate an immune response. "The beauty of using DNA for an application like this is it’s very easy to generate and has the potential to meet global demand, which is far more difficult to do when you’re using more traditional vaccine approaches," he says. "There’s been a lot of interest as to what this might mean for future types of vaccines, even in the oncology space, as well as in infectious diseases." The vaccine is an example, Slavcev says, of how he strives to blend academia and industry to get scientific work done faster and more efficiently. "I’m very passionate about research. When I started my career as a professor, I thought it had to happen in a university, but then I started a couple of companies based around some of the technologies out there, which meant stepping completely out of my comfort zone. By blending academia and industry together — if you can orient them toward the same vision — you can generate some of the most effective, world-changing research and do it at lightning speed."

If you ask Slavcev what’s next, he’ll admit he’s not entirely sure — and he blames UCC. "I learned that it’s fun to live in the grey, uncertain areas of what your normal boxes of disciplines and roles might be. And I learned to like too many things!" It’s a safe bet he’ll end up following the same advice he gives his two daughters, as well as his students: "It really doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re doing something all the time. And you don’t have to know what your path is — if you take the time to explore what your passions are, the rest will solve itself."
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