Dr. Mark de Jong
Chief Technology Officer, Canadian Isotope Innovations Corp.
U of M Degrees:
BSc Honours Physics (1974)
PhD Nuclear/Accelerator Physics (1981)
“As an undergrad I was one of the few who went on in physics, instead going into other disciplines. I wanted to work in industries and not enough people think about going that way. It’s sometimes difficult to persuade people that following that path can be equally as interesting, equally as stimulating, and offer just as much opportunity as the more traditional academic path – going up through faculty, then post-doc, research associate, faculty member. Many students never see those other examples, so they don’t think of that as an equally viable opportunity.”
What was your strongest memory from your time studying at the U of M, Faculty of Science?
U of M was home for me for 11 years. I changed thesis projects about halfway through and the experience I had working with my supervisor, Dr. Oh, on the cyclotron [a particle accelerator] was just great. I was his first grad student, he didn’t have any courses, and we used to sit down to chat for an hour or two every afternoon, going over what we’d each learned. It was just a great way to learn, with lots of hands-on work and support. He was Korean, and sometimes I would ask him a question about something quantitative; he’d tip his hand up with his palm open and take his finger on his other hand, and I’m certain that he was writing in Korean on the palm of his hand, and then he’d tell me the answer. He was a wonderful man; I really enjoyed working with him. My time at U of M was just a great experience all around.
What opportunity during or after your time in the Faculty of Science helped launch your career?
I would have to say it was one that started right off at the beginning, in my first year. The professors in the physics department found out I felt the physics courses I was taking were “a drag” and was considering switching to mathematics or computers. They thought that was no good; they had to try to do something to make it bit more stimulating and interesting for me. So they asked me if I was interested in giving them a hand with some of the experiments down on the cyclotron. That’s how I started working on the particle accelerator, first helping with the nuclear physics experiments, then helping the graduate students and looking after operating it, then giving technicians a hand doing service and maintenance. I spent way too much time down there – sometimes to the detriment of my courses – but that kind of launched my career, and I’ve stuck with it. I’ve done other things, but I’ve always come back to working on accelerators.
What is the most fascinating and/or engaging experience you have had during your career in science?
The current one would be the construction of the Canadian Light Source facility here in Saskatoon. That was a big science project - a $170 million electron accelerator - and big, technical science projects like that come along almost only once in a generation. I knew about the proposal and the project, but when I heard that it was funded, I decided “that’s something I’ve gotta work on.” When I arrived here in Saskatoon in 1999, it was just a green field behind an old, smaller accelerator lab. There were just 20 people working there and now there are over 200. To have the opportunity to be the project leader and see it through to fruition and operation was really great. We had it completed by 2005 and outside-users from all across Canada and internationally have been acquiring data from it for 10 years. So, in some sense I [recently] got restless, looking for another interesting project to work on, and that’s partly why I’m now pursuing this new isotope production – it’s a new private company that’s set to commercialize all the isotope work that we’ve been doing with Canadian Light Source.
What component or characteristic of your experience best allowed you to step in and solve the problem of replacing the supply of medical isotopes?
I’ve now been working with particle accelerators for 45 years, so I have a good idea of what can be done with them. All those years of experience, first at U of M, then when I worked up at Chalk River, helped prepare me. For much of the time, until this past year, working on the isotopes was only part of my activities. I was looking after all the accelerators at the facility, sometimes even having some other management responsibilities, and trying to nurse this little project on the side. I’ve gotten used to working with large, multi-disciplinary groups. Any time you’re dealing with one of these accelerators, you’ve got to pull in lots of technology and background from a wide variety of people. No one person can master everything. That’s made me a little bit more comfortable working on larger projects where there are lots of contributions that have to come in from all different corners. For my doctorate at U of M I did work for the cyclotron, in terms of actually modifying the cyclotron itself, and working with the accelerators there. But in addition to that, for two years and one summer as an undergrad, I also worked at the Department of Pharmacology, so I had some sympathy and interest in pharmacology, drugs, and drug interaction. So when coming back to try to do some of the medical applications, I felt quite comfortable.
At an age where most people would be thinking about retiring, Dr. Mark de Jong is taking on a brand-new, risky start-up project – and he wouldn’t have it any other way, because he’s truly doing what he loves. He was the driving force behind world-class research facility Canadian Light Source’s novel approach to tackling a global shortage of medical isotopes – due to the impending shut down of aging nuclear reactors around the world – with a safe, uranium-free method. Now de Jong is helping drive Canadian Isotope Innovations Corp. in commercializing those isotopes.
The accelerator physicist’s focus has remained fairly constant over the years, including for nearly two decades when he worked at the Chalk River nuclear research lab near Ottawa before moving to Saskatchewan. He has also designed systems used in electron accelerators for a variety of applications, including some of the cutting-edge machines used in high-energy physics. And while he claims he sometimes wonders if he “has rocks in his head” for taking on his latest venture with the Canadian Isotope Innovations Corp. start-up at this stage of his career, he says he knows that if he did retire, he’d just want to spend his time doing the same kind of work.