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Andy Kokaji

Associate Director of Immunology
STEMCELL Technologies
Andy Kokaji | Directeur associé de Immunologie, STEMCELL Technologies
Andy Kokaji | Directeur associé de Immunologie, STEMCELL Technologies
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Andy Kokaji is an associate director of immunology at STEMCELL Technologies.

About me

I was born/grew up in: I was born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and grew up in St. Albert, a suburb just northwest of Edmonton.

I now live in: Vancouver, BC

I completed my training/education at: I completed my Bachelors of Science in Molecular Genetics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Immediately after my B.Sc., I went on to complete my Ph.D. in Immunology at the same University in the Faculty of Medicine and the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology.

What I do at work

As most of us do, I started my career in Science directly working in the lab trying to figure out a problem or discovering something new. As my career progressed, I was fortunate to have opportunities to build a small team of lab technologists. We would work together to improve our efficiency. This allowed us to ask more questions, design better experiments with the goal of finding a missing piece of the puzzle that we did not understand before. Now, I oversee the work of the Senior Scientific staff as they manage their own research teams who are developing products. The products we develop allow other Scientists worldwide to conduct their research. I work with very smart people. This includes biologists and chemists along with all types of engineers including software, hardware and process engineers. Scientists often have their own “language” specific to their field of study. Although we are fortunate that English is the primary scientific language worldwide, learning how to communicate with people with varying experience and background is very important. Scientists, engineers, chemists, intellectual property lawyers and bioinformaticians all speak a slightly different “scientific dialect”.

My day is filled with a mixture of different tasks and objectives. Most of my time is spent in meetings reviewing information, asking questions and making decisions on next steps. Many of the tasks I am involved with are cross departmental. As a result, the activities from the decisions I make are carried out by a broad range of people within the organization. As I manage a team of Senior Scientists I am still involved in discussing experimental approaches and specific technical details of product development and troubleshooting. The rest of my time is spent with external research collaborators or business partners. Through all of these activities, I use STEM skills every day. My scientific background is critical to being able to quickly understand a problem, identifying questions that need to be asked and making decisions based on the information at hand. Rounding out my STEM background with understanding the business and people side of things is also critically important.

My career path is

At a relatively young age I wanted to do cancer research. In elementary school I did a class presentation on the HIV virus. I guess I didn’t know it at the time but that was probably the first of many scientific presentations I would give leading up to where I am today. During my third year of my undergraduate degree, I ended up taking an Introduction to Immunology course. It was the hardest course I had ever taken and I didn’t do particularly well in it. However, I found it to be the most interesting course I had taken and there was so many unknowns. The fact that there were so many new discoveries being made that directly related to your own body and human health was fascinating to me. This is what led me to pursue my Ph.D. in Immunology and ultimately to where I am today as the Associate Director, Immunology.

I am motivated by

The work that people in my field do is squarely aimed at improving the lives of people affected by human disease. Regardless of whether it is basic or clinical scientific research, the work we do makes an impact in advancing science forward. We have developed products that are used by world leading scientists and businesses developing treatments and cures for human diseases. We are at a pivotal point in history as it relates to advanced cellular therapy and playing a role in that is incredibly exciting.

Although we can all get bogged down with our day to day responsibilities or going to what seems at time to be endless meetings, I am always looking for opportunities to learn. Learning something new will always motivate me, no matter how big or small. Knowledge gained will allow you to connect the dots at the opportune time when others might not see it.

How I affect people’s lives

On a day to day basis, my career is at the point where I can see people learn and grow their scientific mind and observation skills. The outcome of their work is bigger, but on a basic level seeing personal development in others is also very rewarding. Scientific discovery and its application can take a long time, so the journey is the fun part.

Outside of work I

Staying active is a way of life for me; I exercise regularly and still play a lot of organized sports like beach volleyball in the summer, and indoor volleyball and curling in the winter. You can also find me golfing, downhill mountain biking, snowboarding or surfing whenever I can. As for non-active things, I love cooking (and eating) and have taken up urban gardening as well. The most recent hobby of mine is sailing which I find incredibly relaxing, except when docking the boat.

My advice to others

Pursue what you enjoy, be curious of your surroundings and always ask why, or how does that work. Embrace failure, learn from your mistakes, and try to understand why the things you tried didn’t work. What you learn from those failures and mistakes is what leads to discovery. Because what others thought wouldn’t work or is impossible is what makes a great idea.

When I was a student, I enjoyed:
  • Industrial Arts / Shop Programs
  • Physical Education / Health
  • Science
  • Technology
When I was a student, I would have described myself as someone who:
  • Enjoyed doing things on my own
  • Always wanted to be outside
  • Liked helping people
  • Played on a sports team
  • Enjoyed working with my hands
  • Was motivated by success
  • Wanted to be in charge
  • Liked being given free range to explore my ideas
  • Never wanted to be in the classroom
  • Felt great satisfaction in getting good grades
  • Learned best “by doing”
  • Always knew exactly what I wanted to do
  • Liked to take things apart to see how they worked

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