Catherine Coolens

A Healthy Mind in a Healthy Body

With her mind, she helps treat thousands of cancer patients yearly; with her body, she climbs rocks, plays tennis and rides motorcycles.


Dr. Catherine Coolens is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Toronto. We asked her everything from what she likes most about being a scientist to what she does for fun in hopes of giving you a better understanding of what goes on outside the lab for one of the best minds in Canadian research.

What do you like most about being a scientist?
There are many things I like about being a scientist, such as having the freedom to ask questions to which nobody knows the answer, and then having the possibility to try and find them. Effectively using logic and innovation to solve problems, in my case, to further personalize cancer care is what I like most. Being a researcher in this capacity allows me to participate in the transformation of patient care, accelerate image-guided therapeutics all while helping people.

What advice would you give young researchers?
Never use one research design and don’t be discouraged – a negative result is still a result. Remember to look outside of the box once you’ve exhausted your hypothesis. Through it all, surround yourself with the right team. At the end of the day, it’s all about teamwork.

What are you reading right now? 
“Hannibal and Me” by Andreas Kluth. It’s an engaging way to comprehend both success and failure through one of the best military strategists who ever lived. I like books that continually look at ways to project perseverance, as a researcher needs to take on a similar tenacity in their work.

What do you like to do for fun? 
Combining a clinical and research position in addition to having a family doesn’t leave a great deal of time but I’m a firm believer in “Mens sana in corpore sano”, a healthy mind in a healthy body. I like being active and outdoors playing tennis, rock climbing, riding motorcycles, and most importantly, socialize with friends. If you look at the world’s Blue Zones, where people live longest and healthiest than anywhere else on earth, they are characterized by sun, diet, and frequent, spontaneous social interactions. In our family, we all try to live by that philosophy – just might need some help with the vitamin D levels here in Canada given our long winters!

If you could do any profession other than your own what would it be?
Wow, that’s a tough one because I do love what I do now! Our cutting-edge radiation technologies treat over 8,000 patients every year, making the Radiation Medicine Program at the Princess Margaret best in kind. However if I were to do another profession, it would need to combine creativity resulting in healing and/or happiness. Oddly enough, I think being an architect might be pretty interesting. It would combine freedom of creativity with practical impact and (hopefully) make people happier and enjoy their daily lives a little bit more, albeit in an indirect way.

Aside from things for your survival, what item would you most want to have with you on a deserted island? 
My first thought was for my family… but you’re asking about an item specifically. In that case it would have to be a solar-powered iPod with the world’s largest music database on it. Music is probably the one thing I cannot live without and has helped me through many life events, both good and bad. Being a physicist of course, I would end up retrofitting the solar cell to help me find a source of drinking water, build a fire, create rescue signals, fashion weapons for self defence, find a sources of food and finally create a raft to leave the island. Not being sure even if all this would be possible, I’d enjoy the research to find out!

Interested in learning more about Dr. Coolen’s work? Read our blog post on advanced blood flow phantoms.