30 Mar

The Life of an Undergraduate Researcher: JULS Author Edition (Part 2!)

Welcome to Part 2 of our second edition of “The Life of an Undergraduate Researcher”, where we interview undergraduate students at the University of Toronto to ask them about how they got started in research and how their experiences have been.

Curious about how our JULS authors got some of their exposure to research? For our first edition, we are featuring 3 contributors to the upcoming 2017 issue of JULS:

  • Kamal Hamid
  • Lucy Liu
  • Ponthea Pouramin

Read more about them below!


Name: Kamal Hamid

Year of Study: 2nd year MSc

Program of Study: 

Undergraduate: HBSc, Physiology Specialist, University of Toronto St. George Campus

Graduate: MSc, Biology (concentration in Molecular and Cellular Biology, thesis in prion disease), Institute of Neuropathology, University Hospital of Zurich, University of Zurich

What is your current research project or what would you like your next research topic to be?

I am currently studying the physiological role of the cellular prion protein in the modulation of the expression, function, and subcellular localization of the metabotropic glutamate receptor 1 in the murine brain. I do not yet have a preference for an upcoming topic of research as my career goals do not lie in academia.

Read more!

What inspired you to go into your current field?

During my undergraduate program, I studied a number of historic breakthroughs in my courses, which inspired me to pursue multiple research projects. During my fourth year, I spontaneously decided to attend a lecture by Prof. David B. Williams on his research on prions, which I found very interesting given what I had learned about them in my program. Somehow, the combination of Prof. Williams’ enthusiasm and the nature of his presentation of the results inspired me to further delve into the field. Several days later, I found myself considering applying to a globally renown laboratory studying prion disease at the University of Zurich.

How did your undergraduate experience in science differ from your expectations?

Typically, undergraduate science courses at the University of Toronto deliver the bulk of their curriculum via presenting major studies that led us to where we are. However, such lectures tend to emphasize the experimental rationale, the methodology, and the results dismissing the numerous failures that littered the path from idea to publication. As I proceeded towards an actual research experience in a laboratory, I began to realize that a large amount of time is often spent on troubleshooting equipment and experimental design; though in a way that contributes to the magnitude of satisfaction upon success. I also found that, as opposed to laboratory courses, it was no longer sufficient to identify the problem and suggest solutions, but rather go one step further to solve it and re-direct the project towards new grounds in light of the new findings.

What advice would you give to undergraduate students currently looking to get involved in research?

The University of Toronto is truly a research powerhouse that has a heavy impact on the global perspective. In so being, I found that it makes every attempt to facilitate the participation of its students in the advancement of scholarly investigation. In my experience, Professors at the institution have shifted their focus when assessing students to a constellation of traits portraying dedication, commitment and passion. I, therefore, encourage undergraduate students to never dismiss a potential opportunity on the basis of perceived inadequacy in any personal aspect but passion. Principal investigators merely require drive and competency, respectively; and at the University of Toronto, seldom is there a deficiency in the latter.

What are your aspirations post-graduation?

Upon completing my graduate degree, I plan to pursue my basic studies in medicine where I eventually work towards a career as a clinician scientist.

What do you hope will happen next in science/your field of study?

Albeit too early, I hope to see researchers find evidence of pathomechanistic parallelism in all neurodegenerative diseases by elucidating transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, as prions are an excellent model for studying proteinopathies given their unique advantage of infectivity.


Name: Lucy Liu

Year of Study: Graduated 2016

Program of Study: Double major in physiology and human biology, minor in immunology

What is your current research project or what would you like your next research topic to be?

I am currently studying the quality of dying and death in rural Ontario, and I hope my findings will help to improve end of life care for individuals suffering from terminal illnesses.

Read more!

What inspired you to go into your current field?

Many people recognize the importance of the quality of life, but I believe the quality of death is just as significant. I am a strong advocate for palliative care, and I sincerely hope that in the near future this service would be more readily available and individualized for both rural and aboriginal populations.

How did your undergraduate experience in science differ from your expectations?

I originally thought I would specialize in one area of science, but it turns out that I enjoy taking courses from multiple disciplines.

What advice would you give to undergraduate students currently looking to get involved in research?

I would strongly recommend students to try out different areas of research whether it’s clinical or wet lab. Also, don’t let your marks hold you back from applying for research positions, as cheesy as it sounds, you never know until you try. Take advantage of every opportunity that comes to you!

What are your aspirations post-graduation?

I’m currently applying for some graduate school programs, while working at an educational consulting company. Still waiting for results, fingers crossed, but I still have to wait to see where life takes me next!

What do you hope will happen next in science/your field of study?

I’m really looking forward to the development of a vaccine appropriate for humans to combat the Zika virus, and later hopefully a cure to help those currently afflicted.


Name: Ponthea Pouramin

Year of Study: 5th

Program of Study: Human Biology

What is your current research project or what would you like your next research topic to be?

My current research project used embryonic stem cells to investigate the role of the calcium chaperone Calreticulin towards regulating osteoblast and cardiac stem cell differentiation. We further looked downstream to identify transcription factors whose regulation was controlled by calreticulin activity. As for my next research project, I have become really interested in: Multiple Sclerosis, there has been some recent stem work which showed great efficacy in clinical trials, and I am excited by the utility of stem cells as a potential long term treatment.

Read more!

What inspired you to go into your current field?

I have long been interested in the using stem cells to regenerate damaged tissues. As a result, the Opas lab provided me an amazing opportunity to work on understanding the basic biology of how stem cells differentiate into various tissues. I think first understanding the mechanisms of specifying different cell types is critical towards creating effective therapies to use stem cells to regenerate tissue.

How did your undergraduate experience in science differ from your expectations?

I didn’t expect the late long nights and working on weekends. I was at the lab sometimes until midnight or even later because my experiment didn’t work the first time.  Furthermore, my first research experience, I had to make up my own project and read papers which was very different than any of my undergraduate courses. However, after some time, it became the best part of research, because there were so many possibilities.

What advice would you give to undergraduate students currently looking to get involved in research?

Ask early, be persistent, and don’t get discouraged. There are many labs that would love to have undergraduate researchers, so if you don’t get your first choice keep asking around. Also, science is exciting no matter your project, and is an amazing opportunity to learn new fields, so don’t be afraid to diversify yourself and try something new.

What are your aspirations post-graduation?

My aspirations include to continue my love of research and medicine.

 What do you hope will happen next in science/your field of study?

There is much excitement in the field of stem cell biology right now with the successful creation of many important cell types, including pancreatic cells. The next step is to successfully transplant these cells into patients, and have them live long term. I think through better understanding the biology of how these cells are generated, the field will be successful in perhaps replacing, for example, damaged heart tissue following a heart attack.