09 Nov

The Life of an Undergraduate Researcher: JULS Staff Edition

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Welcome to our first 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 JULS staff members got some of their exposure to research? For our first edition, we are featuring three members of the JULS staff:

  • Jenny Xiao (Senior Editor)
  • Linwen Huang (Layout Manager)
  • George Li (Co-Editor-in-Chief)

Read more about them below!


jenny-xiao

Name: Jenny Xiao (Senior Editor)

Principal Investigator: Dr. Katalin Szaszi and Dr. Andras Kapus

Research Facility: Keenan Research Center of St. Michael’s Hospital

Current Research Project: 

Determining the effect of mechanical stress on tight junction proteins, in particular Claudin-2, and whether or not this potential effect is mediated by mechanosensitive transcription factors YAP/TAZ and/or MRTF. Such a mechanism may be very important for the control of injury/repair mechanisms in the epithelium with relevance to both normal and pathological healing (fibrosis).

How did you get started with your first research experience?

In high school from grades 10 through 12 I participated in the Sanofi BioGENEius competition which had students designing a research project and carrying it out in a lab in the span of about 6 months. The competition provided me with the resources to align myself with a principal investigator and the guidelines for writing a research proposal.

Read more!

What inspired you to go into your current field?

I am currently a biochemistry student at U of T and the lab I work in falls in the biochemistry department. I absolutely adore organic chemistry and so part of the reason why I’m studying biochemistry is so I can keep taking chemistry courses throughout my undergraduate degree without too many schedule conflicts.

Signaling pathways have also been something that I’ve just loved to memorize for fun in school and in my spare time. When drawn out and connected together on a piece of paper, there is something so beautiful to me about the overwhelming organized chaos and it makes me feel really happy.

How did your research experience differ from your expectations?

I wish there was less politics and more people who just love what they do.

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

First, think twice about whether or not research is something you actually want to do. Get involved with research if you’re truly passionate about it and are curiosity driven. Don’t do it just because of medical school or because everyone around you is doing it. I feel like that is a waste of everyone’s time.

If you genuinely like research, then all I can say is let your passion show through in your emails or cover letters or interviews and don’t let grades or GPA stop you from reaching out to labs that align with your research interests. I personally don’t believe grades are a good indicator of whether someone can be a good scientist or not.

What are your aspirations post-graduation?

The ideal would be a MD/PhD program (and potentially a MBA), but I wouldn’t mind doing the two degrees separately.

What would be the best next thing to happen in science?

Biomaterials? Artificial organs? There are lots, I’m not sure how to pick one.


linwen-huang

Name: Linwen Huang (Layout Manager)

Principal Investigator: Dr. Paul Santerre

Research Facility: Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research

Current Research Project: 

I’m currently testing the viability of a tissue engineered vascular graft for cardiovascular diseases that’s made out of a biomaterial that my lab developed. We’re looking to see how the graft reacts in physiological conditions, so that eventually it can be used in clinical settings.

How did you get started with your first research experience?

I just emailed a few professors I wanted to work with, sent them my CV and transcript, got an interview with a few of them, and ended up getting accepted to a few of the labs.

Read more!

What inspired you to go into your current field?

I think biomedical engineering is such a cool field, you have people looking at robotics, biomaterials, NMR, prosthetics, and so much more, it’s not just purely biology. Biomedical engineering also allows for the incorporation of the medical and biological fields, with that of engineering and biomaterials. This is important for me because I’ve never fully been interested in just pure biology research, so biomedical engineering allowed me to combine my interests in material, medicine and design work.

How did your research experience differ from your expectations?

I definitely would not have expected all the late nights and weekends that I spent in the lab, or how many research papers you’d have to read. But at the end of it I had a really awesome project, an amazing PI, and the people I worked with were all so incredibly talented. So I’d say it was worth despite all the stressful late nights I pulled to finish my projects on time.

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

Put yourself out there. Find professors with work that excites you and go talk to them or email them. And if they don’t answer follow up with them, but definitely don’t be afraid of initiating the conversation with them and don’t worry about getting rejected. Because let’s be honest for every acceptance I got there were around 5-10 profs who didn’t answer or flat out said no.

What are your aspirations post-graduation?

Like many of my fellow U of Ters, I’m attempting to get into medical school after my undergraduate degree, and potentially following that up with a PhD or masters in biomedical engineering.

What would be the best next thing to happen in science?

Mmmm… controllable nanomaterial/robots. That’d be pretty awesome, or self-regenerative tissue for every organ and body part you can think of. Oh, a fully functioning quantum computer would be definitely up there too. Haa there’s too many things I can think of that could be the next best thing, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see which one of them happens first.


george-li

Name: George Li (Co-Editor-in-Chief)

Principal Investigator: Dr. Joseph Kim

Research Facility: Toronto General Hospital (Multi-Organ Transplant Program)

Current Research Project:

The epidemiology of Clostridium difficile infection in kidney transplant recipients (completed).

Developing a model to predict urinary tract infections in kidney transplant recipients.

How did you get started with your first research experience?

I originally started in the Multi-Organ Transplant Student Research Training Program (MOTSRTP) as a research opportunity (ROP299) student. I had actually originally only applied for positions in two other labs, however I decided to apply for this position after the deadline for ROP applications were extended that year. I enjoyed my experience there, so I ended up staying over the summers and through independent research courses during the school year – I’ve worked in the program over 2 years now.

Read more!

What inspired you to go into your current field?

When I applied for my research position, I actually had no real preference for what field I would get into (I just wanted to get any research position!) However, through my research program, I was able to learn a lot about clinical epidemiology and microbiology. All my projects were based on infectious diseases in kidney transplant recipients, which actually ended up matching well with my subject POSts in school (specialist in microbiology and major in human biology). Since then, I’ve become very invested in the fields of epidemiology and transplantation.

How did your research experience differ from your expectations?

Prior to working at my research position, I had never actually thought about clinical or epidemiological research (all I had ever considered was wet lab work). Instead, I learned a lot about collecting clinical data and statistics. Working in a clinical environment also gave me the opportunity to participate in opportunities I would have never thought of, and outside the scope of research per se, from observing transplant surgeries to creating websites.

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

My biggest piece of advice would be to pursue every opportunity you can. For me, I applied to my current research program in the spur of the moment after the ROP299 deadline was extended. As part of the application, I had to write an essay – I didn’t want to do it because it was exam season. My interview was at 7AM on the day of one of my exams, and I considered not going. If I had actually been lazy and not done any of those, I would have never had to chance to work on what I did and meet the people I met – I’d say compared to my undergraduate education, my experiences doing research were equally as, if not more, important towards guiding my future career choices.

What are your aspirations post-graduation?

I’d like to continue working in public health and epidemiology, whether it be as a Masters in Public Health or a medical doctor (or maybe both!)

What would be the best next thing to happen in science?

I think any advancements in regeneration of organs through stem cells would be huge for medical sciences.