When asked to reflect on their time as an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, some graduates – particularly in the life sciences – would speak of a demoralizing and impersonal experience. They may complain of unfriendly and oversized classes, draconian professors, and a large egocentric student body lacking school spirit, which all entwined, robbed them of the much lauded, but increasingly mystical “university experience”.
However, I for one believe that life as an undergraduate student is what you make of it regardless of the institution. It can be stressful and difficult at times, but also a very rewarding experience should you strive to make the most of your degree. Coming to U of T was an easy decision for me – I simply came for the potential to be involved in world-class biomedical research. Insulin, electron microscopes, hematopoetic stem cells, and T cell receptor genes are just a few of the major discoveries made at our very own University that changed the world, and this attracted me towards it.
Enrolling in the Immunology program is the key reason that, now as a recent graduate, I have no regrets attending U of T. This program allowed me to experience working with some of the world’s leading experts in the field through undergraduate research opportunities. For me, undergraduate research, specifically in immunology, truly made the “ride” a long and bumpy, yet scenic and enjoyable, route. However, this isn’t an ad for promoting immunology post-enrolment. This segment is designed to be a reflection on my first experiences transitioning into a lab environment during my undergraduate degree, how it has helped prepare me for graduate school, and how it may provide insights to current undergraduates interested in research at this level.
My first taste of immunological research began with a summer studentship in Dr. Pamela Ohashi’s lab, and it was an experience I will always commit to memory. As if being the youngest of the group wasn’t bad enough, I quickly realized I was also the dumbest. I recall being lost in lab meetings and journal clubs, and it took me months to finally understand how some of the complex models used in the lab worked. In addition, I was afraid of handling mice, wasting expensive reagents, and contaminating cell culture experiments. I felt as though I was more of a burden to my supervisor than actual help. Fortunately, this changed.
As my time in the lab progressed, my knowledge grew exponentially, and I attribute most of this to the incredible graduate students and post-doctorate fellows I was exposed to. I had spent countless hours planning and executing experiments, and learning how to troubleshoot. Eventually, experimentation on mice developed into a passive skill, FACS became a walk in the park, cell culture became a breeze, and IV injections still remained pretty darn hard. Regardless, with this experience, I learned to master a set of techniques and gained a new appreciation for the concepts taught in class. I transitioned from a once naïve summer student to an expert on my project, and eventually taught the incoming summer students some new techniques. Most importantly, I learned to effectively manage my time – juggling classes, exams and other extracurricular commitments with experiments in the lab, which undoubtedly has prepared me for graduate school. Never giving up on negative data, asking the right questions, and refraining from emotional distress over failed experiments are just a few of the great lessons I learned throughout my undergraduate research experiences that I can take with me into graduate school. Research is difficult, and like any other skill, it requires practice for perfection.There is nothing more satisfying than being at the forefront of discovery, and with some hard work, your experimental results can contribute meaningful progress to the academic community and your chosen research field.
With all this in mind, I challenge undergraduates in the immunology program to set themselves apart from those that may have distaste for their time at U of T. I strongly encourage students to partake in research during any year of study. The faculty and the Department do an incredible job of providing the opportunities and resources necessary for students to get involved in research that will make your experience much more enjoyable. If your desire is to make the most of your degree, attaining a research position through paid summer studentships, independent studies, or volunteering will provide you with a refreshing break from class, and an introduction to what science is truly about. You will meet genuine people who will guide you and enhance your overall learning experience. As well, you will have the opportunity to interact with professors and expand your academic network. There is nothing more satisfying than being at the forefront of discovery, and with some hard work, your experimental results can contribute meaningful progress to the academic community and your chosen research field.
Finally, based on my research experiences so far, I hope I can provide a few tips for any new student researchers: 1. Understand the science. Don’t do any experiment your supervisor assigns without fully understanding why you are doing it and what the results may imply. 2. Read the literature. The more you read the better, and the smarter you will sound when playing immunology trivia with fellow lab mates on coffee breaks. 3. Establish great relationships. This one is important. It’s true that research involves independent thinking, planning, and execution of experiments, but it also relies heavily on intercommunication. Find great mentors who you can turn to for advice, and make life-long friendships that you can share your undergraduate research experience with. 4. Ask questions. The graduate students can provide insightful advice, not only regarding the aspects of the lab, but also on how research and life in general at the graduate level is like – you may be there someday. 5. Never give up. With most things in life, research is no different. Always push yourself and learn from your mistakes.