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Jenelle Breen

she/ her
SFU Student Undergraduate
Science › Biological Sciences
Co-operative Education › Out-of-Town Co-op

Experience Faculty
In Spring 2023 I had the opportunity to be a student research assistant for Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC) in Dr. Michelle Franklin’s lab (Agassiz Research and Development Center (ARDC)). The Franklin lab focuses on conducting research on entomology and integrated pest management of berry crops. My primary project is on the efficacy a novel baculovirus that infects blackheaded fireworm (Rhopobota naevana), an agriculture pest of cranberry who cause massive yield loss of production.
Experience Details
Semester
Spring
Year
2023
Introduction + Preparation
Preparation Tips for Future Students
  • Prior to an interview for a research position, visit the lab website and check out some recent publications to see the type of projects that are currently occurring or have recently concluded to get a sense of what type of research you may be working on!  Bonus tip - look over the methods section of recent publications to get insight on techniques that may be asked about in the interview. 
  • Let your excitement for the opportunity and projects shine through in your interview.  Although I had prior insect research and rearing experience, most of the students that have worked in the lab have not, so don’t let a lack of experience in the field stop you from applying.  Most skills that are essential can easily be taught on the job, the key is showing willingness and excitement to always learn new skills and techniques. 
  • A couple tips from myself and my friends that could help if you are moving away for your job for the first time:
    • Make sure you check cell reception and wifi availability where you are moving before you sign the lease, or you may be in for some very isolating evenings.
    • If you are responsible for paying for BC Hydro, contact them before you move in to make sure you will have electricity (and heat if it’s the winter).
During my Experience
Orientation and First Weeks

The first day on the job began with HR and mountains of paperwork, meeting my coworkers, and a tour of the facilities.  All government employees must complete online training courses, which took a couple days to get through.  Next I shadowed the other students in the lab, who showed me how to do things including DNA isolation following new protocols, sexing and sorting weevils all the way from Switzerland to send for ddRAD-sequencing and taxonomic identification, and pinning blackheaded fireworm moths.  A lot of insect research is seasonal around summer, so a January start meant lots of time for reading literature on the study species (and SDSs of chemicals used in the lab) and getting familiar with the centre.  I was tasked with digitizing data from experiments conducted last summer.  As I didn’t know the protocol for these datasets I asked lots of questions and made sure I understood what the data represented, which helps in catching potential mistakes, which I discussed with my supervisor.  It can be hard to interpret someone else’s data, which was a good demonstration of the importance of a clear datasheet.  At the end of the first few weeks I attended an agriculture conference and watched talks from various scientists about their research on pests that affect growers.  This solidified the reason and importance of our research. 

Day to Day

A typical “day to day” for my main baculovirus project involves mostly rearing and colony maintenance of uninfected fireworm eggs, larva, and pupa in the mornings, infecting larva in the early afternoon, and maintenance/care of infected larva in the late afternoon. 

Learning and Adaptation

Prior to this coop I have had experience working with insects and running behavioural bioassays, however I had no experience with any virus or molecular work.  The learning curve was steep, and I had to learn entirely new skillsets quickly.  I gained background information about baculoviruses from literature, and experimental procedures from my supervisor.  I even had the opportunity to attend a cranberry growers conference to learn about the impact pests have on the industry, and hear about research other labs are working on.  It was nerve-wracking to start working with a virus, although it cannot infect or harm humans, I was worried I could unintentionally transfer virus to our stable lab colonies and cause a colony collapse.  This would halt the project until summer when new moths could be collected.  Although this possibility still exists, I have learned the appropriate precautions/order to do tasks, and thus far have not had any unintentional virus mortality. 

A great thing that our lab does for its students is host workshops on topics that are important to know for a future in science, but are often not taught in university courses.  An example is on data sheet design as well as data storage.  I implemented what was learned by creating and continuously improving my infection datasheet to make it more clear and streamlined to use. 

Accomplishments and Challenges

One main accomplishment this semester was not in my research, rather in sharing my story with others.  There were three tour groups of grade 6 students, a high school class, and a KPU biocontrol class that toured the Agassiz Research and Development Center.  I was able to share my experience and path of how I got to where I am.  I remember when I was a kid not understanding that research was a career path that was possible.  I lived in a world of liking science meant you became a doctor or a veterinarian.  If I had known that there was an entire world of research in whatever field you could imagine, I think I would have not felt so lost. If I knew there were opportunities to do research and work for the government as a university student, I would have gotten involved in coop or other paths to research experience sooner.  I hope that even one of the kids found it helpful, and if not, then they all seemed to enjoy looking at cool bugs. 

In relation to my research the past four months, I have embraced learning things that were outside of my wheelhouse.  I was placed on my project with absolutely no knowledge of entomopathogenic viruses, and I am appreciative of the opportunity to learn an entirely new skillset.  I have been given the opportunity to design and run my own experiment in the upcoming semester.  I am currently in the designing phase and will be presenting my proposal in a lab meeting to get feedback and suggestions on how to improve my design prior to beginning the bioassays.  This will be an invaluable experience if I decide to go to grad school, and although it is a large responsibility and workload, I am excited to see how it goes in the upcoming months. 

Reflection & Tips
Reflection

I entered this job looking to improve on my weakness from my last coop, which was nerves when trying new things.  Some techniques I utilized were ensuring I was prepared by mentally going through each step of the procedure and asking/googling any clarifying questions before beginning.  I would get all the equipment/reagents/tools ready and organized in advance, and find a way to track which step I was on to not repeat/skip steps.  Lastly I would think about anything I could forsee going wrong and considering what I would do in each of those cases.  I still utilize these tools when attempting something for the first time and even on tasks I’ve done many times, but the rationale has shifted a bit.  In the past I relied on these strategies to know I had prepared as much as I could and help to troubleshoot if I ran into any problems, which is still the case, but now it is also a great practice to see if I understand the process and what each step does, which is helpful in thinking through if any area can be optimized or a different method could be considered.  I have found my nerves decrease with exposure to all of the new projects and tasks that I have completed this semester. 

Most Valuable Aspects of This Experience
  1. Workshops. The technicians and senior scientists went out of their way to create and present workshops on topics that are not typically taught in science degrees but are critically important in research and grad school.  Some examples included learning how to structure and write a manuscript, how to identify features of bad graphs to assist in creating good figures, the peer review process of unpublished manuscripts, and insect pinning.  All of the knowledge gained in these workshops will be invaluable in my future academics. 
  2. Networking and discussing career paths with researchers at ARDC, and joining a new lab team. 
  3. I have the opportunity to plan an experiment from the ground up.  I have so far done a literature search, determined objectives, hypothesized, and planned how the data will be visualized, and I am working on nailing down methods and protocols.  I am using some preliminary data that I collected as a base for the methods and dosages for my trials.  This is the first time I will be in charge of all steps of an experiment from planning, to running, to data analysis and creating visualizations.  Although I am still in the beginning stages of the project this will be an incredibly valuable experience for if I do and ISS or get accepted to grad school where I will be able to implement all the skills and lessons I learn from this experience. 
Connection to Academic Studies or Career Goals

Every job and every lab will have different culture, projects, expectations, and goals.  I had previously done three semesters of undergraduate research in one lab, and in beginning with a new lab I was able to add to my collection of skills and understanding of science and research.  In the two labs I was working on very different projects, and I have embraced learning new skills in whatever I am working on.  Prior to this job placement, I had never worked on a project requiring molecular work, and I didn’t know that I would enjoy it, having never experienced it.  This was an important lesson, to never make assumptions on what type of work will be enjoyed, and what will not be a good fit.  When this lesson is applied to academics, I am open to considering expanding my class selection and potential work opportunities, with the understanding that even if it is miserable and not a good fit, its better to learn that before a long term commitment.  I think this is the beauty of a coop program that allows for diversity in types of jobs to apply for, and an appreciation for employers that are willing to hire people who do not have all of the skills required prior to employment.  I have solidified my desire to do an ISS and attend grad school (likely in IPM) after discussing potential future options with many people at AAFC ARDC. 

Advice for Future Students

Prior to my starting this work term I was able to attend a conference that my supervisor and her students were also attending.  I was able to find and meet people I would be working alongside in the near future and introduce myself.  I even got the contacts of a few people in case I had any questions prior to my start. This was helpful in calming nerves about moving to a new city as I knew people that lived close, and the first day of work felt less like I was bombarded with new things to learn as I already knew most of the people in the lab.  If the opportunity presents itself to meet your coworkers prior to beginning the work term, do it!  This is especially the case if the interviews are virtual, meeting face to face is different and knowing what to expect regarding the group dynamics of your team can ease the nerves of starting an entirely new job.  My second tip is to think about if you are interested in a career in the field of your job.  If you are, try to talk to as many senior staff as you can about how they got to where they are.  If you are interested in research, everyone has different paths, and it can be helpful to know what programs are out there, and the pros and cons of the path from the people who have experienced them.  Who knows, your supervisor may even put you in contact with other labs or people for future school or employment opportunities.  Lastly, midway through the work term I have found it helpful to ask the supervisor for an informal chat about performance and where they see room for growth or improvement.  It can be nice to have a goal of improvement to strive towards, and sometimes they will notice things that you don’t.  If research interests you, I would highly recommend applying to work for any of the research scientists at the ARDC. 

Author

Jenelle Breen

she/ her
SFU Student Undergraduate
Science › Biological Sciences
Co-operative Education › Out-of-Town Co-op
visibility  219
Apr 15, 2023