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Richard Alex

SFU Student Undergraduate
Science › Molecular Biology and Biochemistry
Co-operative Education

To start, I think it bears repeating that you will not get everything right, right away. Don’t forget that experiential learning is just that, learning.
Experience Details
Introduction + Preparation
Preparation Tips for Future Students

First and foremost, before I had even interviewed for the position, I read several of my PI’s (Principal Investigator) more recent publications. I found this to be very helpful not only to get a sense of the type of work going on in the lab, but to find some areas of my studies on which I could spend some time reviewing. With so many courses and such a variety of information one learns throughout an undergraduate degree, it is not often easy to recall everything that may be relevant to your position. Or perhaps you are entering a position outside your field of study, and have only taken a related course or two to satisfy a breadth requirement. Either way, I found it very helpful to go back over some of my notes from previous semesters, if only to remind myself of some key base knowledge of the field. If you don’t have access to this type of review material, there are plenty of excellent lectures from reputable sources online that can help as well.

Though you’ve probably done, or will do, some sort of literature review during your studies, it is a skill that takes practice like any other. Take some time to improve your ability to use literature search databases. They typically offer a wide range of options to help you find exactly what you’re looking for, and having the skills to search efficiently may help you solve a particularly difficult problem. The SFU library is a great place to start:

Another very simple piece of advice that was offered to me was simply “don’t worry”. I found it very helpful to be reminded that, even with prior experience in the lab, you will occasionally make some mistakes.  It will happen to everyone at some point, just make sure you are learning something from the experience! Don’t be afraid to ask many questions, as they are most often highly encouraged, and excellent opportunities for all parties involved to learn. After all, that’s why you’re there.

During my Experience
Orientation and First Weeks

My introduction to the lab was an exciting experience, and ramped up fairly quickly, which has been a common theme throughout my co-op experiences. I met the student research assistant from whom I would be taking over for the summer, and we started with a brief overview of the project on which we would be working. From there, we got right to work. Luckily, as will be the case with most labs, there is a clear set of protocols for every type of assay and technique that is performed in the lab. I was pleased to have a highly competent set of supervisors to walk me through the protocols, but even so, as I mentioned previously, I asked a ton of questions to make sure I knew not only what we were doing, but why.

The initial weeks were focused on getting comfortable in the lab, and figuring out where everything was. Learning the habits of the lab was another part of my introduction. A prime example of this was learning how lab notebooks are filled out, the level of detail required in them, and the labeling process of relevant experiments. Perhaps most importantly, though, was learning how long things take to do. As many of the assays we were performing took place over multiple hours or days, learning timelines was an absolutely essential part of the process.

Learning and Adaptation

On the note of timelines, learning how long the various protocols take to complete turned out to be one of the most important skills I developed over the course of working on this project. While my previous work terms involved some degree of planning out the week, the general workflow remained largely the same, so it was not a major focus of my learning experience. In an academic research setting, however, the workflow changes from month-to-month, and week-to-week, depending on a variety of factors. Results from previous experiments, new ideas from the principal investigator, and even the availability of supplies are among some of the things that will dictate what the next steps will be for the project at hand. Additionally, there is ‘maintenance’ work that needs to get done concurrently. Keeping stock of the various reagents used in experiments, and taking steps to replenish them as needed, is an equally important part of the workflow. In my position, keeping up the supply of plasmid and antibodies was something that regularly needed to be factored into my schedule, with the latter needing about a week to complete. In other words, learning to plan ahead is a fundamental skill in this field.

Accomplishments and Challenges

I feel that my most useful accomplishment in this position has been learning to keep a series of different, though often related, tasks moving forward at the same time. Multitasking has been something with which I struggled greatly in the past. While keeping up with multiple courses at a time in post-secondary education does help one practice this skill to some degree, the timelines in a research setting are much more condensed than your typical university semester. The aforementioned advanced planning played a great role in overcoming this weakness. Further, I suspect approaching the position with a genuine enthusiasm towards the work being done in the lab contributed greatly as well.

Something I struggled with a lot in this experience was the fact that things don’t always work perfectly. Even when following the protocol thoroughly, being exceptionally careful with every step, and asking as many questions as possible, results can still turn out messier than expected. Understanding that there may be factors that I may not have considered, and accepting that there are even some outside my control, was quite challenging. Nonetheless, accepting that it is a fact was an accomplishment in and of itself, and persistence through the adversity of a difficult problem is rife with learning opportunities.

Reflection & Tips

If there is one major takeaway from my work experience terms, it is that the most important things you can bring to the table as a co-op student are generally not taught in your courses. Approaching the experience with a genuine willingness to learn and absorb the knowledge of your mentors will serve you very well. In engaging with your work, no matter what it may be, not only will you find the experience vastly more rewarding, but you are much more likely to discover a passion for something of which you were not aware.

Throughout all my work terms, but particularly through this latest experience, I have cemented for myself the idea that was the motivation for my returning to post-secondary education: as long as I am contributing to work that aims to help people in a meaningful way, I will be able to find fulfillment in a variety of positions, and remain engaged long-term in any of them. While I remain committed to spending some time in the workforce having completed my undergraduate studies, I certainly see myself returning to complete graduate studies in the not-too-distant future. Beyond that, after having spent some time in biomedical research, I can say confidently that it is an exciting discipline filled with a lot of great people. I would be happy to return to this field in any capacity.

Most Valuable Aspects of This Experience

When I started in this position, I mostly expected to perform a lot of basic molecular biology techniques, maintain some cell cultures, and learn a few new things along the way. While I have done plenty of those things as well, I have learned so much more than expected in such a relatively short period of time. Not only do I feel much more confident in taking on a multi-faceted project, and organizing my time appropriately so as to keep on schedule, but I have gained valuable experience in techniques with which I was not even aware. A great example of these techniques is the use of a bio-layer interferometry (BLI) system, which is an optical technology that can analyze interactions between antibodies and receptors, among other things, and measure the kinetics of these interactions in real-time. It is an incredible technology, and one which I was very excited to be able to learn about, despite a fairly high learning curve for analyzing the results. All this to say that the most valuable aspect of this experience, by far, has been learning that I was ready to take on a challenge greater than I had expected to face. While I was admittedly nervous, and still will be going into the following chapter of my working career, I am confident I can succeed wherever I find myself next.  

Connection to Academic Studies or Career Goals

Speaking of next steps, as mentioned in the previous section this work term has provided me with great experience in a variety of different techniques. Many of these skills are used often in biotechnology and other labs across the scientific community. One such skill is the culturing and maintenance of mammalian cell cultures, which is particularly sought-after, based on some preliminary investigation of available positions for laboratory work. Further, having another student work with me to support the project has provided me with more experience in efficiently delegating tasks, a skill I started developing years ago in retail management. As they were only in the lab certain days, learning to plan their work accordingly to best make use of their skills and support the project was another key skill that will serve me greatly going forward.

Aside from some very valuable additions to my C.V., I also feel very fortunate to have been able to gain experience in both sides of scientific research, industry and academia. While there are myriad differences, one that stood out to me was the differences in priorities between the two. Academia is more concerned with learning new things, and the pursuit of publishing findings. Industrial research, on the other hand, is about business first, so viable production of proprietary technologies is always going to be a focus. Seeing things from each of these perspectives, and learning the importance of each of their contributions to research as a whole, will help me greatly in choosing my path and developing as a scientist.

Advice for Future Students

To start, I think it bears repeating that you will not get everything right, right away. Don’t forget that experiential learning is just that, learning. With this in mind, don’t be afraid to give a wrong answer to a question posed of you. If you have put some thought into it, a wrong answer is almost without exception better than no answer at all. In addition, giving the wrong answer, and some of your thinking behind it, is a great learning opportunity. Without it, you might be working with false assumptions, so it benefits not only yourself, but the greater good of your team, too.

Another thing that I found to be very helpful throughout all my work terms was to get really comfortable with the computer programs that are used often in your position. While there are a variety of different programs that you might encounter, one of the most commonly used across the sciences, and many other fields, is Microsoft Excel. While most of us are comfortable with the basics of Excel, there all sorts of shortcuts, functions, and methods of data manipulation that make virtually anything one is trying to do much easier, and much faster. Play around with the program, get familiar, and watch some of the many video tutorials online to help give yourself some incredibly useful skills.

Finally, though this may seem like an obvious one, it certainly helped me to remind myself on occasion: take care of yourself! This is something that we as students often let fall by the wayside. Get a good night’s sleep, eat as well as you can, and get some exercise. You’ll do your best work when you are taking care of your brain and body. Also, don’t forget to take some time to unwind throughout the week, burnout happens to the best of us.

Good luck on your next adventure, you’re going to do great!