Aug 22, 2019

Science and other Lessons Learned from Summer in the Lab

jack castelli

Jovana Drinjakovic

Their brief lab stints may be over, but for some of these undergrads a research career has only just begun.


“I never knew what you did in a PhD,” says Justine Lau, whose previous summer jobs were working as a camp instructor or in a restaurant. “It was really interesting to see the life of grad students, learning basic lab skills that I ‘m going to take on in future years.”

Lau, who is going into the second year of medical sciences studies at Western University, spent her summer working in Mikko Taipale’s lab in the University of Toronto’s Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, where she studied the molecular basis of congenital diseases. Her first brush with research is unlikely to be the last.

“I always thought of researchers as working on their own and I was surprised by the amount of collaboration that happens in the lab,” she says. “I am a very social person so I really liked that.”

Allysia ChinFor Allysia Chin, who researched biomarkers in brain cancer in Molly Shoichet’s lab, learning how to explain her research to the public was as important as learning new lab skills. “Communicating science to a lay audience is often overlooked, but it is so important because at the end of the day the research we do is for them,” says Chin, heading into the final year of her chemical biology degree at McMaster University in Hamilton. Communicating science effectively will stand her in good stead when she fulfills her dream of becoming a clinician scientist which she hopes to train for at U of T's MD-PhD program. “I love the dynamics of the school and inclusion and diversity it represents,” says Chin.

Lau and Chin are among almost 60 undergraduates from U of T and other universities who participated in the Donnelly Centre Summer Undergraduate Research Program. The goal of the program is to immerse students in a real research environment, cultivate their curiosity about science and give them research experience required to enter competitive graduate schools.

During their summer break, the students learned how to plan and conduct research projects in diverse medical research fields, draw insights from their data and present their research in seminars.

The program concluded with a research symposium during which 20 select students presented their projects as two-minute poster pitches to their peers and lab members. The speakers were selected on the strength of their written research summaries.

“The students clearly put a lot of work into both their projects and their 2 minute presentations”, says Peter Roy, a professor in the Donnelly Centre who was on the judging panel that awarded prizes for the best presentation and research summary. “The projects were so exciting, highlighting the cutting-edge research that the Donnelly is engaged in.“

Other members of the panel were:  Shoichet, postdoctoral fellow TaeHyung (Simon) Kim, Senior Research Associate, Helena Friesen, and graduate students Clarence Yeung and Ziyang (Jason) Wang.

“This undergraduate symposium was designed to model what a future career in science would look like— how to compile data in a concise way, scientifically explain findings in a formal research summary, and to present work in a limited amount of time at conferences in a way that would allow your peers, who are not familiar with your research, to understand what it is about” says Sara Sharifpoor, Research Program Manager for the Donnelly Centre and co-ordinator of the undergraduate research program.

“As a bonus, we also wanted to formally recognize the gifted students with high potential, in order to encourage them to pursue a future career in science and innovation,” she says.

jack castelliThe two $250 prizes for the best e-poster pitch and research summary went to U of T students, Jack Castelli and Jack Li, respectively, both in the department of molecular genetics. Castelli was in Fritz Roth’s lab, where he studied how gene mutations affect the function of the encoded protein, while Li was in the Roy lab where he searched for new chemical compounds that can kill parasites.

“The symposium was put together really well and was fun to attend,” said Castelli, adding that he enjoyed his time in the Donnelly with “loads of cool science going on, from all sorts of different fields of research.”

Will he be back in the lab?

“I'd be devastated if this were my last summer in the lab,” he says. “I am looking forward to attending graduate school and pursuing a Ph.D”

For more photos of the research symposium go to:

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