Interview with UBC Life Science Research Students on Their Pathways Towards Success

Updated: Nov 21

Megan Balzarini

MSc student (2021-present)

University of British Columbia

John Kim

MSc student (2020-present)

University of British Columbia

Zixuan (Christina) Yuan

MSc student (2020-present)

University of Toronto

Claire Grall Undergraduate student - Honours Thesis (2021-present)

University of British Columbia

As many undergraduate students progress through their courses in university, the ever-present pressure to discover the “right” pathway that leads to a bright and enjoyable future grows steadily. For those pursuing a degree in science, this is often filled with worries about gaining relevant experience in research that will give them an upper hand once they graduate. Yet, of course, this implies that students know what they want to do once this graduation has occurred. For some, this idea couldn’t be further from the truth whereas, for others, it is simply stating the obvious. For students falling anywhere along this spectrum of preparedness, it is always wise to fully consider the choices they have. One such choice, especially for those fascinated by the process of research, is to become a graduate student and pursue a Master’s Degree. To gain a deeper insight into what this experience might entail, we conducted a candid interview with four UBC student researchers at the Weidberg lab in the University of British Columbia.

Headed by Hilla Weidberg (Ph.D) and Marina Volpe (Ph.D.) the Weidberg lab's primary research focus is understanding how cells cope with mitochondrial dysfunction, specifically how cells respond to protein import defects and maintain homeostasis within mitochondria under physiological and disease conditions. The students we talked to were John Kim, Zixuan (Christina) Yuan, Claire Grall and Megan Balzarini. Of the above, John, Christina and Megan are current MSc students while Claire is a fourth year majoring in Cellular, Anatomical, and Physiological Sciences (CAPS). In all, they were either already grad students or were on their way to becoming one. From the conversation we were able to have, the following are some of the biggest takeaways that we gleaned regarding both their journeys and their current experiences as researchers.

First off, figuring out which type of research you want to do as a grad student involves a mixture of past experience as well as personal interest.

While simply being interested in a subject, alone, can initially attract somebody towards a lab, it is also important that the experiences gained while doing research keep you interested in the process. For John, he had always been really interested in the research process. Yet, what eventually brought him to his current research were his experiences in a past co-op:

John: “The co-op program was probably the most useful for getting me into research. Honestly, without that I don’t know where I’d be. For my first co-op, I did my internship at McGill university and worked as a research assistant in a cancer lab , where we looked at potential biomarkers of chemotherapy resistance in B cell lymphoma. That type of research gradually drew me into continuing research in the life sciences where I am today”

For Christina, her past experience showed her lab work that she didn’t particularly enjoy doing and allowed her to explore this avenue in research instead:

Christina: “I did research regarding human physiology in an undergrad project. It was focused on studying diabetes using mice models... I chose this lab since it involves a lot more work at the bench rather than the use of animals”

Similarly, Claire wanted to explore something that her program didn’t emphasize as much.

Claire: “My program was very physiology based so it was very nice to understand what was going on on a smaller scale because a lot of my classes are deal with things, on a larger scale, about the human body”

For Megan, her past and present experience with the environment surrounding research is what really got her to where she is at the Weidberg lab. Her journey is the perfect example of the fact that deciding what you want to do isn’t a simple linear process.

Megan: “I started off in Bio and took a few Engineering courses. In my second year, I then switched into Eng Phys (Engineering Physics) and I hated that…The idea was that I could take enough bio courses as electives but within a couple months there I realized that this was not the right environment for me. Then I switched back to bio and I kind of just ended up here because I was doing a co-op and got placed here... It’s important in science to find the right mentor and not just the right can make or break what you’re doing

As the phrase goes, hindsight is 20/20. There are always going to be actions or choices, no matter how small, that anybody will look back on and wish they’d done differently. As current researchers, the pathways that our interviewees have taken clearly led them to a place of success. Nevertheless, with the experience they’ve gained on their journeys, there are certain choices they now know they could have made in the past. These actions could have removed some of the obstacles that they had to face.

Luckily, their past and the hindsight they’ve gained from it not only guides their future decisions but also serves as a guide for students yet to embark on their own research pathways.

The following are some of the advice that they would give to their younger selves and some insights they gained from finding jobs.

John spent his first year of UBC living on campus. Although living on campus presents many special opportunities to socialize and encounter new experiences, it requires an open-mindset and the willingness to venture outside your comfort zone to truly make the most out of it.

John: “Reach out and meet lots of people. Looking back on myself in first year, I was pretty much a different person. I was introverted and shy. So, I didn’t really go out and interact with a lot of people. Another thing, do not feel obligated to take a huge course load in first year... take the time to try out new things, and always be open-minded.”

For Christina, her first year of university was an opportunity to overcome an unfamiliar and daunting adversity, which took the form of a first year physics class.

Christina: “I remember crying in the library after my first physics test in first year. And looking back on it, I would want to tell myself to not be frustrated by bad grades in first year, because things get much better later… [classes] get more interesting too.”

Additionally, Christina would have done things slightly differently regarding getting a volunteer position during her undergrad.

Christina: “I would [tell] myself to put more effort into getting volunteer positions, it had been pretty hard during my undergrad to find any positions. The first thing I would [tell myself] is ‘go ahead and send those emails’ to all the profs I had. [Because] profs don’t really care if you have experimental knowledge...they can teach you that, it’s more important that you’re passionate and show that.”

Similarly, Claire had some advice and reassurance for young undergrad students on the topic of getting a research position with a professor.

Claire: “Early in undergrad, people freak out because they lack experience. And it’s a bit demoralizing for a second year to reach out and email profs because not a lot of profs take undergrads that have no experience… but you just have to keep trying and you likely won’t hear back from a lot of people...that’s fine.”

Megan’s journey with AP (Advanced Placement) classes provided her with the following wisdom to pass on to students who may find themselves in a similar situation.

Megan: “Don’t retake AP courses [if you have the credits for them from highschool] just because other people tell you to. I would tell my grade 12 self to take the physics AP exam, take the AP calc exam so that I wouldn’t have to take it in University, because you are still adapting and learning in University. If you are looking for a more chill course load [in first year] or a smooth way to adapt to university learning, then maybe think about retaking them”

On the topic of trying new things, Megan discussed some of the interesting things she wishes that she tried during her undergrad.

Megan: “Seek out more opportunities and explore more… There are a lot of cool courses that I wish I would have taken in my undergrad. You do, in undergrad, have more opportunities to take random courses that interest you. Don’t waste that.”

“Try international exchanges, like there’s a bunch of programs that I considered doing, but couldn’t fit in with my honours program. Like there’s one in Haida Gwaii where you get to do conservation, and those are cool. Even if you aren’t into ecology, there are lots of other cool opportunities, like Bamfield for 4 weeks!”

While their pasts cannot be changed, as relatively young researchers, there remains a long road ahead of potential opportunities that can still be explored.

If, as an undergrad student, you yearn to reach the stage of conducting research in a lab for a Masters in Science, what do you do once you reach that stage? Would you plan on staying in research for the foreseeable future or would there be any other plans?

This is the question that we asked our interviewees and, in the same vein, we asked what their thoughts were on working in an industrial job as opposed to one based in research.

For Christina and John, in particular, this question was quite relevant to the near future.

John: “Yeah, I mean for now [staying in research is] the plan. If you were to ask whether that be research in academia or industry, I couldn’t give you a certain answer. I mean my mindset’s been pretty much the same since undergrad to always be willing to have an open mind. I’m excited for what comes ahead in life and look forward to continuing research… Most people who end up switching over to industry usually get a masters first. For me, I don’t know if industry is the right fit for me since I’ve never had any experience with it even during undergrad co-op… If you’re doing co-op I’d recommend you try out both sectors - industry and academia”

Christina: “I’m actually at the point where I need to make that decision whether I want to continue research or try something else but, yeah, same mindset as John and will need to see what fits me better. I think I’ll be continuing research...I’ve never had any experience with industry since, in UofT, there was no such undergrad co-op program where I could do that in Life Sciences. There was a paid program which is similar to co-op but it was only open to domestic students.”

For any aspiring undergrads who may read this, we hope the above provides some insights and encouragement about how they approach the remainder of their years. Most importantly, enjoy the freedom you have to explore different areas in this stage of life.

By Kshemaka Gunawardena and Brody Lyons