We compiled responses from 4 students from the University of Waterloo in the Faculty of Science with biotechnology specialization to share their experiences.
Aksharh Thambipillai: Biochemistry program, class of 2020, a past intern at Sunnybrook Hospital, and past co-lead at University of Waterloo WiSTEM
Rubina Gill: Biochemistry program, class of 2020, a past intern at ApoPharma (Subsidiary of Apotex Inc.)
Sapna Karwal: Biochemistry program, class of 2020, a past intern at Centre for Microbial Chemical Biology at McMaster University, and a past intern at Adapsyn Bioscience Inc.
Sophia Tan: Current Vice-President of UW WiSTEM, dedicated her skills to solving challenges in COVID-19 through QICSI startup incubator.
BioTEC: What initially motivated you to pursue your current program?
Aksharh: I found biochemistry to be the perfect middle ground between biology and chemistry, giving me the opportunity to learn about both fields. I decided to pursue the biotechnology specialization because I was intrigued by the methods used to generate, manipulate, and analyze experiments, as well as the interdisciplinary nature of the field.
Rubina: I chose biochemistry with a biotechnology specialization because I was always interested in understanding the molecular functioning of the human body. Since I was young, I always asked why things worked the way they did. For instance, why are there so many different hairs and eye colors? This program gave me those answers.
Sapna: I selected biochemistry as my major because I have always been fascinated by the chemical mechanisms of the human body. I discovered biotechnology at the end of my first year and decided to specialize in it because my favorite aspect of biotechnology focuses on finding innovative ways to combat human diseases.
Sophia: I wanted to study a field that was interdisciplinary. Biotechnology gave me the option to pursue the growing intersection between technology and computational applications, and anything medical or healthcare-related. This program offered me the ability to combine both of these emerging and innovative fields.
BioTEC: Did your program meet your expectations? What turned out to be different?
Rubina: My program exceeded my expectations. I enjoyed all of the topics we learned about in my biotech classes, especially how DNA and proteins work, and how we can use that knowledge to create vaccines and anti-tumor agents specific to cancer cells. Learning about how to apply these concepts to the real world is very exciting.
Sophia: The biggest difference I noticed in coming to university was the vast range of options and specializations within the biological sciences that you could pursue; most of which I didn’t even know existed before starting University. Out of high school, I had a very small scope of what was available, both in terms of careers, opportunities, and fields. With my program, what you learn in lectures ends up being very applicable in industry and research.
BioTEC: How has your program prepared you for your career?
Aksharh: Waterloo has a strong start-up culture which has cultivated an entrepreneurial mindset in me. I enjoy pitching new ideas pertaining to biotechnology to my friends, and critically analyzing problems to discover unique solutions. The program not only encourages you to think outside of the box, but it provides you with the resources needed to pursue your ideas as well. With a biotech toolkit, there is a lot of room for innovation - you are quite literally able to manipulate cells to solve complex problems on a large-scale. The co-op program has also given me invaluable experience as an undergraduate student. I was able to work in areas relating to project management, the pharmaceutical industry, and clinical trials. All of these experiences not only molded my skills and interests, but they were able to challenge me and better prepare me for the next steps that I wanted to take after graduation.
Rubina: The co-op program has been very important for my career. I had the opportunity to work in many different places with wonderful people. I worked at The Medicine Shoppe, The Woodbridge Group, Health Canada, and ApoPharma. Each workplace taught me something different that improved my skill set and made me a better scientist. For instance, Health Canada taught me how to be independent and troubleshoot experiments and ApoPharma taught me how to think critically like a scientist when analyzing experimental data. I was able to apply what I learned during my co-op experiences to content we learned in lecture to improve my understanding of the material and improve my academic performance. During my coop terms, many of my supervisors and fellow researchers served as role models because they’ve been through similar challenges and were able to persevere through. A supervisor of mine at ApoPharma was very relatable and was able to empathize with some of the struggles I've had as a young scientist.
Sapna: Co-op experiences really drove my passion forward. However, the start was not easy. My first and second coop served as a springboard for me to gather more relevant experience that strengthened my future applications. I believe passion is really important, and it can help during your job interview. During my third co-op experience, I had the incredible opportunity to use advanced robotic technology to perform high throughput screening in discovering hit and lead therapeutics against a variety of infectious agents. During my last co-op term, I was expediting the drug discovery process by applying artificial intelligence on Actinobacteria genomes to unveil biosynthetic gene clusters for novel therapeutics. Through these experiences, I was able to gain a lot of knowledge in the preliminary stages of drug discovery, which allowed me to view lectures in a new perspective. In conclusion, if you are really passionate about your program, you will definitely land your dream co-op job(s).
BioTEC: What are the highlights of your learning journey thus far?
Sophia: In terms of working towards my degree, I am still at the beginning of my learning journey. My favorite aspect so far has been the mix of science, bioengineering, innovation, and technology. This mix provides a change of pace and variety and constantly encourages you to think beyond the limits of a single discipline. From a learning perspective, this is one of my favorite aspects of this field.
Rubina: One of the highlights of my learning journey was being able to apply what I learned in my work experiences to the classroom because it allowed me to have a better grasp of the concepts being taught. It’s always a great feeling when you are learning about a specific experimental method in a class that you may have already done at work because you can visualize the steps and you know why each step is necessary. Another highlight of my journey was being able to work with neurotransmitters and rat brain samples at ApoPharma while testing a new drug for Parkinson’s disease. I have always been interested in the nervous system and getting hands-on experience with it was amazing. In terms of classes, I loved the topics we learned about because they could be applied to real-life situations. For example, there is a fermentation course I really enjoyed (BIOL 443) where we learned about how yogurt and chocolate are made. Biotechnology has a lot of applications for the real world. It’s crazy to think the last meal you had involved so many aspects of it.
Sapna: I think innovation is a very big highlight of my program (biochemistry with a biotechnology specialization) because we need to constantly come up with new ideas. The classes might not seem very application based in the first or second year, however in the end you are able to see the previous concepts being applied to real-life scenarios. For example in the design of the COVID-19 vaccine, there are so many considerations: How do you increase the half-life of the drug? Which route is the best for administration? How can this drug be accessible and stored in underdeveloped countries and regions? All of these considerations show how knowledge can be used in improving human health, and it is this belief that motivated me throughout my studies.
BioTEC: What is a challenge you experienced in university?
Aksharh: I struggled with the first biotechnology course that I took and questioned whether the specialization was really for me. However, I didn’t let it discourage me and decided to take this one course on animal cell biotechnology (BIOL 483). This course profoundly changed my perspective on biotechnology and reinstated my interest and desire to continue down this path. So, I think the lesson is: in university, they specifically make the courses harder for you in order to really challenge you. However, if you are really interested in something, always give yourself one more chance to try it.
Sapna: In my program, there is a saying called “2B or not 2B”, which means that 2B is usually the critical term when people decide if they want to stay in the program or not. Biochemistry is a very rigorous program at UW because it involves taking more chemistry courses than biology courses because graduates are accredited with the Canadian Society of Chemistry. Usually, individuals who enroll in the biochemistry program are unaware of how much organic chemistry is involved, especially in the upper-year courses, and thus the course load can be very intense and overwhelming. However, if you are truly passionate about the topics, it is definitely worth it in the end.
Rubina: The transition from high school to university was definitely difficult at first. Moving away from home was hard for me because I’m very close with my family. The university system is also very different from high school. The content is taught differently, you may need to change your study habits, and the tests can be difficult. There is a learning curve involved and you most certainly will experience shortcomings of some sorts on the way, but it will work out in the end.
BioTEC: Are you working on any projects outside of your studies?
Sophia: Given the current situation, a few friends and I really wanted to take initiative to somehow address the challenges associated with COVID-19 and its many implications. Specifically, we were looking to focus on the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations and essential services. To that end, we’ve co-founded a growing business venture. As a youth, I think it can seem difficult to find ways to give back to our communities, particularly in a time like this. Pursuing this venture has been an incredible opportunity to push ourselves outside of our bubble of comfort and apply classroom knowledge to current pressing issues. I definitely owe a big part of my drive for innovation to the University of Waterloo.
Rubina: I’ve worked on many projects during my co-op experiences. For instance, at ApoPharma, I worked with a new drug for Parkinson’s disease. During this co-op term, I was responsible for measuring the metabolism and clearance of the drug in rat, mouse, dog, and human hepatocytes to ensure that the liver was capable of metabolizing the drug. I was also responsible for measuring the efficacy of the drug. This experiment involved measuring neurotransmitter levels in rat striatum samples to ensure the drug was having the desired effect on the dopaminergic neurons in the brain. I loved working on this project because it combined my passion for neurobiology and biotechnology to characterize a novel therapeutic.
BioTEC: Where is the field of biotechnology going?
Sophia: One thing I see becoming a big area in the future is the cross-section between healthcare and technology. I see a lot of startups that are exploring this intersection. It is almost like a niche because you are combining two perspectives.
Rubina: I expect to see advances in the pharmaceutical field involving therapeutics that target specific cells. For instance, cancer treatments can be dangerous because they harm healthy cells in addition to cancerous ones. However, I recently learned that researchers have started to use drugs coupled with antibodies specific to receptors on the cancer cells. This enables drugs to avoid damaging healthy cells while targeting and destroying cancer cells. I’m excited about the parallel between biotechnology and new therapeutics for healthcare.
Tips from the four aspiring individuals!
Support for startup and entrepreneurship:
Aksharh: Concept by Velocity is a really good resource that I wish I had explored earlier on in my undergraduate career. The advice I received from a sample coaching session was extremely insightful and tailored to my ideas. I think it would be helpful to have mandatory seminars for first-year students to expose them to the idea of entrepreneurship, as well as to introduce them to the resources available to them. I think that the earlier students get exposed to entrepreneurship, the more likely they are to practice this type of thinking throughout their undergraduate career.
Clubs and experiences:
Sophia: I would really encourage anyone to get involved on campus and even beyond that through your professors and events. UW WiSTEM is an incredible community that empowers women in STEM fields that I am proud to be a part of. I’ve been able to meet and learn from like-minded women pursuing similar fields and facilitate a network that is both supportive and brings in opportunities to attend workshops, conferences, topical discussions, etc. One of our more recent projects has been the recently-launched Slack community which you can find on our website.
Skills that will help you:
Sapna: During co-op terms, communication with your supervisor regarding both experimental success and failures is vital because they are always going to support your learning journey and it is important they are aware of any mistakes. Additionally at UW, there is a specific focus on workplace skill learning in the co-op program. The laboratory skills learned in co-op terms are definitely transferable to many of the upper-year laboratory courses and they make you a superior scientist. Furthermore, during co-op terms, I would say you need to be adaptable and a quick learner to grasp the new concepts and technology your company is working with. It is also important that you are self-aware of your own passions, strengths, and weaknesses in different subject areas so you can suitably guide your journey as a young scientist.
Rubina: I found one of the most difficult aspects of undergrad was managing when to complete assignments and lab reports while studying for exams. To help with time management, I found that using a calendar was very beneficial. I bought a dry erase calendar that I filled in on the first of every month with upcoming assignments and tests. This allowed me to visualize my schedule so I could allocate time for completing assignments, studying for exams, and preparing for co-op interviews.