TA Spotlight – Julian Nguyen

Photo source: Julian Nguyen

I did my undergrad degree at UBC, and in my third year, I applied to be a volunteer in Dr. Nelly Pante’s lab, who later became my graduate supervisor. In 2018, I successfully defended my Ph.D. thesis proposal and transferred to the Ph.D. in Zoology program. Our lab is located at the Life Science center in the heart of the UBC Vancouver campus, and the LSI is the largest life sciences institute in Canada.

In my research I’m studying how Influenza A viruses deliver their genome to the cell nucleus by characterizing the nuclear localization signals on the viral ribonucleoprotein responsible for this process. These studies are of particular importance because they may lead to the development of treatments and drugs that block nuclear uptake of viruses, thereby preventing infections.

I have TAed 3 different courses at UBC: BIOL 200, BIOL 201, and BIOL 441. I am currently the TA of BIOL 201 (Introductory to Biochemistry). It is my fifth time being a TA of this course, and still, I enjoy every moment I spend in the course during the tutorials and working with the crew.

What do you most enjoy about being a TA?

As a TA, I have the opportunity to meet and directly interact with so many of my fellow students. The UBC campus is a big, diverse place brimming with opportunities for engagement, but I don’t always know where to look. As a TA, l have an inbuilt opportunity to meet, befriend, and collaborate with my fellow students, and discover new and interesting features about the campus that I would not know by myself.

What has being a TA brought to your graduate studies experience?

I started TAing in introductory-level courses (such as BIOL 200 or BIOL 201) in a discipline where I had already made significant personal progress. Though the material was familiar, these introductory courses were an opportunity for a valuable refresher on the basics. I certainly dug deeper than I ever did when I took those courses myself as an undergrad at UBC because I needed to deepen my understanding of the subject on a more critical and subtextual level to be able to teach it. My understanding needed to be strong enough to answer questions, think on my feet, and develop methods to help students comprehend the material in given problem sets. At the end of the experience, I came away with a more comprehensive and dynamic knowledge of my subject matter that was very applicable to my own graduate work at UBC.

What has been an interesting outcome of your TA experience?

For me, being a TA has been a very rewarding experience. I used to be a very shy person and have a fear of public speaking, but being a TA has really helped me face and conquer this deep fear. The classroom setting has been a comfortable and accepting environment in which to sharpen my public speaking chops. Now after several years of working as a TA, whenever I present in a conference or share my ideas to a boardroom, I think back to my first day as a TA and how much I have grown since then.

How has your unique background influenced your TA experience?

Besides a strong background in cell biology, because that is my research focus, my experience as an undergrad at UBC has also influenced my TA experience. Most of the courses I’ve TAed at UBC I also took as a student during my undergrad. Because I actually was in my students’ place several years ago, I have a better understanding of how students are feeling when they attend the tutorials or come to office hours to seek help, and I can approach their problems more efficiently. Some of the students have even told me that I am their favourite TA because they feel that I can help and guide them through challenge questions with very effective and understandable approaches. This experience makes me realize how much I love to teach and that teaching was the job I was just meant to do.

What opportunities relating to teaching and learning have you been a part of?

I have attended a series of BioTAP workshops.

What is a memorable anecdote from your own undergraduate experience?

I was fortunate to have great professors who enhanced my scientific aspirations and showed me the challenges of applying knowledge to practical problems. Having noticed the importance of getting laboratory experience, I chose to undertake a project in my final year under the direction of Dr. Nelly Pante. This project was also the highlight of my undergraduate degree, and I was awarded a Work Learn International Research Award in the summer of 2015 to work on this project. This summer research project gave me practical experience working in a professional research environment and allowed me to gain a real taste of what the life of a research scientist involves.

What are your plans following graduation?

I don’t think that I want to be in the academy forever. I enjoy scientific inquiry and the independence of the academy, but I’m not sure whether academia is right for me long term. Many of the fields I am considering are science-oriented, technical, and involve teaching, and having a Ph.D. will be an asset in practically every role for the fields that I’m interested in.

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