It has been a little over a week since I first stepped off the plane into the Nairobi sun, and many things in my life have changed as a result. I have begun to get used to being perpetually sweaty thanks to the 30-degree weather. I have begun to accept the fact that my mug in the morning will likely be filled with milky tea instead of coffee (although this acceptance hasn’t stopped me from seeking out caffeine wherever possible). I have begun adapting to communicating with my loved ones and scheduling interviews in accordance with an 11-hour time difference.
The biggest change, however, has been adjusting to my homestay. After living on my own for almost four years, being back in a house where I needed to answer to an authority figure was a bit of a shock. That being said, my homestay experience has been awesome so far, and I wanted to use this post to give some insights into my home life in Kenya.
On Sunday, our trusty cab driver Peter pulled up to my new home in Ayany, the so-called “middle-class” area of Kibera. From outside, the house looked pretty modest by North American standards, but was far and away more than I was expecting from a house in a slum. The building standing in front of me was a three-story grey stone home, with a ten-foot blue gate blocking the front door from sight. I lugged my ridiculously large backpack out of the trunk and was led up to the second floor apartment, where my new Kenyan mama was waiting.
“Mama Mary”, as I call her, was sitting in her living room watching music videos on TV in Swahili, but when she saw me standing in the doorway she leapt up with joy and ran over to envelope me in a huge, warm hug. “This is my new daughter!” she exclaimed to Otto with happiness. “Karibu, karibu. You know what ‘karibu’ means?” I replied with the standard, “Asante sana,” and she squealed, wrapping me in another hug. “Come, let me show you your new home.” The interior of the house was small but comfortable. The living room, where we had entered, was painted a bright orange colour. Two couches and two matching armchairs flanked the sides of the room. In the corner, next to the large TV, was a mini-shrine covered with trinkets and pictures of her family. Mama Mary pointed out the people in the pictures excitedly, and told us that her son and grandson would be coming over to visit later. I had a bathroom all to myself, and a shower with hot water – an amenity I had definitely not expected in Kibera. My room faces the east of the house, with two twin beds framed by mosquito nets, a huge closet, and a window overlooking the rooftops of Ayany. “If you ever get sick of one bed, you can switch to the other!” Mama told me.
Mama Mary is absolutely hilarious, always joking around, dancing, or making silly faces. She is in her sixties, a retired primary school teacher who has lived in Kibera for many years. Her husband lives up-country, but she loves Kibera so much that she stayed here when he moved away for work. She loves watching ridiculous game shows on TV, and will teach me Swahili words during the commercial breaks. She constantly tries to urge me to eat more at meals, piling food onto my plate when she thinks I’m not looking. She also belongs to the Luo tribe, which is one of Kenya’s 42 diverse tribes and the third most populous in the country. In accordance with Luo tradition, Mama Mary gave me a name according to the time of the day at which I was born. Since I was born early in the morning, my name has become Akinyi (which she often calls me since, like most other people I’ve met, she has difficulty pronouncing my name). Last night, Mama had a friend over whose Luo name is also Akinyi. She was so excited to meet her namesake that she spent the rest of the night trying to convince me to marry her son.
One of the things I had been most afraid of before coming to Kenya was the food. Being a notoriously picky eater, I worried that I would spend the next four months with a growling stomach. This hasn’t been the case in the slightest – the food I’ve had so far has been absolutely delicious. I have fallen in love with a type of bread called “chapati”, which is like the heavenly lovechild of tortillas and naan. Other staple foods are ugali, a spongy, moist bread, and kale, whose name in Swahili means “push the week” since those with little income often eat it all week to fill their stomachs. We eat most of our meals with our hands, since, as Mama Mary says, “You have two perfectly good forks at the ends of your arms!”
However, one thing I haven’t quite gotten used to is being waited on constantly. It is very common in Kenya for people to have live-in help, and Mama Mary is no exception. She has a young Luo girl named Cynthia working for her who does the dishes, scrubs the floors, washes clothes, and takes care of pretty much any other task you can imagine. As someone who has been doing all of these things for myself for years, it’s been tough getting used to someone preparing my food and cleaning up after me. To help combat this, I’m trying to help out around the house as much as possible, but I think it’s just something I’ll need to accept while I’m here.
Overall, I am so happy to be living in a homestay during my time in Kenya. Despite the perceived lack of freedom, it is giving me a great introduction to Kenyan culture and customs. I have learned more about values and tribal relations through conversations with Mama than I ever could have through online research. Furthermore, living in the place where I am working, rather than just leaving the slum at the end of the day, has made me feel more connected to the community, which I think will improve my ability to contribute in the workplace. These are some of the reasons why I wanted to participate in this experience – it is not simply a volunteer trip. I am participating in a true cultural immersion program, and I think that I will come out of it with a better understanding for Kibera and the people residing within it.
Many students who seek out research positions will quickly realize the catch-22 of undergraduate research: you need lab experience in order to get lab experience. This can be frustrating to encounter this roadblock, especially when you want to try lab work in order to decide if grad school or a career in academia is for you. However, once you get that first research opportunity, doors will start to open for you. You just need to get through the hard part.
I’ve been involved quite a bit with research over my years at UBC. Last week, I started my first co-op term at the UBC Life Sciences Institute. My project over the next eight months is going to involve characterizing genes newly implicated in pancreatic beta cell development (although for the past week, as expected, I’ve mainly been doing reading on pancreas organogenesis). This is my third research position so far in my undergrad – the summer after first year I had a summer studentship in a stem cell research lab at the University of Toronto, and last summer I had a part-time UBC Work Learn position at the Child and Family Research Institute (CFRI). All of them have been excellent learning experiences and I’m incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to get some research experience throughout my degree!
Below are a few ways to get research positions at UBC. Keep in mind I am by no means an expert on UBC research, and there are definitely more opportunities available out there. Also, this post is mainly geared towards undergraduate life sciences students – research opportunities in other disciplines may vary.
What it is: Work Learn jobs are paid, part-time positions (~10-20 hours per week) available to current UBC students. If you are a Work Learn student, especially in a biomedical lab, you should expect to be doing a lot of laboratory maintenance work – cleaning glassware, defrosting fridges, making dilutions, etc. Many supervisors will also have you work on a small project on the size. For example, when I was a Work Learn student at CFRI I looked at the epigenetics of neural tube defects as a part of a PhD student’s thesis project.
How to apply:Look for jobs postings on the UBC Careers website. Work Learn positions usually come out before the start of each Winter and Summer session.
What it is: Many different universities and research institutes offer summer studentships for undergrads, allowing students to spend the summer working on a specific, pre-determined project. These tend to be extremely competitive, as most are open to applicants from universities across Canada, and some require you to have a supervisor chosen prior to application. That being said, if you have prior experience working in a lab and strong grades, you can potentially be a good candidate for one of these placements.
How to apply: There are a ton of different studentships out there, all of which have their own application process. A couple examples are the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum summer program (which I was a part of in 2012) and the CFRI Summer Studentship. Do a little bit of digging around on various university websites and see if you can find one that interests you! Applications and decisions usually happen early (by January most positions have been filled) so start looking into it early.
What it is: Co-op is paid work experience in your field of study. For up to 4 four-month academic terms, you work a job full time, almost like a real adult, but with all the perks of still being a student (like a U-Pass). The co-op office maintains an online database of jobs to which students are able to apply. Although they do not guarantee that you will get a job through the co-op program, their advisors provide a lot of guidance and resources to help make you the strongest applicant possible. Life science co-op students tend to work either in research or in industry. If you have no prior research experience you probably won’t be able to get your dream placement right off the bat, but your second or third placement will give you more selection. Also, keep in mind that co-op will extend your degree by one year.
How to apply: The timeline for co-op applications varies depending on your program. In order to apply, you must meet minimum academic requirements and submit a resume and cover letter. Co-op also is not available for every major. For more information on the timelines and specific requirements, see the Science Co-op website (or the co-op website for your faculty).
What it is: Gain three academic credits by taking on a research project under a UBC professor. It is a course, so you get assigned a grade, typically based on a paper you submit summarizing your research. Directed Studies is an unpaid position – in fact, you’ll actually be paying for it, since you . This is a great way to get some initial lab experience, or just take on more ownership over a particular project. You will also get some experience in scientific writing when you submit your final paper.
How to apply: You need to find a supervisor to take you on (usually through personal connections or some Googling), then complete the Directed Studies application form for your specific major. You also need to register in the Directed Studies course on the SSC.
What is it: As an honours student, you take on six-credit senior thesis project in your area of study. This usually happens in your final year of study, and it is generally up to you to find your own supervisor. You will need to write a thesis and defend your thesis to a committee of UBC academics.
How to apply: In order to be in an Honours program in the Faculty of Science, you must take a full course load each year and maintain a minimum of 75% standing. You can usually apply to the Honours program following your second year of study. To view all the degree requirements for Honours, see the UBC Calendar.
These are only a few ways of getting involved with research in the biological sciences. If you are looking to find out more, there are many great resources such as the Undergraduate Research Opportunities club, SciTeam’s annual Get Into Research event, and the Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research Conference (MURC). If you know of any other ways to get involved with research, particularly in other disciplines, please post them in the comments below!