Category Archives: Academics

#lablife: getting involved with UBC research

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.

Work Learn 

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.

Summer Studentships

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).

Directed Studies

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!


A note to med school hopefuls

This is a little off-topic from my typical blog posts, so bear with me.

Earlier this week, there was an article in the Toronto Star about a 27-year old Toronto woman who was stabbed 16 times in her home in St. Kitts and Nevis, a small two-island nation in the Carribean. When she was taken to the hospital, she was bandaged up, and then placed in a crowded room with eight other patients and no air conditioning. The doctors were unable to do a CT scan or an MRI, as they did not have one in the hospital, but assured her that her wounds were superficial. This proved not to be the case when she returned to Canada and had a stroke. She had been almost killed, having suffered an injury to her carotid artery.

The irony of this story? She was a month into her education at a St. Kitts and Nevis medical school.

The Medical University of the Americas is a for-profit medical school aimed at training North American doctors who couldn’t get into schools back home. This is not an uncommon phenomenon – in fact, I know quite a few people from my high school who have opted to go to schools like this one. And it is easy to see why.

As a student in the life sciences I am surrounded by wannabe doctors—and the fact of the matter is it’s a tough path to follow. The competition is stiff, the MCAT is brutal, and a lot of worthy people do not get in. After receiving a rejection letter, many are eager to try again in another country where the requirements aren’t quite as rigid. However, this story shows that this is not a decision to be taken lightly.

If you are a medical hopeful at UBC, or any other Canadian university, I urge you to really think through your decision to get educated in another country. If you really want to be a doctor, you want to go somewhere you can get a solid education, access to excellent healthcare resources, and receive all the training necessary to be a well-qualified physician. You do not want to be trained at a money-grabbing school whose goal is not to make good doctors, but to make good money – much less in a country that has sparse medical resources.

Also, if you are jetting off to another country for medical school, do not expect yourself to be able to come back for residency. I know quite a few people who have gone abroad to study medicine since they were unable to get accepted to Canadian medical schools – this is actually an increasing trend among Canadian students. There are currently thousands of Canadians studying medicine abroad, and there is even a medical school in Scotland that is exclusively aimed at training Canadian students (for a $250,000 price tag). According to the Canadian Residency Matching Service (CaRMS), 90% of Canadians studying abroad hope to return to Canada. This is just not possible considering only 10% of residency spots are available to internationally trained doctors. So if you are going to get an international medicine degree, be prepared to practice there as well.

However, if you have a true dream to be a doctor, I am not saying that you should not pursue it. By all means, follow your dreams, but be sure to do your research and think critically about the future while you are doing so. As the famous psychologist Alfred Adler said, “Follow your heart, but take your brain with you”.

Integrated Science: the choose-your-own-adventure science degree

When I was looking into schools, I immediately fell in love with UBC. I loved the campus, the proximity to Vancouver, the community that existed within it, and all the opportunities it afforded. It was my dream school, and I wanted nothing more than to move to Vancouver and start studying science.

Unfortunately, they did not have the degree program I wanted.

The human body has always fascinated me, both on a large and molecular scale, so I decided that I wanted to study life sciences at university. I applied to a lot of Life Science or Biomedical programs at other universities, mainly in Ontario, and was accepted to all of them. However, the closest thing UBC had to a Life Sciences degree was the Physiology program, which is notoriously competitive and only accepts a handful of people each year. The Biology and Microbiology programs appealed to me a little, but they seemed to cover a lot of areas that did not really interest me, like plant biology and microbial ecology.

It began to feel like UBC was not the right fit. As I browsed through the UBC Vancouver Academic Calendar, I felt my panic mounting. I thought that I would never be able to study what I wanted to at my dream school.

But then I stumbled upon the Integrated Sciences program. 

Integrated Sciences is an interdisciplinary science degree that allows you to essentially build your own academic program. You pick two or three scientific areas of specialization that would not be offered together in a traditional degree program. Then, with the help of their academic guidelines, you pick and choose the third- and fourth-year courses you want to take within each discipline. All you need to do is design your own program and, with the help of a faculty mentor, write an application stating why those two disciplines should be studied together and how studying them will help you reach your academic goals.

This sounded perfect for me, as I had far-ranging interests within life sciences. Knowing that a flexible program like this existed, I went to UBC confident that I would be able to study anything I wanted.

I completed my first year of general sciences at UBC. Then, the summer after my first year, I applied for science specializations through the Faculty of Science online application. I indicated Integrated Sciences as my first choice, and was accepted shortly after. The process was not complete though: I had until the end of my third year to finish my application and get officially accepted into the program.

The application process was lengthy, albeit fairly simple. I emailed a few professors that had indicated they were open to accepted IntSci students to mentor, and received a response from a genetics professor in the Department of Medical Genetics. With his guidance, I worked on my application over the course of my second year, trying to structure my program and pick which courses I wanted to study.

I changed my mind a few times throughout the application process. Originally I was planning to integrate psychology and genetics, but after I fell in love with MICB 202: Medical Microbiology and Immunology in my second year, I decided to study immunology and genetics instead. I also decided close to the end of second year that I wanted to do an Honours degree, which would require a research project and additional credits in each of my disciplines.

I submitted my application to the IntSci reviewers, and received it back with some comments on areas I could improve. After making those revisions, I submitted it again, and was accepted officially into the program by the first week of my third year.

I really enjoy the Integrated Sciences program, as it allows me to be both generalized and specialized at the same time. I am able to study two different areas of science, which gives me a general understanding of how the two work together, but I also get to be specialized, taking only the classes that are meaningful to me and that will help further my understanding of the genetics of disease.

Now, in my third year, I have begun my first real year of my Integrated Science curriculum, and I absolutely love it. My carefully chosen courses overlap with each other perfectly, and it is very easy to see the connections between my different classes. I feel as though I am getting a well-rounded education that is perfectly aligned with my interests, and I could not be happier with my decision to come to UBC.

If you are a science student who is unsure about what to study, or who has interests that cross discipline boundaries within the sciences, I encourage you to look into the Integrated Sciences program. Aside from accepting my offer to UBC, it was the best academic decision I ever made.

For more information about the Integrated Science program, see the IntSci program website or the UBC Academic Calendar.

Unpopular opinion: why I love exams

Here’s one more reason to appreciate finals.

This may seem a little counterintuitive, but I find exams to be the most relaxing time of the year.

I can almost hear university students spluttering in disbelief. How could I possibly think that the weeks of the year characterized by sleepless nights, gallons upon gallons of coffee, and frantic cramming are relaxing? Hear me out, people.

My rationale behind this is twofold. First off, I finally have enough time to dedicate to really mastering concepts. One of the biggest challenges I encounter with my academics is simply not having enough hours in the day to truly understand and appreciate everything in my courses. I simply rush from one week to the next, trying to get things done. For the most part, I end up doing pretty well, but I don’t really have time to organize my thoughts and develop my own ideas about what I have been learning in the classroom. With exams, since I am nose-deep in textbooks from sun up to sundown, I get to really drill concepts into my head and learn things thoroughly.

Secondly, I love the freedom that comes with exams. During the rest of the year I am frantically trying to juggle everything that I have going on, balancing my extracurricular commitments with classes, projects, quizzes, and a social life, but during exams all of that is put on hold. My calendar is blissfully blank, and I can spend my study breaks doing things I enjoy. I have a ready-made excuse to say no to any unwanted engagements or commitments that might come up (“Sorry, I can’t – exams!”) and instead, I get to made use of what little free time I have by watching Orange is the New Black, baking cookies with my boyfriend, or adventuring around Vancouver.

For example, this morning, I got up for an early morning breakfast with some fellow Vanier Residence Advisors. We left at 7:30 AM, just as the sun was starting to rise over Point Grey. We ate a delicious meal at Sophie’s Cosmic Cafe on W 4th as the sun rose, watching the first Vancouver snowfall through the window. By 10 AM, I was back on campus, snuggled up in a coffee shop ready to get down to studying. It was a short break from the books, but one that re-energized me and will keep me going for the rest of the day.


I am telling you this to show that as stressful as the end of term can be, finals season does not have to be all doom and gloom. As with everything else in life, it’s just a matter of perspective.

How to organize your life

Another term at UBC has come and gone, and finals season is once again upon us. As with every new school year, this one has brought a lot of changes, both personally and academically. I have been taking on more challenging classes, balancing more extracurricular responsibilities, and developing new habits. This year, I feel as though I have finally figured out an organization scheme that works for me. I have begun to harness the power of technology to help me get stuff done, and it has resulted in one of my most productive and stress-free years yet. So now I’m going to share some of my favourite productivity iPhone apps in the hope that you will be able to become more productive, healthy, and happy throughout final season and the new year.

Wunderlist: If you love to-do lists but are tired of constantly misplacing your handwritten Post-it notes everywhere, this is the app for you. It is a simple, easy-to-use app that allows you to keep a master list of everything you need to do. For each task, you can set a deadline and even add alarms to remind you to get it done. You also have the ability to break down larger items into subtasks – so you can break down “Study biology” into items like “Review September 21 lecture” and “Read chapter 12”. It also has multiple lists, so you can have separate to-do lists for each aspect of your life. I have Personal, Academics, RezLife, REC, etc. as my lists. It is a seriously amazing, and I have gotten a bunch of my friends hooked on it as well.

Grades 2: Have you ever found yourself attempting to calculate what you need to get on the final in order to end up with a certain mark in the course? I know I have, and in doing so realized that I have completely lost my math ability since first year (just kidding, I never had math ability to begin with). Luckily, Grades 2 does all the dirty work for you. All you need to do is input the different syllabus items and their weights, set a target grade, and update your marks throughout the year. Sure, it’s a little disheartening to see that you need 104% on your English final to achieve your target grade, but overall this app acts as a helpful and efficient way to keep track of your marks.


It’s Focus Time: The Pomodoro method is my preferred way of getting work done – essentially you work in 25-minute chunks, broken up by 5-minute breaks. This app is forever running in the background of my exam study sessions, and really helps me buckle down and concentrate. The key is to ignore all distractions when you are in work mode – I like to have a pen and paper nearby so I can jot down things I want to do during my breaks. Also, if you don’t feel like shelling out the 99 cents, you can still use the online version for free.


Dropbox: Dropbox is one of the best online storage tools there is. I have all of my school documents on here so I can access them no matter where I am – no more emailing documents to yourself before you leave home! I also download lecture notes and organize them into folders, so I have access to them even if Connect is down, and access them from my phone if I choose to leave my laptop at home. It also has a bunch of sharing capabilities so you can send your lecture notes to your friends no problem.

Google Calendar: While not strictly an “app”, Google Calendar is one of the best tools I have started to use within the past year. I am not exaggerating when I say it has straight up revolutionized my life. I used to have a huge problem with writing down an appointment, meeting or engagement somewhere and then completely forgetting about it by the time the day rolled around. That problem has disappeared now that I have my gCal synced up to my phone and can see what I have planned for the day no matter where I am.


Do you have any organizational tools you swear by? Share them in the comments!

Dancing through finals

Confession: I’m not perfect (I know, right? Most shocking revelation of 2012). Although I blog a lot about how important it is to take care of yourself, to eat right and exercise, and to find balance in university, I don’t always follow my own advice. The days leading up to my first exam, the dreaded CHEM 233 final, were super unhealthy and stress-filled. I was subsisting off of caffeine and UBC Food Services baked goods (the banana chocolate chunk muffins are a particular favourite of mine), spending every spare second thinking about chemical mechanisms, and even dreaming about carbohydrate cyclization. For five days straight I would get to the library every morning at 8:30 and leave when it closed at 10, taking breaks only to fill up my water bottle or to grab a massive coffee from the SUB.

On the morning of the exam, I woke up ready to log a few more hours of studying before my 3:30 timeslot. But after going over a couple of practice finals, I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. I was physically and mentally exhausted. The chemical structures were starting to look like hieroglyphs, and my brain felt like the melted Stay-Puffed marshmallow man at the end of Ghostbusters 2. It was bad.

So with a mere couple of hours left before my exam, I threw on some Lululemon shorts, lugged my iHome speakers over to the Totem commonsblock, and turned the ballroom into my own personal dance studio. It was just the release I needed. Instead of agonizing over the steps of imine formation or trying to decide what reagent is required to convert an aldehyde to a carboxylic acid, I just needed to count to eight and try to nail a few fouettes. It reminded me of how thankful I used to be during high school finals when I had no classes but still had to go to dance every night. Dance has always been my stress release, and I miss being able to do it every day. After an hour of jumping, turning, and receiving a few weird looks through the ballroom windows, I changed into my exam attire, went to the SRC with my mind cleared of all stressors, and might have written the best final exam of my university career.

Find that thing that keeps you sane during finals season and do it often. Whether it’s running the Wreck Beach stairs, watching a movie with your floormates or hammering on the drums (like my girl Nirel), make sure your life doesn’t revolve around your schoolwork. It’s a stressful time, for sure, but taking an hour off won’t kill you. Just the opposite, in fact.

PS: Watching dance videos on YouTube makes for a pretty good (and dangerous) procrastination tool. If you’re into that kinda thing, check out some of my favourites here, here, here, and here.

“I am in charge of how I feel and today I am choosing happiness.”

Happy song du jour: Love Love Love by Avalanche City

This is it: the home stretch. Deadlines are coming up. Finals are approaching. Sleep is starting to dwindle. Libraries are getting crowded. Everyone is stressed out. But exams are going to come whether you like it or not. So instead of letting this time of the year send you into an emotional tailspin, you might as well just put on a smile, do the best you can, and decide to be happy instead.

Besides, it’s sunny today.

The “bird course” fallacy

This is my current study jam for my EOSC 114: Natural Disasters midterm. It’s my very last midterm (holla!), and I have been submerging myself (get it?) in tsunamis and storms over the past couple of days on a mission to get a good mark.

The biggest lesson this course has taught me (aside from the fact that Vancouver is a very, very treacherous place to live) is that at UBC there is no such thing as a “bird course”– -you know, those courses that will send your GPA as high as a pyroclastic cloud from a Plinian volcanic eruption (see, I’m totally learning things in this class!).

After hearing multiple stories of my friends acing EOSC 114 with minimal effort, I went into this course looking for an easy A. I did super well on the first midterm,  gained false confidence, and decided to start slacking off. I fell behind on readings, missed a couple of lectures, and put it at the very bottom of my priority list. By the time the second midterm rolled around, I found myself cramming frantically the night before. Needless to say, it didn’t end very well: my mark was about 30% lower than my first one. So much for my GPA booster.

The moral of the story is that you should be careful about expectations going into classes. UBC is a challenging university, and every class is going to require a considerable amount of effort. Some courses are going to require a more considerable effort than others, but this is going to depend on the person, not on the class itself. So if you’re struggling in a “easy” course, don’t let it get you down (you’re in good company, after all!). On the flip side, if you’re working your butt off and rocking a notoriously difficult course, kudos to you. Keep doing what you’re doing.

Early mornings are hard…

…but early morning dance parties make them easier.

Pro tip for keeping yourself from sleeping in on Sunday mornings: make your current favourite song your alarm clock. It’s nicer to listen to than a bunch of blaring beeps, and you might avoid the snooze button in favour of waiting for the best part to come on. Having a coffeemaker next to your bed helps, too. Not to mention gaining an extra hour thanks to Daylight Savings Time.

Now I’m off for brunch at the University Golf Club, crafting for Kwak’s one-week vegetarian challenge, and studying my tush off for ochem and genetics in the Law Library. Productivity, here I come. Hope you do something great with your extra hour, too!

Midterm Prep: The Campbell Method

Last night I had the dreaded CHEM 233 midterm. If you’re in science at UBC, you have probably hears the rumours about this evil course. So what did I do to prepare? Here’s a rundown of my week leading up to the midterm:

5 days before: Did some textbook problems at Blenz in between Longboat races. Blenz Belgian milk hot chocolate helps soothe the pain.

4 days before: Initiated hardcore study mode. Killed a small forest with the amount of paper I used for practice problems. Completed online acid/base assignment. Aced it.

3 days before: Switched my Monday workout to the morning so I could use my midday break for work. Studied in the Harry Potter room while the presidents of UBC looked down on me in approval. Had a zombie apocalypse social with the rest of the Totem RAs in the evening.

48 hours before: Took a study break to watch talented Totem residents rock the Totem Coffee House. Highlights included QLXN’s Liam playing the hits of the 90s on the bassoon.

36 hours before: Visited my chem prof’s office hours. Spent so much time in the Law Library that people are beginning to wonder if I live there. Bernouilli’s Bagels and coffee are my only forms of sustenance.

24 hours before: Study session in Swing with fellow science student and generally awesome dude, Aaron. Spent most of the time jamming to Kanye and speaking to each other in German accents.

12 hours before: Crammed for a forgotten biology unit test while shoveling eggs into my mouth at breakfast.

8 hours before: Did some practice midterms. Reassured myself that I do, in fact, kind of know what I’m doing.

5 hours before: Chemistry class time. Tried to ignore the looks of intense panic on my classmates’ faces.

3 hours before: Realized that I am incapable of cramming any more knowledge into my brain. Went running up and down the Wreck Beach stairs instead.

90 minutes before: Headed to the Totem caf with fellow RAs and CHEM 233 students. Ate a grilled cheese sandwich and sweet potato soup (comfort food is a must). Made science puns to lighten the mood.

30 minutes before: Began the trek to the Chemistry building. Listened to pre-exam pump up music (“Til I Collapse” by Eminem always gets me in the zone).

10 minutes before: Descended into the toasty warm dungeon of CHEM B150. Found a spot in the middle of the room right next to Melinda for moral support.

5 minutes before: Started to bubble in my information on the Scantron. Watched the clock creep closer to 7 PM. Tried not to be freaked out by how thick the midterm felt.

1 minute before: Deep breath. Let’s do this.

After: Breathed a sigh of relief. Shook off the feelings that it didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. Headed to a friend’s place in Dunbar for celebratory margaritas.

Could I have done more to prepare? Definitely. But while I may not have gotten a perfect score, I still had a pretty good week. I managed to exercise, fulfill my extracurricular responsibilities, spend time with friends, and paddle around Jericho Beach while still studying my butt off. Balance is the key to making the most out of university (although we’ll see if I am singing a different tune once I get my score back). Happy studying!