Tacky Tourists and Trash


Photo via Carolina for Kibera.

Something immediately noticeable when you enter Kibera: trash is a dominant component of the landscape. The informal settlement, which does not have any paved roads or public services reaching the people living in its depths, is littered with scraps of food, plastic bags, crumpled water bottles, torn clothes, and washed-out pieces of paper. Along the streets, deep ditches in the reddish-brown dirt carry waste and water downhill towards huge trash piles, where stray cats, dogs, and chickens can be found scavenging for snacks. Trash is absolutely everywhere, and in some areas, the smell of rotting food and wet garbage is almost overwhelming.

But Carolina for Kibera is doing something about it.

On Monday, I sat down with Moses, a smart-dressed, bespectacled man who heads the Economic department at CFK. The idea behind the Taka ni Pato, or “Trash is Cash” program is twofold, he explained: cleaning up the community, and creating economic opportunity for youth. The program consists of a trash collection program, through which young people provide houses with garbage bags and then come collect the bags for a small fee each week. Then, the trash is sorted, and different items are recycled and repurposed in order to turn a further profit. The meeting itself was brief, as Moses was adamant about me actually seeing the program in action. Our sit-down chat quickly turned into a foray into Soweto West, one of the 12 villages in Kibera.

As we rounded the corner out of CFK, we passed by some of the only foreigners I had seen so far in the slum. They were dressed in tacky tourist attire, complete with big green safari hats, colourful shirts with city names emblazoned across the chest, cargo shorts, and the quintessential camera around the neck. They were looking around in pity and horror at the scene unfolding around them. This, I deduced, was one of the “slum tours” I had heard about online – for a fee, tourists can take a detour from their expensive safari and come marvel at the lives of people in poverty. To me, the notion of these tours is partially ridiculous, partially unethical; the people of Kibera are not a tourist attraction. I deliberately avoided making eye contact with any of the participants as they passed.

The tour was quickly forgotten as my focus turned to staying upright on a steep, dusty road leading towards the Kenya-Ugandan railway that bisects Kibera. Overlooking the tracks and blocking a view of the houses below was a huge, ten-foot-tall garbage pile. We did our best to gingerly step around the mounds of trash, eventually taking a running leap in order to scale a particularly wet area, and then crossed back into the mass of tin-roofed houses. Just beyond the tracks lay our destination: Victorious Bones Craft.

Outside of the building, a man named Jack lay hunched over a basket of white heart-shaped carvings, delicately painting their points a sparkling gold. He looked up and greeted us with the traditional warm Kenyan handshake, and welcomed us to the workshop. As we were led inside, my eyes immediately started to water from the white dust floating around in the air. The workshop was filled with six or seven men, working at rotating saws, whittling down bones into various shapes. Small piles of bones littered the floor. Jack explained the operation over the overwhelmingly loud roar of the saws: the bones, which are collected from both community garbage pickups and local shops, are cleaned and whittled down into various shapes. They treat the bones with a chemical solution that keeps them white, or apply paint to dye them various colours. After that, the products are polished, and sometimes holes are drilled to make them into earrings or beads. “Don’t worry,” he joked, “We don’t use human bones here!” He then led us into the little shop that lay under the same roof as the workshop, where the finished bone products are sold. The gorgeous jewellery and keychains in front of us were unrecognizable from the motley pile of cow bones that were stacked in the other room. We left kicking ourselves for not bringing any Kenyan shillings along.

Our next stop was the Taka ni Pato Recycling Centre, hidden away in a bright blue building resembling an oversized storage crate. Outside, the manager of the recycling centre, Wilson, greeted us. Wilson is also an entrepreneur, Moses explained. Thanks to a Kiva loan he received through CFK, he has started a transportation business out of his home. His employees use huge, wooden carts to deliver goods across various villages in Kibera.

Inside the dark room, piles of various items were stacked in different corners: one for bottles, one for plastic bags, and one for large plastic crates. Wilson showed us a huge metal machine that chews up the plastic products and spits out smaller pieces at the bottom. The pieces are then bagged and sent off to various factories in Narobi. Business had been a little slow lately, Wilson explained, since the factories are still trying to use up their own stock from the previous year. “But things will pick up soon!” he grinned.

The Taka ni Pato program is an amazing example of the entrepreneurial spirit that lives within the heart of Kibera – a spirit that the tourists snapping photos of run-down homes undoubtedly missed. It’s all too easy to take a quick look around and pity all the poor people living in filth. However, it takes much more effort to really understand the place – I have been here for almost two weeks and Kibera is still finding ways to surprise me. While it isn’t easy, the effort is worth it in the end, as it shows all the amazing things the people of this community are doing to make Kibera a better place. And that reveals more about the life of those living in poverty than any tour ever could.


Photo via Carolina for Kibera

Akinyi’s Home Life

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.

Karibu Kibera: First Impressions of a Slum


Welcome to Kibera.
Photo via Carolina for Kibera

I awake from my first night in Ayany to the sound of a sweeping broom, barking dogs, and playing children outside my window. Groggily, I slither out from underneath my mosquito net and toss back my antimalarial pills before heading to the dining room for breakfast. With excitement and nerves, I devour my breakfast of scrambled eggs, whole wheat bread, fresh bananas, and an overflowing mug of Kenyan tea. Today, I am entering the heart of Kibera for the first time. Before I could even down the rest of my milky tea, Otto, my tour guide for the day, arrived at my door. I bid a quick farewell to Mama Mary, and the two of us begin our trek into the massive slum.

The first thing you notice in Kibera is how lively it is, no matter the location or time of day. People are absolutely everywhere, cooking fried potatoes and chapati on makeshift stone stoves, walking to work in perfectly pressed suits, pushing around carts filled with frying oil and flour, and adding airtime to their cell phones at local shops. Mangy stray dogs stroll around, rummaging through the intermittent piles of garbage looking for something to eat, chickens and roosters occasionally walk across the street in front of us, and small children sit on doorsteps and look at us curiously as we walk past.

Walking down one of the many dirt roads winding through the masses of houses, we pass colourful little stores constructed out of metal sheeting, blasting music and selling everything from charcoal to bananas to football cleats. “Kibera is very business-minded,” Salim, the executive director of Carolina for Kibera had told us. “If you are my neighbor, and I see you are successful at selling water, I will start selling water.”

Water and electricity are expensive commodities in the more impoverished parts of the slum. Since the city doesn’t recognize Kibera, power lines and water mains do not run through the property. Instead, local gangs tap into the electricity illegally and sell access to the highest bidder. Wires are tied around the power lines that run along the highway overlooking Kibera, extending downwards into the mass of houses below.

As we continue down the seemingly endless slope into the slum, the houses begin to become more ramshackle. Concrete-walled homes are replaced by small houses made from dried mud packed around wooden beams, covered with a roof made from metal sheets. Ditches filled with garbage run along the sides of the path, and occasionally we need to avoid a splash of soapy water as someone in a nearby house empties a bucket in front of us.

Our first stop this afternoon is the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic, where the organization offers free medical care to Kibera residents. Otto’s family provides catering for the clinic’s staff, and he has an invoice to deliver that day. We tag along behind him like children, and follow him through the courtyard and waiting room into a small administrative building. There, I meet two of the clinic employees, Sally and Cecilia, who both give me a warm welcome and start telling me a bit about the health care centre. Sally tells me that deliveries and primary care are their main services. “We also offer a lot of chronic care, which makes us unique in Kibera. We provide care for hypertension, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.” Mama Mary will later tell me that this is where she gets her cholesterol and hypertension medication. Sally and Cecilia invite me to come back on Sunday, when they will be running a training session on how to manage HIV/AIDS and hypertension. “We will also be able to show you around a bit, when the rooms are not all full,” Sally says. Otto takes his copy of the invoice, and we head back out into the midday sun.

It is the first day of the new school year in Kenya after a weeklong teachers’ strike. We pass by several small schools nestled in the hills of Kibera. We stop at one of them, a girls’ school run by a NGO called Shining Hope for Communities, or SHOFCO for short. Outside, young girls run around in their bright purple uniforms, skipping rope and bouncing basketballs on the dirt field. We meet Otto’s friend Lily there, who introduces him to some students as her brother – Lily had lived with Otto’s mother a few summers ago, and now works in Kibera full-time. She shows us around SHOFCO’s mini-campus, and explains the organization’s holistic approach to development. “Our belief is that all aspects of development are interconnected,” she explains. “You can’t have health without education, or clean water, or a sense of community. So we try our best to incorporate all of that here.”

SHOFCO is one of many non-governmental organizations that have taken up residence in Kibera. We pass many free clinics and community centres, eventually arriving at the one where I will be working: Carolina for Kibera. The organization resides in a white building with a huge painting of blue hands extending towards the sky, cupping a bright yellow sun between them. Underneath, in large letters reads: Tuungane Tuangaze (Let’s Unite and Shed Light). Since my work visa is not ready yet, we only pass by the building where most of my days will be spent from now on. Then we continue the steady climb back up to our comfortable homes in middle-class Ayani.

While one may think that slums are places filled with misery, this is definitely not the case in Kibera. As Salim had told us over the weekend, “You find people with extreme poverty but also extreme happiness.” The faces of Kibera are not the hopeless-looking faces that stare out at you from adopt-a-child advertisements. They are faces of community, joy, and hope for the future. There is so much more I could write about Kibera, but I’ll finish by saying that I am looking forward to be working in this confusing, complicated place for the next few months, and getting to know more about what life here is really like.

Rhinos, Giraffes, and Impalas, Oh My: The Adventure Begins

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are now beginning our descent into Nairobi.”

I awoke from my all-too-brief nap about the Ethiopian Airlines flight, rubbed my eyes, and peered out of the oblong airplane window at the ground below. Vast plains and rolling hills extended to the west, while the city of Nairobi sprawled to the east. A ripple of fear and excitement coursed through my body as the city’s skyscrapers slowly rose up to meet us. I was about to touch down in my new home.

For the next four months, I will be living and working in Nairobi, Kenya, as a part of UBC’s International Service Learning program. More specifically, I will be undertaking an internship at Carolina for Kibera, a non-governmental organization dedicated to improving the lives of those living in the Kibera slum. Along with another UBC student, I will be helping out with the organization’s health program, monitoring the nutrition status of the local population and implementing malnutrition interventions for at-risk children.

Kibera is widely touted as the largest slum in Africa, despite nobody really knowing for sure how many people live there. Estimates range from 500,000 to a million people, all living in an informal settlement to the south of Nairobi’s metropolis. Originally set aside as land for Nubian soldiers under British colonial rule, Kibera is now home to people flocking from rural areas of Kenya in search of work and opportunity in the capital. Kibera’s residents are among Nairobi’s poorest, with some households earning less than 1000 Kenyan shillings, or about $12 Canadian, in a month.

That being said, Kibera is very diverse. The slum is massive, and is divided up into twelve different neighbourhoods, each with a different personality and cultural makeup. Ayany, the neighbourhood where our homestays are located, is a more formal settlement, with street addresses, running water, and electricity. The people living there are mainly Luo, which is the third most populous tribe in Kenya. Kibera sits on a huge slope, bordered by a highway to the south and running down towards a small river in the middle. Generally, the further downhill you go, the more poverty you encounter.

I would need to wait a while before seeing Kibera, though. After making it through immigration, we was swept away from the city to the Syracure Wildlife Research Centre, which sits on the southern border of Nairobi National Park. There, I began to acclimatize to life in Kenya and underwent my in-country orientation sessions. The research centre is a cluster of buildings, one still under construction, overlooking the southern end of Nairobi’s national park. When I came down from my cozy room in the main house for afternoon tea, I met Dr. Abraham, a former secondary school teacher, passionate conservationist, and the founder of the research centre. In the open-air dining room overlooking the savannah, he cheerfully explained the history of the national park, and the issues that plague the Kenyan conservation movement – notably, the displacement of indigenous people from their native territories. This conversation quickly halted, however, when Dr. Abraham spotted a giraffe making its way towards us. It was a young animal, strolling on its own from one acacia tree to the next and eating leaves as it went. I was in awe, amazed that I was already spotting Kenya’s wildlife, and from our dinner table, no less! This wasn’t the only animal I would see that weekend. Over the next few days, I spotted buffaloes, antelope, rhinos, and more varieties of birds than I could count – so many animals, in fact, that Dr. Abraham joked that he should have charged for a safari.

The weekend wasn’t all fun and animal sightings, though. On Friday night, we were joined by three people, all of whom would be a large part of our Kenyan experience. Salim Mohammed, the charismatic, wise-cracking executive director and co-founder of Carolina for Kibera, was going to be leading our sessions that weekend, giving us a better idea of what to expect when we started work. Otto Olouch, a perpetually smiling marketing student, pastry chef, and underground hip hop artist, would essentially be our designated friend during our time in Kibera – he would show us how to get around, help us get our phones set up, and help us adjust to life in Kibera. Our third visitor, Ben, was a tall, kind-eyed man who would be supervising us at the organization. He spoke passionately about CFK’s health program, asked us about our future goals, and professed his undying love for maple syrup.

That weekend I was introduced to my role within the organization, did some goal setting, and took a day trip into the Nairobi city centre. But before I knew it, it was time to pack up and head to Kibera. That’s where I am now, sitting on a couch in my new living room, listening to the rolling thunder and rainfall outside. The rain seems fitting – washing away my comfortable Vancouver life and clearing space for all the new experiences I am about to have. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared, but at the same time, I really can’t wait to get started.

Things I’m Not Doing In Kenya

Recently, whenever someone has asked me what my plans are for this upcoming semester, I have struggled to come up with an adequate answer. I usually say something along the lines of: I’m going to Nairobi, Kenya, through UBC’s International Service Learning program. I’m undertaking an internship with a local NGO to implement malnutrition interventions in an urban slum. But I don’t feel like that quite captures exactly what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it. So in an attempt to clear things up, here are a few things that I am not doing this semester.

I am not travelling to “Africa”. I am going to Kenya. I make a point never tell people that I am going to Africa, since that ignores the huge diversity of the 54 countries that make up the continent. In my mind, to say that I am going to “Africa” reinforces the stereotypic portrayals of the continent by the Western media, which a homogeneous place filled with empoverished, disease-ridden, sad, hopeless people waiting around for someone to come help them. And I’m not okay with that. 

I am not going to get Ebola. Dozens of people have told me to be careful not to get Ebola during my trip, including a family doctor. All of these people have clearly never studied a map in much detail, since if they had, they would know that Paris is closer to Sierra Leone and Liberia than Nairobi. Incidentally, I’m also passing through Paris on my way to Kenya, but nobody is warning me about the dangers of Ebola there.

I am not going to “save Africa”. History is filled with stories of Westerners deciding to introduce indigenous people, and, later, people in developing countries to the “right” way of life. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work, usually because even though their hearts may (sometimes) be in the right place, foreigners have no idea what the local people actually need. That’s why the organization I am working with is so great. While it is funded through an American university, all of their employees working on the ground in Kibera are Kenyan. Many of them grew up in the community, and as a result, they know what needs to be done in order to help get people in the slum out of poverty. They are the folks who are in charge, who are making the plans and developing the vision. I am there to put my background in science and nutrition to good use, to write up reports and make spreadsheets, and basically do whatever they tell me they need in order to reach their goals. I’m not “saving” anyone.

I am not a voluntourist. For the past few years, I have struggled with my interest in development and global health and my burgeoning understanding of social justice. While in high school, I had looked into going on some short-term volunteer trips, but never actually ended up going through with it. The part-charity, part-vacation trips didn’t quite sit right with me, and when I came upon the term “voluntourism” I figured out why. But when I read about International Service Learning, I realized that it wasn’t just another volunteer trip. UBC framed it as a learning experience, built upon a foundation of ethical engagement and social justice. Once I entered the program, the other students and I had extensive training to ensure that we were adequately prepared. We learned about the history of development, and had long, difficult discussions about power and privilege. We researched Kenya and Kibera extensively, writing papers analyzing the current situation and how it came to be. We spoke with Western and African development workers about the merits and challenges of engaging in this type of work. We are not going to build a school that the community doesn’t even need, while lacking the proper skills to even lay bricks down properly. This is a learning experience, a cultural immersion program, and an internship, all wrapped up into one.

I am not doing this as a resume-booster. Nor am I going to get a sweet new profile picture with my arms around little African children. This is a learning experience for me, one that I could never imagine receiving in a classroom in Vancouver. I want to shrug off the stereotypes of “Africa” shown to me by the media. I want to be immersed in a culture different from my own. I want to see how development work is done in cooperation with the community. That being said, I’m not participating in the program for completely selfish reasons, either. I’m still hoping to do something helpful for the community. But I know that I am not the one to decide what that something will be.

#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!




Is there any other university that has hundreds of students flock to the beach for a last day of classes polar bear swim? I didn’t think so.

This teeth-chattering event was organized by The Calendar, a social team at UBC that has aimed to shake UBC’s (completely unfounded) reputation as a “commuter school” (read: no-fun school) once and for all. In addition to the LDOC Polar Bear Swim, the student-run group organized a UBC Pay It Forward initiative during finals to encourage students to do good deeds for one other and keep spirits up throughout exams. The Calendar was also responsible for UBC’s epic Harlem Shake video last year, which, if I do say so myself, was the best one put out by a Canadian university. (Not that it’s a contest. But if it were, we’d be winning).

This video is living (well, if you consider YouTube to be living) proof that school spirit is alive and well at UBC. (Smart kids know how to have fun, too!) Find out more about The Calendar’s creator, Rob Morton here, as he has just been recognized as one of the Student Leadership Conference’s Faces of Today – proof that this initiative has made a lasting impact on campus community at UBC.

Should I spend summer in Vancouver?

Around this time last year, I made a pretty huge decision: I was going to stay in Vancouver for the summer.

If I visit Kits Beach and don’t Instagram, did it really happen? 

This decision was partially influenced by my experience the previous summer back home. The summer after my first year at UBC, like most first year students, I headed back to my home in Ontario. While it was nice to enjoy all the comforts of home, it was hardly the summer of my dreams. I was working in a lab in downtown Toronto, and commuted an hour and a half to work every day from my home in the suburbs. I would go to work from 9 to 5, then head home where I would usually just head to the gym, eat dinner, maybe watch a TV show, and go to bed.

On the weekends, I often went out with my friends from high school or other summer students in the lab. It was nice to see my friends from high school, but I felt like I was missing out on all the amazing things happening in Vancouver. I found myself missing the mountains, the ocean, and the Vancouver lifestyle. I also hated the humidity and sweltering temperatures of the city.

So the next year, around winter break, I decided to remain in Vancouver for the summer. It ended up being a great decision, and I had

Step 1: Find yo’ crib.

There are a few housing options for you during the summer. First, you need to decide if you want to live on campus or off campus.

If you are looking to live on campus, you have a couple of options. The first is summer housing in Fairview Crescent. You can apply for summer staythrough if you are currently a resident in a UBC SHHS winter session residence (Totem Park, Place Vanier, Walter Gage, Rits, MD 5). The application opens closer to the end of second term. If you would like to live in residence in the fall as well, it might be a good idea to look into year-round housing. It is usually easier to get these residences than the winter session housing. The year-round residences at UBC are Marine Drive, Fraser Hall, Thunderbird, and Ponderosa Commons.

If you are looking to live off campus during the summer, a lot of students choose to sublet their apartments for four months while they return home. The most common neighbourhoods are Kitsilano, Dunbar, and Point Grey. Keep your eyes open for sublet postings on Kijiji, AMS RentsLine, and Craigslist starting around March.

Summer digs at Fraser Hall. Bonsai not included.

I ended up getting year-round housing in Fraser Hall over the summer, although looking back I wish I had gotten a place off-campus. Vancouver in the summer is absolutely amazing, and I personally did not enjoy living with 5 other roommates. The decision is up to you, though!

Step 2: Get a Job

This isn’t completely necessary if you grow money trees in your backyard or are a hotel heiress, but generally to pay for your accommodation over the summer, you are going to need some form of employment.

Start doing your research early – over the winter break, if possible – since a lot of labs, camps, and other common summer employers make their decisions very early on. If you are planning on doing part-time studies over the summer, a really great option for jobs is the UBC Work Study Work Learn program. I had a Work Learn job over the summer at the Child and Family Research Institute at BC Children’s Hospital, working in a UBC Medical Genetics lab. Granted, the job was mostly washing glassware and restocking pipettes, but I showed initiative and got to work on an additional project. These jobs come out around April on the Careers website.

Step 3: Make some friends

Vancouver has a ton of fun things to do in the summer, but you’ll get really lonely really fast if you don’t find some people to do them with. Things can be a little quieter around campus during the summer, and you can end up spending a lot more time alone than you’re used to. Be proactive – be  sure to find out who’s going to be around for the summer so you know to call them when you want to go out!

One thing that was really useful was The Calendar’s “In Vancouver for the Summer” Facebook group – they organized a bunch of UBC club nights and concerts around the city throughout the summer so there was always something to do on the weekends.

Step 4: Go exploring!

One thing that I loved about being in Vancouver for the summer was the opportunity to explore. Since I didn’t have school taking up all of my time, I had a little bit more time to do the more time-consuming things I couldn’t during the year. Among the highlights were:

  • Hiking the Eagle Bluffs at Cypress Mountain and gorgeous trails in the Washington Rockies
  • Road tripping to Sasquatch Music Festival in Washington
  • Taking the ferry to Vancouver Island for the first time to visit Victoria
  • Staying in a vintage trailer in Portland, Oregon

Mountaintop lake at Cypress Mountain

In my happy place at The Gorge Ampitheatre

Portland: the land of no tax, Voodoo Doughnuts, and homemade pinwheels.

If you love the outdoors and are looking for a group of people to join you on adventures, I suggest joining the Varsity Outdoor Club (VOC). They organize trips almost every week during the summer to some really cool places!

So that’s my guide to staying in Vancouver for the summer. Minor hardships aside, I had a really amazing 4 months here and was really happy with my decision to stay. Hopefully this helps you make up your mind!

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.