On August 10, thirty or so undergraduate students gathered in Leacock 232 to share their experiences as researchers in the Faculty of Science over the summer.
The students were all recipients of either a Science Undergraduate Research Award (SURA) or an NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award (NSERC USRA). SURAs are made possible by funding from generous donors, participating researchers, and the Faculty of Science, while USRAs are funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Both awards give successful applicants the opportunity to complete a paid research internship from May to August.
Students who received these awards worked, either remotely or in-person, under the supervision of a McGill professor. Through their roles, the students were introduced to the hands-on thrills and spills of research in the field or in laboratories, and as such developed their scientific interests in new and surprising ways.
John Stix, Associate Dean (Research) for the Faculty of Science and a professor in the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, invited students to share their experiences with the room, asking: “What were the highs and the lows? What would you tell a student who has not yet done research? What did you learn, what surprised you?”
Thirteen students shared their – sometimes humorous, always fascinating – stories with the audience. Here’s what some of them had to say:
One thing that I found surprising was how collaborative research is. Even though everybody was working on their own individual project, you were able to talk to other people and get suggestions.
Year: U2. Major: Chemistry (Bio-organic).
Supervisors: Dr. Janine Mauzeroll and Changyue Du (PhD candidate)
Project title: The Quantification of Quatsomes as Disinfectants for Biofilms
Summary: Quatsomes are self-assembled vesicle structures composed of quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) and sterols. Due to their QAC makeup, quatsomes have innate antimicrobial activity which allows them to be used as disinfectants against biofilms. This summer, I characterized and quantified the structure of several different quatsomes using techniques such as TEM and LC-MS and evaluated their efficiency as disinfectants by performing bioassays. In the future, the incorporation of enzymes into the quatsome structure in order to improve anti-biofilm activity will be investigated.
While I definitely learned many new lab techniques, my main takeaway from this experience has to do with the importance of collaboration in research. Not only is it more enjoyable to work alongside others, but it was also incredibly helpful to have the opportunity to take advantage of the knowledge that more experienced grad students could share with me. Getting other perspectives helped me to investigate new aspects of my own project and I also benefitted just from observing all the other interesting projects that were being worked on in the lab over the summer. I was very lucky to work in such a welcoming and friendly lab group!
The best part, for me, was just being able to put into practice everything I’ve learned throughout the school year. I’m a very hands-on learner, and I was actually able to retain a lot of information that I otherwise probably would have forgotten.
Year: U3. Major: Physiology.
Supervisor: Dr. Judith Mandl
My outlined project was to investigate the mechanism of eosinophilia in the bone marrow of DOCK8-deficient mice. This experience gave me the unique opportunity to interact with graduate students on their projects and learn laboratory techniques including, but not limited to, cell culture, mouse work and flow cytometry. I have undoubtedly become more comfortable with reading research papers and thinking critically about research in general, skills that will prove extremely beneficial in my time as a student and eventually, my future career. I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a research intern in the Mandl Lab and have decided to continue doing research as part of an Honours Research Project this upcoming academic year! To those who are unsure of research, I highly recommend applying to the SURA award and giving yourself the opportunity to really dive into an independent research project - even if research may not be for you, you will learn indispensable skills that are applicable to any field and who knows, you might surprise yourself and fall in love with research by the end!
It was really cool to see the intersections between different fields, computer science and neuroscience.
Year: U3. Major: Honours Math and Computer Science.
Supervisor: Prof. Kaleem Siddiqi
I worked on “Modeling Calcium Dynamics in Astrocytes" this summer. My project was to understand different types of calcium signals in astrocytes and to use partial differential equations to model astrocytic calcium propagation. To incorporate spatial and temporal characteristics into modelling, I defined the diffusion tensor using the Euclidean distance transform and modelled the calcium propagation with an eikonal equation.
In general, it was an interesting project as I got to learn a lot about neuroscience, numerical analysis, and computer vision. I was really happy to apply what I learned from my numerical analysis class to this project. For my implementation, I needed to use the finite difference method to discretize the PDE. I got to understand the importance of choosing an appropriate numerical scheme for a particular PDE, for example, using central difference for curvature-based flow and using upwind scheme for constant motion. I learned to use the signed distance function as the embedding function and had a much deeper understanding of the level-set method. I also explored different ways to define a diffusion tensor and got very interesting results.
I had a lot of fun this summer and I learned a lot and had many really cool interactions, both with graduate students and with my professors.
Year: U3. Major: Honours Immunology.
Supervisor: Anthony Mittermaier.
Project title: Testing potential COVID-19 drugs targeting viral proteases
Summary: Expressing the 3CLpro enzyme in bacteria, purifying using chromatography, and testing potential inhibitors using an established fluorescence assay to characterize protein/drug interactions.
It's been a great summer of hands-on learning: navigating concepts I've learned in classes, and seeing them applied in the context of the real world. Particularly with the COVID pandemic, there is valuable insight into how global and social events dictate the research interests in our pursuit of knowledge and how they have lasting implications that branch out throughout different disciplines. I really enjoyed the experience of collaborating with the community of researchers in our lab to learn more about how a project—created in response to current global health demands, and just one small part of a whole effort—is designed, optimized, and ultimately carried out.
You might think of your supervisors as your mentors, but you can teach them things, too.
Year: U3 Major: Chemistry
Supervisor: Dr. Scott Bohle.
Project title: Substitution and Isomerization Reactions of 6-coordinate Ruthenium Complexes
My project began with attempting to substitute various phosphorus ligands and N-heterocyclic carbenes onto specific 6-coordinate ruthenium complexes. However, when heat was applied to overcome the energy barrier for substitution, the 6-coordinate starting material isomerized. This led to an investigation of the kinetics of the isomerization of these complexes. I have learned two main things from my experience: sometimes research is about the journey, not about the results, and learning is a two-way street as professors can learn lots from students too.
Malcolm Card Gormley
I was treated more like just a fellow scientist doing research with them than a younger person who was inexperienced, and so that surprised me. It was an experience that I think was very valuable.
Year: U2 Major: Chemistry
Supervisor: Eric McCalla
Project title: Glassy Electrolyte Investigation
Our project involved the synthesis and analysis of glassy electrolyte materials. Variations in composition and content were investigated to develop higher functioning electrolyte materials. Through working on this project, I experienced what the research process is really like. I expected it to be primarily synthesis and analysis, but there was a lot of time and effort that needed to go into optimization, so that we could figure out how best to carry out the process. It was also even more collaborative than I expected, with everybody bouncing questions off each other about their own work every day.