Bridging the gap between undergrads and the lab

Connie Yang, BSc’21, was an undergraduate researcher at the Rosalind and Morris Goodman Cancer Institute who also helped her peers gain valuable research experience

It’s an enigma faced by many students and new graduates: You need “prior experience” to advance in your studies or career, but you can’t get that experience without, well, some experience.

This paradox poses a very real obstacle for motivated undergraduate students who wish to pursue research-intensive graduate studies or careers but don’t have access to the kinds of hands-on experiences needed to get their foot in the door. It’s not for a lack of motivation that they haven’t clocked time in a lab – often, it boils down to knowing which professors are hiring, the availability of positions, and good timing.

“Research provides students with the opportunity to apply their knowledge to real-world problems. This type of hands-on learning prepares them for pursuing future career paths, such as graduate school or medicine, that have a heavy research component,” says Connie Yang, BSc’21.

And Yang would know: her time as an undergraduate research assistant at the Goodman Cancer Institute (GCI) was instrumental in helping her secure a coveted spot in an MD/PhD program.

When Yang arrived at McGill in 2017, she hadn’t yet discovered her passion for research. During her first year she accepted a position through McGill’s work-study program at the GCI, having heard of it only peripherally. She chose this job because it seemed to fit her interests, and more importantly, it was available. She held two non-research positions there, first as a part-time employee at the GCI’s Histology Core and then at the McGill Platform for Cellular Perturbation (MPCP).

Summer research work

Yang’s focus shifted when she met Dr. Sidong Huang, associate professor of Biochemistry and director of the MPCP of the GCI, who recruited her to help in his lab in Summer 2018. That experience left such an impression that she transferred into the Biochemistry major, which promotes a strong foundational knowledge of scientific concepts and offers classes built around the latest research findings and ongoing research. It was this emphasis on research that appealed most to Yang, who accepted Dr. Huang’s invitation to join his lab at the GCI as a research assistant.

“Student researchers are integral members of the lab,” says Dr. Huang, who was Yang’s research advisor. “They perform experiments and analyze results that are crucial to making progress in our projects. Furthermore, they also help generate and test new hypotheses further advancing our research.”

But there was a catch: while the summer research was fully paid, the research activity during the regular semesters was unpaid, as it did not fall under the purview of the work-study program. And while researchers can often support graduate students through grants earmarked for specific projects, they rarely can provide such funding for undergraduates. “Generally, instead of being paid to do research, undergraduates pay to do research because it is part of the courses covered by our tuition,” says Yang.

Key financial support

It was financial support from donors that allowed Yang to take on the research experience in Dr. Huang’s lab. She received the Jake Dougherty-St-Arnaud Undergraduate Bursary, an award given to undergraduate students in the Faculty of Science. The bursary was substantial, covering nearly an entire semester’s worth of tuition.

“If I hadn’t gotten this award, I would have had to work elsewhere,” states Yang. After some time doing research at the GCI, she was granted its Canderel Rising Star Award, which supports exceptional undergraduates interested in pursuing a career in scientific or medical research.

The financial assistance Yang received was vital, providing compensation for time spent at the lab bench, which was time not spent working odd jobs to cover her basic expenses. And that research time has paid off.

“Connie’s initiative led to her involvement in many projects in the lab, two of which she contributed greatly to as a key author,” says Dr. Huang. These studies include a recently published paper identifying a novel regulator of a key protein involved in the immune response of cancer patients (second author); and a manuscript in press about the discovery of an unexpected mechanism that helps explain limited responses to chemotherapy in several hard-to-treat cancers (co-first author). “These research experiences will be very valuable to Connie as she pursues her MD/PhD.”

Indeed, Yang – who graduated with honours in Spring 2021 – is continuing her research on cancer genetics during her MD/PhD in the Medical Scientist Training Program at Washington University in St. Louis. “I am excited to do this joint program. The medicine component complements the PhD, allowing me to do clinically relevant research.” She credits Dr. Huang and a former graduate student in the lab for preparing her for this next step. “Dr. Huang has taught me to think scientifically, and my training has equipped me to approach research questions with ease.”

Student Research Initiative

Though Yang managed to secure valuable research experience, it can still be tricky for undergraduates to find the right match. The Student Research Initiative (SRI), of which Yang was co-president, strives to address this concern. “As a student-run group, SRI aims to bridge the gap between undergraduates and researchers and connect students with relevant research opportunities, whether paid or unpaid,” says Yang.

Student members of SRI have curated a network of professors and established researchers offering research opportunities in faculties across campus to motivated undergraduates. The SRI team developed its own platform to pair students with lab positions and even offers an award for summer research, which at this time has limited sponsorship. “GPA and merit requirements can be a barrier for entry to some undergraduates seeking awards, so the SRI award is given strictly based on research interest,” says Yang.

The program has expanded since its creation in 2014, and many researchers who hire a student through SRI continue to work with the group when seeking subsequent undergraduate lab assistants.

Dr. Huang is one of those researchers. While he recruits graduate students pursuing research-focused degrees, he also sees a real benefit in having an undergraduate presence in the lab. “While master’s and PhD students often focus on a set question that drives their research, undergraduates can explore different projects that interest them while working with senior lab members. They bring a new perspective and positive energy to the lab, and in return, we get an opportunity to show them how interesting and valuable research can be.”

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