Undergraduate research at McGill: Student testimonials

Research projects are amazing opportunities for growth. Just read what some of our students say about their experiences!

Mathis Messager: How McGill prepared me for a path of research

Mathis MessagerObtaining an NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA) was one of the key factors that allowed me to be where I am today. Through the undergraduate research experience I acquired with the USRA, I developed both practical and analytical skills that I consider to be the main drivers of my success in getting admitted to graduate school. Being part of Professor Bernhard Lehner’s Global HydroLAB at McGill provided me with a window into what it meant to do research, and I liked it! From developing a project, to doing a literature review, through to presenting it at two conferences and recently getting published in a high-profile journal, this experience prepared me like no other for a career in research. I learnt as much from doing research in the laboratory and from my advisor (and mentor) as with my entire coursework in university — it gave me a way to apply the skills I was getting in the classroom to a real problem. Finally, by allowing me to be in close contact with a professor, my undergraduate research experience gave me an idea of how important a good mentor is for opening doors, and that helped me choose my current graduate advisor.

Mathis Messager graduated from McGill with a B.Sc. Honours in Environment in 2014, and is currently completing a Master’s Degree in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. He is the first author of a 2016 paper published in Nature Communications, written with other members of Professor Lehner’s Global HydroLAB, which is the first attempt to estimate the total water volume stored in all global lakes, and then to estimate how old that water is.

PHOTOGRAPH: Mathis Messager presents his poster at the 2013 Faculty of Science Undergraduate Research Conference.

Farah Musharbash: McGill promises undergraduate research in science, and McGill delivers

Farah Musharbash presents his U0 summer research in immunoassays at McGill's BioChoosing the right university to attend was a very difficult decision to make. Yet what made me select McGill over other institutions is mainly their focus on undergraduate research. As a senior high school student, I had the opportunity to be placed for a week in a genetics lab as part of a program by the Canadian Gene Cure Foundation. To my good fortune, I was placed at McGill, and this experience formed the cornerstone of my desire to get involved in research once I entered university. When it came time to decide where I will spend my next 4 years, I searched the websites of the different universities looking for their emphasis on undergraduate involvement in research. What was special about McGill was the Office for Undergraduate Research; I found nothing similar to it in any other Canadian university. Knowing that McGill provided undergraduate students with the resources to help them participate in research was the most important reason I chose to attend McGill. During my first semester here, the Office for Undergraduate Research definitely lived up to its promise; I was able to get the advice I needed from their booth at the freshman orientation session, during Soup & Science, as well as from their Undergraduate Research Officer (Mr. Chisholm) directly. The advice I received helped me a lot to search and apply for a lab position. I was able to start working in Prof. Juncker’s Micro and Nanobioengineering lab in March of my freshman year. The summer after that year, I even spoke with my friend attending a highly selective science program at another top institution in Canada, and he told me how extremely difficult it is for students to land a research position that early. Having the opportunity to get involved early in research allowed me to gain enough skills and knowledge to work on an independent project which involves developing an ultrasensitive test for the early detection of disease biomarkers. In addition, it allowed me to have enough contribution for my work to be presented in multiple national and international conferences, and hopefully in a few peer-reviewed publications in the near future. Looking back at the past 3 years, I can definitely say that I have made the right choice in coming to McGill!

PHOTOGRAPH: Farah Musharbash presents his U0 summer research in immunoassays at McGill's Biomedical Engineering Symposium in 2013.

Joseph Lewnard: Undergraduate research transformed interest into creative addiction

Joseph Lewnard receives a prize at the Undergraduate Research Conference.I started a Bachelor of Music in historical performance at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, but I became increasingly interested in disease ecology and switched into a geography degree. Receiving a Science Undergraduate Research Award (SURA) allowed me to become immersed in this subject, and led to opportunities to conduct fieldwork in Uganda, present findings at McGill's Science Undergraduate Research Conference, and publish my first two journal articles. Independent research I conducted under the SURA exposed me to the creative element of the scientific process, an invigorating and addictive experience I had never gained from coursework. These opportunities prepared me to begin a PhD in Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases at Yale University after graduating, where I'm developing mathematical models to study competition dynamics of multi-strain pathogens. Looking back, I can't think of anything more positive for McGill and McGill students than undergraduate research opportunities!

Joseph Lewnard is the lead author of a 2014 article on Ebola in the Lancet. He is featured in a 2012 short video on undergraduate research at McGill.

PHOTOGRAPH: Joseph Lewnard receives second prize in the Health & Social Science category at the 2012 Faculty of Science Undergraduate Research Conference from keynote speaker Dr. Suzanne Fortier (then President of NSERC, now Principal of McGill University) and Dr. Martin Grant (then Dean of Science).

Jessica Wong: Prepared for the working world

Doing research during my undergraduate degree definitely changed my perspective. Before completing my CHEM 470 Project in the Department of Chemistry, I never really understood what it meant to be studying at a “research university”. The opportunity that I was given—to work with experts in the field, to gain hands-on experience working with state-of-the-art instrumentation, to actually make contributions to science in a field that was interesting to me—was absolutely invaluable. The support given to students who wish to pursue research enabled me to add crucial real world experience to my education. This has helped me immensely in my search for work after graduation; having stayed on with Prof. Tomislav Friščić since completing my Honours project, I now have the minimum 1-3 years of work experience to apply to most entry-level Chemistry jobs. Having research experience on my CV shows potential employers that I can work independently, successfully evaluate results, and think critically: essential to all challenges in the working world.

Adam Pietrobon: The best decision you could make

When I started university, an undergraduate research position seemed like an impossible goal – but not for long! When I saw the “How to get involved in research” webpage, the process became very tangible, with steps I could follow. I spoke with several professors and attended a number of Soup and Science events. These solidified my interests in research as well as showed me a wide array of current research topics. It took a lot of enthusiastic inquiry, but I obtained a research assistant position in a biology lab during my first year (U0) of undergraduate studies. My research experience, made possible by McGill’s Work Study program, continues to be of immeasurable value to this day.

Research has had an incredibly positive impact on my university experience, both shifting my perspective on education as well as revolutionizing the way I approach learning. I now view class as a tool to accomplish more holistic goals, rather than viewing the classroom itself as the end goal. Furthermore, my research experience has refined my interests as well as assisted in sculpting my plans for the future. I strongly recommend to all undergraduate students to pursue a research position as early as possible within your studies – it is the best decision you could make!

Jaan Altosaar: Undergraduate research at McGill and beyond

Jaan Altosaar receives a prize at the Undergraduate Research Conference.

After completing a B.Sc. Joint Honours in Mathematics and Physics in 2013, Jaan Altosaar went on to pursue a PhD in Physics at Princeton University. Here is what he had to say:

“During my undergraduate career at McGill, I got to work in Prof. Moshe Szyf's epigenetics lab at McGill, Prof. Jurgen Sygusch's biochemistry lab at the University of Montreal, Prof. Walter Reisner's biophysics lab at McGill, and Prof. Michel Gingras' condensed matter theory group at the University of Waterloo. 

“McGill's excellent support of undergraduate research via courses, funding, and conferences means you cannot escape such scientific immersion. Research courses such as the MATH 470 research project, PHYS 396 research course, or PHYS 459 research thesis offer invaluable opportunities for conducting your own long-term experiments during the school year. Likewise, events like the Faculty of Science's Undergraduate Research Conference and the Faculty of Engineering’s Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering poster session help connect students with faculty and teach us how to present for broad academic audiences.

“Logical experimental research plans taught me discipline of thought and action, sustained perseverance, and how necessary it is to reflect on one's observations to ensure objectivity. I truly treasure these takeaways from my McGill years.”

PHOTOGRAPH: Jan Altosaar receives second prize in the Physical Sciences category at the 2012 Faculty of Science Undergraduate Research Conference from keynote speaker Dr. Suzanne Fortier (then President of NSERC, now Principal of McGill University) and Dr. Martin Grant (then Dean of Science).

Guillaume Lambert: NSERC USRA

"My NSERC USRA allowed me to broaden my research skills and offered me invaluable hands-on experience I simply would not have gained otherwise. The USRA program and my exceptional adviser, Professor Guillaume Gervais, gave me the opportunity to conduct PhD-level research in the high-end field of nanotechnology – during my undergraduate degree! This internship taught me independent study and creativity, two abilities that we don't always develop to their full potential in classrooms. My USRA showed me how interesting academic research is, and is one of the determining factors that encouraged me to continue to graduate school. My USRA research experience is without a doubt one of the main reasons why I have been accepted for graduate studies at Caltech and Cornell."

PHOTOGRAPH: Guillaume Lambert, B.Sc. Physics '07, presented his summer NSERC USRA project Towards quantum nanofluidics at the Faculty of Science 2006 Undergraduate Research Conference, and won first prize in the Physical Sciences category. Here he is presenting his work to the conference's keynote speaker Dr. Rudolph Marcus, a McGill graduate who won the 1992 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Tayeb Aïssiou: MATH 396

In Summer 2006, Tayeb Aïssiou (B.Sc. Mathematics & Physics, 2007) took a MATH 396 project with an interdisciplinary, interdepartmental bent: he worked under the joint supervision of Professors Nilima Nigam (Mathematics and Statistics) and Svetlana Komarova (Dentistry). His project won second prize in October 2006 at the Faculty of Science Undergraduate Research Conference in the Mathematical and Computational Sciences category. He writes:

"My summer research experience was simply amazing. My major is in mathematics and physics, and I chose this project in mathematical biology in order to discover another field of science. I acquired new mathematical skills (numerical analysis and mathematical modelling) as well as biological concepts (the life cycle of bone and its diseases). In addition, I worked in the laboratory to do my own experiment, so I acquired technical skills and learned a lot about manipulating cells and how delicate that is.

"The courses in my major are mostly abstract and theoretical, whereas the project was fully applied: the main goal was to run experiments, get results, analyse them, and create a model. I enjoyed this so much that I switched my focus from high energy physics to applied mathematics. All summer long, I concentrated all my efforts on that project, and that's what made it so interesting and motivating. I became more responsible and more autonomous - I learned how to search literature for information, read papers, and contacted people (professors and students) as needed.

"Simply put, my summer project was a very rich experience. I learned much more that summer than during my whole studies to date because I could discern a clear purpose to what I was doing. This project allowed me to discover what I really wanted to do in my life."

Kaitlyn Rathwell: NSERC USRA

During Summer 2006, McGill School of Environment student Kaitlyn Rathwell (B.A. Environment & Development min. Science for Arts Students '07) held an NSERC USRA under the supervision of Prof. Garry Peterson. She writes:

"I had made a point of connecting with Professor Garry Peterson after being inspired in his Ecological Management class. My research over the summer was a pertinent experience in my academic life and a foundation for research opportunities in the future. Working with Professor Peterson gave me a valuable opportunity for both self directed learning and teamwork. I spent part of the time in the lab working on social-ecological computer simulation models and the other part in the field with a team of researchers interested in ecosystem service trade-offs in the Yamaska and Richelieu watershed basins. This combination of tasks allowed me to refine both my personal work ethic and creativity, and my ability to work in a team and with communities. As an undergraduate student, working closely with graduate students and professors has allowed me to refine my vision for future research, and moreover the atmosphere I will demand for future research. In an intimate research setting, such as the one I experienced, teamwork leads to novel ideas."

Leonid Chindelevitch: NSERC USRA

Leonid Chindelevitch (B.Sc. Mathematics and Computer Science, '06) is presently in the PhD program in Applied Mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He did an NSERC USRA project in the summer of 2006 under the supervision of Patrick Hayden and writes:

"I had previously taken Professor Hayden's course on quantum information theory, as well as another course on quantum cryptography. The project that I was working on was an interesting combination of both topics. The research experience has been very challenging intellectually, and although I was not able to reach the big result we were hoping for, there were a lot of interesting partial results along the way. I had weekly meetings with my supervisor, which forced me to work consistently on a daily basis, for several hours. I would write short reports on the work I had done, which improved my presentation skills. I also had to read and understand several papers and books in the course of the research. All of these skills turned out to be very useful in graduate school. My work on this project has strengthened my interest in research, and reinforced my decision of going on to graduate studies. As an added bonus, the money I earned for my work helped me achieve some other goals, such as travelling abroad. The NSERC project has been an invaluable experience for me on many levels, and I highly recommend it to anyone who would like to get a feeling for what research is like."