Sasha McDowell

Taste processing in Drosophila melanogaster
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I have always been curious about animals and their behaviour. During my undergraduate degree, I developed an interest in the neural basis of behaviour. I delved passionately into undergraduate research and recognized a need for a deeper understanding of this topic. Graduate studies were therefore the next logical step in satisfying this need. My ultimate goal is to acquire new research skills, learn how to formulate testable hypotheses, and use relevant tools for conducting original research. Pursuing a graduate degree allows for this and can potentially open doors for fruitful future research on my career trajectory.

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

The main reason I came to UBC was to work with my supervisor. I was intrigued by his research and the experimental techniques employed in his lab and believed this to be the best place to realise my graduate research goals. I was aware that UBC is one of the top universities in Canada and would therefore likely afford me good career prospects afterward. Additionally, I was looking for a milder winter compared to the rest of Canada, and Vancouver’s weather seemed ideal in this regard. The online photos of the UBC campus also portrayed a beautiful campus that I felt would be both an inspiring and comfortable place to pursue my graduate studies.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

What specifically attracted me to my program was the ability to readily upgrade from an MSc to a PhD. When I decided to pursue graduate research, I was still unsure of which specific field was of most interest to me. As a result, I opted to enter the MSc program. This afforded me the flexibility to transfer to the PhD program if I felt sufficiently interested in the research that I was conducting at the Master's level and wished to continue in this vein. Fortunately, this is what happened, and I couldn’t be happier.

What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?

The best surprise would be the active student life here at UBC. I previously attended a very academic-centered university, which is also an excellent university, and I enjoyed my time there, but I found it difficult to find time to engage in student activities. Here at UBC, there is something for everyone and it’s very easy to incorporate other interests apart from strict academia, into daily life. UBC Recreation offers great fitness classes, gyms, and sporting sites, an aquatic center, sports leagues, and fun sporting events. UBC AMS also has numerous clubs and societies that one can join. The GSS hosts attractive and interesting events and classes throughout the year, which provide opportunities to meet other graduate students and to unwind in a relaxing atmosphere. I have experienced first-hand the strong support that UBC provides to its students, not only academically, but in facilitating the pursuit of hobbies and non-academic interests as well, which makes for a good balance in student life.

  • Sasha McDowell was a finalist in the 2023 UBC Three Minute Thesis (#UBC3MT) competition. They presented their research, "A taste
The main reason I came to UBC was to work with my supervisor. I was intrigued by his research and the experimental techniques employed in his lab and believed this to be the best place to realise my graduate research goals.
What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

I’d have to say exploring research during my undergraduate degree best prepared me for my graduate program. During that degree, I obtained a lab assistant job, a science undergraduate research award to conduct research for one summer term, and I was part of the honors program which meant hands-on lab experiments and research. All of that provided me with a good idea of what graduate research would entail and would've shown my potential graduate supervisor that I had prior experience and would be a good fit for their lab. In addition to the aforementioned, I took a semester off before attending graduate school. That gave me the mental space to apply to graduate school and to find the best programs that suited my interests. It was also a nice break from studying, which allowed me to enter graduate school energetic and refreshed. I know some graduate programs, such as my own, have start dates in every semester which gives one flexibility on when to commence graduate school.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

I always enjoy some form of physical activity, whether it is a relaxing session of yoga, going for a run, or joining a salsa class. I also like to have creative outlets such as writing poetry, knitting, and taking videos and photos of the spectacular views Vancouver and BC have to offer. And when I find time, I enjoy exploring BC with friends. When you’re here, look out for pumpkin picking in autumn, skiing in the winter, and just chilling at the beach or hiking in the summer. There are plenty of fun and relaxing activities to take advantage of in BC.

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

I would say be patient when learning new skills and to remember that there’s always an adjustment period when starting a new program. When I first arrived at UBC, I was very excited to meet people from different backgrounds and ethnicities, learn new things, and explore the city. However, as the initial novelty wore off, I could feel the weight of adjustment, work, and responsibility settling in. I was a little shy in some classes, it took some time to learn difficult techniques, and I had to devote much valuable time to my new responsibilities as a teaching assistant. However, over time, I became more confident and comfortable with the various aspects and demands of research life. Having other new graduate students around to interact and share experiences with really helped me through that challenging period of adjustment. Once you negotiate the learning curve, you’ll soon be more confident in your abilities than you were before.


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