Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?
I graduated from McGill University with a BSc (Honours) in Immunology in the spring of 2020 which also happened to coincide with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the nature of my program, which was centered around immunity and infection, the final few months of my degree were interesting to say the least. Everything moved to virtual learning and in-person labs were canceled, so most of our courses turned into “journal clubs,” where we delved into the latest, high impact research regarding the mysterious infectious agent. Graduate school had always been on my radar as a next career step as exciting new biotechnology developments such as CRISPR and lipid nanoparticle gene therapy motivated me to participate in academic research early on. However, it was the perspective I gained during the pandemic that I fully appreciated the impact that academic research has on medicine and society which solidified my intent on doing graduate studies.
Why did you decide to study at UBC?
When considering where to pursue my graduate degree, UBC was the obvious choice for me for several reasons. UBC has an international reputation for excellence in nanomedicine and gene therapy research, and many notable discoveries made by UBC researchers have resulted in approved drugs. One of the more recent examples of this was the development of lipid nanoparticles (LNP) as a delivery vehicle for gene therapies which enabled the first approved mRNA vaccines. Participating in research leveraging LNP technology for the development of new cell therapies drew me to UBC and, serendipitously, once accepting my graduate school offer, it was announced that leading mRNA vaccine candidates relied on LNP for delivery. In addition to the academic reputation, the location was beyond attractive to me. As an avid skier, having access to the mountains and the snow has been a valuable perk of studying in Vancouver.
What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?
My research project aims to supercharge platelets by modifying donor platelets with mRNA and lipid nanoparticles to develop a new cell therapy that can be used to better control severe bleeds. This research project requires input from leaders in transfusion medicine, biomedical engineering and nanomedicine. Given the large scope of research that falls within the Department of Biochemistry, my project is uniquely enabled as I have access to cutting edge knowledge and equipment available in the Michael Smith Laboratories, Centre for Blood Research and the Life Science Institute necessary to complete such an interdisciplinary project.
What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?
The summers in Vancouver are amazing and even in the winters, it doesn’t actually rain as much as they say – and when it does rain, it means that it’s snowing up in the mountains. Therefore, there isn’t actually a “bad” time of the year here in Vancouver (except for maybe the shoulder season, which is a great time to churn out data).
What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?
Obviously having a previous degree in a related science and some lab experience is super helpful for doing a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, however, the most valuable aspect of my life before starting graduate studies was being a good collaborator and team player. The nature of my research is highly collaborative, whether that’s with fellow lab mates or different labs all together, and being able to work well as a team and communicate with others is just as important as understanding the underlying science.
What advice do you have for new graduate students?
Shop around for the right project-supervisor-environment fit and take advantage of the MSc to PhD fast track! Maybe more important than your thesis project will be the training environment that you are in, including your immediate supervisor, but also other lab personnel. My advice is to take your time in deciding which lab to choose and interview/meet with as many supervisors AND their lab personnel as you can. Sometimes the best-looking lab on paper may not provide a compatible training environment and you can only figure that out by doing your due diligence. Also, starting as a MSc student and then advancing to PhD candidacy is a great way to first make sure you are in a suitable research environment before commiting to the multi-year PhD program.