“I originally thought molecular biology was too abstract,” says Echo Jing. “You can’t see molecules the way you can organisms. But after this summer in Singapore, I see that the field isn’t as abstract as I thought.”
Jing and fellow student Stephanie Le were in Singapore for the Research Abroad course offered by the Department of Cell & Systems Biology (CSB) in the Faculty of Arts & Science in collaboration with the Centre for International Experience (CIE).
“In the course, students design a research project, conduct and troubleshoot experiments, analyze their results, and synthesize their findings in a final report,” explains Tony Harris, a professor and Associate Chair for Undergraduate Studies in CSB. “They work as interactive members of small research teams, and also have the opportunity to present their research at the CSB Summer Undergraduate Symposium held each September.”
The course lasted 10 weeks and provided an opportunity for students who had completed their third year of study to gain valuable research experience at institutions outside of Canada. In 2019, in addition to Singapore, partner institutions included research centres in Hong Kong, Germany, the Czech Republic, Japan, Denmark and Scotland.
Le is a member of Victoria College studying genome biology and fundamental genetics. Over the summer, she worked in the lab of Heng Chew Kiat, a researcher in the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
There she worked with Heng studying the genetic mutations that make patients more susceptible to coronary artery disease; she and her collaborators also investigated changes within chromosomes linked to coronary artery disease.
Jing is a member of New College and is double majoring in cell and molecular biology and physiology, and minoring in psychology. During the course, she worked in the lab of Cynthia He in the Department of Biological Sciences at NUS studying a parasite that causes, among other diseases, African trypanosomiasis or sleeping sickness. In particular, she studied the hair-like structures called cilia and flagella found on the surface of the cell.
Both Jing and Le learned “wet lab” skills — the day-to-day techniques and practices needed when working in a lab with various chemical solutions and biological materials. More importantly, they gained insight into what a career in research entails.
“This was the first time I’d worked in a molecular cellular lab,” says Jing. “I learned experimental research techniques and that gave me insight into what a real molecular cellular researcher does in a real lab setting. I also learned how to approach problems critically as a researcher.”
The experience also opened the students’ eyes to future possibilities, including what and where they might study next.
When Jing discovered that molecular biology isn’t so abstract, “it made me want to explore this research area even further in my graduate studies and I am seriously considering a career as a researcher.”
“I got to work in a new lab and make new friends,” says Le. “I realized that I might not want to stay in Canada for the rest of my life. Maybe I’ll travel and work in a different country.”
Above and beyond the research and career insights, the course draws on students’ independence and self-reliance, poses challenges that many are facing for the first time and provides valuable life experience,
“Students are immersed in different cultures,” says Harris. “They live and conduct research overseas, and they gain the practical experience of navigating the logistics of an overseas move. All of these aspects provide them with a unique, multifaceted learning experience that prepares them for rewarding careers in a variety of fields.”
“We ended up exploring Singapore a lot,” says Le. “We also ended up traveling outside the country. We did weekend trips to Malaysia. I visited family in Vietnam and I traveled to Japan, too.
“I got to travel and live by myself for an entire summer,” she says. “Because of that, this experience really helped me grow as a person.”
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