Undergraduate students discover career skills and confidence in Human Biology Lab Bootcamp

August 20, 2019 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

After an intensive two weeks, the 49 undergraduate students enrolled in the Human Biology (HMB) Lab Bootcamp achieved the program’s primary goal — acquiring the “wet lab” skills and research experience that students often aren’t exposed to until grad school.

The students — who come from a variety of life science programs — learned lab techniques and how to work with lab equipment, chemicals and biological materials as they designed and carried out a research project in molecular biology. 

They designed their own study to investigate the role of a particular protein in the function of neuronal cells and look at the abundance of the same protein in healthy and diseased brain tissue and tissues. 

But the students also gained valuable insight — at an opportune point in their academic lives — into what a career in research would be like.

Professor Colleen Dockstader.
Professor Colleen Dockstader. Photo: Chris Sasaki.

Colleen Dockstader is a professor in HMB and one of the co-creators of the Bootcamp. “For students who don’t know what they want to do yet but think they might want to pursue a career in research,” says Dockstader, “the hands-on experience helps them decide.” 

And for many students, the confidence gained from the two weeks was even more important than acquiring lab skills and research experience.

Elisa Cohen, a fourth-year University College student working on a double major in immunology and health & disease, says, “I’m now confident I can apply the techniques I learned in a wide range of situations — in research, academia or a non-academic setting.”

“Students told us they applied for jobs they wouldn’t otherwise have applied for,” says Dockstader, “because of the confidence they got from the program. One student said she applied for a job and got an interview, and the confidence she had in her interview was because she understood the research experience and felt good about herself. And, in the end, she got the job!”

Go, go, go!

Students conducting a simulated research project.
Students took away more than lab skills from the Bootcamp. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

The Bootcamp was the brainchild of Dockstader and Melanie Woodin and was first run in 2018. Woodin — a neuroscientist in the Department of Cell & Systems Biology — was director of HMB at the time and is now dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science. 

The Bootcamp idea was sparked by their observation that undergraduates were not getting the experiential research and lab training they needed. Recent graduates have reported that they weren’t prepared for research — an assessment echoed by their supervisors. With funding from an Ontario government grant that targeted this issue, Woodin and Dockstader turned their idea into reality.

“We came up with the concept of a bootcamp,” says Dockstader, “because we wanted it to be like an exercise bootcamp where you work really hard. You plow through it and you go, go, go for two weeks straight.”

Learning experiences disguised as failures

On top of the lab and research experience they gained, students also received valuable career guidance from their lab instructors and facilitators including Dockstader and Jasty Singh, now an assistant professor, teaching stream in the Department of Immunology, as well as postdocs and senior graduate students.

Martin Mak, a fourth-year Woodsworth College student majoring in immunology and human biology, says that while learning lab techniques was important, “even more helpful was the guidance I received from the facilitators about my academic career path. They gave exceptional advice that’s really helping me plan my future.”

Describing the dynamic between students and instructors, Dockstader says, “The students would pick their brains and ask them: how did you get to where you are now? What do you think I should do? The students found it extremely valuable.”

Guidance also came in the career development sessions with invited speakers from industry and from U of T’s Career Centre.

“I was very thankful,” says Cohen, “that we got to hear from career advisors as well as professionals from outside research regarding what our possible next steps could be.”

“Yes, we’re an academic institution, we have a great med school and a great graduate school,” says Dockstader. “But we also want students to realize there are many different paths to take. There are so many other ways to apply your science degree.”

Singh appropriately ended the two weeks with a session titled “Moving Forward: Where to go from here.”

Her message to Bootcamp graduates? “Life comes with a lot of experiences. Those experiences will include successes and failures and some of the failures will be learning experiences in disguise. What’s important to realize is that thanks to the Bootcamp, you’re well equipped to move forward and seize opportunities.”