The Success of Summer Research

Student shares how summer research experience on infectious diseases has helped him develop ideas for his future career.

Dakoda Herman, BSc Honours in Biochemistry
Undergraduate research adds to your learning experience – you can learn as much in a summer as a research assistant as you can in a semester of classes! Yet this is even better, because it is specialized knowledge for your specific field. My summer research experience* gave me an advantage in my courses because I was already familiar with terms and concepts that my classmates were just hearing for the first time. It also improved my laboratory skills, which are invaluable if you’re going to pursue graduate school in the sciences. But the best part of all? You don’t have to pay tuition for this education – they pay you!
* A summary of Dakoda’s research projects can be found at the end of the article.

WHO is that Knocking on Multiple Doors?

I have a dream of one day working for the World Health Organization (WHO), using my education to improve lives around the globe. I developed a passion for infectious disease in my first couple of years at the University of Saskatchewan, which led me to pursue summer research experiences in this field. In addition, I have always been interested in helping others, which is why I chose to get involved on campus in the first place. My research and volunteer experiences have improved my interpersonal, leadership, and critical thinking skills: all essential for nearly any career. These experiences have helped me to develop a clear idea of what I want from my future career, which in turn is where this dream stems from. A role model of mine once told me that while a well-rounded education is important, “always keep in mind your end goal and be aware of how every experience you have will help you toward this goal.” So, I always try to be aware of how every decision I make as a student will take me one step closer to my goal of working for the WHO.

Research image from Herman's first project (Photo credit: Dr. Keith MacKenzie).

When I first decided I wanted a summer job as a research assistant, I began by looking into the different research areas of potential supervisors. The first professor to whom I reached out did not have room in his lab for a summer student, so I inquired about which researchers in that area did have availability. The professor passed on a list of names, from which I chose another researcher to approach. This second researcher was very enthusiastic about having me in his lab, and suggested I apply for a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Undergraduate Student Research Assistantship (USRA). I was unaware of this funding opportunity but my supervisor thought I would be a good candidate, and it looks good on a Curriculum Vitae. My supervisor and I worked together on the application, and a couple of months later I was awarded an NSERC USRA.

The following summer, I was eager to find funding opportunities after my previous, positive experience. I repeated the process of contacting potential supervisors and applying for funding. Once again, it was not the first researcher I approached, but instead someone from a list of those recommended to me, who became my supervisor. This second time around, my supervisor mentioned the College of Medicine biomedical summer research grant available to top students in the field. Together we completed the grant application, which was successful. As an added bonus, I also received matching USRA funding from the Office of the Vice President Research (OVPR), Undergraduate Research Initiative.

Finding a supervisor for my honours project was not entirely within my control. The Department of Biochemistry compiles a list of projects from faculty, from which students select their top three choices before the department pairs us with a research supervisor. However, the connections I made in my previous two summers of research helped me to land my first-choice project. Having been introduced to my honours supervisor while working in other labs over the past two summers, I later found out that the supervisor chose me because he knew who I was and was familiar with the quality of my work. This shows just how important making contacts is for student researchers. 

Taking one for the Team: Overcoming Obstacles

Many experiments do not work, and often it has nothing to do with you doing something wrong – it just happens. The best way to deal with it can be to talk to someone who has done similar things before. When you are working in a lab, you are usually surrounded by people who have been in your position, and they are always willing to help if you simply ask. This is why communication is important; so long as you are open and ready to learn, supervisors will be willing to train you. However, do not expect to know how to do everything right away, or else you may feel overwhelmed!

When I was infected with a strain of the bacteria with which I was working and was sent to the hospital for a few days, it was one of the biggest obstacles I overcame in my research. However, I want to make a difference in this world and, although my mother would disagree, I think that getting sick for a few days was still definitely worth it if overall I can still contribute to improving the lives of others. On another note, as someone who works with (and plans to continue to work with) infectious diseases, it was an important reminder to respect what you are working with. I was too complacent in my work and the experience now serves as a constant reminder to be as cautious as possible when studying these pathogens. This experience was not enjoyable at the time but it was unique and I laugh about it now.


Get Involved: Volunteer, Find Mentors, Lean in 

I have met incredible friends and mentors across campus through my volunteer experiences. Because I felt disconnected from the campus community, volunteering was a great way for me to feel engaged while also helping others. Balancing academics and extracurricular activities can be challenging at times but it forces me to stay organized, and if I am organized there is more than enough time in the day to get everything done. As a PAL peer mentor with Student Learning Services, I have had the most amazing mentors who have opened doors for me and given me opportunities to excel as a student and a person, including the opportunity to represent my fellow students as a member of the 2016-17 University of Saskatchewan Student Forum, something I never thought I would have the chance to be a part of. As a USURJ editor, I not only better understand the peer-review process, but I also have the opportunity to represent the journal at various events, such as at this year's USSU Undergraduate Project Symposium (Pictured left, giving a speech on behalf of USURJ).

 *Summary of Projects

First project: Under the supervision of Dr. Philip Griebel, this project involved examining gene expression patterns to determine when the immune system of bovine calves mature. Currently, common practice is to vaccinate calves at six months of age; however, the immune system may be mature enough to respond to vaccination much earlier than previously thought. The earlier that calves are vaccinated, the better protected they are when weaned, a time during which they become most vulnerable to infection.

Second project: Under the supervision of Dr. Aaron White, this project examined gene expression patterns to detect the differentiation of Salmonella bacteria in the gut of their host. The differentiation of Salmonella into two cell types has just recently been discovered and has been hypothesized to play a crucial in the spread of Salmonella from host-to-host. Additionally, this differentiation may provide a new target for improved Salmonella vaccines, as current vaccines only target one of the two cell types. As a part of this project, I took part in two research poster competitions: the annual USRA Summer Social & Poster Competition, and the annual University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine Research Poster Day. At the College of Medicine poster competition, I finished in 3rd place, taking home a small monetary prize.

Honours project: This endeavour is focused on developing an immunotherapy against prion diseases such as Creutzfeldt - Jakob disease in humans or Chronic Wasting Disease in livestock. My supervisors, Drs. Ron Geyer and Scott Napper, have been interested in prion diseases for a number of years; prion diseases are neurodegenerative diseases caused by the misfolding of the prion protein within the body, and are currently incurable . Recently, immunotherapies have shown promise as potential treatments for those suffering from prion diseases. My project involves the early stages of developing and characterizing antibodies against the misfolded prion protein.

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