Undergrads win a rare chance to do research

Last summer, a number of York undergraduates won the chance to spend their 16-week break doing research and getting paid for it. Funded by national grants, they worked with York biology and chemistry professors on projects ranging from how wood thrushes care for their young to how to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

They were recipients of Undergraduate Student Research Awards (USRA) offered by the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Every year, NSERC offers hundreds of undergraduates across Canada this rare chance at summer research jobs. This year, hundreds more will get the chance if they apply by Jan. 22. At York, they can contact their department for details, and visit NSERC and the Faculty of Science & Engineering Web sites.  

For 10 York students who received USRA awards last year, the experience opened up new worlds and opportunities.  

Left: Ross Kresnik examines a bird with ornithologist Bridget Stutchbury at Hemlock Hill Biological Research Station in Pennsylvania 

Senior biology student Ross Kresnik worked with Professor Bridget Stutchbury investigating how wood thrushes take care of their offspring. He conducted the research at Hemlock Hill Biological Research Station in Pennsylvania. Wood thrushes have multiple broods within a single breeding season. Kresnik used radio-tracking, blood metabolite analysis and mist netting to measure and investigate the factors that influence the length of the maternal care period following the fledging of first brood young. He found that females care for their young between nine and 16 days post-fledging, but longer if they have paired with a poor-quality male. Kresnik is publishing his findings and says his experience in the Stutchbury lab was a deciding factor in pursuing graduate studies.  

Three USRA recipients worked on projects in cancer biology and fish reproduction in Professor Chun Peng’s laboratory last summer.  

Left: From left, Professor Chun Peng, Eilyad Honarparvar, Michele Taffs and Tanita Manchanda in the Peng Lab

Third-year biology student Michele Taffs investigated the behaviour of endocrine disruptors on the reproductive system of zebrafish and ended up doing her honours thesis with Peng. She got a taste of what doing research was really like and “confirmed that doing research is what I want to do” – at the graduate level.  

Biomedical science student Tanita Manchanda explored the role of microRNA molecules in placenta formation, and in cancer development and treatment. She learned techniques for extracting RNA from human tissues, running DNA and protein gels, culturing cells, and doing invasion and migration assays. “As an undergrad, there is not enough time and opportunity to learn all of these techniques during the year,” said Manchanda. “This experience has allowed me to learn a lot, and I am sure I will be able to use this knowledge when I enter into the field of medicine.” 

In the Peng Lab, Eilyad Honarparvar investigated how protein p27 plays a protective role against cancer. For the future oncologist, this was a valuable experience. “Not only do you get the opportunity to learn different techniques essential for research but you gain an experience that is nearly impossible to simulate in a three-hour lab session during the normal academic year.”

Left: Dana Aljawhary in the Hastie Chemistry Lab

In Professor Donald Hastie’s chemistry lab, Dana Aljawhary learned to use a mass spectrometer to identify atmospheric pollutants, particularly polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), the carcinogenic byproduct of forest fires and of burning gasoline, diesel, coal and wood. “The teamwork present in our lab, as well as the lab environment, helped me develop a better understanding of the research world,” said Aljawhary, who appreciated the chance to work with experienced researchers. “In the future, I hope to be able to apply my newly acquired skills towards both my undergraduate studies and research opportunities such as graduate school and work in the public sector.”

Third-year chemistry students Stephanie Ma and Mana Tirtashi worked in Professor Pierre Potvin’s carbon dioxide -focused laboratories to develop molecular catalysts for trapping carbon dioxide before it escapes into the atmosphere. Such catalysts could be used to transform carbondioxide (produced at a coal-fired power station, for instance) into a stable solid or liquid substance before its release.

Right: From left, Mana Tirtashi, Professor Pierre Potvin and Stephanie Ma in the carbon dioxide lab

They were also involved in exploring the possibility of replacing petroleum with carbon dioxide to produce plastics. “This was the best experience of my life so far,” said Tirtashi. “We all had a lot of fun together as a lab. It allowed me to grow intellectually and emotionally. I’ve discovered strengths I never knew I had. Research is not always easy, and experiments often don’t work the way you want, but it’s been very rewarding.” 

In biology Professor Mark Bayfield’s lab, Dickson Kong, a third-year biology and kinesiology & health science student, hunted for genes that govern how cells respond to stress.

Left: From left, Dickson Kong and Professor Mark Bayfield

Kong also learned how to work with yeast as a laboratory model organism. “NSERC granted me a precious opportunity to learn and apply the techniques that are used by biologists on a day-to-day basis,” said Kong, who sees the experience as a positive step on his way to a career in medicine. 

Fatima Panju, a third-year biochemistry student, worked under Professor Vivian Saridakis to understand what proteins, so essential in cellular processes, look like and how they function. She also learned about crystallography, a molecular tool used to analyze the structure of proteins, and about yeast proteins that destroy other proteins involved in disease formation. “I have thoroughly enjoyed working in a biotechnology lab as I have been able to do the experiments that I could have only read about before,” said Panju.  

In Professor Patricia Lakin-Thomas’s “clock” laboratory, third-year biology student Ruchi Liyanage investigated how organisms, such as fungus, control their internal clock or circadian rhythm. Liyanage noted “the many pitfalls, frustrations and failed experiments” along with “the moments of triumph and fulfilment I felt during successful experiments.” After this experience, she concluded that “research should not focus solely on formulating conclusions, but also on acquiring knowledge and opening up more avenues for future scientists.”