Undergraduate Research 101 with MSURJ: A Fond Recap

Just this past week, on a somewhat blustery but clear night, our research journal team did something groundbreaking—we did a workshop on how to get involved with research.

And so, with members and participants huddled up on couches and on the floor of ECOLE’s living room, MSURJ held its first, unexpectedly cozy undergraduate research 101 event. It was a resounding success, for a number of reasons which we would like to believe were absolutely not limited to the number of sofas in that room.

Being an event on a relatively small scale, it began with a number of introductions and hellos, as the team scrambled to set up projectors and speakers, propped up on a stack of journals. Meng, one of our co-Editors-in-Chief, then gave a detailed three-part presentation, citing examples of dos and don’ts when contacting professors, and how to create a strong profile as a candidate for a lab position.

A number of other editors on the board then introduced themselves, their programs and research interests, and the group broke into smaller circles accordingly. Riveting conversations were held, questions were asked and answered, and advice was doled out on a range of topics including cover letters and CVs, research awards, resources and timelines, and tips for general communication.

Closed off with a free-for-all journal and pastry selection, the evening was one that was wholly exciting for us, and hopefully informative, if not also fun and engaging for all present. We would like to thank everyone who showed up, and encourage further engagement with MSURJ.

We will be holding more events of this nature in the future. (Psst—what’s that I hear, an editing workshop in the makings?) If you’d like to learn more, like our Facebook Page and stay tuned for updates.

Taken from: www.bhdsyndrome.org

Biochemistry Research Awareness Day

McGill’s annual Biochemistry Research Awareness Day (RAD), hosted by the Biochemistry Undergraduate Society (BUGS), took place on the 15th of November this year. RAD 2014 provided students with an opportunity to hear professors in their faculty present their research and discuss ways for students to become involved in undergraduate research at McGill University. After the presentations, students were able to meet and talk with the professors in small groups to learn more about their work.

Dr. Berghuis

First to present was Dr. Albert Berghuis, Professor and Chair of the Department of Biochemistry at McGill University. He spoke about the issue of dramatic increases in antibiotic resistance, and the use of structural data as a strategy to combat superbugs and antibiotic resistant enzymes. Citing recent examples such as the often untreatable C. difficile bacteria which ravaged through the country just last year, his speech acted as a reminder of the ever-pressing need for novel treatments against pathogenic bacteria. Current ongoing research in the Berghuis Lab includes the study of various drug-binding mechanisms and antimicrobial agents, with structural biological approaches such as X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, often in collaboration with researchers from other Canadian universities.

Dr. Park

Next to speak was Dr. Morag Park, Director of the Rosalind and Morris Goodman Cancer Research Centre. Her presentation focused on the role of tyrosine kinase Met receptors in basal-type breast cancers, as evidenced by their over-expression in cell-signalling pathways in murine models, as well as multiple pathologies in MMTV (Mouse Mammary Tumour Virus)/ Met mice, characteristic of human breast cancers. Research in the Park Lab (often in conjunction with the Hallets Lab, which focuses on breast cancer informatics) aims to identify signal transduction pathways in cancers, as well as the regulation and integration thereof, in order to better understand tumour cell induction, invasion, and metastasis.

The Goodman Cancer Research Centre (GCRC) is a world-renowned research facility affiliated with McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine, and has for many years allowed McGill’s graduate students to conduct independent studies in cancer research with the world’s top scientists and research fellows.

 Dr. Gehring

The next speaker was Dr. Kalle Gehring, head of the McGill NMR Lab, presenting a brief introduction to the application of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy in the study of protein and nucleic acid structures. Recent research in the NMR Lab has included the study of nucleic acid hairpins and various PolyA binding proteins.

Dr. Gehring also spoke at length regarding the importance of undergraduate research and the many opportunities here at McGill University, citing examples of typical research projects and topics as well as published student works—including past papers published in MSURJ (the McGill Science Undergraduate Research Journal), affiliated with the NMR Lab. Also mentioned were summer research grant opportunities such as NSERC, Bionano, FRQ, and the annual GRASP symposium.

(The NMR Lab is currently recruiting—according to Dr. Gehring, undergraduates joining before December 15 will be cordially invited to a LaserQuest battle, where they will be welcome to shoot at professors as they please.)

 Dr. Huang

Also representing the Goodman Cancer Research Centre was Dr. Sidong Huang, Assistant Professor at McGill and the Canadian Research Chair in Functional Genomics. Speaking on the topic of Functional Genomics to Guide Cancer Therapy, Dr. Huang cited the use of tools such as high-throughput RNA interference screens in his laboratory to study cancer-relevant pathways (e.g. the effects of inhibitor regulation in cancers like BRAF-mutant melanoma), identify novel genes and networks and eventually overcome drug resistance in cancer therapy.

Dr. McInnes

Speaking on behalf of Dr. McInnes, research associate Dr. Diez laid out the projects going on at the McInnes lab. Located in the Lady Davis Institute of the Jewish General Hospital, the lab is currently looking for two undergraduate students passionate in biochemistry research. Dr. McInnes’ early work involved the development of the mammalian retina, specifically, the hundreds of genes that when mutated produced a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa, which involves the death of photoreceptor cells in the retina. From this research, the lab began examining a specific gene that was expressed over 100-fold in retinal tissue. Using an animal model, they proceeded to delete the gene in mice and found that this caused the mice to die as soon as they were born. Intrigued at the potential developmental possibility of the gene, they continued to examine the fetuses for clues as to the gene’s function, and found abnormalities in the brain called focal neuronal ectopias, which detail an overmigration of neuronal precursors in the brain. Being the first lab to work on this gene, there is still a lot of progress to be made concerning its function, and future paths include working with proteins that interact with the gene and  developing a conditional knock-out in mice.

Dr. Nepveu 

The Nepveu lab studies DNA damage response in the context of cancer. The DNA damage response begins when damage is detected in cells which triggers a series of modifications on proteins leading to the activation of certain processes including chromatin remodeling, transcriptional regulation, DNA repair and a halt in cell proliferation. Cancer cells need extremely efficient DNA repair mechanisms because they must proliferate extensively to resist chemotherapy, as the treatment aims to kill cells by causing an excess of DNA damage. The focus of Dr. Alain Nepveu’s studies is on genes that are haploinsufficient tumour suppressors, which are overexpressed in advanced cancer. Using transgenic mice models, tumour development is followed and analyzed for changes in genetic material. Recruitment of proteins is monitored through expression of fusion proteins with Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), and in vitro cells are filmed in order to monitor their DNA using TimeWarp analysis. Eventually the garnered results are compared to what happens in real cancer patients, with the hope of advancing the knowledge of the DNA repair mechanism in tumour cells.

Dr. Bouchard

Following on the theme of cancer research, Dr. Maxime Bouchard’s lab examines the development of the embryonic urogenital system and how these pathways are reproduced in cancer cell behaviour. The elongation of the ducts of the renal and genital system in embryos involves the invasion of surrounding tissue by tip cells, which happens in a group migration. It was previously thought that these cells were static and interconnected, however they now appear to be in fact moving around and “floating together”, much like metastatic cells. This new field of research integrates embryonic developmental processes and cancer cell biochemistry, and has a promising future.

Dr. Pause 

The main area of interest in Dr. Arnim Pause’s lab involves working with tumour suppressor genes – one which works specifically to treat the Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome, and another which is frequently deleted in a range of cancers. Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome is a very rare autosomal dominant hereditary disorder which predisposes the affected patient to a number of tumours, including hair follicle tumours, lung and kidney cysts and renal and colon cancer. It occurs when there is a mutation in the FLCN gene responsible for coding a protein known as folliculin. Using mice and C. elegans as models, the study of the FLCN gene and specifically its loss of function is one of the projects undertaken in this lab. A second endeavour involves exploring the Histidine-Domain-Protein-Tyrosine-Phosphatase (HD-PTP) protein, of which the chromosomal region 3p21.3 is a tumour suppressing gene. HD-PTP itself forms a complex which is involved in the endosomal trafficking of cell surface receptors, and this is guided by an ESCRT complex. Using a mouse model, the lab is looking at further revealing this protein’s function in the development of tumours.

Dr. Schmeing

Dr. Martin Schmeing’s research focuses primarily on the structure and function of large molecular machines in carrying out vital cellular processes. His lab uses two structural techniques, x-ray crystallography and single particle electron microscopy, as well as many biophysical and biochemical techniques. These methods allow for pictures to be taken of extremely small particles performing cellular activities, and can be pieced together to show the mechanism of a certain biological process. Dr. Schmeing showed an example of this in a short video about ribosomal translation. Currently, one of Dr. Schmeing’s main investigations is concerning non-ribosomal peptide synthesis, another mechanism that makes proteins. This process is carried out by enzymes known as Non-Ribosomal Peptide Synthetases (NRPSs), which are very large and have a complex assembly line mechanism. Antibiotics are indispensable in the study of non-ribosomal peptide synthesis as many of their proteins are produced by this mechanism.Gaining a better understanding of this process could lead to quicker synthesis of antibiotics by modifying and improving the efficiency of these enzymes. A recent success in Dr. Schmeing’s lab was the solution to the domain configuration of F-A didomain.

Dr. Tremblay

The research performed by Dr. Michel L. Tremblay encompasses many different areas of science, including oncology, microbiology, immunology, and experimental medicine. He also studies gene and stem cell therapies with Dr. Jerry Pelletier at McGill. Dr. Tremblay’s main area of research concerns the understanding and manipulation of protein tyrosine phosphatases (PTPases) in normal and disease conditions. Many PTPases are in fact activating enzymes; half of the 109 PTPases in the human genome are oncogenic proteins. Dr. Tremblay says that, including all the bacterial, viral, and parasitic elements, there are “over 3000 protein tyrosine phosphatases, many of [which] will be outstanding targets for drugs”. His lab does work on phosphatomics, and has identified two novel phosphatases in the human genome. This information can be found on their website. Additionally, Dr. Tremblay does further research surrounding the genomics of disease.

Dr. Young

Dr. Jason Young’s lab investigates how functional polypeptides are made in cells. This requires the proper folding of proteins, which is carried out by molecular chaperones. Chaperones have many other functions, including moving proteins through the cell and pulling apart proteins when they aggregate. They have a role in processes such as aging and oncogenesis. The chaperone that is investigated in Dr. Young’s lab is Hsp70, which Dr. Young called “a deceptively simple system”. Hsp70 is regulated by co-chaperone proteins, many of which are from the DNAJ family, that activate Hsp70 to bind polypeptides. They used “a structure based design approach to develop new inhibitors of Hsp70”, which could be useful in targeting cancerous cells, as they are especially dependent on chaperones. This also has applications in misfolding diseases such as cystic fibrosis. Currently, they are addressing how the Hsp70 system interacts with the Hsp90 system to assist in folding.

Dr. Young also spoke about the benefits of participating in undergraduate research, emphasizing on the importance of practical experience. Lab participation allows extended practice in performing key lab techniques and skills important for science-related work, whereas most lab courses last an average duration of a few weeks. Getting involved in research also helps to improve analytical and presentation skills important for future papers and seminars, and introduces students to the research community, allowing exposure to professors, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and more. Dr. Young encourages interested students to inquire about summer research positions early (December/January), as many labs plan several months in advance.

To wrap up the presentation portion of the event, a number of other guests took the floor to speak about exchange opportunities involving research:

Representatives from Sanofi Pasteur, a division of the multinational pharmaceutical company Sanofi, introduced a co-op program that involves working with their company for 8-12 months. Two students from the University of Strasbourg in France also spoke about their experience with the exchange program—The University of Strasbourg is one of the top research universities in the country, and this exchange is a great opportunity to earn credits while studying abroad.


Life After McGill: The Impact of Undergraduate Research on a Medical Student

Lisa Zhang, former MSURJ Managing Editor, was an Interdepartmental Honours in Immunology student who graduated from McGill in 2011. She is currently a second year medical student at the University of Toronto.

Do you think early exposure to hands-on research during undergrad is important if you are thinking about a career in research?

I think getting hands-on research is an important part of a long process. Figuring out an adult career is hard for plenty of people. High school kids probably have a rough idea of what they like: explosions, Charmander, creating things, taking stuff apart. I think research is one of the best experiences one could have as an undergrad; it really highlights your weaknesses, which is never pleasant but always necessary. Students have so many false ideas about research, which could really lead one down the wrong career path if not dispelled early on. Conversely, there are probably some people who would make wonderful and thoughtful researchers if they ever tried it; getting an A in biochemistry does not equal research genius, that’s for sure.

 What types of undergraduate research did you experience at McGill?

My first project was in biotechnology, specifically in rational drug design using comparative protein modelling. To put it simply, we used the knowledge we have about protein structures to design a small molecule that could treat disease. When I started the project, I had just completed my first year and was essentially clueless about all things research related. My first supervisor told me: “You’re not going to split cells, run a bunch of gels, or perform any PCRs in my lab. That crap is easy to pick up. Thinking is hard. Getting lazy and belligerent people to collaborate with you is hard. Playing politics with a useless department head is damn hard.” Research ended up being about extensive literature searches, many trials and errors, and way too many moments of I-have-no-idea-what-I-am-doing. But it was also about those few times where – Eureka, the pieces fall together and – guess what, I feel smart today!

My honours project and my research during medical school taught me the skills to be an effective molecular biology researcher. However, it was my first research project that taught me how to be inspired by questions and processes that seem all too unclear and meaningless. A protein sequence is just a bunch of letters—but those letters form shapes, and those shapes follow physical and chemical rules, and exploiting those rules can move scientific knowledge a miniscule step forward. True researchers are rebels at heart.

 If you didn’t have these research opportunities early on, would you be where you are right now?

Research taught me how to apply things I learned theoretically to a defined purpose. More important than the results attained, research taught me how to endure the process of acquiring background information, putting a plan forward, modifying that plan, not crying during a funk, and finding creative solutions. I also discovered what I wanted out of a career: interactions with people, problem solving, discovering new things, and reducing misery in the world (every person must have at least one delusion of grandeur). I chose medicine in the end because it fostered my interests and it didn’t make me choose between them: medicine encompasses research, didactic learning, generalizing, specializing, teamwork, and communication.

You were in the IHI program at McGill; would you recommend doing honours projects?

The IHI program is perfect for indecisive people who abhor major life decisions and think research is kind of cool. My rationale was that I found viruses, chemical pathways, and the human body kind of fascinating. There was nothing that I felt especially passionate about, nor was there anything I particularly despised about immunology, biochemistry, or physiology – so I did all of it. It also gave me a very flexible final year, where the course load was light to accommodate as much (or as little) research as I desired to do. I wanted a holistic approach to learning the biological sciences, so the IHI program was perfect for that. However, those who are more focused should major in their specific area of interest; hating two-thirds of your undergraduate degree is not a pathway to happiness, nor is balancing a course schedule with three separate departments.

Have you done research after McGill, and do you think you will continue doing research during/after your medical degree?

I did research in diabetes and breast cancer this past summer at the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, Israel. It was a great opportunity to work in a laboratory while learning about global health and foreign cultures. Curiosity is an irrevocable part of me, so I think research will be as well.

What have you gained from working in research labs? And have these skills been helpful for you as a medical student?

The technical skills I learned have been applied over and over again; I gained a lot of knowledge about scientific writing and molecular research techniques. I learned to work with different types of people: perfectionists, laidback hippies, intolerable dolts, and supportive mentors. Medical school is about making sense of information and making sense of people; working in research labs has taught me quite a bit about both.

Many U3 B.Sc students are currently deciding between applying for grad school or for professional school (or both). Do you have any advice for them?

I had a fairly practical approach to career decisions: do what I like, do what I’m good at, don’t be broke, and make a positive difference before I kick the bucket. In third year, I considered three options seriously: medical school, law school, or grad school. I received advice from a lot of people – a lot of them suggesting “do what you like” and “life isn’t linear” and “you can change your mind later.” I just asked myself: What am I doing in five years? Ten years? Who am I with? Where am I geographically? What’s my income? What’s my lifestyle?

Dreams are important, but I prefer mine to be grounded in reality. Wanting to save the world is awesome, but there is nothing wrong with thinking about money, relationships, or living the good life. There is time for change, time for a thousand decisions and revisions, but I wanted to be happy the first time around.

How to Get Into Research

Image how to get into researchOne of the questions that every single student in the Faculty of Science will ask or answer at some point in their undergraduate careers — along with “are you thinking about medical school?,” and “so, we’re sleeping in Burnside tonight, yes?”  —  is “How do you get into a lab?”

The answers to this question are like snowflakes — each one has its own special number of emails sent and blend of luck.  But most of them are based on these three simple steps:

1. Update your CV

Before you can even think about who you want to work with or what you want to do, there is something that EVERY undergraduate should do periodically and that you should do right now: You need to update your CV (or, as maybe you call it, your resumé).  This is your first and best chance to show a PI (principal investigator aka a professor) that you would make a valuable addition to their lab.  CaPS at McGill has several excellent CV workshops that you should absolutely take advantage of, as well as drop-in appointments, where you can get one-on-one advice.

Your CV should inform your PI who you are and what you bring to the table, while leaving a lasting and positive impression.  Make it neat, clear, and concise – no longer than 2 pages, and nothing that’s older than 3 years unless it’s extremely relevant or significant.  For example: I’ve kept my first dry-lab experience (ie. I worked with computers and paper – no chemicals or animals) that I had while I was in high school on my CV for the last 3 years. Now that I have more recent wet-lab experience, however, that first lab experience will be coming off of my CV — unless I happen to be applying to a job back at the same institution or in the same geographical region where I had that first experience.  Similarly, I never put my high school education on my CV these days — but I might if I were applying to a position back in my hometown, where an employer might have some connection to it.

When preparing your CV to submit to a lab, don’t worry if you don’t have any obvious previous experience – it’s helpful, yes, but not necessary.  Instead, focus on providing concrete examples that highlight abstract qualities: dependability, ability to work independently, and responsibility are all important qualities for a research assistant or an undergraduate who wants to pursue an independent project in a lab. If you have any reference letters on file extolling your virtues, or have a few people who are willing to be contacted as a reference, you can mention that at the bottom of your CV so a PI knows that information is available to request from you.

2. Figure out who to contact

Once your is CV updated and ready to dazzle a PI, it’s time to figure out who to send it to.  While I’m sure it’s happened before, it is rare for an undergraduate to find a place in a lab the first time or place they ask.  It’s a safe bet to approach between 5-10 labs; some students end up contacting more than 20.

There are a number of strategies for finding a professor to work with.  I’ll never forget when my BIOL 200 professor told me (and the rest of the class) that not only was there a list of new faculty members at McGill, but that this list was a bit of a gold mine for research opportunities.  You can sort through new faculty members by department and name, so if there’s a specific field you want to work in or a specific person you want to work with, this site makes it very easy to sort through. While professors can be fantastic mentors at any stage in their career, that BIOL 200 professor pointed out that a new lab might have more opportunities for an undergraduate to be creative and explore an independent project.

That’s not to say people haven’t had great experiences in larger, more established labs
as well, including labs that are right in front of them.  Developing a relationship with a professor who teaches one of your courses might open the door to joining their lab. Finally, you might want to check out the SOUSA site.  There are a number of research courses for credit at McGill, including the 396 course group. Sometimes, PIs have projects that are ready to go, but need an undergrad to do them.  A listing of 396 project proposals is available on the Office for Undergraduate Research in Science website.

Regardless of who you end up working with, it’s important that you find a lab that you’re going to enjoy working in.  A great lab experience starts with finding a field you’re genuinely interested in – cultivating a passion for the subject is difficult if there isn’t any interest to build from.  Do yourself a favor, and only contact labs that are working in fields that you are curious about.

3. Actually talk to professors

Once you’ve figured out who you want to contact, it’s time to pull the trigger and reach out to them.  This is probably the most daunting step – I probably proofed the e-mails that went out to professors when I was looking for a lab 200 times. (Its a good idea to have a friend proof your emails, too.)  There are two ways to do this: in-person or via e-mail.  Either works, really, but we’re going to focus on e-mail in this post.

First thing to keep in mind is that if you e-mail a professor, you’re not guaranteed a response. Professors get enough e-mails a day to fill a virtual swimming pool, so your e-mail might get buried or just ignored.  It’s not personal.

There are a few things to include:

  • Your full name and contact information

And please make sure your e-mail is professional. Use your @mail.mcgill.ca account.

  • Something that shows that you are actually interested in their field

While PIs wouldn’t have expected you to have read every paper they’ve written since their undergrad, you should at least Google them and see what they’re about.  If your major corresponds to their field and you’ve taken relevant coursework, you might want to mention that as well.   

  • Something that relates to what you’re looking for, more specifically

Are you looking for a position immediately for a research course?  Are you looking for a summer job?  Are you just hoping to volunteer and get some experience under your belt?  Let them know.

A final general guideline: Don’t just use a form letter that you don’t have to change from professor to professor. That’s a bit lazy; while I can’t speak for PIs, people I know have generally gotten better responses to personalized e-mails than to form letters.

Here’s what your e-mail should look like, when all is said and done:

To: albert.einstein@mcgill.ca

Hello Dr. Einstein

I am an undergraduate student interested in getting some research experience. As a Underwater Basketweaving major, I have a broad interest in the tensile strength of reeds, and your work looking into how the distribution of ion channels impacts the membrane tension of cattail stems seems really interesting. I was wondering you had any space in your lab to take on a student for the summer/semester/year, or if you know of someone who might.   I have attached a resume so you might be able to make a preliminary assessment of my suitability for a position, but I do hope to speak with you further so you can get a more complete idea of what I have to offer.

Thanks for your time,

Jane Doe
U9 Science McGill University
(514) 555-3000

<Jane Doe Resume for Summer Research.pdf>

If your e-mail is closer in any way to the e-mail below rather than the one above, go back to the drawing board. Two things in particular to note below is the file name on the PDF document (keep them professional, add your name, make sure they’re open-able and attached properly) and the mismatch between the recipient e-mail and the salutation.  Double check that the person you’re actually sending an e-mail to is the person you WANT to be sending an e-mail to.

To: albert.einstein@mcgill.ca

Hello Dr. Planck,

I am an undergraduate student interested in getting some research experience because I’m applying to medical school and I hear that’s important. Do you have any space in your lab to take on a student for the summer/semester/year?



Once you’ve sent the e-mail (or e-mails), the waiting begins.  Don’t be afraid to follow up in a week or so if you haven’t heard, and reply promptly to any positive responses you get. Remember that profs are incredibly busy people — lack of reply isn’t necessarily a sign that they wouldn’t be interested in you. Hopefully, you’ll get at least one invitation to come and meet the PI for a tour of the lab and/or a discussion of what you might be doing there.