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Nathan Wilbur. (Nathan Wilbur)
Nathan Wilbur. (Nathan Wilbur)

The chance for undergrads to do research Add to ...

Getting a university education conjures up images of students poring over textbooks, cramming for exams and attending lectures. But more than ever, a degree—even an undergraduate one—comes with time spent in a lab. Experts say that hands-on experience is becoming necessary to compete for jobs in the real world. And the opportunities for research are as endless as a student’s imagination. Some don traditional white coats and work on campus while others go abroad or trek up north to study the environment.

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While lab work was once the domain of master’s and PhD students, it’s becoming more common for undergraduates to do research as part of their study, said Christine Tausig Ford, vice-president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. “Universities are making sure they’re taking innovative approaches and incorporating meaningful research experiences for undergraduate students,” adds Ford. And lab work at all levels provides many benefits because students improve their critical thinking and analytical skills.

We talked to three students about what they’re researching:

JACQUELINE RICHELLE,

BSc in Biological Sciences, University of Manitoba

Jacqueline Richelle didn’t imagine that doing research as an undergraduate science student at the University of Manitoba would lead her to India, but that’s exactly what happened.

Her journey began after her second year, when Richelle applied to do research work as part of her goal to enter the faculty of medicine. “I felt research experience would be valuable to me if I could find an area that was related to health care.” Luckily, Richelle was awarded a summer research position in biological sciences in 2010. She found a supervisor whose work she admired—department head Judy Anderson—and worked with her team to isolate specific individual muscle fibres in mice and zebra fish, which are activated to generate new muscle when it is damaged or exercised.

The goal is to look at the activation process causing these muscle cells to divide and make new muscle if it is exercised or damaged, she says. It’s hoped that Anderson’s research could help slow muscle atrophy in those suffering from disorders such as muscular dystrophy, or in elderly populations.

This past May, Anderson invited Richelle to India for two weeks to help teach the technique at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (inStem) in Bangalore. That experience was amazing, said Richelle. “Everyone there was so interested to hear what you had to say and it was really nice to be able to collaborate with people on the other size of the world.”

NATHAN WILBUR,

Masters in Civil Engineering, University of New Brunswick

As a boy, Nathan Wilbur lived to fish. Fast forward some 20 years, and he’s literally swimming with the fish as part of his lab work. The 26-year-old student at the University of New Brunswick is completing his thesis on how changes to the environment are affecting water temperatures and fish populations. “I just love anything to do with salmon and trout and their habitat and that’s what this project was all about.”

Wilbur was asked to take part in the research by one of his professors, Dr. Allen Curry, when he was completing his BSc degree at UNB. Under the supervision of Curry, who’s also the director of the Canadian Rivers Institute, he started his master’s thesis on the project in 2009. The research was, according to Wilbur, a perfect combination of high-tech computer work and field research. Researchers wanted to find cold-water regions in the Miramichi River basin where salmon and trout gather if the water temperature climbs past 23 C. Since fish can’t endure such high temperatures, they will seek out cooler areas. (Because of environmental changes and human activity, water temperatures have risen in recent years, pushing the fish to find chillier spots.)

The team gathered information on the rivers using a helicopter with an infrared camera, then mapped the cold patches using a computer program. The next step, said Wilbur, was to conduct dives. “Basically I snorkelled with the fish and took measurements on where they were and other conditions, like how deep was the water, how fast was it flowing.”

One goal of the study is to help forestry or watershed groups understand how fish are using the cold water zones so that they can avoid building roads or clear-cutting camps nearby, says Wilbur. The other is to provide them with resources to help them restore cold water areas. Wilbur is completing his thesis and hopes to eventually publish the work in an environmental journal. He may also do a PhD on the same subject. Being able to conduct his research in the field is one reason Wilbur is so enthusiastic about his studies. “We got to observe what the fish were doing with our own eyes, and actually see it right in front of us. I think that’s so important. It’s not the typical lab experience.”

IDA FOSTER,

BA in Psychology,

Concordia University

Ida Foster hopes her research in psychology at Concordia University could some day prevent many children affected with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) from taking up smoking. After her first year, Foster began volunteering at several labs to boost her research experience. One was Dr. Jennifer McGrath’s Pediatric Public Health Psychology (PPHP) lab. McGrath’s work examines cardiovascular precursors in children as part of a longitudinal study known as the Healthy Heart Study.

Now in her third year, with McGrath as her supervisor, Foster chose the topic of ADHD and smoking for her honours thesis. Using data from the Healthy Heart Study, she examined the attitudes toward smoking in children with inattentive or hyperactive forms of ADHD. She found that those with inattention-type were more likely not to notice the consequences of smoking, such as lung cancer, while those with hyperactive forms were more likely to notice perceived benefits, such as helping them calm down.

The hope is that the research will help health educators to customize smoking prevention programs for children with ADHD. “What we have found is that the literature that is out there is that those with ADHD are more likely to smoke. So we are targeting kids before they start.”

Foster is currently completing a manuscript of the thesis to submit to a journal. She is applying for graduate studies in 2012 in a combined clinical and forensic psychology and law program and hopes to become a clinical psychologist.

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