SFU Undergraduate Researcher: Yiqiu Yang

Name: Yiqiu Yang
Major: Molecular Biology and Biochemistry
Year: Third year
Supervisor: Dr. Ralph Pantophlet

Q: What kind of research do you do?
A: I have been doing antibody purification for evaluating the binding of neutralizing antibodies to HIV-1 envelope glycoprotein mimic, which is a part of HIV vaccine design.

Q: How did you get involved in this opportunity?
A: I took a Biological Research course, and my professor Dr. Lam provided us with a website with projects currently available in SFU research labs. I found Dr. Pantophlet’s project very interesting and I emailed him my resume and transcript. Dr. Pantophlet replied very quickly and informed me that there were no openings. However, a few days later there was an unexpected position that opened up. Thus, I went to the interview (which was more like a chat) and got the opportunity. How lucky I was!

Q: What is a typical “day in the life” in the lab for you?
A: It is usually about preparation for SPR which involves concentration of cell culture supernatant, antibody purification, and assessment of antibody by SDS-PAGE and ELISA. I also update lab inventory and make buffers for general use.

Q: Favourite science joke or meme from your field?
A: If it’s green or it wiggles, it’s biology. If it stinks, it’s chemistry. If it doesn’t work, it’s physics.

Q: If you were a scientific lab instrument, which one would you be?
A: A +4 degrees Celsius lab fridge because I would stay cool but not be cold, and I could store lots of valuable stuff!

Q: What scares you the most in the lab or the field?
A: A low concentration or bad purity of the antibody because it means we cannot use it to perform any test and need to start all over again.

SFU Undergraduate Researcher: Mariam Aziz

Name: Mariam Aziz
Faculty: Biomedical Physiology
Year of Study: Fourth Year
Supervisor: Peter Ruben

Q: What are your career interests?
A: In the future, I would like to pursue a career in medicine.   

Q: How did you get involved in research?
A: My friend was working in the Molecular Cardiac Physiology Group (MCPG) with Dr. Ruben and she asked him if he would accept an undergrad. I emailed Dr. Ruben and we had an interview and he was very open and welcoming for me to start volunteering at his lab.

Q: What does your research involve?
A: My project that I am hoping to work on soon is looking at co-localization of NCX (sodium calcium exchanger – it brings in sodium and kicks out Ca, this helps maintain Ca levels in the cell), NHE (sodium hydrogen exchanger – it brings in sodium and kicks out H+ to maintain the cell’s pH) and CaV with NaV in the invadopodia of prostate cancer cells.  I am also working on observing changes in sodium current with different mutations in the channel.  CaV and NaV are voltage gate channels that open and allow the ions in when the cell is depolarized.  It’s theorized that the presence of these channels at the leading edge of cancer cells is what helps them to be invasive; this invasive leading edge is called the invadopodia. 

Q: What is a typical “day in the life” in the lab for you?
A: When I get to the lab, the first thing I do is check in with the seniors and see what they have planned for their day.  I ask if there is anything they need help with or anything I can learn from them.  If it’s the beginning of the week I start preparing oocytes or bacterial work for experiments later in the week.  Somedays there is more work than others and I have to stay longer to do upkeep in the lab, like autoclaving tools or making solutions. 

Q: What’s your favourite course that you have taken so far in your degree?
A: By far I can say that BPK 420 and 326 were my favorite courses at SFU,  but they are both upper division classes. If I had to pick a lower division course that I really enjoyed it would be CHEM 286.  These courses were all a lot more hands-on or they explored the “why” in the topics that we studied rather than scratching the surface of the topic. 

Q: If you were a scientific lab instrument, which one would you be?
A: Either a microscope lamp – because they are so so small yet very very powerful and if something happens to them, the work actually stops


An automated pipette – just because it makes your life so much easier

Q: Who is your biggest science crush?
A: Victoria Claydon because she is a great mom and an amazing teacher and she does that while maintaining the integrity of her work in the lab. 

Q: What scares you the most in the lab or the field?
A: Not being able to do the things that I have to do because of technical difficulties.  It’s actually scarier than it sounds.  You can have everything ready to go but if a shipment doesn’t come or a machine crashes there isn’t much you can do and everything is postponed for weeks. 

Q: Favourite science joke or meme from your field?

SFU Undergraduate Researcher: Sarosha Ali

Name: Sarosha Ali
Faculty: Science, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry (3rd year)
Year of Study: 3rd
Supervisor: Dr. Bingyun Sun

What are your career interests?
I am interested in pursuing medicine either clinical or experimental to support the healthcare industry. I enjoy learning about cardiology, blood circulatory system, hematopoietic system, and the diseases associated with it. Hopefully, I will direct myself to pursue these branches of medicine.

How did you get involved in research?
I received an email about Work-Study program and thought it as a
great opportunity to gain some experience. I applied and got accepted. Soon after I found an interesting project named “Reproduction in Birds”, emailed my resume to the project supervisor, got selected for an interview (it was more like a chat tbh), and started working. I enjoyed assisting Ph.D. candidates in Dr. Tony William’s lab for 8 months. After acquiring experience, I approached Dr. Bingyun Sun to work on mammalian stem cell culture. I was assigned an independent research project and it was a turning point for myself. I gathered a lot of experience doing research in Sun’s lab which helped me acquire a co-op position at STEMCELL Technologies.
Fun Fact: There is an Animal Care Research Facility at SFU (isolated into the
woods). Explore!

What will you be working on this summer?
I will be working as a part of the Contract Assay Services (Pre-clinical trials)
department at STEMCELL Technologies. This means providing toxicity testing and immune services to meet client contractual requirements. As a co-op student, I will learn to perform cell-forming unit (CFU) assays on hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (mainly erythroid, myeloid, and megakaryocyte) and its utility for toxicity screening. As a part of a contract research organization, I will be supporting the department to work with industrial and academic researchers to help answer their drug development and cell biology questions.

What have you been working on in your research so far? (What is your research about?)
I conducted research on the project called “Embryonic stem cell culture,
migration, and proteomics” for 2 years. In which protagonist were the Chinese Hamster Ovary (CHO) cells, they are used in biological and medical research and commercially in the production of therapeutic proteins. I studied the effects of exogenous N-acetylglucosamine (GlcNAc) to CHO cells on their rate of wound closure using the scratch migration assay and on their proliferation. GlcNAc which was the antagonist in the project was found to slow down cell migration and proliferation, accompanied by cell hypertrophy of the CHO cells. It is important to study the effects of different N-glycans and respective N-glycosylation as they play significant roles in stem-cell development. It is now known that its dysregulation leads to several diseases such as diabetes mellitus, oncogenic transformation of animal cells, and metastasis of cancer cells.
Previously, I assisted Ph.D. candidates for 8 months in Dr. Tony William’s Lab for the project called “Reproduction in Birds”. I helped with two sub-projects: 1) Eco-toxicology: Long-term effects of early (in ovo or perinatal) exposure to mercury in birds. 2) Physiological effects of exercise and training for increased foraging effort. This involved performing bird husbandry, setting up breeding boxes, and performing venipuncture on birds to collect blood for hematology assays to determine hemoglobin and hematocrit (red blood cells percentage volume) levels.

What is a typical “day in the life” in the lab for you?
It typically involved a combination of cell passaging and cell counting, besides cell microscopy on a daily basis. Once or twice a week it required me to perform protein analysis such as Bradford protein assay and running SDS-PAGE electrophoresis to determine the protein concentrations of microsomal, nuclear, and cytosolic proteins of the cells. Some days are desk work including result analysis and reading articles. As a senior student, I was also responsible for lab management such as maintenance of the biosafety cabinet.

What’s your favourite course that you have taken so far in your degree?
MBB 308-Molecular Biology laboratory: this course is based on modern
recombinant nucleic acid methods. I really enjoyed swapping/modifying bacterial genes which produced fluorescent bacterial colonies (super cool stuff!). Although, it included some of the most crucial steps of DNA and RNA isolation, plasmid preparation, restriction enzyme digestion, DNA cloning, and polymerase chain reaction.

Favourite science joke or meme from your field?

If you were a scientific lab instrument, which one would you be?
Multi-channel pipette, as I am good at multi-tasking in a lab setting with accuracy and speed.

Who is your biggest science crush?
Sherlock Holmes (Forensic Scientist) because every person working in a lab setting must have his qualities of being observant all the time and being logical without jumping to conclusions.

What scares you the most in the lab or the field?
Weird and scary sound of an unbalanced centrifuge as it might cause damage to the centrifuge or contamination in the cell culture which means starting all over again.

SFU Undergraduate Researcher: Michelle Chan

Name: Michelle Chan YeeTeng
Faculty: Molecular Biology and Biochemistry
Year of Study: 4th
Supervisor: Dr. Sharon Gorski

How did you get involved in research?

It all started in my second year when I approached Dr. Plettner casually to ask for a volunteer position in her lab without the intention of actually getting it. She was really nice and supportive as a PI and always encouraged us to attend seminars and get around knowing more people. I guess that probably is the stepping stone of my life-long career as a researcher.

What will you be working on this summer?

I did a thesis honours with Dr. Gorski in the Spring on compensatory autophagy induced by proteasome inhibitors in breast cancer cell lines. As part of the project of VPR-USRA that I applied for the summer, I will be working mostly on the follow-up study of my research aim and potentially on characterizing autophagy regulators in Drosophila.

What is a typical “day in the life” in the lab for you?

Cells passaging and drug treatment. I have had weeks of Western blot and CV which are not really fun.

Favourite science joke or meme from your field?

What do you call an acid with an attitude? A-mean-oh acid.

What scares you the most in the lab or the field?

When my cells get contaminated because that would literally mean another futile week with no results.

How Natural History Museums Bridge Research Gaps in Space and Time

by Kris Cu

Jayme Lewthwaite, a PhD candidate who studies evolutionary biology at Simon Fraser University, enters the grand halls of the Smithsonian Institute of Natural History in Washington, DC. She walks past the elegant and elaborate exhibits, heading to the sun-lit research labs.

Above: The Smithsonian Institute of Natural History in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Proimos.

She climbs to the floor labelled ‘Lepidoptera Collections’ which contains over four million butterfly and moth specimens meticulously organized and stored in 30,000 drawers. These specimens were collected by scientists and naturalists around the world throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

Lewthwaite’s research combines spatial ecology and evolutionary relationships between species to help evaluate the biodiversity impacts of human-caused climate change. Her goal is to provide scientific information to help governments, communities, and decision makers prioritize conservation efforts.

She chose to study and examine these patterns in Canadian butterflies because they have short lifespans and are sensitive to environmental changes. Butterflies respond to changing climate quickly in ways that are fairly easy to track. Furthermore, because butterflies are popular organisms, insect collectors and researchers have deposited many specimens in museum collections.

Historically, animal and plant specimens were collected for anatomical and taxonomic research, allowing researchers to organize the vast diversity of life into different classification levels. Charles Darwin is perhaps the most famous collector. The specimens he gathered on the Galapagos Islands allowed him to review evidence, observe variation in related species, and formulate his theory on evolution by natural selection.

In Canada, over 40 natural history museums contain millions of specimens in their research collections. The Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, for example, contains diverse collections of animals, plants and fossils. In addition, some collections specialize in particular kinds of organisms- as its name suggests, the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids, and Nematodes, focuses on invertebrates.

Lewthwaite and other scientists recognize the wealth of information contained in such collections. With her research, she seeks to determine how Canadian butterflies have shifted their ranges over space and time because of climate change. She builds on past work by other biologists in order to better understand the future.

Museums’ collections helped early scientists discover and understand the natural world; now, they provide information on our changing planet through big data research.

Above: One of the 30,000 drawers containing butterfly specimens at the Smithsonian Institute. Each specimen contains a record of when and where they were collected. Photo by Jayme Lewthwaite, used with permission.

Using Big Data

Big data refers to large amounts of data samples that can be used to generate mathematical models and analyze resulting trends. The analyses are vital in exploring global changes that span extensive spatial and temporal (time) scales.

To carry out her research, Lewthwaite must first transfer and input 25,000 written specimen records across 130 species of Canadian butterflies from the Smithsonian Institute into electronic databases. Each record contains information on where and when an insect was collected.

The information will help her create the following tools to help her understand and anticipate Canadian butterflies’ ecological and evolutionary responses into the future.

  • Species range maps to show the historical and modern geographic distribution of butterflies across Canada and the US.
  • Species Distribution Models that allow Lewthwaite to visualize how species have expanded or contracted their ranges during the past century. From this, she will be able to further identify which species are not adapting well to climate change.  
  • Canadian phylogenetic trees that detail the evolutionary relationships between butterfly species, allowing Lewthwaite to identify geographic locations with distinct evolutionary histories through phylogenetic diversity and phylogenetic endemism.

The resulting insights will be key to determining how to best prioritize and protect butterfly species as climate changes.

Above: A complete phylogenetic (evolutionary) tree of all Canadian butterfly species. Colours represent the different butterfly families. Figure by Jayme Lewthwaite, used with permission.

Latest Findings

Far from the Smithsonian’s extensive butterfly collections in Washington, DC, Lewthwaite applies her research ideas and methods at the regional scale in British Columbia.

She uses historical records from the Royal BC Museum and the Beaty Biodiversity Museum as well as modern records from the citizen science app, eButterfly to explore how interactions between butterfly species in a given spatial grid have changed over time as climate has warmed. Combining historical and modern records allows her to analyze trends within BC without having to conduct extensive field work across the entire province.

Her research suggests that, as climate warms, species with multiple host plants (generalist species) are adapting well compared to species that rely on only a few host plants for their life cycle (specialist species).

Above: Figures showing the relationship between increasing temperatures and generalist butterfly communities throughout British Columbia. Figures by Jayme Lewthwaite, used with permission.

It also confirms that BC’s Okanagan region has a unique evolutionary history and diversity. Its hot, sunny, dry climate creates a desert-like environment that allows organisms like mormon metalmarks, rattlesnakes and cacti to thrive and, supports a rich, distinct biodiversity. This unique ecosystem is found nowhere else in Canada, but widespread urban and agricultural development threatens its integrity. Lewthwaite’s research aims to provide evidence and solutions for conserving these rare habitats.

Her early analyses demonstrate how important natural history museums are and how using their collections for big data can help visualize and predict climate effects on biodiversity across large geographical scales.

She says, however, that natural history museums are typically underfunded and underappreciated resources. Despite the collections’ rich scientific information, funding and grants for this type of research are scarce. In addition, gaps in the electronic specimen databases reduce their accessibility to researchers.

She hopes her work with butterflies will be used to promote the importance of natural history museums to research and to communicate the bigger messages of how changing climate is impacting wildlife and their ecosystems.

For Lewthwaite, answers to big questions sometimes lie in simple, pinned butterflies.

Follow Jayme’s latest research updates and publications on twitter @JaymeLewthwaite and on https://arnemooerssite.wordpress.com/

SFU Undergraduate Researcher: Iman Baharmand

Full name: Iman Baharmand
Major: Biological Sciences 
Year: 5th (Honours)
Supervisor: Dr. Carl Lowenberger

Q: What do you want to be when you grow up? 
A: At this moment in time, I am captivated by the idea of being a clinical instructor and physician. It seems like a meaningful way of supporting future generations of health professionals while also staying up-to-date with medical knowledge.

Q: How did you get involved in research? 
 I had some friends who were involved in research at SFU and they broke the news to me that YES, undergrads can actually contribute to research. My first step was taking BISC 298 (intro to undergraduate research) which is a “for credit” research course that you take under the supervision of a faculty member. Three years later and I have the honour of working on my Honours (lol) in the same research lab.

Q: What are you researching? 
 The “leading star” in my project is the yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti, which is the primary carrier of dengue, zika, and chikungunya viruses. I am investigating new ways of delivering gene silencing and modifying constructs to specific tissue and life-stages of this mosquito. The ultimate goal, however, is to decrease the transmission of these debilitating diseases without wiping out entire species from the ecosystem.

Q: What is a typical “day in the life” in the lab for you? 
 My project involves a combination of molecular techniques (gels, sequencing, qPCR), microscopy, and computer work. Some days are unstructured with a lot of reading while other days are tightly scheduled with one protocol after the next.

Q: What are some of your favourite courses that you have taken so far in your degree? 
My top three in no particular order are: 
BISC 318: Parasitology – Learn about parasites ranging from single-cell protozoa to macroscopic tapeworms. Parasitology features a great mix of ecology, epidemiology, and medical case studies with multiple life-lessons interwoven throughout the course.

BISC 441: Evolution of Health and Disease – Apply the contemporary principles of evolution to topics like reproductive health, senescence, cancer, and infectious diseases. This course offers a new/different lens on many familiar aspects of human life.

SA301: Contemporary Ethnography – As an anthropology minor, my list wouldn’t be complete without this one. An eye-opener about the historical issues with cultural anthropology, as well as, a deep-dive into theoretical and methodological questions of current-day practices. 

Q: Favourite science joke or meme from your field? 
 Science Twitter at its finest:

Q: Who is your biggest science role-model? 
Professor Eva Harris (UC Berkeley) – her research group takes a multidisciplinary approach to studying dengue, Zika, and chikungunya. She is also the founder of the Sustainable Sciences Institute which works to improve public health in developing countries through building local capacity for infectious diseases research. Prof. Harris is also a MacArthur Fellow, Global Leader for Tomorrow (World Economic Forum), and Fellow of the American Society of Tropical Medicine.

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xryNPwpi0g

My CV of Failures

by Sean La

Just this past week, I was accepted to graduate school. Now, I know what you’re thinking: this must be another one of those arrogant blog posts about “FIVE EASY WAYS YOU TOO CAN BE JUST AS AMAZINGLY SUCCESSFUL AS ME”. I assure you, this is not one of those articles— they annoy me just as much as they do to you, and I doubt anyone has ever became successful because of them.

The reason why I’m writing this article is not to flaunt my successes; quite the opposite. I’m here to tell you about my failures. After being given the privilege to perform research for another two years, I took some time to reflect upon my undergraduate academic career. And quite frankly, I feel it was underwhelming. For example, for every successful research project of mine, I have at least three or four failed projects behind it. And that’s the reality of research — everyone, and I mean everyone, is going to fail way more often than they’re going to succeed.

Of course, academics hardly ever talk about failure. Academia is a rat race (and contain many rat races), and it can be easy for aspiring scientists to feel inferior among the deluge of academic websites and LinkedIn profiles and Facebook posts and CVs, touting the many prestigious graduate school acceptances and journal articles and conference presentations and awards of other students. As it currently stands, this form of peacocking is a necessary evil for a career in academia. But it is still an evil, and I feel it’s important for all of us to remember that failure is part of the process.

So along with my CV of accomplishments, here is my CV of my failures, listed chronologically since high school and almost surely incomplete since I’m writing this from memory. This has been inspired by the CV of failures of academics like Johannes HaushoferI hope this serves as a helpful reminder for my peers that for the vast majority of us, it ain’t all sunshine and rainbows, all the time.

  1. (March 2013) Received a participation award at the Sanofi Biogenius Competition for my research project at the Biomedical Research Centre at UBC. I honestly would have preferred that they hadn’t given me anything at all. Like what am I, a twelve year old at a softball tournament?
  2. (November 2013) Received a predicted score of 32 out of 45 for my IB Diploma in high school, which fell short of the 34 points necessary to get a scholarship from SFU. To give some perspective, I self-predicted 38 points.
  3. (February 2014) Rejected from the Bachelor of International Economicsprogram at UBC.
  4. (December 2014) Didn’t receive the grade I wanted in ECON 103 at SFU that I wanted. Note that at the time, I wanted to go to graduate school in economics, but I gave up on that dream shortly after getting that lackluster grade in microeconomics.
  5. (October 2015) Withdrew from MATH 480W at SFU, leaving a W designation on my transcript. In retrospect, it was quite silly of me to take a 400 level math class when I was in second year.
  6. (November 2015) Failed a job interview for a prestigious mathematics research position with a governmental institution.
  7. (January 2016) Failed to get an NSERC USRA with a machine learning professor at the University of Toronto, whom I had a skype interview with.
  8. (February 2016) Was contacted by another University of Toronto professor to do research with him over the summer, but then was promptly ghosted.
  9. (April 2016) Received a mediocre grade in MATH 320, an important class for graduate school in economics. This really turned me away from economics.
  10. (Summer 2016) Failed experiment after failed experiment in my NSERC USRA at SFU.
  11. (March 2017) Journal sent back my paper with major revisions which were almost impossible to fix.
  12. (Summer 2017) Three failed projects during my research term at the National Institutes of Health.
  13. (Fall 2017) Received the worst grades of my life , which likely will make me noncompetitive for the NSERC CGS-M scholarship.
  14. (Summer 2018) Two more failed projects during my NSERC USRA at SFU.
  15. (October 2018) Contacted two professors at the University of Toronto for the MSc in Computer Science program for Fall 2019, and was promptly ghosted. Was also ghosted by another CS professor at the University of Waterloo. Though, she ended up emailing me back just last week actually, two months after the Waterloo CS application deadline. Oh, bother.

Wow, that was quite the list. But hey, I feel that my failures were just as formative for me as my successes, if not more so. These experiences taught me that even if I fail, I’ll be okay. That I’ll still be alive to fight another day.

So the next time you, fellow scientist, have an inconclusive experiment or a crummy test or a rejected application, remember that there are others who have failed way more than you have, like me!