SFU Graduate Researcher: Shabnam Massah

Thinking about embarking in graduate school? SURJ is starting a new blog series that features SFU graduate students and professors. For our first entry, we’re excited to introduce Shabnam Massah who completed her PhD in the Faculty of Health Sciences.

Shabnam Massah

Name: Shabnam Massah
Faculty: Health Sciences
Post graduate education: PhD at SFU.

Q: What is the most exciting thing about being in research? What do you love about research? 
A: I get to examine, learn, ask, and test fundamental and basic concepts of life, then come up with a hypothesis for life. I can come up with a hypothesis based on preliminary observations and design experiments to test them. I also get to exercise problem solving skills everyday and that is rewarding to me. There are also opportunities to think outside the box to solve the problem. When I die, I want to make sure I at least made one  improvement in science or someone’s life.

Q: What do you dislike most about research?
A: Even though 90% of the time it doesn’t work, the 10% is like the light at the end of the tunnel. The encouragement you get from good results makes you go. You need to be determined and really enjoy it to be in research.

Q: How did you get involved in research?
A: I always knew I wanted to do research but not until after undergrad because I never had the chance to work in a research lab then. When I immigrated to Canada I looked for this opportunity. I started taking some courses at UBC and volunteering at SFU. After six months, things just clicked.

Q: What are your research interests?
A: I am interested in epigenetics. I study how chemical modifications of DNA and histone proteins can change chromatin structure and DNA accessibility, and therefore gene expression. I’m interested to see how these chemical modifications are added and recognized by certain proteins that eventually can change gene expression. Things we experience, things we eat, what we feel can all change gene expression and that is the power of epigenetics.

Q: What is a typical “day in the life” for you?
A: I have different duties. I have been an instructor, a lab instructor, TA-ships, working on my project as a PhD student. Part of teaching is meeting students, helping them out. I direct and guide undergraduate students in the lab. I read and research and write grants. I’m a mom and wife so I have a lot to do. I also instruct piano twice a week.

Q: Favourite science joke or meme from your field?
A: If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the precipitate.

Q: If you were a scientific lab instrument, which one would you be?
A: A pipetman (automatic pipette) because it’s with you from the beginning of the experiment to the end. It’s there for you in good experiments and bad.

Q: Who is your biggest science crush?
A: Madam Curie because she devoted her whole life [to science]. She was the first female to win a nobel prize and the first person to win it twice.

Q: What is fun about the lab?
A: Our lab has an open lab structure so it is connected to three other labs. I made a lot of friends during my graduate studies and it was fun having an open concept. We could talk about research, borrow materials, and it was good to know you have someone there for you.

Q: What scares you the most in the lab or in your field?
A: When you are at the last steps of an experiment that took you three weeks to do and an instrument breaks down. It is the worst feeling in the world. Sometime the samples are really precious, takes months to collect, and when an instrument breaks at the last minute, it’s not fun.

Q: What is one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring undergraduate researcher?
A: Volunteer, do co-op. I wish I had these opportunities in my undergrad. Students here are so lucky to have the coop program and have opportunities to volunteer. But you need to take your job seriously if you’re in the lab. I have lots of students come to work just to fill out their med applications or get a reference letter. They did not survive because their mindset was wrong but those who [were genuinely interested] and determined did great. Work hard. Take advantage of your time. It’s precious.

SFU Undergraduate Researcher: Nick Gauthier

Introducing Nick Gauthier from the department of Biology!

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Name: Nick Gauthier
Year: 4th Year
Supervisor: Dr. Margo Moore

Q: What do you want to be when you grow up/ finish undergrad?
A: I hope to be accepted into medical school and become a practicing physician after I complete my undergrad. I’m really interested in infectious diseases, which is why I wanted to become involved in the Moore Lab.

Q: How did you get involved in research?
A: I took BISC 303 with Dr. Moore and really enjoyed the course so I decided to email her and ask if there were any positions to volunteer in the lab. She responded and agreed to meet with me. I met with all of the lab members for lunch one day and everyone was extremely friendly! I started volunteering in the lab in January and am currently holding a USRA for the summer semester.

Q: What are you researching?
A: So far, I have worked on several projects, but I am currently attempting to purify a sialidase enzyme in the human pathogenic fungus Aspergillus terreus. Sialidases cleave sialic acid and play a key role in microbial pathogenesis. We believe that the Aspergillus terreus sialidase plays a role in human pathogenesis and are looking to find out more about its’ substrate specificity and how it works.

Q: What is a typical “day in the life” in the lab for you?
A: Because the project I am working on requires many steps and lengthy procedures, there really isn’t a typical “day in the lab”, which I really enjoy about working in the lab because every day is something new for the most part.

Q: What’s your favourite course that you have taken so far in your degree?
A: There have been a few courses that I’ve really enjoyed, but I think my favorite was the course I took at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre last summer; Marine Invertebrate Zoology. The atmosphere in Bamfield is like nowhere else in the world and I met a lot of cool people in my class. In fact, one of my classmates from Bamfield works in the Moore Lab with me now and helped train me!

Q: Favourite science joke or meme from your field?


Q: If you were a scientific lab instrument, which one would you be?
A: Honestly, I think that I would be a centrifuge because my mind is constantly spinning!

Q: What scares you the most in the lab or the field?
A: At first, I was really scared about messing up in the lab and making mistakes, but as a became more familiar with everyone I was more open to asking questions and help. Everyone in the lab has been so awesome and willing to help whenever I ask!

SFU Undergraduate Researcher: Naomi Giesbrecht

Introducing Naomi Giesbrecht from the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry!


Name: Naomi Giesbrecht
Year: 3rd year
Major: Molecular Biology and Biochemistry
Supervisor: Dr. Jonathan Choy

Q: What do you want to be when you grow up/ finish undergrad?
A: When I was a kid, I thought being “grown up” was the age I am now (I’m older than you might guess); I’m still waiting to grow up. When I’m finished school though, I hope to be a clinical pharmacist. I’ve chosen pharmacy because it pairs what I already enjoy studying (science and chemistry) with working alongside patients and medical professionals.

Q: How did you get involved in research?
In my first year I wanted to get involved at school and gain some volunteer experience. I didn’t have much background knowledge in the MBB field yet, so I found a psychology research lab who was willing to take me on as extra help (thank you Dr. Mistlberger and all the wonderful researchers in his lab!). Initially I helped with general tasks of cleaning, taking care of animals used in their studies, and data formatting. Since the research involved animal models, the opportunity to learn genotyping techniques such as PCR and gel electrophoresis became available. As I was just learning about these procedures in class, I was ecstatic to get to a chance to try them out for real! Although my background knowledge wasn’t particularly strong, the experience I gained allowed me to be more useful in a MBB lab setting. By second year I found myself volunteering my time in the same way in Dr. Choy’s lab. This summer, I am very grateful to Dr. Choy and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada for the opportunity to work as an undergraduate researcher.

Q: What are you researching?
Dr. Choy’s lab studies heart transplant rejection. One of the leading causes of transplant rejection is due to transplant arteriosclerosis, a disease inducing thickening in the donor arteries due to the immune responses of the recipient. My project includes a lot of immunohistochemistry (IHC), to analyze the role of different T-cells and their cytokines in the immune mechanisms that transplant arteriosclerosis appropriates.

Q: What is a typical “day in the life” in the lab for you?
A: When I enter the lab in the morning, I immediately start the kettle boiling for my first (of many) cups of coffee in the day. Next I usually get settled in at my desk, and plan which artery stains I’ll do in the day. Then, I’ll get started. While learning the IHC protocol, I found two things particularly surprising: the first, how small everything you work with actually is (a single mouse artery is only the size of a pin’s head); the second, how many timers I have beep at me during a day. I literally set 30 alarms for one protocol. At some point in the day I’ll grab some lunch, and when things start slowing down in the afternoon I will do background readings to improve my knowledge of our research.

Q: Favourite science joke or meme from your field?
A: Anti-vaccers.

Q: If you were a scientific lab instrument, which one would you be?
A: I’d be one of those benchtop rotators that keep your samples moving around. Even when you think I’m just sitting there, I’m probably shaking, twitching, or jiggling my legs (I apologize to everyone I sit with in lectures for shaking your seats)

Q: Who is your biggest science crush?
A: Bill Nye! Off the top of my head I can’t think of anything he’s contributed to science, but I really love how accessible and understandable he makes science for everyone.

SFU Undergrad Researcher: Iqra Yaseen

Introducing Iqra Yaseen from the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry!


Name: Iqra Yaseen
Year: 3rd year
Major: Molecular Biology and Biochemistry
Supervisor: Dr. Peter Unrau

Q: What do you want to be when you grow up?
A: Hopefully something related to the medical field, as a surgeon, pharmacist or even just research. I’m very interested in how drugs and treatments work in the body.

Q: How did you get involved in research?
A: I was able to do a laboratory internship at an industrial facility in my hometown, there I learnt a lot about lab work and research. Therefore coming back in the fall for my 2nd year, I looked up some research labs at SFU that interested me. With a lot of new work in RNA, I decided to contact Dr. Unrau and he accepted me. 

Q: What have you been working on in your research so far?
A: I have been working with a PhD candidate to select for an Ribozyme that acts as a polymerase, except it has a clamping mechanism. This way if the clamp works then it doesn’t let go of the template. 

Q: What is a typical “day in the life” in the lab for you?
A: Our lab is a wet lab, so most of our reactions are run through gels. Since we work with RNA we usually run acrylamide and agarose gels to obtain results.

Q: What if your favorite course that you have taken so far in your degree?
A: It was the Chem 286 lab, as I found it pretty easy and quite interesting.

SFU Undergrad Researcher: Tiffany Barszczewski

Introducing Tiffany Barszczewski from the Department of Biomedical Physiology!


Name: Tiffany Barszczewski
Year: 3rd year
Major: Biomedical Physiology
Supervisor: Dr. Glen Tibbits

Q: What do you want to be when you grow up?
A: I think, more than anything else, I want to be a mother. A good one. Both of my parents worked really hard to come to Canada and to establish themselves here. Despite their challenges, they raised three healthy, loving children. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I will be able to balance family life with practicing medicine, becoming a professor, or whatever else I might decide to do. It will come with its trials and hurdles, but I believe it is possible to find that balance between what I want at home and what I want as a professional.

Q: How did you get involved in research?
A: I had recently switched into the Biomedical Physiology program and wanted to be a more involved student. A friend recommended I email some professors in the department to see if they needed help in their labs. I looked up the research profiles of the professors, and I was interested in almost all of them, so I sent quite a few emails asking if anyone needed a volunteer in the lab for the summer. I received a lot of polite no’s, which I totally understood: I had only taken one course in BPK, my GPA wasn’t the most coveted, and I was just at the end of my second year. Did I seem promising over email? Probably not. When I received a reply from Dr. Glen Tibbits to meet and get acquainted with two of his PhD students, I was shocked. The learning experience I had that summer was one that I will never forget. I began to really see the meaningful purpose behind the research going on in the lab, and I even got my name on a poster they presented at a conference in Copenhagen! Currently, I am completing a Directed Studies semester with my mentor (Alison, you’re the best!), and will soon be presenting my own research poster at BPK Research Day.

Q: What have you been working on in your research so far?
A: Cardiac troponin complex plays a significant role in regulating contractile strength of the heart through calcium (Ca)-binding. Some mutations in troponin’s three subunits can alter this property of the cardiomyocytes, leading to arrhythmias and, even more unfortunately, sudden cardiac death. I perform E. coli recombinant methods and purify the troponin subunits with a couple of mutations using various chromatography techniques. I will eventually combine these subunits together to make reconstituted thin filament and examine the changes in Ca binding kinetics of mutations in the thin filament using stopped-flow apparatus. The mutations I am looking at are related to the sudden infant death syndrome research Tibbits Lab has been working on. Going back to wanting to be a good mother one day, some people do not have it as easy. Some only get a few days or months to be parents before their children pass away unexpectedly. Was it something they had done? Could there have been a way to prevent this from happening? Will this happen again the next time they have a baby? The answer is still unknown, and I cannot imagine the pain these people must go through, topped with a lack of closure. I hope to see promise in the future for SIDS research so these parents can get the answers they deserve.

Q: What will you be working on this summer?
A: I’ll be studying for the MCAT. I have tried to push the thought of it out of my mind. I hope to pop into the lab a couple times a week too. I love being able to clear my head a bit by doing some pipetting here and there, and I’d probably miss the smell of me killing E. coli with bleach.

Q: Who is your biggest science crush?
A: Marie Curie. Truly a legend. Two Nobels, died by her life’s work, and a woman of science pushing through a time where the world was much less friendly towards women. She’s also Polish, like me. Whenever Marie is mentioned in class or in a textbook, I can’t help but smile.

Q: What scares you the most in the lab or the field?
A: The first thing that came to mind was the Bunsen burner. Fire scares me, but I have to work closely with the flame when I’m working with E. Coli. Honestly though, I am afraid of letting Dr. Tibbits down. I’ve worked really hard to understand the background material related to our research, especially because when I started volunteering, I hadn’t taken his course or any other higher physiology courses. He probably does not have super high expectations for me, but I constantly want to show him my growth, hard work, and passion for learning.

Q: If you were a scientific lab instrument, which one would you be?
A: The -80 C fridge? It’s not really a lab instrument, but I guess I can relate to it the most. Pretty cold, keeps things pent up inside for a really long time, and ruins people’s lives when it stops working properly.

SFU Undergrad Researcher: Matthew Garayt

Introducing Matthew Garayt from the Department of Physics! 


Name: Matthew Garayt
Major: Applied Physics, Honors
Supervisor: Dr. Michael Seear, BC Children’s Hospital

Q: What do you want to be when you grow up?
A: Right now, I am still exploring my possibilities, but I would like to work in high-
technology one day, whether it be more at the research level, or the
refining/engineering level. Ultimately, I would like to use the knowledge I have
gained so far in my degree in whatever field I end up in.

Q: How did you get involved in research?
A: I applied to the Science Co-op program and once my job search was underway, I
saw the posting for the position and was immediately intrigued as the description
was not very long. I applied, interviewed, and received an offer in short order.

Q: What have you been working on in your research so far?
A: We research possible alternatives to the traditional diagnosis of respiratory
illnesses in young children. Current accepted methods are not accurate for
children younger than six years old, so based on other research we analyze data
of each patient, collected from a medical monitor, by putting it through multiple
mathematical and statistical algorithms. After we have enough patients, we can
try to draw conclusions on what analyses yield the best results as compared to
the traditional tests.

Q: What is a typical “day in the life” in the lab for you?
A: Arrive at the respiratory clinic early in the morning, continue researching new
methods that might be of use, analyze any raw data that might exist, and take
patients’ vitals’ signs for analysis if we have any for that day.

Q: What’s your favourite course that you have taken so far in your degree?
A: I quite enjoyed Mathematical Methods in Theoretical Physics taught by Professor
Howard Trottier as the course introduced many new, helpful mathematical
concepts that I would later use in other classes while also studying myriad
physical phenomena in a fun way.

Q: If you were a scientific lab instrument, which one would you be?
A: I would have to say a laser as I always try to be as precise as possible; people’s
health or quality of life may be at stake.

Q: Favourite science joke or meme from your field? Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 5.28.04 PM

Q: Who is your biggest science crush?
A: Maybe not a scientist in the truest sense, but Elon Musk. You cannot go wrong
with PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX, and the Hyperloop.

Q: What’s the funniest thing in the lab that’s happened to you?
A: Nothing really funny, but it always seems to be that whenever I need to talk to my
supervisor he would be out of his office, somewhere unknown in the hospital…

Q: What scares you the most in the lab or the field?
A: The tests we perform on people may one day help diagnose real disorders and
diseases, so if there is a bug in the code somewhere there could be bad