Engineering mindset meets scientific problems

Jennifer Tsai (she/her), a third-year Biomedical Engineering student is the recipient of the Co-op Student of the Year Award for the Faculty of Engineering. Jennifer’s curiosity in science mixed with her engineering skills put her on track to great achievements in her co-op positions. She is being recognized for her incredible work at the Cembrowski Lab at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Jennifer reflects on her experience at the lab and recounts the learnings she gained there.


Jennifer smiling at the camera

In her work term at the Cembrowski Lab, Jennifer investigated a region of the brain known to be critical to short-term memory, called the anterior thalamic nuclei (ATN).

Jennifer focused her research on mapping out the cellular and molecular landscape of the ATN to characterize its role in unresolved memory circuits.   

“I’m curious about understanding the basis of learning and memory-related disorders such as autism and Alzheimer’s. I wanted to study the genomic patterns and markers that are involved in such diseases on a single-cell level.

To do this, I mainly leveraged big data analysis, engineering and computational tools to delve deeper into the questions surrounding this field.”

 

Q: What did it feel like to have a lot of responsibilities as a co-op student?  

A: “It felt freeing because I had complete ownership over this project. I was given the right amount of support and space to navigate the worlds of computation, big data and neuroscience. My supervisor also gave me the right amount of mentorship to push me in the right direction and challenge me in ways I needed. This was my first time leading a scientific project, which helped me learn to ask the right questions, be critical of myself and stay motivated to drive the work forward and find new paths to explore.”     


Q: What did you learn from this co-op experience?  

A: “This position really garnered my curiosity in science. Coming into the role, I wasn’t too familiar with the realm of molecular neuroscience and memory research. After working in this role and interacting with other researchers, I became extremely interested in this field and wanted to explore it further in the future. Curiosity is important because it is a sustaining mindset you can carry forward for the rest of your career. Other than developing a strong intrinsic passion and curiosity, I gained the confidence to ask questions and take risks. Another important lesson I learned is that there are no dumb questions in science and research.” 


Q: Were there any defining moments where you realized that this is what you want to do?   

A: “Coming to university was confusing because most people were going into traditional engineering disciplines. I felt a little lost initially because I did not know a lot of people who were interested in pursuing science after an engineering degree. However, I found that going into this co-op with an engineering background gave me an edge. As engineers, we have a lot of technical and problem-solving skills which has a large advantage in tackling complex research questions.”   


Q: Were there any challenges that you faced on this co-op?  

A: “I faced the challenge of having to drive this project independently. I had a lot of support from my mentor and team members but ultimately, I had to lead and make decisions for the research. While I was able to seek out help when I needed it, I gained confidence in myself and learned that I was capable of advancing such projects.” 


Q: UBC stated that you finished the initial project scope within a couple of weeks of your term when the estimated time frame of completion was four months. What characteristics do you possess that helped you achieve this?

A: “The characteristics that helped me during this term were adaptability and critical thinking. I was able to come into a completely foreign environment and seek out help and learn on the spot. I believe that I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning, but that helped me push beyond any barriers and learn fast. I was able to assess which areas were most important to learn for my project, which helped me find a starting point in navigating a new area of study. It was mostly pushing past the initial threshold and going from there.”

An image of Jennifer Tsai

 

“In terms of technical skills, I worked with a lot of bioinformatics programming in R and designed and carried out new wet-lab experiments. I had no experience in R and certain data science concepts, so I had to learn it from scratch.”


Q: How does it feel to win the Engineering Co-op Student of the Year Award?

A: “I feel extremely honored to be representing both the Faculty of Engineering and the co-op employers I worked with previously. I have received a tremendous amount of support from my professors and employers alike. This award showcases my growth over the last few years and I am very appreciative of it."


Here are some thoughts Jennifer would like to share about her co-op experience at the Cembrowski Lab:


Jennifer’s co-op experiences are proof that you can learn so much about your interests and passions while working in professional settings. These experiences can also lead to the discovery of new paths at an academic level.


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