Fighting cancer one co-op at a time

Mahdi Farzad Naimi (he/him), a fourth- year Health Science student, shares his journey working in the field of cancer research. He discusses the importance of how co-op solidifies your passions and reinforces your academic knowledge.  

Mahdi’s co-op journey:

An image of Mahdi

  • Work terms 1, 2 & 3

Mahdi did three work terms at Sunnybrook Research Institute as a research assistant, where he worked with a  medical oncologist. He evaluated clinically relevant patient and treatment information to evaluate the impact of ongoing chemotherapy treatments.  

  • Work terms 4 & 5

Mahdi worked at University Health Network, at the Princess Margaret Cancer Center as a pancreatic medical research laboratory assistant. His aim was to uncover the different mechanisms of pancreatic cancer.

He worked with a lot of new technology such as organoid culture, which are 3D printed organoids that are derived from patients. Mahdi used this technology to understand pancreatic cancer better and develop a possible cure.

Q and A with Mahdi 

Q: What were some of your biggest accomplishments on co-op? 

A: “My biggest accomplishment is being able to solidify all the skills that I aimed to strengthen before starting my undergraduate career. It is difficult to get a lot of experience working with animal models or more advanced experiences as an undergraduate student. However, because of my co-op positions, I was able to gain experience in a lot of different areas. Some of my accomplishments include, learning anesthesia techniques, working with mice models in a surgical setting, assisting in mouse orthopedic surgeries, and doing my own dissections and extractions of tumors from the mice after doing the subcutaneous injections. Co-op gave the experience and skills that I needed and will help me for the rest of my career journey.” 

An image of Mahdi and his colleagueQ: Do you recall any challenges that you faced in your co-op term? 

A: “My biggest challenge in my co-op terms was the initial learning curve. Everything seemed a little intimidating at first because I was not able to do a lot of my practice labs in-person because of COVID. When I started this position, it was completely in-person, and there were individuals from much higher levels of education working there. Nevertheless, everyone was completely supportive and understood that I did not have a lot of lab exposure prior to starting my co-ops. Eventually, I was able to learn everything due to the training of another University of Waterloo co-op student. Once I gained the required skills and the foundation was set, I was able to complete my own projects and train all of the new co-ops that were joining as well.”  

Q: What did you learn about yourself on co-op?

A: “The biggest thing I learned during my second co-op was how much I truly enjoyed doing research. I noticed that I would wake up every day with a new sense of passion and a new goal in whatever topic we were investigating. My desire for researching cancer really grew during this experience, and it really solidified my interest in research.”  

An image of Mahdi and his colleaguesQ: Did co-op have an impact on your professional aspirations? 

A: “Co-op did so much for me, being in the place that I am. It helped me pursue my post-graduate goals, because I was able to gain the required skills and exposure from both the positions. I was able to gain experience in clinical and dry lab work in my first co-op position. In the second one I gained a lot of wet lab experience, where I was able to get my hands a little dirty while working with animal models.”  

“It built foundations for me that will help me in following my postgraduate dreams. It also helped me discover what I am looking for in a job, such as passion for the work I am doing and a good team. My teams at both places were supportive from the day I started and I was able to make many great connections. This network and mentors I have found are so important to me and I found them because of my co-op experiences. Being able to build skills, learn from different people and make connections, has all played a big role in where I am today.” 

Q: Did the co-op experience change anAn image of a building where Mahdi worked y of your goals? 

A: “When I first started co-op, I was a little naïve. I was a second-year undergraduate student and did not know what it meant to be involved in different types of research. So, while co-op did not change any of my goals, it most certainly engrained my goals further.” 

“I was able to work on metastatic cancer during my first co-op and pancreatic cancer during my second co-op. Understanding all these different avenues and seeing how well skills from one field of cancer research can be applied to another is so important.” 

“Now I can work on head and neck cancer, and I wouldn’t have that without my co-op experiences. So, I would say it has and continues to reinforce my interests and confirm that I am on the right track.”   

Q: Do you have advice for future co-op students?

An image of Mahdi and his colleagues

A: “My biggest advice is to be persistent. When I was first applying to Sunnybrook, it seemed really intimidating. There was one position, and 300 applicants. I understand that it is competitive and difficult in the beginning, but you just need to stand out. You need to show how passionate you are about the position and explain that you are trying to learn and grow through this position. Don’t make it seem like this is just one more thing you can tick off your checklist.”  

“Once you get started, it is important to be willing to learn. While school does a really good job at building our foundation of skills, you need to be able to go into new opportunities with an open mind and room to learn. Ask a lot of questions and learn all of the new techniques that you see around you. I had the opportunity to be on the other side of the interview process because we were trying to hire new people for the lab. My supervisors told me that they aren’t necessarily looking for the most qualified person, rather they want someone with the most amount of passion, someone who is willing to learn and become the best version of themselves. Your own intrinsic motivation and dedication is more important than you realize, especially now.”  

Q: What’s next for you? 

A: “So far, I have been able to gain a lot of co-op experiences, and I am so grateful for that. I also have other research experiences working at SickKids foundation as a research assistant and at London Health Sciences Centre, investigating head and neck cancer. Based on all of these experiences, I applied to medical school. I am hoping to start the journey in September.”

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