Starting grad school in a pandemic

Thursday, February 11, 2021

By Lilian Toma

Lilian TomaLilian Toma started her Master of Science in Pharmacy in September 2020 when the University of Waterloo was operating primarily online with limited building access for essential work only. In this article, Lilian reflects on her grad school experience so far.

On grad school during COVID-19

Starting grad school during a pandemic has been interesting to say the least. Before I started my MSc, I was a summer research assistant at Waterloo Pharmacy and I remember seeing the hallways full of friendly faces, having lunch everyday with my lab mates, and attending social events.

That’s all different now: campus is restricted to essential use only at specific times and, when on campus for research, we maintain social distancing. Social events occur online, and I really miss that social aspect of school. All my classes are online, which has been quite an adjustment for instructors and students, but we’re all just doing the best we can with the current circumstances. I’m happy to still have the opportunity to be enrolled in my program.

My lab group had an online Christmas party which was lots of fun, and I really enjoyed the online Fireside Chat with Melody Mann (the Waterloo Pharmacy counselor), an event the Pharmacy Graduate Association put on where we talked about mental health and the tips and resources available to help us during this difficult time. Online events do allow for a sense of connectedness with fellow students and faculty at a time where it is so easy to feel alone.

On conducting research

Lilian created the above video for the Gradflix competition where students create short videos about graduate reserach. She was a finalist in this competition.

The Nekkar lab is a medicinal and bioorganic chemistry lab where we develop small molecules as potential treatments for diseases. I am currently investigating novel small molecules as treatments for COVID-19, with the hope that they could be more economical, more stable and show better patient compliance than currently available treatment options. My research involves a lot of wet lab chemistry work, so I am physically in the lab conducting my research, and it’s quite a different experience from what it used to be.

We sign in at the security desk and fill out the COVID-19 assessment each time we arrive at campus. The pharmacy research lab on the fourth floor is a shared research space, and normally it’s full of graduate students from different labs, allowing for a sense of community and opportunity for collaboration both within and outside of your research group. It’s usually fairly empty now, with everyone who is there wearing masks, socially distancing, and following sanitization schedules. These practices have become second nature to us. It’s amazing how quickly humans can adapt.

The silver linings

What I love the most about graduate school is its applicability to the real world. The work I’m doing could expand our knowledge and treatment options for a disease that has so greatly impacted our lives. And along the way I’m learning valuable, practical skills that I very well may use every day in my future career.

 I’d also like to mention that despite all the obstacles, I have felt incredibly supported by my supervisor Prof. Nekkar Rao and the staff at the School of Pharmacy. The safety protocols in place have helped us feel safe, they’ve done a great job to adjusting to the online model and we have ample opportunities to give feedback and share our concerns. I’m so proud of the resilience and support shown by my research group and the school as a whole.

Lilian Toma in a lab coat holding a dog

Lilian conducting a scientific demo as part of a video for Science Open House

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