Graduate ready: Co-op helps biochemistry graduate find her career and purpose

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Headshot of Lydia Vermeer by a river

Five years ago, Lydia Vermeer was graduating high school and decided to go to the University of Waterloo because of its co-op program – little did she know that co-op would influence her studies, personal growth and help her find a career she was passionate about.

“I chose to participate in co-op because when I started university, I was unsure of what to do after I graduated,” said Vermeer. “I thought experiencing different workplaces would be valuable but being part of this program had far-reaching benefits I never anticipated.”

Unlike most students in her biochemistry program, Vermeer was interested in research rather than medical or professional school. For her first work term, she worked as a research assistant in McMaster University’s Centre for Microbial Chemical Biology. The lab is part of the Institute for Infectious Disease and focused on solving multi-drug resistance. Much of their work examines novel drugs and treatments using automated, high throughput equipment.

Since much of the equipment was shared by other labs, Vermeer collaborated with lab technicians and graduate students to develop and execute projects in the areas of high-throughput screening, protein quantification and purification and mass spectrometry. She independently programmed and ran high-throughput screening assays using automated liquid handling systems. She also organized a collection of clinical strains of bacteria by species to increase the ease and efficiency of their use.

Vermeer really enjoyed her genetics courses especially the history of genetics and genetics of human disease. So for her second work term she decided to work as a Genetics Research Laboratory Technician at Robarts Research Institute, a medical research institute at the University of Western Ontario. Her supervisor, Dr. Rob Hegele, specialized in certain types of diabetes and cholesterol abnormalities in patients. Vermeer extracted DNA from human blood samples and prepared DNA samples to sequence for variants that could explain the conditions seen in patients.

“The excitement of applying something learned in the workplace to the classroom, and vice versa, is a unique benefit of participating in co-op. Biochemistry can be frustratingly abstract. The practical applications of my coursework – introduced to me on co-op – motivated me.”

Despite the focus on genetics in her second work term, Vermeer discovered lab work was not what she wanted. She missed working with people and being in an open, interactive environment. So, for her next co-op work term she tried working in a clinical setting.

While working as a Genetic Counsellor Assistant at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Vermeer worked with genetic counsellors and administrative staff to collect relevant medical information, such as family histories, from patients with a personal or family history of cancer. She would prepare genetic testing forms for patients.

Vermeer enjoyed the environment, empathetic nature of the work and their dedication to see co-op students grow that she applied to the Cancer Genetics Department for her final eight-month work term. When she returned, she asked for more work to do and they took her request to heart.

She prepared a 40-page document along with numerous supporting materials for the development of a new format of genetic counselling and testing for breast-cancer that is physician-initiated.

She helped curate a database of clinic patients with mutations which involved comparing 4,000 mutations to online databases to ensure they were entered in standard notation.

She also rewrote the student manual, to include instructional documents, screenshots and diagrams, ensuring future Waterloo co-op students would experience a smoother transition into the workplace.

During her year at Sunnybrook, Vermeer reflected on the experience and found genetic counselling to be an interesting career. She enjoys how it blends science and her favourite topic genetics with human interaction, which was missing from her previous lab jobs. This fall, she will apply for her master’s in genetic counselling.

“I feel far less fear and much more confidence and excitement. It’s no longer the abstract excitement I had at the beginning of my degree for things yet to be experienced, but a grounded sense of anticipation for a career that fits my professional skill set and personal goals.”

In her final co-op term at Sunnybrook, Vermeer also got a taste of clinical research when she worked on the ethics board submission for a pilot study to improve the efficiency of genetic testing and counselling. She thoroughly enjoyed the process of putting the application together, including doing the background research, writing the application and working with administrators and various medical professionals.

She implemented the new protocol in the clinic and worked directly with oncologists and general practitioners on how to order genetic testing and guide them on which patients are eligible for further genetic testing. The data she collected from patients will be published in an academic journal and Vermeer will be credited as an author.

This coming September, she’ll begin an online, one year graduate certificate program in Clinical Research at Humber College. Clinical research and genetic counselling are closely related and often intersect. Vermeer sees the value of understanding both fields and hopes to combine the two in her future. She hopes her clinical research placements will be as impactful and fulfilling as her Waterloo co-op experiences.

“I have a profound depth of gratitude for co-operative education. I doubt I would be on the same path I am if I did not participate in this program.”