My Journey to Gene Researcher For a Week


by Cindy Kim, Grade 11

I was a sickly child, living in hospitals more than I did at home as my body attracted all kinds of illnesses. Frankly, I did not mind the prolonged stays because I enjoyed the hospital environment: antiseptic aroma, sterility and the availability of tolerable food. I also admired the doctors wearing scrubs and glasses, always rushing into patient rooms. Those doctors took care of me as if I was family and they soon became my first role model. Even as a young child, I observed and understood the intimate relationship between a doctor and the patient. So on one of the uneventful days at the hospital, while being examined by a doctor, I decided I wanted to become a doctor.

I brought my dream of becoming a doctor with me into high school, where I realized that becoming a doctor is not as simple as merely having a passion in science or aspiration to help others. I would also have to stay in school for more than 8 years after high school, and find time to participate in a variety of activities outside of the curriculum to demonstrate my competence and build my résumé. But I did not let anything interfere with my aspiration. Instead, I started madly searching for hands-on opportunities.

Though three advanced science courses offered heaps in terms of learning, I knew there was much more to do outside of the school curriculum. I searched day and night online for science camps and other opportunities that offer hands-on activities. After a fruitless week, I decided to get some help from Mrs. Kuklinski, my biology teacher and an amazing mentor for science and life.

Of course, she had the answer: Gene Researcher For a Week. This program provided high school students with a week of legitimate gene research experience at a Canadian university. The students would be able to fortify their knowledge in genetics by means of participating in a real biological lab. Thankfully, after three agonizing months, I was accepted and assigned a position in the “Waskiewicz Lab,” a genetic ocular lab at the University of Alberta.

When the day finally came and I stepped into the Waskiewicz lab, I was overwhelmed with the rows upon rows of chemicals, microscopes and countless machines that filled the laboratory. Then all of the researchers in the lab introduced themselves. I had expected a cold environment where individuals conducted individual work without much socializing, but I soon observed the contrary. All of the lab members were part of a warm and fuzzy family, and they made sure that I felt at home. With Caroline, the PhD student I mostly worked with, I had a chance to breed zebrafish, inject dyes into the zebrafish embryos, and learn about PCR – Polymerase Chain Reaction; a process in which a DNA is replicated to yield thousands of copies – all on the FIRST day.

As for the background of the Waskiewicz lab’s research, zebrafish are used to examine the embryological eye development and apply the findings to human conditions. Zebrafish are ideal for scientific experiments as they mature and reproduce rapidly and have similar ocular development to humans. Lucky enough, I had finished the genetics unit in Biology 11A so what Caroline and other lab members explained to me was not a completely foreign language. For the five days I was in the lab, I had my own petri dish of zebrafish embryos. Due to their rapid development, I was able to observe their changes each day under the microscope.

My focus for research was to model human conditions on zebrafish. I learned the names of many drugs and chemicals that inhibit development of the eyes, namely DMH1, a BMP (Bone Morphogenetic Protein) inhibitor. While calculating doses of drugs, I also silently thanked Mr. Young, my awesome chemistry teacher, for teaching me stoichiometry and moles: two chemistry concepts crucial for applying to lab situations. While in the lab, I came up with general questions about biology and genetics. When I asked the question, one person’s answer triggered another answer which triggered another answer, so on and so forth, so my question eventually led to an intellectual lab-wide discussion. Also, Dr. Hocking, a post-doctorate who works in the lab, invited me to an embryological development class she teaches. I learned how the fetal urinary system develops in the womb and also how much content is packed into one lesson of a university course. From pipetting embryos into drug solutions and learning about the development of not only zebra fish but also the human urinary system, I gained much more than what I had expected from the Gene Researcher For a Week program.

As a four-year-old, I was a stubborn and sickness-prone but also a curious child, who spontaneously – but firmly – decided to become a doctor. Prior to this program, I had closed my eyes to all other options in science except medicine. However, this program showed me the importance of applying the knowledge we accumulate in high school and beyond. By becoming a gene researcher for a week, I discovered the countless possibilities of pathways in life sciences.

Are you thinking of medicine as a career path? Be sure to sign up for one of our science-focused career week sessions next year.