My Week as a Gene Researcher

Delphine Ji gene researcher

My interest in science began at a hospital when my grandmother was diagnosed with diabetes. I was intrigued by the thought that there were amazing molecules inside the medicine she ingested that could help her feel better, and it got me thinking about how they were discovered. I had always been eager to understand the natural world and concluded that I wanted to pursue a career doing so.

Before long I realized that I literally had no idea what careers in science exist. Like many Senior School students, I began to second-guess myself and decided I required a taste of scientific research before making my choice.

I remembered an opportunity my incredible biology teacher had mentioned to our class: Gene Researcher for a Week. I applied this year, and was very humbled to be one of 50 students across Canada to be chosen for the program. The week-long Spring Break experience was exceptional; it was intellectually captivating and inspired me to further pursue science.

At the Gene Research program, I was placed in Dr. Chow Lee’s research laboratory at the University of Northern British Columbia. Throughout the week I was introduced to a team of grad students and got to learn about each of their projects. I met students Sebastian, ChuYi, Sumreen and Belal, and I got to meet with Dr. Chow Lee, the graduate professor teaching biochemistry at UNBC.

On the first day, I was unsure what to expect. I was worried that the level of information being taught would be way too advanced for me — far more complex than what I’ve learned in high school. Fortunately, I was warmly welcomed by Dr. Lee, who kindly showed my lab partner and me around the facility. He gave us a comprehensive overview of our lab activities, and summarized some of his own experiments that we would also get to work on.

mushroom-grant-and-students-jpgDr. Chow explained that his graduate students were working with CRD-BP, a protein that stabilizes mRNA, which in turn leads to rapid and uncontrolled cell division in pancreatic, lung and colon cancers. Next, he introduced us to Sebastian, a Masters student researching the protein CRD-BP and its oncogenic (cancer-inducing) functions. He explained his experiment so that I could understand perfectly, using some critical thinking.

Sebastian let my partner and I use the Fluorescence Polarization machine to detect a tag of antibodies that had bound to the target protein. Additionally, he showed us the J-815 CD Spectrometer, which shoots a single directional beam of light at a protein and measures the millidegrees of rotation to determine the structure of a protein, detecting the presence of alpha helixes and beta sheets.

Later, ChuYi showed us shelves of hundreds of tiny molecules she had tested, and explained the CRD-BP bonding profiles of each. In the afternoon, my lab partner and I were introduced to Sumreen. Sumreen was completing her Masters degree and writing her research paper on the immunomodulation of mushrooms collected around British Columbia, some of which had expressed cytotoxicity (being toxic) to cancer cells. She showed us the process of ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay), which causes reactions between antigens and antibodies. Only third- or fourth-year students get to learn about some of the techniques that I learned that day. Finally, I was invited to attend a lab meeting about structural elucidation of polysaccharides.

All of this happened within a single day! Needless to say, each of the following days of my week as a gene researcher was packed to an equal caliber with information.

The week flew by in a blur; I attended an advanced nucleic acids class, extracted and amplified mushroom DNA through polymerase chain reactions, extracted genomic DNA from HepG2 hepatoma cells (liver cancer cells), learned the Western Blot technique, sequenced the extracted DNA, and much more.

I went into the program having no idea whether or not to pursue science as a career. By the end — with the help of an incredible professor and his team of graduate students — I could clearly see myself working in the field of science. This program inspired me to follow my childhood dreams and pursue a future in scientific research.

(photos courtesy of Delphine Ji and Prince George Citizen)