Not Sure About SURE?

McGill’s Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering (SURE) Award gives undergraduate students a 16-week, full-time internship position at an engineering research lab at McGill. Awarded as a scholarship, recipients receive an endowment valued at a minimum of $5,625 and the opportunity to work at a lab for the summer.

The 2018 SURE Application period opened on 16 January, initiated by an information session held on the same day. This year, the Faculty of Engineering is offering 125 awards: a substantial jump from the 90 offered last year. The decade-old program is funded by the NSERC Undergraduate Summer Research Award Program, the Faculty of Engineering, the Trottier Institute for Sustainable Engineering and Design, and other donors.


The “summer research traineeships” provide students with exposure to research and the graduate school experience. For the first time ever, SURE will also be recognized with an entry on students’ transcripts.

SURE participants work on one of the many research projects associated with the program. The research projects for 2018 were posted on the Faculty of Engineering website on 16 January. There are projects from the Departments of Architecture, Bioengineering, Chemical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Mining and Materials Engineering, and Urban Planning. Each project has an associated professor, and some require a minimum study year.

Application Process

Interested students need to contact the supervising professors of the projects they are interested in, to a maximum of 3 projects. Supervisors must first agree that the student should apply to the project before the student can complete the Online Student Application.

Once the student has filled out the application, they will submit it to their selected supervisor. The deadline to apply is 26 January 2018, and the first round of awards will be announced after 19 February.

If you would like more information about SURE, or to access its application, please visit the Faculty of Engineering’s website here.

Research Awareness Day 2017

November 25th, 2017 marked the annual Research Awareness Day (RAD) held by the Biochemistry Undergraduate Society (BUGS). One of the most prominent undergraduate research events of the year with over 80 undergraduate attendees, RAD featured a full day of rapid-fire presentations by 10 different biochemistry professors, lunch, and a poster fair featuring graduate and undergraduate students alike. With the diversity in the research topics of the different professors, there was something for everybody, not just those majoring in biochemistry.

Once again, RAD 2017 was a great event to learn more about research, network with profs, and to get excited about science. You definitely do not want to miss out on RAD if you have the chance, but for those that didn’t make it to RAD 2017, here’s a glimpse at what the professors talked about:

Dr. Albert Berghuis

As the chair of the biochemistry department, Dr. Berghuis gave a brief snapshot of biochemistry at McGill, past (biochemistry is one of the oldest departments at McGill!) and present, before presenting his lab and his current research. The Berghuis lab centers around structural biology and drugs: the development of anti-cancer drugs, the identification of fungal drug targets, and various other drug related topics. But no topic is as pressing as the central feature of the Berghuis lab: antibiotic resistance. Taking a structural biology approach, using techniques such as x-ray diffraction, NMR, scattering, and electron microscopy, the lab seeks to use structures of bacterial enzymes that confer antibiotic resistance to develop new, better antibiotics.

Dr. Jose Teodoro

The Teodoro lab is in equal parts biochemistry and virology, as their primary focus is to learn how to kill cancer cells using viruses that only seem to kill cancer cells by honing in on specific cellular features that only cancer cells possess. For example, the chicken anaemia virus, which causes anaemia in chickens, only targets and kills rapidly dividing cells by interacting with the Anaphase Promoting Complex/Cyclosome. While this destroys chicken hematopoietic stem cells, it is fantastic news for cancer biologists since cancer cells also tend to divide rapidly. Furthermore,the chicken anaemia virus is small, and its only function is to target and destroy rapidly dividing cells. The Teodoro lab also works on p53, a very well known gene that encodes a tumour-suppressing transcription factor, and its effects on tumor angiogenesis.

Dr. Ian Watson

The Watson lab focuses on melanocyte biology in melanoma. 50% of melanomas have a hotspot mutation BRAF, and 25% have a hotspot mutation in NRAS, both of which are mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) regulators, and are druggable targets. The goal of the lab is to develop a therapeutic strategy for long-term survival, as many current techniques show initial promise but no increase in the rates of long-term survival. The Watson lab created stable Cas9-encoding mice with which genome manipulation can be easily done, and they also collect samples from patients who underwent checkpoint inhibition therapy, so they have excellent models for melanoma, the poster child for precision therapy of the future.

Dr. Alba Guarné

One of the newest additions to the McGill biochemistry department, hailing from McMaster University, the Guarné lab studies genome stability and DNA-protein interactions. DNA needs to be extremely condensed to fit into the tiny nucleus of the cell. Almost all DNA processes require the DNA to be decondensed. Once this occurs, the DNA is under constant attack by many components of the cell. Over time, this constant attack can lead to significant mutations in the DNA if it weren’t for the DNA repair mechanisms that prevented the accumulation of mutations. One of the projects the Guarné lab is currently undertaking is the analysis of DNA mismatch repair, specifically studying how the mechanism can discern which of the two DNA strands contain the mutation. All this is done through structural biological techniques such as x-ray diffraction and EM microscopy.

Dr. Janusz Rak

The Rak lab, at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, is a cancer and angiogenesis laboratory, asking questions related to the complexities of diseases. One disease the Rak lab studies specifically is glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer that kills nearly 100% of patients due to the tendency for the tumour to hemorrhage in the brain, and its peculiar penchant of forming blood clots elsewhere, such as the leg, demonstrating the interactivity of cancer. The lab is interested in the unconventionally connectivities of cells — one that does not involve neither the neural nor the endocrine system. Glioblastoma cells exemplify this lack of convention as they seem to communicate using extracellular vesicles, which Dr. Rak described as “motherships that can change things in different ways”. Techniques used in Dr. Rak’s lab include atomic force microscopy and liquid biopsy.

Dr. Uri David Akavia

The Akavia lab is interested in metabolism bioinformatics in cancer, conducting computer modelling of the metabolism of the entire cell, specifically in cancer cells. The lab also intentionally changes genes known to be involved in metabolism using Cas9, and observes and models the consequences. (This leads to some pretty wild flow charts). Ultimately, the Akavia lab seeks to examine how cancer metabolism makes the cell resistant to treatment or developing cancer, and to develop treatment options from the results.

Dr. Bhushan Nagar

The Nagar lab uses structural biology techniques, specifically x-ray crystallography, to decipher molecular mechanisms that underlie diseases. The lab has a diverse range of research interests, such as analysis of IFIT proteins, members of the innate immunity which interact with viral RNAs to block their replication; AvrA, a bacterial protein that blocks immune signalling in the host cell to promote successful infection by the bacteria; and lysosomal enzymes, a subset of acid hydrolases whose mutations lead to lysosomal storage diseases. The Nagar lab hopes to use information gleaned through structural analysis to develop better therapeutics, such as drugs and pharmaceutical chaperones, for associated diseases.

Dr. Alain Nepveu

The ultimate goal of the Nepveu lab is to develop a novel cancer treatment by exploiting vulnerabilities of the cell (not JUST rapid divisions, but other characteristics as well), as well as examining base excision repair. The Nepveu lab uses mouse models and a lot of different assays to collect the data. Dr. Nepveu also stressed the importance of starting research early, and that you don’t need to have prior research experience to conduct interesting experiments in the lab — the skills you learn from making pizza at your part-time job can be transferred to running a PCR! But ultimately, you should not be shy to approach professors to ask about getting research experience.

Dr. Jason Young

The Young lab’s primary focus is on chaperones, specifically the Hsp70s and 90s, which anyone can learn about in GREAT detail if they take BIOC 212/ANAT 212 from the man himself, but Dr. Young’s RAD presentation was about how to get involved in research, in which he also stressed that you don’t need research experience to get involved in research at the undergraduate level, and that there are many classes such as the 396s and independent research courses available to students, providing a helpful and resourceful end to the rapid-fire talks.

Undergraduate Research 101

Undergraduate research is one of the most rewarding activities at McGill. Experience in undergraduate research exposes students to scientific inquiry, laboratory procedures, and the graduate school environment. However, as rewarding as research is, if you’re just starting university, securing it may be daunting and unfamiliar.

Fortunately, MSURJ is here to help! The following is our breakdown of undergraduate research: what skills to have, how to apply, and what to do in the lab. After reading our guide, you’ll hopefully have the confidence and knowledge to secure that research position you’ve wanted!

Lesson 1: Preparing a Strong Application

A strong application which displays your best qualities is key when contacting professors for research. Here are some tips on how to make your application stand out.


Research requires more than just technical skills. Some helpful qualities in research include communicationcreativitypersistence, and organization. In particular, creativity is vital when conducting independent research projects. Make sure to emphasize these skills on top of your technical ones when drafting a CV or email.

Get Involved, Attend Events

Research-related events are constantly happening across campus and they’re a great way to meet faculty and talk with professors about their research. Most of the time, professors who attend these events are looking for students to join their labs!

For example, departments often hold Departmental Research Days and Departmental wine and cheeses, while the Faculty of Science holds Soup and Science. You can also attend special research-related events, or stay connected with the Student Research Initiative. Another good way to be in the loop about these events is through SUS and faculty newsletters.

Other Tips

It’s important to be proactive when securing research. Contact more than one professor or researcher because labs are often full, and don’t wait until the last minute! Making contact as early as possible is just as important because labs often fill up quickly.

Secondly, all research labs are relying more and more on programming. Computer software is invaluable for data analysis, visualization, and computational modeling. As a result, knowing how to program adds another skill that will make you useful in the lab. The most common languages in research are Python, MATLAB, ImageJ, C, and R. While you can self-teach yourself these, taking a course such as COMP 202 is a good way to start learning.

Lesson 2: Getting into Research

Now that you have the skills for research, it’s time to find laboratory opportunities. McGill has countless resources to give your research experience, and not all of them involve contacting professors.

Research Opportunities (During the Term)


McGill offers numerous research courses that you can take for credits. Specifically, there are a total of 396 classes that involve supervised research, which you can take with any department in the Faculty of Science, and 466 classes involving independent research, which you must take with your own department in Science.

Honours Programs

If you wish to do a thesis during your undergraduate studies, considering applying for the Honours option of your program, if offered. The Faculties of Science and Engineering offer Honours programs for specific majors.


Finally, if you have demonstrated financial aid, you can secure a work-study position with any faculty that can involve paid research.

Online Resources

There are numerous online resources for finding research opportunities during the term. Professors often post on CAPS, and the Science Faculty has resources on their website as well.

Research Opportunities (Summer)

Faculty of Science and Engineering

Students in the Faculty of Science are eligible for two research awards: the Science Undergraduate Research Award (SURA) and the NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA). Students in the Faculty of Engineering also qualify for USRA as well as the Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering (SURE). All of these awards give its winners a stipend to fund their personal expenses while doing research over the summer.

International Opportunities

Going abroad to do research is a great way to establish oversea connections and expose yourself to different research environments. Some research programs McGill students can apply to include the DAAD Research Internship in Science and Engineering (a German academic exchange), the EPFL Research Internship, and the UTokyo UTRIP Program.

More research opportunities can also be found on the Science Faculty’s website.

Contacting Professors

Make sure to do your homework before contacting professors. This will show that you genuinely care about their research and are eager to join their lab.

We recommend researching potential fields and departments that interest you, and specifically reading the research of the professor you plan on contacting. Scanning the abstracts from their recent publications will really demonstrate that you understand what you’re signing up for. For an even deeper understanding of what the professor’s lab is like, you can talk to other students who have worked in their lab. Make sure to never assume that a professor’s research is closely related to a course that they teach!

Also remember to approach the faculty with respect (address them formally) and understand that they’re busy. It may be best to contact professors during their office hours or via email. However, an in-person exchange can be very valuable, (and professors get swarmed with emails!) so try to schedule a time to talk as a follow-up to your email.

When introducing yourself, talk about your interests, qualifications (coursework and past experience), and your expectations of what the lab will be like. Have your CV and letter of intent available. If possible, try to think of an idea for a project that aligns with the skills of the supervisor you’ve contacted; think about what you want out of the research opportunity.

If a professor informs you that their lab is full, don’t be discouraged! Follow up with questions like when would be a good time to ask again, what skills they are looking for, and what you could work on in the meantime.

Lesson 3: What to do in the Lab

Your first laboratory experience may not be what you expect it to be; research positions can be very self-directed, and your supervisor may not be there to hold your hand through everything. In big labs, you can expect to be working with other graduate students and research assistants. The development of your research skills is up to you, so make sure to demonstrate a genuine interest and initiative. Feel free to have your own interests and discuss them with your supervisors.

Undergraduate research is still a professional position. When you’re working in a lab, always respond quickly to emails, be polite, and be on time. Remember that the research you’re helping with is someone else’s life’s work. If you’re not sure about something in the lab, or if you’re asked if you can do something, never lie. The safest option is to always be honest about what you can do, and show an eagerness to learn.

Keep on Trying!

Don’t expect to receive a yes to your first attempt at securing research. Always work to improve your skills through attending events, keeping updated on your field, and taking relevant courses.

If you’re interested in more research-related events or research publication, make sure to also follow the Abstract and the McGill Science Undergraduate Research Journal!

Undergraduate Research 101 with MSURJ: A Fond Recap

Just this past week, on a somewhat blustery but clear night, our research journal team did something groundbreaking—we did a workshop on how to get involved with research.

And so, with members and participants huddled up on couches and on the floor of ECOLE’s living room, MSURJ held its first, unexpectedly cozy undergraduate research 101 event. It was a resounding success, for a number of reasons which we would like to believe were absolutely not limited to the number of sofas in that room.

Being an event on a relatively small scale, it began with a number of introductions and hellos, as the team scrambled to set up projectors and speakers, propped up on a stack of journals. Meng, one of our co-Editors-in-Chief, then gave a detailed three-part presentation, citing examples of dos and don’ts when contacting professors, and how to create a strong profile as a candidate for a lab position.

A number of other editors on the board then introduced themselves, their programs and research interests, and the group broke into smaller circles accordingly. Riveting conversations were held, questions were asked and answered, and advice was doled out on a range of topics including cover letters and CVs, research awards, resources and timelines, and tips for general communication.

Closed off with a free-for-all journal and pastry selection, the evening was one that was wholly exciting for us, and hopefully informative, if not also fun and engaging for all present. We would like to thank everyone who showed up, and encourage further engagement with MSURJ.

We will be holding more events of this nature in the future. (Psst—what’s that I hear, an editing workshop in the makings?) If you’d like to learn more, like our Facebook Page and stay tuned for updates.

Taken from:

Biochemistry Research Awareness Day

McGill’s annual Biochemistry Research Awareness Day (RAD), hosted by the Biochemistry Undergraduate Society (BUGS), took place on the 15th of November this year. RAD 2014 provided students with an opportunity to hear professors in their faculty present their research and discuss ways for students to become involved in undergraduate research at McGill University. After the presentations, students were able to meet and talk with the professors in small groups to learn more about their work.

Dr. Berghuis

First to present was Dr. Albert Berghuis, Professor and Chair of the Department of Biochemistry at McGill University. He spoke about the issue of dramatic increases in antibiotic resistance, and the use of structural data as a strategy to combat superbugs and antibiotic resistant enzymes. Citing recent examples such as the often untreatable C. difficile bacteria which ravaged through the country just last year, his speech acted as a reminder of the ever-pressing need for novel treatments against pathogenic bacteria. Current ongoing research in the Berghuis Lab includes the study of various drug-binding mechanisms and antimicrobial agents, with structural biological approaches such as X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, often in collaboration with researchers from other Canadian universities.

Dr. Park

Next to speak was Dr. Morag Park, Director of the Rosalind and Morris Goodman Cancer Research Centre. Her presentation focused on the role of tyrosine kinase Met receptors in basal-type breast cancers, as evidenced by their over-expression in cell-signalling pathways in murine models, as well as multiple pathologies in MMTV (Mouse Mammary Tumour Virus)/ Met mice, characteristic of human breast cancers. Research in the Park Lab (often in conjunction with the Hallets Lab, which focuses on breast cancer informatics) aims to identify signal transduction pathways in cancers, as well as the regulation and integration thereof, in order to better understand tumour cell induction, invasion, and metastasis.

The Goodman Cancer Research Centre (GCRC) is a world-renowned research facility affiliated with McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine, and has for many years allowed McGill’s graduate students to conduct independent studies in cancer research with the world’s top scientists and research fellows.

 Dr. Gehring

The next speaker was Dr. Kalle Gehring, head of the McGill NMR Lab, presenting a brief introduction to the application of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy in the study of protein and nucleic acid structures. Recent research in the NMR Lab has included the study of nucleic acid hairpins and various PolyA binding proteins.

Dr. Gehring also spoke at length regarding the importance of undergraduate research and the many opportunities here at McGill University, citing examples of typical research projects and topics as well as published student works—including past papers published in MSURJ (the McGill Science Undergraduate Research Journal), affiliated with the NMR Lab. Also mentioned were summer research grant opportunities such as NSERC, Bionano, FRQ, and the annual GRASP symposium.

(The NMR Lab is currently recruiting—according to Dr. Gehring, undergraduates joining before December 15 will be cordially invited to a LaserQuest battle, where they will be welcome to shoot at professors as they please.)

 Dr. Huang

Also representing the Goodman Cancer Research Centre was Dr. Sidong Huang, Assistant Professor at McGill and the Canadian Research Chair in Functional Genomics. Speaking on the topic of Functional Genomics to Guide Cancer Therapy, Dr. Huang cited the use of tools such as high-throughput RNA interference screens in his laboratory to study cancer-relevant pathways (e.g. the effects of inhibitor regulation in cancers like BRAF-mutant melanoma), identify novel genes and networks and eventually overcome drug resistance in cancer therapy.

Dr. McInnes

Speaking on behalf of Dr. McInnes, research associate Dr. Diez laid out the projects going on at the McInnes lab. Located in the Lady Davis Institute of the Jewish General Hospital, the lab is currently looking for two undergraduate students passionate in biochemistry research. Dr. McInnes’ early work involved the development of the mammalian retina, specifically, the hundreds of genes that when mutated produced a condition known as retinitis pigmentosa, which involves the death of photoreceptor cells in the retina. From this research, the lab began examining a specific gene that was expressed over 100-fold in retinal tissue. Using an animal model, they proceeded to delete the gene in mice and found that this caused the mice to die as soon as they were born. Intrigued at the potential developmental possibility of the gene, they continued to examine the fetuses for clues as to the gene’s function, and found abnormalities in the brain called focal neuronal ectopias, which detail an overmigration of neuronal precursors in the brain. Being the first lab to work on this gene, there is still a lot of progress to be made concerning its function, and future paths include working with proteins that interact with the gene and  developing a conditional knock-out in mice.

Dr. Nepveu 

The Nepveu lab studies DNA damage response in the context of cancer. The DNA damage response begins when damage is detected in cells which triggers a series of modifications on proteins leading to the activation of certain processes including chromatin remodeling, transcriptional regulation, DNA repair and a halt in cell proliferation. Cancer cells need extremely efficient DNA repair mechanisms because they must proliferate extensively to resist chemotherapy, as the treatment aims to kill cells by causing an excess of DNA damage. The focus of Dr. Alain Nepveu’s studies is on genes that are haploinsufficient tumour suppressors, which are overexpressed in advanced cancer. Using transgenic mice models, tumour development is followed and analyzed for changes in genetic material. Recruitment of proteins is monitored through expression of fusion proteins with Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP), and in vitro cells are filmed in order to monitor their DNA using TimeWarp analysis. Eventually the garnered results are compared to what happens in real cancer patients, with the hope of advancing the knowledge of the DNA repair mechanism in tumour cells.

Dr. Bouchard

Following on the theme of cancer research, Dr. Maxime Bouchard’s lab examines the development of the embryonic urogenital system and how these pathways are reproduced in cancer cell behaviour. The elongation of the ducts of the renal and genital system in embryos involves the invasion of surrounding tissue by tip cells, which happens in a group migration. It was previously thought that these cells were static and interconnected, however they now appear to be in fact moving around and “floating together”, much like metastatic cells. This new field of research integrates embryonic developmental processes and cancer cell biochemistry, and has a promising future.

Dr. Pause 

The main area of interest in Dr. Arnim Pause’s lab involves working with tumour suppressor genes – one which works specifically to treat the Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome, and another which is frequently deleted in a range of cancers. Birt-Hogg-Dubé syndrome is a very rare autosomal dominant hereditary disorder which predisposes the affected patient to a number of tumours, including hair follicle tumours, lung and kidney cysts and renal and colon cancer. It occurs when there is a mutation in the FLCN gene responsible for coding a protein known as folliculin. Using mice and C. elegans as models, the study of the FLCN gene and specifically its loss of function is one of the projects undertaken in this lab. A second endeavour involves exploring the Histidine-Domain-Protein-Tyrosine-Phosphatase (HD-PTP) protein, of which the chromosomal region 3p21.3 is a tumour suppressing gene. HD-PTP itself forms a complex which is involved in the endosomal trafficking of cell surface receptors, and this is guided by an ESCRT complex. Using a mouse model, the lab is looking at further revealing this protein’s function in the development of tumours.

Dr. Schmeing

Dr. Martin Schmeing’s research focuses primarily on the structure and function of large molecular machines in carrying out vital cellular processes. His lab uses two structural techniques, x-ray crystallography and single particle electron microscopy, as well as many biophysical and biochemical techniques. These methods allow for pictures to be taken of extremely small particles performing cellular activities, and can be pieced together to show the mechanism of a certain biological process. Dr. Schmeing showed an example of this in a short video about ribosomal translation. Currently, one of Dr. Schmeing’s main investigations is concerning non-ribosomal peptide synthesis, another mechanism that makes proteins. This process is carried out by enzymes known as Non-Ribosomal Peptide Synthetases (NRPSs), which are very large and have a complex assembly line mechanism. Antibiotics are indispensable in the study of non-ribosomal peptide synthesis as many of their proteins are produced by this mechanism.Gaining a better understanding of this process could lead to quicker synthesis of antibiotics by modifying and improving the efficiency of these enzymes. A recent success in Dr. Schmeing’s lab was the solution to the domain configuration of F-A didomain.

Dr. Tremblay

The research performed by Dr. Michel L. Tremblay encompasses many different areas of science, including oncology, microbiology, immunology, and experimental medicine. He also studies gene and stem cell therapies with Dr. Jerry Pelletier at McGill. Dr. Tremblay’s main area of research concerns the understanding and manipulation of protein tyrosine phosphatases (PTPases) in normal and disease conditions. Many PTPases are in fact activating enzymes; half of the 109 PTPases in the human genome are oncogenic proteins. Dr. Tremblay says that, including all the bacterial, viral, and parasitic elements, there are “over 3000 protein tyrosine phosphatases, many of [which] will be outstanding targets for drugs”. His lab does work on phosphatomics, and has identified two novel phosphatases in the human genome. This information can be found on their website. Additionally, Dr. Tremblay does further research surrounding the genomics of disease.

Dr. Young

Dr. Jason Young’s lab investigates how functional polypeptides are made in cells. This requires the proper folding of proteins, which is carried out by molecular chaperones. Chaperones have many other functions, including moving proteins through the cell and pulling apart proteins when they aggregate. They have a role in processes such as aging and oncogenesis. The chaperone that is investigated in Dr. Young’s lab is Hsp70, which Dr. Young called “a deceptively simple system”. Hsp70 is regulated by co-chaperone proteins, many of which are from the DNAJ family, that activate Hsp70 to bind polypeptides. They used “a structure based design approach to develop new inhibitors of Hsp70”, which could be useful in targeting cancerous cells, as they are especially dependent on chaperones. This also has applications in misfolding diseases such as cystic fibrosis. Currently, they are addressing how the Hsp70 system interacts with the Hsp90 system to assist in folding.

Dr. Young also spoke about the benefits of participating in undergraduate research, emphasizing on the importance of practical experience. Lab participation allows extended practice in performing key lab techniques and skills important for science-related work, whereas most lab courses last an average duration of a few weeks. Getting involved in research also helps to improve analytical and presentation skills important for future papers and seminars, and introduces students to the research community, allowing exposure to professors, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and more. Dr. Young encourages interested students to inquire about summer research positions early (December/January), as many labs plan several months in advance.

To wrap up the presentation portion of the event, a number of other guests took the floor to speak about exchange opportunities involving research:

Representatives from Sanofi Pasteur, a division of the multinational pharmaceutical company Sanofi, introduced a co-op program that involves working with their company for 8-12 months. Two students from the University of Strasbourg in France also spoke about their experience with the exchange program—The University of Strasbourg is one of the top research universities in the country, and this exchange is a great opportunity to earn credits while studying abroad.


Life After McGill: The Impact of Undergraduate Research on a Medical Student

Lisa Zhang, former MSURJ Managing Editor, was an Interdepartmental Honours in Immunology student who graduated from McGill in 2011. She is currently a second year medical student at the University of Toronto.

Do you think early exposure to hands-on research during undergrad is important if you are thinking about a career in research?

I think getting hands-on research is an important part of a long process. Figuring out an adult career is hard for plenty of people. High school kids probably have a rough idea of what they like: explosions, Charmander, creating things, taking stuff apart. I think research is one of the best experiences one could have as an undergrad; it really highlights your weaknesses, which is never pleasant but always necessary. Students have so many false ideas about research, which could really lead one down the wrong career path if not dispelled early on. Conversely, there are probably some people who would make wonderful and thoughtful researchers if they ever tried it; getting an A in biochemistry does not equal research genius, that’s for sure.

 What types of undergraduate research did you experience at McGill?

My first project was in biotechnology, specifically in rational drug design using comparative protein modelling. To put it simply, we used the knowledge we have about protein structures to design a small molecule that could treat disease. When I started the project, I had just completed my first year and was essentially clueless about all things research related. My first supervisor told me: “You’re not going to split cells, run a bunch of gels, or perform any PCRs in my lab. That crap is easy to pick up. Thinking is hard. Getting lazy and belligerent people to collaborate with you is hard. Playing politics with a useless department head is damn hard.” Research ended up being about extensive literature searches, many trials and errors, and way too many moments of I-have-no-idea-what-I-am-doing. But it was also about those few times where – Eureka, the pieces fall together and – guess what, I feel smart today!

My honours project and my research during medical school taught me the skills to be an effective molecular biology researcher. However, it was my first research project that taught me how to be inspired by questions and processes that seem all too unclear and meaningless. A protein sequence is just a bunch of letters—but those letters form shapes, and those shapes follow physical and chemical rules, and exploiting those rules can move scientific knowledge a miniscule step forward. True researchers are rebels at heart.

 If you didn’t have these research opportunities early on, would you be where you are right now?

Research taught me how to apply things I learned theoretically to a defined purpose. More important than the results attained, research taught me how to endure the process of acquiring background information, putting a plan forward, modifying that plan, not crying during a funk, and finding creative solutions. I also discovered what I wanted out of a career: interactions with people, problem solving, discovering new things, and reducing misery in the world (every person must have at least one delusion of grandeur). I chose medicine in the end because it fostered my interests and it didn’t make me choose between them: medicine encompasses research, didactic learning, generalizing, specializing, teamwork, and communication.

You were in the IHI program at McGill; would you recommend doing honours projects?

The IHI program is perfect for indecisive people who abhor major life decisions and think research is kind of cool. My rationale was that I found viruses, chemical pathways, and the human body kind of fascinating. There was nothing that I felt especially passionate about, nor was there anything I particularly despised about immunology, biochemistry, or physiology – so I did all of it. It also gave me a very flexible final year, where the course load was light to accommodate as much (or as little) research as I desired to do. I wanted a holistic approach to learning the biological sciences, so the IHI program was perfect for that. However, those who are more focused should major in their specific area of interest; hating two-thirds of your undergraduate degree is not a pathway to happiness, nor is balancing a course schedule with three separate departments.

Have you done research after McGill, and do you think you will continue doing research during/after your medical degree?

I did research in diabetes and breast cancer this past summer at the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, Israel. It was a great opportunity to work in a laboratory while learning about global health and foreign cultures. Curiosity is an irrevocable part of me, so I think research will be as well.

What have you gained from working in research labs? And have these skills been helpful for you as a medical student?

The technical skills I learned have been applied over and over again; I gained a lot of knowledge about scientific writing and molecular research techniques. I learned to work with different types of people: perfectionists, laidback hippies, intolerable dolts, and supportive mentors. Medical school is about making sense of information and making sense of people; working in research labs has taught me quite a bit about both.

Many U3 B.Sc students are currently deciding between applying for grad school or for professional school (or both). Do you have any advice for them?

I had a fairly practical approach to career decisions: do what I like, do what I’m good at, don’t be broke, and make a positive difference before I kick the bucket. In third year, I considered three options seriously: medical school, law school, or grad school. I received advice from a lot of people – a lot of them suggesting “do what you like” and “life isn’t linear” and “you can change your mind later.” I just asked myself: What am I doing in five years? Ten years? Who am I with? Where am I geographically? What’s my income? What’s my lifestyle?

Dreams are important, but I prefer mine to be grounded in reality. Wanting to save the world is awesome, but there is nothing wrong with thinking about money, relationships, or living the good life. There is time for change, time for a thousand decisions and revisions, but I wanted to be happy the first time around.

How to Get Into Research

Image how to get into researchOne of the questions that every single student in the Faculty of Science will ask or answer at some point in their undergraduate careers — along with “are you thinking about medical school?,” and “so, we’re sleeping in Burnside tonight, yes?”  —  is “How do you get into a lab?”

The answers to this question are like snowflakes — each one has its own special number of emails sent and blend of luck.  But most of them are based on these three simple steps:

1. Update your CV

Before you can even think about who you want to work with or what you want to do, there is something that EVERY undergraduate should do periodically and that you should do right now: You need to update your CV (or, as maybe you call it, your resumé).  This is your first and best chance to show a PI (principal investigator aka a professor) that you would make a valuable addition to their lab.  CaPS at McGill has several excellent CV workshops that you should absolutely take advantage of, as well as drop-in appointments, where you can get one-on-one advice.

Your CV should inform your PI who you are and what you bring to the table, while leaving a lasting and positive impression.  Make it neat, clear, and concise – no longer than 2 pages, and nothing that’s older than 3 years unless it’s extremely relevant or significant.  For example: I’ve kept my first dry-lab experience (ie. I worked with computers and paper – no chemicals or animals) that I had while I was in high school on my CV for the last 3 years. Now that I have more recent wet-lab experience, however, that first lab experience will be coming off of my CV — unless I happen to be applying to a job back at the same institution or in the same geographical region where I had that first experience.  Similarly, I never put my high school education on my CV these days — but I might if I were applying to a position back in my hometown, where an employer might have some connection to it.

When preparing your CV to submit to a lab, don’t worry if you don’t have any obvious previous experience – it’s helpful, yes, but not necessary.  Instead, focus on providing concrete examples that highlight abstract qualities: dependability, ability to work independently, and responsibility are all important qualities for a research assistant or an undergraduate who wants to pursue an independent project in a lab. If you have any reference letters on file extolling your virtues, or have a few people who are willing to be contacted as a reference, you can mention that at the bottom of your CV so a PI knows that information is available to request from you.

2. Figure out who to contact

Once your is CV updated and ready to dazzle a PI, it’s time to figure out who to send it to.  While I’m sure it’s happened before, it is rare for an undergraduate to find a place in a lab the first time or place they ask.  It’s a safe bet to approach between 5-10 labs; some students end up contacting more than 20.

There are a number of strategies for finding a professor to work with.  I’ll never forget when my BIOL 200 professor told me (and the rest of the class) that not only was there a list of new faculty members at McGill, but that this list was a bit of a gold mine for research opportunities.  You can sort through new faculty members by department and name, so if there’s a specific field you want to work in or a specific person you want to work with, this site makes it very easy to sort through. While professors can be fantastic mentors at any stage in their career, that BIOL 200 professor pointed out that a new lab might have more opportunities for an undergraduate to be creative and explore an independent project.

That’s not to say people haven’t had great experiences in larger, more established labs
as well, including labs that are right in front of them.  Developing a relationship with a professor who teaches one of your courses might open the door to joining their lab. Finally, you might want to check out the SOUSA site.  There are a number of research courses for credit at McGill, including the 396 course group. Sometimes, PIs have projects that are ready to go, but need an undergrad to do them.  A listing of 396 project proposals is available on the Office for Undergraduate Research in Science website.

Regardless of who you end up working with, it’s important that you find a lab that you’re going to enjoy working in.  A great lab experience starts with finding a field you’re genuinely interested in – cultivating a passion for the subject is difficult if there isn’t any interest to build from.  Do yourself a favor, and only contact labs that are working in fields that you are curious about.

3. Actually talk to professors

Once you’ve figured out who you want to contact, it’s time to pull the trigger and reach out to them.  This is probably the most daunting step – I probably proofed the e-mails that went out to professors when I was looking for a lab 200 times. (Its a good idea to have a friend proof your emails, too.)  There are two ways to do this: in-person or via e-mail.  Either works, really, but we’re going to focus on e-mail in this post.

First thing to keep in mind is that if you e-mail a professor, you’re not guaranteed a response. Professors get enough e-mails a day to fill a virtual swimming pool, so your e-mail might get buried or just ignored.  It’s not personal.

There are a few things to include:

  • Your full name and contact information

And please make sure your e-mail is professional. Use your account.

  • Something that shows that you are actually interested in their field

While PIs wouldn’t have expected you to have read every paper they’ve written since their undergrad, you should at least Google them and see what they’re about.  If your major corresponds to their field and you’ve taken relevant coursework, you might want to mention that as well.   

  • Something that relates to what you’re looking for, more specifically

Are you looking for a position immediately for a research course?  Are you looking for a summer job?  Are you just hoping to volunteer and get some experience under your belt?  Let them know.

A final general guideline: Don’t just use a form letter that you don’t have to change from professor to professor. That’s a bit lazy; while I can’t speak for PIs, people I know have generally gotten better responses to personalized e-mails than to form letters.

Here’s what your e-mail should look like, when all is said and done:


Hello Dr. Einstein

I am an undergraduate student interested in getting some research experience. As a Underwater Basketweaving major, I have a broad interest in the tensile strength of reeds, and your work looking into how the distribution of ion channels impacts the membrane tension of cattail stems seems really interesting. I was wondering you had any space in your lab to take on a student for the summer/semester/year, or if you know of someone who might.   I have attached a resume so you might be able to make a preliminary assessment of my suitability for a position, but I do hope to speak with you further so you can get a more complete idea of what I have to offer.

Thanks for your time,

Jane Doe
U9 Science McGill University
(514) 555-3000

<Jane Doe Resume for Summer Research.pdf>

If your e-mail is closer in any way to the e-mail below rather than the one above, go back to the drawing board. Two things in particular to note below is the file name on the PDF document (keep them professional, add your name, make sure they’re open-able and attached properly) and the mismatch between the recipient e-mail and the salutation.  Double check that the person you’re actually sending an e-mail to is the person you WANT to be sending an e-mail to.


Hello Dr. Planck,

I am an undergraduate student interested in getting some research experience because I’m applying to medical school and I hear that’s important. Do you have any space in your lab to take on a student for the summer/semester/year?



Once you’ve sent the e-mail (or e-mails), the waiting begins.  Don’t be afraid to follow up in a week or so if you haven’t heard, and reply promptly to any positive responses you get. Remember that profs are incredibly busy people — lack of reply isn’t necessarily a sign that they wouldn’t be interested in you. Hopefully, you’ll get at least one invitation to come and meet the PI for a tour of the lab and/or a discussion of what you might be doing there.