“You contribute, you’re actively engaged, and you get to meet so many incredible people”
“I wanted to have a research experience during my time here, but to be honest, I didn’t expect to like it nearly as much as I did. I just thought it was something everyone should do and I would just get in and get out.”
Jordana Lowe graduated in June with a double major in physiology and molecular genetics, and she is the first to admit that at the beginning of her undergraduate career, she looked at research as something she felt she needed to check off to say she had done.
But Lowe was quick to change her mind.
Lowe’s first experience came in the summer of 2014 in the form of an Undergraduate Student Research Award from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada in Brian Cox’s systems biology lab where she worked on a bioinformatics project on the evolution of the placenta.
Lowe recalls her first days in the lab.
“The first couple weeks were difficult,” she says. “It was a lot of hitting my head against the wall trying to get the script to run and not truly understanding what I was doing, so the satisfaction of when things started to come together was wonderful.”
Lowe attributes a large part of her growth to her supervisor, Cox.
“I’m grateful that he took the chance on me because I came into it with no independent research experience, particularly doing a bioinformatics project, and he gave me an incredible amount of guidance on a day to day basis that helped me succeed.”
In addition to giving her some background in programming, Lowe says that her first lab experience has helped her to hone her critical thinking skills, allowing her to think outside of the box to come up with different ways to answer the questions she investigates.
Lowe says that her first taste of research that summer changed her perception of research as “stuffy and repetitive,” and she completed a project in the same lab during the following school year.
This time, Lowe’s work focused on testing a reporter for trophoblast stem cell fate.
“The process of changing cell types tells you a lot about the gene networking behind determining one cell type, but first, you need to see if the cells have successfully been converted.”
Lowe explains that traditional methods to test for cell fate do a screen of the gene expression of these cells, but are less efficient than using a ‘reporter.’
“I was testing a fluorescence reporter. The idea is that if you’ve successfully converted to the right cell type, the cell will fluoresce. Then you can start working backward to figure out how you got there and what that means for the cell’s underlying biology.”
After completing the yearlong project, Lowe began working with Mikko Taipale last summer as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program in the department of molecular genetics on a project looking at fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma - a type of liver cancer. She’s back working in Taipale's lab on the project this fall.
“It was only relatively recently that they were able to do genomic screens on these patients and their tumours, and figure out that in this type of cancer, there is a deletion in the genome that results in the production of a fusion protein. My project was specifically looking at how this fusion protein plays a role in the development, progression or maintenance of this cancer.”
Entering with a base understanding of research techniques, Lowe reflects that she was able to broaden her skills as well as gain confidence in her abilities as a researcher under Taipale’s guidance.
Lowe has had an abstract published in the journal Placenta, and has presented at several poster fairs at U of T where summer research students showcase their research.
Being involved in the health care community through research has reinforced that Lowe wants to pursue a career in medicine, but also made her realize that she aims to remain a collaborator in research.
“I think people often see research and clinical medicine as being quite separate, but in molecular genetics, for instance, many labs are integrated right into the hospitals so you really are working in a setting where there’s a lot of room for collaboration between physicians and researchers.”
Lowe emphasizes that research experience allows for a much better ability to see the strengths and weaknesses of previously published research undergrads read about in class.
“When you’re learning just in a classroom setting, it’s hard to truly understand what it all means, especially when you’re doing things like critically evaluating research that’s already been published.”
Lowe is thankful for the skills that she learned in the lab, and for supervisors like Cox and Taipale who invested time in being mentors to her.
But most of all, she says she is grateful for the community she found through research.
“You hear a lot of undergrads talk about U of T being this huge place and not feeling like they belong, but being in research, you feel like you’re part of what makes the university great.”
“You contribute, you’re actively engaged, and you get to meet so many incredible people.”