The pharmacology student from the University of Alberta shares her experience of the funded summer program for undergraduate students with an interest in research
The 15-week McGill Biomedical Research Accelerator (MBRA) program is a funded opportunity for undergraduate students to work with world-renowned biomedical researchers and gain experience in professional laboratories and facilities in the School of Biomedical Sciences (SBMS), the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research (LDI), the Research institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC), or another affiliate research centre. This summer, it welcomed 17 students from across Canada.
We spoke to Grace Hoffman, a pharmacology student at the University of Alberta and a member of this year’s MBRA cohort, about their experience of the program.
Grace, who wants to pursue a career in clinical research, knew that she wanted to gain lab experience before considering her options for graduate school.
“The MBRA program was advertised as something you didn’t need experience in a research lab for, and that’s what made me look into it more,” she recalls. “McGill, as an institution, is highly academic and is focused on the future of biomedical research. I knew they would be doing some really advanced techniques.”
“I also saw it was in Montreal, which was really cool,” she adds. “Being from Alberta, this is a totally new part of Canada for me.”
Becoming a trusted member of the lab team
During her time at McGill, Grace worked under the supervision of Martin Schmeing, PhD, James McGill Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the School of Biomedical Sciences, and PhD student Timothy Ho. In their lab, which focuses on structural biology, Grace was exposed to techniques and approaches that she can later apply in her pharmacology studies.
“We’ve learned tons of different biochemical assays and techniques on different pieces of equipment,” she recalls. “Being very hands on and trying out new pieces of equipment all the time has been valuable, because then you have to problem-solve.”
From the outset, Grace felt like a trusted member of the team. She was given the opportunity to try new laboratory machines herself but knew that she could always ask for help.
“Martin is a really fantastic P.I.,” she says. “He was in the lab all the time, and we can go to his office anytime, which I really liked. Having that back and forth was really helpful.”
Leigh Dickson, MSc, MEd, Administrator at the SBMS, notes that the program also has networking benefits for supervisors and learners.
“Principal investigators get to work with the students and see if there is potential for them to supervise them during their graduate studies,” she says. “If it works out and a student returns, they can work with the same P.I. and hit the ground running when their graduate studies start.”
Outside of the lab, Grace also made the most of living in a new city. At the very beginning of the program, she and her fellow learners started a group chat to organize activities together.
“This was my first time living by myself, so I really wanted to branch out and meet other people,” she says.
Throughout the program, they regularly met up for dinners, drinks and days out. For Grace, meeting other young people who are also exploring Montreal for the first time was another standout experience of her summer at McGill.
“It’s been really nice to know I’m not doing this by myself, and that people from other provinces also moved here not knowing anyone,” Grace says. “We all just wanted to get together and explore the city.”
Finding applications for her passion
As Grace enters the final year of her undergraduate degree, she feels assured in her chosen career path of pharmacology.
“Eventually, I want to work with people, and that would be more clinical research,” she explains. “I’m hoping to branch into the pharmacology and the clinical trial area, but there’s still tons of overlap with what I’ve learned in the program. I know the machines we’re using here can also be used in a pharmacology research lab. It’s been really good.”
“A big bonus with the MBRA program is the fact this program introduced me to lots of different areas of research,” she adds. “We were able to interact with many graduate students and principal investigators, so it is a wonderful opportunity to network!