Posted by: idm04 | 2014/05/04

Involvement & Extracurriculars

My posts are generally quite heavy on academics, so I thought I should talk about my non-academic UBC activities to let other students know what kinds of opportunities are out there. For each position I’ve held I try to mention things I liked/disliked, and what I would’ve done differently.

If you have any specific questions, please comment below or e-mail me (idm04wordpress(at)


Being involved on campus is a great way to develop skills, meet other people, diversify your experience at university, and have fun.

See Get Involved for a fairly comprehensive list of things you can do to get involved. I recommend joining a club or two that interests you. From that list, I myself have been involved with my Faculty, Athletics, Clubs, Orientations, Peer Programs, Research, Service Learning, Work/Volunteer.

EDIT: Unfortunately, the above link is no longer a list and you’ll have to explore several pages to learn about all the different involvement opportunities.

The UBC Birdcoop is a fitness facility available to students for $25/term. It is subsidized by your student fees; and unfortunately it is often crowded (but better than nothing). UBC REC is also a place you can go to exercise — they have free drop-in basketball/badminton/volleyball and they have classes (martial arts, yoga, etc). They also have competitive leagues (different levels) for those sports and others, including soccer and ultimate. The UBC Aquatic Centre also has a fitness centre and pools obviously, and they are both free for student use. If you look at the list of AMS clubs, you’ll see that some of them are dedicated to exercise related activities, such as the Quidditch club (lol), Weightlifting/Powerlifting Club, Fencing club, Tennis club, etc.

There are several ways to get a job on UBC. For starters, I recommend looking at CareersOnline and Student Services – Build my career.

1. Co-op
2. Work
3. Campus Engagement
4. Physical activity





For information about the Science co-op program, including deadlines and information sessions, see the Science co-op website. Generally speaking, you apply to co-op in second year, but some co-op programs start earlier or later.

My co-op experience consisted of two different placements. The first placement was at a local pharmaceutical company doing in vitro electrophysiology in preclinical drug discovery, and the second one was doing robotic assay development for applications in genomics. For the first placement, I had applied to several jobs (~20) and I had quite a good interview offer (about 50%), however, in retrospect, I don’t think I was too good with interviews and I didn’t get many offers. I ended up getting an offer at a local pharmaceutical company, which I accepted.

The project that I worked on involved finding novel drugs for treating certain types of pain. I worked in the electrophysiology department (electrophysiology is the study of electrical properties of cells), and did preclinical drug screening to find suitable drug candidates. I tested drugs using high throughput screening (HTS) assays, which basically means using methods that allowed us to screen drugs very quickly. We tested the drugs by looking at how they blocked/inhibited the electrical current of sodium channels. Voltage-gated sodium channels are transmembrane proteins that conduct Na+ ions through the cell’s plasma membrane, and are responsible for the transmission of action potentials (which carry signals such as those involved with pain) in neurons. The ability to block the action of sodium channels was one of the characteristics of the ideal drug we were looking for.

Before starting at the company, I knew close to nothing about sodium channels and electrophysiology. I did however, have some experience with using micropipettes (lab courses and research lab experience) and whatever else they teach you in third year MICB courses (AKA nothing relevant to this job lol.)

I was given a lot of flexibility with when I could come in and leave, which I liked. I did spend a lot of time at the company, working an average of at least 1 overtime hour a day, and I’m fairly sure I learned more and did more work than any previous co-op student in the position. I was paid slightly more than $2000 a month (no pay for overtime work) and I had a NSERC as well, which was included in the pay.

I learned and developed many technical skills, including pipetting (which I thought I was already good at but wasn’t really), manual patch clamp electrophysiology, automated electrophysiology, and mammalian cell culturing. The technical skill I’ve found that many co-op employers look for is mammalian cell culturing, which you don’t get to do in MICB lab courses. I was also exposed to industry work and pharmaceuticals, working in a team, giving presentations, designing my own experiments etc.

The pharmaceutical industry is ruthless; small companies go under all the time, and the turnover rate is relatively high. What I didn’t like about my co-op position was the number of meetings, the tediousness, and the amount of stress. Meetings were long and numerous and often got in the way of my experiments. The fact that I was doing high throughput screening all the time meant that the job was repetitive and tedious, which especially dawned on me after I had learned mostly all I could from a technical standpoint, which was around the 4-5 month mark.

The pharmaceutical industry is very fast paced which can be quite stressful — drugs that are really good in vitro can absolutely fail at the in vivo stage or in clinical, your priorities can change on a moment’s notice based on new data or new patents that come out, and everyone wants your data as soon as possible (tight deadlines). I regret not talking more to other people in the company (ie. in other departments) and learning more about what they did and their career backgrounds.

A rig for manual patch clamp electrophysiology, probably one of the most if not the most difficult lab technique I've learned.

A rig for manual patch clamp electrophysiology, probably one of the most if not the most difficult lab technique I’ve learned.

A view under the microscope of the rig. You can see the glass micropipet touching the cell. After contact, a pore is created in the plasma membrane, and the electrical current can be measured over time. Drugs are put into the solution, and drop in the current can be observed.

A view under the microscope of the rig. You can see the glass micropipet touching the cell. After contact, a pore is created in the plasma membrane, and the electrical current can be measured in real time, because there is an electrode in the glass micropipet. Drugs are put into the extracellular solution, and drop in the current can be observed. A dose response curve can be generated, and the half maximal inhibitory concentration (IC50) of the drug calculated.

My second co-op placement was at a lab on campus. I was interested in genetics/genomics and sent out e-mails to prospective PIs by myself instead of going through PlacePro. I e-mailed many, many professors (between 50 and 100), got 4 interviews, and 2 offers (I declined the fourth interview, because I was already offered a position). I was hired to set up a newly purchased automated liquid handling platform (robot) to do high throughput molecular biology work that had applications in epigenomics. Epigenomics in a nutshell is the study of changes to the genome that are not changes in the DNA sequence. For example, methylation patterns and histone modifications. An automated liquid handling platform is essentially a robot that pipettes liquid for you. The main advantages of using an automated liquid handling platform are that it increases productivity (e.g. you can set up 96 PCR reactions in a plate at once), and that experiments are more reproducible than if they are done by people, due to more precise pipetting.

Before I started, I didn’t have much exposure to genomics, and it is unfortunate that none of the MBIM courses really address genomics or bioinformatics to a satisfactory degree. I also had no experience with automated pipetting systems. Unlike my first co-op placement, where I got plenty of guidance, mentorship, and supervision, I worked quite independently during the first several months developing protocols on the robot. It was only after almost 3 months into my co-op placement that I was given formal training on how to use the robot, which I thought was a very large delay.

However, by the end of my 8 months, I had made all the protocols I was asked to make, written all the standard operating procedures for said protocols, I had tested them several times, and I had learned a lot of molecular biology techniques, including DNA library construction*, DNA sequencing (Illumina Miseq), DNA quantification (Qubit – fluorescence based assay, qPCR), DNA purification (Ampure XP bead cleanup), and PCR. I had even made a library out of 0.6 picograms of sheared genomic DNA, and other people had used my protocols to make libraries from multiple displacement amplification material and chromatin immunoprecipitation material. Additionally, I was responsible for training everyone else on how to use the robot. I regret not asking for feedback more often — there was some constructive feedback given to me at the end of my co-op, but by that time it was too late to change anything and I can only take it to my next job.

*genomic library construction – the process of making a sample of recombinant DNA molecules from genomic DNA, often for the purpose of sequencing the genome. We did it first by shearing the genomic DNA into small fragments, added flanking DNA sequences to both ends of the fragments, amplified the fragments using PCR against the flanking DNA sequences we added, and then loading the now completed library into the Illumina machine for sequencing.

View of the robot in the biosafety cabinet.

View of the robot in the biosafety cabinet.

Close up of the head of the robot, with pipet tips on.

Close up of the head of the robot, with pipet tips on, pipetting from a 96-well plate.

Things I liked about co-op

I gained a bunch of things:

  • Technical skills (see above)
  • Job experience
  • Interview experience
  • Communication skills
  • Presentation exp
  • Teamwork exp
  • Work ethic
  • Insight into life sciences jobs
  • Exposure to industry work/pharmaceuticals
  • Resume/cover letter writing skills
  • Professional network
  • Money to pay tuition
  • 8 month paid breaks from school? Excellent.

Things I didn’t like about co-op

  •  Co-op office charges me a lot of money and I don’t see why
  • PlacePro, the website used to host jobs, had very few listings the second time around, and I opted to find a co-op placement on my own
  • Couldn’t take certain courses because I was on co-op that term
  • Graduation delayed by a year. Before going into my 5th and final year, I felt that I was already ready to graduate >.>;
  • End of term reports are a waste of time (fortunately, I didn’t need to do any)
  • Academic co-op students don’t get paid well (~$1600/mo), no O/T

My thoughts on academic research vs. industrial (company) research — I think I prefer academic research because I tend to excel working independently and at my own pace. This doesn’t mean I can’t work in teams — teams are important for maximal efficiency, and in fact, I generally get along very well with others; it’s just that most of the time, other people slow me down, or our schedules conflict, etc. I also find academic research more interesting — you’re working on a project you generally choose to do, so it tends to be something that piques your interests. On the other hand, your work in a company depends on what your company wants you to do, and a lot of the time, it’s high throughput screening to find some sort of drug or to mass produce some sort of product, which is very repetitive and can be boring. If you have a PhD however, you can be the project leader instead, which means you call the shots and tell other people to do high throughput screening instead of doing it yourself. What I like about industry more than academia is that academia is relatively slow and sometimes things don’t get done, academia pays way less money (although the job is much more stable in academia), and you tend to have better equipment and facilities in industry (yay money! yay pre-sterilized pre-racked pipette tips!).

My advice for students already in co-op for finding a job: make sure you apply to jobs early — if you want a job starting in May, then apply starting January. If January, then start in September. And get someone to look over your resume/cover letter, unless you’re sure you know what you’re doing. You can ask friends, your co-op coordinator, or the Career Peers.





Research assistant

I was a research assistant in the summer between 2nd and 3rd year (4 month position) at the Life Sciences Centre. The department sent an email to all its students about potential summer lab positions (some were NSERC funded) and I applied by emailing the professors on the list given in the email, and was offered the position after an interview and tour of the lab.

It was my first experience doing lab work, and the learning curve was quite steep. Fortunately, I learned quite quickly and most of the time I worked independently. I was given a project to work on involving optimizing an in vitro enzymatic reaction, which involved a lot of protein purification (FPLC) and spectrophotometric assays. I also did some cloning to generate new expression plasmids, which were used for protein purification.

To purify a protein in massive amounts, we had an E. coli strain containing a plasmid carrying the protein-coding gene of interest, and used it to inoculate a large volume (~1L) of liquid media. Then, we used IPTG, which is a molecular mimic of lactose. This is significant because the expression of the protein-coding gene of interest was controlled by the lac operon, so IPTG basically induced expression of the protein. A few extra amino acids were coded by the gene on the plasmid at the 5′ end, giving the expressed protein 6 histidine amino acids at the N-terminus of the protein, which allowed us to separate the protein from other proteins using column chromatography. After lysing the cells (using high pressure) and centrifugation, we passed the cell lysate through a Nickel column. The histidine tag (the 6X histidines) would bind to the nickel, while all the other proteins would pass through. Then the protein of interest was removed from the Nickel column by elution using imidazole, which also binds to Nickel, so it competed with the protein. The eluted protein could then be used for crystallography studies or the enzymatic reaction. If necessary, the protein can be further purified using an ion-exchange column.

In this position, I learned about research and grad school in general. I also gained many basic technical skills, including spectrophotometry, using a micropipettor, PCR, protein & DNA gel electrophoresis, restriction enzyme digests, cloning, protein purification via column chromatography, media prep, using an autoclave, streaking plates for bacterial growth, and writing in a lab record book. I’m pretty sure I also attained a new member of my normal flora of the skin from this lab — Staphylococcus aureus. I know this because I later isolated it from my skin in a lab course a few years later, and the lab I worked for works a lot with S. aureus.

I also learned a lot about myself in terms of my interests and my work ethic. Unfortunately, my work ethic wasn’t that great at the time (regretfully), which I have learned from. I also regret not asking for feedback regularly and not asking for more work to do.

Laboratory assistant

I was a lab assistant in Term 1 of third year at the Michael Smith Labs. I got the position through CareersOnline. I was mostly responsible for a variety of laboratory management duties to support the research of the lab. I was only working part time, and I was supposed to also do some research on the side, but I just didn’t end up having enough time to do it, and my supervisor was a very busy person and had his own research to do and other people to train.

The technical skills I learned included handling and disposing of biohazardous waste, ordering new materials, autoclaving things, and preparing media. Most of my time was probably spent disinfecting glass test tubes that had fungal species in them, which was not very fun. Breathed in a lot of bleach fumes (the disinfectant of the lab).

I regret not socializing more with people in the lab — it was quite a big lab, and I was fairly quiet/introverted. I also regret doing this job at all — doing lab work while taking a full course load + volunteering in third year MBIM was a lot of work for me, and my grades suffered as a result.

Teaching assistant

I was a teaching assistant, specifically a marker, for two terms of MATH 102. The first was in my second year, and the second time was in my fifth year. I got the position by applying through the Math Department website. There was no interview, and they choose based on your availability and your grades in MATH courses. I had a ~85% average in my MATH courses at that point.

Basically, the prof I worked for would put the math assignments in my folder in the Math building, and I would go pick them up. When I was done marking them, I’d return the assignments to the prof. I liked that the time was flexible — I could mark whenever I wanted, as long as I returned the assignments to the prof in a timely manner (around a week).

Marking assignments was actually pretty fun. I kind of regret not choosing to also have the position of helping out at office hours, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t good enough at Math lol. Sometimes marking was kind of boring though (it’s quite repetitive if you imagine going through 100 people’s assignments of the same thing) and it can be frustrating if people write messily or suck at Math. I was glad when people were either correct or if they left the question blank lol (easiest to mark, after all).


I was a notetaker for BIOL 334 (now BIOL 234) for a term. The position was advertised on the CareersOnline website — they generally advertise positions for notetakers in several courses during the first few weeks of the term, or maybe even a bit before term starts.

It was pretty good pay, because all you need to do is go to class (which hopefully you’d already do) and then scan the notes when you get home, and e-mail it to the person or people you’re taking notes for. I’d definitely do this job again, because of the pay and the convenience. It’s also motivation to go to class :P I think they choose notetakers based on a sample of your notes, and your grades.




Campus Engagement

Science Peer Academic Coaches (SPAC)

SPAC logo - high def - Copy

SPAC (pronounced ess-pac) is a Peer Program that helps Science students discover and achieve their unique academic visions through academic coaching. We tell students about campus resources and guide them in exploring their academic concerns and potential solutions (or “action plans”) to address them. For example, we might talk about effective course-specific study strategies or time management strategies. Sometimes, students will also come to us asking for advice with degree planning. Commitments for SPAC members include weekly meeting attendance, planning & hosting events for Science students, and having a weekly 1 hr shift at Coaches’ Corner at Irving, which is basically drop-in coaching for students.

I was in SPAC for 4 years and it was a very rewarding experience. Things I have gained include leadership, presentation/communication skills, logistical planning (for events), teamwork exp, etc. I have also met several good friends via SPAC :)

If you are interested in learning more about SPAC or even getting an academic coach, please visit the SPAC website.

Orientations Leader

I was an Orientations Leader (OL) for Science two years in a row starting in third year. I believe the position is advertised in the Distillation e-mails every year in Jan/Feb, or you can check here. I genuinely enjoy helping others in their transition to university (one of the main reasons I started this blog) and this was a great way to do it. As an OL, I was the first (or one of the first) point of contact for a group of new-to-UBC students in Science on Imagine Day, and was responsible for leading my group on a campus tour, answering their questions, playing icebreakers, etc.

I enjoyed interacting with the students and answering their questions. The first time I was an OL, I’m pretty sure I overwhelmed my students with too much information — oops lol. The second time however, I think I connected well with my students and I still see a few of them around on campus and kind of keep in contact.

What I didn’t like about the OL position was the amount of training I had to go through — it seemed like I didn’t gain much given the number of hours I was ‘trained’. There were also a lot of ‘high energy’ things that I didn’t like doing, such as cheering.

See here for a summary my Imagine Day 2011.

Squad Leader


In my third year of Orientations, I joined as a Squad Leader (SL), which is basically the person who is responsible for a group of Orientation Leaders — so it’s one level up from the OL. I think the SL positions were also advertised through Distillation e-mails. There was much more time commitment (there was a full weekend retreat in January, and bi-weekly/monthly meetings from then on until summer) plus I had to draft the monthly summer e-mails for online challenges for the OLs, which was much more work than I anticipated.

I got to meet a lot of cool people at the retreat and my fellow Science SLs, so that was fun :)

See here for a summary of my Imagine Day 2013, which was quite hectic.


I was a mentor for a variety of things — SCITeam‘s Meet Your Major event, the Microbiology & Immunology Association (MISA) Mentorship program, the UBC Science Co-op Students Association (SCOOPS) Mentorship program, and Creative Science.

These were relatively low commitment volunteer positions that I found pretty fun. For the Meet Your Major event, I was just answering questions about my specialization (MBIM) at a 2-hour info session.

For the MISA Mentorship program, I was paired up with a first year student and basically provided information about my specialization and academic/work experiences, and offered academic/career related guidance. Similarly with SCOOPS.

For Creative Science, I was assigned to a group of high school students working on an interdisciplinary school project (biology & arts) and helped them brainstorm ideas for their individual project. This was done via an online forum.

Global Academics Volunteer

UBC Global Academics programs are for international students (mainly from Japan/Korea/China) wanting to gain English skills and experience the culture here. Some of the programs also involve an internship. I don’t remember exactly how I came across this position, I think I randomly stumbled across a recruitment page somewhere online perhaps.

My job is basically to talk to these students and encourage them to talk in English as much as possible, and to answer questions they have about Vancouver/UBC culture/events. This volunteer position is quite flexible (you sign up for shifts if you’re available), and the time commitment is a few hours on average a month.

I actually quite enjoy this volunteer position because I do have some interest in Asian culture, plus I find that the students ask entertaining questions about me lol. Sometimes the program involves social activities like skating or visiting certain places in Vancouver, but unfortunately I haven’t been on any of these yet.

I find this position somewhat similar to the Orientations Leader position, since I’m meeting with students who are new here, but I find that these students are more mature (most of them are partway through university in their home country) and more eager to engage in conversation.

Tax Assistance Clinic for Students (TACS)

At TACS, I helped clients (usually students) file their taxes. I found the position through the Distillation e-mail, and decided to apply because I wanted to learn how to file taxes myself, and because the position would give me some basic exp with customer service.

I went in basically not knowing anything about filing taxes, and fortunately there was a day long training session that was very helpful. The time commitment was 12 hours total (not including training) over 6 weeks.


I have never held exec positions in clubs, but I have been a member of both the Mafia Club and the Weightlifting & Powerlifting Club! You can find a club that interests you on the AMS Clubs listing. Clubs also advertise at the Main Event on Imagine Day, or during Clubs Day which is sometime during the first term — you should get an e-mail about it.

Tandem UBC

I joined Tandem UBC for second term of my last year. Tandem UBC is a language exchange program in which you are paired up with another student and teach each other a language. My Tandem partner (who studies in Japan and was on exchange at UBC at the time) was interested in learning English/French, and I was interested in learning Japanese. I found it pretty fun; not sure if I’ll seriously learn Japanese in the future (depends on what other stuff I have going on) but I did learn how to say some common phrases.

UBC Learning Exchange

The UBC Learning Exchange allows for connections between UBC and the people in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

I was a volunteer during first year with the Trek program, in which I was an after-school tutor at an elementary school. I also volunteered the following year (as part of Community Service Learning for BIOL 201) in the Scientific Methods and Research Training (SMaRT) program, in which we conducted experiments with elementary school students and taught them about the scientific method. Both positions lasted a term each. I don’t remember exactly how I got involved with these programs but it was probably through the website.

It was through the Learning Exchange that I met someone who became a good university friend of mine and my fellow lab partner in MBIM for three years :)




Physical activity

UBC REC Intramurals

I played intramural basketball (Male Tier 2, Corec Tier 2) for six terms and counting, which was pretty fun and a good way to get my cardio work in lol. Unfortunately, most of the time we didn’t do very well, but we did (somehow) manage to win the championship one of the seasons. The games were Saturday mornings, on average twice a month. If you have a Science team, SUS will pay for part (or all? I can’t remember) of your intramural registration fees.

I also played intramural volleyball (Corec Tier 2), which was also quite fun.

I kind of want to try intramural ultimate…

UBC REC Events

Day of the Longboat is really fun. So is Storm the Wall. Although I will probably never participate in Day of the Longboat ever again, because it made my back super sore.

UBC REC Birdcoop Fitness Centre

Although it is at least fairly busy to extremely busy all of the time, I started going to the Birdcoop to work out in third year because it was quite convenient and relatively cheap ($25/term). I usually went 3x/week. My only complaint is that it’s crowded and they don’t have enough squat racks.

Aside from the UBC REC facilities & classes, there are plenty of clubs whose activities are sports-related.




Note: This post does not include my activities with organizations not affiliated with UBC.

If you have any questions about anything I’ve written, please comment below or email me at idm04wordpress(at)



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