Mackenzie Kerr has been a candidate for the Green party in the federal and provincial election and recently finished her degree in forestry from UNBC. She is passionate about knowledge translation and making politics accessible. Her new position for the John Prince Research Forest at a social media intern is exactly that. She is translating research into accessible and easy to understand social media posts. JPRF is a co-managed research forest by Tl’azt’en First Nation and UNBC just outside of Fort St. James. It is the largest research forest on the continent. Through this position, she is hoping to inspire others to choose a career in natural resources and build a bridge between scientists and sharing their research online. She is excited to share with us why she thinks this is crucial and how it can connect to the larger issue of inaccessible science in our society today.
LINK TO JOIN (https://bit.ly/2MkGssp)
I’m writing this blog post as an UNBC undergraduate student and UNBC Research Ambassador to share three potential paths you can take to get involved in research. I’ve been able to see all three of them in action, personally and through friends.
The process of getting involved in research can seem daunting, especially when you’re an undergraduate student with limited experience. Despite this reality, the potential benefits are high: boosting your resume; making money; increasing your academic knowledge as you apply concepts from class to the real world; refining the soft skills that will help you interact professionally; and improving your future applications to medical school, graduate school, and other post-undergraduate programs. It’s also easy to think of research as an exclusive and difficult club that is meant for “other” people (that’s what I used to think), but in fact all you truly need to start is enthusiasm for knowledge; if you don’t have the exact set of skills necessary, working with the right research mentor will allow you to develop them.
Here are the three paths – Don’t limit yourself to just one idea, either – exploring multiple avenues can open doors to places you’d never expect to find yourself!
Method 1: Applying to positions on the Student Research Opportunities page on the UNBC website
I’ll start off with the most obvious option: simply applying to research opportunities found on the the UNBC website. On the Student Research Opportunities page you can see which professors are looking for students and can then contact them directly with your CV. The e-mail you send is a way to make yourself stand out from the crowd; even if you don’t have direct experience with research we all have applicable skills. In research positions I’ve applied for (successfully), I’ve talked about my ability to work in a team and my love for working with community at my job as a barista, extra classes I’ve taken outside of my direct degree requirements that show interest in the topic at hand, and specifically what piqued my interest from the papers the profs have written.
A secret about this page, though, is that it doesn’t contain all the potential research opportunities available at the University. Sometimes professors will send out an e-mail to their colleagues to forward to students they think would be a good fit for a research study and others don’t necessarily need an extra student but would happily add a student to their team who shows interest. That’s why it’s important to try different methods at getting involved such as the next ones I describe!
Method 2: Approach a potential supervisor with a research award in mind you’d like to apply for
Oftentimes funding is a limiting factor in research. Although many research experiences are volunteer-based, having funding may let you work fewer hours at other jobs so you can focus on doing research and funding could help you create your own research project. If you navigate to the research page on the UNBC website and then click on “Research Funding” on the sidebar, you’ll be able to find different undergraduate research awards including the Undergraduate Research Experience Award, Research Project Awards, and the International Student Research Award, all of which are available to undergraduate students.
After reading the guidelines you can approach a potential supervisor with you CV and ask if they’d support you in applying for the funding and creating a research project. Oftentimes it’s easiest to ask a professor you’ve already taken a class with, but it’s also possible to ask a professor you haven’t met before if they’re in the field that interests you. If you aren’t sure what to say, you can ask me or one of my fellow UNBC Research Ambassadors to help you out with an e-mail template.
From here the professor might already have a research project in mind they haven’t gotten the chance to work on, have a larger research project they’re already working on, or they could even supervise you as you conduct a literature review. That last one might not sound as fun as the others but it’s a great way to discover a research project you can carry out in your graduate studies! Of course, it’s also possible they might not have time to supervise a student, or may want you to come up with your own research idea that’s related to their knowledge base.
Method 3: Expand your network and then see what happens
This is the method I found success with in finding my first research opportunity as a third year undergraduate student. I went to a speaker event that I saw posters for around the school and then talked to the speaker afterwards, telling her I thought the research she was a part of was really interesting. She then asked if I wanted to volunteer on the team, and I said yes! Volunteering has helped me get a summer internship at the University of Alberta, gain presentation skills by presenting at UNBC’s 2019 Research Week, secured me a killer reference for future applications, as well as gained me a mentor that has helped me figure out my future career goals. All of these things likely wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gone to that one speaker event after class!
Another UNBC Research Ambassador, Zach, has written a whole other blog post on networking so please check it out on our website. Some ideas to start expanding your research network include asking your professors, lab instructors, and classroom guest speakers about their research and then potential opportunities if it turns out you’re interested in the topic their researching. Other options include going to speaker events that you’re curious about and joining clubs. Another place I’ve found success is by talking people who are closer to my peer group but a couple years ahead of me in terms of experience.
I’m sure there are many different methods of getting involved in research and I hope by outlining 3 methods and showing some of the benefits I’ve helped you start brainstorming how to start your research journey. Since research is the creation of new knowledge in a format that can be shared with others, it’s so powerful and therefore it’s essential that all type of people are involved in it. Knowing this, I encourage you to put yourself out there even if you don’t think you fit your idea of a “typical” researcher. For some extra guidance, please feel free to e-mail the Research Ambassadors at ResearchAmbassadors@unbc.ca to book a virtual meeting so we can talk the potential research paths you can take.
As a full-time undergraduate student my day is busy, and it always begins with lots of coffee at an hour that’s much too early. Usually I try to go to the school around 9:00 a.m. so I can sit on the second floor of the Winter Garden to get some natural light from the skylight and while I do some homework and drink another coffee. As a Biochemistry student with a minor in First Nations studies, what’s on the schedule has lots of variety: Metabolism, Physiology, First Nations Research Methods, Ecology, or Organic Chemistry with the accompanying labs could all be in the mix.
As a volunteer Research Assistant with the Northern Biobank Initiative (NBI) another layer of variety comes my way every week as well, and has taught me that not all research involves test tubes and lab work. The NBI is an initiative built by Principal Investigator Dr. Nadine Caron that aims to create a population-based biobank in Northern British Columbia, with a First Nations Biobank embedded within. To answer what’s likely your next question, a biobank is a systematized collection of tissue specimens with clinical annotated data that are associated with specimens and securely stored in a database. It is a tool used to facilitate biomedical research and to answer health-related questions.
This would be the first biobank of its kind in Canada and would allow Northern BC to participate in genomic research that is usually tethered to southern, metropolitan academic health care centres and tertiary care hospitals. This is awesome, because we’re unique here up North and having access to research can be a determinant of health by providing more custom-tailored diagnostics and treatment (insert citation). But in order to create a First Nations biobank in a good way, there first has to be consultation on the ethics, governance, consent procedures, and protocols around First Nations biobank. These consultations with First Nations in Northern BC are what I’m involved with, and they came after the First Nations Chiefs passed a resolution at the October 2016 FNHA Northern Regional Caucus to allow for consultations and to support the NBI.
Being involved in this process makes my days as an undergraduate research assistant interesting: on some days in I’d go get a coffee at Degrees after class and then sit somewhere quiet while transcribing the Key Informant interviews that were conducted with Chiefs and Health Directors from around Northern BC. Transcribing is typing out word for word exactly what was said in the interviews – and made me become very familiar with hot-keys and getting creative to make sure I was catching the inflections and spirit with what was being said.
On other days being an undergraduate research assistant involved arranging times to come together with Elders to create tobacco ties that could be given as gifts during the consultation process, and at events like the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) regional caucuses. Doing this was such a nice break from school – sitting together with an Elder for a few hours while focusing on putting good intentions into our work of creating the ties makes me feel so calm.
At times later on in the year being an undergraduate research assistant meant feeling like a celebrity, where I was interviewed and then filmed around UNBC to capture some B-roll for a documentary that the NBI team is involved with (it’s not out yet – ask me about it later!) Less glamourous but still interesting tasks included compiling feedback from our advisory board on the creation of a pamphlet that is used for knowledge translation – which is getting research results back to the community in a way that’s more digestible than those 10 page research papers. I then got to see the pamphlets in action when at a later date I helped run the NBI table at the 2019 Northern FNHA Regional Caucus. At this event I enjoyed the free food and talking to the many interesting leaders and community members present about our work with the consultation process.
Overall for me being an undergraduate research assistant has been a very varied experience, that has come with the accompanying diverse learning experiences. That’s why I couldn’t just pick one day to capture the experience, to truly see the spirit of how it is, it’s important to see the big picture of how everything comes together. The year and a half I’ve been involved with the NBI I’ve gained new skills, and most importantly to me gotten to experience the big picture of why research and universities are so important. The creation of new knowledge is a powerful thing, and being able to be a part of that makes studying for my classes seem worth it.
(Except organic chemistry).