HLI Student Blogs

This is a blog written by students at the Centre for Heart Lung Innovation, UBC.

Please view our disclaimer, located at the bottom of the page.

2017

HLI Trainee, Cody Lo

Oh the places you’ll go

For the unaware, “Oh the places you’ll go” was the last book Dr. Seuss published during his lifetime and has now become a mainstay in graduation speeches around the world for it’s light hearted commentary on the journey of life. I am reminded of this book not only because many of the people in my life are graduating this year but also because in a sense it is my own “graduation” from the HLI after 2 years as a research assistant here. Reflecting upon my time at the HLI, I wanted to offer some words of wisdom to the incoming students at the centre on how to make the most of their experiences and the places you’ll go as a result of your time here.

By almost any metric, the HLI is one of the most cutting edges centres in the world for research in heart, lung, or vascular diseases (our building/infrastructure may say otherwise but don’t let that detract you from the quality of science that is being done here). In 2016, HLI Principal Investigators (PIs) were authors on a record 298 publications and the percentage of articles from the HLI in high impact journals (top 5 percentile of given field) was higher than both Yale University and University of Cambridge! What this means is that there are tons of opportunities to be involved with impactful research. Don’t be afraid to learn about areas outside of your project, ask other labs what they’re working on, or attend one of the many lunch time seminars.

Being located inside St. Paul’s hospital provides ample opportunities for students interested in fields such as medicine or public health to gain relevant exposure. Many HLI PIs have some combination of MD, PhD, MPH and even MBA degrees with almost all projects having some very clear clinical application. Research at the HLI also often translates into many viable business ventures with 5 spin-off biotech companies being hosted at the centre. Often when working in the lab you can develop “tunnel vision” and only see the immediate experiment you have in front of you. I urge you to lose sight of the bigger picture and continuously ask yourself questions like: “how will this affect patients?’, “how does this impact society?”, or even “how could I turn this into a product someone would buy?”

In conclusion, choosing to work at the HLI may very well be one of the best decisions you can make. Whether you are here for the summer, a co-op term, or a PhD - I am sure will come to appreciate the many thoughtful, smart, and capable people at the HLI you work tirelessly day in and day out to push the boundaries of both science and medicine. Best of luck on your projects and as Dr. Seuss would put it, “you’re off to great places! You’re off and away!”

2016

Summer Student, Collin Massey

My project involves mainly cell culture and staining procedures. In the lab, I grow human macrophages and aortic smooth muscle cells and expose them to different conditions involving various forms of cholesterol, such as oxidized low density lipoproteins (LDL). I then track the cells as they become foam cells (the principle cells causing atherosclerosis) followed by lipid staining and/or western blotting. After staining the lysosomes and cholesteryl esters in the cells, I visualize the cells using sensitive microscopes in order to see whether the lysosome is involved in impaired cholesterol trafficking. The western blotting procedures allow me to look at and compare differences between smooth muscle cells and macrophages.  Ultimately, this research will add to a somewhat newer body of knowledge and open up avenues for novel therapies for cardiovascular disease. Being a medical student, this project has allowed me to learn an immense amount about atherosclerosis, the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in western, industrialized countries. Researching the complexities of this disease has given me an appreciation for existing and potential treatment options as well as an understanding of the pathology behind what many of my future patients will be suffering with. The scholarly attitudes I have gained in the lab will help me to empower my patients with knowledge about their illness and provide the best treatment options for their conditions.

 

Summer Student, Lisa Lawson

In the last two weeks, the world was captivated by the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. I did not expect myself to get excited about the Olympics, as I am not typically a sports fan, but somewhere along the way I found myself surprisingly invested in the games. As I thought about the magnitude of the Olympics, the world-class athletes, and their years of preparation, it hit me that longitudinal studies and the Olympics have several similarities. Both are large-scale events that entail collaboration between hundreds of parties, diligent organization, and years of build-up. Olympic athletes train for their whole lives to become the best of the best. All of their unseen work leads up to one event, where they compete for the much-sought-after gold medal. Workers of longitudinal studies, like Olympians, put in years of background work. Rather than quickening their breaststroke or perfecting their balance beam routine, study workers devote hours to gathering and interpreting data. At the end of the study, the much-sought-after outcome is a groundbreaking result. However, these results cannot be achieved by individuals. Both a gold medal and an innovative scientific conclusion require a team of people to work passionately and tirelessly for their cause. Just as having the right athlete, coach, and sponsor is important to obtain a winning Olympic outcome, having the right investigator, coordinator, research institution, and funding is important to obtain a winning study outcome.

It is well-known that gold-medal athletes are the best, the fastest, or the strongest. So what does it take to be a gold-medal study coordinator? Since May 2016, I have been working as the coordinator of the Canadian Cohort of Obstructive Lung Disease (CanCOLD) Study. My failures and successes in these four short months have taught me so much and provided me with valuable insight into the qualities and habits of a gold-medal coordinator.

A gold-medal study coordinator is an expert communicator. Nearly every task required of the coordinator involves communication in some way, shape, or form. Whether updating the principal investigator, liaising with other departments of the hospital, or organizing visits with participants, a gold-medal coordinator communicates regularly with confidence, professionalism, and clarity.

As the primary point of contact for participants, a gold-medal coordinator must be the friendly and helpful face that subjects can associate with the study. The coordinator spends hours with participants going through questionnaires, completing tests, and organizing appointments. If the coordinator takes an interest in and demonstrates appreciation for each participant, the subjects are more likely to feel engaged in the study and optimistic about their participation. A gold-medal coordinator should be upbeat, enthusiastic, and personable with each participant.

With so many moving parts of longitudinal studies, organization is the coordinator’s key to success. There is a great deal of flexibility in the position and without sufficient organization, one can easily become overwhelmed and stressed by the many responsibilities of the coordinator. A gold-medal coordinator fully understands their role in the study and has crafted a familiar routine that allows them to take the initiative to complete all tasks at hand. They are well-informed with all happenings in the study and diligently update excel spreadsheets with the progress of all participants.

With these qualities in hand, I am confident that any coordinator will have a great start to succeeding in the position. Now, in no way am I saying that I am the perfect coordinator. Becoming any kind of gold-medal competitor is a process that does not happen overnight. This list is a personal reminder of what I strive to emulate each morning, and in my final four months at St. Paul’s Hospital I am excited to continue learning about how to be the best coordinator that I can.

 

Summer Student, Cody Lo

Expanding Your Comfort Zone
 
You never know where a cold email will take you. In my case, I never would have guessed it would lead to me being a co-author on multiple peer-reviewed publications, getting to present at a conference in Whistler, and learning how to do next generation sequencing (NGS). However, these are all experiences I’ve had over my past two summers at HLI and they have undoubtedly had a profound impact on my professional development as a young researcher and allowed me to expand my comfort zone.

Last summer, I worked under Dr. John Boyd on a clinical research project investigating the long term renal health of sepsis patients in the years following their initial discharge from the intensive care unit (ICU). This is an important area of research as the survival rate of sepsis currently hovers around 70% (you probably literally have the same chances of your bus being on time in the morning as you do surviving sepsis). In addition to submitting this work for publication, I was also accepted to present at the Canadian Critical Care Conference in Whistler last March. Compared to other conferences I’ve presented at, this was a particularly enlightening experience for me as many of the other delegates were either attending intensivists or resident physicians specializing in critical care. I was able to receive a lot of constructive feedback on my project and this taught me to not be intimidated to engage with individuals who are more experienced than you as they are often very willing to share their wealth of knowledge.

At the 2016 Canadian Critical Care Conference in Whistler

My experiences last summer positioned me well to undertake my current project under Dr. Liam Brunham using NGS technologies to investigate the relationship between disorders of HDL cholesterol metabolism and sepsis prognosis. This work builds upon previous observations showing that HDL cholesterol plays a significant role in facilitating the clearance of pathogenic lipids that are released during sepsis. A previous study by the Brunham lab has demonstrated a relatively high diagnostic yield of a targeted next gen sequencing panel for identifying genetic causes of abnormally low HDL cholesterol levels. It is often said that the incorporation of a patient’s genetic information into clinical practice is the future of medicine, however implementation of such technologies is not without challenges (see ultra high impact piece written by my supervisor here http://science.sciencemag.org/content/336/6085/1112.full). Currently a sequencing run costs around $1000 - which is exponentially lower than what it used to cost but is still relatively expensive for routine or large scale use in the lab or clinic (as you can imagine, when a single experiment costs $1000, you are pretty careful about not messing up - shaky hands from a morning coffee don’t help). Working at a facility such as St. Paul’s really allows for a more integrated approach to clinical research studies. In the morning I could be in the clinic helping collect patient blood samples while setting up a sequencing reaction in the afternoon. The ability to literally go from “bench to bedside” helps me keep the work that I do in the context of how it influences patient care - which I feel is immensely important in clinical research studies. I feel fortunate to have learned how to use such state of the art technology this summer (the sequencing platform we use is one of the only ones available in BC if not Canada) as the ability to produce and analyze genomic data becomes increasingly more valued in both research and clinical settings.

None of these experiences would been possible without the mentorship and guidance of everyone at the HLI. It’s true – you never know where a cold email will take you, in fact often times you won’t even get a response. However, if my time at the HLI has taught me anything, there’s value in keeping an open mind and expanding your comfort zone – it may not only help your career but change your life.

 

Summer Student, Ronald Xie

Smart is the new sexy. This is becoming more and more apparent as I work at HLI. During the past 7 months, I discovered a lot about how Coxsackievirus plays with your heart (myocarditis…). But my most intriguing finding, and perhaps slightly surprising, is how popular male researchers are in the eyes of females. Bear with me as I break down the top 4 traits my fellow co-workers possess that make them the perfect guanine to your cytosine.

Smart:
Being a researcher automatically makes you smart. That is a proven fact. Being smart is sexy. Researchers are smart. Researchers are sexy. If you think glasses are dreamy, wait until you see a researcher walking majestically down the hallway with flowy hair, glistening white labcoat and a pair of protective safety goggles.

Warm hearted:
Researchers at HLI are well known heartbreakers (heart sectioning at registry), but they are extremely attentive and warmhearted. The amount of tender loving care it takes to culture those delicate cell lines rivals the attention needed to look after any needy toddler. As lovers, they will not hesitate to sneak out free samples at the product show just for you. When you are cold, they will put a labcoat over your shoulder.

Anger management:
Woke up on the wrong side of the bed and spilled morning coffee on your new shoes today? What a bummer. You know what else sucks? Doing a whole experiment (sometimes over the course of weeks) and in the end not obtaining any results. Now that is something truly worthy of an endless stream of profanities.  And yet, time is precious to the seasoned researcher. Instead of the aforementioned response they remain composed, and wish themselves good luck as they sift through the 400 possible steps that could have potentially caused their negative findings. So rest assured. No matter what wrong you have committed, you can always count on a researcher to find it in their heart to forgive you.

Good with housework:
Researchers are by far the cleanest and most organized bunch of people I know. Conducting research really challenges you to be that way, from labelling all those test tubes to washing your hands more than 10 times a day in a containment level 2+ environment. That habit carries back home. A researcher’s bedroom is almost always as sanitary as his/her benchtop at work. They also make great chefs. Realize that experimental protocols are no different from overly complex recipes for fancy dishes: you add this a certain way, you add that a certain way, adjust the temperature and wait. Following cooking instructions is child’s play to the average researcher. Cleaning the mess afterwards will also not be a problem, as researchers are accustomed to picking up after themselves, and are highly skilled dishwashers owing to the constant scrubbing of tens and hundreds of beakers and flasks after experiments.  

As you can see, my fellow colleagues at HLI are indeed smart, warm-hearted, have good anger management, and are good with house work. In other words, I guess what I am trying to say is that researchers have S.W.A.G.

     

 

Summer Student, Annie Li

When people think about statisticians, they often think of us as the people who deal with numbers.

Partly this is true; we do handle data involving numbers, but being a statistician goes far beyond that.

Being a statistician means that you have to know almost “everything”. The basic skills a statistician should have are statistical skills (obviously) and analytical skills. When presented with a project to work on, we need to be able to analyse the situation and quickly determine the most suitable analyses. In order to conduct the statistical analysis, we also need to have good programming skills. I often hear people saying, “You statisticians are so amazing, I can’t do any math in my head”. The truth is, most statisticians can’t do math in their head either! We have computer programs to analyse data for us. However, we do need to know how to write code so the computer knows what to do. The technical skills are only the basics – the hard part is understanding the area that the project is in. Without some basic knowledge of the field, no statisticians will be able to make any analytical decisions or interpret the results. For example, the project I’ve been working on includes genetic data. Before doing anything, I need some knowledge of biology and genetics to help me understand the study and the data. In fact, I started my first day in HLI reading a comic book about genetics!

Working as a statistician is not just about dealing with numbers or doing analyses. I think of us as a combination of mathematicians, programmers, biologists/chemists/economists, etc., depending on the study.

 

Summer Student, Maryam Shirmohammad

My name is Maryam. I will graduate from the MSc program in Medical Physics from UBC in a couple of months. My field of expertise is in Medical Imaging and Image Processing. Here at HLI, I work in Dr. Jim Hogg’s lab. My project is to develop a Graphical User Interface (GUI) for image based analysis of lung data. I have learned a lot in the couple of months I have spent here, in particular I have gained programming skills.

I have enjoyed every single day I have spent here. Meeting new people, learning about new topics in imaging, and talking to researchers from different fields and disciplines provides excitement in my everyday work at HLI. In my free time, you can find me biking, hiking, practising yoga, and swimming in Kits pool.

 

 

Summer Student, Shivani Mysuria

My name is Shivani Mysuria. I’m an undergraduate student at UBC studying Microbiology and Immunology. I’m working as an NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) summer student in Dr. Chun Seow's lab. My project is to investigate the role of a protein called smoothelin in airway smooth muscle, and how it could potentially contribute to alleviating excessive muscle contraction in asthma. I have experience in clinical research settings, so this summer is a nice change for me as I've never worked in a lab setting before. One of my colleague's projects involves isolating sheep lungs and making them breathe on their own. I thought that was really cool to watch and learn about. I am most looking forward to learning all of the different lab techniques, especially dissecting sheep trachea!  I've spent time this summer working on my Research in Progress (RIP) presentation and writing my abstract for the Summer Student Research Day. I was a bit nervous before my RIP presentation as I've never given a talk to an audience filled with experts, graduate students, and physicians, but I found it to be a good experience and I'm glad I had the opportunity to do it. By the end of the summer, I hope to have collected enough to data to publish a paper. My experience here at HLI has been nothing but great and I hope to continue conducting research throughout my studies.

 

Summer Student, Alyssa Thurston

The HLI Lung Registry: An Invaluable Resource for Research

Diseased lungs affected by COPD.Since February 2016, I have been working with the lung registry team as an assistant. Telling people this is frequently met with blank expressions and questions like what do you do as a lung registry assistant? Or, what is a registry? This post is a short overview of what the lung registry is and what I have been doing for the past months. Hopefully this will shed some light on this important component of the Centre’s many operations.

A registry is a collection of biological samples amassed for the purpose of research. Another equivalent term commonly used is a biobank. Specimens are collected from donors who have consented for their organ tissues to be used in various research projects. The lung registry at the Centre is a biobank specializing in lung tissue for pulmonary research purposes. It is quite an impressive collection with roughly 9000 samples preserved in various ways (e.g., formalin, paraffin-embedded blocks, OCT , a type of cryoprotective embedding medium, or air inflated cores) for different projects. It’s crazy for me to think that we have some samples from the 1970s, a time when my parents were still kids. The biobank holds all types of lungs too – healthy, diseased, old, young – you name it, it’s likely we’ve got it. For me, one of the best moments working with the lung registry is when I am able to visualize just how different a healthy and diseased lung can be. The impact of holding a brittle COPD lung (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) covered in black spots from smoking is so different from seeing a picture of it in class. The variety of samples we have is perfect for the research that occurs at the Centre and is useful to research collaborators around the world.
    
Part of my role as a lung registry assistant is organizing and ensuring the maintenance of this vast collection of samples. It can be quite daunting to deal with thousands of precious samples. Some of my tasks include retrieving sample requests, assisting in whole lung processing, inventory and transferring of different sample types, and organizing patient information. You can frequently find me around the Centre sticking labels on hundreds of white plastic vials, and despite appearances, this is an extremely important aspect of registry upkeep. Proper identification and sample inventory is pertinent to maintain a comprehensive biobank to facilitate sample access for researchers. I consider the registry as the first line of defense for researchers to obtain quality data. Perhaps next time you have a lung registry sample for a project you are doing, you might think about the biobank and the years of hard work that has gone into maintaining your sample.

 

Summer Student, Guilherme Grzelkovski

What do a mechanical technician, refrigeration components, medical school, yellow scorpion venom, and sepsis have in common? Yes, you are right – absolutely nothing. But that was basically the path I followed since finishing my basic education in Brazil. Not a well defined or planned route, I confess, but certainly a road on which I have had the opportunity of different experiences and meet very special people, who were, and still are, a very important part of who I am.

Everything started in 2006, when I was 14 years old and starting high school. My Mom had always dreamed about her only child attending the Technological School in my state, which offered Technical Programs coupled with standard high school courses. Besides being an excellent opportunity to learn a profession (in my case, mechanical technician), these programs were also very strong in basic high school subjects, preparing students for the future university admission test (UAT). For these reasons, admission to these programs was very competitive. Hence in 2006, I took a preparation course alongside my current school year, in order to prepare. Fortunately I succeeded, and then spent four years in a Mechanical Technician program coupled with high school, where subjects such as math, history, and biology were combined with the technical courses, e.g. technical drawing, parts machining, thermodynamics. I consider these years as the ‘golden years’ of my life so far, when I met people that are still my best friends and when I learned the most precious lessons about life in general. 

In 2010, my last year in this program, it was time to decide what I would major in at university. Along with most of my friends, I was inclined to go to a mechanical engineering school. However, I started to feel that this was not the right profession to me. After a lot of thinking, I decided to go to medical school. This was not an easy decision for two reasons: (1) my parents didn’t like the idea very much, because it would delay my economic independence as I would have to study for six more years at least before starting to work; (2) the medical school major in Brazil is the hardest one to get into, and it’s not uncommon to meet people who study for five or six years in order to even be admitted. I knew it was a hard path to follow, but my decision was made. In order to pay for a preparation course, I got a mechanical technician job in a company that produced components for refrigeration. At the same time, I studied for the UAT. These were hard times – I  worked from 6am to 4pm and studied from 6pm to 11pm. I normally had only 4 hours of sleep per night, reason why nowadays I’m the best sleeper in the world! In 2013, after two years studying, I was admitted into medical school in my home state university. This was maybe the happiest day of my life, when I had my best friends celebrating with my parents and I – who, after a short period of hesitation, also supported me and were happy with my accomplishment. Don’t be scared by this picture – this is how we celebrate university admission in Brazil – throwing mud, paint, eggs, and flour on everybody (and drinking some beers, of course!).

In the same year, I started medical school. Everything was new for me. Wearing white, having anatomy classes, studying physiology… Every day I discovered something new that proved to me that I was now moving in the right direction. Curiously, on registration day, my fellow students tied me to a girl for orientation jokes and activities for the new students. To my surprise, this girl became my girlfriend, Amanda. 

In my second year of study I had the opportunity of work as an intern in the immunochemistry lab of my university. My project was to develop an antibody against the main peptide in venom of the yellow scorpion, which is very common in Brazil, and an important health issue. I worked here for one and a half years, until 2015. While here, I was introduced to research – article reading, looking for solutions and, most importantly, learning how to fail. Conducting research in Brazil is very difficult, because, as opposed to other countries such as Canada, our labs don’t receive much funding from either our government or the private sector. For this reason, Brazilian researchers are very good at improvising  to find solutions for day-to-day problems. 

Last year, 2015, I was accepted into a program from the Brazilian Federal Government called “Science without Boarders”. Through this program, our Government aims to fund 100 000 exchange scholarships for Brazilian undergraduate and graduate students of different areas. Luckily, I was one of them. In August 2015, I arrived in Canada for a 16 month exchange period. The first step was a four month English course at UBC’s English Language Institute. In January 2016, I began attending my first classes at UBC, in the Kinesiology and Medicine Faculties, until April. In May, I started my internship period as a summer student at HLI under the supervision of Dr. Keith Walley, Dr. John Boyd and Dr. Jim Russell. This is my richest academic experience in Canada, working alongside very experienced researchers, technicians, and students.
 
In December 2016, I’ll be heading back to Brazil to continue my studies at medical school. As this is my first time abroad, it’s impossible to measure or describe all of new things I’ve learned and experienced here. I’m really enjoying,my time. However, I am also looking forward to returning to Brazil and resuming my routine. I really miss the hospital, the patients, the classes, and of course, my parents and friends.  I still haven’t decided what specialty I’ll follow in medicine, although I know I have a tendency to choose a clinical specialty, such as cardiology, or maybe neurology, probably to work with elderly patients. However, anything can change before 2019, when I am supposed to finish. To be honest, I’m not too worried about deciding my future career direction so quickly. As my past has shown me, life is always changing and our role in it is to be open to the unknown. 

 

 
 
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