“Before the internship, I was fixated on medical school. But the experience opened so many doors. It makes me want to return to Europe and pursue more research.”
– George Wahba
“They actually do like baguettes in France, but I saw only one person wearing a beret,” jokes Paula Adler, reminiscing about her internship at École normale supérieure de Lyon through the University of Ottawa’s Summer Undergraduate International Research Internships (SIRI) program.
Now a fourth-year student completing her BSc in Biomedical Science, Adler was one of 11 students participating in the inaugural year of the program in 2012. Participants spend two months between May and July in Lyon getting hands-on experience in a scientific research laboratory.
Adler worked on synthesizing HIV-1 protease inhibitor candidates with the Bio-Organic Chemistry Group led by chemistry professor Jens Hasserodt. These inhibitors are used to treat HIV/AIDS by interfering with protease, an enzyme that is involved in the maturation and replication of the HIV virus.
“It was my first time working in a chemistry lab, and the reactions didn’t always go smoothly,” recalls Adler. “But I actually got to synthesize inhibitor candidates. These will be optimized and tested for potency and other properties, with the long-term goal being that one of our candidates goes to clinical trials.”
The results of her work were included in a paper published in a scientific journal in 2013, and she presented her research at two conferences in Canada. While Adler learned a lot about scientific methodology, the cultural experience was equally important to her.
“I think one of the most rewarding parts was learning the importance of collaboration and getting to know people there,” she says. “I learned how to be resourceful in a foreign country. I would definitely do it again.”
The internship also helped Adler narrow down her career goals. “I learned that I couldn’t be a synthetic chemist,” she explains. “There are just too many fumes!”
George Wahba is also a fourth-year student in biomedical science who participated in the SIRI program in Lyon in 2012. Like Adler, he worked on issues related to the HIV-1 protease. He interned in the laboratory of chemistry professor Paul Fleurat-Lessard, working to understand exactly how the HIV-1 protease functions so that inhibitors can be tailored more easily.
The biggest challenge for Wahba was living alone for the first time. “I was in my own apartment and had to take care of myself. I didn’t know anyone. It was also my first time in Europe and first time travelling alone,” he explains. “But it was really positive. I think the whole experience accelerated my development and maturity.
“I really enjoyed France,” he adds. “I met great people and now have connections around the world. And I appreciate the easygoing, relaxed pace of life there.”
For Wahba, the experience was transformative, not only on a personal level, but also in terms of his career plans. “Before the internship, I was fixated on medical school,” he says. “But the experience opened so many doors. It makes me want to return to Europe and pursue more research.”
A heartfelt experience for a Taiwanese intern
“It’s difficult and tedious work analyzing detailed structural aspects of heart tissue using microscopy,” explains Mary-Ellen Harper, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine whose research on metabolism has implications for heart disease. “But Kevin Huang, our intern from Taiwan, was quick, smart and eager. He contributed significantly to our research.”
Huang was one of six biomedical students from Taiwan and Japan interning for one month last summer in University labs through the Summer Undergraduate International Research Internships program. Like all of his fellow interns, he had never been to Canada.
“Initially, he looked a bit overwhelmed, but overall he seemed to have a very good time,” says Harper. “One day, he and his fellow visiting students gave a presentation on Taiwanese education and culture—it was so interesting! We also hosted a ‘thank you’ luncheon and he gave every lab member a photo postcard from Taiwan with a personal message. I was really touched.”
The internship introduced Huang—who is now in medical school back in Taiwan—to working in a Canadian medical research laboratory. Along with gaining advanced skills such as devising new research protocols and using software to analyze tissue, he received an excellent reference from Harper, which will serve him well as he moves forward in his career.
Immersed in research and German culture
Since 2011, University of Ottawa undergraduate students have participated in the Research Internships in Science and Engineering (RISE) program, working side-by-side with doctoral candidates at universities and research institutions across Germany. The summer program, run by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), is open to undergraduate students from Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom in biology, chemistry, physics, earth sciences and engineering.
Justin Michael Whitaker, now a fourth-year student in biomedical science, participated in 2012, helping synthesize an anti-cancer therapeutic at a university lab in Braunschweig, a city in north-central Germany. “The experience opened my eyes to what graduate studies are all about and encouraged me to move forward in research,” he says. “I loved the intimacy of the town and I stayed with a family, so I was really immersed in the culture.”
by Leah Geller