Teresa Law is a fourth year UBC co-op student studying chemistry. For her current work term, she is at STEMCELL Technologies as an analytical chemist. She is expected to graduate from UBC with a minor in French after one more year. Prior to her co-op experience, she had been involved with UBC’s Let’s Talk Science and completed the UBC Science One Program. Teresa is also a graduate from David Thompson Secondary School in Vancouver and was a leader of the school’s Green Team, in which she and other Green Team leaders initiated the community-wide composting project BIoCYCLE as a part of Vancouver Foundation’s Generation Green Awards.
Can you explain, in simple words, what your field of study is?
My intended fields of study in my career are cancer research and/or environmental chemistry. While pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in chemistry, I found that the fields I am most interested in are synthetic chemistry and materials chemistry, which I first found out about in an integrated chemistry lab course.
What exactly is integrated chemistry?
When I say integrated chemistry, I mean that there are many different categories of chemistry in academia: analytical chemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, physical chemistry, materials chemistry, synthetic chemistry…. And what I learned during my degree was that to solve complex problems in real life, a lot of these different types of chemistry are applied together.
For example, in cancer research, to solve biological problems we need to apply fundamental chemical principles. By applying organic chemistry, we can synthesize a bioactive molecule that targets a specific biological pathway that perhaps leads to the death of a cancer cell. Using analytical chemistry, we can detect the amount of bioactive molecule needed to bring that cancer cell down. Synthetic, organic, and analytical chemistry can be used together for the discovery of new drugs and technologies that treat and diagnose many diseases.
What do you find most interesting about Chemistry?
What I find most interesting about chemistry is the endless possibilities of applications there are for all types of chemistry I have learned in my degree. For example, using analytical chemistry you can test the amount of arsenic in water to ensure that it is safe to drink. In my third year, I took two upper-level lab courses called Integrated Chemistry Laboratory I and II, where I had the chance to conduct different experiments in different fields within chemistry. In a particular integrated chemistry lab experiment I did in that course, I synthesized my own iridescent opal sheet just by applying the chemistry lab techniques I have learned throughout my degree – this was the experiment that got me interested in synthetic and materials chemistry.
By applying chemical principles, I can synthesize a new material – which means that I can possibly, at a microscopic level, synthesize a new molecule that can potentially target pathways in cells to help treat diseases.
What inspired you to choose Chemistry over other fields of science or even faculties?
To be honest, my first choice was biochemistry, not chemistry. In a series of unfortunate events, I had an accident during finals season one year, and that cost me the grades I needed to get into biochemistry. That left me with my second choice: chemistry. Ideally, given my intended career path to study cancer research, I would’ve preferred going into biochemistry, but the more I studied chemistry, the more I realized that I can still reach my career goal.
What inspired me to choose the faculty of science and the fields of biochemistry and chemistry is the fact that I want to devote my career to helping others. The possibility of discovering something groundbreaking is exciting as well. I believe that it’s possible for any of us to discover or create something that could potentially change the world – in any field of study. If you can dream it, you can do it.
What’s your favourite place to eat at UBC?
Since the Nest at UBC newly opened after my winter term last year (I’m on co-op this year and never on campus), and the food places at the old SUB have moved to the Nest, I can only tell you that my favourite place to eat from last year was at the Honour Roll. But I believe they changed their name at the Nest to Peko Peko Sushi. A bit pricey – what isn’t at UBC? – but good sushi, wakame, and sunomono salads!
My favourite place to get a snack is Blue Chip Cookies. I believe at the Nest they’re listed under the shop Uppercase. What UBC student can resist the amazing deliciousness of a Marbelous cookie?
I see that you work at STEMCELL Technologies, can you tell us what you do there and describe a typical day at co-op?
I am an analytical chemist working primarily with HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) studies, testing the concentrations of components in media for content analysis, stability studies, and method development and validation. I test samples mostly for our research and development department, and sometimes with our quality control and product development departments as well.
HPLC is an analytical chemistry technique. It involves injecting a sample containing a mixture of certain molecules into a machine that has a column with adsorbent material. Because different molecules have different properties, their retention times would differ. A chromatogram that then generates from the machine will show a signal strength vs. retention time graph, which shows multiple peaks, each of which corresponds to a different molecule in the mixture. The peak areas or peak heights can then be used to calculate the concentrations of the molecules present in the sample. This is important because in applications such as biochemistry, cells can die if the proportion of the components is incorrect.
A typical day at co-op for me is arriving at 8:30 AM, going into our HPLC room to check on my experiment that ran overnight on the HPLC instrument, processing data and typing up the data in a summary report to be sent out to the original requestor of the analysis. Usually these requestors are senior scientists or research associates that need these analyses to make sure the media they are using on their cells has the correct concentrations of certain components, in order to move forward with their experiments.
Throughout the day I prepare samples for the next analysis, write up reports for previous experiments, help out in the lab by restocking lab supplies, and research information in scientific literature for HPLC method development. Whenever I have questions or any problems I would turn to my research tech Elaine, who is my direct supervisor and the other person in our two-person team for analytical chemistry in our R&D department.
My daily schedule is flexible and I can plan it around sample prep, experiments, and my other lab and office tasks. My lunch and break times vary every day, but I try to keep a somewhat consistent schedule from day to day. My work ends at 4:30 pm with me summarizing what I’ve accomplished for the day and confirming my tasks for the next day with my research tech.
But it’s not all work at STEMCELL Tech. This company has a significant social component to it: monthly snack time mingling events during afternoon break, Halloween costume and workspace design contests, pre-screenings of company product videos (with popcorn included!), interdepartmental Christmas video contests, Christmas luncheons at an outside venue (e.g. a hotel), sports teams, and more!
We are actually planning a tour of the STEMCELL Technologies facilities. What do you think people on the tour should ask about or look at while they are there?
If you are touring the Station St facility (where I am doing my co-op), and if you are interested in biotechnology, I suggest reading up on our website first (www.stemcell.com) – click on About Us and then News. Find out what our company’s updates are, see what topic you are interested in most, and then ask about what you find yourself curious about. I read somewhere recently that curiosity comes from knowledge deprivation: you won’t know what you are curious about until you gain knowledge about it, and find out what gaps in your knowledge you are missing and want to learn more about.
That being said, to my best knowledge, our Station St facility contains most of our lab spaces. So if you are coming here, the scientists that work in our labs will be the ones to turn to for answering your most scientific questions.
As for what to look at, the instruments we work with are pretty neat. I would suggest finding out how they work and what our scientists use them for! The Station St facility is also a very modern building in terms of its design. The totem poles on fifth floor are definitely worth checking out. The high ceiling of the fifth floor also adds to the impressive architecture.
Co-op is a pretty competitive program, what do you think set you apart from other candidates when you applied?
Application to the UBC Science Co-op program depends on meeting the minimum GPA average, but also depends on your resume and how you perform during the interview. I think what set me apart was what was on my resume and how I conveyed myself when my co-op coordinator interviewed me.
Make sure you get involved in extracurricular activities, volunteering, and perhaps even have part-time job experience (doesn’t necessarily have to be in your field) – these will build your soft skills: teamworking skills, organization skills, communication skills, et cetera. These were the traits that I demonstrated in my extracurriculars, volunteering, and part-time job experiences, and these are what employers look for. Also, another plus from having these experiences are the number of references you gain – people who can vouch for your skills. These are also very important for employers, and co-op coordinators look for what will appeal to potential employers.
During the co-op program interview, I was prepared, confident, and as relaxed as I can be (but maybe just a little bit nervous). It’s okay to be nervous – everyone is during an interview – but just don’t let it get the best of you and distract the interviewer from the skills you are trying to show off. I think my co-op coordinator saw my potential from how I conveyed myself and from the experiences and skills I talked about, and that was most likely how I got into the program. If the process of applying to co-op feels hard, it is because they want to know you have what it takes to then get jobs within the co-op program.
Application to jobs within the co-op program is a little bit different. Compared to applying to co-op, this felt harder, but it didn’t feel impossible. Employers are the ones sifting through resumes and cover letters, and conducting the interviews, and their main goal is to find who will best fit into their team. Once you get through the stage where they choose you based on your resume and cover letter, they then try and see how you are in person in the interview. Grades at this point count minimally: they want to be able to imagine you working alongside their employees, and it’ll be based on your personality. Different employers look for different things at this stage, and it’ll depend on the personality of the team as well. The things they look for can include your teamwork skills, organization skills, work ethic, and how well you would fit into their team in general. I can tell that my employer chose me partly because of my personality, because once I started working at STEMCELL I got along with everyone immensely well. For those of you worrying about marks, they are definitely factors that are taken into consideration, but they are not the only factors. If there is a position where they have a minimum GPA listed and you don’t meet it, don’t let that stop you from applying. There is a chance that not too many people applied to it and you may fit in the team better than some of those other people.
What’s the coolest thing happening in your field that many people may not know about?
The coolest thing that I recently heard about was that scientists have been able to grow miniature organs in petri dishes using stem cells. I believe it could lead to a lot of research opportunities. For one, we can use these petri dish organs as targets for drug testing. This can potentially decrease the need for testing with animal organs – for example, testing with animal cells will generate a potentially different response than testing with human cells. I am not sure about the fine details, but it sure sounds pretty cool to me.
What’s your proudest accomplishment so far?
My proudest accomplishment on my resume is a project I did in my graduating year of high school, which left a legacy behind not just at my school but in my community. It was called BIoCYCLE, and it was a project that four of my friends and I proposed to Generation Green Awards. We won a $12,500 grant towards project expenses, and spent four months developing and executing the project. Its goal was to create a composting system within our local community in South Vancouver through volunteers collecting compost by bike from local businesses to transport to the composter at our high school, David Thompson Secondary. To my knowledge, it is still running although I am no longer part of it. It feels like a legacy that I have left behind and they are always looking for volunteers. Within the budget, we also created a lipdub video incorporating ~300 participants with Pull Focus Films to raise awareness for the importance of sustainability.
My proudest accomplishment not on my resume is realizing that grades are not everything. You can still pursue your dreams if you are determined enough, and one way or another, you’ll get there. I realized that the path to success, however you define success (whether it is reaching that career goal you’ve always wanted, getting that dream job, or just being happy in general), is not a straight line. There will be detours along the way, and all of those detours will lead to experiences and opportunities that you couldn’t possibly plan for. So make a career plan ahead of time, yes, but don’t get discouraged or be surprised if it doesn’t pan out the way you planned it to. Just don’t lose sight of your goal and you’ll get there eventually, no matter how it plays out.
What do you enjoy doing outside of school?
I enjoy reading immensely. I’m a huge bookworm. I’m most interested in science fiction and fantasy, psychology, quantum physics, and classics. In fact, I have about 50+ books stacked up on my coffee table as we speak, all of which I am currently reading. (When I say psychology and quantum physics, I don’t mean the textbooks. I highly recommend psychology books by Brené Brown, such as Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, and quantum physics books such as The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene. I also have a book by Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design, coming in the mail on Monday!)
What’s the biggest misconception you had about university before you entered it?
That grades mean everything. But no, they don’t. I went into university as a student who’s been in the top 5% of her class for years, and I expected to be somewhere at the top when I hit university as well. The reality is, university is a place where everyone is brilliant in some way, and it houses the best of the best. To compare yourself with other people who are just as brilliant as you are in terms of grades in university will destroy you.
Know that you got into university because you belong there, that you were picked because you have the skills necessary to achieve greatness in your undergraduate career. Try and get involved in some way, whether it’s to join a club or simply attending a meet and greet night with your profs. Volunteer. Get part-time job experience. Have fun. Networking and making friends are just as important as studying: the key is to find balance. Don’t lose yourself in the books, and keep your chin up and your eyes on the prize (your dream goal). Remember why you are studying what you are studying, and you will eventually get there.
Do you have any advice for high school students deciding on and applying to universities?
Get involved in extracurricular activities, volunteer, and sign up for your school’s work experience program if there is one. Make sure you have experience and skills outside of academics – universities look for those. Applicants with extracurricular experiences stand out much more than those who only have high grades to show. (That being said, fill out your supplemental applications!)
Looking back, do you think you missed any opportunities in high school or early university that you would recommend high school students to seize?
I don’t think I missed any opportunities in high school; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. I think I took every opportunity in high school outside of academics and my time was always filled with some extracurricular activity, from extra language and music lessons to volunteering and extracurricular projects – all the while keeping my spot on the Principal’s List every year. I also took part in my high school’s Work Experience 12 program, which is an excellent program for high school students to get a bit of toe-dipping into the field that they are interested in. I was also part of more than five clubs and took leadership roles in two of them; I was on the badminton team; I joined the Explore program and went to Quebec City for two months for a free, government-funded French language summer program. The government pretty much paid for everything except the plane tickets there. I would recommend going after you turn 18 because that’s when you get free time in the afternoon, rather than having to spend time in organized activities. I was in Scouts and achieved my Duke of Edinburgh Bronze Award and worked towards my DoE Silver Award, getting myself outdoors on expeditions up mountains to explore our beautiful province. Bottom line: get involved!
Once you hit university it’s a bit harder to incorporate extracurricular activities, because the academic workload in university is tougher to handle. I would say try to get involved if you can, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t. Everyone struggles in first and second year with the transition from high school to university, and you’re not alone. I blame the school system – the gap between high school and university is too big for students to try and transition on their own. Either high school needs to be tougher academically or university needs to have programs for transitioning students. If you find that you CAN balance your workload enough to get involved, bravo! I definitely missed opportunities in joining the university social life, such as clubs and undergrad society events, but I have one more academic year after co-op to try!
How were your experiences with the UBC Science One Program, or first couple of years of university in general?
In university, the workload is different from high school. You have to do all the readings on your own time. Professors expect you to know what they are talking about when you get to lectures. That means you have to do pre-readings. First year was harder for me than second year was, but many of my friends say the opposite. (The transition between high school and university is a bit harder if you enter the Science One Program. But I have heard from some friends that were not in the program that they thought the transition was not that difficult – although they did think the gap between first and second year was harder to adjust to, whereas being a Science One alumni you would think second year is much easier.) You should also get to know some of the professors one-on-one during your undergraduate years, because they can be really helpful.
As for Science One, the program was definitely challenging. It was tough and dense in content. There were about 100 pages of reading per week. However, it is a program where you stay in your class of about 70 and instead of going to different professors, they come to your class. Being in a small class, we felt pretty close to each other. I remember we had a field trip to Bamfield on Vancouver Island, where we stayed for four days. That was when our class really bonded and we all became close friends. We did marine biology labs where we laid out lines from the shore to the ocean and used grid templates to try to measure the population of different aquatic organisms. During the nighttime, the water would glow because of the various bioluminescent creatures under water. I remember stirring the water with a stick and the glow emanated from the bottom of the water to the top – the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
Do you have any last words for high school students or students in general?
Don’t tie your self-worth to grades. At the end of the day, they are just numbers. There is so much more to you than grades. One of the things that changed my life was finding out how to deal with comparison. There was an excellent article published on UBCfyi about mental health. It’s a great article and it was actually written by Aaron Bailey, who was a classmate of mine when I was in Science One and is now the AMS president. In general, just don’t be too hard on yourself!
December 19, 2015
Interviewer: Patrick Wong
Editor: Wennie Wei