Science Guidance: Amel's USRI Thoughts and Reflections

Podcast created by: Amel Sassi

Welcome to Science Guidance, a podcast created by me, Amel Sassi, about my experiences during my USRI project. Throughout this auditory experience, we explore various topics such as how to get your dream research position, to what my specific project entailed this summer! 

In this episode, we explore my experience with the USRI program! I explore what I enjoyed and how I have grown as both a student and researcher throughout this 16-week program. 

Accessible Podcast Transcript

Hello, hello, hello. Welcome back to Science Guidance, a podcast created by me, Amel Sassi, about my experiences during my USRI project. Thank you so much for tuning in this week.

Today we're going to be talking about my USRI experience and, specifically, what I think about the program, what I think about my project, what I think about all that cool, fun stuff that maybe you want to know more about. Maybe you're interested in doing the USRI project in the future. Maybe you're interested in just finding out what's available for you and what do other students do.

If you're anything like me in second year, who is just trying to find out what the heck a student researcher is and what they do, then this is the perfect episode for you, where you get to find out what are the ins and outs of an independent research project. And what does it mean to have a supervisor and to work on something? Or what do you need to know? And what kind of experiences do you need to have?

So, we're going to start off sort of just talking about the pathway of getting a USRI and then leading into my personal opinions about the program because I think it is very important to understand what is a USRI and what does it mean, and who can do it, and who can't do it.

But essentially, according to the website, and I'm going to read it off right here.

The Western Undergraduate Summer Research Internships (USRI) Program provides undergraduate students with engaged research experiences and opportunities to learn new research methods and techniques alongside faculty mentors. It also helps develop skills in preparation for future careers. At the end of the summer, students and faculty are expected to share their research, with the broader campus community during a virtual exhibition event.

And of course, here it says the 2020 program launches the first week of April. So to provide a sense of what the funding and term looks like and all of that, let's just read through this website.

Each USRI is valued at a minimum of $7,504 for a minimum of full time commitment over a 16 week period – so the entirety of the summer. More than 300 internships have been provided across all faculties and schools based on proportional undergraduate enrolment.

So for eligibility, each faculty in school manages its own cohort, a cohort of USRIs, according to their own criteria.

Western research strongly encourages faculty to consider the diversity of their awardees and to provide opportunities for students from underrepresented groups, including Black, Indigenous, students of color, Students with disabilities, students who self-identify as LGBTQ2X+ and woman as part of the ongoing commitment Western has made for equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and indigenization.

So now that we know what the USRI program is based on what I just read, you can find that all on the website, if you just type in USRI on Google. And I will speak on behalf of medical sciences because, obviously, that is the program I am part of.

The way it works is there is this portal on the website that you can apply to for Med Sci students directly, and it's essentially an application. And in order to commence an application, you need a supervisor. Which is why in my last podcast episode, where I talked about how to get your dream research opportunity, I mentioned what you should include in a cold email, what you should include in an interview, what you should talk about and all of that. So you might have to cold email some of those supervisors in order to get involved and to get a USRI, because you cannot apply without a supervisor – without one of those faculty mentors, as it says on the website.

So for me, I cold emailed my current supervisor, and he was primarily involved in musculoskeletal research, specifically studying osteogenesis imperfecta, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis. All that fun, fun, fun stuff that I was obsessing over after my experiences and second year. And in my mind, at least, I think we clicked right away. I enjoyed what he was studying. I was very interested and it showed in my interview, and we decided to get started on the application. So it was literally just that.

So I had to start off by submitting emails to supervisors. And this was risky. But for me, I think I only sent out a couple, like maybe three in total because I wanted to really find a faculty mentor that I was interested in and that actually did something that I wanted to do. And that was, like I mentioned before, rheumatoid arthritis, something with tendon research, something with ligament research, muscularity, earlier musculoskeletal research, anything along those lines. I wanted that. I knew what I wanted, and I knew that there were certain supervisors who did that, and it was granted a very small handful.

But I said “That's the only way I can do this program. I'm not going to do it with something else”, and I know some people might be like, "Oh, well, expand your horizons. You never know what you want to find out". But the thing is, I knew what I wanted to study, and I loved it so much that I wanted to get more experience in that area. So I was committed to finding a supervisor who did just that, and luckily I found one.

And so I submitted an email and he said, “This is amazing. Let's get started on the interview process” because there's obviously going to be a couple other students who email as well, right?

And then there's interviews where the supervisor has to select who is who they want to support, or who they want to fund for the USRI. So they're only allowed to pick one student. So in my case, we matched it through emails and then an interview. I got to know him better, know his research better. And it was great. And I remember walking out of the interview feeling so stressed, but at the same time, so relieved because I felt like I was getting one step closer to what I wanted to study.

I was like, "This is it. This is everything I've ever wanted. I just feel like on cloud nine". And I was just so, so excited. And then a couple days later, I get the email back once again saying “It was great to meet you”, and “I would love to support you through this application”. I was like, "Whoa. Yes!". It's just excitement all around because for the larger programs, the chance to find a supervisor might be a little bit harder because there are other students who are looking for the same supervisor, but I was lucky enough to have been selected by him. And so we went through this application, and you basically – for medical science once again – you fill out the application with information on your grades – so your GPA -, your extracurricular activities and involvement, the awards you've achieved. And I think that's about it. But essentially, it's just that it's a lot of talking about what your past experience in research is. What are some of the extracurriculars you're involved in. And on top of that, what are some of the awards and things that you you've gotten over a lifetime. And that was the application.

And then I think I heard around April – towards middle end of April -, and I remember people were like, "Oh yeah, today's the day we're going to get it", it was on Reddit, the UWO Reddit page. People are like, "OK, I think today's the day we're going to get it. I think we're going to get noticed for today” Today, today, today. And then it was a Friday, I think, and they were like, “Oh, actually, we're going to hold off until next week because they needed extra time”. And then I was like, “I'm so stressed already, but whatever”. But in the end, I think it was also on Friday – I don't remember the exact date -, but I was waiting all day, like my phone was like glued to my hand. I had my email open on my computer, my phone, my hand, 24-7. Everywhere I moved, my phone was with me and I was just waiting for the email and this is what was going on in my mind,”this could changed my whole life around” because I had been stuck in quarantine – not quarantine specifically -, but obviously it was a stay at home order.

And I had been at home for almost a year at that point. It was great spending time with family, being surrounded, and all that. But I just felt like I stopped professionally. I felt like I was stuck in my life. There was nothing I could do in person anymore. I felt like everything I was doing was just virtual. Any experience I was getting was virtual. Clubs had been virtual at that point. So really, all the experiences I had, all interactions I had were virtual, virtual, virtual. I was so exhausted by that.

So when I finally got the email, and it was like 7:00 p.m., I was like “No way”. And I just remember running up to my mom and be like, “look at this, like, this is it, like I'm free, I’m finally free” Oh my goodness, it was just amazing. So I was so excited because I knew that now I got to do the very thing I'd been waiting for a year to do, which is study tendon, study ligaments or study rheumatoid arthritis, study musculoskeletal research, anything along those lines. I just wanted to get my hands on. And I had been looking through articles and I'd been researching on my own time because, like I said before, this is something I was very much interested in.

It wasn't something that it was just like, “Oh, I think I find it like fun. I think it's OK”. I was obsessed with it. So I spent even my free time just looking in Nature. Like all of that pub med, 24-7, I was checking what was available. You know, what are some new advancements that they were doing? Is there anything fun? And I was just reading through it. I don't think I ever told my supervisor this, but I read his articles too.

It was just at that point. I was just trying to get anything I could just in my mind. I was like, “I want to know more and more and more and more and more”. And so when I got that confirmation, I was like, “I can't wait”. And so, obviously, for the next couple of days – because we got started around May, like beginning of May – I had about two weeks to prepare, get my life together, go to London, settle down and get started.

And initially, I don't know why. I guess in my mind, I kind of went in with the idea that I'd start in the lab right away. I'd be like cooking up a storm, getting all my experiments going, and immediately I would find and make some great breakthrough, some amazing discovery. Maybe I'd win a Nobel Prize along the way, something along those lines. I was like, “This is it. This is going to be my year”.

And it's always good to, I think, to be a dreamer. And I think it's always good to be optimistic about what you want out of life. But I think also, at the same time, it is very, very important to understand your limits and be realistic at times, too. This had been one of the first independent research projects that I was going to do. And who knows, maybe I could have gotten a Nobel Prize along the way. But the likelihood of that obviously would be extremely rare during the four month project. And the reality was, I'd have to do training and I'd have to go through the literature, and I had to do all of that before I could even step foot in a lab. And now, looking back at it, I think I was a very much an idealist going in. But once again, I think I was just driven by passion, driven by whatever. To the point where I was like “I want to do this and I want to get started and I want to do anything that I possibly can”, so I was happy with.

And so I met with my supervisor. Amazing experience. Very, very intelligent to the point where I was shocked because I had any question ever and he'd answer it in like two seconds and I'd be like, "what? What?". So I thought that was just crazy because that's everything I've ever wanted to be. Just completely knowledgeable about that subject to the point where you can have that conversation, and talk about things, and be able to analyze data and understand it to the point where if anyone asks you a question, you know what's going on, or if you even want to just talk about the subject briefly, you know what's going on. So that was just fascinating to me. Being in that environment, even virtually, where I get to communicate with someone who is so incredibly knowledgeable about musculoskeletal research and tendons, and all of that stuff, was just breathtaking to me.

It was just Amazing, in every sense of the word, because I had gone from working in that clinical environment where I was in the hospital being surrounded by people who are doing work, the practical side of things and applying what they knew. And so often I feel like we didn't cover a lot of the science of it. We'd cover like, "OK, this is the drug. What are the patients feeling?" All of that, “So what is the physical manifestation of the disease? What happens when things go wrong?” That's what I was doing in second year, to now looking at “What's going on at the cellular level? What is happening normally, what is a typical day to day life for a tendon? What happens during mecano-transduction? What happened?” And I would ask you to tune in to my very last episode where I summarize my entire topic and talk about tendons. I obsess over them for 40 or 50 minutes straight. So tune in to that.

But that's it. And it was just sort of a very incredible topic that I was amazed by. But the reality is, when I first came in, I had to do a lot of literature review. And of course, I was doing that on my own time before, but not to the extent that was required for my project. Of course, I was just reading an article every now and then, keeping up to date, just checking like “what's a tendon? What's a ligament? What's going on there?” to now reading more complicated articles where they're conducting experiments. So I was reading originally review articles, and now I was reading sort of like those primary articles, serious articles where they're conducting an experiment asking “what's going on, what's happening?”. And now I had to be able to apply and think critically and all of that. And at first, I found that very, very, very overwhelming. But like I said, my supervisor was there to help me every step of the way to the point where if I even wanted to just clarify what a word meant, he would do that for me.

So I'm eternally grateful for that because I always felt like there was something that I could rely on, and there was someone I could rely on when things got confusing or when things got overwhelming. Because obviously, starting with an independent research project, you're not expected to know everything. You're an undergraduate student. Yeah, you know the basics. Yeah, you've had a couple of courses where you've been introduced to the topic, but certainly not to the level of someone who's been studying it for years. But I guess I went in with the mentality that I would have that knowledge, and I don't know why I did.

It boggles my mind why I seem to continuously tell myself that that was the case. But nonetheless. That was the first couple of weeks. That was pretty much it, it was doing literature review, research online, everything was entirely virtual. And I felt like, yeah, I moved to London and I wasn't necessarily at home, but I was still doing things virtually. And I think we can thank, you know, a very kind virus for that. But still, it was just amazing that I'd been introduced to this complicated yet fascinating subject. I had someone who understood the topic in its entirety and I could go to them whenever I needed help. And I loved it. But at the same time, I felt like just still sort of stuck. I felt like I was just reading

And this happened about four weeks in. I was just reading, reading, reading, reading, reading and trying to understand, trying to make sense of everything. What's a tendon, what's a ligament? What's this? What's that? What does it mean if we have this? What's a tendonopathy? What happens when diseases happen, and all of that. And I remember I was off to go get my vaccine in one of the plazas. I don't even remember where I was, like a couple of minutes away from from where I live. And I had Uber there and I was just finishing getting my vaccine, actually. And so I was ready to come home. And I hopped into the Uber and the Uber driver asks me, "Well, so what do you do?". He asked me, "Are you a student?" And I was like, "Oh yeah, I'm doing a summer research project with Western this year". And he's like, "Oh, it's pretty cool. What are you doing?" And I was like, "Oh, I'm studying tendons, and we're looking at it from the perspective of this, and that, development, inflammatory pathways. I read a little bit about like rheumatoid arthritis, osteogenesis, imperfecta and osteoarthritis", and he's like, "Oh, hold on rheumatoid arthritis. No way". He's like, "my mother would love you". And I was like, "what?"

And I remember it was like a 15 minute ride, and I was just sharing everything about my research and I was just talking and talking and talking and talking. He was so fascinated and interested. He asked me questions. He's like, "Well, what happens if you have this? What happens if you have that?" And. At the end of it, he goes and he says, "you know, keep up with your good work. I can't wait to see you as a full blown scientist".

Like What? So I got to sit down. I get home, sit down on the couch and I'm like, “What just happened? Scientist? researcher? what's going on?” That's so crazy to me. That sounds so foreign. That word, I don't know. I felt like it held so much weight. And you know, you might be listening to this and you're like, “what? I doubt that”. But it was just in that moment I felt like that was everything that I wanted to hear. Because I felt like I was only reading, I felt like I wasn't contributing to anything. I felt like I didn't know anything.

I was hit once again with that same imposter syndrome that I didn't deserve to be here, that something was going wrong, that they maybe picked the wrong person because I just don't know what's going on. I feel like I'm constantly asking for help. I don't know what's going on, what research is. I don't know what a tendon is. Nah, I knew what a tendon was. But still, it was that 15 minute ride that solidified that this is what I need to be doing. This is it. I knew my stuff. I knew what I was talking about. I knew what I had been researching about. And granted, of course, there were some questions that were out of my realm like, obviously can't talk too much about rheumatoid arthritis, but still just being able to hold the conversation sufficient enough to talk to someone who is mildly knowledgeable about the disease at whole, and about what a tendon is, about what a bone is, and all that stuff.

It was just an amazing experience, and I remember I felt like my life had shifted at that point, I felt like my whole perspective on the USRI project shifted. I'd gone from feeling a little bit stuck to now feeling serious about the topic. I felt like I was getting somewhere with all of it. That was about four weeks in and it was just amazing in every sense of the word and around.

I can remember just feeling now so excited, at that point, to just read anything new to talk about it. And I was on the phone with my parents or whatever talking about the subject on the phone, with my mom, constantly saying, "Hey, do you want to hear something fascinating? Want to hear about this article?" just constantly sharing information. And you know, I'm years away from being a scientist. I'm years away from being a real researcher or anything along those lines, but just having the experience as an undergraduate student to get a deeper understanding of a specific area in science, has been one of the best experiences of my life and that's why in the introduction of the podcast, I felt the need to literally call this the best summer of my life because I truly believe that this summer has changed, in every sense of the word, the trajectory of my life. I honestly feel like if it wasn't for this USRI project, I would have not known much about research. I would not have known much about what was out there. What do researchers do? What do supervisors do? And all of that. And I'm so lucky now that restrictions have loosened up that I can now be in the lab applying what I've learned over the last couple of weeks, to then put out there, and to apply it, to really use it and understand what I'm doing in terms of cell culturing and all of that fun stuff. But I think if it wasn't for the rigour and the difficulty of the first couple of weeks, where I felt sometimes lost and sometimes a little bit confused, that I wouldn't have appreciated finally being in the lab.

Once again, I think I say this for every experience in my life, especially when related to research. It absolutely is something that I am eternally grateful for because it's taught me so much. It's taught me to appreciate the little small things that lead up to the final thing. So now as I present, as you come to the end of my USRI project and I have to present my topic to the lay audience, to people who maybe don't know much about science, who maybe don't know much about a tendon at whole. I can speak to them like I did with that Uber driver, I can talk with passion, I can talk with hope, with every little bit of enthusiasm that I have in me to present the topic and to be able to communicate with others and show them what I've been working on for these last 16 amazing weeks of my life.

And so for any of you that are interested in what a USRI project is, what does that mean? What does that entail? You know, what are you doing? Is it actually worth it or not? Absolutely 100%, yes. If you are someone who is on the cusp of wanting to learn more about research, who has maybe a little bit of experience from before, or even if you have a lot of experience, truthfully. Do it 100%, do it, sign up, get started. Find a supervisor, find someone that you're interested in, whose topic fascinates you.

These 16 weeks have zoomed by, didn't even feel like 16 weeks. It felt like two weeks. It felt like so fast because every single week felt like I'd been uncovering and unravelling something new and learning more. And now I've gone to a point where I feel like I understand the tendon and I understand what's going on with signalling pathways, inflammatory pathways, mechanic transduction, all of that fun stuff.

Tune in to my podcast episode about tendons. Of course, I have not an expert knowledge, but I now have the steps in my life where I can study it full time. I can now put all my energy into finding positions, finding career goals, finding something that matches with what I did in these 16 weeks to continue to unravel and fully understand the tendon. And who knows, maybe one day that Nobel Prize will come, you know? But really, it's just an amazing experience because the way it works is the USRI project allows you to work with the faculty mentor to learn the skills required for research, but most importantly, allows you to contribute to or create research outputs.

So in my case, my research output is a poster. It is also this podcast where I talk about all my experiences and emotions and presentations. So a final presentation poster. And I had a presentation like halfway through – around week twelve – where I talked about my project thus far to a bunch of other supervisors who are focused on musculoskeletal research and all the other students who are doing SSHRC, anything along those lines.

And being in an environment where you can talk about something that people are also familiar with, and you can get feedback, and discuss, and talk, and just share ideas. It's like fangirling at this point. It was incredible, because I got to do that poster, I got that experience from doing a poster, sharing, talking, communicating with people who were familiar with signs, familiar with tendons, familiar with musculoskeletal research. And to now at the end of my project, creating a presentation that is for the general audience who maybe is not as familiar with what science may be, or with what tendons may be, or musculoskeletal research may be.

It's so important to have that varying degrees of audiences because it shows whether you know your stuff or not. And I think for these last 16 weeks, like I mentioned a bazillion times, now you guys are probably annoyed at this, but I've gotten such a deep understanding of what a tendon is and what it means to have tendonopathy and what it means to have mechanics, transduction and inflammatory pathways and pure energy signaling and all that crazy fun stuff. And it came to life right in front of me, and I'm so eternally grateful for every single experience I've had with this program, with my supervisor.

The feedback from my supervisor, the feedback from my peers, other researchers and all of that because I don't think I could have gotten this virtually anywhere else because. Luckily, you know, Western offers this program and allows undergraduates to get a better understanding of it all, and the best thing about the USRI program, is that not only do you get the chance to present and talk about your science or your faculty related project, but you also get to attend these amazing professional development sessions, which essentially highlight a number of different skills that are important to research.

Whether it's how do you do literature searches in an effective manner? How do you create a poster presentation?, how to use NVivo? How do you navigate databases? How do you do data analysis? All of these amazing development sessions that allow you to learn skills that employers are looking for, that are required for your future jobs, your future postgraduate plans, anything along those lines. And honestly, even though some people were like, "Oh well, you need to take a break, you need to relax, you need to take a vacation at the end of this, you know, you need to do it to relax before you head off to school and start a full course load." I don't feel like I have been working, and I don't mean that in the way of like, “Oh, I'm not worried”, I mean that in the sense of “I've just felt like I've been learning and I've been learning in a very like hands on yet casual yet fun, enthusiastic, amazing approach.

So that's very much just all my opinions and thoughts about the USRI program. So if you are ever in the point of your life where you want to apply, and you want to just get an independent research project, and explore the topic with another researcher, I encourage you to do it. And if you want to learn more about my topic and understand what my project is that I keep obsessing over and talking about for hours on end, please, please, please watch my podcast episode where I talk about my project at whole and what I've been doing for these last six weeks. If that is something that interests you, I absolutely encourage every one of you, if you're listening to check this out, to explore all the different undergraduate research opportunities that Western or your school has to offer because it's a magical experience. I think it's an experience unlike any other. It’s better than your formal lab experiences in your courses.

I don't want to say better because that sounds mean, but it is just, I think, one step above. You could apply what you've learned from the last couple of years into something so magical. If you ever get the chance to do it, do it, go for it, go crazy because you learn so much. You learn so much about scholarly writing, about conducting literature searches, about how to publish your work. Some people don't even talk about that. That's such a confusing topic. And now we have a professional development session where you get to explore what exactly goes on there all the way, to one of my favourite personal topics is equity, diversity, inclusion and decolonization. Yes. Yes, yes. All important topics that I think are super relevant and very important to any program, anything at all. So once again, thank you so much for listening to this podcast episode where we talked about my USRI project, my reflections, my experiences, all of that at whole. And as always, I hope you found this science guidance helpful. Thank you so much and have an amazing day.

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