From Vision to MRI: Gaining Research Experience Through the Women in Engineering and Science Program

As I watched the crane transport the 4-ton magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine into the Canadian National Research Council's new Institute for Biodiagnostics building, I suddenly realised that a unique scene was unfolding before my eyes. As the crane lowered the magnet through the new building's roof, it began tipping to one side, coming close to dropping the magnet. Those tense moments, when it was unclear whether the magnet would be damaged by a fall, indicated to me the exceptional nature of this experience. I was witnessing the establishment of a new institute, from construction through its first few months of operation.

The magnet incident occurred this past summer in Halifax while I was working at the Institute for Biodiagnostics as a part of the NRC's Women in Engineering and Science (WES) program. I had come all the way from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, thanks to a 2002 WES award that employs female scientists in their second year of undergraduate study for up to three work terms at NRC institutes. I applied for this award in the fall of 2001 after learning about it through my university. The application included two references and a list of activities, as well as a cover letter describing my communication, service, and leadership skills. After 2 months of waiting, I learned in December that I had been accepted into the program.

As a part of the WES program, researchers at NRC offer mentorship and guidance to the participants while giving them the opportunity to take part in state-of-the-art research. In the two summers that I spent with the WES program, I participated in projects that covered diverse topics such as cell culture, polymer design, neurological volumetric analysis, and MRI. The WES program enabled me to develop research skills, as well as view firsthand the processes involved in advancing medical knowledge through research.

Vision Research

In the first term with WES, participants are offered a number of potential placements at NRC institutes. Students can make their selections based on their personal interests. I have always been interested in medical research, and when the opportunity arose to participate in vision research in Ottawa, I could hardly wait for my first term to begin. At the end of April 2002, I boarded a flight to Ottawa to begin working at the Institute for Chemical Process and Environmental Technology and at the Ottawa Eye Institute.

When I arrived, my supervisor and I discussed various possibilities for a research focus, and we finally hit upon a stimulating and interesting area. We decided that my project would be to begin the preliminary work required for developing a polymer coating that would be applied to the human cornea following corrective laser surgery. It involved not only preparing tissue cultures and polymers but also performing searches of the current literature. This work gave me a sense of the steps in conducting research--gathering, assessing, and applying information--and helped me develop the necessary skills. During discussions, my supervisor and I developed strategies for using knowledge from scientific papers to guide the project's approach.

Because this project involved collaboration with the Ottawa Eye Institute, I was exposed to the challenges of communicating ideas between research groups with different backgrounds. The Ottawa Eye Institute had a primarily biochemical approach to researching corneas, whereas the NRC institute focused on developing chemical polymers for use in corneal research. The challenge was to exchange information and ideas between the two institutes in accessible and understandable formats. Many meetings were held so that researchers could explain projects and give presentations on recent advances. The needs and limitations of each group were addressed frequently so as to ensure that all the researchers were aware of their roles and positions.

Multidisciplinary Research

During the first term, WES students are given the opportunity to make connections with other institutes and learn about NRC research projects being conducted across Canada. Students use this information to search for a placement in their second and third terms; it is the student's responsibility to secure subsequent placements. This enables students to develop networking skills and learn how to market themselves.

For my second WES term, I was interested in again working at an NRC institute that was conducting research with direct benefits for the medical community. I learned that a new medical research facility was being established in Halifax this summer as an extension of the Institute for Biodiagnostics in Winnipeg. Not only was I interested in the institute's proposed neurological research using MRI technology, but I was also eager to experience life in Atlantic Canada.

I soon found myself on a plane to Halifax, and from May to August of this year, I worked at the Institute for Biodiagnostics (Atlantic). At the institute, I learned about the use of MRI technology in studies of psychiatric disorders, and I was involved in a project using MRI images to measure and compare the cerebellar volumes of children with and without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Part of my responsibility was to perform literature searches in order to understand the diagnoses and causes of psychiatric disorders and to understand the theory behind volumetric analyses. There were also many opportunities to practice my presentation skills and field questions about my project during presentations of my research findings to my colleagues at the institute.

The construction and development of the institute building introduced me to the challenges of establishing a new research facility. There were many decisions to be made, ranging from choosing the colour of the floor to ordering books and establishing Internet connections to the NRC network. The collaborative efforts of individuals from many disciplines were concentrated in one building; physicists, MRI technologists, and neuroscientists worked together to understand how the brain functions in neurological disorders.

Seeing the Whole Picture

Through my experiences with WES, I have gained a greater appreciation for and understanding of the nature of research. A great deal of effort is required to generate meaningful results and deliver them in a manner that is accessible to the scientific community. I also have come to recognise the importance of developing communication and research skills in order to establish and maintain collaborative projects. Another benefit of the WES program was working alongside other young women who are interested in scientific research. We shared ideas and insights with each other, and I learned from their struggles and successes in the scientific world.

It wasn't just practical research experience that the WES program offered; the program has also enabled me to live, work, and travel in cities across Canada. Prior to receiving the award, I had travelled no farther east than Calgary, but now I have lived in both Ottawa and Halifax and have visited cities such as Toronto, Montréal, Québec City, Fredericton, and Charlottetown for weekend vacations with other students I met over the summers. The WES program has given me the opportunity to experience life across Canada and to become acquainted with many Canadian communities.

WES is not the only way in which undergraduate and graduate science students can become involved in NRC or industry research. University co-operative programs provide work placements at NRC and other companies. Such experiences can provide direction for students who are deciding whether or not to pursue research-oriented careers. I found that becoming actively involved in current research reveals the processes and challenges involved in scientific research.

But the WES program provides participants with something a regular co-op placement might not do: mentorship. WES students are matched with both a supervisor and mentor at an NRC institute, so that they can work directly with individuals involved in research areas. This partnering of students with successful scientists is the foundation of the WES program; the students work alongside their mentors and supervisors in order to learn about the scientific process and develop research skills. Some co-op placements offer similar guidance; however, the WES program implements this mentorship for all its students and places a heavy emphasis on it. In my experiences working at NRC institutes, my mentors have provided me with strong guidance and many opportunities to learn much more than the information recorded in the scientific literature. They have encouraged me to make presentations, become involved in the process of establishing a new institute, and think beyond what I have read to develop critical-thinking skills.

Having benefited from the guidance of supervisors and mentors, WES students can return to their universities and mentor other young women interested in the program. There are opportunities to provide mentorship each year at my university, Simon Fraser University; a lunch is held for prospective WES students and previous recipients to discuss the program. Providing such encouragement to other young women helps guide them along their career path and demonstrate the benefits of being involved in research during the undergraduate years.

Research experience gained through programs such as WES can help students interested in pursuing graduate studies in science determine whether research is the right career for them. Whether analysing MRI images or watching cranes on the verge of tipping over, research exposes students to the complex, multidisciplinary nature of science and the processes behind scientific exploration.

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