CBR Graduate Awards Program: Riding the COVID-19 Pandemic Rollercoaster

By Peter Grin, PhD Candidate, Overall Lab

The CBR Graduate Awards Program (GAP) is exceptional at providing graduate students in the CBR with both generous funding and — arguably more importantly — a well-rounded professional development experience. Such professional development opportunities are aimed at improving scientific communication skills through presentations, posters and journal critiques, as well as developing important teamwork and organizational skills through planning a CBR event.

For the 2019-2020 GAP cohort, our “icebreaker” involved introducing ourselves through a brief 3-Minute-Thesis presentation about our own research topics. We would eventually share our research with each other in much more detail during our 30-minute presentations in the second term of the program. After becoming acquainted with our fellow GAP peers, CBR Director Dr. Ed Conway demonstrated how to complete a journal critique in a “chalk-talk” style (meaning no slides!), which we would all later strive to replicate for scientific topics as wide as our imaginations. In fact, I specifically remember Dr. Conway saying that we could even critique papers on black holes if we really wanted to, although the perceived gravity of physics knowledge required for this failed to pull us in! Nonetheless, we learned about topics ranging from antimicrobial drug targets to Huntington’s disease, to machine learning and much more in between. We then applied the science communication skills we developed through these critiques to our own oral or poster presentations at the 2019 Earl Davie Symposium in November. Together, we enjoyed most of these learning experiences face-to-face during simpler times, before everything changed.

Some members of the 2019-2020 GAP cohort preparing CBR GAP Treat Yourself Care Packages.

Needless to say, living through the COVID-19 pandemic was not on the GAP itinerary; however, we had no choice but to face this challenge with our fair share of adaptation, along with the rest of the world. For instance, our super exciting Super Nintendo & Board Games night planned for mid-March had to be postponed indefinitely due to necessary physical distancing restrictions put in place by UBC (as well as by B.C. public health professionals, led by the now famous Dr. Bonnie Henry). At first, we collectively brainstormed ways to take this Video + Board Games event online, but decided in the end that what everyone needed the most was to feel cared for during these uncertain and trying times – hence our decision to organize and distribute the CBR GAP Treat Yourself Care Packages. Courtesy of CBR sponsorship, these wonderful packages had everything from comfort food, to scented soaps and stress-relief candles, fun “throwback” items such as Play-Doh, blank jigsaw puzzles for the artistically-inclined to illustrate their own, and much more!

We may have missed out on some traditions of the CBR Graduate Awards Program, like a social GAP event or a typical group photo with everyone squeezed into < 2 m2. However, I choose to focus on the optimistic view of being part of the first GAP cohort to take a physically distanced group photo with everyone wearing masks, while assembling Care Packages for our CBR members to enjoy. And there was no shortage of laughs or good times in the process!

In closing, on behalf of the CBR GAP 2019-2020 Awardees, I would like to extend a special ‘Thank You!’ to Dr. Stefanie Mak, the CBR’s Education Program Manager, for guiding us through this exciting journey! And thank you to the entire CBR Administrative team for all of your hard work behind-the-scenes to help make this fantastic program possible each and every year!