Reflections of a CBR-SBME Summer Student: Remote Research in the Time of COVID-19

By Cecilia Haymin Kim, Undergraduate Summer Student

Cecilia Haymin Kim is a second-year student at Princeton University who is majoring in Chemistry with minors in Global Health Policy and Materials Science. She is a recipient of the CBR-SBME Summer Studentship Award and a new writer for the CBR Knowledge Translation Committee.

To say that the past few months have been “challenging” would be a hefty understatement. Amid a global pandemic, countless aspects of our lives have undergone a radical shift: adapting to physical distancing, working from home, as well as dealing with the financial, social, and emotional toll of COVID-19. Everyday activities and long-awaited special occasions alike have either gone virtual or have been postponed/cancelled and, for many students, this also meant an unfortunate end or unexpected change in their summer plans.

Summer is a unique time for undergraduate students to relax as well as to take their learning outside the classroom as they broaden the experiences by being involved in internships, jobs, and community work to name only but a few examples. Personally, I had excitedly been preparing for a summer abroad in Paris interning at the Robert Debré Children’s Hospital through a school opportunity. However, with the focus of hospitals and healthcare heroes being the coronavirus, my internship was very understandably cancelled. This left me searching for other opportunities to be involved and make the most of my summer, which led me to discover and eagerly apply to the Summer Studentship Research Program with the Centre for Blood Research (CBR) and School of Biomedical Engineering (SBME).

The Summer Studentship grants awards for undergraduate or medical students to work on a designated project under the supervision of a Principal Investigator, Research Associate, or Postdoctoral Fellow from the CBR and SBME. In the past, projects have included hands-on work in labs, however with most facilities being closed due to the pandemic, the program rapidly adapted and evolved to provide meaningful remote research opportunities. I joined over thirty-five other students who are getting involved in many different forms of research, from conducting surveys for data analysis, to scientific communication for the general public, to machine learning and computer visualization.

I’m currently working with Dr. Heather Leitch, who is a hematologist at St. Paul’s Hospital as well as a clinical professor at UBC and the Hematology Research Director for Providence Health Care. My project consists of conducting a literature review and drawing figures for a paper on the cellular effects of oxidative stress as a result of iron overload in patients with myelodysplastic syndromes.

While remote research has presented its unique challenges, such as consistently trying to stay on task and finding that perfect level of work-life balance when it seems that the two are almost impossible to separate, it has also provided new opportunities for learning and growth. In addition to the knowledge about my research topic that I am gaining from reading and evaluating the literature, I am also learning how to use new computer software programs for the creation of figures and images, a useful skill that I might not have had the chance to develop otherwise. I’ve also been able to find community through virtual gatherings over Zoom, as we distance ourselves physically, but not socially.

The Summer Studentship students will be virtually presenting their projects on Research Day, August 13th, and sharing the results of their hard work. As we all resiliently adapt to the changing circumstances, we’re redefining what’s “normal” and finding creative and innovative ways to continue researching and learning!