Leader in the Spotlight: Cody Lo, Undergraduate Researcher Phenom & Science Advocate

Our April 2015 Leader in the Spotlight is Cody Lo, a third year UBC pharmacology student with extensive research experience.  Cody has held 5 research assistant positions, presented 5 posters, and authored 2 upcoming peer-reviewed publications. Additionally, Cody has won the UBC Science Case competition twice and is heavily involved on campus. He serves as the Vice President of Industrial Relations for the UBC Undergraduate Research Opportunities, Vice President External for UBC Project PATHS, and is the Director of Communications  for the Student Biotechnology Network. In our interview with Cody, he offers advice for success in case competitions, shares the importance of scientific research for undergraduates, and explores controversies in stem cell research.

1. Your submission to the NGDI Student Global Health Journal, “Fearbola and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: How social media impacts global health and scientific research” has been accepted for publication. How did you come across the opportunity of submitting to this journal? Could you give us a preview of the article?

I found out about this opportunity through a graduate student who felt it would be a great way for me to develop my interest in global health issues. This student-run journal is a really great initiative because they pair each student author with a faculty mentor to develop the scope of the article and offer guidance. An additional benefit of writing for a student-run journal as opposed to a professional journal is that you can often submit your work to other places such as essay competitions. For example, this article can actually already be accessed on the SCQ (Science Creative Quarterly), a creative writing blog based out of UBC.

I conceived the idea for the article last fall during the peak of the Ebola “epidemic” and just as my Facebook news feed was no longer being filled with videos of my friends pouring ice water on themselves. It made me wonder about how social media can impact scientific research both positively and negatively. For example, as a result of the ice bucket challenge, the ALS Society experienced a 3500% increase in total donations over the course of summer 2014. On the other hand, it was alarming to see how blown out of proportion Ebola was in the Western world. My favourite statistic regarding Ebola in North American is that more Americans have been married to Kim Kardashian than have died from Ebola. In my paper, I conclude that while social media can be an effective tool for sharing health information, we must also be mindful of inaccurate information that can cloud the voice of experts.

2. You’ve won First Place in the UBC Science Case Competition two years in a row. Tell us about the Competition and what made you successful in it.

The Science Case Competition is one of my favourite extra-curricular activities because of the science spin on what is typically a commerce related event. In the competition, all teams are given a week to develop a multidisciplinary solution to a real-life problem. For example, this year’s participants had to develop a scientifically feasible and economically sustainable method of controlling an invasive species of knapweed in the US, a topic that by no means is my area of expertise.

My advice to those taking part in a case competition is to not be afraid to propose innovative solutions. An integral part of our solution for this year’s competition was a gene silencing technique not yet tested for use in invasive plants. To sell our solution to the judges, we provided evidence to justify why we feel it could be a viable solution. I have also been really lucky to have great teammates and I owe much of the success we’ve seen over the past two years to our ability to work together.

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Cody and his teammates at the 2015 UBC Science Case Competition in January

3. Your undergraduate research involvement is extensive, with 5 poster presentations, 2 upcoming peer-reviewed publications, 5 research assistant positions, and wide-ranging experience in knowledge translation. What motivates you to take on so much? You’re also pursuing a major in Pharmacology, one of the most competitive specializations in UBC Science. How do you manage an academic-extracurricular-life balance?

Striving to maintain a proper work-life balance has been something that I have had to work on throughout my undergraduate career. I stay motivated by engaging myself in activities that I am truly passionate about and enjoy doing. While some commitments are unavoidable, we actually have a lot more control over our own circumstances than we think. For example, while I may not enjoy memorizing a long list of drug names for my pharmacology exam, I remind myself that it is for a program that I voluntarily applied for and had looked forward to being a part of for a long time. I feel a large part of the overall university experience is to explore your interests and discover what you are truly passionate about.

Regarding my extra-curricular involvements, a lot of the opportunities I’ve had would not have been possible without my many mentors. For those starting their undergraduate degree, I highly recommend getting to know your professors, TAs and upper year classmates and gain insight on their positions and the steps they’ve taken to get to where they are. Personally, I’ve never had a professor who doesn’t like to talk to about their research (perhaps they would like to talk about it for longer than you would like!).

4. How has your perspective on scientific research evolved since you first started? Where do you see research in your career plans?

Similar to many incoming undergraduate science students, I had very limited knowledge about scientific research. After getting involved in research, I cannot stress how influential it has been in both my personal and professional development. As illustrated by the comic below, I was initially discouraged by the fact that undergraduates often have few responsibilities in the lab (side note: “PhD comics” might be one of the best ways to understand the life of a grad student). While it is true that undergraduates lack many of the skills needed to conduct research without supervision, I do not think that this is an insurmountable barrier that prevents undergraduates from doing meaningful work. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve had very supportive supervisors who have given me opportunities to meaningfully contribute to projects. For those interested in research positions, I would suggest looking for supervisors who encourages your development and who are supportive of your personal goals (even if it doesn’t involve research!). While you may start out doing seemingly small tasks, showing an initiative to learn is a great way to slowly build your responsibilities in the lab and to build trust with your supervisor.

In terms of my career plans, the downside of being exposed to so many different areas of research is that someday I’ll have to focus on just one area. Luckily for me, I have still the rest of my undergrad to further decipher what my interests are. Given my experiences so far, research is a compelling career option.

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5. Some of your research has surrounded the use of stem cells for treatment of spinal cord injury. What are the main controversies, and what’s your personal take on stem cell therapy?

By far one of the biggest controversies surrounding the therapeutic use of stem cells or really any novel biotechnology is the practice of “medical tourism.” In North America, we are very fortunate to have rigorous regulatory processes that ensure our medical treatments are both safe and beneficial to our well-being. However, some clinics in foreign countries do not abide by such strict regulations and may offer treatments that have not been proven to be efficacious and do not disclose all potential risks to patients. Perhaps most alarming, these clinics often advertise online these questionable treatments for high fees. Patients desperate to improve their conditions often partake in these treatments without consulting their primary physician.  For those interested, this video summarizes the issue nicely.

Recently, we have seen great advancements in stem cell technologies including a number of phase II/III clinical trials using stem cells for spinal cord injury. Advancements in stem cell research are also being made for conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes. For example, in Ontario alone there are 8 stem cell clinical trials being conducted in 2015. However, a salient point to consider is that this research requires time; it often takes 10 or more years for a new treatment to undergo the entire clinical trial process. Considering increasing accessibility of healthcare information online (and not all of it is accurate), I feel it is essential that patients consult their physician about their healthcare options to ensure they are receiving correct information.

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Cody (left) and his colleagues at a stem cell research conference in Ottawa last October

 

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Want to ask Cody a question? Schedule a chat with him today! Cody is happy to answer your questions and offer advice on undergraduate research.

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