The NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Awards (USRA) give undergraduates students the “opportunity to gain valuable work experience” (UBC Student Services). With an NSERC USRA, a student conducts research with a professor over the summer. UBC’s Psi Chi executives connected with Psi Chi member and last year’s president, Robin Richardson. Robin is currently completing her second NSERC USRA term with the Department of Psychology at UBC.
Describe the NSERC USRA.
The NSERC USRA is a research assistantship for undergraduate students that takes place over the summer. You are awarded a total of ~$6000 over the summer under the condition that you work 35 hours a week for 16 consecutive weeks in a lab on campus.
When did you win these awards?
I won two of these awards – one for the summer after my third year, and one for the summer after my fourth year.
Where did you hold these awards?
I worked in Dr. Liisa Galea’s lab for both of these awards.
How did you hear about the NSERC USRA, and what made you want to apply for it?
Dr. Galea told me about it when I inquired about working in her lab. What made me want to apply for it is a) a guaranteed job in a really cool lab and b) I get paid to do what I already love doing!
Through NSERC, what research did you do (or are you doing)?
As a research assistant in the Galea lab, the summer is often when I help out with projects other than my thesis. I often help other graduate students with their rodent studies, with staining their brain tissue for proteins, and measuring hippocampal volume from their animals.
What is your long-term goal, research or otherwise?
My long-term goal is to work as a clinical neuropsychologist.
How have your NSERC research experiences contributed to this goal?
Besides giving me fantastic research experience and helping build my CV, my research experiences through NSERC have taught me skills such as leadership, time management, and teamwork that I will be able to apply to any work situation.
What was the most valuable thing that you learned through your research experiences?
Probably learning that it’s okay to be wrong. Even if your hypothesis isn’t supported with your data, you still learned something from that study. You learned that things don’t work the way you thought they might, and that’s very valuable knowledge to have. Null results are still results.
What advice do you have for students who may be interested in applying for this award?
Just go for it! I thought there was no way I was going to win this award, but I applied for it anyways. It’s not a difficult application to complete, and if you have a supervisor who is willing to endorse you then just go for it! What’s the worst that can happen?
How was your experience working in the same lab two years in a row? I know that there’s some debate about whether one should focus on breadth vs. depth.
Really great question! I think the reason they recommend you work in two different labs during the honours program is for the breadth reason – to experience working in two different areas of research, to experience two different styles of supervision, and to experience working in two different lab environments.
For me it was a bit of a special circumstance, as Dr. Galea’s lab was the fourth lab I’d been a part of at UBC, and I was also working concurrently in a second lab, so I felt that I’d already achieved sufficient breadth in my research experience at UBC. Given that I was in two labs at the same time, the plan was always to make one of them a directed studies for my fourth year and the other my honours thesis. The debate was to whether I could keep Dr. Galea’s lab as my honours thesis lab or whether it should instead serve as my directed studies lab.
The primary reason I wanted to keep it as my honours lab was because the behavioural neuroscience research I was doing there was extremely time-consuming – sometimes requiring up to 30 hours a week of lab time – and making it my honours lab allowed me that kind of time to work in the lab, whereas doing a directed studies limits you to a much shorter work-week in the lab.
How has taking courses like PSYC 217, 218, 359, or being a part of the Honours program prepared you to conduct real research?
I think PSYC 217 gave me a pretty good foundation for going into my honours labs feeling like I understood the research process. The stats classes gave me a good overall understanding of when different statistical tests would be used. That said, the application was a bit trickier because my lab used statistical software that we didn’t learn in either of those classes, so learning to use that was a bit of a steep learning curve!
Now that I am starting grad school, I feel like the honours program was a HUGE huge help. I’m currently putting together a poster for a major neuropsychology conference that’s in February and I feel SO confident doing lit searches, writing abstracts, doing stats, and putting together an effective layout for my poster. I’m also extremely confident in my knowledge of APA format (thanks Dr. Walker!) to the point that I hardly have to Google anything! Soon I will be writing a manuscript based on the research that we did for the poster and I feel really confident that I will be able to do that, thanks to the practice I got in honours seminar.
What kind of assistance and guidance did Dr. Galea and her lab provide you with?
Dr. Galea was a huge help when it came to applying for graduate school. She and her students gave me so much golden advice about sending emails to potential supervisors, writing my statement of interest, and applying for funding. If you are thinking about applying to grad school, I highly recommend talking to your supervisor for advice. After all, they interview many grad students, so they know what looks good in an applicant and what doesn’t! Overall I feel like the whole lab has prepared me really well for grad school in general.
This year, UBC’s Psi Chi chapter wants to help connect students with possible mentorship opportunities. If you’re a student and you have questions about Robin’s experiences with the NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can put you in contact with Robin.
– Natalie Wong and Brandon M. Woo