Co-op Student Feature: Neuroscience Specialist Sanjay Jeyakumaran

Co-op Student Feature: Neuroscience Specialist Sanjay Jeyakumaran

Stepping Outside of the Comfort Zone ... and the GTA

New Co-op Relocation Grant offered Sanjay Jeyakumaran a chance to work in a different city and a dream job opportunity

Work Term Relocation: Stemcell Technologies INC., Vancouver, B.C. 

“The American poet, E.E. Cummings, was famous for saying: ‘It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.’ I’ve never really understood nor related to this quote until I moved out to British Columbia,” Sanjay Jeyakumaran reflects. The neuroscience student always knew he wanted to complete his Co-op work term outside of Toronto. 

“I chose to specifically enroll in the Co-op program because I thought it would give me insight to what type of research I could see myself doing for a career.”  

The local urbanite, having never lived away from his home in Toronto, shares how being surrounded by constant familiarity and monotony eventually grew into a discontented “cloudy headspace”.

“Given that I didn’t move away for university, there was always a little part of me that wanted to live alone to see how I would fare.” 

It sparked his longing to seek some sense of challenging fulfillment beyond simply academic success. The solution? Pack up and move to the other side of the country, to join Stemcell Technologies Inc. located in Vancouver. 

A Chance Opportunity 

Sanjay’s move to Vancouver wasn’t motivated by his desire to live in the city itself specifically, but rather for the unique opportunity to work at Canada’s largest biotechnology company.  

“Funny enough, I actually applied to Stemcell Technologies on my own in the summer of 2017 when started researching potential labs where I would want to work and gain experience, and it caught my eye,” Sanjay explains. “When it came time to apply for my work term in September of 2018, I was slightly surprised to see Stemcell as one of the companies listed with the Co-op office.”

Sanjay readily applied for every single job opening with the company. He successfully secured an 8-month work term as a Co-op in the Research and Development department, on the Pluripotent Stem Cell Team. 

“From that moment, I knew I had to take the opportunity to experience a different part of Canada and work in an exceptional lab.” 

The challenging realities of relocating and overcoming adversity

The move to Vancouver was a tough reality check for the UTSC student. 

“The first two weeks at the lab was rough for me. Working at Stemcell Technologies made me question my technical abilities and mental fortitude. There was a lot of information I had to absorb, and a lot of techniques being shown that I was to perform the very next day. To be honest, I was flustered and overwhelmed with the seriousness of their research and the quality of work the company outputs; I questioned whether I would be able to match their standard. Since then, a lot of orientation to detail and preparation has helped me overcome my difficulties!” 

He also describes the challenges of navigating a new city by himself: 

“Living alone gave me a lot of time to think and reflect. I was questioning and learning about who I am as an individual, where I’m headed after my undergraduate degree, and whether I even want to live in Toronto after obtaining my degree. 

“Before moving out, I had little idea of what I wanted to do in the future and was just discontent with the way life was panning out. Stemcell Technologies has confirmed that pursuing a career in science is what I want to do, and the next step in my journey is a graduate degree.”

Exposure to valuable training and research

Sanjay chose to pursue the Neuroscience Specialist program because it “combined aspects of clinical, basic, and translational research in an interdisciplinary fashion”.  

Working as a Co-op student with Stemcell Technologies provided him the opportunity to take on different lab maintenance duties. These included emptying aspirator flasks, making up FACS and saponin buffer for flow cytometry, stocking lab carts adjacent to BSCs and other similar tasks. 

“Other things I did included coating flat-bottom plates for cell cultures, culturing human stemcells, extracting DNA or RNA, examining gene expression through qPCR, some flow cytometry, detecting commonly occurring genetic abnormalities specifically in human stem cells via a qPCR based assay, and immunohistochemistry assays.”

Advice to junior Co-op Students 

Given the chance to go away again for his work term, there are a few things Sanjay would do differently:  

“I would try to gain wet lab experience, outside of the classroom, to have more exposure to basic techniques, principles, and equipment that every scientist needs. If you have some of those things in your arsenal prior, the transition to the Co-op work term will be much easier and perhaps you will have a more concentrated effort on your lab’s area of study rather than generalities.”

Reviewing relevant academic coursework more thoroughly is another element he advises. 

“You’ll remember something a lot easier if you see it go from theoretical in class to practical in lab.”

Venturing outside the comfort zone 

So, was relocating to a completely new province worth it for Sanjay’s Co-op experience? 

“I can wholeheartedly say that Stemcell Technologies has provided me with novel experiences, plenty of knowledge, and exceptional training on specific techniques and machine operation that I wouldn’t have had access to in Toronto.” 

“I implore everyone in the Co-op program to explore their options outside of Toronto. It’s easy to be complacent and stay within the confines of what you know but venturing into unfamiliar territory will change how you approach the rest of your undergraduate degree. 

Sanjay describes the move as a season of tremendous personal and academic growth for himself.

“I’ve made lifelong friends in Vancouver and faced as many downs as I have ups. But I think it was worth it because I now know where I want to direct my career, the steps I must take to get there, the liberties and fallbacks of living alone, have expanded my technical lab experiences, as well as having explored another part of the world!”

For Sanjay, despite the challenges and hurdles, the rewarding experience of relocating for his Co-op term was exactly what he needed. 

“Now, I have an idea of my future, worked two jobs to support myself, and am an independent adult. I walk 5 blocks with groceries, go to a coin laundry 13 blocks away, live in an incredibly small room, transit everywhere, and work all the time – but somehow, I know that moving out to Vancouver was the right decision. I’m happier and am excited to learn every single day - something Toronto hasn’t provided for me in a long time.”

The Co-op Relocation Grant

Sanjay is the Winter term recipient of the Co-op Relocation Grant. The financial award of $250 is made available to Arts & Science Co-op students who secure a work term outside of the Greater Toronto & Hamilton Area (GTHA). An evaluation committee consisting of Co-op staff and the award donor reviewed a series of applications from students consisting of a written personal statement as well as a budget to outline their financial need. 

The Donor, who is an alumnus of the Co-op program wanted to offer a means to reduce financial barriers for students relocating outside of the on work-terms GTHA. Students who are awarded this grant receive funds while on work term and can use the funds at their discretion.