Di Zhu is a fourth-year molecular biology and biotechnology specialist in the co-op program. As one of only three award recipients of the Brain Tumor Research Studentship nationwide competition, Di completed both his first and second work terms at SickKids. Here, Di discusses the importance of keeping an open mind, why work terms are so important for students, and what he hopes to see in the future of biology.
Landing the Position
Di applied to many places before receiving an offer for the studentship at SickKids, which he says is vitally important to finding a work term position.
"I had a really open mindset, I wanted to get my hands on anything that seemed interesting to me. It was my first job, so I wasn't in a position to be picky. I looked at a lot of job postings! At SickKids, the vast range of things that they do in the lab is phenomenal, and it’s one of the top research labs in the world. That's the one I applied to, and they got back to me! I was really excited."
Keeping his Options Open
When Di first started looking for a work term, he wasn’t sure about what exactly it was that he wanted to do. He had volunteered in a linguistic lab and a chemistry lab at UTSC before his work term experience, and when applying for work terms he decided to go with what most excited him.
"I would say I didn’t really have any specific interests within my field, I'm in the biology program but in my first year I was a volunteer in a linguistic lab doing coding and volunteered in chemistry lab analyzing data and assisting PhD students. As you can tell, the things that I was doing weren’t always directly related to biology, but the lab experience was very valuable even outside of my field. When I applied for the work term, what excited me the most was the neurological and brain tumor research, which is the specialty of this lab."
Applying Academics During the Work Term
"My academic knowledge definitely applied to my work term. There were quite a few laboratory courses I took, some of them being very heavily laboratory-based, including chemistry and biology. When I was at SickKids, I realized many of the things that I was doing were things that I had been practicing in the labs at school. Even though what I learned from the lecture seemed kind of distant at the time, once I started at my work term it proved to be very valuable after all.
Why Work Term Experience is so Valuable
Di found his work term experience to be very valuable in many different ways: it connected him to the working world, narrowed his interests, and have him vital work experience that he wouldn’t have had otherwise.
"It was only after I finished my co-op work terms that I realized how important this whole experience is. When you’re in school, you're somewhat distant from how the world works, and you tend to lose track of what actually is going on. When you’re given a chance to apply your knowledge, you realize what you like and don’t like. You are also given incredibly valuable work experience because once you graduate from the co-op program, everything is already set in motion and you can start a few steps ahead of everyone else."
Di also says that the work term has given him a new appreciation for school.
"Once your work term ends and you go back to school, you have a much clearer focus of what you want to do what you want to tackle. Now after finishing my work term, I feel much more motivated in school, in a way that I wasn't motivated before. I really want to internalize the information I learn in lecture. For me, that’s a whole different experience from first year. Essentially, you are still aiming for the same thing, but internally there is a different mindset that makes you push your limits."
Looking to the Future
"The area I am very interested in is bioinformatics, an area of science that combines biology, computer science, information engineering, statistics and mathematics which makes it so that we can better understand biological data. We are generating so much information and data that we need experts to process all that data in order to guide us towards the next direction."
Di appreciates that bioinformatics is using technology to shape our future, but also sees how valuable and necessary human input is.
"The goal is not to replace doctors with computers, but to figure out how we can integrate both. Humans make mistakes, but computers lack the ability to see where the future is going. So, a good integration of both is really instrumental. A good analogy of this is airplanes, automated but the pilot is still essential to flight. Pilots were never meant to be replaced, but their role becomes more to supervise the computer and introduce future updates to the program. It shifts from workers to innovators, and that's the future I think doctors should strive for."
Advice for Incoming Co-op Students: Keep an Open Mind and Don’t be Afraid to Make Mistakes
"Be open minded. Accept all the opportunities that come your way. For me, things didn’t unfold the way I expected them to, but because of my open mindset I was able to take value from all of the opportunities I was given instead of thinking, "This is not what I had in mind." If you allow yourself to be immersed in the opportunities you were given, then you will gain so much incredible experience."
"When you're at university it's all about exploration. It's okay to make mistakes, even if you think the area you are in is not quite what you’d planned. There are times you may think you’ve made a mistake in taking on a certain task or choosing a direction, but in this world expertise in multiple disciplines is an asset. Embrace the challenges."