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Microbiology undergraduate student becomes the first UM student to join Amgen Scholars Program in Toronto

Aakash Natarajan talks about pursuing research as an undergraduate student in the biomedical field.

June 16, 2023 — 

Meet Aakash Natarajan, an exceptional undergraduate student at the Faculty of Science, who has been awarded the prestigious Amgen Scholarship. This fully funded 10-week research program is hosted by the University of Toronto in Canada and offers unparalleled opportunities for professional development, science communication, and engagement with leading scientists in the biomedical field.

Congrats on receiving the Amgen Scholarship! Tell us a bit about yourself and the scholarship. How did you feel when you first heard the news?

My name is Aakash Natarajan and I am entering my fourth year at UM, BSc in Microbiology, Honours program. The Amgen Scholars Program is a fully funded 10-week research program hosted by the University of Toronto that includes many opportunities for professional development, social events, connecting with many amazing people, and participating in the North American Amgen Scholars Symposium held at UCLA – all of which is at no cost to the scholars. It is highly selective (only 15 undergraduate students are chosen across Canada per year), so I was shocked but of course super happy when I received the acceptance email.

What motivated you to apply for Amgen, and how do you think it will contribute to your academic and career goals?

I found out about the opportunity by browsing around the University of Toronto website. I had been interested in doing research at UofT this summer, so I was searching for possible sources of funding to do so. When I saw how amazing the Amgen Scholars Program was, I knew I had to at least throw my hat into the ring.

As for my own goals, I want to continue doing research in grad school after my BSc and eventually become a professor. Beyond the research experience itself, this program has so much value in the professional development workshops, seminars and social events. Having the chance to learn from and talk to so many of the leading scientists in the biomedical sphere is a rare opportunity and I’m so thankful for it. And of course, I’m super excited to be able to connect with all the other incredible 2023 Amgen Scholars! The entire Amgen Scholar community has been so supportive already and I’m glad to be part of it.

Tell us about your research project and the faculty mentor you will be working with.

I will be joining the lab of Dr. Justin Nodwell in the biochemistry department at UofT and my project is about understanding a cell wall pathway related to antibiotic resistance in Staphylococcus aureus. I have been interested in antibiotic resistance since my first year, especially since Summer 2022 when I had my first research experience in the Cardona Lab at our microbiology department. This year, I still wanted to work in antibiotic resistance, but approach it from a different angle and learn some new techniques.

The Amgen Scholars Program emphasizes professional development and science communication. What specific workshops or seminars are you looking forward to attending?

Part of the program is a speaker series where leading scientists that are serving as supervisors for the Amgen Scholars are brought in to give talks on their work. I’m excited to hear more from them about research as well as academia and life in general. Most of the professional development workshops coming up are also incredibly useful topics that I feel aren’t necessarily taught well elsewhere – for example, workshops on grad school applications, LinkedIn and networking, career planning, etc. It’s a cool series of workshops that I’m sure will be very valuable!

What challenges or barriers have you faced while pursuing research opportunities and how did you overcome them?

The most difficult thing about research opportunities (and this is common to most students I’ve spoken to at UM) is finding them in the first place and figuring out how they work. The entire process of getting involved with research at an undergraduate level seems to be shrouded in mystery, so even knowing where to start is difficult. I only first learned about research awards because I knew someone who had been through the process in the past. I’m part of the Undergraduate Microbiology Students Club on campus and one of our biggest goals is promoting research at UM and making it so that all the undergrads in our department know exactly how to get involved. But overall, I’m grateful to have been very fortunate with the opportunities I’ve had so far.

The Amgen Scholarship emphasizes equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). How do you think this program supports and promotes these values, and how have you personally contributed to fostering an inclusive research environment?

EDI is one of the most important issues to tackle today, especially in academia, and the Amgen Scholars Program recognizes this. The cohort of scholars this year is very diverse, not just in terms of ethnicity but also in terms of home institution, major, and more. I think this diversity is so helpful for all of us to grow together, appreciate each other’s perspectives, and bring more discussion around interdisciplinary research (which is becoming more and more important). I am also personally passionate about EDI – I’ve been involved with a recent undergraduate initiative in the faculty of science to build a better and more inclusive learning environment for all students through the science clubs, and hopefully, we can make a positive impact on the community next year.

What advice would you give to other undergraduate students who are interested in applying for the Amgen Scholars Program or pursuing research opportunities in general?

Proactively seek out opportunities. I would never have found out about the Amgen Scholars Program if I hadn’t spent so much time browsing around different university websites. And while I am the first Amgen Scholar from the University of Manitoba, I’m sure I won’t be the last. So, I highly encourage anyone interested to apply. Most of the Amgen Scholars this year, including myself, didn’t think they were going to receive the scholarship at all. So again, regardless of the scholarship in question, just apply and see what happens.
Also, don’t be concerned about not knowing how to do research. No undergrad knows how to do anything when they first join a lab and that’s expected. Your first research experience is just meant to be a learning experience, so embrace it and don’t let it deter you from applying.

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