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Faculty of Science student, Gursagar Jhanji.

Science student grateful for the opportunity to do undergraduate research

March 31, 2021 — 

Since starting at the University of Manitoba in the Faculty of Science three years ago, Gursagar Jhanji has learned a lot. Not only has he mastered the subject matter in his courses; he’s learned the benefits that come with taking a chance. Specifically, Jhanji took a chance to apply for an NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA). As stated on the Faculty of Science website, the USRAs “… are intended to stimulate the interest of undergraduate students by providing them with a valuable experiential learning opportunity in a scientific research environment.” Jhanji’s USRA experience went so well that he wrote to Faculty of Science Dean Stefi Baum to express his gratitude for the experience.

“I felt a strong urge to thank the Faculty for giving students such as me an opportunity to explore research. I wanted to let them know that the experience it provides is invaluable. It helped me go from being a poorly planned, lost student to one who is much more confident and better organized.”

Jhanji’s family emigrated to Canada from India in 2009. He knew that if all went to plan he would be the first of his family to graduate from a Canadian university. An undergraduate degree was the obvious first step toward his overarching goal of a career in medicine. Beyond that, Jhanji was unclear as to his next move. After taking time to absorb his lessons and the activities around him at the UM, a plan began to emerge.

“I knew after my BIOL 1030 class with [Department of Biological Sciences Head] Dr. Steven Harris that I wanted to get into research and started volunteering in his lab. When I started working with Dr. Harris, I was amazed that I would be working on species that are yet to be defined. It was a unique experience for a student who had just started university. It helped me put the skills I learned in my first and second year science courses into practice.”

It was while volunteering in Harris’ lab that Jhanji overheard his lab mates talking about applying for the USRA’s. With one day left before the deadline, he applied and was eventually awarded a paid research position in Harris’ lab.

Jhanji was impressed with the benefits from the award, primarily the fact that his USRA allowed him to conduct research in his field of interest. A Summer 2020 biochemistry course he took remotely didn’t allow him to perform actual experiments but did give him theoretical knowledge of techniques such as PCR and DNA extraction. During his USRA term, Jhanji was able to gain practical experience of these techniques, which had the added benefit of teaching him the most valuable of skills: time management.

“Experiments have to be performed at a steady rate and planned accordingly. If your sample takes three weeks to grow, it gives you time to perform other actions such as starting new samples of DNA extraction and get ready for the sample after three weeks.”

Additionally, Jhanji says his USRA experience helped him to meet new people with common interests from whom he could learn. On a more personal note, he says the USRA has helped him with his school fees and has even helped him to build his “dream” PC.

Since his USRA experience, Jhanji has become an advocate for the program, encouraging his classmates to apply for the award. He tells them that the benefits of a USRA are not simply monetary or experiential.

“A USRA gives you a sense of purpose and confidence. It acts as a milestone that once reached helps you reach more. My experience with USRA has given me confidence in myself to reach out to other opportunities and add to my experience. I tell my friends if I can do it so can they. It gives you a unique experience in which the FoS is supporting students in a major way to help explore their interests. I tell others that the USRA will allow them to work with pioneers in their respective fields. It can help them build connections in university and opens multiple other avenues for them to explore.”

Jhanji plans to finish his degree and apply to study medicine, also at the UofM. He says that his USRA experience has given him a love of research. He hopes to one day teach and conduct research, thereby contributing to the field of science.

Jhanji’s letter to Dean Stefi Baum wasn’t just to thank her. He wanted to let the Faculty of Science know that his USRA wasn’t simply a “one and done deal”. It has left a lasting impact.

“It has created a ripple effect for me. I encourage other students to apply and continue to guide new students in how to approach university. I try to inspire others and hope that they will do the same for other students.”

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Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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