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Rachel Cheng: Biochemistry

Being Fearless: Biochemistry student Rachel Cheng shares the keys to success when securing a work term

Written by: James Ralph

Rachel Cheng is a fourth year student doing a double major in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Immunology, and Disease. She’s currently on her second work term placement at Sanfoni Pasteur, with her first placement being an 8 month term at Genito-Urinary BioBank (GUB) at the University Health Network. In this interview, Rachel gives us a look into what it’s like to be on a work term during a global pandemic, as well as how her past experiences have helped her secure the work term she has today.

Why did you choose your program?

“I chose my two majors because of my love of both chemistry and biology, and my courses complement each other very well. My molecular biology and immunology courses allow me to understand the systems that allow our bodies to function, and my biochemistry courses really give me the background understanding of how things work at a molecular level. Even though a lot of my program prerequisites focus on a lot of microbiology, the courses I enjoyed the most were the ones which allowed me to learn about different techniques and instruments researchers are using and developing.”

On how past experiences have helped shape her current skills and knowledge:

“My first co-op term was an 8 month placement at the Genito-Urinary BioBank (GUB) at UHN. In this position, I worked with another coop student to process and archive blood and urine samples from GU cancer patients. Even though the work was quite repetitive, I was able to learn a lot and I really enjoyed how being a technician in a biobank gave me experience in both clinical research and lab based work.”

“After my placement at UHN and before my current coop-placement, I decided to re-sequence my coop term so that I could give myself the chance to go abroad through the Summer Research Exchange Program (SREP) to conduct research in a lab in another country. For me, planning to go abroad was a bit of a gamble, but I don’t regret it. In the end, I was selected to attend the highly competitive research exchange program at RIKEN in Japan. I was shocked when I got the acceptance notification; across all three campuses, U of T only sends one student each year to this institute! I really attribute this experience in pushing me to apply to more industry related jobs for my current co-op placement as I wanted to explore other career alternatives in order to decide which career path is most suitable for me as a science student upon graduation.”

Which skills would you say helped you the most in your roles?

“Having strong attention to detail is important, especially working in a GMP facility. There is so much documentation that goes on in the daily routines to ensure everything we are doing in a QC lab is accounted for. These strict measures really allow us as a company to guarantee the safety and quality of our product to our customers.”

“Having strong technical laboratory skills, such as pipetting and working in enclosed sterile environments, were also very relevant skills I learned through the different lab courses like BIOB12 and BIOC23 that helped me to be successful in my role. I found that when I started to test in the lab, I was applying a lot of the habits I developed in preparing for my lab practicals in my lab work.”

What is the best way to be successful during a work term?

“My best tips are don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something, ask questions, or ask people to repeat what they said or clarify what they meant. Of course asking questions and having people teaching you are a part of learning as a co-op student, but I always learn the most when I allow myself to try to understand and solve a problem before asking for help. This means that when I do need assistance, it’s a simpler question because I’ve already figured out most of it myself.”

What role, if any, did the Co-op office play in the development of your viewpoint, or professional/personal development?

“The first year co-op course provided me with insight on how to make my resume and cover letter better, especially in showing me how to best showcase the skills I have developed from the different places where I’ve worked. I was able to secure multiple interviews relatively quickly! I found the mock interviews I did with the AA&CC also really helped with my interview skills, as after one or two appointments with AA&CC I was soon able to secure my first placement.”

What advice can you share with younger co-op students?

“Do at least one thing each semester that you can put on your resume. Starting from the semester right before I was seeking, I was always doing something that I could add to my resume each semester. I’ve used the small positions that I’ve had as stepping stones to land bigger, more competitive positions. In my last seeking cycle, because I already had various working experiences, I could afford to be more selective in which jobs I applied for rather than applying to everything and hoping I’d get an offer.”

“Another piece of advice I have is to take as many opportunities as you can while in university and the co-op program. University is one of those unique environments in which you have many opportunities available to you to take advantage of, which enables you to develop the skills you will need to be competitive in the workplace. Once you graduate, it won’t be so easy, so take advantage while you can!”