Cody Lo is a first year medical student at the University of British Columbia working as a research assistant in the laboratory of Dr. Bruce Carleton at the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute. Cody has worked in almost a dozen different academic laboratories since he started as an undergraduate at UBC. We sat down with Cody to discuss how his medical and research interests intersect, and where these interests will take him in the future.
You began working in research laboratories pretty early in your undergraduate studies compared to typical students. How did you first become interested in research?
Coming into university I didn’t really know what a career in science meant. I knew that I enjoyed science, math, and problem-solving, but it wasn’t until a couple of months into my undergraduate degree that I was introduced to the idea of research. Some of my professors would bring up the topic of their own research during class, and I remember thinking that a lot of the problems they were working to solve were really interesting and on that final frontier of human knowledge.
My interest was piqued, so I decided to try to get involved in academic research. At first it was tough. I got a lot of rejection. But I’m pretty persistent, and ultimately I was able to start research relatively early in my undergraduate degree compared to most people. My first research position was in Dr. Frank Duong’s lab in the Biochemistry Department during the second year of my undergraduate degree. Being so new to working in labs, I really hadn’t developed a molecular biology skill set yet, so I was mostly attending lab meetings and washing glassware, but I also got exposure to an academic research environment. At the time I thought it was the coolest thing ever – I was contributing to science! It was my first exposure to research, and the following summer I received a summer research award from the Stem Cell Network to work with Dr. Judy Illes at the Centre for Brain Health. I would continue to work with Dr. Illes on a number of projects over the next 3 years. I had very positive initial experiences in research and decided to continue to pursue it throughout the rest of my undergraduate degree and into my medical degree.
You’re currently working in the laboratory of Dr. Bruce Carlton at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute. Can you tell us about your project?
My current work in the Carleton lab is in pharmacogenomics, specifically how genetic variation influences responses to cancer drug therapy. I’m looking at some recent work showing that there are genetic variants related to cisplatin that significantly increase your chances of developing ototoxicity, or hearing loss. Considering that cisplatin is one of the most commonly used cancer drugs, having a really solid understanding of risk factors and adverse effects is really important, but little work has been done in this area in the pediatric population. There are a few reasons for why pharmacogenomic studies in the pediatric population pose a number of challenges. Firstly, most drugs aren’t studied in pediatric populations pre-market approval, so a lot of the work gets done post-approval. Additionally, a lot of drugs are used off-label in pediatric cancer populations, because the phenotypic variation related to age of onset and disease characteristics is so diverse that it’s difficult to have robust guidelines. So my research is looking at some previous variants that have been identified in adult cohorts, and seeing how those variants translate to outcomes in the pediatric cohorts.
Is the research you’re doing related to your studies in medical school?
Absolutely. As part of the medical program at UBC, we get what is called FLEX time, which is basically an opportunity for us to pursue extracurricular activities. The majority of students do research, which is what I chose. We get half days to work on our projects during the year, and full-time flex time for six weeks after the end of the academic semester. I’m extending my project by eight weeks thanks to an additional award I received from the Faculty of Medicine.
One of the downsides of the FLEX project (and medical training in general) is that it’s very difficult for students who are interested in pursuing molecular biology research to get the time to do it. A few of my medical school peers have an interest in this type of research, but in order to get results in so little time, they need to have come into medical school with their research skills already developed.
Do you have an interest in combining medicine and research in the future?
Yes, I’m definitely interested in combining research and medicine, although it’s difficult to do in Canada, in part due to the availability of faculty positions and research funding. But the skills learned in research and medicine are so complimentary. Coming into science, I didn’t originally understand the difference between medicine and research, but nowadays I would say there’s some pretty salient differences, although the skills are quite transferable. I think doing research and being able to develop those skills such as being able to ask questions and being critical of evidence is super relevant in medicine. I also think medical training is really helpful in research as well, especially in pharmacogenomics. Having a broad understanding of physiology and disease pathophysiology has really complimented the work I do, and in a lot of ways makes me a better researcher. I’m able to ask questions that are a bit more clinically focused, which is the direction a lot of research is going.
In addition to a strong research background, you also have a deep passion for science communication, as demonstrated by your time working as a Publications Manager for the UBC Medical Journal and founding the Canadian Journal of Undergraduate Research. Considering the current political climate, what responsibility do you think that researchers have to communicate their science to the public?
I’m actually very interested in science communication to the public. Personally, I’m of the school of thought that there is a huge onus on researchers to communicate their research, and I believe that responsibility doesn’t end once you communicate your work to other scientists. Researchers have a responsibility to disseminate their work to the public, not only because a lot of their work is funded by public funds, but also because researchers have had the opportunity to learn to perform research and critically appraise evidence. I realize that for many researchers those communications skills don’t come naturally, but with a bit of effort I think that every researcher has the potential to become a good science communicator.
Many researchers have turned their science communication efforts to social media over the past few years, which is a subject that you’ve actually studied and published on. Can you tell us a little about the Optogenetics on Social Media paper that you had the opportunity to contribute to?
I had a really great opportunity to work with Dr. Julie Robillard at UBC doing some work looking at the portrayal of optogenetics on social media. Optogenetics is a cutting edge brain technology that uses light to selectively activate neurons in the brain. It’s very much in its infancy, but it’s often picked up by the media and written about in terms of brain and mind control. We were therefore interested in seeing how this technology was being portrayed on social media, specifically on Twitter.
Surprisingly, we found that there was a very large representation of researchers and medical professionals taking part in social media conversations about optogenetics. As a result, the portrayal of the technology was quite positive. Many news outlets were obviously exaggerating the effects of optogenetics, but the contribution of researchers and clinicians were keeping its portrayal a lot more balanced compared to other technologies being portrayed online. One of the takeaways from the paper was the value of having academic researchers on social media to be able to mitigate and be a part of the conversation. Not partaking at all is not the way to go, because the conversation is going to happen regardless, and without professional insight, that conversation can go astray.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Cody! We wish you the best of luck as you continue on your journey in medicine and research!