New award provides opportunities for emerging researchers

Hailey Gray in a lab coat and gloves standing in front of a glove box
Hailey Gray spent the summer working in the Leitch lab, which often involved using the glove box. Photo provided.

by Nicole Crozier

A new award is providing research opportunities for undergraduate students who are members of groups with historical and/or current barriers to equity. The Science Emerging Researcher Award (SERA) provides funding for students to work full-time on a research project with a UVic faculty member for 16 weeks over one academic term.

Elise Therrien, a 4th year microbiology student, was one of this year’s six SERA recipients. She spent her summer working with microbiology professor Mariya Goncheva, studying co-infection between bacteria and viruses. This was Therrien’s first opportunity to work in a research lab, an experience that she found quite different from the teaching lab.

“Throughout the summer, I learned that science and research is less about doing things right, and more about troubleshooting. A good scientist is someone who can analyze what happened, figure out the root of the problem, and come up with solutions,” says Therrien.

Therrien’s research project focused on the co-infection of influenza A and Staphylococcus aureus. When a cell is infected by both a bacteria and a virus, more viral particles are produced compared to when it’s just a virus on its own. Therrien is trying to understand the mechanisms behind this phenomenon, and the hope is that this understanding could someday lead to novel treatment options for respiratory viral infections. She started the summer with a screening library of 2000 Staphylococcus aureus mutants. After infecting cells derived from human lungs with the influenza A virus and then the different bacterial mutants, she measured the number of viral particles created to determine which genes resulted in significantly more or fewer viral particles. After four months of screening, Therrien has narrowed it down to 4 or 5 genes that will undergo further studies.

Hailey Gray, a 5th year chemistry for the medical sciences student, was also a SERA recipient this summer. She worked with chemistry professor David Leitch, developing and investigating new palladium pre-catalysts. Palladium catalysts are often used in the development of pharmaceuticals.

“My experience in the lab this summer gave me an idea of what lab skills I needed to improve upon, and working in research helped me build those skills as well as new ones. I learned how to use a glove box, as some of the reactants I worked with were air sensitive, and I built a lot of knowledge about NMR experiments, which I used to investigate the structure of the products I had made,” says Gray.

Gray’s summer started with reading lots of papers, diving into her area of research. Once that foundation was built, she started conducting preliminary experiments on a small scale. She would use small amounts of reactants, run a reaction for one hour, and check to see if she had made a new palladium precatalyst product. Products that seemed promising would be analyzed further and Gray attempted to isolate some of these new molecules.

Elise Therrien in her lab coat, holding an agar plate at the lab bench
Elise Therrien spent her summer working in the Goncheva lab. Photo provided.

Therrien and Gray both acknowledge that their identities come with lots of privilege, but both have simultaneously faced barriers to their involvement with scientific research. Therrien and Gray are women in science, a group that has good representation at the undergrad level at UVic, but whose representation decreases at the graduate student level. Therrien had a negative experience in a previous co-op position, where she felt that she was being assigned lesser tasks, given less opportunities, and not listened to as much, as compared to the male co-op student on the team. Gray was kept out of the lab for portions of her undergraduate degree due to a knee injury, and feels as though the award gave her the opportunity to make up for lost time.

“Opportunities like the SERA are important to help even the playing field,” says Therrien. “Everyone should be able to do science, and I feel grateful for this award.”

Both Therrien and Gray are uncertain where they will be in the future, but feel the experience they had as a SERA recipient has helped them narrow down their options.

“Initially, I wanted to go to medical school,” says Gray. “I’m interested in something in health care for sure, and am curious about what it would look like to incorporate research into a medical career.”

Therrien is still interested in research, as she discovered that she likes the unknown, problem-solving aspects. However, she’s also learned that research doesn’t move quickly, and is leaning towards a career path where the effects are more noticeable. Both students are continuing their research this fall. Gray will be doing her honours project in the Leitch lab, and Therrien is spending the fall on co-op with the Goncheva lab.

The SERA was funded for three years by a donor who wishes to remove barriers for equity-seeking groups in obtaining research experience. The award recognizes the integral role mentors can play in personal and professional development. 

If you are interested in helping the SERA continue beyond the pilot project, please contact Nicole Boulet, Development Officer, at