Undergrads in the Gerlai Lab are pursuing thesis projects in behavioural genetics. ZEAHAA REHMAN/THE VARSITY

Founded by Professor Robert T. Gerlai, a professor in the Department of Psychology and adjunct professor of Cell & Systems Biology, the Gerlai Lab at UTM aims to better understand the biological mechanisms of brain-related diseases in humans.

The Gerlai Lab studies zebrafish behaviour to find genes that affect their learning and memory, social behaviour, and any behavioural changes due to alcohol. The research goal is ultimately to better understand the biological mechanisms of zebrafish and by extension — given the “high sequence homology” between zebrafish and human genes — brain-related functions and diseases in humans.

The lab currently has 21 staff, 15 of whom are students. The lab recently awarded five UTM undergraduate students — Celine Bailluel, Zelaikha Najmi, Samuel Nguyen, Ishti Paul, and Lidia Trzuskot, all of whom are either majoring or specializing in Biology — undergraduate research grants to fund their thesis projects.

“Ever since I was younger, I was always fascinated by the human body and how it worked,” recalls Bailluel in an email to The Varsity. “I found purpose in what I was learning and applying that knowledge to my daily life gave me gratification.”

“I continue to be intrigued by how genes can affect different phenotypes and how different biological mechanism are [affected] by certain genes,” says Bailluel.

Bailluel wants to pursue a graduate degree in molecular biology, genetics, or biotechnology, fields which she believes are the key to understanding and finding possible solutions for diseases.

Like Bailluel, Najmi’s interest in biology also began at an early age.

My [interest] for Biology… stems from my need to understand everyday human life through a biological perspective,” writes Najmi in an email to The Varsity. “How an animal behaves the way it does or how one genetic strain of animal organisms compare to another identity of genetic strain are questions I find interesting.”

Najmi hopes to further pursue this interest by studying chronobiology, the study of circadian rhythms and genes involved in regulating hormones, as well as learning and memory.

[Chronobiology and learning and memory] matter because a number of mood disorders result from disruption of circadian rhythms. Research focused on these topics help further understanding and comprehension of treatment of these disorders.”

Paul is also interested in studying memory and learning through neuroscience and physiology.

“There is still a lot that we do not understand about cognitive processes like memory formation and enhancing our understanding of information retention will help us make the process more efficient,” writes Paul in an email to The Varsity. “I want to study learning and memory in vertebrate models in my post-graduate degree.”

“For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the complexity of vertebrate physiology,” explains Paul. “The idea of being able to provide an additional insight into the mechanics of our body inspired me to pursue research in biology, and it continues to be a source of motivation.”

However, all three admitted that at times their drive for research can fall short.

“My first independent research project was definitely challenging,” recalls Paul. “That is when I realized that research involves a lot of trial-and-error. It requires effort towards trying different approaches to solve issues, being creative, and being open to modifications in your project. It becomes time consuming and discouraging, at times.”

“In research it is very easy to feel overwhelmed and discouraged,” agrees Bailluel. “When experiments don’t turn out how you expected or when obstacles prevent you from reaching your experimental goal, you often feel like giving up.”

“I have felt discouraged and have decided to give up multiple times during my undergraduate career,” says Najmi. “I made sure to remember, discouragement is easy to come across, but resilience and motivation are traits that can help me overcome adversity and discouragement.”

Bailleul recommends taking some time to regroup and come up with a plan to deter discouraging thoughts, as well as asking peers for help.

“Getting a new perspective on an idea and problem solving with others can help encourage you to persevere,” advises Bailluel.

“[I] actively [asked] for advice and constructive criticism from my supervisor and the PhD student in our lab,” adds Paul. “It always helps to discuss your ideas with more experienced individuals; they inspire you to continue working towards your goal despite the hurdles.”

Paul recommends that students interested in research should converse with researchers to see if research will be a good fit, as well as reach out to their professors and teaching assistants to find volunteer positions or Research Opportunity Programs in labs, a recommendation echoed by Bailluel.

Bailluel also recommends taking courses pertaining to statistical analysis or experimental design, both of which factor greatly in research.

“Live in the moment while you are conducting the research,” advises Najmi. “There are the difficult aspects of being in an undergraduate degree balancing courses and being full time in a University lab but you are capable of doing great things!”

“Overall, know you are a scientist in progress and practice makes perfect,” says Najmi.

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