The future belongs to the highly skilled

How working in leading-edge research labs is preparing a new generation for success, in the lab and out
Mark Witten
Theoretical Physics
Materials Science and Technology
Scientists work on innovative robotics technology in a modern laboratory.

When Kathleen Schroeter was invited to join Emma Allen-Vercoe’s lab as an undergraduate summer student in 2009, she jumped at the chance. The University of Guelph lab had just acquired the equipment that was used to create Robogut, a novel platform that simulates the human gut. “It was so cool that I got to participate in the process of setting up and establishing this new in vitro model for studying microbes in the digestive system,” she says. “I was excited by the model and how exploratory it was.”

That was just the beginning for Schroeter. A few years later, as a graduate student, she used Robogut as a tool to help develop a treatment for patients with recurrent C difficile infections. And in 2013, her knowledge was instrumental in launching a start-up drug company. It wasn’t just top-notch research skills she learned, but she also picked up management, business and communications experience along the way.

Hands-on learning through research a trend in Canadian universities

Schroeter’s is an example of how students who gain hands-on experience in leading research labs develop a whole range of specialized skills and expertise that allow them to launch meaningful careers, in or out of the lab.

According to Laurent Lewis, Associate Vice-Principal of Research at the Université de Montréal, it’s an opportunity not lost on Canada’s research institutions. “There is a trend among universities across Canada to make the links between education, advanced skills training and research stronger,” he says. “This is what Canada needs to do to lead the world in the coming decades.”

Lewis believes that creative and widespread use of advanced research tools and facilities across disciplines is an invaluable way to train not just scientists, but also entrepreneurs and professionals of many stripes. His own university has adopted a strategy to encourage collaborations across disciplines to give students the broadest exposure to different kinds of expertise and technology.

For example, in the U de M lab of renowned artificial intelligence (AI) expert, Yoshua Bengio, computer science students are working with the faculty of medicine to exploit the power of massive data sets for health care applications. “People doing artificial intelligence use graphic processing units (GPUs) [that do rapid calculations to display visual data] which are much more powerful than CPUs [the “brain” of a typical computer], but much more difficult to program,” explains Lewis. “Students learn how to program GPUs and at the same time, they are working with people in medicine.” The combination of programming skills and knowledge of disease diagnosis, treatment and prognosis positions the students in this lab at the frontier of AI applications in health.

“Science doesn’t wait,” says Lewis. “Advanced research labs are part of what allows us to be competitive as researchers, students, universities, industries and as a nation.”  

The future belongs to the highly skilled

For young people in Canada, the skills needed to start a career are not what they once were: an increasingly technology-driven and competitive economy demands a workforce with increasingly advanced and comprehensive capabilities. In December 2017, the Advisory Council on Economic Growth, a panel of business and academic leaders that advises the federal government on long-term strategies for growth, released their report called Learning Nation: Equipping Canada’s Workforce with Skills for the Future. It outlines the challenges that lie ahead for the nation in skills development. Advances in technology mean that labour markets across the globe are undergoing major change.  Many existing jobs are being displaced; but many new jobs will be created that demand different and often more specialized skills.

The report recommends policy changes and solutions to equip Canada’s workforce with skills such as advanced computing, mobile programming and nano-engineering to take advantage of new opportunities technology shifts are creating in existing and emerging sectors. As Canada becomes more of a knowledge economy, post-secondary institutions have a vital role to play in providing advanced training in specialized academic disciplines like nanoscience, bioinformatics and bioengineering that will be critical to continuing innovation and success in a highly competitive global environment.

Building up the research intensity of its post-secondary institutions would better position the country to compete and meet the surging demand in advanced areas of the knowledge economy, the report advises.

It would also allow more students to have access to research projects, which means more “experiential learning” opportunities. Described broadly as any learning that applies knowledge and conceptual understanding to real-world problems or situations, experiential learning is more than a buzzword. It’s often pointed to as an important component to closing a skills gap between what employers need and what the talent pool provides. The recommendations of Ontario’s 2015 Expert Panel on the Highly Skilled Workforce include creating more opportunities for this kind of learning. And a report from Ontario’s Universities, called Partnering for a Better Future for Ontario, says that to develop a strong talent pipeline, Ontarians want “co-ops, internships, lab work, research projects and other experiential learning opportunities.”

In other words, research labs are one place where hands-on learning, and all its benefits, comes naturally. A September 2016 article in University Affairs on the growing trend of research experiences in the undergrad years sums it up nicely: “Undergraduate students … who conduct or participate in research projects find this work transforms their undergraduate years. Instead of taking in information passively, they’re digging for new data and making their own connections. What’s more, the techniques they learn doing research projects — defining an issue, collecting and synthesizing data, communicating results — translate into job skills and offer valuable preparation if they decide to pursue a graduate degree.”

It’s a shift in education that most students would welcome. In a national survey conducted by Abacus Data in 2016 for the Business/Higher Education Roundtable, 86 percent of current students and recent grads said experiential learning would make it easier to transition from university to a successful career. It’s no surprise to Lewis, who has seen that enthusiasm first-hand. “When students work on cutting-edge research and applications with industry, they’re very excited,” he says.


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Training a new generation

Find stats on how cutting-edge infrastructure helps train students and post-docs, read what the new generation told us about their learning experiences in CFI-funded labs, and more.

Lewis regards access to hands-on training with leading-edge equipment and facilities as essential, particularly for students pursuing careers in high-tech, emerging fields like computational materials science or nanoscience. He has seen high-performance supercomputers and sophisticated new tools to produce nanomaterials make a major difference in the quality of training offered at his own and other Canadian universities.

Students learn to use advanced equipment and algorithms that are transferable to industries ranging from financial to high-tech computing to materials science and next-generation manufacturing, he explains. “This type of rich research training in a competitive learning environment enables students to develop specialized skills that are of great interest to industry.”

Research skills, but so much more

As an undergrad in Allen-Vercoe’s lab, Schroeter had to learn fast from the ground up. She helped Allen-Vercoe and her lab mates put together Robogut and modify the elaborate system of flasks, tubes and high-tech monitors to model the diverse bacterial communities and environmental conditions in the human gut.

It was the creative improvisation aspect of this work that solidified Schroeter’s career path. “That summer was the first time I thought this kind of science is what I could see myself doing as a career,” she says.

The equipment she helped design made it possible to culture important anaerobic microbes that live in the gut, which had never been done in a lab before. Rather than looking at bacterial species individually in a petri dish, Schroeter was able to look at the way microbes grow and interact in their environment, as they do naturally in the human gut.

Understanding the role of human gut microbiota in diseases like inflammatory bowel disease and diabetes is a relatively new field, says Allen-Vercoe, who is a professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Guelph. That in itself gives Schroeter an edge. “Kathleen and my other students gained skills working with Robogut that are extremely valuable in this emerging field and their training is relatively unique” says Allen-Vercoe. Since they built Robogut, at least six other labs worldwide have built similar systems modelled after it.

Using the equipment, Schroeter helped develop a treatment composed of 33 different strains of intestinal bacteria isolated from a healthy human gut. In a pilot study, the bio-engineered product successfully cured two elderly patients hospitalized with severe recurrent C difficile infections.

Following this success, Allen-Vercoe launched a biotech company, called NuBiyota, to develop and commercialize the treatment as a clinical grade therapeutic product for recurrent C difficile infections. “Kathleen had the hands-on experience of how to culture microbes that are anaerobic and how to keep them alive, a specialized skill that’s very tricky. She also had the essential knowledge to produce the therapeutic product that was tested on patients in our pilot study. Her know-how was instrumental in getting our company off the ground and she was our first employee,” says Allen-Vercoe.

Schroeter did an industrial post-doc at NuBiyota and developed a second, higher-grade version that won Health Canada approval for a Phase One clinical trial to treat patients. “I’m a scientist by training, but I got to participate in the start-up of a company and see the launch of a new therapeutic product from a business perspective,” she says.

Today the company has nine staff, including three former Allen-Vercoe students who trained in her lab. It has attracted Takeda, a major international pharmaceutical company in the gastrointestinal sector, as a partner. Schroeter is now managing the research team and training staff for its pilot plant to manufacture the product. “People are starting to realize how fundamental a healthy gut community is to other facets of health. This whole experience has opened so many doors for me,” she says.

Businesses depend on research know-how for success

Schroeter is not alone. Experience in a research lab is a life-changer for many young people. Take Tuoqi (Tony) Wu, who as a PhD student at Simon Fraser University’s 4D labs, learned how to use sophisticated characterization instruments and carry out the complex chemical reactions needed to synthesize new kinds of dyes. Now, he is applying what he knows to help SWITCH Materials Inc., a Burnaby, B.C., clean-tech company, enhance the performance of its smart window glazing for the global automotive industry.

When Wu was hired in 2016, SWITCH was working to accelerate the development and commercialization of its first product, window glazing for vehicle sunroofs that darkens in the sun.

The timing was perfect.

“We needed to ramp up quickly and it was critical for new employees to hit the ground running,” says CEO Doug Wiggin. “Tony’s experience in synthesizing these molecules and his understanding of the way these compounds reacted to light was extremely valuable. He had the training and experience to contribute right away.”

Wu, who heads the company’s analytical service, uses specialized instruments he trained on at 4D LABS — an Ultra-Violet Visible Spectrophotometer and High-Performance Liquid Chromatography System — to develop, analyze and test switchable glazing molecules and materials.

These molecules, which can be turned on or off using light or electricity to reduce heat, glare and energy use inside cars, are the key component in the window coating technology marketed by SWITCH.

But SWITCH knew they needed to be more competitive by making their window glazing material last longer, and that’s where Wu was able to make his mark.

“Tony’s analysis of how these molecules were degrading showed us that we needed to change the chromophore structure in order to extend its life. This led to the development of a new, more durable dye,” says Wiggin.

Wu is one of six SWITCH employees trained at 4D LABS — where the company’s founder, Neil Branda, is Executive Director — representing half the company’s R&D staff. “We’ve hired a lot of young grads from 4D LABS because they have the right experience and training. When you start expanding a team, you need people who can be productive faster,” says Wiggin. He is working with global automotive manufacturers that are among the largest in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and major glass suppliers to launch and commercialize the company’s product.

It has been a heady, high-octane ride for Wu. “Because we are a fast-paced start-up developing new materials, there is no recipe for how to do things,” he says. “You need to figure it out yourself.”

Equipping young innovators for future success

For Schroeter, the hands-on experience of conducting research with Robogut has opened doors to a career she hadn’t even imagined before walking into Allen-Vercoe’s lab. “I always wanted to do something I could be passionate about. To see the impact of my work on patients and have a career blossom out of it is amazing,” she says.

But the benefit of training in a world-class research lab goes beyond the personal; the success of the new generation of researchers is of national importance. U de M’s Lewis views hands-on learning with advanced research tools as vital for young people to develop the skills needed to create innovative products and services to power the future growth of the Canadian economy. “Research should be an integral part of education,” he says. “It’s an investment in the science and technology of the future, the innovators of the future and the knowledge economy of the future.”