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Interview with Dr. Jonathan Lee

Journalist: Amy Stewart

Image: UOttawa

Amy: Welcome to SciSection! My name is Amy Stewart and I am the journalist for the SciSection radio show broadcasted on CFMU 93.3 FM radio station. We are here today with Dr. Jonathan Lee, a professor, researcher, and the Director of the Translational and Molecular Medicine Undergraduate Program at the University of Ottawa. Thanks for joining us today, Dr. Lee.

Dr. Lee: My pleasure.

Amy: So to get us started, tell us about the education you've received, your career background and what you do here at the University of Ottawa.

Dr. Lee: Ok so, I have a PhD from the University of Toronto in immunology and after that I post-docted at Mount Sinai Hospital with Alan Bernstein there, and then I went on the Hamilton Regional Cancer Centre, which is now called the Juravinski Cancer Centre at McMaster University and as a professor and from there I moved to Ottawa in 2003 where I'm now a professor in the biochemistry, microbiology, and immunology department.

Amy: That is very cool, it seems like you’ve had the tour of the Ontario Universities there.

Dr. Lee: I have indeed.

Amy: So you're also the director of the Translation and Molecular Medicine Undergraduate program, or TMM for short. Can you explain to us what TMM is and what makes it so unique from a traditional science undergrad?

Dr. Lee: Yeah so, TMM is an undergraduate training program for people in their third and fourth year of a science education. And it's run by the Faculty of Medicine and by the faculty medicine professors. And what makes it unique is that what we want to do is we want to get people into research labs as early as possible. So we get people doing a rotation and a research lab in their third year. And we want to expose them to modern techniques in biomedicine and biotechnology, so a lot of the courses are based around modern, cutting-edge technology like microscopy or nano-medicine or imaging. So we had to get people in the labs very early. We also have a very different approach to teaching. So there are no textbooks in TMM that the teaching comes from the primary literature or some internet resources. So we don't get people to use textbooks and we also structure the courses quite differently so it's not a traditional sort of talking ahead lecture where you have someone telling you what you should know, we like to involve the students in their own learning, a type of learning that we call active learning. And so active learning means that you're not just listening to someone tell you what you need to know, you're involved in this. So for example, your first assignment in TMM, in my cell biology course, is to make a video with some other classmates about something interesting, an interesting cell biology topic in science. So I don't tell you what you need to put in the video, you're assigned a topic that you do the research yourself and you make a video. And so it's sort of a fun way of learning about science, very different from the traditional "memorize this" in a textbook and multiple choice exams. So, we do a lot of things differently, that different style of learning, we like to get people in the labs, and also that the evaluation is quite different too, so that we have many essay assignments, very few multiple choice exams, and sort of non-traditional things like doing a video assignment or writing a grant proposal, that make us different from a traditional science education program.

Amy: Wow! As a science undergrad myself I mean I think being in the lab and having the chance to do those in-person, hands-on projects is exactly what everybody wants in a science education. Your program, it puts a massive emphasis on in-lab learning and research and I see that students also get to pursue a fourth year honors project in areas such as neurobiology, cancer-biology, and stem-cell biology and more. What are some of the current research projects students are working on in the program?

Dr. Lee: Well you know so right now we have 80 students and the projects that they do and all of the students taking an honors project, is that they, and it varies depending on the lab they go in, so that we span the whole range of scientific interests here in the faculty of medicine and these would include lets say basic structural biology, so we have an honors student doing crystallization and determining the structure of a protein, we have students they're doing work on oncolytic viruses, which are important in cancer therapy. We also have honors students looking at nano-medicine, looking at delivery agents for anticancer agents, and also we have some very basic science projects that are centered around cell biology, around cell migration, and then neurobiology. So that the students have a very, very wide range of honors projects. But in addition to that, one of the things that we do for our third year students, before they get into the honors, is that the primary TMM lab is a discovery-based lab. And so this discovery-based lab, which everyone does, is to identify and characterize new bacteriophages. And bacteriophages are going to be an important agent for killing bacteria as the antibiotic pipeline dries up and antibiotic resistance becomes important. So bacteriophages are a potential source for antibacterial agents. And so what our students do is each and every one of them go to some place that they are interested in, gets a soil sample and isolates a bacteriophage from that soil sample. With that, they will isolate it, characterize it, sequence it, and then if it’s a novel bacteriophage, then this could potentially be used to kill bacteria. And so I think we get a couple of new bacteriophages every time we run this course. So this is the first lab project that one does in TMM, and the students have a lot of fun.

Amy: The whole of idea of a discovery lab is very cool, it seems like a great jumping point for new students in their third year to finally do some hands-on research and go through the whole process and the idea of discovering something new, that’s really cool. It's not seen in a lot of programs.

Dr. Lee: Yeah, I think what we try to do by getting people in the lab early and doing, you know, a discovery-based lab is to try to make science fun. Often it isn't fun, we end up memorizing a lot of things or doing a lab that’s been done the same way for 10 years. We don't do that in TMM, we like to keep the lab work practical so that you want to discover something or you want to do something new. And if you want to learn something, you should be engaged in your own learning.

Amy: And I'm sure the skills they learn in TMM will definitely apply for later on in their careers. For a program that’s only been around since 2016 you guys boast some amazing accomplishments. I saw that 40% of your graduating students enter a graduate program and 50% get accepted to medical school. That’s amazing!

Dr. Lee: So, those numbers vary from year to year but nearly all of the students end up in either medical school or graduate school, so we have a great track record of moving people into higher education in science and medicine.

Amy: That’s awesome. As the director of TMM what are some of your students accomplishments that you are most proud of?

Dr. Lee: Well you know, we've got a lot of students in graduate school here at Ottawa and so some of them have done some really good science and are doing their PhD now. Just a recent note that we've had one of our TMM students go to Harvard for graduate school and we had another TMM student go to UCLA medical school on a full scholarship, which is pretty amazing. And so that those are just two of the quick achievements off the top of my head that I can tell you about. And so that’s pretty amazing. And when I talk to students at convocation and I know where they're going, that they spread out all over Canada, some of them have gone to Toronto, some have gone to McGill, some have gone to Vancouver for graduate school and for medical school. So, I'm proud that the Ottawa cohort is colonizing the rest of Canada.

Amy: That is really cool to hear. It's great to see how many opportunities once they leave the program. TMM also focuses on keeping class sizes very small to create the best learning environment. You guys only accept about 65-100 students every year. What advice would you give to undergraduates who are looking to apply?

Dr. Lee: So I think I'll emphasize the small classes. So you get to know your profs and the profs get to know you. So I think that the biggest classes are in third year, the required third year courses, and so those are about 65 I think was the biggest class. But in fourth year, some of your classes may only have 3 or 4 people in it, so you do get to know your professors and to understand what they want in the course. And so for people who are interested in applying, I think that it's important to know that the students who apply, they're not just their transcript. So we interview applicants so everyone who gets accepted into TMM will be interviewed first, so that from what we were looking for in applicants is obviously you have to have a decent GPA, doesn’t need to be stellar. But what we're looking for is people who have an interest in science and also can communicate that to people in an interview, so that you can't just be a one dimensional person, we're looking for people who can work collaboratively, work hard, work in a lab and enjoy the experience.

Amy: I really like the emphasis you put on working with others, because I think that’s going to be a very important skill moving forward in an education in science. I think sometimes we forget in our undergrad how important it is to be able to work with others and come up with ideas together. I think that's really great.

Dr. Lee: Yeah so that is important, so I talked about my cell biology video assignment, and so the teams are five people in size and that means that everyone's got to work together, you know someone may have great video editing skills or someone may be a good on camera performance person, someone may be good at graphics, all those things come together to make videos. It's important because that’s not the only collaborative project that you have in TMM, and when you go to work in a lab you're going to rely on other people to help you, guide you through the lab work process, so it's important to be able to work not only with peers, but also to work with graduate students and postdocs and lab supervisors as well.

Amy: And for a program that’s so small I'm sure it's great for the students to bond together basically right from the get go, like the very first assignment. That’s really good the have the opportunity.

Dr. Lee: Yeah so it's important, I like to think about TMM of as a community of students, like it's small enough that I can recognize everyone by face, well it's different now with COVID because I only see them on Zoom, but it's important that you know, we build a group of people who will help each other in classes and in projects.

Amy: I really like that sense of community. For my final question, what are some areas of translational molecular medicine that you think are the most up-and-coming and require further investigation?

Dr. Lee: Yeah so I speak not only as the TMM director but as a scientist myself, so I think that as we look towards the future one of the things I think is important is the effect that computational biology and machine learning, that might role into the buzzword - artificial intelligence. The effect that that’s going to have on science, on medicine, I think that’s really important, not only in identifying what the best treatments are but also identifying important genes and diseases. So, computational biology is going to be important and also I think that as a cancer scientist, and there are many cancer scientists within TMM, to appreciate the role that the immune system has in therapeutic success. So I think that the interface between immunology and cancer treatment I think is going to be important. And lastly, of course we're in COVID, we've been in COVID for almost two years now, and so I think that understanding of viruses and their effect on the human system and how they move throughout the different animals, I think it's also important. So I mean those are three things that I think are important, that I think will set the tone for the next say, ten years and more of research.

Amy: That’s very interesting, they seem to cover a very broad spectrum of topics as well. From technology and computers to viruses and the immune system, I think that’s a really good mix of things that you would like to explore further.

Dr. Lee: Yeah so the faculty of medicine has hundreds of scientists, physicians, physician scientists, and basic scientists in it. So that students in TMM can choose a broad range of research topics within the faculty of medicine.

Amy: That’s great that you guys work so closely, I mean I guess being the undergrad of the faculty of medicine definitely helps, that’s awesome.

Dr. Lee: Yes it does.

Amy: Well that’s it for the interview, thank you so much for joining us Dr. Lee, the work you're doing as director of TMM is setting the bar very high for what an undergraduate science education can look like. I'm so happy you got to share all the amazing research going on at uOttawa.

Dr. Lee: And one thing, that we have a virtual open house March 2nd for those people who are interested in finding out more information about the program.

Amy: Yeah definitely check that out, and you can check out their website too, under the Translational Molecular Medicine page on the Faculty of Medicine in the uOttawa website. That’s it for this week of SciSection! Make sure to check out our podcast available on global platforms for our latest intervie


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