UAlberta undergraduates make the research connection

UAlberta undergraduate students have big questions.

These ‘big questions’ are exactly what inspire great researchers.

As they seek answers to the world’s biggest questions, UAlberta undergraduate students are looking for more chances to connect with world-class researchers to engage and build their core research skills. 

​“Research at ​UAlberta is attracting talented young researchers from all over the world,” notes Britta Baron, ‎Associate Vice President (International) and Vice-Provost at University of Alberta. “We generally think of graduate students and beyond when it comes to world-class research​, ​but our scholars know very well that ​bright and motivated undergraduate students provide valuable insights and can offer meaningful support to research projects at all levels.”

UAlberta offers various initiatives that aim to connect undergraduate students with researchers, with major benefits to both sides. The Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI)  at UAlberta offers funding, personalized advising, workshops, connections to mentors, programming, and more.  The University of Alberta Research Experience (UARE) focuses on providing funding for UAlberta researchers to host top international interns, who also receive a stipend. 

The enthusiasm and dedication of undergraduate researchers was evident at this year’s Festival of Undergraduate Research & Creative Activites (FURCA) , organized by URI with sponsorship from University of Alberta International, the Faculty of Arts, Faculty of Science, Health & Wellness Services, and the Kule Institute for Advanced Study.

150 students showcased their work, representing 12 UAlberta Faculties and covering disciplines ranging from education to medicine to arts to humanities and more.  Outstanding student researchers were recognized with FURCA 2017 Awards , which recognize a wide variety of accomplishments, including Outstanding Communication, Outstanding Creative Activity, and more.

Two awards, sponsored by University of Alberta International, lend special recognition to the contributions of international undergraduate students: The Outstanding International Research Award and the Outstanding International Student Researcher Award.

Chiang Jurado (far right) pictured with research team members Christina Hernandez, Vishrut Ghulati, and Alex Kwan  

This year, Diana Chiang Jurado from the Faculty of Science took home the prize for Outstanding International Student Researcher with a project on “Impact of Cytomegalovirus Infection on Graft Survival and Clinical Outcome after the first 2 years post Solid Organ Transplantation,” a project undertaken with supervision from Carlos Cervera, Assistant Professor in Infectious Diseases in the Department of Medicine.  

“Part of the reason I came to UAlberta is because of all the advanced research that is done here,” explain Chiang Jurado, who was a medical student for four years in her home country of Ecuador before transferring to UAlberta in 2014. As she explored UAlberta research opportunities online, Chiang Jurado came across Cervera’s research, which piqued her interest. “Infectology has always been a super interesting area to me.”

Chiang Jurado reached out to Cervera in February 2016 in pursuit of a research opportunity in his lab. “I realized immediately that Diana was highly motivated, independent and had a great potential for research,” says Cervera.  He agreed to supervise Chiang Jurado, who was then awarded a Summer Studentship Stipend, administered by URI.

Through the project, Chiang Jurado investigated the cytomegalovirus, which typically attacks patients with a suppressed immune system.  Patients who have undergone organ transplants have vulnerable immune systems, she explains, making them more susceptible to the virus.

The research required in-depth analysis of patient records, which, at times, were challenging to collect and interpret and required Chiang Jurado to dig deeper for answers.  At the end of the day, Chiang Jurado sees it all as a valuable learning opportunity.

“I gained a lot of critical thinking skills in the research area I was working on.”

When asked about how the experience helped her with her research goals, Chiang Jurado says that it went beyond her expectations.  “Thanks to all the research opportunities that UAlberta has for undergraduate students, I was able to get a grasp of the research experience I was looking for. I feel I achieved more than the goals I had hoped for.”

Chiang Jurado goes on to emphasize that Cervera’s mentorship provided a welcoming and supportive learning environment where she felt she could truly make a difference. “One thing that truly amazed me was that Dr Cervera treated me as one of his peers. He cared about what I thought and my opinions on the research project allowing me to contribute directly. He encouraged me to think critically and speak my mind.”

Cervera notes that, throughout the project, “Diana demonstrated great abilities to work as a team, be independent, and show excellent leadership skills.”

Calling her FURCA poster “spectacular and creative,” Cervera predicts a strong future ahead for Chiang Jurado. “I'm sure Diana will have an outstanding career as researcher.” In fact, Cervera has such confidence in her abilities that he will serve as her supervisor as she applies to Master’s of Sciences at UAlberta and shares that he is honoured to do so.

As for what’s next for this budding researcher, Chiang Jurado is looking forward with great aspirations. “My plans are eventually to attend graduate school and become a medical scientist and researcher, which is why I wanted to gain skills in clinical and medical research.”

Reflecting on the overall experience, Chiang Jurado has some wise words for prospective undergraduate researchers in Canada and around the world. “Just go for it! Either by emailing professors you haven't met or talking to a professor you have taken a class with, just be sincere about your intentions and don't be afraid to let them know what you want to achieve and learn from their research – the more specific the better.”