The Problem Solver

U of C graduate student Nadia Monych.

If at first you don’t succeed, try again. It’s an age-old motto that people have used to overcome challenges that they have faced in life. 

 For University of Calgary graduate student Nadia Monych, the saying rings even truer.

As a master’s student in the biochemisty department, Monych says that a failed experiment in the lab is just another part of the learning process.

Monych’s approach to the lab is exactly as the saying goes, if the experiment does not succeed she tries again. If it doesn’t succeed the second time, she tries to look at the experiment from different angles and change some of the parameters.

No matter the outcome, Monych emphasized that the experiment can always yield some kind of useful information

“Just because the experiment didn’t work doesn’t mean I didn’t learn something from it,” asserted Monych. 

It was the process of being in the lab and trying to find the answers to hypotheses that drew Monych to biochemistry. 

She had enjoyed taking biology in high school, and had originally started at the U of C majoring in biological sciences. However, the introduction to biochemistry and lab techniques courses that she was required to take drew her to biochemistry.

Monych cited her enjoyment of being in the lab and doing experiments as a few of the reasons for her switch to biochemistry. 

Monych stated that mastering in biochemistry was always in her mind due to the fact that a biochemistry undergraduate degree is considered more of a stepping stone to other medical or professional degrees. 

Monych also had experience doing the independent research of a master’s student due to her Biochemistry 530 project, an independent study she did in the final year of her undergraduate degree with another master’s student in the department. 

In that project, Monych’s work focused on cloning a gene and expressing the protein of that resulting gene. 

“That didn’t work,” admits Monych. 

Focusing on metals

Her research as a master’s student now focuses on metals, and she works under the supervision of Raymond Turner, a professor in the biochemistry department. 

“Nadia is integral to a branch that studies metal-based anti-microbials,” said Turner. 

Turner described the development of graduate students as a kind of evolution, where the student begins by taking instruction from the professor and then evolving to the point where the student ends up becoming the teacher. 

“She has evolved to the level of being an equal collaborator,” noted Turner on where Monych fit in the development curve. 

In particular, Monych is working with two different bacteria which have a higher resistance to silver when grown together than when grown apart. Monych believes this is caused by a particular compound, but she does not yet know what the compound is. 

On being a teaching assistant

Of course, there is also another side to being a graduate student that Monych enjoys more than her colleagues: being a teaching assistant. 

Monych had been the teaching assistant (TA) for the lab techniques course that got her interested in biochemistry for the whole first year of her graduate degree and the first semester of her second year. 

Monych lists the ability to help people learn more about biochemistry and being able to help students troubleshoot problems in the lab as key to her role as a TA. She notes that being encouraging towards students who are struggling or frustrated in the lab is very important. 

Although the lab techniques course is structured around experiments that should work, things can still go wrong. Monych believes that having something go wrong for the students in the lab is a good learning tool.

“If everything works, it’s not a realistic portrayal of how science works,” emphasized Monych. 

The lab techniques course features a section on cloning, which Monych describes as a “numbers game.” She said that if the students end up being even one number off the whole experiment could be ruined, and they won’t know until the experiment is done if they have messed up.

Much like when she herself hits a snag, Monych encourages her students to try different things to figure out what went wrong. 

For these reasons, Monych says those considering pursuing biochemistry as a degree should have a passion for the subject. 

“If you don’t love it, find another thing that you love,” cautioned Monych. 

Monych said she finds the teaching element of her degree enjoyable, and that should she not find a job elsewhere she would consider coming back and taking the two-year education degree offered by the U of C.

However, Monych admits that she has not given much thought to pursuing a doctorate after she completes her master’s.

“I need a break from school,” she conceded. 

On managing her workload

Monych says that the workload for a graduate student can be very stressful. She said in one semester in her first year she was a TA for a course, she was taking a course herself, and she was conducting her own research. 

In order to balance it all out and keep on track, Monych writes out checklists and keeps a little calendar notebook that helps her to plan out her time. She says this is especially crucial for her experiments, which require bacteria to grow for two days beforehand.

Monych does have a bit of a break for the 2019 winter semester, however, as she is not a teaching assistant for a class and is focusing on researching and writing. 

The writing is particularly important, according to Turner, as the goal in an academic paper is to tell a story and explain to people the results in an easy to read way. 

“When you’re on the cutting edge of research you have to be able to explain your results,” stated Turner. 

Turner notes that Monych is close to being able to tell a story with her research, but because her data is new she has to have the evidence be ironclad. 

Once her research and degree are complete, Monych has multiple career opportunities that she is looking into. She lists working as a lab technician, working in a hospital, or working in a high school or university lab as possible places for her to work. 

Monych said there are more opportunities in biochemistry in places like Ontario, but she prefers to remain in Calgary as most of her family lives either in the city or in British Columbia. 

Monych’s passion for solving problems extends outside of her studies, as she says that going to escape rooms is one of her favourite things to do in her spare time. 

“I like solving problems,” she said with a grin. 

Monych wants to ultimately end up in a place where she can solve multiple problems, preferably in a lab setting. 

Monych says that if she can’t solve a problem, she turns on music and gets to work. 

“You just get lost in the experiment, you turn your brain off and focus.”

Contact the writer at @humansofyyc

Brennan Black