Nov. 20, 2023

Class of 2023: Job in a genetics research lab came with surprising benefits for UCalgary undergrad

Hands-on experience widened Jess Churcher’s education and opened a door to a future career
Jess Churcher is an undergraduate researcher
Jess Churcher

What did you want to be when you grew up? Tough call between an astronaut or a rock star for many of us. It takes years of education, life experiences and exposure to different things for most of us to gain a career path in our life — but if you’re lucky, you might have an opportunity to meet people who help steer you in the right direction.

Jess Churcher is convocating from UCalgary in November with a combined degree in biological anthropology and biological sciences from the Faculties of Arts and Science — but the hands-on learning and lifelong friendships she found are what she is most surprised and grateful for. 

Through her undergraduate research experience, she found a supportive and encouraging community that put her on a different path, while she learned important skills that demonstrated where her own strengths and passions lay. By pursuing opportunities beyond the classroom and exploring her bigger interests, she created a new future for herself.

“I wanted to gain experience in what research was actually like. I know you learn some things in classes, but you never really experience yourself until you get into it.”
Jess Churcher stands in front of her NSERC research poster.

Churcher worked in Dr. Amanda Melin’s lab, which is involved in a broad range of research intersections between behaviour, sensory ecology, and dietary outcomes of nonhuman and human primates. Churcher studied capuchin monkeys, specifically whether sociality encouraged parasite transmission. As part of this project, she interacted with the Host Parasite Interactions (HPI) network and actually won an award for the best student presentation. 

“I was looking at a base level whether mother monkeys who had more babies also had more parasites than other monkeys in the group. In human terms, kids are pretty gross, and that could influence a mother’s health,” she says. “The main purpose was to gain wet laboratory skills, with a focus on genetic work. I ended up learning the skills for DNA extractions and helped with a lot of other lab work.”

She received NSERC funding twice for her work, participating in UCalgary’s undergraduate research summer studentships. Churcher was mentored by Megan Henriquez, a PhD student at The City University of New York (CUNY), who is doing her monkey parasite research in Melin's primate genomics lab. 

Jess Churcher uses a pipette in a research lab

“Because of COVID and large class sizes, you don’t really get to know people and then during COVID everything was isolated,” she says. “But having this lab group, you end up talking and meeting a lot of different people. They were kind and willing to support you and teach you and give you advice — important skills you might not come across in a regular university stream.”

Churcher learned lab skills that went further than what could be taught in class, simply because of the number of times she was able to practise the techniques. In fact, she believes it was those same skills that helped her get into graduate school, which she is currently pursuing at the University of Guelph.

“It allowed me to go back into my courses and have a better understanding of what I was doing, because I had hands-on experience,” she says. “It helped with my grades — it’s the difference between not really caring and finding it interesting. It changed a lot of things for me. I wish I had done it sooner.”

Outside of the community she built and the mentorship she received, Churcher also got important insight into what she wanted to do post-graduation and is now working toward a future as a lab manager.

“I have discovered through research that I absolutely love hands-on laboratory work, and I really want to help animals,” she says. “I want to run a lab, do experiments, and help people help other things: each other, animals. I think I have a knack for it.”

Read more inspiring stories about the accomplishments and journeys of the Class of 2023.

As you prepare to transition away from student life, we'd like to also welcome you into the UCalgary alumni community. Learn about the programs, benefits and services available exclusively to UCalgary grads, and be sure to keep in touch. 

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