Program puts students’ lab skills to the test

With the help of a unique Brock program, Ben Davis has developed a very particular set of skills.

The fifth-year Biotechnology student is at home in a laboratory, calibrating pH meters, differentiating centrifuge readings and administering aseptic cleaning techniques, all without the assistance of a professor or teaching assistant.

As an undergraduate student, Davis has made himself stand out thanks to a co-curricular program that has prepared him for many of the practical demands that come with a career in science — Lab Skills Plus.

The program, which offers workshops to help students document the laboratory skills they have learned, is the only one of its kind in Ontario. It is open to undergraduate students majoring in Biology, Biotechnology, Biochemistry, Biomedical Science, Oenology and Viticulture, and Neuroscience.

For Davis, participating in three-hour workshops focused on topics such as appropriate microscope technique and isolating DNA has helped him develop the confidence needed to take the next steps in his career.

“I want to go into a field of research, and what better way to learn than to have free practice and guidance that also gets put on your Experience Plus transcript,” he said of the University’s co-curricular tracking mechanism. “In a lot of undergraduate teaching labs, you sometimes forget about developing transferrable skills. The Lab Skills Plus exercises focus on those skills and offer lots of independent practice.”

Senior Lab Demonstrator Jacinta Dano, who co-founded the program three years ago, said Lab Skills Plus helps to augment students’ experiences in the lab by reinforcing lessons they will need going forward.

“We realized that students were not connecting their lab skills to job opportunities and not seeing the potential that these skills had,” she said. “We felt if we could test them and give them a certificate listing their skills, they could use it in grad school or on job applications.”

To do this, the program takes a more relaxed approach than most in-class lab exercises, offering sessions on Saturdays that are graded as pass or fail. Students are required to have a basic knowledge of lab procedures beforehand, but they are also encouraged to review and improve their competencies with the experienced instructors on site.

The extra sessions enhanced Davis’ day-to-day studies.

“It helped me feel less stressed and ahead of the game in my labs,” he said.  “I was able to focus on other parts of my assignments and was more confident about pursuing an honours research project.”

Though he ultimately hopes to use his newly acquired skills to advance in graduate school and a laboratory-based career, Davis has already seen the benefits of completing the program’s beginner and intermediate levels.

“The program really kick-started opportunities for me during my undergrad,” he said. “My experience helped me get connected with a PhD student in Professor Vincenzo De Luca’s lab, who I volunteered with in my fourth year. That work led to an honours project with Professor De Luca as well as an undergraduate research grant.”

Davis appreciates the care put into the program by those in charge.

“Jacinta and her team truly care about teaching people,” he said. “She always goes out of her way to prepare better experiments for us.”

As he attempts to complete the program’s advanced level this year and wraps up his honours thesis, Davis is hopeful that other students will realize the advantage Lab Skills Plus provides.

“If you want to go into the workforce, you are instantly ahead of anyone else in terms of relevant experience,” he said. And in research, it’s the only extracurricular that will bolster your resumé above anyone else’s.”

Lab Skills Plus allows students to sign up at any time and runs its testing sessions for three hours on scheduled Saturdays.

Students interested in participating in Lab Skills Plus can email Maja Milakovic at mmilakovic@brocku.cato learn more.

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