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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

The science of finding a lab

Big schools have state-of-the-art facilities, but smaller campuses offer more laboratory time to their students. How to solve the equation?

By Sahm Adrangi
Special to The Globe and Mail

Ask a bystander to name Canada's top research institutions, and you'll rarely hear the names Sherbrooke or Brock. But in this year's University Report Card, small schools beat out their bigger rivals in delivering top-quality lab experience to undergrads.

Prestigious powerhouses such as McGill and the University of Toronto failed to crack the top echelon in terms of labs and research equipment. University of British Columbia ranked 34th out of 37 schools. In contrast, Sherbrooke in Quebec, Brock in St Catharines, Ont, Lethbridge and Simon Fraser all made the top 10.

These results present a conundrum for aspiring high school eggheads: Are the larger, more prestigious universities, where graduate research is a priority, places where undergrads have trouble scoring time in the lab?

“At the University of Toronto, our full-time student population is 37,000, so it's hard to provide an individual research experience for every one of those students,” said John Challis, vice-president of research and associate provost.

If this year's ratings reveal anything, it is that size matters. Often, large schools suffer from red tape, high student-teacher ratios and stiff competition among students - factors that can aggravate the job hunt for lab positions. So even though size and prestige translates to better faculty and state-of-the-art facilities, smaller schools may nevertheless offer better lab exposure for first- and second-years.

“Smaller schools are more intimate,” said Dennis Fitzpatrick, associate vice-president for research at the University of Lethbridge. The school, which grants 1,500 undergraduate degrees each year, ranked third for lab equipment in this year's survey. The school's size, he says, probably contributed to its high approval rating.

An added benefit to smaller schools is that top-dollar facilities are rarely needed to satisfy undergrads. First- and second-years don't require the big-ticket items that inflate most laboratory equipment budgets.

“The stuff that undergraduate students use are not all that expensive, and can be bought with a relatively modest research budget," said Bruce Clayman, vice-president of research at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. To counteract student grumbling, large institutions are working hard to bolster their research offerings at the undergraduate level. For its part, the U of T runs a slew of programs to team up young researchers with experienced mentors. Its Research Opportunities Program pairs second-year undergraduate students with a faculty supervisor. Its life sciences summer research fellowships grant funding to 300 students each year.

For Jennifer Ballard, a fourth-year biochemistry major at UBC, the problem isn't one-on-one contact, but the dearth of course labs offered in her field. For the last two summers, she's worked at a lab affiliated with the Centre for Blood Research, gaining experience alongside top-notch research scientists. But when it comes to course-related lab work, she has been disappointed.

“In terms of research experience and getting a job, UBC is great. But in terms of course lab experience for your degree, it's pretty weak. There could be more labs.”

At SFU, on the other hand, biochemistry students must take at least three semesters worth of upper-level lab work in order to graduate. “So we get a lot more experience than they do,” said Jacqueline Baker, a 22-year-old biochemistry student at SFU. She adds that Simon Fraser's size makes it easier for students to land research stints with their professors.

Competition among students can be a major stumbling block at larger schools. The surplus of qualified students at the University of Toronto is a major problem, says Ian Ha, a fourth-year student.

“[Professors] just get so many people who want to do research and it's hard to accommodate everyone. Take the first-year biology course. When I took it, there were 1,500 students,” said Mr. Ha, who took general sciences in his first year, before switching into computer science. He got his first lab position by cold-calling professors whose research interested him.

Mr. Challis of the U of T would like to set up an initiative to introduce lab work to undergraduates at an earlier age.

“One of my ambitions is to guarantee at least 10 to 15 per cent of the entering class a one-on-one research experience with a faculty supervisor in their freshmen year. That would obviously engage a large number of faculty [and] it would be a very expensive program. But it would be absolutely terrific.” ROBTv Workopolis