Author Archives: Charles Yin

An Open Letter to my MP on Public Science Funding

Note: This letter was written as part of my #ALSIceBucketChallenge. In my challenge video (which you can find here) I talked at some length about public funding for science in Canada (or lack thereof). As a result I additionally challenged myself to write a letter to my MP urging more federal funding more basic science research. Below you will find a letter from myself to Ms. Susan Truppe, MP London North Centre.

Add. note: I forgot to mention this in the video, but I did end up donating to ALS Canada and would encourage you to do the same.

 Charles Yin
1703 McCallum Rd
London, ON
N5X 4G4

September 2, 2014

Dear Ms. Truppe,

I am writing to you today as a member of your constituency worried about the future of science and innovation in Canada. As a student who has spent more than seven years working as an assistant in biomedical research labs across southwestern Ontario I watched with trepidation as public funding for the basic sciences grow increasingly scarce. As a current medical student intending to enter basic and translational medical research in the future, I am disheartened by the fact that fewer and fewer young scientists today are able to successfully establish their own research programs – a trend that shows no signs of reversing itself anytime soon.

The importance of basic science research cannot be overstated. It is through basic science research that the most significant advances in the past several centuries have come about. It is basic science research that will lead to the cures for the diseases that plague our society and it is basic science research that creates the innovations that keep Canada competitive in the global economy.

But the fact is that the outlook for basic science research today in Canada is poor. Since the formation of the second federal Conservative government in 2008, total funding for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Canada’s main funding bodies for basic science research, has decreased by 5.7% and 6.4% in real dollars. 1 As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult for scientists to obtain the funding needed to move forward their research. In the 2013-2014 funding cycle, CIHR was only able to fund 400 of 2527 total applications, or a mere 15.8%.2 Compare that to the 21.7% application success rate in 2008-2009.3

It does not help that the current Conservative government, under the direction of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has aggressively pursued policies to curb and control the research being done in Canada. Incidents such as the near-shutdown of a world-renowned freshwater research center4 and the systemic censorship of federal scientists5 have further damaged Canada’s reputation as a world-class leader in scientific developments and an advocate of the open exchange of scientific ideas. Scientists and researchers across the country are clearly at their limits.6

However, there are small indications that things may be starting to change. The re-emphasis of the importance of basic science research in Budget 20147 was one welcome reversal. But this is just a single step in the right direction and much more remains to be done. That is why I am calling on you as a federal MP and the Canadian government to increase public funding for basic science research. Make science a priority again in Budget 2015 and stand up for science in Canada!


Charles Yin
MD/PhD Candidate
Western University

Further Reading

1Research Canada. 2014. Feb 14 Budget 2014 – What it means for us.

2Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Feb 2014. Operating Grant: 2013-2014 – Funding Decisions Notification (September Competition – 201309MOP).

3Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Jun 2009. Operating Grant 2008-2009 – Funding Decisions Notification (March 2009 Competition: 200903MOP).

4Orihel D and Schindler D. Apr 2014. Experimental Lakes Area is saved, but it’s a bittersweet victory for science. The Globe and Mail.

5Chung E. Oct 2013. Muzzling of federal scientists widespread, survey suggests. CBC.

6Pedwell T. Jul 2012. Scientists take aim at Harper cuts with ‘death of evidence’ protest on Parliament Hill. The Globe and Mail.

7Government of Canada. Feb 2014. Chapter 3.2: Fostering Job Creation, Innovation and Trade. Budget 2014.

3 Tips For Being Productive During An Undergraduate Thesis

The senior research thesis is an experience shared by almost all undergraduate science students. These days, an undergraduate thesis is a requirement for obtaining an honours degree in the sciences and something that is highly recommended, if not required outright, for post-graduate professional programs such as medicine or dentistry.

For some, the senior thesis is a culmination of several summers of work in a single lab. For the majority, the thesis is the first time they have stepped foot in a lab. Having completed my own senior thesis this past year, I thought I would share some tips for incoming undergraduate thesis students, both novice scientists and seasoned research veterans alike, on how to have a great thesis experience (and maybe even be productive!).

Become Familiar With The Lab Before You Start

This is a big one. Although it is entirely possible to complete a fantastic thesis in the space of a single academic year, starting in September and finishing in April, you will almost certainly be more productive during your thesis if you take a bit a time to become familiarized with the lab before you start. Some people are lucky enough to secure a position in their thesis labs the summer before 4th year to get a head start, but even for those who can’t be in the lab in the summer taking a bit of time to do some volunteer work in the lab in the previous school year will help.

By having spent some time in the lab beforehand, you will have a much better sense of how things works: where you can find everything you need, who to go to when you need help with a certain piece of equipment, where they put the leftover pizza from the weekly seminars, the list goes on and on. Come September, you’ll be busy with class, clubs and everything else that suddenly seems to happen at the beginning of a new school year and you’ll be glad to be able to hit the floor running on your thesis.

Have A Plan Of What You’ll Be Doing

It might seem to go without saying, but you’d be surprised how many people go into their thesis project without knowing what they’re trying to accomplish in the long run. Without a plan to follow, it’s all too easy to get caught in the trap of putting things off until it’s too late. Don’t be the person who realizes in January that they haven’t done a single experiment.

A stalled project is usually caused by a lack of forethought or a lack of initiative. Both these things can be avoided if you have a concrete plan of what you want to accomplish along with deadlines on when each task should be done. At the start of your project, make sure to sit down with your PI (Prinicipal Investigator – the prof in charge of the lab and your boss) and work out a research plan. Don’t accept vague platitudes like: “We’ll figure it out as we go along” or “Just start working and see what happens from there”. Your PI is responsible for having an appropriate project for you to work on or at least for helping you design a feasible project – but it can be up to you to hold them to that responsibility. Having a concrete plan in place also helps prevent you from procrastinating too much on your project. If you have specific deadline in place, it’ll be harder to put things off for too long.

Don’t Spend Too Much Time Reading

This one is a bit counter-intuitive. After all, if you’re expected to contribute new knowledge to a field of work, shouldn’t you know everything about that field first? The key here is to realize that there’s a difference between doing reading and doing too much reading.

It comes down to a matter of time. You do need to spend some time reading and gaining an appreciation for the key papers in your field, but depending on your area of interest there could be hundreds of papers that could be relevant and just not enough time to go through all of them in the short time frame that you are given. Students, even those at the graduate level, fall into the trap of reading paper after paper, constantly refining and reworking their projects but never getting started doing anything in that project. While a good researcher is one who has a profound knowledge of his or her field, a better researcher is one who is able to produce novel knowledge within that field.

In my experience, the best thing to do is to start doing experiments once you’ve read a dozen or so key papers and to keep on doing reading while you are working through experiments. Not only will this strategy help keep you productive during lulls in your experiments, it becomes easier to distinguish between papers that are relevant to your project that those that are not once you’ve actually started to do some hands-on work. In the long run, this will be key to keep the number of papers you need to read at a manageable level.

So, that’s three of my best tips on how to have a productive undergraduate thesis experience. An undergraduate thesis is  often an undergraduate science student’s first chance to work through a complete research project on their own, with the real potential to contribute some novel knowledge to their field. It should be an exciting experience – so get to it!

Got your own tips on how to make the most of an undergraduate thesis? Think I’m horribly wrong or misinformed? Let me know in the comment below!

Finding a Research Position as an Undergraduate Student

How do I start to look for a position in a research lab as an undergraduate? It’s a question I’ve been getting a lot recently, especially from students who have just completed their first year of university and from entering students. It is a very daunting question to go about answering on your own, especially if you, like the majority of new university science students, have never worked in a lab before. Where do you start looking? Who should you contact? How?

The unfortunate reality is that there are very few formal structures within the university that address this issue. At certain institutions and in certain departments, there are project-based courses where students are able to earn academic credit for working on a project in a research lab. However, these courses still demand that the student find a supervisor on hir own. Very few of these courses are set up to support the student in hir search for an appropriate lab, either due to a lack of administrative resources or to the belief that finding a lab should be done on the student’s own initiative. However, initiative, though certainly commendable, is hardly sufficient to instruct a student on how to find a lab to work with, much as they may be eager to do so.

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Kenya in Retrospect


As part of my studies abroad at the University of Leicester, I had the opportunity to do a field course in sustainability in Kenya. Six students, including myself and another two students also on exchange from my home institution, ended up signing on for the course, which would involve camping at a conservation site and working with the local community on implementing sustainable living practices based on sound research and scientific principles.

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