July 19, 2023
Colombian student returns to UCalgary to study after enjoying 12-week research internship here
Karen Ardila Lopez has always wanted to take her biomedical engineering studies abroad.
A student at Universidad Autonoma de Manizales in Colombia, she recalls an email at the start of 2021 that made her believe that dream could become a reality.
The message included details about the Mitacs Globalink Research Internship program, a competitive initiative for international undergraduates to complete a 12-week program in Canada.
After gathering the necessary paperwork and applying for several positions, she landed at the Schulich School of Engineering to focus on neuroscience and genomics under the supervision of Dr. M. Ethan MacDonald, MSc’10, PhD’14.
“I was thrilled and eager to travel to Canada to do what I love most: research,” says Lopez.
She made the most of the experience, impressing her supervisor and ultimately deciding to return to the University of Calgary this fall to complete her studies.
Analyzing the brain
While Lopez admits to being scared to leave her home country for the first time, her fears were quelled by how she was welcomed at UCalgary and in her lab.
“I met many incredible and intelligent people, visited beautiful places, tasted new and different foods, and felt culturally enriched,” she says. “Most importantly, I learned a lot, not only professionally but also as a human being.”
When it comes to research, Lopez worked on MacDonald’s “Brain Volumetry Using Data Analytics and Machine Learning” project, which brought together brain-aging modelling with MRI and genetic data.
Lopez also wrote a paper, “Using Machine Learning to Study the Effects of Genetic Predisposition on Brain Aging in the UK Biobank,” which was presented at the 20th Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers International Symposium on Biomedical Imaging 2023 back in Colombia, which members of MacDonald’s lab also attended.
“If I had to define the experience in one word, it would be astounding.”
Making an impression
An influential person in helping Lopez with the transition to Canada was Emmi Munro.
A student in MacDonald’s Sensor Systems and Data Analytics class, Munro also worked as a summer student with Lopez in the lab, where the two became fast friends.
“We spent much of the summer grappling with a large set of genetic data, working to make it usable for our association analysis with the brain age model,” says Munro. “I got to learn a lot about machine learning, data pre-processing and genome-wide association studies, all of which were key parts of our project.”
She says, along with making a presentation at the Alberta Biomedical Engineering Conference and team-building activities like a hiking trip, it was a special summer.
It’s that kind of opportunity that MacDonald says he likes being able to provide for his students, whether they are local or international, adding the Mitacs internship program is an outstanding opportunity for everyone involved.
“From a professor’s point of view, Mitacs does a great job of finding top students to pair with research projects,” MacDonald says. “From the students’ point of view, they get funded to travel to a university in Canada during the undergraduate degree, and work with a professor on a topic they have an interest in.”
He says it also comes at an important time in a student’s academic career — between the third and fourth year — where they are deciding on whether to go to graduate school or to enter the workforce with their undergraduate degree.
For Lopez, she will be returning here in the fall to pursue her master’s degree in biomedical engineering with a specialization in medical imaging. Lopez has also leveraged the work done during her internship to win several competitive scholarships.
“I hope to continue and improve the research we have been conducting to benefit the community by gaining knowledge about brain aging and the impact of genetic predisposition,” she says. “This is only the beginning of one of my dreams coming true.”
Learn more about the Mitacs Globalink Research Internship program.