David He, Science Star & Music Enthusiast

Our July 2018 Spotlight features David He, an avid undergraduate researcher, and a University of Alberta undergraduate student pursuing a BSc in cell biology. Previously, David won the Alberta Regional Sanofi BioGENEius Challenge, and won a gold medal at the Canada Wide Science Fair. Beyond science and academics, David also plays the piano and the trumpet. In our interview, David discusses his decisions to pursue cell biology and research, shares advice he would give to his high school self, and reflects on the lessons music has taught him.

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How did you decide to pursue a degree in cell biology?

Throughout my education, I found myself interested in learning about how biological processes work on a mechanistic level, so I was drawn to pursuing cell biology. Understanding how these complex systems work often requires viewing things from a variety of perspectives – which for example, is what the field of cell biology tries to encapsulate. As I learned from my CELL 201 class, cell biology itself is highly interdisciplinary in that it arose from areas such as cytology, biochemistry, and genetics. The University of Alberta Cell Biology Program helps facilitate this interdisciplinary learning by allowing us to choose courses from various biology departments for completing our degree requirements.  For these reasons, I thought a degree in cell biology would best fulfill what I wanted to take away from my undergraduate degree.

What propelled you to get involved in research in high school?

In grade 10, I did the Interdisciplinary Science Competition run by TeamUp Science at the University of Alberta. The following summer, I did the microbiology module at the University of Toronto’s Youth Summer Program. Through these opportunities, I got my first glimpse of some experiments conducted at the undergraduate level. These experiences propelled my interest in science, which encouraged me to further explore research- much like a positive feedback loop. During the summer after grade 11, I participated in the HYRS program where I had the opportunity to intern at a lab. Being a summer student further affirmed my interest in getting involved in science.

What advice would you give your high school self?

Sleep and exercise more! During grades 10 and 11, I caught colds often because I was not looking after myself properly. It’s easy to neglect one’s health by not getting the optimal amount of sleep or by not staying in shape. Both of these can prevent our immune systems from staying strong, leading to frequent infections. It goes without saying how much a cold or flu can drag you down from getting work done, or how it can negatively impact those around you. So, we should all pay attention to keeping our bodies in good condition!

You play piano and the trumpet; what are some lessons music has taught you?

I started learning piano in elementary school, by following the Royal Conservatory of Music’s books grade by grade. In terms of musical skills, piano and rudimentary theory gave me the foundations for reading and learning music, which enabled me to learn other instruments much easily. In junior high, I started playing the trumpet and then played in different jazz programs all through high school. While classical music taught me how to keep the structural elements of music together (such as rhythm, tempo, and key), jazz taught me improvisation – allowing me to be more flexible, encapsulate more different emotions into a piece, and explore my style of playing.

Music has played a major role throughout my education. An important lesson music teaches is discipline and the importance of practicing step by step. For example, when learning a new song, initially, one usually does not play it as fast as the actual tempo. Instead, you have to start off slow and gradually work your way up in speed. If you make a mistake, you play it over and over slowly until you can play it properly. It can be a tedious process but there is no other shortcut to learning how to play.

A lesson I’ve learned from playing in a jazz band is teamwork and cooperation. When playing in a band, you have to simultaneously be aware of both what you are playing and what other sections in the band are playing. This is crucial especially during improvisation where soloists and accompanying musicians must pay close attention to each other and communicate via how they play and through eye contact.

What has been the best experience of undergrad thus far?

I have had many great experiences; a recent one was getting involved within the cell biology program, and organizing events throughout the school year. For instance, a few students and I invited professors from different health science departments to present science posters about their labs to undergraduate students –  close to 200 people attended our inaugural event! While organizing our event, we got to bond with our fellow students and connect with professors in our department. In the years to come, we look forward to organizing more activities that help foster a sense of community within biology students.

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David is happy to answer your questions about pursuing cell biology and undergraduate research, and more through our free National Young Leader mentorship program. Connect with him here.

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