UVic biochemistry and physics graduate Ainsleigh Hill is currently studying Mathematics and Computer Science at UBC. A long-time advocate for Co-op, Ainsleigh has blended real-world work experiences into her programs at both universities. Despite only being 21 years old, Ainsleigh seriously impressed her co-op employer during her two work terms with the Lymphoma Biology and Informatics team at the BC Cancer Agency. A natural problem-solver and trailblazer, she taught herself to program in C++ and R within a week and modified a math expression that’s now coined the “Ainsleigh index”.

ACE recently caught up with Ainsleigh to ask her to reflect on her Co-op experiences and the value of work integrated learning. Never one to shy away from a strong opinion, Ainsleigh began our conversation with her thoughts on the present higher education “model”, and why she believes Co-op is a vitally important component of this:

AH: “I think the current university system is not optimal for student learning.  There are several problems with the way students are expected to learn.  Firstly, many of the classes cover such a large amount of material in a short amount of time that it is impossible to gain a thorough understanding; many students just end up memorizing material for tests.  The second (and the biggest problem I think) is the way students are evaluated.  If the primary goal is to achieve an A on a test, students are going to focus on learning things exactly how the professor wants them to.  Students will not explore topics they are interested in, nor will they have a chance to question the material.  In science, questioning the current theories is essential to the generation of new ones.  Darwin, Einstein, Copernicus all succeeded precisely because they questioned the theories of their times.  Furthermore, the stress of tests often decreases the performance of students, resulting in an inaccurate assessment.

It seems to me that undergraduate education is somewhat sub-optimal.  If the purpose is academia, I think the courses should teach more in depth, and allow students a chance to discover ideas for themselves.  It’s going to be very difficult to come up with original ideas after graduation if the only ideas you have seen were told to you as facts to memorize.  On the other hand, if the purpose of undergraduate studies is for employment, then learning would be better coupled with a working application.  Either way, I think it makes more sense to focus on the future application of the studies.
As for co-op, I think it is an excellent idea. In fact, I think it would be better if more of school was based on relevant working experience.”
ACE: We love how passionate you are about this subject Ainsleigh! You spent two Co-op terms working at the BC Cancer agency – what would you say was the main thing you took away from that experience?
AH:  I actually ended up staying at BC Cancer for 2 years (1 year of co-op and 1 year of part time work). I gained a lot from my time there. The job was very relevant to my future career. When I first started there in 2015, I was still debating about medical school. However, I realized that I really loved the research, and decided to pursue a career in academia. Another thing I learned was: I didn’t want to study biology anymore. I had been debating about biology vs. mathematics/physics for a while and was leaning towards biology when I applied at BC Cancer. But I was given bioinformatics work as well as wet lab work and found that I actually enjoyed the bioinformatics better, and ended up doing my entire co-op in bioinformatics. I also had a chance to live in a new city.  and ended up liking Vancouver!
ACE: One of the objectives of Co-op is to connect classroom learning with tangible work experience. As someone who has excelled in her studies, how did you find the transition into a work environment? Did you recognize the connection between the knowledge you had gained in the classroom and the tasks you were asked to do?
AH: I found the work experience to be far more rewarding than the classroom studies.  I think I was particularly fortunate to have a position which afforded me a lot of freedom in my work.  I was able to try out new algorithms, write code, explore topics of interest, read papers; in general, I got a taste for scientific research. I learned more during my co-op than I did in my previous year of studies.  I learned topics that would never be covered in undergrad (bioinformatics, R programming), and I learned a lot through trial and error.  If there was a problem in the code, I couldn’t read about it in a textbook; I had to come up with a method to test the code, find the problem, and fix it.
ACE: Did Co-op open any doors for you?
AH: Co-op opened many doors for me.  Aside from being able to move to a new city, I think that it was valuable work experience, and helped me get my co-op job this summer at the Clean Energy Research Centre at UBC, a position which is more related to my interests.  I will be applying to graduate school next year, and I know that all my co-op experience will open doors in that area too. Currently, I am studying Mathematics and Computer Science at UBC.  I’m working this summer in a mechanical engineering co-op, working on the gas diffusion layer of PEM fuel cells (hydrogen fuel cells for cars).  I have one year left of school, and after that, I will be applying to grad school.  Co-op has allowed me to build my resume while still in school.  Finding work can be difficult, especially without relevant experience.  The more experience I can get, the better prepared I will be for future work.  Co-op has also allowed me to try out career options.  My current co-op is in engineering; I chose it because I am considering doing a Master’s in Engineering, and would like to see if that would be a good fit.  I have learned so much from Co-op, and I would only say that I wish more of my studies could have been more hands on/experiential.