What makes a student shine may differ from person to person, but they all share a passion for learning. They may be top students or involved in an innovative project, or possibly they are participating in ground-­breaking research, playing Pronghorn athletics, fighting for social issues or all of the above!

In celebration of Brain Awareness Week, we caught up with fifth-year neuroscience student Matthew Hammer to learn more about his uLethbridge experience and his plans for the future.

What have you been up to since being named a Shining Student? Where are you headed next? What are your hopes/plans for the future?

Since I was named a Shining Student back in Fall 2019 I have been focusing on building a career path for myself by engaging with professors on research through independent studies and co-op opportunities. After doing two independent studies in my fourth year, I decided to expand and continue that work full time as a summer co-op; I applied for an NSERC grant and was approved for funding, but unfortunately due to COVID, the project had to be cancelled and the funding declined. I also had plans to do a semester abroad in my final year and was all ready to go, but the pandemic cancelled that as well! However, I've managed to make the most of the opportunities still available! This past summer and fall I focused on putting together applications for graduate programs, hoping to pursue a masters in neuroscience. I recently had an interview with a potential supervisor at the University of British Columbia, and I continue to prepare my application to the University of Alberta while I wait for a decision from UBC. In the meantime, I am doing a third independent study with a new professor at the university, working with a team of other undergrads designing a project and it's progressing nicely!

What is your most memorable uLethbridge experience?

I have several and for several different reasons, from social events like Fresh Fest and club trips to academic and personal milestones! But my most memorable experience would have to be my second co-op work term in the summer of 2019 where I was a camp counselor for 2 1/2 months. The work I did and the people I met played a major role in my development as a person. It was difficult and emotionally exhausting, but I had great experiences as well and made life long friends from across the world and I came out the other side all the better for it: tougher, more outgoing, more self-confident, and with a better perspective on life! On the academic side of experiences, seeing Rick Hansen be the keynote speaker at my sister's convocation in May 2018 was significant as well. His speech inspired me to finally switch majors from biology to neuroscience, and is why I wish to attend UBC for my masters.

Is there someone specific who had an important influence on your uLethbridge experience?

My friend Kim Aban and everyone at the co-op office! Their advice and support truly helped me in my academic pursuits and inadvertently in my personal growth as well. Dr. Shelly Wismath, Dean of the School of Liberal Education, was also an important influence, as her work on the Global Citizenship Cohort that I was a part of in my first year opened important doors for me and prepared me for engaging more with faculty and taking on extra-curricular activities to improve myself. I chose to do a minor in liberal education thanks to her!

What is the most important lesson you have learned as a university student?

Honestly, how to work with others and form relationships! In my time here, I have gotten so much better at engaging with people in general, but particularly in forming professional relationships with faculty and superiors and group work with peers. Since that answer is more of a skill, I would also say I learned to not be afraid of rejection, and take chances when they come up. There's no benefit to sitting things out because things might not go your way when the alternative is things certainly not going your way because you did nothing!

Did you participate in work integrated learning (co-op/applied or independent studies), research or any other unique programs? If so, please tell us about your experience(s).

Yes. As mentioned before, co-op was one of the highlights of my time in university. I have done two proper co-ops, with a third cancelled one. My first was in the summer of 2018 working at the Lethbridge Research Centre for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in a Trace Analysis lab looking at pesticide traces in water samples for routine monitoring of pesticide levels in water bodies across Canada. That experience taught me a lot about professional lab work and gave me a head start on what the transition from school to work would be like. My second experience was in summer 2019 at Camp Tamarack just outside Grande Prairie, and was a life changing experience. The camp was open to those with disabilities and taught me a lot about interacting with and accommodating campers different than me. Living and working alongside the same group of people for 2 1/2 months taught me a lot about conflict resolution and definitely matured me in many ways! My third co-op was meant to be full time research at the U of L on a project I would be far more personally involved with than in my first co-op, and I am sure it would have been a great experience and taught me a lot about professional work at an academic institution.

We are spending a lot more time at home now. What do you do to keep busy? Have you picked up any new hobbies? What is your study space like?

I keep busy by listening to music and streaming movies and shows, so nothing too different than before the pandemic. I have picked up reading again after a very long break, and have started getting into cooking as well! I have tried learning French, though still don't have much to show for it. Mon mauvais!

I have had no classes on campus, and usually attend lectures on my bed (otherwise messy, but comfy), sometimes in my kitchen upstairs (otherwise less messy, but less comfy).

How did the sudden switch to online learning affect your studies?

Some courses were disrupted, some were fine, and others completely changed. I had my semester abroad cancelled, and one course I am in I am missing out on some very unique lab work. Instead of getting to dissect a sheep brain ourselves, we had to make do with a video. Other profs have managed to minimize the disruption to their classes, and I am learning just as well as I would be in person. Still, nothing can 100% make up for missing out on seeing my peers in person and building new friendships through group projects.

With all challenges come opportunities. Is there anything good that has surprised you about the new normal? Strengths that you didn’t know you had that have developed?

Not having to run about everywhere over the course of the day has really made me feel less stressed most of the time! My cooking has also improved dramatically thanks to getting food delivered via meal kits.

What advice would you like to offer to prospective students?

Never let opportunities pass you by! When I was a freshman, upperclassmen told me to sign up for and get involved with clubs and I would like to share that same advice. Get involved with clubs! And do co-ops! I can't stress that enough! Don't be afraid to talk with professors, they are your gateway to success once you graduate.