It might have been difficult at the time for Jason Luddu to imagine an experience at the University of Lethbridge that could equal or top his team’s bronze-medal showing at last year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) – until this year.

The biochemistry student and his ULethbridge teammates once again travelled to Paris to compete in the iGEM Grand Jamboree, where teams from around the globe solve local problems using synthetic biology. This time they brought home a gold medal.

When I think of the people I’ve met and the connections I’ve made, it was definitely the best thing about my undergrad for sure.

Meet Jason | Nerd. Hopeless romantic. Social butterfly.  
Program: Bachelor of Science | Major: Biochemistry
Hometown: Calgary, AB & Cardston, AB

Jason says it’s difficult to compare the two experiences because they were so different. The first year at iGEM was “eye-opening” when it came to the cultural experience, the opportunity to meet so many like-minded people and the exposure to such practical, high-level applications of research.

“This year I learned that just because I’m from a small town in southern Alberta doesn’t mean I’m behind anyone from Ontario or anywhere else. There were teams from Harvard and MIT and Stanford and they all got silver medals. Now I know what’s out there and I know what I can do if I really put my mind to it,” says Jason, adding he’s grateful for the lifelong friendships formed with his teammates and the hard work and preparation put in by Dr. Vineet Rathod, the team’s Principal Investigator.

Jason began his educational journey at ULethbridge as a chemistry major after discovering his interest in the subject while in high school. Upon further research and several university chemistry classes, however, he fell in love with biochemistry and the career choices available upon graduation, including work in the medical field or the research side.

“Four years ago I wanted to be a pharmacist, and now I am enjoying learning whether it be in molecular biology, metabolism or cell bio research techniques. For now, I want to learn more in this field but have a lot of options open for me once I am ready to move forward,” says Jason.

While he doesn’t know exactly where the future will take him, Jason knows he loves learning and wants to get a master’s degree and perhaps a PhD.

“I believe that if I put my mind to something and truly want it, I can obtain whatever my goal is,” he says.  

Jason chose to study at ULethbridge because he wanted to stay close to home and attend a smaller university where there was greater likelihood of meaningful interactions with his professors. That decision has paid dividends, as he credits those professors for the “immense role” they have played in his growth over the past few years.

Jason calls Dr. Nehalkumar Thakor “instrumental” in his ULethbridge experience. As a high school student Jason loved to learn but found that passion dampened as he had a tough time adjusting to the learning curve of university, the move to online courses due to COVID-19 and a strike by faculty members. That changed for the better when he took professor Thakor’s introduction to biochemistry course.

“I’d like to thank him for seeing something deep inside me when he recruited me to his lab, and most important of all, I’d like to thank him for giving me back my love for learning,” Jason says.

He admires Dr. Steven Mosimann for sharing the biochemistry “fire in his soul,” and Vineet Rathod for his ambition, work ethic, and love of teaching. Laurie Pacarynuk, meanwhile, instilled in him a love of lab work and showed how much she really cares for her students. Finally, Jason thanks fellow student and iGEM teammate Baillie Cej for showing him that it was possible to love learning at university if he found what interested him.

“Jason's enthusiasm, positivity and motivation make him an excellent student and an excellent citizen,” comments professor Pacarynuk.

Jason has had the opportunity to do four independent studies, three of them with Dr. Thakor and a fourth co-supervised by both him and Dr. Mosimann. He calls those independent studies one of the best decisions he’s made at the University.

“Before I started doing research work, schoolwork was very theoretical, and it made it very hard for me to care when everything seemed so theoretical,” says Jason. “Doing the independent studies let me put the theory to practice more so than any teaching lab could ever do.”

While it did prove a lot of additional work, he recommends students find a lab that interests them. Not only does it provide the ability to apply theory to practice, Jason says he got to do some interesting research work and it all had a positive impact on his grades.

He was also fortunate to be the recipient of a couple of Undergraduate Student Research Awards, which allowed him to work in the lab during the summer. Jason calls the scenario the best of both worlds, as he was paid for his work while furthering his career.

As for those just starting their educational journey at ULethbridge, Jason suggests they first find something they love learning about and then search out research opportunities to expand on that. Further advice includes taking full advantage of the opportunity to talk with professors, make friends and come to the realization that very few university students “kick butt right from the beginning.”

“Do not be so hard on yourself when things are not going your way. We are here to grow, so enjoy the journey and try to better yourself day-by-day!” he says.