Campus Life

RNA Innovation program creating future scientific leaders

The practical applications of RNA research and innovation have never been more prominent than over the last year with the development of the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccines. The joint RNA Innovation program at the University of Lethbridge and Université de Sherbrooke is designed to create scientific leaders in RNA research.

“This program helps prepare the next generation for the complicated world of scientific work,” says Dr. HJ Wieden, Director of RNA Innovation. “We are teaching them not only cutting-edge RNA research but how to be critical and inclusive leaders in their field.”

This unique Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program enables trainees to gain experience through industry-driven research and development challenges and internship placements. In addition, trainees participate in the RNA Innovation Scientific Leadership course. Developed by U of L Board of Governors’ Teaching Chair, Dr. Ute Kothe, this exclusive course brings together students from around the world.

“During the Fall 2020 semester, we had students participating from Lethbridge and Sherbrooke, as well as India and Egypt,” says Kothe. “We knew this course was going to have students from across Canada due to the unique nature of the RNA Innovation program, and because of the pandemic, we had students stuck outside of Canada still able to participate.”

In addition to the technical aspects of the course, students receive comprehensive training in leadership skills including scientific ethics and integrity, equity, diversity and inclusion as well as professional communication.

“It was shocking and surprised me to learn about the type of bias that exists in the scientific world,” says Bimaldeep Singh, a master’s student currently studying in India.

The class participated in a presentation from Dr. Sarah Viehbeck, associate vice-president, Research Programs – Strategy at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Her talk discussed issues involving equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) at granting agencies and what these agencies are doing to address unconscious bias.

“Understanding the presence of bias in ourselves, knowingly or unknowingly, helped me clear up my mind towards implicit bias,” adds Singh.

Trainees also discuss the ethics and integrity needed to make tough decisions. Dr. Michael Stingl (philosophy) and graduate students Michaela Thompson & Jodi Newman lead the discussions.

“Being ethical should be the most dominant trait not only as a scientist but as a human,” says master’s student Riya Roy. “I was introduced to a totally unknown philosophical world. The simplified presentation, along with our comprehensive discussions gave a new dimension to my current thought process.”

Teamwork and collaboration are dominant themes of the course and present students with opportunities to gain different perspectives. Most projects are designed to be completed in groups, and students frequently debate controversial topics.

“The most effective portion of this class is the collaborative aspect of the group meetings,” says Daniel Rocca, a first year master’s student. “Moving into grad studies felt like there were more expectations on me and the class has given me practice in basic professional skills that will help me succeed.”

Interested students can find information on how to apply to the RNA Innovation program at