Fall 2021 Convocation Spotlight: Cole Delyea, ’21 MSc in Immunology

Completing studies during a pandemic brought home the importance of his work for former master’s student.

Ross Neitz - 17 November 2021

The greatest lesson Cole Delyea, ‘21 MSc in Immunology, took away from his time at the University of Alberta is that he is not a finished product. Over the course of his master’s, under the supervision of Amit Bhavsar, he learned how to learn, and came to recognize that it takes not only time, but consistent, dedicated effort to reach your goals. 

“You are not going to start out being fantastic at everything, and that is OK,” says Delyea. “If what you are doing is something that you enjoy, and ideally something that you think is important to do for yourself, then it is a worthwhile endeavour. Perseverance pays dividends, and even if you get better by one per cent every day, in a year that is a lot of progress compared to where you would be if you had not started at all.”

Today Delyea is looking back with fondness for his time in the Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology, while also looking forward to where his journey next takes him. Read more about his experiences at the university and the advice he has for future learners.

How do you ‘learn how to learn?’

There is no shame in not knowing something and asking questions to learn more about it. It is more important that you seek to understand something, than to remain ignorant about it for fear of looking foolish. Also, learning is a process that is filled with failure. However, so long as you learn from your mistakes, they were not made in vain and they help to progress your skills.

What is it about immunology that appeals to you?

The thing that speaks to me most about my field is how applicable it is to everyday life, and how I can help those in my community. I have a fascination with how the body fights off disease and illness and think it’s spectacular that we have this inborn ability to keep ourselves healthy. When I started in both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, very few people knew about immunology or much about the immune system in general. Experiencing a pandemic really brought the reason for studying and understanding the immune system into the spotlight and focus of people around me. Being able to synthesize immunological information and relay it to those around me who did not have the same background as I did was very fulfilling. I am applying this outside of university by running a science-communication YouTube channel named Investigate Explore Discover, which summarizes primary immunological literature in an accessible and quick fashion. I am also applying this in a working setting; I’ve moved to Boston, Mass. to join a biotech company that is working on a B-cell lymphoma treatment, and a hypoimmune therapy for curing Type 1 diabetes. 

What set you on the path to success in your field?

There were many things. One of them was a personal connection to the topic—I have multiple family members who have died of different kinds of cancer, and I wanted to learn more about the systems and processes that lead to that outcome, and importantly, how to prevent it. From a technical aspect, some things that led me to success were my persistence, dedication to learning, and not being afraid to spend the time required to do research. 

I first started doing lab work by volunteering my time to shadow people in a research lab and learn techniques and lab skills. I then volunteered to take on more responsibility within the lab so that I could get my hands dirty with the actual work. I showed up on the weekends, stayed late, and dedicated a lot of time to learn more about the field and the techniques associated with it. One fact that I learned about biological science is that it takes a lot of time to perform experiments, which allows you to learn about how the body works. And to be successful, you need to be willing to put in that time. This has led me to being a co-author of four peer-reviewed publications during my time at the U of A, and in one of those studies I was the first author. 

What advice do you have for future U of A grad students?

School—and especially grad school—is a time to find out things about yourself and explore who you are. Take the time to explore the things you truly want to do, because school is important and requires dedication, but it is not everything. Take time away from your experiments and schoolwork to make sure that you enjoy yourself, learn new hobbies and try new things. 

Also, try to connect with the people around you and other grad students, because the networks that you form there will serve you well. Being in school is a fantastic networking opportunity, and it is only beneficial to reach out and rub elbows with people that you want to learn from or spend more time with. As well, there is work outside of academia, and it will help you if you start networking and reaching beyond academia earlier rather than later.