Natalie Marshall probably knows more about the how the University of British Columbia runs than almost any other student and even many staff. Her academic work in microbiology involves untangling the intricate maze of pathways that allow bacteria like E. coli and bubonic plague to infect cells and cause their death. Away from the lab bench, as a volunteer with the GSS, she has become equally adept in navigating her way through the maze of committees, departments and faculties on campus in her efforts to improve the lives of UBC students.
Over the last six years she has worked on projects to improve supervision for graduate students, to get undergrads access to more research opportunities and to develop a strategic plan for the GSS, each a task that involved consulting, cajoling and creating networks across campus.
Yet Natalie’s voluntary work began almost by chance. “I started at UBC in January, which is a strange time. There was no orientation, I was flung into graduate study, so I started attending GSS events to meet people outside my program. Volunteering flowed from there.”
As a volunteer Natalie joined the UBC Grad Council and served as a Student Senator on the UBC Senate. “That thrust me right into the arms of the complex University administration. I quickly realised that to get things done in the limited time you have, you must focus. You can push 100 things a millimeter or you can take on one or two passion projects and make real change.”
“You can push 100 things a millimeter or you can take on one or two passion projects and make real change.”
One of the first major issues to attract Natalie’s attention was finding more opportunities for undergraduates to get a taste of research.
“Working in a lab for my PhD, I saw that the science undergraduate programs were light on opportunities for lab work and getting involved in research. Students wanted to get training, but opportunities were limited.”
Natalie worked to help set up a taskforce to investigate how to create meaningful opportunities for undergraduate research. “Although my perspective was as a lab researcher we wanted to do something that could benefit all students.”
These recommendations were presented to Senate. Undergraduate research opportunities have blossomed since, through several student-run and student-supported groups, and the University has helped expand its Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research Conference (MURC).
Getting issues on the University’s agenda wasn’t always easy, something she discovered with her next ‘passion project’, graduate supervision. “Graduate students always mention the relationship with their supervisors as one of their main concerns, along with finance and career readiness, but it’s a sensitive topic and a challenging one to address.”
“Thankfully Grad Council provided a way to get this topic on the agenda as they were looking at how to provide better training for supervisors. I felt we needed to pounce on this opportunity to add the grad student voice into these discussions. To make sure we were advocating for the most positive change and for what UBC grad students wanted, we had to do an immense amount of work all between December 2016 and February 2017, including reviewing the literature, national survey data and feedback from UBC grad students. It was interesting because it got many of us thinking about whether our own expectations for supervision were realistic or rationalized and also how entire institutions could change to systematically value and even measure excellent supervision.”
The project also demonstrated the importance of striking a balance between advocating for graduate students and working with the University.
“You want to represent graduate students and advocate for their needs but at the same time to get things to change you need buy in from elsewhere on campus. I’m single minded, but one of the things I’ve learned is not to assume that you know the best way to do everything. You can always benefit from other people’s knowledge. In the case of graduate supervision there was a lot of overlap between the recommendations coming from the university and our own findings so it made sense to try and work with Graduate Studies to get things implemented, and they were extremely welcoming and collaborative.”
Despite the wide variety of projects that she has been involved with, Natalie is very clear about the most important thing she has learned as a GSS volunteer.
“Project management skills”, she says emphatically. “I just can’t emphasise how much project management helps you in everything you do as a grad student. Volunteering with the GSS has been like a crash course in project management where you’re constantly challenged to identify and solve problems. I’ve found that if you can project manage, you can advocate on any topic and those skills are just as useful in academic work where you’re essentially asked to bring structure to a mass of unstructurable information.”
Natalie firmly believes that the experiences with the GSS have helped her succeed outside of University.
“Last summer I was interviewing for a job I desperately wanted. One of the things they asked for, along with experience in research, was administrative skills. When I first saw that I was worried. I thought I’ve never been trained in that, but then I reflected on all the work I’d done as a volunteer for the GSS and it fit so many of the criteria. That work as a volunteer was as important to the application as my academic background and I’m convinced it was a big reason why I was offered the role.”
Despite the many hours Natalie’s spent as a GSS volunteer over the last six years she still finds time for one more charitable project. Over the last four years she has swapped lab coat for Lycra to participate in in the annual Ride to Conquer Cancer. This annual 250 km ride from Vancouver to Seattle has raised more than $85 million towards cancer research and patient care over the last nine years. 100km training rides, often in the wet Vancouver weather, might not seem like relaxation but they provide Natalie with a welcome break.
“Studying for a PhD and volunteering with the GSS, you’re very immersed in the bubble of campus. My mother is a cancer survivor and that gave me a personal reason to want to take part in the Ride to Conquer Cancer, but the rides with the team also get me out, give me a chance to meet a different group of people, to explore and exercise.”
At the end of the summer Natalie will be leaving UBC and moving away from Vancouver but as fits someone who has taken a leading role in so many projects she has a checklist for anyone wanting to volunteer with the GSS in the future.
“Find a project you’re passionate about and search for a way to get involved. Don’t be afraid to approach the GSS President or another Executive with your idea.”