Marco Farren-Dai: ‘This exchange [experience] has allowed me to evolve as a researcher’

by Marco Farren-Dai

Does your research project have a collaborator from another university? Do you have a project that is in need of a collaborator or could collaborating with another research group increase the impact of your work? If so, you might want to check out the Research Exchange Program (REP) offered by GlycoNet.

This program provides financial support for living and travel expenses to GlycoNet’s HQP, including graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, technicians, and research associates, to visit a collaborator’s lab for up to six months. This opportunity can help you learn a new skill, gain familiarity in a field of research you may not be accustomed to, expand your network, and further develop soft skills.

As testament to this program, meet former REP awardee Marco Farren-Dai. Marco is a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University working with Professor Andrew Bennet. His research combines computational chemistry and kinetic assays to help understand enzyme activity and mechanisms with the goal of developing new drug leads and chemical probes. While his research is not GlycoNet funded, the work he does is generally applicable to multiple GlycoNet projects.

With encouragement from his supervisor, Marco applied to the GlycoNet REP, and in November 2017 he traveled to Castelló de la Plana, Spain to work with Professor Vicent Moliner at Jaume I University for five months. While there, he carried out molecular dynamics simulations analyzed by higher-level quantum mechanics/molecular mechanics (QM/MM) calculations. With the next REP deadline approaching on May 15, the GTA-EC reached out to Marco to share some of his experiences.

How did you benefit from the program?

This exchange has allowed me to evolve as a researcher, providing me with the skills and knowledge to tackle enzymatic mechanism questions by using computational methods; a role which I intend to continue professionally beyond my doctorate degree. My relationship with Dr. Moliner and his group members has opened the door to future opportunities thanks to their connections in the area of computational chemistry. The collaboration has also yielded a publication in Nature Communications (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-05702-7), paving the way for future fruitful collaborations.

(Note: Marco was recently awarded an Open Access Award from SFU Graduate Student Society for this collaborative publication and will be included in a Radical Access: Scholarly Publishing Blog from the SFU Library.)

Describe any challenges you faced.

During my exchange, the biggest challenge was acquiring a visa. In brief, through a comedy of errors on the part of the Spanish consulate in Toronto, my visa application was changed to a student visa, which was then denied because I was not officially registered at the host university as a student. I had to resubmit my visa application to the type I had originally submitted after many phone calls and emails.

Adjusting to life in a small Spanish city was also a challenge, as the local community spoke little to no English. The first few trips to the grocery store were certainly daunting, but over time I was able to become unexpectedly proficient in speaking Spanish. My Brazilian background and the similarity of Portuguese to Spanish helped.

Any advice for future REP candidates?

For future students in this program travelling to international locations, I would recommend that they inquire if the exchange is formally instituted such that they will be officially registered as students at the host university; otherwise, they might not be able to apply for a student visa.

For someone who does not have the benefit of proficiency in a related language when going to a foreign country for their exchange, I would recommend that they ensure that their destination has an English speaking customer service industry.

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