Ileana Co, BASc '17, Chemical and Biological Engineering

Ileana Co
Don’t let failure stop you and don’t let your grades define you.

Hello there! My name is Ileana, but most people might know me as Ina. I grew up in the Philippines and moved to Vancouver when I finished high school, and now I am finally graduating with a BASc in Chemical and Biological Engineering and a Minor in Commerce. During my time at UBC, I tried my best to be actively involved both outside and inside the classroom in hopes of figuring out what it is I wanted to do with my engineering degree. Some of my favourite experiences are co-captaining the amazing UBC BIOMOD team and garnering a gold placement for our nano-sized brain cancer drug delivery system, co-authoring a publication for transdermal drug delivery, working on an undergraduate thesis on stem cell engineering and Alzheimer’s disease with industry partners, volunteering at the UBC Hospital and UBC Let’s Talk Science and travelling the world through conferences at Harvard University and research abroad at Lund University. Looking back at all the struggles of engineering, I have no regrets trying to jam pack my schedule with activities and am thankful for all the experiences at UBC!

Why did you choose engineering?

In elementary school, I had this notebook where I jotted down ideas for inventions to “change the world”. I remember my proudest idea was to create an exhaust filter for carbon dioxide emissions. I got the idea from reading Time Magazine’s feature on the LifeStraw which filtered water as you drank it. Obviously, my idea was totally unoriginal and already invented, but I was really excited by the idea of creating things to solve problems and help people! I grew up in a third world country and was exposed to so many different issues like health, hunger and environmental demise that engineering at that time seemed so fascinating. Also, I liked all my science classes but didn’t want to be a doctor so engineering seemed like a sensible choice, and that turned out to be true!

What has made your time at UBC the most memorable?

Honestly, it is simply the people at UBC. I feel fortunate to be part of a community that supports each other. Sitting with the same people in lectures, cramming homework together, staying up late to finish labs, laughing stresses away, Storming the Wall and eating phở to drown out sorrows of a tough exam really forms an unbreakable bond. I’m thankful to have gone through the struggles and triumphs of engineering with a solid group of friends, as well as supportive professors and administrative staff. In 20 years, it’s these amazing people I’ll be proudest to talk about when asked about my time at UBC.

What have you learned that is most valuable?

I was never the student with the best grades. In fact, I studied a lot just to end up being an average student. This was something that made my doubt myself throughout my studies and was a source of a lot of anxiety, having always been a person setting high expectations for herself. However, I never stopped staying positive, moving forward and creating/taking opportunities that came along. One of these opportunities arrived as I was struggling to get a co-op job for my last work term and a good friend helped me secure work with my professor, Dr. Yadav. Never would I have imagined that I’d be building mini-brain models from stem cells to fast track drug discovery for Alzheimer’s disease, end up falling in love with research and decide to pursue this field as my career. I learned a lot of things in engineering, specifically to have resilience and humbly realize that I can’t control every aspect of my life. There will always be people better than you, and that should push you to be the best version of yourself, not another version of someone else. I learned that grades are important, but they are not everything. Most of my accomplishments have been a product of just taking opportunities as they come and playing to my strengths instead of being consumed by my own weaknesses. I learned to constantly push my limits, seize every opportunity, make genuine connections with people, and to never forget why I wanted to be an engineer in the first place. I learned to have a little more faith in myself and put the people I worked to be an engineer for above all else.

How do you feel a degree in engineering has benefited you compared to a different field of study?

I feel that an engineering degree really trains you to think critically, solve problems creatively and teaches you a lot of valuable technical skills that you don’t realize are quite advantageous over other degrees. For example, I had the opportunity to develop a mathematical drug diffusion model for a transdermal drug delivery patch for a rare skin partly because the graduate and post-doctoral students working on this project did not have much experience in performing this. Because of my engineering background, I knew how to perform numerical methods analyses to solve the diffusion equation, and quickly learn Python code to develop these models. Without the numerical methods, basic coding and reactor design classes I took, coupled with the immense perseverance developed from the crazy engineering course load, I would not have succeeded in co-authoring a publication submitted to Nature Biotechnology! As well, I always appreciated the tight-knit community in engineering compared to other degrees. Our struggles and triumphs have brought us together and forged connections that will last lifetimes and come in handy for making an impact in this world!

What advice would you give a student considering engineering?

In my opinion, progress demands innovation, and the training of any engineering degree moves you in that direction. The technical and transferrable skills you learn are exceptional weapons in the battle for profitable and fulfilling jobs! You not only hone problem solving skills, but also management and leaderships skills that can differentiate you from others. If you are passionate about making a difference through engineering then go for it. Join clubs, talk to your professors, find work experience, attend conferences, jump at every available opportunity. If there are no opportunities, keep searching or make them yourself. Don’t let failure stop you and don’t let your grades define you. Success is a relative term and should only be defined by how you measure it. It is important to remember that you won’t always be in control of things, and sometimes going with the flow is really the best thing you can do. Really, you’ll be surprised with what you can accomplish!

What are your plans for the future?

My immediate goal is to have fun, create new experiences and survive both my upcoming PhD candidacy at the University of Toronto as well as the harsh Toronto winters! I am excited to do research at the Institute of Biomedical and Biomaterials Engineering (IBBME) in the field where I believe I can make the most positive impact: tissue engineering. I will be working on developing pre-clinical models for testing immunotherapies, a new way to cure cancer which involves engineering patient’s own immune cells to kill tumours. Hopefully, something good comes out of this! In the long-term, I hope to save lives at a larger scale by commercializing my research through my own start-up company, continue to be passionate about learning and never lose my energy and zest for life and helping others. I also really hope to create a positive impact by educating kids, especially those who are underprivileged, to learn more about STEM topics and how they can pursue a career in it!