Richmond student Linda Au applied to the national Gene Researcher for a Week program on a whim, and was hardly prepared for the shock that came when she received her acceptance letter.
"I was sitting there staring at the computer screen and it said I was placed at the University of Alberta," she said. "From what my friend told me, I expected to be placed in Vancouver."
That was the beginning of a one week adventure that would provide a number of firsts - including her first solo travel.
Linda, 17, is one of 48 secondary school students chosen for the annual program, which gives students opportunities to work alongside top scientists in labs across the country.
She'd first heard about it from her friend Katherine Zhou, who was chosen to work in a University of British Columbia lab.
But her interest was peaked when it was mentioned again by her biology teacher at Hugh McRoberts secondary, so she set to work on the essay and application form required to be considered for selection.
"My parents knew I'd been apply-ing to this, but when I told them I was placed in Edmonton, they were like, 'Oh -'," Linda recalled. "Originally, they said no because they weren't really aware of the costs associated with it. The costs do add up. But in the end they decided it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so I should do it."
The Canadian Gene Cure Foundation organizes the program every year, partnering with labs throughout the country to give students the unique opportunity to test their hand at lab work and research aiming to discover how genes cause human genetic disorders and to translate these findings into treatments and cures for genetic diseases.
This year, 32 labs signed on to welcome the potential future cure-finders into their fields.
"We want to entice Canada's brightest young minds to pursue human genetics in their career," said Tracy Zeisberger, executive director of the Canadian Gene Cure Foundation.
"For those interested, we say, 'Here's an opportunity, have a week, take a look at it.' They could be the next one to make that big discovery."
The program's only been running for 10 years, so most participants are still in school or the early stage of their career, but Zeisberger is confident that it won't be long until she begins to hear success stories from former Gene Researchers for a Week.
Linda was placed at Dr. Sara Hughes' lab in Edmonton alongside another program participant from Surrey. In fact, four of the five students who were chosen to work at the University of Alberta are from B.C.
"We have an abundant supply of students who apply from B.C. and I think that's because of the teacher support," said Zeisberger.
The journey for Linda began in earnest last Sunday morning, March 11, as she boarded a plane for her first flight on her own. She'd be spending her spring break forging an entry point into a science career, with a solid focus on where to start: medical school.
"It was a bit of a nerve-wracking experience the first day," said Linda, describing her trek through airport security, onto the flight, then to a shuttle and her hotel room.
"When I got there, I thought, 'Wow, what am I going to do? I'm entirely alone.' I guess it was the first moment I felt truly independent."
Shortly after, though, she settled into her living quarters with three other students and at her lab where she worked with fruit flies. She sorted them based on genotypes and attended lectures given by top scientists, while soliciting advice from university students on her lunch breaks.
"It's been a steep learning curve, but I've gotten a good sense of where I want to go in the future," she said of her plans to pursue a career as a doctor.
Linda acknowledges she realized soon after arrival how little she knew about what she'd signed up for.
If she continues to pursue a career in science, she'll join one of her brothers in the field.
Her 23-year-old brother is a pharmacist doing his residency in Toronto, after attending UBC's pharmacy school.
"He was a bit surprised to hear that I was chosen for this program," said Linda.
Her big excursion ended on Saturday with her return home to Richmond.