Finding a Voice for Research and Change

Life for the past year-and-a-half for Topaza Yu has been an exercise in unlearning old habits and learning new ones, and in learning to embrace change. But the pandemic also gave her a unique research opportunity: During her summer as an Amgen Scholar at the University of Toronto, Yu studied the effects of COVID-19 on people living with HIV.

“Specifically, we wanted to investigate how the management strategies for COVID-19 patients coinfected with HIV are different from non-coinfected patients and how the treatment outcomes may differ,” she explains. “Through a relevant literature search, we extracted and compiled critical findings.” Although the research was conducted remotely, the program was still uniquely impactful for Yu. “The Amgen Scholars Program has hugely influenced my perspective on science,” she says.

Now in her final year of undergraduate studies as a kinesiology major at the University of Saskatchewan, Yu is applying her research experiences to issues of societal importance. This includes work as a newly appointed member of the Canadian Prime Minister’s Youth Council, a group of young Canadians who advise the Canadian government. There, she is working to abolish the ban on blood donations from gay, bisexual, and other men whose blood was once considered high-risk, as well as to advocate for universal access to no-cost contraception for youth in Canada.

“It is vital to incorporate youth voices in all levels of government so the policies can better reflect and represent youth needs,” Yu says. “I want to bring my knowledge and experiences on sexual and reproductive health and rights and continue creating a space where everyone feels like their voice matters in the dialogue. 

“As a believer of the concept ‘Nothing for us, Without us,’ representation is vital for people to see that their dreams are most definitely possible, and they should not limit their potential.”

Yu says that her Amgen Scholars experience has also sparked her passion to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in science. “Growing up in Saskatchewan, where the representation of women of color in STEM is limited, I was inspired by the multidisciplinary and cross-disciplinary health network that the Amgen Scholars Canada Program offers,” she says. “I wanted to be a part of a learning experience where hands-on learning is highly encouraged and be in an environment where I can further develop my skills as an undergraduate student researcher.”

In her own life, the lack of representation of women in STEM made it hard for her to see her future path. “As a believer of the concept ‘Nothing for us, Without us,’ representation is vital for people to see that their dreams are most definitely possible, and they should not limit their potential,” Yu says. 

Yu’s favorite part of the Amgen Scholars Program last summer was meeting her fellow Canada scholars, faculty members, and staff. “During the orientation, I felt a strong sense of community, and I was thrilled to share these experiences with everyone who was there,” she says. She also loved working with program coordinator Dr. Martina Steiner. “She was one of my most incredible supporters during the program, and I appreciate everything she did for our cohort,” Yu says.

Looking ahead to pursue a path that involves research, sexual and reproductive health and rights, advocacy, and entrepreneurship, Yu says that the lessons she learned from the Amgen Scholars Program will stick with her: “There is no limit to how you want to explore your curiosity, and there are people there to support you when you need it. The worst you can get from asking is a no, so don’t let your fears be a barrier to potential opportunities for your success.”