The Co-op Experience at Escarpment Labs: 2021 Edition

My name is Sydney Johnson, and I just finished an eight-month co-op student term at Escarpment Labs in December of 2021. I’m currently in my final year of the Microbiology Co-op program at the University of Guelph and I’m very fascinated by the science behind fermentation. I loved my experience as a co-op student at Escarpment Labs! It gave me the opportunity to meet so many cool people, work on some cool projects, and improve my skills as a microbiologist.

Co-op is a great way for University students to develop their professional skills and gain real-world work experience. For the past four years, Escarpment Labs has been hiring co-op students to aid in their lab and production processes and to date has had 19 co-op students in total (wow, so many)! From these co-op students, 13 have been from the University of Guelph, 3 from McMaster University, and 3 from the University of Waterloo. Some examples of the programs that Escarpment hires co-op students from are Microbiology, Biochemistry, Biomedical Engineering, Biotechnology, and Biomedical Toxicology. 

In 2020, McKenna Tosh (a former co-op student) wrote a blog post outlining all the amazing things that the Escarpment Labs co-op experience has to offer. Since that post, Escarpment has expanded as a company and the co-op position has expanded with it. Not to mention, there has been a lot of change in the world (aka a global pandemic)! With all of these changes, Escarpment Labs has adapted the co-op position to improve efficiency in day-to-day tasks and to ensure that the co-op students are still provided with the best hands-on work experience while also feeling safe. In this post, we want to provide an update on what the Escarpment Labs co-op role looks like in 2022!

 

Co-op placements during the COVID-19 pandemic

            When COVID-19 was pronounced a global pandemic in March 2020, many people across the world were forced to work and study from home. Because much of the work at Escarpment Labs cannot be performed remotely, we have had to adapt to provide a safe place for employees and students to continue to work. Fortunately, this means that we can offer safe face-to-face production and lab experience for co-op students! 

Some of the changes that we have implemented to create a safe working environment during the pandemic are bi-weekly rapid testing and weekly work from home days (WFH) to reduce the number of employees on-site. Co-op students are given one WFH day per week where they’re able to conduct research and plan for their projects. Along with rapid testing and WFH, physical distancing and paid sick leave for any COVID-related issues are also key safety measures that have been implemented at Escarpment. 

While the pandemic has had a huge impact on everyone’s lives, I was very fortunate to be working at Escarpment during this time. I personally felt that I was able to gain practical hands-on experience while still knowing that myself and other employees were well protected from COVID.

 

Day in the life of an Escarpment Co-op student

 Some of the 2021 co-op students! L-R: Hana, Tanya, Sydney

Now I know that what you’re really interested in is learning what co-op students do on a day-to-day basis! To give you some insight into our daily tasks, co-op students start their days by harvesting yeast slurries from big tanks (bioreactors) and performing QC analysis on the harvested yeast samples. While these tasks haven’t changed since McKenna’s post in 2020, we have implemented many improvements based on feedback from past co-op students. Examples of these improvements include automated cell counting using a cell-drop and tweaks to harvest protocols. These improvements make the harvesting and QC tasks much more efficient and ultimately give co-op students more time to work on their individual projects. Although this may not seem like a huge deal, these small improvements have saved co-op students hours of manual cell counts and yeast-harvesting headaches each day! After the co-op students are finished with their harvesting and QC duties, we use the rest of the day to participate in departmental meetings, help out on the production floor, or work on our projects.

Escarpment Labs offers co-op students the unique opportunity to work on individual research projects based on their interests. Escarpment really cares about their co-op students and all the employees are invested in helping improve the co-op students’ experience. Co-op students are encouraged to collaborate with a variety of departments based on their interests and the projects that co-op students work on have a huge impact on the company. Some examples of projects that co-op students are currently working on include developing products for our new food fermentation department, creating gluten-free media for our yeast, and DNA barcoding our core yeast strains!

For me, working on projects was one of the most rewarding aspects to being a co-op student at Escarpment. I’m personally very interested in cider, seltzer, sour beer, and molecular biology so I worked on a project involving nutrient supplementation in cider and seltzer, a project comparing sour beers made from different methods, and a molecular biology (PCR) based project. If there’s a particular aspect of fermentation that you’re interested in as a co-op student, then the team at Escarpment will help you create a project that will teach you valuable skills and make an impact on the company!

 

Fun things about Escarpment

 Photo at taken at one of the Escarpment Labs co-op student mixers, encouraging students to meet and bond between both facilities.

One of the aspects that I valued most about working at Escarpment Labs was the company’s culture. Escarpment is truly one of the coolest places that I can imagine for a co-op student (or anyone) to work! From making fun lab playlists, to having cookie exchanges, and tasting lots of beer, there’s always something fun happening at Escarpment. All the employees are fun to be around and there’s never a day where someone isn’t telling a joke or making a meme. As a co-op student, I looked forward to going into work every day and I’m going to miss the company culture at Escarpment labs. 

I hope that by reading this post you were able to get a sense of what it’s like to be a co-op student at Escarpment in 2022! Escarpment is always interested in students who have an interest in fermentation and welcome any students to contact us about applying for an 8 month co-op term. If you’re interested in applying for a co-op position at Escarpment, feel free to contact our co-op coordinator Alex Mitro (alex@escarpmentlabs.com), our lab manager Luisa Mulheisen (luisa@escarpmentlabs.com), or our facility manager Evan Graham (evan@escarpmentlabs.com) with any questions!