Violetta Cohen



“BRING THE PATIENT IN!” the doctor shouts as the gurney rattles over the threshold into the emergency room. This was the scene Govind Deol presented to his second-grade teacher when asked to draw what he wanted to be when he grew up.

“From my very first memory, I’ve always wanted to be a doctor,” the UBC Okanagan undergraduate student says with a contagious smile. “My parents have always encouraged me to be whatever I want to be, and this is the path I’ve felt was right for me since I was a young student.”

Fast forward to 2020, when Deol was one of a handful of elite high school students to receive a coveted Loran Scholarship. The selection process is rigorous; recipients of the award demonstrate exceptional character and excellence in service and leadership, as well as a commitment to academic success.

“Having the goal of becoming a doctor is one of the reasons I’ve pushed forward in terms of academics. I love learning and I love going to school, but knowing where I want to be has kept me motivated and reminds me to get up and keep going, even when I fall back.”

In elementary school, Deol found himself behind the rest of the class after a two-month trip abroad for a family member’s wedding. “When I came back, all the children in the class were reading books and putting words together and I wasn’t able to do that. My mom and I would sit down after school and study together so I could get caught up. My dad and I spent a lot of time focusing on math, and I found that it was something that became really fun. In terms of inspiring my passion for learning—it was definitely my parents.”

When Deol talks about his family, his studies and his involvement in the community, passion is a word that comes up often. “In terms of leading my life, I’ve learned to ask myself, ‘what am I passionate about?’ That’s what I want to do.”

“Explore your passions and put yourself out there. If the opportunities aren’t there, try to create them. Challenges are going to come, but it’s not bad to fall. Get up and start climbing again to do what you love.”

A few of his passions include working with children and basketball, two catalysts of fervour he was able to combine with a basketball program he started while in high school. “Seeing the children having fun and staying out of trouble, along with the heart they played with, made me feel good.

“Volunteering started as a way for me to build a good resume for myself, but I saw it making a difference. Now I think: ‘if this helps me out in the future that’s great—but it has to be about working with people to make a difference.’”

While the COVID-19 pandemic has limited his in-person volunteer opportunities, Deol hasn’t been one to rest on his laurels. He’s active in a youth council run by his local Member of Parliament, advocating for mental health and other issues concerning youth in his hometown of Surrey, BC. “I’m learning more about my community and what’s being done to help people and how I can get involved.”

Deol is also a champion of the Sikhi Awareness Foundation, where he’s volunteered since high school. “They build schools, temples and playgrounds in India,” he says. “There are many sponsors in the lower mainland, but I have a lot of ideas on how I can help it expand into the Okanagan.”

As a requirement of the Loran scholarship, Deol had to decide on a university located outside his home region. “Surrey is a big city, but it’s also a close-knit community like Kelowna. I saw going to UBCO as a way I could similarly continue my community work, but keep growing as a person.”

Like many, Deol found himself on UBC Okanagan’s campus for the first time this fall as he entered his second year of studies during the coronavirus pandemic—and he already has his priorities mapped.

“University is a lot different than high school, and in-person will be a lot different than online. For me, it’s important to understand the culture first. What does the community value? How do things work? Where can I fit in here to help make a difference?”

Deol says he’s more excited than nervous about being on campus, as the thing he missed most doing his first year online was the interpersonal connection. “I’m really looking forward to talking to as many people as possible and making a lot of new friends.”

When asked if he has any advice for his peers, Deol says, “Explore your passions and put yourself out there. If the opportunities aren’t there, try to create them. Challenges are going to come, but it’s not bad to fall. Get up and start climbing again to do what you love.”

DR. THU-THUY DANG HAS UNDERSTOOD THE POWER OF PLANTS since she was a little girl. Growing up in Vietnam, Dr. Dang’s parents taught her a lot about the connection between nature and medicine. And although she mostly used the modern, scientifically proven medicines that became more available as she got older, she never lost sight of what she learned as a child.

Dr. Thu-Thuy Dang.

“We consumed a lot of plant products,” she recalls. “Some we consumed for traditional purposes, some for faith-based reasons and others for their healing capabilities. I always thought they were a bit mysterious, but I was told I had to take them because they were good for me and would help my body ward off illness.

“We all used them. My father was a soldier in the Vietnam War and he would sometimes have to take quinine, which is derived from the cinchona tree, to treat malaria. It’s actually still used in many places across the globe, including Canada.”

Though her family and those around her used many herbal remedies, Dr. Dang found it strange that most of them never really understood how they worked, or even if they worked. They also had little understanding of how different plants made different sets of chemicals. Her curiosity and passion for nature ultimately led her to an undergraduate degree in biotechnology at Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City.

Her degree provided her with a holistic understanding of the biotech industry. Dr. Dang studied everything from plant biochemistry to product development, but it wasn’t until she arrived in Canada that she realized how many different paths and opportunities were available to those interested in a career in medicinal plant research.


While working on a master’s project on plant development and physiology at the University of Calgary, Dr. Dang noticed something interesting going on in the lab next door.

“The plant scientists there didn’t work like traditional botanists, who generally focus on morphology, growth and development, horticulture or taxonomy,” she says. “These researchers were physically chopping up the plants and looking into their genetic materials to try and understand how to make important compounds. Their ultimate goal was to understand and mimic the process to make the same compounds themselves before the natural resource gets exhausted.”

Dr. Dang was intrigued and shifted her focus to this area of inquiry when starting her doctorate. “The fact that plants are such wonderful chemists and have made these compounds naturally for millions of years is so cool to me.

“Morphine from the opium poppy, for example, is not only a powerful painkiller but also a very addictive chemical. The British and Qing Empires went to war because of it, and millions of people around the world today either reap its benefits or suffer from using it,” she adds.

Dr. Dang says whether the public realizes or not, many medicines originate from natural resource compounds or components.

“Our goal is to learn how plants come up with this very complex chemistry, copy the plants and then trick enzymes in the lab so we can make important compounds more accessible.”

“We obtain natural rubber from the rubber tree, the anti-cancer drug vinblastine from Madagascar periwinkle, and aspirin—the most commonly used drug in the world—is synthesized from a component of the willow tree.”

Dr. Dang explains that for nearly 200 years, chemists have been trying to mimic plants’ processes, and, even today, only a few of such processes are understood well enough to be fully re-constituted.

“I liked that it was a challenging field. With the golden era of the next generation of genetic sequencing on the horizon during my PhD—meaning researchers were beginning to sequence the genetic materials of plants at an ever-increasing speed—the timing couldn’t have been better.”

Dr. Dang found success early in her research with a compound called noscapine, which originates in opium poppies and is believed to have cough suppression and anti-cancer properties. During her doctoral studies, Dr. Dang and her colleagues were able to reveal how opium poppies produced noscapine. Their findings were employed by other members of the scientific community who then placed all of the enzymes into a baking yeast that ultimately made noscapine.

“It was a good confidence booster for sure,” recalls Dr. Dang. “Our goal is to learn how plants come up with this very complex chemistry, copy the plants and then trick enzymes in the lab so we can make important compounds more accessible. It was rewarding to meet that goal.”


Dr. Dang was then awarded a postdoctoral fellowship by the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) to continue her research on plant natural products at the John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom. This and previous research experience helped Dr. Dang land her role as an assistant professor in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science.

Dr. Dang’s lab—the Plant Bioactive Compounds Research Laboratory—opened in January 2019. There, she and students integrate biochemistry, chemistry, bioinformatics and molecular genetics to reveal and engineer the biosynthesis of valuable small molecules from medicinal plants. Their goal is to learn and translate natural metabolism into innovative biotechnologies to meet the ever-increasing demands of high-value chemicals.

Close up of leaves

Happy tree (Camptotheca acuminata), currently thriving at the new UBC plant growth facility, produces camptothecin, a precursor to clinically important chemotherapy drugs such as topotecan and irinotecan.

“About 60 per cent of the medicinal drugs we use in Canada and around the world are derived from natural plant products, bacteria or fungi, so we’re working to understand how these organisms produce these compounds. It’s a very complicated process to build complex molecules from simple ingredients such as sugar and amino acids.”

Recently, Dr. Dang was awarded the Michael Smith Foundation Scholar Award, valued at $450,000 over five years, for her lab to investigate plant-based anti-cancer drugs. These include clinically important compounds like topotecan and irinotecan, derived from camptothecin, found in the Chinese happy tree (also known as Camptotheca acuminata).

They have recently filed a provisional patent on the use of biocatalysts to manufacture clinically important anticancer drugs with the support of the University Industry Liaison Office.

Funding from different organizations such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Canada Foundation for Innovation, BC Knowledge Development Fund and UBC will also support the lab’s long-term efforts. These are focused on using synthetic biology approaches to scale up production of compounds that show potential effects on living matter, such as anti-cancer drugs.


Now settled with her husband and two daughters in the Okanagan, Dr. Dang is excited for what the future holds—both personally and professionally.

“I visited Kelowna before relocating, so I knew of its natural beauty and of course the wonderful wines,” says Dr. Dang. “It actually reminds me a lot of my hometown, Da Lat in Vietnam. A lot of people think of Vietnam as a hot, tropical country but I was born in a mountain town. We had evergreen trees and a lake in the middle of the city, so the similarities are quite striking. It really feels like home and we’re so grateful to be living here and to be supported by our colleagues and the close-knit community at UBC Okanagan.”

Dr. Dang is also thriving professionally, and has somehow found the time to consider future endeavours.

“We live here, we research here, and we owe it to our community members to keep them up to date with what we’re working on.”

In my lab, we conduct research to better understand the world of medicinal plants around us, but more importantly, we hope to eventually harness this knowledge to contribute to the accessibility of important pharmaceutical compounds. We would like to make that link more visible to our community members,” she says.

“I already started with some outreach efforts by engaging with elementary students at my daughter’s school and hopefully will be able to join my colleagues’ public engagement with the wider community down the road. We live here, we research here, and we owe it to our community members to keep them up to date with what we’re working on.”

Despite her numerous successes, Dr. Dang is not one to count her accomplishments.

“I’ve never really thought of my work as an accomplishment, just a stepping stone to get to my next goal,” she says. “But I’m proud of the work we have done, I’m proud to be a woman of a visible minority in this field, and I hope my story encourages people from all backgrounds to pursue STEM.”

Researchers are evaluating how environmental factors like diet influence gut health, and whether innovative solutions can alter inflammatory bowel disease's susceptibility


“For years, I had my mind set on becoming a welder,” says Evans, an alumnus of the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science’s Earth and Environmental Sciences program.

“I really enjoyed shop class in high school, and at the time there was a big attraction to the Canadian oil industry since it was doing quite well. So it seemed like a natural career choice.”

That is, until a conversation with his dad made him reconsider his plans.

“He basically told me to really consider what it is that I wanted to accomplish in life beyond a paycheque,” recalls Evans.

“Being an old-school Newfoundlander, he said it in a very colourful way, but that seemingly mundane conversation just clicked. I feel lucky my family never pressured me to do any one thing. The only thing that mattered was forward progression.”

Evans’ father encouraged him to look at other career options by researching program offerings at various universities. About a week later, the two drove more than 400 km from their Lower Mainland home to UBC Okanagan for a campus tour. “It all happened very quickly, but I immediately knew this was where I wanted to be,” he says.

And nine months later he was back. This time, to stay.

UBCO alumni Cole Evans and Dylan Hunko in front of the helicopter that will take them into the remote Canadian wilderness.

UBCO alumni Cole Evans and Dylan Hunko in front of the helicopter that will take them into the remote Canadian wilderness.


Evans enrolled in what he describes as a ‘grab-bag’ of courses in his first semester — earth science, geography, economics and French.

“My passion for the outdoors gave me a bit of direction, though looking back now I really had no idea what I was doing,” he admits.

“I would say to any new student, it’s ok to feel lost at times. The important part is the ability to get back on track. The diversity of experiences you get from university helps you with that.”

Evans was fortunate to have his ‘a-ha’ moment fairly early in his academic career.

“Taking those first-year earth and environmental sciences courses made me realize I had found my calling,” he explains. “I felt passionate about the coursework and got really excited — but then I encountered my first major roadblock.”

Because Evans had originally planned for a career in the trades, he took few science courses in high school, and not the prerequisites needed to enrol in his desired university courses.

Fortunately, he was able to work with professors to develop a plan to gain entry, which ultimately led him to excel in courses like biology and chemistry — despite having no background in science.

A diamond drill rig assembled by helicopter sits on a wooden drill pad at an elevation of 6,000 feet in northwestern British Columbia.

A diamond drill rig assembled by helicopter sits on a wooden drill pad at an elevation of 6,000 feet in northwestern British Columbia.

“I had a different path to becoming a science major than most, but it taught me a valuable life lesson: the power of determination. Whether it’s school, business or research — if you put your mind to it there’s no limit to what you can achieve. It sounds easy, but it takes practice and discipline.”

Then thriving in the earth and environmental sciences program, Evans was unaware that a new roadblock was on the horizon: narcolepsy.

The rare — and in his case, undiagnosed disorder — affected his cognitive function and caused him to struggle internally during his third and fourth years, as he tried to figure out what was going on with his body while completing his degree.

“It’s a lot more than just feeling tired. Unchecked, it’s exhaustion to the point of physical collapse,” he explains. “People often joke around about it, but it’s not funny. People fall asleep when they’re driving, cooking and doing all sorts of things — there are real consequences.”

When Evans was finally diagnosed he felt somewhat relieved, since it put him in a position where he could do something about it.

“Those were a rough couple of years, but figuring out what was going on changed everything for me — I could finally start learning how to manage the disorder and stop it from controlling my life.”

He adds that he tried not to let his condition get in the way of having a productive final year, becoming president of the earth and environmental sciences course union and also completing an honours thesis in a technology called hyperspectral analysis. The exploration technique uses short-wave infrared and physical near-infrared sections of the electromagnetic spectrum to look for ore deposits.

“I really enjoyed doing my honours thesis, and my whole experience at UBCO,” recalls Evans.

“My professors were obviously instrumental in my academic development, but it’s the extras I remember best. Whether it was volunteering, one-on-one mentorship or going to mining conventions, they taught me a lot about being a professional — and that’s not something you can learn in a lecture.”


Evans accepted a position at a mining and mineral exploration company immediately after finishing his coursework. “I was a thousand kilometres away at 6,000 feet on a mountain peak before my graduation ceremony happened,” he recalls. But his entrepreneurial spirit also led him to co-found a private company called HEG & Associates Exploration Services with fellow UBCO alumnus Dylan Hunko.

Cole Evans communicates by VHF radio as he inspects a diamond drill on a mountain top in BC’s famed Golden Triangle.

Cole Evans communicates by VHF radio as he inspects a diamond drill on a mountain top in BC’s famed Golden Triangle.

“Our focus is on mineral exploration and resource delineation,” Evans explains. “We provide all kinds of services, but one of our focuses is using our research techniques as geologists to find where the next big gold, copper, silver and other metal deposits will be. Base and precious metals are vital resources in our modern world. As we move towards a greener, electrified economy, the demand is growing drastically.”

The Kelowna-based company has seen consistent growth over the years, with Evans now serving as president and CEO.

“We’ve been very fortunate with the success of our business thus far. We recently made a big move by taking over a company called Enduro Metals, which I believe makes me the youngest CEO of a publicly-traded company in Canada, so that’s been really exciting and brought a new set of challenges.”

Enduro Metals owns the mineral rights to 650-square kilometres of land in northwestern BC commonly referred to as the golden triangle — an area Evans’ team is currently exploring.

His work has also attracted attention from some big names in the mining industry, including Canadian businessman Rob McEwen.

“I liken him to being the Bill Gates of the mining industry,” explains Evans. “He’s the founder of Goldcorp, which is by far the most successful and innovative gold mining company in Canadian history, but he’s also a philanthropist who has donated to health care and education. I feel very fortunate to have developed a relationship with someone who knows the industry inside out.”

Drill core mineralized with gold and copper are laid out on the ground for a “quick log” prior to being processed.

Drill core mineralized with gold and copper are laid out on the ground for a “quick log” prior to being processed.


It’s been eight years since Evans made the move to Kelowna — and he’s never looked back.

“Originally, I came to Kelowna because I wanted to go to UBCO, but also because it was something new, something different — without being too far from home,” he says. “Now, I’ve come to appreciate the laid-back nature of people in the Okanagan. The lifestyle here is hard to beat. There’s something to do in every season — fly fishing, hunting, skiing or cycling among many others. The outdoors is so accessible, yet you are still close to a major city centre.”

Though Evans admits he needs to work on maintaining a better work-life balance, he has noticed a different work philosophy here than in the Lower Mainland.

“I’ve noticed a different type of work culture — you don’t feel like you’re stuck in the rat race of a bigger city. Here, work and personal time are equally valued, which I actually think increases productivity. I feel grateful to live in a community with those values.”


Evans has undoubtedly done well in the years since graduation, but says he’s more determined than ever to keep going.

“There’s a lot I want to accomplish in the future on both personal and professional levels,” he says. “I have a passion for aviation that I previously put on hold because of my disorder. I’d like to return to that one day, and I’d like to continue growing our business. I think the biggest reward of financial success is what you can accomplish through philanthropy.”

“I by no means consider myself a philanthropist,” he continues. “But I get inspired by people who have been successful for many years and choose to use that success to be part of social change.”

Thinking about social change often brings back memories for Evans of a trip he made to Kenya in 2011. Travelling through a northern area called Wajir near the Somali border, he witnessed scenes he’ll never forget.

The sun sets on a makeshift survival shelter at 7,000 feet near the Andrei Ice field in northwestern British Columbia.

The sun sets on a makeshift survival shelter at 7,000 feet near the Andrei Ice field in northwestern British Columbia.

“I remember seeing hordes of people flooding over the border — refugees — trying to escape drought and Al-Shabaab. Those images are engrained in my mind.”

Evans specifically recalls an encounter while driving through an abandoned desert area, where he saw a young boy poke his head out from the side of the road and start sprinting towards his truck.

“He and his family had been resting in a dirt hole on the side of the road, and the boy didn’t have any clothes,” explains Evans. “He didn’t speak English, but he kept repeating the word ‘pen’.”

Evans and his family gave the boy all the pens they had, and were later informed by their guide that having a pen was the minimum requirement for being able to attend school in Kenya at that time.

“That boy had nothing. His family had nothing. These were some of the most destitute and vulnerable people on this planet, and all they wanted from me was a pen. It was a powerful moment that underscored the importance of education and philanthropy, and how fortunate we are in Canada,” says Evans.

“For me, the possibility of being able to contribute to social change in a big way is what motivates me, more than anything, to work harder.”

GROWING UP, NICOLE HAGUE WOULD JOIN HER FATHER PHILIP on countless walks, where he would stop to identify metamorphic and igneous rocks. It was here that Hague’s love for geology first blossomed, but it wasn’t until high school that she realized this was more than just a fondness for rocks.

“When I got to high school, I was doing well in my Science 10 class and my teacher approached me and offered me a spot in his Geology 12 class,” recalls Hague, who is now a first-year student in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science. “He saw potential in me and that really pushed me to pursue the subject more.”

It was a pivotal moment for Hague, then a student at Earl Marriot Secondary in Surrey, British Columbia. The following year saw her become the only Grade 11 student in her school to take Geology 12, and it set Hague on the path to study geology at UBC Okanagan.


When exploring potential universities where she could pursue her degree, Hague already had one institution in mind.

“My uncle lives in Kelowna, and as a kid we visited all the time. Kelowna was a place I’ve always wanted to live,” Hague explains. “I was also able to take a campus tour when I was young, and I fell in love with UBCO. It fostered the idea that this was a place I could really see myself going.”

But once again, it was guidance from her high school teacher that proved to be essential. Hague had found UBC Okanagan’s earth and environmental sciences program, and along with it, the Charles E. Fipke Foundation Earth and Environmental Sciences Award.

“When I applied for the scholarship I needed a reference, and my geology teacher submitted one on my behalf,” Hague says. “In talking with him, he told me that UBCO is where he studied. At that point, I thought it was meant to be.”


Hague, who will major in earth and environmental sciences, was not only accepted into the program but was the first-ever student to receive the entrance award funded by the Charles E. Fipke Foundation. Endowed by noted Canadian geologist and UBC alumnus Charles Fipke, the renewable award, with an annual value of $10,000, is offered to undergraduate and graduate students intending to pursue geology and who have exceptional work ethic, academic strength and financial need.

Winning the award allowed Hague to concentrate solely on her academic journey.

“The scholarship has taken away the stress of having a full-time job to work through university and I can now strictly focus on school,” Hague says. “As a part of the scholarship, I have to maintain a high GPA. I’m very proud of pushing through and achieving the marks that I have.”

For Hague, the highlight of her first year has been the hands-on experiences, despite courses being delivered online.

“As a part of my studies, I took Earth Sciences 111 and we were given a rock kit. To actually have the sample and pick it up and do all the tests that we were given, that’s what I love doing.”


While Hague’s priority has been her academic journey, she has been mindful to strike a balance between her studies and the activities that keep her energized.

“Since the age of two, I’ve been riding horses and that’s been my escape. When you get on a horse, you have to leave everything else behind. It’s a place for me to relax and it’s great physical exercise. I’m lucky to have found two beautiful horses here.”

Also a former high school swimmer, Hague sought out the Okanagan Masters Swim Club in Kelowna. “Maintaining a balance and getting the proper exercise has really been important to my success,” Hague says.

“I’m so happy with my decision to come to UBCO and Kelowna.”