Exchange report - Student at KI
Home university: University of Toronto
Study programme: Biomedicine
Exchange programme: INK
Semester: Autumn semester 2021/2022
Name: Inika Prasad
Email address:


Why UofT?

I decided to go to the University of Toronto (UofT) to work on my Degree Project, i.e. the Bachelor’s Thesis during my sixth and final semester at Karolinska Institutet. This decision was motivated by various factors. From the academic perspective, I wanted to get some exposure to a different research environment and see how teaching style would be different in North America. From the personal perspective, I wanted a change from having lived and studied in Sweden for many years and to try making friends and experiences in a new context. 


I chose UofT because it is one of the top universities in the world for life sciences and biomedicine. It is also associated with various hospitals, making a lot of the research directly related to clinical medicine and human health. At the time, I was also considering pursuing a master’s or PhD at UofT, so I thought going there for an exchange would be a good experience to help me make future career choices. 


Information about the exchange

The information I received regarding the exchange semester from KI and UofT was relevant but occasionally too general. Figuring out how a semester-long thesis fit into the UofT course system, choosing the extra courses, and determining credit transfer procedures were all aspects I had a lot of communication with both universities about. Roughly speaking, the logistics looked like this: 

1.     Choose a campus: UofT has three campuses: St. George, Mississauga, and Scarborough. I was initially registered at Mississauga but contacted my exchange coordinator to change it to St. George. I chose the St. George campus because it had more faculty members that focused on my interest in molecular genetics. 


2.     Minimum credits & courses: There are different requirements for the minimum number of courses and credits required depending on the campus chosen. In my case, the Faculty of Arts and Science at St. George required me to complete 3-5 courses and complete 1.5-2.5 credits. Each semester-long course is worth 0.5 credits. 


3.     My decisions: Since my primary focus was my thesis, I chose to do the minimum 3 courses. Choosing the three courses was the next big step. 

Choosing courses

UofT is a big university with hundreds of courses, so it is difficult to peruse the whole list and select what I wanted to do. Eventually, I came up with this strategy: 


1.     Get familiar with the course naming and classification system: Let’s take an example – MGY472H1S. 

o   MGY: The name of the department. Here, it is Molecular Genetics & Microbiology

o   472: The level of the course. 100-199 are first-year courses, 200-299 are second-year courses, 300-399 are third-year courses, and 400-499 are fourth-year courses. 

o   H: “Half”, meaning it lasts for half the year (one semester). If there is a Y in this position, it means that the course lasts for a year.

o   1: is the code for the campus. 1 = St. George, 2 =

o   S: the semester. S=Second/Winter semester. F = First/Fall semester. Y = 


2.     Search the list of departments and find those that match your interests. Then, consider the courses these departments offer. I narrowed it down to MGY (Molecular Genetics and Microbiology), CSB (Cells and Systems Biology), and BCB (Bioinformatics and Computational Biology).

3.     Search the Academic Calendar for courses offered by these departments. You can add filters for level (I only looked at 400 and above), duration (Half year), campus (St. George), and semester (Winter). 

At UofT, at least 0.5 of your credits (and one of your courses) will be dedicated to your thesis. Any research work exchange students do at UofT must be through what is called an Independent Research course. These courses are either…

·      Offered through the department you are interested in. I did MGY482H 

·      Offered by the college you are enrolled in.

·      Offered as a research opportunity programme 

Vaccines and pre-work prep 

My worked at the Wilson Lab under the Department of Molecular Genetics. This lab was also affiliated with and located at the Peter Gilgan Research Institute at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. Given that I was on hospital premises, I had to be up to date with several vaccines, tests, and safety training modules. All staff had to have completed a Tuberculosis test and various standard vaccines. 



Whether you will require a visa during your exchange will depend on your country of citizenship, how long you’re travelling, if you plan to work during your studies, etc. As an Indian citizen travelling to study for five months who was not going to be working in Canada, it was sufficient for me to get a Visitor’s Visa for studies. 


Your passport will have to be submitted once the visa is granted (so that it can get the visa on its pages), so it’s not a great idea to plan any big trips while your visa is processing

Arrival and registration

I arrived in Toronto as the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 was rapidly spreading, and tightening borders made travel, arrival, and quarantine quite tricky to navigate. Hopefully that won’t be the case in future years! 


There are several introduction and orientation meetings that will help you get started on an arrival checklist. There are also Student Life newsletters that you can sign up for via your college (mine was Innis College), emails from The Centre for International Experience (CIE), and mentorship programmes available.  


One of the first things to do is get a T-card, which shows that you are a student at UofT. This helps access many important things – resources, campus buildings, discounts on public transport, etc. You may be able to make do with a student number, but the T-card certainly helps. 


Getting around in Toronto is quite easy – you can cycle and the public transport is convenient and easy to use. For student prices, you need to buy a PRESTO card and take proof of being a student to a registered store like Shoppers Drug Mart


I would also recommend getting a SIM card as soon as possible – you’ll need it to easily access or use various apps, services, and healthcare. To access healthcare, you will need to need to have your UHIP (University Health Insurance Plan) card and UHIP claim forms. 


For your caffeine, Tim Hortons and Starbucks are coffee and barista chains that seem to fuel a majority of Toronto inhabitants. You will have no trouble finding one!


If you are getting settled in and don’t want to trudge to buy groceries in the middle of everything, try grocery home delivery. It’s more expensive, but Instacart is a good way to get things without leaving the house.


There is usually a formal financial requirement for getting a study permit or visitor’s visa, so make sure there are sufficient funds in your account or that you have a steady source of income to show. There are also extra costs for submitting the visa application, passport processing, and biometric submission. 


These formal requirements also give an understanding of what the country thinks about the basic cost of living. I found that my biggest expenses were accommodation, food, and transportation. My estimates for various important categories are as follows: 


·      Accommodation: 680 CAD/month (cheap! can easily cost 1500 CAD/month if you live on campus residence)

·      Utilities: ~60 CAD/month (shared house)

·      Phone plan: ~30 CAD/month (Freedom Mobile)

·      Transport: ~130 CAD/month (student price monthly pass with the Toronto Transit Commission

·      Mandatory health insurance UHIP: 252 CAD (for Winter Semester Jan-April)

·      International air travel: ~9000 SEK round trip (booked ~4 months in advance)

·      Food: ~10-30 CAD per meal in everyday restaurants 

·      Groceries: difficult to estimate


Food costs: I find that this really depends on what you generally like to eat. I would recommend filling up a cart with your typical grocery purchases and see how much your food expenses would be. You can do this online with WalmartMetro, or No Frills.


Remember that most prices aren't flat, so you need to consider tax and tip. I found that tax was usually 13-15%, and tips range from 10 to 20%.


Finding housing

I found my accommodation through a friend, who spotted it on Craigslist. I reached out to the landlord, and we set up a Skype call so we could chat and I could get a house tour. The house was shared with three other people. We had our own pre-furnished rooms but shared a kitchen, bathroom, and other living spaces. 


If you want a simple and low-risk option, you can choose to live at one of the UofT campus residences. Residence on campus tends to be more expensive and have mandatory mealplans included. It works well for some people, but it can be both expensive and difficult to get as an exchange studentTo help you out, UofT has a good resource for finding accommodation on- or off- campus


Location and Transport

My housing was quite close to the Queen’s Circle in central Toronto and was less than five minutes away from a subway station and a bus station. The proximity to public transport was phenomenal, and I would highly recommend checking this detail when you look for accommodation. 


Door-to-door, it would take me ~40 minutes to reach my lab via public transport, and ~20 minutes to cycle. It snowed a lot whilst I was in Toronto and the roads are cleared to varying degrees, so I stuck to public transport for the most part. 


The housing itself

My accommodation was not fancy, but it was a great location at a very reasonable price. Comparing to minimalist homes in Sweden, it certainly had its fair share of quirks and personality. I’m sure this depends on the house and landlord, so it’s a good idea to get a feel for the place via video call if you can. 

Studies in general

Class time and culture

One of the biggest differences between KI and UofT was the amount of class time per course. KI courses would have 4-8 hours of classes per day, with extra time scheduled for self-study or reading. In contrast, my UofT courses had 2-4 hours of classes per week. 


Fewer hours spent in class meant that I had a lot of time to spend in the lab, but it definitely took me some time to understand what and how much I was supposed to be studying on my own. 


How one addresses people was also different. Unlike KI and Sweden where one refers to most people by their first names, it is advisable to refer to teachers and senior lab members by “Professor”, ”Doctor”, or other appropriate honorific until told otherwise. 

Resolving the disparity between credits and time

How will my work at UofT be converted to credits at KI? This was a. I have summarized the main hitches in the process below. 


·      According to KI, the 30 hp thesis should take 100% of your time and energy during your final semester. 

·      Since I was going on an exchange and UofT required me to do extra courses, KI had a provision for a 22.5 hp thesis. This should take 75% of your time and energy, leaving you with 25% to dedicate to your extra courses.

·      At UofT, you must be enrolled in a research course to do research work as a student and transfer credits after your exchange. 

·      Most research courses that last one semester are only 0.5 credits, thus making up at most 1/3rd of your course work according to UofT. 


So, KI expects you to spend 75-100% of your energy on your thesis, whilst UofT expects you to spend 33% of your time on your “independent research”. It is confusing, and a lot of work. In the end I submitted a full thesis and completed my extra courses as well. 


Since my thesis was just as long, detailed, and time consuming as anyone else’s, I asked to be awarded the full 30 hp for it. My extra courses in Toronto were thus not accredited on my diploma and grades at KI, and I instead had the UofT transcripts to show the extra work I had done. 


As far as I understand it, you could also ask to be awarded 22.5 hp for your thesis, and the remaining 7.5 comes from one or more of your extra courses. However, check with your international coordinator! 

Courses during the exchange period

Courses corresponding to semester 6 at KI

MGY482H1S: Independent Research Project 

Overall impression: an important course that was essentially a formality for me to be able to work on my thesis. 

It was through the Independent Research Project course that I worked on my degree project. I worked on interactions between the proteins Topoisomerase 2B and PSIP1 in the context of colorectal cancer. It was a lot of experimental work including cell culture, co-immunoprecipitation assays, drug treatments, etc.


There are no classes in this course, so I didn't really get to meet anyone else who did this course. Original components and deadlines of the course: 

·      Project proposal 

·      Project Report 

·      Project presentation with other students 


However, the deadlines for this research project were a bit inconveniently timed. The corresponding report and presentation deadlines at KI were only in late May. This was right as I was in the throes of experimental work, so I asked for an extension and worked in a different format instead. If you’re interested in this option, talk to the course responsible to see what is possible for you. Although it is inconvenient, these early deadlines are great for reducing procrastination and actually writing a lot of the material that you will ultimately use for your KI submission. 


MGY470H1S: Human and Molecular Genetics 

Overall impression: A relatively low-effort course that is a good supplement to thesis work.  


When I was selecting this course, I expected its content to be very similar to the KI Biomedicine course in Functional Genetics and Genomics that I had taken the previous year. Therefore, I was anticipating an easy time re-learning material I had already studied.


However, I was pleasantly surprised. Human and Molecular Genetics covered topics that were both interesting and novel to me – genome topology, transposable elements, repeat sequence disorders, imprinting disorders, population genetics, and so on. It was a good supplement to what I had previously studied. 


I had ~2 hours of class time per week, as well as research papers and assignments to work through. There was a mid-term and final exam as well. The assignments varied in the time and effort required but were relatively simple if you had attended and understood the lectures. 


The lectures were held by various researchers and clinicians from UofT. They explained most things quite well, but I do wish that the lecture slides cited more papers and resources for further reading. I found some concepts tricky to grasp and struggled to find resources that appropriately matched the level of the course. 


BCB420H1S: Computational Systems Biology 

Overall impression: an incredibly fun and challenging course that I wish I had more time to focus on. 


The Computational Systems Biology course was essentially a data analysis and bioinformatics project course. We selected, cleaned, analyzed, visualized, and interpreted an RNA sequencing dataset. In the process of doing this, we covered aspects of good coding practices, using different features of R and GitHub, and sifting through data to answer biologically relevant questions. 


I learned a lot during this course, although it took many hours every time an assignment was due. Every assignment involved adapting code from the lectures to fit your needs and filling in the gaps as necessary. The lectures were excellent – clear slides, good pace, and it was very comfortable to ask questions. The assignments and corresponding journal entries were graded, and there was no exam. 


I would highly recommend this course if you are interested in transcriptomics, data analysis, and bioinformatics. However, be prepared to work hard for it! Even though we spent only ~2 hours a week in class, the amount of work I put into the assignments occasionally made me feel like I was doing a second thesis. 

Language and Culture

The national languages of Canada are English and French. In Toronto, I always heard and spoke English, which made it very easy to settle in and navigate the city. However, there were plenty of other aspects that were different from Sweden. 


One difference between Sweden and Canada lies in the tipping culture. It is customary, and even expected to tip at least 10% for services like food delivery to 15-25% for in house dining There is also a lot of emphasis on shopping local and supporting small businesses where possible. 


Overall, people are very friendly. Most people: ranging from strangers, workers, cashiers, and even immigration officers at the airport were very nice and made small talk. I’ve never had a friendlier immigration officer. It was initially disorienting but made for a lovely experience overall. 

Toronto is also very cosmopolitan and international, and absolutely brimming with students and people from all over the world. Despite this, you may still experience moments of homesickness or feeling very small in a big place. Whilst it may not be fun in the moment, it has its perks. My appreciation for home increased during my time in Toronto. 

Leisure time and social activities

There are lots of clubs and extracurricular events at UofT. A lot of things were happening online so I didn’t attend much, but information about clubs and events will come through newsletters and also be available on the UofT website.  


I went sightseeing, and greatly enjoyed the typical tourist things like Niagara Falls, CN Tower, Royal Ontario Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario, Yonge Street, High Park’s cherry blossomsToronto Island, etc. A tip: having a monthly PRESTO card and a tourist package is great way to get good deals and discounts.


The food options were almost endless because Toronto is so international. I would recommend checking out BlogTO for recommendations. Other than Canadian cuisine, Toronto has restaurants for almost every cuisine you can think of. It is a good city to be a food-lover in. 


I made most of my friends at the lab I worked in, at my housing, and through friends I already had in the city. Many people seem to make friends in their residences or programmes, so as an exchange student who lived off campus these avenues weren’t too open to me. However, there will be an exchange students Facebook group where you can find common ground with people and take it from there. 


Going ice skating is a popular way to make new friends, especially amongst exchange students. When the weather gets warmer you can also hop on a ferry to Toronto Island and go biking or hiking. The city is also quite nice to go running in, especially in and around parks in your area. You can also sign up to play a sport or book a court with various gyms at UofT.  


Overall, my exchange experience at The University of Toronto was a fun and rewarding experience. I wrote a thesis I am quite proud of, made new friends, explored university life in another continent, lived in a cosmopolitan city, and just had a great time. 

Of course, I think I would have spent less time and energy on arranging logistics and adjusting to new contexts if I had just stayed at KI for my final semester. However, the process of doing all this made me more independent and less reliant on the default settings of my life – figuring out new places, finances, arranging accommodation, and navigating university in a new place comes with its unique challenges. It was a good learning experience for me!

I would like to go on more exchanges in the future. On a professional level, it was a great way to expand my professional network and facilitate an exchange of ideas between different institutions. On a personal level, it was an enriching experience that I am glad to have had.