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National student prize attracts research talent

Jan 6, 2014

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Undergraduates showcase biomedical research projects at annual competition

By Eleni Kanavas

Cameron MacGregor never thought a Google search for biomedical engineering competitions would lead him to Toronto a year later, opening a window of opportunity—but luck was on his side.

MacGregor is the winner of the third annual Sunnybrook Prize competition, which comes with a $10,000 cash award and is sponsored by Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI). He was among five undergraduate students from universities across Canada invited to present their research projects to SRI's faculty, staff and students on Jan. 3, 2014.

"It's surreal; I didn't even think it could happen. It's a privilege to come and do this and a pleasure meeting all these people," said MacGregor, visiting Toronto for the first time from his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

MacGregor is in his final year of study in electrical engineering with a biomedical focus at the University of Manitoba. He presented his work on the development of a fast and cost-effective diagnostic technique for prescreening obstructive sleep apnea without a patient needing to fall asleep.

The day-long event, held in Sunnybrook's McLaughlin lecture hall, was hosted by SRI scientists within the Physical Sciences platform. Dr. Michael Julius, vice-president of research at SRI and Sunnybrook, welcomed everyone. He congratulated the students on their hard work and spoke to them about pursuing a career in research.  

 "Today's celebration of the five finalists showcases brilliant science, and from my perspective, each and every one of you is already a winner of this prize," Julius said in his opening remarks. "Research is not a job; it is a calling, and I hope after the day is over some of you have a different perspective of how your life might unfold."

Faculty in SRI's Physical Sciences platform established the national award in 2011 to acknowledge students for their hard work and contributions to research. The aim is to recognize excellence in undergraduate research in the physical sciences and engineering, and promote careers in biomedical research. The award is funded by income generated by royalties from technology developed by SRI scientists. The competition is open to undergraduates in their final two years of study at a Canadian university who have completed a research project.

Dr. Greg Stanisz, a senior scientist at SRI, chaired the event. Each finalist had 15 minutes to present their work and answer questions from the audience. Afterward, Dr. Kullervo Hynynen, director of Physical Sciences at SRI, led the students on a tour of the labs in the Centre for Research in Image-Guided Therapeutics.

In the afternoon Dr. Greg Czarnota, director of the Odette Cancer Research Program, spoke to the students about translational research taking place at SRI and how scientists are inventing the future of health care. Dr. Stuart Foster, a senior scientist in Physical Sciences, gave a presentation on the department of medical biophysics at the University of Toronto.

As the event came to a close, Hynynen congratulated the finalists and announced the winner. "This year we were very impressed by all the presentations, really outstanding students and work. What I saw this morning was great and I can see that you have a great future in whatever you decide," said Hynynen, who is also a professor at U of T and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Imaging Systems and Image-Guided Therapy.

When asked how he would spend the cash prize, MacGregor said, "I told all of the people who cheered me on that 'if I win, I'll take you out for supper.'" He plans to apply to a master's program in biomedical engineering at the University of Manitoba this year. 

The other finalists and their projects were:

  • Afshin Ameri, biomedical systems engineering, University of Toronto: "Highly elastic micro-patterned hydrogel for engineering functional cardiac tissue."
  • Naiwen Cui, mechanical engineering, University of Waterloo: "Library screening of P53 mutant peptides with in-vitro transcription and translation in droplet-based microfluidics."
  • Yuta Dobashi, electrical engineering, University of British Columbia: "Development of polymer based controllable microcatheters for neurosurgical applications."
  • Jessica Ngai, biomedical engineering, University of Toronto: "Mesenchymal stem cells as a trojan horse therapy for prostate cancer."

Five undergraduates presented their research projects