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Would-be scientists share enthusiasm for science

Jan 13, 2015

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National prize in undergraduate research sparks fierce competition

By Eleni Kanavas

It was a tie for first place.

The winners of the fourth annual Sunnybrook Research Prize competition were Kramay Patel from the University of Toronto and Heather Whittaker from the University of Winnipeg. It was the first time the prize had to be shared.

“The competition this year was very stiff as your presentations and applications were outstanding. We had a really hard time deciding, so you should be very proud of your accomplishments. We couldn’t just select one person, so we split the prize into $5,000 each,” said Dr. Kullervo Hynynen, director of the Physical Sciences platform at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI), speaking to the students before announcing the winners.

Nine undergraduates from universities across Canada were selected to present their research projects on Jan. 9, 2015, to SRI scientists, staff and trainees for a chance to win the coveted $10,000 cash prize. At 18 entries, this year’s prize was the most competitive ever. The finalists were also the most geographically diverse group yet. They came from British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario.

Patel, a third-year student in biomedical systems engineering, developed a technology using functional electrical stimulation to increase trunk muscle stability in individuals with spinal cord injuries. The project aims to improve the quality of life for individuals in wheelchairs by allowing them to use their wheelchairs safely without using chest harnesses, which often limit their ability to move around and do daily activities.

“This is important because the electrical stimulation that we use has been shown to improve muscle tone, reduce loss of muscle mass and has a rehabilitative effect on other parts of the body,” he said. Patel plans to further his studies and apply to an MD/PhD program.

Whittaker, a third-year student in biopsychology, presented her research that focused on the search for a biomarker that can diagnose Alzheimer’s disease earlier and that can be detected by magnetic resonance imaging.

When asked what the future holds, she said: “My eyes have been opened to a whole new future. I’m really intrigued by a lot of the things I’ve seen here, and so it can be anywhere from here right now. I’m just really excited by the possibilities of all that I’ve learned today.”

The prize is the brainchild of faculty in the Physical Sciences Platform at SRI and the department of medical biophysics at the University of Toronto who wanted to acknowledge students for their hard work and contributions to research. The aim is to recognize excellence in undergraduate research in physical sciences and engineering, and to promote careers in biomedical research. The competition is open to undergraduates in their third or fourth year of study at a Canadian university.

“We are here to celebrate nine finalists who clearly have demonstrated an early reflection of a future career in science. The competition was enormously strong this year, so I want to congratulate all of you for getting this far,” said Dr. Michael Julius, vice-president of research at SRI and Sunnybrook, in his opening remarks.

Dr. Anne Martel, a senior scientist in Physical Sciences, chaired the competition and was among the panel of judges comprised of SRI scientists. Each finalist had 15 minutes to present her or his work and answer questions from the judges and audience.

Afterward, Hynynen led the students on a tour of the labs within SRI’s Centre for Research in Image-Guided Therapeutics. The state-of-the-art facility brings together scientists and clinicians to develop new and better ways to detect, diagnose and treat complex health conditions including cancer and disorders of the heart and brain.

Dr. Peter Burns, a senior scientist at SRI and chair of the department of medical biophysics at U of T, then spoke to the students about the university’s medical biophysics program. He noted it is organized into three streams: cellular and molecular biology, medical physics, and molecular and structural biology, and that the graduate program takes a multidisciplinary laboratory research approach.

The award is sponsored by an endowment fund generated by royalties from technology commercialized by SRI scientists. Each finalist who did not win received a $100 honorarium. All received travel support.

The other finalists and their projects were as follows:

  • John Edgar, biomedical engineering, University of Victoria: “The role of cell adhesion proteins in progenitor T cell differentiation from hematopoietic stem cells in delta like-4: coated and immobilized methylcellulose hydrogel systems.”
  • Jenny Lou, neurosciences, University of Alberta: “Interleaved neuromuscular stimulation: a novel method to reduce contraction fatigue of tibialis anterior.”
  • Nadia Shardt, chemical engineering, University of Alberta: “Kinetics of cryopreserving agent efflux from human articular cartilage tissue.”
  • Cassandra Tyson, physics, Queens University: “A two-photon microscopy compatible acoustic receiver for ultrasound monitoring of blood-brain barrier opening.”
  • Emily Watson, chemical engineering, University of Waterloo: “Liquid-infused polymers utilized in urinary catheters.”
  • Evan Wright, biological engineering, University of Guelph: “Development of microfluidic platforms for biomedical applications: a novel 3-D wound model and a high-throughput drug screening device.”

  • Mike Zamboni, engineering physics, McMaster University: “Gallium arsenide nanowire arrays for biosensing applications.”

Heather Whittaker, left, and Kramay Patel