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Going for gold at the research games

By Eleni Kanavas  •  August 22, 2016

Perseverance, hard work and dedication are qualities shared between athletes competing at the 2016 Olympic Games and students presenting their summer research projects at a poster contest. Whether it’s sports or academics, the competition can be fierce.

And was it ever, as undergraduates competed for cash prizes at the annual competition for the best summer research project. There were 68 entrants representing diverse areas of research at the event, hosted by Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI), which capped off this year’s D+H SRI Summer Student Research Program. The entries comprised nine from Biological Sciences, 36 from Evaluative Clinical Sciences and 23 from Physical Sciences.

Students presented their projects to judges and other passersby inside a crowded auditorium on Aug. 18, 2016. Each student explained his or her study through posters illustrating the hypotheses, methods and results. A panel of judges, comprised of SRI scientists, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students from each platform, along with one member of SRI’s communications team with a PhD in biology, who stepped in for a judge who could not attend, evaluated students based on the quality and scientific merit of their poster and presentation.

Dr. Don Redelmeier, director of Evaluative Clinical Sciences, has been judging the competition for several years. “It’s brilliant and fun. The trainees express passion, diligence and an alternative perspective,” he says. “There is such tremendous versatility that it’s very difficult to judge because there are so many highly qualified students.”

The four-month research-intensive program, supported in part by a donation from the D+H Corporation, aims to give undergraduate students hands-on training to explore the principals of scientific inquiry through mentorship by SRI faculty. The experience of working in a hospital-based research institute also promotes the postgraduate field as a prospective career. During the summer studentship, SRI hosts an orientation and a weekly seminar series.

Once all of the posters were judged, the top student was selected from each platform. There were also second- and third-place winners in each platform, as well as honourable mentions in Evaluative Clinical Sciences and Physical Sciences, owing to the large number of participants in those domains.

Dr. Michael Julius, vice-president of research at SRI and Sunnybrook, congratulated the students on their accomplishments before announcing the winners at the end of the event. He encouraged the students to continue their research studies and return to SRI next summer. “I hope that this marks the beginning of a long career in medical research for those that feel the ‘calling.’ This year I was again struck by the intellect, creativity and diligence on display. Kudos to them all.”

One example of creativity was highlighted in the winning submission from Physical Sciences. Samuel Penner, who was supervised by Dr. Alan Moody, worked on a proof-of-concept study to create active nanocarriers for delivery of water-soluble cancer drugs. “We are making double-balloons (a big balloon full of tiny water balloons) that we can put inside people’s bloodstream that will hold drugs and release them when and where we want them to,” he says. “[This method] has the potential to reduce the side effects associated with cancer drugs. Ultrasound makes the liquid expand. If enough sound energy is used, the double-balloons will pop, releasing the drug to kill the cancer.”

Penner will be entering his third year in materials engineering at the University of Toronto. This was his second summer studentship at SRI. He says he hopes to return next year to continue doing fundamental scientific research.

The other award winners were as follows:

First place:

  • Byron Chan (Biological Sciences; supervised by Dr. Marc Jeschke): “Umbilical cord as a promising source of melanocytes.”
  • Christian Cheung (Evaluative Clinical Sciences; supervised by Dr. Mark Sinyor): “Does inclusion of a placebo arm affect adverse event rates of antidepressant treatment and placebo in randomized control trials?

Second place:

  • Jennifer Hoang (Biological Sciences; supervised by Dr. Juan Carlos Zúñiga-Pflücker): “Notch activating delta-like-4 recombinant proteins for the induction of T-cell development.”
  • Sheharyar Raza (Evaluative Clinical Sciences; supervised by Dr. Don Redelmeier): “Life-threatening traffic crashes under bright sunlight.”
  • Solomon Grant (Physical Sciences, supervised by Dr. Anne Martel): “A stacked convolutional auto-encoder for assessing cellularity in post-treatment breast pathology slides.”

Third place:

  • Isabella Menchetti (Biological Sciences; supervised by Dr. Marc Jeschke): “Serotonin 1A receptor agonist as a candidate remedy for hypertrophic and keloid scar formation.”
  • Karly Stratos (Evaluative Clinical Sciences; supervised by Dr. Liesly Lee): “Demographic and clinical characterization of neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder.”
  • Richard Zhang (Physical Sciences, supervised by Drs. David Goertz and Kullervo Hynynen): “Ultrasound feedback for lesion detection in focused ultrasound treatments adjacent to bone.”

Honourable mentions:

  • Mia Kibel (Evaluative Clinical Sciences, supervised by Dr. Nir Melamed): “Fetal growth restriction is associated with a different pattern of placental abnormalities in twins vs. singletons.”
  • Josh Shapiro (Evaluative Clinical Sciences, supervised by Dr. Ben Goldstein): “Cerebral blood flow and mood among adolescents with bipolar disorder.”
  • Joanna Faltyn (Physical Sciences, supervised by Drs. William Tran and Greg Czarnota): “Monitoring neoadjuvant chemotherapy response in women with locally advanced breast cancer using ultrasound elastography.”

First-place winners received $500, second-place winners, $300; third-place winners, $200; and honourable mentions, $100. The top students will also have their names engraved on display plaques at SRI.

This year summer students also had the opportunity to participate in the “Tell it to a fifth-grader” research competition, an initiative created to give students an opportunity to explain their research in terms that people of all ages and backgrounds can understand. Students submitted a lay summary of their summer projects, and six finalists were selected to present their work to a group of fifth-graders before the start of the poster competition.

Elias Hazan, a second-year student studying biology at Queen’s University, won the contest and $300 prize. Supervised by Dr. Ken Shulman, Hazan looked at using a clock-drawing test to help screen patients for traumatic brain injury.

A total of 170 summer students were hired this year through research administration. The summer employment term runs from May 1 to Aug. 31, 2016.

Learn more about the D+H SRI Summer Student Research Program, and read stories profiling some of this year’s students, by visiting the education and training section of the SRI website.

Apply for the 2017 Sunnybrook Research Prize for a chance to win a $10,000 cash prize for a project focused on biomedical research in physical sciences and engineering.