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Student among first selected for Amgen Scholars Canada Program

By Matthew Pariselli  •  June 13, 2019

Ajay David grew up watching nature programs. For as long as he can recall, he’s been captivated by animals and the natural world, drawn to shows like Blue Planet and channels like Animal Planet. It was this fascination that led him to study evolutionary ecology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and then complete his undergraduate degree there in molecular biology and biotechnology this past April. It’s also what has brought him to Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) for a third consecutive summer, though his stint this year is on account of his placement in a prestigious program.

David is one of 15 Canadian undergraduate students selected for the Amgen Scholars Canada Program (though David has graduated, he was an undergrad when he applied). This marks the first time the program has come to Canada. “I’m quite privileged. At first, I didn’t believe it. It was very shocking,” David says, as he remembers learning of his acceptance. His surprise partly stems from a former failure—last year, he unsuccessfully applied to Japan’s Amgen program, which was open to international students. Unfazed, he put his hat into the ring for Canada’s program this year. “Every opportunity, even if it’s a failed opportunity, is a learning opportunity,” the only Amgen scholar at SRI says.

Amgen is a pharmaceutical company. Its scholars program has, for 16 years, provided students around the world with an opportunity to do 10 weeks of hands-on research at premier universities over the summer. Students can choose to study any field related to the discovery, development, manufacture and delivery of human therapeutics, and the broader biomedical and biotechnology arenas. The scholars program is funded by the Amgen Foundation, and this year, U of T is the Canadian host institution. In addition to research experience, students will receive a $5,000 stipend.

Similar to his last two summers at SRI, David will spend June, July and part of August in the lab of Dr. Carol Schuurmans, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences at SRI and the Dixon Family Chair in Ophthalmology. David’s participation in SRI’s annual Summer Student Poster Competition won him prizes in 2017 and 2018.

David praises Schuurmans, whom he selected to be his faculty advisor this summer, and whom he notes recommended he apply for Japan’s program in 2018 and Canada’s program this year. “She’s quite understanding and very helpful. She told me about the program—just think about that. I’m an undergrad, she’s a PI, and she went out of her way to tell me. I really appreciate her mentorship and how she really looks out for people in her lab,” he says.

He continues to dish out kudos as he shines a light on other people who help him with his research and offered suggestions to strengthen his Amgen application. David calls Dr. Yacine Touahri, a research associate in Schuurmans’ lab, “instrumental” to his successes.

Schuurmans returns David’s applause. “Ajay is one of the best undergraduate students that I have had in my lab. He is bright, curious, hard-working and intelligent. He has a real interest in science, and I think he will go far,” says Schuurmans, who is also a professor at U of T. She adds that David’s long-term goal is to get into medical school, which she is confident he will achieve: “With his talent and drive, I am sure he will be successful.”

The focus of David’s research is the retina, which covers about 65% of the eye’s interior surface. A healthy retina is essential to vision. Specifically, he is exploring why a damaged retina cannot be restored in humans and mammals, as can be done in lower vertebrates, like fish. “The retina must have a latent regenerative property that is inhibited in the mammalian eye,” David says. Identifying that property and eventually enabling injured retinas of humans to recover so that blindness can be avoided are his goals.

“I’m interested in the fact that a certain species is capable of doing something that mammals and humans can’t. That’s quite fascinating,” he adds. “If you cut your skin, your skin will heal. If you damage your brain or your eye or your nervous system, they don’t heal. Why is that?”

Aside from building on his prior research here, one of David’s objectives this summer is to dive into the scientific literature more widely. “Previously, I read papers that were directly relevant to my field. Now, I want to read broader things,” he says. He intends to appreciate this reading time, too. “If you ask a late-stage scientist what thing they miss most, I’ll tell you that they will say reading. They don’t have time, but reading is fundamental to scientific growth, so that’s what I’m particularly focused on this summer.”

Not only do Amgen scholars perform research with, and receive mentorship from, seasoned scientists, but they also interact with each other. To foster an environment in which the scholars can mingle, the students are being housed at U of T’s New College Residence. This allows them to chat in the common room and over meals, which are covered by the program, and learn about each other’s work. “I’m the only person working on the eye. Everyone else is working on a completely different topic. Some work on drug delivery; others work on lung transplants. There’s a good variety across all the major institutions in Toronto,” David says.

The students’ participation in professional development sessions is an aspect of the program, too. They attend weekly events on how to give an oral presentation or succeed in an interview, for example. Further, the Canadian contingent of Amgen scholars will travel to the University of California, Los Angeles in July for a mid-summer symposium. There, they will meet their counterparts south of the border, discuss their research and hear from leading scientists in industry and academia. The students’ summer will wrap up at a symposium in Toronto, where they will present their work.

When he’s not planning experiments, taking in a seminar or exchanging stories with his fellow Amgen scholars, David can be found playing soccer or softball with other members of Schuurmans’ lab, as well as those from the labs of Drs. Isabelle Aubert and JoAnne McLaurin, senior scientists in Biological Sciences at SRI. That said, his tendency to be physically active doesn’t disguise his fondness for TV. He enjoys HBO’s Chernobyl and cheering on the Toronto Raptors. Come July, though, he’s trading in nuclear disasters and basketballs for Demogorgons and the Byers family when the third season of Stranger Things launches on Netflix.

Beyond the busy summer laid out in front of him, David has a conditional offer to begin a master’s program in U of T’s department of laboratory medicine and pathobiology. Given his affinity for Schuurmans and her group, it’s unsurprising to hear him say he hopes to remain under her guidance.

“It’s Carol, but it’s also the other lab members. We’re very close. It’s sort of a lab family—there’s no other way I can describe it. Science is important, but I would say as important are the people. These are people I’m spending my entire day with, every day,” he says. As he lets out a chuckle, he adds, “I have nothing critical to say! They are almost too nice!”

In a nutshell

  • Ajay David, supervised by Dr. Carol Schuurmans at SRI, is one of 15 students named to the Amgen Scholars Canada Program.
  • For 10 weeks, students in the program are provided with $5,000, a hands-on research experience and participation in professional development sessions.
  • This is the first year the program has launched in Canada.