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Budding brain scientists battle for supremacy

By Matthew Pariselli  •  January 21, 2020

Zeinab NoroozianLewis Joo

Advances in brain research took centre stage at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre on Jan. 9, 2020. As Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) scientists discussed their work as part of the 2020 Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Retreat, so, too, did about 60 trainees. They took advantage of the opportunity to practise their presentation skills—and contend for top titles—during the event’s poster competition, held in Sunnybrook’s McLaughlin auditorium.

The students, hailing from Biological Sciences, Evaluative Clinical Sciences and Physical Sciences, contested for three prizes. Owing to ties, however, four were doled out—two first- and two second-place awards. First-place winners Rikke Kofoed and James Mester each snagged a $150 gift certificate, while second-place victors Nicholas Luciw and Matsya Ruppari Thulasiram each received a $100 gift certificate. The gift certificates can be spent anywhere.

Kofoed, supervised by Dr. Isabelle Aubert, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences, presented work on delivering therapies to the brain. Mester, supervised by Dr. Bojana Stefanovic, a senior scientist in Physical Sciences, studied the effects of repeated mild traumatic brain injury in preclinical models. Supervised by Dr. Bradley MacIntosh, a senior scientist in Physical Sciences, Luciw talked about using deep learning to evaluate magnetic resonance images, while Thulasiram, whose supervisor is Dr. Alain Dabdoub, a senior scientist in Biological Sciences, shared work on the impact of a genetic disorder on the ear.

Another participant from Biological Sciences was Zeinab Noroozian, supervised by Aubert. “I performed gene therapy against amyloid-beta pathology, the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Amyloid-beta peptides, produced in the brain, form toxic aggregates in AD-affected brains. We designed a small therapeutic that binds strongly to toxic amyloid-beta peptides, and successfully modified neurons to produce it inside the brain in preclinical models. We achieved an efficient, long-lasting preventive treatment after a one-time delivery in [an] early disease state,” she said of her work.

Noroozian added that she enjoyed the chance to interact with SRI staff working on the clinical side. “It was a perfect opportunity for us in preclinical research to present our efforts and gather feedback from clinical researchers with different points of view.”

Also savouring the time with clinical experts was Lewis Joo, supervised by Stefanovic. Like Noroozian, Joo is studying AD, exploring early indicators of the disease before clinical symptoms present.

“I wanted to share the progress I’ve made so far and get feedback from people with different backgrounds, especially those with a clinical background,” he said. “Also, the diversity of topics covered meant that I would be catching up on the progress made in other labs.”

Ten co-op students at Sunnybrook from various Toronto high schools judged the event. Every year, Sunnybrook accepts between 70 and 100 high school students who complete their co-op requirements through a partnership between the hospital and the Toronto District School Board. To be a judge at the poster competition, a student needed to submit an expression of interest and then be chosen based on their affinity for brain sciences or research. Maxim An, a Grade 12 student from A Y Jackson Secondary School, was successful.

“I volunteered to be a judge because I have always held a deep-seated interest in medicine. I felt attending the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Retreat would open my eyes to the future of neuroscience and allow for me to see the kind of research that is being done to improve the human condition in a way that goes beyond the news and reading medical journals,” said An. “Seeing all the different ways in which the brain functions and just getting to learn something new outside of the classroom is one thing that I really appreciated about the event.”

Judges were asked to assign a score to presenters based on whether they communicated the purpose of their research clearly, whether the results were explained in understandable language and whether questions, if asked, were answered well.

The winners from the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Program poster competition are as follows.

First place:

  • Rikke Kofoed (Biological Sciences, supervised by Aubert): “Restricted disruption of the blood-brain barrier for localized vector delivery and widespread transgene expression in the brain.”
  • James Mester (Physical Sciences, supervised by Stefanovic): “Neurovascular sequelae of repeated mild traumatic brain injury in an optogenetic mouse model.”

Second place:

  • Nicholas Luciw (Physical Sciences, supervised by MacIntosh): “A deep learning approach for simultaneous estimation of quantitative cerebral blood flow and arterial transit time from multiple-delay arterial spin-labelled magnetic resonance images.”
  • Matsya Ruppari Thulasiram (Biological Sciences, supervised by Dabdoub): “Characterizing Norrie disease in the inner ear.”

At the conclusion of the event, Petra Geller, an administrative research assistant at SRI who helped to organize the poster competition, spoke about the experience of the high school student judges. “We believe they truly enjoyed it. They put a lot of effort into the evaluation forms, and took it quite seriously, filling out the comment section in detail.” She also said the judges were free to leave at 2 p.m., but some opted to stay until 5 p.m. to attend the talks by SRI scientists.

In a nutshell

  • At the 2020 Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Retreat poster competition, about 60 trainees contested for prizes.
  • Four students were recognized with gift certificates for their winning efforts, presenting work on further understanding brain disease to treating it better.
  • Ten co-op students at Sunnybrook from Toronto high schools acted as judges for the competition.