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A Shining Moment

June 7, 2012

By Alisa Kim

When Dr. Walter Swardfager learned that he had won the most prestigious award that students in Canadian universities can receive, the news didn't sink in right away.

"Abby came in to congratulate me but she didn't say on what. After my lab mates gathered, she announced, ‘The Governor General's Gold Medal.' I didn't process it right away. I went back to showing a student how to run some statistical test, and then I thought, ‘Wait a minute; that's a big deal!'"

It is a big deal.

Only three students from among the University of Toronto's 13,000-plus graduate students win the Governor General's Gold Medal each year. The award is given to the top graduate student from each of sciences and engineering, humanities and social sciences. Swardfager is the winner from the sciences and engineering category. He completed his PhD last November under the supervision of Dr. Krista Lanctôt, a senior scientist at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) and a professor in the departments of psychiatry and pharmacology and toxicology at U of T.

Lanctôt says she was delighted to hear of Swardfager's award. "He's innovative and he's been a bright light in our group. He was the top-ranked student in graduate pharmacology. He's shown that he has the flexibility to excel in clinical research," she says.

Swardfager was nominated for the award by the department for earning top marks in the graduate program. He won based on the quality of his research, says Kerri Huffman, associate director of student services at U of T's School of Graduate Studies. The committee that awards the medal looks for individuals whose research contributes to the body of knowledge within their field, she says.

"The candidates who are put forward are unbelievably accomplished students. When you're at the top of that list, that's really saying something," says Huffman.

The medals were established in 1873 by Lord Dufferin, Canada's third Governor General after Confederation. They are awarded at the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels. Winning the award puts Swardfager in distinguished company. Past recipients include former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, novelist Gabrielle Roy and politician Tommy Douglas, the father of universal health care in North America.

Swardfager's dissertation explored the links among depression, cognitive performance and fitness in patients with coronary artery disease, and how these symptoms can interfere with patients' participation in cardiac rehabilitation. He found that patients with depression or poorer memory were more likely to drop out of the program due to medical conditions. He also identified markers in the blood associated with depressive symptoms and cognitive performance, and showed that they were related to fitness. The results of his studies have been published in several journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry and Psychosomatic Medicine.

"What specifically about exercise benefits the brain remains to be fully understood. We need to know how to get the most out of exercise and which factors determine why some people don't," he says.

Now a postdoctoral fellow in the Brain Sciences Research Program at SRI and cross-appointed at the cardiac site of the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, Swardfager is working with Lanctôt and SRI scientists Drs. Sandra Black and Bradley MacIntosh to study mood and cognitive changes that occur later in life using new neuroimaging techniques and genetic analyses. He hopes to run his own lab and develop treatments for late-life depression and dementia by targeting inflammatory processes within blood vessels.

A scarcity of academic positions and competitive research funding climate notwithstanding, Lanctôt thinks her former student has a bright future ahead. "Dr. Swardfager has the potential to become a world-class principal investigator. We're thrilled to have him working at Sunnybrook Research Institute."

Walter Swardfager