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Getting Back Into the Swing of Things

September 14, 2012

By Eleni Kanavas

As a new academic year begins, it's back to business at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI). From attending lectures at the University of Toronto to working in newly built labs in SRI's Centre for Research in Image-Guided Therapeutics, scientists and students are settling into their routines, ready to learn, work and face new challenges.

"I'd like to welcome everyone back for another exciting academic year, and I look forward to your success in achieving research excellence," said Dr. Michael Julius, vice-president of research at Sunnybrook and SRI.

Each year, bright new faces rotate through various labs as students decide which supervisor they would like to join for the length of their graduate studies. There are 24 new students enrolled at SRI; some of them arrived during the summer to get a head start on their research. The institute offers students hands-on learning experiences through SRI's three research platforms: biological sciences, evaluative clinical sciences and physical sciences.

"This is my 20th year starting a new academic session and it's exciting to see the students' energy and enthusiasm to start research," said Merle Casci, coordinator of the research trainee centre at SRI.

Alessandra Ferzoco, a PhD candidate in immunology supervised by Julius, spent her summer months hard at work on her experiment. The focus of her research is on the role of glycosylphosphatidylinositol (GPI)-anchored proteins on the regulation of a specific subset of immune cells, called T cells. Outside the lab, she enjoyed time at the cottage and exploring shipwrecks in the town of Tobermory to get her scuba diving certification.

Looking ahead, Ferzoco said she is excited about her academic studies and new role at U of T. She was elected co-president of the Immunology Graduate Students Association, a student-run organization with the goal of enhancing the graduate school experience.

"Our main goals this year will be to continue fostering a sense of community among the graduate students, implement networking opportunities and social events, and create a mentorship program for the incoming students," she said.

In addition, Ferzoco said she hopes her research continues to progress so she can publish her first paper–after surmounting experiment-related challenges along the way.

"The majority of the time, experiments don't work out the way you had intended and while that can be extremely frustrating, perseverance is key," Ferzoco said. "I always try to stay optimistic and when results do work out, the satisfaction is even greater."

Scientists and their administrative staff are busy writing grant applications to funding agencies such as the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) in hopes of receiving support to further their research. When asked to comment, the administrative assistants contacted said to get back to them later–after a major grant deadline in mid-September had passed.

Similarly, students are preparing scholarship applications for competitive awards with deadlines in September and October.

Chelsea Munding, a third-year graduate student in the lab of Dr. Stuart Foster, a senior scientist in physical sciences, is applying for the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, as well as the CIHR Doctoral Award. She described the application process as very challenging, especially during her first year of graduate studies, in trying to explain what her project would entail and how best to present all of the information.

"It's important that students who are considering an academic career demonstrate to their future employers that they have been successful in bringing in research funding since it suggests they'll be able to obtain grants in the future," Munding said. "It allows students to take ownership of their research, and the extra funds available to the lab can be put toward purchasing new equipment or hiring a summer student."

In the weeks and months ahead, the university and SRI will host many seminars and conferences. These events will bring researchers and students together to discuss and collaborate within their research fields.

Casci's advice to students: "Get involved and don't limit yourself to your own lab," she said. "There are numerous seminars and university-related functions. Everyone is busy, but the more you put in, the more you will get out."