Postdoctoral scholar strikes more Gold with research

Paul Mayne // Western News

Western neuroscientist Melanie Kok, PhD’15 (Neuroscience), has gone from athletic medals to academic medals with her research on the cerebral cortex for which she was recognized with a 2015 Governor General’s Academic Gold Medal.

Melanie Kok’s skills on the water are well documented. As a five-time member of the Canadian National Rowing team, she proudly displays two World Rowing Championship medals, a pair of World Cup medals, a Pan Am Games silver medal and an Olympic bronze medal.

But a new shelf will soon need to be added – this time to hold reminders of her academic prowess.

The Western scholar recently earned a Governor General’s Academic Gold Medal, along with recent Western alumni Eric Souke, MSc’15 (Anatomy and Cell Biology), and Jorge Emilio Rosés Labrada, PhD’15 (French Studies).

“It’s definitely nice to have recognition for something that isn’t athletics,” said Kok, PhD’15 (Neuroscience), who now works in Physiology & Pharmacology professor Stephen Lomber’s lab.

Lord Dufferin, Canada’s third Governor General after Confederation, created the Academic Medals in 1873 to encourage academic excellence across the nation. Over the years, they have become the most prestigious award students in Canadian schools can receive. Pierre Trudeau, Tommy Douglas, Kim Campbell, Robert Bourassa, Robert Stanfield and Gabrielle Roy are just some of the more than 50,000 people who have received the Governor General’s Academic Medal as the start of a life of accomplishment.

Today, the medals are awarded at four levels: Bronze at the secondary school level; Collegiate Bronze at the postsecondary, diploma level; Silver at the undergraduate level; and Gold at the graduate level.

Kok completed her doctoral degree with a 90 per cent average and a body of work worthy of this high distinction, Lomber said. As her thesis supervisor, Lomber considers Kok to be “one of the most promising and creative young scientists,” ranking her among the top 5 per cent of the world’s researchers doing work on the cerebral cortex.

In fact, Lomber may have been a bit more excited about Kok’s gold medal than she was.

“Stephen had just been in our office talking to us and then he made this loud exclamation and I thought something was wrong,” Kok said. “I went to his office to see if he was OK, and he was like ‘You got it,’ and I was like ‘Wow.’”

Kok’s research builds on Lomber’s previous work that explained animals born deaf show superior visual motion detection compared to hearing animals. The region of the brain she has chosen to study, the dorsal zone, is responsible for that.

Kok’s research looks to further the understanding of the structure and function of the dorsal zone, in order to better understand how the brain compensates following injury to a sensory system.

Over the past decade, an increasing number of studies have shown the brain can adapt to the loss or impairment of a sensory system, resulting in heightened ability or expansion of the remaining senses.

“I was looking at the anatomical connections in the brain that change in deafness in one particular region of the auditory part of the brain,” said Kok, who came to Western five years ago after completing bachelor and masters degrees at McMaster University.

“How does that happen in the brain? We knew this change occurred but we didn’t know the mechanisms underlying it, and that was the focus of my doctoral thesis. Our lab is involved in the changes that happen in the brain as a function of sensory loss such as hearing. It seems there is increased projections from visual motion processing areas with that, which is not really that surprising except the brain is huge and there are a lot of visual areas. It could have been any one of those.”

Research has shown that, in both animals and people, the ability of the brain to reorganize sensory function is much less later on than if you become deaf earlier in life.

“Humans don’t actually have a dorsal zone, but we think there are similarities to a number of areas of the human auditory cortex,” Kok said. “Part of the research I have done has illustrated a number of additional similarities to those regions. As of now, there is not an exact match. But the research I’ve done is contributing to more knowledge.”

Kok continues to blaze an impressive scientific path at Western with six authored manuscripts, two of which she is first author, and all appear in renowned neuroscience journals. She is hopeful her work will drive better cochlear implants in the future.

“And it’s also learning more about ourselves,” she added “It’s interesting to know what we think of as separate regions of the brain, there is actually a lot more cross over than previously thought. It seems the brain is more multi-sensory that we thought it was and this research directly supports that.”

In addition to Kok, two recent Western alumni were awarded the Governor General Academic Gold Medal:

Jorge Emilio Rosés Labrada

PhD’15 (French Studies)

LABRADA

ROSÉS LABRADA

Jorge Emilio Rosés Labrada’s remarkable intellectual maturity, exceptionally strong preparation in both languages and linguistics and outstanding academic performance hugely impressed the faculty at Western from the outset. He was recruited from the University of Holguín with the Chair’s Entrance Scholarship and quickly fast-tracked to the doctoral stream.

His impetus and strength of purpose have enabled him not only to achieve the highest results of any doctoral candidate in the Linguistics program at Western, but it also enabled him to construct a well-defined research initiative on the documentation and description of a language spoken in the Venezuelan Amazon, an initiative that has attracted the admiration of an impressive array of international specialists.

Rosés Labrada was a Vanier Scholar in 2012, a Banting Fellow in 2015 and was recently short-listed for the prestigious SSHRC Talent Award. He is well-positioned to continue his vital contributions to the area of endangered languages.

Rosés Labrada is currently a Banting Fellow at the University of British Columbia.

Eric Sonke

MSc’15 (Anatomy and Cell Biology)

SONKE

SONKE

Eric Sonke completed his master’s degree in Anatomy and Cell Biology with an average of 91 per cent and has demonstrated an outstanding level of achievement in the areas of academics, research ability and community involvement. Underscoring this stellar performance is the fact Sonke has been supported by the Ontario Graduate Scholarships program throughout his master’s degree program.

While his coursework and scholarship record are exemplary, it is his research endeavours that set him apart from his peers. During the course of his research into the role of hydrogen sulfide in the survival and growth of renal cell carcinoma, Sonke initiated a brand new direction of research in the lab that will be carried out by future students.

As a result of his thesis work, he presented four first-author abstracts at national and international scientific meetings, was invited to give a prestigious podium presentation abroad, and published one first-author research paper and one second-author paper in high impact journals. Sonke is well on his way to becoming a future leader in medicine and in science.

He is currently attending medical school at McGill University.