Western boasts eight Vanier winners

Eight Western students have been named recipients of the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, Canada’s most prestigious scholarship for doctoral students.

Launched in 2009 to attract and retain world-class doctoral students, the program helps establish Canada as a global centre of excellence in research and higher learning. The scholarship, worth $50,000 per year for three years, is available to both Canadian and international PhD students studying at Canadian universities.

In total, 167 Vanier scholars were announced across Canada, each selected based on his/her demonstrated leadership skills and high standard of scholarly achievement in the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, engineering or health sciences. Western’s eight winners are the most the university has ever received.

Vanier scholars are nominated by a Canadian university and nominations are then evaluated by selection committees administered by Canada’s three research granting agencies: the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

“Being awarded a Vanier is no easy feat. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication involving supervisors, faculty reviewers, program administrators and School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies staff,” says Linda Miller, vice-provost (Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies). “Our graduate student body produces excellent research across several disciplines, and I am very proud that we were recognized with our most ever Vanier awards this year. Most importantly though, this honour rests with these eight students and their remarkable research talents, to which I extend my fullest congratulations.”

Western’s honourees include:


Adrienne Elbert
Biochemistry and Pediatrics, MD/PhD candidate
Determining genome-wide binding changes of epigenetic regulators CTCF and cohesin in ATRX-knockout mouse brain

Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes to gene regulation by mechanisms other than DNA sequence, such as DNA packaging and organization. Elbert’s study will investigate the role of the epigenetic regulators CTCF and cohesin in the developing brain using a mouse model for an intellectual disability called ATR-X syndrome and a forebrain knockout mouse of the CTCF gene. We hypothesize that loss of epigenetic modifiers like ATRX and CTCF result in deregulation of genes required for normal brain development.

Intellectual disabilities like autism, Rett syndrome and ATRX syndrome affect 2-3 per cent of children, which is approximately 140,000 children in Canada. Recent research shows that genes mutated in intellectual disabilities are often epigenetic regulators that impact gene expression in the brain. However, the role of these genes in brain function is poorly understood.

This project hopes to improve the life of Canadians by increasing the understanding of epigenetics in brain function as well as epigenetics in intellectual disabilities, in order to improve treatment and diagnosis of children with these disorders.


Matthew Meyer
Epidemiology and Biostatistics, PhD candidate
Testing the Impact of Resource Availability on Patterns of Referral to Inpatient Stroke Rehabilitation in Ontario

Meyer’s research focuses on the role policy decisions (specifically resource allocation) play in the accessibility of rehabilitation services for people who experience a stroke in Ontario. He has been fortunate to have the opportunity to work collectively with his supervisory committee at Western, the Ontario Stroke Network, the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto and the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. Together, the team works to develop methods to assess how many patients aren’t able to access the rehabilitation services they need after a stroke, or are referred to services that are inappropriate for their needs. They are then looking at how regional variations in rehabilitation resources may be contributing to these challenges.

Meyer hopes his research will ultimately lead to better informed decisions about resource allocation. While his initial goals are to help improve the accessibility of appropriate rehabilitation services post-stroke, he also hopes these methods for evaluation can be adapted in other sectors of our healthcare system.


Krista Vincent
Anatomy and Cell Biology, MD/PhD candidate
The functional and clinical consequences of silencing a candidate tumour suppressor gene in melanoma

The relationship between stem cells and their microenvironment remains complex and still largely enigmatic, despite the crucial role it plays in determining cellular fate. Pilot studies conducted in Vincent’s lab have identified secreted frizzled-related protein-2 (sFRP2) as a major constituent of the stem cell-derived extracellular matrix. This finding is compelling because although the role of sFRP2 in stem cell biology has not been fully elucidated; current information suggests it may regulate stem cell phenotypes and play a role in cancer biology.

Given the putative roles of sFRP2 in regulating self-renewal and differentiation, the aim of her project is to elucidate the role sFRP2 plays in melanoma tumourigenicity and microenvironment-mediated reprogramming.

Though the biologic similarities between aggressive tumour cells and embryonic stem cells are striking, the true therapeutic potential of these discoveries lies in the differences between these cell populations. The absence of certain inhibitors in tumours, such as sFRP2, presents appealing interventional opportunities. The findings of Vincent’s research will help define the melanoma phenotype and have the potential to provide a previously unknown molecular target for directed therapies.


Jorge Emilio Rosés Labrada
French Studies, PhD candidate,
Collaborative Documentation and Description of Mako, a Sáliban Language of Venezuela

Language diversity is at risk: Languages are dying at an unprecedented rate and it has been said that at least half of the world’s 6,000 languages will have disappeared by the end of this century. It is this threat to the world’s languages that informs Labrada’s graduate work at Western. For his dissertation, he will be working on the documentation and description of Mako, an indigenous language spoken in the Venezuelan Amazon by about 1,200 people and for which the only published material to date are 38 words.

This research will lead to a comprehensive description of the Mako language, up to now undescribed, and will also facilitate the study of other members of the Sáliban family and reconstruction of the common ancestral language. In addition, this research will further the development of language documentation and description theory, and can inform other small language communities’ documentation and language maintenance efforts.


Mariacarmen Vega
Bioarchaeology, PhD candidate
A history of violence: 3000 years of interpersonal and intergroup conflicts from the Late Pre-ceramic to Republican times in the Peruvian Andes. A bioarchaeological perspective.

From ancient sacrifices to the recent (1980-2000) internal conflict, Peru offers the ideal place to test questions about the cultural context of violence and acts most would consider violations of human rights. This research will reconstruct a ‘history of violence’ for the area, and include some 800 skeletons from nine archaeological sites, covering the three millennia-long time span of the Peruvian pre-historic and historic sequence.

The patterns of trauma will be compared to a forensic sample of 90 individuals who died in the 1980s internal conflict, unique for its documentation of the lives of many of the victims (including accidents and violent events), and because there was an underlying pattern of endemic violence against women within this community that will allow the creation of a model linking the known events to the skeletal evidence and to test models currently used in bioarchaeology.

This project will be the first research in Peru focused on violence to cover thousands of years and sample many different sociopolitical contexts, as well as be the first to include a modern documented case from the area. It will be a contribution not only to the knowledge of violence in Peru, and its changes through time, but also provide new interpretive models for trauma analysis that will inform future investigations in both the bioarchaeological and forensic realms.


Anna Matejko
Developmental Psychology, PhD candidate
The Neurocognitive Trajectories of Mathematical Development

Matejko is interested in understanding the neurocognitive mechanisms which underlie the acquisition of numerical and mathematical skills in children. While there has been a lot of research examining how children develop reading skills, comparatively less is known about mathematical skills.

Mathematical skills are used in everyday life, and a poor foundation in mathematics can have a significant impact on academic and professional outcomes. Matejko uses both behavioural and brain imaging techniques to understand how mathematical skills emerge and how they change over the course of development.

Her multidisciplinary research sits at the intersection of several fields including psychology, neuroscience and education. This area has the potential to bridge the gap between research and classroom practices. Matejko ultimately hopes educational policies and practices can be tailored on the basis of our understanding of cognitive development and our insights into children’s individual differences.


Susan Huang
Medical Biophysics, MD/PhD candidate
Cystatin C: A New Marker for Dialysis Adequacy

Dialysis is a supportive therapy in patients with minimal kidney function and helps by removing toxins and extra fluid. To determine the dose of dialysis, blood levels of specific proteins are measured before and after dialysis. Because patients with some kidney function – despite being on dialysis therapy – live longer than patients with no kidney functions, it is important to preserve and to monitor kidney function. Traditionally, routine monitoring of kidney function requires patients to collect a 24-48-hour urine sample which is cumbersome for patients.

Cystatin C is a protein that has shown to be better at estimating kidney function in patients who are not on dialysis; however, there are very few published studies in dialysis population. Huang’s recent study suggests cystatin C is removed by dialysis. This means cystatin C may not provide a reliable estimate of kidney function in dialysis patients without taking into account the dialysis dose.

Huang will conduct four novel studies to determine the relationships between dialysis treatments, kidney function and cystatin C levels. These projects will serve as the basis for larger studies in the future and may help the care and monitoring of dialysis patients.


Daniel Langohr
Biomedical Engineering, PhD candidate
Biomechanics of Reverse Shoulder Implants with Special Interest in Impingement and Wear

Reverse Total Shoulder Arthroplasty (RTSA) is used to replace a damaged and/or arthritic shoulder joint when accompanied by rotator cuff tears to alleviate pain and restore function.  At early follow-up, good-to-excellent outcomes can be expected in most patients. However, progressive deterioration in function of these implants is observed after six-eight years.

In order to improve RTSA prostheses, Langohr’s work includes computer modelling and laboratory testing of these devices in-situ in an effort to determine optimal implant positioning and geometry. His MASc work at the University of Waterloo included the wear testing of orthopaedic bearing materials for use in the spine, and based on his past experience in this area, Langhor will be creating a wear laboratory at the Hand and Upper Limb Centre (HULC) at Western.  The aim of this new laboratory will be the in-vitro wear testing of RTSA components using a wear simulator to mimic the motion and loading of the shoulder.

This research aims to improve the outcome of RTSA through the development and optimization of implant positioning, geometry and bearing material selection. This could defer the time at which deterioration in function of these devices occurs clinically and improve implant performance in patients.