Their research may have taken years to form, but Western graduate students had a mere three minutes to distill the complexities and significance of their work to a multidisciplinary audience at the second annual 3-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, held last week in the Davenport Theatre.
The competition, hosted by the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, was initially developed at the University of Queensland in Australia, five years ago, with a goal of teaching communication and academic skills by giving graduate students an opportunity to, in three minutes or less, translate their work and its impact to a non-specialist audience.
Last year, Western’s 3MT competition was among the first of its kind in Canada, with more than 100 students participating. This time around, each of Western’s faculties hosted an internal competition, choosing one finalist to go on to the final round.
For the first time this year, Queen’s University hosted a provincial championship competition, inviting roughly 30 graduate students from 16 universities across Ontario, those judged to be among the top at their school’s 3MT competition, to compete.
The winners at Western this year were: Michael Taylor, Epidemiology and Biostatistics; Caroline Strang, Psychology; and Ryan Guterman, Chemistry.
Taylor, a second-year MSc student, and Strang, in the second year of her PhD, advanced to the provincial championship round at Queen’s where Taylor won the Participant’s Choice award – as voted by all the presenters, to be the best presentation at 3MT Ontario.
MSc, Epidemiology and Biostatistics
Risk Factors for Type 2 Diabetes: An Immigrant Story
What is diabetes? Here’s Taylor’s explanation: We need glucose in order to function. We get glucose from the food we eat. When we eat, our pancreas secretes insulin in order to pull in glucose for us to use.
“In Type 2 diabetics, like myself and my mom, those pancreatic cells that do all the work begin to shut down, leaving someone like me, who is young, with a five-times greater risk of premature death than the rest of the population,” he said, noting Type 2 diabetics are more likely to develop a variety of complications and ailments, among them diseases of the eye, heart, brain and kidneys.
While the risk factors for developing diabetes range from one’s ethnicity, genetics and lifestyle, we already know some populations are at a higher risk, Taylor continued. The prevalence of diabetes is, because of genetic factors, particularly high in Canada’s Aboriginal population, but, as Taylor found out, it is even higher in immigrant populations. And as it happens, Taylor is also the son of Scottish and Guyanese immigrants.
“Immigrants typically observe better health than the Canadian population. This degrades over time with acculturation. I wanted to know who has the highest risks (of diabetes) in Canada and why. I originally thought Aboriginals would come out on top, based on previous research, and what I found wasn’t the case,” he said.
“Using the largest combined sample of the Canadian Community Health Survey, I found that immigrants had the highest rate of diabetes, consistently over the past 10 years, and South Asians in particular. Research had previously stated (their risks) but it hadn’t compared them to Aboriginals.”
Having determined this, Taylor hopes to work with biochemists to test for biomarkers in immigrant populations, to determine what makes certain populations more susceptible to develop diabetes, and to see if acculturation after immigration plays a role. It’s the age-old nature or nurture, or both, question, he noted.
Brainy Bees: Learning in the Bumblebee Brain
Strang is interested in the relationship between one’s brain and one’s behaviour. However, determining what that relationship is and how it works is a question that’s hard to answer because the brain is so complex, especially in mammals.
“The neat thing about the bumblebee is its brain is really simple, so it makes this an accessible question. I train the bees on a learning task and I use two different tasks,” Strang said.
One task involves presenting the bees with two colours and pairing one with a reward, so they learn to associate that color with a reward. The other task is a flexibility task.
“I want to know if the bees can use that learning in a flexible way and if they can change it when they see a change in the environment. So I do that by presenting the same two colors, but pairing the opposite color with a reward. The bee has to recognize this has changed and has to be able to change the behaviour and change the association,” she explained.
Once the bees are done, Strang looks at their brains in a region called the mushroom bodies – the locus of learning and memory in the bee brain.
“I compare the volume of the structure to the performance on the task to see if a bee with a larger mushroom body performs better on the learning task, flexibility task or both. I’m looking to see how learning and memory relates to the brain. Certain fundamental properties of learning are universal across species. If we can see how simple learning goes on in the bee brain, we can extrapolate to more complicated brains and more complicated brain behaviours. It’s the first step in establishing a model of simple learning.”
From the Lab to your Kitchen Counter: Understanding Water Repellent Surfaces
Guterman works in a lab where he and his colleagues investigate materials on a fundamental level. While engineers work with, look at and create things from already existing materials – something that’s widely available for them to buy – Guterman and his colleagues create the materials they work with and analyze.
“Anything we can make only exists in our lab. We use (these materials) for certain applications, to see how well they perform compared to things that already exist, and if they might have certain benefits or advantages,” Guterman explained.
As it stands, the lab is working to create and analyze the properties of a water-repellent material.
“Creating a water-repellant surface has many applications. For example, they kill bacteria because bacteria can’t grow on (a water repellant surface). A water-repellant material prevents stains on surfaces, like kitchen counters,” he continued.
“There are also more tailored approaches. You can put (a water repellant) material on boats so they have less drag. It can be used in catheters to prevent bacterial infection because it allows water to flow better. In our lab, the work is more tailored, the stuff we’re making might be geared towards use in batteries one day because you need charged materials and water repellant properties in a battery.”