Curiosity fuels exclusive scholarship winner

Joseph Stinziano’s curiosity gave him a head start.

In high school, Stinziano, who graduated this spring with a BSc in Biology, stumbled upon an extracurricular project that not only piqued his interest in science and research, but also grabbed the attention of his supervisor, encouraging him to spend his summer working in a lab on campus.

Stinziano has volunteered in a Western lab ever since, impressing peers and professors who have praised his insatiable curiosity and desire to understand what he is learning, rather than just passing an exam.

It’s no surprise then, the 22-year-old, starting his MSc at Western in the fall, was recently awarded the prestigious Julie Payette Research Scholarship, worth $25,000, from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Only 24 are offered each year to top-ranked candidates – individuals who display not only a first-class academic average, but also demonstrate outstanding research ability and potential, excellent leadership skills and a broad range of other interests.

Already an NSERC scholar and winner of numerous other academic and leadership scholarships, Stinziano has been successful three times, securing funding for summer research awards, through the council’s Undergraduate Student Research Awards (USRA) Program. Just a brief conversation about his research is enough to show Stinziano couldn’t be more excited to continue his work in Biology professor Danielle Way’s lab.

“My first year I spent drying out fruit flies and counting them out as they died – sometimes I was in the lab all day, once consecutively for 36 hours,” he said.

Stinziano continued volunteering in the Biotron through his second year, securing another USRA grant to look at the metabolism of wood frogs. Given his time and involvement, he ended up being the second author on a research paper that materialized out of the lab work.

But it was a plant physiology course he took in his third year that would plant the seeds for his graduate work – something Stinziano, who hadn’t yet officially graduated, started nearly two months ago.

“Prior to that (course), I knew nothing about plants; I found out that they move,” he said, noting the more he learned, the more excited he got. He then started his Honors project early, growing Norway spruce trees, simulating autumn climates and looking at the effect of warming on photosynthesis.

Working in the Biotron, Stinziano’s graduate research looks at the effects of global warming, questioning whether warmer climates extend the period of carbon uptake in Canada’s boreal forest.

“I’m trying to figure out how photoperiods – that is, day length – constrain the response of plants to climate change. I’m so excited to start that,” he said.

Stinziano is simulating autumn with white spruce trees this time around, looking to see if temperature or day length has a bigger effect, how the two interact and the effect of global warming.

“For example, some trees drop their leaves when days are short and are less limited in how they can respond to warmer temperatures. This breaks the assumption that plants respond to warming in the same way, all year, and thus my research will provide insight into how plant responses to climate change are limited, so that we can better predict how plants will respond to climate change,” he explained.

During his undergraduate studies, Stinziano was also awarded the Andrew and Sarah Hamilton Scholarship and two leadership scholarships – the provincial Metro Inc. Scholarship and the international Castle Harlan-Bradken Scholarship. The Metro Inc. Scholarship recognizes students who go above and beyond the boundaries that normally define deserving scholars. Castle Harlan-Bradken recipients are selected for outstanding record of demonstrated leadership and outreach activity.