Eight named Vanier Scholarship winners

Eight Western graduate students have been named recipients of the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, each receiving $50,000 annually for up to three years. Vanier scholars are selected based on leadership skills and high standard of scholarly achievement in the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, engineering and/or health sciences.

Western’s eight winners tie for the most the university has ever received in a year, equalling 2012’s total. They hail from places as far as Colombia and Germany to right here in London.

“I want to congratulate our Vanier award winners on their personal achievements, which also reflect well upon Western and our mission to raise the profile of our research enterprise on the national and world stage,” Western President Amit Chakma said. “Best wishes to all for continued success.”


Sarah Peirce

What looks like a construction zone is actually a custom-made state-of-the-art gravel-bed river flume designed for experimental fluvial geomorphology. Located in the Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel Laboratory, it is fundamental to the work Sarah Peirce conducts.

Peirce investigates the relationship between sediment transport and river morphology in gravel-bed rivers, common in many areas of Canada and around the world.

Her research aims to develop a theory for the reliable prediction of sediment transport rates in these rivers by quantifying the active width, defined by the channel width experiencing active sediment transport at a given time. “The hope is that this research will contribute to the greater understanding of river dynamics and contribute to improving watershed and river management, hazard assessment and river restoration practices,” she said.


Mauricio Rodriguez-Torres
Anatomy and Cell Biology

In the research ‘pods’ of Victoria Hospital, Mauricio Rodriguez-Torres works tirelessly to produce new insights for breast cancer treatment.

“Most breast cancer deaths occur as a result of metastasis – the process whereby tumour cells leave the breast through the bloodstream and establish themselves in other organs,” he said. “These metastatic tumors are often difficult to find and have an increased capacity for therapy resistance.”

Rodriguez-Torres and his lab have identified a distinct subgroup of breast cancer cells, known as cancer stem cells (CSCs), responsible for seeding cancer outgrowths in other organs throughout the body.  They strive to identify the role of these CSC-derived molecular factors in CSC dissemination and metastasis to the lung. Upsetting the action of these factors with drugs has the potential to improve breast cancer treatment by blocking the lethal seeding activity that occurs.

“A close collaboration between basic science labs at Western and the clinical oncologists at the London Regional Cancer Program keeps our research questions clinically relevant and will facilitate future translation of my work to benefit patients,” he said.


Andrew Peterson

By building bridges between the humanities and sciences, Andrew Peterson hopes to address pressing conceptual problems head on. A member of both the Rotman Institute of Philosophy and the Brain and Mind Institute, Peterson analyzes the ethical and epistemological problems related to the use of brain-computer interfaces in patients with acquired brain injuries.

“Questions regarding the verification of decision-making capacity in this patient group, assessment of a patient’s ability to experience pain and the disclosure of diagnostic information to patients’ families have presented difficult conceptual challenges for scientists working in this field,” he said.

The belief is solutions to these issues not only require the historical strengths of philosophy in identifying and clarifying important questions, but also an understanding how the problems arise in the course of scientific practice. The goal is that novel solutions will be produced that have a direct and measurable impact on the lives of brain injured patients and their families.


Renee Willmon

Renee Willmon uses the dead to predict future trends for the living. She studies the spread of tuberculosis (TB) in the pre-antibiotic era by means of advanced digital 3D imaging and visualization technology available through the Sustainable Archaeology Ancient Images Laboratory and the Robarts Research Institute.

By examining the skeletal remains of those affected by the disease in pre-contact North America and Europe, Willmon uses medical- and micro-CT to translate skeletal lesions into an understanding of the impact of disease without destroying culturally sensitive human remains.

“My work is conducted in collaboration with the Huron-Wendat Nation, whose ancestors I study, to investigate their health history. My research will increase our understanding of the impact that TB had on the ancestors’ experience of disease through time, and may shed light on the modern implications of TB for Canadian First Nations,” she said.

Willmon will spend one year in the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Biologique in France conducting research with her co-supervisor, and currently assists forensic anthropologists affiliated with the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service in cases around Ontario.


Moustapha Diop
French Studies

Shuffling through the gamut of literary, film and adaption theory, Moustapha Diop aims to revive the work of late Senegalese filmmaker and writer Sembène Ousmane from a theoretical standpoint. “Much has been written about him, but it is his militant ethics, not his film and literary aesthetics, that has so far elicited much interest from critics.”

There are several implications to this revival, but the most significant is debunking myths associated with artistic practice in Africa. “(Notably) the African artist is either an epigone standing under the influence of a Western father figure, or is drawing inspiration from his or her traditional culture to castigate contemporary mores,” he said.

Diop believes both premises are misguided, and, through his writing, aims to withdraw these notions from circulation in academia.


Celina Kacperski

Using the mind to enhance physical gifts, Celina Kacperski looks at the processes of human cognition and how they affect sport performance.

Starting from the assumption that diverse individuals have different ways of thinking about events and objects, she analyzes those mental constructs to decipher how to best instruct athletes with their specific thinking styles in order to help them achieve optimal performance.

“Sport psychological interventions – like goal-setting and imagery – are already well established in research literature as well as applied contexts, but there is comparatively little knowledge about their interaction with athletes’ individualized cognitions,” she said. “By taking into account those thought processes, I’m hoping to improve on the existing performance enhancement techniques and better explain their working mechanisms.”


Pierangelo Gobbo

All things are ‘clicking’ for Pierangelo Gobbo in the Centre for Advanced Materials and Biomaterials Research. His work focuses on the design, synthesis and reactivity of new ‘clickable’ carbon nanotubes (CNT) and gold nanoparticles (AuNP). In order to be employed in their desired applications, CNT and AuNP must be functionalized with an appropriate molecular system through an interfacial chemical reaction.

“This represents a big challenge for chemists because of the intrinsic relative inertness of the native nanomaterials,” Gobbo said. “My job is to develop easy and effective protocols to insert functional groups onto the surfaces of CNT and water-soluble AuNP that are able to undergo a click reaction, which are chemical reactions that occur quickly with the corresponding clickable-partner.”

These reactions would be an important step in the introduction of nanomaterials into devices and medical diagnostics.


Jonathan McLeod
Biomedical engineering

Contributing innovative ideas to assist future surgeons is at the heart of Jonathan McLeod’s research at the Robarts Research Institute.

During surgery, the brain shifts inside the skull causing images acquired before surgery to no longer match up with a patient’s brain. “This can be very problematic in many procedures where the surgeon relies on these images to guide the surgery,” McLeod said. The ultimate goal is to develop the methods needed to measure and correct for brain shift using ultrasound images acquired during surgery.

Correcting for brain shift could improve navigation in many neurosurgical procedures. In McLeod’s case, he is examining how two surgical procedures used to treat hydrocephalus and epilepsy can be made safer with fewer side effects and complications.

McLeod, a London native, didn’t have to go far to receive a world-class education. “In imaging, the faculty and facilities are among the best in the world and enable cutting-edge research,” he said.