Vanier celebrates nation’s finest graduate students

Five Western PhD candidates have been named among 167 nationwide recipients of the 2018-19 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships – two from the natural sciences and engineering competition, two from the health sciences competition, and one from the social sciences and humanities competition. Each winner will receive $50,000 annually for up to three years.

Vanier Scholars are selected each year based on leadership skills, research potential, and a high standard of scholarly achievement in disciplines that span the social sciences and humanities, the natural sciences and engineering, and the health sciences.

Leona Bruijns
PhD Sociology
Engaging men as allies to transform a rape culture: Examining the impact of a multi-modal sexual violence prevention program for male athletes on post-secondary campuses

Sexual assault is common in Canada and on postsecondary campuses – 35 per cent of first-year university women on Canadian campuses have experienced at least one attempted or completed rape. Prevention efforts have frequently targeted women as potential victims and men as potential perpetrators, and these programs have been largely unsuccessful. Furthermore, it has often fallen on women to spearhead initiatives, but there is a growing recognition of the need to engage men in sexual violence prevention efforts.

My research will address this gap by examining an innovative sexual violence prevention program designed for male athletes on campus. Topics covered in the program include consent, masculinity, bystander intervention, and leadership. The content is informed by a feminist analysis, which recognizes complex patterns in society that reinforce and maintain a culture where sexual violence is pervasive.

A mixed methods approach is being used. This will include one pre-questionnaire and three post-questionnaires with quantitative measures, and semi-structured interviews for qualitative data. This research will contribute to the growing literature on engaging men and will uniquely assess the impact of feminist interventions on attitudes, behaviours and ally-ship of men that can contribute to the reduction of sexual violence on campuses.

Roger Hudson
PhD Neuroscience, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry
Examining the Roles of Hippocampal Cannabinoid Signaling on Emotional Memory Processing

In the mammalian brain, the cannabinoid system strongly governs emotional processing and memories related to emotional events. This is largely achieved by regulating amounts of the neurotransmitter ‘dopamine’ throughout the brain. The ventral hippocampus is a brain region associated with emotion and memory processing that contains an abundance of cannabinoid receptors that interact with naturally occurring compounds. Some are made by the brain, others are derived from marijuana. Abnormalities in this brain region may be responsible for symptoms of many psychiatric disorders, including those associated with a high-frequency of cannabis use (schizophrenia, depression, post-traumatic stress).

My research project will systematically assess the effects of marijuana compounds in the ventral hippocampus on emotional memory processing. Specifically, I will explore the effects of the cannabinoids ‘delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol’ (THC) and ‘cannabidiol’ (CBD) on how the brain processes emotional events. Following administration of THC, CBD, or their combination, subjects are assessed for emotional reactivity in various behavioural tasks, and brain activity is measured in areas crucial for dopamine transmission, attention, and learning and memory processing. I will also evaluate the capacity for CBD to inhibit THC-induced pro-psychotic actions in the context of pre-clinical models of psychiatric disorders.

My research represents an important undertaking in the context of understanding the development, prognosis, and potential treatments for psychiatric disorders.

Jason J. Lee
MD, FRCPC, PhD candidate Medical Biophysics
Sirtuin 6 and Inflammatory Vascular Diseases

Aging is an inevitable process that is linked to many diseases like cancer, arthritis and heart disease. Common to many of these age-related diseases is an underlying abnormal activity of increased inflammation. However, we do not yet know what controls healthy aging or unhealthy inflammation that may lead to illness. Therefore, more information is needed to improve our treatments and prevent disease.

Sirtuins are a recently discovered family of proteins. They slow aging in various organisms like yeast, worms and even small animals such as mice. This has inspired recent human studies, which identified certain sirtuin proteins associated with increased longevity. Interestingly, sirtuin proteins also regulate the activity of inflammation within organ tissues. So far, research in mice have shown that animals that do not produce enough sirtuin proteins in their body age faster and die younger than those with a normal level.

My research will focus on the roles of sirtuin proteins in regulating inflammation of the cardiovascular system during health and illness. I hope to discover novel pathways that help us understand the shortcomings of our current therapies. The ultimate goal is to provide innovative personalized treatment options for patients with vascular diseases.

Cory Lefebvre
MD/PhD student, Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology
Kinome Profiling of Triple Negative Breast Cancer Cells to Reveal Predictors of Response to Targeted Therapy

Fortunately, oncologists have access to specific drugs that target and treat most breast cancers, but not triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), the most aggressive type of breast cancer. So far, this cancer can only be treated with nonspecific chemotherapy too often accompanied by terrible side effects.

I will set out to uncover new ways to treat TNBC more effectively and reduce the side effects. Some TNBC cells over-produce the protein osteopontin (OPN), making the cancer cells ‘addicted’ to two other proteins, epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and hepatocyte growth factor receptor (Met).

My initial findings suggest that triple negative breast cells that overproduce osteopontin are ‘addicted’ to these receptors. Furthermore, the triple negative breast cells can be killed by drugs such as tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKI) that target receptors of epidermal growth factor and hepatocyte growth factor.

I will explore this by measuring how the amount of OPN produced by the cancer cells determines how many cancer cells survive after chemotherapy. We will determine if other proteins like EGFR and Met, (additional kinases), are more active (often because they are more abundant) and compensate when cancer cells are treated with EGFR and Met target drugs. Our research will use ‘omics’ methods to investigate all the kinases from the cancer cells before and after drug treatment by measuring the amount and activity of all kinases.

The main outcome should allow oncologists to measure OPN levels in their patient’s blood which will predict which TNBC tumors will be effectively treated by the TKI drugs and life for TNBC patients should become significantly enhanced.

Sarah Stevenson
PhD in Structural Engineering
Quantifying and Mitigating Vulnerabilities of Residential Structures to Hurricane Risks in Cuba

My research will develop practical solutions to reduce the devastating impact of extreme wind events on homes in Canada and abroad. The work will focus on understanding the vulnerabilities of residential structures to the wind risks they face. Canadian homes will be studied to evaluate the prescriptive standards to which homes are built locally, and a modelling method will be developed to analyze the strength of entire houses and identify the weak links. The modelling method will then be extended to houses in Cuba. The international component of the work will contribute, at a larger scale, to initiatives for extending modern research methods to provide regionally appropriate solutions to underserved regions.

Cuba has endured a housing deficit for several decades. This issue is heightened with every extreme weather event. For example, Hurricane Matthew damaged 42,300 homes; 72 per cent of housing in the most impacted counties. Natural disasters such as this are often publicized as ‘acts of god’ occurring beyond human control. However, the devastation of any natural event results from a complex interaction between the event itself and many conditions of vulnerability. In Canada, leading-edge engineering research has been done to enhance the structural performance of large buildings; however, houses are still built to prescriptive standards and industry ‘rules of thumb’ and are still not engineered structures. The technical issues faced by houses in Canada and abroad are expected to be similar.

My research aims to improve our understanding of residential structures worldwide, and address shortcomings – whether they are due to gaps in industry practice or a lack of technical resources – with a focus on developing tools and methods that will yield practical, regionally appropriate solutions.