Five Western PhD candidates are among 166 nationwide recipients of the 2021-2022 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships. These five Vanier scholars are engaged in world-class research in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and in the Faculty of Social Science.
For scholarship recipient Peter Zeng, the choice for his field of study was personal.
A student in the highly competitive MD/PhD program in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Zeng always knew he wanted to pursue research.
“When I moved to Guelph from China at about 10 years old, there was someone who really helped me a lot, especially when I was learning English,” Zeng said. That friend was recently diagnosed with HPV head and neck cancer, one of the fastest growing cancer types in Canada. It often deprives patients of their ability to talk and swallow, with current treatments too intense for most patients.
About 20 per cent of patients suffer a return of cancer, with often only months to live. There is significant interest to reduce the toxicity of current treatments, prevent recurrence, and find new therapies for those who do recur.
Working in Dr. Anthony Nichol’s lab, Zeng is looking to tackle these three challenges by studying the characteristics of all three levels of the central dogma: DNA, RNA and protein in tumours before and after treatment. The insights generated from analyzing the tumour prior to treatment will help predict a patient’s response and tailor treatment for each patient. Studying post-treatment recurrent tumours will offer a better understanding of why some patients suffer recurrence and identify drugs for treating them.
After spending the past two years in medical school, Zeng looks forward to pursuing his PhD during the next three years. Once he defends his PhD, he will finish his medical degree.
Receiving the scholarship is a dream come true for Zeng. “I’ve often heard of people getting these awards but never thought I would be getting one.
“I’m really grateful for the financial support and feel humbled to receive the Vanier scholarship,” he said. “It helps to be well supported over the next three years as I pursue my PhD.”
Each receiving $50,000 annually for three years, Vanier scholars demonstrate unique leadership skills and a high standard of scholarly achievement in graduate research spanning all disciplines.
The four other Vanier scholarship recipients are:
Elmond Bandauko, Geography and the Environment, Faculty of Social Science
Research focus: Urban governance and the politics of everyday survival for street traders in Harare, Zimbabwe
In Harare, street trading accounts for about 58 per cent of urban informal employment, taking place in open spaces, sidewalks and pavements. Street traders are often subjected to forms of control that deepen their marginalization. Yet, little is known about the interface between urban governance and their livelihoods.
Bandauko is investigating how urban governance impacts street traders’ lived experiences and their access to public space in Harare. He is analyzing the strategies traders use to negotiate that access and claim those spaces as their ‘right to the city,’ and exploring the gendered implications of appropriation of urban space.
Bandauko hopes his findings will help inform the design of pro-poor urban policies in African cities, and support Canada’s international development priorities as articulated in the Feminist International Assistance Policy (2017), which seeks to improve the livelihoods of vulnerable groups, including women.
Lorna Ferguson, Sociology, Faculty of Social Science
Research focus: Exploring police responses to missing persons in Canada
Research shows police responses to missing persons are inconsistent, biased and unreliable. These disparities constitute a national concern requiring investigation, mainly because they significantly affect vulnerable and marginalized people, including Indigenous Peoples and those experiencing mental health issues. These individuals are overrepresented is Canadian missing person reports, are at high risk of going missing, and are more likely to encounter harm when missing.
Ferguson conducts qualitative interviews with Canadian police to examine their responses to missing persons, identifies what needs to be improved, and offers preventative measures.
Ferguson’s research findings will be applied to generate an evidence-based framework for police to reduce bias and inconsistencies in case handling, with an aim to protect vulnerable and marginalized people and groups.
Olivia Ghosh-Swaby, Neuroscience, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry
Research focus: Exercise and anti-diabetic drugs to restore neural stem cells, memory and mood in obesity
With two-thirds of the adult Canadian population obese or overweight, obesity is a public health crisis. Excess weight and poor “western” diets increase the risk of dementia more than three-fold. Obesity affects brain functions by reducing the amount of stem cells residing in the hippocampus, a region vital for memory and mood regulation. The number of these stem cells declines with age and in neurodegenerative diseases.
Interventions that encourage both weight loss and protect the brain are needed. A two-armed approach involves exercise and the use of anti-diabetic drugs which, studies show, can increase the brain’s stem cell niche.
Using high-fat, high-sugar diets in mice and cognitive tasks that parallel human clinical tests, Ghosh-Swaby will investigate whether exercise and anti-diabetic drugs can reverse the negative effects of dietary obesity on the brain. This research will pave the way for enhancing brain health in the population and novel therapeutic approaches for cognitive impairment.
Samir Hamadache, Biochemistry, Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry
Research focus: Cells inside of cells: turning bacteria into organelles
Synthetic biology is an industry that involves designing and building organisms to solve problems. Organelles are tiny machines that work inside of living cells. Plant cells have organelles using light to turn water and CO2 into sugar. Other organelles, like mitochondria, harvest energy from that sugar.
A century after mitochondria were discovered in the mid-1800s, biologists realized some organelles evolved from free-living bacteria. These bacteria took up residence inside larger cells, and the two species formed a partnership known as “endosymbiosis.”
Today, this evolutionary process can be recreated in the lab, turning bacteria into new organelles. Synthetic organelles could someday repair mitochondrial diseases, convert greenhouse gases into high-value products, or eliminate the need for fertilizers.
Hamadache is looking to automate this process through “directed endosymbiosis.” He is building a device using microscopic traps to bring individual yeast and bacterial cells into contact and merge them. Automating endosymbiosis would allow synthetic biologists to routinely create new organelles with ease so they can focus on using them to solve a wide range of human and planetary health problems. Hamadache’s goal is to create plant organelles resulting in self-fertilizing plants.
-with files from Keri Ferguson