Kaitlyn Charnetski, BSc’21, had just arrived to work on an archaeological site when she received the news that she had been chosen as a regional winner of The Undergraduate Awards for her research about a new H1N1 virus.
“I honestly wasn’t expecting it at all. It was 8 a.m. and I was standing at a dig site and pulled up my phone and saw that I had been selected. I had heard the week before that I had been chosen as a Highly Commended entrant and that had been exciting enough for me, so this was a bonus,” she said.
Charnetski is one of four Western undergraduate researchers named among the best in the world in this year’s Global Undergraduate Awards. Charnetski (for life sciences category), along with Akshi Chadha, BA’21 (for literature), and Stephanos Horvers (for engineering), won in the regional level, while Hannah Kern-Change was recognized as global winner in history.
Charnetski’s research paper, Investigating genomic signatures in influenza A viruses using supervised machine learning: A case study on an emergent H1N1 strain, looked at a new H1N1 virus and, using machine learning, discovered it has genomic characteristics unique to H1N1.
The idea for the paper began when Charnetski was in a lab course taught by professor Kathleen Hill. In a group discussion on possibilities with genetics, the topic of viruses and the COVID-19 pandemic came up.
“I’ve always been interested in genetics,” said Charnetski, who completed Western’s Integrated Science program, specializing in biology. “This paper is based on an emerging virus that was in the news two years ago. After examining it and looking at its particular characteristics, we were able to use the RNA sequence alone as a way to classify it as H1N1. This also gave us useful information about mutation pressures acting on the virus. It was the first study of its kind on this particular virus.”
At a time when most people would welcome other news besides COVID-19 and the pandemic, Charnetski was spending even more time on her research focusing on the virus.
“I think virus research is extremely important. We have all seen why in the past few years with the pandemic. More research will help us to prevent pandemics like this in the future and to be better prepared to address threats more quickly,” she said.
Stephanos Horvers was selected for his paper, Thermochemical Conversion of Waste Plastics to Bio-Industrial Resources, in the engineering category.
With an interest in science, and growing up with a mother who taught him from a young age about the harmful impacts people can have on the environment, Stephanos discovered a love for environmental and chemical engineering at Western.
His award-winning research paper looks at tackling plastic waste by breaking down plastics to their structural components, and repolymerizing them into virgin plastics, instead of creating new plastics. This can significantly reduce the amount of plastics filling landfills and oceans.
In addition, the research focused on the creation of bio-fuels from plastic waste with the aim to supplement, and perhaps even replace, the current fuel sector, he said.
Analysis of history
Akshi Chadha, BA’21, was selected as a regional winner for her research paper, Resisting Social Death: Collective Agency of the Enslaved in The History of Mary Prince.
Chadha, who graduated in June with a Bachelor of Arts and Honours Specialization in English and Creative Writing, said the original paper, on which her winning research was based, was a close textual analysis of Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, the first memoir to be published by an enslaved Black woman in England.
In her paper, Chadha focuses on the idea of social death – a term coined by Black sociologist, Orlando Patterson, to describe the exclusionary and alienating effects of slavery. She argues that while a useful term in understanding slavery, too much emphasis on social death can potentially undermine the inherent agency of the enslaved; so the focus should instead be on how the enslaved people in the memoir were working to resist social death.
“By voicing her and other enslaved people’s experience of enslavement, Mary Prince is able to resist the forces of social death. The text itself is able to transcend the enslavers’ society to create an empowering socio-political space that was being denied to the enslaved,” said Chadha.
The pan-disciplinary Undergraduate Awards competition recognizes excellence in undergraduate coursework. This year, it received close to 2,500 submissions from 292 universities in 45 countries. Global Winners are recognized for submitting the best paper worldwide in their category. Regional Winners are deemed the best papers in their category among submissions from the United States and Canada.
This year, 24 Western scholars were also ranked Highly Commended, scoring in the top 10 per cent of their fields.
“Western is a proud participant in The Undergraduate Awards. As is evident from these results, Western students from a wide range of disciplines continue to demonstrate to the world that they are capable of outstanding academic research,” said Lise Laporte, senior director at Western International.
“We are thrilled to congratulate and celebrate the achievements of our newest Undergraduate Award recipients, who join more than 200 Highly Commended, 14 Global Winners and 17 Regional Winners from Western since our first year participating in the program in 2014. We look forward to continuing to offer this opportunity to our students for future years.”