Discovering new molecules in space. Creating a salmonella vaccine for poultry – from plants. Analyzing how fear impacts animal brains in the long term.
Three wildly distinct Western research projects, but all with a central connection: a focus on bringing together scientists from multiple fields to drive solutions.
PhD candidates presented a series of collaborative projects on Jan. 16 at the Fallona Family Interdisciplinary Science Award and Lecture, ahead of a keynote from Western neuroscientist Jörn Diedrichsen.
“This is a way to empower students and researchers to explore the possibilities of what can happen when they work together with other science disciplines,” Jeff Hutter, acting dean of the Faculty of Science, said of the event.
“It’s become even more critical as things continue to evolve in the field of science. Over the last decade, we’ve seen time and again the importance of interdisciplinary work in the fights against COVID-19, climate change, the uptake of artificial intelligence and more, with researchers from various fields coming together to create solutions from different angles.”
The event is made possible by Mary Catherine Fallona, BSc‘61, MSc‘65 and James Fallona, BSc‘58, MSc‘65, who come from a nine-member family with a combined 15 degrees from Western. The siblings are so dedicated to interdisciplinary science – and the belief that collaboration between researchers can enrich their work, provide inspiration and drive new ideas – they donated over $100,000 to create the Fallona Family Interdisciplinary Science Award and Symposium Fund.
Charmi Bhatt, a PhD candidate in astronomy, won the student presentation portion of this year’s award and lecture, which included a three-minute talk on each interdisciplinary research project.
Bhatt studies molecules in space using data from telescopes.
“Have you ever wondered how life started on earth? Think about this: We are made of carbon . . . All the carbon we have in our bodies was made inside stars. So, what happened in between?” she said after stepping up to the podium to begin her talk.
Bhatt also works at the Cronyn Observatory, a great fit given her love of sharing about space. She’s passionate about science communication and outreach, writing blogs to explain concepts like weather forecasts, blood types and asteroids using simple language and fun metaphors.
She uses telescopes, including the massive James Webb Space Telescope, to observe the spectrum of light given off by atoms and molecules in space. That can give key details about its properties.
“Every time we find a new molecule, it just blows my mind, because it shows how wild and different physics and chemistry in space can be, (compared to) what we know on Earth.” – Charmi Bhatt, PhD candidate in astronomy
Interdisciplinary work is key in her field.
“As astronomers, we cannot do this all alone and I like how interdisciplinary this research is. We often work with chemists; they tell us what chemical reactions can occur in space, what cannot. We also work with computer scientists; they can develop models for us to simulate how the signals from molecules will look,” Bhatt said.
“With this team effort, we are much closer to figuring out how we formed the building blocks of life in space.”
As the top presenter, Bhatt won $500 with her talk. She called the experience “exhilarating and unique.”
“It was my first shot at presenting research to scholars from different fields, and the interesting discussions that followed were truly enriching. Winning first place is both a humbling and inspiring, fueling my passion for interdisciplinary research and effective science communication. The outstanding presentations from fellow participants were also a source of great learning and inspiration,” Bhatt said.
Biology PhD candidate Carly Charron shared her journey to create a plant-based salmonella vaccine for poultry. Her work to develop an easy-to-provide treatment could reduce contamination of crops and reduce the safety concerns associated with salmonella outbreaks.
“There is a really big need to develop effective control measures to prevent salmonella,” Charron said.
“The goal of my project is to develop an edible, plant-based salmonella vaccine that would be safer, more effective and cheaper than those currently available.”
Charron is using a powder made from leaves so the vaccine can be fed to one-day and two-week-old broiler chickens, along with their regular food, to prevent salmonella in poultry and limit the risk of foodborne illness in humans as a result.
There are major economic and health implications for both farmers and the public, since poultry can harbour large loads of salmonella without displaying symptoms. That makes it easy for the bacteria to quickly spread throughout an entire flock.
Initial trials using a protein nanoparticle in mice induced a very strong immune response. A feeding trial is planned for chickens this summer.
Enduring effects of animal fear
Imagine trying to find a meal while avoiding becoming one.
“In the animal kingdom, it’s necessary to balance the fear of being eaten with the need to remember how to survive,” Lauren Witterick, a PhD candidate in biology, told the crowd gathered for the Fallona Family Interdisciplinary Science Award and Lecture.
Witterick studies the impact of fear on the brains of birds and wild voles, based on templates from research of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in humans.
Her work, using the sounds of natural predators like hawks and owls, examined birds in the lab as well as in outdoor aviaries that model a natural environment, and voles in their typical wild habitat.
“This suggests the long-lasting changes in response to fear that we call PTSD may have evolved to help us remember how we survived the last life-threatening event, so we could do it again the next time something tried to eat us,” Witterick said.
“We have found that the fear of predators can induce long-lasting changes in the brain and behaviour, suggesting fear memories may be a sign of a healthy mind, and have advantages for survival.”
Witterick, who is supervised by biology professor Liana Zanette, said the project allows her to combine two areas of interest: ecology and biomedicine.
Fallona family legacy
Diedrichsen, the 2023 Fallona Family Interdisciplinary Science Prize winner, spoke about the power of the cerebellum, an understudied part of the brain.
He joked about its nickname – the “little brain” – and location within the brain, tucked under the cerebrum.
“Its subdued basement location may be one of the reasons why it’s often ignored,” Diedrichsen said.
The Fallona Family Interdisciplinary Science Award is presented each year to a scientist involved in interdisciplinary work who makes a positive impact in the world.
Diedrichsen, also the Western Research Chair for Motor Control and Computational Neuroscience, was recently awarded $1 million to create a growth chart for the human cerebellum over the course of a lifetime.
Mary Catherine Fallona, who studied both physics and chemistry at Western, said in a 2017 interview with Western News that the interdisciplinary research at Western amazes the Fallona family every year.
In the 1960s, Mary Catherine investigated a new kind of mold with antibiotic properties. More than 50 years later, she shared her enthusiasm for breaking down barriers within scientific fields.
“They’re going to save the world. It’s this sort of research and development these students are producing that is going to make a difference,” Mary Catherine said.
“People used to say, ‘What’s with all this highfalutin research? What’s it good for?’ Well, you never know. You don’t start a project knowing all the answers. That’s what research is all about; you have got to find the answers.”