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Feature Article: Celebrating the BMSc Class of 2017 with Nick Tonial

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On a rather cold and dreary day in March 2013, Nick Tonial and his best friend made the drive from Tecumseh to attend Western University’s March Break Open House. It was a road trip that took the self-described small-town kid out of his comfort zone. That was, however, until he was warmly welcomed by representatives from the Bachelor of Medical Sciences (BMSc) Program.

“Coming from a small town, it was a bit of a leap for me to think about coming to Western,” he said. “But when I went to the info sessions, it just felt right,” he said. “I knew, then, that I had to follow that feeling and come to Western.”

On June 15, Tonial will graduate with honors from the BMSc Program. He also happens to be the Western University Gold Medal recipient for the Honors Specialization in Physiology and Pharmacology.

During the past four years, Tonial has used the motto: “It’s not what you take from the world, but it’s what you give back,” to guide his pursuits. In doing so, he followed his passions for research, community engagement and improving the human condition of those around him.

Early on, Tonial enjoyed the structure of the BMSc program, using his first two years to explore all his interests.
Part of that included identifying new research opportunities. During his second year, Tonial was awarded a NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award which funded his research with Dr. John McCormick. He spent the summer looking at bacteriocin peptides that are produced by Streptococcus pyogenes during colonization. He worked on worked on purifying these proteins to be able to test their activity as antimicrobial peptides on different species and strains of bacteria. This work led him to becoming a contributing author to his first-ever publication.

He was bit by the research bug, and settled in to determine which path most captivated his interests. It didn’t take too long, before he realized that physiology and pharmacology connected all the dots for him.

This became his area of specialization and he pursued his fourth-year thesis research project with Bradley Urquhart, PhD’07. His project looked at trying to understand why 45 per cent of patient mortalities for those with chronic kidney disease are due to cardiovascular events. He used a rodent model to look at the expression of three enzymes in the heart, which normally provide a protective role.

Being part of the Urquhart lab was an incredible learning experience for Tonial – especially as it related to the concept of research collaboration.

“You always hear about the importance of collaboration, but you don’t really get an appreciation for how important it is until you’re part of a team. Learning this and being interactive with all the pieces and people who contribute to the process factored into my success,” he said.

Tonial quickly became an important team member in the lab.

“Nick is curious, very smart, dedicated and hard working,” said Urquhart. “He has the unique ability to elevate not only his own research, but also those around him. Even at this stage in his research practice he possesses many attributes of a senior scientist.”

Outside of the classroom, Tonial became involved with a number of organizations and community initiatives.

In first year, Tonial joined the Bachelor of Medical Sciences Association (BMSA), a group he worked with throughout his four undergraduate years, starting off as a general member and then working his way through the ranks to the position of President in his fourth year. The Association’s goal is to connect students to academic support, volunteering placement opportunities within the London community, and career resources for those within or a desire to be within the Bachelor of Medical Sciences program.

“I stuck with the BMSA from the beginning and helped it grow to where it is now,” he said. “It was an amazing experience; I learned so much about leadership and I developed so many great friendships.”

Off campus, Tonial volunteered with Ronald McDonald House – another passion project. Each week, he spends four hours connecting with families whose children are being cared for at Children’s Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre.

“I love being there,” said Tonial. “You can get so caught up in your life, and you forget that others are dealing with much bigger challenges than you are. Being there doesn’t feel like work at all, and it feels good to know that I am able to make a difference in someone’s life.”

Remembering his positive experience during March Break Open House, Tonial also worked at the annual event and other recruitment fairs, sharing the many attributes of the BMSc program with parents and prospective students.

Tonial is proud to call himself a Western alumnus, and hopes to continue sharing his passion for the BMSc Program to inspire future Mustangs when they come to campus for recruitment events.

He won’t have to go too far to do that. In September, Tonial will begin the MD/PhD program at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. For the first three years, he’ll focus on research continuing on in Urquhart’s lab, and then he’ll turn his attention to four years of undergraduate medicine.

“I’m a bit of a nerd, or, rather I have an interested mind,” he said correcting himself with a laugh. “So I fell in love the whole idea of doing the research and then gaining the clinical experience and seeing how they are interconnected. It’s a challenging program, but I think it’s important to constantly challenge yourself – that’s how you learn about science and life.”

During the past four years, Tonial has gained an enormous appreciation for academia and research and learned a lot about himself.

“You come to university at 17 and you aren’t even an adult; you don’t really know who you are as a person. I’ve changed so much and now know that jumping out of my comfort zone is worth the risk.”

He’s excited to take another leap and embrace the next challenge before him.

The Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry congratulates Nick and the entire BMSc Class of 2017 for their achievements during the past four years and on their graduation.