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Feeding the spark

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Many students applied, but only four were chosen. In these chosen four, leaders saw in them a spark of something intangible that elevates good research to greatness.

In a new initiative to strengthen the School’s graduate student training and to continue to invest in the best, four students have been chosen to receive a Dean’s Stipend for Graduate Research.  Charles Ishak, Biochemistry, Warren Winick-Ng, Physiology and Pharmacology, Maha Hammad, Physiology and Pharmacology, and Ian Lobb, Microbiology & Immunology, are the first recipients of these new awards. With topics ranging from, “Investigating hydrogen sulphide treatment as a means of extending kidney function for transplant” to “Prenatal and early life stress on aging and neurodegenerative disease”, these PhD candidates are shining examples for their peers and for the high quality of training and research at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

We wanted to find out what makes this fab four tick, so we asked them some questions about their programs, their goals, and how this award made a difference to them.

Why did you choose a PhD program at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry?
Charles - Early on in my education, I discovered my interest in the pursuit of academic curiosities through scientific research. These early experiences led me to the laboratory of Dr. Fred Dick. My experiences in the lab, my project, and program have been very positive, so I felt confident that I was in the right environment to pursue a Doctorate.

Warren - I chose to complete my PhD work at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry for the chance to explore research from an interdisciplinary perspective. The ability to work within the School’s program at Robarts Research Institute provides an excellent opportunity to realize this possibility. At Robarts, I will have access to molecular and imaging facilities, genomic and bioinformatic tools, animal care, as well as a clinical trials research group. Both Schulich Medicine & Dentistry and Robarts foster a translational approach to research, and encourage trainees and researchers to use these tools to keep that perspective while engaging in research.

Maha - When I was looking into where I would do my PhD, I focussed on choosing a well-established laboratory. I was pleased to find Dr. Stephen Ferguson’s lab since it has an excellent reputation and outstanding record of publications. The School also has a wide array of expertise, allowing students to communicate with people from all over the world and learn from their various backgrounds.

Ian - I greatly enjoyed my time pursuing transplantation research as a Master of Immunology student in Dr. Sener’s lab, as well as working with the various students and laboratory personnel involved in all of the laboratory projects. I experienced much success during my Master’s research, being able to present at many local, national and international scientific forums and eventually publishing my thesis in the British Journal of Urology International. When I was accepted to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry’s MD/PhD program this spring, I knew I wanted to continue the exciting translational work I began in Dr. Sener’s lab. Being a clinician scientist himself, I knew that Dr. Sener would be an ideal mentor as I begin my own journey pursuing medicine and science.

What is the goal of your PhD research?
Charles - My Doctoral research seeks to understand how the retinoblastoma tumour suppressor protein (pRB) interacts with a specific transcription factor to control cell death. I hope to understand how cancers successfully silence this function, with the goal of using this knowledge to improve therapeutic strategies used to kill cancer cells. Thereby making treatments faster and more effective, and helping people recover.

Warren - The primary goal for my PhD research is to obtain the training and skills needed to become an independent biomedical researcher. I hope to also learn how we can apply our knowledge from basic research to those in the community who will see real world implications, including clinicians, primary health care workers, patients and their families. Working at Western, I am very happy to have the opportunity to learn the necessary skills to make these goals a reality. I am also excited that Schulich Medicine & Dentistry offers a course in translational research, which focusses on the issues of bringing scientific discovery from basic research through to therapeutic use.

Maha - My plan is to utilize the time I will spend doing my PhD in producing novel research that will ultimately benefit people suffering from incurable diseases to help give them a higher quality of living. My Master’s supervisor (Dr. Denis Dupr) used to tell me that all scientists are looking for small pieces of a big puzzle, so my ultimate aim is to find as many pieces as I can while working with other scientists to try and build complete stories. My career goal is to work in an academic setting where I would have the opportunity to have my own independent research, as well as introduce research to future generations, to show how it can drastically change lives.

Ian - During my Master’s project I found that I could significantly prevent rat donor kidney damage during prolonged cold storage and improved early donor kidney function and survival. However, this model of kidney transplantation was performed between genetically identical donor and recipient rats, which is rarely the case in clinical transplantation. Therefore, to better assess the clinical applicability, my PhD project will be to investigate the protective effects of hydrogen sulphide (H2S) against donor kidney damage in a model of kidney transplantation between genetically dissimilar donor and recipient rats. I will also investigate potential anti-inflammatory effects of H2S on the recipient immune system in response to donor tissue. This study may provide highly significant evidence that H2S treatment could be a novel method of preventing damage in donor organs during transplantation and ultimately improving clinical transplantation outcomes.

How will this stipend help you achieve that goal?
Charles - This stipend will allow me to direct more time and resources toward my research, ultimately accelerating the rate of progress for this project. This progression will reveal new questions to explore, and contribute to our broader understanding of cell death and cancer biology.

Warren - I am honoured to receive the Dean's Stipend for Graduate Research. It will allow me to focus on creating novel, innovative, and impactful research. The ability to focus on my research means that I will be able to enhance my doctoral experience by becoming an active member of the University community and community at large, through both volunteer and professional development opportunities. These experiences will also help contribute to my goal of focussing on translational research. Moreover, this award will allow me to explore research avenues that I hope will expand both my own knowledge, as well as the scope of Dr. Rylett's lab. The opportunity to broach research questions from novel and unique perspectives is invaluable to me, and I know it will help to provide the integral skills needed to become a well-rounded, successful researcher.

Maha - I believe that this stipend will facilitate my PhD project and will definitely have a positive influence on the progress of my work. This award was also a source of motivation and I was excited to start my degree with such good news. Having such an award will strengthen my resume and open up good career opportunities for me in the future.

Ian - This stipend will help my research by providing my supervisor with more financial flexibility to fund some critical in vitro immunological experiments that will be accomplished through collaborations with other investigators at Western who are experts in their respective fields of immunology.

We would also like to recognize Erin Azzopardi who declined the award due to an Ontario Graduate Scholarship she has also received.

The Dean’s Stipend for Graduate Research goes towards funding two students who are transferring from a Schulich Medicine & Dentistry MSc program to a PhD program also at the School, and two students new to the PhD program. The value of the Dean’s MSc to PhD transfer stipend will be a maximum of $5,000 per year for the student’s remaining full graduate program residency period and the value of the Dean’s PhD Graduate stipend will be a maximum of $25,000 per year for the student’s full graduate program residency period.