Sept. 7, 2018

Nine grad students awarded prestigious Vanier scholarships for 2018

PhD students receive national award for their innovative research and extraordinary leadership
2018 Vanier Scholarship recipients, from left: Emilie Lacroix, Leanne Dawson, Haydee Mesa Galloso, Breanna Borys, and Samantha Baglot.
2018 Vanier Scholarship recipients. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Determined to discover more effective treatments for hydrocephaly — a serious and often deadly disease that affects two in every 1,000 newborn babies worldwide — Dr. Albert Isaacs, MD, is working to untangle the causes of the disease at its most basic, cellular level.

The fourth-year neurosurgery resident at the Cumming School of Medicine is pursuing a PhD in neuroscience, collaborating with hydrocephalus experts both here and in the United States through the University of Calgary’s Cotutelle Program. Named a Killam Laureate in 2017, Isaacs has just been awarded a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship in support of his groundbreaking research. 

“The problem we face is we don’t understand the disease itself, which makes it very hard to develop treatments,” says Isaacs, who throughout his training cared for many babies afflicted with post-hemorrhagic hydrocephalus, which occurs in about a third of babies born prematurely.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have the support through the joint PhD program to work with my mentors and alongside world-leading researchers to help move this field forward. Being recognized with a Vanier Scholarship is an honour and a vote of confidence in my work and in the potential impact of my research program.”

Isaacs’s research focuses on using a combination of state-of-the-art technology including high throughput proteomics, DNA and RNA analysis to identify markers that can be targeted both to monitor and treat this disease. In addition, he has developed animal models of hydrocephalus in ferrets and mice that are being used to study the role of oxidative metabolism in the pathophysiology of hydrocephalus, utilizing the 9.4T MRI in the Experimental Imaging Centre at the University of Calgary.

This research has the potential to prevent the negative outcomes of the disease here in Alberta and possibly to reduce its burden worldwide through the discovery of robust therapies.

Nine Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships

Nine University of Calgary graduate students have been awarded the prestigious Vanier CGS for 2018. The recipients will be invited to join the Graduate Leaders Circle, a group that supports student leaders who give back to their community.

“Receiving a Vanier is a significant achievement,” says Dr. Lisa Young, vice-provost and dean of graduate studies. “It supports highly skilled and innovative students who do not hesitate to take on forms of extraordinary leadership, not just in their research, but in their communities. These students represent our next generation of academic, business and community leaders in Canada.”

Along with Albert Isaacs, UCalgary’s 2018 Vanier Canada Scholars include:

Samantha Baglot, Neuroscience
Supervisor: Dr. Matthew Hill, PhD

Baglot’s research seeks to provide an avenue into more personalized treatments for people who have developed anxiety stemming from early life adversity, the most prevalent psychiatric conditions in children and adolescents. However, some individuals who experience early life adversity exhibit resiliency and do not develop psychiatric issues later in life, suggesting that there is a gene-environment interaction that can regulate the effects of early life experience on the developing brain. A prime target to examine this interaction is the endocannabinoid system (the brain system that THC from cannabis exerts its effects through), as it is well established to be involved in regulation of stress, fear, and anxiety. Baglot uses a genetic modification in the endocannabinoid system to examine the molecular, biochemical, and genetic link between early life adversity and anxiety disorders.

Breanna Borys, Biomedical Engineering
Supervisor: Dr. Michael Kallos, PhD

Borys’s research is focused on developing engineering protocols to grow stem cells safely and efficiently. When stem cells are grown in traditional static dishes, no external forces act on them. This is a poor representation of the human body, where cells experience a variety of forces as they move around and interact with one another. This complex environment impacts cell function and needs to be simulated outside of the human body. Borys’s thesis will focus on optimizing expansion protocols to overcome engineering challenges moving from bench-scale static culture methods to using large stirred suspension reactors. Outcomes will hopefully put us closer to achieving the goal of using stem cell technologies to help Canadians through genetic studies, drug testing, and organ transplantation. 

2018 Vanier Scholarship recipient Albert Isaacs.

2018 Vanier Scholarship recipient Albert Isaacs.

Albert Isaacs

Leanne Dawson, Electrical Engineering
Supervisor: Dr. Andy Knight, PHD

As we move toward a greener future, low-cost solutions are needed to transport new renewable energy to consumers. Under the supervision of Andy Knight, Dawson’s proposed solution is to use Dynamic Line Rating (DLR). DLR uses actual weather conditions to increase the capacity of existing power lines, so that new lines do not have to be built to accommodate the new generation. This method will not only decrease costs for industry and customers, but will also minimize the environmental impact of building new lines. Her research focuses on the risks and challenges associated with implementing DLR in Alberta.

Emilie Lacroix, Psychology
Supervisor: Dr. Kristin von Ranson, PhD

Among girls and women, body image is a critical area of well-being. The benefits of positive body image include better relationships, higher rates of physical activity, and healthier eating. Conversely, negative body image is a risk factor for many adverse health outcomes including eating disorders, the only mental disorders associated with increased youth mortality. Unfortunately, negative body image and preoccupation with society’s unrealistically thin ideal are the norm. Most programs designed to promote positive body image among girls appear to be missing the mark, with followup studies showing little to no lasting benefits. Lacroix aims to identify common trajectories of body image development from preadolescence to young adulthood, and to examine personality traits which may predict this development. Lacroix hopes her research can inform the design of body image programs that are more individualized and more effective.

Haydee Mesa-Galloso, Biological Sciences
Supervisor: Dr. D. Peter Tieleman, PhD

Mesa-Galloso studies the molecular mechanism of ion channels that regulate drug-induced cardiac arrhythmias. Using innovative computer simulations, Mesa-Galloso aims to produce an integrated picture of the interactions between hERG potassium channels, drugs, and membrane lipids in the context of heart arrhythmias. Simulations provide a level of detail, exceeding any possible experiment, to 'view' in how proteins, lipid and drugs interact, atom-by-atom. This knowledge will contribute to the development of new anti-arrhythmic drugs that do not have the undesirable side-effects of current therapies.

Julia Poole, Clinical Psychology
Supervisor: Dr. Keith Dobson, PhD

Millions of Canadians report a history of adverse childhood experiences. These experiences are a widely established risk factor for poor mental health outcomes among adults, such as anxiety and depression. Poole is working to identify modifiable characteristics, such as psychological resilience and emotion regulation, that may buffer the impact of childhood adversity on adult mental health problems. Ultimately, Poole hopes that her research will inform the development of prevention and treatment initiatives that improve mental health outcomes among adults with a history of childhood adversity.

Mallik Sezan Mahmud, Geography
Supervisor: Dr. John Yackel, PhD

The Arctic has recently entered a new sea ice regime with rapid loss of sea ice extent, thickness and extended melting. Although satellite-based technology has been operationally used for Arctic sea ice monitoring, existing earth observation (EO) satellites has limitations in providing accurate information about ice types, thus imposing potential risk for safe maritime operations. Mahmud’s research investigates and validates the utility of recently launched next-generation EO satellites (operates at lower frequency, e.g., L-band) for improved Arctic sea monitoring. His ongoing research aims to support the development of novel sea ice products for improved Arctic sea ice monitoring and safer maritime operations in the Arctic. At the same time, this research will ensure Canada’s environmental stewardship by providing reliable and improved Arctic sea ice information.

Shasta Webb, Anthropology
Supervisor: Dr. Amanda D. Melin, PhD

Webb’s research aims to improve our understanding of wild animals that live in endangered ecosystems and are subject to potential threats from global climate change. Mammals are hypothesized to use multiple strategies to address increased energy costs during pregnancy and lactation, including behavioural changes, and possibly, changes in gut microbial communities. The gut microbiome is an important aspect to understanding wild animal health and reproductive fitness but very little is known about it. Webb uses a holistic survey of wild primate behaviour, dietary composition, gut microbial communities, and life history knowledge to understand the effects of gut microbes on pregnancy and lactation.

2018 Vanier Scholarship recipient Julia Poole.

2018 Vanier Scholarship recipient Julia Poole.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary