Five U of T IBBME doctoral candidates receive Vanier Scholarships

Five PhD candidates from the U of T Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) have been awarded Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships for 2016. They are among seven recipients announced across the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering this year.

The scholarships, worth $50,000 per year for three years, are awarded by the Government of Canada to doctoral students at Canadian universities who demonstrate excellence in three areas: academics, research impact and leadership.

Locke Davenport Huyer

With new technology and research, the materials that make up our world are getting smarter every day. Chemical and biomedical engineering PhD candidate Locke Davenport Huyer wants to implement that same technology in medicine to make your body smarter—and more resilient to infection.

Working under Professor Milica Radisic in the Laboratory for Functional Tissue Engineering, Huyer is developing materials based on the cellular processes our bodies have been using for centuries. These smart materials can mimic our bodies’ natural responses in order to resist and protect us from bacterial infections.

“As we continue to see more and more bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, novel methods must be created to limit infection,” said Huyer. By integrating polymer chemistry, cell biology and medicine, these new materials could be used in tissue engineering and biomedical devices. Eventually, Huyer hopes to build an inventory of different materials with the inherent abilities to protect us from bacterial infections.

For Huyer, a great component of being a Vanier Scholar is the community of recipients. “As I progress in my research career, I am excited to be part of a unique group of students that will serve as an intellectual network for developing research connections and study.”

Ronald Ireland

With the potential to differentiate into any type of human cell, stem cells are some of the most important and studied therapeutic biomaterials. Yet, the mechanism behind why some cells differentiate and others remain unchanged, or pluripotent, is still a mystery. Biomedical engineering PhD candidate Ronald Ireland hopes to solve that longstanding mystery.

Working under the supervision of Professor Craig Simmons, Ireland is trying to understand how the biochemical and biophysical environment controls stem cell behaviour. “I have developed a tool to rapidly test various synthetic, protein-coated biomaterials for their ability to direct cell fate,” said Ireland. “I’m interested in how signals from these biomaterials interface to trigger or prevent the differentiation of stem cells.”

Having previously trained as a biochemist, Ireland is learning new ways to approach problems in an engineering lab. “Continued collaboration between engineering and health research is extremely important,” says Ireland. “Engineers are able to create the tools and introduce novel ways of studying fundamental questions that health care researchers are posing.”

Receiving the Vanier Scholarship has reduced some of the financial burden associated with his doctoral studies. “I am now able to focus more on my research and personal development as a graduate student rather than worrying about making ends meet.”

Ben Ouyang

There are naturally occurring cancer-fighting cells in your body, and MD / PhD candidate Ben Ouyang (EngSci 1T3) wants to find them.

Working with Professor Warren Chan, Ouyang is investigating a specific kind of cell found within tumours, called tumour-associated macrophages. These non-cancerous cells play a large role in our body’s natural defence system — they can prevent tumours from forming, but they can also prevent cancer treatments from being effective. As the macrophages are a naturally occurring part of our immune system, they attack any foreign objects, such as nanoparticles delivering medicine.

Before creating new nanotechnologies for drug delivery, it is critical to understand the relationships occurring on a molecular level inside the body, Ouyang says. His research focuses on developing a better understanding of how these macrophages interact with nanoparticles, with the goal of making cancer nanomedicine more effective and precise. “The problem-solving and critical thinking skillset [acquired in engineering] transfers well to improving outcomes of health research in a quantitatively measurable way,” said Ouyang.

For Ouyang, benefits of receiving the Vanier Scholarship reach beyond the financial support. “It connects me to a community of socially-minded peers, who I can learn from about leadership and community service.”

Kramay Patel

Kramay Patel (EngSci 1T6) is a biomedical engineer with heart. Currently completing his first year of medical school, his Vanier Scholarship will begin in September 2017 when he launches his research project on brain machine interfaces (BMIs) to help people with neurological disabilities.

Patel belives the work ethic and problem-solving competencies he developed during his undergraduate degree in Engineering Science will bring him success at medical school and in his research. He aims to develop simple and smart BMIs to allow patients with neurological injuries and diseases to communicate and interact with their environments using mental commands. His ultimate hope is to develop technologies that will help those with neurological disabilities improve their quality of life.

Patel hopes that minimizing the financial burden of graduate school and maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle will help him to accomplish his research goals.

“I am extremely honoured to receive the Vanier Scholarship because it completely eliminates the financial aspect of graduate student stress, and allows me to focus more of my energy and time on my actual research. I can now achieve results that would have otherwise been impossible,” said Patel. “The Scholarship will allow me to travel to research conferences, in order to collaborate with and learn from the leading researchers in my field.”

Dale Podolsky

U of T surgical resident and IBBME PhD candidate Dr. Dale Podolsky is dedicated to helping infants born with cleft palates, and through his work has helped the surgeons who treat them.

Podolsky’s research focuses on developing surgical robotic technology specifically to repair cleft palates in infants. The small space of an infant’s mouth and the delicacy of the tissues being worked on require extreme precision, making a complex operation even more difficult for surgeons in training.

This work has led to the creation of not only improved robotic surgical tools, but also a realistic simulation of a cleft palate operation on an infant. Podolsky was guided by paediatric surgeons Dr. James Drake and Dr. Christopher Forrest from the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) on the project. This simulation has become an effective training tool for surgeons, facilitating greater instruction without the risk.

Podolsky said the Vanier Scholarship will provide him with the support necessary to expand his work at the Centre for Image Guided Innovation and Therapeutic Intervention, an engineering lab at SickKids, and begin conducting clinical trials.

The support of such a scholarship will have a huge impact on his efforts, he said. “This scholarship has been very motivating and has given me renewed and enhanced drive to complete the project,” he said. “It is a privilege to be recognized for wanting to solve significant health care problems with the ultimate goal of improving people’s lives.”

With files from U of T Engineering Strategic Communications