They want to contribute to social good and improve patient recovery: Meet two undergraduate students pursuing summer research projects in IBBME

Anya Friesen was drawn to U of T’s Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) because of her desire to use engineering to contribute to social good.

“The chance to help people is what originally attracted me to study engineering,” said Friesen, who is currently an electrical engineering student pursuing a joint program at Acadia University and Dalhousie University. “I am particularly interested in seeing how broadly my skills can be applied in this field.”

Friesen is among a cohort of 84 students pursuing biomedical engineering research in IBBME as part of this year’s Undergraduate Summer Research Program (USRP). Established in 2002, the USRP has provided research opportunities to more than 350 students from across Canada, the U.S. and other parts of the world.

In addition to facilitating student research opportunities with an IBBME faculty member on campus or at one of the Institute’s 10 partner hospitals, the USRP also offers regularly scheduled research seminars, tours of local labs, professional development workshops and career talks for a well-rounded learning experience.

“The USRP provides undergraduate students with the opportunity to appreciate the diversity of the biomedical engineering field by immersing within the IBBME research community,” said Professor Dawn Kilkenny, IBBME’s associate director of undergraduate programs. “By supporting development of practical experiences outside of the classroom, USRP promotes student self-discovery, both scientifically and also personally by helping shape future training and career choices.”

For Friesen, her motivation to join the USRP stems from a passion to help others.

“I chose to participate in IBBME’s USRP because of my interest in paediatric rehabilitation engineering,” said Friesen, who is working in Professor Tom Chau’s lab on a custom video game aimed at helping children with cerebral palsy utilize their access technology through oral and facial movements and verbal keywords at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.

“I am particularly excited to work with Professor Chau because of his renowned dedication to training students and his development of innovative technology for paediatric rehabilitation, such as his Virtual Music Instrument,” she added.

At a lab closer to U of T’s St. George campus, Ian Christie is also working at another IBBME partner hospital on a project that addresses a different human health challenge.

“I am looking at using stem cell engineering to regenerate tracheal tissue from host-derived cells,” said Christie, who is working with Dr. Tom Waddell, a thoracic surgeon, senior scientist at the University Health Network and a cross-appointed professor in IBBME. “This could be used as an alternative solution to using donor trachea for patients who have had theirs surgically removed as a result of cancer or other diseases.”

Christie joined the USRP because of IBBME’s unique intersection of disciplines.

“I was drawn by the opportunity to learn more about the engineering aspect of innovation in the medical field,” said Christie, who just completed his life sciences undergraduate degree at Queen’s University. “Participating in the USRP is a great chance to apply my knowledge, learn more about biomedical engineering and contribute to high impact translational research that will help me when I start medical school this fall.”