Two IBBME PhD candidates named 2017 Vanier Scholarship recipients

PhD candidates Neal Callaghan and Marta Overchuk have been announced as this year’s Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship recipients. They are among four doctoral students from across the U of T Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering to receive $150,000 each, over three years.

The Vanier Scholarship is the most prestigious PhD award funded by the federal government, and recognizes doctoral students at Canadian universities who demonstrate excellence in academics, research impact and leadership.

Neal Callaghan

Callaghan is co-supervised by Professors Craig Simmons and Paul Santerre at the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research. He’s working on methods for culturing pluripotent stem cells, which have the ability to develop into any cell type found in the human body. In particular, he’s interested in cells that turn into cardiomyocytes, or heart muscle cells.

Callaghan wants to better understand the chemical and physical signals that tell pluripotent stem cells what to transform into and when. These insights could enable researchers to create culture systems that let them control the fate of stem cells, either maintaining their pluripotency or forming them into specific cell types.

If successful, Callaghan’s work could one day lead to custom tissues to repair hearts damaged by disease or injury. In the nearer term, they could enable custom lab-grown tissues and organs, which scientists could use to test new drug candidates for potentially dangerous side effects.

“It’s very encouraging to have been awarded a Vanier Scholarship, and I think it reflects confidence from established scientists in the merits of this research,” says Callaghan. “I would especially like to thank my previous supervisor, Dr. Tyson MacCormack at Mount Allison University, for his mentorship and helping me find my interest in the heart and applications of physiology. My current supervisors Dr. Craig Simmons and Dr. Paul Santerre are hugely encouraging and helpful, as are my family and friends.”

Marta Overchuk

Marta Overchuk is working under the supervision of Professor Gang Zheng, a senior scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. Her project aims to improve drug delivery to tumours using local laser treatment.

While many researchers are testing the use of nanoparticles to deliver drugs directly to cancer cells, on average less than one per cent of the nanoparticles reach their intended target, often ending up in the liver and spleen. Overchuk aims to overcome this challenge by pre-treating tumours with a combination of light-sensitive molecules and lasers.

The molecules that Overchuk is applying bind to specific proteins on the surface of cancer cells. Once they are bound, Overchuk shines laser light through the skin to activate the molecules, releasing reactive oxygen species that trigger cancer cell death.

As a result of this treatment, local blood vessels dilate, which makes it easier for agents like drug-carrying nanoparticles to accumulate in the tumour. With this approach, Overchuk hopes to increase the efficacy of chemotherapy while reducing side effects.

“As an international student from Ukraine, it is a great honour for me to be awarded the Vanier Scholarship,” she says. “Being a part of the Vanier community gives me fantastic networking opportunities with like-minded individuals, who seek to bring positive changes to their society. This greatly motivates me to pursue a career in translational research in Canada.”