Posted October 14th, 2016 by Alicia Sgromo

U of T Engineering doctoral students receive Vanier Scholarships worth $150,000

Graduate students working to advance solar technology, design brain-machine interfaces, improve drinking water quality and many more pressing challenges have been awarded Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships for 2016.

Vanier 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.

Meet the U of T Engineering recipients:

Moien Alizadehgiashi — PhD, Mechanical & Industrial Engineering

moiencircleMoien Alizadehgiashi’s doctoral research has far-reaching applications for fields from health sciences to sustainable energy. His PhD project, under the supervision of Professor Axel Guenther (MIE) focuses on using existing nanotechnologies to create “flowable” functional materials — advanced materials that are flexible and wearable, and can be produced inexpensively on demand, much like printing a newspaper.

These materials are highly customizable and could be used for a wide range of products, from solar cell windows to wearable health-monitoring devices. “My hope is that the cost of implementing solar energy is reduced thanks to research like this,” said Alizadehgiashi.

Alizadehgiashi said that as an international student, support from the Vanier Scholarship is especially important for him. “It is a great honour and recognition,” he said. “This significant financial award will allow me to focus on my research.”

Locke Davenport Huyer. (credit Neil Ta)Locke Davenport Huyer — PhD, Chemical Engineering and Institute for Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering

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

Working under Professor Milica Radisic (IBBME, ChemE) 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.Ronald Ireland — PhD, Institute for Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering

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. Ronald Ireland (IBBME PhD candidate) hopes to solve that longstanding mystery.

Working under the supervision of Professor Craig Simmons (IBBME), 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.”

Michael McKie – PhD, Civil Engineering

michaelcircleMichael McKie’s (CivE MASc 1T4) research on water treatment systems has the potential to improve the health of Ontarians. McKie, who is completing his PhD with Professor Bob Andrews (CivE) in the Drinking Water Research Group, studies drinking water treatment processes, including creating genetic profiles of bacteria in drinking water. The Vanier Scholarship will allow him to broaden his research into innovative biotechnologies not routinely applied in this field. These could have huge implications for improving the safety and efficacy of current water treatment programs, and help the engineers and operators who run water treatment plants.

McKie plans to use his Vanier funding to expand his research scope into examining biofiltration processes at many facilities across Ontario.

“Ultimately, this research will allow water providers to better utilize natural processes to improve treated water quality, reduce chemical treatment requirements and lower the cost of water production,” said McKie. “This will improve water quality by reducing the concentration of potentially carcinogenic compounds and micropollutants in the water we drink.”

“Mike is an exceptional grad student, and his wealth of practical knowledge really makes him stand out as a student,” said Andrews. “His work has the potential to impact millions of consumers in the GTA, Canada and beyond.”

Javid Musayev.Javid Musayev — PhD, The Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering

Javid Musayev’s (ECE PhD candidate) research will improve the efficiency of wireless devices operating on frequencies between one and three GHz — which includes industrial, medical and scientific wavelengths, as well as the LTE and Bluetooth bands that power most commonly used devices.

As the number of wireless devices skyrockets, the receiver in each one consumes more power as it sifts through radio frequencies in search of an available signal. This constant search drains the battery.

By designing a new kind of receiver that could adapt its power usage to only block select unwanted frequencies when present, devices dependent on these frequencies consume significantly less power.

With a greater receiver power efficiency, Musayev is looking to design and fabricate a microchip which can be used to receive the radio frequencies from wireless sensor networks and any device with an embedded electronic system. These microchips could acquire an array of information, such as images, sounds, temperature, mechanical stress and chemical changes. The impact of this work could be felt across numerous industries, including health care, military operations, and habitat and environmental monitoring.

For Musayev, receiving the Vanier Scholarship is a great privilege. “Financial independence helps me focus my energy on the topics I am motivated to work on. This increases creativity because I am not bound by any restrictions that would come from other funding sources.”

Ben Ouyang.Ben Ouyang — MD/PhD, Institute for Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering

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

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, under the supervision of Professor Warren Chan (IBBME), 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 — MD/PhD, Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering

kramaycircleKramay 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 minimising 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.Dale Podolsky — PhD, Institute for Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering

Dale Podolsky, an IBBME PhD candidate and surgical resident in U of T’s Faculty of Medicine, 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 (IBBME) 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 Center 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.”