The graduate cohort at Western Science is a mosaic of students with diverse interests, areas of expertise, and career aspirations. Their common characteristics include the drive to explore, the need to innovate, and the will to develop pinpoint expertise which could lead to the next eureka moment. Discover some of the interesting personalities, past times, and pursuits of the next generation of science leaders.
Naturally, a passion for photography could only lead to a career in medical imaging – or at least for Charmainne Cruje. A PhD student co-supervised by Drs. Maria Drangova (Medical Biophysics) and Elizabeth Gillies (Chemistry), Charmainne’s research involves creating new types of contrast dye for medical imaging in rodent models. Research on rodents plays a central role in the development of treatments for peripheral arterial diseases in humans, such as coronary artery disease – the leading cause of death worldwide. To observe the blood vessels in rodents, or indeed humans, contrast dyes are injected to make the vessels visible to x-ray, CT, and MRI. The unique issue with contrast dyes used in rodents, however, is that their high rates of metabolism mean that the dye is cleared from the bloodstream too quickly to be effective in vessel mapping.
To solve this issue, Charmainne has gone back to the drawing board and built her own dyes from scratch, starting with lanthanide particles for the dye rather than the traditional iodine-based dyes used in humans. Lanthanide particles are much larger and cannot be filtered by the kidneys; as such, they remain the bloodstream longer. The next issue is that because it is not filtered out, the lanthanide dye triggers an immune response by the rodents and eventually the particles are taken in by the liver. Rather cleverly, Charmainne has synthesized a polymer coating for the particles such that they pass unnoticed by the immune system and the dye can remain in the rodent bloodstream for up to an hour.
Eventually, the polymer breaks down and the dye is cleared normally. All in a living specimen. Charmainne refers to herself as a test specimen in a cutting-edge relationship between two researchers from the different worlds of Chemistry and Medical Biophysics; this novel relationship is specifically what allows Charmainne to combine polymer chemistry with medical imaging. So, what would she like to do once she graduates? “Buy myself a big girl camera!”
A native of Northern India and a member of the Himalayan Explorers Club at his alma mater, it seemed inevitable that Ankit Bhandari would become fascinated by geology. Routinely hiking up to the famous Roopkund lake at over 5000m of elevation, Ankit has grown up surrounded by the largest geological features on earth. Interestingly, his research dives deep into the diverse dynamics of the lithosphere. Comprising the elastic crust and the gooey upper mantle, the lithosphere is the lively, outermost layer of our rocky planet. Ankit, a PhD student in Earth Sciences, mathematically models the formation of rocks by analyzing flow properties of different minerals. Traditionally, researchers characterized visible rocks, giving a snapshot into the past of how they formed. Using a radical, forward-modeling approach developed by his supervisor, Ankit now incorporates the flow properties of the many minerals in the lithosphere and predict how rocks will form.
Ankit and his colleagues are the first to use a multiscale approach to modeling that incorporates dynamic effects in a traditional model. Rock assemblage is influenced by numerous factors such as lithostatic pressure and tectonic stress; Ankit uses ideas from materials engineering to tell the story of what’s happening beneath our feet, and crucially, can increase our understanding of seismic activity. Current geophysical techniques cannot accurately predict the occurrence nor severity of earthquakes, however new ways of quantifying the lithosphere can demystify the murky world of seismology. Additionally, the application of his modeling could improve the localization of gold and gypsum deposits as they mineralize in shear zones.
A love of geology will define Ankit’s future academic career after his PhD. His comment, a quote from Nicolas Steno: “Beautiful is what we see, more beautiful is what we know, most beautiful by far is what we don't.”
Creepy crawlies are Jackie Lebenzon’s specialty. From her research into the overwintering tolerance of the Colorado potato beetle, to being the lead organizer of London Bug Day, Jackie has her antennae tuned to anything and everything insect-related. She is seeking to better understand how the Colorado potato beetle, a major worldwide agricultural pest, can survive cold winters. These pesky potato beetles enter a state of hibernation, called diapause, but the mechanisms of how they survive are not well understood. A diapause model could then translate to another devastating crop pest: the Asian longhorn beetle, which is otherwise prohibitively expensive to study.
Jackie credits Western’s cutting-edge labs with allowing her to pursue her studies. Collaboration within the biology department gives her the opportunities to use a variety of analytical tools, as well as the Biotron Experimental Climate Change Research Centre, which is well-suited for insect rearing and high-tech imaging. Her latest line of research involves the study of how the beetles reassemble mitochondria after breaking them down to save energy during the winter; the findings from which could have novel implications in medical science.
After having spent several months of her PhD working in a lab in the Czech Republic, Jackie thinks her next steps will likely include international work in her post-doc. She finds Western’s globally-oriented research strategy to be enriching, as it allows her to be exposed to diverse perspectives with lab groups around the world. “Plus, I get to travel a ton”, she adds.
Inspired by the successful women in her lab, Jackie hopes to follow in their footsteps and pursue a career in academia.
From tightening creams to titanium hips, the remedies for ageing are a full-bodied affair. Ariel Frame, a biologist in the collaborative neuroscience program, is immersed in the circuitry of age-related memory impairment. As one of two biology students in the neuroscience program, Ariel works alongside graduate students in computer science, medicine, psychology, and pathology, to name a few. The interdisciplinary collaboration allows for such a complex subject to be analyzed through many lenses, from muscular kinetics and cell cultures, to psychopathology and diagnostic imaging. Ariel praises the collaborative program for giving him the opportunity to get a broader knowledge in neuroscience and also an understanding of how his research fits into the practical neuroscience world and its impacts on society.
Ariel studies how brain cells metabolize glucose and lactate, and specifically how that metabolism changes as we age. He is attempting to create a mechanistic understanding of how we age and how our ability to remember things tends to decline as we get older. Ariel conducts his research on flies and mice and would like to bridge the gap between the fundamental science carried out on his own specimens and the therapeutic and clinical techniques used on humans. Having found his interest in research by volunteering in a lab, Ariel strongly encourages young students in science to expose themselves to research opportunities. An avid communicator of science-related topics, Ariel is a host for Gradcast - Western’s weekly research podcast, and also an organizer for the annual Western Research Forum, the largest multidisciplinary graduate research conference at Western.
Our graduate students conduct exceptional research. They are engaging in topics that are at the frontier of the scientific unknown. Take some time to explore the research being conducted here at Western Science through these short, 3-minute overviews: