Nov. 4, 2015

Nine grad students awarded prestigious Vanier scholarships

PhD students receive national award for demonstrating innovative research and impressive leadership
From left, 2015 Vanier Scholars Carlos Enriquez-Victorero, Muhammad Omer, Alper Aksac, Jessica Switzer and Kyle Wilson. Absent from photo: Ahmed Mostafa, Alexandra Robinson, Elias Nyanza, Muhammad Omer, Robert Mayall.

From left, Carlos Enriquez-Victorero, Muhammad Omer, Alper Aksac, Jessica Switzer and Kyle Wilson.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

When PhD student Kyle Wilson left the comfort of his Florida home two years ago to enrol at the University of Calgary in the Faculty of Science’s ecology program, he knew he’d have to swim against the current to earn research funding as a foreign student in Canada. What he didn’t know, at the time, was that pursuing novel inland fish conservation research work and engaging in meaningful outreach projects would land him one of the most prestigious scholarships offered North of the border — the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (Vanier CGS).

“At no moment in the selection process to attend the University of Calgary did I focus on the prospect of winning significant awards,” says Wilson who completed his BSc in biology at San Diego State University and his MSc in fisheries at the University of Florida.

“The main draw to studying in Calgary was my significant interest in the world-class work done by professor John Post in the area of fish ecology. I was also attracted to the school because of its proximity the Rockies and the chance to discover a whole new country,” he says. 

“As a scientist, I also recognize the importance of using my knowledge and passion in meaningful ways to inspire others in their care of the environment.”

This might explain why much of Wilson’s free time away from his lab has been spent teaching high school students and exposing them to biological phenomenon in fun and hands-on ways. 

“I love bringing aquariums full of fish to young students and watching their inquisitive minds at work,” he says. “It’s so rewarding to mentor them through their scientific inquiry and to hopefully spark their interest for more discoveries.”

Scholarship supports next generation of academic, business and community leaders 

Valued at $50,000 for three years, the Vanier CGS aims to attract and retain world-class doctoral students who demonstrate a high standard of scholarly achievement and leadership that supports and improves their communities in important ways.

This year, nine University of Calgary graduate students have been awarded the prestigious Vanier CGS for 2015.

“Receiving a Vanier is a significant achievement,” says George Shimizu, associate dean (scholarships), Faculty of Graduate Studies. “It supports highly skilled and innovative students who do not hesitate to take on a forms of extraordinary leadership, not just in their research, but in their communities. These students represent our next generation of academic, business and community leaders in Canada.”

For this reason, the recipients are invited to join the Graduate Leaders Circle, a group that supports student leaders who give back to their community.

Like Wilson, the other Vanier scholars are pursuing important research projects while also finding ways to improve and support their communities.

Alper Aksac

A doctoral candidate in the Department of Computer Science under the supervision of professor Reda Alhajj, Aksac arrived from TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara, Turkey. He currently researches autonomous systems based on machine learning and computer vision techniques for determining the grade of a cancer that will help guide pathologists or other clinicians. His record to date is distinguished by a large number of high quality papers and he has extensive industrial experience, including two technology start-ups. More recently, Aksac led a student team at the Microsoft Imagine Cup: Canada, taking first position in the games category.

Carlos Enriquez-Victorero

Hailing all the way from Cuba, Enriquez-Victorero is a PhD student in chemistry under professor Peter Kusalik. He is researching a possible control mechanism for hydroxyl radicals in aqueous environments. Due to the fleeting nature of this radical compound, investigation is exacting but will have enormous impact as it appears across a range of domains including cosmic reactions, atmospheric chemistry, diseases such as cancer and in the mechanisms of aging. His studies will have both a broad and deeply felt scientific impact. Throughout his academic journey, Enriquez-Victorero has garnered many honours for his academic and research achievements, and most recently for his mentorship of undergraduate students.

Robert Mayall

Mayall is a doctoral student in chemistry, where his research focuses on the development of next-generation biosensors for both health and military applications. His work combines chemistry and biology in order to create new sensor designs that can be used in a variety of settings. Mayall, who received his bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences at the University of Calgary in 2013, is also a co-founder of the biotechnology start-up, FREDsense Technologies. The company was developed from a project in the International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition, on which Myall was a team lead. The company designs automated sensor suites for water contamination intended for the mining industry. While mostly involved on the technical side of the company, Mayall has enjoyed the challenge of bringing a scientific project through to commercialization.

Ahmed Mostafa

Mostafa is a PhD student with the university’s Interactions Lab and IllustraRes research group, working with Dr. Ehud Sharlin and Dr. Mario Costa Sousa. Mostafa is planning to design novel interaction techniques and prototypes that facilitate more efficient scientific visualization of various oil and gas data, including reservoir simulation, drilling, and microseismic data. He completed his MSc at the University of Calgary in 2013, and in 2014, Mostafa was selected to join one of the world's leading industry research laboratories, Disney Research, for a research internship. Beyond his strong research background, Mostafa has brought a valuable cultural context to the campus community, becoming an active participant and contributor to the university, the City of Calgary and to Canada.

Elias Nyanza

Nyanza is a Cotutelle PhD student in Population and Public Health, in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Calgary and the Catholic University of Health and Allied Sciences. Nyanza’s research builds on his background in environment and public health and he is currently studying the effects of mining on fertility in women living in mining communities in Tanzania. Nyanza is leading a study that looks at the prenatal levels of exposure to arsenic and mercury in connection to the rate of poor birth outcomes. Beyond his research, Nyanza successfully led a "Make the Campus Green" campaign that resulted in a significant reduction in the amount of garbage disposal on university campuses in Eastern Tanzania. He also founded the Mwanza Post-Sokoine University Graduates Partnership that secured employment for 35 graduate students at Sokoine University and helped 13 graduate students start up agro-businesses.

Muhammad Omer

A first year PhD student in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering, Omer aims to improve medical imaging technology for breast cancer diagnosis and monitoring treatment. New imaging methods provide different information on breast health, and the Tissue Sensing Adaptive Radar (TSAR) research group has been developing approaches to image the breast with microwaves. Under the supervision of Elise Fear, Omer is investigating the interactions between ultrasound and breast tissues with the aim of adding this information to the microwave imaging technologies. The synergistic combination of the microwave and ultrasound imaging is expected to lead to new breast imaging systems that may be effective for monitoring breast health. Omer arrived from Prince Mohammad University (PMU) in Saudi Arabia where, in addition to his excellent record as an instructor and researcher, his initiatives and commitment to high quality education earned him top administrative positions which helped PMU to obtain its first institutional accreditation. 

Alexandra Robinson

Although immigrant women arrive in Canada in better health than their Canadian-born counterparts, they are at a greater risk for poor pregnancy and birth outcomes and Robinson wants to know why this is the case. One explanation for this phenomenon is that minority status increases the levels of stress experienced during pregnancy. Robinson’s doctoral research at the Werklund School of Education will address the knowledge gap in relation to pregnancy experiences of immigrant women. Findings from this study can be used to inform both policy and practice, ultimately improving pregnancy outcomes of immigrant women and their children. 

Jessica Switzer

Switzer is a PhD student in clinical psychology in the Faculty of Arts who studies how children reason and make sense of their world. Her research explores how children use labels to guide their reasoning skills, adding to the debate about what role labels have in guiding children’s inductive inferences. Switzer has found that between 14 and 15 months old, children change how they categorize information. As part of her graduate studies, Switzer is doing a practicum at the Alberta Children’s Hospital two days a week. She’s also collaborating on a project that’s investigating how infants use gestures in their vocabulary development. 

The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships program is available to both Canadian and international PhD students studying at Canadian universities. The scholarships honour Major-General the Right Honourable Georges Philias Vanier (1888-1967), a distinguished Canadian soldier and diplomat, who served as governor general of Canada from 1959 to 1967.