May 8, 2024

UCalgary doctoral students research interventions for older refugees and pregnant women

Philippa Ngaju and Prince Chiagozie Ekoh receive 2023 Vanier Scholarship for their innovative research contributions
Philippa Ngaju
Philippa Ngaju Asma Bernier, Faculty of Graduate Studies

Focusing on new practices and technologies to better the outcomes of certain groups is an integral part to the 2023 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (Vanier CGS) winners’ research. The Vanier CGS program recognizes highly qualified doctoral students who are leading researchers in their fields. This prestigious scholarship aims to attract excellent doctoral students by providing academic recognition and financial support, valued at $50,000 per year for three years, for their research pursuits. 

“The research that these graduate students undertake is inspirational and opening up important conversations that will impact our communities on both a local and global scale,” says Dr. Tara Beattie, dean and vice-provost, Faculty of Graduate Studies. 

“Becoming a Vanier Scholar gives our graduate students important recognition and funding to help propel these conversations and research forward in transforming the future. I’m delighted to see this generation of scholars follow in the steps of those previous to continue this important work.”

Philippa Ngaju and Prince Chiagozie Ekoh — two winners of the 2023 Vanier CGS Program at the University of Calgary — are contributing to transformative research through the development of new interventions for older adult refugees and extending technologies for preeclampsia patients. 

Philippa Ngaju, a second-year PhD student in biomedical engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering, is dedicated to her research on point-of-care paper-based biosensors for biomarker detection of early-stage preeclampsia. Paper-based biosensors can be likened to a pregnancy test and are affordable platforms for simple, accurate and rapid detection of diseases. 

Before her doctoral studies at the University of Calgary, Ngaju spent considerable time working in health innovation by designing medical devices for resource-constrained settings in Uganda, her home country. Her doctoral research extends this work as she aims to solve problems that impact vulnerable populations, specifically expecting mothers with preeclampsia.

“Preeclampsia, sometimes referred to as gestational hypertension, is a serious life-threatening condition characterized by persistent blood pressure during pregnancy,” Ngaju explains. “Screening early enables clinicians to better monitor at-risk patients and ensures improved health outcomes for expectant mothers and their unborn babies.” 

She hopes to advance preeclampsia paper-based biosensor technology globally, protecting at-risk patients and providing clinicians with medical devices and innovations needed to improve health outcomes.

Through her research, Ngaju aims to improve access to sensitive and specific testing for early-stage preeclampsia in rural communities and limited resource settings. By doing this, her goal is to empower clinicians to make timely care decisions. Becoming a Vanier Scholar has validated Ngaju’s efforts and commitment to her research, and she felt elated and humbled after learning she won this prestigious scholarship. 

“This scholarship has had a significant impact on my life, pursuing a PhD was at some point almost unattainable, but I have been fortunate to have mentors who believed in me, guided and encouraged me over the years. This scholarship and the opportunity to pursue my PhD at UCalgary has been a culmination of several years of sacrifice and perseverance — I’m truly appreciative.”

Ngaju continues to be passionate about her research and remains committed to looking at solving problems that impact vulnerable populations, such as mothers and their children, and is grateful for the support of the scholarship as it has allowed her to focus on her research.

Prince Chiagozie Ekoh

Prince Chiagozie Ekoh

Asma Bernier, Faculty of Graduate Studies

Prince Chiagozie Ekoh, a third-year PhD student in the Faculty of Social Work, chose UCalgary beyond its academic ranking, but because the Faculty of Social Work focuses on critical perspectives within research and education. “I appreciate the invaluable mentorship provided by my award-winning supervisor, Dr. Christine Walsh. Together, she and the university create an environment that empowers me to excel,” explains Ekoh. 

Through his research of utilizing visuals methods, Ekoh investigates the social network and support experiences of older African refugees living in Calgary. “By focusing on their stories, we gain insight into the unique challenges faced by older adults who have lost their support systems and must navigate the complexities of aging and refugeeism in a foreign environment with unfamiliar systems, cultures and languages,” says Ekoh. By focusing on the unique lived experiences of older adult refugees, Ekoh aims to develop effective interventions and initiatives to enhance the assistance available to older refugees in Canada. 

When Ekoh learned he had won the Vanier Scholarship, he felt humbled and grateful for the recognition. “Receiving this scholarship has provided me with renewed vigour to continue my work as a diligent researcher, instructor and community leader,” says Ekoh. 

Navigating through his PhD continues to be both a challenging and rewarding experience. While Ekoh learned to cope with overwhelming emotions being away from his support system in Nigeria, he remains highly motivated to continue impactful research and plans to continue his work with marginalized groups by mentoring new social workers to build efforts in improving the world through practice, research and advocacy.

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