Aug 17, 2017

Meet the Winners of the 2017 Cecil Yip Doctoral Research Award

Awards, Trainees
collage of winners headshots
By Jovana Drinjakovic

Ten PhD candidates who come from diverse training backgrounds, and are enrolled in different U of T graduate programs, have been awarded the Cecil Yip Doctoral Research Award, the award committee has announced. The prestigious award is given annually to first year graduate students who do their doctoral research in the Donnelly Centre and whose proposed projects extend beyond traditional scientific field boundaries. This year’s successful candidates come from three U of T departments: Molecular Genetics (MoGen), Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry (ChemE) and the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering (IBBME).

“This year’s candidates exemplified the unique interdisciplinary environment and collaborative culture of the Donnelly Centre. The diverse backgrounds of the candidates, ranging from biology to engineering and philosophy, and, in some cases, extensive industrial experience, clearly demonstrates how the Donnelly Centre attracts those who are keen to work in areas outside of their comfort zone on some of the most challenging questions in biomedicine,” says Professor Christopher Yip, Associate Vice-President of International Partnerships and Chair of the Yip Doctoral Award Committee.

Research at the intersection of biology and engineering has the potential to develop new methods for delivering drugs precisely when and where they are needed in order to target cancer for example, or spur on tissue regeneration to heal damage or injury. Mr. Benjamin Kingston (IBBME), Ms. Jessica Ngai (ChemE) and Mr. Wayne Ngo (IBBME) in the Chan lab are studying how tiny nanoparticles can be better engineered to deliver cancer drugs directly into tumours to avoid the all-out toxic assault on the body that comes with chemotherapy.

To heal nerves damaged by high levels of glucose in the blood, which can cause diabetic patients to lose all feeling in arms and legs, Ms. Alaura Androschuk (IBBME, Sefton) is investigating if a biomaterial, previously discovered by the lab to promote healing of the muscle, can also drive nerve repair.

Investigating cellular processes in easy-to-study organisms such as yeast and worms can reveal insights  that apply to all animals but would be very hard to study in humans. To understand how cells change with age, Mr. Clarence Hue Lok Yeung (Mogen, Andrews and Boone) is investigating complex genetic networks that drive the aging process in yeast cells. And Mr. Daniel Merritt (Mogen, van der Kooy lab) is taking advantage of nematode worms as a model system for understanding the molecular basis of how animals detect smell.

One of the biggest outstanding questions in biology is how cells interpret the genetic information encoded in the DNA and its RNA copies that contain the blueprint for making proteins, the building blocks of life. The so-called RNA binding proteins (RBPs) play an important role by ensuring that an RNA message is correctly prepared before being translated into a protein, but it remains unclear how the RBPs recognize the countless RNA molecules and act on them appropriately. Mr. Alexander Sasse (Mogen, Morris) and Ms. Kaitlin Laverty (Mogen, Hughes and Morris) are tackling this problem by developing advanced computational models for predicting which RBPs bind which RNA molecules.


Proteins make up our cells and do most of the work in them by interacting with each other to carry out cellular processes. When proteins go awry—cease to interact with their normal partners and/or acquire new alliances—that’s when diseases occur. Two of this years’ Yip award winners are studying rules behind protein interaction to gain a deeper insight into basic cell biology and mechanisms of disease: Mr. Dmitri Segal (Mogen, Taipale) is uncovering binding partners for the 14-3-3- family of “scaffolding” proteins that interact with hundreds of diverse proteins to facilitate molecular events in the cell, whereas Mr. Greg Martyn (Mogen, Sidhu) is focusing on the family of SH2 proteins that are involved in a number of diseases, including cancer. Martyn will engineer SH2 superbinders, or protein fragments that bind so strongly to the SH2 proteins that they can be used to manipulate their function and as such used in research and drug development.

The award was established as a tribute to Professor Cecil Yip, who was the former Vice-Dean, Research in the Faculty of Medicine and a key player in both the ideology and eventual realization of the Donnelly Centre as an interdisciplinary institute at the forefront of biomedical research.

Learn more about the previous recipients of the Yip Doctoral Award:

2016 Yip Doctoral Award

2015 Yip Doctoral Award