Sep 2, 2021

Virtual Symposium Gives Summer Students Platform to Present Their Research—and to Shine

Research, Youth Outreach
donnelly cente building from the side
By Jovana Drinjakovic

As summer draws to a close, so do the projects conducted by the undergrads who spent their break doing research in the Donnelly Centre.

Fighting drug-resistant cancers, enlisting stem cells for regenerative medicine and discovering how cells deal with stress are only some of the burning topics in biomedicine explored by the students during their twelve-week lab stints.

But no research program is complete without a symposium at which the students can showcase their research and presentation skills as well as receive feedback for their projects from a wider audience. And while the annual symposium had to be held virtually this year due to the pandemic, the science, and the excitement of making discoveries, were very much real.

Read about the inaugural student symposium in 2019.

One thing I learned this summer is to always keep an open mind. You will always face difficulties when conducting research, and your experiments may yield unexpected results, but looking at these from a different perspective will help you learn and grow from them
Jocelyn Nurtanto, undergraduate research student and e-Poster Pitch Prize winner

Of the 40 students in the program, 27 submitted abstracts to be considered for oral presentation from which 15 were invited to give talks in the format of e-poster pitches, where each student had two minutes to present their work with a single presentation slide.

Jocelyn Nurtanto, from Professor Liliana Attisano’s lab, won the Best e-Poster Pitch Prize for presenting of a method she helped develop that allows culturing three-dimensional human lung organoids for a deeper study of lung development and disease and for drug discovery.

“One thing I learned during my summer at Donnelly that I believe will help me through my career is to always keep an open mind,” says Nurtanto, who will graduate next year with a degree in biochemistry from U of T and plants to pursue a graduate research program.

“You will always face difficulties when conducting research, and your experiments may yield unexpected results, but looking at these from a different perspective will help you learn and grow from them,” she says, adding that the best part of being in the lab was learning from “talented and inspiring” lab mates while “making exciting contributions to the field I’m passionate about.”

The Best Abstract Prize went to Savina Cammalleri from Professor Peter Roy’s lab for a summary describing her work on looking for novel chemical compounds capable of killing plant parasites as a way of safeguarding global food supply.

Sami Sabbah from the Shoichet lab and Eric Chen from the Sidhu lab received honorable mentions for their presentations while Nurtanto and Benjamin Moffat from the Boone lab received honorable mentions for their abstracts.

The judging panel comprised Donnelly Centre researchers at all stages of their careers: professors Molly Shoichet and Rafael Montenegro-Burke, senior research associate Helena Friesen, Charles H Best postdoctoral fellow Luo Zheng and PhD candidate and president of the Donnelly Centre Graduate Student Association, Jo Nguyen.

In the second part of the symposium, the focus shifted to professional development where students were offered glimpses of diverse science-related careers. Lori Frappier, professor and graduate coordinator at U of T’s Department of Molecular Genetics, and Erin Styles, professor and director of Medical Genomics, described the graduate programs at U of T directed by them.

The event concluded with the Q&As with the medical writer and illustrator Cloe Ng and MSc biotechnology candidate Abdul Bholat who offered their experiences in training for and working in careers in the life sciences outside of academia. The Q&As were moderated by Amanada Mohabeer, research and facilities coordinator in the Centre who also organized the symposium.

“It was an impressive and inspiring display of extraordinary research productivity by our undergraduate students, despite the limitations in research occupancy during the pandemic,” says Sara Sharifpoor, director of research operations and strategy at the Centre.

“The support for this program was overwhelming in 2019, but we were unable to offer the event in 2020 due to the pandemic. This year, I am so glad to see such a well-received virtual event, that aimed to inspire our undergraduates and provide the training to pursue further careers in research. I am truly hoping we can have a more interactive in-person symposium next year!”

Launched officially in 2019, the Donnelly Centre Undergraduate Summer Program gives students an opportunity to try their hand at research in a state-of-the-art-lab institute as well as gain the necessary lab experience before applying for graduate programs.

We wish all the best to our student alumna in completing their degrees and hope to see them in our labs again!

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