Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Educational Investment: Nine StFX students receive NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA)

July 9th, 2021
Pictured, front row from left, Megan Ethier, Makayla Butorac and Scout McKee. Middle: Mackenzie LeVernois, Josie Mallett and Megan Davies. Back: Brighid McKay. Missing: Alex Clow and Meredith Cudmore-Keating

The opportunity to conduct independent research, follow their academic passions, and to gain confidence in the lab setting are just some of the benefits that nine StFX students say they are obtaining this summer as recipients of the NSERC Undergraduate Student Research (USRA) Award at StFX.   

The students—Makayla Butorac, Alex Chow, Meredith Cudmore-Keating, Megan Davies, Megan Ethier, Mackenzie LeVernois, Josie Mallett, Brighid McKay and Scout McKee—have each received $7,500 for 16 weeks of employment. 

“This opportunity has given me more confidence in a laboratory setting and provided the chance to conduct independent research. The NSERC grant forms the basis for my honours program research and has influenced my decision to continue my education at a postgraduate level in a food science related field,” says Brighid McKay of Calgary, AB, a fourth year honours human nutrition student, supervised by Dr. Marcia English, who is examining the impact of fermentation on Nova Scotia grown pulses and its potential to release bioactive compounds that reduce diabetes and anti-nutritive compounds.

“I will also be studying the effect of fermentation at various time points on the characteristics of pulse composition, including starch, carbohydrate, protein, lipid and moisture content.”

Josie Mallett of Eastern Shore, NS, a third year environmental earth science student supervised by Dr. Andrew MacDougall, is spending the summer evaluating three-dimensional climate models representing the time after net-zero carbon emissions are achieved. “The models are showing how the climate will be affected in terms of temperature, variability, etc. The research from this project will show how globally we will keep feeling the effects of carbon emissions even after they cease and the regions of the world that will be most affected by continuing climate change,” she says. 

Ms. Mallett says this opportunity will give her research experience for future academic endeavors. “I plan to continue my academic career into a post-grad and therefore any aid towards research opportunities is greatly appreciated and is very much a long-term investment.” 


Megan Ethier of Ottawa ON, a third year chemistry student planning to pursue an honours degree in chemistry with a minor in economics, is working under the supervision of Dr. Geniece Hallett-Tapley in a project aiming towards improved photocatalytic refinery waste degradation methods. 

“Over the summer, I have been given the opportunity to explore different synthetic routes in creating gold nanoparticle catalysts, expand the PAH substrate scope used, attempt to extend the catalyst’s light response through gold nano rods, and investigate the reaction mechanism and degradation efficiency by using UV light. I have also been given the opportunity to test nitro-reduction techniques using gold nano rods,” she says.

Ms. Ethier says receiving an NSERC grant has given her the opportunity to further pursue her passion for chemistry outside of the classroom. 

“The research experience gained through this grant will provide me with many skills that I can use in all areas of my life and future career. Furthermore, having research experience as an undergraduate student will open many doors to graduate school and provide me with a greater chance of potentially pursuing a masters in chemistry. I highly enjoy the work I do in this project and am incredibly grateful for all the opportunities I have been given this summer.”


Meredith Cudmore-Keating, a fourth year joint honours mathematics and computer science student from Barrie, ON, says her project is a cross between modern algebra and graph theory, two fields of mathematics. “I am studying an algebraic structure called ‘groups,’ and building graphs based on the characteristics of those groups. Once I’ve made those graphs, I’m examining homomorphisms on those graphs and how they affect ‘colourings’ of those graphs. Homomorphisms are basically a map from something back to itself, and a colouring of a graph is exactly what it sounds like! I designate certain vertices with certain colours based on the graph’s structure. I’m studying which homomorphisms on the graphs preserve the colourings on the graph when they act on it,” she says. 

“Having an opportunity to do research like this is incredibly exciting for me because I love learning and thinking about math with no other goal beyond the fun exercise of doing math. During the school year, there isn’t always enough time to explore and play around with the things I’m learning in class, but with this research grant I’m able to think about my problem and enjoy doing the math itself. As someone who has always valued learning in and of itself, pursuing this research gives me the freedom to do just that, which I really appreciate and have been enjoying.” She is supervised by Dr. Stephen Finbow. 


Alex Clow of Fredericton, NB, a fourth year honours student in math with a subsidiary in political science, says he is grateful to have the opportunity afforded to him by the NSERC USRA. “I deeply enjoy the research work that I do, and I am passionate about the subject matter, even if it is often abstract and hard to understand. The work experience that this grant has given me will be invaluable to me moving forward as it has allowed me to improve my academic skills and establish a rich professional network. Both of which I will rely on going forward.” 

He is researching three things: Blue - Red Poset games, which are a class of combinatorial games, along with his co-author Dr. Neil McKay; Poset Dimension and Products of Posets; and n-edge coloured digraph homomorphisms, which he is working on under the supervision of Dr. Stephen Finbow, Dr. Gary MacGillivray and Dr. Jacobus Swarts.

Megan Davies of Caledon, ON, a 2021 human nutrition graduate supervised by Dr. Marcia English, says the objective of her research this summer is to modify the flavour profiles of Nova Scotia bean flours using lactic acid fermentation to remove the presence of off-flavours and anti-nutritional factors. “The hope with completing this research is to ultimately increase the amount of locally-sourced and sustainable food products in the marketplace.”

Scout McKee, a third year physics student from Fredericton, NB is working with Dr. Peter Poole studying supercooled water. “Supercooled water is of particular interest since water exhibits several unusual properties. For example, materials in a solid state will typically sink when placed in the same material in its liquid state. This is not the case with water since ice floats on water. More recently, it has been shown that under high pressure water exists in high-density liquid (HDL) and low-density liquid (LDL) phases,” she says. 

“Evidence supports the existence of a sudden (first-order) transition between these two phases beginning at a critical temperature located at supercooled conditions. These conditions are difficult to observe experimentally so computer simulations are useful in studying systems of supercooled water. This summer, I am analyzing hydrogen bond networks in supercooled water using computer programming and data generated by simulations.”

Says Ms. MacKee: “This opportunity is meaningful to me since it has allowed me to learn about the research process which is difficult to learn about in a classroom setting. This experience has also allowed me to explore fields of science I have not yet been exposed to in my courses.”


“Having an opportunity such as this allows me to focus on my future. I am incredibly lucky to be able to spend my summer learning what research entails and gaining valuable experience in a field of interest,” says Makayla Butorac, a third year student from Peterborough, ON majoring in biology and minoring in psychology, who is working with Dr. Russell Wyeth conducting neurobiological research on the freshwater snail species Lymnaea stagnalis

“More specifically, I will be preforming immunohistochemistry, a staining technique that uses antibodies to selectively bind to antigens in tissue, to discover what neurotransmitters are present in this species’ cephalic sensory organs. The idea behind this project is that once neurotransmitters, for example, dopamine, are located consistently in specific neurons, we can further observe and qualitatively analyze their position using light microscopy,” she says.

“The location in which the sensory neurons are found, within the nervous system, is important because it gives us a reason to believe that those neurons play a role in mechanosensory and chemosensory behaviours of the snail. Ultimately, we hope this project will provide us with more knowledge concerning sensory processing as well as gastropod nervous systems. By generalizing the results of this study, we could gain further insight on neurological diseases characterized by sensory processing limitations, such as autism spectrum disorder. What is learned from the experiment on L. stagnalis and its relationship between brain and behaviour is not limited to this species. All animals have this connection, therefore, studying L. stagnalis as a model organism can provide insight to similar understanding in other animals.:

Ms. Butorac says by having the chance to work closely with other students and professors in such a nurturing environment, she is confident that she will grow academically and on a personal level. “I also believe that the knowledge and skills I learn from this experience will be beneficial for any further education I decide to pursue, as well as my career.”


Mackenzie LeVernois, a fourth year honours chemistry student from Antigonish, NS, is continuing her research under Dr. Geniece Hallett-Tapley in using Palladium doped semiconductors as photocatalysts for the functionalization of C-H bonds. “Through this work, I hope to find a more sustainable and environmentally friendly mechanism for the oxidative esterification of alcohols which is otherwise a synthetic process relying heavily on harmful acids to be completed,” she says.

“I am extremely grateful for this award as it allows me to gain valuable research experience and the opportunity to apply what I have learnt in the classroom to the real world. Thanks to my NSERC award, I am able to spend another beautiful summer in Antigonish while working on my honours thesis and learning alongside a great group of motivated student summer researchers.” 





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