Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Valuable foundation: StFX students benefit from opportunity provided through NSERC USRA research awards 

September 29th, 2022
L-r, Matt Penner, Simon Maltby, Megan Ethier, Bridget Ward and Max Spiess. Missing are Alexander Clow, Lily McIntyre, Scout McKee, Kylie Curnew, Elle Levesque and Brighid McKay.

From learning patience, persistence and problem-solving to seeing how research can be used to solve real-world problems, 11 StFX students had a terrific opportunity to grow and learn this summer as they conducted research under the supervision of a StFX faculty member.  

The students, Elle Levesque, Alexander Clow, Megan Ethier, Simon Maltby, Lily McIntyre, Matt Penner, Scout McKee, Max Spiess, Bridget Ward, Kylie Curnew and Brighid McKay each received a $7,500 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) USRA summer research award. 

“I am very grateful for the opportunity granted to me by having my research funded by a USRA. It has allowed me to grow personally and professionally without fear of struggling financially in the upcoming academic year—the importance of which should not be understated,” says Alex Clow of Fredericton, NB, who graduated in May with a BA honours in mathematics. He spent the summer studying how to guard networks from an arbitrary sequence of attacks (i.e. eternal domination on a graph). He was supervised by Dr. Stephen Finbow.

“Having my summer research funded has allowed me to expand as a researcher; being exposed to new problems, new tools, and many new colleges and collaborators, all of which has been an invaluable experience.”


Elle Lévesque of Wolfville, NS, who graduated in May 2022, spent the summer conducting research under the supervision of Dr. Margo C. Watt on how anxiety sensitivity (or “the fear of fear”) relates to risk perception, risk attitude, and risk-taking. 

“My study involved me teaching myself how to use HTML (and some CSS) to insert a risk-taking game into a German survey software, so that we could measure risk-taking in an objective manner. While research experience of any type is a blessing, having an opportunity to test hypotheses through methods which make use of HTML is a dream come true. I believe that psychologists can benefit greatly by understanding how to code, because questions which could not previously be answered—especially at the undergraduate level—become testable.”


Max Spiess of Upper Tantallon, NS, a fourth year biology student supervised by Dr. Cory Bishop, studied the mode of transmission in the symbiotic relationship between the unicellular green algae Oophila ambylstomatis, and the egg masses of the yellow spotted salamander Ambytstoma maculatum.

“I am very grateful to have had this opportunity. Not only am I grateful to have gained experience in my field of study and to have had the opportunity to conduct my own research, but I am very appreciative to have been funded for this research as an award for my hard work on this project, and the efforts I have put into my studies that made me competitive for the NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award.”

He says the experience has been great. “I have learned many new skills, which will benefit me in the way I perform future research projects, and I have also gained insight as to how research is conducted in the scientific world, the importance of being knowledgeable in a field of interest, and how to move forward with my career in biology. Aside from the knowledge I have gained, working as a researcher has been a delightful experience. I found moving at my own pace and building up results to accomplish the goal of a thesis paper provided an appropriate level of challenge, which kept me determined and focused on my goals.”


Bridget Ward of Antigonish, NS, a fourth year student taking joint honours in biology and psychology, examined the role of heat shock proteins in the zebrafish brain as a physiological response to multiple stressors. “Heat shock proteins are known to work to protect proteins from misfolding under a variety of single stressors and I wanted to know if this function extended to a combination of two stressors: specifically high ammonia and low oxygen because they often co-occur during algal blooms caused by fertilizer run-off,” she says. “Not only is the answer to this question significant from an ecological standpoint; it also has the potential applications in the health field. Heat shock proteins may help serve as a protective mechanism against low oxygen and high ammonia induced by hepatic encephalopathy in the human brain.” She is supervised by Dr. Tammy Rodela. 

She says it means a lot to be able to conduct independent research at the undergraduate level. “I was surprised to learn that not every university can support in-depth undergraduate research and that many students don’t have this opportunity until graduate school. Research is often called the backbone of science and I believe that having the ability to research gave me a better understanding of how science works. This experience will provide a valuable foundation for my plans to continue my education.”


Megan Ethier of Ottawa, ON, a fourth year chemistry student taking a minor in economics, worked with Dr. Geniece Hallett-Tapley on the design and efficacy of nanoparticle catalysts for applications in photooxidative processes, focusing on PAH degradation in oil refinery waste. “Over the summer, I have been given the opportunity to examine the effects of PAH concentration, semiconductor support, salinity, and pH on refinery waste degradation. I have also been given the opportunity to explore potential degradation products and synthesize a three-component nanohybrid catalyst using ZSM-5 and Z-Y,” she says.

“Receiving an NSERC award has enabled me to gain valuable research experience outside the classroom and further explore my passion for chemistry. Over the last two summers, I have developed an extensive set of skills and valuable knowledge that I can use in all areas of life and a future career. Furthermore, this grant has enabled me to work towards my honours thesis and open doors to graduate school, where I can hopefully pursue a master's in chemistry. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity I have been given and could not ask for a better summer work placement.

“Working in a chemistry research lab has taught me many valuable life skills such as patience, persistence, problem-solving, teamwork, and attention to detail. I learnt that things often do not always go as planned and that patience always goes a long way. I also learnt the importance of approaching problems with a positive attitude and that there is more than one way to accomplish something. I know I will be applying the skills I gained over the summer for years to come.”


“I have always had a passion for research and solving problems, so I was honoured to have this opportunity to conduct undergraduate student research. Doing research gave me the opportunity to see how mathematics could be applied to solve a real-world problem, and share my ideas with others,” says Simon Maltby of Port Hastings, NS, a third year honours math student, who performed a qualitative analysis of the dynamical system describing a class of the Bianchi type III and V cosmological models in f(T) gravity. 

“Our main objective was to solve for all the equilibrium points, and then study the behavior of solutions near the equilibrium points under different restrictions of the parameters,” he says. 

Mr. Maltby says Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity fails to explain the accelerated expansion of the universe. “It has to introduce an unobservable fix called dark energy to explain this phenomenon. Through our research of the Bianchi type III and V cosmological models in f(T) gravity, we gained a more accurate understanding of Teleparallel Gravity Theory. We hope that our findings will help pave the way towards developing a better way to explain gravity, which will provide a better explanation for the accelerated expansion of the universe.”

At the moment, he says his goal is to complete a doctorate in mathematics and return to StFX to pursue a career as a professor. “After working with Dr. Robert van den Hoogen this summer, I now know the areas where I will have to improve before I can enter the work field. I also learned more about the research process, which will help me in completing my thesis project for my honours degree. I am now able to see how I can make an influence in this world.”


“I am so grateful to have had such an amazing opportunity. Gaining research experience in a professional setting has allowed me to strengthen many skills, gain new knowledge, and become more confident in myself. This experience has further encouraged my desire to go into research and will continue to influence my future career path,” says Kylie Curnew, a third-year honours BASc in Health student from Hughes Brook, Newfoundland, who is supervised by Dr. Russell Wyeth. 

This summer, Ms. Curnew worked with the Wyeth Lab on the biofouling project. Biofouling, the growth of organisms on underwater structures, is problematic for several industries as it increases the weight and drag of a ship, can lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, can transport invasive species, and can impact the functionality of underwater structures, she says. 

“In the Wyeth Lab, we study non-toxic/low toxicity antifouling treatments. One of the treatments we tested this summer was ultraviolet light. For this project, we tested different exposures and cycle types of UV-C light as an antifoulant to determine the most efficient exposure and cycle type to reduce macrofouling settlers’ growth.” 


“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,” says Scout McKee, a fourth year advanced major in physics student from Fredericton, NB, who received this award for the second consecutive summer. 

She worked with Dr. Peter Poole to study supercooled water. Supercooled water is of particular interest, she says, 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. 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. She spent her time analyzing hydrogen bond networks in supercooled water using computer programming and data generated by simulations. 



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