Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

NSERC USRA student research awards provide unparalleled opportunity, recipients say

May 31st, 2017
NSERC USRA 2017 award recipients include, front row from left: Renee McDonald, Lara Westhaver, Bailey Malay, and Tiffany Brooks. Back row: Oliver Kuehm, Liam Farrell, James Kendall, Matt Martell, Dylan Coakley, Katie MacEachern, and Max Jennings. Absent are Christa Bews, Colin Ross and Melissa Chasse.

Spending the summer at StFX immersed in research in an academic environment is an unparalleled opportunity for undergraduate students, say recipients of this year’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Undergraduate Student Research Awards (USRA)—students who will have a chance to do just that.

In all, 14 StFX students have received an NSERC USRA award, valued at $4,500 each, that allows students to gain research experience and summer employment.

Recipients, with their supervisors in brackets, include Matthew Martell (K. LeBris); Katie MacEachern (S. Finbow); Dylan Coakley (S. Finbow); Liam Farrell (B. van Zyl); Max Jennings (W. MacCaull); Lara Westhaver (D. Garbary); Melissa Chasse (G. Hallett-Tapley); Bailey Malay (J. Braid); Colin Ross (J. Braid); Oliver Kuehm (G. Hallett-Tapley); Tiffany Brooks (S. Razul); Renee MacDonald (D. Risk); Christa Bews (R. Lukeman); and James Kendall (P. Marzalin).


“To have this opportunity following my second year of study is invaluable. These unparalleled opportunities are what truly enrich the undergraduate experience,” says Lara Westhaver of Sydney Mines, NS who just finished her second year of a Bachelor of Science in biology.

Ms. Westhaver has been working with post doctoral fellow, Dr. Eun Ju Kang, from Korea, in Dr. David Garbary’s Phycology Lab. “We have been looking at the physiology of Chondrus crispus, a species of red algae that is commonly known as Irish Moss. We are interested in the photosynthetic patterns and the life history phases of the plant,” she says. “I have also recently had the unique opportunity to be involved in a project on Brier Island, NS, where the focus of the study involves sampling greenhouse gasses. 

“I am so fortunate to be immersed in such an academic learning environment where I am gaining both knowledge and practical skills. It is such an honour to work alongside and create connections with faculty and fellow students while conducting research this summer.”

Renee McDonald of Surrey, BC agrees.

“I am grateful to have been awarded an NSERC USRA. The opportunity to work alongside fellow students and professors to gain knowledge and practical skills is invaluable,” says Ms. McDonald who just finished her second year of study toward a Bachelor of Science in environmental science, biology concentration. 

Her project involves implementing an automated soil gas monitoring system to detect the carbon dioxide and methane gases released from permafrost in Finnmark, Norway. The project is part of an ongoing study out of the University of Bergen, and will contribute to the understanding of carbon cycling in arctic permafrost with a warming climate. 

“I look forward to creating this automated gas monitoring system, learning field techniques, and seeing the successful deployment of my work in Norway to detect and analyze greenhouse gases released from this region,” she says. 

Third year honours physics student Matt Martell of Bedford, NS will be travelling to Livermore, California to work with a group at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “We will be working on whispering-gallery mode spectroscopy in the mid-infrared spectral region. This involves the development of highly-sensitive instruments, which use infrared radiation from a laser to detect and characterize the properties of molecules. An important application of this technology is sensing trace gas pollutants in the atmosphere, which contribute to climate change.

“The experience I will gain as a research assistant on this project is invaluable. I thank NSERC and my supervisor, Dr. Karine LeBris, for providing me with this great opportunity to be involved with an extremely interesting experiment. It will help prepare me for graduate studies, and a career in science.”


“For me, this is my first opportunity to be doing physics for a living, which is very exciting. It is also an opportunity to see what kind of physics I am most interested in, to get my name in a paper or two, and to learn more about physics,” says Liam Farrell of Trenton, NS, an honours physics student going into his third year at StFX.

His research, he says, will focus on mathematical physics, including applying quantum mechanics to the Riemann Zeta Hypothesis in hopes to prove it or come closer to proving it; establishing mathematical models such as particle density and kinetic energy density for the edge regions of electron gas; applying semiclassical expansions to density matrices of Fermi gas; and smaller projects like proving mathematical identities.

Dylan Coakley, a third year computer science student from Florence, NS, says it means a lot to receive this award and to be able to work with his professors is a rewarding experience. His research is in graph theory. It concerns the Eternal Domination Numbers of Grid Graphs

James Kendall of Berwick, NS, who is going into his final year of an advanced major in physics degree and engineering diploma, is studying optical properties of polystyrene nanosphere monolayers. “The polystyrene spheres used have diameters comparable to wavelengths of visible light and infrared radiation. One can imagine interesting optical phenomenon that may happen on this scale,” he says. “Theoretically, I will be using a finite-difference time-domain (FDTD) simulation software package to run numerical simulations in hopes of generating plots comparable to experimental data. Experimentally, I will be making thin films of polystyrene spheres and then performing transmittance measurements through the material.

“This award gave me the opportunity to work with Peter Marzlin and Balaji Subramanian over the summer. I was very excited to receive this award and I believe the experience I gain from this job will help me in my future endeavors.”


Fourth year earth sciences student Bailey Malay of Truro, NS says this will be an amazing opportunity to have more field work and to apply concepts she’s been learning to the world around her. “I'll be able to better understand some of the concepts I've learned because I will be able to put them to use in the field. It will also set me up well for my future, as I will have the practice and skill.”

She is looking at sedimentary rocks in the Antigonish area, “the Horton group, that would have been deposited around the time Pangea was forming, and trying to deduce what the environment at the time of deposition would have been. I'll also be looking at deformation in the group and comparing that to the tectonic activities occurring at the time. I'll be making geologic maps of the area and possibly trying to date the age of the rock.”

“Summer research has given me the opportunity to work in an area that I wouldn't normally see otherwise. Being exposed to lots of new topics, either through my own work or by talking to other students, has been a great way to find something I really enjoy,” says Max Jennings, a third year mathematics and computer science student from Sydney, NS.

He is working with techniques and tools for model checking, and program verification, and the principles underlying model driven engineering. The goal, he says, is to build models of software using the DPF and interface the model checking techniques with these models to ensure their correctness before the executable code is generated by the DPF workbench. The software models will target applications in the healthcare domain. 

Third year honours computer science student Katie MacEachern of Dundee, NS says she is honoured to have received this award and is grateful for the opportunity to work and learn from her professors this summer. She is working on the Peaceably Coexisting Armies of Queens Problem. 

Christa Bews of Ottawa, ON, a fourth year aquatic resources and math, statistics and computer science student, will be researching Pulsing Xenia and determining whether they are synchronized or pulse independently. “I am very honoured to have received this award because it allows me to work with great professors and work in a topic unfamiliar to me,” she says. “I am very grateful to have received this opportunity.”

This research is, in part, made possible by the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.



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