Timely. Relevant. Impactful.
Those are words that readily describe the research work of 14 StFX students who each received an $8,000 Scotia Scholars Undergraduate Research Award this year from Research Nova Scotia. The award supports projects that have a health focus, and all students are enrolled in honours programs.
This year, research projects ranged from investigating the relationship between music therapy and palliative care to mental health challenges facing male undergraduate students to the relationship between sports-related concussions and dementia.
“This opportunity has been incredibly beneficial in my research goals as it has allowed me to continue pursuing research throughout the summertime whilst not in classes. I would not have been able to attempt a project that has been as ambitious and exciting as this if it were not for the Scotia Scholars opportunity,” says Katherine Culligan, a fourth year honours BASc Health (co-op) student from Halifax, NS.
Ms. Culligan conducted research for her honours thesis, an exploratory study looking at the individual lived experiences of Nova Scotian dentists practicing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She primarily focused on collecting data, split into two different phases. “For the first phase, I collected qualitative data through the completion of in-depth interviews with dentists to gain their perspectives and for the second quantitative phase, I am currently formulating and putting out a survey to a greater population of dentists in Nova Scotia to map trends in this occupational group.”
Ms. Culligan, supervised by Dr. Christina Holmes and Dr. Arlinda Ruco, says the experience will benefit her future goals of pursuing a career in the dentistry field as the research is directly related to dentists and is done in her home province.
“Having interactions with these professionals has been very rewarding as I have gotten to see a different side of the profession through forming relationships and has confirmed for me how important dental health is for overall health.
“My supervisors have been and continue to be extremely supportive throughout this opportunity while exposing me to the large world of research and all the skills that are necessary and beneficial in completing a mixed methods study. I am confident that through their help, I will be well versed and will be able to stand out in a competitive professional field.”
DEPRESSION AND ACADEMIC PERFOMANCE IN MALE UNDERGRADS
William Langille, a fourth year honours psychology student from Calgary, AB, spent the summer investigating the relationship between depression symptoms and academic performance in male undergraduate students.
Working under the supervision of Dr. Kara Thompson, he spent time in the Substance Use and Health in Emerging Adulthood (SHEA) Lab conducting a literature search for his proposal, focusing on the way in which men experience depression differently from traditional symptoms and how academic achievement and depressive symptoms are correlated.
“Of course, all of this was only possible due to the award I was honoured to receive, giving me the opportunity to do an extensive literature search to hone in on literature gaps and explore where this project can go,” he says. “Not only was I able to conduct my research, but I was also able to become immersed and involved in an active research lab on campus. This provided opportunities to experience and observe different stages of research projects, research different literature topics, and actively get involved in ongoing research projects.”
He says the award gave him opportunities he never would have imagined, including working under the supervision of StFX professors. “The award also allowed me to research and advocate for men’s mental health, which I am passionate about. I feel strongly there needs to be more societal discussion on this topic. Having opportunities to discuss this research and topic with faculty at StFX, the student advancement centres, and, more generally, people at large has been a critically important result of this opportunity.”
Receiving the award also allowed him to glimpse into what research, as a career, might be like before having to make a life/financial commitment. “In a sense, it has provided me the opportunity to start my long path of becoming a (hopeful) expert in men’s mental health and suicide.”
MUSIC THERAPY AND PALLIATIVE CARE
Emma Broughton, a fourth year honours psychology student from Calgary, AB, spent the summer investigating whether music therapy can influence psychological and physical outcomes within patients admitted to palliative care. She was one of two StFX students involved in this research project.
“I have been incredibly grateful for this opportunity. Music has always played an important role in my life, often helping me work through difficult moments. I always knew that I wanted music to be a part of my future work and knowing that this opportunity has given me a way to accomplish that is incredibly exciting,” says Ms. Broughton, who is supervised by Dr. Lindsay Berrigan and Dr. Angela Weaver.
“Not only do I get to incorporate music into my work life, but I now get to observe and record the real influence that music has on different people. This project has also let me figure out what research paths I wish to pursue in the future. Looking into affordable and effective healthcare options for those who may not be able to access the ‘mainstream’ services will become increasingly important as the population ages and wealth disparities expand, and investigating these types of treatment options is quite interesting and exciting to me.”
Ms. Broughton says the experience has taught her what a future career in a research field would be like. “Before this, I wasn’t sure what a research job would entail, but now, knowing the amount of work and planning that goes into designing a research project has allowed me to develop new skills that will be extremely beneficial in my future.”
A highlight was collaborating with a music therapist, Rebecca McDonald. “Being able to access this type of resource is a great opportunity, one which I am extremely thankful for. Talking with her has given us new insight into what music therapy is and what benefits she has noticed.”
MEANINGFUL PRORJECT THAT CAN AFFECT PEOPLE’S LIVES
Émilie Risdon of Bathurst, NB, a fourth year, BASc in Health student, also investigated the effects of music therapy on palliative care patients. Dr. Lindsay Berrigan and Dr. Angela Weaver are her supervisors. “We are partnering with a music therapist at St. Martha’s Hospital in Antigonish and want to see whether music therapy can have a short term and/or long term effect on the outcomes of quality of life, anxiety, depression, autobiographical memory, pain, sleep and perception of hospital atmosphere,” she says.
“I am really grateful for the opportunity to work on a meaningful project that can affect people’s quality of life in palliative care. I have learned a lot from this experience and enjoyed working with and learning from my co-supervisors and Emma (Broughton).
“This experience has helped me develop research skills and learn a lot about music therapy and the outcomes we’re researching. I’m looking forward to going into the hospital to collect data and meet the patients who are receiving music therapy. I think that seeing the impact of music therapy firsthand and meeting the people we are doing the research for will stick with me for a long time.”
WEARABLE MONITORS IN CLINICAL CARE
Margaret Doiron of Port Hawkesbury, NS, a fourth year human kinetics student also doing a minor in human nutrition, focused her research around wearable lifestyle monitors, such as Fitbits, in clinical care.
“I spent a large portion of my time this summer conducting my literature review on four main topics: Canada’s 24-Hour Movement Guidelines, the need for objective measures in clinical care, wearable lifestyle monitors, and barriers to adopting digital health.
“Currently, most Canadians fail to meet Canada’s 24-Hour Movement Guidelines (i.e., adequate physical activity, sleep, and limited sedentary behaviour), despite their importance in reducing non-communicable disease risk factors. Likewise, the high prevalence of non-communicable diseases among Canadians is concerning. Wearable lifestyle monitors provide an objective alternative for clinicians to accurately understand their patient's physical activity, sleep patterns, and sedentary behaviours rather than relying on subjective in-clinic discussions.”
Her research, supervised by Dr. Ryan Reid, specifically focuses on efficiently implementing wearable lifestyle monitors in clinical care using digital health software, a tool designed by Dr. Reid and developed by his MSc. computer science students. “The software aims to provide clinicians with a useful and accessible tool that integrates lifestyle behaviours into clinical environments. Clinicians can access, integrate, and process a concise version of patient health data from a wearable lifestyle monitor. Dr. Reid, his MSc. students, and I have spent the summer making improvements to the software. To ensure its strength, I will obtain feedback about the software from clinicians across Canada through a virtual survey that I created this summer.”
She says the research opportunity afforded her the ability to begin research for her honour’s thesis prior to the academic year. In turn, she was able to explore in depth the literature surrounding her topic without the additional stress of other academic workloads. “It also provided me with the opportunity to learn and gain additional skills and knowledge surrounding many different aspects of research. For instance, I was given the opportunity to work with other researchers on a second research paper… Through this experience, I was not only granted the opportunity to provide and receive feedback from my co-authors, but I also got to experience the considerable process of submitting a manuscript to journals for publication.
“This award has undoubtedly benefitted me as both a student and a researcher in many different aspects. However, I believe the opportunity to work closely alongside other research professors has benefitted me the most. Their expertise allowed me to gain knowledge and skills that I would not have been able to receive without this award. Particularly, receiving personalized feedback, knowledge, and advice from my research supervisor, Dr. Reid, was extremely valuable in making me a more efficient and confident person.”
GIVEN CONFIDENCE FOR FUTURE
“As a student who invests a lot of time and effort into my education, this opportunity really affirmed my interest in the field. It was a chance to approach the field of psychology as a researcher rather than a student which has given me confidence regarding both my academic and professional future,” says Keira Ross of Ottawa, ON who conducted research on factors influencing perceptions of mental illness diagnosis and subsequent impacts on help-seeking behaviours.
The fourth year honours psychology student, who is minoring in art, spent a lot of her time reviewing literature and further narrowing down her topic. She is supervised by Dr. Erin Austen.
“This experience was a challenge, and I learned a lot about myself because of it,” she says. “For example, prior to this summer my ADHD symptoms didn’t present much of a barrier to my productivity but working from home in the presence of a multitude of distractions, I had a hard time figuring out what I could do to achieve the progress I had hoped for. I had to accept and accommodate my specific challenges. Aside from improving my sense of professional achievement, I learned how valuable it is to accommodate to your needs before expecting yourself to be productive.
“One aspect about this experience that stands out to me is how I went from feeling like a student to feeling like a contributor. When meeting with my advisor it felt good to present findings from literature that I had discovered on my own time and then to work together to orient and understand this information. Before this summer I had really just felt like I was learning what was written in the syllabus or textbook, but having the chance to research into a topic of your own interest, on your own time, and to be rewarded for these efforts was a really exciting insight into what a professional career in psychology might be like.”
MENTAL HEALTH SYMPTOMS IN STUDENT ATHLETES
Fiona Nicholson of New Glasgow, PEI, a fifth year human kinetics student supervised by Dr. Sebastian Harenberg, conducted research for her honours thesis exploring the prevalence and patterns of underreporting mental health symptoms in student-athletes.
She conducted a review of the literature and learned about the current mental health screening practices in varsity athletics departments across Canada. She also organized data collection sessions with varsity teams in early September.
“I am incredibly honoured to have had the opportunity to conduct research over the summer about a topic I am extremely passionate about, student-athlete mental health,” she says.
“Conducting research that will assist in solving the important clinical concern of how to best assess mental health symptoms in collegiate athletes is very meaningful to me as I plan to pursue a graduate degree in physiotherapy and work with athletes in my future career.”
She says the opportunity to learn about the research process by experiencing it firsthand has been amazing. “Having the chance to take the knowledge I gained from my previous courses and apply it to a project I am passionate about has been invaluable. The knowledge I gained learning from my supervisor about data collection, completing ethics applications, and incorporating qualitative and quantitative data into a study design will undoubtedly aid me while pursuing graduate school opportunities in the healthcare field. The project I conducted this summer aligns perfectly with my long-term career goals as an aspiring sports rehabilitation professional, as in the future, I plan to work with varsity or elite athletes in a clinical setting as a physiotherapist.”
POTENTIAL TO PROVIDE VALUABLE INSIGHT
Brynn Webber of Barrie, ON, a fourth year BASc Health student taking a concentration in biomedicine, says knowing that the research she’s been conducting has the potential to provide valuable insight toward improving athlete care has been a highlight of the experience for her.
Ms. Webber worked on several different projects centred around campus alcohol policy and began the literature review for her thesis investigating the long-term physical health effects of experiencing grief in adolescents. More specifically, she is looking at adolescents who experienced the death of a peer.
“This opportunity allowed me to spend my summer conducting research that excites me and gave me so much more time to brainstorm, get comfortable with my data, and formulate my thesis questions. It also allowed me to get involved in other areas of research within the university and has opened many doors for me,” says Ms. Webber, who is supervised by Dr. Kara Thompson.
She says the experience has helped plan her future.
“I felt very uncertain about my plan following my undergraduate degree, however, working in the lab and conducting research has given me a new sense of direction. I now know that I want to pursue a master's degree and continue to be a part of the scientific community.”
She says working in the SHEA lab, she felt very involved in projects and valued as a team member. “Moreover, the lab regularly broke into valuable and intricate discussions around health-related topics that kept me curious and engaged throughout the summer.”
SPORTS-RELATED CONCUSSIONS AND DEMENTIA
Chloe Oleksiuk, a fourth year health honours student from Winnipeg MB, started work on her honours thesis, a scoping review of what’s known from the existing knowledge synthesis literature about the relationship between sports-related concussions and dementia.
She also worked on her research project from last summer, a patient engagement project on vascular cognitive impairment and dementia, on YouTube. She is supervised by Dr. Erin Mazerolle.
“I am very grateful to have this experience to continue doing research and start my honours thesis on a project I am passionate about. I started this project due to my passion for neuroscience and helping athletes who have had concussions. As someone with experience with multiple concussions from playing hockey, this project allowed me to help share awareness on the long-term cognitive effects of concussions and potentially find more preventative measures for athletes.”
She says this experience will benefit her by allowing her to help spread information on an injury many athletes experience, including herself. “I want to contribute to preventing sports-related concussions because they are stigmatized. This opportunity will also benefit me because I plan to attend medical school, become a sports doctor, and continue working on sports-related concussions.”
Ms. Oleksiuk says a highlight for her was being allowed to research an injury she has personally struggled with. “It's allowed me to make a positive out of an injury that has negatively affected my life.”
RISK FACTORS FOR COVID-19
Simon Maltby, a fourth year honours math student from Port Hastings, NS, worked this summer on a spatial analysis on the risk factors for COVID-19.
“We identified the risk factors based on a literature review, and then performed a statistical study on how they varied across the census divisions of Canada,” says Mr. Maltby, who is supervised by Dr. Kyran Cupido.
“I was very thankful to get this opportunity. I have always enjoyed learning new things about the world around me. This gave me the chance to combine my love for learning with the things I have learned in math over the past three years of university. I got to apply what I learned to a very interesting field of study,” he says.
“This experience has taught a lot about the scientific research process and about presenting results in an informative way. I think it has prepared me well for writing my thesis this year. I also learned a lot from working with Dr. Cupido and I appreciate the guidance he gave me over the course of the summer. This experience has also given me insight into what type of work I want to do as a career.”
ENABLING MEANINGFUL RESEARCH
“This opportunity holds immense significance for me,” says Abbygail Rafuse, a fourth year forensic psychology student from Bridgewater, NS, who initiated the groundwork for her thesis project, "Assessing Stress Responses in Young Adults Affected by Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and/or Anxiety: Implications for Polygraph Test Reliability." She is supervised by Dr. Erin Austen and Dr. Tamara Rodela.
Ms. Rafuse says it granted her the financial support to commence her thesis without the added burden of external employment. “Additionally, it enabled me to delve into research, uncovering gaps in the current landscape and highlighting the importance of my project.”
She says the experience significantly enhances her chances of gaining admission to graduate schools, and it has offered her a clearer sense of her future objectives.
“While a thesis project is a vital component of applying to many post-secondary programs, not everyone has the financial means to undertake it. The Scotia Scholars program not only allowed me to facilitate meaningful and necessary research during the summer but also supported my academic journey by removing financial barriers. Programs like this enable university students to realize their full potential with fewer financial constraints.”
Jessica Gaudette, a fourth year honours student in applied forensic psychology from Greenwood, NS, examined pre-existing studies relating to reducing stigmatization within the minor-attracted persons population. “With that knowledge, I designed a replication study, which I will conduct this year with first year students of the applied forensic psychology and psychology program here at StFX, as a requirement of my honours degree,” she says.
Ms. Gaudet is supervised by Dr. Margo Watt. She says this opportunity means she was not only able to get a head start on her thesis work this summer but that she could do so without the restriction of economic concerns.
“Receiving this award had a positive impact on my academic experience because it allowed me to work on my project throughout the summer months, learning new skills and expanding my research knowledge in an environment where I had little concern about upcoming due dates, economic concerns or other responsibilities. By receiving this award and getting to work on my project prior to the school year, I go into my final year feeling prepared and ready for this new challenge. Furthermore, I have little doubt that such an accomplishment will be useful in the future when applying for jobs and master's programs.”
Thomas Romary, a third year human kinetics student from Montreal, QC supervised by Dr. Ryan Reid, used Fitbits to monitor the movement behaviors (physical activity, sedentary time, sleep) of the X-Women Hockey varsity team.
“I felt honoured to be selected amongst many applicants to be chosen for this award,” he says. “Having the chance to apply for funding during my undergraduate degree means that I will be much better prepared for any applications in the future. It was also very meaningful to me that I was able to be paid for research I am passionate about.”
He says the experience will benefit him several ways. “First of all, this research funding has allowed me to have an experience performing research in a more full-time position, experience that is invaluable when deciding what post-grad. Furthermore, as I am planning on completing an honours project this year in the same field, this summer's research has allowed me to learn so much about working with varsity athletes, collecting data through Fitbits and other aspects of movement behavior research. I will now be able to integrate all of this new knowledge into my honours research.
“I would like to thank my supervisor Dr. Ryan Reid for supporting me through this whole process. I learned about Dr. Reid's WMS lab in my first year Anatomy and Physiology course and have been a part of the lab ever since. Dr. Reid gave me the opportunity to observe upper-level students complete their research, which has helped me immensely while completing my own project.”