Black Scholars initiative: StFX students charting new opportunities in undergraduate research

scholars 2023
L-r, Isaac Ombotimbe, Devaughn Blackwood, Gatluak James, Gabriel Cozzi, and Olajesu Abioye

From food science research to learning how to best construct a berm to improving the efficiency of response time to emergency calls, five StFX students concentrated on dedicated research projects this summer as recipients of several undergraduate awards, in part supported by a new federal initiative to help encourage more Black Canadian scholars in undergraduate research.

StFX students Isaac Ombotimbe, Olajesu Abioye and Gabriel Cozzi each received an NSERC USRA grant for their work; Devaughn Blackwood was the recipient of a SSHRC USRA award; and Gatluak James received a CIHR USRA award. Each award is valued at $8,000 for 14 weeks of student research employment under the supervision of a StFX faculty member.

“These new undergraduate research awards for Black Canadian students supported by the federal government are making a significant contribution to our efforts to expand and diversify student research opportunities at StFX,” says Dr. Richard Isnor, Associate Vice President, Research, Graduate and Professional Studies. “Contributions from the Jeannine Deveau Educational Equity Endowment also helped increase the value of the awards and support these exceptional students and their research.” 


StFX human nutrition professor Dr. Marcia English, who benefitted from this initiative by having a student conduct research in her lab, says the funding support from the federal government has the potential to make a real difference. After just one year of the program, she has already had other students approach her about becoming involved.

“It really encourages that interest in research and it will promote more students to become involved,” she says. “It really opens up a path to seeing where your degree can take you, and it creates so many new opportunities for these students who never imagined they could have a role in science.”

Dr. English says we currently face a challenge in recruiting students from minority groups and getting them involved in research. A lot of students are interested, but they’re hesitant and may feel it’s out of reach in terms of financial burdens or knowing what’s involved. Additionally, StFX faces a geographic challenge, located as it is in a rural area with a not very diverse community.

“This will help create diversity,” Dr. English says. “This support provides funding that helps with that challenge of being in a rural community. It provides a security for the students that lets them actually engage in the research.”

Benefits for students are many. Not only has their research experience helped to boost confidence and capability, it’s also encouraged critical thinking. If a research project doesn’t work out as planned, Dr. English says the students learn how they address these problems and try a new approach. “They can translate that into their approach to learning.”


Olajesu Abioye, a third year human nutrition student from Saint John, NB, conducted research in Dr. English’s lab on alkaline protein extraction.

“It was a great opportunity to dip my toes into the field of food science research which can help me make an informed decision about going into research,” she says. “It has benefitted me by giving me an insight into how research changes and drives food production, availability and variability.”

Ms. Abioye, who also worked alongside other student researchers, says a highlight for her was learning about each other’s work, as well as connecting the research to material she learned in class.

She says the Black Scholars funding initiative is important as it opens a wider area of opportunities and lets students know more about what’s involved in research.


Isaac Ombotimbe of Ottawa, ON, a fifth year advanced major in computer science student, conducted research alongside Dr. Kyran Cupido and Dr. Jean-Alexis Delamer around manipulating traffic data, using statistical methods and machine learning models with the use of coding to create models which would optimize emergency vehicle locations throughout the cities of Halifax and Toronto at a given time. Open-source datasets containing all roadways in the cities were used in conjunction with datasets which contained all reported collisions within those municipalities to train these machine learning models, thus improving the efficiency of response time to emergency calls.

Mr. Ombotimbe says the experience helped him in many ways.

“Conducting a research project, in my eyes, has helped me sharpen certain work skills that will be critical in my post-undergrad career. Some of the skills include problem-solving, searching for information on a certain topic, time-management. This opportunity has also given me great experience in the field of data analysis in ways in which I will benefit in the future. Overall, working alongside these two professors will be a great addition to my resume,” he says.

The opportunity also represents a significant step towards promoting inclusivity, diversity, and equal access to opportunities in research, he says.


“It highlights the importance of representation and aims to address historical disparities and biases that have limited the participation of Black Canadians in research. By providing funding and support, it offers a chance for individuals to pursue their academic and research goals, contribute their unique perspectives to various fields, and ultimately contribute to a more diverse and enriched academic and research community,” he says.

“The thing that stood out the most to me about this experience is the fact that this funding was gathered and intended to open doors for the Black community in Canada. I believe that this was a great initiative on the part of the federal government and NSERC as this was an impactful opportunity.”

Mr. Ombotimbe says the federal government's initiative to fund Black scholars and students in research holds immense significance. “By addressing historical barriers and biases, this initiative empowers Black Canadians to engage in meaningful research, pursue higher education, and contribute their unique perspectives to various fields. This financial support breaks the cycle of socio-economic disadvantage, allowing innovation and enhancing the quality of research outcomes. To add to this, involving Black scholars in research inspires future generations, and ultimately leads to a more representative and impactful academic landscape. Overall, the initiative creates opportunities, representation, and a pathway for positive change in research and academia.”


Devaughn Blackwood of Ottawa, ON, a fourth year advanced accounting major, conducted research under the supervision of Dr. Jonathan Hood on fan attendance and its drivers.

“I learned a lot about the psychology of a spectator and how marketers can gear towards these needs. I was ultimately taking a deeper dive with hopes of eventually using this knowledge on StFX campus,” he says.

Mr. Blackwood says the opportunity meant a lot as he never had access to a program like this before. “This allowed me to learn brand new life skills in research with a great supervisor, who taught me many things. It also was a great opportunity to gain more knowledge into a topic I was passionate about. It is an experience I will remember and something that most people will never experience.”

He says the experience will greatly benefit him in his studies and in life.

“I learned plenty of new research skills, but in specific, how to dissect articles and produce professional quality work. With these skills I will be much further ahead then before and help with my transition into fourth year as well as the work force after that. The other thing that I would like to highlight is that this grant was given to a close friend of mine as well. Doing the research with another student in a very similar situation greatly helped to stay on track and become more productive. It felt much less lonely and more like an actual job simulation. I would also like to highlight Dr. Hood’s understanding as it was a new experience for me, but he took it slowly and taught me a great deal of tools throughout the summer.”


Mr. Blackwood says the Black Scholars federal funding is an excellent initiative.

“Oftentimes Canadian students, but more specifically Black Canadian students, have little to no access to funding like this for research purposes. Through my experience of research this summer, it is something that I believe more students should involve themselves with. So, with the new incentive in funding, more students can have access to this and begin their research. This is important as many Black Canadian students will never learn the proper tools for professional work, but with this incentive they can. This will not only lead to short-term learning, but the long-term growth of the student as well. It allows them to be a part of something and boost their academic careers. Overall, I think research itself is a great thing, and I believe that branching out to the Black scholars community is a great initiative from the Canadian government.”


Gabriel Cozzi, a third year engineering student from Antigonish, NS, worked this summer with Dr. Brittany MacDonald-MacAulay. They investigated the implementation of tire berms (a berm is like a dam on the side of a river so it doesn’t overflow) in the Antigonish area. There were many changes in the project over the course of the summer and Mr. Cozzi, who is working toward becoming a mechanical engineer, ended up focusing on optimal fillers for these tire berms.

As part of his research work, he conduced a literature review looking at other berms, and when the scope of the project changed, he focused on another idea for a paper publication, investigating the best materials to make a berm. Mr. Cozzi tested different mixtures of sand and soil and it is working with the data for a paper publication. He’s learned about proper citing and the general publication process, good skills to have in engineering, he says.  

In addition to this work, Mr. Cozzi also conducted and led research skills boot camps at the local library as part of his research award.  

“I enjoyed the lab work a lot and seeing the differences in mixtures,” he says. Getting a taste of research also helped confirm for him that this is something he want to do.

He says the new initiative is a positive one to encourage Black Canadian students in undergraduate research.  


Gatluak James of Windsor, ON, a third/fourth year human kinetics taking a sports management minor, worked this summer on a sports-based positive youth development program for underprivileged communities, using sport as a vehicle to teach important life skills such as determination, resilience, confidence, and commitment. He taught basketball and weight room fundamentals in the hopes of creating the next generation of leaders, with good character and discipline, enabling them to not only become great athletes, but contributing members of society, he says.

His faculty supervisor is Dr. Jonathan Hood.

“This opportunity was a fantastic experience for me. I was glad to be a part of something. The research was in a topic that I enjoy very much, which made it a little bit easier.”

Mr. James says he wasn’t sure how the world of research worked, but he believes this opportunity will help him in his future courses at StFX and his future endeavours.

“This experience benefited me in many ways. I enjoyed participating in the research and learning lots of new things throughout the summer. With basketball doing so much for me, this experience has allowed me to reflect on that, and use the research to help give back to the community that gave so much to me.”

He says some of the things that stood out to him throughout the research included in the beginning phases where there many things he noticed before, but just took them for what they were. “During my research, I learned about some theories and why people make certain choices.”

Mr. James says when he first heard about this opportunity, he was a little bit skeptical because he wasn’t sure what it would entail. “After hearing more about the research and how it works, and the autonomy we have as researchers to make it our own, I was excited to sign up and create something that I would love to learn about and be a part of, something that I can add my own flavour to.”