2013 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholars

The Vanier scholars exemplify academic excellence across the full range of disciplines. Meet some of the 2013 recipients of Canada’s most prestigious graduate awards. 

Jan Gogarten, Biology

Jan Gogarten, winner of a Vanier Graduate Scholarship

Infectious diseases have joined habitat loss and bushmeat hunting as a major threat to wildlife populations. Recent research also suggests that diseases are jumping from wildlife to humans living in contact with these animals at an increasing rate.




Learn more about Jan's research

I am investigating disease dynamics in wild primates; in particular, I am studying the impact of primate behavior on simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) dynamics in sooty mangabeys (Cercocebus atys) in Taï Forest, Ivory Coast. This virus has recently made the jump to surrounding human populations leading to new strains of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and mangabeys represent the original host so may have evolved resistance to this virus. Currently the viral diversity present in this population is largely unknown. Ultimately, I hope this work will provide insights into genetic resistance in this population, the impact of behavior on disease dynamics, a better understanding of viral evolution in the wild, and an understanding of the disease risk faced by populations living around this park. 

What are your plans for the next three years? I will be spending a year in the Ivory Coast, in Taï forest, studying sooty mangabeys in the wild. I will also be conducting laboratory analyses at the Robert Koch Insitute in Berlin under the guidance of Dr. Fabian Leendertz; an expert in non-invasive monitoring of wildlife populations, where I hope to learn genetic methods for studying viral evolution. I will also be collaborating with Dr. Roman Wittig at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology to study the behavior of sooty mangabeys and examine social networks of these terrestrial group-living primates. I plan to integrate next-generation sequencing methods into my research to study the microbiome of these primates to better understand other factors impacting primate health.

How do you feel about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship – what difference will this make to your research path or your contribution to the global community? This scholarship has enabled me to focus exclusively on my research and spend time abroad in Germany and the Ivory Coast without having to worry about securing other sources of funding. Ultimately the Vanier Graduate Scholarship has provided me the opportunity to bridge disciplines and expertise from three continents to tackle a difficult set of problems.   

Emily Donaldson, Anthropology

My research looks at the relationship between sustainable livelihoods and heritage in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia.  The islands' ancient inhabitants built hundreds of monumental stone structures on which they lived, worked and played. Today their descendants make their living among these cultural landscapes, cultivating coconuts and fruit.  

Learn more about Emily's research

Some of these sites have been restored as part of a popular Marquesan cultural revitalization movement, and several are included in the French Polynesian government's nomination of the Marquesas to UNESCO's World Heritage List.  Still, many monumental structures are degrading and some continue to be destroyed.  My doctoral project investigates why Marquesan heritage has been so widely celebrated, yet continues to be threatened.  I am interviewing old and young, farmers and government employees about how they perceive their heritage in their everyday lives.  Do islanders pay attention to historic structures when they are harvesting coconuts and fruit, collecting seeds, or clearing brush?  Why or why not?  The answers to these questions will improve the ability of archaeologists, preservation specialists and government officials to understand and manage Marquesan heritage in a sustainable way. 

What are your plans for the next three years? I am currently living in the Marquesas for a year to conduct research in each of the six inhabited islands.  This work includes interviews, historic site visits and observation of land use strategies.  It will be supported by additional interviews and research at government offices and in archives in Tahiti.  Upon my return to Montréal I will analyze my findings and write my thesis.  In 2016 I will use the English version of my thesis to write a summary of my findings in French which I will then circulate to Marquesan administrators and project participants throughout the islands. 

What does winning the Vanier mean to you? Winning a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (VCGS) has made it possible for me to conduct this research.  With the help of the VCGS I can travel to each of the six islands and make valuable comparisons between different historic sites, valleys and islands.  My final analysis will apply to the entire archipelago, and I will be able to effectively disseminate my results to the people living there.  For me personally, this project is the culmination of twelve years of work and study in the Marquesas.  With the support of a VCGS I hope to help Marquesans and other indigenous groups facing similar challenges to build a future of their own making; one that is rooted in the foundations of the past. 

Janelle Baker, Anthropology

After completing my MA in anthropology in 2005, I worked as a traditional land use researcher and consultant for First Nations in Alberta. The majority of this work was based on the Crown's duty to consult First Nations regarding proposed industrial development in their traditional territories. During this work, I noticed that everywhere I went, Elders and knowledge holders talked about how they were observing indicators for wild food contamination, and that this was not being recognized by scientists working on environmental impact assessments and monitoring.



Learn more about Janelle's research

People no longer trust the wild food supply on which they rely and so are having to travel farther away from their communities in order to procure food that they consider to be "clean".  I decided to return to university and pursue my PhD in order to look more at Aboriginal people's perspectives on wild food contamination in Alberta's boreal forest and oil sands regions. I believe that they have unique language, world views, and observed indicators that inform their concept of contamination and this is why their diagnostics for wild food contamination differ from those of scientists working in the region. 

What difference will winning this award make to your research path or your contribution to the global community? Living and working in the subarctic is costly, and especially in the oil sands region, as the influx of workers drives the cost of living up. The Vanier Graduate Scholarship will enable me to live and travel in the subarctic without worrying about how much it will cost to interview Elders or join knowledge holders on the land. I will also be able to attend conferences and meetings, such as the International Congress of Ethnobiology, and the joint meeting for Economic Botany and the Society of Ethnobiology in 2014. I am a student member for the Society of Ethnobiology and having the freedom to travel and attend their meetings is made possible by the Vanier CGS. 

Aaron Farrell, Physics

My research focuses on the search for a solid-state physics device that may trap a very special type of particle known as a Majorana fermion. Although the existence of a Majorana fermion was theorized over eighty years ago, the unambiguous detection of one of these particles has eluded physicists to this day. 



Learn more about Aaron's Research

Isolating one of these particles is of interest for great practical reasons, as research has shown that Majorana fermions may be used in the construction of a quantum computer. My work looks at making proposals for, and testing the plausibility of a solid-state device that may play host to one of these elusive Majorana fermions.

What are your plans for the next three years? My research plans for the next three years will be focused around the ability of certain solid-state devices (namely superconductors) to support a Majorana fermion. By using several different mathematical models for these devices, we will be able to determine what properties are required in order for these systems to support a Majorana fermion. Once we have formed a clear picture of what properties are required, we will turn towards the practical goal of finding a real world system that possesses these properties.

How do you feel about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship – what difference will this make to your research path or your contribution to the global community? I feel very fortunate to have won a Vanier Graduate Scholarship. I am extremely grateful to those who took the time to write me reference letters as well as those involved with the organization of the Vanier Scholarships for giving me this opportunity.  Winning this scholarship will allow me to continue down my research path with increased confidence and no financial distractions. This will be beneficial to my research, as it will provide increased focus and productivity.

Simon-Pier Labelle-Hogue 

My primary focus is sociology of literature. I am interested, in other words, in what leads authors to organize in groups and the ways authors try to distinguish themselves within a movement.





Learn more about Simon-Pier's Research

Considering that approach implies lots of historical and political variables. I am also trying to outline the strategies writers employ to either attack or defend political positions, and the effect of government politics (awards, bursaries, etc.) on artistic activities. In order to do that, I plan to analyze Quebec counterculture, a little-studied movement of American influence that took places during the 70s during the creation of the various social institutions that exist today.

What are your research plans for the next three years? As my research will most likely take more than three years, the next three will be dedicated to the development of a proper methodology - I need to rethink the theoretical apparatus that will form the basis of my reasoning. Simultaneously, I will try to complete a book on the sociology of surrealist activity within a magazine named Minotaure, and polish up some articles on Quebec counterculture and pragmatic variation.

How do you feel about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship – what difference will this make to your research path or your contribution to the global community? Receiving the Vanier Graduate Scholarship was a form of consecration, in the sense that it confirmed I was in a domain in which I could make a difference. Practically speaking, this means I can spend the next few years focusing on my research and developing contacts with researchers worldwide (the specialists of sociology of literature being scattered between Canada, Belgium, France and the United States). It also allows me to continue working for the community through volunteering, so that my global contribution is not only on paper, but also through direct engagement with the population. 

Amol Gharat, Integrated Program in Neuroscience

Our visual system uses changes in contrast in the visual scene as one of the cues to delineate an object from its background. So I am currently trying to understand how contrast information is processed by our visual system and the neural circuit behind it. I am using the technique of electrophysiology and computational modeling to study this processing at a single neuron level in the visual cortex.


Learn more about Amol's research

How do you feel about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship? I feel honored to have received this prestigious award, particularly after coming all the way from India for my graduate studies. It is a recognition of my achievements so far and a big morale boost for my future goals. This award will help reduce my financial burden and allow me to focus on my doctoral research and try innovative ideas. It will allow me to attend international conferences and learn about recent developments in the field, also I can attend international summer schools to learn cutting edge techniques without financial worry. 

Hossein Mansour, Mechanical Engineering/Music Technology

With today’s advanced technologies, it should be possible to design and build violins that equal or surpass the standards of the famous old ones, such as those made by Stradivari and Guarneri. My research is aimed at combining mechanical/acoustical measurements, computational models, and perceptual analyses to better understand what distinguishes “good” from “bad” violins and to apply this information to the design of new or improved instruments.



Learn about Hossein's research

In particular two questions are expected to be answered in the course of my study: What features make one violin “better” than the other? And, what will happen to the sound of a particular violin if we change some particular detail of its construction?I received the prestigious Vanier scholarship in mechanical engineering discipline, but I’m working on my PhD in the Music technology area of Schulich school of music. This is evidence of the truly multidisciplinary nature of my work. This project will benefit from access to state-of-the-art scientific research equipment available from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT) as well as professional-level musicians, which is a major asset when confronting the perceptual aspect of the project. This project is also being performed in close collaboration with our colleagues in the engineering department of Cambridge University.

What does winning the Vanier mean to you? The great monetary value of this award gives me the freedom to choose the direction of my research and to focus on my studies without being worried about financial concerns; that is particularly valuable in my case as I’m an international student working on a music related project. I know many students in a similar situation who are not as privileged. Also it calls more attention to our field of research and similar research groups throughout the country. Besides the financial matters, being recognized in this capacity adds to my confidence and credibility and presents me with new opportunities. This is certainly not something that ends at graduation -I’ll have it with me through my future career as well. I’m extremely grateful and humbled to be among those selected and will do my best to make this tremendous investment on my work worthwhile. 

Mohamed Sesay, Political Science

Mohamed Seasy, Vanier Canada PhD Scholar

My research interest lies in transitional justice which is a field that examines mechanisms that confront and address past injustices in countries emerging from civil wars and repressive political rule. My PhD research will focus specifically on how judicial culture and social legitimacy affect the role of the judiciary in Sierra Leone, particularly in ensuring that power-holders do not abuse their powers and that rights of people are respected. 

Learn more about Mohamed's research

The judiciary in Africa is commonly viewed as an excessively politicized institution, lacking independence, and enfeebled by the executive branch of government. But currently we are seeing significant instances of the judiciary making decisions that challenge the interest of executive power-holders. Therefore, I want to understand what explains this change by examining the historical and institutional factors that shape the way judges position themselves in society to mediate conflict and check the arbitrary use of power. The findings of my research will contribute to an understanding of the rule of law in Africa which is an essential component of ongoing processes of democratization and peacebuilding. 

What are your plans for the next three years? I am working on my research proposal which I estimate will take the fall semester. I will undertake fieldwork in Africa in the spring of 2014 for a minimum of six months. After this I will concentrate on writing my dissertation, attending conferences, and sharing research findings.

How do you feel about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship – what difference will this make to your research path or your contribution to the global community? I feel honoured and humbled to be selected among many equally deserving graduate students for this Vanier award. The funding is important for someone who was born to a poor illiterate family in Sierra Leone—it gives you the financial security you need as an international student to focus on your research. But beyond the money, winning the Vanier is a significant boost to my reputation and confidence as a young scholar, accompanied by a sense of responsibility that I must undertake research that is meaningful to people’s lives in Canada, Africa, and beyond. Also, winning the award is a tribute to all those here at McGill, in Canada, and in Sierra Leone—a long list which I cannot produce here—who have and continue to generously support me in many ways every step of the way. Without them I would not have come this far in realizing my potential.

I see my research path as contributing to the generation of knowledge that is useful not only for enhancing theoretical understanding of judicial politics in Africa, but also for informing judicial policy and practice that impact the welfare of humankind. The Vanier award is a significant accomplishment toward making this dream true. With the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (CGS) on my C.V., the chances of achieving my goals will increase and I have a renewed sense of responsibility for improving our global community.  

I thank the Canadian government for establishing this scholarship which is a remarkable step in helping promising young scholars—both Canadian and international students—maximize their academic, research, professional, and personal talents. My sincere thanks also go to my professors and supervisors at McGill as well as my supportive friends and mentors in Canada and Sierra Leone—particularly retired Prof. Paula Brook of Stratford ON., who is among the first to kindly support my studies in Canada. 

Anna Mackinnon, Psychology

Anna MacKinnon, Vanier Canada Graduate Scholar

My research aims to further our understanding of the processes through which maternal depression during the perinatal period impacts the mother-child relationship and child development. Our team, led by Dr. Phyllis Zelkowitz of the Department of Psychiatry and the Lady Davis Institute at the Jewish General Hospital, has been studying the role of the hormone oxytocin in mood and anxiety symptoms during pregnancy and the early postpartum period, as well as its association with the mother-child relationship.

Learn more about Anna's research

My particular interest is in the modulating role of oxytocin as it relates to maternal social cognition, maternal interactive behavior and to children’s social cognitive development.

What are your plans for the next three years? I am now collecting data in a follow-up study of women who participated in our research during pregnancy and the early postpartum period. Their children are now 2-3 years old. Once data collection is complete, I will begin data analysis and present my results at conferences and in scientific publications. I also plan to build my research skills through additional training such as statistics workshops as well as gaining experience in program development and evaluation through other research projects.

What does winning the Vanier mean to you? I am very honoured and grateful to be receiving a Vanier Graduate Scholarship. It provides me with the opportunity to acquire the best training and skills needed to establish a strong program of research, one aimed to optimize early childhood development, improve community resources for families and potentially promote policy change. The generous support I have received will enable me to realize my goals of empowering others through research and community engagement. 

Oleksandr Bushuyev's Research, Chemistry

My research is focused on studying photoactive molecules called azobenzenes in constrained solid state systems such as polymer films and crystals. Azobezene molecule can exist in two states, planar trans-form and bent cis-form. The two forms can be interconverted by the use of light. These molecules have a proud history of use as synthetic dyes and pH indicators.

Learn more about Oleksandr's research

The interesting part begins when you imbed this molecule in a tightly constrained matrix, like a crystal or polymer film. When the molecule isomerizes from one form to another, the geometrical change for the process to occur is big (by molecular standards), and thus the molecule exerts great force on the surroundings. In this process, the material properties such as surface energy, thickness, roughness and even shape, change dramatically and in some cases reversibly. This opens up a possibility of harnessing the light energy using the materials containing azobenzenes directly, without converting it to the electrical energy. It can be viewed on as simply as you just shine light on a piece of plastic and that piece does the mechanical work for you! 

What are your plans for the next three years? In the next three years I will be working on studying the fundamental principles of photomechanical action in azobenzene materials and developing the applications for it. Such applications may include creation of self-cleaning surfaces for solar cells. In those, thin coating incorporating azobenzene chromophore under the irradiation with light should constantly change their surface energy and thus not allow contaminant and dust particles to settle on the surface of a solar panel. Additionally, in the course of the last year, we discovered that crystals containing azobenzene derivatives can reversibly or irreversibly change shape under laser irradiation. This opens the way for photomechanical crystalline actuators in microelectronic devices activated purely by light.

How do you feel about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship – what difference will this make to your research path or your contribution to the global community? Obviously I feel great about winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship! It makes worlds of difference about how much freedom I have to work on the things that interest me greatly, releases the financial pressure (after all international graduate students are not generally rich), frees up a lot of time which would otherwise be occupied by teaching assistantship duties. All in all, I sincerely believe that it allows me to realize much more of a potential, of what I can do in my research or with my research. Plus there is an extra perk, when you search for collaborations, people just tend to take you more seriously after they learn that you hold this scholarship, which helps establish successful academic ties worldwide even at the time when I am still a graduate student.                                            

Susanna Konsztowicz,Psychology

My research examines poor insight, or the lack of awareness of major aspects of illness, in patients with schizophrenia. What I call insight includes aspects such as awareness of the disorder and its consequences, awareness of the need for treatment, awareness of signs and symptoms of the disorder, and attribution of symptoms to the disorder. 

Learn more about Susanna's research

Poor insight is present in 50-80% of patients who suffer from schizophrenia and it has significant consequences for their lives, such as poor medication adherence, greater frequency of hospitalizations and relapses, and poor social and work functioning. By examining the multiple dimensions of insight. I hope to provide new information about the specific contributing psychological and biological factors in patients living with schizophrenia. Ultimately, the greater goal of my research is to develop effective interventions to improve insight, and the lives, of affected patients. 

What are your research plans for the next three years? Over the next three years, I will contribute to data collection on this project, and continue to develop my doctoral research plan as I conduct studies and attempt to answer my research questions. Throughout the process, I will engage in research dissemination activities, including publishing my results in relevant journals and speaking at conferences at the local, national, and international levels. I will attend various lectures and talks on relevant topics to learn more about other research in this area and acquire a broad range of knowledge in the field of mental health research. 

What does the Vanier award mean to you? Winning a Vanier Graduate Scholarship is an incredible honour. As a graduate student, I am committed to growing as a leader in my research field and in my community, and I believe that being a recipient of the Vanier CGS will further motivate me to achieve my full leadership potential. Additionally, this award will allow me to focus entirely on my studies and will also give me the opportunity to attend important meetings where I will acquire new knowledge as well as share my findings with the wider research community. 

Other 2013 Vanier Recipients

  • Ricardo Alchini, Neurology And Neurosurgery
  • Rola Dali, Neurology And Neurosurgery
  • Nasr Ahmad Iqbal Farooqi, Neurology And Neurosurgery
  • Mohammad Faqrul Alam Chowdhury, Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Michael Lifshitz, Neurology And Neurosurgery