2018 Vanier Scholars

Meet some of the 2018 recipients of Canada’s most prestigious graduate awards, exemplifying academic excellence across the full range of disciplines.


​Sarah Barnett-Burns, Integrated Studies in Neuroscience

Depression as a gut feeling: The gut microbiome as a mediating factor in the dysregulation of the gut-vagus-brain epigenome in the context of depression

We have evolved within a perpetual biochemical conversation with our resident gut microbes. However, we are only beginning to understand how their collective genome influences our own. Recent preclinical research has expanded the conventional view of this “gut microbiome”, from a requisite digestive aid, to an important modulator of almost every major system in the body, including the central nervous system. This paradigm shift has led to increased interest in the gut microbiome as a possible factor in the etiology of major psychopathologies, such as depression.

It is well established that neurons in our intestine can ‘talk’ to neurons in our brain via the vagus nerve, as part of the bidirectional signaling system called the gut-brain axis. Animal research further suggests that altering the gut microbiome can alter mood and behavior. However, the molecular mechanisms by which the gut microbiome might modulate gut-brain signaling are unknown. My research investigates differences in the gut microbiomes of depressed individuals who died by suicide compared to controls and aims to test whether the presence of specific species predicts changes in gene regulatory processes, collectively known as epigenetics, in the neurons along the gut-vagus-brain axis. As the first investigation of the gut-microbiome-brain epigenome, this project will further our understanding of microbial-host interactions, which may be a factor in multiple other diseases and an important target for future interventions.


Monica Batac, School of Social Work

Filipino workers in Ontario’s settlement sector: examining care deficits and local links in the global care chain using Q-Methodology

In Canada, the settlement sector commonly hires immigrants to serve clients from their own ethno-racial communities. As former practitioners in care professions, active volunteers in the community, and/or former recipients of settlement services themselves, immigrant settlement workers occupy important roles in service provision, supporting newcomers and immigrants integrate into Canadian society, including helping them to find housing, develop new social connections, learn English or French, or enter the Canadian workforce. However, settlement workers work within challenging and unstable labour conditions, driven by ever-changing, short-term funding priorities and budgets of federal and provincial governments.


To date, only a handful of studies have focused on individuals employed on the “frontlines” of this work. Immigrant women are overrepresented in frontline positions in community-based settlement agencies, and the positions they occupy in the sector are often part-time and among the lowest paid. They face limited opportunities for career advancement and professional development. Further, immigrant settlement workers have reported emotional and mental stress from working in this sector and lack opportunities to receive support services as an employee. Thus, while immigrant settlement workers provide essential support to newcomers in Canada, they themselves receive few care supports. While actively supporting other newcomers and care workers, what are the care needs of immigrant settlement workers? Where do they seek and receive such care?

My dissertation research will focus on the specific experiences of Filipino settlement workers in Ontario. My interest in this area stems from my involvement in the Filipino community in Toronto, my community-based practice in the settlement service sector, and my social location as a Filipina-Canadian.


Costin Ciobanu, Political Science

Accountability in Times of Democratic Deconsolidation. A Novel Test of the Functioning of Central and Eastern European Democracies

Costin's research focuses on the intersection between voting behavior and the economy in Eastern and Western Europe. Specifically, he is interested in how global and domestic economic performance impacts voters' decisions and democratic accountability. Given that democratic deconsolidation threatens both mature and new democracies, Costin seeks to understand the extent of this threat through assessing the ability of elections in Europe to produce responsive governments and function as accountability mechanisms.


Guido Guberman, Integrated Program in Neuroscience

Investigating the link between mild traumatic brain injuries and aggressive behaviour: an advanced structural neuroimaging study of brain injured children

Mild traumatic brain injuries, or concussions, are extremely prevalent and can have devastating consequences, including cognitive impairments and behavioural problems. Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of concussions, given the rapid developmental changes ongoing in their brains. The majority of concussions are undetectable via conventional imaging methods, making their diagnosis challenging. Furthermore, their extensive heterogeneity in terms of mechanism of injury, affected brain areas, symptoms, and recovery periods, make their prognosis and management equally challenging. Diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI), a form of magnetic resonance imaging, provides information about the brain’s white-matter, which is often affected in concussions. It is possible to use DWI to study white matter microstructure, as well as the brain’s structural connectome. Despite increased use of rudimentary forms of DWI in concussion management, these techniques have limited sensitivity and specificity due to methodological shortcomings. However, recent advances in DWI have addressed these limitations and can now achieve more accurate reconstructions of the brain’s connectome and provide more informative measures of white matter microstructure.

My research consists in using these advanced forms of DWI to improve detection of concussions in children, as well as prediction of symptoms and tracking of brain recovery. I will reconstruct children’s structural connectomes and study their topology as well as their microstructure in order to better understand the neuropathology of concussions. I will also combine these methods with supervised statistical learning approaches in order to determine whether concussions can be subdivided into different neurological entities based on their impact on structural connectivity. Lastly, I will explore whether these putative concussion subtypes have different clinical profiles. By taking advantage of the most recent advances in DWI, my doctoral work has the potential to improve diagnostic criteria, prediction of symptoms and recovery periods, and ultimately the management of children with concussions.


Jayne Malenfant, Integrated Studies in Education

Ensuring Access to Effective Education for Homeless Youth: How Can We Navigate an Increasingly Neoliberal Economic Context?

Malenfant’s research contributes to a growing body of knowledge on approaches to learning that encourage innovative and equitable participation in the future global economy, though is unique in its specific focus on how to effectively prepare Canada’s precariously housed youth for these shifts. Youth who are or have experienced home-lessness are less likely to graduate high school or enrol in post-secondary studies, mak-ing them extraordinarily vulnerable to employment precarity. Her project will provide an empirical investigation – conducted from the embodied standpoints of precariously housed youth – of the policy and institutional factors which enable/constrain their edu-cational participation. This research seeks to address young people’s fundamental hu-man rights to housing, education and work through an analysis of the systemic and structural barriers youth face across these intersecting domains.


Shanti Nachtergaele, Music

The Birth of Modern Double Bass Playing at the Prague and Paris Conservatories, ca. 1810–1850.

While research on early forms of the double bass has made great progress in recent years, few studies investigate how these instruments were actually played. Double bass method books from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries demonstrate greater technical diversity than is observable in performances today; however, this diversity diminished over the course of the nineteenth century as European conservatories established double bass classes and made efforts to standardize technique. I propose to study the role that two particularly influential institutions, the Prague and Paris conservatories, played in standardizing double bass technique and establishing the German and French schools of double bass playing that remain dominant today. I will also experiment with and compare the techniques outlined in historical double bass methods in order to evaluate their potential effects on musical performances.


Emilie Parent, Physics

An in-depth study of the most rapidly rotating neutron stars in our Galaxy

My research focuses on a special kind of celestial objects: neutron stars. These are the dead relics of massive stars that died in supernovae, and are the densest and most magnetized objects in the universe. The majority of neutron stars are observed as pulsating stars (“pulsars”): a short pulse of light at radio frequencies is detected each time the star completes one rotation on itself. Finding these small objects in our galaxy using large radio telescopes is challenging, and requires special search techniques. In addition to developing tools to search for pulsars in our galaxy, I study pulsars found in orbit around companion stars. These systems offer opportunities for studying notably stellar evolution, binary dynamics and theories of gravity in the strong regime.


Xavier Phaneuf-Jolicoeur, Département de langue et littérature françaises

Faire le mort : continuité et rupture chez Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Claude Simon et Marguerite Duras

Ma recherche portera sur des récits, publiés au sortir de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, qui paraissent s’abandonner au pire dont l’Occident bouleversé se découvre alors capable – Molloy, Malone meurt (1951) et L’Innommable (1953) de Samuel Beckett, Féerie pour une autre fois (1952 et 1954) de Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Moderato cantabile (1958) de Marguerite Duras, ainsi que La Route des Flandres (1960) de Claude Simon. J’y interrogerai un motif paradoxal : tout s’y passe comme si les personnages, contraints d’affronter les aspects les plus sombres de l’expérience humaine, devant la menace de leur propre anéantissement, se trouvaient à épouser les traits de la mort pour lui échapper ; ainsi, ils font le mort, accélérant ce qui semble être un mouvement vers le pire, faisant même mine de lui succomber, mais pour arriver à survivre.


Justin Raycraft, Anthropology

Conflict or Coexistence? The Changing Social and Political Landscapes of Human-Wildlife Interactions in Northern Tanzania

Justin specializes in environmental anthropology and conservation photography. His research draws from post-structuralist and materialist approaches to the political ecology of marine and wildlife conservation in Tanzania. His specific areas of theoretical inquiry are the intersections between conservation (science and practice) and evolving technologies of government. He is especially interested in the interplay between space, politics, and subjectivity in the context of conservation areas and landscapes. His doctoral project at McGill examines pastoralist land use and livelihood practices in a wildlife corridor in northern Tanzania, with ethnographic attention to conflicts between humans and elephants. In support of this project, he was recently awarded the Richard Salisbury Award, a scholarship offered annually by the Canadian Anthropology Society to an exceptional doctoral student studying at a Canadian University. Justin’s photographs have been published by notable magazines and news platforms, including National Geographic and the Nature Conservancy. His research has been published in well-known journals, including Marine Pollution Bulletin and Ethnobiology Letters. Justin is very grateful for the support of his MA supervisor at UBC, Dr. Vinay Kamat, and his doctoral supervisor at McGill, Dr. John Galaty. Justin’s academic successes are in large part a product of their dedicated mentorship and guidance.


James Rickards, Mathematics and Statistics

Intersection numbers of geodesics on Shimura curves and modular curves.

Explicit class field theory for real quadratic fields is a subject which has been very difficult to develop, in stark contrast to the imaginary quadratic field case. I am working on transferring ideas and results from the imaginary side to the real side, using a new approach to the subject by my advisor Prof. Darmon and his postdoctoral student Dr. Vonk. My main focus so far has been taking a Riemann surface coming from a discrete subgroup of PSL(2,R), considering the hyperbolic geodesics on the surface, and computing how many times they intersect. This computation is conjecturally related to exponents appearing in the prime factorization of certain generators of ring class fields over real quadratic fields.


Iris Kahtehrón:ni Stacey, Education

Investigating the Vital Role of L2 Speakers in Indigenous Languages Revitalization

Iris Kahtehrón:ni Stacey will be investigating the needs of adult second language speakers of Kanien’keha to carry a strengthened, unabridged language into the future. Through Participatory Action Research, this study will assist us in determining the most effective learning approaches for advanced speakers of Indigenous languages to reach a mastery level of proficiency through an Indigenization and exploration of second language pedagogies. The research will underscore the importance of strategic language planning for communities to ensure the tools are in place for second language speakers to successfully pass the language on to their next generations. This research will contribute to knowledge in the field of Indigenous language revitalization both nationally and globally.


Joanna Szyszkowicz

The Gut Microbiome as a Key Regulator of Early Life Stress Induced Depression – A Translational Mouse Model


Ran van der Wal, Family Medicine

Vulnerable young women in Botswana co-design solutions to improve access to government support programs: a structural approach to HIV prevention

Botswana’s HIV prevalence is among the highest worldwide and ongoing transmission remains high. Vulnerable young women (15-29 years; unemployed and out-of-school) are at high risk of HIV infection, as structural factors such as poverty and gender violence undermine their ability to negotiate safe sex. Once infected, they represent a critical reservoir for continued HIV transmission. My research contributes to INSTRUCT - a national structural HIV prevention trial in Botswana (ISRCTN54878784). INSTRUCT works to transform HIV risk through an enabling environment advancing choice, opportunities and the capabilities to leverage these. My project supports client-led improvement of social support programs to increase access to employment and education by vulnerable young women and hence reduce their risk of HIV infection. This project should contribute to concrete gains in empowerment, social justice and HIV protection for the most marginalized young women in Botswana and offer transferable lessons to reverse the HIV epidemic globally.