SURP Research Day 2019: A great day of learning and discovery

SURP Research Day 2019: A great day of learning and discovery

By Sonja Elsaid

The 36th Institute of Medical Science (IMS) Annual SURP (Summer Undergraduate Research Program) Research Day was held on August 14, 2019, at Hart House. SURP Research Day was the concluding event of a 12 –week summer research program, bringing together undergraduate students from around the globe. This excellent program has been led for almost a decade by Dr. Vasundara Venkateswaran,  Professor at the Department of Surgery and Graduate Coordinator and Director (SURP) at the IMS, University of Toronto (U of T). I had an opportunity to interview Dr. Venkateswaran about the aims and benefits of the program and how the program has evolved over the years under Dr. Venkateswaran’s guidance.

Photo by Nathan Chan

According to Dr. Venkateswaran, the primary aim of SURP is to give undergraduate science and medical students firsthand experience working at the bench and clinical research at the U of T and its affiliated hospitals. This year nearly 100 students enrolled in the program to conduct research in the number of diverse fields of medical science, including neuroscience, cardiology, infectious diseases, rheumatology, audiology, cancer, ophthalmology, transplant medicine, and pain management.   Students attending the program, benefit from the opportunity to test whether medical research is what they want to pursue before committing to a long-term graduate program. For some students, there is also an opportunity to obtain their graduate training from IMS faculty supervising their SURP project. One of the main advantages of being in the program is the opportunity to participate in weekly SURP seminars, journal clubs, and workshops. The seminars are not only rendered by IMS faculty, but by IMS graduate students who readily share their experiences with undergrads regarding graduate research, interaction with supervisors, and the skills and mindset needed to navigate both. In order to receive the SURP certificate of completion, each student is required to present either a poster or a podium presentation at the SURP Research Day. These presentations are judged by a group of IMS faculty members as well as the IMS graduate students.

Photo by Nathan Chan

Under the leadership of Dr. Venkateswaran’s the number of SURP awards that were presented at the  Research Day increased 10 fold. Initially there were only 2 awards, one for the first place and a second for the honorable mention. However, Dr. Venkateswaran’s has in place 2 awards for each group of 10-12 students.  Her aim of increasing the number of awards is to motivate the students to pursue research and encourage a healthy competition among the students.  Furthermore, at each SURP Research Day many excellent posters and presentations are regularly delivered, so it is difficult to select 2 winners among nearly 100 students.  The winners are presented books that are personally selected by Dr. Venkateswaran. These new implementations to SURP are a reflection of Dr. Venkateswaran’s generous nature and her dedication in educating both undergraduate and graduate students.

This year’s SURP Research Day commenced with a welcome note from Dr. Mingyao Liu ― Director of the IMS and Professor of Surgery, Medicine, and Physiology at the Faculty of Medicine, U of T, followed by introduction of the Keynote speaker by Dr. Venkateswaran. Michelle Dubinsky, Ph.D. student at the IMS, was the Master of Ceremonies and helped coordinate the research day. Dr. Alan Kaplan delivered an excellent keynote presentation titled: “Genes or Jeans? The Etiology and Treatment of Anorexia Nervosa”. Dr. Kaplan is the Vice-Dean of the IMS, Senior Clinician/Scientist, Chief of Research at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, Vice-Chair for Research and Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the U of T. His presentation described the latest research findings on genetic predispositions to Anorexia Nervosa and how these predispositions, in combination with psychological, socio-cultural, and environmental factors, contributed to the pathogenesis of the disorder. Dr. Kaplan’s presentation was followed by six podium presentations by students on the topics of brain injury, psoriatic arthritis, clinical trials, Chinese medicine, acute myeloid leukemia, and diabetic retinopathy.

Photo by Nathan Chan

The afternoon session included excellent poster presentations by the remaining 94 undergraduate students. I spoke to a few students about their experiences in the program. Ming Mao―a third-year medical student from Shandong University in China―joined the program because he was specifically interested in U of T’s cutting-edge research in epilepsy and neurodegenerative disorders. Ming enjoyed his summer research experience so much that he expressed an interest in pursuing his graduate training at the IMS after completing his medical degree. Ming’s project was on histological verification of a novel non-lesioned seizure mouse model, which he conducted under the supervision of Dr. Liang Zhang―the Associate Professor of Neurology and an Affiliate Scientist at the Krembil Research Institute.

Sandra Vijayan―a first-year medical student from Dublin, Ireland―joined the program because she wanted to get her firsthand experience in research. She worked under the supervision of Dr. Nigil Haroon―the Assistant Professor of Medicine and Rheumatology and Clinician-scientist at the Toronto Western Hospital and Krembil Research Institute. Her summer research was on ossification in ankylosing spondylitis under hypoxic conditions. Sandra described her experience as “revelational” and she was very much inspired being mentored by senior graduate students in Dr. Haroon’s lab.

I also interviewed Karen Arevalo―a third-year undergraduate student from McMaster University―enrolled in the Integrated Science program.  During the interview, Karen shared her struggles with getting a summer research job due to the large number of applicants interested, while there is only a limited number of summer research positions available.  Being previously unsuccessful in getting the summer research position, Karen spent her summers working as a waitress.  This year, Karen decided to test her luck and reach out to all potential supervisors working in the scientific research at the U of T―near her home residence in Vaughan.  She was fortunate to be recruited by Dr. Aaron Schimmer―Senior Scientist and the Director of Research Institute at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.  Karen’s firsthand experience working in Dr. Schimmer’s lab with the animal model of acute myeloid leukemia was transformational, as after completing the 12-week program, Karen decided to pursue academic research as her long-life career.  While attending the SURP program, Karen mostly enjoyed the weekly speaker seminars, interacting with the IMS graduate students and learning “the art of presenting research,” which she learned quite well, since Karen was the podium presentation winner.

Photo by Nathan Chan

Aside from Karen Arevalo’s first prize podium presentation, during the award ceremony, 11 other undergraduate students received first prizes for their excellent poster presentations. The first prize poster winners were: Roshanak Asgariroozbehani, Leon Chi, Tiffany Got, Sae Hoon (Dave) Gwun, Seung Heyck Lee, Benjamin Liu, Michael Peng, Jared Riviere, Joelle Soriano, Sandra Vijayan, and Qin Yi (Teresa) Zhu.  Also, 12 other students received honorable mentions, as they were runner-up winners in each competition category.  For the first time this year, Jasmine Quigley Memorial Award was given at the SURP.  The award was created to support the excellent work of an undergraduate summer student whose project was related to the topic of biotechnology as applied to neuroscience/mental health field.

The first recipient of this award was Lara Murphy, who presented a poster titled: “Gene-drug pairing for antidepressants and antipsychotics: A review of the level of evidence using expert consensus recommendations.”  The Quigley family presented the award shortly before the conclusion of the event.

After yet another successful SURP Research Day, Dr. Venkateswaran congratulated all the students on successfully completing their projects and thanked the IMS administrative staff, graduate students, judges, and sponsors who contributed to making the event possible.  Overall, SURP Research Day 2019 was a great day of learning and discovery.

IMS writer Sonja Elsaid is a 2nd year IMS Ph.D. student investigating brain function and cannabis use in individuals with social anxiety. Prior to going back to school, Sonja was a clinical research and medical communications professional with nearly 20 years of experience.