The Sara Al-Bader Memorial Award

The Sara Al-Bader Memorial Award

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By Rebecca M. Ruddy

In the spring of 2011, the Institute of Medical Science (IMS) established an annual award to recognize the academic excellence of international students in memory of IMS student, Sara Al-Bader. Sara was a highly accomplished student from Britain. After receiving her BSc in Physics and MSc in the History of Philosophy of Science from the University of London., she moved to Toronto to pursue doctoral studies with the IMS in the area of global health.. Her research was based at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health, where she focused on science-based health innovation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Tragically, in November of 2010, while Sara and her husband, Michael Smoughton, were driving to Montreal, they were involved in a head-on collision that took their lives. This terrible loss was felt by her family, friends, peers and colleagues at the University of Toronto. At the time of the accident, Sara was nearing completion of her PhD thesis. While those closest to her were still mourning her loss, they also began to think about how they could honour Sara and her hard work. Following her tragic passing, friends and colleagues decided to finish what Sara had started. They were resolved to complete Sara’s doctoral thesis to the best of their ability to ensure that Sara would receive the degree she worked so hard for and so that the scientific community could still benefit from her work and research. After countless hours of hard work and dedication, her friends and colleagues completed Sara’s thesis and submitted it for external review. In November of 2011, Sara’s parents traveled to Toronto to watch as Sara was posthumously awarded her well-deserved doctoral degree.

After the bestowment of her posthumous degree, the Institute of Medical Science decided to preserve her memory and created an award in her honour. The Sara Al-Bader Memorial Award was established to acknowledge senior international students in IMS who display outstanding promise in academics and research. It is awarded to students who have achieved academic excellence in the department and display the promise in scientific research that Sara clearly demonstrated. To date, there have been three recipients of the Sara Al-Bader Memorial Award: Dr. Phan Sok (2012), Dr. Fabio Salamanca-Buentello (2013) and most recently, Dr. Cornelia McCormick.

The recipient of this year’s Sara Al-Bader Memorial Award exemplifies the qualities that this award represents. Cornelia (Conny) McCormick (nee Fortmeier) is an accomplished student and scientist. After corresponding with and reading about Conny, it became clear why she was chosen as this year’s recipient. She has a passion for pursuing knowledge, both through her current research and throughout her multiple degrees, where she has achieved academic excellence. It was evident that her experience at the Institute of Medical Science was life changing both personally and professionally and has helped her work toward achieving her goals.

Connie first visited Toronto in 2006, where she came to appreciate the research atmosphere and multidisciplinary environment of the IMS. At the time, Conny was studying psychology as well as pursuing her medical degree in Germany when Drs. Morris Moscovitch and Mary Pat McAndrews at the University of Toronto raised the opportunity to collaborate. Without knowing anybody and with it being her first time traveling outside of Europe, Conny came to Toronto.  She immediately met new people and began a fruitful collaboration with the researchers at the IMS. She then returned to Germany to finish her medical degree and was awarded her MD in 2010. However, her work at the IMS laid the foundation for her to return to Toronto in 2010 to begin her doctoral degree with Drs. Moscovitch, McAndrews and Taufik Valiante.

Under the supervision of these three researchers, Conny was able to pursue her research interests in memory and the hippocampus. More specifically, her research focused on memory and connectivity in patients with medial temporal lobe epilepsy. Conny published in many peer-review journals and successfully defended her thesis in May. She subsequently obtained her doctorate degree in June 2014.

Upon hearing the news of being awarded the Sara Al-Bader award, Conny was very happy and felt honored to be this year’s recipient. She had recently accepted a post-doctoral position in London and the monetary award was extremely helpful in facilitating the move overseas. Conny mentioned that for her “the Al-Bader award stands for friendship and carrying through what students started.” She was tremendously grateful that the IMS had such esteem for her and her work to present her with this prestigious award.

In the continued pursuit of knowledge and research for clinical applications, Conny is currently studying as a post-doctoral fellow at the Welcome Trust Center for Neuroimaging in London, England under the supervision of Dr. Eleanor Maguire. Conny’s research interests have always centered on the hippocampus and memory function, which she continues to pursue. She investigates autobiographical memory and how this may be affected following hippocampal injury. Her post-doctoral studies focus specifically on studying patient populations with hippocampal damage using cutting edge neuroimaging techniques. In the future, Conny hopes her professional experience will position her to be an independent scientist. With her background in psychology and medicine she wants to continue working “on the border of clinically and theoretically relevant research.”

As a medical doctor and accomplished researcher at the Institute of Medical Science, Conny offered this advice to other international IMS students: “Enjoy your time. Have fun and don’t get too stressed about your degree. If you keep doing what you like to do, it will all fall in place.” She is honoured to be this year’s recipient of the Sara Al-Bader Memorial Award.