Jeremies Ibanga receives Personnel Award for Black Scholars

Inaugural award from CIHR, Heart & Stroke and Brain Canada will fund master’s student’s research on the role of gangliosides in brain disorders.

16 February 2024

At age 13, Jeremies Ibanga moved from Accra, the capital city of the west African country of Ghana with more than five million inhabitants to the small, windswept town of Drumheller in southern Alberta.

That sort of jarring change of location during adolescence could produce a cultural shock but a couple of teachers eased the transition for Jeremies.

“I had two teachers, Mr. Solomon in junior high and Mr. Rasmussen in high school, that really inspired me. I was lucky that I had not just one but two extremely enthusiastic, energetic science teachers,” he says. “It made my decision to pursue a career in science a no-brainer.”

That decision led Ibanga to the University of Alberta, where he received his bachelor’s in science (pharmacology). He’s now working on his master’s degree, where he is studying the role of gangliosides, a type of molecule found in the brain, in hopes of developing new therapies for brain disorders. His work was recently recognized by Heart & Stroke, along with Brain Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health (CIHR-ICRH), who named him as one of 19 recipients of the first-ever Personnel Awards for Black Scholars.

“Receiving this award has significantly bolstered my confidence in my research project. It is really uplifting to know that fellow scientists see the potential of your research and are equally excited about your progress,” he says.

Ibanga was one of 12 MSc students and seven PhD students from across Canada to receive the award, which was launched in 2023 with the goal of promoting Black representation in the heart and brain health research communities. It will provide financial support for 12 master’s students for up to two years and seven doctoral students for up to three years. Reducing financial barriers will allow outstanding students to focus on their studies, undertake a program of research and engage with mentors as part of their training and development.

"Opportunities like this truly make pursuing a career in science much more feasible,” he says. “And receiving this award has reaffirmed my intent to make a positive impact in my field and serve as a role model for future Black scientists.”

The award will help him to continue a dream that started when he was a child, accompanying his mother to a doctor’s appointment to manage her asthma.

“I remember trying to wrap my head around how a puff of her chalky-smelling inhaler possessed the power to quell her wheezing and alleviate her difficulty breathing. That’s where my interest in pharmacology began,” says Ibanga, who was born in Lagos, Nigeria before moving to Accra as a child. “My graduate project is focused on understanding how key ‘fat’ molecules known as gangliosides induce neurons to create nanoparticles that are used to eliminate toxic mutant proteins from cells. These may be especially relevant to neurological disorders such as Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. During my undergraduate degree, I became increasingly interested in drug discovery and chronic health conditions. Choosing to study how a potential therapeutic for a brain disorder works just made sense.”

And Ibanga is happy to continue that journey at the U of A under the supervision of Simonetta Sipione.

“I really enjoy when we get together to discuss science. Simo is so passionate about science; it’s electrifying. We can sit and discuss data, plan experiments, and laugh at her mistranslated Italian idioms for hours,” he says. “I am also a big fan of when she gives me her tickets to classical music concerts.”

Seeing Ibanga recognized also pleases Sipione.

“I am very proud of the Black Scholars award obtained by Jeremies. As a principal investigator and academic advisor, I have the privilege of working with talented young individuals like Jeremies, whose infectious energy and enthusiasm can brighten the lab and the day,” says Sipione, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology. “I believe Jeremies will go far in life and professionally. I look forward to seeing Jeremies' research and professional accomplishments, and what the future holds for him.”

Ibrahim Khodabocus was the other U of A student to receive an award (you can read his story here).