Killam Scholarship awarded to pediatric grad student

Sarah Raza wants to understand how autism develops early in life

Tamara Vineberg - 01 November 2019

A pediatrics graduate student has received a prestigious award. PhD candidate Sarah Raza is one of the 14 students awarded the Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship, valued at $45,000 a year for two years. The University of Alberta is one of four Killam Institutes that have benefitted from the estate of Dorothy Killam. It was her desire that those awarded scholarships and fellowships be likely to contribute to the advancement of learning or to win distinction in their profession.

We spoke with Raza (supervisor Lonnie Zwaigenbaum) about her research and the impact of the scholarship.

What does your research focus on?
My research focuses on understanding how autism develops early in life. Autism is a common developmental disability that affects how a child interacts with others from a very early age. Although autism is often not diagnosed until age four, the earliest signs may appear in a child's first year of life, such as difficulties with emotional reactions. My research aims to answer why difficulties in regulating emotions are risk markers for autism. I am testing 'high-risk' infants (infants whose older sibling has autism) during an emotion task, using a novel behavioural-physiological approach. This research project may help us learn how to identify autism earlier - promoting earlier diagnosis, treatment, and improving long-term outcomes for these children. Therefore, this research will improve our understanding of how autism develops in infants and may open the doors for developing treatments and intervention programs that may reduce expression of autism.

Why did you choose to focus your graduate studies in pediatrics?
My interest in pediatric research began during my undergraduate education. Over the course of four years, I had the opportunity to work as a research assistant in a developmental neuroscience laboratory. My time at the laboratory consisted of working on several projects focused on understanding the role of early positive and negative experiences on brain development and later outcomes, with implications for health in human populations. As a student, it was very rewarding to see the potential clinical implications of my research. This experience led me to pursue graduate school with a focus in pediatrics, as I desired to learn more about neurodevelopment in autism and apply this knowledge to a real-world setting. This shifted my career pursuits to clinical research, where I sought to work with clinicians to translate research findings from 'bench to bedside' and improve outcomes of children living with autism.

What other degrees do you have and what did they focus on?
I have a bachelor of science in biological sciences, as well as a master of science focused in neuroscience. My M.Sc. research was an extension of what I worked on during my undergrad, where I studied the brain-behaviour relationship in autism.

What does receiving the Killam Scholarship mean to you?
Receiving the Killam award is very exciting and a tremendous honour. To be honest, I am a bit beyond words! It is very encouraging to hear that others - especially those from other fields - appreciate my research and find it valuable. The award reminds me that I have a large support system, both within and outside of the university, supporting my research journey and aspirations. It is a wonderful and reassuring feeling.

What are your plans after you complete your graduate studies?
Over the course of my graduate training, I have refined my research skills and now, in the midst of my PhD, I am currently developing and refining a new clinical skill set. I believe the combined experiences of basic and clinical research will allow me to achieve my goal of becoming a developmental neuroscientist actively engaged in translational research. By combining knowledge from my lab research with my clinical research, it is my hope that this will provide me with a "big picture" understanding of early development in autism, and promote effective critical thinking skills from multiple lenses. In addition to ongoing research, I would like to gain additional training in science policy/advocacy and work with stakeholders to guide clinical practice, public policy, and improve long-term outcomes for children with neurodevelopmental disorders.

Learn why the U of A is a Killam Institution
Read more about Killam Trust Scholarships