Department of Psychiatry’s Graduate Program Attracts Diverse Range of Student Researchers from Around the Globe

The Department of Psychiatry Graduate Program attracts Master’s and Doctoral level students from all over the world, exploring a broad range of research interests.

4 March 2021

Many students have earned undergraduate degrees in such fields as Biochemistry, Neuroscience or Psychology, and are pursuing advanced research training in basic and applied sciences relevant to Psychiatry.

The program doesn’t offer clinical training, but student research is conducted in a variety of clinical and lab settings, and students can pursue their degrees on either a part-time or full-time basis.

“We currently have about two dozen Master’s or PhD students enrolled in the Graduate Program, and because of the pandemic, all of the courses are now online. We’re using virtual tools to do assessments and everyone has become familiar with online platforms like Zoom, so that has been helpful,” says Dr. Allen Chan, Director of the Graduate Program.

“The research programs and the focus of investigators and students are quite diverse. They may be clinically oriented, or focused on the basic sciences, or Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Computational Psychiatry,” he adds.

“One success of note is an international student collaboration called the Chinese Scholarship Council, which funds trainees who come to the University of Alberta to pursue graduate studies. The U of A does really well with this, and our department does disproportionately well, so I see that as a real credit to us.”

He credits Dr. Xin-Min Li, former Chair of the Department of Psychiatry, and now the Associate Dean, International Relations at the U of A, with playing a key role in building the department’s international profile.

Huda Al-Shamali is a Master’s student with an undergraduate degree in Neuroscience from the University of Alberta, where both of her parents and an older brother also earned degrees.

“I’ve had a fascination with the complexity of the human mind since I was in high school. My undergrad program gave me a glimpse into the mind and an understanding of behaviour through that lens,” she says.

“My next step – doing a Master’s in Psychiatry – involves applying what I’ve learned, but also looking at the mind from the human perspective, how disorders are manifest and how people react to those changes.”

Al-Shamali’s research supervisor is Dr. Yanbo Zhang, an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry whose research interests include studying the effectiveness of novel therapies such as Low Field Magnetic Stimulation (LFMS) and Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS) in treating mental disorders.

Al-Shamali’s research will focus on the effectiveness, acceptance and safety of LFMS compared to rTMS, in treating patients for Peripartum or Postpartum Depression.

“We’ll be researching Depression in people who are pregnant or who are within the first four weeks after giving birth. This is both a fascinating and important topic because the effects of Depression in this population don’t just impact the mother but may also have intergenerational effects on her offspring,” she explains.

“Studies have shown that the children of women who have Depression that goes untreated may have developmental problems in terms of language, social skills and cognition. It can also lead to children who are more withdrawn or unable to properly regulate their emotions,” she adds.

“At the same time, women who have Depression that goes untreated are at higher risk of suicide and experience more self-harm, so it’s important to find different avenues of treatment for this population besides medication, since some mothers fear medications may impact their child if they’re pregnant, or if they’re breastfeeding.”

Al-Shamali hopes to begin recruitment for her study in April at Alberta Hospital Edmonton, with a goal of enrolling at least 60 subjects.

“I think the Master’s program – and research in general – is challenging, but it’s an amazing challenge that keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering what’s going to happen next. In undergrad you’re basically receiving knowledge. But when you’re doing research at this level, you’re joining that conversation and creating knowledge, so it’s very rewarding.”

PhD candidate Derek Pierce is a bit further along in his career than many Psychiatry Graduate Program students.

Pierce is registered with the College of Alberta Psychologists (CAP). He has half a decade of clinical counselling experience, and heads his own private consulting firm, Psych AB Assessments and Counselling Inc. He is also certified with the College of Vocational Rehabilitation Professionals (CVRP), and has years of private industry experience managing corporate programs related to job evaluations and workplace assessments.

As a part-time Doctoral student since he enrolled in the Graduate Program in January, Pierce’s busy weekly schedule combines two days largely devoted to academics with three days focused mainly on client consulting or project work.

“On Mondays and Wednesdays, I typically spend 14 to 16 hours on pure academics, including attending lab meetings, reading papers, and getting more competent in continuous development and improvement in Machine Learning. On those days I also serve clients, but I’ve reduced my client load to three to five client hours per week. It’s all focused on vocational rehabilitation, so I work a lot with the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB),” he says.

“On the other days – Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays – I spend about 27 hours working with companies like Valard Construction (a large utility contractor and Pierce’s former employer). They’re my main contract, but I work with others as well on disability programs, compensation programs and other things. I’m not training employees directly but I’m training the trainers.”

Pierce’s PhD research is supervised by Dr. Bo (Cloud) Cao, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Canada Research Chair in Computational Psychiatry. He is co-director of the Computational Psychiatry Group along with Dr. Russ Greiner, a Professor in the Department of Computing Science.

Dr. Greiner is also an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and one of the founding researchers with the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii), the flagship group of the U of A’s Signature Area A/4Society. The A/4 Society is one of the U of A’s five Signature Research Areas, and is focused on AI (Artificial Intelligence) and its applications.

The primary research focus of Dr. Cao and the Computational Psychiatry Group is applying Machine Learning and statistical analysis to the administrative health data, genetic, cognitive, behavioural and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) datasets of patients with psychiatric disorders, to improve precision diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of mental disorders.

“I’m the newest member of Dr. Cao’s research team, since I just started in January. I’ll be looking at the datasets of patients with psychiatric disorders, and examining which patients are (physiologically) similar, what were their outcomes, how they were treated for Major Depressive Disorder, for Addictions, for Schizophrenia and other conditions,” he says, in hopes of better targeting treatments and medications to reflect specific patient profiles.

Dr. Cao’s lab also works closely with Alberta’s Ministry of Health and Alberta Health Services (AHS).

“Our research team includes mathematicians, statisticians, Machine Learning experts on the Computer Science side, and medical professionals dealing with patients. There are several Postdocs in the Computational Psychiatry Group, and we’re also working with Neuroscientists and Psychiatrists, so it’s a multidisciplinary team,” he adds. “I feel very privileged to work with Dr. Cao, Dr. Greiner and Dr. Andy Greenshaw, a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and another core member of the Computational Psychiatry Group.”

Pierce describes his overall experience in the Graduate Program thus far as “very positive” and collegial.

“In business, people generally respond to a question within about 48 hours, but here it’s closer to 15 minutes. As the new guy I’ve been introducing myself to people as they pop into meetings and ask if we can do a one-on-one Zoom or Google Meet session so I can get to know them and vice versa, and no one has turned me down yet.”

Although the pandemic has made it difficult for students to interact face-to-face, Dr. Chan and Graduate Program Administrator Tara Checknita have tried to encourage a sense of community and connection through monthly Zoom meetings.

“The students have been pretty great about it. I know no one wants to go to yet another Zoom meeting, but I think they do get the sense that this is important,” says Dr. Chan.

“Now that we’ve reached a bit of equilibrium (in adjusting to the pandemic), we are hoping to enact some new initiatives this year that really exploit the diversity of research interests in our department, from personalized medicine and basic science to the clinical side and Computational Psychiatry. I’m hoping we can foster more interaction and collaboration at the student level.”