Two PhD students honoured with prestigious Dorothy J. Killam Memorial Graduate Prize

Albert Remus Rosana and Cassandra Wilkinson received $50,000 over the next two years to support their studies.

Katie Willis - 14 October 2020

Recognition with the Dorothy J. Killam Memorial Graduate Prize is a testament to a graduate student’s academic achievement and research—and not one but two of the three recipients of this prestigious award were Faculty of Science PhD students this fall.

In recognition of their outstanding research and community involvement PhD students Albert Remus Rosana in the Department of Chemistry and Cassandra Wilkinson in the Department of Psychology will receive a total of $100,000 over the next two years through the most prestigious graduate award administered by the University of Alberta. 

Wilkinson’s research centres on understanding and treating brain injury after stroke. She is supervised by Professor Fred Colbourne in the Department of Psychology and Associate Professor Glen Jickling in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry’s Department of Medicine.

Working under the supervision of John Vederas in the Department of Chemistry, Rosana is looking for new ways to stop the spread of mountain pine beetles in Western Canada and beyond. 

Join us in congratulating Rosana and Wilkinson on receiving this prestigious award, and learn more about their work. 

Albert Remus Rosana

PhD student Albert Remus Rosana.

Tell us about receiving a Killam Scholarship.

Getting recognized for my work as a graduate student means a lot for an international student like me. This helps in affirming the importance of our efforts, sacrifices and dreams. I think it also helps me highlight where I came from and provide inspiration to fellow graduate students.

This funding will further support me in completing several ongoing national and international collaborative projects. This financial support will help me focus on key priority projects such as the completion of the mountain pine beetle mitigation project as well as several international microbial systematics and agricultural microbiology projects. 

What is the focus of your research?

I am the lead graduate student working on the development of a promising new approach for controlling the spread of the mountain pine beetle epidemic that threatens not only the Western Canadian pine tree forest but the whole country's forest ecosystem. 

Canada's forest is an integral part of the Earth’s ecosystem as it influences the climate, contributes to CO2 uptake, provides wildlife habitat and clean water. Economically, it accounted for $19.8 billion of Canada's gross domestic product in 2013. This ecosystem is now threatened by the invasive mountain pine beetle as the insect crosses species barrier in the Rocky Mountains and potentially all the way to the East Coast if not mitigated. One promising alternative is the use of insect-killing molds like Beauveria bassiana. The elucidation and engineering of the unique beetle aggregation pheromones pathways into the mold will result in a targeted fatal attraction. A scenario where a mold-infected dead beetle will now produce the pheromone and will attract only the mountain pine beetles and a cascade of fatal attraction is expected. 

What makes the University of Alberta's Faculty of Science the ideal place to do this work?

The University of Alberta Faculty of Science is a very well-equipped faculty and with a large pool of interdisciplinary laboratories including the group of my supervisor, John Vederas in the Department of Chemistry. The NSERC strategic grant awarded to the project enabled us to perform a highly interdisciplinary approach by combining fungal genomics, synthetic biology and genetic engineering, forest biology, entomology and chemical biology in developing a potential mitigation approach for slowing down the further spread of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. 

I see my community engagement as a natural extension of my scientific career, a space in which I can use leadership skills and management experience to give back to the society funding my research.

Cassandra Wilkinson

PhD student Cassandra Wilkinson.

Tell us about receiving a Killam Scholarship.

I am incredibly honoured to receive a Killam Scholarship. Receiving this scholarship is exceptionally encouraging, and validates my work and previous research efforts. Academia can be filled with uncertainty, so it’s very reassuring to know I’m on the right track.

What is the focus of your research? 

My research focuses on brain injury after stroke. Specifically, after a large bleed in the brain, the blood and the associated swelling drive up the pressure in the skull. This increased pressure can lead to worsened injury and death. My lab has recently discovered that after a large stroke in rats, the brain cells far away from the injury will shrink in volume and pack closer together, likely to make room for the bleed. 

My PhD research will focus on figuring out how this happens, what the side effects of cell compression are, and if this happens in people with large strokes. Brain cells make up a large portion of the brain, and we’ve found some neuron cell bodies shrink by up to 50%. This could save a lot of space in the skull, and prevent deaths from high pressure. However, proper brain function relies on a tightly regulated environment, and a change this drastic has consequences on functional outcome after stroke. 

It may turn out that the transient cell volume reductions are ultimately beneficial, and in that case, treatments may enhance this effect in people to reduce damage. On the other hand, side effects of cell compression could be doing more harm than good, in which case, treatments could be studied to block this cell shrinking. I’m very excited to be a part of this new research area, and I can’t wait to see how my research can be applied in the future. 

What makes the University of Alberta's Faculty of Science the ideal place to do this work?

The Faculty of Science has state-of-the-art equipment and services that we use, such as the Canadian Centre for Isotope Microanalysis in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. Additionally, the collaborative nature within the Faculty of Science and the Department of Psychology has provided me with a variety of research experiences I never thought I would have. 

For example, through my coursework, I was able to complete an independent study in Kyle Mathewson’s lab, where we studied the use of portable EEG as a diagnostic tool for stroke patients at the University of Alberta hospital. This not only helped me develop my EEG skills, it was also my first experience working with human participants, and a great learning experience. The resources, opportunity, and researchers within the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta make this the ideal place for me to complete my graduate studies. 

The Dorothy J. Killam Memorial Graduate Prize is awarded annually to the most outstanding Killam Memorial Scholarship recipients at the U of A. It was made possible by the Killam Trusts, which are among Canada's largest and most prestigious endowments for scholarly activities.