Science & Tech

The Virtual UROP Symposium was held on March 17. Image: Rame Abdulkader/Fulcrum
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At the U of O’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) Symposium on March 17th, ten finalists showcased their research projects. To qualify for finals, students had to work with a supervising professor on a research topic of their choice. Then, at the end of the year, they had to create an abstract and a poster for their research. 

Last year’s 2020 Symposium was canceled due to COVID-19. So, to make up for the cancelation, the organizers combined UROP 2020 and UROP 2021, and allowed five finalists from each year to present three-minute snapshots of their work.

The UROP 2020 winners are Lynn Kndakji in first place, Joshua Chung in second, and Stéphanie Drouin in third. Winners for UROP 2021 are Aniqa Sheikh in first place, Meghana Kesanakurti in second, and Alexandra Provost in third.

Each participant focused on topics wildly different from the other. For example, Sheikh’s research focuses on how the pandemic impacts Islamic funeral traditions. Meanwhile, Drouin’s research focuses on how people express their sexuality online within the context of COVID-19. 

However, there was a recurring theme during this Symposium — healthcare research. 

Groundbreaking health research on display 

Kndakji, a recent graduate from the U of O’s ophthalmic medical technology program and first place winner for UROP 2020, “was taken aback” when she won, it was a “pleasant surprise” she said.

For her project, Kndakji tried to answer the question: why are there limited corneal tissues available for transplants in Canada? 

Through her research, she found out that the problem is not, “for lack of cornea donors, but rather it is a lack of corneal tissue available at the exact right time the transplants are performed.” 

She learned from the Eye Bank of Canada that “most surgeons prefer to use newer corneas compared to older ones for transplants,” said Kndakji. 

Their ideal time frame for cornea use is within seven days after the removal of the donor’s eye. After seven days, the cornea is believed to be less useful. 

However, Kndakji found no evidence in the literature to show that corneas are only viable within the first seven days after their extraction. 

So, through her study, she found that corneas are equally useful — whether kept in storage for seven or 14 days.

“Our project reassures both surgeons and patients that a longer storage time is not at the expense of corneal tissue quality,” said Kndakji. 

Another health science researcher, Kesanakurti, a second-year biomedical science student at U of O, won second place for UROP 2021 for her research on melanoma.

Kesanakurti conducted a literature review to research the possibility of a portable device that people can use to screen for colour changes to their skin and ultimately detect melanoma.

“Melanoma is an aggressive form of skin cancer which can be deadly, especially at later stages. This makes early diagnosis necessary for an increased chance at survival,” said Kesanakurti. 

“Wouldn’t it be convenient to have a device for people to efficiently detect melanoma? This would be especially convenient for those who do not have immediate access to a physician.”

Through UROP, both Kndakji and Kesanakurti helped generate new information about how to improve efficiency in healthcare. 

Life after UROP

Program leaders, Julie Vaillancourt and Arturo Segura believe the research program helps participants make future career decisions. 

“Many students that participate in UROP don’t have a lot of experience in research,” said Segura. 

Vaillancourt said, “[UROP’s] a great way for students to learn about whether they like research, which can [either] save them from investing in a two-year master’s program or inspire them to pursue a career in research.” 

Kesanakurti is one of those students who was inspired by her UROP experience. 

“For me, this was a really motivating experience … although it was intimidating at first, it turned out to be really fun and I learned a lot.” 

Further, based on her UROP experience, Kesanakurti knows that she wants to do research throughout her career. 

Vaillancourt knows that Kesanakurt’s career goals are plausible since, according to her, “Many students who complete UROP go on to secure research contracts in their fields of study. Or, their UROP research propels them into great co-ops or graduate studies programs.” 

“This is an experiential learning program,” she added. “Students even get support from UROP mentors who host workshops for abstract writing and poster writing. It is a good professional development opportunity.”

One of these mentors is Ines Barrakad, a third-year translational and molecular medicine student. Barrakad helped mentor student researchers affiliated with the faculty of medicine and the faculty of engineering. 

Barrakad first got involved in UROP 2019 as a participant. She did her research project on progeria syndrome, a genetic disorder that increases the speed at which children age. 

“The reason I got involved in UROP was to prepare myself for a career in research. I wanted to gain more knowledge on all aspects of research like how to write abstracts and research posters,” said Barrakad

Last year, Barrakad’s mentor encouraged her to apply for a mentorship position, and now, she encourages UROP participants to apply as well.

“If you’re thinking of applying, just try. During the interview process, I was told that a lot of people applied, which kind of made me nervous … but I stayed honest about what I could offer the team,” and she was asked to join UROP 2021 as a mentor. 

While this year’s event was a success, organizers are already thinking about next year’s UROP Symposium. 

Segura understands that because the event is virtual, it is difficult for all students to share their work with their peers. 

Nonetheless, “the Symposium will be online next year, depending on the severity of the pandemic,” said Segura.  

Students who want to register for UROP 2021/2022 can do so until Oct. 15, 2021. The program coordinators will soon release the registration details.