Feb. 21, 2024

Forward-thinking solutions and prevention strategies for diverse medical conditions inspire 3 UCalgary PhD students

Students honoured with 2023 Vanier Award for conducting health research
A collage of three headshots
From left, Areefa Alladin-Karan, Fahad Iqbal, and Ainsley Smith. Asma Bernier

Three of 2023’s Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (Vanier CGS) winners have jumped headfirst into the diversity of health research, aiming to create transformative medical advancements with the potential to change how we think about the future of health care. The Vanier CGS is one of the most prestigious awards available to doctoral students in Canada, valued at $50,000 per year for three years.

“The work of these graduate students is outstanding, and their contributions are deserving of being Vanier scholars,” says Dr. Tara Beattie, PhD, dean and vice-provost, Faculty of Graduate Studies. “Our Vanier scholars are exploring ideas that contribute greatly to their disciplines and are undertaking research that will impact our community and future. I’m proud of the work of all the Vanier scholars in seeing them continuing to follow in the footsteps of past scholars and further health research.”

Areefa Alladin-Karan, Fahad Iqbal and Ainsley Smith — winners of the Vanier CGS Award — are laying the foundation for the future of transformative health-care practices. 

A headshot of a woman with short dark hair and glasses wearing a red blazer

Areefa Alladin-Karan

Areefa Alladin-Karan, a dedicated third-year PhD student in the Department of Community Health Sciences, with a specialization in epidemiology, chose to study at the University of Calgary after meeting Dr. Andrew Wade, MD, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Paediatrics, while he was teaching nephrology, the study of normal kidney function and kidney disease, in the paediatric residency program at the University of Guyana. 

Alladin-Karan's research focuses on Immunoglobulin A (IgA) nephropathy, an autoimmune condition that causes chronic kidney disease and failure. Treating children with this condition is challenging as it’s unclear which of the available treatments are the most effective. 

“Currently, children are treated with long courses of corticosteroids (steroids), which can cause harmful effects,” explains Alladin-Karan, adding that “a better understanding of the risks and benefits of steroid therapy in children is required to guide treatment.” 

To achieve this, Alladin-Karan and colleagues on her PhD committee, including other researchers, have implemented a multi-phase plan. “First, we will conduct a systematic review of the medical literature to summarize the benefits and harms of treatments for IgA nephropathy in children. Second, we will identify a group of children with IgA nephropathy. We will then observe these children overtime to understand if the steroids preserve kidney function. Finally, we will develop a path for the treatment of IgA nephropathy in children.”

To her, this achievement not only benefits her but also her PhD committee as this is the first time a nephrology researcher at UCalgary has received a Vanier CGS.

A man with a beard wearing a grey blazer

Fahad Iqbal

Fahad Iqbal is a joint MD/PhD student in the third year of his PhD journey in neuroscience, a journey that is filled with commitment, collaboration and innovation. He was drawn to pursue his research at UCalgary through its reputation of cutting-edge research on neuron-chip interfaces and strong collaboration across the medicine and engineering faculties. 

“The community here is very encouraging, and always willing to support new students, both academically and professionally,” says Iqbal.

Iqbal’s research focuses on supporting those with epilepsy. “I am designing a lab-on-a-chip system that will allow for the targeted delivery of drugs to specific parts of rodent brain slices, while simultaneously recording neuronal activity,” he explains, adding that “I will use this device to screen combinations of the newest anti-epileptic drugs and other potential drug candidates for their effectiveness in controlling and preventing seizures.”

The findings from the lab-on-a-chip system (a miniature biomedical laboratory) translates to humans as Iqbal’s research tests the effects of seizure medication in the presence of seizures in the hippocampus of rats, which is comparable to how seizures affect the hippocampus in humans. His research also looks at which drug combinations can protect neurons from seizure-related damage.

Iqbal expresses his gratitude for being a recipient of the Vanier CGS and feels supported to focus most of his time on his research while also taking on more challenging problems. “I'm very grateful for the support and am fortunate that my timeline now allows me to expand the scope of my studies and lets me explore other avenues to complement my education,” Iqbal says.

A headshot of a woman with long ginger hair wearing a black top

Ainsley Smith

Ainsley Smith, an MD/PhD candidate in the Leaders in Medicine and biomedical engineering programs, and in the fourth year of her PhD, moved across Canada at the height of COVID-19 lockdowns to attend UCalgary as she was impressed by the university’s robust and collaborative network of medical imaging scientists studying musculoskeletal health. 

Receiving the Vanier CGS was an honour for Smith. “I am grateful and privileged to have received this award,” she says, adding, “I feel a sense of determination to pay this forward to the patient population that I plan to serve through my research and work.” 

Smith hopes to focus more of her time toward research and to further the understanding of critical-illness-induced muscle loss. “This muscle loss is a common and debilitating complication of critical illness, which results in a long-term loss of independence,” says Smith. 

Smith’s research project aims to identify who is at the greatest risk of critical illness induced muscle loss and understand why this muscle loss occurs. “To do this, I analyze CT scans of hundreds of critical care patients to assess how muscle size and quality change over the course of critical illness,” says Smith. “I am also using statistical models to examine how these changes relate to patient characteristics, such as sex and age.” 

Smith’s overarching goal is to enhance the understanding of which patients are most susceptible to critical-illness-induced muscle loss, which she feels is a first step in developing targeted prevention and treatment strategies.

Witnessing her grandmother navigate physical mobility challenges after hospitalization was Smith’s initial inspiration to pursue musculoskeletal research in the critical care population. “My long-term goal is to harness my research and clinical skills to bring evidence-based medicine into the clinical setting, and pertinent patient-driven research questions back to the lab,” says Smith.

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