Celebrating the 2022 Biological Sciences Undergraduate Research Award Winners

September 27, 2022

We're thrilled to celebrate the outstanding achievements of this year's undergraduate research awardees. 

Congratulations to Josh Smithman who is the recipient of the 2022 Shaughn and Sharon Clements' ISS Award

ISS Thesis: Characterizing the Role of Lipid Biogenesis in Neural Stem Cell Specification

From when I first started at SFU I knew that I wanted to explore the world of scientific research, early in my degree I reached out to many professors using the Biology department's research page. I was surprised to hear back from many professors researching my areas of interest. Through discussions with professors and classmates, I became aware of the opportunities available to me, such as the BISC 298 and BISC 498/9 directed research classes as well as the opportunity to pursue a bachelor of science with honors. In my third semester at SFU, I completed a BISC 298 research course with Dr. Crespi where we completed a course-based literature review on evolutionary biology as it relates to emergency medicine. This experience drew me into research, It showed me that even as an undergrad I was able to be part of the research community.

Soon after my BISC 298, I connected with Dr. Julian who works with pluripotent stem cells and early neural development. Dr. Julian was extremely welcoming and had me join her lab to complete a BISC 498 and thereafter both a BISC 499 and my honors. I met many like-minded and caring people who helped me excel in both my classes and research. I believe that this experience truly helped me develop critical thinking skills that will help me develop as a student as well as later in my career.

During my time working in the Julian lab, I explored the effects of lipid droplets on stem cell fate decisions during the induction of pluripotent stem cells into neural stem cells. I was able to learn and utilize many laboratory techniques such as cell culture, fluorescent microscopy, metabolic analyses, and statistical analyses. It was such a great environment to apply the knowledge I was learning in my biology and molecular biology courses and has introduced me to many career paths available to me with my biology degree.

When it comes to undergraduate research you get out of it what you put in, if you enjoy working through new problems with a team of like-minded people you will without a doubt have a great time and meet some amazing people.


Congratulations to Gareth Bennett who is the recipient of a 2022 Biological Sciences Undergraduate Research Award

Research Topic: Assessment of Revenant vertebrate taxa

Over the past two years, I have had the opportunity to work alongside Dr. Arne Mooers and Dr. Tom Martin on a paper examining a collection of species which have not been observed in over fifty years which we dubbed ‘lost’ species. The aim of the project was to collect and analyze a new database of lost, terrestrial, vertebrate species, and to use this data to determine if the time since the last sighting of a species could predict its true extinction. We had a secondary goal of identifying factors that lead to a species being lost and determining if species of certain taxa, environment, country of origin, or other characteristics may prove more susceptible to being lost. This project was rewarding in many aspects of my academic career and I learned more than I could have hoped under the guidance of my advisors. I would certainly recommend volunteering in a lab for any undergraduates who want to make the most of their time at SFU.


Congratulations to Andrew Bickell who is the recipient of a 2022 Biological Sciences Undergraduate Research Award

Research Topics:

  • How kelp forest structure in Barkley Sound may mediate the effects of anthropogenic noise pollution on fish behaviour.
  • How the presence of supernumerary arms may present fitness consequences for the Bat Star Patiria miniata.

I’m broadly interested in marine ecology and the biology of marine invertebrates. I fell in love with the marine environment after attending the Fall Program at the Bamfield Marine Science Centre. Since then, I’ve jumped on any opportunity to keep doing research focussed on marine organisms and systems. I’ve participated in a lot of different research projects as an undergraduate, and one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about the experience is having the freedom to explore a range of different topics and discover what really excites me.

This summer, I had the incredible opportunity to work under the supervision of Dr. Isabelle Côté at the Bamfield Marine Science Centre on a USRA funded project. In addition to working on my own research, I lived on the marine station for the summer and worked closely with the other members of the Côté lab on a variety of different projects. As part of my role for the summer, I learned how to scuba dive and achieved my certification as a CAUS Level 1 scientific diver. Learning to dive was an absolute dream come true and has fundamentally changed the types of questions I can ask as a marine scientist.

The main research project I worked on this summer was a collaboration with Dr. Kieran Cox and Claire Attridge. The project focusses on the structure of kelp forests in Barkley Sound, how they affect marine biodiversity and their potential to act as a buffer for noise pollution. For my portion of the project, I assisted in underwater kelp density surveys and collected video footage of kelp forests during noise pollution trials. I’m currently using that footage to study fish behaviour in response to noise pollution, and the potential effect of kelp forest density on that interaction. 

I’m also working on a project studying a morphological quirk in the bat star Patiria miniata. Bat stars usually have five arms, but sometimes they can have four, six or even seven arms. We don’t really know why this happens, and we’re not sure how well bat stars with abnormal numbers of arms compete with ‘regular’ bat stars. During my diving training, I collaborated with seven other scientific divers to investigate these questions. We conducted underwater field experiments and collected population data for Patiria miniata in Barkley Sound over the course of three weeks. I’ll be continuing to work on this project in the Fall under Isabelle Côté’s supervision.

- Andrew

Congratulations to Keiran Maskell who is the recipient of a 2022 Biological Sciences Undergraduate Research Award

Research Topics:

  • Tick bait (for pest control of Ixodes scapularis & I. pacificus)
  • GMO development in hop (Humulus lupulus)
  • Ecological modelling (modelling symbiosis in a tripartite ecological system)

My research activities in the Biological Sciences Department at SFU fall under three separate projects, in three unrelated fields. Briefly, I worked on pest control research, GMO research, and ecological modelling research.

The pest control research is a project investigating the attractiveness of volatile compounds produced by host-associated microbes towards tick species of recognized epidemiological concern. Given the public health risk posed by ticks and their associated human diseases, there is interest in the development of traps to be used in the control of these pests. Ticks are known to be attracted to the smells produced by host vertebrates, and it is known that of the smells produced by vertebrates, some originate from microbes living on or within host tissues. I had the opportunity to choose a host, isolate and identify microbial species from that host, and to both design and perform experiments to test their attractiveness to ticks in the lab. To my delight, my experiments were able to prove the attractive effects of several microbial taxa.

The main idea behind the GMO research is the CRISPR-mediated knockout of plant hormone biosynthesis genes in hop, a plant which is important in the brewing industry and in pharmacology. The rationale behind impairing hormone biosynthesis is to generate dwarf varieties, more amenable to efficient harvesting. Similar manipulations are known to have successfully produced dwarf cultivars of other crops. Here, I had the opportunity to perform DNA extractions and genotyping of putative GMOs, under the supervision of the (graduate student) main researcher of this project.

The ecological modelling research is an attempt to describe the population dynamics of a 3-species ecological system, involving a prey species, its’ parasite, which doubles as a defense mutualist, and a predator species. The predator species imposes a direct cost on the prey species. The “mercenary” parasite/defense mutualist imposes a (comparatively lower) cost on the prey species, and imparts an indirect benefit, through its competitive exclusion of the predator species. One of the main hypotheses we hope to investigate is that the action of the “mercenary” parasite/defense mutualist would help to stabilize the Lotka-Volterra-style population fluctuations typical of a predator-prey system. This project has provided me with an opportunity to exercise my developing empirical skills and to further my knowledge of computer programming.

In research, I think it is important to draw inspiration from one’s innate sense of curiosity, to break large tasks into more manageable steps, to work smart by distinguishing between the goals of pilot experiments and those of subsequent follow-up experiments, and to seek out opportunities for collaboration and teamwork. When problems arise, as they inevitably do, the best course of action is usually to return to the literature for insight, brainstorm with colleagues, and design a set of pilot experiments to troubleshoot the issues. It is almost always the case that one’s serious efforts will pay off in the form of progress and the eventual achievement of research goals, whereby the researcher personally achieves their small but significant contribution towards the body of scientific knowledge and the technological development of our civilization.