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Bridging the gap between high school and university

Lawson Imaging attracts youth to medical research

Praveen Dassanayake, Sarah Donnelly, Frank Hou, Daisy Sun and Dr. Weiwei Zhang

From left to right: Praveen Dassanayake (graduate student), Sarah Donnelly (graduate student), Frank Hou (PEL co-op student), Daisy Sun (graduate student) and Dr. Weiwei Zhang (Western Visiting Scholar).

St. Joseph's Health Care London - 

Exposure to professional experiences can help students envision themselves in specific professions and Dr. Donna Goldhawk aims to do just this by introducing medical research to high school science students. As coordinator of Youth Outreach for the Ontario Research Fund (ORF) grant entitled “Heart Failure: Prevention through Early Detection Using New Imaging Methods,” she is pleased to announce the call for applications to the 2019 Summer Studentship program.

This year, a total of three ORF summer scholarships are available at Lawson Health Research Institute (London), University of Ottawa Heart Institute (Ottawa), and Sunnybrook Research Institute (Toronto). Interested applicants can forward their cover letter and resume to by May 15, 2019. 

Dr. Goldhawk is a Scientist at Lawson Health Research Institute and an Assistant Professor in Medical Biophysics at Western University. Since 2009, she has helped inspire students to pursue research by training them in her lab. In conjunction with secondary schools in the Thames Valley region and the Partners in Experiential Learning (PEL) program, she teaches youth that choosing a scientific career allows for multiple opportunities to fuse interests with a specific area of focus. 

The PEL program was introduced in 2004 by Dr. Jim Koropatnick, Lawson Scientist, and Mr. Rodger Dusky, a retired secondary school teacher. PEL has been a long-standing partnership between the Thames Valley District School Board, London District Catholic School Board, Ministry of Education, Western University, London Health Sciences Centre and St. Joseph’s Health Care London.

This unique academic co-op education program identifies high school students interested in research and prepares them for placement in a health research environment. The students earn high school credits and receive training in basic laboratory research. In Dr. Goldhawk’s experience, PEL attracts an excellent caliber of student who is eager to learn, aspiring to pursue further education and capable of contributing to the science of molecular imaging.

Through the ORF, the Ministry of Research and Innovation emphasizes the value of attracting youth to the scientific enterprise. Students can expect experiential learning tailored to their current understanding of science and aimed at expanding this knowledge for a greater appreciation of biomedical research. For example, in Dr. Goldhawk’s laboratory cardiac research is focused on the measurement of iron contrast using MRI.  

“Many cells have naturally distinct iron metabolism; however, we are also using genes from magnetic bacteria to improve the magnetic sensitivity of mammalian cells. MRI can then be used to detect disease processes,” states Dr. Goldhawk. “We are particularly interested in reporter gene expression for MRI, a term coined to describe how changes in the pattern of gene activity and its related protein activity may be visualized.”

Her current team not only includes graduate and undergraduate students at various stages in their programs but also an international collaboration with Dr. Weiwei Zhang, a Western Visiting Scholar from China. In this setting, high school students step into a work atmosphere where they can interact with individuals at different levels. As well, molecular imaging research works closely with multiple areas so students acquire training in both biology and physics. 

“To retain the interest of talented young scientists, it is essential to provide them with interesting challenges that reward their curiosity and ambition to learn,” explains Dr. Goldhawk. “In hospital-based research institutes, youth are also exposed to the clinical side for which our research is targeted. This is a quality scientific experience for youth interested in expanding their outlook, performance, technical, problem-solving and record-keeping skills. I think it is essential to build these opportunities into our scientific programs.” 

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