Undergraduate research celebrated


Published: 22Aug2019

Around 75 students joined faculty and staff from the Faculty of Science at Thomson House last week to celebrate their experience as undergraduate researchers over the summer.

In his welcoming remarks, Bruce Lennox, Dean of the Faculty of Science, acknowledged the students’ contributions in McGill’s “intense research environments”.

“When you’re working beside a graduate student or a postdoctoral fellow or a professor, you can be equal contributors. That’s the real differentiator in the experience we seek to provide for you. This is not about washing test tubes, it’s not about being a dogsbody in the lab. It’s about being a researcher,” he said.

The students were all recipients of either an Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA) from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) or a McGill Science Undergraduate Research Award (SURA). Dean Lennox paid tribute to the Canadian government’s leadership in instituting the USRA program in the early 1980s and to McGill’s generous donors, who support nearly 90 of each year's SURAs with around $80,000 of endowed funds per award.

On the night, the student researchers were invited to speak about their projects improptu. Here’s what some of them had to say:

Manuel Bolduc, U3 Mathematics and Physics Honours

I never realized how important communication is in papers. Having a good solution doesn’t necessarily mean that you know how to express your solution.

Project title: Thresholding Dynamics on Geometric Evolution Operators
Supervisor: Jean-Christophe Nave (Mathematics & Statistics)
Summary: We present a new method to derive threshold dynamics algorithms for various front evolution equations. This applies to surfaces evolving in time according to their normal velocity, given they obey mild assumptions.

Jamie Hart, U3 Atmospheric Science Honours

There are a lot of ecosystems that rely on first-year ice and multi-year ice and those ecosystems are going extinct really, really quickly. I got to write about biology and earth systems science, which was really exciting.

Project title: Examining the Transition from a Perennial to a Seasonal Arctic Ice Cover: A Largrangian Approach
Supervisors: Bruno Tremblay and Carolina Dufour (Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences)
Summary: Declining Arctic sea ice extent has been accompanied by an even larger decline in multiyear ice. As first year ice replaces multiyear ice as the dominant ice type, the ice pack is thinner and more susceptible to extreme summer melt. This project quantified the dynamic and thermodynamic processes of multiyear ice gain and loss, showing an increasing rate of loss since 1979.

Darius Valevicius, U3 Cognitive Science

I had a lot of fun reading about music and emotion and pain, but those are fields in psychology with so many variables that you read and you read and you read and it kind of collapses into a hopeless void where nothing makes much sense.

Project title: The effects of music attributes on pain perception
Supervisor: Mathieu Roy (Psychology)
Summary: Our study sought to discover whether certain types of music are better than others for reducing pain. We tested songs varying along dimensions of arousal (stimulating-calming), valence (happy-sad), and depth (complex-simple) for their ability to reduce acute thermal pain in human subjects. Our preliminary results suggest that calming, sad, and complex music is the most effective combination for musical analgesia.

Daniel Krauss, U3 Biochemistry

Something that I really learned this summer is how slow the scientific process is. For example, you spend three hours preparing a gel, it might not work so then you lose a day. Then you need more material so you lose a week to order it. You do that four times, you lose a whole month.

Project title: Large-scale synthesis of DNA nanostructures
Supervisor: Hanadi Sleiman (Chemistry)
Summary: My project involves the use of bacteriophage and self-cleaving DNA sequences to generate large quantities of single-stranded DNA for nanostructures. Conventional means of amplifying DNA, such as PCR, are limited by the efficiency of its components, and often require further processing to become single-stranded. Major benefits of my system are attributed to the already single-stranded genome of bacteriophage, and the ability of this system to be scaled up almost indefinitely.

Émilie Laflèche, U2 Planetary Science Honours

I was using a lot of simulated data and I had to learn a lot of coding as a result. I had never really taken much computer science in the past so a lot of my research this summer was dedicated to my own personal learning. That was pretty difficult for me but eventually I got to do a couple of cool simulations.

Project title: Solving the inverse problem of Exocartographer using MCMC and Parallel Tempering
Supervisor: Nicolas Cowan (Earth & Planetary Sciences and Physics)
Summary: Exocartographer, a Python code written by a group of exoplanet researchers led by Ben Farr (University of Oregon), aims to inform the design of experiment for future direct imaging telescopes by simulating time-resolved reflected light curve data of an exoplanet and extracting from it the exoplanet’s orbital parameters and an albedo map of its surface. However, this process, known as the inverse problem, is still a computational challenge for Exocartographer which must be resolved prior to its use in design experimentation. Student Émilie Laflèche's summer research at McGill University with supervisor Nicolas Cowan pertains to improving the efficiency and function of Exocartographer by comparing two approaches, MCMC and Parallel Tempering, to tackling this inverse problem, and establishing a 'preferred method' for various combinations of unknown spin parameters and/or albedo maps.

Ryan Karimi, U2 Chemical Physics, University of British Columbia

We all know antioxidants are very trendy – they’re in blueberries and stuff – but what they do in the cell is that they’re one of the main mechanisms for cellular detoxification. Our group has invented this probe that [lets us] see exactly in real time how a cell detoxifies itself.

Project title: Fluorescent Cellular Morphologies of Electrophilic Fluorogenic Probes
Supervisor: Anthony Van Kessel under Gonzalo Cosa (Chemistry)
Summary: Lipid-derived electrophiles (LDEs) are cytotoxic by-products of the reaction between fatty acids and oxygen. Eukaryotic cells have evolved detoxification systems to ‘mop up’ LDEs. We investigated the intracellular behaviour of an LDE-mimicking fluorogenic probe in order to interrogate those systems, yielding insights into endogenous LDE reactivity.

Yilin Wang, U3 Physics

I’ve been looking for this hypothesized lepton number violating nuclear reaction called neutrinoless double beta decay. No blueberries […] but if we find this cool decay, we’ll understand why we live in a universe that is not symmetric between matter and anti-matter.

Project title: Gas-dynamic calculations for the development of an RF-ion funnel
Supervisor: Thomas Brunner (Physics)
Summary: The successful observation of the hypothesized, lepton number violating process of neutrinoless double beta decay would confirm the majorana nature of neutrinos (i.e. they are their own anti-particle), and would provide exciting insights to many unanswered questions in physics, one of which includes the matter-antimatter asymmetry of the universe. The next generation of Enriched Xenon Observatory (nEXO) is a projected multi-ton liquid xenon detector experiment that joins the global effort to experimentally observe this interesting decay. This summer I studied the xenon gas flow behaviour and ion transportation efficiency of the radiofrequency (RF) funnel, a potential future upgrade to increase the detector sensitivity, using computational fluid dynamics (CFD).

Gabriella Morin, U3 Physics and Chemistry Honours

I got to do experiments that had never been done before – not by another student in the same course the year before, not by a TA trying to optimize the reaction conditions. It was up to me to investigate the hows and whys the result might not be as expected or predicted.

Project title: Nanoparticle (NP) with Stimuli-Responsive Mixed Polymer Ligand Shell
Supervisor: Linda Reven (Chemistry)
Summary: Using a method developed by our group to attach two polymers to the surface of NP, I was able to prepare NP functionalized with polystyrene or poly(ethylene oxide) and poly(2-vinylpyridine) which spontaneously self-assemble in solution as a response to stimuli (increase in pH, change in solvent polarity...), a behavior typically observed with block copolymers.

Joelle-Marie Begin Miolan, U1 Physics Honours

I’ve heard a lot of people mention the scientific process being a lot longer than you would think and I think the biggest tool that I’ve learned is higher-level management of expectations.

Project title: Quantifying re-ionization non-gaussianity with the three point correlation function
Supervisor: Adrian Liu (Physics)
Summary: In our research group, we are interested in the time period of the universe when the first stars and galaxies were born, an epoch that is yet to be observed. When the data does start coming in, we have to be armed with many tools to analyze it. In this project I've been developing a new statistical tool that will yield information from the data that the currently proposed statistical tools will not provide.

Kobi Pollard, U2 Chemistry

What’s neat for me and why I really enjoyed this is that I’m in chemistry – I knew nothing about DNA. I walked into this lab and I read all these papers and I was like, 'Ah, transcription, yes…'. It’s been really neat to get a whole other side of science that I haven’t been exposed to before.

Project title: Aptamer design for a 8-oxo-G fluoresecent biosensor
Supervisor: Maureen McKeague (Chemistry)
Summary: Designing nucleotide sequences which can fold and bind to a specific molecule (8-oxo-G). Thereby inducing a conformational change allowing for the same sequence to also bind to a non-fluorescent molecule (which upon binding fluoresces).

Simon Tartakovsky, U1 Mathematics and Physics Honors

I’m also working on cosmology but I’m on the experimental side, so the thing you heard Joelle say about the data being crap is kind of my fault.

Project title: Deep Dish Development Array Feed Support development
Supervisor: Cynthia Chiang (Physics)
Summary: There are plans for creating a new radio telescope array for CHIME frequencies (400-800 MHz) however unlike CHIME, this is done with individual dishes. The planned dish shape is much deeper then standard telescope dishes as it shields the receivers form sources of noise. However, a deep dish requires a custom receiver support which I designed, simulated, built and installed on some test telescopes which are in British Columbia.

Morgan Thinel, U2 Chemistry Honours

Applications for this kind of process [include] the potential of creating an invisibility cloak by bending light around an object and making it seem like the light was coming from the object behind.

Project title: Self-assembled plasmonic nanorings in a polyelectrolyte multilayer system for a negative refractive index metamaterial
Supervisor: Amy Blum (Chemistry)
Summary: I use the tobacco mosaic virus as a template to create self-assembled rings of gold plasmonic nanoparticles. I use polymere called polyelectrolytes to create a 3D lattice of these rings. Simulations have shown that this system of rings will have a negative refractive index for visible light. Such a material would have applications in superlenses capable of imaging beyond the diffraction limit, allowing observation of single molecules and the farthest reaches of space using visible light.

Frédérik Crépeau-Hubert, Psychology Honours

The SURA award was a great opportunity for me because it allowed me to continue working on a project I was working on during the academic year and also finish analyzing data and start writing up my manuscript, but also be involved in other projects and learn more about memory.

Project title: Altering the Access to Autobiographical Episodes with Prior Semantic Knowledge: An Aging Investigation
Supervisor: Signy Sheldon (Psychology)
Summary: Autobiographical memory contains all the information that pertains to one’s past. When retrieving specific memory episodes (e.g. I ate an apple at the park today), we also access semantic knowledge -personal or general- related to the event being recalled (e.g. I love apples; An apple is a fruit). The goal of the present study is to investigate how different types of semantic knowledge affect the ability to retrieve these specific memory episodes across different age groups (i.e. older and younger adults).