FGS Thesis and Dissertation Prizes honour cutting-edge research

photo of Vari Hall in a snowfall
What is the precise measurement of helium? What bird species will be able to withstand climate change? Can art highlight the Indigenous culture in familiar landscapes? These are some of the big questions being asked by York’s researchers: six recent graduates of the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) have been named recipients of the FGS Thesis & Dissertation Prize.

“Graduate studies is where new knowledge is made,” says Thomas Loebel, dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies. “That has never been truer than this year. Our Thesis & Dissertation Prize winners have developed new strategies for targeting microvascular disease and muscular dystrophy; used VR to Indigenize landscapes; and revolutionized the study of both birds and bees. Together, they are a testament to the breadth and depth of research being done at York.”

The Thesis & Dissertation Prizes are distributed by FGS to celebrate exceptional master’s and PhD theses from the previous calendar year. Recipients will be invited to the FGS Scholars Reception in November, where their work will be showcased and recognized.

Thesis Prizes

Leah Wright (MSc, Biology), "Using Light-Level Geolocation to Investigate the Carry-over Effects of Long-Distance Migration on the Reproductive Success of Dunlin (Calidris Alpina Hudsonia)"

In her thesis, Leah Wright looked at spring migration patterns of birds, asking whether timing and routes affect subsequent nesting success upon arrival in the subarctic. With climate change expected to alter wintering locations of shorebirds along U.S. coastlines, it is unknown whether this will affect breeding productivity of individuals when they breed far to the north.

Through ambitious field research and a state-of-the-art tracking device to follow start-to-finish migration of birds, Wright was able to discover that a breeding population disperses all along the eastern and southern coastlines, from Mexico to New Jersey. The level of individual variation in migration strategy is a major discovery, and suggests a ray of hope even when 80% of shorebird species in North America are in decline. Her research lays the groundwork for predicting which other shorebirds may be able to be resilient to both the early stage of climate change and dramatic environmental changes.

Elizabeth Jackson (MFA, Film), “Biidaaban: First Light”

Elizabeth Jackson’s Biidaaban: First Light is a groundbreaking VR project that seeks to reassert the place of Indigenous languages on the Canadian landscape. Set in the near future in the decaying architecture of Canada’s largest city, it brings together three core ideas: 1) the place and importance of “the original languages of this land,” 2) the reality that the natural world is in a state of deep transition through the anthropogenic effects of climate change and resource extraction, and 3) the capacity of 350-degree VR to bring new perspective to the old issue of settler-colonial capitalist imperialism. Both poetic and political, the VR sequence, which each viewer experiences differently, offers traces of ancient indigenous cultures and an Indigenous futurism that envisions ways forward through the sky and through language.

Massimo Nardone (MSc Kinesiology & Health Science), "Comparison of Non-Invasive Peripheral Vascular Function to Invasive Measures of Coronary Function in Patients with Suspected Coronary Microvascular Dysfunction"

Massimo Nardone’s thesis focused on the development of new and safer ways of detecting cardiac vascular dysfunction in people suffering from microvascular disease. This work is important since two common types of cardiac dysfunction in humans can give identical symptoms (i.e. chest pain, exercise intolerance) but are mechanistically caused from two very different pathologies related too either macrovascular disease (i.e. hardening of the arteries in heat) or microvascular disease (the inability of the very small vessels in the heart to dilate appropriately during mild to moderate physical activity or stress).

Nardone showed that non-invasive tests of the microvascular in the periphery (arm) could predict with high resolution with microvascular status in the heart. This work holds major potential: it could be easily incorporated into screening for the more serious condition of cardiac microvascular dysfunction.

Dissertation Prizes

Rafael Rodrigues Ferrari (PhD, Biology), “Systematics and Biogeography of Colletinae with Revisionary Studies of the Species of Colletes Latreille (Hymenoptera: Colletidae: Colletinae) from Chile and Eastern South America”

Rafael Rodriguez Ferrari’s dissertation will revolutionize the study of bees, putting the classification of an entire subfamily (the Colletinae) into a robust classificatory framework. Notably, he has resolved the controversial issue of how many genera there are in a group – previous research suggested anywhere between two and five, but Ferrari has made it clear there are four. Studying the origins and spread of Colletes across the world’s geological history, he has described a total of 16 new species and re-described another 34, providing a framework for understanding the classification and evolutionary/biogeographic histories of this group of pollinators. Remarkably, this work concerns one of the largest and most economically important bee genera in the world – an enormous amount of work.

Meghan C. Hughes (PhD, Kinesiology & Health Science), “Exploration of the Mitochondria as a Potential Therapeutic Target in Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy”

Mechan C. Hughes’ work focused on developing a new therapy to increase muscle strength in people impacted by Duchenne muscular dysfunction (a debilitating and progressive form of muscular dystrophy that weakens skeletal and heart muscles). This disease has no cure, with steroid therapy only delaying its progression and causing many problematic side-effects. As such, researchers desperately need to identify other secondary problems beyond inflammation to guide the pre-clinical development of new therapies. By identifying “poor muscle metabolism” as a secondary problem, Hughes’ dissertation is the first to identify certain metabolic pathways that block the ability of muscle to produce energy. Using genetically engineered mice with this disease, she showed how these cellular metabolic pathways cause weakness in the heart, breathing muscles, and limb muscles.

Kosuke Kato (PhD, Physics & Astronomy) “Precision Microwave Frequency-Offset Separated-Oscillatory-Fields Measurement of the 2³P2 1-to-2³P2 Fine-Structure in Atomic Helium”

Kosuke Kato works in the area of experimental atomic physics, with a particular focus on high-precision spectroscopy. This is challenging field requires superior laboratory and data analysis skills, and requires extraordinary patience. Consider: Kato worked for eight years to develop the most precise measurement of the fine structure of helium ever recorded. Kato and his colleagues measured the energy difference between two different, but closely related, orbits of the helium atom, known as the helium fine structure intervals. This important (and time consuming) research could offer clues to some of the mysteries of physics lurking inside these measurements (i.e. dark matter), and become an important tool in the field of physics going forward.

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