McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Improving life is goal for winners of 2013 Michael G. DeGroote Fellowship Awards

Published: January 7, 2014
Darryl Leong, Alexander Crizzle, Nicole Robbins and Ryan Lamers
Winners of the 2013 Michael G. DeGroote Fellowship Awards are (from left) Darryl Leong, Alexander Crizzle, Nicole Robbins and Ryan Lamers

In the five years since the first Michael G. DeGroote Fellowship Award was given out, $1.3 million has been tapped to fund the research programs of 17 postdoctoral students at McMaster University. They have been chosen as the best and brightest of their generation, young scientists on the cutting edge of some of the most groundbreaking discoveries.

This year’s recipients are making their mark in everything from healthy aging and stroke prevention to anti-fungal therapies and the eradication of deadly bacteria.

Alexander Crizzle of the School of Rehabilitation Science has received a clinical research award to continue his work in aging, health and well-being. He is looking at ways to improve the design of vehicles to minimize falls among older adults.

The project team includes a rehabilitation scientist, engineer, gerontologist, biomechanist and sociologist. Together, they are studying how characteristics such as height and weight, and physical function such as balance, interact with vehicle design features such as car seats to impact an older person’s ability to get in and out of a car.

"Driving is such a big part of people’s lives. When they lose their licenses or stop driving, it can have a devastating effect on their lifestyle. Older adults, especially, can become socially isolated and no longer engaged in the community," says Crizzle, who completed his graduate work at the University of Waterloo.

Ryan Lamers, a biochemistry postdoctoral researcher and member of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research (IIDR), is using his basic biomedical science award to study antibiotic resistance in the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The bacteriumis a major cause of lung damage in cystic fibrosis patients and one of the leading causes of hospital-acquired infections. It is resistant to most conventional antibiotics.

"This bacterium is one of the top three pathogens that infect people in hospitals. We need to stay ahead of it and find new avenues to treat these infections," says Lamers, who earned his PhD at the University of Central Florida.

Lamers was recently awarded two-year CIHR and Cystic Fibrosis Canada Fellowships, and the 2013/14 Cystic Fibrosis Canada-Kin in Canada Fellowship, an honorary award given to the highest ranked applicant in the competition.  He is currently screening a library of small molecules to determine which ones, in combination with common antibiotics, will kill the bacterium.

Cardiac imaging is the focus of Darryl Leong’s work, which is being funded by a clinical research award. The post-doctoral fellow with the Population Health Research Institute (PHRI) became interested in a developing technology called speckle-tracking strain while he was doing his postdoctoral training at the Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands.

The technology allows for an evaluation of the heart muscle, its function and how damaged it might be from various diseases, such as high blood pressure and heart attacks. While the technology is mainly used for research, he says its applications are growing.

During his PhD studies, Leong became aware of Jeff Healey’s discovery at McMaster that a large number of strokes of unknown origin were related to an irregular heart rhythm. That work and the reputation of the PHRI were enough to convince Leong that McMaster was where he wanted to be. He is currently measuring atrial strain in patients with pacemakers, in the hopes of predicting who may be prone to stroke.

"Stroke is disabling, and can be fatal," says Leong. "Preventing it is very important from a public health perspective."

Nicole Robbins, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences and the IIDR, is employing high-throughput screening and chemical genetic experiments to look for novel combinations of anti-fungal therapies.

The basic biomedical award recipient is combining current antifungal compounds at sub-inhibitory concentrations with 5,000 other drugs used for other purposes to see whether they can kill fungal pathogens. Invasive fungal infections are a leading cause of human mortality worldwide.

"This systematic approach to screening tens of thousands of combinations isn’t being done with fungal pathogens, at least to my knowledge, anywhere else," says Robbins. "I feel very fortunate to have the infrastructure and equipment that we have here at McMaster to do this kind of research."

The awards are funded through a portion of the Faculty of Health Sciences Development Fund, a $25-million endowment from Mr. DeGroote. Successful candidates are awarded $50,000 each.

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