Undergraduate research prize winners went virtual in first-of-its kind poster forum

Research poster award winners
Nayaab Punjani, Srisudhakar Nowduri and Ali Javeed are the 2019-2020, first, second and third prize winners of the 2019-2020 U of T Scarborough Undergraduate Research Poster Forum.

Raquel A. Russell

As U of T moved online following COVID-19 emergency measures, so did the 2020 UTSC Undergraduate Research Poster Forum – a move that first prize winner Nayaab Punjani appreciated.

“Although it was different to present in a poster forum virtually, I was excited and glad we were provided with significant extensions to participate,” says Punjani.

Since 2016, U of T Scarborough undergraduate students have participated in two undergraduate research initiatives created by the UTSC Office of the Vice-Principal Research & Innovation  and UTSC Library – the Undergraduate Research Prize and the Undergraduate Research Poster Forum.

The poster forum provides opportunities for students who excel in research, scholarship and creative activities to showcase research and win cash prizes that range from $1,000 first place, $500 second place and $250 third place.

Thirty-nine students submitted research abstracts for consideration. Of those 39, 20 finalists were selected by faculty and librarians to present their prepared poster and a pre-recorded video. From the 20 finalists, Nayaab Punjani, Srisudhakar Nowduri and Ali Javeed were named the first, second and third 2019-2020 prize winners.

Punjani’s award-winning research focuses on providing a treatment for chronic spinal cord injury by using behavioural testing and tissue analysis to observe how SMaRT cells (stem cells that have been programmed to release enzymes) break down a scar that forms during spinal cord injury and lead to tissue repair. This research took place in the Michael Fehlings lab at the Krembil Research Institute and was conducted while assisting her supervisor Christopher Ahuja on his Ph.D. project.

Punjani, a fourth-year student double majoring in biochemistry co-op and in mental health studies, with a minor in French, says the experience made her more interested in pursuing research, and she recently submitted her application to a Master of Science program in regenerative medicine and neuroscience.

“I’m all about helping others and trying to find innovative ways to promote research, while improving the quality of life for patients – and I know that the stem cell field is definitely pushing towards that,” says Punjani.

Second prize winner Nowduri’s research focuses on how changing surface ‘wetness’ (or hydrophobicity) and surface stiffness affects how many bacteria stick to a surface.

“If you can come up with the perfect combination of surface properties to reduce bacterial adhesion, you can prevent biofilm formations,” says Nowduri, a fifth-year student double majoring in human biology and biochemistry.

Nowduri hopes to implement this research on medical devices in order to drastically reduce bacterial infections.

Since completing his courses, Nowduri has been working full time at a hospital, screening visitors for COVID-19 risk factors, while balancing exams, research and graduate school applications.  And while his research is focused on how bacteria grows on surfaces, he is interested to see what a post COVID-19 world means for studying the effects of how long bacteria live in hospitals where everything – down to doorknobs and common use items – are now constantly disinfected surfaces.

Third place winner Ali Javeed’s project, explores how our political ideology impacts the moral value we apply to public social norms – research which may require adjusting its focus as the pilot data was collected pre-novel coronavirus United States. 

“The data tried to capture what was ‘normal’, but with the pandemic – how we behave in public and what is ‘normal’ has vastly shifted,” says Javeed, a third-year psychology specialist student.

“This change isn’t even temporary because our next ‘normal’ in public is not going to be like anything we’ve known.”

Still, Javeed is optimistic about his next steps and is just glad to have been able to see his hard work recognized in this unprecedented season.

I was really excited that the work my fellow students and I put in was still able to be recognized, especially when the research I’m working on is something that I want to pursue as a career.

“I was really excited that the work my fellow students and I put in was still able to be recognized, especially when the research I’m working on is something that I want to pursue as a career.”

And that is what the Undergraduate Research Poster Forum is all about.

“We’re proud to support a program that continues to foster research for our undergraduate students,” says Professor Bernie Kraatz, U of T Scarborough’s Vice-Principal of Research & Innovation.

“This allows students to get a taste of what it’s like to do research in a professional setting and gain a deeper understanding of subjects that may prove to be a source of inspiration.”

U of T Scarborough Chief Librarian Angela Hamilton is grateful to the team that managed to find ways to virtually showcase the amazing research accomplishments of this year’s finalists.

“The finalists and judges' flexibility and willingness to pivot and adapt to our new online format was admirable,” says Hamilton.

Links to all of the finalists' posters and video submissions are available on the UTSC Library website with access to the videos restricted to the University of Toronto community only.