Nov. 8, 2023

Killam Scholarship winners are redefining knowledge and solutions that will change the future of health research

Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship empowers winners to amplify research
From left: Mijail Rojas-Carvajal, Abdullah Bernier and Dylan Guan.
From left: Mijail Rojas-Carvajal, Abdullah Bernier and Dylan Guan. Asma Bernier

The future of health research is in good hands with three of the 2023 Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship winners. This prestigious scholarship is awarded to some of the most outstanding graduate students enrolled in a doctoral program.

“The University of Calgary is proud to be one of Canada’s top comprehensive research universities and seeing the remarkable research of these scholarship winners is incredibly rewarding,” says Dr. Tara Beattie, interim dean and vice-provost (graduate studies).

“We’re impressed every day when we connect with our graduate students and hear about their research, so for them to receive this scholarship and be further recognized for their academic excellence is incredibly important. It also gives our graduate students the funding to help them continue carrying out significant and innovative research that enhances our communities.”

The Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship is one of the most competitive scholarships available to international and Canadian graduate students showing the potential to become leaders in their fields. The scholarship is valued at $45,000 over the duration of two years. While this scholarship provides crucial support for student research, it can also help propel graduate students toward new professional and academic opportunities.

Abdullah Bernier, Dylan Guan, and Mijail Rojas-Carvajal — three of the recent winners of the Killam Scholarship at the University of Calgary — are making impactful contributions to the world of public health research.

Abdullah Bernier

Abdullah Bernier

Abdullah Bernier, a dedicated PhD student in educational psychology and an Eyes High Distinguished Doctoral winner, chose to research at the University of Calgary under the supervision of Dr. Adam McCrimmon, PhD, a leading autism researcher and clinician. “My overarching goal is to contribute to a better understanding of human behaviour, cognition, and emotional well-being, ultimately enhancing the quality of psychological research and its practical applications,” explains Bernier.

Through his research, Bernier investigates the lived experiences of autistic individuals. “I aim to understand the extent to which autistic individuals feel supported, equipped to cope, and able to access supports/services relating to trauma as part of the diagnostic process,” says Bernier, adding that “given the unique associations between autism and trauma contributing to a higher risk of exposure to adverse events and resulting traumatic responses, the importance of this research lies in illuminating key aspects of an autistic person’s clinical profile that may otherwise be overlooked.”

When Bernier learned that he won the Killam scholarship he was overwhelmed with joy. “I feel incredibly honoured and humbled to receive an award in recognition of my hard work and scholarly dedication,” says Bernier.

This scholarship holds profound meaning to Bernier: “It stands as a tribute to the extensive support and sacrifices made by my parents throughout my educational journey.” 

Learning how to juggle the demands of academia and the responsibility of family helped Bernier hone his time-management skills. “This experience has instilled a deep sense of responsibility and resilience, teaching me to prioritize effectively, maximize my productivity, and be flexible, resourceful, and creative.”

With the valuable opportunities the Killam scholarship offers, Bernier remains committed to his work, hoping to further contribute to critical issues in psychology, namely the intersection between autism and trauma.

Dylan Guan

Dylan Guan

Dylan Guan’s PhD journey in medical science is filled with the commitment to make positive changes in older Canadian adults, and across the world, through his research on symptoms of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. “My ultimate goal is to become a clinician-scientist who integrates clinical practice with research to improve care for older adults at risk of, or living with, dementia,” explains Guan.

Guan’s journey at the University of Calgary began as an undergraduate summer research student with Drs. Zahra Goodarzi, MD, and Zahinoor Ismail, MD. Guan chose to remain at the University of Calgary for his doctoral research, in part due to student-led initiatives and other resources available to graduate students.

“My parents, both of whom never got the chance to pursue higher education, immigrated to Canada seeking better opportunities for their children,” says Guan. As a result, Guan faced initial difficulties navigating the academic world. However, the mentorship and research opportunities at the University of Calgary helped him overcome these difficulties, helping him build valuable lifelong connections and skills, ultimately allowing him to make a positive impact on the community.

“Winning this scholarship is proof that my parents' decision and hard work paid off; it also shows the value in having access to opportunities, like those at the University of Calgary, that allow people to realize their potential,” he says. Guan is grateful to his parents and academic mentors for their commitment to his education which has enabled him to achieve great successes, including this prestigious scholarship.

Having started his PhD immediately after his undergraduate degree, a rarity in the graduate student journey that showcases the exemplary nature of Guan’s undergraduate record, Guan continues his research and aims to better understand the early symptoms of dementia to support the lives of older adults across Canada.

Through this research, Guan aims to administer treatments to delay or even prevent the progression of diseases responsible for dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. By identifying at-risk individuals early on, and taking action through early treatments, Guan suggests his research will benefit older adults and their families by giving them more time learn about dementia, including its non-cognitive symptoms, and make plans for future care and quality of life.

Mijail Rojas-Carvajal

Mijail Rojas-Carvajal

Mijail Rojas-Carvajal, a PhD student in neuroscience, was drawn to the University of Calgary by the prospect of engaging in meaningful and impactful research, available resources, and the overall academic community. The University of Calgary and Hotchkiss Brain Institute support his interest in stress and its effects on behaviour, providing him with the resources to conduct cutting-edge research within an environment that fosters rich academic discussions.

“The magnitude of the honour and responsibility associated with this scholarship overwhelmed me,” explains Rojas-Carvajal. “This achievement was possible thanks to the support of my supervisor, lab mates, and family, and we all celebrated this success together.” To Rojas-Carvajal this scholarship grants him the ability to pursue the highest standards in science.

“Obtaining this scholarship signifies more than just financial support,” says Rojas-Carvajal. “It represents a vote of confidence from the university and inspires me to dedicate myself wholeheartedly to conducting rigorous scientific research and sharing these advancements with the global scientific community.”

Rojas-Carvajal remains dedicated to his research, aiming to explore the mechanisms through which stress induces enduring changes in the brain, shaping memories and behaviours.

"I delve into understanding how timely interventions, such as exercise, might reverse these changes and mitigate the detrimental effects of stress," explains Rojas-Carvajal. Through this research, he expands understanding of the brain's adaptability and provides new interventions to improve the lives of individuals experiencing stress.

The Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship supports outstanding graduate students in developing advanced research at the University of Calgary. The University of Calgary gathered in person on Oct. 19, 2023, to recognize our exceptional faculty, post and pre-doctoral 2023 Killam Laureates.

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