Three U of G PhD Candidates Awarded Vanier Scholarships 

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Karson Thériault

Three University of Guelph PhD candidates studying mental health, permafrost and bee health have received Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships, one of the most prestigious doctoral awards in Canada.

The awards are worth $50,000 a year for three years and are provided through Canada’s three main granting agencies.  

Commenting on the awards, Guelph MP Lloyd Longfield said, “I am thrilled to see the Government of Canada continue to build our research investments at the University of Guelph and across Canada. Giving scientists the ability to carry out their work in early stages provides Canada the basis for our growing contribution to global issues, this time including mental health, climate change, and pollinator resilience.”

Karson Thériault will receive a scholarship through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to study sex differences in the brain and their effects on depression. 

Depression affects twice as many women as men, and scientists don’t know why, said Thériault, who completed undergraduate and master’s degrees at U of G.  

Sex differences in the brain also affect the usefulness of antidepressants, she said. 

In a recent journal article, she and Prof. Melissa Perreault, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, called for including more women in studies of disorders such as depression to develop novel and more personalized therapies. 

Diagnosed with depression as a teen, the PhD student said she hopes her work will help improve predictions of individuals’ risk of the disorder and aid in developing new sex-specific treatments. 

“I can relate to depression from a personal and a scientific perspective,” said Thériault, who helps to run a campus peer support program that delivers mental health services to grad students. She’s also a board member of a U of G graduate student mental health committee begun this year.

Carolyn Gibson

Carolyn Gibson and Kyra Lightburn received Vanier awards through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Gibson aims to improve regional models of permafrost vulnerability to climate change impacts. Working with integrative biologist Merritt Turetsky, she hopes to provide more accurate scientific data and tools that, along with Indigenous knowledge, will help northern communities adapt to and plan for effects of permafrost thaw. 

“Permafrost is the foundation for everything on our northern landscape – forests, wildlife, travelling,” said Gibson. “The main goal of my project is to understand how permafrost change affects all of these factors.” 

Beginning during her undergraduate in biological science at U of G, she has spent summers working in northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories. She also visited Baffin Island while in high school with the Students on Ice program. 

In recent years, she has seen thaw-induced landslides and subsidence, and areas where former forests have become wetlands. Referring to climate change, she said, “It’s a product of what’s happening in the south. How to convince someone in the south driving to work every day that their actions are thawing the permafrost in the North? I hope our work brings the changes to the forefront.” 

Kyra Lightburn

Lightburn studies how grassland management practices affect wild bee populations in North American pasturelands.  By collecting DNA from bumblebees, she hopes to understand their family and colony structures and learn about their nesting habits.

She will work with Profs. Nigel Raine, School of Environmental Sciences, and Ralph Martin and Rene Van Acker, Department of Plant Agriculture.  

Bumblebees and other wild bees are important pollinators, she said, so understanding their grassland habitats is integral to sustainable agriculture. 

During her undergrad studies in agriculture, Lightburn became fascinated with bees and ecology.

“There’s so much interesting research on bees and it spans so many disciplines. They have fascinating behaviours, they are models of ecology, they are sentinels of environmental change — the more I learn about them, the more interested I become.”

She hopes her research under the Vanier scholarship will inform not only biodiversity research but agricultural practices as well. “My eventual goal is to be able to offer feedback to farmers to tell them which kinds of pasture flower benefit bumblebees and what kind of floral diversity will lead to wild bee diversity.”

The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships program was created to strengthen Canada’s ability to attract and retain world-class doctoral students. The scholarships are meant to support top graduate students who demonstrate leadership skills.