Clockwise from top left: Gilbert Adum, Lindsey Boechler, Pezhman Zolfaghari Didani and Cody Koloski. (Photos: Submitted)

Four new USask Vanier Scholars demonstrate excellence in research and leadership

SASKATOON – University of Saskatchewan (USask) doctoral students Gilbert Adum, Lindsey Boechler, Cody Koloski, and Pezhman Zolfaghari Didani have been named 2022 Vanier Scholars.

The prestigious annual Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships recognize academic excellence, research potential, and leadership skills in scholarly work. Each student will be awarded a scholarship valued at $150,000 over three years as they conduct their doctoral research programs. 

“We are grateful for the support of the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship and that these impressive scholars have chosen USask for their graduate training,” said Vice-President Research Baljit Singh. “We know their emergence as leaders and high achievement in their chosen scholarly fields will help further establish our institution as a global leader in discovery the world needs.” 

Research projects supported by the scholarship will investigate numerous social and scientific challenges that society faces, with focuses on education, health, medicine, and environmental sciences. 

Protecting the Earth’s biodiversity

Gilbert Adum has a goal to conserve and protect life on Earth, while helping communities find ways to promote economic growth. Investigating and building on current conservation policies will be necessary to help achieve this goal and advance Canada’s commitment to the post-2020 Biodiversity Framework of conserving 30 per cent of lands by 2030. 

Adum will explore a new conservation policy tool known as Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures (OECMs) and its potential to aid in this mission. OCEMs refer to areas where conservation measures are taken by local actors outside of traditional protected areas. 

“OECMs may include traditional agricultural landscapes, abandoned pastures, historic wrecks, cemeteries, and First Nations designated sites,” said Adum. “Unlike previous tools, OECMs place Indigenous and local communities at the centre of conservation decisions.” 

Adum notes that the balance between achieving economic well-being and biological and cultural conservation is not well understood particularly when it comes to Indigenous Peoples. His project will work to fill this gap by engaging directly with community partners to understand their perspectives on OECMs. 

With the supervision of USask’s School of Environment and Sustainability, Distinguished Professor Dr. Maureen Reed (PhD), who also serves as UNESCO Co-Chair in Biocultural Diversity, Sustainability, Reconciliation and Renewal, Adum’s research project will work with Indigenous and rural communities in the Redberry Lake Biosphere Region, Sask., where biodiversity losses are significant.  

The work will help to determine how OECMs can establish equitable policies and practices to simultaneously address conservation and development needs, including meeting Canada’s obligations to advance the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. 

Building air purification systems that combat viruses

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that airborne viruses can rapidly cause widespread disease in large populations.  

USask Engineering PhD student Pezhman Zolfaghari Didani is developing a high-performing air purification system that can remove tiny airborne pathogens from the air more efficiently than current air filters. 

“In most indoor environments, such as large buildings, the central air conditioning system must circulate the air inside the building,” said Didani. “This phenomenon helps the pathogens, such as SARS-CoV-2, spread rapidly inside the buildings and infect many healthy persons.” 

Didani notes that many methods have been proposed to remove pathogens from the air flowing through air conditioning systems, but many of these may introduce toxic chemicals or additional respiratory diseases, or the systems require frequent maintenance, limiting their effectiveness.  

With supervision from USask College of Engineering professor Dr. Jafar Soltan (PhD) and College of Medicine associate professor Dr. Shelley Kirychuk (PhD), Didani plans to develop a device that will convert ozone gas to oxygen and active oxygen species that can rapidly attack and decompose a wide range of organic molecules. These species have the ability to inactivate airborne pathogens by damaging their structures and ceasing their reproduction. Didani would design the device to be compatible with current air conditioning systems. 

“The device will be able to eliminate harmful chemicals and organic pollutants from the air,” said Didani. “Because of the non-selective nature of this novel air disinfection unit, we would potentially be able to eliminate organic pollutants and airborne pathogens that emerge in the future.” 

Improving mental health and well-being with virtual reality tools

As an PhD student in USask’s Interdisciplinary Studies program, Lindsey Boechler will undertake a project that aims to identify how virtual reality (VR) technology can be used to support and enhance the mental well-being of Indigenous adolescents in northern Saskatchewan. 

She notes that with disproportionately high suicide rates of Indigenous youth, current mental health care methods should be evaluated and improved to better support this group in a culturally responsive way. A virtual platform provides a medium for building a care environment that is based on the needs and priorities of Indigenous youth and can be altered to be responsive to changing needs while enforcing a sense of self and identity. 

“The initial goal is to partner with Indigenous communities to outline the current status of mental health supports and identify services gaps through the perspectives of community members,” said Boechler. “This assessment will be followed by exploring how VR technology can be used to address the gaps or to enhance existing supports.” 

Boechler will work alongside College of Education associate professors Dr. Vicki Squires (PhD) and Dr. Michael Cottrell (PhD). 

The research will build on existing knowledge of how VR technology can be used to address mental health and well-being, with hopes to provide additional information about best practices while creating advanced VR mental health interventions. 

“By further enhancing VR interventions, our research will serve as a catalyst that pushes the boundaries of a virtual presence in the domain of enhancing mental health and well-being,” said Boechler. 

Improving understanding of Lyme disease

The bacteria that causes Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi, is one of the most important pathogens in the Northern Hemisphere. It is transmitted to humans through interactions with live vertebrate hosts such as the blacklegged tick, rodents, and birds. Once infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, humans develop Lyme disease, which is characterized by signs such as a red rash on the skin, fever, headache, and fatigue. If left untreated, the infection can spread to the heart and nervous system and cause long-lasting damage. 

As a PhD student in USask’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), Cody Koloski will conduct a research project that aims to understand how vertebrate hosts are able to become infected with more than one strain of Borrelia burgdorferi at a time. 

“In nature, vertebrate hosts are frequently infected with more than one strain, a phenomenon called co-infection,” said Koloski. “In co-infected hosts, strains have the ability to interact with each other, which can influence their success in nature. A common scenario is when a strain encounters a host that is already infected with another strain.” 

But the process of a second strain establishing itself in a previously infected body and causing a co-infection is not well understood, Koloski added. 

With the supervision of WCVM assistant professor Dr. Maarten Voordouw (PhD), Koloski will conduct a research program that investigates if the first strain to cause infection forms a sort of barrier against a secondary infection. The team will compare how mice with normal immune systems versus mice with compromised immune systems with differing levels of the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, affect the ability for co-infection with a second strain. 

“The research will give us a better understanding of how pathogen strain diversity is maintained in nature,” said Koloski. 


For media inquiries, contact:  

Victoria Dinh 
USask Media Relations 

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