Meet the McGill 2011 Vanier Scholarship recipients – NSERC

The following are just some of the McGill 2011 Vanier Scholarship winners funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

Sven Mikael Persson

Sven Mikael Persson: Cleaning up space debris

McGill Department of Mechanical Engineering

Tell us about your research.

An ever-increasing demand for space-borne technology in our everyday lives – and following five decades of satellites accumulating in orbit – solutions for waste-management in space are becoming critical. These needs include how to remove old satellites from their orbit or servicing them in-orbit to extend their life.

My research aims to develop automation technologies which will allow a servicing space-craft to capture a satellite in-orbit with a robotic arm, minimal human intervention and without requiring that the target satellite be specially designed for a capturing maneuver. I am writing software that will control the robotic arm to safely intercept free-floating structures. The Aerospace Mechatronics Laboratory of McGill University has a unique test-bed on which these algorithms can be tested on real hardware that emulates a free-floating satellite passing near a mobile robotic arm.

What makes this research so important?

This project can have practical applications for the space industry, as well as in applications in increased autonomy for industrial and domestic robots. To an engineer’s delight, this project is the coming together of theory and pragmatism, of software and hardware, of electronics and mechanics, of space and Earth.

How will the Vanier Scholarship help your research?

Freedom: Research activities, such as traveling to conferences, are no longer (or less) contingent on budgeting research funds or obtaining grants and awards.

Time: Vanier encourages me to dedicate the appropriate time to complete my doctoral studies up to the high standard I set for myself. And, of course, earning extra money through work is not required.

Recognition: Being recognized for your accomplishments, past and present, and to have one of the highest institutions in Canada believing in your future potential is a tremendous encouragement when facing those everyday hurdles all researchers face.

Kiyoko Gotanda

Kiyoko Gotanda: How evolutionary adaptation is affected by spatial and temporal variation in survival and reproduction

McGill Department of Biology and Redpath Museum

Tell us about your research.

I am exploring how variation in natural and sexual selection might affect adaptation in the Trinidadian guppy. In Trinidadian guppies, females are thought to favour brightly coloured males (sexual selection) but this makes them more susceptible to being eaten by a predator (natural selection). Spatial variation in natural selection (different predation levels) drives divergence: males are more brightly coloured in low-predation sites and vice-versa. However, recent work suggests the strength and direction of natural and sexual selection can vary through time and between populations, and thus, my project investigates the underlying causes of this spatial and temporal variation in selection.

What makes this research so important?

Globally, our ecosystems are subject to a variety of human disturbances and natural pressures resulting in environmental change. Understanding the underlying causes of variation in selection will help predict how natural populations will respond to this ongoing change.

How will the Vanier Scholarship help your research?

It is an honour to be a recipient of the Vanier Scholarship. It will allow me to fully devote myself to my research, share my results with other researchers and collaborate with colleagues. Receiving this award also affirms the importance of ecological and evolutionary research in today’s rapidly changing environment.

Meer Sakib

Meer Sakib: Enabling Next-Generation Optical Communications Systems for Canada’s Digital Economy

McGill Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Tell us about your research.

To achieve sustainable economic growth, all Canadians must have access to the Internet at affordable rates, either through wireless or wireline connections. This will only be possible through the support of a communication infrastructure with a much greater capacity, enabling a thousand billion bits (or Terabits) to be transported over transmission links each second. Only optical fiber technology can theoretically handle such capacity. However, in next-generation optical communication systems signal quality is impaired by the increased transmission capacity of so many extra bits per second. My PhD proposal takes a multidisciplinary approach to this problem by jointly investigating ways to modulate the amount of light more efficiently, and to electrically correct errors occurring during transmission through the processing of information. The goal of my research is to develop appropriate technology, based on these methods and facilitate the deployment of Canada’s next-generation of communications infrastructure.

What makes this research so important?

The research I propose to undertake will enable more pervasive, efficient and secure communication networks than those available today through increasing system margins, and increasing their capacity. It will also stimulate enhanced applications related to the Internet, including online businesses, health services and distance learning, which continuously push bandwidth and accessibility limits. Our recent research published in IEEE Journal of Optical Communication and Networking was one of the top downloaded papers in June, 2011.

How will the Vanier Scholarship help your research?

The Vanier will help me concentrate solely on my studies. Besides financial freedom, it is a moral boost to my current research and motivation to fellow students. It will help me travel, meet experts from around the world, and attend high quality conferences and meetings. By accessing international scientific research and training, I plan to contribute in strengthening and enhancing collaboration between McGill and other universities as well as research institutions outside Canada.

Sebastien Guillot

Sebastien Guillot: The densest matter: The  Holy Grail of Nuclear Physics

McGill Department of Physics

Tell us about your research.

My research consists of using space-based orbiting X-ray telescopes to observe neutron stars. These objects are the remnants of supernova explosions and their cores are composed of the densest matter in the Universe. By measuring the neutron star masses and radii, we can understand the properties of this matter and help our understanding of fundamental nuclear physics.

What makes this research so important?

Ultra-dense nuclear matter, like that found in the core of neutron stars, cannot be made in Earth laboratories. Since neutron stars are the only places in the Universe where this type of matter is found, their study is the only way to understand the properties of ultra-dense matter, one of the Holy Grails of nuclear physics.  Therefore, this research project ties the link between astrophysics and fundamental nuclear physics.

How will the Vanier Scholarship help your research?

As an international student, few majors and renowned scholarships are available to me. This will provide additional funding which will allow me to attend conferences where I will present my research and allow me to concentrate more of my time on my research and my leadership activities, without the financial worries pertaining to graduate student life.

Vincent Fugère

Vincent Fugère: The impact of human behaviour on the evolution of the ecosystem – and related consequences.

McGill Department of Biology

Tell us about your research.

My research lies at the intersection of evolutionary ecology, ecosystem ecology and conservation biology. My Ph.D. project is based on two recent findings in ecology; first, that human impacts on natural ecosystems (because of deforestation, climate change, etc.) can lead to evolution (changes in morphology, behaviour, etc.) in many species, and second, that small variations in morphology and behaviour within a species can have strong consequences for the rest of the ecosystem in which that species is found. I attempt to bridge these two findings by studying how human-induced evolutionary changes in a species can, in turn, affect the functioning of that species’ ecosystem. As a model system, I use a small minnow-like fish from western Uganda that lives in both pristine rainforest streams and highly disturbed agricultural streams: I compare the morphology and behavior of fish from the two types of streams and then look at how this deforestation-induced variation influences the whole stream ecosystem.

What makes this research so important?

This project is scientifically important because it unites two fields of research in ecology for which there is currently much interest (the effects of human disturbances on evolution and the role of intra-specific variation in ecosystem functioning), and because it is highly integrative in nature (by linking variation at the level of the organism with ecosystem processes). Also, because deforestation and land conversion are among the most serious threats to freshwater ecosystems worldwide, this research has practical implications for the conservation and management of freshwater ecosystems in both temperate and tropical regions.

How will the Vanier Scholarship help your research?

It provides me with the financial support necessary to benefit from the best possible research and training opportunities, regardless of costs. For example, the high travel expenses associated with field research in East Africa would normally force me to have brief field seasons; with the Vanier at hand, I can spend a lot of time in the field and thus collect a better, longer-term dataset. The scholarship also allows me to participate in scientific conferences no matter where they are held, allowing me to choose the most relevant conferences rather than simply the closest ones. Likewise, I am planning to attend international specialized courses abroad that I would not be able to afford without the Vanier scholarship. Even though training opportunities at McGill are great, the Vanier scholarship allows me to expand these opportunities. In the end, the Vanier scholarship will translate into more (and better) data and scientific papers, in training opportunities that will greatly enhance my curriculum and expertise, and in more free time available to apply my knowledge to important conservation problems. My graduate experience will undoubtedly be more rewarding and constructive because of the Vanier scholarship.

Lana Greene: Developing smart, bright molecules to get a better picture of cellular processes

McGill Department of Chemistry

Tell us about your research.

Various smart molecules that cater to different biological systems, including mitochondria and neurons, will be developed. These smart molecules will enhance our look at cellular functions because they will fluoresce – or brighten –under certain conditions in the presence of certain chemicals. The types of biological chemicals we will monitor with smart molecules are free radicals. Free radicals play a role in cell signaling which influences the way a cell performs. An accumulation of free radicals in a biological system can lead to oxidative stress, which can cause neurodegenerative diseases. The smart molecules will fluoresce in the presence of free radicals showing researchers their location.

What makes this research so important?

It is hoped that the smart molecules developed will enable progress in biomedical research by providing new tools for molecular level understanding of cellular processes that will benefit all.

How will the Vanier Scholarship help your research?

I was so honoured and relieved when I was told I had received the Vanier scholarship. I am so proud that my country recognizes scientific achievement and supports students of all nationalities to pursue research in Canada. This scholarship provides me with enough money so that I won’t have to TA or worry about my living expenses. This will then give me more time to focus on my research and pursue new ideas.

Further Reading:

To read about the McGill 2011 Vanier Scholarship winners funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), visit

To read about the McGill 2011 Vanier Scholarship winners funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) visit