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Great Grads - 1999

Christina Semeniuk and Elliot Ludvig: Stars of the Science College

Original research is not normally done until graduate school, but the precocious undergraduates enrolled in Concordia’s Science College have the opportunity to do fieldwork before they ever start a graduate program.

Christina Semeniuk has just won the 1999 Governor-General’s Silver Medal for having the highest cumulative GPA in the university (4.23), the Mappin Medal (best science student), the Biology Prize (best biology student), and the Science College Prize.

She first heard about the Science College while at Beaconsfield High School. Representatives at a career day had put across the message that "if you’re into research and science, then Science College is the place for you," Semeniuk said.

"I had thought I’d go to McGill, since that’s where my brothers and sister had gone." Instead, she received a call from Science College Principal Geza Szamosi and went for an interview. She opted for the place that could give her research experience and intimate learning opportunities.

"The best thing was not only the fieldwork, but getting published. That’s amazing for an undergraduate," the Honours Ecology student said. "Also, I wanted to apply for marine biology, and had it not been for the fieldwork, as a Montrealer, I wouldn’t have had any marine experience."

Semeniuk has been accepted by the University of Aberdeen in Scotland for a PhD, but has chosen to get more theoretical background at Simon Fraser University, where she will do a Master’s degree. She also was offered scholarships at SFU, Dalhousie, and won an NSERC, FCAR and a Commonwealth Scholarship.

At the Science College, Semeniuk first studied fungus and plant root cells, and then her passion, sharks, which she said are "so misunderstood. There are 370 species out there, and only four have attacked humans. Most sharks are just fish eaters."

She went to the East Coast with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to catch spiny dogfish sharks, which are being blamed for the slow recovery of cod stocks. "This research had real repercussions because it will influence whether to allow more fishing on sharks in order to help cod stocks revive."

Her experiment was to see what these sharks were eating, and she spent 11 days on a boat, catching 65 sharks. She then opened the stomachs of these and some other 235 to see what was inside. Were they eating a lot of cod? No.

"There was more cod being eaten by other cod – they’re cannibalisic – than there were sharks eating cod," Semeniuk said. "Plus, the number of spiny dogfish is so low right now, the impact is negligible." This research will be published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatics, with her supervisor, Dr. James Grant.

Elliot Ludvig, who is getting his BSc in Psychology, hadn’t heard of the Science College until he got here and found that he needed a challenge. One of his professors recommended the Science College.

"We got a broad, interdisciplinary perspective on science, and we were taught not to be trapped by the viewpoint of a single science. The interaction with professors and small classes also made it worthwhile."

One of his research projects involved the study of caterpillar taste buds (cells). He found that sugar stimulates the salt taste buds, which has implications on pest control. He also researched rat brain stimulation.

"The most interesting result of the rat brain project didn’t have to do with the model we were testing. What we found was that while most current theories say that the size of a reward [given to a rat] has no relation to how much time it takes for them to forget about it, we found that it did." Ludvig, who works at the Centre for Studies in Behavioural Neurobiology, will be following up this find over the summer.

Next year, he will attend Duke University, where he received two scholarships, and he’ll get a chance to work with a top expert in timing. He was also awarded NSERC and FCAR grants.

- Eugenia Xenos

Mary St-Hilaire: A lab to fit her needs

Professor Paul Albert’s lab on the 12th floor of the Hall Building has some unusual features. A waist-high wooden scaffold with a step stands in front of one of the microscopes. A stick for turning the light switch on and off lies on the counter. A large shaggy dog lies collapsed in the middle of the floor, eyeing Albert with amiable interest.

Linus, the dog, belongs to Albert’s student, Mary St-Hilaire. St-Hilaire, 26, has all the right stuff to make it in her chosen field: talent, ambition, dedication, and a large, snuffly canine who goes with her everywhere.

St-Hilaire is a little person, only slightly taller than Linus. When she began her BSc at Concordia seven years ago, she could only attend part-time. Staying at school all day presented complications, such as toting food around with her and carrying several textbooks.

In 1995, however, St-Hilaire acquired Linus, an assistance dog. Linus is a La Bernois, a breed of dog that looks like a shaggy Labrador. He is trained to pick up pencils (so St-Hilaire doesn’t have to climb off her lab stool), carry her schoolbooks and even help her up the stairs.

"Linus made it possible for me to stay at school all day," said St-Hilaire.

Although she began her degree in psychology, St-Hilaire switched to biology in first year, and developed a fascination with neurology, the study of the nervous system. She decided to do her honours thesis on the neuro-physiology of insects.

Enter Albert, St-Hilaire’s thesis supervisor. St-Hilaire had needs in terms of using his lab that were minor but crucial. She needed to be able to enter the lab, turn off the lights and stand at the counter to use the microscope.

Over the summer of 1998, Albert set to work, building a bench to allow St-Hilaire to access the microscope, creating a stick for her to turn out the light, and setting up an automatic door system.

"I came in and we went over the lab piece by piece," she said. "He was very fast, very innovative."

Albert downplayed his role in modifying the lab. "They’re not major changes," he said. "They were all very simple to achieve." Simple, but essential to her work, St-Hilaire said.

"The physical plant people are very busy, and changes like this take time," she explained.

St-Hilaire will enter the MSc program in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University in the fall. She has already been to look over the lab, and explain her needs. Linus, of course, will accompany her to McGill, but she said she will miss Albert’s lab and the people she met there.

"I’ll have to come back and visit," she said." This has really become my second home."

- Jane Davenport

Bijoy Barua: Development officer gets another degree

Although providing the best possible education for his son was the main goal when Bijoy Barua immigrated with his family to Canada from Bangladesh, he has added considerably to his own résumé since moving here.

The 48-year-old Barua has just completed his MA in Educational Studies at Concordia to add to his BA and MA in sociology from the University of Chittagong. This fall, he’ll pursue a PhD in Sociology, with a specialty in Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, where he has received a scholarship and will work as a research assistant.

Barua has a wealth of hands-on experience. He has worked with grassroots development projects in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Most recently, he was a delegate sociologist with a Swiss Red Cross development project in Asia and Europe, providing assistance on project planning, management training and the evaluation of community education programs.

Since coming to Canada in 1994, he has been active as an associate fellow at McGill University’s Centre for Developing Area Studies and has presented several papers across the country. At Concordia, he was a member of the Senate Research Committee and a graduate student representative for the Concordia Council on Student Life.

Because he didn’t know anyone prior to coming to Montreal, Barua said he has actively networked through his many projects to establish new social and professional contacts. Establishing his credentials here after being a well-placed professional in Bangladesh remains a priority. "I’ve had to make many sacrifices and start from zero," he said. "But coming to Canada has offered my children an opportunity to attend better schools and to better their lives."

Since easing his family’s integration into Canadian society is another priority, Barua’s wife Shipra, sons Shouroy, 13, and Kaushik, 7, are staying put in Montreal while he studies in Toronto. "It’s going to be easier for them to continue integrating that way," he said.

- Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins

Hongwei Zhang and Alexandre Girard: Fast learners, good talkers

Hongwei Zhang and Alexandre Girard may not be native speakers of English, but that hasn’t stopped them from excelling in their second language.

Zhang, an MBA spring graduate, has even made the Dean’s List, with a 3.74 GPA. The 32-year-old, who immigrated to Canada from China in 1993 and became a citizen just last month, is understandably proud of his achievement.

"Being on the Dean’s List is like a double award," Zhang said. It acknowledges both his academic prowess and fluency in English, which he studied to do a BA in English linguistics and literature in China, and fine-tuned by debating with the Concordia Toastmasters Club.

He has also picked up French since living in Montreal, where his first job was as producer/announcer at Radio-Canada International. Although he possessed no journalistic experience before the CBC, he had no difficulty reporting on Canada, in Mandarin, to Chinese listeners. "I’m a quick learner," he said.

Before moving to Canada, Zhang was an administrator for a Beijing concern that coordinated meetings between European and Chinese business partners. He has also been Chinese project consultant for Montreal’s Innovitech Inc., and hopes to work as an international broker for a Canadian company.

He’s looking forward to a summer trip to Europe or Asia with his wife, Zhouyun, and 20-month-old son, Alexander. He’ll visit guanxi (close relatives) before job-hunting. "I’m postponing which direction to take my career," he said. "I want to take time to celebrate my graduation."

Girard will soon be leaving town, too, but for different reasons. After ending a summer stage at Imaso, he’ll be off to England to complete an MA in corporate strategy and governance at Nottingham University.

The 22-year-old francophone, who hadn’t been schooled in English prior to completing a BA in Commerce and Finance at Concordia, says studying at the University has opened up a world of possibilities for him. "Perfecting my English at Concordia has increased my mobility," he said. "Once I finish school, I’ll be able to work wherever I want."

During his time at Concordia, Girard also honed his language skills by participating in 15 Commerce debates over the last two years, capping it off with a gold medal in debating at the 1999 Commerce Games in Hull. Although some of the events were bilingual, he credits debating with helping improve his fluidity in English. "I learned to think fast," he said. Debating also satisfied his need to make his point, he added, "since I can be a little argumentative."

- Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins

Minnie Matoush and Nellie Panchanos: Cree role models

It might have taken longer than expected to obtain their BAs, but Minnie Matoush and Nellie Pachanos never gave up. While both women originally came to Concordia in 1989 to complete certificates in Family Life Education, 10 years later they are leaving with BAs in Applied Social Science (now called Applied Human Sciences).

"There were times when I felt like giving up," Matoush confided. But she didn’t. The 39-year-old, who works as a student affairs technician for the Cree School Board’s Hull office, said quitting could have sent the wrong message to the students she counsels. "I’m like a role model for students," she said. "Obtaining my BA shows them it’s possible to attend university; that education is there for the taking."

Pachanos, 47, who works as a student services coordinator at the Cree School Board, said the hardest part of obtaining her BA was travelling to Montreal for the intensive courses from her home in Chisasibi, east of James Bay. "Leaving my family and having to make up for lost work in the evening was the most difficult," she said, "but I really appreciated the support we got from the people at Concordia."

She also enjoyed the challenge of obtaining a second BA (her first was in French and Human Resources and Management at the University of Ottawa). "I’ve always loved school," she said, adding this experience permitted her to form bonds with other Cree students. "We created life-long friendships. These people have become like a second family."

-Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins

Isabelle Roy: Working at UNICEF headquarters

On April 25, graduate history student Isabelle Roy learned that she had been selected to be a researcher on two different projects at the UNICEF headquarters in New York City, and by May 17, she was at the office.

"I never thought working at the UN or even in another country would be something I would have the chance to do, yet in the last month I’ve done both," the native Montrealer said.

Roy was awarded this work, along with another student from Nova Scotia, through the Institute for Leadership Development, based at York University. Her first project involves doing research on the genocide in Rwanda for Stephen Lewis, deputy executive director of UNICEF, and a former leader of the Ontario NDP. The other research project will be on small arms trade. She will be there until December, and possibly longer.

"Resources are widely and easily available here at UNICEF [which advocates for the rights of children in developing countries]," Roy said. "The environment is very multiethnic, and every day I learn as much about current events as I do about other people’s ways of living."

Roy got her BA in History at McGill. She is working with Concordia Professor Ron Rudin on the "Soirées de famille," a short-lived, turn-of-the-century theatre company under the patronage of the Société St-Jean-Baptiste, for her Master’s thesis. She plans to finish it in time for graduation next November.

While at Concordia, Roy has worked for the Institute for Genocide Studies, and has been a teaching assistant and president of the Graduate History Students Association. She has also worked with a professor on research about the Jewish business population in Montreal and its relationship with francophone businesses in the first half of this century, and for the Quebec Drama Federation as a researcher, a job she got through another History professor.

- Eugenia Xenos

Jody Patterson: Métier in art history

Jody Patterson, BFA Art History, considers it a bit of an accident that she found exactly what she was looking for academically.

A person of varied interests and talents, Patterson had been taking science courses at the University of Western Ontario in preparation for a medical degree, as well as psychology, philosophy and other courses.

None of it was a perfect fit, however, until she visited the Art History Department here at Concordia. "I decided I wanted a change after my first year there," said the Ontario resident, who was actually born in Montreal. "I wanted something which accommodated a broad array of ideas and methodologies, and none of it was crystallizing for me until I tried Art History."

She said the department’s multidisciplinary approach piqued her interest, and allowed her to bring much of her background into her work, which she found rewarding. Also, the faculty were tremendously supportive.

"Dr. Catherine Mackenzie was especially wonderful," Patterson said. "She championed my efforts in a way I thought unimaginable, and offered me a sense of direction in my work. It’s a fairly small Faculty, and endless amounts of time and support are given to students.

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Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.