Sunnybrook Prize Winner - Heather Whittaker

Heather with her supervisor, Dr. Melanie Martin

University of Winnipeg student Heather Whittaker has been chosen as one of two $5, 000 winners of the Sunnybrook Prize, after presenting her work to scientists at the Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto last week. Whittaker, who is in her third year of UWinnipeg’s Biopsychology program, is currently doing research on Alzeimer’s disease, which afflicts nearly 300, 000 Canadians.

“To win this prize confirms that she is one of the top third or fourth year undergraduate students in Canada working in biomedical research,” says Dr. Melanie Martin, Associate Professor, Physics Department, who has been working with Whittaker to examine differences in the brains of mice with signs and symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease, using state-of-the-art magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) methods to understand the signs of disease in the brain tissue. A change in the size of the hippocampus – a brain region that is involved with memory – could be used for early diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Martin notes winning this prize will help position Whittaker to be chosen for graduate studies with leading researchers in her field, or for medical school post-graduation. “She’s an example of the great students we have, and the great opportunities we have at The University of Winnipeg for motivated students.”

“I have a particular interest in the aging brain,” Whittaker explained to UWinnipeg, prior to the competition, which she described as “… an incredible opportunity to gain inspiration from leaders in biomedical research. And for me, putting my project on a national stage really highlights the relevance of my work and the scope of impact it could have.”

Whittaker says she has seen the “profound impact that Alzeimer’s disease can have in people’s lives”, as a volunteer support group leader for caregivers of people with dementia.

As an undergraduate, Whittaker is involved in cutting edge research while honing her technical skills, learning “much about the physics of magnetic resonance imaging and its potential in understanding the early changes to the brain seen with Alzheimer’s disease.” Her collaboration with Martin has provided a unique opportunity to combine biological and physical sciences, and develop imaging techniques that may later have medical applications.

Whittaker has already earned the inaugural ICAN WISE Scholarship 2014 working with Martin. This scholarship helps facilitate women to form mentee – mentor academic research collaborations in natural sciences and engineering.

The Sunnybrook Research Prize competition is open to undergraduates in the physical sciences and engineering disciplines who are in their third or fourth year of study at a Canadian university and have an interest in biomedical research.