A year in the life of a Vanier scholar

Faculty of Graduate Studies

A year in the life of a Vanier scholar

Before long, Ellen Robb will be one year into her prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship.

The PhD student in Biology describes looking back on life since last May when she became the University’s first Vanier recipient as somewhat frightening — but in a good way. It has shaped up to be a busy year. In addition to her research activities, Robb took on the additional responsibilities as president of Brock’s Graduate Students’ Association.

“So much has happened,” says Robb. “I’m very pleased with how well my research is going. And while being GSA president has involved a tremendous amount of work, it is a very satisfying experience.”

The Vanier scholarship places Robb among the country’s most promising doctoral students. It comes with funding of $150,000 over three years to assist research activities.

Robb is pursuing studies into the cellular mechanisms underlying the positive health effects of resveratrol, an active ingredient in red wine. Resveratrol has been shown to have beneficial effects in cancer prevention and in maintaining cardiovascular health. In the lab, Robb works with mice and also grows cultures of human cell lines to better understand the longterm benefits of resveratrol.

Robb has found the scholarship funding valuable in assisting with her expenses to attend two major conferences. In November, she participated in a presentation at the Radical Biology and Medicine Annual Conference in San Francisco, Calif. The event attracted leading scientists from around the world in her research field. She barely had unpacked her bags before taking off in December for the Polyphenols in Human Health conference held in Harrogate, U.K. Robb presented a poster at this conference that brings in international research scientists as well as professionals working in pharmacology, nutrition and cardiology.

“The opportunity to attend conferences is particularly important to a young researcher such as myself,” she says. “In talking with other scientists and experts you learn something new and you are asked questions about your work that you hadn’t thought about. It’s one of the best ways to generate new ideas to apply to your work. As well, both conferences gave me an opportunity to share my work with other researchers – it’s where you begin to make connections that lead to collaborative studies.”

Robb, who is from Niagara-on-the-Lake, works under the supervision of Professor Jeff Stuart, Biological Sciences. She started working in Stuart’s lab as an undergraduate student in 2006.

“Ellen’s field of research is very competitive — things are moving quickly and you have to keep pace,” says Stuart. “Definitely, as an additional source of funding, the Vanier helps Ellen to keep up with competing research groups and stay connected with researchers in her field by attending conferences.

“Rather than go to one conference a year, Ellen can go to three. Rather than go to a conference just in Canada, she can attend conferences in other countries such as the opportunities she had this year in San Francisco and England.

“The type of work that Ellen does requires a lot of different research tools like genetically modified mice and special cell lines. No one research group has all the tools so researchers tend to share and that sharing is facilitated by networking at conferences.”

The year has also seen Robb co-author two invited reviews, acting as lead author on one of them.

“It’s been a very productive year for Ellen,” adds Stuart. “Ellen is a good writer, is well organized and she works very independently. Not many PhD students would be able to take on that kind of a lead role in writing a comprehensive review. She is having great success and I can only imagine what the future will hold for Ellen.”

Ellen Robb

Ellen Robb