Three Brock researchers capture Ontario’s Early Researcher Awards

Creating a device to detect prostate cancer. Determining how and why perfectionism impacts adolescent health. Understanding the process that leads to children forgetting to carry out a future intention.

These areas of interest will be pursued by three Brock University researchers thanks to a grant from the Ontario Ministry of Research, Innovation and Science.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Feng Li, Assistant Professor of Child and Youth Studies Danielle Sirianni Molnar and Assistant Professor of Psychology Caitlin Mahy have all received funding this year under the Ministry’s Early Researcher Awards program.

“These rare and prestigious awards are reserved for early-career researchers whose innovative work is recognized as crucial to the social, cultural, economic and intellectual future of Ontario,” says Brock Vice-President, Research Tim Kenyon.

“For a university of Brock’s size to receive three awards in one year is amazing and will definitely turn some heads. But it is not surprising to anyone who knows the incredible research talent that Brock has been recruiting for years.”

Li and his team of four graduate students will develop a single device that will examine blood and urine samples for the presence of certain proteins and nucleic acids that are present in the early stages of prostate cancer.

The device will give results in about an hour. Li previously created a three-dimensional, nano-sized robot that detects disease, which the new device, made out of paper, will read and interpret.

At the moment, testing for these proteins and nucleic acids is done separately and requires highly complicated, time consuming and expensive equipment and processes.

“You would use this device like you would do a pregnancy test,” he says. “You mix your samples with the 3D robot and load it onto the paper device. You would see coloured strips, just like in a pregnancy test,” says Li.

Another huge health concern is an upsurge in depression and anxiety among adolescents, with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health reporting that the prevalence of moderate to severe psychological distress among Ontario students rose 10 per cent from 2013 to 2015.

“There’s a lot of research showing strong links between perfectionism and depression and anxiety in adults, but very little work examining these associations in adolescents,” says Molnar.

“Given that one in four adolescents is highly perfectionistic and that perfectionism is on the rise among young people it is important to understand the role of perfectionism in depression and anxiety in adolescents.”

Perfectionists set and strive for unrealistically high standards; if they fall short, they are harshly self-critical and anxious. This can occur even if they achieve these high standards, says Molnar.

She and her team of graduate and undergraduate students will develop and test a brand-new model of how perfectionism affects adolescents’ physical and mental health. The model will incorporate many factors such as immune system functioning, social connection, family medical histories, gender differences, and healthy eating, sleeping and exercise.

Mahy’s prospective memory research focuses on an even younger set of subjects. Her work looks at whether a child forgets to do something because they can’t remember what they had to do or because they do not remember to do it at an appropriate moment.

Mahy, along with a post-doctoral fellow, two master’s and one PhD student and five undergraduate students will be exploring this question and the development of prospective memory in children over time, from the age of four to six.

Her research will include examining the relationship in early childhood between prospective memory — remembering to do things in the future — and retrospective memory, which recalls past events. The team will also study if certain cues help young children to remember their future intentions.

“Prospective memory is such an important skill in adulthood,” says Mahy. “We have to remember to go to meetings, do things at certain times, remember our spouse’s birthday; being forgetful does have a cost.

“I see prospective memory as critical in children developing into adults who can function in society.”

The Early Researcher Awards program enables new researchers working at publicly funded Ontario research institutions to build research teams.

“This is a real game-changer for my lab,” says Mahy. “I don’t need fancy equipment to study what I study; I really need help in the lab. Being able to fund a post-doctoral fellow especially will have huge benefit to us.”

For Sirianni Molnar, the funding will pay for student travel to professional conferences.

“I had fantastic mentors who always made sure I could go and get these experiences, so it’s great to pay it forward now,” she says.

Ontario Minister of Research, Innovation and Science Reza Moridi announced March 2 the funding of 289 projects across the province, which fall under the ERAs and two other programs.

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