Applications open for Undergraduate Student Research Awards

Indigenous Peoples have long known the properties of plants used for healing, and how to grow these plants. But Western science has largely ignored this Indigenous knowledge at the peril of human and environmental health, says Cassandra Carlson.

The fourth-year Brock Biology and Psychology student received an Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA) this past summer from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to study Indigenous plants. Applications are now open for this year’s USRA recipients.

Carlson germinated seeds from five local Indigenous plant species — white sage, pale purple coneflower, marsh skullcap, sweetgrass and pearly everlasting — and transferred the seedlings from the laboratory to the University’s community garden.

“I wanted to incorporate the method of the Three Sisters Garden, where growing corn, beans and squash together is mutually beneficial for all three of these plants,” says Carlson, who is Ojibwe from Wauzhushk Onigum Nation. She was using “Two-Eyed Seeing,” the combination of Indigenous and Western science with equal respect.

Plots of ready to develop garden space sit in a grassy field.

Brock Biology and Psychology student Cassandra Carlson received an Undergraduate Student Research Award for a project she completed in the University’s community garden.

Carlson monitored the growth and interactions among different traditional plants. As part of the research, she also conducted a survey of plant species used in Indigenous and Western healing gardens in southern Ontario. Healing gardens contain local Indigenous plants that treat a variety of health concerns and they also act as a powerful tool in biodiversity conservation.

“My research was to define species appropriate for a healing garden in the Niagara Escarpment and provide a layout for what factors need to be considered when combining species for creating a healing garden,” she says.

NSERC has long administered the award Carlson received, which is meant to nurture students’ interests in, and fully develop their potential for, a research career in the natural sciences and engineering. The awards program aims to encourage undergrads to pursue graduate studies in those fields.

The funding, valued at $6,000 plus supervisor contribution, provides 14 to 16 consecutive, full-time weeks of research employment that complements students’ undergraduate studies in an academic setting. There are 23 NSERC awards available in this year’s competition at Brock, with more available to support Indigenous and Black students.

Carlson’s supervisor, Professor of Biology Liette Vasseur, says the NSERC USRA enabled Carlson to truly expand on her research interests.

“Cassandra was able to produce amazing results that will be useful for many First Nations as well as other projects that we currently are initiating for the Niagara Escarpment Biosphere and our Indigenous partners,” says Vasseur. “She will have a brilliant future in research as she has all the attributes from curiosity and critical thinking to great work ethics and writing skills.”

For the first time, the two other major federal government research funding agencies — the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) — are offering USRAs for self-identified Black students.

“From my own field of higher education, we have learned that early research experiences build skills and confidence that can shape future academic and career goals,” says Brock Associate Vice-President, Research Michelle McGinn.

“It is therefore particularly exciting that the Tri-Agencies have expanded the USRA program to encourage Black undergraduate students to engage in research across all disciplines, which is perfectly aligned with Brock’s strategic priorities and our commitments as signatories to the Scarborough Charter,” she says.

According to the federal government’s Undergraduate Student Research Awards allocations, Brock University is earmarked for one SSHRC award and one CIHR award.

Applications for all three USRAs are a two-part process. Students interested in applying for this opportunity must fill out the USRA Application Form Part A, while their supervisors must fill out the USRA Application Form Part B. Before applying, please carefully read the Brock University Undergraduate Student Research Award Guidelines.

The application deadline is Friday, Feb. 24, at 5 p.m.

For more information or assistance, contact Research Officer and USRA Liaison Officer Vincent Annibale at

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