Heart work pays off for Vanier scholarship recipient

Sophie Hamstra (BSc ’19) has long had her heart set on making a difference through her cardiovascular research.

Since learning late last year that she was one of two Brock students chosen to receive the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, the Applied Health Sciences PhD student has not missed a beat.

Hamstra has continued to work on her research, which focuses on a protein in the heart muscle that controls muscle relaxation and contraction to treat or prevent heart muscle disorders known as cardiomyopathies.

Heart muscle disorders such as heart failure and cardiomyopathy are the second leading cause of death in Canada and are affected by the protein Hamstra is exploring.

“I’ve always been interested in learning about human physiology, and the cardiovascular system is at the centre of it, driving everything forward,” she says. “If something is wrong with that central system, everything gets affected. It’s like solving a puzzle; you always have to find the common denominator or the root of the problem to fix it effectively.”

A woman points to an image of an anatomical heart on a computer screen, her reflection visible on the screen.

Applied Health Sciences PhD student Sophie Hamstra explains the heart’s function through a cardiac cycle video graphic while in Brock’s Cairns Family Health and Bioscience Research Complex.

Hamstra started her post-secondary journey in the Medical Sciences program at Brock and did an undergrad honours thesis with Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Val Fajardo, who is now her supervisor.

She then went on from her master’s thesis, transitioning to the PhD program through a fast-track opportunity made possible by her outstanding work.

Hamstra’s research, “Protecting SERCA function from cellular stress in heart muscle,” which led her to her selection as a Vanier scholarship recipient, has the potential to have a broad impact.

“A big issue that our society is dealing with right now is the complications of COVID or long-COVID,” she says. “Viral infections can put a lot of stress on the heart both directly and indirectly. Chronically reduced oxygen levels in the tissues and inflammation due to tissue stress or viral infection makes the heart work harder and leads to tissue damage.”

Hamstra was at the Florida State University College of Medicine — where a funding opportunity allowed her to learn functional experiments relating to echocardiograms that she could bring back to teach her Brock colleagues — when she was notified about the Vanier scholarship.

“I was very emotional when I found out I had been awarded the Vanier,” Hamstra says. “A lot of time and effort has gone into the work that I do and having to summarize that into my application has given me such an appreciation for where I started as an undergraduate student just looking for some lab experience to where I am now. It’s been a bit of a surreal experience, but I am very proud of this accomplishment and wouldn’t have been able to do this without the help and support of my lab mates and my supervisor, Dr. Fajardo.”

The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships program helps Canadian institutions attract highly qualified doctoral students in the fields of health, natural sciences and engineering, and social sciences and humanities. The award is valued at $50,000 annually for three years during doctoral studies.

Nadia Ganesh, a Brock PhD student in Psychology, was also awarded the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, deferring the funding until she returns to her studies this fall. Ganesh’s research, “Sex Differences in Discrimination Against Black Women and Black Men,” examines the extent to which Black women, compared to Black, men are discriminated against.

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