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Best of the best

Science doctoral students recipients of prestigious scholarships

Student Life

By Kelly Foss

The Faculty of Science is home to two new Vanier scholars.

Ernest Awoonor-Williams, a PhD student in the Department of Chemistry, and Christina Prokopenko, a PhD student in the Department of Biology, are the latest recipients of the prestigious graduate scholarship.

Emerging scholars

The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship program helps Canadian institutions attract highly qualified doctoral students.

Valued at $50,000 per year for three years during doctoral studies, the program considers three equally weighted selection criteria: academic excellence, research potential and leadership.

“The Vanier Scholarship is an extremely competitive program and Memorial University is pleased the Government of Canada is recognizing the high calibre of our graduate students by presenting Christina and Ernest with this significant award,” said Dr. Aimée Surprenant, dean, School of Graduate Studies.

“This funding will ensure these emerging scholars are able to develop meaningful research programs with no financial barriers.”

Ernest Awoonor-Williams

Ernest Awoonor-Williams
Ernest Awoonor-Williams
Photo: Chris Rowley

Originally from Ghana, Ernest Awoonor-Williams completed his B.Sc. in chemistry at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick and holds a fellowship from ACEnet, a consortium of post-secondary schools in Atlantic Canada that supports students in acquiring skills in advanced computing.

Working under the supervision of Dr. Chris Rowley, Mr. Awoonor-Williams’s research interest lies at the intersection of computational biochemistry and drug discovery.

“I am motivated and challenged by this award, and thankful to my family, friends, and mentors for their support.” — Ernest Awoonor-Williams

He will use the $150,000 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship to develop new computer modelling tools to optimize anti-cancer drugs.

More specifically, his research focuses on identifying druggable targets in proteins, to assist drug developers in designing better drugs to combat cancer.

Mr. Awoonor-Williams says it is an honour to be awarded the Vanier Scholarship and he is very grateful to the Government of Canada for supporting his research.

“Being an international student, this award alleviates the financial burden of pursuing a higher education in Canada and provides the opportunity to fully focus on my research,” he said.

“Additionally, I will have the funds to travel internationally to disseminate my research at conferences relating to drug discovery and participate in collaborations. I am motivated and challenged by this award, and thankful to my family, friends, and mentors for their support.”

Christina Prokopenko

Christina Prokopenko
Christina Prokopenko
Photo: Submitted

Ms. Prokopenko is from Ottawa and holds a B.Sc. in wildlife biology from the University of Guelph and a master’s degree from the University of Alberta, where she studied elk habitat selection and movement behaviour.

Since starting a PhD in biology last year, she’s spent most of her time in Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba studying wolf behaviour under the supervision of Dr. Eric Vander Wal and his Wildlife Evolutionary Ecology Lab. She’s currently conducting fieldwork in Manitoba.

Ms. Prokopenko has been following 27 collared wolves in five different packs in the park, looking at their movements and the points that they cluster in – be they kill, resting or den sites. She makes observations on the habitat and wildlife signs at the sites and takes samples from the remains of prey left behind.

“Getting the Vanier has made me reflect on the scientist I want to be in the future.” — Christina Prokopenko

Her work takes her all over the park, from following wolf trails through mud and swamp, to bird dogging packs from a six-wing plane choosing which animals will be captured and collared.

“Getting the Vanier has made me reflect on the scientist I want to be in the future. It has encouraged me to think of philosophical things beyond the impact I want to make with my research to the impact I want to make in the community in general,” said Ms. Prokopenko.

“Now that I have the financial freedom, I can think about the research program I want to build, and the academic I want to be. It’s motivated me to push my limits as a researcher. It’s an honour to receive the Vanier and I want to show that I am worthy of it.”

Mr. Awoonor-Williams and Ms. Prokopenko join last year’s Faculty of Science Vanier recipient, Quinn Webber, who is also pursuing a PhD in cognitive and behavioural ecology under the direction of Dr. Vander Wal.

Quinn Webber

Quinn Webber
Quinn Webber
Photo: Chris Hammond

Mr. Webber received a Vanier scholarship in 2016 to study the effects of changing density on animal social behaviour and habitat selection.

He completed a B.Sc. and M.Sc. at the University of Winnipeg and is currently finishing his PhD at Memorial. Although his M.Sc. centred on the behaviour of bats, he now focuses on caribou.

“I study social behaviour, habitat selection and parasitism of caribou in Newfoundland, with particular emphasis on the Fogo Island herd,” said Mr. Webber.

“My work is relevant in a conservation context because caribou herds in this province and Canada are exposed to a range of invasive parasites that can cause mortality. Behaviours such as sociality and habitat selection could influence whether animals get infected. My research aims to elucidate the relationship between behaviour and parasitism in caribou.”


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