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Student wins Governor General's Silver Medal for science

SILVER MEDAL: Michael Misch won the Governor General's Silver Medal Award at U of T for the highest science marks. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Kwok Wong

Learning that he had achieved top marks among U of T science students graduating this year was just a "bonus" for Michael Misch, who recently completed his degree at U of T Scarborough.

The co-op neuroscience student at first wanted to downplay the fact that he had been nominated for the Governor General's Silver Medal Award in science at the University of Toronto. The medal is given annually to the top graduating students at each university in the country.

But when Misch received a phone call announcing that he had actually won the medal, "I was really surprised and joyful that it panned out," he said.

Misch, 22, was one of three U of T undergraduates to receive a medal this year at the June convocation. Three Governor General’s Awards are given out at the University of Toronto annually – one to a science student, one to an arts student, and one to an engineering student.

He spent the last three summers working in the lab of psychology professor Suzanne Erb at U of T Scarborough’s Centre for the Neurobiology of Stress -- which examines the way stress affects the nervous system.

“What has always impressed me the most about Mike is his modesty,” said Erb. “He is an exceptionally bright and talented student, but his unpretentious demeanor and genuine hard work make this recognition of his accomplishments seem especially satisfying and well deserved.”

“Mike was an absolute pleasure to work with,” she added. “He was quick to learn, ready and able to teach, receptive to feedback and an excellent lab citizen. He made many good friends during the time he spent in our lab, and his presence will be missed.”

When he first heard the news about the award, Misch was busy entering numbers into a computer from his experiments investigating the brain pathways that underlie drug addiction. That's the sanitized description of what he normally does: observing how rats react to cocaine by analyzing their brain matter.

“When I tell my friends that I’ve been studying cocaine addiction in rats, they react with surprise and bafflement,” said Misch. “It’s definitely a conversation starter. Essentially, rats’ brains react to cocaine in a similar way to brains of many other animals, including humans. There’s a lot of information out there about the dangers of drug abuse, and doing this work has definitely reinforced my view that recreational drugs are not a viable pastime.”

Misch believes that the brain is a fascinating subject of study, and said that its mystery appeals to him. “The brain is the most complex and diverse organ in the body, responsible for the processes of perception, cognition and behaviour that are central to the human experience -- and despite many years of research, so many questions about the brain have not yet been answered.”

The straight-A student received several other academic awards and scholarships during his undergraduate years. They include: the Vincent Bladen Scholarship, the Stanley Kosta Todorow Scholarship, the Graduate Prize in Psychology, and U of T Scholar Awards, given annually for outstanding academic achievement.

Misch has had a challenging but fulfilling time during his four years at U of T Scarborough. “It was demanding and a lot of work, but I achieved more balance after a few years, and I have many fond memories of my time here.”

The campus runs in the family, since all three Misch children have studied at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Along with Michael, older brother Chris, 24, graduated from the arts and science co-op program in June, and his younger sister, Hilary, 19, is going into her second year and studying history and geography.

When he’s not working, Michael Misch enjoys “jamming” on his guitar with his friends at his Markham home. For years he has dreamed of going to medical school, and recently that dream became a reality. He was accepted into the MD program at the University of Toronto’s St. George campus and just started the program last week.

Although he is not yet certain which area of medicine he will pursue, he may one day choose to focus on Alzheimer's research. The disease has afflicted one of his family members for several years now.

“Alzheimer’s is one of the most horrible diseases, because the person lives but everything is taken away. Although research in the field is advancing, the treatments so far have not been very effective,” he said. “Seeing the effects of Alzheimer’s is one of the reasons I was interested in studying the brain and its pathologies. It would be wonderful to find a cure, but at the end of the day I would be satisfied just to know that I helped or contributed to research that made a difference to someone's life.”

Kwok Wong is a fourth-year student in the joint journalism program offered by U of T Scarborough and Centennial College.

© University of Toronto Scarborough