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Award-winning PhD student is passionate about science

GRADUATE STUDENT RESEARCH AWARD: PhD student Edward Eng is completing his doctorate in cell biology. He has won the 2009 PhD Graduate Student Research Award. (Photo courtesy of Edward Eng.)

by Eleni Kanavas

A driving passion for both teaching and research is what motivates Edward Eng, an award-winning PhD student at U of T Scarborough.

The cell biology student is the recipient of the 2009 PhD Graduate Student Research Award at U of T Scarborough. The other winner at the Master’s level is student Maria Modanu. (Click here for a profile of Maria Modanu.)  These annual awards are decided by a selection committee made up of faculty members, graduate students, and the vice-principal (research).

Professor Mark Schmuckler, interim vice-principal (research) presented both graduate students with a certificate of achievement at a ceremony held in the Science Research Building lounge in June. Recipients receive a monetary award of $1,000 as well as having their names engraved on a plaque mounted on a wall in the Meeting Place.

Eng has been actively involved in both academic and extracurricular activities at the university. He said he was surprised and thankful for the award. “I’ve had a lot of support from faculty, my fellow students and the campus community, and I couldn’t have achieved all that I have without them,” Eng said.

Born in Toronto with family roots in China, Eng said science has always fascinated him. As a child he delved into science projects and science fairs, which whetted his appetite to pursue a career in the field.

Eng pursued all three of his degrees here at U of T Scarborough, and has been around the campus for over 10 years. “I love this campus, and it’s like my second home,” he said. “I know many people here and really feel like I’m part of a community. That’s why I’ve put a lot of time and energy into different activities here.”

After earning his BSc in integrative biology, Eng completed a Master’s degree that spanned the areas of ecology, biochemistry, molecular biology and evolution. He worked with Professor John Youson on issues related to lamprey (eel-like vertebrates) and the Great Lakes fish population. Now in his fifth year of a PhD in cell biology, Eng is aiming to complete his thesis in late 2009.

“Edward is a motivated and meticulous student,” said Professor Rene Harrison, his PhD supervisor. “He was my first graduate student at UTSC and he really helped get my lab moving. What sets Ed apart is his extremely caring nature. He always looks out for the well-being of other graduate students and is a compassionate mentor to undergraduate and high school students. He’s a natural teacher who is thorough and patient, and I’ve heard many compliments about Ed’s teaching talents.”

One of Harrison’s favourite memories of Eng relates to the annual graduation ceremonies. “For almost every year that I’ve been here, Edward has made the trek down to the St. George campus and waited outside Convocation Hall to take photos of undergraduates from several courses in which he was their TA and mentor. This speaks volumes about Ed’s kindness and devotion to students.”

Eng’s research focuses on macrophages – large white blood cells that are key players in the defense against harmful foreign particles and microorganisms at the site of an infection. These particles are ingested in the body through a process called phagocytosis. Eng says his research aims to shed more light on processes involved in bacterial infections and the immune response. It may lead to therapeutic inventions to fight bacterial infections, which often lead to serious and even deadly illnesses in human beings.

Maintaining a balance between teaching, research and extracurricular activities is critical, he said. “By spreading my energy over a variety of areas, I can make more significant contributions to the campus as a whole,” he said. “I like to diversify and work towards an integrative approach to research and learning. I’m also interested in sharing knowledge and helping people, so being a TA, instructor or mentor gives me that opportunity.”

Dedication and hard work are crucial in meeting the challenges of research, he adds. Eng spends eight or more hours a day in the lab, and when he does research, he says he feels he is working on something that will make a difference to society. He has been a teaching assistant and delivered guest lectures in numerous courses. This summer, he’s the instructor for a seminar-based course called Science Engagement Outreach/In-reach.

Eng has received numerous awards for academic and volunteer successes. He won: a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Graduate Scholarship; an Ontario Graduate Scholarship; and the Gordon Cressy Leadership Award for outstanding contributions to campus life. He has also served on various campus committees and has been an active member on the Graduate Students’ Association at Scarborough, holding several executive positions. Eng also published an impact article on immune cell behaviour in the journal Molecular Biology of the Cell that was well received by the cell biology community, Harrison noted.

One of Eng’s most enduring contributions to U of T Scarborough is the establishment of a local chapter of the Let’s Talk Science Partnership Program (LTSPP), a national outreach program that promotes science to young people. Eng initiated the chapter in 2004 with the support of Professor Rudy Boonstra, then vice-principal (research). As the program coordinator, Eng volunteered his time to bring science to schoolchildren from kindergarten to Grade 12, and encouraged other university students to do likewise. Over the past six years, the chapter has grown tremendously, with more than 50 members who visit schools and children’s groups such as Girl Guides in Toronto as well as in rural and remote cities, conveying the message that science is fun and cool.

As Eng continues to pursue his career in teaching and research, he notes that he won’t forget his time on this campus. “My experience at U of T Scarborough will always be a significant and memorable part of my life.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough