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Grant funds student's study of bacterial evolution

A Weston Fellowship will allow UTSC student Nicole Ricker to continue her research in Belgium.

A $50,000 Weston Fellowship grant will allow UTSC PhD candidate Nicole Ricker to travel to Belgium to continue researching how bacteria adapt to new environments.

“This is a very exciting opportunity to go and work with some of the best researchers in this field, and the only other researchers that have looked at these particular genes that I’ve been studying,” says Ricker, a teaching assistant in the microbial biogeochemistry program.

Ricker had previously worked with colleagues at the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK-CEN) who had discovered a new mobile genetic element called Recombinase in Trio (RIT).  Mobile genetic elements play a role in helping bacteria adapt to new environmental conditions.  But the researchers haven’t determined the mechanisms involved.

The grant will allow Ricker to continue the work. She and her advisor Roberta Fulthorpe have speculated that these genes may play a role in bacterial adaptation since they discovered a RIT element in a chlorobenzoate degrading bacterium they were studying.  They’re especially interested in investigating the interaction between human activities and the impact this has on bacterial adaptation in the environment.

“Are there chemicals we put in the environment that are making bacteria adapt more quickly and making them more dangerous for us?” she asks.

U of T’s W. Garfield Weston Doctoral Fellowship is the country’s only fully-funded award program dedicated to international research at the doctoral level. Recipients of the award are required to commit to eight months of research abroad while still maintaining full-time registration at the University of Toronto and be in good academic standing. The scholarship is awarded basing on outstanding academic achievement, community leadership, and the dissertation research travel project.

Ricker will leave for Belgium this August, and start her research work in September.


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