An interview of some of this year’s graduates and new students
By: Ingrid Santaren
Are you pondering about applying to the Nutritional Sciences graduate program? This article may help you, the prospective student, gain insight into the program through the voices of new students and recent alumni. We asked five students in our department about their experiences in the department and life as a graduate student.
New MSc student, Shahen Yashpal, graduated last year from U of T with a double major in Nutritional Sciences and Health & Disease and a minor in Spanish and joined this past September the Hanley Lab to research on “Metabolomic Profiling of the DASH Diet: Novel insights for the Nutritional Epidemiology of Type 2 Diabetes.” Mandana Esmaili did her bachelor in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Akron (USA) and started her graduate program in the Comelli Lab to look into the effects of probiotic administration during pregnancy and lactation in mice.
1. Why did you choose the Deparment of Nutritional Sciences (DNS) to pursue your graduate studies?
Shahen: “The DNS has a very close-knit community with students conducting very different types of research in nutritional sciences. Within the department, we get to interact with students with distinct expertise such as public health, statistics or clinical research.”
Mandana: “I actually applied to different departments but I had a great impression from DNS compared to others. In addition to the reputation of the Nutritional Sciences research, the people in the DNS are very friendly, easy to approach, and willing to help you in any way possible.”
“Hearing what a day in the life of a graduate student is and learning about the expectations of graduate school helped me craft my application and realize the type of research I wished to pursue.”
2. What resources did you find useful during the application process?
Shahen: “The most useful experience of all when applying is interacting with current graduate students. Hearing what a day in the life of a graduate student is and learning about the expectations of graduate school helped me craft my application and realize the type of research I wished to pursue.”
Mandana: “I started my application by reading about the application process on the website, however, if I had any question I could easily contact Louisa Kung, the Graduate Program Administrator at DNS. She knows everything, literally everything, in this department and I think she is the best resource if one can’t find their answers through the website.”
3. What are you most looking forward to about being in this program?
Shahen: “First of all, being able to focus on what interests you most is a huge advantage of graduate school. For my thesis, not only do I get to work in-depth on the etiology of type 2 diabetes and components of the DASH diet but I am also learning computer coding and complex statistical methods. Secondly, the DNS has extremely knowledgeable and friendly faculty members. It is a privilege to discuss and hear their take on current trends in nutrition. The entire faculty is extremely supportive of its graduate students and is always available for advice when needed. Not only are they available for academic help but they also can become great mentors in career planning.”
Mandana: “The department is quite strong in regard to science and with courses, students can tailor their studies to their future goal, which can prepare them for either industry or academics. For me, it’s important to have that option. Moreover, U of T and the School of Graduate Studies provide additional resources to gain required soft skills for career goals.”
4. What would you say/recommend to potential new students applying in the new year?
Shahen: “It is essential to find a supervisor who is in the research area you are truly interested in, as you will be working everyday on similar topics. It is also a good idea to make sure you get along with your supervisor as this will make your working conditions all the more comfortable. It may be a good idea to volunteer under a supervisor for a short period of time before joining his or her lab as a graduate student.”
Mandana: “I would recommend that they follow the process on the website but contact the professors way ahead of time to know about the funding conditions and the requirements of each professor.”
Anne Fard holds a double major in Nutritional Sciences and Human Biology with focus on Health and Disease and minor in Jewish Studies. She was last year’s editor of NutriNews and graduated from her MSc on December 2017. She now plans on going surfing and taking some time to reflect and assess what is ahead, leaning towards working in the field of health care management. Mavra Ahmed and Luke Johnston graduated from the PhD program this past November. Before entering the PhD program, Mavra majored in nutritional sciences and human biology, and minored in French during her bachelors at U of T, and completed an MSc in nutritional sciences at in the DNS and St. Michael’s Hospital. She also completed a collaborative program in public health policy during her PhD. She is currently a Mitacs Elevate Postdoctoral Fellow. Her research focuses on the evaluation of various nutrient profiling tools in relation to portion sizes to inform public health policy in Canada. This project is being conducted in collaboration with the industry partner – Nestle Research Centre, Lausanne. Luke graduated with a kinesiology degree from the University of Waterloo, and an MSc in nutritional sciences in the DNS. He will be starting a post-doctoral position in Aarhus University this winter. His project will be to develop a framework and open source software that can dynamically construct causal models and integrate them across diverse datasets. Once developed he plans on using this framework to study the relationship between early life conditions, metabolic capacity, and risk for cardiometabolic disease through the use of multiple cohorts and in distinct national populations, and integrate the models into a single causal model. The hope is that this open source framework will allow other researchers to easily make use of this method to continuously contribute to developing a single causal model of epidemiological research questions for chronic diseases.
“[…] the more interesting (for me) ‘product’ of my PhD was the software toolkits I developed in order to effectively analyze and visualize my results.”
1. Tell us about your dissertation and what was a surprising finding?
Anne: “My Master’s thesis looked at the epigenetic mechanisms by which maternal status of low vitamin B12 and high folate status during pregnancy can influence offspring intrauterine growth and development. I was most surprised by the involvement of vitamin B12, and its importance in combination with high folate, in driving changes in DNA methylation, gene expression and in infant birth weight.”
Mavra: “One of the main findings of my PhD dissertation was the insufficient energy intake in relation to measured energy expenditures of Canadian Armed Forces personnel under harsh environmental temperatures/demanding physical activities even with ample time to eat and food prepared on request.”
Luke: “My PhD research was studying the contribution that serum fatty acids have on the pathogenesis of diabetes, using data from a longitudinal cohort of individuals at risk for diabetes. There were a few interesting findings directly related to my research, such as which molecule the fatty acid is bound to changes its influence on features of diabetes. However, the more interesting (for me) ‘product’ of my PhD was the software toolkits I developed in order to effectively analyze and visualize my results. These toolkits, publicly accessible and freely online, sped up the analysis of my own work but also sped up my labmates research as well.”
2. What are some valuable lessons you learned through all the years in the graduate program?
“When I faced tough situations, both [perseverance and perspective] helped me get through them. Perseverance came when I decided to press forward despite the obstacles, while perspective made the journey happier.”
Anne: “There were many things I learned, but to highlight only two, I would say perseverance and perspective. When I faced tough situations, both helped me get through them. Perseverance came when I decided to press forward despite the obstacles, while perspective made the journey happier. A perspective that solely focused on the end-goal seemed to dim and remove the joys of the present. Having a perspective of the ‘now’ allowed me to enjoy the wonderful company, good things and small wins, as I journeyed to completing my Master’s program.”
Mavra: “I learned that coffee is my buddy but in all seriousness, I learned to try and do any thing at least once, even if it sounded impossible or made me feel uncomfortable. It also taught me to value my family and friends for support.”
Luke: “Through both my Master’s and PhD, I learned how powerful combining programming and statistics can be… And how badly we as graduate students and researchers need training on knowing how to do coding and statistics better. There is scarcity of courses and workshops aimed at teaching practical analytic skills to researchers at the University of Toronto, and in universities around the globe! I also learned how important it is to find likeminded, competent, and enthusiastic peers, not just to develop a network, but to learn from them too. I was lucky in finding a group of students who are passionate about teaching coding, and we’ve been working together for more than 2 years in our UofTCoders group!”
3. Any words of advice to prospective students who want to join the DNS?
Anne: “Before pursuing an MSc, it may be wise to reflect on yourself- the way you are and the way you do things. An MSc in our department involves complex topics, a lot of reading, writing, and independent learning and experimentation. Our research doesn’t always involve food, which comes as a surprise to many! Lastly, research can often be solitary and even chaotic at times. It takes a certain type of person and character for one to be able to not only survive the challenges, but get the most out of the journey and finish with a positive experience.”
“So you want to do a PhD? Better learn to have an affair first…with your research”
Mavra: “So you want to do a PhD? Better learn to have an affair first…with your research: Be passionate about your dissertation topic, exercise control and focus during challenges, do your research for the thrill but most importantly, regret not a single fail.”
Luke: “Learn to program. Learn how data works and how to structure it to effectively to analyze your data… *before* you start collecting data! Learn to teach, about the science of learning so you can teach better, since you will almost certainly need to do some type of training/teaching in your career. The better you know how to teach, the easier it is for you and the trainee!”
Starting a postgraduate degree is no light decision, it requires careful deliberation on your motivations, research interests, and possible career paths. We hope this article helps you answer some of the questions you may have about graduate life in the department, and provides sound advice into the next step of your academic life. More information about the application process can be found on the DNS website (nutrisci.med.utoronto.ca) ●
Ingrid Santaren is a PhD student in the lab of Professor Antony Hanley at the Department of Nutritional Sciences