Students standing in the Biosciences Atrium at Queen's University listening to a speaker.

Queen's hosted the USSRF and USRA recipient BBQ at the Biosciences complex, on August 31.

Building our research communities

In an effort to increase research opportunities for students at all levels, Queen’s is nurturing a new generation of scholars through the Undergraduate Student Summer Research Fellowships (USSRF) and Undergraduate Student Research Awards (USRA). The two programs have recently expanded to showcase all disciplines, providing rich learning experiences that shape future research leaders and innovators.

Placing a greater emphasis on research as part of the undergraduate experience through “research and teaching integration”, is one of the pillars of the Queen’s Strategy. The USSRF and USRA programs cultivate an environment where undergraduate students learn with purpose, intertwining education, research, and guidance from supervisors and graduate students.

“We believe that the research experience is an integral part of the learning experience,” says Nancy Ross, Vice-Principal (Research). “By embedding research into the fabric of our institution at all levels, we equip students to confront society’s pressing challenges with passion, curiosity, and ingenuity.”

Investing in early-career researchers

Undergraduate Student Summer Research Fellowships (USSRF)

The USSRF program connects students with faculty, fostering collaborative engagement and supervisor mentorship in research-based projects during the summer period. This year, the initiative was expanded to encompass a diverse range of research disciplines, resulting in an increased number of Queen’s undergraduate recipients – from 21 individuals in 2022 to a cohort of 101 in 2023, with 97 on campus and four students at Bader College. This expansion signifies a substantial advancement in both program participation and support across faculties.

The USSRF program also underwent another significant transformation by elevating the value of the fellowships. The students selected for the program on the Kingston campus benefited from funding of $9,800 throughout the 16-week fellowship period. The Bader College fellowships were valued at $5,300 each, and covered return travel, along with room and board provisions during their eight-week engagement. The increased funding meant students could take a deeper dive into research, including conducting field work and hiring research assistants.

Undergraduate Student Research Awards (USRA)

Canada’s research granting agencies, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), have collaborated to administer the USRA program, in a bid to collectively champion high-quality research in diverse fields, encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration, and the cultivation of multifaceted skill sets. In 2023, 77 Queen’s students received USRAs.

Similar to the USSRF, the USRA program values diversity and inclusivity as crucial components of a thriving research environment. Presently, USRAs are designed to create a funding platform that promotes equitable research opportunities for Black-identifying students across Canada’s research landscape.

Celebrating Undergraduate Research

Principal Patrick Deane addresses the group, congratulating students on their research achievements.

Principal Patrick Deane addresses the group, congratulating students on their research achievements.

Recently, the recipients of both programs and their faculty supervisors were celebrated at a BBQ hosted by Principal Patrick Deane, Nancy Ross (Vice-Principal, Research), and Stephanie Simpson (Vice-Principal, Culture, Equity, and Inclusion) held at the Biosciences complex. The Queen’s Gazette spoke to a few students about their research projects:

Nicholas Abernathy

An Ethical Analysis of the Use of AI Text Generators in Universities    
Nicholas Abernethy, Philosophy, USSRF recipient

In an era marked by unprecedented advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), academia finds itself grappling with new ethical dilemmas around large language models (LLMs), such as ChatGPT. Nicholas Abernethy, a 4th-year undergraduate student, was interested in dissecting the moral, practical, and philosophical dimensions of this contentious debate.

His project focuses on the intersection of technology and academic writing. Under the supervision of Dr. Udo Schüklenk (Philosophy), Abernethy’s research delves into the ethical labyrinth of AI coauthorship, navigating through the intricacies of plagiarism, accountability, and the very nature of authorship. At the heart of the research lies an analysis of whether academic journals should embrace the involvement of LLMs as coauthors in articles.

“I’m interested in learning how the power of LLMs can be responsibly harnessed for the benefit of both research and researchers,” says Abernethy. “In many ways, the debate over LLM coauthorship centers on how we understand ourselves: What is it about humans that makes us deserve authorship? In what ways are we special? These questions have important implications far beyond LLM coauthorship.”

He believes that in order to leverage LLMs, journals must adhere to specific guidelines, guidelines for which he has a proposed framework. As academia continues to evolve in the face of technological advancement, Abernethy’s work offers a critical vantage point for introspection and dialogue, reminding us that the fusion of human intellect and AI carries profound implications for the future of scholarship.

Lola Assad

Natural Language Processing of Radiology Reports:    
Predicting Metastatic Progression from Text Data    
Lola Assad, School of Computing, USRA recipient

Fusing technology and medical science, Lola Assad has been working in the Simpson Lab on a project that marries cutting-edge AI techniques with oncology research.

Using AI and natural language processing (NLP), the project investigates the power of NLPs to comprehend and extract valuable insights from textual data. At its core, the model is used to unravel intricate information about tumors embedded within radiology reports, ultimately predicting the progression of metastatic cancer.

“The study of biomedical computing has provided me with the means of exercising my skills in problem-solving, and efficiently designing solutions,” says Assad. “I’ve been able to learn so much from my supervisor Dr. Amber Simpson, and my colleagues in the lab. I’ve gained knowledge on subjects I didn't know existed, developed my AI-building skills, and have opened my eyes to the wide range of subjects in the field.”

Assad’s work highlights the potential for technology to reshape the future of healthcare, a future where AI augments medical expertise to revolutionize cancer care and diagnostics.

Kyla Gibson

Modulation of Mitochondrial Fission During Herpesvirus Infection    
Kyla Gibson, Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, USRA recipient

Kyla Gibson’s research lies at the crossroads of virology, immunology, and public health. Under the guidance of Dr. Bruce Banfield (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences), Gibson is working to shed light on the complex interplay between viruses and host cells, specifically the role of a virus protein, pUL16, in regulating mitochondrial ATP production during herpes simplex virus (HSV) infection. A focal point of her research has been the enigmatic dynamin-related protein 1 (DRP1), a key player in mitochondrial fission and a potential linchpin in the virus-host interaction, as it drives enzymatic reactions essential for virus replication.

Gibson’s interest in this research area was ignited in the fall term of her second year at Queen’s, when during a course on Foundations of Entrepreneurship, she researched preventative healthcare strategies for the HIV crisis in Indigenous communities. This inspired her to pursue research addressing and dismantling healthcare inequalities, particularly concerning sexually transmitted infections.

“I am interested in pursuing research to help diminish cultural and ethnic disparities in science,” says Gibson. “Being a Black woman in science and a Queen’s Commitment Scholar, has encouraged me to oppose the longstanding systemic injustices in research, healthcare and medicine.”

The USRA provided Gibson with the ability to meet and collaborate with Masters and PhD students, in addition to her supervisor. Being able to problem solve with other early career researchers created a “different teams – one goal” atmosphere, one which she feels has greatly benefited her. Knowledge sharing has also been critical in helping Gibson navigate potential post-undergraduate educational pathways.

To learn more about these undergraduate research programs, visit the Undergraduate Student Summer Research Fellowships and Undergraduate Student Research Awards websites.

Note: This article originally appeared in the Queen's Gazette.