Saruul Uuganbayar. (Photo credit: University of Saskatchewan)

Meeting the Challenge of Research

Student earns first place with her team in national One HEALtH Challenge

At only 17, Saruul Uuganbayar had already begun making significant biomedical discoveries. Working as an assistant in Dr. Troy Harkness’ lab during the summers of 2013 and 2014 gave her the opportunity to delve into focused research during her final years of high school. This allowed her to embark on a project which proposed a molecular therapy for mutated cells. Uuganbayar’s dedication to long hours of extra-curricular research and even volunteering in labs has paid off, as she received the Top Regional prize and a $2200 scholarship from “Sanofi BioGeneius Challenge Canada” for her insightful work, which could one day contribute to the development of a cancer-curing drug – an impressive feat for a high school senior.

 One HEALtH Challenge: Collaborative Research

Uuganbayar’s passion for, and success in, extramural research only intensified during her recent, undergraduate studies in microbiology at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S). She competed in this past year’s One HEALtH (Human, Environment, Animal Links to Health) Challenge, which tasked teams of six participants from three different universities with developing transdisciplinary recommendations toward combating “antimicrobial resistance” (AMR), which is the mechanism by which bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi evolve to become tolerant of the antimicrobial agents used against them. Working with undergraduate colleagues at Carlton University and the University of Wisconsin, this dynamic experience provided Uuganbayar with something that her previous work had not: a fresh approach to the research process, showing that skills developed in the lab can be complemented by interdisciplinary collaborations.

To tackle the challenge from a variety of perspectives she worked with the support of graduate students in the One Health, Integrated Training Program in Infectious Diseases, Food Safety and Public Policy (ITraP) a program funded through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Teams of undergraduates, including Uuganbayar’s, took an interdisciplinary approach to consider AMR’s effects at the interface of humans, animals, and the environment as they apply to science and public policy. Uuganbayar explains that research is often mischaracterized, but it can be exciting, interactive, collaborative, and directly applicable to the community, which is why she found the One HEALtH Challenge so rewarding.

Building a Team

Uuganbayar expressed her enthusiasm about conducting team research, saying the process was “so fun . . . you learn and grow as a person.” The group dynamic brought new life to the research process. The One HEALtH Challenge necessitated diverse approaches to problem-solving, so students with a background in political studies were equally valuable to finding solutions as those with a background in microbiology. Uuganbayar herself was no stranger to transdisciplinary approaches; while most university students graduate with a focused skillset, Uuganbayar began her studies already embodying characteristics that indicate a strong sense of global citizenship. For example, she speaks six languages and in addition to awards in science, she has also earned accolades in speaking and translating competitions. These complementary abilities in both science and humanities made Uuganbayar a valuable addition to the winning team. She and fellow U of S student, Laura Witt, were able to contribute to their team’s unique approach to combatting AMR, thanks to their shared background in science and Witt’s extensive experience in literature reviews and experimental design. Their scientific contributions complimented the rest of the team’s expertise in public policy. This multi-faceted collaboration is what allowed the group to successfully bridge the gap between their respective fields in order to create and propose innovative recommendations.

Qualities of Research

Despite the difference in subject matter between the team’s disciplines, Uuganbayar explained that there are some general qualities and skills that all good researchers develop: we need to be “curious and consistent”, able to draw conclusions from synthesized information, and effective in communicating our results to others. While each team member honed their skills in varying ways, Uuganbayar credits her professional growth to volunteering for the university’s Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) program. As a Peer Mentor, Uuganbayar was involved in informing and equipping undergraduate students with vital research skill development, while providing her the opportunity to practice and refine her own skills, knowledge, and facilitation acumen in the process.

Having a team with such a unique skillset ultimately paid off, as their research and final proposal earned them $1000 and first-place in the One HEALtH Challenge. These funds earned by Uuganbayar’s team were then invested in micro-financed endeavours through Kiva.org. This mechanism allowed the team to become direct investors in solutions-based, global efforts, and will also keep the team members connected over time as the micro-loans are repaid and the team makes new selections on where and to whom to reinvest.

Research with Real-World Impact

Uuganbayar and her team developed an illustrated video replete with creative, insightful, and relevant recommendations for fighting AMR, which included a proposal to:

1. Develop an app or software to be used by healthcare professionals to report cases of resistant infections.

2. Improve the teaching of proper use and prescription of antibiotics in medical training.

3. Discourage the unnecessary use of antimicrobial agents.

4. Continue to stress the importance of handwashing in medical settings.

5. Educate the public on the prevalence and implications of AMR through the use of social media.

6. Establish both government and private funds from which researchers can apply for grants to conduct novel and innovative projects on combating AMR.

 Uuganbayar found that participating in this challenge was extremely worthwhile, since her team’s contributions can have a direct impact across nations and academic disciplines.

Ambassador of Science and Research

Upon concluding the One HEALtH Challenge, one main realization stuck with Uuganbayar: that despite the great experiences she has had in the lecture hall, simply reading a textbook or listening to a professor did not compare to the skills and knowledge she gained from her hands-on, extra-curricular experiences. Even though she had come away from her past competitions with awards and monetary accolades, she realized that above all else, just having the chance to participate in such profound and enlightening challenges made them worth the effort. When asked what she has learned about herself from the initiatives she has taken, Uuganbayar confidently replied that undergraduate students have potential.

Beginning yet another chapter in her extramural academic history, Uuganbayar joined the 2017 Science Ambassador Program, which pairs senior undergraduate students in science, health science, and engineering programs with rural, Aboriginal community schools. As an ambassador, Uuganbayar will work with teachers in her partner community for six weeks. In this role, she will help to provide fun scientific activities to support and mentor students to spark and cultivate their interest in post-secondary science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Perhaps these next steps will allow Uuganbayar’s own potential to inspire other young scientists to follow a similar path of research, innovation, knowledge translation, and community involvement.

Do you know an undergraduate who has had a unique research experience? Submit your own work, or send us an email at undergraduate.research@usask.ca.

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