A leap of faith pays off for a York student

With a handful of lab courses under her belt, third-year York kinesiology student Patricia Sayegh was pretty sure that research was her bent. Pretty sure, but not certain. "I wasn’t 100 per cent convinced that I wanted to do this for the long haul," she remembers.

What she needed, Sayegh knew, was more time, more experience and the chance to tackle a focused research project from beginning to end. She took a leap of faith, abandoning plans for summer employment in favour of a volunteer commitment to Professor Mazyar Fallah, one of York’s newest kinesiology professors and an award winning vision researcher.

Lucky for her, the risk paid off.

In May of 2006, Sayegh was named one of the first two recipients of the Dr. James Wu Research Internships for Undergraduate Science & Engineering Students, York’s innovative award aimed at introducing talented undergraduate students to research. Established by a private donor in honour of Wu, a recently deceased Hong Kong industrialist who was a mechanical engineer by training, the internships support undergraduate student participation in science or engineering research projects.

Above: Professor Diethard Bohme (left); Henry Wu, president, Liverton Hotels International Inc., member, York University Foundation Board of Directors, and son of the late James Wu; intern Patricia Sayegh; Stan Shapson, York vice-president research & innovation, ; and Professor Mazyar Fallah. Absent: intern Madlena Rabaev.

Sayegh and Madlena Rabaev, a fourth-year physical chemistry student, were each awarded $5,000 this past summer to complete a four-month research internship with a York faculty member.

While both students helped to advance important research projects, the real benefit is to the award winner, says Professor Diethard Bohme, Rabaev’s supervisor and York’s Canada Research Chair in Chemical Mass Spectrometry, "We are training students to become scientists."

Fallah agrees. "Patricia was able to design and carry out some really useful research, quite independently, even before her fourth year of undergraduate study and without sacrificing her earning potential," said Fallah. "She spent the summer as a scientist and still had money to buy groceries."

By September, Sayegh was fully committed to a future in research. Using the funds earned from the Dr. James Wu Research Internship, she began her final year at York with plans to continue on to graduate school. This past fall, she received a second Wu internship to continue her research throughout the fall and winter terms. Third-year students Eric Shikatani, Ioulia Tsotsos and Giulia Uguccioni also received funding for the first academic year of the award program. By 2010, 11 students will have had invaluable exposure to research through the Dr. James Wu Research Internships for Undergraduate Science & Engineering Students.

"It was a great opportunity, unlike anything else I experienced as an undergrad," says Rabaev who begins studies for a master’s degree at the University of Ottawa this month. "It really prepared me for what to expect in graduate school."

Both the award winners and their supervisors remain grateful to the donor, who chooses to remain anonymous, for his commitment to fundamental research.

"On behalf of Diethard, as well as Patricia, Madlena and the many other undergraduates who will benefit from this internship in years to come, I say thank you," said Fallah. "A commitment to undergraduate research is one of education’s most important investments."