York PhD student wins CIHR Synapse Mentorship Award

York’s Michael Vesia, a PhD candidate in kinesiology in the Faculty of Health, is the winner of a 2009 Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Synapse Mentorship Award worth $5,000 for his work in organizing a Brain Day at the University.

Brain Day was originally designed by Vesia and Portage Trail Middle School Grade 8 teacher Valeria Cuda as an end-of-the-year excursion, following other career days at the school. Vesia was involved in co-organizing and implementing the career days Portage Trail in hopes of promoting health research as a career option.

The idea of Brain Day was to increase student awareness of some of the different career paths available in the sciences. It gave students the opportunity to visit York’s laboratories for hands-on training in neuroscience by observing and participating in experiments, particularly at the Centre for Vision Research.

Left: Mike Vesia

Students participated in hands-on activities related to ongoing studies that look at how people see in three dimensions, how they reach out to things and their perception of orientation. A tumbling room, where students sit still while the room is rotated, giving them the perception that they are moved in different directions by manipulating various visual and gravitational cues, is another example of what students experienced during Brain Day. Vesia also showed them reversing prisms and demonstrated how the human brain adapts when the visual fields are reversed.

"We’re showing students simple tasks involving eye-hand coordination or optical illusions and how the brain processes this information," says Vesia. "It helps kids understand the underlying mechanisms behind simple tasks like reaching for objects. It gets them interested in the brain. It’s an opportunity – a door or a window. You just open it up a little, so they can look in. It’s up to them to step inside. Once they step inside, the possibilities are endless."

Vesia, a recipient of a University-Wide teaching award at York in 2007, has inspired Canadian youth as a judge at the Toronto Science Fair and has worked as both a high school and undergraduate tutor to help students in the field of science. His PhD dissertation on eye-hand coordination during transcranial magnetic stimulation of the brain cortex, which may have both diagnostic and rehabilitative applications, has been published in international journals and he is expected to graduate next month.

Each CIHR Synapse Mentorship Award recipient is nominated by someone who understands the nominee’s direct scientific contributions to young people, and is ultimately chosen by the members of the CIHR Youth Outreach Advisory Board.

This is the third consecutive year for the Synapse Mentorship Awards, which recognize the outstanding efforts of mentors who have demonstrated the value of passing on science and health research knowledge to Canadian youth. Through its Synapse-CIHR Youth Connection initiative, the CIHR gives out mentorship awards in three categories: to a masters or doctoral student or postdoctoral fellow; to an individual researcher; and to a research group. Vesia won the award in the graduate student category.

CIHR‘s Synapse initiative, in partnership with national science outreach organizations, acts as a meeting place where health researchers and practitioners can provide young Canadian high school students with hands-on training and experience in different scientific fields. More than 5,200 CIHR-funded health researchers have already signed up to become CIHR Synapse mentors.

Anyone interested in becoming a Synapse mentor through the CIHR should review the CIHR Synapse Guidelines on Becoming a Mentor.