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Immunologist Pailin Chiaranunt and engineer Peter Serles, both of whom received their PhDs from the University of Toronto within the past year, were named Schmidt science fellows on Wednesday. The announcement marks the first time that two recipients affiliated with a Canadian school have won the prestigious fellowship in the same year.Supplied

For Peter Serles, the secret to a successful research career has been learning to think small.

In 2022, while a graduate student in engineering at the University of Toronto, he 3D-printed a replica of the CN Tower at nanoscale that stands only twice as tall as the thickness of a human hair. More recently, he harnessed AI to develop tiny lattices that can be combined to make larger materials with the weight of Styrofoam and the strength of steel.

There are myriad potential applications for such a technology but Dr. Serles, who successfully defended his thesis in February, has a particular one in mind: building a three-dimensional scaffold that can support stem cells as they mature into brain tissue, making them available for rapid drug screening or understanding diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

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A miniature CN tower created by Peter Serles as part of his PhD work at the University of Toronto stands only 200 microns tall is shown alongside a single human hair. The tiny tower is 2.5 million times smaller than the real thing.Peter Serles/Supplied

“Right now, you can grow little clusters of cells in a Petri dish, but that’s very different from your body,” he said. “I want to nano-3D print the kind of environment that brain tissue likes to grow in so that you can deliver nutrients through the whole thing and differentiate cells to simulate different brain regions.”

Meanwhile, at a different lab across the U of T campus, Pailin Chiaranunt recently earned her PhD in immunology for her groundbreaking investigations of macrophages – cells that are part of the body’s innate defence system – and their complex interactions with the human microbiome, the universe of micro-organisms that live inside the gut and are essential to health.

These days, she too has a new goal in mind: understanding the role of the immune system in neurological disorders including those brought about by respiratory infections, such as the mysterious brain fog associated with long COVID.

“I think the pandemic really highlighted how much the immune system can have an impact on the brain,” she said. “Looking at the next 10 years or so, I think neuropsychiatric disorders are going to be a pretty big burden to our health care system and to really address this, we need a more interdisciplinary approach.”

Together, Dr. Serles and Dr. Chiaranunt present an intriguing snapshot of where the frontier lies in a multipronged effort by scientists to explore the brain.

Now their separate projects are set to take flight on the international stage.

On Wednesday, the two U of T graduates were named Schmidt Science Fellows, a program established in 2018 with funding from former Google chief executive officer Eric Schmidt and his wife, philanthropist Wendy Schmidt, which aims to support high-achieving young researchers in pursuit of questions that cut across traditional disciplines.

The fellowship includes a US$110,000-per-year stipend for up to two years to support living costs and enable postdoctoral research at universities around the world. It puts Dr. Serles and Dr. Chiaranunt in rarefied company among some of the world’s brightest early career scientists.

Both have earned the respect of faculty along with a string of publications in high-ranking research journals.

Tobin Filleter, a professor of mechanical engineering and Dr. Serles’s PhD supervisor, called his former student “a perfect match” for the Schmidt fellowship because of its emphasis on collaboration and leadership.

“He has been a driving force in our lab, not only in the work that he has executed, but also setting an example and motivating the rest of the group to strive for excellence in their own projects and activities.”

Arthur Mortha, an immunologist and associate professor who oversaw Dr. Chiaranunt, praised her intelligence, creativity and “her ability to define unexplored scientific areas of great relevance to society.”

“She is driven to reach the targets she has set her mind to,” he said, “even if they are seemingly out of reach.”

While the fellowship winners have U of T in common, they also illustrate the mosaic that makes up the country’s population of young academics: Dr. Serles, a native of Oakville, is a product of Ontario’s education system. In contrast, Dr. Chairanunt is from Thailand. She earned her undergraduate degree in the United States but came north to Canada for graduate school, in large part, she said, because of the culturally diverse and inclusive environment she perceived in Toronto.

Both are now stepping into the far larger and well-resourced world of U.S. research. Dr. Serles is set to divide his time between Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology while Dr. Chiaranunt has already taken up residence at the University of California San Francisco.

Chad Gaffield, chief executive of U15 Canada, an advocacy group that promotes university research, said the awardees will benefit from participating in the global “brain circulation” of research talent. Canada benefits too, he said, as long as it provides opportunities across later stages of a researcher’s career to prevent the brain circulation from becoming a one-way brain drain of the country’s most sought-after graduates.

Lack of research funding pushes PhD students out of Canada, threatening a new brain drain

Last week’s federal budget included the first substantial increases to graduate student scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships in many years.

Dr. Gaffield said a welcome next step for the Liberal government would be to follow through with a 2021 campaign pledge to increase by 1,000 the number of Canada Research Chairs that are held by faculty members at Canadian universities.

“It’s a reminder of the need for a longitudinal perspective,” in supporting research talent, he said, “so that we don’t lose our investment because we can’t compete at the next career stage.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that it's the first time that two graduates trained in Canada have been awarded the fellowship in the same year.

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