Pictured: Keely Shaw (left) and Scott Dos Santos (right)

Advancing health science: A look at USask’s 2024 Governor General’s Gold Medal recipients

Two graduate students at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) are being recognized with Canada’s most prestigious academic honour, the Governor General’s Gold Medal.

By Kassidy Guy
Pictured: Dos Santos presents his research at a conference.

The Governor General’s Gold Medal is awarded annually to graduate students who display outstanding academic performance in their program. This year’s recipients from the College of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (CGPS) are Dr. Scott Dos Santos (PhD) and Dr. Keely Shaw (PhD).

Dos Santos is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Western Ontario where he focuses on microbiomes.

Dos Santos hails from England, where he completed his undergraduate degree in biomedical science at the University of Surrey. During his undergrad, Dos Santos studied abroad at USask, where he first had the opportunity to work with Dr. Janet Hill (PhD), who later became Dos Santos’ doctoral supervisor. He returned to the University of Surrey to complete his undergrad and pursue his master’s in medical microbiology.

Pictured: The Hill Lab team, located at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at USask.

In 2019, Dos Santos returned to USask to continue his work with Hill and pursue his doctoral studies.

Dos Santos’ doctoral research studied the impact of the maternal vaginal microbiome on infant’s gut bacteria.

“Around 2016, [clinicians] started seeing a lot of pregnant women asking about vaginal seeding,” said Dos Santos. “They were worried that if they delivered their baby by C-section, [the baby’s] gut microbiome would be altered which some studies have suggested is linked to asthma, Type 1 diabetes and several other conditions.”

The concept of vaginal seeding first arose in 2015 and involves placing sterile gauze in a mother’s vagina prior to a C-section, and swabbing the newborn with the secretions, with the goal of mimicking passage through the birth canal and exposure to specific bacteria.

Dos Santos and Hill’s research has now revealed that this practice does not have much of a scientific basis and in fact the composition of the maternal vaginal microbiome did not have any obvious effect on the babies’ gut microbiomes. These findings will work to dispel common myths about C-sections and provide expectant parents with peace of mind.

According to Dos Santos, it takes a village to put together a project like this.

“We had a clinical team that was absolutely wonderful. The LEGACY project team, which is headed by Dr. Deb Money (MD) of the University of British Columbia, is phenomenal,” said Dos Santos. “Janet and the rest of the Hill lab are all brilliant people, especially our lab manager, Champika Fernando. She was instrumental in training grad students across WCVM.”

Pictured: Shaw displays the Canadian national flag and her bronze medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

Meanwhile, Shaw is a Paralympic bronze medalist and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary. Prior to continuing her studies in Calgary, Shaw earned her bachelor’s degree, master’s, and doctorate at USask.

Shaw’s doctoral research falls at the intersection of kinesiology, nutrition, and agriculture.

While collaborating with researchers at the USask Crop Development Centre (CDC), Shaw’s research has focused on how a new breed of field peas may be used to develop a food-first approach to resolving iron deficiencies.

With iron deficiencies ranking as one of the most prevalent nutrient deficiencies worldwide, the need for adequate intervention is critical. A food-first method to treating iron deficiency relies on ingesting foods with high-nutrient availability, rather than relying on alternatives such as supplements.

“I’m an athlete myself, and I know supplements can be ‘iffy’ from an iron perspective. They can be hard on your gut,” said Shaw. “Supplements always carry a risk for athletes who are subject to doping control.”

Pictured: Shaw conducting research.

Throughout her research, Shaw focused on two groups affected by iron deficiencies: people with spinal cord injuries and female athletes.

“I really wanted to work with people with spinal cord injuries because we know so little about people with impairments,” said Shaw. “It’s only recently, particularly in the exercise science world, that we’ve moved away from studying only college-age males and started looking more at older individuals or females. But the work in people with physical impairments just isn’t there yet.”

As the global population continues to increase, Shaw hopes her research can aid in growing sustainable crops that meet the nutritional needs of the world. She also hopes that her work with people with impairments encourages more research on this underserved group.

“As somebody with a brain injury, there’s been no real guidance from practitioners. It’s really been through my own journey of trying to manage the symptoms that come with my chronic disability that have led me to be passionate about continuing to do that.”

Shaw gives credit to her supervisor and supervisory committee, including Dr. Phil Chilibeck (PhD) of the College of Kinesiology, Dr. Gordon Zello (PhD) of the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition, Dr. Tom Warkentin (PhD) of the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, Dr. Andela Baerwald (MD, PhD) of the College of Medicine, and Dr. Carole Rogers (PhD) from Ontario Tech University.  

“They were all so great and accommodating,” said Shaw. “Having that support throughout my doctoral thesis was paramount to my success.”

The 2024 Governor General’s Gold Medal recipients will be recognized at CGPS’ Toast to PhDs event on June 4, 2024. Learn more.