A bright future for HQP Scholars: Nicole Weidner

Posted on Thursday, November 15th, 2018

Tools such as the Highly Qualified Personnel (HQP) program play a big role in developing future leaders who aim to participate fully in research innovation. The program provides industry access, educational opportunities and funding to students with promise in research excellence.

One such student is Nicole Weidner, a Ph.D. candidate in the Biomedical Sciences program. She’s garnered success through the HQP program in at least two ways: with the global animal nutrition company Alltech, and within the university where her PhD project falls under the Food for Health theme. Her experiences have propelled her to become an active participant in the animal nutrition community.

“Many graduate students don’t get the opportunity to see the innovation that happens as a result of their research,” says Weidner. “Getting to see my work applied and understanding how it improves life gives me a new perspective and has positively impacted my view of research. I owe a lot to the HQP program for getting me here today.”

A graduate course called The Integration of Science and Business in Agri-food System is the first step that the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance offers to meet the demands of the ever-changing agri-business sector. This course helps HQP scholars gain a dynamic understanding of business and science before entering industry placements.

The course also enriches the leadership skills of HQP scholars by connecting them in the classroom with industry leaders as guest speakers, and by fostering connections through networking events.

Building on the in-class work, the program facilitates an internship for HQP scholars. Weidner undertook her internship with Alltech, an industry leader in animal nutrition. There, she worked on projects related to the feed and gut health of production animals like poultry and swine.

As this research gained traction, the results were presented at the Poultry Science Association annual meeting and the International Poultry Scientific Forum, giving her experience with preparing materials for scientific conferences

After completing their internship, students return to their Ph.D. projects, with their stipends funded by the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance. Weidner’s Ph.D. work in the Food for Health program uses a canine model to study to role of vitamin D on osteosarcoma, lymphoma, and mast cell tumors that could likewise affect humans.

Here’s the key to this research. Dogs -- unlike humans, who can also produce vitamin D in their skin during exposure to UV light -- can only obtain vitamin D from their food. That means they are a good model system for being able to track Vitamin D intake.

Weidner and the research team found that dogs with certain cancers have lower vitamin D concentrations in their blood. The research team is now looking at links between blood vitamin D concentrations and inflammatory markers in the dogs, based on findings that have been published in humans.   

Clearly, Weidner’s HQP experience has been diverse.

“As a Ph.D. student I really value the industry connections I’ve made from the HQP program,” she says. “Gaining such industry experience is very rare for doctoral students but it means I can move on after my graduation to an industry position or to continue on in academia. I know that this program will play an integral role in ensuring my success after graduation.”

Weidner’s PhD has been co-advised by Drs. Adronie Verbrugghe and Anthony Mutsaers.

Funding for the vitamin D – canine cancer project was provided by the Ontario Veterinary College’s Pet Trust, Royal Canin SAS, and an American Academy of Veterinary Nutrition / WALTHAM Research Grant. Funding for Weidner’s PhD was provided by the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance.

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