April 29, 2013 - 8:48am

Nathan Stefani is one of Vancouver Island University’s star students. Recently named Most Outstanding Student by VIU’s Biology department, Stefani will walk across the Port Theatre stage on June 4 to obtain his Bachelor of Science degree (major in biology, minor in chemistry).

“Nathan is the type of student who’s made the most of his undergraduate experience,” says President Dr. Ralph Nilson. “He’s been involved in almost every aspect of university life and we are very proud of him. I have no doubt that Nathan will be successful in whatever career path he chooses.”

While at VIU, Stefani served as a student ambassador and student rep for the Faculty of Science. He co-founded and serves as president of the VIU chapter of Students Offering Support (SOS), a student-run non-profit organization that helps first and second year science students with their difficult classes and, through tutoring sessions, raises money to fund community development projects in Latin America. Over the past two years, VIU SOS has raised over $14,000 and made possible the construction of a community centre in a remote Costa Rican village.

Stefani, who aspires to become a medical doctor, came to VIU after graduating from Nanaimo’s Dover Bay Secondary School in 2009. He chose VIU for many reasons.

“I saw value in staying at home in Nanaimo as long as I could, both to save money and to experience a smoother transition from high school to the real world,” he says. “I also wanted to be here with my family. They are my biggest support and we make an awesome team.”

Stefani also received a President’s Entrance Scholarship to VIU with full tuition. The award is available to top academic students at all Vancouver Island high schools and is renewable for up to five years providing recipients maintain a Grade A average. Stefani earned top marks throughout his entire four year undergraduate degree, bringing his total President’s scholarship to nearly $20,000.

But Stefani says one of the main reasons he chose VIU is because of the university’s undergraduate science program.

“The program offers small class sizes, abundant lab time, and personal research opportunities beyond what undergrads could usually hope for in bigger institutions,” he says.

Last summer, Stefani was one of six students awarded an undergraduate research award from the Natural Sciences Engineering Research Council of Canada. He worked alongside faculty researchers, Dr. Helen Gurney-Smith and Dr. Catherine Thomson, in VIU’s Centre for Shellfish Research (CSR) for 16 weeks, studying shellfish genomics.

"We took a good look at how various stressors (temperature, salinity, viral infections, etc.) affected the expression patterns of certain genes of interest in mussels and clams,” Stefani explains.

“This area is pertinent to the medical field, since the genetic blueprint of shellfish is written with the same code that describes humans. Any work done in genetics is likely applicable on some level across all the denominations of the life sciences.”

Stefani describes the experience as “invaluable.”“Not only did it provide me with an exposure to cutting edge science and techniques that may be applicable down the road, I got to spend an entire summer with supervisors and co-workers who were brilliant and kind.”

In his final year at VIU, Stefani further honed his research skills in a Biology 491 class and won “best student poster” at a recent event to celebrate undergraduate research.

“Students work with a supervisor and complete a year-long research project,” explains Biology professor, Dr. Tim Goater. “It’s like a mini-thesis. They acquire valuable hands-on field and laboratory skills and develop a passion for curiosity-driven scientific research.”

Stefani studied the effects of acetaminophen (a commonly ingested pharmaceutical) on the ability of bacteria to communicate through a system called ‘quorum sensing’, the same system through which certain bacteria can coordinate infectious attacks.

“Previous studies have suggested that similar compounds might inhibit bacteria conversations,” he says. “My results showed that the conditions of bacteria culture incubation greatly influenced acetaminophen’s effect. When in static incubation, acetaminophen inhibited bacterial communication, but when in shaken conditions, acetaminophen actually enhanced quorum sensing. The results were unexpected to say the least. It’s not every day that Biology 491 experiments actually reveal something interesting like this.”

Stefani says his study is important because it provides evidence for how growing conditions may dramatically influence the way that bacteria interact with other, more important compounds.

“For me, this project was a window into what science is all about,” adds Stefani.

“I had to learn how to formulate relevant questions, construct applicable experiments, trouble-shoot, and dedicate many hours to babysitting microbes. These were some of the most enjoyable and enriching credits of my undergraduate degree.”

Stefani has applied to the University of British Columbia medical school and is currently awaiting news regarding acceptance for this September.

“Ultimately, I would like to dedicate my time to learning something that allows me to go into broken places and bring healing,” he says. “My greatest desire is to pair medical aid with ministry to the places of the world that are forgotten.”

Stefani says he feels “beyond blessed” to be a VIU student, and soon a VIU graduate.

“I’m incredibly grateful for the experiences I’ve had at VIU,” says Stefani. “One will not find a better, more engaging, more opportunity-filled place than this university. I have definitely loved learning here.”



Janina Stajic, Manager, Vancouver Island University

P: 250.740.6288 E: Twitter: @VIUNews

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