When Christina Guzzo found out she had won a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, she says she "could barely believe her luck." Her friends and family, however, were quick to remind her that it wasn't luck that had won her one of the countries most prestigious academic scholarships. It was loads of hard work.
Guzzo, who studies in the department of Microbiology and Immunology, is one of two Queen's students to win a Vanier this year. The award of $50,000 per year for up to three years is given to doctoral students who demonstrate not only a high level of scholarly achievement, but significant leadership skills as well. Its goal is to keep high-calibre researchers in Canada.
Though she says she has always loved research and science, Guzzo, who did her undergrad degree in life sciences at Queen's, admits she didn't expect to stay in Kingston. Nor did she anticipate doing a PhD. "I actually thought I was headed to Western to do a Master's there," she recalls. In fact, it was only in the spring of her graduating year that Guzzo's plans changed. Presenting her fourth-year research on poster day, she was approached by a researcher who was new to Queen's. "She came to my poster and asked me about my work. She told me she was starting up a lab in HIV immunology, which was exactly what I wanted to do," says Guzzo, who realized she'd found an ideal supervisor. "I had to call Western and tell them I changed my mind, and I ended up staying at Queen's."
Guzzo's current research is in immunology, looking at cell signaling molecules - or cell-to-cell communicators. "They are kind of like the instant messengers of your immune system," she says, explaining that the proteins she works with are called cytokines. "They function to coordinate messages in your immune system so that (your body) can mount an effective immune response." Though she says there are more than 30 different kinds of these cytokines, Guzzo works on a single kind -- one that she says is relatively new and has a lot left to be described. Working with donated, HIV-infected blood, Guzzo says her goal is to first find out how the cytokine functions in a healthy individual, and then see how that changes in the case of an HIV-infected individual . "The neat thing about my cytokine," she explains, "is that it can inhibit HIV replication -- so it may prove to be important in the control of HIV."
Guzzo says winning a Vanier scholarship means she will be able to take her time with her research. "It's really helping me not feel the pressure to have to finish early so I can get a post-doc to try and make more money," she explains. "It will help me reach my research goals comfortably."
She says the award also makes her feel proud to be a Canadian. That's because Guzzo, who spent three summers as an undergraduate student doing HIV education with youth in Kenya through the Queen's Health Outreach organization, knows that not everyone is as fortunate. She says that while she was there, primary education had only recently been funded by the Kenyan government, meaning people who hadn't had a chance to get an education as children were starting at the beginning. "I was seeing much older people than expected in primary school... and it made me realize something about the cost and accessibility of education, and just how lucky we are in Canada."
Guzzo says she is grateful for the scholarship and for the opportunities it will afford her. "I was really honoured to be recognized," she says with a smile, "and it really cemented in me the passion I have for doing research in Canada. It really makes you want to give back to the system that has supported you so well."