Brilliance in biochemistry: department celebrates two new Vanier Scholars

Two very different specialties. One of Canada's most prestigious graduate student awards.


Ayat Omar and Darpan Malhotra, two PhD candidates in the Department of Biochemistry, have each claimed a Vanier Scholarship, placing them among Canada’s top scholars. As one of the country’s most prestigious post-secondary awards, Vanier Scholarships provide “highly qualified” graduate students with financial support of $50,000 over three years.

Omar, a third-year PhD student in the lab of Andrew McMillan, secured her award for her work related to RNA splicing, the process of joining gene segments to create meaningful messages in cells. The vital proteins that maintain cellular function in all living things are determined through the expression of DNA via the molecule RNA; the splicing process determines which proteins are produced. “We are exploring how exactly RNA splicing happens and what directs the spliceosome, the machine that is responsible for this process,” she says.

RNA splicing is performed by a piece of complex machinery within the cell known as the spliceosome. When abnormalities occur in this process, Omar notes, they can cause various cancers and diseases, including leukemia and spinal muscular atrophy.

“I am focusing my research on a specific protein that works in the very early steps of splicing. We are trying to determine how this protein directs the assembly of the splicing machinery on the RNA,” she says. “If we can establish this, we will be able to understand the normal splicing process—and more importantly, what goes wrong in a disease state. Then we can focus on therapies to correct these splicing errors.”


Malhotra, also in his third year of his PhD studies, is a member of Joe Casey’s lab, where he studies three specific forms of endothelial corneal dystrophies. These diseases are characterized by fogginess in the eye, caused when defects in the endothelium—the innermost layer of the cornea—lead to fluid accumulation in a layer of the cornea known as the stroma.

What has captured Malhotra’s attention is a protein called SLC4A11 that is found in the endothelial cells and is mutated where dystrophies are present. “Previous studies from our lab show that SLC4A11 facilitates water flux across the endothelium, and mutations of this protein cause it to be either retained in the cell or lose its water flux function,” he says. “We think that SLC4A11 is playing more crucial physiological functions that can open new directions in understanding the pathophysiology of endothelial corneal dystrophies.”

Driven by the knowledge that these three strains of corneal dystrophies account for more than 30 per cent of corneal transplants, despite affecting only four per cent of the population, Malhotra is pleased to note that first strains of inquiry have yielded positive results. “Vision is crucial to the quality of life we live,” he says. “Restoring the patient’s vision or delaying the loss of vision for even one year can greatly influence life’s gratification.”

In addition to the funding from the Vanier Scholarships, Omar and Malhotra both hold graduate studentships from Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions.