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Graduate Student Madeleine Bonsma-Fisher among this year's NSERC award recipients

We go to the gym, count calories and take our vitamins — all in an effort to stay fit and avoid getting sick. But are we actually healthy? Our bodies are filled with bacteria and viruses that attack them, known as phages. Some of these tiny organisms float harmlessly along while others are ticking time bombs that could cause infections, diseases and even obesity. This microscopic community, called the “microbiome,” is unique to each person, and diversity and adaptation among bacteria and phages make it difficult to say for certain what a healthy microbiome looks like.
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Enter PhD candidate Madeleine Bonsma-Fisher in the Department of Physics , one of two U of T scientists given a boost today by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). A member of Sidhartha Goyal’s research group, she studies the microbiome to learn what it means to be healthy and was awarded an NSERC Gilles Brassard Doctoral Prize for Interdisciplinary Research .

Bonsma-Fisher studies a recently discovered immunity mechanism found in about half of all bacteria that allows bacteria to keep a record of each attack it encounters with a phage. She hopes to use this record, combined with large amounts of publicly available human microbiome data, to understand the interactions between bacteria and phages. Locating common features across many individuals will help determine the characteristics of a healthy microbiome.

“At this early stage of my career it’s valuable to meet and learn from other scientists, and this award is giving me that opportunity to an overwhelming extent,” said Bonsma-Fisher. “The connections it makes possible will – at the very least – leave me knowing more than I did, and at most they can lead to exciting new ideas and collaborations.

“I’m a physicist working at the interface of disciplines, and am learning most of the biology of my topic as I go. There’s nothing better than learning it from others at the forefront of the field.”

Her research will provide a much more detailed account of the foundations of human well-being and how microscopic organisms affect our bodies. It will also help other researchers develop new treatments for common conditions to keep us healthy from the inside out.

By Sean Bettam

Read the full story from U of T Arts and Science News here: