Mitchell DiPasquale (BSc 2017, PhD 2023) will cross the stage to receive a Governor General’s Gold medal for academic excellence at the graduate level, at convocation on Oct. 12.
After completing an undergraduate degree in chemistry and biochemistry, the alumnus went on to complete a PhD in the same discipline in Drew Marquardt’s lab, studying the function and behaviour of cell membranes.
While he was trying to understand how systems of small molecules behave at a biophysical level, DiPasquale’s research on Vitamin E took a turn when it crossed paths with an emerging health outbreak.
“The structures and motions in cell membranes are critical to many cell processes but are extremely difficult to understand. We wanted to define how Vitamin E changes the membranes that it interacts with,” says DiPasquale.
“Then there was an epidemic related to the use of vaping devices, and one of the first suspects was Vitamin E being used as a cutting agent in these products.”
Vitami E was suspected of causing breathing problems in people who vape or use e-cigarettes. E-cigarette or Vaping use-Associated Lung Injury can range from shortness of breath to severe lung damage requiring intensive care.
“The first thing inhaled products interact with in the lung is a lipid membrane,” says DiPasquale. “I was already studying cell membranes and Vitamin E and I had access to the perfect technique to answer this question which is neutron scattering,” a technology that uses neutron beams to study the structure and dynamics of materials at an atomic level.
“We used neutron scattering to study changes in the elasticity of the lung lining when exposed to Vitamin E, and that aligned with a lot of the difficulty in breathing that comes along with vaping,” he says.
“It was a really cool bridge experience for me to be able to take my fundamental research and contribute directly to issues in the real world.”
During his grad studies DiPasquale regularly had to travel out of country for access to neutron scattering facilities because Canada shut down its only facility in 2018. But for his post-doctoral position at McMaster University, he is helping to change that access.
“McMaster University is in the process of building a suite of neutron scattering instruments, and I was recruited as one of few Canadians with expertise in the technique. I’m here boots on the ground,” DiPasquale says.
The McMaster Nuclear Reactor, says DiPasquale, is one of Canada’s only suitable sources for studies using neutrons. The first instrument, small-angle neutron scattering, will span two subterranean buildings.
“It’s a really powerful microscope to study materials at the molecular level, but to see very small structures, you need a very big tool that just wouldn’t fit in the original 1959 reactor building,” he says.
“We’re helping to ensure Canadians and researchers maintain access to these techniques on some level, so they can continue to produce competitive science and have access to tools that are necessary to answer the critical research questions of tomorrow.”
Dr. Marquardt says DiPasquale was instrumental in the lab.
“Mitch raised the profile of the University of Windsor by conducting research across the globe,” says Marquardt. “Unequivocally, Mitchell carries himself as a seasoned scientist in all facets of his research.”
DiPasquale says he’s grateful for the Governor General’s Gold medal.
“Considering the cohort of students that I graduated alongside, it is an incredible honour to culminate my graduate studies by a recognition with so much grandeur,” he says. “I’m thankful to Drew and the support network of peers, colleagues, and collaborators that have shaped me along the way.”