Hard work, long hours pay off for award-winning PhD student

All of the dedication and commitment Dennis Ma has put into his research are beginning to pay off, both in his academic career and the progress he’s made in finding new ways to fight cancer.

“I’ve never worked harder in my whole life than I have in the past few years,” said Ma, a PhD student in Chemistry and Biochemistry and the recent recipient of a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. “A lot of times we’re here at 7 a.m. and don’t get home until after midnight. It’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of long hours.”

Ma was one of 156 doctoral students from 29 Canadian universities to receive one of the scholarships, which provide $50,000 per year in funding over a three year period. The successful recipients were announced at a reception last week in Kingston, Ontario.

Winning a Vanier scholarship places Ma among the elite scholars across Canada, said Patti Weir, dean of Graduate Studies. Ma becomes just the second UWindsor student to earn a Vanier scholarship since the program began in 2008.

“These scholars become the next generation of leaders across all sectors of society,” said Dr. Weir. “Dennis is doing some tremendous work which could one day offer new hope for cancer patients across Canada and around the world.”

Ma, who grew up in Windsor and went to high school at Kennedy Collegiate, spends most of his lab time studying the selective cancer cell-killing effectiveness of a compound called pancratistatin. A natural product derived from the Hawaiian spider lily plant that’s only available in limited quantities, he’s been analyzing synthetic versions of it developed by professor Tomas Hudlicky’s group at Brock University. He’s found that some have been especially effective at causing apoptosis in leukemia, brain, breast, ovarian, prostate, pancreatic, and colon cancer cells – essentially meaning those cells commit suicide when they interact with the compound, without harming the non-cancerous cells.

“They made several versions recently that are a very close replica to the original,” Ma said of the synthetic compounds. “Not only are they better than the previous versions, but they’re actually better than the natural compound. It’s one modification away for the original compound, but that modification makes it even more potent.”

Not one to take all the credit for his success, Ma was quick to point out that he received a lot of help from the staff in his department and in graduate studies, as well as the undergraduate students he’s trained in the lab and from his academic supervisor professor Siyaram Pandey, who he described as a “really great mentor.”

Dr. Pandey described Ma as most deserving of the award, praising him for his multiple talents and skill sets, as well as his passion and work ethic.

“He has more than demonstrated his academic ability,” said Pandey. “He’s already authored about six or seven publications. I’m very proud of him and everyone on campus should be too.”

One of the publications Pandey was especially proud of was an article published in the academic journal PLoS One. The article was included as a featured paper by Global Medical Discovery, a service that alerts the scientific community to breaking journal articles considered important to the drug discovery process. It’s viewed almost 285,000 times a month by academic and industrial R&D personnel. It’s also featured on the intranets of a growing number of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies and major academic institutions.

Additionally, his work has received tremendous local support from the Couvillon family, Chapter 9671 of the Knights of Columbus, and recently the Pajama Angels through their Yoga 4 Hope fundraiser.