Students wander IB atrium at SURF

Student Research Takes Centre Stage at SURF 2022

Tanya Rohrmoser

There were plenty of smiles as UTM’s undergrads came to campus to celebrate research at the Summer Undergraduate Research Fair (SURF). Established by the Office of the Vice-Principal Research (OVPR), SURF brings together students from the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, providing them with a platform to share work they’ve conducted over the summer term. The event not only helps students hone valuable presentation skills but gives them an opportunity to network and meet with fellow researchers who are working in different disciplines.  


A female researcher points to her poster and explains her research as students listen.

Featuring two keynote speakers, more than 100 presenters, and nearly 250 attendees, SURF sessions took place on August 16 in the Instructional Building, and were divided into two categories: oral presentations, in which students delivered a three-minute rapid talk before fielding questions from the audience; and poster presentations, where research findings were displayed in visual form, and projects explained by students to passersby.

The Research Office held workshops in advance of the event, teaching students how to prepare a successful poster and deliver a strong rapid talk. 

Opening remarks were delivered by Kent Moore, UTM’s vice-principal, research, who warmly welcomed guests and thanked the event committee before turning the podium over to OVPR director and master of ceremonies, Payam Zahedi.  

“It’s always enjoyable to gather on campus, but SURF is an important professional development opportunity for students,” Zahedi explains. “We were really impressed by the variety of research on display — and pleased to see so many supervisors and team members come out to show their support. The presenters were poised and prepared; it was hard to select our winners.” 

Research included everything from evaluating the accessibility of fresh food in Mississauga and the social benefits of urban trees, to keeping Canada’s youth population healthy and measuring student engagement with instructor emails. And if you’ve ever wondered about the effect of villainous accents in popular cartoons, understanding the path the eye travels across object groups, or how we determine speech from song, you'd have been in good company. Presentations were rich, diverse, and engaging, and social media quickly lit up with support from students and faculty alike.  


Two male students stand with their backs to the camera as they look thoughtfully at a poster.

The event featured two keynote speakers, Iva Zovkic, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology, who spoke to students on the epigenetic basis of learning and memory; and Negin Dahya, Assistant Professor in the Institute for Communication, Culture, Information & Technology, who explained her work in a talk titled, “Teaching & Learning Technology: A Study in Dzaleka Refugee Camp.”  

“I was delighted to see so many undergraduates interested and engaged in research,” says Dahya, noting the questions they posed were difficult, complex, and important. “It’s exciting to head into the next academic year knowing these are the minds that will fill the classroom.” 

Keynote talks were followed by oral presentations, and then attendees and judges were invited to wander the sunny IB atrium, where rows of vibrant student posters were on display. The room was filled with chatter and energy; people were happy to be together again, and presenters were keen to explain their findings. 


A group of students pose together in front of a bright blue OVPR banner.

“After two years spent online, I was really impressed with the turnout,” shares Josh Milstein, Associate Vice-Principal, Research – Facilities and Associate Professor of Chemical and Physical Sciences. “I think there’s just such a desire to interact with other people, and the experience of discussing your research work in person with others can’t quite be captured online. This was a wonderful way to highlight the range of research happening across campus.” 

Sandra Zhitkova, a student in the Milstein Lab, received an award for her talk, “Single-cell Segmentation Analysis on Dynamic Bacterial Micro-colonies.”

“After a summer spent in my lab, it was great to see Sandra stand up in front of a crowd and speak with so much enthusiasm about her project,” Milstein says.  

Zhitkova, too, is grateful for the experience. “It was an amazing opportunity for students to learn how to present complex scientific concepts in simple words, improve public speaking skills, and gain confidence,” she says. “It gave me the chance to demonstrate the results of my hard work.” 


A group of students stand chatting at a poster on display beside a large sunny window.

Many participating students shared that sentiment. “It was heart-warming to have so many students find the research happening at the Chung Lab meaningful,” notes Jaiditya Sharma, who delivered the talk, “Understanding the Role of University in the Personality Development and Well-being of Racialized Students.” “I was able to connect with other student researchers on their work, and I learned to articulate my passion for our research through preparing for my presentation. Seeing everyone back on campus was awesome, too!” 

Rapid talk winner Peter Ge agrees. “This was my first time telling a story in front of the public — and I enjoyed it! It was surprising but great to have first-year students approach me and ask questions,” he says. “And I learned about research opportunities at UTM during the event as well.” 

For some groups, working toward the event was a motivating part of their summer course work. 

“We were so excited for the in-person event opportunity on campus,” says Asal Aslemand, Assistant Professor of Mathematical & Computational Sciences, whose students participated in SURF. As part of their statistics research course, her students were required to analyze data in small groups, and then report their findings at the end of the term — when they learned about the upcoming event, they agreed that SURF was a perfect opportunity to develop those skills. “Our course meetings focused on the ways in which we can improve our presentations and share a narrative to a wider audience.”

Over time, her students designed their posters and rehearsed their presentations in class, focusing on describing key points, writing clear abstracts, and working on areas that needed development. Aslemand reports that they left the event with great memories and new connections. “They noted in their course reflection that SURF was the highlight of their summer research course.”   


And the winners are...

A panel of fourteen UTM judges representing the humanities, sciences, and social sciences assessed each presentation based on communication, comprehension, and engagement. They awarded the following six student researchers: 


Oral Presentations 

Five of the six winners pose for a photo at the front of the lecture hall.
  • Peter Haoxuan Ge, “Spatial non-stationary effect of the unhealthy food environment and green spaces for diabetes in Toronto” (supervised by Professor Jue Wang

  • Sandra Zhitkova, “Single-cell Segmentation Analysis on Dynamic Bacterial Micro-colonies" (supervised by Professor Josh Milstein)  


Poster Presentations 

  • Sherry Du, “Road salt pollution increases sex-bias in emerging mosquito populations” (supervised by Professor Rosalind Murray

  • Scott Ford, “Effects of urbanization on Chlamydomonas algae” (supervised by Professor Rob Ness

  • Isabella Vessio, “Changes in herbivory and evolution of antiherbivore defenses in Trifolium repens along an urban-rural gradient in Toronto” (supervised by Professor Marc Johnson

  • Jonathan Waugh, “Chlorophyll a Dynamics in the UTM Stormwater Pond” (supervised by Professor Tim Duval


Congratulations to all the winners — and we hope you’ll join us next year at SURF 2023