Labwork builds the brain, literally

Engineering, Co-op

- Suzanne Ahearne

Tia Sojonky (right), biomedical engineering graduate. Photo: Rusak Gillrie.

When Tia Sojonky arrived at UVic from her hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan to study engineering, she realized she’d underestimated how much hard work it was going to be. Sojonky, who’s graduating in June with an honors degree in biomedical engineering, says she did take advantage of the many resources available for assistance but what made the biggest difference for her was doing a co-op work term in a lab led by UVic biomedical engineer Stephanie Willerth.

“Once I started working in the lab and doing research, I just couldn’t get enough,” laughs Sojonky from Australia, where she was travelling ahead of convocation. Lab work gave her a greater sense of purpose and drive. And her hard work paid off. Her research with the Willerth lab focused on bioengineered brain tissue. This was done in collaboration with STEMCELL Technologies—one of the largest biotech companies in Canada—where Sojonky later did an extended co-op placement.

Part of Willerth’s research involves turning pluripotent stem cells—stem cells that contain the blueprint for making any type of tissue in the body—into brain organoids. These are what Sojonky refers to as ‘mini brains’—artificially grown miniature organs that resemble a normal brain. And because they replicate many of the same features and are derived from human cells, they can be used for applications such as drug screening, regenerative medicine and are a valuable way to study how diseases like Parkinson’s develop and respond to treatment. Sojonky did modelling in the lab that looked at ways of increasing oxygen transport into these mini-brains to increase cell survival.

I hope to advance the fields of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, to improve the lives of people living with disease or life-altering injuries. Being able to bring a regenerative medicine technology from the lab to a clinical trial would be a dream come true.
Tia Sojonky, biomedical engineering graduate

Willerth, who supervised Sojonky’s honours thesis, supervises a lot of undergrads—no surprise, as the recipient of this year’s UVic REACH award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research-Inspired Teaching. She wrote that Sojonky’s intelligence and work ethic made her stand out as a high performing student.

Sojonky found that through the course of her studies she had to balance her passion with patience: “I kept learning about new technologies in classes and thinking how that would be amazing to research. I wanted to learn about everything. But I also learned that research is frustrating. It takes time, especially for tissue engineering, where you are growing cells. Experiments fail. You have to wait for resources to be put into place and have to learn to depend on others for help, which is a lot different than independent study.”

Sojonky received a renewable entrance scholarship in her first year. Being able to reduce the worry about finances to focus on school was key, she says. But just as important, she emphasizes, were the people she met while in school and on co-op work terms.

“They provided me with so much knowledge that I wouldn’t have otherwise gained just in class, because of their varied backgrounds, previous degrees before engineering, experience at different universities or with extracurricular clubs. Everyone I met gave me new insight into the engineering profession and the possibilities this degree could give me. They really provided me with a well-rounded learning experience.”

Sojonky describes working on group projects with fellow students, from different parts of Canada and the world, as “eye-opening.” And having a solid core group of friends, many of whom she met in her first year while living on campus, was “vital in surviving the last five years.” As for inspiration, she says, “it isn’t too tough to be inspired to learn when you can take a walk to the beach as a study break. 

“I just love to learn new things and challenge myself,” Sojonky says. After a break to work in the biomedical engineering field for a few years, she plans to go to grad school to pursue a PhD. “Being a female in engineering has motivated me to succeed in this area because there are so few of us. Strong female role models such as Dr. Willerth have also encouraged me to keep pursuing my academics. We need more female engineers.”

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Keywords: convocation, student life, alumni, biomedical engineering, co-op

People: Tia Sojonky, Stephanie Willerth

Publication: The Ring


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