UNBC student receives prestigious scholarship

September 23, 2013

A University of Northern British Columbia doctoral candidate has received the largest scholarship ever awarded to a UNBC student.

Mireille Rizkalla, who is studying the effects of aging, and whose research aims to help ward off such ailments as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, is one of 165 students selected from across the country to receive a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship this year. The scholarship provides $50,000 per year for up to three years, and is part of a Government of Canada program designed to attract and retain high-calibre doctoral students in Canada.

Mireille Rizkalla
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Rizkalla developed a training program that evaluates the effects brain exercises, such as pattern recognition, can have on healthy people aged 60 and older. The results will indicate which brain functions changed and by how much, and which functions remained the same. Rizkalla wants to find out if a healthy brain can be strengthened, and if dementia can be avoided. Further, if the same program is administered to those with dementia, Rizkalla wants to know whether brain function can be maintained or even improved.

“How do we prevent older people from developing dementia, primarily Alzheimer’s?” asks Rizkalla. “Can we strengthen the brain, or give it a boost if we make it exercise? The brain is an organ. If we force it to think, will that strengthen the processes in the brain?”

During her undergraduate studies in Toronto, where she studied psychology and neuroscience, Rizkalla worked at several health centres, including geriatric facilities.

“I found myself getting connected to the patients,” she explains. “I was seeing them decline year after year, and I wanted to help. There isn’t any cure for dementia, and you don’t cure aging, but can we stall it in a non-pharmacological way? Given the rapidly aging Canadian population, there is urgency for developing approaches that promote graceful aging.”

That urgency drove her to continue her studies, and she moved to Prince George and UNBC in 2009 to obtain her Master’s degree in psychology.

Rizkalla has received more than $35,000 in UNBC Awards, and won the Governor General’s Gold Medal and the BC Psychological Association Gold Medal Award. She is also a recipient of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Master’s Award, the Harold Erhard Janzen Scholarship, the Northern BC Graduate Student Society Legacy Scholarship, and a Prince George Alzheimer’s Society Graduate Scholarship.

“I truly appreciate my mentor and supervisor, Dr. Cindy Hardy the Chair of UNBC’s Psychology department, and the many donors who have enriched and sustained my education over the years,” adds Rizkalla. “Looking ahead, I trust that the information garnered will feed forward to better serve the northern community.”

While Rizkalla is the first UNBC student to be named a Vanier scholar, this is not UNBC’s first brush with the program; a former UNBC student, Tristan Pearce, was named a Vanier scholar in 2009 while pursuing his PhD in Ontario.

Rizkalla may be seeking study participants aged 60 or older for future projects. For more information, contact her at rizkalla@unbc.ca.

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Matt Wood

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