Skip to Main Content

Introducing Zhila

Please tell HMB about yourself:

I am currently a senior PhD student and a CIHR doctoral scholar in the Department of Nutritional Sciences under the supervision of Dr. Anthony Hanley. My research focuses on the epidemiology of obesity and type 2 diabetes (T2D), using a longitudinal cohort of at-risk subjects from southern Ontario. More specifically, I am investigating the association of a novel biomarker of adipose tissue macrophage activation in aims to better understand the possible pathway relating obesity to T2D onset. In addition to this work, I am involved in public health nutrition and nutrition policy research where I have published work on the nutritional quality of the Canadian food supply and effectiveness of a novel eHealth tool developed at the University of Toronto aimed to provide and educate users on personal dietary sodium intake.In 2014, I received my bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto with a double major in HMB: Health and Disease and Nutritional Sciences. Throughout my undergraduate studies, I worked in a number of research labs in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Nutritional Sciences, and Psychology where I worked on several qualitative and quantitative research projects. These led to peer-reviewed publications in top-tier journals and opportunities to attend scientific conferences. My experiences from the various labs really helped me understand the process of conducting research and identify the area that interested me the most. It also helped me realize my passion in pursuing a career in research.I started graduate school in 2015 as a Master’s student in the Department of Nutritional Sciences where I began on a small portion of my current doctoral research. I knew that I wanted to continue my education in research and decided to reclassify into the PhD program in 2016. Since then, I have been working on a number of objectives as part of my doctoral thesis in aims to better understand the obesity-diabetes relationship. I have also established collaborations with other labs in the department in related areas – such as assessing the current evidence on diet and the risk for metabolic syndrome.In addition to my research, I am involved in a number of organizations including the Nutritional Sciences Graduate Student Association, NutriNews (Department of Nutritional Sciences Newsletter), and Department of Nutritional Sciences Alumni Association. Balancing my time in research and extracurricular activities has played an important role in my success in graduate school.

If you could go back and give your undergraduate self one piece of advice, what would it be?
“Calm down! Stay focused and be patient.”
Being in a program with hundreds of students can be extremely overwhelming. In addition to the heavy course-load, trying to secure research positions and stay involved in school activities can seem nearly impossible. I remember finding myself very stressed at times with how to balance my school work and all the additional activities I wanted to be involved in. I remember the competitiveness in applying for research positions and always comparing myself to the next person. I have come to realize that there is often more than one path to the end goal. Without knowing it, I practiced this throughout my undergraduate years, as well. It was extremely challenging to try to email professors regarding research assistant positions and eventually I realized that talking to my TAs in courses that I found interesting and asking whether there were any volunteer opportunities in their respective labs helped get my foot-in-the-door. This all eventually snowballed to more research opportunities, bigger projects, and helped me secure a graduate student research position in an area that I am passionate in.

What is one of your non-science-related passions?
I have many passions outside of research. I love to travel and have made it a goal to travel to one new place each year. Perhaps my most memorable trip was my visit to Japan and South Korea. Travelling teaches you so many lessons and helps you gain perspective on your own life. More recently, I have also been dabbling in pottery and have started to enroll in at least one clay course at the Gardiner Museum each term. I have found this very therapeutic and a great way to step away from the chaos at school.

Lab Bootcamp 2019

Wet lab, dry lab, and so much more

In the state-of-the-art laboratory at Ramsay Wright, for the second year in a row, students had the chance to participate in a two-week intensive Lab Bootcamp. In this time, students become familiar with every aspect of #LabLife, from lab techniques to research ethics to transferring lab skills to broader contexts.

This program, initiated by Dr. Dockstader, has the advantage of allowing students to develop their lab skills in a setting that’s not driven by evaluations, encouraging students to go boldly into each activity and make mistakes and, most importantly, learn not just from their instructor but each other as well.

For a glimpse into the Lab Bootcamp experience, take a look below.

Photos by Bernice Datsomor and Zaigham Naqvi

Health in Greece

Professor Maria Papaconstantinou was the co-leader of an International Course Module that took place in Athens, Greece during the February reading week. The focus of the course was the major health concerns in Greece in the context of both the current economic crisis and the ongoing arrival of migrants from war torn countries. Students had the opportunity to learn about the health challenges and the efforts being taken to address them from the perspective of local, national and international organizations. Students met with representatives from organizations including grassroots NGOs, the United Nations International Organization for Migration as well as officials from the Greek Ministry of Health. When they returned, students presented a poster entitled “Understanding the Roles and Perspectives of Various Actors on Health in Athens, Greece” at the Undergraduate Research Forum in March, and produced a YouTube video which can be viewed here:

Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Award Winners

About the Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Award

The Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Awards were established in 1994 by the University of Toronto Alumni Association (UTAA) and the Division of University Advancement in order to recognize students who have made outstanding extra-curricular contributions to their college, faculty or school, or to the university as a whole.

In naming the awards after Gordon Cressy,the former vice-president of development and university relations, the UTAA recognized his commitment to higher education and his leadership in fundraising and community service. The qualities of leadership and dedication demonstrated by Mr. Cressy during his six years with the university are also embodied in the efforts of students chosen to receive this award.

For a complete list of Gordon Cressy Leadership Award winners, please see here.


Keep reading to learn more about amazing HMB students and their contributions towards student life


Evani Patel

Being a part of the Medical Sciences Student Union (MSSU) has not only been extremely rewarding, but also challenging and demanding given the rigorous course schedules of my program at UofT. Nevertheless, contributing to such a tight-knit student community was one of my most defining moments in undergrad, and learning how to balance various commitments while prioritizing my mental health and academics was an important lesson that I don’t think I would’ve firmly grasped if it weren’t for the inspiring individuals on the MSSU. If I were to give my past-self a piece of advice, it would be to not be too afraid to take risks, trust your gut, and to stay open and vulnerable to changes around you- it’s the only way you will truly mature and become more confident in yourself, and I think my time with the MSSU has definitely proved this to be true time and time again throughout my four years.


Amy Freeman

I was Co-President of UofT’s Neuroscience Association for Undergraduate Students. I led a team of student leaders to organize academic and social events for Neuroscience students within the Human Biology program. I was also the Vice President of Professional Development for UofT’s Women in Science and Engineering Chapter. I led the Professional Development team, which provided networking opportunities for female science and engineering students.


Ghazal Jessani

Throughout my undergrad career, taking an interdisciplinary approach in my courses and having a wide variety of extracurricular activities was incredibly important to me. I balanced my academics with community involvement through being an executive member of the Women in Science and Engineering team, President of the Ismaili Students’ Association, and founder of YMind (a mental health organization). I am grateful for the opportunities UofT presented and look forward to being an active member in the Harvard community this coming September!


Rachel Brunswick

I am honoured to be one of the recipients of the 2019 Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Award. My involvement in student leadership and extra-curricular activities at UofT is responsible for enhancing and enriching my undergraduate experience. I placed importance in finding a community at UofT, not only within my college but within my program of study. For the past three years, I have been an executive member of the Human Biology Students’ Union (HBSU), as Second Year Representative followed by Social Coordinator in both my third and fourth year. My time spent in these roles and being apart of the HBSU executive team allowed the opportunity to create a social and academic community for students within the Human Biology program. The HBSU gave myself, as well as my fellow executives the platform to provide students with resources to achieve their goals, such as attending medical school, as well as providing academic seminars and mentorship programs showcasing careers and research within Human Biology. As my time as an undergraduate student comes to an end, my future plans consist of working towards my goal of attending dental school. I will cherish the memories, experiences, and knowledge that I have gained through my involvement in student leadership at UofT. I look forward to connecting with the alumni network to continue to contribute to the UofT community.


Ethan Kim

I majored in Neuroscience and Cell and Systems Biology! While neuroscience was a major passion of mine, I was heavily involved at Innis College through their residence council as well as the College Choir for which I was co-director for two years. I found that having a balance between my studies and extracurricular activities kept me from getting overwhelmed with the workload, and if anything, helped me make friends and foster  a sense of community with the groups I worked with. I couldn’t have done all this without the support from my friends as well as the administration from Innis College!


Raumil Patel

I majored in health and disease and biology. I am most proud of my work with the SickKids retinoblastoma team to improve the efficiency and quality of care provided to patients. On campus I enjoyed mentoring first year life science students as part of the HBSU mentorship program.


Alexandra Santos

I  am a fourth-year student, double majoring in Neuroscience and Pharmacology. I was the president of the University of Toronto Portuguese Association this year, as well as the Graduating Year Representative on the Neuroscience Association for Undergraduate Students. I was a volunteer and currently an executive on the Brain Waves – U of T Chapter. My neuroscience interests include epilepsy and neurodegenerative diseases. After graduation, I will be working as a full time clinical research assistant at Toronto Western Hospital, studying concussion and various dementias.


Danielle Lee

I am a double major in Neuroscience and Nutritional Sciences. I was a Woodsworth College Students’ Association Off-Campus Students’ Director, in which I helped to provide commuters with services in their on-campus experience.