On Campus

Research Gives Students Edge

Ellen Siebel-Achenbach
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One visit to St. Jerome’s University’s two laboratory spaces in SJ1 and you will soon realize that something different is going on. It is not about the distinct modern and welcoming look of each location, with well appointed individual and collaborative work and research spaces. It is not about the focus of the research - one climate and culture between 500 AD to 1500 AD, the other grounded in present day psychology and public health. What becomes clear very quickly, is what they have in common – highly engaged and energized students, who are benefitting from discovering that research provides them with an edge on their academic journey.  

Researching Past Prepares Students for Future
Jason Lee DRAGEN Lab
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Jason Lee, a third-year University of Waterloo History student, discovered early into his university experience just how much the Digital Research in Arts and Graphical Environmental Networks Laboratory (DRAGEN Lab) at SJU had to offer. Before coming to Waterloo, he did his research and noticed that SJU’s DRAGEN Lab existed, but thought “surely they won’t be looking for first-year students”. Lee soon learned he was wrong.

“I was lucky enough to take a course with one of the associate lab directors,” stated Lee, “She actively encouraged her students to become involved in the lab, which led me to look at it more seriously…my involvement in the lab has been one of the best parts of my experience at Waterloo.”

Lee’s experience is not unusual. Steven Bednarski, PhD, who founded and directs the DRAGEN Lab, is at the centre of the lab’s Environments of Change, a seven-year $10-million project using emerging technologies to investigate the historical relationship between climate and culture in the Middle Ages. His innovative approach to teaching and commitment to broadening valued student experiences led to the development of the DRAGEN Lab in 2014, now a 3,600 square foot learning hub at SJU. Using 3D printers, scanners, video development space, and a digital mapping lab, students gain access to medieval knowledge and its relevance. The development of the lab came following Bednarski’s successful development of an innovative study abroad partnership with Queen’s University’s Bader International Study Centre (BISC). The program offered students an archaeological field summer school at 15th-century castle Herstmonceux, in East Sussex, UK, which continues despite the pandemic. Lee attended the virtual version of the field school in the summer of 2021.

“I will carry forward…not only my polished reading, writing, and research abilities, but also a greater appreciation of those who are willing to give their time and effort towards training and teaching undergraduate students like myself,” stated Lee. “I know they did not have to do it, and that they chose to do so anyways is admirable.”

Ellen Marguerite Siebel-Achenbach (shown in photo at top of page) shares Lee’s gratitude for her time in the DRAGEN Lab. Siebel-Achenbach is an SJU student with a joint major in Medieval Studies and Visual Culture, and a joint minor in Fine Arts Studio and Church Music and Worship. Even prior to beginning her university studies, she was participating in DRAGEN Lab research.

DRAGEN Lab students talking
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Collaborating in the DRAGEN Lab are student Gillian Wagenaar; DRAGEN Lab, Associate Director, Andrew Moore, PhD; students Erin Kurian and Ellen Siebel-Achenbach; and Lab Manager and Assistant Director, Caley McCarthy, PhD.  

Siebel-Achenbach’s parents are both professors at the University of Waterloo. Before starting her first semester at SJU, she worked on a research trip in the United Kingdom with Ann Marie Rasmussen, one of the professors she met through her parents. Rasmussen is the Associate Chair, Graduate Studies/Professor and Diefenbaker Memorial Chair in German Literary Studies, and Co-Chair of the DRAGEN Lab.

“During the fall, I was officially hired by the lab to work on the musical chants fragments housed in the facility. A project that was recently updated in April,” noted Siebel-Achenbach. “I have also worked on the Environments of Change project, focusing on water infrastructure in royal legal records, and have co-authored a course module for MEDVL 252 with Ann Marie Rasmussen.” 

Like Lee, Siebel-Achenbach was offered a variety of opportunities to advance her research skills during her DRAGEN Lab experience. She noted that this experience has also been helpful for attaining scholarships and awards. Siebel-Achenbach is currently working as a creative researcher and maker for a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant on Medieval Badges, with Ann Marie Rasmussen, the Primary Investigator on the Grant.

Valued Experiential Learning in the Well-Link Lab 

Well-Link Lab students
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Aasim Yacub (left) and Jessica Lee (right) connect about their
research in the Well-Link Lab, while other Lab colleagues,
Erin Fitzgerald (back left) and Karen Kumar (back right) do
the same. 

Aasim Yacub is an Honours Psychology and Biology student, who works as a research intern in SJU’s Well-Link Research Lab. The team in the Lab investigates the mental health and well-being of emerging adults (ages 18-29 years). It also researches various health and psychological factors that impact students’ success in higher education and afterwards, during the transition to the workplace following graduation. Well-Link is directed by Maureen Drysdale, PhD, a professor of Psychology at SJU, and an adjunct professor in the School of Public Health Sciences at the University of Waterloo. In 2020, Drysdale received an honorary doctorate from University West in Trollhättan, Sweden, for her work with school to work transitions and work-integrated learning (WIL).

The impact of Yacub’s Well-Link experience is similar to those shared by DRAGEN Lab students. Yacub is an aspiring clinical psychologist who valued the experiential learning experience regarding the different facets of the research process. He discovered the additional value of his participation, is knowing that the research work completed in the lab will help to create better policies and will identify support needs for at-risk groups. Yacub has also been able to connect his work with issues relevant to student life. 

“Working at the Well-Link lab, I have had the opportunity to further contribute to the research and various facets that impact students and their experience during their university courses and programs,” Yacub noted. “The lab works on issues relevant and in the now, such as the impact of COVID-19 on student work experiences and issues, such as online delivery of courses during the past few months. It’s been fun and insightful to collaborate on current and upcoming projects with the other lab members, and I love (Dr. Drysdale’s) support of our ideas as emerging researchers.”

Transformative Research 
Similarly, Karen Kumar, HSBc, MEd, a psychology student at the University of Waterloo, identified that the work in Well-Link continues to allow her to contribute her knowledge in a way that is pertinent.

“One of my favourite things about the Well-Link lab is it’s interdisciplinary nature. I joined the lab in October (2020) with a background in neuroscience and developmental psychology…I was given the lab’s seasonal variations project to investigate how these changes impact students' mental health,” shared Kumar. “I became so intrigued by this that I’ve now taken it on as my thesis project under Dr. Drysdale’s supervision.”

Kumar added that she has enjoyed the fun and insightful collaborations on current and upcoming projects with lab members, knowing that the lab strives to conduct research that makes a difference to students, professionals, and universities. 

Well Link Lab
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Sarah Callaghan, BA, MEd Counseling Psychology, and the Well-Link Lab’s manager, described her undergraduate research experience there as "transformative", providing opportunities to apply the research knowledge she obtained as having practical, real-world implications for adolescent and emerging adult populations. Like Callaghan, Areesha Satti, MSW, and a MD candidate in January 2022, is a good example of just how much the trajectory of a student’s career can be affected by time spent working in a research lab.

“I can truly say that this experience has shaped my academic career and helped me excel in my different academic ventures,” stated Satti. “I was fortunate enough to have such great experience in conducting literature reviews, editing papers, and recruiting for studies. These experiences put me in a great place during my Masters of Social Work. Dr. Drysdale has always made sure that any research that is being conducted in the lab is accurate, peer-reviewed, and evidence based. The learning opportunities from this lab have allowed me to also excel in medical school as I am very comfortable researching topics and formulating evidence-based treatment plans. I owe a lot of my academic success to the opportunities I was provided with as a student researcher within this lab!” 

Ava Skuse, BA, who majored in Psychology at the University of Waterloo, also recognized the value of being well mentored at Well-Link and the skills that developed from her work there. She acknowledged the edge that the opportunity provided her in advancing her academic career and its source of inspiration.

“The Well-Link lab has allowed me to meet brilliant minds, creative thinkers, and overall amazing people,” stated Skuse. “It has skyrocketed my confidence in regard to my academic writing and research goals. So much so, I have applied to clinical/child graduate psychology programs…I have been tremendously inspired by my supervisor…I can confidently say that without this lab, I would not be the student I am today.”

To find our more about the work taking place in the DRAGEN Lab and Well-Link Lab, please read the Lab Reports included in this edition of Update magazine. 


Photographer: Bryn Gladding Photography