Dr. Matthew Links (right) and U of S President Dr. Gordon Barnhart (left) at the convocation ceremony.Photo Credit: Dr. Graham Links

Dr. Matthew Links wins prestigious award

Most people think doing a PhD program is intense – and it is. So the thought of completing a PhD, being a dad and working full time seems unimaginable.

Unless you're Dr. Matthew Links — then it's just real life.

To top it off, Links also received a Governor General's Gold Medal in June 2014 for his PhD work – the highest honour for a graduate student. The award is given out annually to the top-ranked graduate student at each university for their outstanding academic merit.

Working with his supervisor Dr. Janet Hill, Links completed his PhD program at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) and convocated from the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) in October 2013. His research focused on building and identifying DNA sequences (or "barcodes") to profile and detect living organisms.

The project – which was initially directed towards plants and plant-related bacteria – turns out to have vast research and real-world applications. And it's likely due to the extreme diversity of this technology that earned Links his impressive award.

"The technology is bioinformatics and computer-based, so it can be completely translated to many other applications and research areas," says Links.

For example, Links has examined DNA barcodes in many areas from looking at bacteria in fish guts and female reproductive tracts to discovering bacterial profiles that will aid in enhanced oil recovery/mining.

Although his PhD topic seems like a niche area, it isn't a far stretch from previous work that Links has done over the years. In 2002, he completed the undergraduate degree requirements for both computer science and biochemistry at the U of S. Prior to graduating, Links began working with Dr. William Crosby at the National Research Council (NRC), who was involved in the initial research of plant genomics and bioinformatics in Canada.

Links was extremely interested in bioinformatics research, so he followed Crosby – who moved his research lab to the University of Windsor – and started his Master of Science (MSc) program in 2004.

At the end of his MSc studies in 2006, Links found a job with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Saskatoon. The move back to his hometown enabled Links to continue his research collaborations with some researchers he knew from NRC. The list included Hill, a former post-doctoral fellow at the institution. Still keen on learning and pursuing research in the field of genomics and biotechnology, Links began to explore the possibility of enrolling in a PhD program with Hill as his research supervisor.

"When I started thinking about going back to school, Janet was definitely someone I wanted to work and do research with," says Links.

In 2009, Links began his PhD program in the WCVM's Department of Veterinary Microbiology, but he didn't quit his "day job" at the AAFC: "I was extremely fortunate to have been able to continue working throughout graduate school."

While both roles kept him busy – along with his young family – he was able to balance all the work and never sacrificed his performance in either role.

Hill couldn't be more proud of her star student, pointing out that Links' accomplishments are a direct result of his determination and work ethic.

"As a graduate student supervisor, I consider it my job to provide an environment in which my students can be successful. It's up to the students to take full advantage of the opportunity," says Hill.

Links is humble about winning the national award, but his success isn't just his own. The award has also brought pride to the WCVM – highlighting the fact that high-quality research is being conducted in various aspects of veterinary medicine at the U of S.

The WCVM welcomes Links into a rare set of graduate students: he's only the second recipient of this prestigious award in the veterinary college's 49-year history. Dr. Catherine Couillard, a PhD student in veterinary toxicopathology, received the Governor General's Gold Medal in 1990.

Hill believes that Links' training and education have positioned him well for future success.

"As a scientist, I think his greatest strengths are his open mindedness and creativity. I can always count on him to get me to look at things in a way I had never considered before," points out Hill.

"He also has a healthy skepticism about dogma that will serve him well."

Links, now the bioinformatics study leader at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, is also an adjunct faculty member in the U of S Department of Computer Science. The faculty appointment will allow Links to stay connected to the university through teaching and supervising graduate students.

"I think being an adjunct faculty member, with the access to the facilities and grants that I have at work, presents a great opportunity for students."

After working closely together for many years, it's not surprising that Links and Hill have similar interests and long-term research goals — and it's possible that their research will be intertwined for many years to come.

"We're continuing to work together within our larger group of collaborators on understanding the structure and function of the complex microbial communities that live on in humans, animals and plants and everywhere in the environment," says Hill.

"Now that he's an adjunct faculty member in Computer Science, maybe we can even co-supervise a graduate student."

Sarah Figley is a second-year veterinary student from Saskatoon, Sask., and is the WCVM's research communications intern for the summer of 2014.
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