Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Student Wins Prestigious Vanier Award

It’s been a year of wins for Pawanjit Kaur Sandhu, as she secures the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship

Pawanjit Kaur Sandhu

You may recognize Pawanjit Kaur Sandhu as this year’s winner of the UBCO Three Minute Thesis Final. She is now celebrating another success after winning the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship.

The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships are the most prestigious graduate scholarships in Canada, valued at $50,000 per year for up to three years. The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships were created to bolster research in Canada by recruiting and retaining world-class doctoral students. Vanier Scholars demonstrate leadership skills and a high standard of scholarly achievement in graduate studies. Pawanjit is the seventh UBC Okanagan recipient of this award since its inception in 2008. Learn more about Pawanjit and her research.


Doctor of Philosophy in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology

Research Supervisor

Dr. Susan Murch


Moga, India


Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship

Award Impact

Receiving the NSERC Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (CGS) has been transformative for my academic journey. Being awarded one of Canada’s most competitive graduate scholarships has improved my confidence in my research, scholarly, and leadership capabilities. I am grateful for the financial support and opportunities as these will help me achieve my scientific and academic goals. My research is investigating non-protein amino acid metabolism, and the Vanier award will help me develop novel methods that have never been tried before. I am excited about all the interesting research that is coming in the next 3 years.

What inspires you about your research?

Pawan working on a Liquid chromatography-tandem Mass spectrometry instrument (Waters Acquity-UPLC Xevo TQ-S) in PlantSMART lab.

My PhD research lies at the intersection of plant chemistry, analytical chemistry and metabolomics – the study of small molecules produced or used by cells in metabolism. Working with Dr. Susan Murch in the PlantSMART lab, I am developing a metabolomics toolbox to understand the diversity and distribution of non-protein amino acids in plants. My research i) uses machine learning and text mining to identify non-protein amino acids known in the scientific literature, and ii) develops high-resolution mass-spectrometry-based analytical methods for discovery, identification and quantification of non-protein amino acids to answer the question: “How many non-protein amino acids are found in plants?” Our understanding of amino acids beyond the 20-22 protein amino acids is limited. My research provides a novel approach to studying amino acid metabolism and its impact on human and ecosystem health. The innovative and impactful nature of my research keeps me inspired.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

Ever since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by how things work and why they happen. Discovering new knowledge and expanding my understanding is rewarding for me. So, when the opportunity presented itself to do my master’s and then a PhD, it was a no-brainer. I enjoy the challenges that research brings and the positive impact it can have on the world.

Why did you choose to come to UBC Okanagan?

I was introduced to metabolomics as a master’s student in Dr. Nishanth Tharayil’s lab at Clemson University. I worked on understanding the herbicide resistance in agricultural weeds using metabolomics approaches. It was during a metabolomics conference that I came across Dr. Murch’s research and was immediately drawn in. Her vast research expertise in plant biochemistry and metabolomics aligned with my research interests in developing new analytical methods to advance the field of metabolomics. This, coupled with UBC’s renowned status as a top institute, made the decision to pursue my PhD at UBC Okanagan much simpler.

Where do you hope your degree will take you next?

After completing my PhD, I would love to work in a collaborative role focused on interdisciplinary metabolomics projects. In the long term, I am interested in using metabolomics and analytical chemistry approaches to devise strategies for co-existence with climate change and addressing the myriad of challenges it presents.

Please share a little bit about yourself.

If not doing my research, you will find me enjoying the outdoors, hiking the mountains, relaxing on a beach, or dancing to Punjabi music. I love learning new skills; recently, I have picked up gardening and learning French. I also enjoy cooking, whether it’s comfort Indian food or experimenting with something new.

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

To new graduate students, I would offer this advice: Embrace challenges, cultivate confidence, and be willing to step outside your comfort zone, and find a mentor. If it was not for my advisor convincing me, I would have not even submitted a Vanier CGS application! So, trust in your abilities and try new things. Graduate school is the best place to engage in experiences you never imagined, taking risks, and expanding your skill set. These experiences will not only help you thrive in any career path but also make the journey more enjoyable.

Leave a Reply