Maleeka Singh’s experiences with two prestigious University of Guelph graduate student programs have helped increase her knowledge, boost her confidence in communicating complex scientific topics and point her on her career path.
“It was an amazing opportunity,” she says of the Highly Qualified Personnel (HQP) scholarship program. “Not only was I able to pursue my graduate degree without having to worry about financial resources, but I was also able to build a network of peers and other academics across all colleges within the University.”
The HQP program is funded by Food from Thought and the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance, a partnership between the University of Guelph and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. It aims to support the development of highly skilled graduate students who can meet the changing demands of the agri-food and rural sector. With this program, the University of Guelph is developing a vibrant talent pool of skilled, forward-thinking learners to take leadership positions in diverse jobs in the sector’s businesses, governments, universities and non-profit organizations.
Many HQP participants – including Singh – work with researchers in the Food from Thought program to develop innovative solutions that improve the sustainability and productivity of agricultural production.
Singh was also able to collaborate with other HQP scholars on projects for community partners as part of the program.
“The HQP program helps to develop a sense of community, as well as promote an environment for personal and professional growth,” she says, adding that her HQP mentors were excellent and made her student experience more rewarding.
One of her favourite activities was the media training workshop, which helped improve her confidence and increase her ability to use plain language to communicate complex scientific topics. It also prompted her to join the SPARK program (Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge), where she used these knowledge translation and transfer (KTT) skills writing several news articles about research at U of G.
These KTT skills also helped in her application for her PhD and the Arrell Food Institute Scholarship, which she received in 2020. The Arrell Scholars program provides $50,000 per year to graduate students who demonstrate academic excellence and potential to build a healthier, more sustainable and more just food system. Each scholar takes part in an applied learning program to hone valuable leadership skills and build stronger networks in the agri-food sector.
For her master’s project, she researched the top 10 most adulterated foods in the market, reviewed the DNA-based authentication methods that were published over the last 20 years for the detection of fish, tested a subset of these assays for validity, and tested a new DNA authentication method for identifying commercial species of fish.
“Overall, we found that there were gaps in the literature and that many of the published DNA-based assays were not necessarily fit for detecting relevant commercial species of fish,” she says.
Singh worked with a number of other researchers to authenticate and validate FASTFISH-ID™, a new, portable tool for detecting fish species using closed-tube DNA barcoding.
“As this technology is quick, efficient, conducted in a single tube and requires minimal handling, we hope that it can be used along the supply chain for fish authentication,” she says. With seafood accounting for 20 per cent of animal consumption globally, and more than 30 per cent of marine fish stocks harvested at unsustainable levels, being able to accurately identify fish species and prevent food fraud is important.
Singh went a step further in her research, contending that multiple methods for authenticating fish species should be used because, like many technologies, each method has its limitations.
Her research was important for ensuring that consumers get the product that they pay for and, ultimately, to ensure that food safety risks from adulterated products are minimized.
Her master’s advisers were Dr. Jeff Farber, formerly director of University of Guelph’s Director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety, and Dr. Robert Hanner, Associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and member of the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario.
“Dr. Hanner and Dr. Farber have been real inspirations for me and sparked my interest in the food safety and food fraud space,” she says. “Both are so knowledgeable and passionate – they motivated me to pursue my PhD to contribute to the sector.”
For her PhD, she’s working on using non-invasive biophysical methods like fluorescence fingerprints for detecting food integrity.
“We’re using biological and chemical fingerprints to characterize the deteriorative properties of food,” she says, adding that the ultimate goal is to increase food safety and quality and reduce food waste.