Global Undergraduate Awards 2021 Winner Profile

Kaitlyn Charnetski, BSc’21
Category: Life Sciences

Kaitlyn CharnetskiKaitlyn Charnetski, BSc’21, had just arrived to work on an archaeological site when she received the news that she had been chosen as a Regional Winner for The Undergraduate Awards for her research about a new H1N1 virus.

“I honestly wasn’t expecting it at all. It was 8 am and I was standing at a dig site and pulled up my phone and saw that I had been selected. I had heard the week before that I had been chosen as a Highly Commended entrant and that had been exciting enough for me, so this was a bonus,” she said.

Charnetski’s research paper, Investigating genomic signatures in influenza A viruses using supervised machine learning: A case study on an emergent H1N1 strain, looked at a new H1N1 virus and, using machine learning, discovered it has genomic characteristics unique to H1N1.

The idea for the paper began when Charnetski was in a lab course taught by Professor Kathleen Hill. The group was discussing possibilities with genetics and the discussion turned to the topic of viruses and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve always been interested in genetics,” said Charnetski, who completed Western’s Integrated Science program, specializing in biology. “This paper is based on an emerging virus that was in the news two years ago. After examining it and looking at its particular characteristics, we were able to use the RNA sequence alone as a way to classify it as H1N1. This also gave us useful information about mutation pressures acting on the virus. It was the first study of its kind on this particular virus.”

Despite all the news about viruses and the pandemic being in the forefront while she was tackling this research topic, Charnetski says spending even more time focusing on viruses wasn’t an issue for her.

“For me, it was so interesting and fascinating. I wasn’t scared about thinking about what harm they can do, necessarily. I was focused on learning so much about this virus and how it works,” she said. 

Following the completion of her paper and graduation this year, Charnetski began doing field work in archaeology. She isn’t certain of her next steps and says she might look at returning to lab-based research in the future.

“I think virus research is extremely important. We have all seen why in the past few years with the pandemic. More research will help us to prevent pandemics like this in the future and to be better prepared to address threats more quickly.”

Being recognized by The Undergraduate Awards was really motivating and validating, said Charnetski, who hopes to attend the virtual Global Summit in November. 

“It was really gratifying to know that all the work, long nights and stress of writing the paper paid off. It’s also rewarding when something you’ve been working on for so long gets international recognition.”