When Stefan Gavriliuc’s supervisor suggested submitting his undergrad research project to an international equine conference, he was a bit intimidated, but decided to give it a shot. The 22-year-old bachelor of health science in bioinformatics sure is glad he took the advice, as he came away with the $10,000 top prize at the Calgary International Equine Symposium, hosted by the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM).

Gavriliuc presented a new way of analyzing gut parasites in horses, using manure samples from feral herds in southern Alberta and Sable Island, and a horse herd in Kentucky. Through bioinformatics – a process of modelling and visualizing data that combines biology, information engineering, algorithms and statistics – he created a DNA metabarcoding test that revealed 34 different parasite species and significant differences in infection among individual horses and herds.

“What he accomplished is exceptional, regardless of his career stage,” said Dr. Jocelyn Poissant, Ph.D., an assistant professor at UCVM, who is long-time collaborator on studies of horses on Sable Island. “Stefan’s research has been a cornerstone of my lab’s progress in the last year.”

“Stefan’s work was selected because of its highly novel, innovative methodology that holds the promise to advance the field of equine parasitology and improve equine health,” said Dr. Sheila Laverty, an equine surgeon at the University of Montreal, who was a keynote speaker at the symposium and served on the judging panel.

The prize was presented in the centre ring of the Spruce Meadows Masters Tournament, where a ringside reception was held for symposium attendees. Gavriluic had no idea he’d won, until he was asked to join Dean Baljit Singh and the judges in the ring. “I couldn’t stop shaking. One of the people beside me said, ‘Oh, you must be really cold.’ I said, ‘No, I just can’t believe this is real.’”

He commented, “Not only was it an absolute honour to be there, but I also felt that the future was in good hands because of all this ground-breaking stuff that people are conducting in all the corners of the world,” said Gavriliuc. “I was just happy and thankful to be there. I didn’t think I would get this far.”