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Six university professors to receive major Canadian science prize


Ottawa, Ontario, March 20, 2003 The winners of the 2003 NSERC Steacie Fellowships were announced today byAllan Rock, minister of Industry and Minister responsible for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Dr Rey Pagtakhan, minister of Veterans Affairs and the Secretary of State for Science, Research and Development, and Dr Tom Brzustowski, president of NSERC.

One of Canada’s premier science and engineering prizes, NSERC Steacie Fellowships are awarded to the most outstanding Canadian university scientists or engineers, who have earned their doctorate within the past 12 years. Nominations are received by NSERC from universities across Canada and the international impact of the individual’s work is judged by a distinguished panel of independent experts.

The award includes increased research funding from NSERC and a payment to the university to allow the individual to pursue his or her research full-time. The winning Steacie Fellows are also eligible to compete for a special Canada Foundation for Innovation Career Award. The announcement of these awards will be made later.

"NSERC Steacie Fellows are blazing trails for themselves and for Canada on the international research scene," says Minister Rock. "They are leading Canada towards its goal of becoming one of the top five countries in the world for research and development."

The six winners this year are Dr Gary Saunders (University of New Brunswick); Dr Victoria Kaspi (McGill University); Dr Zongchao Jia (Queen’s University); Dr Molly Shoichet (University of Toronto); Dr Kim Vicente (University of Toronto); and Dr Michel Gingras (University of Waterloo).

University of New Brunswick biologist Dr Gary Saunders’s research of the past decade has pioneered the use of new genetic analyses to reinterpret the evolutionary history and familial relationships of red algae (Rhodophyta), and several other algal groups.

While an NSERC Steacie Fellow, Dr Saunders will be looking for new genetic markers to “plug holes” in his ongoing gene-based reassessment of red algal relationships. The research is important in the search for new economically valuable red algae, he says. It provides information on which species of red algae are most closely related, and thus most likely to have similar properties. The Steacie research will also make the link between the genetics of red algae and the algae’s “bizarre” range of reproductive strategies, research that could further challenge commonly held notions about evolution.

Astrophysicist Dr Victoria Kaspi, who is a physics professor at McGill University, is using x-ray vision to observe high density neutron stars.

The remnants of collapsed stars (close cousins of black holes) provide a unique window into the physics of matter at extremes. Dr Kaspi’s research team is using the world’s most advanced satellite-based x-ray telescopes, including NASA’s $1-billion Chandra X-Ray Observatory, as well as the largest Earth-based radio telescopes to locate and study the behaviour of these cosmic heavyweights. This past summer, her eight-person research group identified a new type of magnetar, a type of neutron star whose emitted energy comes not from fusion (as with our sun), or its rotational energy (as with pulsars) but from its enormous magnetic field. In the September 12, 2002, issue of Nature, the group reported the first observations of distinctive bursts of x-rays from so-called anomalous x-ray pulsars.

While an NSERC Steacie Fellow, Dr Kaspi will also be scanning the Milky Way for as yet undiscovered millisecond pulsars. This cosmic search involves collecting terabytes (trillions of bytes) of radio telescope data. To analyze it for the telltale millisecond radio wave pulses produced by pulsars, Dr Kaspi’s team turns to a cluster supercomputer consisting of 52 nodes of processors.

Queen’s University associate professor of biochemistry, Dr Zongchao Jia is using x-ray imaging technique to discover the proteins that DNA produces.

His lab has led the way in the structural study of anti-freeze proteins. Dr Jia’s research has demonstrated that there are in fact a variety of ways that the different proteins block ice formation. In 1999, Dr Jia’s lab also won what, in essence, was a heated international race to determine the structure of a calcium-regulated protein, calpain, that plays a role in diseases from Alzheimer’s to Muscular Dystrophy and in heart attacks.

While an NSERC Steacie Fellow, Dr Jia will continue his groundbreaking work on one of the most biologically important groups of proteins, those involved in phosphorylation and dephosphorylation. These proteins act as on/off switches for almost 30% of the body’s proteins. His 11-person lab will focus on phosphorylation proteins that are involved in muscle contraction, as well as on phytase, an enzyme that liberates the nutrient phosphorus stored in grains. Many farm animals, including pigs, lack the enzyme. At present, phytase is added to grain feeds to help increase nutrient value, but with only limited success.

Dr Molly Shoichet, an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Toronto, recently demonstrated that an artificial bridge constructed across a break in the spinal cord can serve as a conduit for new nerve cells originating in the brain.

In the recent experiment, customized tubes developed in Dr Shoichet’s lab were spliced into the severed spinal cords of paraplegic rats. The tubes were infused with neural growth factors. The combination sparked the growth of new nerve tissue, and most importantly, tests showed that this new spinal cord nerve tissue provided some functional benefit, albeit slight.

Dr Shoichet, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering at the University of Toronto, is one of a rare new breed of scientists who are combining chemistry, biology and engineering to create the emerging fields of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. An expert in the creation and modification of polymers, Dr Shoichet focuses on perhaps the most vexing of tissue engineering questions: spinal cord regeneration.

Dr Shoichet has used her materials science expertise to design specialized tiny tubes that mimic spinal cord tissue in structure and feel. These tubes act as bridges, providing both support and direction, over which spinal cord nerves can regenerate.

During her Steacie research, Dr Shoichet will continue to develop new biodegradable tissue bridges that will be eroded by the nerve cells they inspire to grow. Her lab is also working on a less invasive way to deliver a sustained concentration gradient of neural growth factor using an injectable polymer.

University of Toronto engineering professor Dr Kim Vicente is a leading player in the rapidly growing field of cognitive engineering. He focuses on preventing medical errors by changing the way we design the interaction between technology and people in medical devices.

In 1988, while working in Denmark with Dr Jens Rasmussen, a pioneer in human-computer interfaces, Vicente coined the term ecological interface design (EID). It describes a new way of designing complex process control systems that takes into account the ways we think, perceive and behave. During the past decade, the Toronto native has applied EID concepts to systems ranging from cockpit controls to the design of petrochemical and nuclear power plant process controls. His research group was the first to apply cognitive engineering principles (known as human factors design) to the redesign of a commercially available medical device. Known as patient-controlled analgesia (PCA), the device is used in hospitals worldwide to enable nurses and patients to administer painkillers.

Dr Vicente is currently the Hunsaker Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Dr Michel Gingras, physics professor at the University of Waterloo, researches condensed matte
r physics, in the area of frustrated magnetic systems and glasses.

“These frustrated magnets are a template to study the fundamental issues involved in the formation of glasses,” says Dr Gingras. “What you learn from these systems has a scientific market that’s much broader than the specific material or model that you’re trying to understand.”

Disordered systems are important in the study of high-temperature superconductivity, and in the creation of longer-life batteries and so-called ferromagnetic semiconductors, a class of materials in which the magnetic moments can be used to carry information in electronic devices. Understanding frustrated magnetism may also play a conceptual role in helping unify quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of gravity.

Dr Gingras’ work involves collaboration with experimentalists at Canada’s most advanced particle physics facilities, including the Muon Spin Resonance facility at TRIUMF (the Tri-University Meson Facility) in Vancouver, and a neutron scattering facility at Chalk River. He’s been credited with forming important ties between these “nuts and bolts” practitioners and theoreticians.

As an NSERC Steacie Fellow, Dr Gingras will take frustration to a new level by considering the role of quantum mechanics in these disordered systems a kind of triple black triangle run for physicists.

Dr Gingras is also the Canada Research Chair in Condensed Matter Theory and Statistical Mechanics at the University of Waterloo.

The NSERC Steacie Fellowships will be presented at a ceremony in Ottawa later this year.