Media Releases

NSERC prizes awarded to five University of Toronto scholars

February 17, 2016

Backing research into billion-year-old water, evolution of plants, faster disease diagnosis, microbial energy

Toronto, ON – Five University of Toronto scholars have been awarded prizes in 2016 by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) – the largest tally of winners at any university in Canada.

“Our exceptional performance in the NSERC awards makes it clear that U of T remains a powerhouse for research that has impact in the sciences and engineering,” said Vivek Goel, U of T vice-president of research and innovation.

“We should be proud of the range of disciplines encompassed by these prestigious prizes. Earth sciences, medicine, engineering, pharmacy, ecology and evolutionary biology are all represented. And all the research has real potential to improve the human condition.”

Barbara Sherwood Lollar is the winner of the John C. Polanyi Award for an outstanding advance in natural science or engineering. This University Professor in the department of earth sciences is cited for the discovery of hydrogen gas and biological chemicals in billion-year-old water samples extracted from fractures in mines in Ontario and South Africa. (Read more about Sherwood Lollar.)

Her research has implications for exoplanetary science – similar processes might exist on Mars – as well the more down-to-earth protocols surrounding waste disposal and groundwater cleanup.

“The joy of discovery has been at the heart of this work by our team,” said Sherwood Lollar, who is Canada Research Chair in Isotope Geochemistry of the Earth and the Environment.  “Even here on Earth there are regions of our hydrosphere and biosphere still unexplored.

“We are very grateful to NSERC and to Canada for this award, as there is no higher honour than to receive a recognition that bears the name of our U of T colleague and Nobel laureate, the icon John Polanyi.”

The Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering, which is always awarded to more than one recipient, goes to the U of T team of Shana Kelley and Edward Sargent for their work on AuRA, a device that can reduce the time taken to arrive at a diagnosis from days to less than 20 minutes.

Combining Professor Kelley’s expertise in electrochemistry and biochemistry with University Professor Sargent’s experience in electrical engineering and nanomaterials, the new technology has great potential to limit the spread of infectious disease, particularly in the developing world. Their startup Xagenic has raised more than $30 million in venture capital and employs 65 scientists, engineers, and molecular diagnostics market experts. (Read more about Kelley and Sargent.)

Two U of T scholars received E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowships. David Sinton of the department of mechanical and industrial engineering wins for his work in optofluidics, a field that involves manipulating light and nanoparticles to control the flow of fluids.

Most prior research in optofludics has been dedicated to diagnostic equipment, but Professor Sinton has demonstrated its potential to create a new class of fuel cell remarkable for its efficiency and energy density. His further work includes using light-harvesting bacteria as environmentally friendly means of producing biofuel and developing a technique to select better quality human sperm for use in fertility clinics. (Read more about Sinton.)

Associate Professor Stephen I. Wright of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology also wins a Steacie Fellowship for his work on how weeds evolve to become resistant to herbicides, a growing threat to food security in the developing world.

Wright has determined that weed species that reproduce sexually (rather than asexually through self-fertilization) are healthier. His work, which establishes that the pace of genome-wide adaptation occurs at a higher rate than previously thought, will make it possible to foresee the extinction of crop species and step up the battle against “super weeds.” (Read more about Wright.)

Other winners of national NSERC prizes were astrophysicist Victoria M. Kaspi (Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering) and chemistry doctoral candidate Yasser Gidi (NSERC Gilles Brassard Doctoral Prize for Interdisciplinary Research), both of McGill University.

The prizes, valued at a total of $3.71 million, will be awarded officially Tuesday evening at Rideau Hall by Governor General David Johnston, with U of T alumna and Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan and NSERC president B. Mario Pinto at the ceremony.

“It is imperative that we praise the groundbreaking achievements of our top researchers to demonstrate our respect and admiration for Canada’s leading scientists and engineers,” Duncan said in a statement.

“We must continue to promote, celebrate, and support our talented researchers to foster an environment wherein they can be global leaders in discovery and innovation and generate results that will benefit Canadians today and in the future.”

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