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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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