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U of T researchers lead in Canadian science prizes

February 27, 2013

TORONTO, ON — Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to researchers won or shared hon­ours in six of eight prize cat­e­gories in this year’s awards from the Nat­ur­al Sci­ences and Engi­neer­ing Research Coun­cil of Cana­da (NSERC), pre­sent­ed today in Ottawa.

The acco­lades rep­re­sent an unprece­dent­ed per­for­mance by U of T schol­ars rang­ing across the aca­d­e­m­ic life-cycle, from grad­u­ate stu­dents through ris­ing stars in mid-career to life­time achiev­ers.

This is the third year in a row that a U of T researcher has won the Herzberg medal, NSERC’s high­est hon­our, giv­en for sus­tained excel­lence and over­all influ­ence of research work con­duct­ed in Cana­da in the nat­ur­al sci­ences or engi­neer­ing. It is also the third in a row that a U of T researcher has won the John C. Polanyi award, which hon­ours an indi­vid­ual or team whose Cana­di­an-based research has led to a recent out­stand­ing advance in those fields.

The Council’s mar­quee award, the $1‑million Ger­hard Herzberg Cana­da Gold Medal for Sci­ence and Engi­neer­ing, went to Stephen Cook, Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of com­put­er sci­ence. A pio­neer­ing math­e­mati­cian, Cook’s ideas have spawned new fields of inquiry and he has made cel­e­brat­ed con­tri­bu­tions to com­plex­i­ty the­o­ry, com­pu­ta­tion­al the­o­ry, algo­rithm design, pro­gram­ming lan­guages and math­e­mat­i­cal log­ic.

At U of T, Cook is known as an inno­v­a­tive teacher and has been award­ed the title Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor, the high­est hon­our the insti­tu­tion bestows on its fac­ul­ty.

“I extend very warm con­grat­u­la­tions to all this year’s win­ners from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to,” said U of T’s pres­i­dent, Pro­fes­sor David Nay­lor. “I am espe­cial­ly grat­i­fied to see that our win­ners cov­er a range of dis­ci­plines and include stu­dents and col­leagues from every phase of the aca­d­e­m­ic life-cycle. This is not only a great day for the U of T research com­mu­ni­ty.

“It is also a sign­post of a bright future for nat­ur­al sci­ences and engi­neer­ing in Cana­da.”

In addi­tion to Cook, U of T researchers dom­i­nat­ed almost every cat­e­go­ry of award giv­en by NSERC.

“These nine stu­dents and fac­ul­ty researchers exem­pli­fy the extra­or­di­nary breadth of research achieve­ment at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to,” said Pro­fes­sor Paul Young, U of T’s vice-pres­i­dent (research and inno­va­tion). “We’re grate­ful to NSERC for hon­our­ing them with these pres­ti­gious awards.”

The John C. Polanyi Award, which hon­ours research that has led to a recent out­stand­ing advance, went to Gre­go­ry Scholes of chem­istry. Scholes’s research has shown that quan­tum mechan­ics are involved in the cap­ture and dis­tri­b­u­tion of the sun’s ener­gy dur­ing pho­to­syn­the­sis. By study­ing the way organ­isms effi­cient­ly use the sun’s ener­gy, we could learn how to bet­ter con­vert the sun’s ener­gy to meet our own grow­ing demand.

The Polanyi award was estab­lished in trib­ute to John Polanyi, a Nobel lau­re­ate who is him­self a U of T researcher in the Depart­ment of Chem­istry.

Three fac­ul­ty mem­bers have won E.W.R. Stea­cie Memo­r­i­al Fel­low­ships, award­ed to enhance the career devel­op­ment of out­stand­ing and high­ly promis­ing sci­en­tists and engi­neers who are fac­ul­ty mem­bers of Cana­di­an uni­ver­si­ties: Aneil Agraw­al of ecol­o­gy and evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy, War­ren Chan of bio­ma­te­ri­als and bio­med­ical engi­neer­ing, and Yu Sun of mechan­i­cal and indus­tri­al engi­neer­ing.

Agraw­al is one of the world’s most promis­ing evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gists. He inves­ti­gates how harm­ful genet­ic muta­tions enter pop­u­la­tions and may then be removed by dif­fer­ent forms of selec­tion, adding to our under­stand­ing of the evo­lu­tion­ary con­se­quences of such muta­tions and promis­ing prac­ti­cal ben­e­fits in med­i­cine.

Chan is a glob­al leader in nan­otech­nol­o­gy and is break­ing new ground using quan­tum dots in bio­med­ical appli­ca­tions. He is lead­ing the devel­op­ment of hand-held devices capa­ble of screen­ing for mol­e­cules that indi­cate the pres­ence of pathogens, includ­ing HIV, Hepati­tis B and C, malar­ia and syphilis.

Sun is an inter­na­tion­al leader in devel­op­ing robot­ics and automa­tion tech­nolo­gies for manip­u­lat­ing bio­ma­te­ri­als. His research into auto­mat­ed process­es for bio­log­i­cal cell manip­u­la­tion is rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing how genet­ic stud­ies, can­cer research and clin­i­cal cell surgery and diag­nos­tics are per­formed.

Paul San­terre of den­tistry and bio­ma­te­ri­als and bio­med­ical engi­neer­ing has won a Syn­er­gy Award for Inno­va­tion, which hon­ours out­stand­ing achieve­ments in uni­ver­si­ty-indus­try col­lab­o­ra­tions. His part­ner­ship with Inter­face Bio­log­ics is pro­duc­ing trans­for­ma­tive bio­med­ical poly­mers to make med­ical devices safer and more effec­tive. They have cre­at­ed prod­ucts rang­ing from catheter lines to poly­mer-coat­ed stents for open­ing blocked arter­ies.

PhD stu­dent Melanie Mas­tronar­di of chem­istry is a win­ner of the Gilles Bras­sard Doc­tor­al Prize for Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Research, giv­en to the recip­i­ent of the NSERC Vanier Cana­da Grad­u­ate Schol­ar­ship who best exem­pli­fies inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research. She is devel­op­ing green­er and cheap­er sil­i­con-based nanocrys­tals, to address con­cern about the use of heavy met­als in nanocrys­tal man­u­fac­tur­ing. Her work will make an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the devel­op­ment of sil­i­con as a nano­ma­te­r­i­al for use in state-of-the-art smart phones, com­put­ers and oth­er devices. Mas­tronar­di works under the super­vi­sion of Geof­frey Ozin.

Master’s stu­dent Christi­na Nona of phar­ma­col­o­gy and tox­i­col­o­gy and PhD stu­dent Gra­ham Carey of elec­tri­cal and com­put­er engi­neer­ing have each won an André Hamer Post­grad­u­ate prize. At the master’s lev­el, the prize is award­ed to the four most out­stand­ing can­di­dates in the NSERC Vanier Cana­da Grad­u­ate Schol­ar­ship com­pe­ti­tion, and at the doc­tor­al lev­el to the sin­gle most out­stand­ing can­di­date. Nona works under José Nobrega’s super­vi­sion. Gra­ham Carey works under the super­vi­sion of Ted Sar­gent.

Nona is research­ing two neur­al mech­a­nisms found in the brain and the role they play in learn­ing and mem­o­ry. She is work­ing toward treat­ment for peo­ple with mal­adap­tive forms of learn­ing and mem­o­ry, such as those suf­fer­ing from addic­tions. Her research will also help those with Alzheimer’s dis­ease and oth­er cog­ni­tive ill­ness­es.

Carey is explor­ing some of the key chal­lenges in mak­ing quan­tum dot solar cell sys­tems more effi­cient. Quan­tum dots are micro­scop­ic pieces of semi­con­duc­tor that can be layered—like paint—onto a sur­face. He is look­ing at ways to improve the sta­bil­i­ty of each lay­er to min­i­mize ener­gy loss and increase effi­cien­cy.


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