U of T leads in national science awards
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 Feb. 27 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 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. (Read a Q & A with Cook here.)
“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. (Read a Q & A with Scholes here.)
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. (Read a Q & A with Agrawal here.)
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. (Read a Q & A with Chan here.)
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. (Read a Q & A with Sun here.)
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. (Read a Q & A with Santerre here.)
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. (Read a Q & A with Mastronardi here.)
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. 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. (Read a Q & A with Nona here.)
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. (Read a Q & A with Carey here.)