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University awarded $14.5 million in NSERC support

Ninety-three awards recognize national research leadership
June 23, 2015
David Hansen, associate professor of integrative cell biology at the University of Calgary, received both Discovery and Accelerator awards in the funding announcement Monday from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

David Hansen, associate professor of integrative cell biology at the University of Calgary, received both Discovery and Accelerator awards in the funding announcement Monday from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

With Monday’s announcement of the latest round of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) awards, 93 University of Calgary researchers will continue to drive progress in critical areas of discovery from human health to quantum computing. The awards, granted for the strengths of the research — including originality and the likelihood to drive innovation — demonstrate the University of Calgary’s ongoing research leadership.

“The value of basic research cannot be understated,” says Ed McCauley, vice-president (research) at the University of Calgary. “It is the foundation upon which we create new knowledge and make discoveries, and it is what fuels applications and innovation. Our scholars are focused on addressing critical basic research challenges, and with NSERC’s support we are setting them up for success.”

NSERC’s goal is to create jobs and opportunities while improving Canadians’ quality of life. Honourable Ed Holder, minister of State (Science and Technology), noted, “A key pillar of our government’s updated Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy is ensuring Canada develops, attracts and retains the world’s most talented researchers.”  

Discovery and Accelerator awards support leading stem cell research

David Hansen received both the Discovery and the Accelerator awards, which will help drive his stem cell research. An associate professor of integrative cell biology in biological science and an adjunct professor in medical genetics, Hansen is working with a team that includes PhD candidate Pratyush Gupta and Lindsay Leahul, a master of science graduate student, to understand stem cell behaviour.

“We’re trying to better understand how proteins degrade in stem cells because we know this is an important regulatory mechanism,” said Hansen. “Understanding the mechanisms behind this degradation could lead to breakthroughs in medical treatment for many of our most devastating degenerative diseases.”

Stem cells are essential for proper development and for the replacement of aging and damaged tissues.  Stem cells are able to fulfill these functions, in part, due to their unique ability to produce both self-renewing and differentiating cells. Differentiating cells form the desired tissue, while self-renewing cells maintain the stem cell population. A balance must be maintained between self-renewing and differentiating cells for stem cells to function properly.  Without this balance, potential treatments could do more harm than good.

“If self-renewing stem cells proliferate too much, that’s one of the causes of cancer,” said Hansen. “So there’s a fear that we could potentially introduce tumors if we don’t get the balance just right. We have to be able to control that.”

By understanding how these proteins help regulate the balance between self-renewal and differentiation, and how the activities of these proteins are regulated through protein degradation, researchers will better understand how stem cells contribute to the development of organisms. They may one day learn how to control stem cell behavior, allowing for the therapeutic potential of stem cells to be fully realized.

“We are doing the basic research, figuring out how these things work,” said Hansen. “Hopefully others will be able to take our findings and develop effective treatments for disease.” Read more

More award highlights for University of Calgary

Schulich/ Engineering a novel approach to reduce oilsands emissions: A new approach to oilsands recovery could mean a significant reduction in emissions with cleaner oil production. Ian Gates is investigating converting carbon and sulphur emissions into minerals, which can be left in the ground as the oil is extracted. The key innovation by Gates is to inject additives with steam during in situ oil sands recovery. The result would mean a reduction of carbon dioxide or hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere. Funding will be used to build a small reactor for the lab that can operate at in situ conditions to test the additive amounts and the volume of emissions reduced. Read more

Schulich/ Synthesizing multifunctional materials to meet technological demand: Also in the Schulich School of Engineering, Uttandaraman (U.T.) Sundararaj is working to better understand the structure and properties of polymers to synthesize stronger materials using nano composites and polymer blends. Found nearly everywhere, polymers show up in two-thirds of the objects we touch every day such as the keyboard and mouse of a computer, as well as in natural materials such as rubber. Sundararaj’s proposed new polymer materials have commercial potential for a large number of applications such as in electronics, biomedical, automotive, aerospace, and other industries. Read more 

Cumming/ Understanding the formation of the spinal cord: In the Cumming School of Medicine, Peng Huang’s research project is looking at how tissues generate the correct number of cells arranged in specific patterns. Utilizing a small tropical fish called zebrafish as a model system to address this question, Huang and his team will be looking specifically at the formation of the spinal cord. “Many different types of neurons are generated in a stereotypic pattern to build a functional spinal cord,” says Huang. “We will utilize in vivo reporters to visualize the dynamics of cell signaling and to understand the underlying logic of precise pattern formation.” Read more

Science/ Forecasting earthquakes and treating epilepsy are more related than you think: With an astonishing breadth of potential applications, research led by associate physics professor Joern Davidsen brings together the fields of seismology, brain research and physics, and could lead to breakthroughs in earthquake forecasting and drug development for neuronal diseases such as epilepsy. Both seismicity and neuronal activity share similar dynamic behaviours in the sense that one event, be it an earthquake or a spike in a nerve cell, can trigger other events. These can in turn trigger other events, and so on. The dynamics can, thus, be thought of as a triggering cascade. This is despite the fact that the underlying physical triggering mechanisms in both cases are vastly different. Read more

Science/ Toward a quantum internet and ultimate communications security: In moving towards Internet communications security to prevent the breakdowns that plague corporations, governments, celebrities and regular citizens alike, physics professor Christoph Simon is working on an entanglement network using quantum optics. This core field of quantum physics has revealed how quantum particles can be connected even if they are far apart in space. The barrier to using this application is that entangled photons used to send the information are absorbed by optical fibers in existing networks within about 100 kilometres. Simon’s team has suggested using satellites to overcome this obstacle. Read more

See press release for the full list of 2015 competition results for NSERC’s Discovery Grants, Discovery Accelerator Supplements, Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarships, NSERC Postgraduate Scholarships and Postdoctoral Fellowships.