Granting agency honours chemistry’s best and brightest

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Whenever anyone is talking about federal funding of science, they are often referring to the work of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, this organization is the government’s key mechanism for supporting a broad spectrum of research and development activities, from providing scholarships for aspiring graduate students to establishing ambitious national networks in strategic fields.

As part of this work, NSERC also administers a series of awards that showcase the country’s most outstanding researchers and their accomplishments. In recent years, the celebration of these top achievers has been carried out as an annual event hosted by none other than the Governor General in the prestigious surroundings of Rideau Hall. The honorees represented fields covering the full gamut of science and technology, but there were some notable examples in chemistry and chemical engineering.

This year’s proceedings in February began with one such example: Zhihui Yi, a doctoral student at Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal. She won the Gilles Brassard Prize for Interdisciplinary Research, a $10,000 award that reflects extraordinary efforts to cross the traditional lines of investigation. In Yi’s case, those efforts have concentrated on organic electronics, an area that may sound exotic but is more familiar than many of us might expect.

Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal doctoral student Zhihui Yi

“In the past 10 years, organic electronics has become very well developed,” she says, pointing to consumer-ready examples such as LED lights and solar cells. But these products rely on dielectric materials, while Yi has been looking at the role of liquid electrolytes, which have largely been rejected as impractical by most industrial researchers. She insists that these wet ionizing agents could integrate electronic components more directly with biological systems. “You could design implants or drug delivery systems that would be entirely compatible with blood,” she explains. “They would operate right within the body.”

Among the most prominent of the NSERC distinctions is a fellowship named after the celebrated Canadian chemist E.W.R. Steacie. This award is intended to accelerate the careers of promising university faculty members by relieving them of their teaching and administrative duties for two years, as well as providing them with a $250,000 grant. This kind of open-ended support is essential to operating at the frontiers of science, where the outcome of one’s work may be speculative at best, or perhaps even unknown.

In Milica Radisic’s case, that outcome could literally qualify as chaotic. She is a professor with the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, where she has been studying the fractal nature of the way our blood vessels grow and function. Even our heart beats in a fractal pattern, obeying the rules of mathematical chaos rather than any purely mechanical model. In fact, when heart tissue is damaged by episodes such as myocardial infarction, its beating becomes less chaotic and more regular, which makes it less able to respond to the stresses of everyday life.

University of Toronto Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering Professor Milica Radisic

With the support of her Steacie fellowship, Radisic wants to explore ways of growing tissues that could be installed to repair damaged hearts and restore this fractal function. But that means incubating cells in entirely new ways to encourage this subtle behaviour. “I want to build a bioreactor that can apply oscillating stimuli, which would obey fractal rules,” she explains, acknowledging that she is looking forward to finding out exactly what those stimuli should be.

Federico Rosei, another of this year’s Steacie fellows, has set a similarly lofty goal for himself. As a professor with Institut nationale de la recherche scientifique in the Centre for Energy, Materials and Telecommunications, he has become increasingly interested in the possibility that materials other than silicon could dramatically improve the performance of solar power conversion. “This is a tough area to break into,” he admits. “Silicon is cheap and reliable, and the industry based on it has matured.”

Institut nationale de la recherche scientifique Centre for Energy, Materials and Telecommunications Professor Federico Rosei

Nevertheless, he regards sustainable energy production as the leading technological problem of the 21st century. His core expertise in the structure and properties of surface and interfaces has led him to study new materials that could be much better suited to collecting energy from sunlight, including materials that mimic biological processes for energy conversion. Analyzing the suitability of these alternatives remains a difficult task, and he is grateful to have a chance to examine them in detail, at a fundamental level.

“The Steacie Fellowship is amazing because it’s substantial support for fundamental, bold ideas,” he says. “There’s no requirement to work with industry. There’s no push toward applications. It is an opportunity to think deeply about a problem, without undue external pressures to deliver new technologies. There’s very few opportunities of this type in Canada.”

Jules Blais, a biologist with the University of Ottawa, feels the same way about the award he is sharing with his longtime colleague John Smol, a Queen’s University biologist. They received this year’s Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering, which reflects more than a decade’s worth of collaborative, ground-breaking investigation into how some of the world’s most harmful industrial contaminants wind up in otherwise pristine wilderness settings.

University of Ottawa Department of Biology Professor Jules Blais

The pair has developed complementary methods for reconstructing the patterns of what they call “biovector transport”. An outstanding example of this process focuses on spawning salmon, which absorb PCBs while they are in the ocean, but then end their lives in some interior freshwater lake where they go to spawn; their bodies are eaten by other animals, who then carry the pollutants even further afield.

Queen’s University Department of Biology Professor John Smol

Blais’ specialty is demonstrating that the fish are the source of this contamination. In that particular case he employs nitrogen isotopes unique to the spawning salmon, which links the presence of PCBs to these animals rather than any surrounding source. He and Smol have been expanding the reach of these analytical techniques to extract information from materials such as organic sedimentary layers deposited over longer periods of time.

Among their most recent and intriguing venues for this work is a cave in Jamaica where bats have been leaving their droppings uninterrupted for some 7,000 years. The result may look like guano to most of us, but to Blais these many strata serve as a rich record detailing the chemical influences on the metabolism of countless generations of bats over this extended period.

“We can see the history of leaded gasoline,” Blais offers by way of example. “We think we can also see evidence of pollutants from gold mines. The legacy of gold mining in Central America is recorded in here.”

He adds that the Brockhouse Prize will make it possible to formalize this approach so that others can explore similar records found elsewhere in the world.

“We would like to build on the idea of using natural archives to reconstruct past events,” he concludes, noting that the award will provide the necessary resources to complete a forthcoming book dedicated to this subject, entitled “Environmental Contaminants: Using Natural Archives to Track Sources and Long-term Trends of Pollution.”

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