This week, Governor General David Johnston presented the 2012 NSERC awards, some of the highest scientific honours this country has to bestow. It’s a bit tricky to parse the numbers, as some awards go to groups and some to individuals, but by my count almost half of the accolades were presented for work in chemistry, chemical engineering or some closely related discipline, such as biomaterials or nanotechnology. (Looked at in another way, about half the awards went to researchers from a single institution: the University of Toronto.) Here are some more details about these rising stars in Canada’s chemical community.
First off, the John C. Polanyi Award, named for famed chemist (and Nobel laureate) John C. Polanyi. This year’s winner is Greg Scholes, a University of Toronto chemist who studies the molecular systems used by plants, algae and bacteria to accomplish one of Nature’s greatest parlour tricks: the conversion of sunlight into stored energy. He’s shown that such systems exploit quantum mechanical effects, knowledge that could one day enable humans to design analogues and create their own ‘solar fuels.’ A good scientific review of this field can be found in this Nature Chemistry paper from 2011. You can also listen to this documentary from CBC’s Quirks and Quarks.
Next up, the Gilles Brassard Doctoral Prize for Interdisciplinary Research, awarded this year for the first time. The winner is Melanie Mastronardi, who works in the nanochemistry group of Geoffry Ozin at the University of Toronto. Her work focuses on making nanocrystals of silicon that can emit light, and could one day lead to cheaper and more flexible TVs and interior lighting. I’m currently working on an article about precisely this topic [Update 20/03/2013: here it is], but in the meantime you can learn more about Mastronardi’s work in this article from U of T News.
The E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowships are named after E.W.R. Steacie, another famous Canadian chemist and former president of the National Research Council. They are designed to nurture researchers near the beginning of their careers. One of this year’s six recipients is Paul Ayers, a computational chemist at McMaster University. Ayers and his team build computer models that aim to predict what properties a molecule of a given shape will have before setting out to synthesize it in the lab. Such efforts could speed up the discovery of new drug candidates: for example I recently wrote about a potential Alzheimer’s therapeutic that was identified at Dalhousie University using a computational model.
Another E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship went to University of Toronto chemist Warren Chan, who is cross-appointed to the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering. Chan’s unique research focuses on the use of nanoparticles in medicine. For example, in this paper, he describes gold nanoparticles capped with semiconductor quantum dots that could be used to highlight certain tissues or cell types in medical scans. Another U of T News article provides further details.
On the more industrial side, we have the Synergy Awards for Innovation, which are given out in various categories based on the type of university-industry collaboration involved. The award for Category 1 (Small and Medium-Sized Companies) went to J. Paul Santerre, also of the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering. His spin-off company, Interface Biologics Inc., focuses on advanced polymeric materials designed to be implanted into the human body. His innovations allow for implants that are less likely to cause blood clots and are better able to resist infection and deliver drugs. (Again, more detail from U of T News here.)
The Category 3 (Two or More Companies) Synergy Award was shared between Derek Gray of McGill University, Jean Bouchard of FPInnovations, Ron Crotogino of ArboraNano and Richard Berry of CelluForce. These researchers are all pioneers in the development of nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC.) This unique wood-derived chemical substance has possible applications for medicine, materials, coatings and many other industries. We’ve written about this before in ACCN; it was the cover story of our April 2011 issue.
A third Synergy Award, the Leo Derikx Award, was shared by chemical engineers Arthur Pelton, Patrice Chartrand and Christopher Bale of École polytechnique de Montréal and mining engineer In-Ho Jung of McGill University. The group created a computer model called FactSage which allows the user to access to databases of thermodynamic data and make complex thermochemical calculations for thousands of substances. It’s widely used in many industries, including materials science, metallurgy, glass technology, nuclear waste disposal, solar energy storage, combustion and ceramics.
Last but not least are the André Hamer Postgraduate Prizes. While none of the winners call themselves a chemist or a chemical engineer, in many cases their research reflects the important role of these disciplines. Biophycisist Megan C. Engel studies the changing energy landscapes of folding protein molecules in the hopes of answering questions about Alzheimer’s disease; geotechnical engineer Alma I. Ornés studies the fluid flow beneath Alberta’s Grosmont Formation in the hopes of enabling easier bitumen extraction; pharmacologist Christina Natalie Nona looks at the role of glutamate receptors in learning and memory and electrical engineer Graham Carey studies quantum dots for solar energy harvesting. All of these projects draw on core concepts in the chemical sciences and engineering.
Awards and honours are great, but in science the real measure of success is the impact it has on society. While it’s nice to pat ourselves on the back once in a while, I’m sure that next week these chemists and engineers will get right back to doing what they do best: trying to create a better future.