NSERC awards: big night for U of T as researchers take home three Steacie Fellowships, one postdoctoral prize

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council backs path-breaking work in diverse fields

University of Toronto researchers working on topics ranging from extreme weather on distant planets to better genetic testing for newborns are taking home four prizes in this year’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s (NSERC) annual awards ceremony.

Three of NSERC’s six E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowships went to U of T. The fellowships are intended to enhance the career development of outstanding and highly promising university faculty who are earning a strong international reputation for original research.

Leah Cowen of the department of molecular genetics was cited for her work combatting drug-resistant fungi. We hear a great deal about bacteria that have evolved to resist antibiotics, giving rise to the emergence of “superbugs,” but less well known are the threats posed by drug-resistant fungi. Yet fungal diseases can have a devastating effect on humans, plants, agriculture and wildlife. Cowen’s research is uncovering new ways to help us defend against them.

Aaron Wheeler of the department of chemistry is developing better ways to test newborns for serious yet treatable genetic diseases. The current mode of testing – a blood draw that is then processed in a lab – is manual and slow. Wheeler is using digital microfluidic technology to develop an automated process. He is also working on extending his techniques beyond genetic disorders to screen mothers and babies for infectious diseases like rubella and inborn disorders like fetal alcohol syndrome.

Wei Yu of the department of electrical and computer engineering was cited for his work creating practical applications that stretch the limits of wired and wireless networks so that they perform better and are more cost-effective. For example, the copper telephone wire inside your home was never designed to stream movies over the internet. Yu’s work helps to make this possible. His discoveries on the fundamental capacity limits of communication channels have had an impact on the design and architecture of next generation wireless cellular networks.(Read more about Yu’s work.)

The two-year Steacie Memorial Fellowships come with a $250,000 grant and allow the winners to submit applications for additional grants to pay for equipment needed for their research.

“It’s an incredible honour,” said Cowen of winning the Steacie Fellowship. “It’s hugely enabling, both in terms of the respect and the honour it imparts upon the awardees, and the additional funding, which is tremendously important.”

The Howard Alper Postdoctoral Prize was awarded to Jérémy Leconte of the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics and the Centre for Planetary Science at U of T Scarborough for his development of tools to study the climate of remote planets. Some of the planets outside our solar system have habitable zones similar to Earth, while others experience temperatures higher than 2200ºC and winds at supersonic speeds. Understanding such extreme environments gives us better insight into the processes governing climate in general, something that is urgently relevant to life on Earth.

Valued at $20,000, the Alper Prize is awarded to the most outstanding candidate in NSERC’s postdoctoral fellowship competition. It recognizes academic excellence, existing and potential research contributions, interpersonal and communication skills, and leadership abilities.

“My congratulations to all our NSERC award winners,” said Professor Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation. “They are conducting both fundamental research that is pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and applied research that will improve health and quality of life worldwide in the coming years. We are grateful to NSERC for this recognition of and investment in U of T researchers.”

The four award winners will join others from across the country at a Feb. 17 award ceremony in Ottawa hosted by the Governor General.

Jenny Hall is a writer with the office of the vice-president of research and innovation at the University of Toronto.