McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Faculty scientists win Early Research Awards

Published: July 15, 2008
John Wilkinson
John Wilkinson, Ontario minister of research and innovation, speaks at announcement of the Early Research Awards.

Three scientists of the Faculty of Health Sciences were honoured as winners of Early Research Awards (ERA) by John Wilkinson, Ontario's Minister of Research and Innovation, during his announcement of provincial recipients at McMaster on Monday, July 14.

McMaster received eight of 66 awards in the provincial competition. Hailing from McMaster’s faculties of Health Sciences, Science and Engineering, the ERA recipients will be able to expand their research teams — whether by growing their labs, taking more students into the field, or having yet another talented research mind to help tackle complex theorems or policy issues.

Mo Elbestawi, vice-president, Research and International Affairs, was particularly pleased by McMaster's success in this fourth round of ERA applications, noting that the University's success rate was double the provincial average.

"The calibre of the research we do here at McMaster is consistently world-class and it's not surprising that our University is recognized for its research talent," says Elbestawi. "These gifted scientists are engaged in research that will impact the public's health and welfare, our environment and our economy. The award will allow each recipient the opportunity to expand their research team and as a result, there will soon be more than two dozen new researchers in our labs and in the field — master's, doctoral and post-doctoral students — who represent the next wave of talented young researchers to further our tradition of research excellence."

ERA recipient Brian Coombes, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences, took to the podium to share his thoughts about what the award meant to him and noted that the Early Researcher Awards are "the right stuff at the right time." He also explained that while the award provides "exciting opportunities" for the expanded research teams here on campus, hundreds of high school students will also be the beneficiaries of each researcher's expertise because of the youth outreach component of the award, which requires the ERA recipient to engage in annual youth research and innovation outreach activities.

Coombes' research project is outlined below, as well as those of the other seven ERA recipients, including orthopedic surgeon Mohit Bhandari, pediatrics researcher Anne Klassen, and engineering physicist Andrew Knights, mathematicians Bartosz Protas and Megumi Harada, biogeochemist Greg Slater and biologist Xu-Dong Zhu.


Fixation using Alternative Implants for the Treatment of Hip Fractures

Mohit Bhandari, associate professor in the Department of Surgery and Canada Research Chair in Musculoskeletal Trauma and Surgical Outcomes, seeks to improve the treatment of hip fractures by conducting an important clinical trial to determine the optimal approach to fixing broken hips. Hip fractures represent the top 10 of all "cause disabilities" globally, a statistic Bhandari hopes to lower with this trial, which will be conducted within the CLARITY (Clinical Advances through Research and Information Translation) research group.

"Our study findings will directly impact the lives of Canadians by improving outcomes following hip fractures," says Bhandari, whose research project will compare two surgical methods of repairing the hip fractures that occur in 36,000 Canadians annually and adds, "the ERA will provide critical funding support to recruit the brightest new graduate students for this research program as well as expose multiple undergraduate students to surgical research at McMaster University. We aim to expand our team substantially with this vital support from the ERA."


Brian Coombes
Assistant professor Brian Coombes speaks at announcement of the Early Research Awards.

Dissecting an essential virulence system in enteric bacterial pathogens

Brian Coombes, assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry & Biomedical Sciences, and his research team are studying enteric pathogens — gastrointestinal organisms spread by contamination of foods mainly of animal origin — that cause serious gastrointestinal illness and death in humans. These bacteria have a particularly nasty secretion system that acts like a syringe to inject its disease-causing bacterial proteins into host cells.

By disabling this bacterial mechanism, Coombes' research will fill the gap in the antimicrobial pipeline and provide a counterstrike that will render these bacteria non-infectious. Coombes will be recruiting two additional students at the graduate level, who will "emerge from their training as exceptionally qualified scientists who are versant in both basic microbiological research and allied public health. Young scientists trained through this research program will acquire marketable skills for immediate contribution to Ontario's technology-based economy."

On symmetry in the geometry of classical and quantum physics

Megumi Harada, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics & Statistics, describes her research focus as "symplectic geometry, which is a branch of mathematics originally developed to provide a mathematical framework for classical mechanics. In the 20th century, it developed into a mathematical theory in its own right, with applications to various aspects of physics, such as string theory and conformal field theory." She will be able to hire a new postdoctoral fellow as well as recruit several new graduate students (both master's and PhD level) as a result of this award.


Understanding the caregiving process for immigrant parents of children with cancer

Anne Klassen, associate professor, Department of Pediatrics, was the principal investigator of one of the largest and most comprehensive studies of the factors related to the health of parents of children with cancer.

From this 2003 study, she identified an important gap in the research literature — that the concerns and experiences of immigrant parents of children with cancer have never been addressed. Her new study will explore first-generation South Asian and Chinese parents' experience of caring for a child with cancer, a group of particular interest because they represent the largest visible minority group in Canada.

"Our findings could help influence how pediatric oncology services, programs and policies in Ontario — and other parts of Canada — are organized to deliver cancer care in ways that respond to the unique needs of culturally and linguistically diverse families", says Klassen. She will use the ERA funding to hire a PhD student for two years and a post-doctoral fellow for two years.


Implementing novel functionality for second generation silicon photonics

Andrew Knights, assistant professor, Department of Engineering Physics, will be using his ERA funds to help build a better silicon chip to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for information bandwidth of communications at distances ranging from nanometres to thousands of kilometres.

"The research performed in the Silicon Photonics Group aims to integrate optical and electrical functionality on a single silicon chip, increasing exponentially the speed and operational performance of the devices which have been driving the microelectronics industry for the last 50 years", says Knight.

To achieve this, his research team will manipulate silicon at the atomic level, utilizing many of the unique facilities at McMaster, including the Centre for Emerging Device Technologies and the Canadian Centre for Electron Microscopy. The award will provide for two new research students per year for the next five years — a significant 30 per cent increase in students working in this area.

"The integration of light on a silicon platform offers rewards on par with the microelectronics revolution, with applications limited by imagination only: ultra-fast computing, secure communication and cheap, widespread deployment of sensors for biological, chemical and mechanical applications ensuring the safety of citizens," says Knight.


Inverse modeling in fluid mechanics — from fundamental problems to industrial applications

Bartosz Protas, assistant professor, Department of Mathematics & Statistics, employs methods of mathematical modeling and scientific computing to determine optimal control strategies in advanced manufacturing processes.


Developing compound specific radiocarbon analysis as a tracer of organic contaminant sources and fate

Greg Slater assistant professor, School of Geography & Earth Sciences and Canada Research Chair in Environmental Isotope Biogeochemistry, uses Compound Specific Radiocarbon Analysis (CRSA) to investigate and monitor organic contaminants in environmental systems.

"There is a continuing need to study the behaviour of organic contaminants in the environment to develop new technologies and approaches to accurately assess their sources, the extent of their impact and the risk they pose to human and ecosystem health," says Slater.

The ERA funding will allow him to expand his research team to support research aimed at differentiating between natural and anthropogenic (caused by humans) sources of contaminants — an important key to providing realistic assessment of clean up targets and remediation impacts.


Deciphering the phosphorylation code essential for human telomere length maintenance

Xu-Dong Zhu, assistant professor, Department of Biology, plans to recruit two more graduate students or one postdoctoral fellow to her team to continue her work on human tumour cells.

"Human chromosome ends are intimately associated with cancer and aging," Zhu explained. "As we age, our chromosome ends become short. Individuals whose ends deteriorate faster are at a higher risk of developing cancer because short chromosome ends can lead to an unstable genome, a hallmark of cancer.

The research in her laboratory focuses on elucidating molecular interactions that govern the maintenance of our chromosome ends, which will enhance our understanding of the cause of cancer, ultimately leading to better prevention and treatment for this disease.

Yesterday's announcement represents $9.24 million invested by the provincial government to support 66 research teams working across Ontario, "an important part of Ontario's plan to build an innovation-driven economy," said Wilkinson. "We are investing in the people that are pioneering the scientific breakthroughs that will improve healthcare, protect the environment, and ignite growth in the industries that will shape Ontario's future."

After the ERA announcement, Wilkinson toured the facilities of the Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Learning and Discovery, accompanied by Ted McMeekin, MPP for Ancaster-Dundas-Flamborough-Westdale and Minister of Government and Consumer Services as well as Sophia Aggelonitis, MPP for Hamilton Mountain. 

Host John Kelton, dean and vice-president of the Faculty of Health Sciences, along with John Capone, dean of the Faculty of Sciences, lead a tour through the McMaster Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute, the human stem cell library and the construction of second floor, which includes the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research.

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