McMaster receives nine Early Researcher Awards
These are just some of the opportunities that will be made available to both graduate and undergraduate students lucky enough to work with nine McMaster researchers awarded $100,000 from the provincial government's Early Researcher Award (ERA) program.
The purpose of the program is to retain leading early career researchers and help them recruit talented young researchers to their teams, using the $100,000 -- matched by $50,000 from the university -- to hire research assistants, masters, doctoral and post-doctoral students.
"These gifted scientists are engaged in research that will impact the public's health and welfare, our environment and our economy," says Mamdouh Shoukri, vice-president, research and international affairs. "They are attracting the next wave of young researchers, furthering McMaster's continuum of research excellence."
Hailing from the faculties of Science, Health Sciences and Engineering, the ERA awardees are engaged in research that ranges from our great outdoors to the molecular mechanisms in our cells.
Over the course of the five years of funding provided by the ERA, McMaster University will generate dozens of highly qualified personnel (HQP) whose research results ultimately contribute to the public good.
Behavioural ecologist Sigal Balshine, neuroscientist Deda Gillespie, biogeochemist Darren Grocke, biochemists Alba Guarne and Joaquin Ortega, electrical engineer Steve Hranilovic, reproductive immunologist Charu Kaushic, nephrologist Peter Margetts and mathematician Romyar Sharifi represent nine of the 104 projects that were awarded to 22 institutions from across the province. To be eligible for an Early Researcher Award, the researcher must be within the first five years of their independent academic research career.
Deda Gillespie has only been an assistant professor with the department of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour for a year, so this award will help to grow her lab, starting with two graduate students.
"Our lab will investigate how auditory perception is developed, how the circuits in the brain are laid down during early life," she says. "We will look at the brain on a focused, mechanistic level -- doing our research at the cellular scale to determine how developmental auditory disorders occur."
Darren Grocke's research team will be exposed to a study that is interdisciplinary in nature and multifaceted in its approach. They will be mapping the pollution areas of Lake Ontario, using geochemical and geomagnetic tools to chart the extent of lake sediment contamination from early inhabitation to present day.
Grocke, an associate professor in the school of geography & earth sciences, will hire a total of four Master's students and five undergraduate research assistants who will be trained to use advanced technological instruments, such as the mass spectrometers found in Grocke's Stable-Isotope Biogeochemistry Laboratory.
"This study has a major field component, working in Frenchman's Bay, the Kingston Basin and the Niagara Fan -- areas that have suffered environmental degradation due to the impact of human occupation," says Grocke. "Ten centimetres of core sample reflect one year of data, so we can systematically study how colonization, industrialization, sewage discharge or agricultural pollutants such as fertilizer contaminated these areas."
Behavioural ecologist Sigal Balshine, an assistant professor in the department of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour, will study yet another aspect of the health of Lake Ontario's ecosystem by exploring the impact of the round goby, an exotic non-native fish species that first invaded Lake Ontario in 1998.
Balshine will be recruiting two Master's students, one postdoctoral fellow and two summer research assistants to examine the effects of gobies on the native fish populations in Lake Ontario and their impact on contaminant cycling and disruption of the food web. Balshine is also a Canada Research Chair in Aquatic Behavioural Ecology.
Steve Hranilovic's research team will take on the environment we can't see -- the optical wireless transmissions that are whizzing through the air, almost at the speed of light.
Hranilovic, an assistant professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering, runs the Free Space Optical Communications Algorithm Lab (FOCAL) and plans to hire two Master's students and four doctoral candidates to harness the possibilities of wireless optical communications.
"Remember the first cell phones? They had scratchy sound, worked sporadically and certainly had no video component," he says "That's where wireless optical communications systems are at now, with the same potential to make leaps in the technology once we discover ways to make the optical links more robust and the communications more efficient.
"My research team will focus on three thrusts: how to overcome the challenges of transmitting data through the air when there is fog and rain interfering; how to improve the rate of transmission when you're indoors; and how best to transmit over short distances. I can imagine one day where we have the technology to take your palm pilot to a kiosk and beam in a movie," says Hranilovic.
Mathematician Romyar Sharifi, Canada Research Chair in Number Theory, will have two Ph.D. students and two postdoctoral fellows joining his research team, pursuing Investigations in the Theory of Numbers.
His team of researchers will tackle the pure math that "is vital to future scientific and technological advances in Ontario." Sharifi's proposal notes that number theory "plays a crucial role in technology such as the public-key cryptosystems used to secure information passed over the Internet."
Experiencing and practicing the procedures and precautionary measures needed to work in a Biosafety Levels 2 and 3 labs -- dealing with agents that can cause human or animal disease -- is just one of the bonuses that will be experienced by the researchers teamed with Charu Kaushic, associate professor in the department of pathology and molecular medicine.
Kausic's research focuses on sexually transmitted infections (STIs) working primarily in the lab with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) to determine why women are five to 20 times more likely to contract HIV-1 than men, with women constituting almost 50 per cent of HIV infected adults.
"I'm trying to understand the interactions of STI viruses with the female genital tract and how pathogens like HIV and Herpes simplex virus (HSV-2) spread in the reproductive tract," she says "We can then develop better preventative strategies and vaccines to control the epidemic proportions of these diseases. I will have two Master's and one PhD student who will receive advanced training in Biosafety Levels 2 and 3 labs, which means that we'll be graduating specialists able to work in biohazard facilities should we ever have some kind of flu pandemic."
Dr. Peter Margetts, associate professor in the department of medicine and associate member in the department of pathology and molecular medicine, leads a research team investigating fibrosis -- the formation of scar tissue -- and a cellular process called epithelial mesenchymal transition (EMT). Understanding the biological process of EMT will lead to understanding the progressive damage and failure of a variety of organs including the liver, lungs, heart and kidneys.
Margetts notes that "this award will allow me to bring on a new student and recruit a post doctoral researcher. My lab at St. Joseph's Hospital is developing a focus on new methods of gene therapy applied to kidney disease which will hopefully one day lead to new treatments for patient with chronic renal impairment."
Biochemist Joaquin Ortega will use his Early Researcher Award to study the molecular mechanisms of the "protein quality control" system inside our cells. If this cellular "housekeeping team" doesn't do its job, plaque accumulates in the cell and can cause neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's, Huntington's, Alzheimer's and bovine spongiform encephalopathy or "mad cow" disease.
The key member of this 'housekeeping team' is proteasome, the focus of Ortega's research. The knowledge gained by the research done by his lab group will aid in the development of new therapies for these diseases.
"The ERA will allow me to take on two additional graduate students to explore some aspects of the project that lacked funding until now. We are very excited about the additional aspects of the projects that we will be able to research thanks to this award," says Ortega.
Two more students will be added to biochemist Alba Guarne's research team, focusing on how every cell has the ability to replicate, divide and condense its chromosomal DNA and correct any mistakes that occur during these processes.
Guarne, an assistant professor in the department of biochemistry and biomedical science, will use a multidisciplinary approach, aided by X-ray crystallography -- used to determine the structure of a molecule -- to clarify how molecular defects in DNA can lead to cellular malfunction and disease.
"The technological application of X-ray crystallography has the capacity for groundbreaking discoveries," says Guarne. "Currently, most Canadian X-ray crystallographers are trained in foreign laboratories -- this ERA will help train and retain highly qualified personnel in Canada."
The Early Researcher Award (ERA) program is the Ontario government's $51-million, five-year investment in the next generation of researchers with big ideas.
"We know that jurisdictions that invest in innovation will be home to the most rewarding jobs, the strongest economies and the best quality of life," said Premier and Minister of Research and Innovation Dalton McGuinty in a government news release. "By providing early career researchers with the tools they need to succeed, we're laying the foundation for generations of research talent to come."