Closer Look: Canada Excellence Research Chairs
University of Alberta secures four Canada Excellence Research Chairs
Edmonton—Four of the world’s top researchers in fields as diverse as diamonds and diabetes are moving to Canada and the University of Alberta as recipients of prestigious new Canada Excellence Research Chairs, part of a federal initiative to attract the highest calibre researchers to this country.
The University of Alberta recipients are:
Michael Houghton, PhD, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology
D. Graham Pearson, PhD, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Arctic Resources
Patrik Rorsman, PhD, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Diabetes*
Thomas Thundat, PhD, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Oil Sands Molecular Engineering
“I am thrilled that the University of Alberta has been awarded four Canada Excellence Research Chairs, the highest number at any university in the country,” said university President Indira Samarasekera. “We have succeeded in attracting world leaders who will help push the U of A's excellence in these four areas of research from national prominence to global pre-eminence. The Government of Canada has shown real vision in creating this program. I know of no other government in the world with a program like this and this level of investment in talent.”
The federal government created the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program in 2008, which invests $28 million a year to attract and retain the world's most accomplished and promising minds and is designed to help Canada build a critical mass of expertise in the priority research areas of environmental sciences and technologies, natural resources and energy, health and related life sciences and technologies, and information and communication technologies.
“The Government of Canada is investing in scientific and technological research and development that will fuel Canada's future economic growth and prosperity," said Rona Ambrose, minister of public works and government services, minister for status of women, and minister responsible for Northern Alberta. "The Canada Excellence Research Chairs program is helping our universities here in Alberta and across Canada attract and develop top scientists whose cutting-edge research will ensure that our country remains a world leader in innovation, productivity and quality of life.”
The addition of these four scientists to existing teams of top-notch researchers helps further elevate the U of A to a world-leading centre for research innovation.
Houghton, who takes his post June 1, will be part of the newly announced Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, established just last month through a gift of $28 million from the Li Ka Shing (Canada) Foundation and a $52.2 million investment by the Government of Alberta. He was part of the team that discovered the hepatitis C virus in the 1980s. He will be working with colleagues to develop a vaccine for hepatitis C, develop new treatments for patients already infected, and study new viruses that cause disease. Houghton will be part of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.
Pearson, who begins his term Oct. 1, will develop the first detailed picture of rock formations hidden deep under the Earth’s crust in Canada’s Arctic region, revealing new data on the landmasses where diamonds are formed. In addition, his micro-sampling technique for diamond analysis will be the first of its kind in Canada. Able to determine the chemical “fingerprint” of Canadian diamonds, this technique will protect their ethical and geographical purity, and guarantee their premium on the international market, which holds the promise of tremendous economic benefit to the North. Pearson will be part of the Faculty of Science.
Rorsman, whose term begins March 1, 2011, will join the acclaimed Alberta Diabetes Institute, home to the team that developed the world-renowned Edmonton Protocol islet transplant diabetes treatment. He studies how human pancreatic islets function during both health and disease. He will develop new treatments that preserve, regenerate, and transplant these insulin-producing cells back to healthy conditions, thereby restoring the pancreatic function. Close to three million Canadians suffer from Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. Rorsman will be part of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.
Thundat, who begins his term Aug. 1, is a world leader in the study of molecules and nanoscale structures at interfaces, such as the interaction of solids and liquids. He brings a strong track record of commercialization to an outstanding team of oilsands researchers at the U of A. His expertise provides a critical bridge between basic science and application. He will develop new detection and extraction technologies to improve the overall efficiency of how Canada’s oilsands are processed. The tools he develops will help with basic understanding of oilsands interface and eventually will lead to extraction processes that are more energy efficient, use less water, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Thundat will be part of the Faculty of Engineering.
Nineteen chairs were awarded nationally following a rigorous competition. Last year, the University of Alberta had five of its nine proposals shortlisted from 135 applications at 41 Canadian universities.
“The credit for our success as an institution in this competition goes to the teams who put together the proposals,” said Samarasekera. “During the submission process, we made it a priority to put our best foot forward. We at the university saw the CERC competition as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leverage the extraordinary investment in the U of A previously made by the Government of Canada and the Government of Alberta.”
“Campus Alberta and Alberta Innovates are helping attract researchers from around the world to our province," said Doug Horner, Alberta's minister of advanced education and technology. "The Canada Excellence Research Chair recipients have the potential to make significant discoveries that will create new opportunities for Albertans and benefit countless others beyond our borders.”
Both the federal and provincial governments have made significant investments in research talent, equipment and infrastructure during the last several years. These investments were an important foundation in the university’s ability to compete so successfully for these new chairs. A few of the examples include funding from the federal Knowledge Infrastructure Program and Canada Foundation for Innovation, and provincial funding for the Helmholtz Alberta Initiative and the Li Ka Shing Institute for Virology.
* Editor's note: Patrik Rorsman subsequently resigned his Canada Excellence Research Chair and returned to the United Kingdom, but remains actively involved in U of A diabetes research as an adjunct faculty member.