Ansari, Kovacs named among ‘world-class talent’

Psychology professor Daniel Ansari and Medical Biophysics professor Michael Kovacs were named two of 34 recipients of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) awards recognizing the work of outstanding Canadian scientists and engineers.

“As Canadians, we can look with pride and honour today at this group of scientists and engineers who embody world-class talent and innovation,” said B. Mario Pinto, NSERC president, at a ceremony recognizing the scholars this week. “Their search for knowledge through inspired scholarly inquiry will help Canada take its place as a world leader.”

Psychology professor Daniel Ansari, right, was named among 34 recipients of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) awards recognizing the work of outstanding Canadian scientists and engineers.

Photo by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of CanadaPsychology professor Daniel Ansari, right, was named among 34 recipients of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) awards recognizing the work of outstanding Canadian scientists and engineers.

Ansari, a Canada Research Chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, Tier 2, was presented the E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship, one of six awarded to enhance the career development of outstanding and highly promising scientists and engineers who are faculty members of Canadian universities.

NSERC wrote, in part, of Ansari’s work:

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Try this test with your five year old: Is six bigger than two? Is nine bigger than seven? Does a box with three dots have less than a box with five dots? That simple online test is just one tool (Daniel) Ansari has developed to understand why some children struggle with even the most basic aspects of early math.

A world leader in searching for the brain mechanisms underlying numerical and mathematical processing, Ansari is using behavioural and brain imaging methods to study the individual differences that put some children on a poor trajectory for learning math. For example, his research has shown that early numeracy can predict future, high-level math abilities – information that will help teachers, school psychologists and parents.

Research had already proven that doing well in math can lead to better health and success in adulthood, and higher GDP for countries. It’s no wonder that Canada and other countries are competing to elevate their global rankings in math and science.

Ansari’s research has already led to several prestigious national and international awards, including a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair, and early career awards from the Ontario government, the Society for Research in Child Development and the American Psychological Association. In 2014, he was named a member of the Inaugural College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada.

His future research will examine how the brain changes when children are trained in basic math skills, and how early individual differences in children affect these changes.

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Medical Biophysics professor Michael Kovacs, left, was named among 34 recipients of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) awards recognizing the work of outstanding Canadian scientists and engineers.  Kovacs is pictured here with David Johnston, Governor General of Canada.

Sgt. Ronald Duchesne, Rideau Hall // Special to Western NewsMedical Biophysics professor Michael Kovacs, left, was named among 34 recipients of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) awards recognizing the work of outstanding Canadian scientists and engineers. Kovacs is pictured here with David Johnston, Governor General of Canada.

Kovacs was presented the Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering, one of six awarded to recognize outstanding Canadian teams of researchers from different disciplines who came together to produce a record of excellent achievements in the natural sciences and engineering in the last six years.

NSERC wrote, in part, of Kovacs’ work:

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The medical radioisotope technetium 99m (99mTC) is the world standard for medical imaging to diagnose cancer and heart disease. Every day, 5,000 medical procedures in Canada and 70,000 worldwide depend on this isotope. But there is a looming shortage of 99mTC. The world’s biggest producer – the NRU nuclear reactor at Atomic Energy of Canada’s Chalk River Laboratories – is ceasing isotope production activity in 2016, prompting Canada to find an alternate source.

Enter Dr. Paul Schaffer and his multi-disciplinary team of researchers who boasts expertise in fields including physics, chemistry and nuclear medicine. With funding support from NSERC, CIHR and Natural Resources Canada, this team has developed breakthrough technology that uses medical cyclotrons already installed and operational in major hospitals across Canada. Their solution allows existing cyclotrons to produce enough 99mTC in just one night to meet the daily needs of most hospitals. Their innovation is safer than current technology because it eliminates the need use weapons-grade radioactive uranium, which is currently shipped across international borders to produce 99mTC. Hospitals also save money by producing their isotopes locally under a full-cost recovery model.

The project resulted in over a dozen scientific publications, several provisional patents and a training opportunity for more than 175 students.

The research team is working with a Canadian start-up company to license, transfer and sell this technology around the world. This will allow hospitals and companies with cyclotrons to retrofit their existing infrastructure with a made-in-Canada solution to produce this value material in the event of another isotope crisis. Now, the research team is focused on working with the world’s major cyclotron manufacturers to add factory-supported 99mTC production capability to their existing product lines so the technology will become standard in future machines.

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“Canada’s top researchers are tackling some of Canada’s most important economic, social and environmental challenges toward the benefit of Canadians,” said Ed Holder, Minister of State (Science and Technology). “I would like to extend my sincere congratulations to all of this year’s NSERC award recipients and thank them for the contribution to Canada. Our government will continue to make record investments in science, technology and innovation to push the boundaries of knowledge, create jobs, prosperity and improve the quality of life of Canadians.”

In addition to Western’s honourees, the following NSERC Awards were also presented during the ceremony:

Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering

Axel Becke, Dalhousie University.

NSERC John C. Polanyi Award

Chris Eliasmith, University of Waterloo.

The Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering

Paul Schaffer, TRIUMF; François Bénard, The University of British Columbia; Anna Celler, The University of British Columbia; Thomas J. Ruth, TRIUMF; and John Valliant, McMaster University.

NSERC Gilles Brassard Doctoral Prize for Interdisciplinary Research

Kaylee Byers and Rowan Cockett, both of The University of British Columbia.

NSERC André Hamer Postgraduate Prizes

Michael McTavish, University of Waterloo.

NSERC Howard Alper Postdoctoral Prize

Jérémy Leconte, University of Toronto.

E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowships

Steven J. Cooke, Carleton University; Leah Cowen, University of Toronto; Jiangchuan Liu, Simon Fraser University; Aaron Wheeler, University of Toronto; and Wei Yu, University of Toronto.

Synergy Awards for Innovation (Small- and medium-sized companies)

Carey Simonson, University of Saskatchewan; Robert W. Besant, University of Saskatchewan; and Manfred Gerber, Venmar CES Inc.

Synergy Awards for Innovation (Large companies)

David Blowes, University of Waterloo; Richard Amos, Carleton University; David Sego, University of Alberta; Leslie Smith, The University of British Columbia; and Gord Macdonald, Diavik Diamond Mines Inc.

Synergy Awards for Innovation (Two or More Companies)

Claire Deschênes, Université Laval; Luc Deslandes, Voith Hydro Inc.; Normand Désy, Andritz Hydro Canada Inc.; Anne-Marie Giroux, Hydro-Québec; Michel Sabourin, Alstom Énergies Renouvelables Canada Inc.; and Robin Sinha, CanmetENERGY, Natural Resources Canada.

Synergy Awards for Innovation (Colleges)

David Humphrey, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology, and Mark Surman, Mozilla Foundation.