NSERC taps two for elite national honours

A pair of Western researchers have been honoured among the winners of six Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) six national prizes.

Canada will honour 20 of its world-leading scientists and engineers and five industry partners today for their outstanding contributions to international science and technology. By investing in these talented researchers, it will allow them to thrive in areas like brain research, computer simulation, high-performance radio hardware and green energy.

Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada, will be joined by the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, and B. Mario Pinto, President of the NSERC, in an award ceremony paying tribute to these exceptional individuals. The awards celebrate achievements in science, engineering, interdisciplinary research and successful partnerships between universities and industry. Individual prizes range from scholarships and fellowships that will enhance the career development of highly promising researchers, to prizes awarded for outstanding innovations and lifetime achievement.

Western winners are:

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Jason Gerhard and Savron Solutions
Civil and Environmental Engineering
Synergy Awards for Innovation (Large Companies)

The annual Synergy Awards for Innovation recognize examples of college- or university-industry collaboration that stand as a model of effective partnership.

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Hundreds of thousands of sites around the world are contaminated by hazardous chemicals, including coal tar, oil sludge and other forms of industrial pollution. The Canadian government alone is responsible for more than 23,000 of these sites and has pledged billions of dollars to address these issues. But many sites are left untreated and abandoned because few solutions exist. Those solutions that do exist are costly, energy-intensive and not environmentally friendly, like digging up the dirty soil and moving it somewhere else. But a made-in-Canada collaboration has invented a clean technology that rehabilitates contaminated sites using a simple process we find in our own backyards.

Civil and Environmental Engineering professor Jason Gerhard is working with his partners at Savron, a division of Geosyntec Consultants International Inc., to apply their STAR technology to contaminated sites around the world. STAR uses smouldering to burn away contaminants. A well is inserted below ground and into the contaminated soils, a special heater is placed in the well, and air is injected until the soil begins to smoulder, just like briquettes in a barbeque. Once the smouldering begins, the heater is turned off to save energy. That’s because smouldering is self-sustaining, spreading outwards while being fueled by the very contaminants it is burning up and leaving only clean soil behind. The result is a low-cost, low-energy, green solution that completely remediates sites once drenched in toxic waste. Even better, the process is fast, cleaning up sites in a matter of months instead of over the span of years.

Gerhard and Savron’s technology is generating keen interest from industrial companies and site managers. Since launching their collaboration, they have initiated more than 35 STAR projects around the world in locations such as the United States, Taiwan, Indonesia, China, Kuwait, Brazil, and the Philippines, as well as here in Canada. The partners are now looking at expanding the use of STAR, taking on more projects to remediate historical contamination. At the same time, they are expanding STAR’s use to new applications for ongoing major waste streams, such as those from waste water treatment plants and the pulp and paper industry.

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Leanne Grieves
Department of Biology
Gilles Brassard Doctoral Prize for Interdisciplinary Research

The Gilles Brassard Doctoral Prize for Interdisciplinary Research is awarded to an outstanding recipient of an NSERC Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship who best exemplifies interdisciplinary research. The award is valued at $10,000 and was established in 2012 by Gilles Brassard, winner of the 2009 Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering.

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When it comes to selecting a mate, the animal kingdom gives each species its own particular skills of seduction. For some, it’s shaking brightly coloured feathers, whistling a swoon-worthy love song or fighting a competitor to win their mate’s affection. But it’s not always about looks and athleticism. For some species, smell is the way to a lover’s heart.

Biology PhD student Leanne Grieves is investigating how chemical communication among song sparrows influences mate choice. She theorizes song sparrows can smell whether a potential mate has the genes to stay healthy in the long run.

More than 70 per cent of bird species worldwide are affected by malaria. Birds, like all vertebrate animals, have a group of genes called major histocompatibility complex (MHC) that help the immune system recognize foreign elements. When the alleles that make up this gene are diverse, animals are better protected from disease. Grieves is researching whether song sparrows are capable of using smell to assess how healthy a potential mate is, and how compatible their MHC genotype is with that of the scent-receiver. Bacteria living on animals’ bodies, and in their scent-producing glands, may influence or even produce these body odours.

Grieves’ work will also explore and characterize the bacterial communities living on these birds. Grieves’ research will be a significant contribution to evolutionary biology, increasing knowledge of the cues that birds and other species use to choose mates and produce healthy offspring. It will also provide a better understanding of how infections spread through species, allowing us to better anticipate the threats of future diseases to wildlife populations.