Four scholars named among nation’s elite

Four Western researchers have been named Canada Research Chairs (CRC), a program which recognizes the country’s best scholars across disciplines. Two additional researchers also had their existing Chairs renewed for an additional five years, while another saw a renewal of seven years. This now brings Western’s total number of CRCs to 52.

The Chairs program has been designed to encourage and promote top research and innovation in universities. Tier 1 Chairs are awarded $200,000 annually for seven years to fund their research and are awarded to outstanding researchers who have developed reputations as world leaders in their fields.  Tier 2 Chairholders are awarded $100,000 annually for five years and are recognized as exceptional and emerging researchers with the potential to lead their respective fields.

This year’s new CRCs include:

Lisa Saksida

Physiology & Pharmacology, Psychology

Canada Research Chair in Translational Cognitive Neuroscience (Tier 1)

Neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric disorders cost Canadians around $23 billion per year and lead to diminished quality of life for millions of patients and caregivers. Tragically, these disorders can have a tremendous impact on cognition – affecting aspects such as memory, attention and motivation – thus striking at the very essence of who we are. Yet, in spite of this great need, few new treatments have been developed over the past two decades.

Traditional approaches that focus on developing treatments for disorders as a whole, such as trying to remediate all of the different symptoms of schizophrenia with one drug, are now being replaced by an emphasis on disruptions in cognition that occur across multiple disease categories, and how they are related to aspects of the brain vulnerable to disease.

This move has been facilitated by new molecular tools to produce rodent models with unprecedented precision. However, measuring high-level cognition in rodent models is still a major challenge, meaning an essential component of this strategy has been missing. The overarching goal of Lisa Saksida’s work is to provide this essential missing component.

She has invented a touchscreen-based technology allowing researchers to test rodent models on the same tests used to assess patients. By combining this technology, Saksida will answer critical questions about the molecular and circuit basis of high-level cognition. She looks to improve treatment outcomes by identifying novel therapeutic targets for cognitive abnormalities in neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric disease.

Mikko Karttunen


Canada Research Chair in Computational Materials and Biomaterials Science (Tier 1)

Biomimetic, or bio­inspired, materials are man-made materials that use functionality found in natural materials as their model. A common example is Velcro, which was inspired by how burrs stick onto one’s clothing. Although nature provides endless inspiration, rational design of materials ­­– starting from their microscopic properties – is possibly the most fundamental challenge in all materials research.

The ability to predict materials’ properties from their detailed structures is the Holy Grail of materials research, as it could help harvest energy from the sun’s light using solar cells, develop new efficient batteries, develop biocompatible materials for artificial joints and fight disease by mapping how drugs enter cells.

Mikko Karttunen works on developing reliable, quantitative, predictive and faster computer simulations capable of accurately modelling bio-based materials. These simulations have been used to model cancer drug release using laser light and other stimuli, and to develop biocompatible materials as drug delivery mechanisms.

Computational modelling has emerged as a main paradigm of scientific research and an invaluable method in materials research. It offers a unique approach to investigate phenomena from the tiniest quantum-level phenomena through to macroscopic scales by implementing the laws of physics on a computer to simulate material behaviour.

Karttunen’s research aims to pave the way toward rational design of bio-inspired materials and to demonstrate how they interact with biological entities such as cellular membranes. Insights from this computer-based research may even change the way we treat cancer and disease.

Clare Robinson

Civil and Environmental Engineering

Canada Research Chair in Water Quality (Tier 2)

Canadians love to swim, fish and play in the ocean and large lakes across the country. But the enjoyment and services derived from these waters is threatened by increasing levels of pollution.

Intensifying urban, agricultural and industrial development in coastal areas has led to poor coastal water quality in many areas, including massive algal blooms in Lake Erie and Lake Winnipeg each summer, widespread algal blooms around Prince Edward Island, and thousands of industrial sites along Canada’s coastline with a brew of toxic chemicals contaminating the groundwater.

Current strategies for improving coastal water quality focus on reducing pollution sources, such as wastewater treatment plants, but diffuse sources including agriculture and groundwater are also important pollution sources and need to be addressed.

Clare Robinson is developing knowledge and assessment tools that can be used to manage and mitigate pollution sources are contaminating coastal waters. Her research focuses specifically on understanding how the interactions between groundwater systems and coastal waters impact pollution levels and, more importantly, how this can be managed.

Robinson will combine innovative field and laboratory investigations with state-of-the art computer modeling to produce novel data sets and insights needed to tackle major contamination challenges.

Her research hopes to support management decisions aimed at restoring and protecting coastal waters from further damage as coastal development intensifies and the climate changes.


Haojie Mao

Mechanical Engineering

Canada Research Chair in Head Mechanics (Tier 2)

A direct-contact impact, an explosive-induced overpressure and a whiplash-type head motion all can elicit detrimental responses inside the brain, causing traumatic brain injury (TBI). To help relieve the severe burden of TBI, a critical task is to understand how immediate brain biomechanics affect brain cells and networks that link to short- and long-term brain dysfunction.

Collaborating with neuroscientists and fellow engineers, Haojie Mao will develop computational and experimental methods to characterize altered intracranial biomechanics due to trauma. He will investigate cellular, vascular, axonal and network responses of the brain at a higher resolution, providing better opportunities for correlating brain biomechanics to injury. These correlations will improve the understanding of TBI, especially for mild TBI/concussion.

Mao, coming to Western from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command in Fort Detrick, Md., will also collect biomechanical data beyond the brain. This helps in improving the accuracy of brain biomechanics, as well as studying the responses of other systems in the head such as facial bones, the eye and the ear.

Mao’s research can potentially help propose better head-protection methods by instructing on reducing crucial injury mechanisms and can assist with diagnostics and therapeutics by predicting potential brain-injury regions and understanding biomechanics-triggered neuropathology responses.

In addition to the new appointments, the following researchers had their Chairs renewed:

Bipasha Baruah
Women’s Studies and Feminist Research

Canada Research Chair in Global Women’s Issues (Tier 2)

Employment in the energy industry is extremely gender-imbalanced. Globally, women make up 6 per cent of technical staff, 4 per cent of decision-makers and only 1 per cent of top management in the fossil-fuel based sector.

Women are also highly underrepresented globally in the renewable energy sector. Available data from industrialized countries such as Canada, the United States, Spain, Germany and Italy estimate fewer than 25 per cent of jobs in renewable energy are held by women – and these are mostly lower-paid, non-technical and administrative positions. This employment data contrasts sharply with the fact women represent more than 50 per cent of university students and almost half the labour force in these countries.

Although there is tremendous potential to create employment in the renewable energy sector almost everywhere in the world, there is a growing concern that women, who are already drastically underrepresented in the sector, will become even more marginalized if gender equity policies and programs are not proactively planned and implemented.

Bipasha Baruah’s research identifies patterns in women’s employment in renewable energy in industrialized, emerging and developing economies, making recommendations for optimizing women’s participation in the sector.

Girma Bitsuamlak

Civil and Environmental Engineering

Canada Research Chair in Wind Engineering (Tier 2)

Canada’s diverse geography and extreme climate increases our exposure to natural hazards. A combination of aging infrastructure, population growth and climate change increases this vulnerability. To maintain the safety and prosperity of our communities, it is vital to develop a comprehensive framework to assess and mitigate the impact of extreme climate on the built environment.

Girma Bitsuamlak aims to develop novel high-performance computing-based numerical models and large-scale experimental approaches that will enable community-level wind performance assessments. This approach is unique as it considers the aerodynamics for progressive failure and the interdependence of the cladding and structural systems of not only individual buildings, but neighbourhoods. This is done through a combination of the Blue Gene supercomputer, Western’s WindEEE Dome, state-of-the-art 3D printers and drone-based remote sensing.

Bitsuamlak’s research will be used to develop new performance-based design approaches, inform the next generation of building codes and standards, develop mechanics based loss modeling and to innovate various wind mitigation technologies.

Kevin Shoemaker


Canada Research Chair in The Integrative Physiology of Exercise and Health (Tier 1)

Blood pressure control and distribution of blood volume during stress requires the complex interplay between the heart’s ability to pump blood, the ability to manipulate peripheral blood vessels to distribute blood volume towards the heart and brain, and the brain’s ability to receive the blood through changes in its own vascular supply.

The sympathetic nervous system integrates these actions through its unique ability to coordinate communication amongst the various players. However, this communication strategy can break down due to poorly understood problems in the neural message, interpretation of the signal in the target organs, or problems coordinating signals arising the brain that require an active response. Kevin Shoemaker’s group explores these interactions in health and disease.

Using unique signal processing methods, human neural recordings and functional neuroimaging methods, Shoemaker will explore brain pathways that modulate messages in the sympathetic nervous system and how the use of muscles during exercise improves this neural control of the heart and blood vessels.

With advanced ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging methods, Shoemaker’s team aims to improve our understanding of brain blood flow control in health and disease, and determine the impact of prescriptive exercise interventions on this integrative system. His research aims to influence long-term health outcomes in patients with vascular disease.