Tag Archives: CFI

State-of-the-art biotech and nanophotonics equipment at Québec’s Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS)

Canada Foundation for Innovation (a federal government funding agency) has awarded two infrastructure grants to Québec’s Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) or more specifically their Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications Research Centreaccording to an April 18, 2014 news item on Azonano,

Professor Marc André Gauthier and Professor Luca Razzari of the Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications Research Centre have each been awarded large grants from the John R. Evans Leaders Fund of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) for the acquisition of state-of-the-art biotech and nanophotonics equipment.

To this funding will be added matching grants from the Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur, de la Recherche, de la Science et de la Technologie (MESRST). These new laboratories will help us develop new approaches for improving health and information technologies, train the next generation of highly qualified high-tech workers, and transfer technology and expertise to local startups.

An April 17, 2014 INRS news release by Gisèle Bolduc, which originated the news item (Pour ceux qui préfèrent l’actualité en français) , provides more details,

Bio-hybrid materials

Professor Gauthier’snew Laboratory of Bio-Hybrid Materials (LBM) will enable him to tackle the numerous challenges of designing these functional materials and make it possible for the biomedical and biotech sectors to take full advantage of their new and unique properties. Professor Gauthier and his team will work on developing new bio organic reactions involving synthetic and natural molecules and improving those that already exist. They will examine the architecture of protein-polymer grafts and develop methods for adjusting the structure and function of bio-hybrid materials in order to evaluate their therapeutic potential.

Plasmonic nanostructures and nonlinear optics

Professor Luca Razzari will use his Laboratory of Nanostructure-Assisted Spectroscopy and Nonlinear Optics (NASNO Lab) to document the properties of plasmonic nanostructures, improve nanospectroscopies and explore new photonic nanodevices. He will also develop new biosensors able to identify very small numbers of biomarkers. This may have an important impact in the early diagnosis of several diseases such as cancer and life-threatening infectious diseases.Besides this, he will investigate a new generation of nanoplasmonic devices for information and communications technology applications.

Congratulations!

A couple of nanoscientists and the Canada Research Chair (CRC) programme

The announcements about Canada’s latest round of Canada Research Chairs were made on Friday, Mar. 15, 2013 (that’s when I received a news release from Simon Fraser University [Vancouver, Canada] about their bonanza). The Canada Research Chairs programme has issued a Mar. 15, 2012 news release but it has no details as to which chairs have been awarded, so I can only offer information from the two agencies touting their nanotechnology chairs.

Simon Fraser University (SFU) had this to say about its latest financial windfall (from the SFU Mar. 15, 2013 news release),

Four Simon Fraser University researchers will gain nearly $2.9 million to continue their research fellowships as Canada Research Chairs in areas as diverse as climate change, marine conservation, children’s health, and nanotechnology.

The funds are part of a $90.6 million injection by the federal government into the Canada Research Chair program, supporting 120 newly awarded and renewed chairs across the country.

Here’s the information about the nanotechnology/materials science chair (from the SFU news release),

Chemistry professor Neil Branda of Chemistry has begun his second seven-year term as SFU’s Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Materials Science.  Operating at the crossroads of organic chemistry, materials science, and nanotechnology, his research program involves the design and synthesis of photo-responsive compounds and their integration with nanosystems.

Branda, a recognized leader in materials science and co-founder of SFU’s 4D LABS, heads the Prometheus Project, a collaboration of BC’s research universities that will bring global attention to B.C.’s rich capabilities in this industry-relevant field.

I highlighted some information about Branda and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which had just announced its funding for the Prometheus Project, in a Jan. 15, 2013 posting,

The Federal Government of Canada in the guise of the Canada Foundation for Innovation has just awarded $7.7M to Simon Fraser University (SFU) and its partners for a global innovation hub. From the Jan. 15, 2013 Canada Foundation for Innovation news release,

British Columbia’s research-intensive universities are coming together to create a global hub for materials science and engineering. Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria, the University of British Columbia and the British Columbia Institute of Technology have received $7.7 million in funding from the Canada Foundation of Innovation to create the Prometheus Project — a research hub for materials science and engineering innovation and commercialization.

“Our goal with the Prometheus Project is to turn our world-class research capacity into jobs and growth for the people of British Columbia,” said Neil Branda, Canada Research Chair in Materials Science at Simon Fraser University and leader of the Prometheus Project. [emphasis added for Mar. 18, 2013 posting]

According to the Mar. 16, 2013 news item on Azonano there was also an announcement in the province of Alberta,

The Honourable Laurie Hawn, Member of Parliament for Edmonton Centre, today announced an investment of $5.8 million to support eight Canada Research Chairs in Alberta as part of the national announcement made by the Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Science and Technology).

Today’s event featured Dr. Tian Tang, Canada Research Chair in Nano-biomolecular Hybrid Materials at the University of Alberta. Dr. Tang and her team are working to better understand how nano-sized organic and inorganic materials interact. Their research will help future scientists and innovators develop nano-sized machines that could be useful in electronics, computing, manufacturing and health care. This research will help establish Canada’s leadership in this field, which is expected to be one of the most commercially important and fastest-growing areas of health care and engineering in the 21st century.

Congratulations to all the researchers!

Sci comm, Canada, and the Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! network of Canadian science blog(ger)s

If a hashtag (ou mot-dièse en français) is a way to judge these things, there’s an upswing of interest in Canadian science communication. The hashtag in question is #cancomm (on Twitter) and seems to have developed a life beyond its original designation as a Twitter stream devoted to one of the sessions at the ScienceOnline2013 conference held Jan. 30 – Feb. 2, 2013 in North Carolina, USA.

Before mentioning anything about the latest developments (I sent some interview questions to both of the presenters), here’s more about the ScienceOnline 2013 session titled Communicating science where there is no science communication presented by Marie-Claire Shanahan and Colin Schultz who focused on the situation in Canada,

Scientists, journalists, and communicators working outside of the United States and the UK face fundamentally different problems from those living within well-served media landscapes. For example: Canada has few science magazines, a couple television shows, and a handful of radio programmes aimed at a general science audience (with the exception of the French-speaking Quebec, which has a dynamic science writing community). Government funded research grants do not require outreach or education. [emphasis mine] And, government scientists have been all but barred from talking to journalists. In Canada and other countries with sparse science communication infrastructures, the dominant issues revolve not around journalists vs bloggers, or scientists vs press releases vs the media, but instead focus on what can be done to make science communication exist at all, in any form. This session will explore how scientists, educators, and media people can promote scientific discussions and scientific interest in regions that lack established venues.

A number of salient (and I believe them to be indisputable) points are made. I did highlight one statement which is arguable. There is one funding agency (granted, only one) which includes a requirement for outreach/communication and that is the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). From Section 8 of the CFI’s Policy and Program document (PDF) dated March 2012,

As an independent corporation created by the Government of Canada, the CFI places paramount importance on demonstrating to Canadians the impacts and outcomes of its investments. And as recipients of CFI funding, institutions have an essential role to play in highlighting the impacts, outcomes and benefits of research, through communications activities such as:

• news releases, news conferences and other media relations initiatives;

• print and online publications;

• social media;

• special events (groundbreakings, openings, milestone celebrations, conferences and other public outreach activities);

• presentations;

• correspondence;

• advertising.

In the context of these activities, the CFI also requests that institutions acknowledge the financial support of the CFI. (p. 81)

At any rate, I did send off some questions in hopes of an interview with both presenters but, as sometimes happens, Marie-Claire Shanahan has not replied and, more uniquely,  Colin Schultz has decided to publish my questions and his answers on his own blog.  My policy with the interviews I conduct is to publish the replies along with the questions in their entirety changing only the typos. I don’t offer any observations of my own after the fact. Since Colin Schultz has published the interview himself, I will treat it as I do anything else I find on web. I do not copy an entire piece but will excerpt the bits I find interesting and comment at will.

According to the ‘secret source’ who attended your presentation, you and Marie-Claire were very harsh in your assessments of the science communication efforts and environment in Canada. Given that most of my readers won’t have attended the presentation, could you summarize the presentation in a few bullet points and note where you agree and disagree with your co-presenter?

… Science Online pulls together brilliant, creative, hard-working and entrepreneurial problem solvers, communicators with a passion for science and a vigilante spirit. Many of these people, however, also have basically no idea what is going on in Canada in terms of the political atmosphere, the size of the mainstream press, or the scope of the science communication community. [emphasis mine] One of the goals I had in mind when putting together my short introduction for the session was that I wanted to tap into these clever minds so that we could all put our heads together and come up with projects that will work within the Canadian cultural context. [emphasis mine]

The Shanahan/Schultz presentation was 60 minutes long.  So, these people got to know Canada and the Canadian science communication scene well enough in 60 minutes to suggest projects that work within the Canadian cultural context. Interesting.

Here’s more from question 1 (Note: I have removed links),

I opened the session with numbers: We have one mainstream science magazine, two TV shows, and one radio show. A 1998 study found that we had 18 full time science journalists at daily newspapers, and I mused that this number probably went down as the media industry crashed and companies cut their staff.

With no official science blogger database that I know of, I pulled from your (Maryse’s) own annual counts (2010, 2011, 2012) and the self-selected bloggers pulled together by the Canadian Science Writers’ Association to estimate that there are likely a few dozen science bloggers in the country. [emphasis mine] Discussions in the room pointed out that there are probably more than listed in those two places, but the order of magnitude on the guess is probably close enough.

I believe my last annual count (2012 roundup) listed approximately 40 – 50 more or less active, including English and French language, Canadian Science blogs/bloggers. (A colleague recently [Feb. 15, 2013] produced a spreadsheet list of approximately 70 active blogs/bloggers.) More from Schultz on the first question,

From the numbers I moved into my second main point, asking: “Why does any of this matter?” Scientific knowledge is borderless, so does it really matter if we hear about Canadian science?

To answer this I suggested that there is a split: for people learning about science, for keeping up with all the cool developments that are taking shape around the world, then no, it doesn’t really matter. Canadian, American, English, Australian—wherever your news comes from doesn’t really make much a difference.

But, there is the other side of it. There are serious scientific issues in Canadian life—the tar sands, oceans management, fisheries research, the climate of the Arctic—that will only really be addressed by Canadians, and outside of the larger issues of climate change or biodiversity, only really affect Canadians. Without established venues to discuss and report and debate science, without an established culture of science communication, there won’t necessarily be the conversation that we need on these and other issues.

I noted that when people aren’t aware of the work being done by Canadian scientists or Canadian federal agencies that it could become easier for those projects to slide away, a case that came to the fore recently with the cutting of federal scientists, the potential closing of the Experimental Lakes, or the issue of muzzling.

Then, there were the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th questions,

Were you trying to be harsh in your assessment? I read the presentation description which didn’t have a single positive comment about efforts in English Canada; did that hold true for the presentation or did you leaven it with some positive comments (and what were those positive comments)? Note: A link has been removed.

There is a lot of good science communication going on in Canada. Personally, I think that Daily Planet is a treasure, and following the session I had people asking how they could see it from abroad. Marie-Claire, and some audience members, raised examples of informal or non-mainstream media projects that are doing great work on science communication and science outreach.

Would it surprise you to know that about the same time you gave your presentation a group (with no prior knowledge of said presentation) had formed to create a Canadian science blogging network? Full disclosure: I am a member of this group.

I heard whispers of this in the hallways at the conference, and think it’s a great idea. Building a blogging network will help draw people together, and help them find one another. I think that we have a lot of really serious issues to tackle, but this is a great place to start.

Purely for fun, I have three names for a national network. (These names are not from the group.) Which one would you join, if you one had one choice?

(a) Canuckian science blog(ger) network?
(b) Canadian science blog(ger) network?
(c) Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Canadian science blog(ger) network?

The last one, definitely.

You can find the entire set of responses at Colin Schultz’s blog. I wish him good luck as he breathes some life back into it. (His last posting prior to this ‘interview’ was on July 13, 2012, and the posting before that was dated Feb. 8, 2012.)

Note: I did correct two of my own interview typos in the words ‘assessment’ and ‘with’.

There are in fact two groups (that I know of) who have talked about putting together a Canadian science blog(ger) network. There was the group forming at the ScienceOnline 2013 conference and there was another group forming as a consequence of a suggestion in my 2012 roundup. The two groups appear to be coalescing but it’s all very loose at this point. Who knows? There may be other groups who just haven’t made themselves known as yet.

What can be said for certain is this,  Mike Spear at Genome Alberta has created the CanComm.org website for Canadian science communicators, aka, CanComm – Communication with a Science Flavour and a Canadian Twist. Sarah Boon, one of the organizers of our hoped for network, has written a Feb. 23, 2013 post on her Watershed Moments blog that provides pointed and thoughtful insight into many of the current issues on the Canadian science scene and the Canadian science communication scene and includes this (Note: Links have been removed),

It’s not that we don’t have an interested and involved public and the science communicators to engage them. It’s more that we don’t have the infrastructure to link communicators together like the Americans do with the Science Online meeting in Raleigh or the AAAS Meeting in Boston, or blog networks like PLoS Blogs or the Discover and SciAm networks.

To that end, groups like Genome Alberta, the Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA), the Science Media Centre of Canada (SMCC), and Canadian Science Publishing (CSP) are working with individuals such as myself, @frogheart, @8CrayonScience, @raymondsbrain and others to build a Canadian science communication and (ultimately) blog network. If you’re interested in joining, you can register at cancomm.org.

Full disclosure: One of my pieces got a shoutout in another part of Sarah’s posting and I’m chuffed. Regardless, I still would have described her posting as pointed and thoughtful and I notice I’m not alone as per the #cancomm twitter feed.

For anyone interested in the latest regarding the French language version of hashtag, there’s a Jan. 24, 2013 article in The Connexion; France’s English-language newspaper,

THE French government has caused amusement on the internet by insisting the proper term for “hashtag” in French should be mot-dièse.
I look forward to seeing you all at cancomm.org in any language we can use to communicate.

Simon Fraser University completes a successful mating dance while TRIUMF (Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics) gets its groove on

The Federal Government of Canada in the guise of the Canada Foundation for Innovation has just awarded $7.7M to Simon Fraser University (SFU) and its partners for a global innovation hub. From the Jan. 15, 2013 Canada Foundation for Innovation news release,

British Columbia’s research-intensive universities are coming together to create a global hub for materials science and engineering. Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria, the University of British Columbia and the British Columbia Institute of Technology have received $7.7 million in funding from the Canada Foundation of Innovation to create the Prometheus Project — a research hub for materials science and engineering innovation and commercialization.

“Our goal with the Prometheus Project is to turn our world-class research capacity into jobs and growth for the people of British Columbia,” said Neil Branda, Canada Research Chair in Materials Science at Simon Fraser University and leader of the Prometheus Project. “We know that materials science is changing the way we create energy and fight disease. We think it can also help B.C.’s economy evolve.”

This project builds on a strong collective legacy of collaborating with industry. Researchers involved in the Prometheus Project have created 13 spin-off companies, filed 67 patents and have generated 243 new processes and products. [emphasis mine] Branda himself has founded a company called Switch Materials that seizes the power of advanced chemistry to create smarter and more efficient window coatings.

This funding will allow members of the research team to build their capacity in fabrication, device testing and advanced manufacturing, ensuring that they have the resources and expertise they need to compete globally.

There’s a bit more information about the Prometheus project in a Jan.15, 2013 backgrounder supplied by SFU,

Led by Neil Branda, a Canada Research Chair in Materials Science and SFU chemistry professor, The Prometheus Project is destined to become a research hub for materials science and engineering innovation, and commercialization globally.

It brings together 10 principal researchers, including Branda, co-founder of SFU’s 4D LABS (a materials research facility with capabilities at the nanoscale], and 20 other scientists at SFU, University of British Columbia, the University of Victoria and the British Columbia Institute of Technology. They will create new materials science and engineering (MS&E) technology innovations, which will trigger and support sustained economic growth by creating, transforming and making obsolete entire industries.

Working with internationally recognized industrial, government, hospital and academic collaborators, scientists at the Prometheus partners’ labs, including 4D LABS, a $40 million materials science research institute, will deliver innovations in three areas. The labs will:

  • Develop new solar-industry related materials and devices, including novel organic polymers, nanoparticles, and quantum dots, which will be integrated in low cost, high efficiency solar cell devices. The goal is to create a new generation of efficient solar cells that can compete in terms of cost with non-renewable technologies, surpassing older ones in terms of miniaturization and flexibility.
  • Develop miniaturized biosensors that can be used by individuals in clinical settings or at home to allow early detection of disease and treatment monitoring. They will be integrated into flexible electronic skins, allowing health conditions to be monitored in real-time.
  • Develop spintronics (magnetic devices) and quantum computing and information devices that will enable new approaches to significantly improve encrypted communication and security in financial transactions.

“This project will allow B.C.’s four most research intensive institutes to collaborate on fundamental materials research projects with a wide range of potential commercial applications,” notes Branda. “By engaging with a large community of industry, government and NGO partners, we will move this research out of the lab and into society to solve current and future challenges in important areas such as energy, health and communications.”

The Prometheus team already has a strong network of potential end users of resulting technologies. It is based on its members’ relationships with many of more than 25 companies in BC commercializing solar, biomedical and quantum computing devices.

Researchers and industries worldwide will be able to access Prometheus’s new capabilities on an open-access basis. [emphasis mine]

There are a few things I’d like to point out (a) 13 spin-off companies? There’s no mention as to whether they were successful, i.e., created jobs or managed a life beyond government funding. (b) Patents as an indicator for innovation? As I’ve noted many, many times that’s a very problematic argument to make. (c) New processes and products? Sounds good but there are no substantiating details.  (d) Given the emphasis on commercializing discoveries and business, can I assume that open-access to Prometheus’ capabilities means that anyone willing and able to pay can have access?

In other exciting SFU news which also affects TRIUMF, an additional $1M is being awarded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation to upgrade the ATLAS Tier-1 Data Analysis Centre. From the SFU backgrounder,

Led by Mike Vetterli, a physics professor at SFU and TRIUMF, this project involves collaborating with scientists internationally to upgrade a component of a global network of always-on computing centres. Collectively, they form the Worldwide Large Hadron Collider Computing Grid (WLCG).

The Canadian scientists collaborating with Vetterli on this project are at several research-intensive universities. They include Carleton University, McGill University, University of British Columbia, University of Alberta, University of Toronto, University of Victoria, Université de Montréal, and York University, as well as TRIUMF. It’s Canada’s national lab for particle and nuclear physics research.

The grid, which has 10 Tier-1 centres internationally, is essentially a gigantic storage and processing facility for data collected from the ATLAS  experiment. The new CFI funding will enable Vetterli and his research partners to purchase equipment to upgrade the Tier-1 centre at TRIUMF in Vancouver, where the equipment will remain.

ATLAS is a multi-purpose particle detector inside a massive atom-smashing collider housed at CERN, the world’s leading laboratory for particle physics in Geneva, Switzerland.

More than 3,000 scientists internationally, including Vetterli and many others at SFU, use ATLAS to conduct experiments aimed at furthering global understanding of how the universe was physically formed and operates.

The detector’s fame for being a window into nature’s true inner workings was redoubled last year. It helped scientists, including Vetterli and others at SFU, discover a particle that has properties consistent with the Higgs boson.

Peter Higgs, a Scottish physicist, and other scientists theorized in 1964 about the existence of the long-sought-after particle that is central to the mechanism that gives subatomic particles their mass.

Scientists now need to upgrade the WLCG to accommodate the massive volume of data they’re reviewing to confirm that the newly discovered particle is the Higgs boson. If it is, it will revolutionize the way we see mass in physics.

“This project will enable Canadian scientists to continue to play a leading role in ATLAS physics analysis projects such as the Higgs boson discovery,” says Vetterli. “Much more work and data are required to learn more about the Higgs-like particle and show that it is indeed the missing link to our understanding of the fundamental structure of matter.

There is one more Canada Foundation for Innovation grant to be announced here, it’s a $1.6M grant for research that will be performed at TRIUMF, according to the Jan. 13, 2013 news release from St. Mary’s University (Halifax, Nova Scotia),

Dr. Rituparna Kanungo’s newest research collaboration has some lofty goals: improve cancer research, stimulate the manufacturing of high-tech Canadian-made instrumentation and help explain the origin of the cosmos.

The Saint Mary’s nuclear physicist’s goal moved one step closer to reality today when the federal government announced $1.6 million in support for an advanced research facility that will allow her to recreate, purify, and condition rare isotopes that haven’t existed on the planet for millions of years.

The federal fiscal support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation together with additional provincial and private sector investment will allow the $4.5 million project to be operational in 2015.

“The facility will dramatically advance Canada’s capabilities for isolating, purifying, and studying short-lived isotopes that hold the key not only for understanding the rules that govern the basic ingredients of our everyday lives but also for crafting new therapies that could target and annihilate cancers cell-by-cell within the human body, “ said Dr Kanungo.

The CANadian Rare-isotope facility with Electron-Beam ion source (CANREB) project is led by Saint Mary’s University partnering with the University of Manitoba and Advanced Applied Physics Solutions, Inc. in collaboration with the University of British Columbia, the University of Guelph, Simon Fraser University, and TRIUMF. TRIUMF is Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics. It is owned and operated as a joint venture by a consortium of Canadian universities that includes Saint Mary’s University.

As one of the nation’s top nuclear researchers (she was one of only two Canadians invited to speak at a Nobel Symposium last June about exotic isotopes), Dr. Kanungo has been conducting research at the TRIUMF facility for many years, carrying out analyses from her office at Saint Mary’s University together with teams of students. Her students also often spend semesters at the Vancouver facility.

As the project leader for the new initiative, she said TRIUMF is the ideal location because of its world leading isotope-production capabilities and its ability to produce clean, precise, controlled beams of selected exotic isotopes not readily available anywhere else in the world.

In recent studies in the U.S., some of these isotopes have been shown to have dramatic impact in treating types of cancer, by delivering radioactive payloads directly to the cancerous cells. Canada’s mastery of the technology to isolate, study, and control these isotopes will change the course of healthcare.

An integral part of the project is the creation of a new generation of high resolution spectrometer using precision magnets. Advanced Cyclotron Systems, Inc. a company in British Columbia, has been selected for the work with the hope that the expertise it develops during the venture will empower it to design and build precision-magnet technology products for cutting-edge projects all around the world.

Exciting stuff although it does seem odd that the federal government is spreading largesse when there’s no election in sight. In any case, bravo!

There’s one last piece of news, TRIUMF is welcoming a new member to its board, from its Jan. 14, 2013 news release,

Dr. Sylvain Lévesque, Vice-President of Corporate Strategy at Bombardier Inc., a world-leading manufacturer of innovative transportation solutions, has joined the Board of Management for TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, for a three-year term.  Owned and operated by a consortium of 17 Canadian universities with core operating funds administered via a contribution agreement through National Research Council Canada, TRIUMF is guided by a Board that includes university vice-presidents of research, prestigious scientists, and leading members of Canada’s private sector.

Paul Young, Chair of TRIUMF’s Board and Vice President, Research at the University of Toronto, said, “We welcome the participation of Sylvain and his extensive experience at Bombardier.  TRIUMF is a national resource for basic research and yet we also fulfill a technological innovation mission for Canada.  Dr. Lévesque will be a valuable addition to the Board.”

Dr. Sylvain Lévesque earned his Ph.D. from MIT in Engineering and worked at McKinsey & Company before joining Bombardier in 1999.  He brings deep experience with large, technical organizations and a passion for science and engineering. [emphasis mine]  He said, “I am excited to work more closely with TRIUMF.  It has a track record of excellence and I am eager to provide guidance on where Canada’s industrial sector might draw greater strength from the laboratory.”

TRIUMF’s Board of Management reflects the unique status of TRIUMF, a laboratory operating for more than forty years as a joint venture from Canada’s leading research universities.  The consortium includes universities from Halifax to Victoria.

Is deep experience like wide experience or is it a whole new kind of experience helpful for ‘getting one’s groove on’? For anyone who’s curious, ‘getting one’s groove on’ involves dancing.

Aptamers and Maria DeRosa

Today’s (Oct. 25, 2011) next interview is with Maria DeRosa of the DeRosa Lab at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) where she and her colleagues work on bionanotechnology projects. (The Highlighting the 2011 Dance Your Ph.D. contest posting featured a Ph.D student from her lab who is one of this year’s contest finalists.)

Before proceeding to the interview, here’s a little bit about the DeRosa Lab (from the website homepage),

The first step in the rational design of novel bionanotechnology is to find the right molecular components for the task. Our group seeks to investigate the use of chemically-modified nucleic acid aptamers, single stranded DNA or RNA sequences that specifically bind to a diverse variety of targets, in biosensing and catalysis.

Here’s some information about Dr. DeRosa,

Dr. Maria DeRosa’s research examines a type of nucleic acid called ‘aptamers’ that can fold into 3D nanoscale shapes capable of binding tightly to a specific molecular target.  Her group is focused on developing a better understanding of how these systems and using this information to design useful nanotechnology, like biosensors or “smart” delivery devices.  Dr. DeRosa received her Ph.D in Chemistry from Carleton University in 2003 and was presented with a University Senate Medal. She was awarded an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship to do research at the California Institute of Technology from 2004-2005 with Prof. Jackie Barton, a world-leader in DNA sensor research. In 2005, she returned to Carleton as a faculty member in the Chemistry Department. Her research group has received funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and Alberta Innovates Biosolutions.  DeRosa was a recipient of the John Charles Polanyi Research Award for new researchers in 2006 and an Ontario Early Researcher Award in 2010.

Here’s the interview,

*   Are you one of those people who always wanted to be a scientist or was this something you discovered later?

I was never one of those people who knew what they wanted to do from an early age.  I thought about being a doctor, pharmacist, plumber, engineer, bank teller…  In high school, I had many great math and science teachers that inspired me to go into science when I started at Carleton University.  Then, in my third year I got a summer job working in Dr. Bob Crutchley’s research lab.  He was a great mentor and it was then that I started seriously thinking about a career as a scientist.  I loved the idea of research, that I was working on a problem and no one knew what the answer would be.  I wanted the answers!

*   How did you get interested in aptamers (and could you briefly describe what they are)?

Aptamers are synthetic pieces of DNA that can recognize and stick to a molecular target.  The targets can vary from things that are very small, like a drug molecule to something much larger, like bacteria or viruses.  Because they can recognize and stick to other molecules, people are interested in using them as receptors for sensors.  I had never even heard of them until about 2005.

After my Ph.D., I went to Caltech to do something called a postdoctoral fellowship.  It was a research position in the lab of Dr. Jackie Barton, one of the world’s top DNA researchers (she just won a National Medal of Science a couple days ago).  She wasn’t working with aptamers but she opened me up to the idea of using DNA in an “unnatural” way.  Most of us, when we are thinking of DNA, we think of our genes and that it is the blueprint for life.  But from a chemistry point of view, DNA is just another material that has certain chemical properties that can be useful for other applications.  In Jackie’s lab, I learned how to make synthetic DNA and I started reading about aptamers.  I found the whole field fascinating and I knew that I wanted to be a part of it.

*   What applications are there for your work? (I noticed that you discussed fertilizers in your TEDxCarleton talk. Is agriculture an area of particular interest?)

Applications for aptamers mostly stem from their ability to bind tightly and selectively to other molecules.  So, they are typically used in technology such as biosensors where they can serve to detect low levels of something, like a toxin or a virus for example, in another matrix.  We’re developing aptamers for the detection of mycotoxins (toxins that come from moulds) in crops and food.  We’re also working on aptamers for norovirus (the virus that causes Norwalk, that awful stomach bug) so that we can catch it if it is in meat and other foods before they get sent off to stores.

We are also trying to use aptamers for triggered delivery of drugs and/or nutrients.  In many cases with drugs, we want them to act on certain cells or tissues and not on others.  So, we need to be able to control where the drug is released in the body.  There is a similar problem in agriculture.  We want to give crops certain nutrients from fertilizers but if we deliver them at the wrong time, they will be washed away and not taken up by the crop.  This leads to major economic losses for the farmer and problems for the environment.  With our work, the idea is that we use the aptamer to control the release of whatever we are delivering.  We incorporate the aptamer into a coating that covers the drug or nutrient.  The aptamer is there to recognize a stimulus that we want to use to release the contents.  For drug delivery, that stimulus might be a cancer cell or a disease biomarker.  For fertilizers, that stimulus might a be a plant signal that corresponds to the plant’s need for nutrients.  (We are working with Dr.Carlos Monreal from Agriculture and Agrifood Canada on the fertilizer project, and he is an expert in these plant signals and ‘smart fertilizers’.)  In the absence of that signal, the coating does not allow the release of the drug or nutrient.  But, once the aptamer recognizes that key signal, the aptamer distorts or destroys the coating and it allows the nutrient to be released.

*   According to the information on your lab website, you are the recipient of Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) Leaders Opportunity Fund (LOF) monies. Are these funds being applied to a particular project in your lab or are they used to support your general area of research?

CFI funds helped us to build our facility called the LADDER (Laboratory for Aptamer Discovery and Development of Emerging Research applications).  That funding allowed us to get the state-of-the-art equipment we need to support all of our research projects.  Without CFI funding, our work would not be possible!

*   Given your TEDxCarleton talk and your involvement in the 2011 Canadian Science Writers conference (researchers’ speed dating [I couldn’t confirm it but I’m pretty sure I saw your name listed for this event]), I gather you’re quite interested in public outreach. Why do you think it’s important?

Yes, I was at that ‘speed dating’ event and I am very committed to science outreach.  The public helps to support my research through funding like NSERC and CFI, so I think it is critical that I can explain to them what it is that I do, why it is important, and why their money is well-spent.  The general public may not know what an aptamer is, but they all realize the importance of keeping our food free of toxins or the need to make drugs that are better able to target disease.

*   I noticed that one of your students is a finalist in the Dance your Ph.D 2011 contest. And it’s not the first time. Do you find a lot of scientists with ‘dance’ tendencies are attracted to your lab? Are you one of those scientists?

My students won the competition last year and then they were finalists again this year!  I’m not sure if dancers are attracted to my lab or if my students are just as committed to outreach as I am!  My students are very excited to talk about their research with anyone who will listen.  This contest is a fun way to explain their work to everyday people.  Friends and family, after watching these dances online, have told me that they finally understand what is going on in my lab.  Maybe I should dance more!  (I’m not a dancer and you will not find me in either video…I support them from the sidelines!)

*   Is there anything you would like to add?

Thanks for profiling me and it has been fun!

Maria, thank you for this intriguing peek into your research, the field of DNA nanotechnology, and your (and shared by your students) commitment to public science outreach. I’m very happy you managed to cram the time to answer these questions into your schedule.

Broader Impacts Criterion and informal science education in the US

Broader Impacts Criterion (BIC), a requirement for US National Science Foundation (NSF) grants covers the areas of science education, science outreach, and the promotion of benefits to society. As you might expect there is support and criticism from scientists and the scientific community about having to include BIC in grant proposals, from the American Physical Society News, June 2007 (volume 16, no. 6),

Bob Eisenstein, Chair of APS’s Panel on Public Affairs, was at NSF when the criterion was first put in place in the mid-1990s. He said that the criterion is meant to serve two purposes: first, it forces scientists to think more carefully about the ways in which their work impacts society, and second, it helps provide the public with more information about what scientists are doing.

Fred Cooper, a current NSF program director for theoretical physics, said his personal opinion is that this is a good thing for NSF to do. “I’m very happy to encourage people to think about these things,” he said. He says it is in scientists’ self-interest to do so.

However, some scientists object to research funding being coupled to education or outreach efforts. Mildred Dresselhaus of MIT says she has heard from many scientists who are unhappy with the broader impacts requirements, and who feel they should be funded based on the quality of their research, not for outreach. …

I gather the criticism was serious enough to warrant a review, excerpted from the July 25, 2011 NISE (Nanoscale Informal Science Education) Net blog posting by Carol Lynn Alpert (BIC requirements have an indirect impact on science museums which benefit from subawards and partnerships with researchers and research institutions seeking to fulfill their BIC obligations),

After reviewing comments from 5,100 stakeholders, the NSB [the National Science Board is the NSF’s governing body] has decided to retain both criteria, but to revise them in order to clarify their intent and “connection to NSF’s core principles” (NSF-11-42, available at http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/publications/2011/06_mrtf.jsp).

As stated by the NSB, these core principles and national goals are led by concerns for global economic and workforce competitiveness, and for the first time allow that “broader impacts” may be achieved “through the research itself.”  This phrase has some worrying that a “BIC loophole” has been created, for it allows that the research itself may be “enough” to enhance U.S economic and workforce competitiveness, without the research team needing to specifically incorporate synergistic activities addressing concomitant K-12 education, diversity, or public engagement goals.

On July 13, AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] submitted a letter to the Chairman of the NSB strongly objecting to what I am here referring to as the “BIC loophole.” AAAS said, “While increasing knowledge serves a public good, it is not always clear how publicly funded research can produce broader impacts unless it is applied and/or widely communicated beyond the scholarly community. The current language appears to offer researchers an excuse not to engage in a more thoughtful consideration of the criterion.”

Here’s a link to the full letter from the AAAS.

I find it fascinating that there’s a discussion about this in the US as the concept of scientists engaging in public outreach does not seem to exist in the same way in Canada. I was able to find Canadian science funding agencies that require some public outreach.  NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) has a general NSERC policy for public communication,

The Institution [receiving the grant] agrees to:

  1. identify, encourage and assist researchers to communicate with media and participate in announcement events to promote Agency-funded research;
  2. inform, at least five working days before the proposed announcement, if feasible, the Agency’s or Agencies’ public affairs or communications division – normally through the Institution’s own public affairs, communications, or research communications department – of announcements of Agency awards, programs and significant research results that the Institution proposes to make;
  3. include appropriate acknowledgement of the appropriate Agency or Agencies in all relevant public communications issued by the Institution;
  4. respect the relevant Agency or Agencies’ obligation under the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada;
  5. respect the relevant Agency or Agencies’ prerogative to make the first public announcement of its awards, grants and programs, when the relevant Minister declines to do so. It is the purview of a Minister or the Minister’s designate to make public announcements of all federal expenditures; and
  6. share with the Agency or Agencies any promotional material for the general public that is based on Agency-funded research.

So, this NSERC policy is aimed more at the universities and other institutions not the individual researcher.  Also, it seems to be more a guideline or general rule which provides a bit of a contrast  with the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) which lists public communication as a requirement for funding. From the CFI Policy and Program Guide, December 2010,

As part of filing their annual institutional reports (see secion 7.3.2), institutions must provide the CFI with information on the communication activities undertaken in the previous year, along with activities planned for the coming year that are designed to showcase the impacts and outcomes of CFI investments. Institutions are asked to provide information on media activity, publications (print and online) and special events. This information assists the CFI in identifying national trends in research communications, as well as opportunities for collaboration on communications initiatives with institutions. (p. 81)

Not enough money for Canadian business schools? Canada Foundation for Innovation replies

March 22, 2011 (http://www.frogheart.ca/?p=3151)  I posted about a  interview with Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, about Canadian business schools, innovation and research that was published in the March 16, 2011, Globe & Mail newspaper. (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/managing/business-education/canada-will-shrivel-under-business-school-neglect-dean-says/article1942997/page2/). In response to this interview question, Martin made the claim the Canada Foundation for Innovation funded a greater numbers of arts funding requests and humanities funding requests over business funding requests,

Wouldn’t some people argue leadership comes as much from the liberal arts and other social sciences?

We’re getting liberal arts education, but the arts are getting an incredibly rich allocation of the money at all levels. It is only business that is not.

Of all the money given out by the Canada Foundation for Innovation [CFI], a big federal grants program, nine times more has gone to arts and literature than to business. I am not even talking social and human sciences – that is 41 times.

The view is that having educated managers is not relevant to economic success. We assume we need educated lawyers to have good law firms; we need educated scientists to have good science; you need educated engineers to have good engineering, but in business it is assumed you do not need education.

There was a response from the president and CEO (chief executive officer) of the CFI in the March 18, 2011 issue of the Globe & Mail. The paper published an excerpt, this is the full text of the response (received by request from the CFI media relations coordinator, Yves Melanson),

I read with interest the report of your interview with Roger Martin in Wednesday’s edition of the Globe and Mail on the “Lack of government research funding for business education”. As President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), I was particularly interested by the reference made to the CFI.

Your readers might be interested to know that the Canada Foundation for Innovation was created by the Government of Canada to support state-of-the-art infrastructure (facilities and equipment), in universities, colleges, research hospitals and non-profit research institutions, allowing them to: a) attract/retain the world’s top talent; b) conduct world-class research and technology development that leads to social, economic and environmental benefits to Canada; c) train the next generation of highly qualified personnel; and d) support private-sector innovation that strengthens Canada’s position in today’s knowledge economy.

The CFI is called upon to invest in equipment, laboratories, information databases and computing systems required by all researchers, including those in our business schools. The CFI does not allocate funding to any specific discipline or area of research. Applications are submitted by the institutions to the CFI and funding is awarded through highly competitive programs. All applications, whether they are in health, science or business administration are judged according to the same criteria – excellence and the benefits to Canada. Moreover, the CFI requires that applications be well aligned with the university’s overall Strategic Research Plan.

While the success rate of applications from business schools compares favourably to the overall CFI success rate, the number of applications from business schools is surprisingly low. Of the more than 900 applications in the humanities and social sciences that have been submitted to the CFI to date, only 50 came from business schools (with a 70% success rate). [emphasis mine] Researchers in our business schools have received CFI research infrastructure funding, and, given the high quality of their research, will no doubt receive more in the future. The CFI’s doors are open to business school researchers, and will remain so, but they must apply!

Gilles G. Patry
President and CEO
Canada Foundation for Innovation

I haven’t seen responses from the other funding agencies but based on this one from the CFI, it would seem that the business schools are not pursuing the grants available to them for research.

The full video from the Canada Foundation for Innovation celebrating the 100th International Women’s Day

The full video produced by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), Women and Science was released today. Go here to enjoy roughly 7.5 minutes with five different and highly accomplished women ranging from an ethnomusicologist to a spinal cord researcher to the president of the University of Alberta. Personally, I found the evolutionary biologist (I think she studies spiders) who described her area of research as being about self-sacrifice and cannibalism quite intriguing. There’s also Suzanne Fortier, the president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (a major funding agency for Canadian science), discussing careers, balance, and a life in science.

Accompanying the video are stories by Elizabeth Howell. Here’s an excerpt from the webpage,

When Karen Kidd thinks back on the women who inspired her as a young scientist, she can’t come up with any.

“All the researchers I worked with were men. I didn’t have a female mentor until more recently,” says Kidd, an ecotoxicologist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John who earned her PhD in 1996.

She doesn’t feel her experience impeded her career, but the Canada Research Chair in Chemical Contamination of Food Webs acknowledges that there is a need for more women in science. And she recognizes that there are barriers which sometimes keep them away.

“Self-promotion and marketing — I think that’s what we [women] tend to do poorly,” she says. “It’s important to get out there and show others what you’re capable of. I think it’s really critical in this field, because it’s a competitive field for receiving grants and getting published. You have to be willing to sell yourself and defend your work.”

International Women’s Day teaser video from Canada Foundation for Innovation

The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) has posted a one-minute teaser video to promote their longer International Women’s Day video being released tomorrow, March 8, 2011, the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. From the March 2, 2011 CFI news release,

To mark the centenary of International Women’s Day on March 8, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) is releasing a video that offers a personal portrayal of the challenges and rewards of being a woman in science.

The video, which will be posted on InnovationCanada.ca, the CFI’s online magazine, focuses on five accomplished Canadian researchers at various stages of their careers. With humour and candor, the women reflect on their formative experiences, their views on combining family and work, and their assessment of how far women have come in research in Canada. They also discuss what women bring to the scientific process and what needs to be done to attract more females into research careers.

The CFI will also publish a story on the state of women in science in Canada, including a look at trends and attitudes of young girls with respect to science. Last year, the CFI commissioned IPSOS-Reid to conduct the first nationwide study of young Canadians’ views on science. The survey suggests that the widespread belief that young women don’t like science is no longer true. In fact, the Canadian Youth Science Monitor says females between 12 and 18 are significantly more likely than males to say that science is a good career choice for young people generally.

Look for the full video tomorrow on the CFI website.

Canada Foundation for Innovation “World’s Best”?; Ping hoodie, clothing that networks socially; life protection clothing; getting spiders to weave building materials?; open access archive for nano papers

The headline for the news release on Marketwire (via the Canadian Science Policy site) is: Canada Foundation for Innovation(CFI) Practices is Called ‘World’s Best’. As it’s been a bit slow for news here I began wondering ‘which practices in which countries are being compared’? After reviewing the reports quickly, I can’t answer the question. There are no bibliographies in any of the three reports related to this KPMG study while the footnotes make reference only to other KPMG and Canadian studies. It was a bit of surprise, I was expecting to see reports from other countries and/or from international organizations and some insight into their analysis as comparing agencies in different countries can be complicated.

I’m not sure how they arrived at their conclusion although they provide some interesting data. From the Overall Evaluation report (p. 28 PDF, p. 24 print),

Exhibit [Table] 4.16 shows that, on average, there have been about 6.4 collaborations with end-users per PL/PU in the past year, three-quarters of which used the CFI projects as key resources, and about 10.2 collaborations per Department Head, about 70% of which using CFI projects in a significant way. For PLs/PUs, there are only small differences in use of CFI projects as a key resource by type of end-user, but Department Heads show more variation in the use of CFI project by type of user; it is unknown if this is significant.

Note that 64% of PL/PUs’ and 80% of Department Heads’ end-user collaborations, respectively, are with Canadian organizations; there is a significant international component (with OMS data suggesting that the CFI projects are a significant attractor for international organizations to collaborate [emphasis mine]).

It certainly seems laudable although I question whether you can conclude that the CFI is a significant international organization attractor by inference alone. Shouldn’t this be backed up with another instrument, such as a questionnaire for a survey/poll of the international organizations, asking why they are collaborating with Canadian scientists? I was not able to find any mention of such a survey or poll taking place.

From everything I hear, Canadians are excellent at academic science research and attracting researchers from around the world and because of our penchant for collaboration we (as they say) “punch above our weight.” I just wish this report did a better job of providing evidence for its assertions about the CFI’s ‘best practices’.

Ping hoodie

Thanks to Adrian Covert’s article on Fast Company, I found information about a prototype for a piece of wearable computing, the Ping hoodie. From Covert’s article,

The Ping clothing concept makes use of embedded electronics and haptics controlled by the Arduino Lilypad system, which transmits to your device (most likely a smartphone) using the Lylipad Xbee. This tech serves as the core interface between you and the information you need. If someone special is sending you a call or text, you can set the hoodie to vibrate in a specific manner, letting you know it’s them. Actions as simple as lifting or dropping the hood can be used to send status updates and messages on Facebook, with the potential to target certain groups of friends.

There’s more at Fast Company or you can check out electricfoxy where the designer, Jennifer Darmour has her site which is where I found this image,

Ping hoodie (wearable computing) designed by Jennifer Darmour at electricfoxy

Do go to Darmour’s site (although Fast Company offers a pretty good selection) if you want to see all the images including close ups of the fabric (don’t forget to scroll horizontally as well as vertically).

Clothing that protects your life

P2i, a company I’ve mentioned here before, has announced a ‘new’ revolutionary form of protective clothing. Actually, it sounds like an improvement rather than a revolutionary concept but maybe I’m getting jaded. From the news item on Nanowerk,

A revolutionary new generation of high-performance body armour, launched today, is lighter, more comfortable and more protective than any previous design, thanks to P2i’s liquid-repellent nano-coating technology.

The new G Tech Vest is a joint development between two world-class UK companies with very strong credentials for the life protection market: P2i, whose technology was originally developed to make soldiers’ protective clothing more effective against chemical attack; and Global Armour, which has been at the leading edge of product innovation in the armour industry for over 30 years.

The G Tech Vest employs brand-new lightweight materials, both in the physical armour itself (a closely-guarded trade secret) and the fabric that forms the armour into a garment. P2i’s technology reduces weight by avoiding the need for bulky durable water repellents and increases comfort by preserving the natural airflow and drape of the garment material.

I recently (April 15, 2010) made a comment about how modern soldiers are beginning to resemble medieval knights and this talk of armour certainly reinforces the impression.

Spiders weaving building materials?

Michael Berger at Nanowerk has written an in-depth article about spider silk and its possible application, amongst others, as a building material. He’s interviewed one of the authors (Markus J. Buehler) of a recent paper that lays out “… a framework for predicting the nanostructure of spider silk using atomistic principles.” More from the Spotlight article on Nanowerk,

In a paper published as the cover article in Applied Physics Letters on April 12, 2010 (“Atomistic model of the spider silk nanostructure”), [Sinan] Keten and Buehler demonstrate an innovative application of replica exchange molecular dynamics simulations on a key spider silk repeating sequence, resulting in the first atomistic level structure of spider silk.

More specifically, the MIT researchers found the formation of beta-sheet structures in poly-Ala rich parts of the structure, the presence of semi-extended GGX domains that form H-bonded 31 helix type structures and a complete lack of alpha-helical conformations in the molecular structures formed by the self-assembly of MaSp1 proteins. These results resolve controversies around the structure of the amorphous domains in silk, by illustrating for the first time that these semi-extended, well-oriented and more sparsely H-bonded structures that resemble 31 helices could be the molecular source of the large semi-crystalline fraction of silks and the so-called ‘pre-stretched’ configuration proposed for these domains.

Shy of reading the original research, which I likely wouldn’t understand easily, Berger’s article provides an excellent entry into the subject.

Open access archive for nano papers

My final item for today is about a project to give free access to papers on nanotechnology that they host and/or publish.  Hooray! It’s very frustrating to get stuck behind paywalls so I’m thrilled that there’s an agency offering free access. From the news item on Nanowerk,

The Nano Archive, the online open-access repository for nanoscience and nanotechnology, invites you to submit research papers to be published free online for users across the globe.

Submitted papers can include peer-reviewed articles, journal articles, review articles, conference and workshop papers, theses and dissertations, book chapters and sections, as well as multimedia and audio-visual materials. The Nano Archive also welcomes new, unpublished research results to be shared with the wider community.

The Nano Archive is part of the ICPC NanoNet project, funded by the EU under FP7. It brings together partners from the EU, Russia, India, China and Africa, and provides wider access to published nanoscience research and opportunities for collaboration between scientists in the EU and International Cooperation Partner Countries.

The Nano Archive currently hosts over 6000 papers. You can read more about the sponsoring agency, the ICPC (International Cooperation Partner Countries) NanoNet here. It has funding for four years and was started in 2008.