Eleven Canada Research Chairs announced for UAlberta

Appointments include seven new research chairs, three renewals and one tier advancement worth $12.7 million.


(Edmonton) Tackling big challenges like reducing the world’s carbon dioxide emissions sometimes starts with small ideas—tiny, in fact.

As a leading authority in nanotechnology, Carlo Montemagno is used to starting small to tackle big-picture problems. The University of Alberta professor in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering leads a team of 35 researchers from a range of disciplines who are doing just that, taking cues from nature to develop next-generation materials to solve problems in environment, energy and health.

That’s also his aim as the newly appointed Canada Research Chair in Intelligent Nanosystems.

“Our work is about harnessing the power of ‘n’—nature, nanotechnology and networks,” said Montemagno, one of 11 U of A faculty members who received CRC appointments, renewals or tier advancements worth $12.7 million–the highest total of any university in Canada. “We use living systems in nature as the inspiration; we use nanotechnology, the ability to manipulate matter at its smallest scale; and we build systems in the understanding that we have to make these small elements work together in complex networks.”

The physical home of this work is Ingenuity Lab, a collaboration between the U of A, the National Institute for Nanotechnology and Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures. Montemagno is the director, and he has assembled a team of top scientists with backgrounds in biochemistry, organic chemistry, neurobiology, molecular biology, physics, computer science, engineering and material science.

Turning CO2 in something valuable

Reducing greenhouse gases is one of the challenges his team is working to address, by capturing carbon dioxide emissions and converting them into high-value chemicals.

Montemagno said the process involves mimicking photosynthesis, using engineered molecules to create a structure that metabolizes CO2. Unlike fermentation and other processes used to convert chemicals, this method is far more energy-efficient, he said.

“You make something that has the same sort of features that are associated with a living process that you want to emulate.”

In another project, Montemagno’s team has turned to cells, viruses and bacteria and how they identify chemicals to react to their environment, with the aim of developing “an exquisite molecular recognition technology” that can find rare precious metals in dilute quantities for extraction. This type of bio-mining is being explored to transform waste from a copper mine into a valuable product, and ultimately could benefit oilsands operations as well.

“The idea is converting waste into a resource and doing it in a way in which you provide more economic opportunity while you’re being a stronger steward of our natural resources.”

Eleven Canada Research Chairs

The University of Alberta was both pleased and honoured to have hosted the March 28 national Canada Research Chairs announcement, said Lorne Babiuk, vice-president of research. With 11 new and renewed CRC appointments and tier advancements worth $12.7 million, the U of A is now home to nearly 100 chairholders across the humanities, social sciences, health and natural sciences and engineering.  

The number of chairholders is just one demonstration of the talent, expertise and passion for discovery at the U of A, said Babiuk.

“The Canada Research Chairs program is an important federal investment that helps the University of Alberta secure talent—people of character and vision who challenge and redefine the limits of what’s possible,” he said. “These are the world’s best and brightest, working to advance knowledge and address some of the world’s most pressing challenges.”


In addition to Montemagno, four researchers received new Tier 1 appointments: Fred Colbourne (Science), Kathrin Koslicki (Arts), James Shapiro (Medicine & Dentistry) and João Soares (Engineering).

Mark Glover (Medicine & Dentistry) was advanced to a Tier 1 chair, and Gavin Oudit (Medicine & Dentistry) and Ben Willing (Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences) received new Tier 2 appointments. Engineering researchers Murray Gray (Tier 1), Zhenghe Xu (Tier 1) and Mojgan Daneshmand (Tier 2) received chair renewals.

Fred Colbourne: Neuroscience maps new pathways in brain injury treatment

Some 50,000 Canadians suffer from stroke each year, the vast majority caused by interrupted blood and oxygen flow to the brain, or cerebral ischemia. Colbourne, Tier 1 CRC in Intracerebral Hemorrhagic Stroke, is working to improve rehabilitation for patients, finding neuroprotective treatments such as mild hypothermia to reduce ischemic and perhaps hemorrhagic brain damage, and improve recovery.

Mojgan Daneshmand: Microscopic technology, big results

Daneshmand, Tier 2 CRC in Radio Frequency Microsystems for Communication and Sensing, is looking at using wireless technology to save lives. She works with tiny micro-electromechanical systems, or MEMS, that make it possible for researchers to develop “smart” products—taking what micro-electronics can do already but creating whole computer systems on a single chip. She will apply radio frequency and MEMS to mobile and satellite communication and biomedical applications, an approach that can determine, for example, how to measure pressure in the brain for patients who suffer from head injuries or brain diseases.

Mark Glover: Defending DNA from damage

Human DNA is under constant attack from a bewildering array of environmental factors, from chemicals to radiation. To protect genetic information, all living things have evolved ways to find and repair DNA damage—the primary defence against DNA mutations that cause cancers. When these systems are compromised through inherited genetic mutations, it’s often linked to hereditary cancer risks—the best known of these is the protein BRCA1, associated with breast and ovarian cancers. Glover, Tier 1 CRC in Structural Molecular Biology, uses protein imaging to reveal how BRCA1 and other proteins function as a DNA defender. He is now looking at finding new ways to inhibit tumour growth by selectively targeting DNA repair systems in cancer cells.

Murray Gray: Purifying bitumen

Almost a quarter of Canada's liquid hydrocarbons are produced from the oilsands, a proportion that is expected to reach 50 per cent. This increased reliance on synthetic crude requires new and improved technologies in bitumen upgrading to improve product quality and yield, and decrease energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Gray, Tier 1 CRC in Oilsands Upgrading, is working on developing better methods to measure the viscosity and surface tension of bitumen during high-temperature cracking, and investigating new applications of biotechnology to purify the product oil derived from bitumen.

Kathrin Koslicki: How a philosopher studies the world

Koslicki, Tier 1 CRC in Epistemology and Metaphysics, is positioning Canada and the U of A to take a lead in modern metaphysics, the “study of being in its most general form.” Her work incorporates the tools of formal logic and aims for compatibility with science. In a recent work, she focused on the question of how the parts of objects are related to the whole they compose: “For there to be an H2O molecule, the two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom that compose it must be arranged in the particular manner of chemical bonding, which requires the atoms in question to share electrons.”

Gavin Oudit: Discovering ways to treat heart failure

New heart failure therapies are desperately needed, and Oudit is taking several novel approaches to drug discovery and its application to patients. The new Tier 2 CRC in Heart Failure is using the human explanted heart program (HELP) at the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute as a bridge for cardiovascular medicine, focusing on patients rather than animal models. This approach is aimed at translating discoveries to help people live better and longer lives.

James Shapiro: Transforming transplants through regenerative medicine

Organ transplantation is life-saving and cost-effective, but transplantable organs remain in short supply. James Shapiro, Tier 1 CRC in Transplant Surgery and Regenerative Medicine, aims to increase the quality and number of donor organs using ex vivo “life support,” and explore regenerative medicine stem cell technologies for curative treatment of diabetes. Protecting and even repairing donated organs could decrease injuries related to organ recovery and transport, leading to a substantial increase in the supply of organs suitable for transplantation. Shapiro will also build on progress made in cellular transplantation of human beta cells, which could have a huge impact on the curative treatment of diabetes.

João Soares: Designing polymers for oilsands sustainability

Oilsands are a significant, strategic resource for Canada—and the world’s second-largest source of crude oil. Despite technological advances in extraction techniques, large volumes of high-water-content tailings remain an unsolved problem. Soares, Tier 1 CRC in Advanced Polymer Reaction Engineering, aims to improve methods of dewatering tailings, harnessing polymer reaction engineering techniques to potentially reduce or eliminate tailings ponds.

Ben Willing: Understanding how our microbes shape who we are

The human gastrointestinal tract is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of microbial species that outnumber human cells 10 to one. Taking antibiotics makes potentially lifelong alterations to these gut microbes, and microbial population imbalance plays a role in health, affecting conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, asthma and inflammatory bowel disease. Willing, Tier 2 CRC in Microbiology of Nutrigenomics, aims to determine how specific microbes affect the production of molecules that affect human health. This work will provide an important foundation on which to build strategies for developing new pre- and probiotics—using diet to promote health.

Zhenghe Xu: Getting the oil from Canada's oilsands

Xu, Tier 1 CRC in Mineral Processing, is addressing a major challenge facing the oilsands industry: finding the best possible way to separate the bitumen from the sand while respecting the environment as well as cost requirements. In mineral processing, mined ores are first crushed and ground to break minerals and metals off waste rocks (liberation). The liberated minerals and metals are then separated by physical methods such as gravity separation, magnetic separation, electrostatic separation and flotation. Xu’s research is focused on clarifying the colloidal interactions involved in flotation and developing a more versatile, effective separation process.

In 2000, the Government of Canada created the Canada Research Chairs program to establish 2,000 research professorships in eligible degree-granting institutions across the country. The program invests $300 million per year to attract and retain some of the world's most accomplished and promising minds.