Two UAlberta researchers honoured with Killam Prize

(Edmonton) Two University of Alberta researchers have been honoured with prizes reserved for Canada’s elite researchers.

Lorne Babiuk, U of A vice-president of research and a renowned vaccinologist, and Witold Pedrycz, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, have each been awarded a Canada Council for the Arts Killam Prize. Only five researchers are selected for the prize each year.

The Killam Prizes are Canada’s leading prizes for career achievement in the fields of health sciences, social sciences, engineering, natural sciences and humanities. Winners are each awarded prizes of $100,000 in recognition of outstanding career achievements.

Lorne Babiuk: At the vanguard of vaccine development

Babiuk is a leading researcher in infectious diseases, particularly zoonotic diseases—those that pass from animals to humans—and is acclaimed for his work in vaccine development. Early in his career, Babiuk devised a new technique to grow the rotavirus, which was costing the cattle industry about $300 million annually, and then to develop a vaccine to control the virus in calves. His work laid the foundation for a vaccine to protect children from rotavirus, which, to that point, was killing more than 500,000 children each year.

In addition to his own research track record, Babiuk developed Canada’s leading vaccine development centre, the $140-million Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO), affiliated with the University of Saskatchewan. VIDO scientists developed seven vaccines, five being world firsts, including the first genetically engineered vaccine for any animal species. Since joining the U of A in 2007, he has been instrumental in the establishment of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology.

With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Grand Challenges program, Babiuk and his team have been able to develop a novel approach to deliver a whooping cough vaccine via the nose—the site of initial infection—without the use of needles. Using the new formulation, the magnitude and the quality of the immune response both increased. This approach is now being used to improve other existing vaccines and to develop new vaccines against diseases, such as respiratory syncytial virus infection in young children, for which no current vaccine exists.

In 2012, Babiuk received the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award, one of the most prestigious medical science awards in the world. The Gairdner Award is considered a precursor to the Nobel Prize.

"It is a great honour to me personally and to our university to be recognized in this way by one’s peers,” said Babiuk. “Such an award makes me reflect on the tremendous support of many individuals and organizations throughout my career that allowed me to pursue my passion. I specifically thank the many individuals who were instrumental in shaping my career."

Witold Pedrycz: Teaching computers to learn

Pedrycz has made pioneering contributions in the disciplines that form the essence of computational intelligence. These include neurocomputing, which provides a wealth of learning mechanisms, and fuzzy sets, which support human-like reasoning by processing linguistic information. The goal of his research activities is the development of hybrid intelligent systems that exhibit different levels of learning and are capable of taking the factor of uncertainty (information granularity) into account.  

“I feel highly honoured and deeply humbled by the truly remarkable recognition coming from the academic community,” said Pedrycz, who was inducted into the Royal Society of Canada in 2012. “I think a lot has been accomplished in this research area but still there are visible and timely challenges—it is a successful and promising beginning.”

He adds that the Canada Killam Prize is a testimony to the high calibre of research carried out at the U of A, “which has indisputably assumed a leadership role on the national and international arena in intelligent systems, computational intelligence and granular computing.”

The Killam Prize presentation ceremony will be held April 23 in Ottawa.