UAlberta research standouts recognized with ASTech Awards

Four researchers receive Alberta’s highest honours in science and technology.


Ecology professor Mark Boyce is one of four outstanding UAlberta researchers honoured with 2014 ASTech awards for their leadership in science and technology. (Videos: ASTech Foundation)

(Edmonton) Four of the University of Alberta’s leading researchers were honoured with Alberta Science and Technology (ASTech) awards for the excellence of their work and how it benefits society.

The awards, given out each year since 1989 by the non-profit Alberta Science and Technology Leadership Foundation, are considered the province’s highest honour in science and technology.

Mark Boyce: Passion for conservation

Mark Boyce, professor of ecology and Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Wildlife and Fisheries at the U of A, won the Outstanding Leadership in Alberta Science award. A world leader in wildlife ecology and conservation biology, Boyce has made fundamental discoveries to inform wildlife management decisions in the United States and Canada. His work has had a significant impact on conserving species including grizzly bears, Rocky Mountain wolves and spotted owls.

“I work on the premise that humans can coexist with wildlife, and this enriches our lives,” he says. “There is a substantial role for science in this, using research to find management practices that allow industrial development and wildlife populations to occur on the same landscape.”

Boyce continues to draw passion for his work from the environment around him. “Living in Alberta makes for abundant and exciting wildlife experiences,” he says. “There are few things more exciting than being a few metres away from a bugling bull elk or encountering a female grizzly bear with cubs on a trail.” 

Warren Finlay: Helping patients breathe easier

Mechanical engineering professor Warren Finlay also won the ASTech outstanding leadership award for his research on pharmaceutical aerosols. Finlay is one of the world’s pre-eminent engineering researchers focused on drugs inhaled into the lungs to treat diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cystic fibrosis.

Finlay says he considers his biggest accomplishment to be helping understand how aerosols act in the lungs and respiratory tract. He has been able to improve the methods and tools used to develop inhalers before companies spend millions of dollars moving the devices to clinical trials.

Finlay’s research has revolutionized inhaler design and allowed for dramatically improved drug delivery. “There are probably 500 million inhalers sold worldwide every year,” he notes, “and those inhalers are designed and developed with our methods.”

Matthew Benesch: Future leader in cancer research

Matthew Benesch, an MD/PhD student in the U of A’s biochemistry department, won the Leaders of Tomorrow Award for his promising research into new ways of treating cancer—and for his volunteer work with patients who may one day benefit from that research.

“It’s easy to find things to do when it’s in your environment,” says Benesch. “I’ve been doing a lot of cancer work, and it’s easy enough to spend some time and get some perspective by doing some work in the cancer wards.”

Now working on the PhD part of his combined degree, Benesch is showing remarkable promise with his cancer treatment research. “So far we’ve got one candidate working with the pharmaceutical industry to test, and now it’s headed to clinical trials,” he explains.

Benesch hopes his research will contribute to the development of new drugs that will eventually improve patients’ lives. “It’s nice to see something from the basic research side hopefully now make an impact on the clinical side.”

Julia Foght: Looking at oilsands tailings in a new light

Julia Foght, professor of biological sciences, took home the Innovation in Oil Sands Research award. Foght’s research on oilsands tailings ponds has shed light on pathways to better environmental remediation. She and her colleagues have revealed that, far from being devoid of life as was previously thought, tailings ponds are ecosystems that host about 8,000 species of microbes—some of which have never before been detected on Earth.

Her work has yielded insights into the role of biology in degrading tailings over time and shown that any plan for reclaiming oilsands mines must take that biology into account. Her research is also illuminating ways these microbes could be used to break down industry waste for bioremediation.

For Foght, the appeal of oilsands research lies in interacting with professionals from multiple disciplines with different viewpoints of the same problem. However, part of the challenge she faces in these interactions is people’s limited awareness of organisms that can’t be seen with the naked eye. The nature of the industry also spurs rapid development of technology, which allows constant re-evaluation of existing problems and creation of new solutions.

“I have to say, I thought we weren’t going to find anything when we first started looking at the ponds, but we just kept finding one new thing after another,” she says. “It was my joy to take those discoveries and apply them to bugs in the tailings ponds—and there was no looking back.”

Also winning an ASTech award was Eddy Isaacs, CEO of Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions, who earned his PhD from the U of A in 1974. Isaacs was honoured for his career-long commitment to promoting innovation in energy and the environment.

U of A paleontologist Phil Currie was named a finalist for the Excellence in Science and Technology Public Awareness award for his work as co-creator and lead instructor of Dino 101, the U of A’s first massive open online course.

Josh Pemberton, a PhD student pursuing biomedical research in the Department of Biological Sciences, was shortlisted for the Leaders of Tomorrow award, given to an individual aged 30 or younger who shows leadership potential in science and technology teaching, research or entrepreneurship.