UAlberta wins big at ASTech Awards

University researchers prominent among latest winners of Alberta's highest honours in science and tech.


Some of the University of Alberta’s leading researchers in science, technology and agriculture were recognized with Alberta Science and Technology (ASTech) awards for the excellence of their work and the beneficial impact it has on 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.

The driving force behind Canada’s lead in glycomics

The ASTech award for Outstanding Leadership in Science is the latest honour in a recent string of accolades for Todd Lowary. An international leader in synthetic carbohydrate chemistry, Lowary is riding a well-deserved wave of success following the opening of the Canadian Glycomics Network (GlycoNet), part of the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence.

Lowary, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, was instrumental in leading the development of GlycoNet. From its home base at the U of A, it unites key Canadian glycomics researchers from more than 20 participating institutions with funding of more than $27 million over the next five years. Spearheaded by Lowary, GlycoNet also delivers comprehensive training in glycomics research and entrepreneurship, and translates research advances into tangible benefits for Canada.

Lowary’s work provides understanding of the processes bacteria use to interact with their environments. Of particular interest for fighting infection are the glycans—dense carbohydrates that cover the bacteria’s well-fortified cell walls—for the role they play in the cell’s defences and in their communication with their environments.

Glycans are essential components of mycobacteria, a family that includes the bacteria that cause leprosy and tuberculosis, which remain global threats. According to the World Health Organization, tuberculosis is second only to HIV/AIDS as the greatest killer worldwide due to a single infections agent, affecting millions of people each year.

Lowary’s pioneering contributions have provided the pathway for better diagnostics, treatments and potential vaccines for tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. “Canada is a leader in this area, and we’re excited about the future," he says. "[We are] going to lead the way in solving some of these unmet medical needs.”

Understanding the environment in real time

Arturo Sanchez-Azofeifa took home the 2015 award for Outstanding Achievement in Environmental Technology and Innovation. A professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Sanchez-Azofeifa and his team are using a network of ground-based sensors scattered around the world to learn more about the environment in real time.

To develop the globe-spanning network, called Enviro-Net, Sanchez-Azofeifa took inspiration from the 1996 film Twister to create the sensors and the software to handle the vast amount of data they produce.

The main component of Enviro-Net’s monitoring equipment is the Wireless Optical Phenology Station (ONESENSE®), a collection of low-powered sensors and data storage nodes that communicate back to a central location at the U of A, where Sanchez-Azofeifa and his colleagues can analyze the data. Through a partnership with the IBM Centre for Advanced Studies, the university has access to IBM’s satellite network to gather data from the sensors.

Sanchez-Azofeifa says it would be impossible to complete his work without the team of talented engineers and computing scientists at the U of A. “They work with the computational side of everything, and my role as a leader is to be the force driving the developments.”

Sanchez-Azofeifa says partners around the world have already installed sensors, and he believes Enviro-Net will be able to help solve universal problems such as drought.

“Our technology is being used right now in Australia, Singapore, England, Germany, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico,” he says. “This small project turned into a global project really quickly!”

Making bigtime progress on the nano scale

Chemical physicist Robert Wolkow, who received the 2015 award for Outstanding Leadership in Alberta Technology, has made enormous breakthroughs in nanotechnology through learning how to control structure at the single-atom level.

“We can not only see materials at that level, but we can move atoms and position them as we like,” explains Wolkow, a professor in the U of A's Department of Physics. “With computation and theoretical models, we can predict what would be useful atomic structures to build, and we build them.”

Wolkow and his team at the U of A and the National Institute for Nanotechnology are building new devices that are useful in a wide range of industries. His main focus is a device that can replace conventional transistors found in electronics.

“We’re aiming to make circuitry that consumes one thousand times less power than today’s circuitry,” he says. “This would lead to enhanced portability and function, longer battery life, less energy consumption and less materials being used. It’s really the ideal green technology.”

Bio-based chemicals for a greener future

As the world moves toward greener technology, there’s a greater need for new ways to develop materials like plastics and polyurethane that are traditionally made from petrochemicals. That’s what Jonathan Curtis and the Lipid Chemistry Group, winners of the ASTech award for Applied Technology, are accomplishing at the U of A.

“The objective is to use lipids to make bio-based chemicals and materials,” says Curtis, the group's scientific director and professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science. “Our first project was to develop a polyol to be used in polyurethane manufacturing. Our idea was to look at really simple chemical processes that could be performed in a very cost-effective way.”

The result is what the team calls the LIPROL based series of polyols, the bio-based building blocks for a range of different plastics and synthetic materials. After the initial development, the team licensed the technology, and the vegetable-oil-based polyol is now being manufactured on a small industrial scale.

“As we’ve been doing development in this area, we’ve developed new generations of this technology,” Curtis says. “We’ve actually got three patent applications in on different aspects of polyol technology and making polyol from oils.”

But the work doesn’t stop there. Because different communities don't have access to the same renewable feedstocks, the team is on the lookout for new materials to convert into bio-based materials, which Curtis says could have a direct impact on making greater use of lesser-used crops in the agriculture industry.

Curtis says by finding new ways to use less prominent crops, his team creates new opportunities for local farmers to expand their business.

“Canola has been our focus because it’s readily available in Alberta, but it’s not necessary to exclusively use canola,” he notes. “We’re also working with camelina, which is a crop several companies are really interested in establishing as a bigger crop.”

Curtis says the work wouldn’t be possible without a team that works efficiently together. “Having the opportunity to come to the University of Alberta and work with a group that has already started to work on lipid-based transformations was a great opportunity for me to move into this area.”

Plotting the future of Alberta agriculture

The U of A's Breton Plots have been fertile ground for agricultural experiments since 1929, but they're still yielding paydirt for researchers and farmers—earning the Breton Plots Management Team the 2015 ASTech award for Innovation in Agricultural Science.

The team uses the site for a wide range of agricultural research, but the main objective is to help Alberta farmers better manage areas of less-fertile grey soil that cover 15 per cent of the province.The plots, located about 100 kilometres southwest of Edmonton, were originally used to test different crop rotations and fertilizers to determine the best way to promote growth in the grey soil zones. After a successful combination was discovered, a second long-term experiment was set up. The results from the two long-term experiments have helped the Breton Plots team understand how to effectively use the grey soil.

“We’ve shown that rotations with a mix of perennial and annual rotations are most productive on these soils,” says team member Miles Dyck, professor in the Department of Renewable Resources.

Dyck has also turned his attention to climate change. “One of my projects is looking at the influence of long-term agricultural management on greenhouse gas emissions,” he says. “What we’re looking at is how the different long-term rotations and practices influence the amount of greenhouse gases emitted from the soil.”

Dyck notes Alberta is culturally rooted in the agriculture industry, and his team tries to publish their work publicly on an annual basis. “When I talk about my research to others, I can tell there’s a lot of interest in it,” he says. “Other scientists are interested, farmers are interested and the agriculture community is interested. That’s the impact that I’ve seen as being a small part of the larger Breton Plots group.”

—With files from Alberta Science and Technology