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The innovative and ground-breaking work of five university researchers in Ontario has been recognized with the award of the 2019 Polanyi Prizes, ranging from discoveries that could lead to game-changing advances in the safe handling of nuclear waste to better long term outcomes for liver transplant patients.
These prestigious prizes are awarded in honour of Ontario’s Nobel Prize winner John C. Polanyi, who won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research in chemical kinetics.
“I would like to congratulate this year’s recipients of the John C. Polanyi Prizes,” said Ross Romano, Minister of Colleges and Universities. “Their work helps advance Ontario’s innovation economy, strengthening our province’s reputation in research, while changing the way we approach and understand issues that directly impact Ontarians.”
“Their innovative work is an excellent reminder of why it is so important to support our researchers, the bright young minds that are helping solve some of our most pressing issues, producing breakthroughs and helping to create a better future for students, our communities, and the province,” said David Lindsay, President and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities (COU).
The Polanyi Prizes are awarded each year to innovative researchers who are either continuing postdoctoral work or have recently gained a faculty appointment. Each winner receives $20,000 in recognition of their exceptional research in the fields of chemistry, literature, physics, economic science and physiology/medicine.
For more information about how the awards are administered, click the link below.
Dr. Brodeur’s award recognizes his research into intriguing socio-economic topics, including how domestic terrorism causes harm to local economies, and how conditions in 19th-century U.S. frontier towns still negatively affect women today.
Dr. Brodeur is examining data related to several hundred violent incidents – including mass shootings – in the U.S between 1970 and 2016 and has found that, on average, local city or county employment and wages dropped by around 2 per cent in the months and years following an incident. The economic cause is fear and anxiety in local populations about the future, causing them to go out less and spend less, including major purchases such as cars and homes.
His research also aims to demonstrate that the volume of media coverage of a violent incident has a direct correlation with the economic harm caused. He hopes his findings will lead to policy suggestions on how mass media should cover these kinds of incidents, for example, avoiding detailed discussion of mass shooters’ modus operandi.
In his other project, Dr Brodeur is examining why the conditions in frontier communities in the U.S. during westward expansion created economic effects in the lives of women that still reverberate today in conservative areas in the Mid-West and states like Utah. During the push west in the 19th century, frontier towns were isolated and more religious, women stayed at home and were socially suppressed in aspects such as access to divorce, and the Bible was often the only means through which to learn to read. Dr. Brodeur aims to show the direct links to conditions today; in these areas, for example, women still have lower employment rates and are less likely to be to be elected to public office.
Dr. Brodeur’s prize also recognizes his recent work on the socio-economic origins of the proliferation of sex workers in South-east Asia.
Although short-term survival of liver transplant recipients has dramatically improved over the last three decades, long-term survival has not changed significantly. Dr. Bhat aims to improve long-term outcomes for these patients by examining the biological factors underlying the most common conditions that affect survival.
Liver transplants are currently often carried out for liver cancer and fatty liver disease. But recurrent and new onset cancer, post-transplant diabetes and fatty liver disease in the transplanted liver can significantly compromise lifespan. Immuno-suppressant drugs taken by transplant patients to prevent rejection of the new liver are a significant risk factor for these complications. Dr Bhat’s research program is using a precision medicine approach to pinpoint the molecular processes behind post-transplant disease.
She is developing a number of processes to do this, such as examining the genetic makeup of both pre-and post-transplant tumours to understand the impact of immuno-suppressant drugs on their gene expression; and probing the interaction of such drugs with the human microbiome as another potential factor in-post transplant disease. In other lines of inquiry, her team is looking at protein interactions in liver diseases and regeneration in transplant using both laboratory and bioinformatics tools; and, by combining patient data with molecular data, developing algorithms that could predict cancer or metabolic disease in liver-transplant patients.
Dr. Bhat’s research examining the molecular basis of disease in the context of transplants is unique, as biological research has tended to focus on short-term outcomes such as organ rejection. Her research aims to lead to improved outcomes post-transplantation.
Dr. Miranda Quintana is creating computational algorithms to gain new understanding of the properties of complex chemical compounds, potentially leading to game-changing advances such as zero-loss electricity transmission and safe handling of nuclear waste.
Although current computer-based studies into chemical reactions of compounds made of common elements are largely effective, they are extremely slow and inefficient when it comes to studying heavier elements. Dr. Miranda Quintana’s work focuses on examining the highly-complex electron interactions in strongly correlated systems (such as molecules containing rare-earth elements, the lanthanides and actinides), which hold enormous potential for industrial and energy uses.
He has helped to develop a computational framework called FANCI which, by combining mathematical data with coding, is designed to speed up the development, implementation, and testing of new theoretical tools to study general chemical systems.
The goal of the FANCI framework is to study previously inaccessible compounds and discover their properties, such as thermodynamics, magnetism, superconductivity, and whether they act as catalysts.
The potential practical uses are many. For instance, scientists have long sought to create materials that are superconductive at regular temperatures – currently they have to be cooled to near absolute zero to work – which would open the door to microscopic data storage devices, powerful quantum computers, and power transmission grids that work at near 100-per-cent efficiency, revolutionizing the power industry. The work could also create new types of nuclear fuel as well as safe and simple ways of disposing of nuclear waste.
Dr, Miranda, who came to Canada from Cuba in 2018 to conduct post-doctoral research, aims to make his computational methods user-friendly and transferable to other researchers for use in their own work looking for a new generation of materials and molecular devices with desired features.
Dr. Walton’s research examines the rise of vernacular literature in early medieval Europe, and explains how the stages of this rise—transitioning from literature in Latin to literature written in local languages—unfolded in the British Isles.
Dr. Walton shows that even as early English speakers recognized the influence of Latin texts, they also promoted the production and preservation of literature in local languages. Owing to this emphasis on multilingualism in early medieval England, vernacular literature developed rapidly during the sixth through the twelfth centuries. Early formations of English vernacular literature in turn gave critical impetus to the spread of vernacular literature occurring throughout Europe.
Dr. Walton’s work examines the poetry of the two earliest named poets in English literature, Caedmon and Cynewulf, alongside writings by monk and historian the Venerable Bede (known as the father of English history). She situates this work—alongside the work of many anonymous poets and historians—in the context of a long and dynamic tradition of early medieval English and Latin writing.
The project, under development as a book, shows how this formative period in English literature influenced the trajectory of later literary traditions. This work retraces and explores the varied networks, diverse points of contact, and paths of information that enabled literary conversation across national borders.
Dr. Maria Drout, Assistant Professor in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Toronto, receives the Polanyi Prize in Physics.
New technology is enabling astronomers to witness cosmological phenomena as never before, bringing new discoveries every day and with them a new understanding of the universe.
Dr. Maria Drout is recognized for her research in the evolution, influence and ultimate fate of massive stars by using ground and space-based telescopes to study supernova explosions and other exotic transients, as well as populations of massive stars in nearby galaxies.
In 2017, she along with colleagues at Carnegie Observatories made astronomical history as the first observers to identify the visual component of an astronomy event, the merger of two neutron stars, that generated gravitational waves detected on Earth an event that turned out to be 130 million years in the making.
This observation was part of this first ever astronomical investigation of a phenomenon using both light and gravitational waves, detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Before this, the only other gravity waves detected by LIGO were generated by colliding black holes. But black holes let no light escape, which means they can sense the gravitational waves, but astronomers could see nothing.
Drout’s has demonstrated that most of the heavy elements in the universe like gold and platinum were created in neutron star mergers and is also helping scientists explain how gamma ray bursts are born and how fast the universe is expanding.