John Charles Polanyi Prizes 2021

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John Charles Polanyi Prizes 2021

2021 Polanyi Prizes Honour Ontario University Researchers

The innovative and ground-breaking work of five Ontario university researchers has been recognized with the 2021 Polanyi Prizes. Their research ranges from improving outcomes for kidney transplant patients, developing new medical technologies, understanding the long-term economic impacts of public policy, leveraging machine learning and providing new insights into the future of the universe.

The prestigious prizes are awarded annually 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.

“The Ontario government supports exceptional research that advances new discoveries and innovation, fosters a skilled labour force, and promotes economic growth,” said Jill Dunlop, Minister of Colleges and Universities. “Recipients of the John C. Polanyi Prizes are producing much-needed solutions to address some of life’s most challenging problems to ensure a bright future for the people of Ontario.”

“The work undertaken by these researchers is an excellent example of the talent available across Ontario’s universities,” said Steve Orsini, President and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities. “By continuing to support and commercialize ground-breaking research and innovation, we can help ensure Ontario remains competitive, attracts new investment and creates a brighter future for our students, communities and the province.”

The Polanyi Prizes are awarded each year to early-career researchers who are either continuing postdoctoral work or have recently gained a faculty appointment. Each of the five winners receives $20,000 in recognition of their exceptional research in the fields of chemistry, literature, physics, economic science and physiology/medicine.

Learn more about 2021 Polanyi Prize winners by reading their research summaries below.

For more information about how the awards are administered, click the link below.

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Polanyi Prize in Physiology and Medicine

Dr. Fumin Guo, University of Toronto

University ofToronto

Each year, nearly 40,000 Canadians and their families are impacted by a medical condition known as sudden cardiac death (SCD). The most common cause of this often-fatal condition is the onset of an unusually high heart rate known medically as ventricular tachycardia (VT). Few VT therapy options currently exist and the ones that are available to patients have crucial limitations.

Dr. Fumin Guo is working to develop a number of tools and algorithms to improve the success rate of radiofrequency ablation – a VT treatment – using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Dr. Guo’s research is the first to better visualize and quantify the affected tissue in the heart and accurately deliver radiofrequency ablation without damaging surrounding nerves or tissue through 3-D real-time MRI guidance. It also offers a user-friendly software that integrates the MRI imaging and image processing tools that can be applied to MRI-guided VT treatment and other clinical applications.

In preclinical studies, Dr. Guo’s research has shown promise for improving long-term VT management and treatment in order to better translate clinical solutions for sudden cardiac death and help improve the lives of those affected by the condition.

Polanyi Prize in Physics

Dr. Eno Hysi, University of Toronto

University ofToronto

Having the ability to visualize typically invisible kidney scarring is critical for the allocation of kidney donations and maximizing their societal use. Dr. Eno Hysi’s research is helping provide a clearer picture of kidney health for physicians by studying the physics of light and sound interactions. Dr. Hysi’s work could offer life-changing outcomes for transplant patients and has the potential to revolutionize kidney transplant management in Canada.

Dr. Hysi measures this detrimental scarring by decoding the information in the ultrasound signals produced when short laser bursts are applied to the donated organ. Investigating the physics of this interaction in the kidney blood vessels and the surrounding soft tissues through photoacoustics enables identification of kidneys not suitable for transplant, as more scarring indicates more damage.

By studying the interplay of optical and acoustical phenomena in donated kidneys, Dr. Hysi offers a toolbox that can help physicians better manage available kidney donations and improve the outcomes of this important, time-sensitive process.

Dr. Gwendolyn Eadie, University of Toronto 

University ofToronto

Dark matter makes up 95 per cent of matter in the universe, yet it remains a mystery to scientists. Understanding the extent and amount of dark matter in the Milky Way and other galaxies in the universe can be critical to providing deeper insights into the workings of our galaxy.

While a significant amount of astronomical big data exists and continues to grow, using all available data to analyze and test theories about dark matter to determine how it affects larger systems, such as galaxies, can be a challenge.

To provide insight into long-standing questions about the universe, Dr. Gwendolyn Eadie is leading the way in an emerging interdisciplinary field called astrostatistics. Dr. Eadie’s research aims to bring together both astronomy and statistics to harness new and big data sets and create statistical models that can help astronomers gain insight and make more accurate predications about how dark matter is distributed in galaxies, and how it affects galaxy formation and evolution.

Dr. Eadie currently leads Canada’s first Astrostatistics Research Team and is the first faculty member at the University of Toronto to be appointed to both the departments of astronomy and statistics.

Polanyi Prize in Economic Science 

Dr. Adam Lavecchia, McMaster University 

Understanding the economic behaviour of individuals and families helps create effective public policy that better supports them. That’s why Dr. Adam Lavecchia is using economic theory, together with empirical evidence, to explore how individuals, households and organizations respond to government policy around three key areas: minimum wage legislation, savings and capital gains taxes and interventions for marginalized or underserved high school youth.

On minimum wage policy, Dr. Lavecchia explores how the effects of minimum wage increases on social welfare can be inferred by observing their impact on labour force participation and employment. In addition, he is also examining how these increases affect the distribution of earnings, labour supply and time spent on home production and child care within a household.

Dr. Lavecchia’s second area of research explores how individuals respond to changes to tax incentives for savings and capital gains. His research studies how subsidies for certain tax-advantaged accounts and capital gains taxes affect personal savings, investment choices and risk-taking behaviour in the long run.

Lastly, Dr. Lavecchia also aims to determine the key elements of successful educational interventions for marginalized youth by examining the Pathways to Education program, a non-profit organization serving youth in underserved communities across Canada. By analyzing administrative data from the Toronto District School Board, college and university enrolment and individual tax returns, Dr. Lavecchia looks at the impact of the Pathways program on the educational achievement, labour market and social outcomes of past participants in the program. In doing so, he can shed light on what offerings similar programs can include to help ensure long-term success.

Polanyi Prize in Chemistry

Dr. Farnaz Heidar-Zadeh, Queen’s University

Designing a life-saving drug requires chemists to test millions of molecules to find the optimal chemical compound. To make processes such as this more efficient, Dr. Farnaz Heidar-Zadeh is harnessing the power of machine learning and quantum chemistry to help scientists make discoveries faster and with fewer resources.

Dr. Heidar-Zadeh’s research approach, and the methods and software packages she develops and disseminates, provide an achievable, timely and scalable solution to the problem of molecular design. In addition, these methods can be used to explore phenomena, such as astrochemistry and physiological responses, that would be dangerous or expensive to study experimentally.