Nov. 18, 2020

Eight scholars receive federal infrastructure grants

Leaders in innovation pursue cutting-edge research in engineering, science, and medicine
Colin Dalton, one of the recipients of CFI JELF funding.
Colin Dalton is one of the recipients of CFI JELF funding. Photo by Mark Skogan

Eight innovative research projects from a wide variety of disciplines across UCalgary have received significant funding from Canadian Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF).

Named for the first chair of the CFI board, JELF awards up to 40 per cent of a project’s funding requirements in an effort to help “excellent researchers” by providing the foundational research infrastructure they need to lead in their respective fields and produce transformative work.

“These researchers are working on highly innovative solutions for huge challenges in healthcare, environment and industry,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “This funding is of great help as these scholars pursue their cutting-edge research platforms that are aimed squarely at bringing enormous benefit to the world.”

The eight transformative projects that are receiving JELF funding are:

Improving water purification: Investigating electrokinetic transport phenomena at the microscale using fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy
Dr. Anne Benneker, PhD, assistant professor, Schulich School of Engineering

In many processes, such as water treatment and soil remediation processes, the transport of ions, particles and other contaminations is critically important. Applying external gradients, such as electric fields and different temperatures, can enhance the performance and reduce the amount of energy required in the process. Researchers will investigate strategies to enhance mass transport using Fluorescence Lifetime Imaging Microscopy (FLIM) and particle tracking. FLIM will yield real-time information at a microscopic scale about the local ion concentrations and the influence of different imposed and induced fields on the modes of transport. Having a better understanding of this will lead to more efficient ways of water purification and soil remediation as well as providing benefits in applications such as fuel cells and batteries.

Measuring success of reclaimed wetlands: Multiple sensing instruments — a transformational methodology to assess effectiveness of oil sands wetland reclamation
Dr. Jan Ciborowski, PhD, professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science

After an oil sands mine closes, the land is reclaimed to “an equivalent state.” But newly created systems are not comparable to those in undisturbed landscapes hundreds or thousands of years old. Using remote sensor images, field surveys and dataloggers, this project will determine how well the processes and biological characteristics of wetlands built in the post-mining landscape mimic early characteristics of naturally-forming wetlands. Researchers will build a geodatabase to house and interpret data compared to earlier wetland construction approaches, which will produce a transformational methodology to characterize and assess ecological condition of wetlands in reclaimed areas of the oil sands, enabling industry to develop reclamation recipes that restore ecological functions and biodiversity.

Creating a better needle: Integrated microneedle and microelectrode arrays for biomedical applications
Dr. Colin Dalton, PhD, assistant professor, Schulich School of Engineering and director of the Microsystems Hub

Needles, a mainstay in health care, can cause pain and tissue trauma and they require expertise to use. Microneedles could eliminate pain by penetrating only the upper layers of skin, avoiding nerves. An array of microneedles would extract fluids or dispense drugs in sufficient volumes. Researchers are tackling challenges in the micro fabrication of microneedle arrays by investigating a nonmechanical micropumping method called electrokinetic micropumping. This method moves fluids using electric fields, is easier to control with digital electronics and it would enable automated systems. This project will lead to the development, implementation and testing of compact, reliable microneedle systems to provide controlled biofluid extraction and infusion without direct medical supervision, thus reducing healthcare costs.

Understanding atomic structures of new materials: Acquisition of an X-ray diffractometer for structural characterization of electronic materials for energy
Dr. Michelle Dolgos, PhD, assistant professor, Faculty of Science

Researchers in the field of materials chemistry create and customize materials for applications in new technologies used in a wide number of fields, including sustainability, climate change, energy, clean water, economic growth and healthcare. When developing any new technology, it’s important to determine how the atoms are arranged in a material to see what drives its behavior and to link the atomic structure to the physical properties. Researchers will use the X-ray diffractometer — the first instrument of its type in Canada — to study electronic materials for energy-related applications. They will perform local structural studies of materials and make real time measurements while the materials are subjected to various operating conditions.

The power of the sun: Sunlight driven reforming of biomass for sustainable production of hydrogen and value-added products
Dr. Jinguang Hu, PhD, assistant professor, Schulich School of Engineering

As well as hydrocarbons from fossil fuels, biomass is composed of carbohydrates that can be used as the feedstock to produce bioenergy, biomaterials and biochemicals. A biomass-based biorefinery is a promising route to a sustainable economy. But current concepts employ thermochemical or biochemical technology to convert biomass and they consume a lot of energy and emit carbon. In this project, researchers will pursue technology that uses sunlight as energy source to produce value-added products from biomass and sustainable hydrogen from water splitting simultaneously. The research has the potential for profitable collaboration with pulp and paper and oil and gas industries.

Fighting dementia: Understanding neuro-vascular function in health and chronic conditions
Dr. Aaron Phillips, PhD, assistant professor, Cumming School of Medicine

At least 20 per cent of dementia cases in Canada are vascular dementia, which may be caused by disrupted or dysfunctional communication between neurons and vascular structures. The brain requires precise control of blood flow to ensure proper neuronal metabolism. The neurovascular unit — a complex system at the nexus of the nervous and vascular systems — is "engineered" to ensure coupling of blood flow to neuronal metabolism, a process called “neurovascular coupling."  Researchers will build on existing animal research to unravel the mechanisms of neurovascular coupling in un-anaesthetized humans, evaluate how it changes with disease, and test new ways to improve neurovascular function. This research will help better understand vascular-cognitive impairment and other cerebrovascular disorders, improving treatment and reducing health-care costs.

Understanding arthritis: Structure-function tissue interactions in arthritis
Dr. Sarah Manske, PhD assistant professor, Cumming School of Medicine
Dr. Roman Krawetz, PhD, associate professor, Cumming School of Medicine

Researchers will perform functional assessments on joint tissues to further the understanding of the two most common forms of arthritis, osteoarthritis and inflammatory arthritis. Cartilage, bone and ligaments in our joints are designed to transmit mechanical loads from one side of the joint to the other. In arthritic diseases, these tissues are compromised leading to a loss of joint function and disability. A better understanding of how these joint tissues lose mechanical function as arthritis progresses will help develop new drugs, stem cell therapies and other treatments. Using quantitative biomechanics and high-resolution multi-modal imaging will further knowledge into how tissues are compromised in arthritis, help develop therapies and increase the quality of life for people suffering from arthritis.

Understanding changing landscapes: High-resolution topographic mapping of the Earth's surface
Dr. Daniel Shugar, PhD, associate professor, Faculty of Science

Floods are the most costly natural hazard in Canada and every year, thousands of landslides occur across the country, impacting critical infrastructure, or starting a cascade of hazards. The severity and frequency of natural hazards are increasing in a warming climate. Our ability to understand the hazards and risks posed by these events is increasing, in part, because of high-resolution mapping technologies. Employing high-resolution topographic and bathymetric data using a suite of instruments operated from the ground, air, and water, this research will ultimately increase the understanding of, and ability to, forecast how the alpine landscapes of Western Canada are evolving, especially in the context of a changing climate.

Aaron Phillips is an assistant professor in the Cumming School of Medicine’s departments of Physiology and Pharmacology, Cardiac Sciences and Clinical Neurosciences and member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute.
Roman Krawetz, PhD, is an associate professor in the Cumming School of Medicine’s Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy and member of the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health.