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Vol 39  No 16
June 28, 2007


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NSERC Discovery Grants

Winning research
by Deborah Inkpen


Seventy professors from Memorial University received $7,986,429 in Discovery Grants to support their research in the natural sciences and engineering from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) this May. These awards are normally paid out over five years.

NSERC is a federal agency whose role is to make investments in people, discovery and innovation for the benefit of all Canadians. The agency invests in people by supporting some 23,000 university students and postdoctoral fellows in their advanced studies. NSERC promotes discovery by funding more than 11,000 university professors every year and helps make innovation happen by encouraging about 1,300 Canadian companies to invest in university research and training. Over the past 10 years, NSERC has invested $6 billion in basic research, university-industry projects, and the training of Canada’s next generation of scientists and engineers.

Here’s just a sample of some of the recent grant holders and their innovative research.

Under my feet

According to Dr. Colin Farquharson, adjunct professor in Earth Sciences, “the goal of geophysics is to understand and perhaps even predict the dynamic processes that move and shape the Earth beneath our feet and to ‘look’ into the Earth to see these processes in action or their consequences.”

He’s using electromagnetic fields to remotely sensor the structure of the subsurface of the Earth to depths of tens of kilometres.

“Electric currents are inducted to flow in rocks,” explained Dr. Farquharson. “The strength and disposition of the currents depend of the rock type: metallic ores, for example, are relatively good at conducting electricity and give rise to electromagnetic fields which can be measured. From this it’s possible to extract information about the rock types in the subsurface.”

Dr. Farquharson is aiming to improve on the computer programs that are used to interpret measurements of electromagnetic field through his research project called Modelling and Inversion of Geophysical Electromagnetic Data. He was awarded an NSERC Discovery Grant in the amount of $16,480 per year for five years.

Dr. Farquharson hopes his research will result in computer programs that provide more detailed and reliable models of the subsurface of the Earth. The programs will be of use to the mining industry, enabling new ore deposits to be found and in remotely sensing groundwater resources, geotechnical applications. His programs will also aid in determining the deep structure of the Earth’s crust.

Food for thought

The growing demand for fast, accurate and reliable quality inspection tools for the food processing industry has been driven by a number of factors; more stringent government safety standards, rising labour costs and increased consumer expectations for higher quality food products.
“In many food processing applications, human inspectors are simply too subjective and unreliable given the time allotted to perform the inspections task and the tedious nature of the work,” said Dr. Nicholas Krouglicof, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. He is looking at image analysis tools for automated inspection in the food processing industry thanks to a Discovery Grant from NSERC.

“Computer vision is proving to be a rapid, objective and cost-effective alternative to human inspection for a growing number of food products,” said Dr. Krouglicof. “However, significant technological challenges remain particularly in the case of ‘natural foods’ such as fish and poultry. I hope to address these challenges through the development of both computer vision hardware and image analysis tools especially for the automated inspection of natural foods.”

Dr. Krouglicof feels that no single detection technology will ever adequately satisfy the requirements of the food processing industry and believes that a more promising approach is to combine (or fuse) several different images taken using various wavelengths of light ranging from infrared to ultraviolet. He has also proposed the development of an “intelligent” camera specifically designed for automated inspection in harsh industrial environments.

Dr. Krouglicof will receive $15,000 per annum for five years for his research project, titled, Computer Vision Hardware and Image Analysis Tools for Automated Inspection in the Food Processing Industry.

Hopf to it!

The research interests of Dr. Mikhail Kotchetov, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, are primarily in the theory of Hopf algebras, named for the German mathematician Heinz Hopf.

Dr. Kotchetov has received a NSERC Discovery Grant for $11,000 per annum for five years for his project, Algebras with Action and Co-action of Hopf Algebras. He is especially interested in the connections between the theory of Hopf algebras and the theory of Lie groups and algebras, which are algebraic structures that were first introduced by the Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie to study continuous symmetry of differential equations, and later found numerous generalizations and applications in other areas.

“In modern mathematics,” explained Dr. Kotchetov, “the term algebra refers to any set endowed with operations of addition, multiplication and scalar multiplication that satisfy certain axioms (such as associative and distributive laws). In addition to the sets of real and complex numbers, familiar examples of algebras include the set of continuous functions on an interval, and the set of square matrices of a certain size.”

In the early 1940s Heinz Hopf discovered bialgebras – a new type of structure that is simultaneously an algebra and a coalgebra. This means that the set is endowed not only with multiplication, but also with comultiplication, which can be roughly described as “multiplication backwards,” he said.

“While multiplication assigns to each pair of elements one element, called their product, comultiplication assigns to one element a sum of pairs of elements, called its coproduct,” said Dr. Kotchetov. “Bialgebras that admit a generalized inverse (called antipode) are referred to as Hopf algebras. Since their discovery in the 1940s, Hopf algebras arose in many areas of mathematics and theoretical physics: knot and braid theory, operator algebras, quantum theory and statistical mechanics, to name a few.”

The interest in the theory of Hopf algebras was greatly increased by the discovery of so-called quantum groups (which are really Hopf algebras) by V. Drinfeld and M. Jimbo in the mid-1980s. For this achievement V. Drinfeld was awarded a Fields Medal (similar to a Nobel Prize for mathematicians) in 1990. The theory of Hopf algebras also gives a new unified approach to many classical objects and problems of algebra, for example group algebras, enveloping algebras, automorphisms and derivations, and graded algebras.

What’s all the noise about?

In our increasingly industrial and crowded society, people are frequently working and living in the presence of unwanted noise. The negative impact of this noise on processing information becomes more noticeable as individuals grow older, in part as a result of age-related hearing and vision loss. In addition to these perceptual difficulties, older adults often report difficulty in remembering information. Recent research has identified a link between perceptual processes such as hearing and vision and cognitive processes such as memory and understanding conversations.

Dr. Aimée Surprenant’s latest project, Cognition Over the Lifespan, will explore the link between perceptual and memory processes in order to determine how much of the age-related cognitive differences can be traced to perceptual difficulties and how much should be attributed to other causes. The approach will be to measure, control and explain difficulty in understanding and determine its effect on memory performance. To accomplish this, Dr. Surprenant will add various amounts of visual and auditory noise to stimuli and individual identification functions. Using identification functions, she will be able to predict memory performance.

“My long term goal is to develop a formal, quantitative model of memory that will allow researchers and practitioners to pinpoint the areas of functioning that are critical to efficient cognitive processing,” said Dr. Surprenant of the Department of Psychology. “Determining the causes of age-related cognitive declines will become more and more important in Newfoundland and Labrador as the percentage of the population over the age of 65 is projected by Statistics Canada to almost double by the year 2031.”

Dr. Surprenant received an NSERC Discovery Grant in the amount of $25, 745 for five years for her project.

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