Field of leaders: Federal investment of nearly $600,000 in high-tech research labs and equipment

Mar 15th, 2019

By Jeff Green

From left are Drs. Christopher Kozak, Christina Bottaro and Dr. Michael Babechuk. Photo by Rich Blenkinsopp.
Field of leaders: Federal investment of nearly $600,000 in high-tech research labs and equipment

New federal funding will help expand Memorial’s research infrastructure and attract the best and brightest talent to Newfoundland and Labrador.

Projects led by teams in the Faculty of Science are receiving nearly $600,000 from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF).

Co-applicants Drs. Christopher Kozak and Christina Bottaro, professors, Department of Chemistry, are receiving $300,000 to purchase a new state of the art Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption/Ionization-Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometer.

A team in the Department of Earth Sciences, led by Dr. Michael Babechuk, assistant professor, is receiving $297,110 to create the Metal Detector Facility: An Atlantic Canada Ultra-Trace Element Geochemistry Centre – the first of its kind in the region.

Drs. Stephen Piercey, professor, and John Hanchar, University Research Professor, are co-applicants on the project.

The equipment from both grants will be supported through Memorial’s Core Research Equipment and Instrument Training (CREAIT) Network, which provides for operations, maintenance and upgrades through its revenue generation model.

Big CFI boost

On March 13, Kirsty Duncan, minister of Science and Sport, announced a major boost in funding for the CFI of $763 million over the next five years and $462 million per year starting in 2023-24.

The federal government says the investment provides the CFI with long-term, stable funding, one of the key recommendations from the Fundamental Science Review, completed last year by an expert panel.

Minister Duncan also announced more than $39 million for high-tech research labs and equipment through JELF, including the new projects at Memorial.

‘One-of-a-kind studies’

The new mass spectrometer to be secured through Drs. Kozak and Bottaro’s application will serve users throughout Memorial.

“This instrument will allow researchers in our groups, and others, to perform one-of-a-kind studies on new polymers, biological samples and other molecules,” Dr. Kozak told the Gazette during a recent tour of labs in the Department of Chemistry.

“There are not many of these instruments in Canada, and certainly we will be the only functioning one in Atlantic Canada, to my knowledge.”

Dr. Kozak says the mass spectrometer is a central tool to his and Dr. Bottaro’s research programs.

“Personally, the absence of this instrument has prevented me from fully exploring the properties of the new, potentially biodegradable polymers that we are making in my lab,” he noted.

“With this instrument to be installed over the coming year, we will have increased capacity to compete with other researchers in the vitally important field of degradable plastics and new materials, to share this knowledge with the world, and to create new intellectual property that may lead to patents and collaborations with global manufacturers of new, biodegradable plastics.”

Leading-edge lab

The CFI is also funding infrastructure necessary to create a new geochemical facility in the Department of Earth Sciences, which will include a new cutting-edge clean laboratory and mass spectrometer.

Dr. Babechuk says the new lab will be unique in its ability to measure trace elements, down to ultra-low levels in rocks, minerals, sediments and waters.

“The purpose is to open up a realm of geochemistry that is completely new at Memorial and only capable at a handful of laboratories across Canada,” he explained.

He says that among the numerous interdisciplinary research applications possible with the facility, research from the Department of Earth Sciences will significantly improve the understanding of ore deposits and other natural resources, as well as the ability to use them to reconstruct ancient atmospheric and oceanic conditions important to reveal the evolution of different forms of early life.

“The CFI-funded infrastructure will contribute to the training of the next 15-20 years of Memorial undergraduate and graduate students.”— Dr. Michael Babechuk

Dr. Babechuk says the federal investment is a “milestone” in the reinvigoration of trace element geochemistry at Memorial and in Atlantic Canada.

“The CFI-funded infrastructure will contribute to the training of the next 15-20 years of Memorial undergraduate and graduate students who will advance into a variety of different careers, including into the Newfoundland and Labrador natural resources sector.”

Real impact

Dr. Neil Bose, vice-president (research), says funding from the CFI ensures Memorial researchers have the right tools to make a big impact.

He says Memorial has developed a rigorous approach to sharing, maintaining and staffing large infrastructure of this type with research teams from across the university through its CREAIT Network laboratories.

“Investments in critical infrastructure and research equipment allow our teams of researchers to lead important scientific studies that will benefit all Canadians,” he said.

“Continued funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation also allows Memorial to recruit and retain outstanding researchers to Newfoundland and Labrador. I congratulate the research teams from our Faculty of Science and wish them well in their research programs.”

The JELF program aims to help universities attract and retain top talent from around the globe by providing researchers with the highly specialized infrastructure they require to be leaders in their field.



Jeff Green is a senior communications advisor with the Office of the Vice-President (Research). He can be reached at