Federal grants open doors to discoveries, collaborations and training
Breakthroughs in everything from improvements to prosthetic hands to the identification of emerging environmental pollutants.
Six of the seven Research Tools and Instruments (RTI) grants provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council (NSERC) through its 2022 Discovery Research Programs Competition to researchers at Memorial were in the Faculty of Science.
RTI grants support the purchase of research equipment; the grants for Memorial total $533,091.
“In a highly competitive program like NSERC RTI, with a known success rate of only 25 per cent, we were thrilled to discover that 75 per cent of the applications from researchers in the Faculty of Science were successful,” said Dr. Jacqueline Blundell, associate dean of Science.
“This is an outstanding accomplishment, not just for the Faculty of Science, but for the entire Memorial community. The equipment will enable our faculty to continue to make amazing discoveries, expand collaborations and provide incredible hands-on training opportunities for our students.”
The successful projects in Science were led by Dr. Xianta Jiang, Computer Science; Dr. Susan Ziegler, Earth Sciences; Dr. Ashlyn Swift-Gallant, Psychology; Drs. Lindsay Cahill and Karl Jobst, Chemistry; and Dr. Anand Yethiraj, Physics and Physical Oceanography.
Dr. Xianta Jiang received $88,983 for an Equipment System for Developing Natural Control Interface of Next Generation Affordable Prosthetic Hands.
The primary goal of the equipment is to help him learn to what extent AI technology can enable amputees to use a prosthetic hand as naturally as an intact one.
“This research is important as its outcomes could be used to manufacture advanced, affordable and easy-to-use prosthetic hands for amputees in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada and worldwide,” he said.
“This new funding provides my research program with the most important and fundamental equipment for developing and testing our methods and offers hands-on training opportunities to my students, as well as serving as a platform for collaboration between related labs at Memorial University.”
Dr. Ziegler, who is a Canada Research Chair in Boreal Biogeochemistry, alongside co-applicants Drs. Shawn Leroux, Biology, and Penny Morrill, Earth Sciences, received $67,184 for their project, Total Carbon and Nitrogen Analyzer for Biogeochemical Research Spanning the Terrestrial-aquatic-extraterrestrial Realms.
“This is a nuts-and-bolts sort of award providing funds for a fundamental piece of equipment that our students and research teams require in our efforts to better understand biogeochemical processes in our environment,” said Dr. Ziegler. “The equipment will support the measurement of carbon and nitrogen in various sample types informing on elemental cycling within and across terrestrial, aquatic and marine ecosystems in the region.”
She says results from their collective research is informing climate and other environmental feed backs critical to the development of earth systems models required in climate prediction and mitigation efforts, as well as understanding extraterrestrial analog sites in service of biosignatures of life on other planets.
Dr. Swift-Gallant’s project, Stereology with Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Examining Cells and Circuits in Neuroscience Research, received $119,647.
The system automatically quantifies the number, shape and size of three-dimensional structures and is the gold standard method for analyzing cell number and morphology, while accounting for spatial information, thus allowing for accurate within-nuclei and circuit-level analysis.
“Stereology is essential to accurately measure neuro-anatomy, and on its own, allows for more rapid data acquisition,” she said. “With the addition of the new AI technology, we will be able to complete neuroanatomical analyses at 10 times the speed of traditional stereology. This is extremely valuable for our research.”
Her lab will use the technology to study where hormones act and how hormone action within those identified sites influence the development of the “social-sexual” neurocircuitry.
By studying the neuro-anatomical development and function of this neural circuit, Dr. Swift-Gallant’s research serves as a prototype for advancing our understanding of the mechanisms involved in the emergence of individual differences in brain and behaviour.
Other users on campus will also be able to use the technology for their research addressing how neuro-anatomy is altered in preclinical models of various neurological conditions.
Dr. Cahill received $112,774 for her project, High Resolution Magic Angle Spinning NMR Probe for Biological Tissue Samples.
The funding will allow her to buy a probe that will allow her to conduct state-of-the-art metabolomics on unprocessed animal and human tissue.
“This research tool will allow us to identify sensitive biomarkers that are essential to develop diagnostic tests of placental function and brain health,” she said. “It’s critical for the success of several ongoing funded research projects to study placental and brain tissue samples and will provide the highest signal sensitivity and spectral resolution currently available, allowing us to fully realize the potential for NMR-based metabolomics.”
Dr. Cahill hopes the research will have an impact on diagnosis, prognosis and optimizing management in clinical practice, with the ultimate goals of preventing still-birth, improving morbidities in children and assessing brain health and guiding lifestyle interventions.
Dr. Karl Jobst’s project, A Comprehensive Platform to Enable High-throughput Sample Preparation and Multidimensional Separation for Exposomics Research, received $113,884.
“My group will use the RTI funding to purchase state-of-the-art instrumentation that will enable high throughput separation and analysis of environmental pollutants,” he said. “Most environmental pollutants and their health impacts are unknown because they are too complex to disentangle using traditional methods. This instrumentation will play a crucial role in our efforts to understand them.”
He says the research tool will accelerate several ongoing research projects that aim to characterize pollutants, including micro- and nano-plastics in water, air and biological tissue. It also adds a dimension of separation and sensitivity that will allow them to tackle challenging projects that could not be achieved previously.
Ultimately, Dr. Jobst hopes the research will result in the identification of emerging environmental pollutants, which is the first step toward establishing guidelines to limit exposure and to prevent adverse health outcomes that result from pollution.
Dr. Yethiraj received $30,619 for his project, Fluorescence Correlation Spectroscopy Setup for Short-time Diffusion and Microrheology Studies in Soft and Biological Materials.
“We are interested in molecular diffusion, particularly in living cells,” he said. “The environment inside living cells is very crowded and we want to look at the diffusion of a molecule, such as a protein, at short time scales before it bumps into its many neighbours, and at long time scales, when you get the effect of not just the neighbours, but the entire micro-environment.”
He says the RTI funding will purchase equipment that can sensitively measure weak fluorescence as a function of time from tens of nanoseconds to seconds. It will also allow him to obtain equipment to construct correlation functions based on these time-resolved intensities.
“A post-doctoral researcher in my lab, Dr. Dillip Mohapatra, is putting this equipment and optics together to construct the device and realize the technique known as fluorescence correlation spectroscopy, and interest for this technique crosses other Faculty of Science disciplines, for example, Dr. Erika Merschrod in Chemistry and Dr. Valerie Booth in Biochemistry.”