Canada's up-and-coming innovators honoured at 6th annual Mitacs Awards
Ottawa, ON — Five researchers from across Canada were recognized last night for their efforts to advance innovation and transform the lives of Canadians. Their contributions range from creating a faster, less expensive method of testing for food contaminants, to fighting viral outbreaks like Zika and Congo Fever, to developing a low-cost urine test to effectively screen for polyps.
The innovators were recognized at the 6th annual Mitacs Awards, which honours the work of outstanding participants in Mitacs’ research and training programs.
Following remarks by the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, Mitacs celebrated the exemplary young researchers, who are among the thousands of leaders taking part in its programs each year.
Mitacs & National Research Council-IRAP Award for Commercialization: Lu Deng, a postdoctoral fellow who studied at the University of Alberta’s Department of Computing Science and Biological Sciences. During her Mitacs Elevate fellowship with Edmonton-based Metabolomic Technologies Inc. (MTI), Lu developed a low-cost urine test, PolypDx, to effectively screen for polyps, the precursor to colon cancer.
Her work, which successfully transferred the test from expensive, highly specialized equipment to a mass-spectrometer — the technology commonly used in medical laboratories across North America — directly contributed to the successful launch of the product in the U.S. in May of this year. Lu accepted a full-time senior scientist position at MTI after completing her Mitacs fellowship.
Mitacs Undergraduate Award for Outstanding Innovation: Elisa Fernández Castillo, from Mexico’s Instituto Tecnologico de Monterrey. Elisa spent the summer of 2016 at Université Laval through the Mitacs Globalink program. Under the supervision of Professor Girish Shah in the Department of Molecular Biology, Medical Biochemistry, and Pathology, she applied pathology techniques to understand how specific proteins contribute to DNA damage in patients with a condition known as Xeroderma Pigmentosum, commonly known as XP.
XP is a rare genetic abnormality that causes DNA to improperly repair itself following sun exposure. Patients with the condition are typically diagnosed at a young age, and can develop painful sensitivity to sun exposure, extreme discolouration of the skin, neurological challenges, and an increased risk of skin and brain cancer. Elisa’s research contributed to a better understanding of the mechanisms that cause XP, and could one day lead to treatments for the condition.
Mitacs Master’s Award for Outstanding Innovation: Masarah-Cynthia Paquet-Clouston, a master’s student in the Department of Criminology at Université de Montréal. In partnership with Montreal-based GoSecure, Masarah-Cynthia undertook a Mitacs Accelerate internship to research the little-known but increasingly lucrative world of buying “friends” and “likes” on social media networks like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. In areas like the entertainment industry, the number of “friends” or “likes” a person posts is a benchmark for rating his or her popularity and value.
Working alongside the GoSecure research team, Masarah-Cynthia deliberately let pirates infect a group of computers and turn them into “botnets” (a group of computers linked together for malicious purposes such as massive spam mailings, phishing, and other disruptive malware).
After tracking the pirates’ activities on the exposed computers and decrypting the requests they sent to social media, Masarah-Cynthia was able to analyze the supply and demand of the virtual black market and create a new methodology to identify purchasers of “friends” and “likes” among the botnet traffic. She discovered that most online buyers of “friends” and “likes” are small-to-medium companies, artists, and freelance workers. Masarah-Cynthia’s research led GoSecure to create a position for her so she can continue her research into social media fraud.
Mitacs PhD Award for Outstanding Innovation: Yaxi Hu, a PhD student in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia. Working under the supervision of UBC Food Science Assistant Professor Dr. Xiaonan Lu, and in collaboration with Peking University in China, with support from a Mitacs Globalink Research Award, Yaxi successfully developed a rapid and accurate method for detecting both industrial and naturally occurring food contaminants, including banned food dyes and potentially harmful biotoxins.
Her work is significant because it applies solid state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy — a technology commonly used in biology and medical research — to food science, enabling food testing on dry samples in order to help keep harmful products off the market. The NMR method she developed is successfully being applied to detect a potentially carcinogenic industrial dye called Sudan I in paprika powder. Though universally banned, the dye is known to be fraudulently used around the world to enhance food freshness.
Mitacs Postdoctoral Award for Outstanding Innovation: Wei Zhang, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto’s Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research. While undertaking a Mitacs Elevate fellowship with the Centre for the Commercialization of Antibodies and Biologics, Wei successfully developed a patent-pending platform capable of fighting Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever (Congo Fever) at a molecular level.
Wei’s work is significant because it has the potential to be applied to many other viruses such as SARS, Zika, and Ebola, as well as to prevent viral damage to food crops and animals. His findings are crucial to the launch of a new Toronto-based company called Ubiquitech, which is now working to commercialize his work so it can be used in a clinical setting.
Two leaders in the academic and business communities, respectively, were also recognized for their contributions to innovation in Canada.
Mitacs Professor Award for Outstanding Leadership: Bertrand Jodoin, an 18-year professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Ottawa. Professor Jodoin was recognized for his ongoing efforts to mentor graduate students and bridge the gap between research and industry.
Professor Jodoin’s mentorship includes guiding a research team in developing a novel solid-state spraying application now being adopted in the aerospace industry and helping Brayton Energy Canada, a company founded by a former graduate student, to create a new generation of high-performance heat exchangers for gas turbines.
Through Mitacs-funded collaborations with industrial partners, including The Boeing Company, CenterLine (Windsor) Ltd., and Pratt & Whitney Canada, Professor Jodoin creates unique opportunities for graduate students to develop innovations and encourages industry to pursue new research and ultimately expand their markets. The award honours his deep commitment, outstanding leadership, and talent to merge industry with academic research.
Mitacs Industry Award for Outstanding Leadership: Ericsson Canada for its contributions in creating opportunities for fostering Canadian innovation through industry-university collaborations in the information, communication, and technology (ICT) sector. Over the past several years, Ericsson Canada has partnered with universities across Canada for more than 145 Mitacs Accelerate research projects, co-funded Mitacs postdocs, provided invaluable feedback on the management training of Mitacs Elevate fellows, and hosted international interns through Mitacs Globalink. In collaboration with Mitacs, Ericsson Canada is helping to foster a new approach to Canadian industrial R&D.
Alejandro Adem, Chief Executive Officer and Scientific Director, Mitacs
“Each of our award recipients, as well as the thousands of additional Mitacs researchers in our network, exemplifies the strong leadership and collaborative qualities that are essential to delivering leading-edge research in Canada. Their ongoing contributions are nothing short of remarkable. Every year they continue to astound us with their ground-breaking advancements that help put Canada on the map as a recognized leader in research and innovation.”
Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, Government of Canada
“On behalf of the Government of Canada, I want to congratulate all of today’s awards recipients. Your tremendous accomplishments in research and innovation will contribute to our collective efforts to create an inclusive, healthy and prosperous middle class. I am genuinely grateful for all of your hard work and I look forward to the many remarkable successes you will achieve in the future.”
Mitacs is a national, not-for-profit organization that has designed and delivered research and training programs in Canada for 16 years. Working with 60 universities, thousands of companies, and both federal and provincial governments, we build partnerships that support industrial and social innovation in Canada. For more information on Mitacs, visit www.mitacs.ca.
The 6th Mitacs Awards are sponsored by Sanofi Pasteur, Trojan Technologies, and the Consortium for Aerospace Research and Innovation in Canada (CARIC), and supported by media partners, The Hill Times and Le Droit.
Photo (left to right): The recipients and dignitaries present at the 2016 Mitacs Awards, including Alejandro Adem, Mitacs; Wei Zhang, University of Toronto; Masarah Paquet-Clouston, Université de Montréal; the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science; Yaxi Hu, University of British Columbia; Professor Bertrand Jodoin, University of Ottawa; and John Luszczek, Ericsson Canada.