Queen’s researchers have received $3 million from the Government of Canada to work on innovative projects that range from using digital technology to protect people from the effects of social isolation to developing new communication tools to help children with neuromotor disabilities.
It’s part of the federal government’s recently announced a $45-million investment through the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) Exploration and Research in a Pandemic Context streams.
"The NFRF programs challenge researchers to come up with out-of-the-box solutions to complex global problems – from climate change to how we can leverage learnings from the COVID-19 pandemic," says Nancy Ross, Vice-Principal (Research). "Congratulations to our funded research teams for their novel ideas and creativity. I look forward to seeing how these projects progress and evolve."
Pushing the Boundaries of Research
The 2021 Exploration stream grants funding for programs that propose exciting new areas of research with an interdisciplinary approach. Five Queen’s research programs will receive $250,000 each:
- Cao Thang Dinh and Laurence Yang (Chemical Engineering) will work with a team of experts in electrochemical engineering, computational system biology, and microbiology to find solutions to improve the efficiency of bioprocesses – that is, processes that use living cells to convert carbon dioxide, renewable, non-food biomass and waste into chemicals with industrial applications – by powering them with renewable electricity such as wind and solar using an electrochemical process. Their research has potential impact in reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
- The genetic and epigenetic origins of cancer are the root of a program led by Anna Panchenko (Pathology and Molecular Medicine) and Maria Aristizabal (Biology). The team will investigate the role of mutations in histone genes in the genesis of cancer using an integrative in silico/ in vivo platform. Histones are proteins that help form the structure of chromosomes and might have the potential to be used as diagnostic biomarkers or targets for therapeutic intervention.
- Zongchao Jia (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) and Yong Jun Lai (Mechanical and Materials Engineering) are partnering to develop a microsensor to help test novel drugs with potential to treat bacterial infections without causing antibiotic resistance. They will work with a family of compounds that, instead of killing the bacteria, reduce their virulence. The immediate application of the research would be to treat infections caused by Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an opportunistic bacterium known for causing severe disease, particularly in immunocompromised patients and those with cystic fibrosis.
- A team led by Beata Batorowicz (School of Rehabilitation Therapy) and Sidney Givigi (School of Computing), experts in the fields of rehabilitation science, child development, computer science, engineering, education, and ethics will work together to develop new tools to improve communication for children with neuromotor disabilities. Their idea is to use robots to improve quantity and quality of social interactions, helping children overcome the challenges posed by impaired speech and mobility.
- Jason Gallivan (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences/Psychology) and Anita Tusche (Economics/ Psychology) are looking into the potential of digital technology to protect people from the bodily effects of social isolation – experienced, for example, during the pandemic lockdowns. They aim to understand the multifaceted neurobiological changes that occur during isolation and test how virtual interactions – like video chats – can reduce them. The team expects results could be used to rethink digital technology applications (e.g. remote education, telemedicine) and social policy (e.g. concerning vulnerable populations with limited access to digital resources).
Seeing the Pandemic Impacts and Opportunities Through Multiple Lenses
Seven research projects at Queen’s received funding from the 2021 Innovative Approaches to Research in the Pandemic Context competition, a program that encourages scholars to pioneer innovative solutions to research challenges brought on by the pandemic. Each project was granted $250,000:
- Understanding how urbanisation affects biodiversity is essential for the sustainability of healthy human and wildlife communities. Scholarly attention is lacking, however, on urbanisation in economically disadvantaged areas. After shifting to community-based research in response to COVID-19 restrictions, researchers Frances Bonier (Biology) and Paul Martin (Biology) began developing a novel, community science method to survey bird populations in cities in developing nations, while working in partnership with local experts and trained participants. Bonier and Martin’s new community science method will allow for important advances in urban ecology, while also addressing the neglect of economically disadvantaged regions in ecological research.
- Due to COVID-19, activities that involved singing were restricted, forcing Julia Brook (Drama and Music) and Colleen Renihan’s (Drama and Music) study examining accessible and inclusive music theatre to pivot online. After the online medium proved surprisingly beneficial, particularly for older adults who can experience difficulty travelling to a particular location, Brook and Renihan aim to accelerate the exploration of virtual music theatre to address the pressing need for virtual leisure opportunities for older adults that foster overall well-being. This study is both unprecedented and incredibly relevant given the growing population of older adults in Canada and around the world.
- Although we understand what influences mental health, we do not understand the way influences change across situations, nor how they vary between demographics. In response to this gap in understanding and pandemic restrictions highlighting how changes in situation sometimes prevent social interaction, researchers Jonathan Smallwood (Psychology) and Jeffrey Wammes (Psychology) propose developing new methods for quantifying influences on mental health without in-person data collection. Their study will use smartphones to measure a person’s “in the moment” thinking and machine learning will identify how these data are linked to their happiness and productivity. This project could facilitate the creation of a comprehensive mental health database to help researchers and community members better understand how context shapes individual mental health.
- The onset of the pandemic came with a huge increase in pandemic-related research, as scientists worked to understand how to reduce transmission and aid in recovery. Journals often struggled to review and disseminate results quickly, leading many researchers to share results publicly without peer review. This increased concerns about the quality and reliability of research findings that policymakers and the public were exposed to, potentially generating confusion, distorting policy, and decreasing some people’s trust in the scientific process. Researchers Christopher Cotton (Economics) and David Maslove (Medicine) are assessing the pandemic experiences of researchers and policymakers who rely on research, as well as exploring novel methods of rapid review and better-quality control, including an experiment with a peer-reviewed journal that has been inundated with COVID-related submissions. Their results could revolutionize the ways in which research is reviewed and disseminated, especially during a crisis.
- The waiting time for triage in hospital emergency departments (ED) is an ongoing challenge across Canada. Farhana Zulkernine (School of Computing) and Furkan Alaca (School of Computing) have developed a novel solution to the problem with Triage-Bot: an AI robot used to leverage existing hospital-triage systems by assessing patient’s symptoms and securely linking them to hospital data to assess the criticality of a patient’s health condition. Also deployable to personal residences, this technology could allow remote assessments of patients with COVID or chronic health problems in addition to reducing triage wait time and improving health care services in Canada, overall.
- Infants born with complex health conditions require ongoing neonatal follow-up visits to track their health and development to ensure their future wellbeing. The COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have compounded the myriad of geographic and socioeconomic factors posing significant barriers for families to access the care they need. Sandra Fucile (School of Rehabilitation Therapy) and her team at Kingston Health Sciences Centre are proposing the creation of a parent-administered, virtually guided standardized tool for evaluating developmental milestones of at-risk infants. This study has potential to allow for equitable health service delivery to all children across Canada.
- The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela is the world’s second largest after Syria. Researchers Susan Bartels (Emergency Medicine) and Amanda Collier (Emergency Medicine) are proposing the use of an app (Balcony.io) to help migrants and humanitarian responders communicate even when travel is restricted, while simultaneously collecting important research data to inform responsive decision making and resource allocation during crises. If successful, this study on the use of Balcony.io in Latin America’s migration crisis will bring the voices and needs of migrants to the forefront, while allowing response teams to pivot in real time to rapidly changing circumstances.
This story originally appeared in the Queen’s Gazette.