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2020: The Year in Research

A look back at the major initiatives, the funding and awards garnered, and how a community mobilized to respond to and combat COVID-19.

In recent years, we have taken a moment each December to highlight some of the research that has captured our attention over the previous 12 months.

2020 was not a normal year. It challenged us, tested us, and saw our research community pivot in creative and unexpected ways to respond to the global crisis. Through all of this, research prominence remained a key driver for Queen’s and our researchers continued to make national and international headlines for their discoveries and award-winning scholarship.

Join us as we review some of the highlights of 2020.

[Photo of Hailey Poole dispensing hand sanitizer]
A team of Queen’s researchers from the Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering along with GreenCentre Canada partnered with Kingston Health Sciences Centre and Tri-Art Manufacturing (Kingston) to develop hand sanitizer, producing up to 300 litres of product per week to help meet the needs of Kingston hospitals.

COVID-19 Response: Mobilizing as a Community to Confront COVID-19

In the early days of the pandemic, Queen’s researchers across disciplines were active in offering commentary and fact-based analysis on COVID-19-related issues – from understanding if DNA is key to whether you get COVID and helping to diagnose unusual symptoms related to COVID stress to suggesting 5-min workouts you can do at home. Many of these analyses were carried on national and international news platforms, demonstrating the critical contribution that researchers and academics can make to informing the conversation.

When news of PPE and ventilator shortages and test wait times hit international media, research and student groups across campus leveraged their skills to come up with innovative solutions. Here are a few examples:

  • A team of researchers from the Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, along with GreenCentre Canada, partnered with Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC) and Tri-Art Manufacturing (Kingston) to make 300 litres of hand sanitizer per week to help meet the needs of Kingston hospitals
  • Researchers from Queen’s University and KHSC partnered with Public Health Ontario Laboratories and Hamilton Health Sciences Center to develop an in-house COVID test that can provide results in 24 hours
  • Faculty and students at the Human Mobility Research Centre and Ingenuity Labs joined forces with KHSC health professionals to take on the Code Life Ventilator Challenge, a global call to design a low-cost and easy-to-manufacture ventilator that can be created and deployed anywhere around the world
  • Queen’s Noble Laureate, Dr. Arthur B. McDonald, led the Canadian arm of the Mechanical Ventilator Milano project, which aimed to create an easy-to-build ventilator that can help treat COVID-19 patients. In May, the Government of Canada announced an agreement with Vexos to produce 10,000 Mechanical Ventilator Milano (MVM) units and in September the ventilators received Health Canada approval
(Photo by Matthew Manor / Kingston Health Sciences Centre)
Queen’s University and Kingston Health Sciences Centres (KHSC) partnered with Public Health Ontario Laboratories and Hamilton Health Sciences Center to develop an in-house test for COVID-19 that can be completed in large volumes and provide results in 24 hours. (Photo by Matthew Manor / Kingston Health Sciences Centre)

The Vice-Principal (Research) Portfolio also quickly mobilized to offer Rapid Response funding, which was awarded to advance 20 research projects supporting medical and social coronavirus-related solutions. Queen’s researchers also partnered with industry to transform pandemic decision-making and healthcare through two Digital Technology Supercluster projects, Looking Glass and Project ACTT, focused on predictive modelling and cancer testing and treatment. The projects received over $4 million in funding from the Government of Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster’s COVID-19 program.

Funding Future Research

Queen’s continued to attract leading researchers and competitive funding and awards through a number of national and international programs.

[Rendering of the MVM Ventilator]
A team of Canadian physicists, led by Queen’s Nobel Laureate Art McDonald, is part of an international effort to design the MVM Ventilator. With support from Canadian philanthropists and Queen's alumni the project was able to progress, leading to an order of 10,000 units from the Government of Canada.

Hundreds of grants for new projects and research infrastructure were secured through CHIR, SSHRC, NSERC and CFI, Canada’s national funding agencies. Seven multidisciplinary Queen’s research projects received $1.7 million in support from the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) 2019 Exploration competition, a program that fosters discovery and innovation by encouraging Canadian researchers to explore, take risks, and work with partners across disciplines and borders. Additionally, The Canadian Cancer Trials Group, SNOLAB, and Canada’s National Design Network, all of which are Queen’s-affiliated research facilities, saw a funding increase of over $60 million through the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s Major Sciences Initiatives fund. The Institute for Sustainable Finance received a boost of $5 million from Canada’s big banks to support ISF’s mission of aligning mainstream financial markets with Canada’s transition to a lower carbon economy.

The university welcomed and appointed seven new and two renewed Canada Research Chairs (CRC) in two rounds (September and December 2020) of CRC competition announced this year. One of the country’s highest research honours, Queen’s is now home to over 50 Canada Research Chairs. Queen’s also welcomed seven promising new researchers through the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholars and Banting Post-Doctoral Fellowship programs.

Recognizing Research Leadership

2020 saw Queen’s researchers win some of Canada’s top awards and honours for research excellence and the university continues to rank second in Canada for awards per faculty member (2021 Maclean’s University Rankings).

[Photo of Leach’s storm petrel chick by Sabina Wilhelm]
Queen's researchers, from graduate students to Canada Research Chairs, continue to make an impact on our understanding of the world. (Photo by Sabina Wilhelm

Queen’s had a successful year earning fellowships within Canada’s national academies. Nancy van Deusen and Cathleen Crudden were elected to the Fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada, while Amy Latimer-Cheung and Awet Weldemichael were named members of the organization’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists. Health research leaders Janet Dancey, Marcia Finlayson, and Graeme Smith were inducted into the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, and Michael Cunningham and Jean Hutchinson were elected to the Canadian Academy of Engineering.

While our researchers were recognized with dozens of honours throughout the year, below are a few highlights: David Lyon secured Canada’s Molson Prize for pioneering the field of surveillance studies. Education researcher Lynda Colgan received the NSERC Science Promo Prize for her efforts in promoting science to the general public. Heather Castleden was awarded a Fulbright Visiting Research Chair at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa to engage with Native Hawaiians about their leadership in renewable energy projects. A lauded steward of the environment, John Smol received Canada’s Massey Medal for his lifetime of work in studying environmental stressors. The first Indigenous midwife in Canada to earn a doctoral degree, health researcher Karen Lawford was named one of this year’s 12 outstanding Indigenous leaders and received the Indspire Award for Health.

Internally, researchers were honoured with the university’s Prizes for Excellence in Research (Yan-Fei-Liu, Michael Cunningham, and Gabor Fichtinger) and the Distinguished University Professor (Audrey Kobayashi, David Bakhurst, Julian Barling, Glenville Jones, John Smol, Kathleen Lahey) title.

Major Initiatives

The Discover Research@Queen’s campaign was launched to build engagement with the Research@Queen’s website and encouraged 1000s of key external stakeholders to learn more about the research happening at the University. Our community continued to mobilize their research through fact-based analysis on The Conversation Canada’s news platform. In 2020, 79 Queen’s researchers published 85 articles that garnered over 1.9 million views.

[Illustration of the scales of justice by Gary Neill]
Queen's University researchers Samuel Dahan and Xiaodan Zhu are using AI to level the legal playing field for Canadians, including those affected by COVID-19 unemployment.

This year marked the fifth anniversary of the Art of Research photo contest with over 100 faculty, staff, students, and alumni submitting engaging and thought-provoking research images. Ten category and special prizes were awarded.

The WE-Can (Women Entrepreneurs Canada) program through Queen’s Partnership and Innovation (QPI) celebrated one year of supporting women entrepreneurs in Kingston and the surrounding area, through programs such as Compass North and LEAD.  The QPI team also marked one year at its new downtown Kingston location, the Seaway Coworking building, which allows easy access for the community and partners.

To support researchers thinking outside of the box to solve some of humanity’s most complex problems, the Vice-Principal (Research) portfolio launched the Wicked Ideas competition to fund high risk, high reward projects with interdisciplinary teams that are not easily supported through traditional funding opportunities. Twelve projects received funding in round one and researchers can now apply for round two.


Congratulations to the Queen’s research community for their resilience and successes this year. We look forward to seeing what new research and opportunities 2021 will bring. To learn more about research at the university, visit the Research@Queen’s website, and for information about research promotion, contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives.

[Art of Photo by Hayden Wainwright]
2020 Art of Research Photo Contest Winner: Hayden Wainwright (MSc Biology), Nature's van Gogh (Category: Out in the Field)