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2021: The Year in Research

A review of the major initiatives, the funding and awards garnered, and the research that made headlines over the last twelve months.

Each year, we take a moment in December to reflect on the accomplishments of our community in advancing research that helps us tackle some of the world’s most pressing questions and societal challenges.

[Photo of three researchers working in a lab]

While 2021 offered glimmers of hope in moving beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, it also tested and challenged our research community in myriad other ways. In balance, this year also saw Queen’s rank 1st in Canada and 5th in the world in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, which provided a testament to the impact of the university’s research and scholarship in advancing social impact and sustainability within and beyond our local community.

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 2021.

Recognizing research leadership

In 2021, Queen’s welcomed Nancy Ross as the new Vice-Principal (Research). Dr. Ross, an accomplished research administrator and renowned expert in population health, joined the university in August and succeeded Vice-Principal (Research) Kimberly Woodhouse, who had been interim in the role since 2018.

[Photo of Dr. Nancy Ross]
Dr. Nancy Ross began her five-year term as Vice-Principal (Research) on August 1, 2021.

This year saw Queen’s researchers win some of Canada’s top awards and honours for research excellence and the university ranked third in Canada for awards per faculty member (2022 Maclean’s University Rankings).

Our international expertise in cancer research and cancer clinical trials was cemented with Elizabeth Eisenhauer’s receipt of the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award for outstanding leadership in medicine and medical science, and Joe Pater receiving the inaugural Canadian Cancer Society Lifetime Contribution Prize.

Praveen Jain was honoured with the prestigious IEEE Medal in Power Engineering, the highest international award in the field of electrical power, and world-renowned philosopher Will Kymlicka’s contributions to the humanities were recognized with the RSC Pierre Chauveau medal.

Queen’s also had a successful year earning fellowships within Canada’s national academies. Sari van Anders, Heather Castleden, and Karen Lawford were named members of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists  and professor emeritus John Berry was named a Fellow. Health administrators and research leaders Jane Philpott, Kieran Moore, Doug Munoz, and John Muscedere were inducted into the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, and Kim McAuley, Mark Diederichs, Mark F. Green, and Ugo Piomelli were elected to the Canadian Academy of Engineering.

Research that made headlines around the world

An exoskeleton designed by Queen's engineering researchers Michael Shepertycky, Qingguo Li, and Yan-Fei Liu that improves walking efficiency was featured in the leading academic journal Science and international media outlets, including the New York Times.

Health expert Christopher Mueller developed mDETECT, a cancer detection test that provides a real-time response to chemotherapy and early detection of relapse, while researchers Amber Simpson and Farhana Zulkernine applied AI and natural language processing techniques to CT scans, to predict cancer spread.

The much-anticipated UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) dominated headlines around the world and Queen’s environmental experts Kyla Tienhaara and John Smol shared their hopes for conference outcomes. On the ground at COP26, Ryan Riordan of the Institute for Sustainable Finance provided key takeaways and next steps for global governments. In the Canadian arctic, Queen’s researchers, the Government of Nunavut, and Indigenous community partners worked together to develop an innovative approach to studying the impact of climate change by monitoring the health and movements of polar bears.

[Photo of polar bears in the Artic]
BEARWATCH, a project led by Queen's researchers in partnership with local communities, governments, and other university collaborators, received funding from Genome Canada's Large-Scale Applied Research Project competition and the Ontario Genomics Institute to develop a non-invasive method for tracking polar bear health in the Canadian Artic.

New research by Chris Spencer showed that the mid-Proterozoic period, about 1.8 to 0.8 billion years ago, dubbed as the “boring billon” was actually a time of great mountain-building events. Researchers at the Queen’s Facility for Isotope Research joined the cast from The Curse of Oak Island to hunt for gold and silver treasure sediments in the water collected from boreholes on a Nova Scotia isle.

[Photo of highly deformed rocks from the Sperrgebiet region of Southern Namibia by Christopher Spencer]
A geologist exploring 1-billion-year-old and highly deformed rocks from the Sperrgebiet region of southern Namibia. These rocks experienced significant deformation and extreme metamorphism during a continental collision over a billion years ago. (Photo by Christopher Spencer)

Funding future research

In 2021, Queen’s continued to attract competitive funding and awards, through a number of national and international programs. Hundreds of grants for new projects and research infrastructure were secured through CHIR, SSHRC, NSERC, and CFI, Canada’s national funding agencies, and other partners.

Here are a few examples:

  • More than $10 million was secured by Queen’s researchers through CFI’s Innovation Fund for infrastructure that will help to combat climate change, treat cancer, and understand the fabric of the universe
  • Over $6 million was awarded to Queen’s researchers through NSERC’s Alliance Grants to collaborate with industry partners in areas such as computing, wireless communications, and nuclear power
  • Eight doctoral students earned prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships for exceptional scholarly achievement and leadership skills
  • Over 125 Queen’s researchers across disciplines received support from SSHRC, the Canada Research Chairs Program, and NSERC as part of a bundled funding announcement under the banner of “Supporting BIG Ideas”
  • Queen’s researchers received over $11.5M funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for projects addressing human health issues from cancer and pain to healthy aging
  • With $1.6 million in funding, NSERC’s CREATE program supported the implementation of an experiential graduate training and research program in medical informatics, led by Parvin Mousavi at Queen’s
  • A multidisciplinary team of Queen’s researchers received $7.9 million from Genome Canada for a new project exploring a microbial platform for breaking down and valorizing waste plastic, which can then be repurposed to produce recycled products
  • Cathy Crudden received the largest NSERC Discovery Grant in Canada (valued at $605k over five years) for her breakthrough work in novel organic coatings

[Photo of a researcher reviewing a sample on a desktop]

Mobilizing our knowledge

This year, we were again challenged to find creative ways to engage with our audiences and mobilize expertise. Research and alumni experts joined forces to provide insight into our post-pandemic future, through the Road to Recovery virtual event series. These events, moderated by multimedia journalist and Queen’s alumnus Elamin Abdelmahmoud, reached over 1000 attendees.  

Science Rendezvous Kingston celebrated its milestone 10th anniversary and marked it with a series of virtual events and the development of an interactive, virtual Exploratorium with no geographical limitations to participation. Audiences also had the opportunity to experience, in-person and virtually, artistic interpretations of the elusive dark matter. The exhibition and residency project, Drift: Art and Dark Matter, generated by Agnes Etherington Art Centre, the McDonald Institute, and SNOLAB, brought together artists and scientists in the quest to understand the invisible substance that comprises about 80 per cent of the universe.

[osèfa Ntjam, Organic Nebula (detail), 2019, carpet, photomontage. Collection of the artist.]
Josèfa Ntjam, Organic Nebula (detail), 2019, carpet, photomontage. Collection of the artist.

The WE-Can (Women Entrepreneurs Canada) program led by Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI) celebrated supporting over 800 women from underrepresented groups and sectors regionally in achieving their entrepreneurial goals and pivoting their programs to an online format. This year’s virtual Indigenous Research Collaboration Day incorporated the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals in highlighting the importance of collaboration in research with Indigenous communities.

Hundreds of Queen’s researchers provided expert commentary to the media in 2021, and our community continued to mobilize their research and expertise through fact-based analysis on The Conversation Canada’s news platform. In 2021, 77 Queen’s graduate students and faculty published 74 articles that garnered over 1.5 million reads.


Congratulations to the Queen’s research community for their resilience and successes this year. We look forward to seeing what new research and opportunities 2022 will bring. For more information about research at the university, visit the Research@Queen’s website.