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Project grants promote partnerships

Two Queen’s researchers have received Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Strategic Project Grants.

Cathleen Crudden (Chemistry, $596,870) and her team are working on the production of hydrogen from water using solar energy. James Fraser (Physics, $408,914) and his team are improving the 3D laser manufacturing process.

Both hydrogen and oxygen need to be generated in water-splitting approaches for the generation of hydrogen fuel in the automotive industry. Dr. Crudden’s team including J. Hugh Horton (Chemistry), Pierre Kennepohl (University of British Columbia), Heinz-Bernhard Kraatz (University of Toronto) and Martin Albrecht (UCD Ireland) is designing a supported catalyst, a substance that causes or accelerates a chemical reaction without itself being affected, to help complete the cycle for hydrogen generation.

“The development of viable catalysts for production of hydrogen from water using solar energy is the holy grail of energy research, and when accomplished, will revolutionize the way we generate energy, and virtually eliminate pollution from the transportation sector,” says Dr. Crudden.

Dr. Fraser is working in the field of 3D laser writing. The process scans an intense focused laser beam over a material (such as metal powder) to create a 3D metal component layer by layer directly from a computer drawing. Dr. Fraser is trying to improve this often imperfect technique.

“This type of manufacturing builds a part up layer by layer and is generally slow,” says Dr. Fraser. “If there is a defect in an early layer, for example an air gap, this might not be detected until the part was completed. The challenge is that there is a lot going on in the laser melting process –hundreds of watts of laser light, glowing liquid steel, occasional sparks and powder being ejected— so it is challenging to see with micron precision.”

To combat this problem, Dr. Fraser’s team will create and use a coherent imaging technique that views the sample through the same lens that the processing laser uses and can measure the location and changes to the surface of the part. This will reduce the component processing time. The funding also allows the training of nine researchers and students in a key field in Canadian manufacturing.

For more information on the Strategic Project Grants visit the NSERC website.

Water warming, a warning

A study of three remote lakes in Ecuador led by Queen’s University researchers has revealed the vulnerability of tropical high mountain lakes to global climate change – the first study of its kind to show this. The data explains how the lakes are changing due to the water warming as the result of climate change.

The results could have far-reaching consequences for Andean water resources as the lakes provide 60 per cent of the drinking water for Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador.

A view of one of the three lakes that were studied during the research.

“Until recently we knew little about the effects of recent climate changes on tropical high-mountain lakes,” says Neal Michelutti (Biology), lead author and a senior research scientist at Queen’s University’s Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab (PEARL). “We saw major changes in the algae consistent with the water warming that indicates changes in the physical structure of the water column.”

Dr. Michelutti and his research team visited three lakes in Cajas National Park. They retrieved water and core samples from the centre of each of the lakes for analysis. The lakes are accessible only by hiking trails and boats are prohibited. There is also no development within the park meaning the lakes are still in pristine condition.

“Andean societies are amongst the most vulnerable when it comes to the impact of climate change,” says Dr. Michelutti. “Warming in the Andes is occurring at a rate nearly twice the global average and it’s already impacting water resources as shown in this research. These changes are also a sign of bigger changes that are coming.”

Dr. Michelutti and his team are planning to return to the region for further research this summer and will be working with lake managers in the area to try to preserve the water.

“We have previously recorded similar types of threshold shifts in polar and temperate regions,” says research team member John Smol (Biology). “These changes are harbingers of processes that will likely affect the food chain and reverberate throughout the ecosystem. We now have data showing that lakes from the Arctic to the Andes, and everywhere in between, are rapidly changing due to our impacts on climate.”

Also working on the research team are Alexander Wolfe (University of Alberta), Colin Cooke (Government of Alberta), William Hobbs (Washington State Department of Ecology) and Mathias Vuille (University at Albany, SUNY).

To read the study, published in PLOS ONE, visit the PEARL website.

GeoEngineering Centre's work making a ‘real impact’

[Dr. Kerry Rowe]
Kerry Rowe and his colleagues at the GeoEngineering Centre are studying the use and performance of geosynthetics and geomembranes, such as those used to prevent the escape of contaminants from landfills. (University Communications)

For Kerry Rowe, a fellow of the world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific society (the Royal Society based in London UK, 1660), and his colleagues in the GeoEngineering Centre, winning awards for their research is nice. However, the real reward, says the professor in the Department of Civil Engineering, is knowing that the work they are doing is having a lasting impact on people’s lives and the environment.

“While we write papers and win awards, really the most important aspect, at least to me, is the fact that people are using it,” says Dr. Rowe, the Canada Research Chair in geotechnical and geoenvironmental engineering. “It’s affecting regulations around the world. Regulators are using it. Manufacturers are using it. Designers are using it. Manufacturers are using our research as a basis for improving their products. We find something’s not working so well and the manufacturer is going to find a way to make it work better.

“That’s the real impact of our work. It’s actually being used to protect the environment.”

Dr. Rowe’s area of study is focused on the use and performance of geosynthetics and geomembranes such as those used to prevent the escape of contaminants from landfills.

His most recent award, picked up earlier this year, was for the best paper published in 2013 in Geosynthetics International, published by the Institution of Civil Engineers in the UK and considered one of the top journals in the field.  The paper, which examines methods of increasing how long a plastic geomembrane used in the bottom liner of a landfill will last, was co-authored by Dr. Rowe, Fady Abdelaal, and Richard Brachman, all of Queen’s.

Dr. Rowe also won the award in 2013 for an article written with Melissa Chappel, Dr. Brachman and Andrew Take. That team then won the International Geosynthetics Society Award and Gold Medal for “outstanding contribution to the understanding of wrinkling in geomembranes” for their pioneering work on this topic.

Dr. Rowe says he was drawn to the field by Love Canal, an environmental disaster in the 1970s where a neighbourhood was built adhacent to a toxic waste dump in Niagara Falls, NY. While many things have improved around landfills in the decades that have followed, one of the biggest issues he’s found is that many of the design guidelines were developed in the late 1980s and 1990s when very little was known about geomembranes and geosynthetics.

The GeoEngineering Centre is changing that.

“What we’ve been doing over the past 20 years is really coming to understand the long-term performance of these materials, because they need to last for many, many decades to centuries, depending on the size of the facility, to provide protection,” he says. “We are, I think it’s fair to say, the world leaders in doing that. We’re interested in the long-term performance through accelerated tests but also field testing. We have field test sites literally from the Arctic to the Antarctic.”

These are some extreme conditions but geosynthetics and geomembranes often face extreme stresses, increasingly in the mining industry for waste materials and tailings. Some of these mining applications are over 200 metres in height, says Dr. Rowe. They are utterly massive.

“The vast majority of geosynthetics are now sold in the mining industry,” he says. “We are working on heap leach pads and the selection of appropriate geomembranes because they are being used, but no one, until we started doing it, was doing the research.”

The research is informing designers and helping manufacturers create new products with better performing characteristics.

“It’s protection of the health and safety of the environment that is the motivation for our work. What we are trying to do is prevent Love Canal-type situations from arising,” he says. “We’ve got a fantastic group of people, in terms of faculty and really tremendous post-docs and graduate students that we have working on this.”

Support and advocacy for SGPS students

Employee, teacher and mentor are just a few of the roles that graduate and professional students play while at Queen’s University.

As an SGPS student adviser, Becky Pero provides confidential advice and support to graduate and professional students. (University Communications)

To support them in those many roles, the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) have student advisers, a team that provides confidential advice and assistance to other SGPS members. Trained in a wide variety of subjects that encompasses university policies and procedures, conflict resolution, active listening, harassment, discrimination and maintaining a positive space, they’re equipped to handle many of the problems that students may face.

Becky Pero, a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography, has worked for the past year as a student adviser.

“There are challenges that SGPS students face that we don’t talk about,” she says. “They need somebody to listen and hear what they’re saying. Who better to do it than a peer?”

Created in 2001 in response to the need for advocacy and support services for graduate and professional students, the advisers offer strategic advice for resolving concerns and conflicts. Oriented towards self-advocacy, they aim to give students the tools they need to solve problems on their own, or to direct them to the appropriate service when they need greater support.

“Students often come to see me with questions about rules, regulations and department-specific procedures, and I set them in the right direction” says Ms. Pero. “Advisers can support students when they go to a difficult meeting or can contact another party on their behalf.”

Funding for the four student advisers comes from the SGPS as well as the School of Graduate Studies. Each year, the advisers create reports about the issues they’ve seen most consistently and make policy recommendations to keep them from happening again in the future.

“Graduate and professional students take on a huge challenge when they enter their studies,” says Dinah Jansen, Vice-President (Graduate) of the SGPS. “The majority of students get through their studies without any major problems, but the adviser program exists for those who have faced issues and want to repair relationships or navigate policies.”

In her role as VP (Graduate), Ms. Jansen oversees the student adviser program and advocates at a system-wide level for SGPS students.

“Students need advocacy and help, and it can be very useful to have someone listen to your concerns,” she says.

The advisers can provide help for problems big or small and welcome faculty to refer their students on for advice and support.

More information can be found at their website

Taking the talk to another level

[Heather Stuart]
Queen’s professor Heather Stuart, the Bell Canada Mental Health and Anti-stigma Research Chair, has helped develop five guidelines to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illnesses. (University Communications)
 

As with so many aspects of life, when it comes to the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, great change can find its start in small actions.

Queen’s professor and Bell Canada Mental Health and Anti-stigma Research Chair Heather Stuart says she can see a major difference in Canadians’ knowledge and awareness of mental illness since the start of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign three years ago. But at the same time, she says, there remains much to improve.

“I think there is a bigger awareness than there used to be and now there is more knowledge out there,” says Dr. Stuart (Public Health Sciences). “So people are more knowledgeable about some of the more common conditions like depression, they know what the symptoms are and they know that it should be assessed by a health professional and may need medication.

“But it’s been harder to change people’s attitudes and their behaviours.”

As a result, Dr. Stuart and Bell are working to do just that. After the second Let’s Talk lecture last year in Ottawa, Bell asked Dr. Stuart to come up with some concrete, simple things that people can do in their daily lives to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illnesses.

“So my idea was very simple, to come up with small things you can do within your day-to-day lives,” she says of the five guidelines. “Things like simple acts of kindness, things you could learn, how you could watch your language, those kinds of things.”

Five things to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
1. Language matters – pay attention to the words you use about mental illness.
2. Educate yourself – learn, know and talk more, understand the signs.
3. Be kind – small acts of kindness speak a lot.
4. Listen and ask – sometimes it’s best to just listen.
5. Talk about it – start a dialogue, break the silence

At the time, she didn’t think the guidelines would go much further but Bell decided to build upon the points. The result is a series of commercials that are now being aired.

“In my thinking, I thought (the commercials) would (help reduce stigma) because it shows how those little acts of oppression, day-to-day, things we don’t even think about, a turn of phrase, something we think or we do can actually be quite disruptive or hurtful and then it models the good behaviour after that. So it shows how we get into this pattern of bad behavior and what we should do,” Dr. Stuart says. “I thought they were great.”

She likens the overall campaign against stigma to that of climate change. One person can’t change the situation on their own but a series of small acts combined with those of others can make a real difference.

“It’s not that everybody can do everything. If you think about it and you come from that perspective there’s something that everybody can do and I think that’s what the message here is,” she says. “Something small that you can do will make a difference.”

Another key change that Dr. Stuart sees is that people are starting to recognize that the issue is not about mental illnesses themselves but instead society’s response that is causing the most trouble.

“That’s important, especially if decision-makers figure this out,” says Dr. Stuart. “They are in a position to make a huge difference. They can change policies. They can change structures. They can do a lot. But they have to understand that this is a public health issue and the awareness has grown.”

Bell Let’s Talk Day is Jan. 28. To learn more about the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, visit letstalk.bell.ca.

Established in 2012 with a $1 million grant from Bell Let’s Talk to the Queen's Initiative Campaign, the Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair at Queen’s University is the first research chair in the world dedicated to the fight against the stigma around mental illness.

Funding fuels cancer research

With an eye on improving survival rates and the quality of care for cancer patients, the Canada Foundation for Innovation has awarded the NCIC Clinical Trials Group (NCIC CTG) $3.8 million as part of its Major Science Initiatives.

The funding provides infrastructure support to the NCIC CTG operations and statistics office at Queen’s University.

“We are grateful CFI has pledged its support for our mission of conducting important clinical trials that allow cancer patients from across the country to access some of the most cutting-edge cancer treatments available,” says NCIC CTG director Janet Dancey.

The objective of the funding is to provide CFI funded, state-of-the-art research facilities, enabling researchers to undertake world-class research and technology development. The funding also provides governance and management oversight of these facilities.

“We undoubtedly have all been touched, one way or another, by cancer and are well aware of the impact it has on our lives and the lives of others,” says Steven Liss, Vice-Principal (Research). “The advances in prevention, diagnostics and treatment have been truly remarkable, but there is still much to do. This support from CFI will allow the NCIC Clinical Trials Group at Queen's University to provide the leadership and platform to further their critical role in advancing and implementing new approaches to diagnostics, clinical interventions and new treatments for cancer patients.”

The NCIC CTG possesses expertise and infrastructure to conduct national and international multicentre phase I-III cancer clinical trials aimed at improving the survival and quality of life of cancer patients. The funding will support cancer investigators across the country and provide them access to novel and comprehensive information technology, expertise in regulatory, ethics, safety, and on-site monitoring requirements necessary to ensure trials are compliant with Health Canada regulations.

Since its establishment in 1980, the NCIC CTG has conducted 492 trials enrolling more than 77,000 patients. The trials have led to the development and adoption of numerous cancer therapies that have improved the survival and quality of life for cancer patients and delivered a tremendous benefit to thousands of Canadians.

For more information visit the website.

The NCIC CTG, a national research program of the Canadian Cancer Society, is the only Canadian co-operative cancer trials group conducting the entire range of cancer trials from early phase (e.g. phase I-II) studies to large international randomized controlled (e.g. phase III) trials across all cancer types. Its primary mission is to assess the effectiveness of interventions to prevent the development of cancer or improve the care of those patients who develop cancer.

Exploring advanced computing

Don Aldridge, research executive at IBM, has been seconded to the office of the Vice-Principal (Research) for six months where he will work as an adviser on a number of research and computing projects. Mr. Aldridge, BSc ’82 and MBA ’84, spoke with Communications Officer Andrew Stokes about what hopes to explore while at Queen’s and the future of computing.

Andrew Stokes: What sort of work will you be focusing on during your secondment?  

Don Aldridge is helping Queen's navigate the field of Advanced Research Computing. (University Communications)

Don Aldridge: There are a number of projects I want to consider, such as pairing Queen’s with small and medium enterprises and exploring some developing technologies.  What I’m looking at right now is how I can help Queen’s navigate the field of Advanced Research Computing and how to better use the High Performance Computing Virtual Laboratory (HPCVL). HPCVL is a tremendous asset that most people don’t know about.

AS: What makes the HPCVL exceptional?

DA: Its competitive advantage is its ability to handle secure medical data in a way that is compliant with Federal Drug Administration and privacy regulations. Many facilities can’t do that and there’s a strong reluctance to having medical data outside of a hospital. Because of its strong security, HPCVL is a great place to do research. The Ontario Brain Institute, for example, runs its BrainCODE application at HPCVL.

AS: Can you tell me about pairing Queen’s with businesses?

DA: There’s an organization called the Southern Ontario Smart Computing Innovation Platform (SOSCIP), which is a consortium of Ontario universities and IBM that has been operating for the last three years. Queen’s is a founding and active member, but I want to see how we can expand the university’s involvement. SOSCIP helps universities pair with small and medium enterprises to take advantage of advanced computing and deep analytics to develop products for commercialization. Involving companies from the beginning is the secret for creating market ready products. The larger objective is to create jobs and so far we’ve been very successful.

AS: What developing technology are you looking into?

DA: This is always a fun topic. The closest and most germane technology is one that IBM has been working on for a few years now, called Watson. It made its debut on Jeopardy! in 2012, where it defeated two former champions. Winning a quiz show was fun, but more importantly Watson is now helping to cure cancer — the era of cognitive computing is just beginning. Last year IBM launched a new division to take Watson to market, something that was last done since 1981 for the creation of the personal computer. Watson’s potential for research is immense and could bring about big changes to how computing is done. Two Queen’s professors, Drs. Pat Martin (Computing) and Brent Gallupe (Business), are teaching a course on Watson in the fall. I’m interested to see where cognitive computing technology leads.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Stopping cancer in its tracks

The grant from the Canadian Cancer Society will provide opportunities for collaborations between researchers.

Researcher Andrew Craig understands the importance of stopping metastasis, the leading cause of cancer-related deaths. And with an innovation grant of $193,798 from the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS), Dr. Craig and his team hope to get one step closer.

“Metastasis – or the spread of cancer from its primary tumour site to another location in the body – is a critical stage to prevent. This grant from the CCS will allow us to conduct research on metastasis and develop new tools to prevent it,” says Dr. Craig. “Many current therapies are focused on trying to shrink tumours and have a limited ability to prevent the spread of tumours.

Dr. Craig and several talented trainees are developing and testing inhibitory antibodies targeting key signals that cancer cells require for metastasis.  These novel antibodies are being developed with collaborators in Toronto, and Dr. Craig’s team is actively profiling them to identify the most effective ones against highly metastatic breast and skin cancers. 

Antibodies are proteins found in the blood that are produced to respond to and counteract foreign substances in the body, but have been increasingly used to specifically target cancer.

“This grant will allow us to identify lead antibodies and test their potency in pre-clinical models of metastatic cancer,” says Dr. Craig. “We will strive to secure the additional funding and partners that will be needed to translate these tools into new immunotherapies for clinical trials in human cancer patients.”

This grant, made possible by donations to the CCS, has attracted new post-doctoral fellows and graduate students to Dr. Craig’s research team.

“Being able to develop and maintain a strong research-intensive atmosphere is another extremely important part of receiving this grant support,” says Dr. Craig. “The opportunities for collaboration as a result of bringing in new researchers is invaluable to tackling this challenging disease.”

This funding was provided by the Canadian Cancer Society Innovation Grants program.

Cutting-edge technology comes to Queen's

Eight researchers at Queen’s University have been awarded $1.3 million through the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) John R. Evans Leaders Fund. Leading the funding are Stephen Archer (Cardiology) and Neil Renwick (Pathology and Molecular Medicine).

Dr. Archer is using his funding to purchase a new super resolution microscope that can see structures five times smaller than any prior light microscopes.

“This new system, one of the very few in Canada, is to imaging the cell what the Hubble Space Telescope was to imaging the solar system,” says Dr. Archer, who received $400,000 and is also funded by the Henderson Foundation. “The microscope will be used to study how and why mitochondria divide and join together. Mitochondria play a key role in diseases including lung cancer and PAH.”

Dr. Renwick is focusing on cancer diagnostics.

“The goal of my CFI project is to transform cancer diagnostics using novel approaches,” says Dr. Renwick who received $200,000. “Through the vision of the CFI, I will purchase advanced instrumentation that will allow us to profile ribonucleic acid, a molecule that carries genetic information, and visualize diseased tissues. I expect these approaches will help pathologists to diagnose and classify cancers, recommend treatments, and predict clinical outcomes at the time of specimen assessment.”

“This CFI funding, which supports the acquisition or development of new infrastructure, provides the resources to sustain world-class research and the tools to pave the way for new and innovative discoveries at Queen’s,” says Steven Liss, Vice-Principal (Research). “Our success in this recent competition across a broad range of disciplines is indicative of the leadership of our researchers in their respective fields.”

The six other Queen’s researchers funded in this recent competition are:

Tomas Babak (Biology, $150,000) –Dr. Babak will develop improved DNA sequencing methods that could lead to improved understanding of complex diseases including schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

Derek Berg (Education, $86,000) – Dr. Berg, will use an eye tracking system and computer-based assessment equipment to identify the cognitive bases of mathematical abilities and disabilities, with an end goal of developing interventions to support the early development of children’s mathematics proficiency.

Ahmad Ghahremaninezhad (Mining, $125,000) – Dr. Ghahremaninezhad is developing effective processes for sustainable and environmentally responsible extraction of metals from minerals while decreasing the negative environmental impact of metal extraction processes.

Jean-Michel Nunzi (Chemistry, $50,000) –Dr. Nunzi will develop a new antenna technology to approach the ultimate efficiency with which solar light can be converted into electricity on earth.

David Rival (Mechanical and Materials Engineering, $175,000) – Dr. Rival is purchasing a high-speed laser and constructing an optical towing tank for the laboratory he is establishing at Queen’s. Dr. Rival’s lab will focus on several research areas including aerospace, defence and the renewable-energy sector.

Avena Ross (Chemistry, $150,000) – Dr. Ross and her team are investigating a family of marine bacteria that could be used to develop drug therapies.

Caring for a troubled world

Queen's in the World

Emergency room doctors and their staff work are on the front lines of health care, addressing the urgent needs of patients with everything from critical illness and injury to the routine afflictions of daily life. They’re experts at triage and decision-making in a fast-moving, unpredictable environment.

Susan Bartels, an emergency room physician in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Queen’s and a clinician scientist at Kingston General Hospital, adapts that expertise to a different kind of front-line care in some of the most troubled regions of the globe.

As a specialist in global health, she looks at what happens to people during wars and natural disasters, delivering not just urgent care, but also documenting and reporting on the complex, long-term, and often invisible consequences of those events on individuals, families and communities.

Susan Bartels has brought her medicial expertise to some of the most troubled regions of the globe.

A graduate of Memorial University who completed her residency at Queen’s, Dr. Bartels returned to Kingston last September from Boston, where she worked for seven years after  completing a fellowship in international emergency medicine at the Harvard Medical School and a master’s degree at the Harvard School of Public Health.

During that time she became director of the Global Health and International Emergency Medicine Fellowship at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. She also gained extensive experience as a faculty member with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, taking part in international aid missions in the U.S., Africa and the Middle East – work she continues to do through her new position at KGH and Queen’s.      

Some of her most significant experience has been in Central Africa, where her work has addressed issues such as drought, cholera, mortality, and war crimes. She also led two studies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, documenting women’s health and sexual violence as a weapon of war. The latter work has been groundbreaking because it provides a quantitative assessment of the long-term effects of sexual violence, such as abandonment by spouses, and abuse and social stigmatization of children born from these assaults.

More recently she has been focusing on child protection and the effects of the civil war on Syrian refugees in neighbouring Lebanon, including social isolation, missed schooling, forced child labour and child marriage. Through interviews with families she is building a picture of the long-term challenges faced by families misplaced by the conflict. Such documentation, Dr. Bartels says, helps to improve the science and practice of delivering humanitarian aid. “It’s about looking at the effects of war and finding ways to mitigate the impact.”

Amid the bleakness of the environments in which she works, however, she finds reasons for hope. “I am looking at resilience in this context, and how people have overcome adversity. It’s intriguing – what is it that allows people to overcome such terrible events and grow? What are the building blocks in individuals, families, and communities that we could foster or augment to help them rebuild?”

This story is the fifth in a series on the KGH Research Institute, a collaboration between Queen’s and Kingston General Hospital, and the clinician-scientists recruited to work in the centre.

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