University of Alberta awarded four Canada Excellence Research Chairs

University well-positioned to deliver on promise of prestigious chairs, says U of A President Indira Samarasekera

By Michael Brown on May 17, 2010

(Edmonton) The University of Alberta has been awarded four of the 19 Canada Excellence Research Chairs created by the federal government to attract and retain the world’s top minds to establish ambitious research programs in universities across Canada.

In a May 17 announcement, the U of A revealed that Michael Houghton, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology; Graham Pearson, CERC in Arctic Resources; Patrik Rorsman, CERC in Diabetes; and Thomas Thundat, CERC in Oil Sands Molecular Engineering, will each receive $10 million over seven years to establish their programs at the U of A.

“As an institution we are indeed well-positioned to deliver on the promise of these prestigious chairs, and I promise we will,” said U of A President Indira Samarasekera. “This is a tremendous validation of the research excellence already in place here, not only in oilsands engineering, virology, arctic resources and diabetes, but many supportive disciplines. That we have been able to attract four truly exceptional individuals to the U of A through the CERC competition is also testament to the quality of our current faculty, students and outstanding nature of the research that we have undertaken to date.

“Even with an offer of major resources on the table, in my experience, top people will only consider moving if they know they’ll be working with exceptional colleagues.”

In 2008, the Government of Canada created a program to establish prestigious research chairs—Canada Excellence Research Chairs—in universities across the country to attract and retain the world’s most accomplished researchers to build expertise in the priority research areas of environmental sciences and technologies, natural resources and energy, health and related life sciences and technologies, and information and communication technologies.

Initially, 41 Canadian universities competed for the opportunity to establish CERCs at their institution. In April of 2009, the federal government shortlisted 40 proposals from 17 universities, five of which came from the U of A. All told, the U of A received the lion’s share of CERCs with four chairs, twice as many as the next closest CERC recipient.

“The Canada Excellence Research Chairs program is helping our universities here in Alberta and across Canada attract and develop top scientists whose cutting-edge research will ensure that our country remains a world leader in innovation, productivity and quality of life,” said Rona Ambrose, minister of public works and government services, minister for status of women, and minister responsible for Northern Alberta.

Houghton, who will join the freshly minted Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, established just last month through a gift of $28 million from the Li Ka Shing (Canada) Foundation and a $52.2 million investment by the Government of Alberta, is an internationally recognized expert in hepatitis, and was part of the team that discovered the hepatitis C virus in the 1980s. Houghton, who starts his term on June 1, will work with colleagues to develop a vaccine for hepatitis C, develop new treatments for patients already infected, and study new viruses that cause disease.

“I’m very pleased to be at the University of Alberta because they have excellent experimental and clinical researchers in the diseases that I’m very interested in, for example viral hepatitis and inflammatory bowel disease.”

Pearson, who begins his term Oct. 1, will develop the first detailed picture of rock formations hidden deep under the Earth’s crust in Canada’s Arctic, revealing new data on the land masses where diamonds are formed. In addition, his micro-sampling technique for diamond analysis will be the first of its kind in Canada. Able to determine the chemical “fingerprint” of Canadian diamonds, this technique will protect their ethical and geographical purity, and guarantee their premium on the international market, which holds the promise of tremendous economic benefit to the North.

“This particular project has offered me the opportunity to study the [rock formations] beneath the Canadian Arctic, a very difficult area to get at, and really solve a problem that is only tractable by the magnitude of funding that the Canadian government has made available,” said Pearson. “It really would not be possible to do this type of research without this sort of funding, and it would not be possible in any other government environment.”

Rorsman,* whose term begins March 1, 2011, joins the acclaimed Alberta Diabetes Institute, home to the team that developed the world-renowned Edmonton Protocol islet transplant diabetes treatment. He studies how human pancreatic islets function during both health and disease. He will develop new treatments that preserve, regenerate and transplant these insulin-producing cells back to healthy conditions, thereby restoring the pancreatic function. Close to three million Canadians suffer from Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

“The University of Alberta, and in my case the Diabetes Institute, is a great trademark, a great brand,” said Rorsman. “The Edmonton Protocol is well known all over the world for the pioneering work that has been carried out here over the last 15, 20 years. It is a fantastic opportunity to be invited to be part of such a vibrant and dynamic research community.”

Thundat, who begins his term Aug. 1, is a world leader in the study of molecules and nanoscale structures at interfaces, such as the interaction of solids and liquids. He brings a strong track record of commercialization to an outstanding team of oilsands researchers at the U of A. His expertise provides a critical bridge between basic science and application. He will develop new detection and extraction technologies to improve the overall efficiency of how Canada’s oilsands are processed. The tools he develops will help with basic understanding of oilsands interface and eventually lead to extraction processes that are more energy-efficient, use less water, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Thundat will be a member of the Faculty of Engineering.

* Editor's note: Patrik Rorsman subsequently resigned his Canada Excellence Research Chair and returned to the United Kingdom, but remains actively involved in U of A diabetes research as an adjunct faculty member.