Five U of A researchers named to Royal Society of Canada

Leading experts in chemistry, elder care, space physics, behavioural epidemiology and design join the ranks of Canada’s most prestigious scholarly institute.


(From left) University of Alberta researchers Todd Lowary, Carole Estabrooks and Ian Mann were named fellows of the Royal Society of Canada, and Valerie Carson and Natalie Loveless were named to the society's College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists.

The University of Alberta's strength in synthetic chemistry was never lost on chemistry professor Todd Lowary because he lived it.

Not in the early 1950s when chemistry professor Raymond Lemieux became the first person to synthesize sucrose, which paved the way for the creation of new antibiotics and blood reagents.

And not in the early 1970s when another U of A chemistry professor named David Bundle made history as part of a team headed again by Lemieux that developed the first synthetic blood-group antigens.

However, Bundle would go on to have his own lab-which Lowary was a part of-that created a new sugar molecule that blocks the toxins caused by bacteria such as E. coli and cholera.

Now Lowary, the Faculty of Science's Lemieux Professor of Carbohydrate Chemistry, is heading up his own lab that is renowned for his work unravelling the role carbohydrates found on the surface of bacteria play in mediating disease.

And just like Bundle and Lemieux before him, Lowary, along with four other U of A scholars, has been called to the Royal Society of Canada (RSC), the country's oldest and most prestigious scholarly institute.

Other U of A academics joining Lowary as part of the 2020 class of RSC fellows are elder care expert Carole Estabrooks and space physics researcher Ian Mann. Behavioural epidemiologist Valerie Carson and art historian Natalie Loveless were named to the society's College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists.

Lowary's pioneering contributions include novel methods for assembling some of the most complex carbohydrates ever synthesized. These molecules, access to which would be impossible without his work, have enabled understanding of the role of carbohydrates in diseases such as tuberculosis with applications in new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics.

One project Lowary's lab has been involved in is the substantial improvement of a urine-based test able to detect tuberculosis. Tuberculosis kills millions around the world every year and is the leading cause of death for people living with HIV. Diagnostic tests like this are just one application of research to which Lowary's team has contributed.

Lowary, Canada Research Chair in Carbohydrate Chemistry and the scientific director of GlycoNet, one of two pan-Canadian Network of Centres of Excellence administratively based at the U of A, credits his success to his team of co-workers, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and technicians.

"We have an exceptional research environment, which has been unwaveringly supportive of both my own program and the long tradition of excellence in glycoscience research at the University of Alberta," he said.

Carole Estabrooks: Advocating for better elder care

Over her long career, Estabrooks, a professor in the Faculty of Nursing and Canada Research Chair in Knowledge Translation, has been an outspoken advocate for better care of Canada's senior citizens. At no time was that support more apparent than during the earliest days of the COVID-19 outbreak, when her voice rose above all others in calling for an immediate overhaul to Canada's long-term-care system, which was collapsing under the weight of the pandemic.

Esabrooks maintained Translating Research in Elder Care, or TREC, a 15-year-old longitudinal partnership of researchers, knowledge users, policy makers and citizens that aims to produce knowledge that improves elder care. She has also developed a valid measure of the long-term care work environment, while demonstrating how important work environments are quality of work life for staff and quality of care for residents, while showing that we can engage the large direct-care workforce to improve care quality for residents.

"This induction into the Royal Society carries a great deal of meaning for me, as it is recognition of my life's work and a new opportunity to engage with a society of similarly honoured scholars, which can only enrich my scholarly life," she said.

Ian Mann: Space weather watcher

Mann, a space physicist in the Faculty of Science, is a world-renowned expert in space weather research. His research is dedicated to understanding the physical processes involved in the relationship between the sun and the Earth's geospace environment. The effects of this solar-terrestrial coupling in the form of space weather range from the generation of the northern and southern lights, to the harsher radiation environments that can damage or even destroy satellites and electrical power grids.

Mann's expertise and leadership in this field has taken him to the United Nations, where he is the chair of the Space Weather Expert Group, which steers international efforts to address extreme space weather impacts. From leading cubesat missions to issuing auroral alerts, he tirelessly promotes lifelong learning.

Closer to home, Mann is actively working to develop training that will allow U of A students to benefit from expansion and diversification into the new space economy. Mann led the university's AlbertaSat program, which resulted in the successful flight and operation of the first "made-in-Alberta" satellite in 2017. The AlbertaSat team is now working on their second mission to monitor wildfires.

The former Canada Research Chair in Space Physics, Mann also led the development of an alert system-Aurora Watch-that gives astronomy enthusiasts optimal times for viewing the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis.

"With the designation by the Canadian federal government on March 6, 2019, of space as a strategic national asset, it is more important than ever that the Royal Society of Canada is able to provide appropriate advice to Canadian decision makers and the public about the importance and opportunities to utilize space for the benefit of all Canadians," said Mann.

Valerie Carson: Helping kids be healthy for life

Carson's research findings and leadership have directly contributed to national and international public health guidelines, including the Canadian 24 Hour Movement Guidelines, that have spearheaded a new integrated and holistic approach to health promotion.

The overarching goal of Carson's research program is to understand how to effectively promote healthy habits of regular physical activity and minimal sedentary behaviour-including screen time-among young children.

"Achieving this goal will help set children on a trajectory of optimal physical, social, emotional and mental health throughout life," said Carson, a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation.

Furthermore, her findings and committee work have directly contributed to tangible physical activity and sedentary behaviour resources used by parents, child care directors, pediatricians and public health practitioners.

"We live in a society where the average Canadian child is more connected to a screen than to the outdoors and nature," said Carson, who is also a member of the Women and Children's Health Research Institute.

"Early intervention is cost-effective-investments in young children yield larger economic returns than older children and adults."

Natalie Loveless: Social change by design

Loveless, an art and design professor in the Faculty of Arts, has worked to centre social and climate justice concerns, feminist theory and practice, and radical pedagogy, with art as her lever. Specifically, she uses artistic practices and forms that defamiliarize social and political structures, inviting new thinking and new modes of micropolitical agency.

She does this advocacy work through the books she's published-How to Make Art and Knowings and Knots-along with projects she has led, and her research-creation and social justice CoLABoratory, which brings researchers at the U of A together with national and international affiliates interested in developing a critical discourse of research-creation attuned to social justice.

She recently completed New Maternalisms, a project bringing together feminist art practice, theory and curation, and an interdisciplinary collaborative project on global vaccination called that culminated in a high-profile exhibition at UNAIDS in Geneva during the 2017 World Health Assembly.

"The greatest glow that I get is when students who I know or have never met email me to thank me for creating space for the creative interdisciplinary work they are doing, attuned to social and ecological justice," said Loveless.

She added, "Because the Royal Society is much more than a figurehead organization-it is an organization committed to social change-I look forward to being an advocate for research-creation attuned to social and ecological justice at the Royal Society."

The fellows and new scholars will be inducted to the RSC at a ceremony later this year.

The U of A has sent 176 scholars to the RSC.