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10 stories that inspired us in 2021

It was a year of global challenges, but the University of Alberta community met them head-on to keep making discoveries and creating opportunities for change.

  • December 13, 2021
  • By Sean Townsend

When the calendar rolled over to 2021, the optimism we may have felt with the coming of a new year was tempered by the realization that the challenges we faced in 2020 weren’t going away. The COVID-19 pandemic is still with us as a shifty viral adversary adapts to our countermeasures, even as other diseases like diabetes continue to take their toll. The worldwide effects of climate change loom large. Social inequities persist. People are worried about what the future holds.

But if there’s anything the people at the University of Alberta excel at, it’s taking on a challenge and turning it into an opportunity to create change. It’s the purpose that compels us to think beyond the limits of today, see the possibilities that lie ahead and work together to lead the way toward changing things for the better. Here are just a few of their stories that left us feeling some of that fresh optimism throughout the year.

‘We will not forget’: U of A community remembers the lives lost on Flight PS752

On the eve of the first anniversary of the tragedy in which 10 members of the U of A community lost their lives, colleagues and friends remembered the remarkable individuals they knew and spoke of an enduring influence that lives on.

A memorial with photos of the U of A community members who died in the Flight PS752 tragedy
Portraits of the Edmonton victims of the Flight PS752 tragedy at a memorial service held at the Saville Community Sports Centre Jan. 12, 2020 (Photo: Richard Siemens)

Great-granddaughter of Black settlers chronicles Alberta’s little-known history

Debbie Beaver co-founded a historical society, leads walking tours in Edmonton and contributed research for museum exhibits, all with the same purpose: to preserve a century’s worth of stories for all to know. “They need to continue to be told, preserved and passed down to the future generations, as this is an important piece of Canadian history.”

Debbie Beaver co-founded a non-profit historical society to share stories of the first Black settlers in Alberta and Saskatchewan, including her great-grandparents. (Photo: Geoff McMaster)

University of Alberta and TELUS partner on a 5G ‘living lab’

Breaking new ground in research and capitalizing on the commercial possibilities takes more than brilliant minds and hard work — it takes technology that can handle the immense volumes of data needed to make advances like precision agriculture and self-driving vehicles possible. That’s the goal of the five-year partnership announced in March to establish 5G infrastructure that U of A innovators will use to take their ideas from concept to market.

U of A ranks among world’s top universities striving for a sustainable world

The U of A’s efforts toward achieving the UN’s sustainable development goals were recognized by Times Higher Education with a 64th-place ranking globally. Other notable rankings this year included the 2022 Maclean’s rankings that rated the U of A’s nursing education tops in Canada, the 2021-22 CWUR rankings that saw the university jump 20 spots to land at 81st in the world, the U.S. News & World Report rankings in which our medical research led a strong showing in a variety of subjects, the 2021 NTU rankings that put our research performance at 91st in the world, and the 2021 QS employability rankings in which U of A grads ranked 99th in the world and 35th in North America for having job-ready skills and knowledge.

U of A archeologist helps Indigenous communities uncover their own stories

This profile of Dr. Kisha Supernant and her work as director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology seemed prescient a month later when the remains of 215 children were found buried at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. More burial sites were soon uncovered at former residential school sites in B.C. and Saskatchewan — prompting a letter to the U of A community and further reflections by Dr. Florence Glanfield, vice-provost of Indigenous programming and research, who offered these powerful words: “Whether you light a candle, say prayers, or remember in a different way, know that in your remembering you need to search for your action; to search for the steps you will take to be a part of the reconciliation journey.”

Dr. Kisha Supernant uses ground-penetrating radar to search for unmarked graves (Photo: John Ulan)
Dr. Kisha Supernant and her team from the U of A's Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology survey burial grounds on Enoch Cree Nation land. (Photo: John Ulan)

U of A spinoff company could help unlock a lithium industry for Alberta

What if Alberta could unlock a new industry by extracting valuable lithium from the briny wastewater produced by oil and gas wells? That’s the goal for Recion Technologies, a company created by U of A geochemist Dan Alessi and former post-doc Salman Safari. The U of A's pre-accelerator imYEG, created in January 2021 with Brass Dome Ventures Ltd., is helping Recion scale up their unique technology. Recion was one of several U of A spinoff companies that made headlines this year; others included Quantum Silicon Inc., Tevosol, PulseMedica, True Angle and Applied Quantum Materials.

Geochemist Dan Alessi is co-founder of the U of A spinoff company Recion Technologies, which is developing innovative technology that could help meet rising global demand for lithium. (Photo: John Ulan)

I have diabetes. Here’s why I’m glad I live in Alberta

News writers generally don’t write themselves into their stories, but in this case, writer Gillian Rutherford’s experiences living with Type 1 diabetes made her well suited to offer a personal perspective on how the Alberta Diabetes Institute has helped improve the quality of life for people like her. And on the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin, as she put it, “that’s worth celebrating.” 

U of A researchers have been leading the way to improving quality of life for people with diabetes since James Collip played an instrumental role in discovering and synthesizing insulin 100 years ago.

U of A-industry partnership poised to close Canada’s drug supply gaps

November got off to an auspicious start with the announcement of the Canadian Critical Drug Initiative, a partnership between the Edmonton-based nonprofit Applied Pharmaceutical Innovation and the U of A’s Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute. Led by an expert team including two of the world’s foremost virologists — 2020 Nobel laureate Michael Houghton and Lorne Tyrrell, who received the 2021 Friesen International Prize in Health Research on Dec. 10 and the Hepatitis B Foundation’s Blumberg Prize on Nov. 22 — the initiative aims to fill urgent gaps in Canada’s drug supply chain and get new life-saving treatments to market faster.

Andrew MacIsaac, CEO of Applied Pharmaceutical Innovation. The industry-led non-profit partnered with the U of A’s Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute to help fill urgent gaps in Canada’s pharmaceutical supply chain and get new life-saving treatments to market faster. (Photo: API)

U of A’s newest Rhodes Scholar headed to Oxford with goal of transforming health care in Canada

Jesse Lafontaine, the newest Rhodes Scholar to come out of the U of A, plans to earn two master’s degrees at Oxford before returning home to finish his medical degree and continue pursuing the goal he’s exemplified as a student leader — increasing Indigenous representation in medicine. Along with other success stories like business students helping local companies go digital and the grads of the class of 2021 who persevered to earn their degrees, students like Jesse give us reason to believe the future is in good hands.

Jesse Lafontaine, the newest Rhodes Scholar to come out of the U of A, plans to earn master’s degrees in public policy and translational health science at Oxford. (Photo: Laughing Dog)

New provincial research funding for U of A aims to create made-in-Alberta vaccine and drug development pipeline

The first day of December brought good tidings from the Alberta government: an investment of more than $55 million in U of A research to help take new vaccines and antiviral drugs from discovery to testing and manufacturing. The announcement also included new funding for Entos Pharmaceuticals, a company headed by U of A researcher John Lewis, whose COVID-19 vaccine began the second phase of human clinical trials in September after a successful first-phase trial earlier this year.

(From left) Virologist Matthias Götte, U of A president Bill Flanagan and virologist Lorne Tyrrell were on hand at an event Dec. 1 announcing $55.1 million in new provincial funding for U of A research to take new vaccines and antiviral drugs from discovery to testing to manufacturing. (Photo: Jordon Hon)
Project co-leads Matthias Götte (left) and Lorne Tyrrell (right) are pictured with U of A president Bill Flanagan at an on-campus event Dec. 1 announcing $55.1 million in new provincial funding for U of A research to take new vaccines and antiviral drugs from discovery to testing to manufacturing. (Photo: Jordon Hon)