Graduate students shine light on the frontiers of discovery

Falling Walls Lab challenges UAlberta students to break down walls

Amy Hewko - 02 October 2015

The question is simple, but the answer is not: which walls will be the next to fall?

This idea is the premise of Falling Walls, an international competition that challenges graduate students to showcase how their research is redefining their respective fields and breaking down the walls to the next major scientific breakthrough. The University of Alberta is one of 20 approved international events, and the Sept. 30 event saw 16 outstanding examples of graduate research.

"Tonight is a night of ideas," Lorne Babiuk, vice-president of research at the University of Alberta, said during his opening remarks. "We're going to see and hear ideas that will shape our future."

Of the presentations, three come out on top, including two presentations from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. Joshua Lee, a PhD candidate in the lab of Toshifumi Yokota in the Department of Medical Genetics, took third place for his presentation on the use of novel drug that act as a "band-aid" to treat genetic diseases. Gem Shoute from the Faculty of Engineering, placed second and was given the audience choice award for her presentation on the future of pliable electronics. First place went to Lian Willetts, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of John Lewis in the Department of Oncology, for her presentation on prostate cancer metastasis.

"My mom died of cancer. She first was diagnosed with a pain in her sacrum, but she died from lung cancer," Willetts says of her attraction to the field of oncology. Adding, that resolving "metastasis is dear and close to my heart. She wouldn't have passed away if it didn't spread."

Willetts, Shoute and Lee will advance to the next stage of competition at the international Falling Walls Finale in Berlin on Nov. 8 and 9. There, they will compete among 100 scientists from around the world for top honours.

Presentations at the UAlberta even were judged by a jury of university researchers, alumni and community leaders, and included Nermeen Youssef, who placed second at the 2014 UAlberta Falling Walls Lab and was named Young Innovator of the Year at the finale.

"There are constantly new kinds of research and new breakthroughs coming out of the university. It wasn't until last year that I got to learn, through the Falling Walls presentations, about the brilliant work produced by the other disciplines on campus," Youssef says.

Falling Walls was established in 2011 and was inspired by the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. The University of Alberta event was sponsored by Startup Edmonton, TEC Edmonton, Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, Alberta Innovates Health Solutions, Alberta Innovates Energy and Environmental Solutions, KIAS, e-HUB, the University of Alberta Office of Advancement and the German-Canadian Centre for Innovation and Research.