Four-Star Performance

    A quartet of rock star academics arrive at the U of A

    September 1, 2010

    In May 2010 the U of A was awarded four of the 19 Canada Excellence Research Chairs created in 2008 by the federal government to attract the world’s most accomplished academics to universities across Canada. The U of A attracted twice as many of the best and brightest than any other university in the country. Each Chair comes with up to $10 million in federal funding over seven years for the establishment of ambitious research programs. Let us introduce you to the U of A’s four new academic stars...

    Who? Michael Houghton

    What? Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology

    Where Was He? Most recently he was chief scientific officer at Epiphany BioSciences in San Francisco, California.

    What’s He Been Up To? An internationally recognized expert in hepatitis, he was part of the team that discovered the hepatitis C virus (HCV) in the 1980s. The breakthrough allowed for the development of new blood-screening tests able to detect the virus, techniques now used worldwide to keep patients safe by ensuring that blood supplies are HCV-free. In Canada, it is estimated that there are 300,000 carriers of hepatitis B and C2.

    What Does He Hope To Accomplish At The U of A? Houghton joined the freshly minted Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology established in April through a gift of $28 million from the Li Ka Shing (Canada) Foundation and a $52.2 million investment by the Govern­ment of Alberta. He’s currently working with colleagues to develop a vaccine for hepatitis C, to develop new treatments for patients already infected as well as study new viruses that cause the disease.

    What U of A President Indira Samarasekera Says: "Michael Houghton’s discovery of the hepatitis C virus is one of the most significant biomedical breakthroughs in the last 20 years. His work is the foundation of research to improve and save the lives of millions of people around the world. Having him as part of our already impressive team of scientists and the recent establishment of the University of Alberta’s Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology together propel the University of Alberta to the forefront of research into virus-based diseases."

    "The goal of my research here is to advance the development of a vaccine to protect people against hepatitis C, which is a very common virus causing various forms of liver disease. Secondly, we want to try and develop a vaccine to actually help in treating patients who already have the infection and the disease. Thirdly, I’d like to contribute to existing efforts here at the University to try and identify the causes of other diseases by viral pathogens."

    Who? Patrik Rorsman

    What? Canada Excellence Research Chair in Diabetes

    Where Was He? Most recently at University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

    What’s He Been Up To? Rorsman is a world leader in experimental diabetes research. He has made significant breakthroughs in mapping out the biology and function of pancreatic islets — research that has led to a greater understanding of how insulin is produced and secreted. His research focuses on understanding the mechanisms for controlling the secretion of hormones, including insulin, and how these mechanisms go awry in Type 2 diabetes.

    What Does He Hope To Accomplish At The U of A? When he joins the acclaimed Alberta Diabetes Institute in 2011 — home to the team that developed the world-renowned Edmonton Protocol islet transplant diabetes treatment — he will study how human pancreatic islets (insulin producing cells) function when both healthy and diseased. Rorsman will work on developing new treatments that preserve, regenerate and transplant insulin-producing cells back to healthy conditions, thereby restoring pancreatic function. Close to three million Canadians suffer from Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

    What U of A President Indira Samarasekera Says: "We are thrilled to have Patrik Rorsman join the University of Alberta, because he and the research group he is bringing with him will help bring Edmonton to the forefront of human islet research, which is so important to understanding diabetes. He is a terrific addition to our already outstanding team of diabetes researchers."

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

    Who? Thomas Thundat

    What? Canada Excellence Research Chair in Oil Sands Molecular Engineering

    Where Was He? Most recently at University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

    What’s He Been Up To? Thundat is a world leader in the study of molecules and nanoscale structures at interfaces. He has pioneered new techniques for detecting molecules on surfaces — even in trace quantities — and has developed new sensors that have tremendous potential applications for oil sands processing as well as other possible applications.

    What Does He Hope To Accomplish At The U of A? Thundat will develop new detection and extraction technologies to improve the overall efficiency of how Canada’s oil sands are processed. The tools he develops will help with basic understanding of the oil sands interface and eventually lead to extraction processes that are more energy-efficient, use less water, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    What U of A President Indira Samarasekera Says: "Thomas Thundat bridges basic research and industry application, with an impressive track record of commercialization. He is a terrific addition to the University of Alberta team researching energy and the environment. His special expertise will have an impact on many aspects of oil production, from extracting the oil, to eliminating tailings ponds, to upgrading products."

    "What attracted me to the U of A is the people. It has stellar faculty doing amazing work, great facilities and many resources. The goal of my research is basically to understand the fundamental processes involved in the oil sands interface. We will be developing tools and techniques to understand the mechanisms and develop better separation techniques. This research will lead to developing techniques and tools for efficient separation techniques that will be energy efficient and less polluting."

    Who? Graham Pearson

    What? Canada Excellence Research Chair in Arctic Resources

    Where Was He? Most recently at Durham University in the United Kingdom.

    What’s He Been Up To? Pearson is one of the world’s leading scientists in diamond studies and in understanding the creation of diamond-forming roots beneath continents. He is at the forefront of developing new techniques for geochemical analysis and has pioneered new methods of dating minute geological samples.

    What Does He Hope To Accomplish At The U of A? Pearson 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. His micro-sampling technique for diamond analysis will be the first of its kind in Canada, leading to a method that takes a chemical "fingerprint" of Canadian diamonds so they can be traced back to the location where they were mined and not be confused with diamonds from conflict zones.

    What U of A President Indira Samarasekera Says: "Graham Pearson has spearheaded some of the most important analytical breakthroughs in the field of diamond research, including chemical fingerprinting of conflict diamonds. His expertise in Arctic exploration will help position the University of Alberta as a world leader in diamond studies and will advance the social and economic development of Canada’s 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. 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."