Illustration of researcher observing two cars stuck on a muddy road
Illustration by Kagan McLeod

New Trail 100

How It Started, How It’s Going

The 100-year quest for better roads, healthier crops and cattle, and a cure for diabetes

By Therese Kehler

January 26, 2021 •

New Trail is 100! To celebrate our centenary year, we went back into the archives and dug up 100 weird and wonderful moments from our past issues. On our hunt, we got glimpses of life on campus through the decades, came across grads and researchers trying to make a difference in the world and found a century-long collection of snippets and stories.

Road conditions have been a source of angst for a long time, judging by some of the very first issues of the university’s alumni magazine. And the hunt for creative solutions has been going on for just as long.

In the second issue of The Trail, in November 1921, Karl Clark describes the highly unsatisfactory experience of building roads in Alberta and his high hopes for a tarry substance called bitumen. Clark, whose research later became instrumental in launching Alberta’s oilsands industry, was lured to Alberta from Ontario by the U of A’s first president, Henry Marshall Tory, ’28 LLD (Honorary). Tory believed so strongly in the role of academia in finding practical solutions to problems, and boosting economies in the process, that he established a research department at the university. In 1921, that department became Canada’s first provincial research council: the Scientific and Industrial Research Council of Alberta (now Alberta Innovates, the province’s largest research agency, which continues to fund research at the U of A). Tory was also a key player in founding the Canada’s National Research Council Laboratories and was its first president.

“[Tory] became tireless in his advocacy that universities, governments, industrial firms and societies should all realize the great importance of scientific discovery, of practical application of scientific devices, and of general guidance by the scientific method,” wrote R.W. Boyle, a pioneer in sonar research and former U of A science dean, who — like many of the university’s original researchers — was recruited by Tory himself.

Today, the U of A still attracts researchers at the forefront of their fields and is highly respected in areas such as virology, diabetes, artificial intelligence, agriculture and energy. 

Here’s a look back at the hot research topics featured in the magazine’s first decade and the research that continues today at the U of A.

Archival photo of a car stuck on a muddy road near Hanna, Alberta, 1920s
Car stuck on muddy road near Hanna, Alberta, 1920s, [NA-3596-61]. Courtesy of Glenbow Archives, Archives and Special Collections, University of Calgary

Road to the Future: Then

The researcher

Karl Clark was a chemist and former head of the federal Road Materials Division. He’s widely considered the father of the oilsands industry.

The research

In the decade before Clark’s arrival in 1920, the number of cars in Alberta had jumped from 400 to 38,000. But roads were inadequate on a good day and downright disastrous when it rained. There were two key problems, Clark wrote in the second issue of The Trail: a shortage of local gravel and an oversupply of a “very interesting constituent known as ‘bentonite’” that swelled when wet, transforming the “firm, stable, earth road surface into slippery, impassable mud.” Clark looked into the sticky bituminous sands found in the province’s north, which the Cree had used for centuries to build weapons and tools and to waterproof their canoes. Clark’s goal was to create a water-resistant paving product by combining the oily sands with the wet, claylike soil. But it was a related side project that had the real impact. In the basement of the campus power plant, he set up a lab to separate the sand from the bitumen, creating a new heavy oil petroleum product that sparked the oilsands industry of today.

Road to the Future: Now

The researchers

U of A engineering researchers Alireza Bayat and Leila Hashemian study ways to make our roads better, and they’re in it for the long haul. Over close to a decade, their research has found ways to use waste products like shredded tires and bottom ash to improve road construction in cold climates and make roads last longer.

The research

The research team worked with municipal and provincial governments on a multimillion-dollar project to design, build and monitor a stretch of road in northeast Edmonton as part of the Integrated Road Research Facility. The publicly used test road is packed with sensors to collect data on different types of road construction. Bayat and Hashemian have found, for example, that using shredded tires in embankments along with compacted soil makes road construction more energy efficient and could divert millions of kilograms of waste from landfills. Other research has found that installing a layer of polystyrene under the pavement can improve a road’s longevity in cold climates. This kind of information has helped the team develop construction specifications to use waste materials in creative ways to improve our roads.

Photo of a field of golden wheat, grain elevator in the background
Getty Images

The Grains Behind the Operation: Then

The researcher

Robert Newton, ’50 LLD (Honorary), a Montreal-born First World War veteran and agricultural scientist, was U of A president from 1941 to 1950. He came to the university in 1919 as a professor of field husbandry and plant biochemistry, and was named head of the field crops department in 1924.

The research

Golden fields of wheat became gold, quite literally, in the pockets of Alberta farmers and the coffers of the Canadian economy. But time and again in the early 1900s, crops fell victim to drought, disease and pests. In 1924, a Trail article noted that Newton was granted $2,000 from the National Research Council “to continue on his very important studies on the winter hardiness of wheat.” He looked for properties known to successfully get plants through the winter, with an eye to future plant breeding opportunities. He was able to determine a species’ expected hardiness based on microscopic analysis of moisture content. His wheat research also looked at drought and rust resistance, as stem rust was a devastating epidemic sweeping the Prairies.

The Grains Behind the Operation: Now

The researcher

Dean Spaner, who grew up in Edmonton, dropped out of his first year at the U of A but eventually earned a PhD from McGill with a focus on corn breeding. He bred everything from corn to canola to rutabaga before returning to the U of A in 2000 as a professor in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences, where he began breeding wheat.

The research

“Wheat is the most important crop in Canada,” says Spaner. It’s also the country’s largest crop, with Canada sitting as the third biggest wheat exporter in the world. In Western Canada, about 70 per cent of wheat production is Hard Red Spring, a high-protein class of wheat that’s ideal for milling and breadmaking, Spaner says. But northern farming can be a battle, with a short growing season and threatening plant diseases. Spaner has spent the last two decades breeding disease-resistant wheat varieties that mature early in the season and retain a high-protein profile. He made history in 2018 when five of his team’s varieties were registered as new wheat varieties. In 2020, more than 60,000 acres of spring wheat varieties developed by the U of A team were harvested from Alberta farms. “We develop varieties that introduce all sorts of different genetics into Western Canada,” says Spaner. “It means we’re contributing to the sustainable production of a crop. I’m proud of that.”

Archival photo of James Collip in his laboratory
Thomas Fisher Library, University of Toronto

The Science of Saving Lives: Then

The researcher

James Collip, ’24 PhD, ’26 MD, ’46 LLD (Honorary), was hired in 1915 as a biochemistry professor. While on sabbatical in 1921‑22, he joined J.J.R. Macleod, Frederick Banting and Charles Best on a project to develop synthesized insulin. Macleod and Banting won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1923; Macleod shared his award with Collip. (Read about the university’s latest Nobel connection: U of A virologist Michael Houghton, co-recipient of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.)

The research

Diabetes, caused by the unchecked rising of blood sugar, is one of the first human diseases on record. In the early 1900s, a diagnosis meant death in just a few years. The development of synthesized insulin, to which Collip’s work was key, made it possible to treat diabetes by controlling the metabolism, leading to an immediate and significant drop in the mortality rate. “Dr. Collip’s work continues to bring recognition,” The Trail enthused in February 1924, reporting a $10,000 award from the Carnegie Trust and a gift of “$5,000 in cash from Mr. John D. Rockefeller Jr.” to provide insulin to diabetic patients and train doctors in the proper way to use it. Collip’s research at the U of A focused on endocrinology — identifying and isolating hormones of therapeutic value. He produced 77 research papers while at the U of A and isolated the parathyroid hormone, used to treat certain types of hypoparathyroidism, a condition that can cause a host of health problems, some of them serious and irreversible.

The Science of Saving Lives: Now

The researchers

In 2000, James Shapiro, ’01 PhD, introduced the Edmonton Protocol, a procedure to transplant insulin-secreting cells called islets in patients with Type 1 diabetes. The procedure, which remains the global standard for treatment, has improved and saved the lives of countless people around the world. Now, Shapiro, Ray Rajotte, ’71 BSc(ElecEng), ’73 MSc, ’75 PhD, and Gregory Korbutt, ’85 BSc, ’88 MSc, are working on the next breakthrough: a cure for Type 1 diabetes.

The research

While Type 2 diabetes can be managed and even reversed if detected early, Type 1 diabetes is a life sentence for patients, who must monitor their blood glucose and inject insulin to stay alive. Thanks to the U of A’s Edmonton Protocol, 60 per cent of patients who receive transplants remain insulin independent for at least five years after the procedure. But the transplants aren’t a permanent solution and aren’t suitable for all patients. Other challenges: islets, available only from donated pancreases, are in short supply and patients who receive transplants must take anti-rejection drugs that can cause serious side effects. Shapiro believes the cure for all forms of diabetes will ultimately be found by permanently replacing islets in the pancreas, an abdominal gland that produces hormones and digestive enzymes. His lab is leading the way with research to transform blood cells from Type 1 diabetes patients into insulin-producing cells transplanted back in the patient — a process that could eliminate the need for anti-rejection drugs.

Stock photo of beef cattle, taken near Calgary, Alberta
Getty Images

Fodder for Thought: Then

The researcher

Robert D. Sinclair, ’18 BSc(Ag), was a member of the agriculture faculty’s first graduating class and joined its animal husbandry staff in 1923. He was appointed dean in 1942.

The research

The romantic notion of Alberta’s free-range cattle industry died in the early 1900s, along with thousands of animals that starved to death each winter. The need for ranchers to rethink animal nutrition came alongside other industry changes, like a railway that offered year-round access to markets across the continent and new buyers that demanded quality. In a 1924 essay, Sinclair wrote about the university’s collaboration with Alberta breeders. Students fed and handled donated steers, then took them to the big cattle shows elsewhere in Canada and the United States, showing the world that Alberta could “compete with any country in the production of meat-producing animals.” And U of A researchers were a big part of putting them there. Researchers worked with industry to develop science-based nutrition plans to help breeders and feeders ensure top-quality beef and pork.

Fodder for Thought: Now

The researcher

With a background in pharmaceutical science, Leluo Guan had never worked with livestock before she started her research career at the U of A in 2001. She was tasked with studying chicken biodata, which piqued her interest in agriculture. Guan went on to help map the bovine genome (its genetic instructions) and later started her own research program into the microbes in cattle stomachs and functional genomics. Today, she’s a professor and associate dean of graduate studies in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences.

The research

“Alberta beef” is more than a bumper sticker slogan. At the start of 2020, Canada’s cattle count was 11 million, with 40 per cent of those cows in Alberta. While the beef industry remains central to the province, there’s concern about environmental pollution caused by cattle. Cows’ digestive process produces methane, a greenhouse gas with an environmental impact 25 times that of carbon dioxide over 100 years. A single cow can release up to 500 litres of methane a day, about the same as a car. Farmers are looking for feed-efficient cattle that gain more weight from eating less feed — which saves money and results in less methane. In 2019, Guan and her research team identified 19 specific bovine genes linked to feed efficiency. She also looked at the microbes present in the rumen (the first stomach) of cows with higher feed efficiency and found they have different microbes that digest plants more efficiently and that some of these microbes are heritable. These discoveries hold the promise of a more sustainable and lucrative beef industry.

With files from Anna Holtby, Niall McKenna and Lewis Kelly

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