Illustration by L.J. Davids


The Impossible Made Possible

Can sunshine be improved? Can paralysis be reversed? Four researchers push the bounds of knowledge to change lives

By Kate Black, ’16 BA

Illustration by L.J. Davids
April 15, 2022 •

When the spinal cord is severely injured, the body shuts down. 

The entire spinal cord goes into shock, setting off a firestorm. Oxygen and nutrients vital to nerve cells are cut off, causing initially uninjured cells to die. Immune cells flood the site to remove the dead cells, but the onslaught damages more nerve cells. The result: paralysis. Often, irreversible paralysis.

Vivian Mushahwar believes she has invented a tool that could finally change that outcome for some. In other words, it could reverse irreversible paralysis. Thirty years after she first envisioned such a device as a grad student, she can finally hold it in the palm of her hand.

It’s a tiny micro-implant that, when surgically embedded in the spinal cord, creates an anatomical detour to restore function in paralyzed limbs. The device has the potential to change the lives of people with spinal cord injuries.

Zoom out from Mushahwar’s hands on the fifth floor of the Katz building and you’ll see researchers and scholars across the University of Alberta addressing seemingly impossible challenges, looking for answers to questions most of us don’t even know to ask. Little pockets of the future, thinking humanity’s way out of problems that affect our lives and our world.


In theory, a great idea springs to life in a lightning flash. A solution hits the inventor’s skull like an apple from a tree or a light bulb clicking on (we’ve all seen that cartoon). The genius jumps out of the bathtub and runs naked into the streets, triumphant, ready to change the world.

The eureka moment makes for a good story. It’s a comforting idea, too, to imagine a special class of innovators living among us: geniuses bestowed with a unique ability to see into the future or, at least, find solutions to propel us out of the tough problems of our present. The climate crisis. Cancer. Deep social inequity. The challenges seem insurmountable, too complex to even begin to untangle.

It would make sense that the people who dedicate their careers to finding and fixing problems would have some kind of innate gift. Maybe the creative or problem-solving part of their brains is bigger than the average person’s. Maybe they have a more robust morning routine. They love cold showers, eat more protein. Something sets them apart.

But ask researchers and scholars at the U of A to share their secrets, what sets them apart, and they won’t tell you. It’s not because they’re being cagey. It’s because what makes them different — what spurs them to explore ideas and create new knowledge — is only partly about them. To break boundaries, they need others. They need a supportive space to work. They need communities to inform what they do, colleagues from within and outside the university to offer perspectives that inform and hone their theories, students to support vital research, guidance on how to take a great idea into the real world so it can start to make change.

You will not talk to an innovator without hearing about the funders, students, support staff and academic colleagues who helped them get their ideas across the finish line. The people we call innovators are being honest when they refuse to take sole credit for their work or shy away from hero stories.

It’s a less-tidy narrative than the bathtub epiphany or an apple falling on someone’s head. The real work of innovation is much more complicated.


For Mushahwar, Canada Research Chair in Functional Restoration and director of the SMART Network, the real work of invention is about digging deep to discover the root of a problem.

“Innovation comes from getting a deep understanding of what the problem really is and understanding why what’s being done isn’t working,” she says. 

“Then, often, the solution is obvious.”

Illustration of a woman's back with a spine illustration overlay
Illustration by Stephanie Dalton Cowan

One of the problems that caught her attention as a grad student in the early 1990s, and later as a U of A professor in biomedical engineering, was bedsores, also known as pressure ulcers or pressure injuries. Mushahwar was confounded that people in wheelchairs and hospital beds continued to experience devastating pressure injuries despite many new technologies to prevent them. Fancy as these technologies were, she realized, they were riffing on the same technique Florence Nightingale and her colleagues used 150 years earlier: turning patients every two hours. The thinking was that when someone is in one position for too long, the blood supply is cut off and, without oxygen, the tissue begins to erode, causing deep, gaping wounds that can become infected and even lead to death.

In 2004, her U of A team began looking at the problem from a new angle. They wondered why able-bodied people don’t get pressure injuries, even when they sit for hours on end.

The answer was fidgeting: the micro-movements many of us make dozens of times an hour, even when we think we’re sitting still. Her team determined that reduced blood supply was not the primary cause of pressure injuries. The real culprit is the way bones press against and deform muscles when a person sits or lies down for long periods.

Mushahwar’s lab developed Smart-e-Pants, a garment that uses electrical stimulation to produce brief muscle contractions in areas of the body that develop pressure injuries, such as the buttocks and lower back. The pants, which look like a pair of boxer shorts, went through many iterations to make them comfortable to wear and easy to get on and off. They were tested in five centres to evaluate their safety, feasibility and acceptance by users, while clinicians, garment designers, scientists and engineers continued to adjust the technology. A version of the invention is marketed by Rehabtronics, a U of A spinoff company based in Edmonton, and has received approval from the Food and Drug Administration for sales in the U.S.

But Mushahwar’s real white whale has been paralysis itself — one of the sources of pressure injuries and deep vein thrombosis. She has spent her career hunting for an implantable technology to allow the brain to communicate with the spinal cord (the bundle of nerves and tissue enclosed in the spine) as if it had never been injured. The intraspinal implant her team has invented delivers low levels of electrical current below the injured part of the spinal cord to trigger co-ordinated movement in the hips, ankles and knees. Getting the technology this far took the work of dozens of U of A experts across multiple fields, from neuroscience to computing science to engineering. It took many prototypes, failures, design changes, testing and retesting.

It also required a deep understanding of how the brain communicates with the body’s muscles. That meant, essentially, having to translate two languages: the electrical pattern the brain sends down the spinal cord to limbs, and the electrical patterns the nerves translate to muscles to allow us to stand, walk smoothly and fidget. As the researchers discovered, the spinal cord is less like a telephone wire and more like a game of telephone — the spinal cord adds messages along the way that allow us to walk with a smooth, natural gait.

Mushahwar’s research these days takes place in the SMART Network at the U of A, a centre for multidisciplinary research dedicated to neural injuries and diseases. It is home to one of the largest and most diverse collaboration groups in Canada, bringing together researchers from engineering, biology, neuroscience, rehabilitation medicine, computing science, social science and other fields. 

In her lab, Mushahwar is surrounded by gadgets that give the aura of a quintessential inventor: models of robotic hands, whiteboards spilling over with equations that look like hieroglyphics to the untrained eye. But the most important factor in her research, she says, is her colleagues.

“You can’t know it all. That’s why you have a lot of collaborators. And that’s why the SMART Network is so exciting to me because it brings all this expertise together.”


At a university, some of the most important work is in the invisible. Not in the high-tech gadgets or potential cures we see in the news but in unravelling old ideas and weaving bold new ones. So much of what we encounter every day as humans exists in this realm. How best to educate and support our children so they thrive. How to run a better business. How to formulate laws that protect society and individual rights. What history has to teach us. How to bear up in a changing, sometimes alienating, world.

This kind of research and scholarship requires someone to step back and question the way we think and act. Essentially, someone has to be willing to challenge assumptions.

While new technologies garner public attention, technology in itself isn’t always a solution, as educator Joanne Weber, ’84 MLS, discovered. She points to the cochlear implant, which promised to revolutionize deaf people’s abilities to communicate. But after teaching deaf high school students for 15 years, Weber was seeing Grade 12 students — with and without implants — graduate with the language skills of fourth-graders.

“Students were being deprived of language,” says Weber, now an assistant professor in the U of A’s Faculty of Education and the country’s first Canada Research Chair in Deaf Education.

Weber was teaching in resource classrooms in Saskatchewan when she noticed that students from poorer or newcomer families either hadn’t received cochlear implants or weren’t getting proper support to maintain them, such as speech therapy and regular meetings with an audiologist to adjust the device. Deaf students who could not audibly communicate were considered failures and were taught American Sign Language as a last resort. As a result, students who communicated through sign language were marginalized, cut off from their deaf peers who could speak English out loud.

Perhaps more profoundly, Weber felt students were missing out on the rich life that communication allows: the joy in expressing oneself fully and the depth of connecting and building deep bonds with others through language. Her students weren’t able to develop fully as a community.

Weber enrolled in a PhD program to find a better way. She came to realize that binary thinking was holding her students back: not only the binaries between hearing and deaf students but between deaf students themselves. The students who were able to use sign language and those who didn’t weren’t in conversation with each other.

She decided to look at the problem from a different angle.

Illustration of a lightbulb
Illustration by Stuart Bradford

Her dissertation, completed in 2018, suggested a radical new way to teach deaf students and to research teaching methods for deaf children. The approach explodes binaries between hearing and non-hearing people. It urges teachers and researchers not to compare deaf students’ success with that of hearing students. For her dissertation, Weber put her theory to work in a series of theatre productions in Regina that included students and adults of all hearing abilities. She found that students not only expressed themselves better, they also communicated across the signing binary that once separated them. Her study of the theatre production, published in Sign Language Studies, also describes how deaf students are misunderstood by non-deaf people around them, even those who can sign.

At the U of A, Weber plans to do more research on how arts-based approaches can support deaf students’ dialogue and self-expression and to share that knowledge with teachers-in-training.

“I know there has to be a different way of approaching this. We need to allow deaf and hard-of-hearing youth to express their stories without being oppressed by the ways they’re being told they should be.”


It can be immensely gratifying to explore the boundaries of knowledge, share ideas across domains, feel the frisson of discovery, see your work recognized by your peers and, if all goes well, watch the impact of your research on people and the world.

But challenging accepted wisdom and introducing new ways of doing things can be difficult. There are so many scientists in the world working on their own theories and approaches, often in different languages. How do you get anybody to listen to yours?

Lara Mahal knows how hard that can be.

In grad school, Mahal got hooked on an approach that felt different from what others in her field were doing. She fell in love with the glycome, the vast array of sugars and carbohydrates that coat our cells. She was fascinated by their chemistry and their role in human biology. It seemed increasingly obvious to her that the glycome could unlock solutions to some of the most elusive health challenges of our time: cancer, diabetes, even the common flu.

But the glycome was missing from the “omics boom,” Mahal says, the exploding popularity of sciences like genomics and metabolomics, the hyper-precise studies that explore the body’s molecules — genes, metabolites and proteins — and the role they play in our health.

While the world huddled around the final sequencing of the human genome in the early 2000s, Mahal got to work connecting the dots between the glycome and human diseases. Her research led to the discovery that certain kinds of sugars called glycans trigger the rapid, devastating cell growth of metastatic cancer, the kind of cancer that spreads to other parts of the body.

But glycans are complicated, a constellation of enzymes and substructures, any of which could potentially be a factor in triggering disease. To tackle such a complex puzzle, she realized, she had to attract the attention of the larger scientific community. And to do that, she needed harder data on the glycome: a way to map out the tangle of sub-components that make up these fatally overlooked molecules. Then she could point to the most likely suspects and say, “Let’s start here.”

“I could talk until I was blue in the face, or I could figure out a way to get the data,” Mahal reflects.

So, she invented a new technology.

A decade ago she created lectin microarrays, a complex lab tool that allows researchers to view these molecules in a whole new way. The technology revolutionized the study of glycomics. For the first time, scientists could parse the distinct structures and related enzymes that make certain sugars and carbohydrates significant to our bodies and, more importantly, significant to the ways our bodies create diseases like cancer or respond to viruses and illnesses such as the flu.

In other words, Mahal created a method for other researchers to view problems like never before — to allow them to see what she was seeing. It’s not the kind of invention we typically think of: this was an idea that opened new doors instead of definitely and triumphantly closing them. At times, Mahal has struggled to get other scientists to recognize the huge potential of unlocking the glycome and the technology she invented to do that. Sometimes it has been a struggle even to be recognized as the inventor.

Concept illustration of a brain at work
Illustration by David Vogin

“The hardest part has been advocating for myself and my technology. I mean, I’m good at it. But I hate it. That part is much harder than the science. The science is lovely — it’s fun,” she says.

“I love the science and I love my students. I want both to be successful. And they can’t be successful if no one knows who I am.”

She’s cognizant, too, of the specific challenge of advocating for a challenging idea as a woman. You can’t come across as “too preachy,” she says, but you can’t shrink, either. Not advocating for yourself is not an option: success as an academic (not to mention funding) depends on what you can show for your work. Plus, people can’t use the theories and technologies that you’ve spent decades developing if they’ve never heard of them.

Over the course of her career, Mahal has found a community of collaborators, first in the United States and more recently at the U of A. In 2019, she was recruited to the university as Canada Excellence Research Chair in Glycomics and joined GlycoNet, a network hosted at the university that brings together glycomics experts from across Canada.

She and her collaborators are working to unpack the glycome’s role in disease. Her lab at the U of A has already teased out sugar’s role in causing some people to die from the flu and how sugars factor into deadly melanoma, to name just two of the threads she’s following. Both projects have given other researchers clearer targets to develop cures. Recently, in collaboration with U of A hematology professor Bruce Ritchie, ’76 BMedSc, ’78 MD, she is trying to determine if the glycome plays a role in making COVID-19 deadlier for some people than others. This is all the result of $20 million that comes with the research chair appointment, which will fund Mahal and her new lab of 24 researchers for seven years. It means she can laser-focus on the field that has fascinated her for her entire career.

“This will allow us to take our glycomics work to the next level.”


Michael Taschuk, ’00 BSc(EngPhys), ’07 PhD, invented lights that can grow plants better than the sun itself.

It’s an impressive statement and one that has massive implications for tackling global food shortages. With the right lights — such as those produced by Taschuk’s company, G2V Optics — greenhouses can grow larger and more nutritious plants by extending growing seasons, shifting geographical range and creating ideal light conditions.

Taschuk is quick to note that the flashy product doesn’t tell the story of the long road it took to get here. The research alone took nearly five years of collaboration, trial and error and tiny adjustments to more closely render sunlight while keeping the device itself small enough for the user.

“I’ve been through an incredible number of failed attempts to make that work,” he says. “There’s an incredible number of potential eurekas, most of which turn out to be wrong.”

Illustration of an hourglass, wrong answers above, correct answers below
Illustration by L.J. Davids

His path to invention began after he finished a bachelor’s degree and PhD. As an experimental physicist and research associate, Taschuk worked in the lab of Jillian Buriak, Canada Research Chair in Nanomaterials for Energy, to improve the light used to test organic solar cells. While there, he developed a technology that used LEDs to simulate the sun’s wavelengths better than the heat lamps used at the time.

The simulated sunlight worked on plants as well, he discovered, and botany professors at the university became interested in using the technology in their own research. It spurred Taschuk to found G2V Optics in 2015. The company sells light simulators to food producers and other users, including researchers who need a high-quality sun simulator to study things like new sunscreens, vehicle coatings and the effect of sending materials to space. The company continues to collaborate with U of A researchers, including biology professor Glen Uhrig, who uses the technology to understand how farmers can optimize plant growth in different climates around the world.

Innovators everywhere will tell you it’s important to become comfortable with failure, and Taschuk is perhaps even more comfortable than most.

As an experimental physicist by training, he knows that failure is not only inevitable when testing new theories — it’s essential to expanding scientific thought on a grand scale. The failure of one idea or theory can open the door to unexpected new directions or offer an invaluable insight for another researcher.

“Even a beautiful failure has value. Somebody else might pick that up and use it later, in a way you can’t possibly conceive,” he says.

But founding a business forced him to reckon with failure in a whole new way.

“The truth of what you’re after changes,” he says. “It’s no longer about whether something is technically true — it’s about its value to a customer.”

That was a tough leap. Starting a business meant dealing with a whole new host of what he calls “deeply uncertain externals.”

Then he discovered another U of A community to support him. He joined the ThresholdImpact Venture Mentoring Service, which matches experienced business leaders with alumni, faculty, students or staff who are starting a business. The network of mentors, including tech-transfer experts and entrepreneurs, didn’t solve problems for him but did increase his confidence to tackle them on his own, he says. 

It was the key to success.

“The thing that is so special about that program is that this group of people are unequivocally on your side.”


So how does the world create more Taschuks, Mahals, Webers and Mushahwars to help solve problems, from global to individual?

It’s hard to imagine a place better suited to support the long game of research than a university, where its role is to interrogate problems, understand them deeply and work together to explore new answers and new directions.

Today, universities — especially a research university like the U of A — also see their role as helping translate that new knowledge into tangible products or programs that can help solve some of the world’s intractable challenges.

Researchers’ work involves butting up against things larger than they are — it means rethinking theories and dogma as old as the university itself. It means failure and lots of it. The work of research is fundamentally humbling.

It is also, if you think about it, rooted in a sense of hope. The people who hunt for new ways of doing things have to zero in on big, thorny problems and feel the gravity of them, but also believe that humans, together, can find solutions to the seemingly impossible.

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