Maya Shmulevitz


What Has a Nobel Prize Ever Done For You?

Turns out having all-star scientists on board draws students, researchers and funding that boost the economy

By Kate Black, ’16 BA

Turns out having all-star scientists on board draws students, researchers and funding that boost the economy

By Kate Black, ’16 BA

December 06, 2021 •

Leading researchers like Maya Shmulevitz, right, and Nobel laureate Michael Houghton enhance the reputation of the university, community and province.

A year ago, University of Alberta virologist Michael Houghton was one of three scientists to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his 1989 co-discovery of the hepatitis C virus.

The Nobel is as prestigious as prestige gets — an award that, by its own definition, recognizes contributions of the greatest benefit to humankind

For that moment, the U of A held the eyes of the world. But there’s much more to winning a Nobel Prize than bragging rights.

For one thing, the honour helps put the university on the map for prospective students and faculty, says Chris McCabe, executive director of the Edmonton-based Institute of Health Economics.

“The fact that we have a Nobel laureate makes the whole university more attractive,” says McCabe, who is also a U of A health economics professor. “The immediate impact is attracting the next generation of really bright and creative people to come here and do their research and develop ideas.”

This phenomenon isn’t limited to the Nobel Prize. Groundbreaking research begets more funding, and more funding begets groundbreaking researchers. If a U of A professor receives a grant from one of Canada’s three main funding bodies or is named a Canada Research Chair, for example, the resulting reputation and resources can attract sought-after talent to Alberta.

Houghton himself is an example of that. He was recruited to the U of A by Lorne Tyrrell, ’64 BSc, ’68 MD, a superstar in his own right for spearheading research that led to the development of the first oral treatment for hepatitis B. The university’s strong reputation in virology — and funding that included $10 million from the Canada Excellence Research Chair program — convinced Houghton to leave the private biotechnology industry in the U.S. in 2010 to work at the U of A. Now, he leads the university’s Li Ka Shing Applied Virology Institute.

Another example of that magnet effect came almost exactly a year after Houghton’s Nobel win. On Dec. 1, the province announced a $55.1-million grant for U of A research to prevent and treat COVID-19, including $15 million for vaccine projects and $10 million for studies on antiviral drugs. 

“If we’re going to remain competitive internationally — which we all want to be — you need great people with great instruments. This is critical,” said Tyrrell, who recently won the Hepatitis B Foundation’s highest honour for his pioneering research.

Connie Le, ’13 BSc, is one of the students who was attracted by the calibre of research at the university. As an MD/PhD student, she works alongside Tyrrell at the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology to develop improved cell models to test potential cures for hepatitis B. She credits her early experiences with U of A research and Tyrrell’s support with her decision to stay in Edmonton for her studies.

In high school, Le had the opportunity to work in the lab of U of A surgery professor Gina Rayat, ’99 PhD. A couple of years later, Tyrrell guest-lectured one of Le’s undergraduate virology courses at the U of A. She was so inspired that she sent him an email introducing herself. Tyrrell encouraged her to pursue her MD/PhD, sparking a nearly decade-long mentorship.

“Dr. Tyrrell was gracious enough to meet with me. That discussion and seeing what a wonderful human he is was a huge part of why I decided to do a graduate degree with him,” Le says. 

“And now, having a Nobel laureate chatting with you in the hallway, that’s phenomenal. I’m so thankful these are the kind of experiences and opportunities afforded to me here.”

McCabe says students like Le who stay in the community contribute to the well-being of the province through a multiplier effect — the rippling economic impact of living and studying in the community. Graduate students, particularly, are likely to stick around and grow families and businesses in Edmonton, he says. 

The result is a city with a highly skilled labour force that contributes to the success of local businesses and startups and is a big sell for companies deciding where to locate. Having vibrant, healthy companies to work for keeps people living in the province and attracts more to come. 

“It’s a virtuous circle that can drive economic diversification,” McCabe says.

It also makes Alberta a magnet for top-quality research. 

One example is the international pharmaceutical companies that bring clinical trials to Alberta, says Lawrence Richer, ’92 BSc(Hons), ’96 MD, ’09 MSc, vice-dean of clinical research at the U of A’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. These trials — which account for about 60 per cent of the province’s clinical trials — can contribute more than $100 million to Alberta’s economy in just one year, according to a 2018 study Richer helped conduct. 

Another 40 per cent of clinical trials in Alberta are initiated by researchers based in the province. Take Karen Madsen’s gut microbe transplant to reduce insulin sensitivity in obese patients, for example, or the CAR T-cell treatment for leukemia and lymphoma developed by Michael Chu, ’08 BMedSc, ’09 MD. In both cases, Edmonton-based patients have received potentially life-saving treatments because of the university’s presence in the city.

To attract and operate these trials, it’s essential to have high-calibre scientists and the teams of highly trained lab personnel, grad students and collaborators in other disciplines who support their work. 

“We don’t really have a big population and we’re not the cheapest place to do research. But what we do is of high quality,” says Richer, who is also director of the Northern Alberta Clinical Trials and Research Centre

“And the more we’re seen as a place to bring these treatments, the more the trials want to come here.”

What helps set the U of A apart is having people who are experienced in translating research from the lab bench to the patient’s bedside. That’s crucial for a strong health ecosystem. 

“That’s something we have that other institutions envy. It gives us an ability to do things that otherwise might not be possible,” Richer says. 

“You can have amazing ideas, great innovations and world-renowned research. But if it doesn’t somehow get implemented, if it doesn’t touch a patient, then what has it really done?”

Le, who is entering her fourth year of medical school while finishing her PhD thesis on hepatitis B, has studied and trained to do exactly that: take research results to patients and vice versa. 

“I like wearing those two hats,” she says. “As a clinician scientist, you can witness issues that occur with your patients and can use that as motivation and inspiration in the lab or through clinical research.”

Le was recognized in 2020 for her outstanding potential as a future leader and innovator in health care by the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. Paired with the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, she has received two of the most prestigious recognitions available to Canadian medical students and graduate students, respectively. 

It’s not hard to imagine the impressive career unfolding before her. But she’s hesitant to take credit without acknowledging the U of A scientists who helped set her on this path — Tyrrell and Houghton and a host of others: David Evans, ’78 BSc(Hons), ’82 PhD, James Smiley and Maya Shmulevitz, ’96 BSc(Hons), to name a few. 

“They’re wonderful examples of excellent scientists. They’re big shakers in the scientific community, but in doing so have impacted the local community here, too.”

We at New Trail welcome your comments. Robust debate and criticism are encouraged, provided it is respectful. We reserve the right to reject comments, images or links that attack ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender or sexual orientation; that include offensive language, threats, spam; are fraudulent or defamatory; infringe on copyright or trademarks; and that just generally aren’t very nice. Discussion is monitored and violation of these guidelines will result in comments being disabled.

Latest Stories