2016 Year in Review with Science

Award-winning students and faculty, innovative teaching, and ground-breaking research-2016 has been a year for the books at the Faculty of Science.

Katie Willis - 21 December 2016


Deep Minds master the game of Go

In January, a group of computing scientists led by University of Alberta grads developed the first computer Go program capable of professional-level play. The program, AlphaGo, was developed by the team at Google DeepMind, led by PhD grad David Silver and former postdoctoral fellow Aja Huang. AlphaGo was able to achieve a 99.8 per cent win rate against other Go programs and defeated the human European Go champion by five games to zero-a feat previously thought to be at least a decade away. "It's a complicated beast and a big team effort with a lot of engineering and computational resources," explains Martin Mueller, professor in the Department of Computing Science.

Scientists discover 'ironclad' green solution to combat toxic blue-green algae.

In February, a new study successfully tested a new treatment for lakes that experience harmful algal blooms by using iron to inhibit the release of phosphorus in lake sediment. Diane Orihel conducted this study as part of her PhD research at the University of Alberta, where she was co-supervised by Rolf Vinebrooke and David Schindler, professor and professor emeritus, respectively, in the Department of Biological Sciences. "This treatment is a way of remediating lakes with a compound that's naturally occurring in the system," explains Orihel.

Weathering heights

A group of 24 University of Alberta undergraduate students took to the roof of the Tory Building during an unseasonably warm month February. They built research-grade weather stations to monitor a range of meteorological parameters, all part of their Environmental Instrumentation class, a core course for the Environmental Earth Sciences degree. "For many students, this is their only practical experience building a weather station that measures meteorological variables before they go on to a career in environmental sciences," says Jeffrey Kavanaugh, associate professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

Starting the conversation

Inspired by the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, the Faculties of Science and Native Studies at the University of Alberta partnered to present Sharing Knowledge: Western and Indigenous Sciences, a two-day event to showcase, explore, reinforce, and expand intersections between western and Indigenous knowledge and science in March.

"We need to find ways in which we can bring more indigenous perspectives in to teaching and learning within our faculty," says Glen Loppnow, Associate Dean of Learning and Innovation and driving force behind the Sharing Knowledge initiative.

Space tsunami causes third Van Allen belt

New research findings are helping to mitigate effects of extreme space weather. Announced in Nature Physics in June, a new discovery shows for the first time how the puzzling third Van Allen radiation belt is created by a "space tsunami." "Remarkably, we observed huge plasma waves," says Ian Mann, professor in the Department of Physics and former Canada Research Chair in Space Physics. "Rather like a space tsunami, they slosh the radiation belts around and very rapidly wash away the outer part of the belt, explaining the structure of the enigmatic third radiation belt."

Eliminating the uncompetitive edge

In July New research designed by Fred West and James Harynuk, professors in the Department of Chemistry, is helping to keep anti-doping agencies one step ahead of cheating athletes. West and Harynuk received funding to move their anti-doping testing research out of the lab and onto the field. "Sports leagues and federations at both the professional and amateur level have typically been behind when it comes to catching those using performance-enhancing drugs," says Harynuk, an analytical chemist. "Usually, by the time the substance is banned, the athletes have moved on to newer, even harder to trace substances."

Study shows circadian rhythm does a lot more than keep time

In August, a new study by Kirst King-Jones, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and postdoctoral fellow Francesca Di Cara show that our circadian rhythm plays a much more important role than previously thought. It was well established that our internal clock regulates our eating and sleeping schedules, but these surprising new results demonstrate that circadian rhythms are also essential for the normal development of an organism. "Having this clock is an evolutionary advantage because it helps us to anticipate a change before it happens," says King-Jones.

Solving the mystery of mammoth extinction on St. Paul Island

Why did the St. Paul Island mammoths go extinct more than 6000 years after mainland populations? That was the question asked by Duane Froese, professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and his PhD student Lauren Davies in August. Together, they worked on lake chronology and fossil dating to help find answers to this long-held question. "The mammoths were actually degrading their habitat, trampling down the edges of land near the lake and moving sediments into their freshwater source," continues Froese. Though mammoths on mainland continental North America and Siberia went extinct roughly 12,000 years ago, mammoths survived for another roughly 6000 years on St. Paul Island.

Less is more when it comes to atomic-scale manufacturing

In October Robert Wolkow, physics professor and Principal Research Officer at Canada's National Institute for Nanotechnology, developed a technique to switch a single-atom channel. "This is the first time anyone's seen a switching of a single-atom channel," explains Wolkow. With applications for practical systems like silicon semi-conductor electronics, it means smaller, more efficient, more energy-conserving computers, as just one example of the technology revolution that is unfolding right before our very eyes (if you can squint that hard).

The protagonist

The University of Alberta's newest Rhodes Scholar is rekindling a childhood passion for global problem-solving. Science student Yasmin Rafiei will receive a full scholarship to study at Oxford University, awarded in November. "Oxford is where imagination goes to become reality. I look at Oxford, and I see the next step in my story. As someone who is curious and driven to innovate, it seems like the ideal place to nourish and grow my capacity to think critically about contemporary issues in healthcare."


Meritorious Service Cross

Phil Currie received the Governor General's Meritorious Service Cross for his use of CT scanners to generate three-dimensional models of fossil specimens to study the biomechanics, growth and physiology of dinosaurs in December.

Polar Medal

In December, Governor General David Johnston awarded David Hik the Canadian Polar Medal. This honour celebrates Canada's northern heritage and recognizes an individual for contributions to the exploration, knowledge, and sovereignty of the Canadian north.

Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research

Canadian Arctic Scientist, John England, professor emeritus in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, joined prestigious ranks, accepting the Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research in December.

ASTech Awards

The AlbertaSat team, comprised of students from the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Engineering, were honoured with the Alberta Science and Technology Special Award for Group Innovation Under 30 in November. The cube sat, designed to measure space weather as part of the QB50 initiative, is set to launch in Spring 2017.

Royal Society of Canada

In November, Graham Pearson, Richard Sutton, Mark Boyce, and Duane Froese were honoured by the Royal Society of Canada for their contributions to science and in recognition for outstanding scholarly achievement.


Ice Cores

The University of Alberta will soon be home to Canada's national ice core collection. Stay tuned in March 2017.

AlbertaSat Launch

Ex-Alta 1 CubeSat, built by the University of Alberta's AlbertaSat team, is set for launch in spring 2017 along with 49 other cube satellites in the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge QB50 mission

Mountains 101

The University of Alberta's newest massive open online course, Mountains 101, will kick off on January 9, 2016. Join students from around the world in the first-ever installment.

Reappointment of Dean Jonathan Schaeffer

Jonathan Schaeffer, dean of the Faculty of Science, has been reappointed for a second term. The Faculty of Science graduates are well positioned for future success in the global community. With his reappointment for a second term, Schaeffer will serve as Dean until June 30, 2022.

Canada 150

For almost as long as there's been a Canada, there's been a University of Alberta. Over the next year, in honour of Canada's 150th anniversary, we're proudly celebrating the people, achievements and ideas that contributed to the making of a confederation.