Researchers receive funding for cutting-edge tools

Four Faculty of Science researchers awarded funding through the NSERC Research Tools and Instruments Grant.

Katie Willis - 20 December 2019

Four scientists received funding for tools to support three cutting-edge research projects from the Research Tools and Instruments Grants Program, an initiative of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

The funding will support research projects examining everything from what's under our skin to what's under the sea to what's making our future sustainable. Learn more about each project below.

Cutting-edge medical imaging

Pierre Boulanger, professor in the Department of Computing Science, has received funding to continue his research on cutting edge, responsive medical imaging. Hear more about the new technology he will employ here.

How will this funding support your research?

It will allow us to buy a medical robot to develop a new automated multiview ultrasound system that is capable of creating images like MRI but at much lower cost. A similar system was demonstrated in our lab using optical tracking technology.

What outcomes do you anticipate from this research?

This new configuration will allow us to semi-automate simple procedures. This includes the alignment and fusion of multiple 3D datasets which show superior quality compared to standard single 3D datasets and the fused datasets by the optical tracking method. We will also increase the efficacy of fusion imaging by automated recording and transfer of the spatial data of the probe by the robot arm, matching the spatial data with recorded 3D datasets and consecutive fusion of datasets in the same respiratory position. Minor misalignment of the datasets from any other involuntary movements can be adjusted by image registration, which works best when the datasets are approximately aligned using the external tracker. This will also allow us to keep constant pressure of the ultrasound probe on the patient's chest for continuous scanning, which causes sonographer fatigue, as well as automatic selection of optimal probe orientation and continue image acquisition during surgical procedures.

How is UAlberta uniquely positioned to push this area of inquiry further?

This will allow us to apply to for a new NSERC CHRP grant in collaboration with Harald Becher, professor in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, to develop the clinical version of this new technology.

Discovering new materials for sustainable futures

Arthur Mar, professor in the Department of Chemistry, has received funding for a tool instrumental to his research: materials science. Materials science is the design and discovery of new materials for the creation of cutting-edge technology, such as solar cells and superconductors.

How will this funding support your research?

This funding will help us to acquire an X-Ray diffraction (XRD) instrument, which is an essential tool in any laboratory carrying out research in materials science. It complements other techniques, such as solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, in providing long-range structural information needed to characterize solids and materials.

The XRD instrument is essential for verifying the predictions made by machine-learning methods that we are applying to accelerate discovery of new materials, including thermoelectric materials (which interconvert heat and electricity) and nonlinear optical materials (which are used in tunable lasers to detect chemical species and to perform medical surgery).

What outcomes do you anticipate from this research?

Within the next two years, we hope to find better candidates for such materials through these predictions.

How is UAlberta uniquely positioned to push this area of inquiry further?

U of A is uniquely positioned for this line of inquiry given its strong presence and support for AI initiatives, and also the support provided by Future Energy Systems.

Studying animals in our waterways

Professors Sally Leys and Greg Goss from the Department of Biological Sciences have received funding for technology that will allow them to control and record the flow of water through chamber systems, for different applications, Leys for her research with sea sponges and Goss for his work with the impacts of toxicity on fish. Hear more about their project.

How will this funding support your research?

Leys: The funding is for a range of sizes of chambers that move water in a controlled way and instruments that will accurately record the velocities of flow. My group's research asks how animals are adapted to sense and respond to different flow regimes. Using the different chambers and instruments, we'll be able to test whether sponges sense and respond to minute changes in flow and also whether different flow regimes affect gene expression during development and whether that gene expression gives rise to particular morphologies.

Goss: For my research, the funding will allow us to extend our understanding of how exposures to toxic substances to fish early in development can affect individual performances like swimming and respiration. Evidence suggests that when fish embryos are exposed to a variety of toxicants, especially oil- and gas-contaminated waters, even for a brief period of a few days, they suffer longer term consequences such as reduced fitness for swimming.

What outcomes do you hope for over the next two years?

Leys: In two years, we expect to have been able to not only test the effect of flow on a very controlled model sponge system, but we'd like to have grown different sponge species in the flumes to see how common the results are across the phylum. Some of the experiments will happen at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre (BMSC) and with colleagues in collaborations to test the effect of flow on morphology and gene expression in different filter feeding animals. Ideally, we would like to use glass sponge explants in the flow chambers. Glass sponges are very deep water animals, which are difficult to experiment on in the field. This equipment will allow us a superbly controlled way to test the hypothesis that glass sponges and the reefs they form are particularly adapted to areas of consistent flow.

Goss: In the next two years, my graduate students and postdoctoral fellows will examine the effects of hydraulic fracturing fluids and other oil and gas contaminated waters on a variety of fish species. Moreover, we will identify the critical developmental windows early in life that are important for our understanding of the effects that releases of oil- and gas-contaminated water into the environment may have on fish in those lakes and rivers.

How is the University of Alberta uniquely positioned to push this area of inquiry further?

Leys: One of UAlberta's great assets is the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre (BMSC), where we have access to a great diversity of animals at a facility well-designed to carry out controlled experiments in labs. BMSC has natural unfiltered water from depth and is the only seawater system in which glass sponges have been maintained in excellent condition for extended periods.

Goss: Ours is one of the very few labs in the world who have industrial partners supporting the understanding of the effects and providing access to real-world samples for analysis. This type of industrial/academic partnership is important as we move to understand and mitigate the potential adverse effects of this type of activity while still maintaining a strong economy.