Measles management among projects boosted by national research awards

February 17, 2015 by Sean Bettam - A&S News

Two Faculty of Arts & Science researchers working at the leading edge of their fields were given a boost by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada today.

Chemist Aaron Wheeler was awarded an E.W.R. Steacie Fellowship to support his work in the emerging field of microfluidics, while astrophysicist Jérémy Lecontereceived the NSERC Howard Alper Postdoctoral Prize for his investigations into the climate of planets outside our solar system and their ability to support life.

“I am honoured and humbled to receive this award,” said Wheeler, a professor in the Department of Chemistry. “I accept it on the behalf of my research group of students and postdoctoral fellows. Their hard work, perseverance, and willingness to try new things are the engines behind the exciting work that we have been able to do.”

Wheeler, who is also a member of the the Donnelly Centre for Cellular & Biomolecular Research and the Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering, is developing better ways to test newborns for serious yet treatable genetic diseases. The current mode of testing – drawing blood for processing in a lab – is manual and slow. Wheeler is using digital microfluidic technology to develop a faster and more efficient automated process. He is also working on extending his techniques beyond genetic disorders to produce on-the-spot tests for infectious diseases such as measles and rubella.

“This award will allow us to focus on some exciting new areas of research, including the development of low-cost-high-performance microfluidic diagnostic devices for monitoring disease outbreaks,” said Wheeler.

The Howard Alper Postdoctoral Prize awarded to Jérémy Leconte of the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics and the Centre for Planetary Science at U of T Scarborough recognizes his development of tools for studying the climate of remote planets. Some of the planets outside our solar system have habitable zones similar to Earth, while others experience temperatures higher than 2200°C and winds at supersonic speeds. Understanding such extreme environments gives us better insight into the processes governing climate in general, applying just as much to Earth as anywhere else.

Wheeler and Leconte are joined by fellow U of T researchers Leah Cowen of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Wei Yu of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The four will be honoured along with others from across the country at a February 17 award ceremony in Ottawa hosted by the Governor General.

“My congratulations to all our NSERC award winners,” said Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation. “They are conducting both fundamental research that is pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and applied research that will improve health and quality of life worldwide in the coming years. We are grateful to NSERC for this recognition of and investment in U of T researchers.”

With files from Jenny Hall, Office of the Vice-president of Research and Innovation