Archive for the ‘Edmonton Tech Community’ category

LAST STAND for woodland caribou

June 7, 2010

Dr. Rick Schneider

The future for woodland caribou in Alberta is grim.
Indeed, according to Dr. Rick Schneider, a research associate with the Integrated
Landscape Management Program at the University of Alberta, extirpation from this province is just around the corner.
Schneider told researchers and industry partners at the annual general meeting of the ILM group, “If things don’t change, we know that almost all the herds in the province will be down to less than 10 animals within three decades. There’s a couple of exceptions, but by and large, we’re looking at the effective loss of most herds in 30, 40 years.”
ILM research over the last few years indicates the direct cause of this loss is increased predation by wolves. But wolves and caribou have been on the landscape together for millenia. So what has tipped the balance?
According to Schneider, “The leading hypothesis is that it is our human change of the landscape that has led to these increases in wolf density and increased encounters with caribou. In particular, the increased number of roads and seismic lines and cutblocks that produce more forage possibilities, more access points for deer to get into systems where caribou really had it all to themselves in the past. And, now with these other prey species, we’ve got wolf densities going up and caribou end up taking the brunt of the problem.”
He says saving woodland caribou in Alberta depends on three factors. These include curtailing industrial activity, reclaiming seismic lines and roads, and culling wolves. But the costs are high. So he has developed a computer model that weighs societal values and economic trade-offs which can be used as a decision-making tool
Schneider has also developed what he calls a “triage approach” to help people decide which herds to save. As he explains, “There are some that are doing not so bad, some that are almost on the edge of extinction right now. So ranking herds on a variety of factors, beyond just where their trends are and how big their populations are, there are a number of other factors to take into account. And then there are costs. Some are very expensive—the ones that sit right atop the oil sands are literally tens of billions of dollars of opportunity costs lost there—whereas other entire ranges really have not much oil or gas value at all, and could be protected for next to no cost to the Crown. So by weighing all these factors, you can provide a ranking of the herds. Which one would be the first herd you’d pick if you could only do one?
Without following triage approach, Schneider believes we’ll lose all our caribou herds.


Health research fund gets new name & new CEO

June 7, 2010

Dr. Jacques Magnan

The Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research was established 30 years ago. A hefty endowment fund from the provincial government attracted top notch scientists who helped build Alberta’s capacity in health research.
One of those people who came to Alberta from eastern Canada was Dr. Jacques Magnan. In 1994, the researcher in pharmacology joined AHFMR to look after the administration of scientific awards.
Now Magnan takes up his appointment as CEO of the new organization that replaces AHFMR. It’s called Alberta Innovates Health Solutions.
He explains, “The mandate has been defined slightly differently. The roles have been targeted a little bit more toward the innovation side of things. So we need to assess properly how the programs and activities of AHFMR are contributing to those roles… and whether there needs to be some changes. What it does, is it does free up some of the resources that the Foundation have at its disposal and it does provide us with an opportunity then to reinvest those resources into more direct research support.” Magnan says the Alberta Innovates Health Solutions will uphold AHFMR’s commitment to the Polaris prize until it runs out in 2018, as well as current support for investigators over the next six or seven years.


Delivering prosperity is goal of business-savvy scientist

June 7, 2010

Dr. Gary Albach

The new president and CEO of Alberta Innovates Technology Futures brings with him a strong background in both science and business.
Trained as a physicist, Dr. Gary Albach ran a successful spin-off company focused on semiconductors and advanced materials.
Now Albach will have a staff of 700 at Technology Futures. This new corporation amalgamates the Alberta Research Council, Alberta Ingenuity, iCORE and nanoAlberta.
He says, “Our job is to deliver prosperity in the province through the commercialization of Alberta technologies. That means supporting businesses in the province through the variety of tools that we have from funding through product development in our facilities.”
Albach sees Alberta’s Technology strategy focused on three pillars: energy and environment, health and bio solutions.
“Now, in addition to those, there are platform technologies that are evolving, evolving quickly in the province. And the first of those are nanotechnology, information and communication technologies, ICT, and genomics.”

Heading south

February 26, 2010

Dr. Michael Mahon

Edmonton’s loss is Lethbridge’s gain. Dr. Michael Mahon is leaving his position as the dean of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta to become president of the University of Lethbridge. Mahon succeeds Dr. Bill Cade.
When asked about the highlights of his two terms as dean, Dr. Mahon points to his academic staff. “About three-quarters of our cohort of faculty members has changed. As a result of that, we’ve had some real growth in new areas, the emergence of academic areas and others that had lost a little bit of zip over past years.”
Dr. Mahon is also proud of his efforts to internationalize the faculty and his involvement in the expansion of the U of A to the south campus.
He sees the move from a campus of 37,000 students to one with 8,000 students as an opportunity to really get to know his university community. Over the past few years, the University of Lethbridge built a strong reputation in the sciences, and Mahon hopes to do the same for the humanities.
“I am enthusiastic in terms of building in the areas of social sciences, humanities, and fine arts because I see those areas as real strengths in the undergraduate level at the university. But, from a research perspective, they haven’t built as many new initiatives in those areas. I would say it will build balance across the academy. My own research has been in the social sciences and humanities. It has been funded by SSHRC. I have always had a more interdisciplinary research approach. So I am quite enthusiastic about doing that. “
Dr. Mahon will finish his current term as dean and then head south to take up his new post starting July 1st. √

New Lead on Detecting Breast Cancer

February 26, 2010

Dr. Barry Barclay

Given the current epidemic of breast cancer, wouldn’t it be great to have an early detection system?
Molecular biologist Dr. Barry Barclay, CEO of Planet Biotechnologies Inc, believes he may have stumbled upon a genetic mechanism that could lead to exactly that.
After he read an article on genetic damage related to breast cancer and a particular gene—the TYMS gene—he realized there were connections to the research he had conducted for many years on the TYMS gene. The location of interest is on Chromosome 18.
As Dr. Barclay explains, “It took me about five years to try to figure out a potential mechanism that would throw a switch that would cause a tumour. And not only does it initiate the tumour, but the structures that are generated during the episode of the switch not functioning well, themselves become tumour drivers. So once you turn the switch, it stays permanently in the position. What causes it to be dis-regulated are the factors that we know are the risk factors in breast carcinogenesis. There are environmental factors. There are nutritional factors, and there are genomic factors.”
Dr. Barclay has presented his findings at two international scientific meetings and will soon publish an article on his research. √

Reclamation Pioneer Terry Macyk Retires

February 26, 2010

Terry Macyk

After 43 years with the Alberta Research Council, now called Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, Terry Macyk is retiring.
His pioneering work in soil reclamation earned him the title of Distinguished Scientist with ARC along with recognition from all around the world for his contributions to reclamation science.
According to Macyk, time is the most critical factor in evaluating reclamation success. “I think it is just looking more at some of the long term applications in some of the areas that we’ve worked in. You have to do a lot of long term follow-up on many of the things that we did do, just to make sure that everything is on the right path and to confirm that indeed, the reclamation that was done in the past is going to stand that longer test of time.”
Macyk goes on to say that looking at a reclaimed landscape after just five years is never enough time to judge one’s success. “Twenty-five years gives you a better idea of how successful it is. Forty years even more. But if would really be nice to be looking at some of these areas 50 years later, because realistically it takes a tree to grow and mature in most parts of Alberta 50, 60, 70 years. We haven’t reached that stage with our initial reclamation yet. It’s a very new science.”
Terry Macyk’s research on reclamation has been applied across Alberta in forestry, agriculture, oil sands, oil and gas development and, now, carbon capture and storage. For example, he helped develop a means to use sludge from pulp mills as a soil amendment. For two decades he collaborated with Syncrude to research effective ways to reclaim boreal landscapes disturbed by oilsands mining.
His pioneering research helped shape regulations for reclaiming industrial sites. And Mayck considers one of his greatest contributions the introduction of the notion of salvaging and stockpiling soil before industrial development even starts. √

More women, money & cyber ports… Less disease please

January 29, 2010

Dr. Margaret Ann Armour with Anne McLellan

Challenging the norm
For Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour, the launch of the WinSETT Centre is a dream come true.
It’s been six years in the gestation. And, true to her roots as a chemist, she birthed the new entity with a flurry of beakers and bubbling gases in front of an appreciative crowd at the Telus Centre on the University campus.
Dr. Armour has long been known for her tireless efforts to engage and promote women in the sciences and technologies. Back in the early 1980s, she was a founding member of WISEST—Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology. The movement spread across the country.
Now, through her efforts and vision, Edmonton is home to the WinSETT Centre. An acronym for Women in Science, Engineering, Trades and Technology, this is the hub for an ambitious national effort to significantly boost the numbers of women in the workforce and change the culture of such fields as engineering and trades.
Dr. Armour points to the statistics. “Only 12 percent of engineers are women. The kind of percentages of women in construction is dismal. It’s four percent. In the sciences, it’s probably 35 percent, which is over the critical mass which makes it sustainable.”
Research shows that one major problem is that even when women do enter these fields, they tend to leave after about 10 years. The blame lies directly with an inflexible male dominated culture in the workplace.
“An awful lot of it has to do with having a family and being able work, and trying to balance the two, says Dr. Armour. “Because, if it’s a work place which is still fairly well male dominated, it has a male culture. And the male culture is, ‘you shall work 18 hours a day and always be there.’
“And women are saying, ‘I don’t want that. I don’t want that kind of lifestyle. I want a balance.’ We’re hearing that young men are saying, ‘We want a balance, too.’ So we’re hoping that things will change. But that’s been very slow.”
That theme of changing the workplace culture to retain women and improve Canadian productivity was picked by the Honourable Anne McLellan in her stunning speech at the WinSETT launch.
Among the first programs the WinSETT Centre will undertake is leadership training. According Dr. Armour, “Leaders need to appoint leaders. And, although we know it’s very important to have more women entering fields like engineering, if we don’t have women as leaders in engineering, the culture of engineering is not going to change. So when young women come into the workforce, they’re not going to stay.” √

Robin Winsor CEO of Cybera

Expanding the cyber network
The new president and CEO of Cybera is Robin Winsor. He will split his time between Edmonton and Calgary as he runs this not-for profit, university based organization set up to extend Alberta’s cyber infrastructure. His mandate is to move Cybera to the next level—into the business community.
That’s certainly a world Winsor understands. While working in the research department at Gulf, he used his knowledge of geophysics and artificial intelligence to develop the world’s first direct digital x-ray system. That was 20 years ago. He quit the day job and grew the company into a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Now, as the head of Cybera, Winsor hopes to extend the services of the cyber network to Alberta’s entrepreneurs and business community. Cybera operates cyber ports at the University of Alberta. “There are similar facilities in Calgary, Lethbridge and, by extension, through networking all over the world,” he says. “We have lots of big screen TVs. We have cameras that track us and we can sit here and have a virtual meeting. You can see so much more when you are in what we would basically call a video conference. Others are giving it fancier names like tele-presence, virtual rooms, and so on, but it does add that extra measure. And this is just a small part of the services that Cybera offers.”
Winsor is particularly keen on making Alberta’s energy sector aware of the Cybera and the use it can make of the cyber facilities.
While current access to this cyber network is somewhat limited, he says Cybera’s future goal is make access as pervasive and ubiquitous as that of the telephone. Simply plug in and you’re connected.
You can learn more about Cybera’s services at

Dr. Stefan Bachu

Recognizing excellence
Just before the Alberta Research Council was merged into the new agency, Alberta Innovates-Technology Solutions, its president and CEO John McDougall honoured one of his own. He bestowed the title of Distinguished Scientist upon Dr. Stefan Bachu—the fifth ARC scientist to receive this recognition of excellence.
Dr. Bachu is world renowned for his pioneering research on carbon capture and storage technology. In 2007, he shared a Nobel Prize as lead author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on CO2 Capture and Storage. That’s the same Nobel Prize Al Gore received.
Today, Dr. Bachu continues his involvement at the international level. “To start with, I represent Canada on the technical group of the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum, which is an organization of 24 countries major energy producers and CO2 emitters. It includes countries like United States, China, Brazil, Russia, United Kingdom, Norway, Australia, and so on. Secondly, I have been asked several times to give advice to various state or local governments in various countries. So yes, I am involved.”
As a distinguished scientist, Dr. Bachu intends to continue his research into the refinement of carbon storage technology. √

Jim Edwards

Kick-starting industry research
When it comes to funding university research, one of the main granting agencies is NSERC, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
And now the Council is making more money available to encourage research partnerships between academia and industry.
Former Member of Parliament and long time Edmontonian, the Honourable Jim Edwards, is now chair of NSERC. He explains the particular focus on small and medium-size business.
“It’s a fact that 60 percent of the 100 largest companies in Canada use NSERC collaborations, but only seven percent of the smaller companies do… we’re seeking to fill that gap. Ultimately the goal is to improve Canada’s competitiveness. We invest more in academic-based research per capita than any other country in the G7. On the other hand, we trail very badly in terms of industry-based research. And so, we’re hoping, in a modest way, to be able to kick start that and we’re hoping to double the number of partnerships that exist within the next five years.”
To learn more about the NSERC industry program, visit

Capitalizing on datasets

Dr. Osmar Zian

With news that its funding has been renewed, the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Machine Learning is launching into its second phase. Its scientific director, Dr. Osmar Zian, says phase two brings some new directions.
One is commercialization. The other is a major focus on biomedical applications for the machine learning and data mining technology the Centre is developing.
Says Dr. Zian, “We have applications related to cancer… It can be detecting cancer. It can be providing decision support for practitioners on the treatment or the dosage we give to patients. Predicting, for example, relapse for people. But there are other examples where we will also build data warehouses to collect data from different sources and provide decision support systems that are using machine learning and data mining techniques for decision-makers, There are techniques also that we are working on for visualization of medical images. The list goes on and on. “

Robert Murakami

For Dr Zian, turning this research into tools that can help save lives is what the new commercialization component is all about. And the man who is charged with making that a reality is Robert Murakami, the Centre’s new executive director. He’s also the president and CEO of its new commercialization arm, a company called Myriad Machine Learning. It’s his job to bring researchers and investors together to help translate the science into industrial applications.
As Murakami explains, “Machine learning is really a platform technology. It is the fundamental engine for analyzing and predicting large datasets, much like predicting new investment strategies, or new trading tools for investment management… much like predicting patient movement and predictability within a hospital environment… much like predicting whether or not the existing oil wells in this province are actually being managed efficiently. And so, because it’s such a platform technology and because we know that information technology is growing at an enormous rate—and we now have a gazillion, gazillion bits of information floating around—how does all that get analyzed and how can we actually utilize it to create something better for people?”
Through Myriad and the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Machine Learning, Murakami is also setting the stage for the next generation of technology entrepreneurs, including a program that offers business bootcamps to university students. √

Dr. Norm Neumann

Zoning in with ozone
When it comes to prion research, decontamination is a huge issue. The misfolded prions that cause mad cow and chronic wasting disease are almost indestructible by traditional means.
But, according to Dr. Norm Neumann of the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, experiments with advanced oxidation and ozone treatment may hold some promise. “The pathological disease, as we know it, is caused by a misfolded protein causing another normal protein to misfold. And so there’s this chain reaction that goes on. Some of the work that we’re doing demonstrates that ozone can actually destroy that protein enough to inactivate the templating properties or the pathological process that we see.
“We’ve seen that in a test tube—and the big question for us now is can we begin to understand this and model it in an engineering context and understand complete destruction of this? Then we must cross validate that information in animal infectivity models.”
Dr. Neumann suggests that, if the advanced ozone treatment works, we may one day be able to dispose of prion infected material through something as simple as composting. √