Research Prize Recipients Celebrated at Annual Symposium
It was a spirited group that met online at last week’s Annual Research Prize Symposium. Each year, U of T Mississauga gathers to celebrate early career researchers who have demonstrated outstanding contributions to research and scholarship in the Sciences, Humanities, and Social Sciences. Good-natured jokes and friendly greetings served as pleasant reminders of the warmth of the UTM community and set the stage for talks that brought the winners’ research to life. The event was coordinated by the Office of the Vice-Principal, Research (OVPR) who established the awards in 2016.
Steven Short, Interim Vice-Principal Research led the event with welcoming remarks and a land acknowledgement before he and Associate Vice-Principal Research Elspeth Brown introduced the four 2021 prize recipients, each of whom offered attendees a glimpse into their work.
“The excellence of the research contribution, the outstanding reputation of the candidates, their excellent communications and disseminations of the results, and their inspiration and stimulation of our undergraduate and graduate students are some of the things that the adjudication committee consider,” Short explained. “There are some very tough debates that we have when we’re deciding who the award winners will be.”
This year, the committee recognized co-recipients Andrew Beharry (Chemical and Physical Sciences) and Bailey McMeans (Biology) for their contributions in the Sciences; Cosmin Munteanu (ICCIT) for the Social Sciences; and Owen Ware (Philosophy) for his work in the Humanities. The diverse topics didn’t disappoint; the symposium showcased just some of the exciting and innovative research happening across various disciplines at UTM, the common thread being a commitment to enrich and improve people’s lives.
Winning research included anticipating the ecological consequences of warmer weather for freshwater food webs; finding inclusive ways to ensure new technologies don’t leave older populations behind; creating avenues for dialogue across the world’s philosophical traditions; and using cutting-edge chemical strategies to improve cancer prognosis.
Aquatic ecologist Dr. McMeans led the talks with a glimpse into how her team is studying the responses of aquatic animals to changing environmental conditions. Though productive seasons are the most studied, McMeans posits that looking at winter is key — particularly as seasonal conditions change and winters warm.
“I study fish and the food webs that support them during all seasons, including during poorly studied winters,” McMeans explains. “How fish respond to near freezing temperatures is fascinating, but also pressing as winters continue to shorten and warm under a changing global climate. My lab is helping anticipate the ecological consequences of warmer winters for Ontario's freshwater food webs.”
The takeaway? The season on which we have the least data is the one that’s most rapidly changing — and they’re working to understand what’s happening in winters now, in order to predict what will happen without them. Using acoustic telemetry technology, the McMeans lab is monitoring four species of freshwater fish in three different lakes to get data on their seasonal activity and habitat. Fun fact: the implanted acoustic tags have a battery life of more than four years; for the first time, scientists will be able to measure in whole fish communities the responses to both shorter and longer winters.
Award recipient Dr. Cosmin Munteanu was the next to take the floor. He’s exploring how the Social Sciences can guide the design and engineering of socially meaningful technology; specifically, his work seeks to ground digital applications in the social sciences to avoid digitally marginalizing older adults. In his talk, Munteanu outlined the problem succinctly and with humour, pointing to technologies that are either unhelpful, over-complicated, or eye-rollingly toy-like. Citing examples of how the media often portrays seniors as ‘tech shy, he counters that older adults want to adopt tech — but on their own terms.
If we don’t remedy this, Munteanu warns, as services transition to digital forms we run the risk of leaving people behind. (Think: e-commerce, travel, banking, and health services.) It’s a “digital marginalization” that can lead to social exclusion, lowered self-efficacy, social stigma, isolation, loneliness, and more.
For Munteanu’s team, the problem calls for a multidisciplinary approach, including engineering, design, social sciences, ethics, medical sciences, and critical theory. Based on experiences with hundreds of older participants, their three-pronged approach challenges the narrative on aging, relying on advisory input from panels of seniors, understanding users early on, and designing interactive applications together. Projects have included everything from creating shared social experiences in virtual reality to designing tools that bridge language and cultural barriers across generations — all with the user in mind and involved.
That same desire to connect and include can be seen in the work Dr. Owen Ware is doing in the Department of Philosophy. When he proposed a new course in Southern Asian philosophy, he was amazed by the positive reaction of his students, who expressed surprise they hadn’t taken a course like it before. Owen could relate — it was the course he had wanted to take in university but hadn’t been offered. The experience led him to the question that would change how he approached his research: what has shaped the history of my own discipline? Now, he studies how the Enlightenment philosophers who shaped the discipline excluded non-western traditions in order to legitimate their own canon.
Ware describes his current work as a “history of mis-reception.” “I used to work in the Enlightenment but now I work in the shadows of the Enlightenment,” he laughs. He’s starting an important dialogue about how we can engage in intercultural, cross-cultural conversations, or, as he puts it, how can we do better than our predecessors?
"My mission is to show how the history of ideas have shaped so much of the intellectual and cultural landscape we live in today, and why engaging in this history is of deep value for us in the present,” shares Ware. “Ultimately, I would like to help create new conversations that allow for meaningful dialogue across philosophical traditions in the world, especially between western and South Asian thought."
From philosophy back to science, Dr. Beharry was the next recipient to share his research. Navigating the tricky sleep schedules of new parenthood, Beharry shared a pre-recorded talk in which he described the work of his team in the medicinal chemistry research program. “We’re ultimately trying to make new molecules to improve survival rates of cancer patients,” he explained to the audience, citing one of their projects that seeks to improve survival rates of patients with pancreatic cancer.
Of the patients who are diagnosed at an advanced stage and treated with chemotherapy, only 10 per cent will survive; however, it’s more to do with their resistance to chemotherapeutic drugs like Folfirinox. One of the key drugs in it is a molecule called Irinotecan — delivered in its inactive form — which banks on the patient’s tumour to have a key enzyme, CES2, convert it to the active form, where it can inhibit key enzymes in the cancer cell and ultimately cause death.
The problem? Not all patients have the same levels of CES2 — and those that have higher levels have a better chance of survival.
“Once you’re diagnosed, you shouldn’t just be given the standard treatment,” says Beharry, “rather, you should find out the levels of CES2 in each patient to figure out if that’s the best treatment for that particular patient.”
His team developed the CES2 Fluorescent Chemosensor, a simple way to allow clinicians to make these measurements both quickly and accurately. It starts with Benz-AP, golden yellow in colour, which gets converted to a red emitting dye when it encounters CES2. The more red fluorescence you see, the more conversion — meaning you have higher activity. By contrast, the less activity, the more yellow is present, indicating lower activity.
“The vision is to wedge this activity measurement between diagnosis and treatment so that doctors can predict the response in patients,” Beharry says practically, hoping to improve the patient prognosis rate. “If they predict the patient won’t have a good response, there are second line, third line, treatments.” Giving patients ineffective treatments waste time patients may not have while exposing them to toxic side effects without any benefit.
“I want to acknowledge my group, who cleans up very nicely,” the new dad quipped as he thanked UTM for the award, ending on a slide displaying their photos along with the various names of the people who are helping him in his important work. “Almost as nicely as I do — although I probably shouldn’t stand up!”
It was a joke that landed perfectly after yet another year filled with the at-home fashion of remote work and virtual events. Though online, the Symposium reminded us of the importance of coming together to celebrate those who teach, who question, who innovate, and the audience was quick to fill the Q&A period. As Professor McMeans put it, the award was “a bright spot” after the challenges of the last couple of years.
As the event wrapped up, Vice-President & Principal Alexandra Gillespie left on a note of thanks. “Congratulations to the presenters,” she said. “Thank you for being superb colleagues and for all that you do.”
Brown echoed Gillespie’s remarks as she closed and thanked the audience for coming, reminding them of the yearly nature of the awards, and looking towards future events.
“A sincere thank you to this year’s award winners, for their presentations, and for their truly inspiring and amazing research.”
Find out more about the Research Prizes and learn how you can nominate an outstanding faculty member.
The next event is just around the corner! Join us for the upcoming Annual Desmond Morton Research Excellence Lecture.