Image of 2020 Research Prize recipients (Laura Brown, Boris Chrubasik, Shannon McCauley and Liye Xie)

Symposium celebrated the 2020 Research Prize recipients 

Carla DeMarco

Though the topics presented at this year’s annual Research Prize Symposium were different in nature down to the diversity of disciplines, there was a common thread throughout this year’s talks: the importance of technology, collaboration and conservation of data. 

The annual event, held virtually this year for the first time, celebrated the following researchers: Laura Brown (Geography, Geomatics and Environment) and Shannon McCauley (Biology) each awarded the Research Prize in Sciences for their respective programs of research; Boris Chrubasik the recipient of the Research Prize in Humanities; and Liye Xie awarded the Research Prize in Social Sciences.  

The Research Prizes annually recognize researchers who demonstrate significant and sustained impact through discovery and advancements of new knowledge and contributions to training future investigators, problem-solvers, and creative thinkers. 

The roughly 70 attendees who turned out for the online event were treated to engaging talks that covered a range of topics and the opportunity to ask questions.  

The following topics were all presented with a great level of enthusiasm: lake-ice trends, climate change and the work of Brown’s Cryosphere studies; the value and intricacies of inscriptions on stones from the period of 300 BCE-100 CE in eastern Mediterranean for Chrubasik; the ecological research and changing environment for species in freshwater lakes and ponds as observed by McCauley; as well as Xie’s exploration of how technology and society shaped each other from the Neolithic to early Bronze age. All four talks included generous shoutouts to collaborators, teams, grad students and research assistants, family and funders. 

Along with the importance of collaborations and partnerships, the other thread that came up throughout is how data preservation is so integral to their respective work, but also how technology is ever evolving and changing the nature of how they do their research.  

As an example, Brown talked about remote sensing and the lake ice modelling that her team does to make projections about future lake-ice coverage. Without the observation data that dates back to the 1950s, they would not have a complete picture, making it more difficult to infer climate data, which is crucial for understanding environmental changes.  

“Though the models told us we should have just over two metres of ice, on one of our research trips to Nunavut in 2016, when we drilled through the ice, what we found was the average measurements of ice that year was roughly 1.8 metres thick,” said Brown.  

“From the 1950s and ‘60s, our modelling work suggested the ice should be about 2.5 metres, and it’s projected to thin to 1.5 metres by the end of this century, though so far our data is showing that it is thinning much faster than we expected.” 

Not deterred by the grim forecast however, Brown concluded that new projections have emerged that need to be analyzed and that further developments in remote sensing techniques for lake ice will also help them in their efforts to project the data.  

Similarly, McCauley said technology is helping her lab to simulate future environments to test effects on organisms and species like dragonflies and see how human activities and the warming climate affects things like their growth, biology, chronology, and body size.  

Chrubasik’s research, which is often focused on inscriptions on stone and lately on sealings, provides insights into how Mediterranean empires from over 2200 years ago functioned, and the influence those empires had on its inhabitants. Technologies such as digital photography and Reflective Transformation Imaging (RTI) provide researchers with new tools for analysing these documents. 

Xie outlined her studies on both agricultural implements and urban construction from roughly 6000 to 1500 BCE and how they may have impacted social structure. She showcased her research, which has taken her to fieldwork in many archaeological sites in China, and she conducts intensive experimentations to determine ancient tools’ functions and calculate the labor cost for urban construction. Her experimental archaeology work involves local farmers who process rich knowledge of pre-industrial lifeways. As these people are aging in China’s rapidly industrialized economic environments in which the new generations no longer process the same kinds of knowledge, she emphasized an urgent need to preserve the cultural heritage by engaging young people in recording and learning the knowledge and skills of the elderly. 

Despite the important research presented, there was still a lightness to the event. 

Brown laughed about the fact that there can be interference with her data collection instruments in the Arctic that is relatable no matter where you live: creatures, such as foxes and hares in this case, chew on the wires so they must protect them from the elements as well as the local critters. 

The event was coordinated by the Office of the Vice-Principal, Research (OVPR), who established the awards in 2016, and was MC’ed by Professor Elspeth Brown from the Department of Historical Studies, recently appointed as UTM’s first Associate Vice-Principal Research.  

“I am really thrilled that you have all given such fantastic and engaging presentations, and I was truly inspired by the breadth of research taking place at UTM,” concluded Brown, before asking everyone to unmute and give a round of applause to the four recipients. 

“We have another upcoming talk featuring Professor Kathi Wilson [Geography, Geomatics and Environment], UTM Desmond Morton Research Excellence Award winner, on February 9, at 2:30pm,” said Brown.  

“We hope to see you at this other event soon to further recognize excellent research contributions at UTM.” 

Registration is open for the Research Excellence Award event

Also find out further information about the Research Prizes