Western innovators receive Early Researchers Awards

Ten Western faculty members have earned Early Researchers Awards, attracting pro
Ten Western faculty members have earned Early Researchers Awards, attracting provincial funding to advance their work. (Design by Rob Potter/Western Communications)
10 faculty attract provincial funding for projects focused on health, homelessness and climate change

Ten Western faculty members have been recognized with Early Researcher Awards (ERA) , attracting grants from the provincial government.

The funding was recently announced as part of an investment in Ontario-based researchers and 407 research projects across the province.

The highly competitive ERA program was created to help exceptional early-career researchers access the latest technologies, equipment and talent to build teams to advance their research projects. The application review panel scores applicants on "the excellence of the researcher, the quality of the proposal, development of research talent and benefits for Ontario.-

Having a record number of researchers recognized in this round of funding is a point of pride for Western.

"Investing in early career researchers is critical if we’re to develop the expertise required to answer some of the biggest questions facing our world," said Penny Pexman, vice-president (research).-I’m delighted to see the province recognize these 10 Western scholars who have already had tremendous impact across multiple disciplines and are actively contributing to building a better society.-

Each award, with up to a maximum of $100,000, is matched by an additional $50,000 from the researcher’s institution.

Western ERA recipients include:

Lindsay Bodell (File photo)

Lindsay Bodell , Faculty of Social Science

Project: Testing associations between negative affect and reward processing in women with binge eating Over one million Canadians suffer from an eating disorder, with a substantial rise in eating disorder cases since the COVID-19 pandemic. This rising prevalence, combined with limited effective treatment options, highlights the urgent need to understand the underlying causes of eating disorders to inform interventions.

The most common eating disorders are those characterized by binge eating - overconsumption of food and feeling out of control. Although evidence suggests negative emotions (e.g. sadness) may lead to binge eating, little is known about why this association exists, limiting the ability to treat the key processes involved.

The goals of Bodell’s research are to understand how negative emotions lead to binge-eating episodes. Her team will use behavioral and brain imaging methods to examine whether negative moods affect the motivation to eat and whether this relationship depends on how our brains process different emotions.

This research will provide trainees with specialized clinical and research expertise, enhancing Ontario’s mental health workforce and increasing the province’s international research presence.

Emma Duerden (Christopher Kindratsky)

Emma Duerden , Faculty of Education

Currently, 11,700 (8.2 per cent) babies are born preterm (at less than 37 weeks’ gestation) each year in Ontario. The incidence of preterm birth is increasing. Much of this change is related to medically indicated decision making, particularly in fetuses with growth restriction (when a fetus is smaller than it should be for its gestational age and not growing at the expected rate.

Fetal growth restriction is associated with decreased oxygen delivery to the brain due to a failing placenta. Interventions, such as early delivery, can prevent serious illness and childhood disability.

Duerden’s team aims to develop biomarkers for preterm birth prediction, using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), a technique which can estimate placental oxygen levels and image the fetal brain at the same time.

Having tools that can assess when placental function is resulting in a loss of oxygen to the baby’s brain will help identify which fetuses need to be delivered early. Tools to inform medically indicated preterm birth can offer significant savings for the provincial health-care system.

Marcus Drover (Submitted)

Marcus Drover , Faculty of Science

Project: New Technologies For Sustainable Chemistry: Developing Ontario’s Clean Energy Future In the face of climate change and Ontario’s increasing population, adopting innovative sustainable practices and investing in alternative energy sources is essential.

Drover’s team will work to develop sustainable chemistry for energy research by preparing new functional molecules and materials to promote the equitable use of resources.

In particular, they aim to transform carbon dioxide (a known greenhouse gas and pollutant) into fuel alternatives and develop new catalysts that can be used in dihydrogen (H2) fuel cells.

The outcomes stemming from this project are guided toward Canada’s energy mandate: to cut GHG emissions by 40 to 45 per cent by 2030 from 2005 levels and to reach net-zero by 2050.

Yolanda Hedberg (Håkan Lindgren)

Yolanda Hedberg , Faculty of Science

Project: Biocorrosion mechanisms of additively manufactured alloys of relevance for human health Artificial joint replacements have significantly improved the quality of life for patients with severe joint diseases such as arthritis. However, these artificial joints eventually fail due to various reasons, including failed bone integration and corrosion (degradation) requiring another surgery, which is expensive and risky, costing Ontario an estimated $14 million in annual productivity loss.

Additive manufacturing (AM) has great potential to produce customized implant materials, adjusted to the individual patient’s needs.

However, corrosion mechanisms of implant materials fabricated by different manufacturing methods, especially AM, are not well understood.

This program will examine these corrosion mechanisms and point towards the safest AM methods for biomedical metallic implant materials. Hedberg’s strategy includes world-leading methods to determine the corrosion in protein-rich environments and interdisciplinary research combining AM engineering, corrosion science, surface science and biocompatibility.

Trainees on her team will determine the role of surface roughness on localized corrosion initiation, protein-induced corrosion and biocompatibility of AM implant materials. They will also determine AM-type (electron beam or laser powder bed fusion, laser AM and binder jetting) specific corrosion risks in simulated physiological environments.

This research will strengthen AM research and development, leading to more competitive AM methods, a higher quality of life for patients and decreased health costs.

Jibran Khokhar (Schulich Communications)

Jibran Khokhar , Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry

Project: Alcohol Use and Schizophrenia: Understanding the Why to Help Improve Treatments for Patients The disease burden of mental illness and addiction in Ontario is nearly two times greater than cancer and seven times that of (pre-pandemic) infectious diseases. Moreover, 50 to 80 per cent of people with a mental illness have a co-occurring substance use problem. Alcohol use disorder also occurs commonly in patients with schizophrenia but,unfortunately, few treatment options are available to reduce alcohol consumption in these patients.

Employing a rodent model of schizophrenia and alcohol use disorder, Khokhar will study the neurobiological mechanisms underlying alcohol use disorder in patients with schizophrenia.

His team will assess whether dysfunctions in the brain reward circuit can predict future alcohol intake and, using tools to manipulate communication in the brain reward circuit, they will assess whether they can alter alcohol drinking in the rodent.

Khokhar’s team will also study the impact of an antipsychotic drug known to reduce alcohol drinking on brain reward circuit dysfunction, with the goal of developing better treatments with the results. Such treatments will benefit Ontarians by improving patient care and reducing the high health-care burden associated with substance use in these patients.

Daniel Langohr (Submitted)

Daniel Langohr , Faculty of Engineering

Project: Novel Experimental Assessment of Reverse Total Shoulder Wear and Damage due to Scapular Impingement Reverse Total Shoulder Arthroplasty (RTSA) is a clinically accepted treatment for shoulder reconstruction of rotator cuff deficient shoulders, with an estimated 3,184 procedures performed in Ontario in 2020. While its use is increasing, up to 90 per cent of RTSA recipients are afflicted with a complication known as "scapular impingement," which damages the implant and, in some cases, requires the patient to undergo revision surgery.

Wear of the surfaces of the implant is another known complication with the potential to cause implant failure, loosening and the need for revision.

Recent RTSA implants have incorporated a new material to reduce wear, however it can be susceptible to fracture during impact, something which is common in RTSA during scapular impingement.

The goal of this research is to assess the wear performance and the response to scapular impingement of RTSA implants manufactured from this new material, something which has never been done. This work will determine if this new material will be successful in RTSA in reducing implant wear while not being susceptible to premature failure due to impingement.

Carrie Anne Marshall (Faculty of Health Sciences)

Carrie Anne Marshall , Faculty of Health Sciences

Project: Refining and Disseminating the Peer to Community (P2C) Model: A Novel Approach for Supporting Community Integration Following Homelessness Research indicates that community integration (CI) has been difficult to address following homelessness and has important implications for health and homelessness prevention.

This project will build on research aimed at developing, evaluating and disseminating a novel, co-designed intervention called the "Peer to Community- (P2C) model, to target CI following homelessness.

Marshall’s team has secured funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to pilot this intervention, which began in February 2023. The current proposal will enable them to use the findings of their pilot study to refine the P2C model and evaluate how the approach is being implemented and delivered according to key tenets of its design.

Refining and disseminating the P2C model will benefit Ontarians as communities have often struggled to support individuals to improve CI following homelessness.

Mohammad Reza Najafi (Submitted)

Mohammad Reza Najafi , Faculty of Engineering

Project: An integrated framework to characterize the concurrent and sequential occurrence of multiple flood hazards across the Great Lakes basin under climate change Flooding is the costliest natural hazard in Ontario, causing severe impacts on its communities and infrastructure systems, including Ottawa, where 2,196 dwellings were flooded in April 2019, and in Toronto and Southern Ontario in July 2013, amounting to $995.5 million in damage.

Traditionally, causes of flooding are analyzed in isolation without considering their interactions in time and space. Considering population growth and intensified weather extremes associated with climate change, there is an urgent demand for the development of reliable flood risk assessment approaches to protect Ontarians from future disasters.

This research will develop an integrated modelling framework to characterize the complex interactions between concurrent and sequential flood hazards across the entire Great Lakes basin.

The project will examine how various factors, including greenhouse gas increases and climate variability, interact to cause floods in Ontario. It will assess the impact of these factors on each other, determine the frequency of compound flood disasters, and identify the conditions leading to severe floods in the region.

The proposed innovative framework will lead to the development of effective mitigation and resilience strategies for small and large communities and infrastructure systems in Ontario.

Eva Pila (Faculty of Health Sciences photo)

Eva Pila , Faculty of Health Sciences

Project: (Em)bodied physical activity: Targeting psychosocial processes in the lab and daily life Participating in physical activity offers an array of physical and psychosocial benefits, yet women report disproportionately lower rates of physical activity and worse quality experiences, compared to men.

In 2018, the federal Minister of Science and Sport called for the  identification and mitigation of psychosocial factors that contribute to this gender disparity.

Pila’s project suggests this gender inequality could be influenced by traditional physical activity settings, like fitness centers and organized sports, which often focus heavily on appearance and evaluation. This focus may negatively affect women’s physical well-being and enjoyment of exercise, potentially leading to reduced participation over time.

To address this, Pila’s research program will focus on the ’embodied physical activity’, how women positively engage with their bodies during exercise, aiming to address disruptions in their experiences.

This innovative research will directly contribute toward the Government of Canada’s Budget 2018 commitment to achieve gender equity in physical activity by 2035.

Taylor Schmitz , Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry

Taylor Schmitz (Schulich Communications)

Project: Biomarkers for assessing presymptomatic Alzheimer’s risk and treatment response Almost one million Canadians currently live with Alzheimer’s disease (AD)-related dementia. Unfortunately, AD remains a poorly understood disease due to its complexity.

By the time a patient begins to show the earliest signs of memory loss, various types of pathology in the brain will have already snowballed together. Available treatment strategies are therefore mostly ineffective, because they either target only one pathology at a time, as opposed to the entire "snowball", or they simply attempt to support what remains of the intact brain.

To cure AD, there’s a need to better understand the disease at earlier and less complicated stages of its progression, long before memory loss starts. Schmitz’s lab’s approach has been to study the brain regions which are most vulnerable to early damage in AD and then focus on the most vulnerable types of neurons populating these regions. By doing this, they have identified a group of neurons that secrete a specific chemical in the brain known as acetylcholine. These so-called ’cholinergic’ neurons are among the most vulnerable to AD.

This project will develop brain imaging technologies to identify individuals at risk for, or exhibiting, early cholinergic neuron damage, providing a completely new approach for individualized preventative medicine.