With the launch of the Western Academy for Advanced Research , Western University is charting an ambitious new course to address major issues facing humanity in Canada and around the world.
Complex challenges such as climate change, homelessness and income equality are global in scale and have impacts at an individual level, with the solution often lying in between disparate disciplines. That’s where the Western Academy comes in, acting as a catalyst for interdisciplinary and international teams of scholars to collaborate and seek answers.
"We’re bringing together our faculty and experts from around the world to brainstorm and pursue focused research for a year," said Western Academy director Fred Longstaffe , Distinguished University Professor, earth sciences, and Canada Research Chair in Stable Isotope Science. "Our key mission is to create that special interdisciplinary mix and match of Western colleagues and international thought leaders most likely to spark creative solutions to significant global challenges."
During each 12-month period, Western faculty work exclusively on their research theme, along with a team of internationally established or emerging scholars; experts from Western, government and the private sector; postdoctoral scholars; and senior graduate students.
The teams will then share their research with the broader community, inviting conversations and new ideas through public talks, one-on-one conversations and panel discussions.
Research themes are selected from proposals Western faculty make for the following year. Initially, the Western Academy will focus on six themes at a time: two themes active in any particular year; planning for two themes to be offered the next year; and the selection process for the two themes to be considered the following year.
Theme selection will typically be made at least two years in advance to facilitate the selection and recruitment of visiting Western fellows, secondment of Western fellows and recruitment of Western Academy postdoctoral scholars.
"We don’t know what each theme will bring - that’s what’s unique and exciting about the Western Academy," said Jacquie Burkell, associate vice-president (research). "Our faculty will drive the priorities, identifying what they think is important and bringing it forward. The Western Academy then acts as an umbrella to bring experts together under each theme."
Using math to solve the mysteries of the brain
The inaugural theme, the mathematics of neural networks , headed by mathematics professor Lyle Muller , explores brain activity in relation to perception, memory and sleep.
"For several decades, researchers have analyzed neural activity in the brain from a single electrode over time," said Muller. "It’s like trying to understand the ocean by looking through a straw. Instead of seeing waves traveling across the ocean, we’ve typically studied the activity only at single points, where the neural activity looks like noise."
What’s changed is that the data now available about the brain is so complex, computational models and mathematical theories are required to make sense of the information.
"Under this theme, we are bringing mathematics and neuroscience together, along with advanced monitoring techniques, to help understand neural patterns and unlock some of the mysteries of the brain," said Muller.
Together with Ján Minác , mathematics professor; Marieke Mur, assistant professor in psychology and computer science; London Health Sciences Centre clinicians; and internationally recognized visiting Western fellows Maria Chudnovsky (Princeton) and Alexander Ludotzky (Weizmann Institute), Muller hopes to develop new mathematical approaches to study neural networks, how their activity patterns change in diseases like epilepsy, and how neural patterns during sleep impact memory.
Building for climate and disaster resilience
The second theme, which begins in January 2023, concerns climate-resilient infrastructure and buildings and is led by Keith Porter, adjunct professor in civil and environmental engineering and chief engineer for the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction.
"Climate and disaster resilience make a lot of sense financially and for society," said Porter. "And yet we don’t build resilient homes and infrastructure. Why? We think the answer lies between disciplines, especially engineering, business, economics, psychology and public policy. A solution requires collaboration between scholars and the rest of the world."
Among the questions Porter and his team will address over the next year are whether or not resilience efforts increase if stakeholder groups’ economic interests are aligned and what kind of communication will help mobilize individuals and groups to prioritize climate and disaster resilience.
As part of their work, the team will engage decision-makers from developers and insurance companies to property owners.
"I will consider our research successful if we advance fundamental knowledge and produce practical, implementable solutions that make a difference in the world."
This fall, the Western Academy will issue another call for letters of intent for themes beginning in Sept. 2023, Jan. 2024 and Sept. //uwo.ca/academy/index.html.