McGill University: $2.9 million from the Government of Canada for McGill research

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disruptive effect on McGill’s research activities, particularly community and field-based research. The pandemic has also provided a unique opportunity to explore new directions in research methodologies. McGill’s researchers have developed creative solutions and harnessed science to solve national and global challenges.

On April 4, the Government of Canada released the results of the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) 2021 Exploration competition and the NFRF special call on innovative approaches to research in the pandemic context. The New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) competitions are designed to fund “high-risk, high-reward research that pushes boundaries.” Twelve McGill projects were funded for a total of $2.9 million. The projects funded through the special call are focused on community and field-based research, and on data collection efforts stalled during the pandemic. Projects funded through the Exploration competition have the potential to yield innovative results in social, cultural, economic, health-related, and technological areas.

Pandemic-proof Arctic research

The COVID-19 lockdown disrupted much of Arctic ecosystem science, but especially seabird research. With NFRF rapid-response funding, a project led by Professor Kyle Elliot (Natural Resource Sciences) with co-applicant McGill Professor Mélanie Guigueno (Biology), and collaborators from the University of Windsor and Environment and Climate Change Canada, aims to develop new approaches to seabird field work and data collection in the Canadian Arctic. Elliot is developing pandemic-proof techniques for safe data collection by local community members. Among the techniques under development are drones with machine learning applications, and fixed cameras, to study seabird colony dynamics.

Black holes on-a-chip

With funding from the Exploration competition, a multidisciplinary effort led by Professor Guillaume Gervais (Physics), Professor Thomas Szkopek (Electrical and Computer Engineering) and Associate Professor Reisner Walter (Physics) will attempt to create sonic black holes—”black holes on-a-chip”—to conduct laboratory studies and shed light on the long sought-after Hawking predictions of these mysterious celestial objects. The team also anticipates their efforts will generate new fundamental knowledge on fluid mechanics and general relativity.

Protecting old-growth forests demands a rapid response

With the funding provided by the NFRF Exploration competition, McGill biology professor Catherine Potvin and other McGill co-applicants, Assistant Professor Yann le Polain de Waroux (Institute for the Study of International Development and Department of Geography), and Julie Major, (Lecturer, Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences), will work with the Asociación de Mujeres Artesanas de Ipeti-Emberá (AMARIE), an Indigenous women’s organization, to explore carbon offsetting and the monitoring of old growth forests in partnership with Indigenous communities in eastern Panama. The funds will support capacity building workshops in computer literacy and emerging technology, as well as in traditional participatory models of knowledge gathering, all in service of transitioning to an economy centred around the forest.

These efforts will complement the Bayano-McGill Reforestation Project, also in eastern Panama, which has allowed the Emberá community to plant more than 30,000 trees since the project’s establishment in 2020, amounting to 30 hectares of land reforested. By offsetting a portion of the University’s greenhouse gas emissions, this progress contributes to McGill’s long-term target to become carbon neutral by 2040.

Insects in the fight against cancer:

Among gynecological cancers, ovarian cancer results in the highest mortality and is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths among women. New therapeutic options are urgently needed, and Professor Ehab Abouheif (Biology) has a novel idea. Honeybee societies can suffer from ‘social cancer’, which occurs when workers reproduce uncontrollably and stop working. However, the queen helps maintain social harmony by emitting an inhibitory pheromone called ‘Queen Mandibular Pheromone’ (QMP) that stops workers from reproducing by inhibiting growth and inducing programmed cell death in their ovaries. Remarkably, QMP also inhibits ovary development in distantly related animals.

Abouheif and co-applicants Associate Professor Michael Witcher (Department of Oncology and the Jewish General Hospital), Professor Paul Lasko (Biology), and University of Western Ontario Associate Professor Graham Thompson (Biology) will test the hypothesis that honeybee QMP can inhibit proliferation and induce apoptosis in human ovarian cancer cells, in much the same way that it suppresses ovarian development in worker honeybees. Should this theory prove viable, there is potential to uncover an entirely new class of chemotherapeutics to fight ovarian cancer. This study was funded through the NFRF Special Call.

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