Scientists awarded NSERC grants

June 23, 2005, vol. 33, no. 5
By Carol Thorbes

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How did humans and worms become genetic relatives? How do molecules in the human eye control biological function? How do subatomic particles acquire mass?

A new round of federal research funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) is furthering three Simon Fraser University scientists' quest to answer these questions. David Baillie, Melanie O'Neill and Michel Vetterli are among about 250 SFU scientists recently awarded new or ongoing Discovery and related grants.

This spring, NSERC approved 96 grant applications at SFU, worth a total of more than $11.6 million. The federal granting council approved another 147 SFU applications for undergraduate and graduate scholarships, postdoctoral fellowships and university faculty awards. They amount to almost $2.8 million.

SFU's success rate in the Discovery and related research grant competitions was 79 per cent compared to the national average of 74.9 per cent.

Baillie, a Canada Research Chair in genomics and a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, is receiving a new Discovery grant worth $422,500 over five years.

The funding enables Baillie to continue a 30-year project dedicated to understanding how DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the genetic alphabet of organisms, programs their growth from a single cell into a complex being with hair, a brain, skin and other tissues. Baillie has so far isolated mutations in more than 500 genes in C. elegans (worms) that have counterparts in humans, and are essential to the development and survival of complex multicellular organisms.

“The core work in my laboratory has always been supported by the Discovery grant program. This new money will allow my lab to analyse a new set of C. elegan genes that have human versions, and test a new method for detecting the genes we've already discovered,” explains Baillie.

O'Neill, an assistant professor of chemistry who joined SFU in September 2004, has been awarded $273,000 in Discovery and infrastructure grants over three years. The funding enables O'Neill to continue investigating a window that the human eye provides onto how certain molecules use light to regulate gene expression.

She is one of a few scientists researching how humans use light to synchronize their circadian rhythm (metabolic and behavioural patterns) with the outside world.

Michel Vetterli, an SFU physics professor and a scientist at TRIUMF (Canada's national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics), is receiving a $176,000 subatomic physics grant.

The funding enables Vetterli to help an international group of scientists develop a worldwide network of high-performance computing centres for the ATLAS experiment at Cern, Switzerland. The computing grid will give access to high performance computing as easily and as quickly as internet users access information from the web. Vetterli and other SFU collaborators are building a prototype.

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