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  • From advancing Alzheimer’s disease preventions to user experience of digital assistants: SFU researchers among new and renewed Canada Research Chairs

From advancing Alzheimer’s disease preventions to user experience of digital assistants: SFU researchers among new and renewed Canada Research Chairs

December 16, 2020

By Justin Wong

Nine Simon Fraser University researchers are among the new and renewed Canada Research Chairs (CRC). SFU’s chairholders are advancing research excellence in a number of areas, which range from preventing Alzheimer’s disease through data science to improving the user experience of digital assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa, through artificial intelligence.

Today, the Honourable Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry (ISED), announced an investment of more than $195 million for 259 new and renewed Canada Research Chairs at 47 institutions across Canada.

This investment is complemented by more than $14.2 million in new funding for research infrastructure to support 58 Chairs at 27 institutions through the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). Together with the chairs announced earlier this year, the total investment marks the program’s largest in a single calendar year. This important milestone underscores the program’s continued relevance and far-reaching impact as we celebrate the Canada Research Chairs’ 20th anniversary.

"We are incredibly grateful for the Government of Canada’s and CFI's ongoing support as we continue to grow and expand the university’s capacity in research excellence and innovation,” says Dugan O’Neil, SFU vice-president, research and international pro tem.

“I am proud of the contributions SFU’s researchers are making to our far-reaching communities across Canada. This funding will help our researchers take their transformative discoveries to the next level.”

SFU currently has 33 CRCs, including 17 tier 1 chairs and 16 tier 2 chairs. Since 2001, 89 Canada Research Chairs have been appointed at SFU.

Established by the Government of Canada in 2000, the CRC Program invests approximately $265 million per year to attract and retain diverse world-class researchers, and to reinforce academic research and training excellence in Canadian post-secondary institutions.

Chairholders aim to achieve research excellence in engineering and the natural sciences, health sciences, humanities, and social sciences, improving our depth of knowledge and quality of life, strengthening international competitiveness, and training the next generation of highly skilled people.

SFU’s new Canada Research Chairs are:

Sheelagh Carpendale, computing science, Tier 1 CRC in Information Visualization

Sheelagh Carpendale’s interest in data visualization continues to expand not only because she finds the challenge of making data more comprehensible fascinating, but also because of the growing importance of data in all walks of our lives. This pervasive data and the overt challenge of trying to make data understandable is also creating new issues in diversity and inclusivity. In creating visualizations, she reminds us that we must be careful not to create a new elite – those who already are data experts – but to also empower everyone in our everyday lives. She is also receiving funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund for her data visualization research.

Tenzin Doleck, education, Tier 2 Chair in Analytics for Learning Design

A growing proportion of future employment will revolve around the use of data. SFU education professor Tenzin Doleck’s research addresses the need to increase education and research capacities in data science. His current focus is on the design and development of DaTu, a learning environment and software tool which aims to increase understanding and enhancement of post-secondary education in data science. He is also receiving funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund for his education and data science research.

Matthias Danninger, science, Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Experimental Particle Physics

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the most powerful particle accelerator ever built and provides a unique opportunity to explore the high-energy frontier in particle physics. SFU science professor Matthias Danninger will use the ATLAS detector at the LHC to search for signs of long-lived new particle signatures, and to shed light on the universe’s biggest remaining mystery: why matter prevailed over antimatter in the early universe, or what exactly dark matter is. Searching for these particles is highly challenging as they have a tendency to avoid interactions, making them elusive to detect.

Don Estep, science, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Computational Probability and Uncertainty Quantification

SFU science professor Don Estep is a mathematician and statistician who collaborates with scientists and engineers to develop algorithms and models for a range of problems in ecology, physics and engineering. He has applied his research to detect black holes, forecast hurricane storm surges, measure electromagnetic scattering and predict fusion reaction.  By examining the behavior of complex multi-physics systems and subsequently creating computational and statistical models Estep can predict behavior, quantify uncertainty and ultimately mitigate hazards.

Manolis Savva, science, Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Computer Graphics

For computing science professor Manolis Savva, the area of computer graphics is about the practice of simulating the world. Using simulated environments, Savva is currently conducting research on how to train AI to understand the 3D structures of our living spaces. This research could be influential in improving AI assistant technologies such as Alexa or Google Assistant, and enabling the efficient design and generation of interactive virtual 3D representations of interior spaces and human actions. He plans to continue to work with researchers in AI and machine learning to leverage simulated environments in ways that helps further research in these fields.

SFU’s Canada Research Chairs advancements are:

Roger Linington, science, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in High-Throughput Screening and Natural Products Discovery

SFU science professor Roger Linington literally leaves no rock unturned in his quest to find natural microbial products that may become a source of new antibiotics for treating human illness. He uses his skills as a diver to collect microbes from Canada’s west coast and beyond. By combining methods in environmental microbiology, analytical chemistry, high-throughput screening and informatics, he and his team are creating the next generation of tools for discovering natural products. This work forms the basis of a world-wide first—a comprehensive Natural Products Atlas detailing information about global discoveries of natural microbial products. It is freely available to researchers worldwide. Discovering new antibiotics is extremely challenging, but remains a priority in Linington’s quest to improve worldwide health outcomes.

SFU’s renewed Canada Research Chairs are:

Jiguo Cao, science, Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Data Science

SFU science professor Cao develop novel statistical models and machine-learning methods for an array of data-driven applications that tackle real-world problems in the fields of neuroscience, genetics, environment, and artificial intelligence. Examples include sports analytics, identification of genes related to Alzheimer's disease, understanding impacts of climate change on forest fires and landscape vulnerability, studying effects of air pollution on public health and predicting survival time of patients after organ transplantation.

Jing Li, business, Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Global Investment Strategy

At a time when the global economy is facing its greatest challenges in living memory, SFU Beedie professor Jing Li’s research in international business has never been more significant. Through her work, she aims to promote cross-border understanding of the business environment and to support businesses in pursuing effective international investment. Her current research focuses on how multinational corporations manage international politics and business activities, as well as how government initiatives and regulations impact firms’ strategic choices and innovation performance. Li is a Canada Research Chair in Global Investment Strategy and a co-director of the Jack Austin Center for Asia Pacific Business Studies. She is also a member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists.

Eundeok Mun, science, Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Materials Physics

Quantum matter is responsible for a wide range of phenomena that have enhanced our understanding of fundamental science and led to many technological advances. SFU science professor Eundeok Mun investigates the structure and behavior of solid matter in his quest to discover new materials with unusual magnetic and electronic ground states. He hopes these new quantum materials provide not only a playground for finding and exploring new states of matter but also yield practical benefits such as new electronic devices and computing technologies.