June 8, 2023

UCalgary researchers benefit from New Frontiers in Research Fund grants

Federal funding expected to help interdisciplinary, transformative research led by Canadian academics
Flag on UCalgary campus
Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

A handful of University of Calgary research projects are receiving substantial support from federal funds aimed at interdisciplinary, cutting-edge research.

The New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) is set to support 195 projects across Canada.

Launched in 2018, the NFRF was set up to support world-leading innovation and enhance Canada's profile in the global, knowledge-based economy.

“We are very proud of the wide array of research being undertaken here at the University of Calgary,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “From the smallest of nanoparticles to the most complex systems, our researchers are devoted to making positive changes that the world needs.”

Each of the NFRF Exploration projects has two or more team members and will receive grants covering the next two years, including three projects with UCalgary connections.

“Science and research are essential to solving the greatest challenges facing humanity today and in the future,” Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Francois-Philippe Champagne said in a news release. "With our highly educated workforce and world-class research institutions, we are well positioned to meet the needs of the next century and remain a global leader in science and innovation.”

Meantime, a fourth project with UCalgary connections was recognized in the NFRF Transformation category, with each researcher receiving funding for the next six years.

Improving animal-feed production

Farmers and food producers are always looking at ways to improve the quality and quantity of their products. But, for livestock producers, an ongoing challenge has been finding the right feed for their animals.

Jinguang Hu

Jinguang Hu.

Dr. Jinguang Hu, PhD, an associate professor at the Schulich School of Engineering, is working with Dr. Anna Rogiewicz, PhD, at the University of Manitoba on the sustainable production of symbiotic culture of bacterial yeast (SCOBY) for egg-laying hens, one of the projects receiving an NFRF Exploration Grant.

Hu says many theories exist about how to improve agricultural and food production, and his project will examine the potential large-scale production of using the product as a feed additive for poultry. Hu’s team is also planning to shoot a film to document the process.

“We want to help break down the walls between research and consumers to expose them to what is often unseen,” Hu says. “We also hope to facilitate a deeper connection and care for waste that translates to sustainable material with low economic costs which would benefit overall chicken health and poultry industry products, while creating progressive jobs within the industry.”

Sensing at very small scales

You need a microscope to see them, Dr. Giovanniantonio Natale, PhD, says. Biofilms have a global economic impact of up to $5 trillion per year.

While progress has been made in understanding how several types of microorganisms can gather together on different surfaces — called biofilms — Natale says certain aspects still remain a mystery.

Giovanniantonio Natale

Giovanniantonio Natale

In an effort to understand how bacteria sense and respond to their environment to form biofilms, Natale has teamed up with Dr. Joe Harrison, BSc’02, BSc’03, PhD’08, in the Department of Biological Sciences to combine state-of-the-art rheology, molecular genetics and microbiology into what he calls a "disruptive new field" — physical genetics. 

“The funding offers a truly unique opportunity for researchers to break free from the constraints of traditional funding and explore new, transdisciplinary approaches to tackle society’s most pressing issues,” says Natale, an associate professor at the Schulich School.

“By encouraging researchers to think outside the box, these funds enable us to overcome barriers and bring together scholars from a variety of disciplines to work together towards a common goal.”

Helping hand for new moms

Many new mothers go through undiagnosed and untreated mental health challenges, says Dr. Richa Pandey, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute.

Right now, the lone step in educating women about the risks, signs and symptoms of anxiety and postpartum depression is through questionnaire-based screening tools during routine checkups.

Richa Pandey

Richa Pandey

Working with Dr. Aditya Nittala, MSc’16, PhD, in the Faculty of Science; Dr. Nicole Letourneau, PhD, in the Faculty of Nursing; and Hu in the Schulich School, Pandey is hoping to change that with a new kind of wearable technology for monitoring mental health, the third UCalgary-related recipient of an NFRF Exploration grant.

“Not only will this funding help us develop a new type of wearable device to track and evaluate a patient’s mental health, but it will also provide longer-term value to mothers and those who care for them, like families and professionals,” says Pandey, who is also principal investigator with the Wearable and Bio-integrated Technologies Lab.

“This kind of interdisciplinary approach will have the potential to dramatically improve patient outcomes and will also assist many ongoing studies on the effect of perinatal mental health predictors on child well-being.”

Capturing energy from sunny days

The technological evolution within the energy industry continues to unfold, with UCalgary continuing to take a leadership role.

Dr. Joule Bergerson, PhD, and Dr. Viola Birss, BSc’72, PhD, are among many of the successful co-applicants for an NFRF Transformation grant for CANSTOREnergy, a three-team project aimed at storing excess summer-generated renewable energy for use in winter.

Joule Bergerson

Joule Bergerson

Bergerson, a professor at the Schulich School, says the DISCOVER team is working on electrochemical conversion technology breakthrough; the DIRECT team will be speaking directly with communities to talk about their ambitions and concerns; while she will lead the third team: DEVELOP.

“We will be assessing different combinations of technologies from a holistic and systems perspective to inform these discussions,” says Bergerson. “The combined insights will inform how the DISCOVER team pivots the technologies as they develop and ultimately deploy them.”

She adds the project is also heavily focused on engagement with the community-based renewable energy projects, energy utilities and heavy-industry emitters.

Birss, a professor in the Faculty of Science, says their hope is to achieve equitable, long-duration storage and utilization of renewable energy by applying a social lens to guide the discovery and development of carbon conversion technologies.

“The technological focus is specifically on cutting-edge carbon dioxide-converting electrolyzers that run on and, hence, store renewable energy, in turn producing green chemicals and fuels,” she says. “We hope to capitalize on the electrochemical carbon dioxide-conversion technologies already being developed at UCalgary and help in the fight against climate change.”

Birss says they have targeted the Yukon and southern Ontario for taking on this transformative change, with further implementation across Canada and around the world planned in the years to come.

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