Feature / Winter 2001
Seats of Power

U of T will establish 271 Canada Research Chairs over the next five years, and some of them will be secured in perpetuity


The brain drain — our best minds heading south or across the oceans for better research opportunities and bigger bucks — is a problem that has been with us so long the phrase is a cliché. But the good news is that the federal government has taken a step toward stemming the flow with the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program, announced in the February 2000 budget.

Highlights

  • $40.5 million annually in federal funding will be phased in over the next five years to create 271 chairs.
  • Donations of $2 million will create endowments attached to selected.
  • Tier I chairs, securing the positions in perpetuity.
  • Income from the endowment will be double-matched to support research activities related to the chair.

Simply stated, the CRC program is a federal funding scheme aimed at retaining the country’s best academic brains while at the same time recruiting new world-class faculty. Two thousand CRCs will be allocated to Canadian universities during the next five years. “It’s the largest federal investment in university research in quite some time,” says Judith Chadwick, associate director of government research infrastructure programs. What this means for U of T, which earned more chairs than any other university, is that an annual $40.5 million will be phased in over the next five years to fund an estimated 271 chairs. This program is seen as a breakthrough for federally funded university research, says Vice-President and Provost Adel Sedra. It is the first time that the full costs of research are eligible for federal money.

How will the brains be chosen? U of T committees have been busy identifying areas of research strength, with an emphasis on long-range planning. There will be 134 Tier I (senior) positions, for which the university will receive $200,000 per year for seven years, and 137 Tier II (junior) positions, which will bring $100,000 per year for five years.

Probably the most illustrious U of T professor among the first wave of chair holders is Tak Mak, the immunologist and molecular biologist best known for his 1984 discovery of the T-cell receptor, which advanced our understanding of the immune system. Retaining researchers of his calibre is key for the university. But equally crucial are many other professors — some at the height of their careers, some just hitting their stride — including these four fascinating chair holders.

Photo: Laura Arsiè Rosemary Sullivan
Two days after my interview with Rosemary Sullivan in the bright, spacious, second-floor office of her home in Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood she phones me. The Governor General’s Award-winning biographer and poet, who has been teaching English at the University of Toronto at Mississauga for more than 20 years (and is now a CRC Tier I chair holder), sounds nervous. She asks me not to use a metaphor she had mentioned earlier: “I think there are profound connections between Latin America and Canada,” she had told me. “We sit on either side of a world power. I think Canada is the attic and Latin America is the basement. You put the things you no longer value in the attic and you put the bodies in the basement.” Sullivan, who is married to a Chilean-born musician, doesn’t want anyone to think she is insulting Latin America. “But it’s such a wonderful metaphor,” I counter and manage, I think, to convince her that rather than being insulting, her words are an apt description of a painful political reality. But we both know the conversation isn’t really about Latin America, although that’s an important theme in her life and in the book she is now researching. What we are really talking about is the profound power of words and the huge responsibility that authors bear to “get it right” when writing about someone else’s life. A poem called “Words,” from her recent collection The Bone Ladder (Black Moss Press, 2000), says it best: “Aunt Mary used to warn me about words. They never stay where you put them. They’re loose. Any no-good can use them…”

Montreal-born Sullivan uses words well and widely as a published poet. But she’s better known for her highly crafted biographies of Elizabeth Smart (By Heart), Gwendolyn MacEwen (Shadow Maker, which won the 1996 Governor General’s Award for non-fiction) and Margaret Atwood (The Red Shoes). Both MacEwen and Smart, tragic figures, were dead when Sullivan wrote about them, which meant there were “all those questions I couldn’t ask.” But Sullivan’s biography of Atwood was an entirely different matter: her subject, in no way tragic, was very much alive and able to answer questions (although Sullivan says Atwood was “skittish and uncomfortable” whenever the questioning became personal) and, furthermore, would have been able to disavow the book (which she didn’t) if she felt Sullivan hadn’t got it right. Instead of a personal biography, Sullivan chose to write a socio-cultural study of how Atwood has developed into a writer emblematic of our time.

At UTM, Sullivan has taught a wide range of courses, from Shakespeare to Canadian poetry. She is particularly proud of the time her students videotaped five one-hour programs of interviews and panel discussions with Canadian poets. Afterward, she discovered that they had made one of only two video records of MacEwen in the 1980s. She even takes students on a tour of city ravines and Toronto Island, so they get a sense “of the way a writer transforms the external landscape into a mental landscape.”

Sullivan’s newest book, Labyrinth of Desire: A Story of Women and Romantic Obsession (HarperFlamingo, 2001), touches on the lives of several women, including Simone de Beauvoir and Frida Kahlo. Her next work will be a study of the lives of three Canadian women whose artistic careers were profoundly affected by Latin America. The Latin sojourns of Page and Smart are no surprise. What is unexpected is the third character, virtually unknown in Canada: Paule Pepin Fitzpatrick was born in Newfoundland and went to Argentina to study music in the 1930s. Sullivan is looking forward to travelling to Buenos Aires to research the life of the mysterious Fitzpatrick. However she chooses to tell the tale, it is bound to be intriguing.

Photo: Laura Arsiè Sue Quaggin
The hallway outside the eighth-floor lab in the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto resembles an appliance warehouse, with a long row of fridges facing centrifuges, which look like large washing machines. Inside the windowless, brightly lit lab, people in white coats go about their work, whirling solutions in flasks and examining slides under microscopes.

In Sue Quaggin’s small inner office nearby, some half-eaten sushi on a Styrofoam tray sits on the desk near stacks of slides of mouse kidney tissue. A framed picture of her three laughing kids nestles on a shelf above her computer. When Quaggin (a Tier II chair holder) rushes in late, her apologies are genuine and profuse. She was at a talk that went much longer than expected. No problem. I’ve had a chance to nose about and get the atmosphere of the place. It hums. It seems focused, busy, happy. Like her.

A 1988 U of T grad, Quaggin received the prestigious international Carl W. Gottschalk Research Scholar Award from the American Society of Nephrology in 1999. An earlier Medical Research Council (MRC) award funded three years of post-doc training at Yale University with one of the worlds foremost investigators in the field of kidney genetics. In 1997, Quaggin returned to Toronto to study developmental biology with Janet Rossant at the Lunenfeld Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital — a move that was also funded by the MRC award.

Quaggin has fused two related but distinct areas of research in her own study. She first identified and cloned a master gene that is critical for kidney, heart and lung development. Now she and her team are cloning mutant mice lacking that gene in order to study their kidney filters. “Mouse kidneys are very similar to human ones, though a lot smaller,” she says, adding that they are susceptible to the same diseases. Quaggin and her team are collaborating with researchers around the world who are looking at the factors that cause scarring in kidney filters, a problem that is becoming more and more prevalent, mostly in adults with diabetes. Quaggin wants to find out how to fix kidney filters. “Maybe we can do gene therapy,” she speculates, “or maybe we can identify new pathways to use new drugs.” (current drugs used to treat people with scarred kidney filters are powerful, but have many undesirable side-effects.)

When I ask to see the mice, Quaggin leads me enthusiastically to a windowless basement room with a slight animal pong. Dozens of individually labelled, shoebox-size plastic containers are stacked on high shelves, arranged library-fashion in rows. Inside the boxes, which have automatic feeders providing non-stop food and water, are hundreds of scurrying mutant mice — no more than five to a box — segregated with their own kind. There are white mice, shiny black mice, black mice with a white stripe across the rear, and chimeric mice, odd creatures whose tweedy brown and white fur is evidence of the fact that they were derived from two genetically separate mouse embryos. (Quaggin’s young daughter dressed up as a chimeric mouse once for Halloween.)

In a nearby lab, a technician looks through a microscope while injecting DNA into mice embryos in order to make more genetically altered mice. “Not many people can do that,” says Quaggin, who clearly appreciates her highly skilled support team. Together, you can bet they’re going to understand the workings of kidney filters much better over the next five years.

Photo: Laura Arsiè Norm Murray
A piece of graph paper bearing data about iron-rich stars is tacked to Norman Murray’s office door. A blue and yellow bicycle is propped underneath the equation-covered blackboard in his 12th-floor office in the ugly tower of the McLennan Physical Laboratories. The tall, fit-looking astrophysicist, who was a sprinter in his student days, bikes to work from his home in the Yonge-Eglinton area. Born in Los Angeles, he earned his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley and taught at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) until he moved to U of T’s Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics in 1993. It’s one of the top four, along with Caltech, Berkeley and Princeton, says Murray, who took a pay cut when he left California for the tenure track here. (He’s a Tier I chair holder.)

These are exciting times for Murray and other scientists who ponder planetary paths, because about 60 new planets have been discovered since 1995. “These planets don’t orbit like anything we know so far in our own solar system,” says Murray. “They’re massive, like Jupiter.” (Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, is much bigger than Earth and takes 12 years to go around the sun.) “But these planets orbit their stars in three days. And who ordered that?” he asks speedily. “That isn’t what anybody expected.”

To explain the baffling movement of these planets, Murray has proposed a theory that he explains with a down-to-earth analogy. “You’re sitting in the back of a truck [that’s Jupiter] and you’re throwing rocks [asteroids or comets] out,” he says, leaning back in his chair and lobbing an imaginary rock overhand, “and the truck’s moving the other way just from the reaction. Of course, you have to throw a lot of rocks… an amount equal to or greater than the mass of the truck. That’s 300 times the Earth’s mass.” Murray hasn’t yet convinced other astrophysicists of his theory. “But they’re starting to look at it,” he says.

Astrophysics is largely a male preserve. The coffee room nearby has the collegial atmosphere of a men’s club. Three physicists are talking animatedly in wildly different accents (Asian, Eastern European and English) while writing equations on a blackboard. One suggests a comic solution, and they laugh.

Where will the astrophysics frontier be in five years? “We’ll know something about how planets form and we’ll know some more about their frequency,” says Murray. “How many stars have planets? Right now, six to eight per cent are known to have planets, but is it 50 per cent or is it 10 per cent or is it 100? And then the next question is, How many stars have Earth-like planets? That’s something I think we can hope to learn. Theorists [astrophysicists] won’t answer that question — that’ll be done by observers [astronomers]. But I’ll be looking over their shoulders,” he adds.

What is his dream? “I’d like to figure out how everything works,” he says with an expansive smile and only the merest hint of irony.

Photo: Laura Arsiè Molly Shoichet
“I think the science we do at university should be about big problems,” Molly Shoichet (pronounced Shoy-ket) says unassumingly. The Toronto-bred, newly tenured professor in the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry might well have remained in the United States, where she earned her bachelor of science degree in chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her doctorate in polymer science and engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. But she reversed the brain drain, coming with her husband to Toronto in 1995 for personal reasons — “my family’s here” — and to U of T for its “excellence in research.” Here, she works with a cross-disciplinary team of scientists, engineers and surgeons recognized worldwide among the top five in the field of tissue engineering. The dream they share with Shoichet is to overcome spinal cord injury. A big problem, indeed.

Nerve cells in a damaged spinal cord can’t usually repair themselves or regrow. But Shoichet (a Tier II chair) and her team are designing and creating nerve guidance channels, or tubes, filled with a drug-and-protein mix designed to enhance nerve cell regeneration after spinal cord injury. The work is in the nascent stages, with several therapeutic strategies being tested in rats, and clinical trials are a long way off.

“I have a great research group,” says Shoichet, referring to her 11 postgrad and three undergrad students. “We push the frontiers forward together.” Their work is one of the hopes of people like actor Christopher Reeve, paralyzed as the result of a riding accident, for whom Shoichet has tremendous respect. “I think what he’s done has been incredible,” she says, citing his amazing courage to show his vulnerability publicly. “He’s done a lot of awareness building.”

Her office in the block-long Wallberg Memorial Building, at College and St. George Streets, is painted bright blue, in contrast to the institutional pale yellow corridors. Above her desk is a large print of a group of people running away against a windswept sky, each bearing a bright umbrella. I comment on it. “Isn’t it great?” she says enthusiastically. “I love that print. It reminds me of research, because you’re always racing against time, against yourself really.” Shoichet’s race is truly a long-distance one with a far-off finish line, which will probably keep shifting as she works. But although decades of work lie ahead, intellectual endurance is on her side. She is just hitting her stride.

Susan Lawrence (BEd 1972) is a Toronto editor and writer.


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