Autumn 2002 / Feature
Bright Lights, Big Ideas

They’re brilliant. They’re bold. They’re young. And they have the national research community applauding

When your young researchers win eight of 20 prizes in competition against the best scientists in Canada, the result is not just good luck – especially when no other Canadian university boasted more than two winners. “If it were the difference between six out of 20 and eight out of 20,” says University of Toronto president Robert Birgeneau, “that might be a statistical fluke.” But U of T scientists led the field in the first-ever Young Explorers competition held by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIAR), and that, Birgeneau says, is no fluke.

The Young Explorers Prize was conceived to mark the 20th anniversary of the institute, which has been described as Canada’s “university without walls.” Birgeneau himself is a member of the institute, as are many other distinguished scientists, both in Canada and elsewhere. According to institute president Chaviva Hosek, the idea was to recognize young Canadian researchers – 40 and under when the competition started – who have already made significant contributions to their fields. The selection was done by a panel of judges, three in the United States and three in Great Britain, who had no connection to the institute, she says.

And why did U of T outstrip the rest? “I don’t have an explanation for you,” says Hosek. For his part, Birgeneau notes that about a third of all Canadian scientists who have been elected to the prestigious Royal Society of London are at U of T. Such an election usually comes at the end of a long and distinguished career. “And we have a little more than one-third of these very bright young people, so I think we’re covering the entire spectrum,” says Birgeneau. The Young Explorers Prize “shows that they are among the elite of young scientists in Canada.”

Molly Shoichet

Chemistry professor Molly Shoichet grew up, she says, “in an environment where I was encouraged to dream and reach for the stars.” These days, she has one dream in particular: she wants to find a cure for the paralysis caused by spinal cord injuries. The problem is difficult because the spinal cord is a complex structure, and its biology is not well understood. Shoichet is trying to combine elements of biology, chemistry and engineering – an approach called tissue engineering – to find ways of promoting regeneration after injury. She holds a Canada Research Chair in tissue engineering and was one of Report on Business Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40 this year.

Ian Manners

In the steamy heat of an early July morning, Ian Manners is trying to rearrange a lunch location for his chemistry research group. It’s no easy task at short notice – there are about 30 people in the group, including students and post-docs. “We make things,” says Manners, “and that always tends to be rather student-intensive.” On this day, Manners is hoping to get his people together to celebrate his CIAR Young Explorers Prize, as well as another recent award. No one really wants to brave the 35-degree heat under the restaurant’s patio awning, but other options are difficult to find for such a large group.

At 41, with a shock of brown hair and a London accent that’s “not really” Cockney, Manners leads a group that is leading-edge in a new field: inorganic polymers. Polymers are long-chain molecules, made up of smaller sub-molecules that are all the same. Think of Tinker Toys, with their round wooden blocks that can be joined in a never-ending series. Organic polymers – the kind nature has been making forever and humans have been making for the past 80 years – have identical sub-molecules, all based on carbon. Proteins, starches, even today’s superstar molecule, DNA, are all organic polymers.

But Manners wants to make polymers with other elements, such as iron, for instance, or boron. Such materials would have novel and perhaps very useful properties – the ability to change their shape under the stimulus of an electric current, for example, or to react with light to produce a desired effect. In fact, Manners is working with a company in Georgetown, Ont., to commercialize a metal-containing polymer that can be used to sense the presence of oxygen in groundwater, and thus measure its environmental health.

Unfortunately, while the idea is “theoretically simple,” Manners says, it’s difficult in practice. Manners and his colleagues have to find new ways of putting molecules together, because the tricks used by the organic chemists don’t translate very well into the inorganic realm. “Our group spends a lot of time and effort trying to solve these synthesis problems,” he says. He picks up a small jar containing fragments of an orange material that looks rather like slightly off-colour cornflakes. The orange stuff, he says, is an iron-based polymer that is resistant to radiation; it might one day be used to make radiation-resistant coatings.

But while the field is only at its beginning, inorganic polymers will probably never take the world by storm as their organic cousins did, says Manners. “The consequences [of humans making organic polymers] are all around us.” But inorganic polymers are likely to be used in specialist instruments – such as environmental sensors – rather than in daily life. “They’re never going to be used for coffee cups or plastic bags,” he says.

Daniel Lidar
What numbers multiply together to give 15? Got them? Now what about 151,515,515? Bit harder, isn’t it? Yet questions like that last one are central to modern cryptography, the sort of thing that keeps your credit card numbers safe on the Internet. They’re important problems because our computers (and our brains) find them hard to solve. But another type of computer entirely – a quantum computer – could solve them easily. And that’s why, says Daniel Lidar of the department of chemistry, there’s great and growing interest in this new field.

Lidar, 34, the second-youngest winner of the CIAR Young Explorers Prize, won for his work in quantum computing. The difference between quantum and classical computing is “substantial,” says Lidar. “The major difference is that a classical computer such as the one on your desk encodes information in what are called “bits.” A bit can be either on or off. But a quantum bit – a “qubit” – can be both at the same time. So a quantum computer with n qubits is like having 2n classical computers all linked together and running in parallel. The power is what makes it easy for a quantum computer to factor large numbers easily (though the most powerful one yet built can only manage to factor the number 15).

The main difficulty in building quantum computers is that they are extremely fragile, Lidar says, and offer data before questions are even asked. That’s where his work comes in – he’s a specialist in what are called “quantum error-correcting codes,” which “protect a quantum computer from the detrimental effects of external environments.” But Lidar thinks useful quantum computers are between 10 and 20 years off, and even when they are running, he says, they won’t replace your laptop. “They’re likely to be specialized devices; they won’t be useful for sending e-mail or doing word processing.” Lidar says their most exciting use might be to simulate other interactions that depend on quantum mechanics – the way atoms interact with each other as a drug meets a virus, for instance.

Josef Penninger
Josef Penninger understands pain: as a child in Gurten, Austria, he dreamed of playing World Cup soccer. “Alas,” he says, “it is difficult to start one’s life having failed in the one thing that I really wanted to do.” As an adult, though, he has made many significant advances in medical research, including the recent identification of the DREAM gene, which controls pain perception. He has been an associate professor in the departments of immunology and medical biophysics, a lead researcher at the Amgen Research Institute and the holder of a Canada Research Chair, but will soon be returning to his native Austria.

Shitij Kapur

The ghost of Sigmund Freud looks over Shitij Kapur’s shoulder in his office at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Actually, it’s a plush doll of the great doctor, seated under a much larger plastic model of the brain and peering down at Kapur’s desk. The doll and the model summarize Kapur’s research interests: brain science, exemplified by modern brain-imaging techniques, and psychiatry, exemplified by psychotherapy. Montreal-born Kapur, 38, was raised in India; he came back to Canada when CAMH acquired a PET scanner, which would allow him to apply brain science to the study of schizophrenia. U of T was also home to a “crucible of academics” who were world leaders in understanding how the brain works. “We not only had the technology, but we also had these giants on whose shoulders one could stand,” says Kapur, who is head of CAMH’s schizophrenia research section and an associate professor of psychiatry at U of T.

One aspect of Kapur’s work is to study how anti-psychotic drugs work, and the PET scanner is a key tool – it lets him see what parts of the brain are activated when a patient is taking a drug. Brain-imaging groups around the world, he says, “can probably take a lion’s share of the credit for teaching us how these medications work.” His own group found that the drug Haldol, given in much lower doses, could still be effective in treating schizophrenia.

Any discussion of brain science tends to be “hijacked,” Kapur says, by those who want simple answers. He uses this analogy: if your child is throwing a baseball awkwardly and missing the catcher’s glove, it’s probably because of the way various neurons are firing. But no one would suggest brain surgery or drugs to manipulate the neurons; it’s simpler and more effective to use what Kapur calls “mind-mind interaction” – coaching, in other words. In the same way, there are clearly biological bases for diseases such as schizophrenia, and a major thrust of his work is teasing those out. “How do alterations in brain chemicals lead to hallucinations?” he asks. The PET scanner lets him study the chemical aspects of the disease, but treatments, he thinks, may not lie entirely in chemistry. Just as in the baseball analogy, “we have to do the behavioural stuff.” The progress of brain imaging has been phenomenal: “It would not surprise me if, by the end of my career, we could map the circuit of a single thought.” But while that would be a “great victory” for neuroscience, he says, we shouldn’t forget that we can already do much the same thing just by talking to each other – something Freud pioneered.

Ted Sargent
Ted Sargent, who holds the Nortel Networks-Canada Research Chair in nanotechnology, is trying to use his deep understanding of physics and chemistry to build what he calls an “agile optical network” that will work with, not against, the fundamental properties of matter and light. He looks to biological systems for inspiration, he says, because they are flexible and robust while embracing the “natural variability” of the physical world. When Sargent was awarded the 1999 Silver Medal of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council for some of his work, the council described it as “groundbreaking” research that will make “laser light the driving force of future microchips.”

Stephen Scherer

Associate professor of medicine Stephen Scherer loved hockey and baseball as a child, but in school, his favourite subjects were geography, history and biology. Genetics, he says, combines all of those – the teamwork of research, the geography of the landscape of chromosomes, the natural history embedded in DNA and the way the biology of genes is influenced by (and influences) environment. He’s a director of the Centre for Applied Genomics at the Hospital for Sick Children, where one of his major research goals is to understand the interaction of nature and nurture. This year, he was one of Report on Business Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40.

Jerry Mitrovica

Unlike Sherlock Holmes, who stated that “it is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data,” geophysicist Jerry Mitrovica has made a habit of theorizing before he has data. “I know the data is coming,” he says. Take the so-called “four-piston model” of the Earth’s interior motions that he and colleague Alessandro Forte proposed a little more than a year ago. The idea is that four vast columns of rock are slowly moving, two up and two down, like pistons, far below the Earth’s crust. It’s a theory Mitrovica likes to illustrate with a lava lamp; its blobs of red goop play the role of rock rising through the Earth’s mantle. “Alex and I got hammered on that paper,” says Mitrovica, but earlier this summer American researchers found seismological evidence that appears to support the theory. “Lots of times when I theorize, I just hope there’s someone out there who’s smart enough to get the data.”

That’s what he’s hoping right now, in fact. In recent years, Mitrovica has played a key role in teasing out what happens to sea levels when major ice sheets melt – something that’s very relevant today. Turns out that the sea level rises, but not everywhere and not necessarily where you’d think. About 14,000 years ago, there was a sudden rise in global sea level, by approximately 20 metres in about 200 years. Something, somewhere, melted. But where? In a March paper in Science, Mitrovica and colleague Peter Clark suggest ways of using their “sea-level fingerprint” technique to figure out what happened. Now it’s up to the data people, and, says Mitrovica, “I’ve no doubt that within a year, that problem will be solved.”

Mitrovica, now 41, was just under the age limit when the CIAR began its search for the best and brightest, and, he quips, that meant he had an advantage: “I could use every one of the 40 years to make my mark.” His first major success came on a “really hot problem” handed to him by his supervisors for his master’s degree: why is it that continents sometimes flood? (For instance, Denver, now famously a mile high, was once under water.) Mitrovica’s solution? The western edge of North America was dragged down by the suction of a tectonic plate that was sliding under it and later bounced – v-e-r-y slowly – back up. “It turns out,” says Mitrovica, “that continents go up and down for the same reason they go sideways.”

In the long run, though, plate tectonics isn’t a complete answer to how the earth evolves. “For one thing,” Mitrovica asks rhetorically, “what makes the plates move?” It’s that deeper solution that he would like to find. All of his research – on why continents flood and what happens when ice sheets melt – is turning out to be connected, he thinks, to what makes the Earth keep evolving. Within the next few years, “we’re going to see another revolution like plate tectonics, and with it will come a large-scale view of what the Earth is doing, the chemistry of the Earth, how it evolves, how it links to climate.”

Michael Smith is a Toronto science writer.

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