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A passion for discovery and creativity: 6 researchers who 'propel Concordia onto the international stage'

The university celebrates stellar academic contributions
June 4, 2014
By Christian Durand

Concordia’s 2014 University Research Award winners: Daniel Cross, Gilles Peslherbe, Peter Rigby and Thien Thanh Dang-Vu.

Six of Concordia’s most outstanding academics were honoured on June 3 at a reception to acknowledge excellence in research and creative activity.

Graham Carr, vice-president of Research and Graduate Studies, presented four University Research Awards and two Petro-Canada Young Innovator Awards.

From investigations into the mechanics of sleep deprivation to studies in nanoparticle toxicity, Carr takes pride in the stellar contributions of Daniel Cross, Thien Thanh Dang-Vu, Alexandra Panaccio, Gilles Peslherbe, Peter Rigby and Dajana Vuckovic.

“These are some of the researchers who are propelling Concordia onto the national and international stage,” he says. “This is an opportunity for our community to recognize the passion for discovery and creativity that marks their work, and to salute their commitment to mentoring and training the next generation of academics.”

Concordia’s University Research Award winners are selected for their exceptional achievements and their contributions to advancing knowledge, building a productive training environment for students and increasing the university’s visibility as a research institution. Each recipient is awarded $5,000 and holds the title of Concordia University Research Fellow for one year.

The Petro-Canada Young Innovator Awards recognize outstanding young faculty members who are pursuing innovative research that strengthens the learning environment within their departments and has the potential to be of significance to society. The award, which is made possible by a generous endowment from Suncor Energy, carries a $10,000 research grant.

We asked the award recipients to describe their research and its impact.

Thien Thanh Dang-Vu: 2014 University Research Award

Assistant professor in the Department of Exercise Science
Research theme: Understanding the underlying mechanisms of sleep disorders
Emerging in the Strategic Research Cluster — The Person and Society

In my research lab, we study what makes certain people more vulnerable than others to sleep problems. In particular, we look at the brain mechanisms that explain why people have difficulties falling asleep at night or staying awake during the day.

“To do this, we use a combination of different techniques: questionnaires and the recording of body movements and brain electrical activity, as well as brain imaging and treatment interventions. This allows us to study complementary aspects of sleep and sleep disorders, from the brain to people’s behaviour. 

“The overall goal of our research is to improve the treatment of sleep disorders by better characterizing the underlying mechanisms. By better understanding differences between individuals, we can offer alternative treatment interventions more adapted to each patient's profile.

“Since sleep quality affects all aspects of health (mental health, memory, cardiovascular health, metabolism, immunity and more), improving sleep constitutes a very important preventive strategy to promote health and well-being.”

Peter Rigby: 2014 University Research Award

Assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering
Research theme: Quantifying the laws of software engineering
Emerging in the Strategic Research Cluster — Technology, Industry and the Environment

“Software is artificial. A Ferrari in a video game can be made to fly by changing the game's parameters governing gravity. The ‘laws’ imposed on a software system come not from the natural world, but from its designers. My research seeks to quantify the ‘laws' of software engineering based on case studies of large software systems.

“Software firms have begun releasing products more quickly. For example, Facebook releases a new version of its software to over one billion users twice a day. In collaboration with the Department of National Defence, Microsoft and other organisations, we are creating statistical models to understand the impact of quickly released features on software quality.

“A model of 'how fast is too fast' will allow different firms to determine how quickly they can release new features, and provide a sound basis on which to make decisions that affect the success of a company.”

Daniel Cross: 2014 University Research Award

Associate professor at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema
Research theme:
Building self-esteem through self-expression
Established in the Strategic Research Cluster — The Person and Society

“I am a filmmaker. I direct and produce point-of-view documentaries, mainly for theatrical distribution. I am currently directing a film on original blues musicians who are largely forgotten; most are in their eighties. 

“My past research includes films and new-media projects for which I worked with various homeless communities both at the local and national levels. I have repeatedly participated in media projects with the Inuit people of Nunavik and Nunavut, and I’m currently working on Angry Inuk, a major documentary project.

“Another project, Homeless Nation, allowed marginalized people to publish their own films, music, poetry and personal profile pages on the web, so they could express their stories and their dreams.

“The desired result of my work is to build self-esteem through self-expression.”

Gilles Peslherbe: 2014 University Research Award

Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Research theme: Understanding the structure of matter at the molecular level
Established in the Strategic Research Cluster — Technology, Industry and the Environment

“Our research involves the development and application of computer tools to simulate the structure and properties of molecules and their chemical reactions. What is relatively innovative in our work is the use of computers in chemistry and biochemistry.

“These scientific disciplines have traditionally been laboratory-intensive and empirical, but it is becoming increasingly feasible to explain, guide and sometimes predict the outcome of experiments with some accuracy thanks to computer simulations.

“The aim of our work is to help understand the structure of matter at the molecular level, along with the motion of atoms and molecules as chemical reactions proceed.

“In the future, we hope to be able to completely design new drugs for given diseases or new materials with tailored properties on the computer, very much like engineers routinely design buildings or airplanes before constructing them. This would alleviate the need for lengthy, costly trial-and-error-based research in the chemical laboratory.”

The 2014 Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award winners: Dajana Vuckovic (left) and Alexandra Panaccio, with Graham Carr.

Alexandra Panaccio: 2014
Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award

Assistant professor in the Department of Management
Research theme: Examining leadership in business
Strategic Research Cluster — The Person and Society

“I have three main research themes. Leadership: Which leader behaviours are most beneficial to all stakeholders, including employees, customers, shareholders and the community? Workplace attitudes: What keeps employees motivated and committed to working for certain organizations, under certain supervisors? Well-being: What contributes to burnout and workplace well-being? What can be done to help employees?

“This research focuses on the potential negative consequences of servant leadership, which has been shown to be beneficial to organizations in many ways, including enhanced employee satisfaction, creativity, performance and more. 

“However, this leadership style requires going beyond expectations typically associated with the leader's role — for instance, by offering emotional counsel to subordinates and creating value for the community. This may be taxing on the leader and put him or her at risk of burnout. Is there a downside to servant leadership?

“My work highlights the consequences — good and bad — of being a servant leader for the leader him or herself, and proposes ways organizations can better equip and support leaders in enacting servant leadership while protecting their well-being.”

Dajana Vuckovic: 2014 Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award

Assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Research theme: Implementing a new analytical tool to investigate nanoparticle toxicity
Strategic Research Cluster — Technology, Industry and the Environment

“Nanotechnology plays an important role in improving all aspects of our daily lives, but we must ensure these benefits do not come with negative health consequences.

“Through my research, I’m developing new metabolomics tools to study nanoparticle toxicity in a systematic manner in order to examine how nanomaterials affect normal biological processes (for example, immune response) once they enter a cell or an organism. 

“Metabolomics is a new research area that focuses on the simultaneous analysis of all metabolites in a biological system. The applications of metabolomics to studying nanoparticle toxicity are very rare, so this research aims to address this gap and search for particular panels of metabolites that are the most indicative of cells’ toxic response to nanomaterial exposure.

“This research will design and implement a new analytical tool to investigate nanoparticle toxicity in a rapid and comprehensive manner. The analytical tools developed will be applicable to a wide range of nanoparticles beyond titanium dioxide and help answer questions like, ‘What types of properties are crucial for the design of safe nanomaterials?’”

Read about Concordia’s great spring 2014 graduates.


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