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9 outstanding researchers who place Concordia 'among the international vanguard'

Meet the 2016 University Research Award and Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award recipients
August 2, 2016
By J. Latimer

Shimon Amir | Photo by Concordia University University Research Award recipient Shimon Amir | Photo by Concordia University

This spring, nine of Concordia’s faculty received awards acknowledging their excellence in research and creative activity.

Graham Carr, vice-president of Research and Graduate Studies, congratulated 2016 University Research Award recipients Shimon Amir, Antoine Bilodeau, Guillaume Lamoureux, Jean-Philippe Lessard, Mireille Paquet and Adrian Tsang, and the 2016 Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award winners Giuliana Cucinelli, Robert Nason and Hassan Rivaz.

“I take pride in their stellar contributions, which vary from rotator cuff diagnostics to the integration of new immigrants. Their work is further proof of the important, wide-ranging scholarly and social impact of research at Concordia,” said Carr.

“It’s important to recognize the passion for discovery and creativity that marks their work, and to salute their commitment to mentoring 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, comes with a $10,000 research grant.

Read more about the recipients and the impact of their research.

Shimon Amir: 2016 University Research Award

Professor in the Department of Psychology
Research theme: Circadian rhythms
Strategic Research Cluster – The Person and Society (category C)

“Circadian rhythms are daily oscillations in behaviour, physiology and gene expression that help organisms adapt to recurring challenges and opportunities in their physical and social environment. In mammals, these rhythms are governed by autoregulatory molecular feedback loops driven by a small set of genes called ‘clock genes’.

“Members of my laboratory employ different animal models to study the nature, regulation and function of circadian clocks genes in regions of the forebrain important in stress, motivation and emotion. 

“We study how the rhythms of expression of core clock genes and proteins within functionally defined forebrain structures are synchronized; how these rhythms are affected by inputs from different regions of the brain; how they respond to environmental, behavioural, pharmacological, hormonal and metabolic perturbations that disrupt homeostasis (e.g., changes in the external light cycle, restricted feeding, emotional and physical, stress and treatment with drugs of abuse); and, finally, how disruption of clock gene expression within specific brain regions influences behaviour. 

“In a second line of research we study modes and mechanisms of circadian plasticity focusing on the role of translation control mechanisms and of conditioning/associative learning.”

Antoine Bilodeau: 2016 University Research Award

Associate professor in the Department of Political Science
Research theme: How immigrants integrate and others react
Strategic Research Cluster – The Person and Society (category B)

“The number of immigrants in Quebec, Canada and around the world is increasing. As a result, the population in most Western democracies is increasingly diverse. This is the point of departure of my research. In that context, I try to provide a better understanding of how immigrants and ethnic minorities make their place in society, and how the rest of society reacts to their presence.

“From the perspective of immigrants and ethnic minorities, for instance, we observe that if the feeling of being attached to the community is important to understand their engagement vis-à-vis that community, it is at least equally important that immigrants and ethnic minorities feel accepted by that community.

“Successful inclusion appears to require both a proactive attachment on the part of immigrants and minorities, and welcoming gestures on the part of the broader community. Only when both conditions are met do we observe that immigrants and ethnic minorities participate as much as the rest of the population in the social and political affairs of the country.

“From the perspective of the broader community, we observe in Quebec that people who feel most threatened by immigration are those who live in the periphery of Montreal. People who live far away from the city have few encounters with immigration and hence feel less threatened by it. People who live in Montreal have very close encounters with immigration and hence have better chances to have positive contacts and learning experiences.

“As for people who live in the periphery, they don’t have close encounters with immigration but they know it’s there, not too far away. They see it when they commute every day to Montreal, but they don’t get as much of a chance to really know immigrants in the way that people who actually live there do.

“We call this the ‘halo effect,’ and Quebec is not the only place in the world where we observe this phenomenon.”

Guillaume Lamoureux: 2016 University Research Award

Associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Research theme: What makes molecules attract or repel each other?
Strategic Research Cluster – Technology, Industry and the Environment (category B)

“We are interested in what makes two molecules ‘recognize’ one another in a crowd of other molecules and in what happens when they do.

“At the microscopic level, many of the most important processes in biochemistry and biology are about molecular recognition. For instance, proteins in our body ― not the ones we eat but the ones we are made of ― often acquire their biological activity by associating with one another and forming larger units like channels, transporters, motors or sensors.

“Those nanomachines, in turn, may recognize other molecules as chemical signals, as sources of chemical energy or as ‘cargo’ to move across.

“What drives two molecules to bind and to work together? Can we predict which two molecules will ‘pick’ one another among all possible interaction partners found in the crowded environment of a living cell?

“Our approach to the problem relies on high-performance computers and a detailed understanding of the physical forces that make two molecules attract or repel each other. It is computer-based matchmaking at the nano-scale.

“Our long-term goal is to be able to predict, through computation, whether any two molecules will bind or not and to reconstruct the network of molecular interactions present in any living organism.

“Not surprisingly, this network is perturbed by genetic mutations occurring in diseases like cancer and is key to understanding what makes an individual sick or healthy. Understanding the ‘rules’ of molecular association will eventually allow us to use them to our own advantage, for instance to design antibody proteins with affinities for new antigens, or new drugs that target the proteins of pathogenic organisms.”

Jean-Philippe Lessard: 2016 University Research Award

Assistant professor in the Department of Biology
Research theme: Assessing the determinants of biodiversity in a changing world
Strategic Research Cluster – Technology, Industry and the Environment (category A)

“Biodiversity — the diversity of life forms — is unevenly distributed on planet earth. Our research aims to unravel the forces determining why there is more biodiversity in some places than others, and identifying the mechanisms creating and maintaining biodiversity.

“We do that using several study organisms such as ants, bees and dragonflies, but also birds, bats, plants and more. Some of these forces are natural and have been acting since the creation of earth while others are man-made and have rapidly reshaped biodiversity in recent decades.

“A central force shaping how biodiversity is organized on our planet is climate, and in particular, temperature. At any given location on earth, the temperature we observe today is not the same as it was 10,000 years ago, nor the same as it will be in 10 years from now.

"As we now know, temperature change can cause a species to disappear from some places where it occurred before and appear in places where it used to be absent. We are thus interested in finding new, more effective ways to evaluate how temperature affects biodiversity now to then better predict what it will look like in the future.

“Humans are not only affecting global climate, they are also converting forests into agricultural fields and increasing the rates at which non-native species are introduced.

“As such, another focus of our research is to better understand how we can adjust certain strategies regarding the management of our landscapes. As an example, we recently published an article showing that preserving forest patch remnants around agricultural fields can help declining bat populations do better.”

Mireille Paquet: 2016 University Research Award

Assistant professor in the Department of Political Science
Research theme: States and immigration policy
Strategic Research Cluster – The Person and Society (category A)

“Immigration has always been more than just about securing borders; especially in countries that consider themselves as settler societies, states have played proactive roles in supporting, increasing or excluding specific types of immigration via public policy.

“My research agenda aims at understanding the formulation and implementation of contemporary immigration policies in settler societies, such as Canada. In all of this, I remain concerned with the quintessential question of political science: who governs?

“When we study immigration, a lot of attention is paid to politicians’ discourses, social movements that support or wish to exclude newcomers and to the opinion of citizens. While recognizing the crucial importance of these factors, I focus on a set of often missed actors and institutions: public administrations, bureaucrats and public policies.

“Anybody that has been through any kind of immigration process knows how complicated government procedures are and how, in some cases, how misguided policies appear to be. My research examines the reasons and dynamic behind the creation of specific immigration policies. By observing bureaucrats at work, I demonstrate the logic — sometimes surprising — behind their decision and highlight how the technical and political nature of immigration affects the work of public administrations. I show that, in a lot of cases and despite the discourses of politicians, it is the bureaucrats that end up creating policies that affect the lives of immigrants and would-be immigrants.

“At the same time, some of my work shows that immigration policies and politics are not only decided on at the national level: more and more, decisions and actions are taken at the subnational and local level. For example, my work on Canada and Australia highlights that provinces (and not just Quebec) and states have become venues for immigrant selection since the 1990s. Not only is contemporary immigration governance involving a bigger number of actors as previously supposed but it also less centralized and more federalized that it was in the past.”

Adrian Tsang: 2016 University Research Award

Professor in the Department of Biology
Research theme: Fueling the bioeconomy with fungal genomics
Strategic Research Cluster – Technology, Industry and the Environment (category C)

“The economic and environmentally sustainable hydrolysis of plant cell walls into sugars remains one of the key challenges in the widespread utilization of lignocellulosic biomass as the substrate for bioproducts development.

“Microorganisms, in particular fungi, are efficient decomposers of plant biomass due to their production of extracellular enzymes. We use genomic and ancillary approaches to identify novel enzymes involved in lignocellulose hydrolysis.

“Our research includes sequencing and analysis of thermophilic fungi and wood-rotting fungi; examining these fungi to identify promising lignocellulolytic proteins; producing recombinant proteins; determining the biochemical properties of the recombinant enzymes; and, in collaboration with industrial and government partners, testing the enzymes for industrial and environmental applications.

“Data management and development of computational tools are integral parts of our research. Other research interests include biocuration, phylogenomics, developmental of sustainable biotechnology and cell differentiation.”

Giuliana Cucinelli: 2016 Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award

Assistant professor in the Department of Education
Research theme: Intergenerational perspectives on empathy in the digital age
Strategic Research Cluster – The Person and Society

“The primary objective of my research is to understand the current conditions of mobile technology practices and how empathy is shaping and being shaped by them. This will be achieved through an intergenerational perspective that examines the definition of empathy vis-à-vis mobile technologies, and media practices across four age groups.

“A second objective is to create an interactive documentary, which brings forward the reflections and intergenerational perspectives of each participant. The documentary will include interviews with participants, and four empathy-themed virtual reality experiences co-created by the participants themselves, which serve as reflections on the relationship between empathy and mobile technologies in their lives.

“Our findings will provide concrete examples through intergenerational life narratives on how empathy is shaping and being shaped by various mobile technology moments.

“This research promises to yield several benefits for the community of researchers and people of all ages. Concretely, the process of the participants co-designing the virtual reality experiences is a novel and exciting aspect of the research-creation project that will bring forward stimulating and innovative outcomes.”

Robert Nason: 2016 Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award

Assistant professor in the John Molson School of Business
Research theme: The entrepreneurial behaviour of business families
Strategic Research Cluster – The Person and Society

“Many people think of family firms as out-of-date, conservative, and, honestly — boring. The dominant academic discourse also characterizes families as antiquated. My objective is to change this conversation by developing countervailing theory regarding the purposeful motivations and entrepreneurial actions of business families.

“I suggest that as family firms evolve over time, they are socialized into a class of successful business owners and develop tight network of professional advisors. Business families are likely to expand capital investments beyond the founding firm, detach emotional interest in individual firms, and begin to benchmark themselves against more successful peers. These forces encourage business families to act intentionally and strategically, creating sophisticated wealth management structures and diversifying into new arenas.

“For instance, the emotional attachment that families have to their firms, which is argued to reduce risk taking, is likely to wane as the family develops a family office staffed with qualified professionals who advise on the most productive uses of capital. While deeply embedded emotional attachment is likely to apply to small firms and the legacy family farm, there is an influential population of business families that make strategic decisions on the family rather than firm level of analysis, and under decidedly more rational terms than current theory allows.

“In this project, I will subject the dominant narrative in the family firm literature to theoretical and empirical scrutiny. I plan to unpack mechanisms that rationalize family firms and build theory to explain the strategic behavior of business families. By doing so, I hope to reveal business families as an exciting source of entrepreneurial activity.

Hassan Rivaz: 2016 Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award

Assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Research theme: Diagnosis of rotator cuff pathology using ultrasound
Strategic Research Cluster – Technology, Industry and the Environment

“The rotator cuff is a group of tendons that cover the shoulder and are involved in essentially all shoulder motion. The integrity of rotator cuffs degrades with age, such that more than half of the population over the age of 70 suffers from partial or full tears.

“The main aim of this project is to improve the diagnostic capabilities of ultrasound (US) and investigate whether it can replace magnetic resonance (MR) in the diagnosis of rotator cuff injuries.

“This work is significant for several reasons. First, US diagnosis of rotator cuff pathology allows convenient diagnosis at many small clinics that do not have MR machines. This can significantly reduce healthcare costs and eliminate MR waiting time, which can otherwise be several months and can significantly impair the quality of life for seniors who choose to live at home.

“Second, MR is currently used post-operatively to monitor the healing process. Metallic sutures used in these operations significantly degrade the quality of MR. But our US­based technique can also be used to monitor recovery.

“With the advent of US probes that connect to smartphones, community-dwelling seniors who do not have easy access to healthcare professionals can conveniently use the proposed automatic technique to monitor their prognosis.

“Thirdly, US radio-frequency data reveals macroscopic and microscopic properties of tissue, which will shed light on rotator cuff wear and tear. We will further expand this work to diagnose rotator cuff tendinitis and inflammation, as well as the effect of exercise on prognosis. Finally, we plan to extend this work to other tendons and ligaments in the body.”


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