Mahdi Taha
Mechanical Engineering Student Mahdi Taha, with the prototype Stroke Recovery Sensor Glove that he helped to design.

The science of changing the world

“An inventor is one who can see the applicability of means to supplying demand five years before it is obvious to those skilled in the art,” wrote Reginald Fessenden, a Quebec-born inventor who pioneered some of the first radio transmissions of voice and music. Fessenden received many patents for technologies he developed, from television to tracer bullets, but today’s innovators face many more hurdles to marketing their ideas.

That’s where Fessenden’s great-nephew comes in. Dr. John Blachford, BEng’59, PhD’63, president of custom manufacturing firm H. L. Blachford Ltd., committed $1.25 million to establish the Fessenden Professorship in Science Innovation, designed to help set up spin-off companies based on solid, cutting-edge research. The inaugural award was given to Paul Wiseman, Associate Professor of Physics and Chemistry, for the development of a device that can detect malaria, a global scourge with 350 to 500 million new cases and one to three million fatalities reported annually.

Wiseman is grateful for the prize, which he says gave him a “much-appreciated flexibility” to further develop his remarkable breakthrough. “Running a research group is like running a small business. It’s hard to put a price tag on how valuable this support is,” he says.

“John Blachford's extremely generous decision to make this gift to McGill and the Faculty not only honours his great-uncle,” says Martin Grant, Dean of the Faculty of Science. “His visionary thinking also helps us ensure that McGill can produce the Fessendens of the future.”

Few innovators embody this spirit of bringing ideas from lab bench to store shelves like venture capitalist Ronald Chwang, BEng’72. With his wife May Seto, BEd’75, Dr. Chwang invested $1 million to foster new research and development by endowing two Chwang-Seto Faculty Scholar Awards.

Recipient and Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Xinyu Liu, a specialist in micro-electro-mechanical systems, is developing microrobotic systems to manipulate cells and organisms to better understand their physiology. Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Brett Meyer, the second recipient, is developing a program in embedded systems – computers for specialized applications that are embedded in larger devices – that have applications in everything from sensing to automotive technologies.

Another major shot in the arm for university-industry cooperation was a $2-million gift from William Seath, BEng’52, to encourage startups and strategic partnerships. The William and Rhea Seath Awards in Engineering Innovation will support entrepreneurial research while a full-time Industrial Research Development and Engagement Officer will promote the commercialization of research, generate industrial contacts and help researchers develop spin-off companies.

“I wanted my gift to benefit not only McGill, but also industry and the economy,” says Seath, a former aviation engineer who worked with Pratt & Whitney Canada. “It is my hope that this support will provide the University with the resources to spark new discoveries and then apply this knowledge in concrete ways, rather than simply doing science for the sake of science.”