2016 Banting Fellows

The Banting fellows exemplify world-class research capacity at an internationally competitive level of funding. Meet some of the 2016 recipients of one of Canada’s most prestigious postdoctoral awards.

Philippe Albouy, Neurology and Neurosurgery

Substantial efforts in neuroscience have been made to understand how humans process complex stimulus patterns. To perceive and understand such patterns, the brain uses not only specialized centers, but also connections between those regions and other more distant areas. More specifically, brain activity oscillates at certain frequencies within these regions, and these oscillations are considered as signatures of these distributed processes because they correlate with, and predict, behavioral performance. Although a large body of brain-behavior correlation data is convincing that brain oscillations support various cognitive processes, their causal relationship with behavior needs to be clarified: Do neuronal oscillations condition behavior and performance, or is it vice-versa? Our research proposes to understand this causal relationship – a central question in neuroscience – in the context of auditory processing. Our approach consists of directly modulating brain oscillations during task performance, which should modify behaviour. Neural rhythms can be synchronized to external stimulation using non-invasive techniques such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation and Alternating Current Stimulation. Our work show that such stimulation applied at certain frequencies over specific nodes of the auditory network during auditory processing can causally influence the activity in the targeted and other connected regions, and shape specific aspects of task performance. Our research suggests that brain oscillations can serve as markers and targets for controlled interventions into brain activity and (dys)functions. As such, it holds the promise of developing innovative therapies against a wide range of disorders affecting brain functions (such as disconnection syndromes.

James Sully, Physics

The two foundational questions of physics can be broadly summarized as follows: to understand what things are made of and to understand what it means to move through space and time. The first of these questions is answered by the story of elementary particles, of breaking apart matter on progressively smaller scales into its fundamental parts. Our understanding of matter has been phenomenally successful and is relatively complete: the standard model of particle physics, using the tools of quantum mechanics, describes with amazing accuracy all of the visible matter in the universe and three of the four known forces. The story of space and time seemed, at first, more basic. Space and time appeared to form an inert, fixed background against which we measure moving matter. Einstein upset this notion with the discovery of relativity, implying a dynamic interwoven understanding of spacetime that accounts for the final missing force, gravity. In our modern era, the central problem is to unify the description of matter with that of spacetime and gravity. Like we did with matter---using the tools of quantum mechanics---we wish to put spacetime under the microscope and pick it apart into its constituent, fundamental pieces. The result would be a theory of quantum gravity. My research explores our best candidate models of quantum gravity, and brings new theoretical tools to bear on confusing paradoxes and fundamental gaps in our understanding.

Melissa McConechy, Child Health and Human Development

Approximately, 200 Canadian children who are diagnosed with glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer, will ultimately die of their disease. If these kids are given standard treatment they will only survive 12-14 months, therefore new treatment options are urgently needed. A rare bone cancer, called giant cell tumours of the bone are often benign, however can be aggressive tumours resulting in lung metastasis. In these two different tumour types, the same histone 3 genes are mutated. This occurs in 40% of childhood brain cancers and in over 90% of giant cell tumours of the bone. Histones are guardians of the genome, as they are proteins that package DNA, enabling it to be folded tightly together into the nucleus. The mutations identified in the gene histone 3, affect the epigenetics, (epi- over or outside of) of the cell. This implies altering how genes are expressed without changing the DNA sequence. To also determine how the mutations identified in these two different tumour types affect the epigenetics of the cell, we will use a new technique called Hi-C to determine the 3D structure of DNA. This analysis will give us insight into how the same mutations in different tumour types may change the structure and organization of the nucleus, giving us clues into how the cells become cancerous. This important research will provide new information on the biology of these deadly brain tumours, and rare bone tumours and also lead to new targets for novel therapeutics. Our research will not only help Canadian children, but will positively affect children with brain cancer from all over the world. The ultimate goal of this project is to find a way to provide better treatment options for both rare tumour types, which will provide some hope for surviving these dreadful cancers.

Maxwell J. Smith, Institute for Health and Social Policy

Given the well-established impact of social factors (e.g., education, working conditions) on health, promoting population health demands extensive knowledge of the interactions between health and social policy. Central to efforts exploring this relationship is a recognition that disparities in social conditions can create disparities in health between population groups. When health disparities are caused by conditions that are perceived to be unjust, they are referred to as health inequities and are considered of ethical importance for governments to remediate. Despite concerted efforts to reduce health inequities in Canada, health inequities persist and are growing among certain populations. Two of the central barriers to advancing health equity in Canada have been identified as mobilizing action across non-health sectors and collaborating intersectorally. Significant attention has therefore been devoted to studying and developing intersectoral strategies for health equity; however, these strategies have hitherto neglected an examination of the role that ethical values play in constraining or promoting action on health equity in non-health sectors, despite the fact that ‘health equity’ is an inherently ethical concept. This is a crucial gap, as the values and aims undergirding public health’s pursuit of health equity may be at odds with social policies in other government sectors, which may consider the reduction of health inequities to be peripheral to, if not incompatible with, their own values and objectives. This research is a novel attempt to fill this gap by engaging stakeholders in both public health and a domain occupying a key system intervention point in the social determinants of health—education—in order to identify areas where sectoral values related to health equity cohere and conflict, with the ultimate goal of producing empirically grounded, ethically robust recommendations for the pursuit of health equity in social policy domains outside the health sector.

Other 2016 Banting Recipients

  • Yasser Iturria Medina, Neurology and Neurosurgery
  • Jean-Michel Landry, Anthropology
  • Lara Rosenoff Gauvin, Anthropology