Another CFI success

Another CFI success McGill University

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McGill Reporter
September 13, 2001 - Volume 34 Number 01
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Another CFI success

These days, in the wake of the mammoth gifts recently made to universities and other institutions by the likes of Ted Turner and Bill Gates, you need to throw out a pretty high dollar figure to get people's attention. Grants totalling $1.76 million and parcelled out to 13 separate research projects don't seem too impressive in that context.

But the Canadian and Quebec governments are betting that the money they are spending now will result in some eye-popping results down the line.

By ensuring that the laboratories and research facilities used by several new McGill professors in a variety of disciplines are well equipped, the governments are laying down the groundwork that should allow these researchers to flourish.

The money comes courtesy of the Canada Foundation for Innovation's "New Opportunities" grants. Thirteen out of 14 McGill applications were approved by the CFI and the projects involve research on everything from speech disorders to hepatitis - C to photonic and wireless technologies.

"Last year we won the largest amount of CFI funding of any university in Canada. This year it is the turn of new McGill researchers to be recognized," says Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger.

The successful McGill applicants, who must request funding from the CFI program within the first 18 months of joining the University, have been awarded amounts that average out to about $150,000 per researcher.

The CFI program is a federal initiative and Ottawa supplies 40% of the costs of each project. Before the feds review proposals, applications are first assessed by Quebec's education ministry, which also supplies 40% of the funding to projects that get the go-ahead. It's up to McGill to find the last 20% of the funding needed to finance the projects.

Before the final CFI decisions are made, projects undergo independent assessments by experts in Canada and abroad, using three principal criteria: quality of research and the need for infrastructure; contribution to strengthening the capacity for innovation and potential benefits of the research to Canada.

Geography professor Renée Sieber is one of the newish McGill researchers to earn "New Opportunities" funding.

"My research has to do with the use of information-technology for social change. I'm interested in how marginalized people outside the mainstream can benefit from these technologies, say in a northern aboriginal community or in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.

"Something like e-commerce is extremely resource-intensive and requires very high skills," Sieber says. She wants to promote user-friendly technologies that are designed for people who don't have the resources or skills of a corporation at their disposal.

One of the things Sieber will be using the CFI money to do is to take a look at the types of software that could help poor communities set up a virtual tourism system to enable them "to promote their voice to the outside world," while also handling reservations and bookings.

Sieber will also be looking to marry e-commerce approaches with geographical information systems -- technologies that offer highly detailed information on geographic areas. In cases where a community teeters on the brink of collapse as the result of the loss of a key industry or the closing of a military base, the e-commerce/GIS approach could help attract a suitable new company to set up shop.

Her work is also supported by funding from the Quebec agency, FCAR.

Communication sciences and disorders professor Vincent Gracco also earned a "New Opportunities" grant. Together with funding from another CFI project headed by colleague Shari Baum, Gracco says the money will help build a lab outfitted with practically every device needed to study human speech in a comprehensive way.

One of the items Gracco will be able to acquire is a prototype of a brand new electro-magnetic device that offers highly-detailed, three-dimensional data about tongue and soft palate movements during speech production.

Other tools will allow Gracco to examine the biomechanics of the lips and jaw, track nervous system processes associated with speech production and gauge changes in air flow that are connected to talking.

"There is no lab in the world that will have all of the capabilities that we will have in this lab," says Gracco, an expert on how we put speech together and how these processes are affected in people with speech disorders caused by strokes, Parkinson's disease or other afflictions.

"We will have everything we need under one roof, short of the brain imaging equipment that cost millions of dollars each."

Asked if he has been busy making friends with researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute who have that type of equipment at their disposal, Gracco laughs. "I've been working on it."

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