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Winter 2011 • Vol. 4, No.1

R E S E A R C H

H I G H L I G H T S

Generous gift vaults U of A to top of rangeland research A 12,000-acre ranch near Duchess, Alberta, will house the university’s new Rangelands Research Institute and place the U of A at the forefront of rangeland ecology and management research. The ranch is a gift from alumni Edwin and Ruth Mattheis. In light of the generous gift, the university is establishing the Mattheis Chair in Rangeland Ecology and Management. Research will be conducted on issues including grasslands ecology, carbon sequestration and storage, the impact of climate change on mixed-grass prairie, land reclamation and water optimization. A teaching and extension program will also take place. The ranch complements the university’s agricultural research infrastructure which includes the 12,000-acre Kinsella Ranch in central Alberta, the 800acre St. Albert Research Station used for crops research, the Breton Plots used for soil Ruth and Edwin Mattheis, research, and the numerous Dean Kennelly and U of A facilities on South Campus. President Samarasekera

Father of India’s green revolution receives honorary doctorate

The 750-seat Myer Horowitz

Theatre was bursting at the seams as Professor Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan received an honorary doctorate and delivered the combined Bentley Lecture in Sustainable Agriculture/Lester Pearson Memorial Lecture last October.

Known as the father of the green revolution in India, Professor Swaminathan developed a new wheat plant

Oilseed and livestock research centres get $4.5 million boost Two new agricultural research centres, supported by $4.5 million over two years from Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions, were officially launched last January at the University of Alberta. The new centres in oilseed and livestock research will create new opportunities for Alberta’s crop and livestock producers. Phytola, headed by Randall Weselake, a Canada Research Chair in Agricultural Lipid Biotechnology, focuses on developing strategies that will improve the quantity and quality of oil in crops such as canola and flax.

Livestock Gentec, which is also supported by a $1.5 million investment from the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, is led by Stephen Moore, a world leader in livestock genomics research. The centre researches ways to produce healthier, more efficient cattle that produce better meat and dairy products. “These two centres are wonderful examples of how the provincial government and academia and industry are able to collaborate and discover new knowledge that benefits all of society,” said Carl Amrhein, provost of the University of Alberta.

in the 60s Professor Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan

that yielded significantly

more grain than traditional types. In fact, the first harvest with the new seeds was three times greater than the previous year’s. Indeed, between 1964 and 1968, Indian farmers achieved as much progress in wheat production as they had during the preceding 4,000 years. The discovery and its application forever changed India’s history.


R E S E A R C H

Creating high-value chemicals from seed oil

Jonathan Curtis

A two-step process that converts plant oil into an organic polyol is opening up a world of commercial possibilities. Jonathan Curtis and his research group have discovered how to convert canola oil into organic polyol, or bio-polyol, used to produce polyurethanes and adhesives. Canola oil is first mixed with hydrogen peroxide to yield epoxidized canola oil, or ECO. The ECO is then mixed with a diol under acidic conditions to create the bio-polyol, Liprol™. “Polyols are used to manufacture polymers like polyesters, polymides and polyurethanes,” explains Curtis. “Polyurethanes in particular have large commercial applications and right now, it’s the petro-chemical industry that produces the overwhelming majority of polyurethane.” However, polyurethane produced from Curtis’ bio-polyol can easily be used as a substitute for petrol-based polyol. The group is currently working with a major car parts manufacturer to develop rigid foam products to make parts such as dashboards and headliners. In a separate project, Curtis and his team are collaborating with a local company to optimize the manufacture of rigid foam insulation panels to be used in the manufacture of modular buildings, providing structural integrity and greener thermal insulation. Curtis and his group continue to research other possibilities to develop cost-effective synthetic routes to high value chemicals from plant oil feedstocks.

H I G H L I G H T S

R E S E A R C H

Finding the right balance in protective clothes How do you develop clothes that keep you warm in freezing conditions and comfortable in extreme heat situations, such as those experienced by firefighters? If you’re Guowen Song, a protective clothing expert in the Department of Human Ecology, you develop a mathematical model and pay particular attention to thermal insulation and moisture transfer. In cold weather, heat flows from the body to the outside. Song says we need clothing that slows down this transfer and, at the same time, allows our bodies to exchange moisture with the environment. The same phenomenon applies to protective clothing for firefighters, working in very hot conditions. Surveys reveal that injuries incurred by firefighters in the field are primarily caused by the body’s moisture

Welfare-to-work programs need to provide better support for clients

Guowen Song

not getting out, causing heat stress. “It slows down your thinking, slows down your mind and leads to decisions that lead to accidents and injuries,” says Song. The challenge lies in finding the balance between providing the right amount of thermal insulation and allowing moisture transfer in different environmental conditions. Song has developed a one-layer model to predict with greater accuracy these two important variables and will soon be embarking on multi-layer clothing systems to develop a more complex and comprehensive model.

Current welfare-to-work programs are too focussed on providing specific work skills and not enough on providing the supports welfare recipients need to maintain jobs, says a Human Ecology researcher. Rhonda Breitkreuz followed 17 welfare recipients with pre-school children over the course a year, interviewing them at least three times in that year. She found that the day-to-day grind that all parents experience is accentuated for parents on welfare. “There are more barriers, fewer resources and crappy jobs. It’s a match made in hell,” she said.

winter 2011

“Our unregulated labour market and the options it offers parents don’t mesh with people’s desire to leave welfare and the supports required to make the transition easier are limited,” said Breitkreuz.

neighbourhoods in ways that will encourage more sustainable living, Emily Huddart

Rhonda Breitkreuz

Environmentally friendly families have a tougher time living a sustainable lifestyle if they make their homes in the suburbs, says Emily Huddart, a graduate student in the Department of Rural Economy. She compared the suburban south-side neighbourhood of Terwillegar Towne with the older, more central community of Mill Creek. After surveying environmentally engaged families in both communities, she discovered that those living in the Mill Creek neighbourhood were more able to follow environmentally sound practices, such as not owning a vehicle, growing most of their own food and using renewable energy. This was because their neighbours lived similarly and as a result of stronger social networks, were able to share vehicles and ideas about saving energy, as well as make cultural shifts, such as walking to stores or biking to work. People living in Terwillegar Towne were more isolated from likeminded families, and as a result, practiced sustainability on a smaller scale, by buying organic products or recycling household waste. Those living in the suburbs also face major obstacles such as lack of transportation options. In Terwillegar, 42 per cent of survey respondents said they spent too much time commuting to work, as compared to 15 per cent in Mill Creek. The findings illustrate a need for municipalities to design new

tions gathered by scientists throughout the country and overseas. Robert Grant The hope is that if the hypotheses are proven correct, the model can be used to make other projections based on the same principles. “If the hypotheses are basic and robust, then they should work under other conditions for which these experimental observations simply can’t be taken by virtue of cost or labour. And we can then project how an ecosystem can behave under conditions other than those for which the experimental measurements are available,” Grant said.

discoveries

Breitkreuz added that barriers include the lack of transportation, adequate child care and affordable housing in addition to low wages, food security and mental health problems, among others. Unskilled workers, who make up the bulk of welfare recipients, are more likely to work non-standard hours, which doesn’t fit with the typical hours of operation of a child care centre or mass transit. She said that if welfare-to-work policies are to be more successful for low-income families, solutions need to be developed to overcome these and other barriers that prevent more welfare recipients from maintaining jobs.

Not easy being green in the burbs

Ecosys Modelling Project offers insight into terrestrial ecosystems Robert Grant has developed a computer model, which allows him to mathematically predict the effects of disturbances on terrestrial ecosystems. The Ecosys Modelling Project is still being perfected, but so far, Grant has done some preliminary work on projecting the effects of climate change on prairie and boreal ecosystems and believes the outlook of forest and agricultural productivity is actually fairly positive. “The only areas where the outlook may not be as positive is southeast towards the more arid zones, where water limitations may become more acute,” he said. Grant is perfecting the details of his model and ensuring its accuracy by comparing it with experimental observa-

H I G H L I G H T S

discoveries

said Huddart. winter 2011


R E S E A R C H

Creating high-value chemicals from seed oil

Jonathan Curtis

A two-step process that converts plant oil into an organic polyol is opening up a world of commercial possibilities. Jonathan Curtis and his research group have discovered how to convert canola oil into organic polyol, or bio-polyol, used to produce polyurethanes and adhesives. Canola oil is first mixed with hydrogen peroxide to yield epoxidized canola oil, or ECO. The ECO is then mixed with a diol under acidic conditions to create the bio-polyol, Liprol™. “Polyols are used to manufacture polymers like polyesters, polymides and polyurethanes,” explains Curtis. “Polyurethanes in particular have large commercial applications and right now, it’s the petro-chemical industry that produces the overwhelming majority of polyurethane.” However, polyurethane produced from Curtis’ bio-polyol can easily be used as a substitute for petrol-based polyol. The group is currently working with a major car parts manufacturer to develop rigid foam products to make parts such as dashboards and headliners. In a separate project, Curtis and his team are collaborating with a local company to optimize the manufacture of rigid foam insulation panels to be used in the manufacture of modular buildings, providing structural integrity and greener thermal insulation. Curtis and his group continue to research other possibilities to develop cost-effective synthetic routes to high value chemicals from plant oil feedstocks.

H I G H L I G H T S

R E S E A R C H

Finding the right balance in protective clothes How do you develop clothes that keep you warm in freezing conditions and comfortable in extreme heat situations, such as those experienced by firefighters? If you’re Guowen Song, a protective clothing expert in the Department of Human Ecology, you develop a mathematical model and pay particular attention to thermal insulation and moisture transfer. In cold weather, heat flows from the body to the outside. Song says we need clothing that slows down this transfer and, at the same time, allows our bodies to exchange moisture with the environment. The same phenomenon applies to protective clothing for firefighters, working in very hot conditions. Surveys reveal that injuries incurred by firefighters in the field are primarily caused by the body’s moisture

Welfare-to-work programs need to provide better support for clients

Guowen Song

not getting out, causing heat stress. “It slows down your thinking, slows down your mind and leads to decisions that lead to accidents and injuries,” says Song. The challenge lies in finding the balance between providing the right amount of thermal insulation and allowing moisture transfer in different environmental conditions. Song has developed a one-layer model to predict with greater accuracy these two important variables and will soon be embarking on multi-layer clothing systems to develop a more complex and comprehensive model.

Current welfare-to-work programs are too focussed on providing specific work skills and not enough on providing the supports welfare recipients need to maintain jobs, says a Human Ecology researcher. Rhonda Breitkreuz followed 17 welfare recipients with pre-school children over the course a year, interviewing them at least three times in that year. She found that the day-to-day grind that all parents experience is accentuated for parents on welfare. “There are more barriers, fewer resources and crappy jobs. It’s a match made in hell,” she said.

winter 2011

“Our unregulated labour market and the options it offers parents don’t mesh with people’s desire to leave welfare and the supports required to make the transition easier are limited,” said Breitkreuz.

neighbourhoods in ways that will encourage more sustainable living, Emily Huddart

Rhonda Breitkreuz

Environmentally friendly families have a tougher time living a sustainable lifestyle if they make their homes in the suburbs, says Emily Huddart, a graduate student in the Department of Rural Economy. She compared the suburban south-side neighbourhood of Terwillegar Towne with the older, more central community of Mill Creek. After surveying environmentally engaged families in both communities, she discovered that those living in the Mill Creek neighbourhood were more able to follow environmentally sound practices, such as not owning a vehicle, growing most of their own food and using renewable energy. This was because their neighbours lived similarly and as a result of stronger social networks, were able to share vehicles and ideas about saving energy, as well as make cultural shifts, such as walking to stores or biking to work. People living in Terwillegar Towne were more isolated from likeminded families, and as a result, practiced sustainability on a smaller scale, by buying organic products or recycling household waste. Those living in the suburbs also face major obstacles such as lack of transportation options. In Terwillegar, 42 per cent of survey respondents said they spent too much time commuting to work, as compared to 15 per cent in Mill Creek. The findings illustrate a need for municipalities to design new

tions gathered by scientists throughout the country and overseas. Robert Grant The hope is that if the hypotheses are proven correct, the model can be used to make other projections based on the same principles. “If the hypotheses are basic and robust, then they should work under other conditions for which these experimental observations simply can’t be taken by virtue of cost or labour. And we can then project how an ecosystem can behave under conditions other than those for which the experimental measurements are available,” Grant said.

discoveries

Breitkreuz added that barriers include the lack of transportation, adequate child care and affordable housing in addition to low wages, food security and mental health problems, among others. Unskilled workers, who make up the bulk of welfare recipients, are more likely to work non-standard hours, which doesn’t fit with the typical hours of operation of a child care centre or mass transit. She said that if welfare-to-work policies are to be more successful for low-income families, solutions need to be developed to overcome these and other barriers that prevent more welfare recipients from maintaining jobs.

Not easy being green in the burbs

Ecosys Modelling Project offers insight into terrestrial ecosystems Robert Grant has developed a computer model, which allows him to mathematically predict the effects of disturbances on terrestrial ecosystems. The Ecosys Modelling Project is still being perfected, but so far, Grant has done some preliminary work on projecting the effects of climate change on prairie and boreal ecosystems and believes the outlook of forest and agricultural productivity is actually fairly positive. “The only areas where the outlook may not be as positive is southeast towards the more arid zones, where water limitations may become more acute,” he said. Grant is perfecting the details of his model and ensuring its accuracy by comparing it with experimental observa-

H I G H L I G H T S

discoveries

said Huddart. winter 2011


R E S E A R C H

H I G H L I G H T S

Department is prolific producer of nature books Over the past decade or so, 12 academics from the Department of Renewable Resources have written an astounding 102 nature guides. The colourful, user-friendly books tell about fish, birds and animals of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Ecuador, as well as trees and plants—and every one of the field guides is written by an U of A alumnus, professor or staffer. “The sheer volume of books speaks to their incredible talent, creativity and knowledge about the natural world,” said department chair John Spence. “What’s great is, they’re providing broad public access to information about the creatures that we share the world

with, and supporting recreational pursuits.” The talent and knowledge of the U of A writers translates well into books, said Shane Kennedy, head of Lone Pine Publishing, which has published a majority of the books. The company has offices in Edmonton and in Washington State, and has published hundreds of publications since it was started in 1980. The books also symbolize the rich variations a career in environment can bring with it. “This sort of work is an excellent example of how careers, for many of us, are inseparable from life,” Spence said. “These guides reflect a naturalist’s approach to career and life.”

Fish oil provides surprising benefits to lung cancer patients

Vera Mazurak

Daily doses of fish oil improve the efficiency of chemotherapy, may contribute to increased survival and help prevent muscle and weight loss that commonly occurs in cancer patients, new research reveals. Vera Mazurak, a nutrition and metabolism expert in the Department of Agricultural, Food & Nutritional Science, led a study that examined various effects of fish oil, specifically the two fatty acids in fish oil, on lung cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. She and her team found that 60 per cent of the patients taking fish oil saw a reduction in the size of their cancerous tumour compared to 28.5 per cent of the patients who did not receive

fish oil. In addition, 60 per cent of the group who took fish oil survived beyond a year compared to 39 per cent of the group that didn’t take it. Researchers also found that 69 per cent of patients taking fish oil maintained or gained muscle mass compared to 29 per cent from the group who didn’t receive the fish oil. According to the National Cancer Institute, 20 to 40 per cent of cancer patients die from malnutrition as opposed to the tumour. Mazurak added that fish oil may be beneficial to patients with other forms of cancer and other chronic diseases that are associated with malnutrition, as well as to elderly individuals who are at risk for muscle loss.

Trust isn’t always a good thing Citizen groups acting as consultants to industry would do well to hold onto a little healthy mistrust to keep debate and critical thinking alive, says John Parkins, a professor in the Department of Rural Economy. His 10-month comparative study of sample advisory committees in Alberta’s forest industry revealed that the familiarity of group members and a gradual build up of trust tended to “dampen the quality of discussion, the vigorousness of debate and the range of issues and ideas under consideration. Parkins hopes his findings will give businesses and industry a fresh understanding of what makes citizen committees effective. “Meaningful public engagement involves more than bringing like-minded people together for regular meetings. It is also important to understand how ‘group think’ emerges within these groups over time. “Trust isn’t always a good thing, if it erodes the desire—especially of long-term groups—to deliberate and to question resource management plans,” Parkins said. There are more than 200 public advisory committees in the forest sector across Canada, so it is important to understand how these groups function, since they are held up as a key tool for public influence over the management of public lands in Canada, he added.

John Parkins

discoveries

winter 2011


A W A R D S

Dosdall wins ASTech award for Innovation in Agricultural Sciences

Lloyd Dosdall

Lloyd Dosdall won ASTech’s Innovation in Agricultural Science award for the exceptional contributions he has made to Alberta’s agricultural industry during his 25-year career. Dosdall’s research has focused on beneficial insects, predators and parasites, and exploits their abilities to control crop pests naturally. Among his greatest achievements is developing a weevil-resistant canola that promises to provide enormous economic benefits to canola growers and helps reduce environmental degradation through pesticide use. The discovery will allow farmers to ease the use of pesticide on their canola, and may prevent crop losses by as much as 25 per cent, Dosdall added.

Zwiazek wins prestigious international forestry award Janusz Zwiazek won the prestigious Scientific Achievement Award from the International Union of Forest Research Organizations, an award only given out every five years. His research addresses some of the most important fundamental and applied questions that face the tree physiology scientific community and forestry industry. It answers questions about the sensitivities and tolerance levels of forest plant species to different stresses such as drought, soil compaction, salinity and pollution; improving planting survival and the growth performance of trees; and drought resistance in fast growing hybrid poplar trees. Zwiazek has authored or co-authored more than 85 peer Janusz Zwiazek reviewed articles in high impact international journals.

Duo wins Premier’s Award Feral Temelli and Thava Vasanthan won an Alberta Food for Health Award presented by Premier Stelmach for developing a novel process that isolates and removes beta-glucan in highenough concentrations from barley and oat grains to make it economically viable. Beta-glucan has been shown to reduce heart disease risk, benefit the immune system and help Type-2 diabetes patients manage their disease more efficiently. Temelli and Vasanthan’s innovation led to six international patent applications. They were sold in 2007 to Spanish multinational Nutraceutical Group, leading to the launch of its Canadian head office in Edmonton. Feral Temelli and Thava Vasanthan

Acorn wins public awareness ASTech What began as a childhood fascination with insects evolved into a rich and multifaceted 30-year career as educator, journalist, author, television host, photographer, naturalist and scientist. It also earned John Acorn the ASTech Award for Excellence in Science and Technology Public Awareness. Through his work in the media, in print and digital publications and live presentations, John Acorn has inspired hundreds of thousands of curious minds to investigate further. As host of the television series Acorn The Nature Nut, his sense of adventure and fun came across easily and appealed to all ages. He encouraged families to get out and experience nature. The popular program aired 91

episodes over seven seasons ending in 2003. “I still get messages,” Acorn says. “Last week I received two from undergrads in the States. They tracked me down to tell me they are studying biology because they watched the show when they were kids. It’s great if I can inspire kids to participate in academic research.”

Craig Wilkinson NACTA Teaching Fellow Award

Lynn McMullen NACTA Teaching Fellow Award

Jim Unterschultz John Acorn

Anne Naeth Vargo Teaching Chair (re-appointment)

Terry Veeman

Canadian Agricultural Economics Society Outstanding Journal Article Award

discoveries

winter 2011


S T U D E N T

ALES students take top prizes at soils competition

University of Alberta students got down and dirty in the soil pits for the Canadian Soil Judging Competition and at the end of the day, the group came out on top. Kelly Kneteman and Cory Kartz, two graduate students in the Department of Renewable Resources, placed first and second respectively while fellow student Sunny Song placed in the top five. Students were tasked with identifying the soils in four different pits on different parts of the landscape on a site located northeast of Saskatoon. They could only spend a certain amount of time in each pit before they had to move on. “We had to go in there and – based on what we saw in the different layers, the training that we had during our undergraduate and some practical experience – try to identify each specific layer. And then depending on what these layers are and the different qualities of each layer, leads us to determine what the soil is,” Kneteman explained.

A W A R D S

Range team shines at international competition A team of six ALES students won several team and individual awards in the undergraduate student competitions at the 2011 Society for Range Management annual meeting in Billings, Montana. ENCS student Kristine Dahl and Agriculture major Jolene Noble finished first and second respectively, in the high individual combined category. Students were Jolene Noble scored on two events: the undergraduate range management exam (URME) and the plant identification contest. In the teams competitions, the U of A students finished first in the URME competition – which tests students’ knowledge about all range management aspects including rangeland ecology, grazing management, statistics and sampling theory, and multiple rangeland use – and second in the plant identification contest. Overall, the students won seven individual and team awards. Jordan Burke finished second and Jolene Noble finished fourth in the individual URME, and Kristine Dahl finished fourth in the individual plant identification competition. About 350 undergraduate students from 25 universities across Canada, the United States and Mexico competed.

Rural Economy students clean up at economics association meetings Although Haicong Lei’s first language isn’t English, the international student – who goes by Vince – was awarded first place in a North American undergraduate student paper competition last month. Lei’s paper about university students’ knowledge of co-operatives compared to that of the Canadian public was adapted from a paper he completed for Agricultural and Resource Economics 482, taught by Ellen Goddard. Lei was one of nine Rural Economy students Haicong (Vince) Lei and professors who won awards at the joint meetings of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, the Canadian Agricultural Economics Society, and the Western Agricultural Economics Association, held in Denver. “About 40 per cent of all the graduate students in Canada are here, so we’re producing a large number of students and we’re producing students of very high quality,” said Brent Swallow, chair of the Department of Rural Economy. “Almost everyone is doing work that has journal manuscript quality in their masters degrees, which I think really isn’t the expectation everywhere, but it’s certainly the expectation here.”

Forestry students repeat as champions Forestry students from the Department of Renewable Resources won their second consecutive Canadian Institute of Forestry Students Quiz Bowl competition. In each win, the forestry champions beat their arch-rivals from UBC who had taken the prize home for the previous two years. “The experience is great because it focuses on team building with my fellow U of A Forestry student colleagues and also reinforced my prior learning in silviculture, forest hydrology and soils, and other areas of forest science and management,” said Carleen Born, a 4th year forestry student. “The CIF conference also allowed us to get exposed to new, practical ways of how industry and government apply what we learn in our classes. It is one of those learning experiences that 20 years from now I will still remember and look back on fondly.”

CIF executive director John Pineau, left, stands with the winning team: Ashley Lawson, Carleen Born, Dan Jensen, Sara Cosgrove-Bence and Anne LeBrun-Ruff

discoveries

winter 2011


ALES Discoveries Winter 2011