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CONTOURS VOL. 37, NO. 1, FALL/WINTER 2020

SH A P E T HE W ORL D

ualberta.ca/science


CONTOURS SHAPE THE WORLD

VOL. 37, NO. 1, FALL/WINTER 2020

The University of Alberta Faculty of Science is a research and teaching powerhouse dedicated to shaping the future by pushing the boundaries of knowledge in the classroom, laboratory, and field. Through exceptional teaching, learning, and research experiences, we competitively position our students, staff, and faculty for current and future success. Science Contours is dedicated to highlighting the collective achievements of the Faculty of Science community. It is distributed to alumni and friends of the faculty. Dean of Science Matina KalcounisRueppell

Designer: Lara Minja, Lime Design

Editors: Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Pascoe Managing Editor Katie Willis Associate Editor Andrew Lyle

Photographers: Dawn Graves John Ulan Proofreader: Philip Mail

Contributing writers: Andrew Lyle Jennifer Pascoe Katie Willis

Send your comments to: The Editor, Science Contours Faculty of Science 6-194 CCIS, University of Alberta Edmonton, AB, Canada T6G 2E1 science.contours@ualberta.ca

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facebook.com/UAlbertaScience @UAlbertaScience @UAlbertaScience UAlbertaScience UAlbertaScience ualberta.ca/science


CONTENTS 6

Dean’s message

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Byte-size science

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Science news

+ Fighting back with precision health + To the red planet and back + Researchers probe new drug target in novel coronavirus

+ Fruit juice gives babies’ brains a boost + Know your quarry + Glacier to table: Understanding the effects of melting glaciers on drinking water

14 Skin deep Cultivating the beauty of science 18 A life well learned Celebrating John Beamish (’75 BSc(Hons), ’77 MSc, ’82 PhD) 22 Mourning the loss of four members of our Faculty of Science community 26 On trend Modelling the future in a COVID-19 world

Doing our part The global COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we interact with the world— everything from how we work and study to how we shop and play. But in a world transformed by COVID-19, one thing that hasn’t changed is the ability of science to shape the world and our collective future. In an effort to tackle the challenge of medical supply shortages early in the pandemic, scientists in the Department of Chemistry worked together to produce hand sanitizer on campus using the recipe provided by the World Health Organization. Learn more on page 30.

30 Chemists creating hand sanitizer on campus 32 Sweet science Sugar research gets $20M stronger 35 Financial intelligence Meet the minds behind the next big movement in money—artificial intelligence 38 Awards & Accolades Ian Mann and Todd Lowary 39 Alumni Perspectives Jack Newton (’01 BSc(Spec), ’05 MSc) The value of educational breadth


IN THE FIELD

LEARNING ON THE JOB 4

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THEA JANESCA CASTILLO (RIGHT) SPENT FOUR MONTHS WORKING AT THE NORTHERN FORESTRY CENTRE IN EDMONTON THROUGH THE SCIENCE INTERNSHIP PROGRAM. “DURING MY INTERNSHIP TERM, I WAS ABLE TO GAIN AND REFINE VALUABLE SKILLS THAT WILL DEFINITELY HELP ME TRANSITION FROM UNIVERSITY TO PROFESSIONAL EMPLOYMENT,” SAYS CASTILLO, AN UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT STUDYING IMMUNOLOGY AND INFECTION. THE SCIENCE INTERNSHIP PROGRAM ALLOWS STUDENTS TO INTEGRATE UP TO 16 MONTHS OF WORK EXPERIENCE INTO THEIR UNDERGRADUATE STUDIES. LEARN MORE ABOUT THE PROGRAM AT UAB.CA/SIP.

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DEAN’S MESSAGE

MOVING AHEAD TOGETHER I CAN ASSURE YOU THAT THE FUTURE OF SCIENCE LOOKS VERY BRIGHT. WHEN WE WELCOME THESE FUTURE SCIENTISTS TO OUR ALUMNI COMMUNITY, THEY WILL BE POISED TO DO GREAT THINGS, JUST AS YOU HAVE DONE.

Dear Faculty of Science alumni, donors, supporters, and friends,

J

ust over a year into my term as dean of the Faculty of Science, I find myself reflecting on the year that was and maintaining my focus for the years ahead. We started 2020 with a great tragedy for our Faculty of Science family, as we lost four of our members in the PS752 plane crash (see page 22). Shortly thereafter, the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. Our community of alumni and researchers have been hard at work addressing the many effects of the pandemic, from disease modelling (see page 26) to treatments and interventions (see pages 9 and 10).

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The year ahead will not be free from challenges—including the ongoing global pandemic, spending reductions, and campus-wide academic and administrative restructuring as the University of Alberta embarks on the U of A for Tomorrow restructuring initiative under the leadership of President Bill Flanagan. Challenges bring with them opportunity, and I see great opportunities for moving the Faculty of Science ahead into the future. As we do so, we continue to focus on our mission of conducting world-leading research and authentic teaching and training of scientists. After all, they are the pipeline of discovery, innovation, and talent to make our world a better place and fuel the economy in Edmonton, Alberta,

and beyond. I continue to be heartened by the connection with our community of supporters like you who remain engaged and critical to the collective success of our students, staff, and faculty members. Because of your past contributions and current support, our students, staff, and faculty members are equipped with the skills, vision, and resilience to help shape the world—now more than ever. I am proud to share the transformational effects of your support in this year’s Donor Impact Report, included in this issue. Many highlights from my first year included getting to know not only the people who push research and teaching boundaries in the Faculty of Science but also meeting with you, our inspiring community of alumni, donors, and supporters, who have built the foundation for Science. Before COVID-19, I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with many of you in Edmonton, elsewhere in Canada, and in the United States, and I look forward to the future when we can meet in person again. For now, however, I am delighted with the meaningful ways we are staying virtually connected. I will continue to focus on building these important relationships through


COVID-19

open and transparent engagement as we work through the dynamic times ahead. The Faculty of Science has seen record enrolment for the fall, due in no small part to our reputation for excellence in teaching and research and your support of our mission. We are able to welcome a cohort of remarkable first-year students, and an equally remarkable group of transfer students, into the Faculty of Science because of you. We have connected with our new students and their families in different but direct ways, and I can assure you that the future of Science looks very bright. When we welcome these future scientists to our alumni community, they will be poised to do great things, just as you have done. We are grateful for the support of our alumni, donors, and friends, who every day help to position our students and our faculty competitively and collaboratively on the global stage. Thank you for continuing to be part of the journey, alongside me, with our remarkable community of scientists, students who are our next generation of scientists, supporters, and alumni from around the world. Sincerely, Matina Kalcounis-Rueppell Dean, Faculty of Science

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new research projects, funded by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), are underway to build a multi-pronged, precision health approach to battling COVID-19. Read more on page 9.

Alumna Marie Betsy Varughese (’17 PhD) is at the centre of the race to understand the spread of COVID-19 in Alberta. Read more on page 26.

A study published in summer 2020 is exploring how to prevent the novel coronavirus from replicating. Read more on page 10.

300,000 Almost 300,000 learners have registered for UAlberta Massive Open Online Courses since COVID-19 caused shutdowns in March. These digital courses have reached nearly 800,000 in 23 courses developed by the Faculty of Science.

5%

Your genes only contribute about 5% to your risk of developing most diseases. Read more at ualberta.ca/science/news

1,500 Faculty of Science chemists have made more than 1,500 litres of hand sanitizer, using the World Health Organization recipe. Read more on page 30.

$80M FACULTY OF SCIENCE RESEARCHERS RECEIVED MORE THAN $80 MILLION IN RESEARCH FUNDING IN THE 2019-20 FISCAL YEAR.

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We are home to 169 post-doctoral fellows conducting research in fields ranging from new treatments for ALS to the effects of climate change on alpine butterflies.

WE ARE PROUD to be partnered with 3 financial institutions to find effective, interdisciplinary solutions for challenges such as fraud detection, predictive analytics, and customer support.

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Read more on page 35.

$20M $20 million will support Lara Mahal in her role as the Canada Excellence Research Chair in glycomics. Read more on page 32.

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9 undergraduate students studying physics attended the Canadian Conference for Undergraduate Women in January 2020. Read more on page 12.

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Our Earth and marine science programs are ranked 41st in the world in the latest QS World University Rankings.

Home to:

320 undergraduate students participate in the Science Internship Program, integrating work experience into their degree program—students like Thea Janesca Castillo. 2 Networks of Centres of Excellence, supported by the government of Canada—Canadian Mountain Network and GlycoNet. Read more about the Canadian Mountain Network on page 13 and more about glycomics on page 32.

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FROM ICE-CORE SCIENTISTS to glycomics experts, our researchers have connected with the Faculty of Science community with 5 webinars through the Science Connects series. Learn more at ualberta.ca/science/alumni-and-giving/ science-connects-webinar.

UAlberta scientist Chris Herd lands a spot on NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission. Read more on page 10.

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IN 2019, THE RESEARCH AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF OUR FACULTY OF SCIENCE COMMUNITY APPEARED IN MORE THAN 4,000 MEDIA STORIES IN 51 COUNTRIES AROUND THE WORLD.


NEWS

FIGHTING BACK WITH PRECISION HEALTH THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC HAS AFFECTED ALMOST EVERY ASPECT OF OUR LIVES, FROM HOW WE MANAGE OUR PHYSICAL HEALTH TO THE SEARCH FOR A VACCINE AND TREATMENTS TO MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT. FOUR NEW RESEARCH PROJECTS, FUNDED BY THE CANADIAN INSTITUTE FOR ADVANCED RESEARCH (CIFAR), ARE UNDERWAY TO BUILD A MULTI-PRONGED, PRECISIONHEALTH APPROACH TO ADDRESS THESE ISSUES.

Facilitating drug discovery MATTHEW TAYLOR (computing science) is working with industry partners to accelerate the discovery of safe and effective treatments for COVID-19. A fellow of the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii), Taylor and his team are looking for small molecules that have already been tested and approved as pharmaceuticals that may be effective in managing COVID-19. Using approved molecules that are proven safe will accelerate the path to implementation.

Looking after our most vulnerable GUARDING AT-RISK DEMOGRAPHICS with AI (GuARD-AI) is a project designed to use AI to identify vulnerable groups, predict the course of COVID-19, and use this insight to inform future virtual health-care delivery models. Importantly, GuARD-AI is designed to support Alberta

and Canada now during the pandemic, as well as to prepare us for future public health challenges. GuARD-AI’s interdisciplinary focus involves collaborators from across campus: Daniel Baumgart (medicine), Randy Goebel (computing science), Geoffrey Rockwell (philosophy), and Martha White (computing science). Goebel and White are both Amii fellows, and White is the CIFAR AI chair.

Managing the most severe symptoms SEVERE ILLNESS AND DEATH due to COVID-19 are most often a result of pneumonia. Now, a team of UAlberta researchers are partnering with private company MEDO.ai to develop a diagnostic tool that uses machine learning to identify pneumonia in ultrasound scans. Led by Amii fellow Russ Greiner (computing science), the project includes collaborators from the Faculty of

Medicine & Dentistry. The ultimate goal? Detecting pneumonia as early as possible, and getting patients care earlier in hopes of preventing more severe outcomes.

Tracking mental health WHILE THE NOVEL CORONAVIRUS attacks our physical health, our mental health and well-being are also affected. Alona Fyshe (computing science and psychology) is combining the power of machine learning and the ubiquitous use of social media in order to understand the challenges the pandemic presents and how these challenges threaten our mental health en masse. Social media provides valuable insight into the experiences of people around the world—especially marginalized groups, including people with limited access to health care, people with lower socioeconomic status, and undocumented immigrants. Fyshe is an Amii fellow and CIFAR AI chair.

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NEWS

RESEARCHERS PROBE NEW DRUG TARGET IN NOVEL CORONAVIRUS

N A S A /JPL-CA LT ECH

An artist’s illustration depicts NASA’s Mars 2020 rover exploring Mars.

TO THE RED PLANET AND BACK A UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA SCIENTIST is playing a key role in NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission, which successfully launched toward the red planet on July 30. The mission marks the first time that samples will be collected and stored in hopes of being returned to Earth through future missions. “Mars 2020 will let us choose where to collect samples and will allow us to get context for the rocks that are collected— their location, surrounding features, and more,” explains Chris Herd (earth and atmospheric sciences). “Returning samples with that context is the holy grail of Mars exploration.”

Herd, the curator of the University of Alberta Meteorite Collection, will lend his expertise in the analysis of Martian meteorites and other rocks to select samples that are most likely to provide key information about Mars’s geological history. In fact, scientists believe evidence of past life could be locked inside Martian rocks that are different in composition from the meteorites that have landed on Earth. By using the Mars 2020 rover to choose, collect, and store samples from specific areas on Mars’s surface for possible return to Earth, scientists are paving the way for a new understanding of our planetary neighbour. “This is a dream come true for me,” says Herd. “I will be helping select which rocks might someday be analyzed in labs on Earth.”

IN A STUDY published this summer, biophysicists Michael Woodside (physics) and his research team have identified a part of the novel coronavirus that can be targeted by drugs that prevent the virus from replicating, a key step for developing new and more effective drug treatments. “This study looked at a molecular process that the coronavirus uses to control how it makes the viral proteins it needs to replicate itself, called frameshifting,” explains Woodside. “Because one of the products of frameshifting is the enzyme that the virus uses to replicate itself, frameshifting is a promising target for potential drugs.” The researchers compared frameshifting in SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—to the same process in its close cousin, the virus that caused the original SARS outbreak in the early 2000s. Their results show that both the genetics and structure of frameshifting are the same in both viruses. “This work is important because it tells us that what we’ve learned about frameshifting in the original SARS virus can also be applied to the new coronavirus, and it shows a proof of principle that small-molecule drugs can knock down frameshifting,” says Woodside. “We’re planning in future work to see if this compound is also effective at suppressing the replication of the virus—even though its effect is not strong enough to make a good drug, it can teach us about what to look for in something that could make a good drug.”

Michael Woodside

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FRUIT JUICE GIVES BABIES’ BRAINS A BOOST A NEW STUDY FIRMLY ESTABLISHES THE LINK BETWEEN MOTHERS CONSUMING FRUIT JUICE WHILE PREGNANT AND INCREASED INFANT COGNITION. THE FINDING HAS BEEN SUGGESTED BY PREVIOUS RESEARCH, BUT THIS STUDY USES AN ANIMAL MODEL TO CONFIRM THE EFFECT OF PRENATAL FRUIT JUICE CONSUMPTION ON THE COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT OF NEWBORNS.

“O

UR RESULTS SHOW that there is significant cognitive benefit for the offspring of mothers that ingest more fruit during pregnancy,” says Rachel Ward-Flanagan (‘13 BSc(Spec)), co-lead author and PhD student (psychology). “The idea that nutrition may also impact mental health and cognition has only recently started to gain traction. People want to be able give their kids the best possible start in life, and from our findings, it seems that a diet enriched with fruit is a possible way to do so.” Specifically, the results show that infant animal models of mothers who had their diets supplemented with fruit juice from oranges and tomatoes performed significantly better on tests of memory— consistent with previous research. “We see this as especially valuable information for pregnant mothers, as this offers a non-pharmacological, dietary intervention to boost infant brain development,” adds Claire Scavuzzo, co-lead author and postdoctoral fellow (psychology).

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NEWS KNOW YOUR QUARRY A NEW STUDY is providing critical insight into how rare yellow diamonds were formed in the Canadian North. The research, led by graduate student Mei Yan Lai (‘13 BCom) (earth and atmospheric sciences), examined the chemical makeup of yellow diamonds—yielding a better understanding of how they form, to help guide the search for the elusive stones. “The more we know about the origin of these potentially high-value diamonds, the better results for diamond exploration and value creation in northern Canada,” explains Thomas Stachel (earth and atmospheric sciences), Lai’s supervisor and Canada Research Chair in Diamonds. The research team determined that some yellow diamonds contain colourless cores, meaning that the yellow outer layers crystallized on top of clearer centres. Lai determined that the yellow diamonds crystallized no more than 30,000 years before the kimberlite eruptions that brought them up to Earth’s surface. “In fact, the carbon isotope compositions and nitrogen concentrations of the colourless cores and yellow outer layers are significantly different, suggesting that they formed in at least two distinct events and involved different diamond-forming fluids,” says Lai, who completed this research as part of her master’s studies in the Faculty of Science Diamond Exploration Research Training School (DERTS), a graduate program designed to produce industry-ready graduates. The discovery of a potential new source of yellow diamonds in Canada’s North would be economically significant, as the previous principal source of high-quality yellow diamonds, the Ellendale Mine in Western Australia, was recently shut down.

CORES LIKE THE ONE PICTURED HERE, ARE OF INTEREST TO BOTH GEOLOGISTS AND THE GEMSTONE INDUSTRY.

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COUR T E S Y OF MEI YA N L A I

YELLOW DIAMONDS, SOME WITH COLOURLESS

A SEAT AT THE BENCH Building diversity and representation in physics FOR UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT VALERIE WILLIER (PHYSICS), BEING AMONG PEERS WHO LOOKED, SPOKE, AND FELT THE SAME WAY SHE DID WAS NOT ONLY A FIRST, IT WAS ALSO INCREDIBLY POWERFUL.

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ILLIER WAS ONE OF NINE female undergraduate students who attended the Canadian Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CCUWiP) earlier this year. “As someone who often struggles with feelings of loneliness within physics, the friends I made at this conference made me feel like I was a part of a hidden community that was waiting for me all along,” said Willier. “Hearing their stories, experiences, struggles, and triumphs was my greatest gift as a delegate. I have never felt more comfortable being in physics.” Diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is an ongoing issue, and a complicated one at that. Improving diversity results in better science through new perspectives, insights, and innovation permeating the work done in the classroom, laboratory, and field. While the Faculty of Science is proud to have achieved gender parity in our undergraduate student population, there are fewer women and other visible minorities as scientists move through the pipeline, from graduate students to postdoctoral fellows to faculty members, where 22 per cent are female. The numbers are even lower in physics. “Within physics, it can be extremely challenging to feel like you belong in the field when you don’t see many role models that look like you, sound like you, talk like you, or know what it’s like to be from a background similar to yours,” explained Willier. “As a person from a minority group, representation is important to me because it allows me to be confident in myself and my ability to succeed within STEM as I am—something I have never felt before coming to CCUWiP. Ultimately, to me, representation is important because it makes me feel like I deserve that seat in that lab or lecture theatre.” Interested in learning more about the state of diversity in the Faculty of Science? Visit ualberta.ca/science/diversity.


JE S SICA SERBU

GLACIER TO TABLE: UNDERSTANDING THE EFFECTS OF MELTING GLACIERS ON DRINKING WATER A NEW PROJECT FROM THE CANADIAN MOUNTAIN NETWORK IS EXAMINING THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MELTING GLACIERS AND DRINKING WATER.

“W

e are examining water quality, contaminants, productivity, and food webs—including micro-organisms all the way up to fish—to look for biological indicators that tell us about different aspects of water quality over time,” says Rolf Vinebrooke (biological sciences), investigator on the project. The research team, including Maya Bhatia (earth and atmospheric sciences), Vincent St. Louis (biological sciences), and Suzanne Tank (biological sciences), has established 14 sampling stations located throughout the Columbia Icefield and into three main watersheds in Alberta: the Bow

River, the Athabasca River, and the North Saskatchewan River, which provide drinking water for Calgary and area, northern Alberta, and Edmonton. St. Louis described an example of one of the effects of glacial melt on water chemistry: chemicals that are no longer in use could resurface as the glaciers melt. “DDT that was used back in the 1950s has been deposited in these glaciers and locked in the ice,” he says. “Now that they’re melting, there is the potential that DDT will be released into the drinking water.” The results of the project will have a vast array of implications, including ones

for drinking water treatment, ecosystem management, and global climate change models. Future work will include collaboration with local Indigenous communities. This project is part of the Canadian Mountain Network (CMN), hosted by the University of Alberta, which was named a Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) in 2019. The Faculty of Science is the only faculty in Canada that is home to two NCEs—CMN and GlycoNet. Read more about GlycoNet on page 32.

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SKIN DEEP B y K AT I E W I L L I S / P h o t o g r a p h y b y D AW N G R AV E S

CULTIVATING THE BEAUTY OF SCIENCE

ALUMNA SHARES HER PASSION FOR SELF-CARE AND SCIENCE BY LAUNCHING AN EDMONTON-BASED ALL-NATURAL SKIN-CARE COMPANY

ANTOINETTE NGUYEN (’10 BSc, ’16 PhD) IS THE FOUNDER OF SKIN-CARE COMPANY VELVET CRANE.

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WHEN YOU THINK OF BEAUTY AND SKIN CARE, DOES YOUR MIND THINK SKIN DEEP? OR DOES IT GO A LITTLE FURTHER BENEATH THE SURFACE?

F

or alumna and entrepreneur Antoinette Nguyen (’10 BSc, ’16 PhD), it all comes back to science—and that means digging deep into the details. “I want to consider skin care at the cellular level,” Nguyen says. “When it comes to your skin, you want to make space for young, healthy cells. These cells are functioning well, and this is what gives skin a soft, supple texture. Otherwise, older, even dead, skin cells will clump together at the top layer of the skin, causing dullness or rough texture. Scientifically, youthful cells are generally healthier—so why not make this the goal of your skin-care routine?” In November 2018, Nguyen launched her own skin-care company. Her mission? Bringing authentic, natural, and effective skin care to her community in order to foster self-care and acceptance. And Nguyen set out to accomplish this the scientist’s way— through intensive research and rigorous testing. Before launching her business in November 2018, she put a great deal of thought into its moniker. The skin-care company pays homage to a well-known symbol of longevity in some eastern cultures. “I wanted a name that matched the experience of using all-natural skin-care products—something that people could feel when they said it out loud, something that brings to mind softness, luxury, and warmth. So, we came up with Velvet Crane.” THE SCIENCE OF SELF-CARE A self-described enthusiastic researcher, Nguyen began her journey in science and academia during her undergraduate degree in the Faculty of Science in

}

“We’re a boutique skincare brand. We make everything by hand in small batches. And we examine every ingredient that goes into our products.”

2010, majoring in biological sciences and minoring in psychology. Following that, she completed a PhD in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, where she now works as a postdoctoral fellow by day. By night (and weekends and evenings and every other moment she can spare), she is the one-woman operation behind Velvet Crane. “We’re a boutique skin-care brand. We make everything by hand in small batches. And we examine every ingredient that goes into our products.” Throughout her academic career, Nguyen has studied the role of natural health products in pregnancy, as well as wound healing and scarring. Her rich knowledge of the skin combined with her enthusiasm for research leave her well positioned to develop innovative and effective skin-care products. It means that each ingredient used in Velvet Crane’s products is meticulously and methodically researched.

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“I’m able to take my background in research and experience putting together literature reviews and apply it to the process of selecting ingredients,” Nguyen explains. “For example, I wanted to determine which base to use in the lip balm and what ingredients would be most naturally moisturizing for the skin. I chose to work with beeswax because it forms a natural seal, keeping the natural moisture in your lips inside, and forming a protective barrier.” And the work doesn’t stop when she lands on the “perfect formula”—because in the world of research, the job is never really done. “It’s evolving, which means that we’re always working to assess, examine, and refine both the ingredients we use and the ways in which we combine them.”

“THE MISSION OF VELVET CRANE IS TO DELIVER SELF-CARE AND SELFLOVE THROUGH OUR PRODUCTS. THE PRODUCTS ARE REALLY JUST A DELIVERY SYSTEM. THE WHOLE POINT IS FOR YOU TO TAKE A LITTLE BIT OF TIME, PRACTISE MINDFULNESS, AND FOCUS JUST ON YOURSELF.”

For Nguyen and Velvet Crane, natural and sustainable ingredients are part of the company’s core mission to foster self-care in the community. “The mission of Velvet Crane is to deliver self-care and self-love through our products. The products are really just a delivery system. The whole point is for you to take a little bit of time, practise mindfulness, and focus just on yourself. For example, when I talk about the lip exfoliant, I describe it to people like this: It’s taking just 30 seconds, once a week, to be with yourself. It’s not just about physically exfoliating your lips. It’s also about taking time for yourself, and the mentality of looking after you.” SPREADING THEIR WINGS Since its launch in November 2018, Velvet Crane has continued on a steady upward trajectory. In the spring of its first year, the brand was showcased—not once, but three times—in the British edition of Vogue magazine. And in late 2019, the company expanded to begin offering products at local Edmonton retailers, in addition to its online and market sales. “Right now, we’re a business of one. I create the products, fill orders, drop items off to our local retailers—though I do rely on support from my family, friends, and other creators and small businesses in Edmonton,” explains Nguyen. “Eventually, I want Velvet Crane to be an outlet through which I can contribute to causes that are important to our society, such as clearing plastics from the ocean. I hope this company grows to a place where philanthropy is in our future.” +

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All natural

Lip service: The lineup Currently, Velvet Crane focuses on lip products, including lip balm, lip exfoliant, and an overnight lip conditioner. As a company born in Edmonton, it can assure its local clients that its products will stand up to the dry climate and changing seasons in our region. “My brother uses the overnight lip conditioner while he is walking his dog during Edmonton’s cold winter months. He says that it protects his lips against the cold winter wind. So really, there’s something for everyone!”

So, what exactly does it mean to be all natural? Well, for Velvet Crane, it means staying away from mineral oil, sulphates, petroleum, parabens, phthalates, siloxane, formaldehyde, monoethanolamine, diethanolamine, and triethanolamine. “Cosmetics are not as strictly regulated as perhaps they should be,” explains Nguyen. “I would hate to take chemicals, especially ones that are difficult to understand or whose effects we don’t know enough about, and encourage people to put them on their faces.” Instead, Velvet Crane turns to some of Mother Nature’s heavy hitters, from aloe vera gel and avocado oil to vanilla and vitamin E. Learn more at velvetcrane.com/pages/ ingredients.

Shop local Whether you need fresh produce, art, or skin-care products, Nguyen urges you to consider looking for artisans in your community first. “When you shop local, not only are you helping support a local artisan, you are also fostering the community in your city.”

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JOHN BEAMISH (’75 BSc(Hons), ’77 MSc, ’82 PhD) IS PICTURED HERE IN THE TUNNEL THAT CONNECTS PHASES 1 AND 2 OF CCIS.

HOW DO YOU SUM UP A LIFE SPENT ON CAMPUS—FROM UNDERGRADUATE STUDIES TO BECOMING A GRADUATE STUDENT, RETURNING AS A PROFESSOR, EVOLVING INTO A DEPARTMENTAL CHAIR, TO TOPPING IT OFF AS VICE-DEAN IN THE LARGEST UNDERGRADUATE FACULTY AT ONE OF CANADA’S TOP UNIVERSITIES? UPON HIS RECENT RETIREMENT, JOHN BEAMISH (’75 BSC(HONS), ’77 MSC, ’82 PHD) REFLECTS ON A LIFE WELL LEARNED.

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WELL


A LIFE LEARNED B y J E N N I F E R PA S C O E / P h o t o g r a p h y b y J O H N U L A N

Esteemed physicist retires from the University of Alberta after a career committed to strengthening science

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COUR T E S Y: JOHN BE A MISH.

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Beamish in the lab in 1986

or Beamish, professor in the Department of Physics for 28 years, education didn’t stop once he left campus as a student. In fact, the real life learning was just getting started, with each stage of his University of Alberta journey providing no shortage of personal and professional growth. Beamish spent the 1970s as a student on campus, earning his undergraduate degree, his master’s, and his PhD. Following a post-doctoral fellowship at Brown University in Rhode Island, he accepted a faculty position at the University of Delaware, a role he held for eight years. In 1991, the call of Canada pulled his growing family back home to a professorial position at his alma mater. “Surprisingly little had changed since I left,” Beamish says of returning to UAlberta as a faculty member. “There hadn’t been a lot of turnover. Most of the faculty I had worked with as an undergraduate and graduate student in the ’70s were still here when I returned in the ’90s. I worried when I came back that there wouldn’t be any change or new hiring for many years and that I would be it for fresh faces. And for a few years, I was it, but then there was a lot of hiring, and that made all the difference to how you feel about the future.”

“WE ARE ALL PHYSICISTS. THIS IS A VERY POSITIVE DIFFERENCE.”

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DURING HIS TENURE AS A FACULTY MEMBER, BEAMISH WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN THE UNION OF EXPERIMENTAL AND THEORETICAL PHYSICISTS WITHIN THE DEPARTMENT OF PHYSICS—A CHANGE THAT HE BELIEVES TRANSFORMED THE GROUP AND THE DEPARTMENT FROM GOOD TO GREAT.

Beamish reflects on Mark Freeman (’81 BSc(Hons)) joining several years after he came, followed by a burst of hiring in 1996-97, with a focus on faculty in his general research area of condensed matter physics, including close colleagues Frank Marsiglio and Frank Hegmann. The momentum continued to grow, with Al Meldrum joining a few years later. This strength in numbers allowed for the sharing of equipment and a flourish of ideas. FROM FRACTURE TO FOCUS Condensed matter physics is the largest general area of physics worldwide and is the focus of thousands of groups. Beamish says focused efforts have resulted in the University of Alberta’s condensed matter group garnering international acclaim in the field. He says it is the dedication to working together that makes all the difference. “It was a decent-sized group when I was a student in low-temperature and solid state physics, but it was absolutely fractured. We had some really good people, but almost nobody worked with anybody else, so the group had a lot less impact in the previous generation than it could have. When we started to rebuild the group, there was a plan, and we have built a really strong group that works together.” FROM GOOD TO GREAT During his tenure as a faculty member, Beamish was instrumental in the union of experimental and theoretical physicists within the Department of Physics— a change that he believes transformed the group and the department from good to great. “We are all physicists. This is a very positive difference.” Beamish’s unwavering commitment to physics as a whole steered his success as chair of the department from 2004 through 2009. As chair, he was focused on strategic hiring, particularly in the areas of particle physics, astrophysics, and nanotechnology—


coinciding with the creation of the National Institute for Nanotechnology—and he served as a key driver in planning the move of the Department of Physics from the old V-Wing Avadh Bhatia Physics Building to what would eventually become the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science (CCIS). He worked tirelessly to ensure that the department’s experimental work would remain strong despite years of physical dislocation. Beamish’s reputation for excellence and collaboration made him a natural fit for his next role in the academy—vice-dean, which he served from 2013 through 2018. A self-described introvert, Beamish is well regarded across the Faculty of Science for his warmth. “Being a chair has a bigger impact in a smaller area,” he says. “As vice-dean, it is a very different role with a smaller impact, albeit on a much bigger group of departments and people. I really enjoyed working with people across the science spectrum as well as the staff supporting our excellence in teaching and research. And working with the chairs was always great. We didn’t always agree, but we always got along.” DRIVING DIVERSITY IN STRATEGIC HIRING Beamish’s focus as vice-dean was on hiring, and what he is most proud of in that role is the shift in hiring practices in the Faculty of Science, a cause he stood behind alongside the Faculty of Science’s stalwart champion of diversity, Margaret-Ann Armour, who died in 2019. “Working with Margaret-Ann was great. One aspect that changed over the years was the recognition about diversity in hiring. It wasn’t that departments resisted, but they didn’t necessarily think about it, and by the end of my term, the departments were all

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity In July 2020, the Faculty of Science welcomed Tara McGee (earth and atmospheric sciences) in her new role as associate dean (equity, diversity, & inclusivity and engagement). McGee will carry on the legacy that Margaret-Ann Armour established in her work championing diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Interested in learning more about the state of diversity in the Faculty of Science? Visit ualberta. ca/science/diversity.

fully on board. They were all putting a lot of effort into diversity in hiring. The change in the hiring demographic is really positive. You can feel you’ve helped a lot. Margaret-Ann was a really big part of that and the departments too,” Beamish says of the legacy that lives on. When asked about his legacy beyond the obvious impact on hiring practices across the faculty, Beamish chuckles and responds almost instantaneously: “Oh, the tunnel.” COMMITTED TO CONNECTION: THE BEAMISH TUNNEL It was Beamish’s dogged determination to keep the Department of Physics together between phases 1 and 2 of CCIS that earned him some unofficially official signage on a tunnel connecting the two sections. “We had to integrate CCIS Phase 1 into the new building,” recalls Beamish. “None of us with complex labs wanted to be separated from the rest of the physics department, so there was a need to connect at the basement level. But the tunnel was always on the chopping block due to cost. Every time it was raised, I said, ‘Absolutely not. We agreed on this, and we are not fracturing the physics department.’ At some point, I had defended it so many times, they just gave up. And on the day the building was turned over, the construction management crew had concreteanchored these signs in there. That tunnel was only in there because I refused to let them cut it out.” After life in the lab and the administrative chair, after saving a tunnel between buildings and building bridges between disciplines, what comes next for Beamish? He’s not planning on leaving the lab just yet, focused as he is on working with undergraduate students and post-doctoral fellows in his passion for low-temperature helium physics. +

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Mour ning the los s O F F O U R C H E R I S H E D FA C U LT Y O F S C I E N C E M E M B E R S I N F L I G H T P S 7 5 2

Pouneh Gorji, Master of Science in the Department of Computing Science Arash Pourzarabi, Master of Science in the Department of Computing Science Saba Saadat, Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences Sara Saadat, Bachelor of Science in Psychology 22

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Big hearts, bright minds: computing science graduate students and newlyweds remembered for their kindness and scientific promise B y J E N N I F E R PA S C O E

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n January 2020, Pouneh Gorji (’20 MSc) and Arash Pourzarabi (’20 MSc) travelled home to Iran to get married. It was a big wedding attended by friends and family. A week later they boarded a plane to return to Edmonton. They were among the 176 people killed when Flight PS752 crashed on Jan. 8 a few minutes after takeoff from Tehran International Airport. Gorji and Pourzarabi are remembered by their fellow students and mentors as optimists, always with smiles on their faces. The couple came to UAlberta together in the fall of 2017 after completing their bachelor’s degrees at Sharif University of Technology in Iran. They were pursuing master’s degrees in artificial intelligence at UAlberta. Both had completed their coursework and were conducting research. Gorji, co-supervised by Pierre Boulanger and Russ Greiner (computing science), focused on disease prediction from ultrasound images of the liver. Pourzarabi, supervised by Michael

Bowling (computing science) and DeepMind research scientist Michael Johanson (’03 BSc(Spec), ’07 MSc, ’16 PhD), focused on advancements in reinforcement learning. Along with her important research pursuits, Gorji had another role in the computing science lab, say her supervisors: the “Vice-President of Fun.” “She was always positive, upbeat, and fun to be with, always with ideas to discuss in our weekly meetings, organizing various events including movie nights and a team trip to Elk Island,” says Greiner. “A big heart. That’s Pouneh,” echoes Boulanger. “Outside of being a truly kind and thoughtful person, on the professional side, she was working on the applications of advanced neural networks for the automatic detection of fatty livers from ultrasound images.” She was a truly interdisciplinary student working closely with radiologists in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, he noted. “Before she left for her wedding in Iran, she made great progress and was

ready to publish her work in top academic journals. It was always a pleasure to collaborate with her, as she was truly knowledgeable and smart about her work. This airplane crash was truly a tragedy, as she had a promising career in science ahead of her.” Boulanger now plans to publish Gorji’s work in her name so that her research can live on and inspire further work in the field. Her work tackling medical challenges might also improve lives in the future, says Greiner. “Pouneh wanted to work on medical imaging tasks, as imaging was in her skill set, and the medical applications meant that it could be used to help people.” Pourzarabi was committed to improving the world in his own way. He dedicated himself to advancing the scientific community through research in reinforcement learning, a subset of artificial intelligence that focuses on computer systems learning to accomplish tasks entirely on their own. It was Pourzarabi’s passion that his supervisor, Bowling, remembers. “I try to give my students a buffet of different paths we can follow for their work and see what captures the student’s imagination. Arash was excited about all of them. I can still picture his huge smile,” Bowling says. “Arash’s work would have been part of the communal scientific advance. We were beginning to discuss writing up his very interesting, and in some places unexpected, results. I am hoping we can still do that: that Arash’s preliminary work could be made available to inspire other researchers; that his

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insight, discoveries, and hard work will still be part of the slow buildup of scientific understanding.” Beyond recognizing Pourzarabi’s scientific mind, Bowling remains humbled by his student’s heart. “Arash was a real joy to supervise. He had a big, bright smile that couldn’t be hidden behind his beard. He was so excited about contributing to the scientific field.”

If there is any light in the darkness following this tragedy, it is that the warm hearts and bright minds of Gorji and Pourzarabi live on not only in the memories of their mentors, lab-mates, and friends but also in the broader scientific community, with the promise of future impact on the health and lives of innumerable people on this planet.

“She was like a little light” By ROSS NEITZ

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o everyone who knew her, it was clear Saba Saadat (’20 BSc) was destined for great things. The 21-year-old Iranian-Canadian was on track to graduate from UAlberta in the spring of 2020 with a bachelor of science in biological sciences, and had a larger goal of following in her mother’s footsteps to one day become a doctor. A brilliant student, selfless volunteer and compassionate friend, Saba left her mark on all she touched. “She was like a little light,” remembers Meghan Riddell, assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and friend to Saadat. “I would be incredibly lucky to ever encounter a student like her again.”

Saadat’s journey to Canada and UAlberta was not direct. When she was a young child, Saadat, her sister Sara and her mother emigrated from Iran to Qatar only to eventually move back to the country of her birth. In 2011, the family would move yet again, this time to Canada, where Saadat’s mother, Shekoufeh Choupannejad, would work as an obstetrician and gynecologist in Halifax for three years before eventually settling in Edmonton. Saadat enrolled at UAlberta as an undergraduate student in the fall of 2016. An excellent student, she devoted herself to her studies and exhibited a strong aptitude for research, which led to a placement in a summer studentship program with the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute at the University of Alberta. “She was a PhD disguised as an undergraduate,” says Riddell. Saadat was the first student Riddell took into her lab. “She was completely exceptional. I remember as part of an oral exam where she had to defend her research project—kind of like a mini-PhD defence—we were unable to find questions that she wasn’t prepared for. It became almost comedic because she had predicted

everything the three different PhDs in the room would ask.” But aside from her intellectual brilliance, Riddell says it was Saadat’s capacity for empathy and kindness that will stick with her. The young woman had a way of bringing others together and lifting them up. It was a talent she shared freely, both at the university and outside of it. Saadat was a volunteer who devoted her free time to causes close to her heart. She tutored, volunteered with the Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton, taught piano to underprivileged youth on a volunteer basis, and worked as a project manager with the Social Engagement, Empowerment and Development Society (SEEDS) on its Helping Hampers campaign. At the university, Saadat served as vice-president of the Heart & Stroke Foundation Students’ Association and acted as a mentor to first-year science students. “She was a little ball of energy, and it was hard to keep up with her, actually,” remembers Denise Hemmings, an associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology who, along with Luke Eckersley, co-supervised Saadat as a summer student in 2018. Saadat then joined Hemmings’s lab for an honours research project from September 2018 to April 2019. Hemmings says Saadat’s future was bright and filled with opportunity. She marvelled at her capacity to fill it with what was important. “She was driven, but at the same time she was this absolutely caring person and had this incredibly rich life outside of academics. That was the balance in her life.” While Saadat’s time was cut short, those who knew her say her impact on the people around her will not be soon forgotten.


“She was modest,’’ says Riddell. She never promoted herself and never talked about anything amazing that she was doing, even though she was doing so many incredible things. She was extraordinary.”

“She had this smile that went from her mouth all the way up to her eyes, and it never left,” adds Hemmings. “She had that all the time. That’s the picture that I’ll always remember of Saba.”

“She really brought in a positive energy” By THERESE KEHLER

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ara Saadat (’19 BSc) had embarked on an exciting new stage of her life. After graduating in the spring of 2019 from UAlberta with a science degree in psychology, she had moved from Edmonton to San Diego to start a clinical psychology program. Saadat, 23, had dreamed for years about being accepted into the program. “She’d worked so hard. I remember when she got an interview, she was crying out of happiness,” says Daniel GhodsEsfahani (’19 BSc), who met Saadat three years ago and was in a relationship with her younger sister, Saba. Saadat, Saba, and their mother, Shekoufeh Choupannejad, an Edmonton obstetrician and gynecologist, had gone to Iran together to visit family. All three died Jan. 8 when the Ukraine International Airlines aircraft crashed minutes after takeoff from Tehran.

In August 2019, the sisters had travelled to California together. Step by step over the next few weeks, they bought furniture, blankets, and other necessities, building a home for Saadat’s new life as a graduate student at Alliant International University. “Moving to a new country on your own, especially when you have such a tight bond with your family, with your sister, can be very difficult. But Saadat overcame all of that,” said Ghods-Esfahani, who attends medical school at the University of Calgary. Saadat and Saba, who had planned to apply for medical school, often spoke about how much they admired their mother and the example she set to work hard and pursue their dreams, he said. The experience of being immigrants made the sisters passionate about standing up for people who often feel they don’t belong. Saadat’s strong work ethic shone during her studies at UAlberta, said Peter Dixon (psychology), who supervised her undergrad research project. She showed a keen interest in research and an attitude that promised a successful career in graduate school and beyond, he said. Her undergrad research project was presented to the Society for Text & Discourse at its July 2019 conference in New York. Friends say Saadat’s decision to pursue a career in clinical psychology

fit her to a T, given her ability to listen to problems and then come up with brilliant solutions. “If you had problems and you thought nobody else would understand, she would make you feel warm and that everything is going to be OK,” says Sirous Ghafuri, a fourth-year psychology student. She also had a knack for helping people get more in touch with their feelings. “Sharing that level of vulnerability wasn’t easy, but she was able to do it with those that were close to her,” remembers Ghods-Esfahani. “And that’s what she saw in a true friendship.” Saadat was passionate about nurturing those friendships, frequently filling the basement of the family’s home with friends old and new, food, Persian pop music, and an infectious laugh that she shared with her mother and sister. “She really brought in a positive energy. It was like her shadow,” says Simran Gulati, who had known the sisters since they came to Edmonton. “You could be going through a bad day and she would bring so much positivity. She was always so happy, so joyful. She was definitely the life of the party, wherever we went.” +

Honours POUNEH GORJI, ARASH POURZARABI, AND SABA SAADAT were awarded

posthumous degrees and honoured at the Spring 2020 convocation ceremony. We extend our deepest condolences to all those affected by the Flight PS752 tragedy. Find information about support resources, express your condolences, and learn about the friends and colleagues we have lost at ualberta.ca/flightps752-memorial. 

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BETSY VARUGHESE (’17 PhD) IS PICTURED HERE WORKING FROM HER HOME OFFICE IN EDMONTON.

ALUMNA AT THE CENTRE OF THE RACE TO UNDERSTAND THE SPREAD OF COVID-19 IN ALBERTA

ON TREND

Modelling the future in

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FOR MOST PEOPLE, TIME BECAME A BLUR DURING THE EARLY DAYS OF THE GLOBAL PANDEMIC, BUT FOR MARIE BETSY VARUGHESE (’17 PHD), THE WEEKS TOOK ON A PATTERN AS SHE WORKED TIRELESSLY ALONGSIDE A TALENTED INTERDISCIPLINARY TEAM AT ALBERTA HEALTH TO UNDERSTAND AND PREVENT THE SPREAD OF COVID-19 ACROSS ALBERTA.

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very Monday, Varughese delivers the new case data and the top priority questions and concerns to the research team in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Alberta. On Tuesday, the research team gathers via Google Hangouts to discuss the week’s objectives and methods. From here, Varughese and her fellow scientists go their separate ways, each responsible for a specific task. On Wednesday, the team congregates again to discuss and interpret results. On Thursday, Varughese summarizes the results and reports back to her team at Alberta Health. And by early Friday morning, the final results are prepared along with other epidemiological evidence for communication to health officials, including the office of Alberta’s chief medical officer of health. And so it has been since early March 2020. The data in question is something that every Albertan— indeed, nearly every human on the planet—has watched closely since the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to its knees, causing daily life to grind to a halt across the country. But for Varughese, whose PhD studies focused on modelling the spread of tuberculosis in Indigenous communities, building a mathematical model to understand disease is just another day in the office. VITAL STATISTIC(IAN) Varughese, now a senior modeller with Alberta Health, came to the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Science after finishing her undergraduate degree in physical science and master’s studies in epidemiology at the University of Guelph in Ontario. Her area of focus? Mathematical biology. “To be honest, I’d never heard of this field before,” explains Varughese. “I was blown away that there was this other way of understanding diseases and disease transmission that I’d never

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A letter to her younger self “Out of my entire academic experience, there’s one thing that I’ve learned. Sometimes you have an idea in your head about what you want to do or where you see yourself. I would say, don’t hold yourself to only that idea. Keep your mind open to the possibilities. Some other paths might take you to places you’d never imagine that could be even better than what you had hoped for. I was very lucky to take this path. I ended up in a place where I love my job and I love the people I work with. I’ve been so fortunate to have the guidance and mentorship of incredible people along the way, like Michael Li.”

even considered, using calculus and mathematical principles. I looked at various programs across Canada and supervisors with expertise in this area of study. And one of those was at the the University of Alberta—specifically with Michael Li in the Department of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.” Upon her arrival in Edmonton, Varughese enrolled in a master’s program to get the foundational skills she needed in mathematics and statistics. But seeing her quickly progress, her supervisor suggested that she apply for an interdisciplinary PhD program with her home in the Department of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences and a secondary focus in the School of Public Health. “The choice of an interdisciplinary PhD was a natural one for Betsy, though the program was quite new at the time,” says Li (’93 PhD). “I was inspired by her determination, and I worked with my colleague Dr. Richard Long in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry to create a PhD project on using mathematical modelling to study the transmission of tuberculosis within Indigenous communities in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Betsy was thrilled by the research project, since Indigenous health is one of her passions. As a result, she had to work twice as hard as other graduate students, because she had to fulfil core requirements from both departments.” Varughese’s program centred on two key areas: mathematical epidemiology and the social and demographic elements of health, allowing her to build her expertise in the fundamentals of calculus and statistics while honing her understanding of the practical, human elements of health and disease. “This program and its emphasis on mathematics and statistics helped me understand the underpinnings of where some fundamental concepts in epidemiology came from,” she says. “It was so valuable for me. I was so happy that I ended up doing this. It really gave me a chance to understand the fundamentals, the methods, and the context in which we examine diseases and disease modelling.”

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This type of model, known as a deterministic mathematical model, helps scientists understand what is happening with a disease in a larger population by understanding the rate of infection, recovery, and susceptibility in the population.

BUILDING A MODEL So what exactly is the link between math and disease? “Imagine that you have a pail of water,” explains Varughese. “Water is being poured into the pail, but there is also a small hole at the bottom of the pail through which water is running out. Those types of changes—how much water is entering the pail versus water being lost and how quickly—can be captured using these principles. That is how diseases fit into math.” This type of model, known as a deterministic mathematical model, helps scientists understand what is happening with a disease in a larger population by understanding the rate of infection, recovery, and susceptibility in the population. “As time progresses, we see new infections and people recovering, all at the same time,” says Varughese. “This is why understanding how variables change over time is so important—which is a fundamental component of calculus. How does each factor affect one another? For instance, as people are getting sick from infected people, some infected people are also recovering and are no longer able to transmit infection. The rates where people get sick could be different from rates of people getting better. Calculus in particular looks at


changes of a variable in time and it is possible to also look at multiple variables changing over time. This is one of the links between mathematics and diseases.” During her PhD studies, Varughese joined Alberta Health part time as a senior epidemiologist. And since graduating in 2017, she continued in that role before becoming a senior modeller. Throughout her time working for the Alberta government, Varughese maintained a strong partnership with her former supervisor Li and his research lab, including graduate students Donglin Han (’19 BSc) and Weston Roda (’16 MSc). Each year, the research team works together both informally and formally to model influenza in Alberta. So when COVID-19 began to become increasingly serious in Wuhan, China, working together to develop a model to understand this new disease felt like a natural progression for the Alberta-based team. ENTER COVID-19 “Michael started to look at modelling of COVID-19 in January using data from Wuhan, China,” explains Varughese, noting that this kind of foresight is typical in her former supervisor. “We used a simpler model called a Susceptible Infectious Recovered (SIR) model to examine what was happening with the novel coronavirus and to see if we could predict what would happen with the disease. “I was excited to help out with this project in January outside of my work hours, as a volunteer researcher. Michael was the one that suggested this project, and I am so glad that he did. It really did make us more prepared when we were doing the COVID-19 modelling in Alberta.”

Hold your questions, please When asked if she’s been peppered with questions and pleas for advice about what to do in the time of COVID, Varughese laughs, then explains. “What I understand is that the public health measures that Alberta put in place early on really worked. With no treatment or vaccine available yet, these non-pharmaceutical interventions are critical,” she says. “It is so difficult to know what will happen. It is really important to listen to public health officials and follow the policies that they are setting because they are being informed with information that people like our team help to contribute to.”

And while modelling isn’t a crystal ball, it does provide important insight for policy-makers and everyday people alike as they learn about and make decisions based on public health orders.

When Canada began to see its first cases of COVID-19, the work that Varughese was doing informally with Li’s lab became a critical part of her daily work with Alberta Health—from answering questions and responding to data requests to analyzing numbers and contributing information toward briefing notes or presentations for Dr. Deena Hinshaw (’97 BSc, ’04 MD, ’08 MPH), Alberta’s chief medical officer of health and a UAlberta alumna. “The Analytics and Performance Reporting Branch that I am so fortunate to be a part of is made up of many different disciplines, from analysts to epidemiologists to health economists to policy-makers. Modelling is just one part of the story and one part of the information that is provided to people like Dr. Hinshaw,” Varughese explains. And while modelling isn’t a crystal ball, it does provide important insight for policy-makers and everyday people alike as they learn about and make decisions based on public health orders. “Math modelling is also important for analyzing interventions— such as physical distancing or mask usage—before implementing them out on an actual population of people,” says Varughese. “And the ability to simulate different scenarios can have huge cost savings. Using these models, we’re able to identify potential outcomes from different interventions.” LOOKING FORWARD Examining these potential outcomes along with epidemiological evidence has allowed Alberta to build a relaunch strategy for citizens to follow as we learn to live in the new normal, in a world with COVID-19. It will also help as both policy-makers and scientists prepare for the potential of a second wave of this deadly disease. “Our next modelling priority is to prepare for the potential second wave in the fall,” explains Li. “To better prepare for it, we need to have a deeper understanding of the risk factors that contributed to the much larger initial epidemic in Calgary, as well as to many outbreaks at long-term care facilities and meatpacking plants. Betsy has been and continues to be an integral part of the COVID-19 modelling effort every step of the way, and she has played a leadership role. I am very proud of her.” +

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LEFT TO RIGHT: VLADMIR MICHAELIS, FRED WEST, JON VEINOT, LAURA PHAM, RIK TYKWINSKI, JILLIAN BURIAK

CHEMISTS CREATE HAND SANITIZER ON CAMPUS

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n the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, certain supplies became scarce almost immediately, including one that’s become an integral part of our daily lives: hand sanitizer. When the global challenge of medical supply shortages loomed, scientists in the Department of Chemistry leapt into action—and into the lab—to

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produce hand sanitizer right at home at the University of Alberta. “Our initial batch was created to be shared with the University of Alberta community, but we’ve since gone on to provide sanitizer for the City of Edmonton, local elementary and high schools, Boyle Street Community Services, and several rural and Indigenous communities across the province,” says

Rik Tykwinski, professor and chair (chemistry). The team used the formula recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), making roughly 200 litres in the first round of production—stopping only when they ran out of bottles. Since those early days in March, they’ve gone on to produce and distribute nearly 1,600 litres of sanitizer.


“WHILE WE BELIEVE WE WERE THE FIRST UNIVERSITY IN CANADA TO UNDERTAKE PRODUCTION, WE GIVE CREDIT TO OUR COLLEAGUES IN CHEMISTRY DEPARTMENTS AROUND THE WORLD—THEY WERE OUR INSPIRATION.” —JILLIAN BURIAK (CHEMISTRY)

Those critical supplies have been distributed and put to use across Edmonton and Alberta. The recipients included the Bissell Centre, which works to help members of our community out of poverty, and the Edmonton Food Bank, but also initiatives across the province, including the Rural Health Professionals Action Plan (RHPAP), a non-profit organization and collaborative partner for rural Alberta communities trying to achieve greater access to health care. Through RHPAP, 200 litres of sanitizer were distributed in the town of High Level. “In the early days of the pandemic, there were a lot of unknowns and a lot of anxiety,” says Tykwinski. “Amongst my colleagues in the Department of Chemistry, there was a general sense of

‘what can we do?’ Everything we need for the WHO formulation was available in the department, finding volunteers was easy, and the dean was amazingly supportive—it was obvious this was what we should do.” As for the inspiration for the idea, the team credits the efforts of the wider scientific community. After seeing a report from the United States, Jillian Buriak (chemistry) suggested the department could help by making hand sanitizer to donate to the community. “While we believe we were the first university in Canada to undertake production, we give credit to our colleagues in chemistry departments around the world—they were our inspiration,” says Buriak.

THE TEAM FOLLOWED THE FORMULA RECOMMENDED BY THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION.

She says the team took strict measures to observe all Alberta government health recommendations while working in the lab, including physical distancing. While the initial spike in demand for hand sanitizer has fallen off as production has increased worldwide, faculty and staff at the university continue to contribute in other ways to the global fight against COVID-19. “Sanitizer is now readily available commercially, and for the last couple of months our department has been able to again focus on research and teaching, with appropriate precautions, of course,” says Tykwinski. “We have several of our researchers in the department and across campus who are collaborating with scientists and colleagues around the globe to search for a vaccine for this global pandemic.” Thank you to Rik Tykwinski, Jillian Buriak, Jonathan Veinot, Vladimir Michaelis, Fred West, Andrew Yeung, Laura Pham, their teams, and everyone involved! Learn more about how University of Alberta scientists are supporting the global fight against COVID-19 on pages 9 and 10. +

Steps to take The Alberta government recommends several steps you can take to reduce the spread of COVID-19. To protect yourself and others: • Keep at least 2 metres (about the length of a hockey stick) from people outside your household or cohort group • Follow Alberta’s mandatory restrictions on gatherings • Avoid overcrowding in elevators or other enclosed spaces • Wash or sanitize your hands after touching communal surfaces • Wear a mask in public when distancing is not possible

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SUGAR RESEARCH GETS $20M STRONGER

SWEET SCIENCE


What could be sweeter than personalized health care? How about $20 million to bring this idea closer to reality?

In good company Lara Mahal is the fourth Canada Excellence Research Chair at the University of Alberta and the second in the Faculty of Science. Graham Pearson (earth and atmospheric sciences) is the CERC laureate in Arctic Resources Research. UAlberta’s other CERC laureates include Thomas Thundat, a Faculty of Engineering researcher, and Michael Houghton, a Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry researcher.

The study of glycomics has the potential to play a major role in human health, from cancer to microbial infections. Every cell in your body is coated in sugar. In fact, chains of sugar called glycans are the most abundant biomolecules on the planet and a fundamental building block of the human body and the world around us. And understanding the role of these sugars in human health may be the key to unlocking the world of next-generation pharmaceuticals and personalized medicine. For more than 15 years, Lara Mahal (chemistry) has led the pack in the field of glycomics. And in 2019, Mahal joined the ranks of glycomics experts at GlycoNet, a pan-Canadian Network of Centres of Excellence centred at the University of Alberta, bringing with her $20 million in research funding. Mahal is the newest Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in the Faculty of Science, a title that brings with it $10 million in federal funding and a matching $10 million from the government of Alberta. The CERC program is designed to support world‑renowned

researchers and their teams in establishing ambitious research programs at Canadian universities. “Canada, and UAlberta in particular, have a rich history of supporting research into carbohydrates—including federal support for GlycoNet,” says Mahal, formerly a professor at New York University. “As a result of that investment, Canadian glycomics research is well-known internationally, making it a welcoming place for my science and for us to continue to advance this field at a world-class stage.” HOW SUGAR RESEARCH HELPS HEALTH The work at GlycoNet and in Mahal’s lab aims to improve our understanding of how sugars interact with human health and disease, looking at smallscale chemistry in the human body to make big impacts. “Glycans, the sugars on proteins and lipids, are involved in the pathogenesis of every major disease— and yet they are one of the leaststudied and least understood classes of biomolecules,” explains Mahal. “The

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TASTE OF OUR OWN MEDICINE Lara Mahal joins a group of innovative researchers in the Department of Chemistry whose cutting-edge glycomics research is shaping the future of health and health care: CHRIS CAIRO and his research team are working to develop tools that block an enzyme family linked to human disease. Their findings are being used to develop new therapies for cancer and inflammation.

Lara Mahal is a world-renowned glycomics expert.

CERC funding enables us to expand our studies in glycosylation to encompass more clinical collaboration.” Mahal explains that her work at UAlberta will focus on identifying sugars involved in diseases critical to human health—from pancreatic cancer to HIV to COVID-19—and exploring offshoots of her earlier work, which may hold the key to more rapid discovery of druggable targets in disease. STORIED HISTORY The University of Alberta has an impressive record of glycomics expertise, from Raymond (Sugar Ray) Lemieux, (’43 BSc Hons, ’91 DSc), to David Bundle (chemistry). Beginning in the early 1950s, Lemieux and his colleagues were the first to synthesize sucrose, which paved the way for the creation of new antibiotics and blood reagents. Bundle was part of the UAlberta team headed by Lemieux that developed the first synthetic blood-group antigens in the early 1970s. “UAlberta is known for its concentration in glycosylation researchers,” says Mahal. “There’s an exciting group of researchers at this institution in this field. I’m looking forward to working with them. I think that this will open up great new opportunities for synergy to help advance this important field.” +

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RATMIR DERDA is applying modern chemical biology techniques to problems in carbohydrate science and drug discovery. His spinoff company, 48Hour Discovery, uses this technology to sift through billions of molecules at once, revolutionizing the scientific approach to molecular discovery. JOHN KLASSEN is using the power of mass spectrometry to help formula producers emulate the natural benefits of breast milk through his work building a library screen facility for human milk oligosaccharides. TODD LOWARY recently helped to develop a urine test that can detect tuberculosis in people living with HIV. Tuberculosis is the most common cause of death for those with HIV. The test will improve the speed and accuracy of diagnosis, providing earlier treatment and improving health outcomes. MATTHEW MACAULEY’S research sits at the interface between chemistry and immunology. He examines how carbohydrates finetune antibody responses, an aspect critical for not only protection from all kinds of pathogens but also essential for understanding how autoimmunity arises. WARREN WAKARCHUK’S research program looks at the biochemistry behind how organisms add sophisticated signalling molecules known as glycans to individual molecules or whole cell surfaces. He strives to improve protein-based pharmaceuticals used in treatments for many diseases, including cancer. LISA WILLIS focuses her research on understanding women’s health through glycobiology and glycoimmunology, including how bacteria sense and respond to the countless environmental cues to which they are exposed, and the molecular differences between male and female immune systems.


B y A N D R E W LY L E / P h o t o g r a p h y b y J O H N U L A N

MILLIONS OF CANADIANS TRUST FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS NOT ONLY WITH THEIR SAVINGS, BUT WITH THEIR DATA. AS THE FINANCIAL INDUSTRY LOOKS TO MAKE EVER BETTER DATA-DRIVEN DECISIONS, TOOLS BASED ON ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI) AND MACHINE LEARNING ARE EMERGING AS THE FOCUS—AND THE UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA’S UNIQUE STRENGTHS IN THE FIELDS OF AI AND STATISTICAL ANALYSIS ARE PUTTING CAMPUS EXPERTISE AT THE FOREFRONT OF THE NEXT BIG MOVEMENT IN MONEY.

LEFT TO RIGHT: BEI JIANG (’08 MSc) AND LINGLONG KONG (’09 PhD)

Meet the minds behind the next big movement in money—artificial intelligence

FINANCIAL INTELLIGENCE

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“T

he financial industry wants to improve their predictions using new methods,” says Bei Jiang, (’08 MSc) (mathematical and statistical sciences). “Machine learning is one of the AI tools especially well-suited to their wealth of data.“ Machine learning refers to algorithms for analyzing large amounts of data, revealing unapparent connections. Jiang’s research applies this technology to debt collection optimization, open banking initiatives, and data privacy. Her team’s research partnerships have included one with a regional bank in the province. The team is helping to apply statistical analysis so that the bank can better understand a small business’s financial health when deciding whether to approve a loan. “This is a zero-one decision: approving or not. But it’s a decision that requires robust data analysis, a major focus of my research,” explains Jiang. “The financial industry’s data is very complex—they can’t just look at the age or gender of a customer to determine their financial health.” They have to look at “a variety of points of data that are all important predictors

of whether a particular loan is a good investment.” DATA AND GOLIATH Analyzing that complex data is the main challenge facing the industry, and one that’s a perfect fit for both machine learning algorithms and statisticians. “We look at data with complex structures and develop tools to conduct estimation and prediction and to make other inferences based on that data,” says Linglong Kong (’09 PhD) (mathematical and statistical sciences). “That is a focus of AI in the form of statistical machine learning.” Kong’s research is helping industry partners understand the financial wellbeing of their customers, and his team has collaborated with an Edmontonbased financial institution on a project to identify the most effective ways to retain and attract new customers. “Many industries are now looking at how to make use of machine learning and to apply algorithms to their data,” says Kong. “But the majority of the work should happen before even entering data into an algorithm, asking questions like ‘what is important to this application?’ It’s not just doing it— it’s doing it right.”

HELD IN TRUST AI is a strength of the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Science—a field in which our researchers are among the best in the world. Since 2000, metricsbased CSRankings.org has placed campus AI publications in the top three in the world—and at the top in North America. But Kong explains that research partnerships with the financial industry aren’t just based on campus expertise. “When we create these algorithms for industry, we’re creating them from the ground up and building them right, by developing techniques that adhere to three pillars: they are explainable, sustainable, and responsible. These are factors that are incredibly important to the financial industry.” EXPLAINABILITY Imagine you operate a small business. Eager to expand your operations, you apply for a loan at your bank. If you hear back that you’ve been denied, the first question on your mind is likely “why?” “When a financial institution makes a decision, it isn’t sufficient to simply tell a customer ‘the algorithm said so,’” says Kong. “There’s a need—a legal need—to be able to explain that decision to the customer.” This is one of

WORLD-CLASS EXPERTISE The Faculty of Science includes experts in AI, computer vision, data analytics, machine learning, mathematical finance, natural language processing, and robust statistics. Meet some of the other minds behind UAlberta AI research and the partnerships strengthening Alberta’s expertise in this important field: CHRIS FREI

(mathematical and statistical sciences) studies quantitative finance, risk management, and mathematical economics. He is also an expert in digital and cryptocurrencies.

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ELENI STROULIA

(computing science) examines how collaborative, model-driven software can improve information and communication technology.

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MICHAEL BOWLING

(computing science) works with industry to develop robust decision-making tools using customer data.

OMID ARDAKANIAN

(computing science) is building a data analytics platform to support the work of collaborators in finance.


Kong (left) and Jiang (right) are applying the power of artificial intelligence to the world of finance.

the pillars of Kong’s research and one of the primary advantages he sees for financial institutions in working with statisticians. When designing tools for the financial industry, the objective is not only creating algorithms capable of making recommendations but creating ones that highlight what led to that recommendation, helping to demystify artificial intelligence. “It’s important to be able to look past the result and explain to the customer why a decision has been made, not only for the customer experience but also for that decision to stand up in a court of law,” explains Kong.

RESPONSIBILITY The last pillar extends beyond the financial industry: the responsible implementation of AI tools in all facets of their application. Examples of hastily implemented machine learning algorithms trained on biased data abound—highlighting the importance of both data analysis before a project starts, and the applications of these tools. Campus research in this area includes Project BIAS, an international project using the power of AI to combat ethnic and gender bias in the labour market in areas such as job advertising, hiring, and networking.

SUSTAINABILITY Building custom tools for the financial industry is not a quick process. So when designing a tool for industry, says Kong, it’s best to build a Swiss Army knife. “You want an algorithm that is able to adapt when a situation changes. If a bank gets new data about their customers and the algorithm needs to be built from scratch and retrained every time, that’s unsustainable design.” It might seem like an obvious concept: after all, we're used to the idea of recycling. But designing a robust tool from the beginning is another way that UAlberta AI experts are providing long-term value to the financial industry.

THE FUTURE OF FINANCE As the financial industry prioritizes finding the best, most effective ways to make data-driven decisions, the University of Alberta’s expertise in artificial intelligence makes it a powerful partner in these valuable industry partnerships. “Artificial intelligence and machine learning are powerful tools for our business moving forward,” says Mark Wagner, vice-president (analytics practice & corporate functions) at Scotiabank. “Our partnerships with academia provide a unique pipeline for idea generation and innovation, fostering the next generation of talent and building communities of practice for artificial intelligence and machine learning.” +

T HE A L BE R TA A D VA N TA G E: K E Y P R O J EC T S A ND PA R T NE R S HIP S AltaML Alberta-based machine learning company AltaML is focused on building applications powered by applied machine learning to drive innovation. The company, founded by UAlberta alumni, has funded a professorship in natural language processing in the Department of Computing Science, and also provides support for programming at the Faculty of Science Student Innovation Centre.

Scotiabank The Scotiabank Artificial Intelligence Research Initiative, housed in the Faculty of Science, is designed to enhance AI research to understand and build practical tools and predictive models for fraud detection and speech-to-text in analytics. Scotiabank is also supporting the growth of diversity and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at UAlberta.

Servus Credit Union Servus Credit Union is collaborating with UAlberta scientists on research projects in data science, AI, machine learning, natural language processing, and related areas. The partnership includes joint research projects and opportunities to apply graduate student research to real-world financial challenges.

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AWA R D S

&

ACCOL ADES PHOTO SUPPL IED

JOHN UL A N

ROYAL SOCIETY OF CANADA Ian Mann

ROYAL SOCIETY OF CANADA Todd Lowary

pace weather research expert IAN MANN (physics) is one of two Faculty of Science researchers inducted into the Royal Society of Canada this year, joining the country’s oldest and most prestigious scholarly institute. “I was delighted and honoured in equal measure to be recognized,” says Mann. “It is extremely humbling to think that I will be joining the ranks of many other recognized Canadian scientists as a member of the academy.” Mann is chairman of the expert group on space weather of the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. His research has delivered transformative understanding of extreme space radiation and geospace dynamics. He also helps promote the translation of research to policy, steering international efforts to mitigate the adverse technological impacts of extreme space weather. “The sun is responsible for providing the energy for life on our planet,” Mann says. “However, the sun is also strongly coupled to the geospace environment—the region of outer space near Earth.” The impacts of this solar-terrestrial coupling in the form of space weather range from the generation of the beautiful dancing northern and southern lights to generating harsh radiation environments in space. “At the University of Alberta we are actively developing training which will allow our students—and we hope ultimately the economy in the province of Alberta—to benefit from expansion and diversification into the ever-expanding commercial space sector,” says Mann. “It is truly an incredible honour to be selected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and receive recognition for work in this important field.”

rofessor TODD LOWARY (chemistry) has also been inducted into the Royal Society of Canada, honouring his contributions to the synthesis of molecules to probe the biological role of carbohydrates. Lowary and his team develop approaches to making molecules found in nature in the lab, then study how the molecules interact with biological systems. His pioneering contributions include novel methods for assembling some of the most complex carbohydrates ever synthesized. These molecules, access to which would be impossible without his work, have enabled understanding of the role of carbohydrates in diseases such as tuberculosis with applications in new drugs, vaccines and diagnostics. “Our research has applications in helping better understand the role of carbohydrates in disease and infection, and enabling new diagnostic tools,” says Lowary, who is also scientific director of GlycoNet, a pan-Canadian Network of Centres of Excellence administratively based at the University of Alberta. One such project in which Lowary’s lab has been involved is the substantial improvement of a urine-based test able to detect tuberculosis. Tuberculosis kills millions around the world every year and is the leading cause of death for people living with HIV. Diagnostic tests like this are just one application of research to which Lowary’s team has contributed. “The success we have had is due to two things,” says Lowary. “First, fantastic co-workers—most importantly talented graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and technicians. Second, is the exceptional research environment in the Department of Chemistry and Faculty of Science, which has been unwaveringly supportive of both my own program and the long tradition of excellence in glycoscience research at the University of Alberta.”

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ALUMNI PERSPECTIVES

THE VALUE OF EDUCATIONAL BREADTH Jack Newton (’01 BSc(Spec), ’05 MSc)

on a major alongside an ultimate career direction. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was how the cross-disciplinary learning I was undertaking would so powerfully equip me for everything I’ve done over the last 20 years. My eventual journey into entrepreneurship began as I was wrapping up my bachelor’s degree (in computing science, ultimately!). One of my professors and mentors, Jonathan Schaeffer (computing science), invited me to join a new UAlberta spinoff company called Chenomx. The company was looking for its first software developer to help create a novel medical diagnostic tool based on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology, and thought I’d be a great fit. I was excited to take the job. In tackling my first big, gnarly, “real world” technical challenge at Chenomx, I found the foundational learning I’d done across so many areas of science to be instrumental. Some of what I learned while studying biology and biochemistry during my bachelor’s degree, for example, provided a vital backdrop for the programming work I was doing as I helped create this tool. I also came to appreciate that education is not one-dimensional, or even linear. Over the course of my career at Chenomx, I took a sabbatical to pursue a master’s degree in machine learning, studying with

GIROU X P OR T R A I T PHOTOGR A PH Y

MY JOURNEY TO FOUNDING CLIO, a cloud-based legal technology company that has grown to be one of Canada’s most successful companies, started in childhood. My parents brought one of the first personal computers—an IBM 8086—into our home and encouraged me to experiment and play with this new device. I started programming when I was about eight years old. Over the course of the next decade, I proceeded to fall in love with the idea of creating programs. I loved the idea of creating something out of nothing. One of the things I’m most thankful for from my parents—and that I try to emulate in my own parenting—is that my natural curiosity was never hindered by rules or expectations. I was left to explore at my own pace and with my own direction, and my parents never tried to steer me toward a specific career. I entered my bachelor of science program in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Science retaining all of that curiosity. While I intended to major in computing science, I remained curious about several other fields, including medicine and biotechnology. My undergraduate program let me explore a wide variety of topics—including statistics, biology, biochemistry, business, epistemology, and machine learning—as I worked to decide on a major for my degree. At the time, I felt I was merely exploring specific areas of science, trying to decide

Russ Greiner (computing science), and my time at Chenomx was extremely helpful in this next phase of education. I eventually became the director of product development at Chenomx and was able to leverage my exposure to business topics and mentors over the course of my time at UAlberta to get the most out of my master’s program. Then, while still at Chenomx, I caught the startup bug, and ultimately directed my love of creating new things toward founding and creating Clio. Today, I continue to put the learning I’ve done at UAlberta, Chenomx, and beyond to work as Clio continues to thrive. Clio has grown from two people to a global company of more than 500, producing one of the most-used technology tools in the legal industry, and I’m excited for what the

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future holds. 

Jack Newton is the co-founder and CEO of Clio, a legal technology company based in British Columbia. Clio offers software and applications tailored for the field of law, including client intake, case and document management, billing, and more.

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CONTOURS SHAPE THE WORLD

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Science Contours Fall 2020  

Science Contours is a semi-annual publication dedicated to highlighting the collective achievements of the Faculty of Science community. It...

Science Contours Fall 2020  

Science Contours is a semi-annual publication dedicated to highlighting the collective achievements of the Faculty of Science community. It...

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