The right tool for the job: Faculty of Science researchers successful in securing coveted equipment grants

Faculty of Science
Earth and Environmental Sciences
Aerial view of the campus and rideau canal
Laboratory-based research is crucial to better understand our environment, develop therapies for disease and improve our overall quality of life. However, experimental research is very cost-intensive when we consider the price of state-of-the art research equipment.

Most operating grants cover the costs of hiring graduate students, purchasing lab consumables and disseminating research results, but are rarely large enough to allow researchers to acquire or replace much-needed equipment. The NSERC Research Tools and Instruments (RTI) grants program is designed to help university researchers in the natural sciences and engineering obtain research equipment. Despite being very competitive, Faculty of Science professors have done remarkably well in obtaining RTI grants. The following professors received this coveted funding in 2021 to add cutting-edge equipment to their labs.

Professors Christopher Boddy and Jeffrey Keillor received RTI funding to replace their solid phase peptide synthesizer. The Boddy lab uses this equipment to characterize natural product biosynthetic pathways, and study DNA-binding hydrocarbon stapled peptides. The equipment will also enable the Keillor lab to pursue their research on the chemical biology of transglutaminases, as it makes it possible for them to develop peptide-based enzyme substrates and inhibitors, as well as novel probes for protein labelling.

Liberty Blue Automated Microwave Peptide Synthesis system
Liberty Blue Automated Microwave Peptide Synthesis system, purchased by Professors Christopher Boddy and Jeffrey Keillor with their NSERC RTI grant

Professors Marina Cvetkovska, Allyson MacLean and Frances Pick will acquire two controlled environment growth chambers to grow terrestrial plants, algae and photosynthetic bacteria. The Cvetkovska group studies how plants and algae adapt and respond to abiotic stress, including stress caused by climate change, using extremophilic green algae from Antarctica as models. The MacLean group studies the symbiosis between plants and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi under controlled environmental conditions which can be accurately controlled in growth chambers. The Pick lab uses these chambers to grow cyanobacteria, specifically toxigenic strains of bloom-forming freshwater species, which pose risks to wildlife, human health and regional economies.

Professor Eva Hemmer will acquire a new X-ray Diffraction (XRD) instrument, equipped with a state-of-the-art high-speed detector, critical to her research on the design of next-generation optical and magnetic rare-earth-based materials. Her co-applicants will make regular use of this equipment for their research programs on waste management in the mining and nuclear power industries (Tom Al), the properties of various iron-oxides and how they affect the fate of environmental contaminants (Danielle Fortin), the development of tools to interpret the behavior of unsaturated soils for use in geotechnical practice (Sai Vanapalli), and the modification of cellulosic materials to improve their performance in polymeric and cementitious composites for advanced building applications (Reza Foruzanmehr).

Early-career researcher Professor Rajendhran Rajakumar was successful with his very first RTI application to purchase three constant-climate environmental chambers that will allow him to establish a lab workflow for experimental biology and genetic engineering of invertebrates. These chambers will house colonies of more than 50 different ant species and hundreds of transgenic lines of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, and maintain experimental conditions such as temperature, photoperiod, and humidity, all of which are relevant to study development, reproduction, and stress factors.

A group of researchers studying development, reproductive and metabolic physiology, and anthropogenic stressors such as pollutants in normal and genetically modified zebrafish will acquire a behavioural unit dedicated to high resolution analysis of movement. Professor Vance Trudeau recently discovered a new sex hormone, secretoneurin, and his group will use the equipment to examine sexual behaviour in single and double secretoneurin knockout lines. Professor Jan Mennigen will use the unit to study various aspects of the roles of nonapeptides isotocin and vasotocin, fish equivalents of mammalian oxytocin and vasopressin, as well as to assess behavioural effects of contaminant exposure. Professor Tuan Bui will investigate the neural basis of congenital disorders affecting neural and musculoskeletal systems. Professor Marc Ekker uses transgenic approaches to ablate specific neuronal cell types and genome editing to produce targeted mutations in key genes that control neuronal development and locomotor behaviour. Together, this group of researchers will conduct advanced research on development and physiology with applications in fish breeding, biomedicine and evolution.