Western University researchers earn national NSERC awards

Photo by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada

One unravels how young children learn math; the other has helped provide a solution to an impending isotope shortage that threatens medical diagnostics worldwide.

Western University’s Daniel Ansari and Michael Kovacs both garnered high-profile national awards issued by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) this week. Ansari was awarded one of six prestigious E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowships, while Kovacs was one of six team members receiving the Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering.

A world leader in understanding brain mechanisms that underlie numerical and mathematical processing, Ansari uses behavioural and brain imaging methods to study individual differences that put some children on a poor trajectory for learning math. His research has shown, for example, that early numeracy can predict future, high-level math abilities – information that can help teachers, school psychologists and parents.

“My laboratory is one of a handful of research groups worldwide, and the only in Canada, that combines psychological and neuroscientific approaches to better understand how the human brain represents and processes numbers,” he says.

“School-entry numerical skills are a more important predictor of future academic achievement than are early reading and socio-emotional skills – around five per cent of children have specific difficulties (Developmental Dyscalculia) in acquiring even the most basic numerical skills, putting them at a significant disadvantage.”

A member of Western’s world-renowned Brain and Mind Institute, Ansari receives a $250,000 research grant and salary support that allows him to focus more time on research over the two-year duration of the award.

Kovacs, who is also a scientist at Lawson Health Research Institute, is one of six team members receiving the 2015 Brockhouse Prize awarded to TRIUMF – Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics.

The interdisciplinary team, composed of experts in physics, chemistry and nuclear medicine, is addressing the impending shortage of medical radioisotope technetium-99m (Tc-99m), which is the world standard for medical imaging technologies used to diagnose cancer and heart disease. The world’s largest producer of medical isotopes – the 57-year old NRU nuclear reactor at Atomic Energy of Canada’s Chalk River Laboratories – is winding down operations, prompting Canada to find an alternate source.

Thanks to the team’s breakthrough technology, hospitals and companies will be able to retrofit current infrastructure with a made-in-Canada solution for producing Tc-99m in the event of another isotope crisis.  Major Canadian hospitals will be able to use their own medical cyclotrons to produce enough Tc-99m for their daily needs in just one night. The innovation is safer than current technology as it eliminates the need to use weapons-grade radioactive uranium, which is currently shipped across international borders to produce Tc-99m.

“We are very proud to be sharing this prestigious award for collaborative research with our pan-Canadian partners,” Kovacs says. “Utilizing our state-of-the-art facilities, we have demonstrated that a reliable supply of cyclotron-produced Tc-99m for patients in the London region and across the country is now a reality.”

The research team is working with a Canadian start-up company to license, transfer and sell this technology around the world. The award provides a team grant of up to $250,000.

For more information, please contact Douglas Keddy, Research Communications Manager, 519-661-2111 ext. 87485, dkeddy@uwo.ca or Julia Capaldi, Communications Consultant, Lawson Health Research Institute, 519-685-8500 ext. 75616, Julia.capaldi@lawsonresearch.com