2015 John Charles Polanyi Prize Winners

Dr. Kelly Babchishin

Dr. Kelly Babchishin, Banting Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research wins the Polanyi Prize for Physiology/Medicine. 

Kelly BabchishinDetermining the why is what drives Dr. Kelly Babchishin in her search to establish better informed prevention practices and treatment efforts for violent offenders. But more specifically, she aims to better understand why people commit violent and sexual crimes in the first place.

Through the examination of Swedish national registries, Dr. Babchishin’s research seeks to determine whether violent behaviour can be predicted – to identify these behaviours before their onset. She hopes to determine whether birth factors and the characteristics of parents and family members can demonstrate potential warning signs. She intends to achieve this by identifying each potential risk factor’s associations with sexual and non-sexual violent offenders in comparison to those who had no history of violence.

In her quest to predict which populations are most at risk of committing violent offences, Dr. Babchishin’s research also examines whether any neurologic disorders, psychiatric morbidity or impaired cognitive functioning were diagnosed before the violent crimes took place.

The purpose of the research is not to stigmatize, but to identify focus areas when it comes to preventing abuse from occurring in the first place. Dr. Babchishin believes that if we know the why, then we can better prevent violence and reduce the number of people affected by it. The results of this research have the potential to inform primary prevention programs across the world.

Dr. Riccardo Comin

Dr. Riccardo Comin takes the Polanyi Prize for Physics. He is an NSERC Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. 

Riccardo Comin

Dr. Riccardo Comin’s research is shining new light on emerging materials that could clear the way for cheaper and more efficient solar cells and LEDs.

Silicon, the material most often used in solar cell technology, is challenged by a family of strongly-absorbing, sunlight-harvesting materials that can be manufactured cost-effectively. Comin’s research takes a deeper look into the microscopic properties of these new functional materials, called metal halide perovskites, when they’re working at the heart of a solar cell.

Perovskites are a special, new breed of hybrid materials – an unusual blend of atoms and organic molecules – which, unlike silicon, can be easily manufactured in the form of very thin films and incorporated into solar cells which happen to be very efficient at converting the sun’s rays into electricity.

Dr. Comin believes this new field has progressed without a strong understanding of why these materials work the way they do. His goal: to reveal the secrets behind the exceptional performance of perovskites, which still remains enigmatic, and use this information to envision and design improved solar materials.

Think of the molecules inside perovskites as tiny arrows that can point in many directions, or all in the same direction. Dr. Comin’s research aims to design new methods to measure and control the arrangement of these molecules at the nanoscale. He believes the microscopic mechanism behind the functionality of this material holds the key to making it work better – and to developing new materials with similar properties.

With obvious implications for green energy, Dr. Comin’s research could potentially guide the design rules for new materials and enable innovations for solar and lighting technologies.

Dr. Benoit Lessard

Dr. Benoit Lessard, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Ottawa wins the Polanyi Prize for Chemistry.

Benoit LessardDr. Benoit Lessard believes many who study organic electronics, test their devices in a glove box focusing on performance and efficiency, not stability. But by looking at the impact that moisture, oxygen and other gases such as CO2 can have on these devices, Dr. Lessard’s research aims to discover new insights that could lead to a new generation of bendable, smart, highly-specific and tunable organic electronic sensors.

These sensors can be used for almost anything – from environmental analysis of contaminated drinking water to performance-enhancing drugs used by athletes. Pressure-sensitive sensors can even give the sense of touch to robotics or can be used as “electronic skin” for burn victims.

The main focus of Dr. Lessard’s research explores smart polymers (novel stimuli-responsive polymers) in organic electronic sensors. His research examines the synthesis of new small molecules and polymers (carbon-based molecule semiconductors) for applications in next-generation organic electronics – using organic molecules instead of silicone based electronics.

Dr. Lessard’s research explores in greater depth the effect the environment has on these organic devices and seeks to answer important unknowns – such as what materials are best to use, or possibly reveal other stability issues – which could result in new ways to manufacture flexible, inexpensive technologies.

Dr. Adam Shuhendler

Dr. Adam Shuhendler takes the Polanyi Prize for Chemistry. He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa’s Department of Chemistry.

Adam Shuhendler

Two people may have the same form of breast cancer, but that doesn’t mean they will have exactly the same experience with the disease.

Dr. Adam Shuhendler’s research examines the therapy response to common diseases and takes a personalized approach to the study of treatment, believing that since everyone has a different experience with disease, they should be treated accordingly by health care practitioners.

Traditionally, a biopsy was used to determine the effectiveness of treatment for a patient. A biopsy, however, is invasive and painful for patients – it involves breaking the skin to take tissue from the affected area. It also doesn’t give the full picture since only a small section of tissue is pulled out.

Dr. Shuhendler’s research explores medical imaging as an alternative solution. It uses contrast agents and imaging technologies, such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET), to help doctors see what’s happening at the subcellular level in an area of concern. It allows doctors to see what is happening inside the body – without breaking the skin.

When it comes to cancer, the current gold standard for measuring therapy response is seeing a change in the size of a tumour. Doctors will often measure a tumour’s size and then repeat the process every few months. Through his research, Dr. Shuhendler is studying the molecular level changes that lead to this size change in efforts to measure therapy response at a much earlier time after the initiation of treatment.

Dr. Shuhendler looks specifically at the active enzymes in the tumour cells – which he calls the “work horses” in therapy – and determines how active they are, effectively allowing physicians to gauge how an individual’s cells are responding to chemotherapy or radiation treatments in as close to real time as possible.

This concept broadens the scope of MRI and PET as a way to monitor the treatment, and provides quicker access to information in order to make important decisions as a patient undergoes treatment.

Dr. Matthew Teeter

Dr. Matthew Teeter, Assistant Professor, Departments of Medical Biophysics and Surgery at Western University wins the Polanyi Prize for Physiology/Medicine.

Matthew TeeterRecognizing that no two knees, hips or joints are the same, Dr. Matthew Teeter’s research explores better ways to design and evaluate hip, knee, and shoulder replacement implants through the use of micro-imaging scans, moving x-rays, and wearable sensor technologies.

Dr. Teeter says some manufacturers have placed new implants on the market without adequate testing, resulting in abnormally high failure rates, poor patient outcomes including pain and tissue damage, device recalls and multi-million dollar lawsuits.

His research explores better, more cost-effective ways to use imaging and sensor technologies that will aid in both evaluating and selecting an individualized surgical approach for each patient.

Dr. Teeter’s research examines a highly precise method known as radiostereometric analysis (RSA), to really look inside the joint and evaluate implants. Static RSA uses calibrated X-rays to understand the relationship between implants and bones over long time periods. Dynamic RSA uses video X-rays to instantaneously examine the motion of moving joints. Dr. Teeter is now looking into whether wearable devices that are worn like a Fitbit on the wrist, or sewn into clothing, can also provide the ability to see exact joint angles and movement patterns like RSA.

Using these advanced imaging tools will be important to patient outcomes and will also better inform surgeons and implant designers about which implant features are beneficial.

Dr. Teeter’s hope is that by determining whether cheaper, more easily accessible sensors can provide the same information as imaging, patients will benefit from safer, more cost-effective implants and surgeries that are tailored to their specific needs.