2014 Polanyi Prize Winners
Dr. Drew Bennett
Dr. Drew Bennett takes the Polanyi Prize for Chemistry. He is a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Waterloo’s Department of Chemistry.
Drew Bennett’s research has the potential to improve treatment for those with serious diseases such as cancer, HIV, Parkinson’s and bacterial infections.
While promising advances in nanoscale biotechnology are making new drugs and therapies possible to improve the health and longevity of Canadians, a major hurdle for the effectiveness of known drugs as well as the development of new therapies is the ability to target specific cells.
Cancer cells, for example, have negatively charged surfaces. However, throughout nature there are peptides – or small proteins – that are positively charged and help our bodies fight infections.
Bennett’s research uses computer simulations to produce physics-based “movies” of how individual molecules interact with each other.
The simulations provide insight into how peptides target and penetrate cell membranes.
The goal is to design new peptides that target and penetrate the membrane of diseased cells, and deliver specific drugs, to ultimately kill them.
As a result of Bennett’s research it is hoped that a better understanding of peptides will allow emerging treatments for cancer and other major diseases to be delivered directly into specific cells, enhancing the success of known drugs and allowing new therapies to be developed.
Dr. Rahul Deb
Dr. Rahul Deb takes the Polanyi Prize for Economic Science. He is Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, University of Toronto.
Rahul Deb’s research examines whether it is possible to tell using a relatively simple test whether firms involved in a competitive bid for business with government or another regulated vendor are genuinely competing, or whether they are secretly colluding.
In an ideal market, firms would be competitive in an effort to keep prices low. But even in regulated industries collusion can nonetheless take place.
Using “revealed preference analysis” Deb has developed a general analytic theory that would allow market regulators to assess competition or collusion by observing a firm’s strategic behaviour over time.
Another aspect of his research examines how to allow governments conducting auctions for contracts to favour a weaker bidder for the social good while still operating within rules enforced by the courts.
Governments believe there can be social benefit to showing favouritism to some bidders in the interests of affirmative action, but they are not legally entitled to do so. Deb’s model would allow this kind of “discrimination” in bids to exist without hardwiring it into the rules of an auction. His theoretical model would allow tweaking of rules on a case-by-case basis where governments, for example, believed there was social benefit.
Dr. Andrea Charise
Dr. Andrea Charise, Assistant Professor of Health Studies, University of Toronto, Scarborough wins the Polanyi Prize for Literature.
In modern times, alarmist visions of a grey tsunami of retirees, a lost generation of unemployed young people and a theorized war against youth have been warning global audiences that people of different age groups are simply incompatible.
Andrea Charise’s research examines how the generational identity and intergenerational conflict that’s evident today was represented much earlier in literature. In fact, in 19th-century British literature and culture, older age was being reconceived, not only in literature but also as a field for health-based research.
Today, we are told to do the Sudoku and exercise our body to keep ourselves young, but aging and the notion that we must keep our body and mind in perpetual motion is a late 18th-century way of thinking about the body.
Charise’s research also examines the politics and poetics of generational relations in 19th–century Britain, which again surface in modern times.
The conflict between the generations was evident in literary texts as far back as Oedipus Rex and King Lear, but in 1798, British economist Thomas Malthus set off a culture war when he blamed the potential catastrophe of overpopulation on the thriving reproductive capacities of young people.
In modern times, Charise says the defining of age-based groups such as Boomers and Millenials is evidence of generational identity and intergenerational conflict in the modern literary imagination.
Literature and the humanities, her research concludes, are crucial to communicating in accessible ways the consequences of the way we think about age and the way generations think about each other.
Dr. Jennifer Brunet
Dr. Jennifer Brunet, Assistant Professor, School of Human Kinetics, University of Ottawa wins the Polanyi Prize for Physiology/Medicine.
Cancer strikes one in three women and one in two men, and Jennifer Brunet’s research is into the ways physical activity can not only have a positive effect on treatment and recovery, but can also prevent the deadly disease.
Through her research, Brunet wants to demonstrate that physical activity is an effective therapy and can complement conventional medicine and should therefore be considered an integral part of medicine.
Her current research is focused on the factors that encourage physical activity and the obstacles that hinder it among people with cancer. Her goal is to determine what type of intervention people need to become more active after cancer treatment.
While she acknowledges that people engage in physical activity for various reasons, her research to date has shown that those who do it for personal reasons, such as enjoyment or to be healthy, are going to be more active in the long term than those who do it because they feel pressured.
She hopes her work will provide evidence-based reasons for the allocation of resources to help promote physical activity in health care, and therefore improve the health and well-being of Canadians.
Dr. Eduardo Martin-Martinez
Dr. Eduardo Martin-Martinez, Research Assistant Professor, Institute for Quantum Computing, Department of Applied Mathematics, University of Waterloo wins the Polanyi Prize for Physics.
Eduardo Martin-Martinez’s research explores a new field that combines the two most fundamental pillars of physics – quantum theory and general relativity – to understand the nature of the gravitational interaction and to build new technology that breaks the boundaries of what we thought was possible.
Einstein gave us a new theory of gravity in the early 1900s, and for years physicists have tried unsuccessfully to examine gravity in relation to quantum theory.
Martin-Martinez wants to use quantum information theory to learn more about gravity.
General relativity – which has been used in modern technology such as GPS – tells us that the force of gravity is caused by curvature of spacetime. Two masses attract in the way two billiard balls attract each other when placed on a trampoline. Mass and energy move in a curved spacetime and the spacetime is curved by the presence of mass and energy. One of the most important modern challenges is to find a quantum description of gravity.
Quantum information theory studies the storage, transmission and processing of information through quantum systems. In this context, quantum mechanics allows us to carry out tasks that were previously considered impossible.
Quantum physics can deliver computers exponentially faster than the computers we can conceive of today, solve complex problems, store large amounts of information, and allow absolutely secure communications using quantum cryptography.
The goal of Martin-Martinez’s research is to use powerful tools from quantum information, science and technology to study quantum effects induced by gravity and, through them, to learn new information about spacetime. At the same time, he wants to use the theory of relativity to develop new quantum technologies. Potential applications include quantum computing technology and answers to how curvature and quantum theory affect the processing of information.