2017 John Charles Polanyi Prize Winners

Each year, the Government of Ontario awards a prize of $20,000 to five young researchers who are carrying out exceptional work in the areas of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology/Medicine, Literature and Economic Science.

The Prizes, which this year celebrate their 30th anniversary, were established by the provincial government in honour of the achievement of John Charles Polanyi, recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

These are this year’s winners.

Dr. Ismael Mourifié

Dr. Ismael Mourifié, Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, University of Toronto, takes the Polanyi Prize in Economic Science.

What really lies at the root of the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields? And what can we do about it? That is the focus of the research that won Dr. Mourifié the 2017 Polanyi Prize in Economic Science.

Dr. Mourifié’s work develops statistical methods to examine the evidence for the two major theories behind the discrepancy between men and women in STEM (the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics). One explanation says that because women anticipate wage discrimination in STEM careers, they are discouraged from enrolling in postsecondary programs in these sectors; the other points the finger at non-monetary social factors such as stereotyping and gender profiling.

Given the different policy implications of these two theories, it is important to investigate which of the two is the dominant effect, or why it is that one dominates the other. His preliminary research results, Dr. Mourifié says, point to social factors as having the greatest influence on the gender gap in STEM. They also predict that many women not choosing STEM would in fact have benefitted more (in terms of labour outcomes, better careers and higher income) if they had entered a STEM career.

Now, he is aiming to have a better understanding of those non-monetary external factors that prevent STEM-minded women from choosing STEM-related fields in which they have a better chance to succeed. Dr. Mourifié, a native of Ivory Coast who came to Canada in 2008, also intends to focus similar research on minority groups and financially constrained students.

Dr. Sarah Svenningsen

Dr. Sarah Svenningsen, CIHR and CRNN Post-Doctoral Fellow at McMaster University and Robarts Research Institute at Western University, receives the Polanyi Prize in Physiology/Medicine. 

Asthma is a leading cause of hospital visits and admissions in Canada, leading to enormous costs to patients, employers and the health-care system. Dr. Svenningsen’s research has shown that asthma measurements ­− and potentially treatments ­− can be dramatically improved by harnessing the power of medical imaging and computer programs.

For many patients with asthma, current therapies do not improve their symptoms or lower the risk of the disease worsening. These therapies are mainly directed towards improvements in breathing or lung-function tests that are poor markers of how patients feel and how frequently they need to change or increase their medications. Dr. Svenningsen has developed new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) methods and measurements that may be used to personalize or guide treatment selection in individual asthmatics.

Dr. Svenningsen believes that improved asthma measurements will lead to treatments that are more effective and less burdensome on patients and their healthcare providers. For example, she is investigating the potential for MRI to improve the delivery of treatment following bronchial thermoplasty, a treatment option in some severe cases, which uses radiofrequency energy to reduce the smooth muscle that causes airways to close in asthma. It normally requires three treatment sessions delivered over several weeks to cover the whole lung, but using Dr. Svenningsen’s approach, doctors may be able to target treatment to only those airways that are diseased, greatly reducing the number of treatments, costs and patient burden.

Clinical studies are now ongoing in conjunction with researchers at Western and McMaster universities to determine if image-guided treatment results in better outcomes than conventional whole-lung treatment. Dr. Svenningsen’s vision is that medical imaging will lead to the delivery of the correct treatment, in the most effective way, for the right patient, at the right time.

Dr. Areti Angeliki Veroniki

Dr. Areti Angeliki Veroniki, Postdoctoral Fellow, Li Ka-Shing Knowledge Institute, St. Michael’s Hospital, University of Toronto, wins the Polanyi Prize in Physiology/Medicine.

Individual medical studies are an essential tool in testing treatments for diseases, but when the results of several are combined, their collective power increases exponentially. Knowledge synthesis (KS) – the discipline of synthesizing the results of different studies − is the area of Dr. Veroniki’s expertise, and it is her mission to improve how KS is carried out.

The focus of Dr. Veroniki’s work is developing methods for improving network meta-analysis (NMA), a process which brings together and compares several studies on trials of different interventions, such as drugs. NMAs are designed to discern which of the interventions are most effective on which types of patient, but the challenge is how to compare results from studies that may have used very different methodologies.

Dr. Veroniki’s research focuses on the use of individual patient data – the gold standard of study data – in the NMA process, as well as how to account for the risks of bias in each study’s data and potential inconsistencies across studies. More accurate synthesis of studies will lead to better decision-making on which interventions to use, and which are more effective for treating different groups of patients, for example those under or over certain ages. The use of individual patient data will help tailor findings – and therefore interventions − to individual patients.

Dr. Veroniki, who moved from Greece to Canada to pursue her work in 2014, says her research could result in better treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Type-1 diabetes.

Dr. Mathieu Lavallée-Adam

Dr. Mathieu Lavallée-Adam takes the Polanyi Prize in Chemistry. Lavallée-Adam is an Assistant Professor in the University of Ottawa’s Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology.

Dr. Lavallée-Adam’s algorithms to improve the understanding of protein interactions in human cells could open the door to better drug treatments for an array of diseases.

Although mass spectrometry is a useful tool for looking at how proteins behave in cells, the data it provides are complex and full of “noise” that makes it hard to extract the most useful information. Dr. Lavallée-Adam’s research focuses on the creation of computational tools such as algorithms that filter out non-useful data and assign high-confidence scores to the data that accurately show how proteins are interacting and forming protein complexes.

A number of diseases are caused by proteins misfolding in cells (often as a cause of genetic mutation), and identifying these proteins and their rogue interactions is a vital element of developing drugs to treat the problem. Dr. Lavallée-Adam’s algorithms have helped identify the protein interactions related to cystic fibrosis and test how effectively they can be prevented with different drugs.

His computational software tools also help identify the connections between genetic factors and resulting protein behaviour, a breakthrough that could help develop drugs to treat diseases such as cancer and leukodystrophy (a genetic disease affecting the brain and spinal cord).

Dr. Vinh Nguyen

Dr. Vinh Nguyen, Assistant Professor, Diaspora Literatures and East Asian Studies, Renison University College, University of Waterloo, wins the Polanyi Prize in Literature.

Refugees make up a rich part of the fabric of Canada’s history, and Dr. Nguyen’s research project explores the shared historical and political connections between three separate refugee waves in the post-War era.

Dr. Nguyen is interviewing recent refuges from Syria, Vietnamese who fled here after 1975, and survivors of the third major wave of Mennonite immigration to Canada during and after the Second World War. His aim in listening to their stories is to understand their shared experiences and to dispel myths that refugees tend to be apolitical and passive.

Himself a refugee from Vietnam via a Thai refugee camp, Dr. Vinh says he is looking to document affiliations between refugees groups that have traditionally gone unreported. For example, Vietnamese refugees in Toronto advocated on behalf of recent Syrian refuges and also sponsored them, while Mennonites stepped up to support Vietnamese during their wave of migration in the seventies and eighties. In looking at different refugee groups, he hopes to reveal the forces that underlie war, migration, and humanitarianism.

Refugees are rarely helpless and pitiable, says Dr. Nguyen; on the contrary, his project aims to show how their experiences drive them to become caring, compassionate and politically engaged Canadians.

To watch a video celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Polanyi Prizes, click here.