a, Science & Technology

McGill chooses its newest CERC recipient

McGill announced the appointment of its newest Canadian Excellence in Research Chair (CERC), Dr. Robin Rogers, on Sept. 29.

The CERC is a prestigious award granted to the top scientists in the world. Featuring over $10 million in funding, the program is designed to encourage cutting-edge research in Canada. Starting in January 2015, McGill will be the proud recipient of two CERC holders.

Prior to his appointment, Rogers, a world-renowned green chemist, was the Robert Ramsay Chair of Chemistry at the University of Alabama. Rogers’ work combines the theoretical and the applied aspects of chemistry, following phenomena from their initial discoveries through all the way to their applications. He cites Louis Pasteur as an influence, who in 1982 said: “There does not exist a category to which one can give the name ‘applied science.’ There is science and the application of science, bound together as the fruit to the tree which bears it.”

This interconnectedness of theory and application has been evident throughout Rogers’ research. In 2013, his lab created a type of ionic liquid used to deliver anaesthetic to patients more effectively. His group has patents on methods to pre-treat biomass and provide an alternative to the viscose process—a method for manufacturing cellulose fibres.

But what drew Rogers to green chemistry? He grew up during the space race, which he described as a time when society and science were working together to face a historic challenge. This desire to use science to improve society led him to green chemistry, a field where discoveries could directly improve people’s quality of life.

He looks forward to working with McGill students to explore methods of improving the sustainability of current industrial processes. In particular, Rogers says, he plans on working directly with pharmaceutical industries to produce environmentally sustainable [and] economically beneficial technology.

Rogers will be joining McGill’s other CERC holder, Dr. Luda Diatchenko, who studies the genetics of pain. According to Diatchenko, the field is important due to the nature of the phenotype—it tells us when something is wrong in the body.

“Pain is the number one reason people go to the doctor,” she said. “The cost of chronic pain […] is higher than the costs of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease combined.”

Although important, the field of pain genetics is an empty one. The relative dearth of researchers who study pain leaves a vast expanse of unexplored territory, one that Diatchenko chose to pursue.

“It was a field where I could really make a difference,” she said.

Pain is a phenomenon that has a massive impact on society; over $10 billion each year is lost due to decreased productivity and healthcare costs. Diatchenko’s work brings her into the realms of psychology, physiology, and other fields that extend well beyond her microbiology PhD.

Diatchenko’s work breaches past not just her own field, but also academia. After getting her PhD, Diatchenko spent time working in industry, where she was a leader of the RNA Expression Group at Clontech, Inc. and then director of Gene Discovery at Attagene, Inc., where she developed molecular tools to analyze gene expression. She is the co-founder of Algynomics, a private company that works to make applications of pain genetics research commercially available.

Grant money provided by the CERC program will allow Diatchenko to take an even closer look at the genes associated with pain. Analyzing the genomes of people suffering from chronic pain is expensive, so insufficient funding can limit the amount of data researchers can collect. Diatchenko hopes to use the resources provided by the government and McGill to create a more extensive molecular characterization of her studies’ cohorts.

The CERC provides a valuable contribution to McGill’s research community. But if there’s one thing that both CERC-holders agree on, it’s that the academic environment is not just dependent on award-winning professors. It is the contributions from curious students that keep research passionate and innovative.

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