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From regional impacts to providing insights valued worldwide

The aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, seen over the Saskatoon SuperDARN radar.SUPPLIED

Saskatchewan is known as the “land of living skies.” Appropriately, the University of Saskatchewan (USask) is home to a research program focused on the outer reaches of our atmosphere.

The SuperDARN (Super Dual Auroral Radar Network) is a global network of scientific radars monitoring conditions in the near-Earth space environment. The Saskatoon component is a cluster of 20 massive radar antennas in a field just east of the city. Built to study activity in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, it was one of the first such sites in a network that now includes 36 locations around the world and contributions by 11 countries.

“At USask, we are delivering research the world needs. It could not be done without the contribution of the CFI and our other generous partners,” says USask president Peter Stoicheff.

“Canada is one of the countries most vulnerable to space weather effects, such as the geomagnetic storm that caused the 1989 Quebec Hydro blackout,” says USask physicist Kathryn McWilliams, director of SuperDARN and chair of the international SuperDARN Collaboration.

She explains that SuperDARN helps position Canada as a global leader in monitoring space weather conditions, as the study of forecasting of space weather is in its infancy.

“Right now, we essentially look out the window to see space weather disturbances coming our way between the sun and the Earth,” she says. “Researchers are building rudimentary models of the solar wind’s interaction with the Earth’s magnetosphere, ionosphere and atmosphere. Like early research in predicting weather, models will be built and tested with data from global space weather facilities – like SuperDARN – and from space.”

Dr. McWilliams says her work, and that of her collaborators, would not be possible without the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) Major Science Initiatives (MSI) Fund. That investment pays off in protecting the Canadian public.

“Canadian SuperDARN data and expertise are essential to mitigating damaging space weather effects,” she says.

Over its 25-year history, the CFI has funded 312 USask leading-edge research infrastructure projects, including SuperDARN, that are producing work to help address global challenges – from new vaccines to sustainable food, water and energy-security solutions. In the last CFI competition, one-third of the CFI’s total MSI funding was awarded to USask.

Rooted in the Prairies, the university’s strategic goal is reaching beyond to provide research the world needs and to embrace courageous curiosity wherever it may lead. USask’s leaders are focused on developing an environment that attracts top-tier talent and enhances research capacity. Funded projects span a wide variety of disciplines, from “one health” research, dedicated to addressing problems at the intersection of people, animals and their environments, to exploration in the social sciences.

The Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization has made essential contributions to Canada’s pandemic response.SUPPLIED

The pandemic has, of course, put focus on the USask Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO), which is also supported by the CFI’s MSI Fund.

VIDO has some of the largest and most advanced containment level 3 (CL3) infrastructure in the world. This capacity has been critical to Canada’s COVID-19 response.

Even before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, VIDO’s expert team was the first in Canada to isolate the virus, develop a model of the disease and pilot-test candidate vaccines. Their protein subunit vaccine COVAC-2 is currently in clinical trials. VIDO’s unique capacity also supported the development of possible solutions to COVID-19 by scientists and organizations from across Canada and around the world.

One of these scientists, Alyson Kelvin, an infectious disease expert from Dalhousie University, came to USask to access VIDO’s CL3.

“I was familiar with VIDO as the place to do world-class research on high consequence emerging viruses in Canada,” says Dr. Kelvin. “I arrived as a visiting scientist, but immediately knew that I wanted to make VIDO my permanent research home and develop solutions for diseases like COVID-19 in Saskatchewan.”

Dr. Kelvin has accepted a scientist position and is part of a growing team of VIDO scientists, including Arinjay Banerjee, Neeraj Dhar and Angela Rasmussen, who are an integral part of VIDO’s role as Canada’s Centre for Pandemic Research. The centre also includes enhanced research capacity for pandemic readiness like upgrades to containment level 4, biomanufacturing facilities and advanced animal housing. This will help ensure Canada’s position as a world leader in the development of solutions to future emerging infectious diseases.

The USask research ecosystem includes the Canadian Light Source, Canada’s only synchrotron, an invaluable tool for innovative science in advanced materials, agriculture, environment and health. The MSI-funded national facility is owned by USask and located on campus, and brings together Canada’s brightest minds with scientists from across the planet to solve pressing problems and make major discoveries.

USask’s ties to agriculture are deep and important to the institution, with a commitment to food and water security. Researchers from the College of Agriculture and Bioresources, the Global Institute for Food Security and the Western College of Veterinary Medicine are combining their diverse skillsets, discovering and applying cutting-edge technologies to agriculture, such as advanced computing and genomics to lead farming into the digital age. The Crop Development Centre at USask is celebrating 50 years of discovery, including sequencing the genomes of 15 wheat varieties, peas, lentils, canola, barley and 500 new varieties of commercially available crops.

One of the world-leading facilities at the University of Saskatchewan, which is led by physicist Kathryn McWilliams.SUPPLIED

Kirstin Bett is a USask crop scientist focused on creating new varieties of crops, including those that feed the world’s growing need for plant-based proteins like lentils.

“CFI funding helped to launch my research, providing the key pieces of infrastructure critical to do genomics,” says Dr. Bett, “Without the CFI, we would have had to search for alternate sources of funding instead of producing results, and would not have had access to cutting-edge equipment.”

Inherent in being grounded in Saskatchewan is embracing Indigenization. By 2036, one in five residents of Saskatchewan will identify as Indigenous – a significant proportion of Indigenous Peoples in Canada live in and contribute to the social, cultural and economic life of Saskatchewan.

“Our university has a responsibility and the privilege to partner with Indigenous communities to preserve, celebrate and create space for Indigenous knowledges, stories, languages and culture,” says Baljit Singh, vice-president research. “We are on a journey of decolonization and reconciliation, seeking to build a vibrant community of Indigenous faculty, graduate students and post-doctoral fellows.”

John Pomeroy, Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change, says over the past decade much progress has been made in tying research methods to the insights and knowledge of the Indigenous communities that live in a particular region.

Dr. Pomeroy has led five successful CFI-funded projects and is the director of Global Water Futures (GWF), the largest and most cited freshwater research program in the world, part of USask’s Global Institute for Water Security.

For example, research on the hydrology of the Saskatchewan River Basin was deeply enhanced by working with the Mistawasis and Cumberland House communities.

“The instruments are not enough,” he says, stressing local collaborations and observations help guide the creation of models formed from data. Together, a more fulsome picture of the future in a particular region is formed for all those who live there.

“What CFI grants do is allow us to build a sense of place with our research,” he says, adding that working with Indigenous communities brings more meaning and richness to that work. “It’s important.”

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