Throughout history, scientific discoveries have enabled significant societal leaps. Just consider the countless lives that have been saved through our ability to treat cancer with high-intensity radioactive cobalt, a result of the breakthrough development of the world’s first cobalt-60 unit in 1951 based on the work of Dr. Sylvia Fedoruk.
Other life-saving interventions come from the efforts of Dr. Gerhard Herzberg, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1971 for his contribution to the knowledge of electronic structure and geometry of molecules, and particularly free radicals. Insights on these highly unstable, short-lived molecules have informed the development of pharmaceuticals, medical radiation tests, light sensors, plus a wide range of innovative materials.
These two scientists – who are among a long list of illustrious past, present and future leaders associated with the University of Saskatchewan (USask) – have credited the university’s research infrastructure with being “crucial to their success,” says Baljit Singh, VP, Research. “Throughout our 115-year history, we’ve achieved many milestones of research excellence, and our research strengths have been developed with careful planning and sustained investments.”
While much has changed over the past decades, the university has evolved alongside “societal needs,” he says. “We are focused on solving some of the complex challenges we face today, water and food security, pandemic preparedness, energy futures and climate change among them. By leveraging our research strength, we continue to deliver value for communities.”
Powering critical research infrastructure
Sustained funding support from various levels of government as well as philanthropy is a testament to the transformative potential of the research happening at USask, says Dr. Singh.
Among the critical – and unique – infrastructure at USask are the Canadian Light Source (CLS), the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO), the Super Dual Auroral Radar Network (SuperDARN) and the Global Water Futures Observatories (GWFO), all of which received support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s most recent Major Science Initiatives fund.
A national facility, owned by USask and located on campus, CLS is Canada’s only synchrotron. It draws academic, industry and government researchers from across Canada and the world, who are using advanced synchrotron techniques to probe the structure of matter. Dr. Singh credits CLS with enabling the “brightest minds to come together to make major discoveries and solve pressing problems; for example, by helping to advance cancer therapy and find solutions for antibiotic resistance, improve water and soil quality, support global food security and to develop greener technologies for energy production and storage.”
VIDO is “another unique-in-Canada facility at USask,” says Dr. Singh. “As a global leader in infectious disease research and vaccine development for humans and animals, VIDO’s team was the first in Canada to isolate the COVID-19 virus, develop a model of the disease and pilot-test candidate vaccines, with a protein subunit vaccine currently being in clinical trials.”
The coronavirus pandemic brought heightened attention to VIDO, since it has some of the largest and most advanced containment level 3 (CL3) infrastructure in the world, says Dr. Singh. “New investments will allow VIDO to become Canada’s Centre for Pandemic Research, which will include a level 4 bio-containment facility. This will make a big difference in how we deal with future pandemics and major disease outbreaks.”
Baljit Singh VP, Research, University of Saskatchewan
USask-led SuperDARN is a global network of scientific radars that monitor conditions in the near-Earth space environment to provide data crucial for predicting when electromagnetic storms in the Earth’s upper atmosphere could threaten technologies such as GPS, pipelines, electrical grids and navigation equipment. The Saskatoon component is a cluster of 20 massive radar antennas in a field just east of the city; it was one of the first such sites in a network that now includes 36 locations around the world and contributions by 11 countries.
Another facility of national renown is the Global Water Futures Observatories, which builds on the work of the Global Water Futures Program, says Dr. Singh. “USask leads a national collaboration that operates the network to monitor and help support the development of solutions for the impending water crisis that faces Canadians due to climate change, poor water management, the proliferation of toxic contaminants and environmental degradation.”
The reach of this initiative is impressive: it includes an integrated network of 76 instrumented basins, rivers, lakes and wetlands, 27 deployable observation systems and 31 state-of-the-art water laboratories. “Together, these components provide data that can help to quickly address flood, drought and water quality issues,” he says, adding that the GFWO operates across seven provinces and territories, including the Great Lakes Basin, and encompasses key partnerships with Wilfred Laurier University, the University of Waterloo and McMaster University.
Collaboratively turning insights into solutions
Advanced research facilities serve as magnets for collaboration, both for national and international teams, and Dr. Singh believes USask’s focus on “delivering the discoveries the world needs” resonates strongly within the research community as well as next-generation leaders.
“We’re very intentional in contributing to global efforts that aim to enhance sustainability, economic enterprise and community resilience,” he says. “Due to the complexity of today’s most pressing challenges, no single entity, no single country is likely to have all the answers. The sooner we all work together in an intentional manner – and share our ideas and insights about how to make a difference – the sooner we will find solutions.”
Across all research efforts, USask aims to “advance equity and inclusion,” notes Dr. Singh. “This is reflected in our work of engaging equity-deserving groups, including Indigenous communities, and paying attention to economic empowerment.”
A dedication to creating societal benefits has earned USask a high world impact ranking (58 out of 1,400 universities globally) related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), according to the Times Higher Education.
“We take our role in moving the SDGs forward very seriously,” says Dr. Singh. “The way we frame our research and teaching is with a view to contribute to environmental and economic sustainability and a stronger – and more just – global community.
“And we approach this work with a deep sense of humility.”
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