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Newly unveiled research chairs take aim at diversity gap in Canadian science

Donna Rose Addis is a memory researcher from New Zealand who earned her PhD at the University of Toronto.

Bob Duchnicky/The Globe and Mail

A neuroscientist who studies the biological basis of memory and imagination, a cell biologist who focuses on gene expression in the developing embryo, a computer scientist whose interests include the application of technology to health care and a mathematician who analyzes the interactions and evolution of disease-causing pathogens.

All four scientists, three of whom are women, will take up positions in Canadian universities next year as the first batch of Canada 150 Research Chairs, federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan announced in Ottawa on Wednesday. The hiring initiative, rapidly rolled out earlier this year, was framed by the government as an opportunity to capture academic talent with a nod to diversity at a time when Canada is looking increasingly more appealing to many researchers in the United States and beyond.

"This is a brain gain for Canada," Ms. Duncan said of the new hires. "These are promising, internationally renowned researchers."

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More than 25 research chairs are ultimately expected to be hired under the one-time $117-million program that was unveiled in the 2017 federal budget. Each chair is funded for a seven-year window at a level of $350,000 or $1-million a year, with the larger value reserved for higher-profile senior scientists with costlier research programs.

Of the four announced on Wednesday, one chair is at the $1-million level. Margo Seltzer, a prominent computer scientist who directs Harvard University's Center for Research on Computation and Society, will be moving her research effort to the University of British Columbia. Dr. Seltzer is widely cited for her work on file systems and databases. Another U.S. researcher, Miguel Ramalho-Santos, is departing his home base at the University of California San Francisco to take up a chair in developmental epigenetics at the University of Toronto.

The other two researchers in the mix each have a previous connection to Canada.

Donna Rose Addis is a memory researcher from New Zealand who earned her PhD at the University of Toronto and attracted attention for her groundbreaking work with Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter. Their research showed that the neural circuits that the brain uses to recollect past autobiographical events are similar to those employed to imagine and plan for the future.

"It's the reconstructive nature of memory that makes it perfect for imagination because it allows you to retrieve details from a variety of experiences and incorporate them into something new," Dr. Addis said.

After establishing her own research lab at the University of Auckland, Dr. Addis now returns to the University of Toronto where she said she will be well equipped to pursue her work. Among the tools at her disposal will be an imaging technique known as magnetoencephalography, which will allow her to track how neural circuits conjure up future scenarios in fractions of a second. The work has applications to the study of depression and dementia, which are known to have an impact on the brain's ability to remember and imagine.

The fourth research chair named is Caroline Colijn, a Canadian mathematician currently based at Imperial College London, where she analyzes genetic data on pathogens with the aim of designing ways to control infections. Dr. Colijn checks off a number of boxes when it comes to the kind of people the government said it hoped to attract when it launched the Canada 150 Research chair. High on the list was providing opportunities to repatriate Canadian scientists working abroad.

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"My colleagues who know about the scheme say things like, 'Wow – that's how you celebrate your 150th? I want to live there,'" said Dr. Colijn, who will be heading to Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

With relatively short notice, universities scrambled to get in their bids for the chairs over the summer, with some administrators quietly asking whether it made sense to conduct such a search so hastily. Nevertheless, there was no shortage of candidates for the chairs. Universities with proposed hires who rose to the top in the competition were given the green light to begin making offers in late November.

More hiring announcements are expected early in the new year, Ms. Duncan said.

While the initiative was under way, Ms. Duncan had stressed the need for a diverse range of candidates. In contrast, Canada Excellence Research Chairs, another high-profile initiative launched with a similar goal of attracting international talent to Canadian universities, led to an overwhelmingly male cohort of researchers. The Canada 150 program was aimed at a wider range of disciplines and allowed universities to compete for both established and emerging researchers.

Imogen Coe, dean of the faculty of science at Ryerson University in Toronto, said that while the first candidates announced on Wednesday are clearly excellent choices, their success will depend on how well they are supported going forward. In terms of inclusivity, she added, the injection of the new chairs into the Canadian research system will not have much impact unless the system itself can change in a way that improves conditions for female and minority researchers.

"There's always this talk about getting girls and women into STEM [science, technology, engineering and math]," she said. "That's really a myth. It's really about stopping them from getting pushed out."

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