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Canadians sparkle in galaxy of science stars

Dr. Julio Montaner, Director of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, poses for a photograph after speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012.

Darryl Dyck for The Globe and Mail/darryl dyck The Globe and Mail

There were probably more PhD's per square metre at the Vancouver Convention Centre than anywhere else on the planet over the weekend, as the American Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual conference.

The event drew more than 8,000 researchers, policy makers and science communicators from 60 countries, to hold more than 170 lectures on everything from astronomy to zoology.

Canadians played key roles in the event. Here are five bright minds:

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Julio Montaner, Director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

All scientists like to illustrate their work with graphs, but few can flash up on the screen anything as dramatic as the chart Dr. Montaner uses to illustrate the impact his research has had on AIDS.

Dr. Montaner's pioneering work in using highly active antiretroviral drugs (HAART) to treat those with HIV, has had stunning results. The number of new HIV diagnoses per year in B.C. has dropped more than 50 per cent since the HAART treatment program began in 1996, giving the province the only declining HIV rate in Canada.

Dr. Montaner told AAAS delegates that recent studies shows the HAART treatment, which uses a "drug cocktail" to attack HIV, not only improves the health of HIV-positive individuals, but it also dramatically reduces the likelihood of HIV transmission. Tests show the level of HIV in sexual fluids is reduced to undetectable levels, reducing the chance of spreading the disease by sexual contact.

Daphne Maurer, a distinguished professor of psychology and neuroscience at McMaster University.

Dr. Maurer is no gamer, but as someone who studies the "plasticity" of the human brain she was open to the possibility that a first-person shooter game, Medal of Honor, could help improve the vision of adults who were born with cataracts in both eyes.

Dr. Maurer said the fast action of the video game appears to help develop "plasticity" in the brain, and subjects can open up channels in the visual nervous system that allow them to overcome sensory deficiencies they have had since childhood.

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Dr. Maurer is now trying to develop a game of her own, because of concerns about the violent content of Medal of Honor.

Peter St. George-Hyslop, a professor in the department of medicine and director of the Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Disease, at the University of Toronto.

A former instructor in neurology and genetics at Harvard University, Dr. St. George-Hyslop says he is driven by "curiosity and consumed by finding out the answer." He is researching the molecular biological processes that cause neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's, which afflict an estimated 35 million people worldwide. That number is expected to triple by 2050, unless medical breakthroughs can turn the tide.

Dr. St. George-Hyslop's panel (it included three other leading researchers) discussed the need for a new research funding model that will help in "fast tracking scientific discoveries to the bedside."

With new cases of Alzheimer's developing at the rate of one every 69 seconds, Dr. St. George-Hyslop and his colleagues are arguing that we urgently need to find new ways to move research ahead more rapidly, and hopefully develop a drug to combat the disease.

Lia Merminga, head of the accelerator team at TRIUMF, Canada's national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics.

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Known as a brilliant physicist and with a cyclotron (a machine that accelerates protons to three-quarters the speed of light) at her disposal, Dr. Merminga joined a panel at the AAAS conference to discuss the latest discoveries in particle physics.

The symposium looked at the latest results from CERN, where a gigantic scientific instrument known as the Large Hadron Collider is being used to search for Higgs boson, a hypothetical elementary particle, the confirmation of which would provide key information to understanding the origin of mass.

While the scientific world awaits the latest discoveries from CERN, Dr. Merminga, who oversees a staff of 130 at TRIUMF, is already looking ahead to new technology that will be even more efficient at particle acceleration.

"If you want to understand astrophysics – the processes that go on inside stars or nova and supernova – you need to come back and understand these nuclear physics properties," she says of her work.

Villy Christensen, a fisheries professor and director of the Nereus Program at the University of B.C.

Dr. Christensen, who has been analyzing ocean food webs for 20 years, has worked with an international team to develop the "first global model of life in the world's oceans."

The computer program allows scientists to run various scenarios that will predict the state of the oceans in the future, depending on what parameters are entered.

Using the program, you can heat up the planet faster or slower, increase or decrease the commercial catch and change acidification levels, among other things.

He said that globally we are seeing a decline in big fish species, and an increase in smaller fish, which are of no commercial interest.

And Dr. Christensen said that "unless we do something drastic" in the way we manage our oceans, that trend will continue. He hopes the new program, which allows policy makers to glimpse possible futures, will help guide us to a better world.

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