Canada Research Chairs

Canada Research Chairs

Making an impact
January 15, 2007

The Canada Research Chairs Program has done great things for Canada’s international reputation in university-based research since its creation six years ago. Some of the world’s most accomplished and promising minds have chosen Canada, returned to Canada, or been able to take their current research in Canada to a higher level because of receiving a prestigious CRC appointment.

There are now more than 1,600 of these best and brightest Chairs at work on a staggering variety of challenges in health sciences, engineering, natural sciences, humanities and social sciences. The program has been copied in many other countries, from Portugal to South Africa. There are far too many success stories to tell in one column. So I have chosen to hand the job over to one Canada Research Chair who has an original and inspiring story to tell. His message is loud and clear: research is making lives better in Canada and the world.

Hearing is Believing

By Richard C. Seewald, Canada Research Chair in Childhood Hearing, University of Western Ontario

To some people, it probably seemed miraculous. To us, it was certainly cause for celebration, but I’d be lying if I said we were surprised: we knew that at some point our years of work would pay off.

I’m speaking of the day we accomplished something that many people considered impossible: ensuring hearing-impaired infants could hear their parents’ voices. To help these children was simple enough in principle—fit a hearing aid—but putting that into practice was another matter. Infants’ ears are not all the same, and even if you were lucky enough to fit the right hearing aid, how would you know it was loud enough, but not so loud that it caused further damage? A six-month-old can’t exactly tell you. Our only option was to sort the problem out step by step—a decade-long process that would combine math, biology, neuroscience, computing, speech science and even child psychology. But in the end, not only did we help infants hear speech, we also gave them a fuller life. Babies with poorly fitted hearing aids are slow to develop language and the cognitive and social abilities that go with it—deficits which often take a lifetime to erase.

I share this story not to gloat, but because it tells a larger story—about how modern research has changed, and why we need the Canada Research Chairs Program to address this new reality.

Mine was a complex problem. That no doubt sounds clichéd—everything seems to be complex nowadays—but we often fail to appreciate what this complexity means. For one thing, it means that we’re running low on easy answers. In an age where we’ve figured out air travel, antibiotics, microcomputers and, at least in some places, living together in relative harmony, most of the problems that remain are really, really difficult to solve.

The Chairs program recognizes that many problems cannot be properly addressed—much less solved—in a year. That can take five years, or even ten. We may wish that wasn’t so; certainly, I do. I also wish that the program had existed in the mid-1980s when I started this work. It would have allowed me to focus my efforts very early on. I did get valuable support from government and other funding agencies, and for that I am thankful, but it was only when I was appointed Canada Research Chair in Childhood Hearing that I was able to accelerate the pace of research, innovation, and commercialization.

And I’m just one of a great many success stories. By 2008, Canadians will have 2,000 Canada Research Chairs looking for solutions to the most difficult problems we face. This is a $300-million-per-year investment, with billions of dollars in rewards: innovative alternatives to expensive medical treatments, world-class training opportunities for students, evidence-based solutions for social problems, and of course, the many commercial spin-offs that benefit a country of patent-holders. And the fact that Chairholders work at almost every Canadian university means students from all sizes of communities can stay in Canada—and still study with some of the best minds in the world.

Most importantly, the Canada Research Chairs Program puts Canadians first in line for real-world benefits. In the case of my research, that means that all infants in Ontario now receive hearing tests shortly after birth and other provinces are looking to implement similar programs. This rapid adoption shows how problems do not remain problems for long when there is enough support to find an answer. In addition to the support that the Chairs program gave me, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) also recognized that advanced science requires advanced equipment. By partnering with the CRC program, the CFI offset the costs of the equipment I needed to carry out my research.

When I started this quest for child-friendly hearing aids, it was with a simple idea in mind: waiting for infants to grow up before fitting them with adult hearing aids was just not good enough. By then, they are years behind in many aspects of development and are unlikely to catch up.

Research today is the same: not only is our development cumulative, but we require every one of our faculties to develop fully. That means supporting every single discipline—exactly what the CRC program does.

To some, this story may seem less magical than that famous “Eureka!” moment when the apple fell on Newton’s head. But for me, knowing how complex a problem truly is, and how it still gets solved, only enhances my wonder. If it takes a decade to find the answer to one question, so be it; in fact, perhaps those are the research problems that we really should be seeking out. Because solving these problems, like ensuring that infants hear speech so that they can grow up to be leading citizens, ultimately results in better lives for our families, our communities, and our country.

Funding in Action

Imagine coming across a to-do list that read like this:

  1. Find the key to conquering workplace stress.
  2. Build robots that can teach.
  3. Reduce the risk of breast cancer.

As a list of priorities, it’s a bit all over the place. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing: the world is much the same way, full of challenges—economic, ecological, medical, social, and mental—all of which need solutions. Still, far from being a wish list, these three items represent the results of actual research projects carried out by Canada Research Chairs, with additional support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation. The following stories of their discoveries are just three of hundreds made over the past six years—new knowledge being put to use by government, business, and ordinary Canadians, every day.

Canada Research Chair in Occupational Health and Well-Being
Acadia University

At first, the nurses that Michael Leiter was studying seemed very similar: they all worked 60-hour weeks, dealt with seriously ill people, and had to do day-to-day chores that few of us could imagine. But some were on the verge of collapsing, while others showed no hint of burnout.

The difference? The calm ones had taken control of their responsibilities; the others were bouncing around from one demand to another. In fact, in numerous studies, Leiter has found that when it comes to slaying stress, control over your job demands may be the silver bullet.

To find such a cure-all is no small thing: billions of dollars are lost each year due to stress and burnout. Of course, more control doesn’t mean giving a bank teller the same power as a CEO. “We often find that people aren’t using all the control they have,” Leiter says. “For example, rather than reacting immediately to every piece of work that is dropped on your desk, you can try prioritizing and scheduling the work throughout the week.”

It sounds simple, but many people don’t do it because they doubt the extra effort is worth it. Still, Leiter’s work has proven that, for employees and employers alike, this is the best single antidote for workplace stress. “Anyone can take control of their work,” he says. “You just need to be creative, and a little bit gutsy.”By helping autistic children communicate, the robots were doing something humans can do—only faster. But that’s just one application of Michaud’s work. He designs robots that can see, hear and understand the world around them—and respond appropriately to human behavior.

Canada Research Chair in Mobile Robotics
Université de Sherbrooke

It seems strange that someone would prefer a robot to a person, but that was the case with the children François Michaud was observing. It didn’t hurt that the robots looked like cartoon characters and stuffed animals. But what really made the children pay attention was how the robots responded to them. When a child succeeded at a simple communication task, the robot would dance and play music. If the child failed, it would offer encouragement.

By helping autistic children communicate, the robots were doing something humans can do—only faster. But that’s just one application of Michaud’s work. He designs robots that can see, hear and understand the world around them—and respond appropriately to human behavior.

“Our robots adapt to their environments,” explains Michaud. “When confronted with an unforeseen event—such as a door suddenly opening—they can analyze each possible course of action and make the best choice. This capability is what allows them to function completely independently.”

This adaptability also makes for virtually limitless applications. Besides enhancing his educational robots, Michaud is now designing even more advanced systems that will communicate between homecare patients and healthcare providers. This will make it possible to have hospital-quality monitoring without bricks-and-mortar costs.

Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Cancer
University of Alberta

If someone had just completed a course of chemotherapy for cancer, you might think he or she would be better off lying in bed rather than going for a run. But in examining the effects of exercise across the entire cancer experience—from prevention to treatment to long-term survival—Kerry Courneya has discovered the opposite is true.

“Exercise is crucial for different things at different stages of the illness,” says Courneya. “Although exercising during cancer treatment is difficult, many are able to do it with proper guidance and support. It helps the body withstand the negative effects of cancer treatments, and it helps protect against anxiety and depression.”

For those who wish to prevent cancer, or keep it in remission, Courneya found exercise helped in a different way, by strengthening the immune system. In women, it also reduces levels of the hormone estrogen, which not only helps with breast cancer, but also protects against colon and endometrial cancer.

“An hour of running each week, or several hours of moderate exercise such as walking, can significantly reduce your risk,” he says.

Courneya’s work shows no research question can be ruled out, even those that seem to have obvious answers. While bed rest may still be the right prescription for someone with the flu, we now know it’s not the right choice for cancer patients—or survivors.