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Bold and innovative

Interdisciplinary teams awarded nearly $500,000 for high-risk, high-reward research

By Jeff Green

Researchers are pushing the boundaries of knowledge into exciting new areas thanks to a federal investment of almost $500,000.

On April 4, the results of the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) 2021 Exploration competition were released. The program supports high risk, high-reward and interdisciplinary research.

Across the country, 102 research teams are receiving $25 million from the Government of Canada.

Here at Memorial, projects are being led by Dr. Sohrab Zendehboudi, associate professor and research chair, Department of Process Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, and co-principal investigators Drs. Karl Jobst and Lindsay Cahill, assistant professors, Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science.

Dr.  Zendehboudi and his collaborators are receiving $250,000 for the project, Decarbonization Strategy Through Bio-hydrogen Production from Brown Algae: Multi-scale Investigation.

Drs. Jobst and Cahill are receiving $249,964 for the project, Does Exposure to Micro- and Nanoplastics Impact Pregnancy and Fetal Development?

Innovative approach

Working with an international team of collaborators, Dr. Zendehboudi is examining the use of brown algae as a possible sustainable source for biological hydrogen production.

Wearing a striped shirt, black jacket and dark glasses, Dr. Sohrab Zendehboudi rests his right hand on a rail.
Dr. Sohrab Zendehboudi
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Hydrogen is a promising carbon-free fuel that can be produced from various renewable sources such as wind and biological systems.

That’s where brown algae come in.

Dr. Zendehboudi says using the algae would mean less carbon emissions and it would be less energy intensive, compared to fossil fuel-based hydrogen.

“This research can lead to considerable economic and environmental benefits to Canada, particularly further progress in decarbonization strategies and green energy supply,” he told the Gazette.

“The project will provide both fundamental and applied understanding of the biohydrogen production, using experimental and modelling approaches.”

His team will also train students from multiple disciplines to become leaders within the energy and environment sectors.

“We hope that our proposed research outcome can solve a part of the global problem.” — Dr. Sohrab Zendehboudi

Overall, they want to try and address challenges in biohydrogen production.

“We hope that our proposed research outcome can solve a part of the global problem that has emerged since the industrial revolution.”

Co-applicants and co-collaborators include, from Memorial, Drs. Yan Zhang, Department of Process Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science; Hamid Usefi, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Faculty of Science; Francesca Kerton, Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science; Ginger Ke, Faculty of Business Administration; Talia Stockmann, Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science; and Xili Duan, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science; and Drs. Nima Rezaei, School of Engineering Science, Separation Science/Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology, Finland; Maurice Dusseault, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Waterloo; Ioannis Chatzis, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Waterloo; Ali Lohi, Department of Chemical Engineering, Ryerson University; and Dru Heagle, Natural Resources Canada.

High-tech approach

For their project, Drs. Jobst and Cahill are developing a novel approach using sophisticated instrumentation to figure out the identities, and how much, nanometer-sized plastic particles are in human placental tissue.

The study is the first of its kind.

“Plastics are essential to modern life, used in a myriad of applications, including toys, food packaging, clothing and construction materials,” said Dr. Jobst.

Smiling, Dr. Jobst wears a light blue shirt and a tie.
Dr. Karl Jobst
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Over time, he says, these plastics can degrade into particles known as nanoplastics, which are smaller than one micron in diameter.

“Once ingested or inhaled, nanoplastics are small enough that they can transport into the bloodstream and accumulate in other tissues and organs, including the placenta,” Dr. Cahill added.

The accumulation of nanoplastics in human tissue and its impact on human health remains unknown.

The researchers say they hope to learn to what extent humans are exposed to nanoplastics and whether nanoplastics exposure can result in potential adverse pregnancy outcomes.

Dr. Lindsay Cahill wears glasses, a white shirt and patterned blazer.
Dr. Lindsay Cahill
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

They say the study could help establish guidelines to limit exposures and ultimately prevent adverse pregnancy outcomes that result from exposure to nanoplastics.

“The results will provide crucial insight on how nanoplastics impact fetal development and guide the creation of regulations to minimize these exposures,” noted Dr. Jobst.

Collaborators include Drs. Ahmet Baschat, Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics, Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Drs. Paul Helm, School of the Environment; John Kingdom, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology; Christopher Macgowan, Department of Medical Biophysics; Andre Simpson, Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences; Myrna Simpson, Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences; and John Sled, Department of Medical Biophysics, University of Toronto.

‘Foundational support’

“In order to think big and innovate, researchers need foundational support and that’s what our teams are receiving through this investment by the Government of Canada,” said Dr. Neil Bose, vice-president (research).

“Our interdisciplinary teams are tackling critical environmental and health-related research, collaborating with colleagues to lead groundbreaking studies to benefit Canadians and those around the world. This work will enhance Memorial’s global profile as a top research and innovation leader. Congratulations to the teams receiving this funding.”

Graphic with a purple background featuring the words New Frontiers in Research Fund; Fonds Nouvelles frontieres en recherche, along with the Government of Canada logos.

Launched in 2018, the NFRF funds interdisciplinary, high-risk/high-reward, transformative and rapid-response research led by Canadian researchers working with Canadian and international partners. It is designed to support world-leading innovation and enhance Canada’s competitiveness and expertise in the global, knowledge-based economy.

The NFRF is under the strategic direction of the Canada Research Co-ordinating Committee and is managed as a tri-agency program by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), on behalf of Canada’s three federal research funding agencies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and SSHRC.

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