Canada’s leading researchers, innovators and budding scientists honoured at NSERC Awards

Last Tuesday evening (Feb. 7) I attended the presentation of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Awards. This ceremony, held at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, is an annual event that showcases the significance and brilliance of the natural sciences and engineering research taking place in Canada. For me, it was an opportunity to learn about the talent and dedication of Canada’s leading researchers and innovators. They are an impressive bunch.

Four of the NSERC Awards recognized outstanding partnerships between industry and colleges or universities. As a former astronaut, I am particularly fond of collaborations. The cost and complexity of today’s research require that we collaborate and engage across a variety of disciplines and boundaries. One of these ‘Synergy Awards for Innovation’ went to a team led by Dr. Zhangxing (John) Chen of the University of Calgary. Since 2008, Dr. Chen has been leading a research consortium of partners from Alberta’s petroleum industry. The group uses dynamic simulations and a virtual reality interface that allows oil and gas companies to focus their efforts on reducing their environmental impact, rather than spending inordinate time and money on field testing. The Chen group is now recognized as one of the most effective partnerships between academia and industry.

Proud UCalgary Chancellor (me) and Schulich Engineering Dean Bill Rosehart (R) congratulate Dr. John Chen on his NSERC Award.
Proud UCalgary Chancellor (me) and Schulich Engineering Dean Bill Rosehart congratulate Dr. John Chen (centre) on his NSERC Award.

While ten team members of the Chen group were recognized at last evening’s ceremony, there is in fact a total of 18 companies that are members of the consortium. Ha! I think the Chen team more than meets the award criterion for ‘two or more companies’ partnering together. In addition to providing insights about operational costs and environmental impact, the Chen group could also teach valuable lessons to petroleum industry executives about the management of large consortia and the nuances of working collaboratively.

Dr. John Chen receives one of the Synergy Awards for Innovation from Governor General David Johnston. Photo credit: Rideau Hall.
Dr. John Chen receives one of the Synergy Awards for Innovation from Governor General David Johnston. Photo credit: Rideau Hall.

I was also pleased to meet several award recipients from previous Canada-Wide Science Fairs at the ceremony. These young students, well established on their science educational path, had been graciously invited by NSERC to meet with the esteemed innovators and to converse with the thought and community leaders in attendance. What an outstanding opportunity! I am so grateful that NSERC reaches out to and encourages these top students and uses its programs to support secondary educational programs. By doing so, the Council is nurturing Canada’s next generation of scientists, engineers, creators and entrepreneurs. Well done, NSERC! What foresight.

Budding scientist Sophie Hoye Pacholek meets Mr. Reni Barlow of Youth Science Canada.
Budding scientist Sophie Hoye Pacholek meets Mr. Reni Barlow of Youth Science Canada.

The research sector has benefited richly from Canada’s secondary school system, formative teachers and dedicated professors. It is only right that today’s researchers now give back by engaging and inspiring young Canadians. His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada seems to agree. In his opening remarks at last evening’s event, he said, “It’s up to those of us who most value science and innovation and understand so profoundly its importance to respond — to be not simply practitioners, but publicists and prophets.”

Let’s congratulate this year’s NSERC awardees for bringing pride to Canada and benefit to society. And let’s share our time and career experiences with today’s students whenever we have an opportunity.

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