Three Waterloo academics are named among Canada’s Top Natural Sciences and Engineering Researchers for 2015 by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) today.

The work of these researchers is advancing human brain research using computer models, decreasing the environmental impacts of mining and increasing our understanding of invasive species.

Waterloo’s award winners are:

Chris Eliasmith, Professor in the Departments of Philosophy, Systems Design Engineering and Computer Science and Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Neuroscience wins the NSERC John C. Polanyi Award that honours an individual or team whose Canadian-based research has led to a recent outstanding advance in the natural sciences or engineering.

Chris Eliasmith

Chris Eliasmith. Photo: NSERC

David Blowes, Professor in the Faculty of Science and Canada Research Chair in Groundwater Remediation wins a Synergy Award for Innovation recognizing examples of college- or university-industry collaboration that stand as a model of effective partnership.

“This University is where industries, institutions and governments turn to for answers to their most pressing challenges,” said Feridun Hamdullahpur, president and vice-chancellor at Waterloo. “These awards show that our colleagues here deliver on priorities that matter to Canadians and the world and I congratulate Chris, David and Michael on their achievements. Transformative research projects such as these are a key element of the unique Waterloo model that generates real-world impact with global reach.”

NSERC is the primary funding agency supporting Canada's science and engineering research community. The agency supports almost 30,000 post-secondary students and post-doctoral fellows in their advanced studies. NSERC promotes discovery by funding approximately 12,000 professors every year and fosters innovation by working with over 3,000 Canadian companies that are participating and investing in post-secondary research projects.

Chris Eliasmith

NSERC John C. Polanyi Award

Chris Eliasmith has built a computer model of the human brain that makes human-like mistakes, has human-like accuracy, and takes human-like lengths of time to process information. The work could lead to better treatments for brain trauma and Alzheimer’s, as well as advances in artificial intelligence.

Its name is Spaun, and it’s more human-like than any computer today. Developed by University of Waterloo neuroscientist Eliasmith, Spaun(Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network) is the world’s largest simulation of a functioning brain. And unlike other computer brains, Spauncan mimic the human brain’s ability to see, remember and act.

This internationally acclaimed computer program’s 2.5 million virtual neurons and simulated eye and arm allow it to shift between diverse tasks – from copying human handwriting to finding hidden patterns in a list of numbers. Such tasks will help researchers understand how millions of neurons cooperate to cause behaviour.

Eliasmith has drawn on his experience in philosophy, neuroscience, systems design engineering and computer science to develop mathematical theories of the brain that will make it possible for scientists to study the behavioural consequences of brain damage in a safe, simulated environment, without damaging a real brain. It will provide new insights into how the brain actually works and potentially revolutionize the way we treat brain disorders.

Eliasmith’s work has been featured in the BBC, Popular Science, CBC, Wired, New York Times, Science News, Discovery, and Nature just to name a few. He’s also the author of a step-by-step guide, called ‘How to Build a Brain’, which teaches readers how to build their own computer model of the human brain.

David Blowes

Synergy Awards for Innovation

The Diavik Waste Rock Research Project is an unprecedented research program that is leading to better mine waste management to protect fragile northern environments for centuries to come.

Diamond mining has provided a major economic boost to the Northwest Territories, including Indigenous communities. But the long-term benefits depend on minimizing and preventing acid rock drainage (ARD). Mine wastes often contain sulfide minerals that, when exposed to air and water, form acidic water that can harm fish and aquatic life for hundreds of years, long after the mine has closed.

A 10-year collaboration involving a multidisciplinary team from three Canadian universities and engineers at the Diavik Diamond Mine has determined what causes mining waste and produced methods to predict the effects it will have on the environment.

Led by David Blowes, an expert in the prediction, remediation and prevention of groundwater contamination from mine wastes at the University of Waterloo, researchers used novel analytical techniques – including synchrotron X-rays – and advanced numerical models to enhance the biological and geochemical processes used for controlling the formation of ARD in waste rock piles.

That independent, peer-reviewed science convinced regulators to reduce the amount of Diavik’s security deposit, a guarantee companies must provide to ensure that the resources to close a mine will be available in the future. For large mines, these deposits can cost over $100 million.

The research team’s techniques are now working their way around the globe, helping mining companies worldwide design more cost-effective mitigation strategies that better protect the environment.

Michael McTavish

NSERC André Hamer Postgraduate Prize

Earthworms are generally viewed as a welcome addition to any garden or farmer’s field for their ability to increase the amount of air and water in the soil and break down dead organic matter.  But 19 of Canada’s 27 earthworm species are European imports and not all are necessarily good for ecosystems.

Throughout Canada’s forests, several species of invasive earthworms feed on surface leaf litter and mix things up in a bad way. Leaf litter is used as a source of food and as a building material by many earthworm species. A large enough earthworm community can completely remove the litter layer in a single season that can sometimes prevent new plants from growing.

As part of his undergraduate studies, Michael McTavish revealed some interesting migration behaviours of the earthworm at different population sizes, and in different types of leaf litter. Now as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Waterloo, he is expanding his research to better understand how invasive earthworms are changing our ecosystems. He is focusing on how these earthworms interact with the native plants we depend on to restore human-impacted ecosystems and with other invasive species that threaten these restoration efforts.

McTavish, who is also an accomplished musician and sound engineer, was published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology and has received multiple awards for his research, including a Vanier scholarship and Ontario Graduate Scholarship. His impressive academic achievements led to him being fast-tracked to the PhD program after just his first year of graduate studies.

McTavish’s research could help decision-makers design more effective and efficient options for ecological restoration and managing invasive species.