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Canada Research Chairs: government backs leading scholars in mental health, human rights and more

Minister of State for Science and Technology visits UTM to award 11 new, eight renewed chairs

CRC Julie Lefebvre, CRC Leonardo Salmena

University of Toronto researchers made a grand showing April 9 in the federal government’s announcement of $139 million for the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program, $17.6 million of which will go to 11 new and eight renewed chairs at U of T.

Ed Holder, Canada’s Minister of State for Science and Technology, visited the University of Toronto Mississauga campus to make the announcement. “Through our government’s updated science, technology and innovation strategy, we are making the record investments necessary to push the boundaries of knowledge, create jobs and opportunities, and improve the quality of life of Canadians,” he said.

Launched in 2000, the Canada Research Chair program is aimed at helping the country attract and retain research leaders in engineering and natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences. Leonardo Salmena of U of T's department of pharmacology and toxicology and holder of the new CRC in Signal Transduction and Gene Regulation in Cancer, spoke on behalf of the chairholders.

“The Canada Research Chairs program will allow my team to build an infrastructure to conduct excellent science,” Salmena said. “More importantly, it will allow me to have a hand in training Canada’s future researchers.”

Salmena is researching the molecular basis of acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer originating in bone marrow. Through his role as a chairholder, he hopes his research can be used to develop new strategies for preventing and treating this form of cancer.

“We are grateful to the government of Canada for this investment,” said Professor Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation. “The CRC program has enabled universities across Canada, U of T among them, to attract and retain the best researchers from around the world. As such, the program is critical to the long-term prosperity of our nation.”

The diverse array of researchers backed by the program includes such leaders as Lisa Forman of U of T's Dalla Lana School of Public Health and the University of Toronto Mississauga's Joel Levine.

Levine studies the social interaction of fruit flies (hear Levine in a People Behind the Science podcast with Marie McNeely) in a bid to understand the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie innate patterns of social interaction. (Read more about Levine.) Forman, a leading international human rights law scholar, is leveraging her Canada Research Chair to advance health as a human right for all as an integral component of responses to global health equity.

“The right to health is a fundamental human right recognized in international law that can help political and health leaders to better address global health inequities,” said Forman, Lupina Assistant Professor in Global Health and Human Rights.

Supported by CRC funding, Forman’s research seeks to strengthen the international legal framework on the right to health to better respond to global health inequity in a number of ways.

“For example, there’s a loophole in the right to health argument that permits states to deny health care on the basis of limited resources, including for the poorest and most vulnerable populations,” said Forman, who is also director of the Comparative Program on Health and Society, a health fellowship program funded by the Lupina Foundation, which supports graduate research across U of T on the social determinants of health.

International lawyers have tried to fix this loophole by developing the idea of “minimum core obligations” to meet essential health needs that cannot be denied under any circumstances, said Forman. But she added the definition of minimum core obligations does not specify the health needs it covers and fails to specify the obligations of wealthier countries to assist poor countries to meet core obligations.

“These gaps in the definition limit the ability of the right to health to protect people's health against government inaction and cuts in international health funding. My research proposes to fill this gap by analyzing how courts and scholars around the world have interpreted this concept, and using this analysis to reconceptualise how we define and implement minimum core obligations.”

(Read more about Forman's work.)

U of T’s new chairholders are:

  • Timothy Chan, department of mechanical and industrial engineering — CRC in Novel Optimization and Analytics in Health
  • Lisa Forman, Dalla Lana School of Public Health — CRC in Human Rights and Global Health Equity
  • Teodor Grantcharov, department of surgery and St. Michael’s Hospital — CRC in Simulation and Surgical Safety
  • Monica Justice, department of molecular genetics and the Hospital for Sick Children — CRC in Mammalian Molecular Genetics
  • Larissa Katz, Faculty of Law — CRC in Private Law Theory
  • Julie Lefebvre, department of molecular genetics and Hospital for Sick Children — CRC in Developing Neural Circuitries
  • Joel Levine, department of biology, U of T Mississauga — CRC in Neurogenetics
  • Jeffrey Meyer, department of psychiatry and Centre for Addiction and Mental Health — CRC in Neurochemistry of Major Depression
  • Elizabeth Page-Gould, department of psychology — CRC in Social Psychophysiology
  • Catherine Sabiston, Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education — CRC in Physical Activity and Mental Health
  • Leonardo Salmena, department of pharmacology and toxicology, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre (University Health Network) — CRC in Signal Transduction and Gene Regulation in Cancer

In addition to funding the new chairs, eight chairs were renewed:

  • Patricia Brubaker, department of physiology — CRC in Vascular and Metabolic Biology
  • George Elliott, department of mathematics — CRC in Mathematics
  • Sajeev John, department of physics — CRC in Optical Sciences
  • Tony Lam, department of physiology and University Health Network — CRC in Obesity
  • Andras Nagy, department of molecular genetics and Mount Sinai Hospital — CRC in Stem Cells and Regeneration
  • Geoffrey Ozin, department of chemistry — CRC in Materials Chemistry and Nanochemistry  
  • Nicholas Rule, department of psychology — CRC in Social Perception and Cognition
  • Elise Stanley, department of physiology and University Health Network — CRC in Cellular Neuroscience