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U of T takes home a slate of NSERC awards

Dick Peltier leads the pack with the Herzberg Gold Medal

University Professor Dick Peltier has added the prestigious Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal to his collection of awards. (NSERC photo)

Five U of T researchers and students have been awarded prizes from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) in recognition of their scholarly achievements.

The marquee award, the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering, went to a U of T physicist, University Professor Dick Peltier, a pioneer in Earth system science. Watch a video of him talking about his research.

The medal, which comes with $1 million, is named for Canadian Nobel Laureate Gerhard Herzberg and awarded annually for outstanding and sustained contributions to Canadian research in the natural sciences and engineering. It is widely considered the most prestigious award a natural scientist or engineer can win.

Other U of T researchers and students honoured included Professors Brendan Frey, Benjamin Blencowe, Eugene Fiume, post-doctoral fellow Alex Hayat and master’s student Matthew Florczynski.

“That U of T is home to six winners of this year’s NSERC prizes is a reflection of the astonishing breadth of talent at our institution,” said Professor David Naylor, the university’s president. “I’m especially proud of the fact that these honours have been awarded to scholars with decades of experience and to others who are just beginning their research careers. I extend congratulations to all the winners—and my thanks to NSERC for its continued support of Canadian researchers.”

Peltier was cited for seminal contributions to geophysics, atmospheric sciences and climate change research. Using sophisticated mathematical concepts, Peltier builds models that depict how climate has evolved over the past 750 million years and project how it will change in the future. His research on ice-age climate variability is considered the gold standard for scholarship on past climate change. The Herzberg Medal is the latest in a long line of honours for Peltier, which includes the 2002 Vetlesen Prize (often called the Nobel of earth sciences) and the 2010 Bower Award. He holds the title University Professor, which is the highest honour U of T bestows on its faculty members.

The John C. Polanyi Award was shared by  Frey (pictured, left) of the Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Department of Computer Science and the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research, and Blencowe (pictured, right) of the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research and the Department of Molecular Genetics. The pair has taken a major step forward in understanding how the human genome can do so much with what seems like a relatively small number of genes. Their discovery of a sophisticated DNA code that cells use to rearrange parts of genetic messages in a process called “splicing” sheds new light on how our bodies function and how DNA mutations can result in disease.

Given in honour of John Polanyi, a U of T professor of chemistry and 1986 Nobel Laureate, the award recognizes a recent scientific advance. Watch a video about these researchers.

Fiume (pictured, right), of the Department of Computer Science, won one of four Synergy Awards for Innovation, which recognize partnerships between universities and industry. Fiume and his industrial partner, Autodesk, were recognized for making Canada a leader in the expanding field of visual modelling, which is used in filmmaking, architecture and medicine, among other fields. Research emerging from the partnership is being used by industry to conceptualize green buildings, improve environmental performance, design safer cars and diagnose disease.

Hayat (left), a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Physics, won the Howard Alper Postdoctoral Prize, which recognizes academic excellence, existing and potential research contributions, interpersonal and communications skills and leadership abilities.

Florczynski (right), a master’s student in the Institute of Medical Sciences, won one of four André Hamer Postgraduate Prizes, awarded to the most outstanding candidates in NSERC’s postgraduate scholarship competitions.

U of T’s vice-president (research), Professor Paul Young, added: “It is also important to note that the work of these researchers has a direct impact on global society, from climate change to genetics to innovative technology that is used in a variety of fields that matter to all of us.” 

The winners were honoured in a ceremony hosted by the Governor General in a ceremony in Ottawa on Feb. 27.