Backgrounder: UVic Discovery Grants and NSERC

Science, Medical Sciences, Social Sciences, Engineering

Discovery Grants are awarded annually by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The granting program is considered the flagship for foundational research in natural sciences and engineering disciplines.

In this current round of awards, University of Victoria researchers are being awarded $9.5 million in three categories: individual grants; scholarships and fellowships; and accelerator supplements.

The 48 researchers awarded individual grants are receiving a total of $7.8 million over the next five years that will support wide-ranging research in diverse areas – molecular interaction between intestinal parasites and microbes, high-performance thermal building insulation, community resilience, operational costs at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre and the engineering of neural tissue, to name a few.

Three UVic researchers are receiving Discovery Accelerator Supplements with a cumulative three-year value of $360,000. Thirty-three scholarships and fellowships with a total value of $1.4 million were also awarded.

UVic researchers featured at today’s NSERC announcement

Stephanie Willerth is an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UVic, and Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Engineering. She has been the acting director of UVic’s Centre for Biomedical Research since January 2017 and is also a member of the Division of Medical Sciences at UVic.

Willerth’s work in her Willerth Lab at UVic involves engineering tissue that can be transplanted into people to treat diseases of the nervous system such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, or to repair spinal cord damage. Her work with pluripotent stem cells – human cells that can be genetically modified to become muscle, blood, heart or nerve cells – holds much promise both for regenerative medicine and personalized medicine. The day could come, for instance, when someone needing a liver transplant could have a new liver created from their own cells, notes Willerth.

Her earlier work with the HIV virus led to significant advances in understanding the virus and how it develops resistance to medication. Willerth and her team studied an unprecedented 15,000 versions of the virus and were able to locate specific genes of the virus that are resistant to drugs – knowledge that will ultimately help researchers develop more effective treatments. The same method can be applied to other challenging viruses such as swine flu, Ebola and influenza, as well as to stem cell research.

Willerth is the author of the 2016 book Engineering Neural Tissue from Stem Cells and is featured in the newly released book Women of Innovation: The Impact of Leading Engineers in Canada.

  • Faces of UVic research video on Willerth:
  • Discovery Grant 2017: Willerth is receiving her second Discovery Grant this year, $120,000 over five years for her work engineering neural tissue using pluripotent stem cells


Dean Karlen is a particle researcher in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UVic. He is a physicist with TRIUMF – Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear-based physics and accelerator-based science founded in 1968 by UVic, SFU and UBC – and leads the flagship multidisciplinary research facility there, the Advanced Rare Isotope Laboratory (ARIEL). UVic is one of 19 Canadian universities that own and operate TRIUMF.

The work done at ARIEL is broadening Canada’s research capabilities in particle physics, nuclear physics, nuclear medicine and materials science. ARIEL’s unique techniques and tools can produce rare isotopes not typically found in nature, using particle accelerators found in only a handful of laboratories around the world. These isotopes provide a broad range of applications, from medical imaging to advanced industrial manufacturing and targeted therapy for tumours.

Karlen has participated extensively in particle physics experiments around the world, dating back to the 1980s. He served as director of UVic’s Victoria Subatomics Physics and Accelerator Research Centre (VISPA) and continues to play an active role in scientific and operational aspects of the T2K experiment in Japan, where he previously led a project to incorporate technology known as a Micropattern Time Projection Chamber into the T2K long baseline neutrino experiment.

  • Faces of UVic research video on Karlen:
  • Discovery Grant 2017: Karlen is receiving $205,000 over three years for graduate student support for accelerator physics projects on ARIEL


Fraser Hof is a professor in the Department of Chemistry at UVic. He is a Canada Research Chair in Supramolecular and Medicinal Chemistry, doing research work to fill the gap between recent cancer-research discoveries and the development of new anti-cancer drugs.

Many internal signals that tell cancer cells to grow uncontrollably and invade neighbouring tissues consist of two or more proteins that bind to each other. Hof investigates these “protein-protein” interactions as targets for disruptive agents that could stop the growth of cancers and serve as new therapies.

A conversation over beer with a scientist working at a Victoria craft brewery led Hof into a whole other line of research in 2016. Canadian breweries typically lose up to two per cent of their annual beer production due to not having a precise method of identifying when brewer’s yeast has been exhausted and can no longer be reused. Working with scientists at Phillips Brewing and Malting Co., Hof identified a “chemical enrichment method” that can solve the problem.

The yeast cells that Hof uses as early models in his medical research are similar to those used for brewing. Hof finds “incredible satisfaction” in being able to apply the knowledge gained through that work to help a local industry in his home community.

  • Faces of UVic Research video on Hof:
  • Frequent Discovery Grant recipient since 2006 including Discovery Grant 2014-2019 of $340,000


Brad Buckham is an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UVic. His current research focuses on using computer simulations to improve the designs and operating strategies for offshore technologies, including remotely operated vehicles used in deep sea explorations, and moored wave-energy converters.

Buckham is director of the UVic-led West Coast Wave Initiative (WCWI), a $2.5 million program located at UVic that brings together a multi-disciplinary group of academics and industry members to determine the feasibility, impact and structure of wave energy conversion on Canada’s west coast. Buckham also led the precursor to the WCWI – the West Coast Wave Collaboration Project, which collected and analyzed information on the wave-energy potential at Amphitrite Bank off Vancouver Island’s west coast at Ucluelet – and he continues to work with an array of international wave-technology companies to harness wave energy for sustainable power generation and improve the designs for operation in BC waters.

Co-author of the 2017 report “Wave Energy: A Primer for British Columbia,” Buckham and his team have developed a computer model of the BC coastline from the Columbia River in the south to Haida Gwaii in the north. The model combined years of data from wave measurement buoys and identified a number of “sweet spot” locations for wave energy development.

Through Buckham’s research, our province now has enough detailed information on the height, frequency and direction of its coastal waves to start developing and testing wave energy converters in the ocean.

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In this story

Keywords: NSERC, STEM, funding, natural sciences, engineering, clean energy, research

People: Stephanie Willerth, Brad Buckham, Fraser Hof, Dean Karlen, Kirsty Duncan

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