York prof awarded NSERC’s E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship

NSERC's EWR Steacie Memorial Award
NSERC’s EWR Steacie Memorial Award
Thilo Womelsdorf. Photo Credit: Martin Lipman / NSERC

York University Biology Professor Thilo Womelsdorf has been awarded an E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Up to six of these two-year, $250,000 fellowships are awarded annually by NSERC to enhance the career development of promising early-career scientists and engineers.

“York is delighted to see Biologist Thilo Womelsdorf be awarded the E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship from NSERC, recognizing him as an outstanding researcher,” said Robert Haché, York’s vice-president research & innovation.

“Womelsdorf’s research on the brain helps medical professionals learn more about neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, and in doing so, Womelsdorf is pointing the way to new technologies and strategies for combatting these disorders,” he added.

Often, we think of focusing our attention as a personal decision, a small act of willpower that trains our thoughts and actions on a specific task. In reality, our brains are feeding us little bits of stored information—past experiences, logical deductions, desires—to help us focus on what is important and ignore the rest. But how does our brain know what is useful, and how does it turn that information into directed attention?

Womelsdorf is tracing the roots of attention all the way down to the individual brain cells that store the insights and memories that guide our thoughts. The York University professor and his team work at the intersection of neuroscience, psychology, biology and computer engineering to understand this complex process. Womelsdorf’s research integrates next-generation neuro-technologies, including micro-sensors that record the activity of hundreds of brain cells and map how these cells form circuits and then larger neural networks, to transmit relevant information throughout the mind. These signals tell us, for example, that we need to be careful about the red-hot stove element but can tune out the buzzing of the refrigerator when we’re preparing a cup of tea.

“It’s a terrific recognition of Thilo’s leading-edge neuroscience research into how our brains focus attention and filter out distractions. Congratulations!” said Ray Jayawardhana, dean of the Faculty of Science (and a past Steacie Fellow himself).

More about the E.W.R Steacie Memorial Fellowships

The fellowships honour the memory of Edgar William Richard Steacie, an outstanding chemist and research leader who made major contributions to the development of science in Canada during, and immediately following, World War II.

Steacie believed that young researchers are a great national asset and should be given every opportunity to develop their own ideas. He nurtured Canadian talent and drew many promising scientists to our country.  The fellowships are awarded to enhance the career development of outstanding and highly promising university faculty who are earning a strong international reputation for original research.

Successful fellows are relieved of teaching and administrative duties, so that they can devote all their time and energy to research. The fellowships are held at a Canadian university or affiliated research institution.