York professors awarded close to $1M in New Frontiers in Research funding

wrd art for new grant recipients

Four York University professors whose research projects have received a combined total of $996,430 in funding from the federal government will work to advance knowledge in an eclectic group of subject areas, including pollinator conservation, zero-gravity 3D bio-printing, primate interactions with humans, and title, ownership and governance in Vancouver Island’s forests.

The projects’ principal investigators are York Professors Sheila CollaAleksander CzekanskiValerie Schoof and Estair Van Wagner. They were named recipients of a grant from the New Frontiers in Research Fund, which enables early career researchers to conduct high-risk, high-reward interdisciplinary research not available through funding opportunities that are currently offered by the Tri-Council agencies.

Colla, along with Co-PI Lisa Myers, both assistant professors in the Faculty of Environmental Studies will receive $250,000 over two years for the project, “A biocultural and interdisciplinary approach to pollinator conservation through ecology, art and pedagogy.”

Sheila Colla

The declines of insects have been documented globally and have significant implications for food security and natural ecosystems. The project involves a collaboration between academics, artists and cultural centres. Colla, Myers and a research team will replant gardens created by the late Mi’kmaq artist Mike MacDonald and create new Indigenous gardens at various locations across Canada. MacDonald’s encounters with pollinators near Kitwanga, B.C., in an area threatened by clear-cut logging, inspired his understanding of their connection to medicine plants and healing. This was the seed of his numerous in-situ gardens created from 1995 to 2003, which he planted across Canada. The gardens are part of contemporary art practice that has burgeoned into ecological and eco-art genres, with potential for community-engaged art practices that address shared colonial histories of food, land use and medicines. MacDonald’s work bridges ecological concerns and reflects on Indigenous knowledge of plant medicines. The gardens will serve as spaces for ecological research and to create community-engaged arts programming to share knowledge of pollinators, plant medicines and land rights. The research will be supplemented with storytelling and experimental research to create a better understanding of the intricate relationships between wild pollinators, plants and people.

Alex Czekanski
Alex Czekanski

Czekanski, an associate professor and the NSERC/Quanser Chair in Design Engineering in the Lassonde School of Engineering, will receive $250,000 over two years. Czekanski’s project, “Zero-Gravity 3D Bioprinting of Super-Soft Materials,” co-applicants York Professors Kristin Andrews, Tara L Haas and Roxanne Mykitiuk, will seek solutions to major challenges that must be overcome to achieve success in the 3D bioprinting of soft tissue, which supports and surrounds other structures in organs and is clearly distinguishable from hard tissue such as bone.

In biomedical engineering, an emerging sub-specialty known as Additive Manufacturing has found its applications in the biomedical field termed 3D bioprinting. A special category of soft tissue, such as brain and lung tissues, has a low stiffness termed “super soft.” These are considered perfect candidates for future research in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, however they tend to collapse or deform during the printing process under their own weight. To circumvent this challenge, Czekanski and the research team will utilize a “simulated zero gravity” environment to alleviate the gravitational forces on the deposited scaffolds that support these materials to promote a vascular network. Necessary for tissue regeneration to occur, the simultaneous growth of a vascular network is required for mass transfer of nutrients, blood, and oxygen. The project will explore the technical, quality assurance, ethical and legal (intellectual property) aspects of 3D bioprinting.

Valerie Schoof

An assistant professor in the Department of Multidisciplinary Studies at Glendon College, Schoof’s project “People and primates: a bio-geo-cultural approach to understanding human-wildlife interactions” will examine the nature of human-wildlife interaction using a bio-geo-cultural approach to understand the causes and consequences of perceived differences in the benefits and costs of human-wildlife interactions.

Schoof received $247,018 in funding for the project, which focuses on the people and primates in and around the Lewa Conservancy, a large protected area in southern Kenya, and two villages on the shores of Lake Nabugabo in neighbouring Uganda. All sites are affected by crop-raiding of small sustenance agricultural plots, with some farmers resorting to chasing, trapping and relocating, poisoning, and/or killing problem animals. However, the sites vary in the degree to which farmers are tolerant to crop-raiding, as well as in the level of direct and indirect benefits from the presence of researchers. To understand why people perceive human-wildlife interactions differently, especially the damage and consumption of agricultural foods by primates (such as crop-raiding), Schoof and the research team will focus on bridging traditional biological approaches to studying animal behaviour, geographical methods for studying animal and human land use, and anthropological methods for studying humans to develop conservation strategies in response to growing human populations, shrinking habitats, and declining in wildlife populations.

Estair Van Wagner

Van Wagner, an assistant professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, received $249,412 to investigate the entanglement of private, state and Indigenous interests in the Crown lands granted to the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway (E&N) in the late 19th century. The grants transformed a large area of unceded and collectively held Indigenous territory into one of the largest stretches of private land in British Columbia. Much of this land, which makes up approximately 20 per cent of Vancouver Island, is now owned by public sector pension plans as private forest lands. The E&N lands are subject to treaty negotiations between the Crown and two Indigenous groups, the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group and the Hupacasath First Nation. Though private land is officially excluded from the B.C. treaty process, Indigenous communities continue to assert claims to the E&N lands.

Van Wagner and the research team (Sarah Morales, University of Victoria; Michael Ekers, University of Toronto; and Robert Morales, chief negotiator for the Hul’quimi’num Treaty Group) will seek to clarify the content of Aboriginal title and Indigenous property rights that endure alongside fee simple in Canada; contribute to the development of collaborative governance models for the exercise of Indigenous jurisdiction on private forest lands, and; support B.C. Treaty negotiations through the development of scholarship and policy recommendations regarding Indigenous jurisdiction on private property.

The New Frontiers Research Fund awards were announced May 13. To learn more and to read the announcement, visit https://www.canada.ca/en/social-sciences-humanities-research/news/2018/12/government-of-canada-launches-new-research-fund-to-push-beyond-the-frontiers-of-canadian-science.html.