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Ten CIFAR highlights from 2015

Despite some of the recent events around the world, 2015 has been a great year for research. In Canada, a call for evidence-based public policy by the government, the return of the long-form census, and the appointment of a science minister who is actually a scientist, have all set a new tone of optimism in the Canadian research community.

Alan-Bernstein_president-250x353World leaders meeting in Paris called for all countries to work together, and Bill Gates announced the “Breakthrough Energy Coalition,” a call to action to governments and individuals to fund the research needed to develop robust energy technology. As The Economist magazine put it in their Nov. 28 issue, “The most important thing of all is to innovate.” These views echo comments that CIFAR Senior Fellows Ted Sargent and Dan Trefler, and myself, made in a Commentary in the Globe and Mail earlier this year. The most important thing is to innovate.

Looking back at the advances made by CIFAR’s global network of researchers, it is clear that this has also been a landmark year for CIFAR. CIFAR is about catalyzing transformative research, so I’d like my last column of the year to focus on just 10 of the outstanding research achievements of some of our fellows. Although there are many advances that I could point to, I’ve taken the liberty of choosing 10 stories from this year that you shouldn’t miss. I’ve listed them below in order of when they appeared over the past year.

And I wish all of you who read this a safe and happy holiday season.

1. Deep learning has revealed a new path to identify disease mutations that underlie disease
A team led by Senior Fellow Brendan Frey (University of Toronto) used the techniques of deep learning and DNA sequencing to uncover disease-causing mutations in regions of the genome that were not previously explored. Frey is a member of both the programs in Learning in Machines & Brains (formerly known as Neural Computation & Adaptive Perception) – which pioneered deep learning – and Genetic Networks. The work was co-authored by Genetic Networks Senior Fellows Timothy Hughes (University of Toronto) and Stephen Scherer (University of Toronto).

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2. Stress and infertility
Stress can cause infertility in both humans and animals. Child & Brain Development Fellow Daniela Kaufer (University of California, Berkeley) tracked down the biological mechanism responsible for stress-induced infertility in mice, and discovered that it can continue long after the stress is over.

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 3. ‘Cosmic dawn’ took place later than previously thought
Fellows in CIFAR’s program in Cosmology & Gravity have contributed in highly significant ways to our deepening knowledge of the structure and origins of the Universe, revealing that the first stars were forged 140 million years later than once thought.

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4. Helping kids cope
The presence of a parent can help younger kids experience less stress under difficult circumstances. But by the time children are teenagers, the presence of a parent has little or no influence, according to research by Senior Fellow Megan Gunnar (University of Minnesota) of the program in Child & Brain Development.

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5. From symbiont to parasite
Work from Senior Fellow Patrick Keeling (University of British Columbia), director of the program in Integrated Microbial Biodiversity, has shed a fascinating light on the way that a harmless algae that is found in and around coral reefs evolved long ago into the parasite that causes malaria today.

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6. Taking the measure of happiness
The 2015 World Happiness Report, written by Senior Fellow John F. Helliwell, co-director of the Social Interactions, Identity & Well-Being program, was published. Helliwell is a pioneer in happiness studies. The report found that Canada comes in fifth in the world for subjective well-being.

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7. Teaching a Machine to translate
NCAP program Co-Director Yoshua Bengio (Université de Montréal) discovered a new technique that will allow computers to make better translations from one language to another. The technique relies on helping computers understand the meanings of the words they are translating, and will soon give us powerful new tools for online translation.

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8. The importance of belonging
CIFAR fellows Nyla Branscombe (University of Kansas), Alexander Haslam and Catherine Haslam (both University of Queensland) of our program in Social Interactions, Identity & Well-Being program, added important insights to our knowledge regarding group belonging and how it is vital to happiness and well-being.

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9. Insight into consciousness
Senior Fellow Axel Cleeremans (Université Libre de Bruxelles), of our new program in Brain, Mind & Consciousness, uncovered new insights into just how we become conscious of the world around us, one that has implications for understanding of how and why consciousness itself arises.

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10. Fuel from the sun
Senior Fellow Peidong Yang (University of California, Berkeley) of our new program in Bio-inspired Solar Energy used artificial photosynthesis to create fuels directly from the sun – a development that could be critical as the planet looks for new ways to develop renewable forms of energy that don’t rely on burning fossil fuels.

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