Why I research: Neil Emery

The first in an occasional series in which Ontario university researchers explain why they do what they do. Today’s guest blog comes from Trent University’s Vice President, Research & International, Neil Emery

I didn’t start out as a particularly hard working undergraduate student.  I did science (at first) simply because I found it easy to study.

While I enjoyed my classes, they didn’t necessarily light a fire within.

But as my B.Sc. moved on, I noticed a group of science faculty who had that fire. In my third year I was taking courses in both human biochemistry and plant biochemistry. The former was taught by a bored speck at the front of a 400 person lecture hall; the latter by a manic team of high-flying researchers in a small room with about 15 students.  They injected their enthusiasm and personal stamp into topics I might have never thought interesting before. (I wouldn’t have imagined it would be so exciting, for example, to get on board the fructose-1,6 bisphosphatase regulatory bandwagon.)  After a challenging (and near-failure) of an Honours research project, I realized I had caught the bug. While I merely enjoyed studying science, I loved creating knowledge in a field as wide open as plant chemistry.

Fast forward to 1994 and a PhD completed in the evolution of a plant hormone system in the natural chickweed populations of  Alberta’s mountains and foothills … not exactly applied science.  Academic job prospects in the early 1990s were as grim in Canada as they are today. Luckily Australia was hiring, and I landed a job in agriculture research – I was based at a university but my work was funded by a Farmers’ Association.

It was a bit daunting suddenly to have to rationalize my professional existence to some very practical-minded funders. But it turned out Ihad lots of transferable skills. After I toned down the pure science mantel, I found myself becoming an expert on yield potential of grain legumes (that’s right – beans).

I learned agri-speak, figured out how to collaborate with industry, and how to diversify goals and land funding. Looking back, it was probably the best career training I encountered.  It impressed on me how important the spectrum of research is from pure to applied, and how difficult it would be to carve out a career only claiming to do one or the other.  Government and funding agency priorities swing in various ways over time and this will isolate spectrum extremists.  Recently, Canada has surely shuffled resources into jobs and the economy and, hence, applied research. The change can be hard, but many researchers are able to respond.

Personally I’m left with an amazing mix of challenges.  On one hand, my lab is endeavoring to improve non-GMO soybean yields in cooperation with an SME (Sevita International) and wheat yields with a multinational (Dow Agrichemical). On the other hand, we are uncovering freakishly unexpected results like the discovery that insects, bacteria and fungi all make plant hormones. The latter NSERC-Discovery funded research may turn out to have great consequences for improving crop growth and yield. One can perhaps envisage the perfectly time growth message to a seed or fruit as devised not by the plant itself, but by an insect or fungal agent.

I find all these avenues exciting and it’s my continuing realization that, regardless of political winds, the field of plant chemistry will remain as wide-open now as it ever has been – providing fertile research ground for years to come.

Tagged: Economy, Nature, Resources, Stories

Share: Print

Leave Comments

Blog Posts

From solar panels to ...

Sharon Oosthoek | July 26, 2016

University of Waterloo electrical and computer engineer delves deep into the health and safety of renewable energy Nanotechnology is poised to become the next big thing in solar panels, but before that happens Siva Sivoththaman wants to ensure workers who make the panels and consumers who use them aren't endangering their health. Most research into using nano particles in the manufacture of solar panels has focused on their potential for more effectively converting sunlight into energy. Scientists predict nano particles could boost efficiency from the current 20 per cent to about 60 per cent. But Sivoththaman, a University of Waterloo electrical and computer engineer, says we need to pay just as much attention to their safety. read more »

Green chemistry stars humble ...

Sharon Oosthoek |

Trent University biomaterials expert tweaks crop-based oils to produce environmentally-friendly materials for wide range of products When a World Health Organization study recently linked hot drinks to esophageal cancer, Suresh Narine realized one of his more obscure inventions might just become his most successful. The WHO study concluded drinking beverages above 65C increases the risk of cancer, presumably because it burns esophageal cells on the way down. The problem is that most takeout coffee is hotter than 65C. But in 2015, the Trent University biomaterials scientist designed a 'Goldilocks' travel mug to keep beverages at a constant 62C —  not too hot and not too cool. The food grade liner in Narine's cup is made from soybean oil he tweaked in his lab to cool hot beverages to 62C within 15 seconds, and to keep it at that temperature for five hours. read more »

Making novel bio-based materials ...

Sharon Oosthoek |

Queen's University chemical engineer Michael Cunningham modifies natural products to safely and effectively replace polluting chemicals. A plant-based substance called cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) may be the most promising biomaterial most people have never heard of, says Queen's University chemical engineer Michael Cunningham. Stronger than Kevlar, CNC is the crystalline form of cellulose, which is the chief ingredient in the cell wall of trees and other plants. While only recently available commercially (and only from Canadian company, CelluForce), it could eventually be used to make reinforced plastics that replace steel in cars, boats and even airplanes. The resulting lighter weight would mean transportation that uses less fuel and emits less greenhouse gas. read more »

Indigenous art and the ‘...

Sharon Oosthoek | June 27, 2016

Gerald McMaster is fascinated by creative people who move in an out of, or are influenced by different communities and cultures. At once nomadic and connected, their experiences formed the basis of his early research. Today, the Ontario College of Art and Design University professor, curator, author, and artist is about to dive back into this area of research. He is launching a multi-year project that will examine the ways in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures interact, influence and inspire one another. read more »

2016 Women’s Health Scholars

Alex Hughes | June 22, 2016

Ten outstanding Ontario university scholars are being recognized for potentially life-changing research for women in Ontario and across the globe, as they look to develop health care in the areas such as HIV-care, contraceptives, and breast cancer. The Council of Ontario Universities, with funding from the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care introduced the Ontario Women’s Health Scholars Awards in 2001 to ensure that Ontario attracts and retains pre-eminent women’s health scholars.  The awards aim to improve women’s health. The 2016 recipients include postdoctoral, doctoral and master’s students from six Ontario universities. They each will receive scholarships of $25,000 to $50,000, along with research grants of $1,000 to $5,000. This year’s recipients and their areas of research are: Alisa Grigorovich, University of Toronto – how to create effective policies that address the sexual harassment of female workers by clients in Ontario residential long-term facilities. Jocelyn Wessels, McMaster University – how female sex hormones found in contraceptives affect vaginal health and susceptibility to sexually transmitted infections. Lori Chambers, McMaster University – the challenges and benefits to African immigrant women who are living with HIV and choose to work in prevention, treatment and advocacy for others with HIV. Komal Shaikh, York University – assessing the effects of education-based therapy in treating and rehabilitating cancer survivors with cancer-related cognitive dysfunction. Amanda D. Timmers, Queen’s University – how sexual arousal patterns vary across genders and how these variations can inform the treatment of sexual dysfunction. Kelly Coons, Laurentian University – how to improve the ability of future health care professionals to counsel pregnant women on drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Sara King-Dowling, McMaster University – how the development of girls’ motor skills affects their overall health and activity levels over time. Denise Jaworsky, University of Toronto – how living in rural and Northern areas of Canada affects the ability of women living with HIV to access care. Justin Michael, Western University – developing tools to allow for a single-visit radiation treatment for women with breast cancer to make things easier for those living far from treatment facilities. Shira Yufe, York University – how to encourage breast cancer survivors to adopt healthy lifestyle and weight management habits. Each of the researchers has spent countless hours studying topics related to women’s health and improving the lives of women in Ontario.  Their research (full descriptions available here) will contribute to the way that Ontarians (and the global community) live, work and play.  Congratulations are in order to the award recipients! Stay Curious!
More Blogs »