Government of Canada

Government of Canada

March 16, 2009 19:00 ET

NSERC Awards Canada's Top Science Prize, Honours Rising International Stars

OTTAWA, ONTARIO--(Marketwire - March 16, 2009) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Minister of State (Science and Technology) Gary Goodyear, and Suzanne Fortier, President of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), today announced the winner of the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering, Canada's top science prize, as well as the winners of prestigious NSERC E.W.R. Steacie Fellowships.

The Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal, awarded for sustained excellence and overall influence of a body of research, was awarded to physicist Paul Corkum. The award comes with a guarantee of $1 million in research funding over five years. The two runners-up for the Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal are Gilles Brassard of the Universite de Montreal and Brenda Milner of McGill University. Both will receive a $50,000 research grant.

"I offer my most sincere congratulations to Dr. Corkum, Dr. Brassard and Dr. Milner, and indeed to each of the researchers we are here to honour today," said Minister of State Goodyear. "Our government demonstrated our commitment to supporting research and development through Canada's Economic Action Plan. The $5.1 billion investment in science and technology initiatives will ensure that these individuals and the thousands of their associates working in labs, universities and research centres across Canada are encouraged to continue innovating for the benefit of all Canadians."

Dr. Corkum's work at the National Research Council and the University of Ottawa marks the first time a beam of light has been controlled for a shorter time and distance than what is defined by a single wavelength. This has led to the development of "attosecond science" - a field that uses ultra-short laser pulses which can provide images of electrons moving around atoms, and can allow researchers to see chemical reactions as they unfold. (One attosecond is one-billionth of a billionth of a second.)

Manipulating electrons in attosecond time could potentially allow scientists to control and change chemical reactions in new ways, leading to advances in everything from medicine to engineering. The next steps in combining the very fast with the very small, Dr. Corkum believes, will one day help medical researchers advance their understanding of cell processes, something that could enhance drug delivery. It will also provide new tools and new fabrication methods for nanotechnology and new sub-cellular imaging methods.

Dr. Brassard, a previous finalist, has made important contributions to the growing field of quantum computing. Dr. Milner is credited with founding the discipline of cognitive neuroscience and making important discoveries about human memory. As a first-time finalist, she also received NSERC's Award of Excellence.

"These award winners are great examples of what Canadian science has achieved and the promise of more world-class discoveries in the future," said NSERC President Suzanne Fortier. "Canada can be very proud of what these men and women have accomplished."

The Steacie Fellowships enhance the career development of younger scientists who are earning international reputations for their research. Each one is valued at up to $90,000 per year for the two-year fellowship. This year's recipients are:

- Brendan Frey of the University of Toronto, who uses sophisticated computer algorithms to analyze genetic data to uncover clues about such things as gene mutations that cause specific diseases.

- Andrew Hendry of McGill University, who has proved that evolution can occur far faster than previously thought and revealed new evidence about the interaction between evolution and the environment.

- Ray Jayawardhana of the University of Toronto, whose study of brown dwarf stars and giant planets has provided new clues about how stars and planets, including our solar system, are formed.

- Ingrid Johnsrude of Queen's University, whose work in speech perception combines the study of hearing and cognitive processes in order to unearth better ways to help people understand one another in noisy environments.

- Karim Nader of McGill University, whose research into the neurobiology of memory has led to a greater understanding of how memories are formed and reformed, and offered a way to ease the ongoing suffering caused by traumatic memories.

- Peter Tieleman of the University of Calgary, who develops powerful computer models to simulate how molecules interact with cell walls, research that helps us understand biochemical processes in cells and offers new options for drug delivery or engineering bio-compatible materials.

The awards being announced today are named after two of Canada's most prominent scientists. Dr. Herzberg won the 1971 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contributions to understanding the structure of molecules, while Dr. Steacie made important advances in chemical kinetics and played an instrumental role in setting the direction of the National Research Council starting in the 1950s.

NSERC is a federal agency whose vision is to help make Canada a country of discoverers and innovators for the benefit of all Canadians. The agency supports some 26,500 university students and postdoctoral fellows in their advanced studies. NSERC promotes discovery by funding more than 11,800 university professors every year and fosters innovation by encouraging more than 1,400 Canadian companies to participate and invest in postsecondary research projects.

Contact Information

  • Office of the Minister of State (Science and Technology)
    Gary Toft
    Director of Communications
    Natasha Gauthier
    Senior Advisor, Media Relations