Get this: That dad dropping his kids off at team practice is a neuroscientist who knows how electricity moves in your brain. The cyclist who just passed you on the morning commute is an expert in ancient life forms, and the street photographer who just snapped a shot of your man purse is figuring out how to reproduce human skin. Young scientists are lurking everywhere, because Toronto is a place they want to be. It’s where they can research at a hospital on University Avenue, walk over to MaRS to figure out how to sell their ideas, then cross the street to teach a class at U of T. And aside from the institutions building shiny labs and lobbying the government for tax credits, this city is where communities of nerds and geeks overlap—tinkering, experimenting, and encouraging each other to do the same.
“We have an expert in everything in Toronto,” says Tom Schweizer, the head of a new pod of neuroscientists at St. Michael’s Hospital. “We’re collaborating more than we used to, and we’re not as siloed as we used to be.” That’s why OCADU prof Kate Hartman can get 30 strangers out for a meetup about making electronics you can wear, and Hacklab’s Chris Olah can go from being an unconnected teen mathematician to a director of a thriving hackerspace in just a few years. They, and the rest of the thinkers on our list, are why Toronto is at the forefront of disease prevention, physics, engineering, and, hey, fun. The brainiacs who follow are some of the best that we’ve got—a few are well-established, others are rising stars—but they’re also just the tip of the iceberg.
The skin-graft revolutionary (and fashion blogger)
Lian Leng, 29
PhD student, Laboratory of Lab-on-a-chip Devices, University of Toronto
Home hood: Yonge and College
Why shouldn’t a fashion blogger who does photo shoots for American Apparel also create a revolutionary treatment for burn patients? By day, Lian Leng is a PhD student designing a new method to create skin grafts. By night (and weekends), she indulges in her love of cameras and fashion, taking photos for her year-old style site, Torontostreetfashion.blogspot.com, which she runs with her twin sister, Qin, an illustrator.
Currently, helping a severe burn patient involves hurting them: In a skin-graft procedure, a patient’s own skin is transplanted over a burn, but removing healthy skin for the graft creates another painful wound, increasing infection risk and adding to recovery time. A mechanical engineer, Leng studies microfluidics, the precise manipulation of small amounts of fluid, and while researching different ways to create soft materials that integrate human cells (like replacement blood vessels or cardiac tissue), she decided to focus on skin.
The Montreal native holds a small, clear rubber board that resembles an electric circuit. “The wells are loaded with different materials, including a liquid solution with cells,” she explains. The laws of physics (if you want to be technical, it’s “fluid mechanics,” nerds) drive the materials through tiny channels, which spatially organize the various solutions—including alginate, an ingredient in brown algae that becomes a gel when mixed with water—into a “liquid sheet” that can be fine-tuned into different thicknesses, replicating the differences between, say, skin and muscle tissue. The result is a soft sheet of flexible material that Leng calls a “a scaffold for skin.” She’s hoping that when it’s used on a patient, the alginate will slowly dissolve as the skin cells multiply and knit together.
Working with doctors at the burn unit at Sunnybrook hospital, Leng wants to refine the material’s properties until it can be used to replicate samples of a patient’s skin. This would be a groundbreaking achievement, greatly reducing a patient’s pain from a skin graft and cutting costs dramatically. “A commercial collagen graft is $4,000 for a four-inch-by-four-inch section,” says Leng, pointing out that most Sunnybrook patients have burns on at least 40 per cent of their bodies. “This tool is a few hundred dollars.” Using a patient’s own cells would also reduce the chance that the graft would be rejected, minimizing post-operation infections. The journey from lab to trauma unit is a long one—Leng hopes to have human trials by 2015 or so.
Goldie Nejat, 33
Assistant professor, mechanical and industrial engineering, University of Toronto
Home hood: University and College
“I just walk around thinking about how useful a robot would be over here, or how useful a robot would be over there,” says Goldie Nejat about her daily commute. Last fall, she won a Young Engineers Medal for the two main projects she’s got on the go. The first is Brian, a pleasant-voiced robot who hangs out at long-term care facilities, encouraging the elderly to eat their dinners, telling them jokes, and teaching them how to play card games. The second is MARP, a search and rescue robot equipped with 3-D mapping technology, so it could locate survivors or subsequent collapses after natural disasters. With robots to handle repetitive, mundane, or dangerous tasks, the rest of us would have more time to do the skilful, precise work that (so far) only humans can.
The champion of unsung invertebrates (also, a bike nut)
Jean-Bernard Caron, 38
Curator of invertebrate palaeontology, Royal Ontario Museum
Home ’hood: Greektown
The Burgess Shale in B.C’s Yoho National Park is the world’s most important fossil site, a treasure trove of 505-million-year-old marine life preserved in a remote bit of the Rockies. As a teenager in France, Jean-Bernard Caron became fascinated with the lost prehistoric world after reading Wonderful Life, a book about the Shale by Harvard scholar Stephen Jay Gould. Twenty years later, he’s become the leading Canadian expert on the site, celebrated internationally for his discovery last year of one of the world’s most primitive creatures with the beginnings of a spine. Now, he’s designing a new gallery at the ROM to share it with everyone else.
“Like most things in Canada, it’s better known outside of Canada,” says Caron, who cycles to work, even in the winter. He first visited the Burgess Shale as a volunteer before starting his master’s in 1999, and travels there with a team of researchers every other summer. The site can only be accessed during July and August—a helicopter flies them out with four to seven weeks worth of supplies, and leaves them there to set up camp and erect a very necessary bear fence.
Most fossils are preserved hard surfaces, like bones, beaks, and shells. For mysterious reasons, the soft mud on the B.C.-Alberta border has proven exceptional for the preservation of delicate tissues, allowing Burgess Shale palaeontologists to examine small, long-lost animals in amazing detail. Last year, Caron settled a decades-old palaeontological debate when he proved that a weird, wormlike creature called Pikaia gracilens did, in fact, have a feature that would evolve into a backbone. That makes it one of the oldest known vertebrates, an ancestor to every spine-possessing animal in the world, including humans. “Most people don’t want to be related to this animal, because he has no brain, a small head, and lots of muscles, like a prehistoric bodybuilder,” says Caron. Even so, the French magazine La Recherche called his Pikaia research one of the most important scientific discoveries of 2012.
And yet, Pikaia isn’t Caron’s only baby: He’s also a champion of unsung invertebrates, our spineless, less complex ancestors. Right now, he’s cataloguing the 500,000 specimens in the ROM’s vaults—like Nectocaris pteryx, a meat-eating squid that used a small, external funnel to travel via jet propulsion—and planning the museum’s first new permanent gallery since the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal opened in 2007. The 10,000-square-foot Gallery of Early Life will have interactive displays to teach visitors about the four billion years of evolution that took place before the dinosaurs even showed up. It will have one of the largest invertebrate displays in North America, after the Smithsonian. “All of my colleagues around the world are very jealous,” says Caron of this chance to showcase our tiny, overlooked ancestors.
The electronic clothing designer (and avid rock climber)
Kate Hartman, 32
Assistant professor and director of the Social Body Lab, OCADU
Home ’hood: Trinity-Bellwoods
Massachusetts native Kate Hartman came to Toronto two years ago, after finishing her master’s at New York University. She was wooed by OCADU to start the Social Body Lab, which has a wide, modern mandate to examine how humans interact with technology. Hartman’s main interest is “wearables”—technology integrated into clothing and accessories—and she organized a meetup to see who else was into them. Thirty people showed up, from dancers to chemical engineers. “I was like, ‘Wow, okay, I don’t know if that would float in every city,’” says Hartman, who heads to Queen West’s White Squirrel coffee shop most mornings to work on her upcoming book on wearables. “Toronto is pretty exciting—there are lots of people thinking about what’s possible and what’s next.”
Wearables can be utilitarian, like the Nike Fuel Band, which helps runners track their stats. That doesn’t mean they have to be ugly. Hartman teaches her undergrads the basics of electronics and coding, but also that their projects should have “off value,” meaning they’re still pretty or fascinating when they’re not turned on. One of her lab projects is a set of modular lights aimed at eliminating both the forgetfulness and vanity associated with bicycle safety lights: cool pieces that people will want to wear all day, that can switch on after dark to illuminate the ride home. “Not something that you’d find at MEC, like a blinky bike light, but something kind of beautiful,” explains Hartman, who also spends time climbing at Joe Rockhead’s. She’s been a DIY–type her whole life, but has always been concerned with beauty and whimsy—New York’s MoMA has in its permanent collection her 2008 piece, “Botanicalls,” a setup that allows thirsty plants to telephone or tweet their owners to ask for a drink.
Jason Fish, 35
Vascular biologist, Toronto General Research Institute
Home ’hood: Beach
We know that lack of exercise can lead to stroke and heart attack, but Jason Fish is trying to figure out why exactly couch potatoes get narrowed blood vessels. In his lab at MaRS on College Street, he studies tiny, transparent tropical zebrafish, observing what controls the growth of blood vessels. “It’s nice because they grow fast, and develop a beating heart in one day,” says Fish of his fish, which are also used to study how blood vessels feed tumours. Fish is mostly in it for the purity of science, but the eventual goal of his research is clinical trials and patents that will hopefully help treat a whole host of illnesses, from heart disease to cancer metastasis. The father of two won an Early Researcher Award last year, and was just named a Canada Research Chair. Fish focuses on microRNA, extremely small individual molecules that tell cell proteins what to do. One of the questions he wants to answer is why, exactly, they sometimes tell arteries to thicken or harden, and stay that way, especially when people’s vices include smoking or delicious but deadly junk food.
The cancer-fighting triple-threat (and squash fiend)
Josh Silvertown, 35
CEO, Armour Therapeutics
Home ’hood: Yonge and Eglinton
Why put dollars into rent when you can put them into research and development?” asks Josh Silvertown, who runs three separate companies from his house. The first is Armour Therapeutics, which is named after Armour Boulevard, the North York street he grew up on. The company builds on his research at the University of Guelph, where he graduated from the Department of Biomedical Sciences at 26—the school’s youngest-ever PhD. Armour is developing AT-001, a therapy to fight late-stage prostate and breast cancer by blocking the hormone relaxin, which fuels fast, aggressive cancer cell growth. “Most people who are at the end stages of prostate cancer are no longer sensitive to existing therapies,” says Silvertown. “Drugs that extend life only four months are already billion-dollar drugs, so I know there’s a market.”
The dad of 18-month-old twins is also the COO of Quantum Dental Technologies, which has developed a laser that can fill cavities before they even show up on X-rays. A former director at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada, his more personal project is DreamCatcher, an online mentoring program he founded to match teens in remote northern communities with professionals who can help them pick interesting careers. “It’s in every high school in the Yukon,” says Silvertown, who somehow also finds the time to play squash almost every day.
José Zariffa, 33
Scientist, Toronto Rehab
Home ’hood: Yonge and Eglinton
For years, electrical stimulation has been used to help people regain the use of their limbs after a spinal injury. But crude treatments that shock nerves into a reaction result in jerky, unnatural motions, making patients reluctant to use them.
“It was an open loop, stimulating the nervous system without reacting to what was actually happening,” says José Zariffa, who’s been published in every medical journal that counts.
“We want to build a bridge between the nerve and the artificial device.” The Montreal native is heading up a new research team at Toronto Rehab, developing tools that plug right into the nervous systems of stroke and spinal injury patients. By decoding the messages being transmitted through the nerve, they’ll develop prosthetics that continually respond to a patient’s body, ones that move smoothly and won’t be embarrassing to use. Two levels beneath the University subway line between Queen’s Park and St. Patrick stations, the hospital has a huge basement workshop that allows researchers to make prototypes on site, judge the usefulness of their ideas, and bring them to market as quickly as possible.
“It’s the only place with such a great cluster of both rehab and neural engineering,” says Zariffa. “This is one of the best rehab research institutes in the world.”
Tom Schweizer, 39
Director of Neuroscience Research, St. Michael’s Hospital
Home ’hood: Oakville
Driving is often crucial to a sense of independence—Tom Schweizer knows this, because he spends his weekends chauffeuring his two kids around. He wanted to help doctors figure out when to give stroke patients back their keys, so he built a super high-powered driving simulator inside an MRI scanner. “The whole brain lights up like a Christmas tree during a left-hand turn at a busy intersection,” says Schweizer, describing how the MRI uses blood flow to track brain activity. St. Mike’s has just made Schweizer its first-ever Director of Neuroscience Research, heading up a team of 21 scientists that’s also studying distracted driving. It recently had 27-year-olds use the simulator while mimicking the use of cellphones and hands-free devices. Bad news, chit-chatters: The research shows you can’t talk and make that left turn at the same time. Schweizer hopes his work will eventually have implications on driving policy.
The math savant (and university dropout)
Chris Olah, 20
Director at Hacklab, Thiel Fellow
Home ’hood: Chinatown
As a teenage math savant with few people smart enough to talk to, Chris Olah discovered a website about hackerspaces, spots where science-minded tinkerers pooled their expertise and tools. On it, the then-15-year-old was thrilled to see a listing for Hacklab Toronto, in Kensington Market. “It was just an amazing place to be,” says Olah, now a director at the lab. “The first time I really felt connected to a community, with peers in my age-group.”
Two years ago, Olah left the pure math program at U of T: He had other things to do, like design 3-D printers and software, and felt that took priority over university. He applied for, and won, a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship, a prize handed out by entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who believes higher education is a waste of money that stifles brilliance, and so gives college-aged kids cash to drop out of school.
For two years, Olah will be paid to pursue whatever work interests him. He flies back and forth between Toronto and San Francisco (where The Thiel Foundation is based), using his grant to mess around with laser cutters, vegan cooking, and gardening, as well as studying the gender gap in math. His most enduring obsession is 3-D printers, some of which he calls “glorified hot glue guns that produce sculptures designed on a computer.” The trendy tech toy of the moment, 3-D printers have finally reached a cheapish price point (about $500–$1,000) that allows just about anyone to make just about anything. (The race is currently on to make the world’s first 3-D printed house.) When Olah used Hacklab’s 3-D printer to make a working vacuum cleaner, he found that the existing design software was super expensive. So he came up with ImplicitCAD, a program that helps turn mathematical visualizations into real objects. Olah is keeping ImplicitCAD open source, giving imaginative but underpaid artists, designers, and hobbyists full access to a quality design product, for free.
Rachel Friesen, 33
Radio astronomer, Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of Toronto
Home ’hood: Riverside
To observe the radio waves emitted around brand new stars, Rachel Friesen has to compete against every other astronomer in the world. Only the best researchers get time on the best telescopes, and she’s been to Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, and the Nobeyama observatory in Japan.
“I’ve got pretty big questions—where did our solar system come from? Where did we come from?” says Friesen. She focuses her gaze on molecules containing carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen drifting around hidden parts of the universe, and says “the dark parts of the Milky Way are basically stellar nurseries.” One current spot she’s contemplating is a molecular cloud in the sword of the Orion constellation, which we can all see on a clear, dark night.
Yup. We figured that out.
1921: Toronto-based researcher Frederick Banting isolates insulin. He becomes the youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Medicine two years later.
1938: Grad students from the University of Toronto build the first working electron microscope.
1963: U of T scientists discover the self-renewing potential of stem cells, and inadvertently pioneer a new treatment for bone marrow diseases.
1983: The first successful single-lung transplant is completed by Toronto thoracic surgeon Joel Cooper.
2011: U of T astronomers spot the two largest black holes in the universe discovered thus far, each with a mass equal to 10 billion suns.
2012: Researchers at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre uncover the ability of some malignant cells to lie dormant and evade chemotherapy—a major breakthrough in treatment of the disease.
2012: In about an hour, ROM technician Ian Morrison pieces together the jaw of a ceratopsian fossil (cousin to the triceratops) after professional palaeontologists—including the ROM’s dinosaur expert—spent years being confounded by it. The creature was renamed Gryphoceratops morrisoni, in Morrison’s honour.