Fessenden Prizes and Professorships, Part I

Friday, March 15th, 2013

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden’s legacy as the holder of over 500 patents and the Canadian pioneer of radio communication lives on in the prizes that bear his name. Awarded annually to novel research with commercialization potential, the Fessenden prizes and professorships now include an elite list of research accomplishments.

Four of these award-winning ideas are featured in the most recent issue of Headway; here, we present a few other novel concepts that might soon find their way to a patent office or lab supply catalog.

1. Alignment tool for distributed mirror systems


Andrew McCann's alignment tool for distributed mirror systems

Under the blue sky and bright sun of the Sonoran desert in Southern Arizona sit four enormous (12-metre) telescopes, each mounted with 345 identical hexagonal mirror facets. The telescopes, called the VERITAS array, are one of only three such systems in the world and they measure photons in very high energy gamma-rays as these rays strike the atmosphere. (VERITAS stands for Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System.) Data derived from the VERITAS array provide scientists with information on black holes, pulsars, supernova remnants and a host of subjects of great interest to astrophysicists.

Now imagine these telescopes in day-to-day use. T hese objects sit in the middle of the desert, swept by wind and dust. The telescopes’ mirror surfaces lose reflectivity over time, meaning that the mirrors are recoated periodically to restore their shine. However, removing and reinstalling these thousands of reflective components to recoat them affects their positioning, which needs to be calibrated with precision.

McGill graduate student Andrew McCann devised an alignment tool for distributed mirror systems that uses a digital camera to scan the mirror facets, reveal which ones are crooked, and calculate what adjustments are necessary to move all the facets to their optimal position. After the tool was used to align the telescopes for the first time in May 2009, the point spread function (a term to describe the blurriness of the images captured) immediately decreased by 30 percent from previous values.

For his invention, McCann received a Fessenden Prize in 2010.

2.     Clinical device to detect malaria infection


Paul Wiseman's clinical device for malaria detection

Malaria is a parasitic disease found predominantly in tropical and subtropical areas of the world such as South America, sub-Saharan Africa, China, India and other parts of Asia, with 350-500 million cases reported annually in these areas. The disease is not only difficult to treat but also tricky to reliably diagnose.

Like other blood-feeding parasites, malaria produces a pigment crystal called hemozoin when it breaks down hemoglobin proteins in red blood cells. McGill professor Paul Wiseman has developed a novel technique to analyze hemozoin specifically for malaria and thus detect the disease in its early stages.

Wiseman’s technique is based on a branch of physics called optics, which examines the behavior and properties of light – specifically, a process called third harmonic generation (THG) imaging, which investigates the effects of light generated at triple its original frequency (or one-third its wavelength). THG converts three photons of the original frequency into one photon at three times the frequency and is used to provide images of neurons, red blood cells and other macromolecules.

Wiseman measured THG signals from both infected and uninfected red blood cells and determined that the hemozoin pigments in infected cells produce a very specific and easy to identify THG emission. This result led Wiseman to envision a THG/flow cytometer system using an infrared pulsed laser. This device could be adapted from existing flow cytometry technology, meaning it would be relatively inexpensive and could also be operated accurately by personnel with minimal training.

Some countries where malaria is endemic test more than 100 million blood samples for malaria every year, Wiseman notes. A THG cytometer system would make it possible for these tests to be conducted in large volume and with reliable results.

For his invention, Wiseman received a Fessenden Professorship in 2009.

3.      Centrifugal microfluidics devices


Josian Lafleur's centrifugal microfluidic device

In the opinion storm surrounding the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, the U.S. State Department released an environmental impact statement in early March that further fueled debate about the controversial project. Regardless of its findings, the impact statement itself is a sign of the times: environmental analysis of the polluting effects of a proposed project is an expected and basic part of the development process.

Environmental analysis is predicated on obtaining soil and water samples and to analyze drinking water and sea water, chemists use a time-consuming and painstaking process called Solid Phase Extraction (SPE) to isolate extracts from the liquid. As demand for environmental analyses has increased, use of SPE has grown exponentially as well.

Aiming to reduce the amount of time and number of steps required for SPE, McGill PhD student Josiane Lafleur came up with a device that miniaturizes the entire extraction process.

The device uses specially designed discs to obtain and treat up to eight samples at a time (as compared to treating individual samples using the conventional procedure) and these samples can be extracted from a few hundred microlitres of liquid rather than the hundreds of millilitres the process usually requires. The device then uses a simple motor (rather a pressure pump or a syringe plunger) to spin the discs and the centrifugal action creates the fluid flow necessary to pre-concentrate the eight samples and isolate the analytes from the rest of the liquid (without requiring application of a usually pre-requisite organic solvent).

As an added bonus, the entire SPE process can be done on-site and in the field, or, if desired, the samples can be stored in the device and brought back to the lab for further analysis.

For her invention, Lafleur received a Fessenden Prize in 2009.

Stay tuned next week for Part II of the series, featuring a crowd-sourced CO2 assay and non-invasive instruments for brain analysis.

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