The Next Big Thing: Submissions

We are asking UBC researchers to let us know about the next big thing in their field: a game-changing innovation that could have a dramatic impact in their field and the world. The responses we’ve received cover a broad range of topics, highlighting the depth and breadth of research taking place on campus.

Here are the submissions we’ve received thus far. Check back for updates.

Have an idea you’d like to share? Submit it here

Maximizing biodiversity conservation and securing carbon

Submitted gy: Richard Schuster

With the mounting effects of global climate change, and unprecedented rates of ecological degradation and species extinction, investments in habitat and biodiversity conservation are critically needed.  New approaches to conservation are required to sufficiently maximize biodiversity resilience to these drastic changes. Carbon payments are one way to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change, and can help make conservation more affordable. Our work assesses how carbon payments can offset land acquisition costs for conservation efforts, and innovatively uses biodiversity metrics to understand how protected areas can be made more robust to climate change.

The next generation of innovation in composite industries

Submitted by: Abbas Milani

Composite materials, including the well-known carbon and glass fibres, are familiar to everyone. From Formula 1 racers to hockey sticks, the fuselage of the F-22 raptor fighter jet to the fictional Batmobile, these engineered materials have created a new era of industrial innovation. However, the process of manufacturing these materials is far from perfect and involves risk. Researchers at UBC as part of the pan-western Composites Research Network are conducting novel research to solve current composite manufacturing and design challenges in collaboration with more than 20 local companies in BC, to leading international organizations such as Boeing and NASA.

Keeping Children with Arthritis Active

Posted by: Lori Tucker, MD

Getting arthritis when you are a child can interfere with healthy normal activity, due to pain and stiffness.  We know that children with chronic arthritis have lower fitness than their healthy peers, but we know very little about the impact of arthritis on their physical activity.  In the LEAP study (Linking Exercise, Activity, and Pathophysiology), we are measuring physical activity of children with chronic arthritis across Canada using questionnaires and motion sensors, and interaction with arthritis disease activity, inflammation, and bone and muscle development.  This research will show why children with arthritis can, and should, exercise for optimal health.

Embodied mathematics

Submitted by: Susan Gerofsky

Do we understand big mathematical ideas through our senses and bodies, or is mathematics a purely mental pursuit? Could particular embodied ways of teaching help all learners understand abstract mathematical ideas better and more deeply?

Math educator Susan Gerofsky and dancer/ literacy educator Kathryn Ricketts (SFU) are working with blind students and their sighted classmates to experiment with embodied learning about mathematical functions. Preliminary findings show that top students already engage in being the graph rather than just seeing the graph, and use their sensory and imaginative experiences as a learning resource. Can we teach this to everyone?

Cocooning: vaccinating pregnant women to confer infant immunity

Submitted by: Emily Wagner

Infants lack immunity to many dangerous diseases because they can’t receive most vaccinations until months after birth. Our research group is investigating the effectiveness of maternal immunization (that is, vaccinating a mother late in pregnancy) as a way of seeing babies immunized earlier. How it works: mothers’ antibodies are transmitted through the placenta during pregnancy, and in breast milk after the infant is born, providing immune protection. We are currently participating in a national study of maternal vaccination with the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine. We hope our study will help prevent infant deaths from this and other potentially devastating illnesses.

Gardens as outdoor classrooms and teachers

Submitted by: Julia Ostertag, Antonia Lazarova, Samira Thomas and Susan Gerofsky

Worldwide, there is a flourishing movement for school gardens – but can these gardens become integral to the essential work and culture of schools? From mathematics to sustainability, literacy to art education, school gardens create vibrant pedagogical spaces to experiment with teaching and learning outside the four walls of industrial-era classrooms and the standard curriculum. Through our work, networks, and research in teaching and learning gardens, we are exploring how gardens teach us so that we can discover and re-imagine our world, our ways of living and thinking, and especially our ways of educating.

Microbiota and women’s health

Submitted by: Deborah Money

Bacteria outnumber human cells in your body, and a healthy community of bacteria in the vagina is essential for women’s health. Women with disrupted vaginal microbiota have higher risks of sexually transmitted infections, infertility, early pregnancy loss, and preterm birth. Our team uses cutting-edge metagenomic technology to characterize women’s vaginal microbiota based on the variants of a gene called chaperonin 60. Armed with extensive metagenomic and clinical data, we hope to characterize microbiological profiles linked to health, disease, and various behaviours. This paves the way for exciting (and perhaps personalized) strategies for diagnosis and treatment.

Could your flu shot be pain-free?

Submitted by: Boris Stoeber

Could your flu shot be pain-free? Not this year, but painless needles may be the Next Big Thing, according to Prof. Boris Stoeber.

He is developing painless microneedles for drug delivery and biosensing via the skin. These hollow needles can be tiny enough not to cause pain during usage. Stoeber collaborates with colleagues at the Department of Dermatology and the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences on vaccine delivery into the skin and on methods to use these needles to measure drug levels in the body. Stoeber’s laboratory is developing new fabrication technologies to make these tiny structures in an inexpensive way using solvent casting. In order to optimize this process they are observing the associated evaporation-driven flow fields in sub-milimetre thin fluid films.

Making the pulp and paper business more competitive and sustainable

Submitted by: James Olson

Researchers aim to reduce energy and greenhouse gas emissions of one of B.C.’s largest industries by 50 per cent before 2020, roughly enough to power 100,000 homes.

The mechanical pulp industry is the largest industrial consumer of electricity consuming approximately 8 per cent of BC Hydro’s electricity generation. The team is committed to sustainably producing pulp products and investigating ways to improve the environmental performance while making the pulp and paper business more competitive. More than nine inter-related projects will develop new processes with novel sensors and advanced computer control to significantly reduce the energy consumed in the current process in B.C. mills.

Turning CO2 into profit

Submitted by: Amin Taheri Najafabadi

Energy and environmental issues are two of the major challenges facing modern civilization. From this perspective, fossil fuels are double-edged swords requiring a delicate balance between their energy-related versatility and negative environmental impact resulted from undue CO2 emissions. Remarkable scientific advances have enabled us to turn the dark side of fossil fuels into an inconceivable opportunity with viewing CO2 as a feedstock to produce a vast array of products. This ultimately leads to the utopia for fossil-fuel-based economies by taking full advantage of carbonaceous fuels while making profit from permanent CO2 chemical sequestration in large scales.

Comfortably Numb: Cruise Control for Anesthesia

Submitted by: GA Dumont & J. Mark Ansermino

Anesthesia requires careful titration of at least two drugs: one to “put the patient to sleep” and one to suppress response to pain. Currently, anesthesiologists inject these drugs based on patient weight. This results in loose and poor control of clinical effects, affecting long-term outcomes negatively, particularly for children and elderly patients. To improve safety we have developed a system that automatically delivers personalized optimal doses to maintain desired clinical effects. This system was tested in children (world’s first) and a more advanced system is currently being tested on adults. We believe this represents the future of safety in anesthesia.

Phone Oximeter

Submitted by: J. Mark Ansermino (APT) & G.A. Dumont (ECE)

Over 99% of child and maternal deaths occur in developing countries. Leveraging the global penetration of mobile technology, we have developed a simple system to empower frontline healthcare workers to save lives in their communities. Our Phone Oximeter™ was recently selected one of the top 10 technologies to help reach the UN Millennium Development Goals. It is a mobile health platform that uses a mobile device’s audio jack to power low-cost sensors that detect oxygen saturation, respiratory rate, temperature, and blood pressure. Using these with other patient information, the mobile device estimates a personalised risk estimate and guides treatment or referral.

A medical app to improve eye disease

Submitted by: Kimberly Morishita

Childhood uveitis is a serious autoimmune condition characterized by inflammation of the eye.  Untreated uveitis can result in blindness in up to 70% of affected children.  The optimal care of these children requires collaborative care by rheumatologists and eye doctors.  These children need a complicated treatment program of eye drops, and immune suppressing medications.  Our team has designed a novel medical app for parents of children with uveitis to help them negotiate their child’s care by keeping track of treatments, medications, results of doctor’s visits, as well as providing connection to educational resources about uveitis.

Brain sciences and social justice

Submitted by: Marc Brillinger

The Brain Sciences: Applications in Social Activism and Social Change

My interdisciplinary research focuses on the critical, yet unexplored, intersection of social justice and the burgeoning brain sciences. A synthesis of the knowledge arising out of the brain sciences (i.e. human belief, behaviour) as it applies to existing social activist strategies and tactics now seems a necessity in the battle to restrain corporate institutional power that is currently running amok in North America. New paradigms of resistance to rebalance corporate power and social justice are necessary to solve the enormous difficulties generated by global warming and income inequality. The findings from the activists interviewed are as fascinating as they are relevant.

The adaptive traits of poplar trees

Submitted by: Adriana Suarez-Gonzalez

How do individuals adapt to extremely different environments? That is the main question that drives my research and I am using poplar trees and their genes to understand this process. These trees occur in contrasting environments from Alaska to California, and show great variation in adaptive traits (e.g. growth, disease susceptibility). They also show high variation at the genetic level, but only in specific genes called candidates. I am exploring the function of these “candidate genes” and their variants to both understand their contribution to local adaptation in poplar, and provide information to optimize breeding and conservation strategies.


Submitted by: Tracy Tang

Ethics are at the heart of the most controversial health care issues today, such as end-of- life decisions.

UBC Nursing, in partnership with BC Women’s and Children’s Hospitals and the UBC Centre for Applied Ethics, is co-presenting the Canadian Bioethics Society’s 25th Annual Conference in Vancouver in May 2014. This will be a national interdisciplinary forum to push forward thinking and research that affects ethical theory and practice in health care.

Speakers will tackle topics such as: ethics and equity in harm reduction (Dr. Julio Montaner), Aboriginal health (Cree Elder Willie Ermine), the history of ethics (Dr. Nuala Kenny), and health research (Dr. Michael McDonald).

Air Capture to mitigate CO2 emissions

Submitted by: Subhashini Vashisth

We can see the effects of man-made natural disaster, Global warming. One possible answer to this is Air Capture, an engineered way to accomplish what trees do naturally: capture and use CO2 directly from the atmosphere, in much effective pace. I am involved in CFD studies to tailor/optimize the design of structured packing used in air capture facility. The objective is to understand the interdependence of design parameters and performance. Pilot scale experiments are being done in Calgary. The main advantages are freedom of location, economy of scale and negative emissions and the aim is to achieve a powerful tool to mitigate human-induced CO2 emissions.

Microfluidics for detection of circulating tumour cells (CTCs)

Submitted by: Dr. Mina Hoorfar

CTCs circulating in the bloodstream are the source of metastasis and hence responsible for the majority of cancer-related deaths. Detection of CTCs can be used as a prognostic method since the collection and analysis of blood is easy, compared to biopsy, and can be performed at any stages of disease for appropriate modification in therapy. The problem with the current techniques developed for the detection of CTCs is their sensitivity to sample preparation and the fact that there are only a few CTCs among billions of blood cells in every mL of blood. The ATFL group at UBC, in collaboration with UC Berkeley, is developing a microfluidic device that can isolate CTCs from the whole blood without any need for upstream processes.

Organisms in indoor dust

Submitted by: Sepideh Pakpour

Today, the health effects associated with indoor dust are a worldwide problem. Epidemiological studies have demonstrated an elevation in the incidence of respiratory problems in children. Although microbes are suspected to have a key role in the development of such health problems, the cause-and-effect relationship has not been yet determined. In this research, the composition of major groups of organisms in dust is investigated by collecting and analyzing settled dust samples from houses of families with new born children in the city of Vancouver. Findings will contribute to an understanding of the potential correlation between dust components and children’s health.

When multiple pathogens attack

Submitted by: Georgia Perona-Wright

They say troubles come in threes, and infections also rarely strike alone.  Influenza virus kills through bacterial pneumonia; tuberculosis is cruelly exaggerated in people with HIV/AIDS; parasitic worms affect a third of the world’s population, each of them facing bacterial and viral infections too.  Research into these diseases is driven by experts in a single infection, using elegant models of one pathogen alone.  Data from patients show that simultaneous infections get a different  response than each one alone, and exciting new discoveries are beginning to tell us why.  Controlling this cross-talk promises to open a new era of synchronised medicine.