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New Faces

UBC has appointed a new president and a new chancellor

Photo: Martin Dee
Photo: Martin Dee

Dr. Arvind Gupta – a renowned expert in research and innovation policy who has forged close collaborations between universities, civil society and business – has been appointed the university’s 13th President and Vice-Chancellor. Gupta is CEO and scientific director of Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization recognized internationally for nurturing the next generation of research and business-savvy innovators. He is also a UBC professor of computer science, and will retain this position during his term as president, which begins July 1.

“As a member of the UBC community, I know how great a responsibility and honour this is,” says Gupta. “I have the privilege of taking the baton from Professor Toope, who has guided UBC to a strong position. We have exciting days ahead and I relish the opportunity.”


Photo: Martin Dee
Photo: Martin Dee

Business and community leader Lindsay Gordon, BA’73(Economics), MBA’76, takes over as the university’s 18th Chancellor on July 1. Since his graduation in 1976, Gordon has remained closely associated with UBC. He is co-chair of the start an evolution campaign, Canada’s largest fundraising and alumni engagement effort.

The recently retired president and CEO of HSBC Bank Canada enjoyed a 25-year career with the bank, following 10 years in senior roles with Export Development Canada. He is a recipient of the 2010 B’nai Brith Canada Award of Merit and the 2012 Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, awarded to outstanding Canadians.

“As an alumnus, I am particularly honoured to be the next Chancellor of UBC, one of the world’s leading universities, and to work with incoming president Arvind Gupta and his team,” said Gordon. He will replace Sarah Morgan-Silvester, who steps down on June 30 after exemplary service to the university since 2008.

Women on Wall Street

Could the global financial market meltdown of 2008 have been avoided if Wall Street had more women executives? That’s the starting point of new UBC research that will investigate the relationship between gender and risk in the male‑dominated global financial industry. Hazel Hollingdale, a PhD student in UBC’s Department of Sociology, hopes her research can help prevent future market crashes, while providing a greater incentive for financial firms to hire more women in senior roles.

Hollingdale will track regulatory transgressions to determine whether firms that employ more women have fewer criminal financial violations. She will also interview top executives in financial firms to improve our understanding of how gender dynamics and organizational culture impact financial decisions. “If employing more women lowers the rate of irresponsible risky investments, it can help prevent future financial collapses,” she says. “The result could mean more stable economic markets and greater gender equity as well.”

The study explores the “Lehman Sisters” hypothesis  – the theory that Lehman Brothers’ devastating bankruptcy resulted in part from a macho “culture of risk.” While previous studies have found that women are more risk‑averse and fiscally responsible than men, Hollingdale wants to determine if these findings carry over to women who work in the financial industry. She also aims to confirm whether macho behaviours that are often rewarded in male‑dominated sectors – such as taking unnecessary risks and being overly independent – can be found in the financial industry as well. The study will build on a growing body of research that suggests companies with women in senior roles make smarter financial decisions.

Health Insurance: Spending More, Getting Less

Spending by Canadians on private health insurance has more than doubled over the past 20 years, but insurers paid out a rapidly decreasing proportion as benefits, according to a study published this March in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The study, by UBC and University of Toronto researchers, shows that overall Canadians paid $6.8 billion more in premiums than they received in benefits in 2011.

Approximately 60 per cent of Canadians have private health insurance. Typically obtained as a benefit of employment or purchased by individuals, it usually covers prescription drugs, dental services and eye care costs not paid by public health care.

Over the past two decades, the gap between what insurers take in and what they pay out has increased threefold. While private insurers paid out 92 per cent of group plan insurance premiums as benefits in 1991, they paid only 74 per cent in 2011. Canadians who purchased individual plans fared even worse, with just 38 per cent of their premiums returned as benefits in 2011.

“Small businesses and individual entrepreneurs are the hardest hit – they end up paying far more for private health coverage,” says study lead author Michael Law, an assistant professor in UBC’s Centre for Health Services and Policy Research. “It’s essentially an extra health tax on one of our main economic drivers. Our findings suggest that private insurers are likely making greater profits, paying higher wages to their executives and employees, or spending more on marketing.”

The authors call for greater transparency from private insurers and for the federal government to introduce new regulations. “Obamacare requires insurers to pay out 80 to 85 per cent of their premium income as benefits, which resulted in $1.1 billion being returned to policyholders in 2012,” says Law. “Our numbers suggest that Canadians are getting a worse deal than Americans.”

Robots and Body Language

Researchers are programming robots to communicate with people using human-like body language and cues – an important step toward bringing robots into homes. Past research has shown that people have difficulty figuring out when to reach out and take an object from a robot, for example, because robots fail to provide appropriate non-verbal cues. UBC researchers enlisted the help of a human-friendly robot named Charlie to study the simple task of handing an object to a person.

“We hand things to other people multiple times a day and we do it seamlessly,” says AJung Moon, a PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “Getting this to work between a robot and a person is really important if we want robots to be helpful in fetching us things in our homes or at work.”

Moon and her colleagues studied what people do with their heads, necks and eyes when they hand water bottles to one another. They then tested three variations of this interaction with Charlie and 102 study participants. They found that people reached out to take the water bottle sooner in scenarios where the robot moved its head to look at the area where it would hand over the water bottle, or looked to the handover location and then up at the person to make eye contact.

“We want the robot to communicate using the cues that people already recognize,” says Moon. “This is key to interacting with a robot in a safe and friendly manner.” The study won best paper at the International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction.

Designer Trees

Researchers at UBC, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Michigan State University have genetically engineered trees that will be easier to break down to produce paper and biofuel.

“One of the largest impediments for the pulp and paper industry as well as the emerging biofuel industry is a polymer found in wood known as lignin,” says professor of wood science Shawn Mansfield. Lignin makes up a substantial portion of the cell wall of most plants. Its removal currently requires chemicals and energy, and causes undesirable waste.

Researchers used genetic engineering to modify the lignin, making it easier to break down without adversely affecting the tree’s strength. “We’re designing trees to be processed with less energy and fewer chemicals, and ultimately recovering more wood carbohydrate than is currently possible,” says Mansfield.

Researchers had previously tried to tackle this problem by reducing the quantity of lignin in trees by suppressing genes, which often resulted in trees that were stunted in growth or were susceptible to wind, snow, pests and pathogens.

Eye in the sky

Based at UBC’s Faculty of Forestry, the new Centre for Applied Earth Observation will use images from satellites, aircraft, and the International Space Station to monitor globally important environmental issues, such as changes in forestry activity and the amount of carbon sequestered in vegetation.

In forestry, satellite imaging could help detect wildfires, deforestation, and insect infestations, as well as support mapping of forest resources and the planning of future logging. The centre will also explore possibilities for other mapping applications, carbon credit verification, and urban planning.

“We’re streaming space observation right to our computers,” says John Innes, Dean of Forestry. “For industries like forestry, this is about embracing a new high-tech frontier that will provide rapid access to the information we need to manage our resources sustainably.”

The centre brings together researchers, potential users and western Canada’s earth observation industry. A think tank will be created to make greater use of the remote sensing data and develop new projects. UBC graduate students will also get to work with the top satellite imaging providers in the world. Centre staff are planning a first multi-sector conference called Virtual Constellations, which will be sponsored by industry partners and held in late 2014.

Brain Breakthrough

Scientists have uncovered how inflammation and lack of oxygen conspire to cause brain damage in conditions such as stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. Chronic inflammation and hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency, are hallmarks of several brain diseases, but little was known about how they contribute to symptoms such as memory loss.

The study used state-of-the-art techniques that reveal the movements of microglia, the brain’s resident immune cells. Brain researcher Brian MacVicar had previously captured how they moved to areas of injury to repair brain damage.

The new study shows that the combination of inflammation and hypoxia activates microglia in a way that persistently weakens the connection between neurons. The phenomenon, known as long-term depression, has been shown to contribute to cognitive impairment in Alzheimer’s disease.

“This is a never-before-seen mechanism among three key players in the brain that interact together in neurodegenerative disorders,” says MacVicar, of the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health at UBC (see page 18) and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute. “Now we can use this knowledge to start identifying new potential targets for therapy.”

Peak performance

A new UBC study identifies when the clock runs out on an NHL player’s peak performance, giving team executives insight into how best to build a roster.

The study by Sauder School of Business professor James Brander found that the performance of forwards peaks between the ages of 27 and 28. Defencemen are best between 28 and 29, and the performance of goaltenders varies little by age.

The study also reveals that players performed close to their peak levels for a number of years before and after their optimal peak: 24 to 32 for forwards and 24 to 34 for defencemen.

“While confirming conventional wisdom that players peak in their late 20s, the study proves it is wishful thinking for managers to expect a player in his mid‑20s to continue improving significantly,” says Brander, an economist. “The vast majority of players are at 90 per cent of their best by age 24, although there are a few late bloomers.”

Pond Scum

A genomic investigation by UBC researchers has revealed that a lethal parasite infecting a wide range of insects actually originated from pond scum, but has completely shed its green past on its evolutionary journey.

A team led by UBC Botany professor Patrick Keeling sequenced the genome of Helicosporidium – an intracellular parasite that can kill juvenile blackflies, caterpillars, beetles and mosquitoes – and found it evolved from algae like another notorious pathogen: malaria.

Keeling and colleagues had previously reported that malaria shared a common evolutionary lineage with the algae responsible for toxic red tides. Their latest study shows that Helicosporidium evolved from green alga but, unlike malaria, preserved virtually all its genes except those required for photosynthesis.

“Both malaria and Helicosporidium started out as alga and ended up as intracellular parasites preying on animals, but they have done it in very different ways,” says Keeling, director of the Centre for Microbial Diversity and Evolution at UBC and a senior fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

“Malaria drastically reduced its genome and became very dependent on its host for nutrients. Helicosporidium, on the other hand, lost almost nothing except those genes required for photosynthesis, which it no longer needs as a parasite.

“It’s as if photosynthesis has been surgically removed from its genome.”

The discovery, done in collaboration with scientists at the universities of Rhode Island and Florida, will allow researchers to compare how parasites evolve at the molecular level in these two distantly related lineages. It also provides the first insights into their origins, development, and methods of infection, which are key to controlling the population of pest‑insect hosts.

80‑foot airport mural

UBC’s Okanagan campus has a story to tell – actually plenty of them – and several compelling stories about students are now featured on an 80‑foot‑long mural at Kelowna International Airport.

The mural graces the pedway that brings visitors from arriving flights into the airport terminal. Seven exceptional students, one representing each of UBC’s Okanagan faculties, are featured in photo arrays.

Called Our Stories, it is the largest graphic illustration about UBC ever created in the Okanagan, spanning more than 80 feet in length by six feet in height. Months in the making, with two additional stand‑alone panels the mural snakes out to more than 100 feet.

The installation draws attention to a supporting website – ourstories.ok.ubc.ca – which tells long‑form narratives about a variety of exceptional UBC Okanagan students.

Storytelling and artistic expression are vital ways to communicate achievements and cultural values, and to provide a sense of place and history, says Robert Eggleston, associate professor of English and Associate Dean of UBC’s Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies.

“The great thing about this mural is that it is more than an installation, it’s an art piece,” he says. Up to 750,000 travellers a year arrive in the Okanagan through Kelowna International Airport, so the mural, developed by UBC designer Margo Yacheshyn, is expected to draw plenty of attention.

Defence against viruses

Viral pandemics, such as the coronavirus that caused the deadly SARS outbreak in 2002, have caused hundreds of deaths in Canada, yet effective anti‑viral drugs are rare.

UBC scientists have recently uncovered an intricate chain reaction in the body’s immune system and have used the knowledge to develop a new treatment against harmful viruses.

A key element to this natural immune response is an antiviral protein in the blood called Interferon alpha. Like soldiers, Interferon alpha is quickly deployed by the body to fight viruses and removed just as quickly to restore equilibrium.

The UBC team discovered that an enzyme called MMP12 serves double‑duty in the deployment of the critical antiviral protein: it first enters the infected cell to activate Interferon alpha and then sends it outside the cell membrane to fight viruses. After the job of Interferon alpha is done, MMP12 dissolves the protein during the healing process.

Published in the prestigious journal Nature Medicine, the study was led by Drs. Chris Overall from UBC’s Department of Oral Biological and Medical Sciences, Bruce McManus from UBC’s Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and David Marchant from the University of Alberta.

Overall has developed a new antiviral drug that blocks MMP12 from dissolving Interferon alpha outside the cell, giving the immune system an added boost by keeping levels of the protein high in the bloodstream. The drug cannot penetrate cell membranes, making it unable to interfere with the beneficial work inside the cell. The drug has been shown to effectively treat viral infections in mice models and holds promise as a new broad‑spectrum antiviral treatment.

“Because the drug isn’t virus‑strain specific and boosts the body’s own immune response to fight infections, it could be effective for even emergent, unknown viruses and eliminate the lag time required to first identify and sequence the virus genetic material before we can treat it,” says Overall.


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