Acadia researchers awarded 2016 Discovery Grants

Acadia University is pleased to congratulate the following recipients of Discovery Grant Awards from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), which announced the results June 23, 2016: Dr. Sandra Barr, Dr. Kirk Hillier, Dr. Holger Tiesman, and Dr. Ian Spooner.

About the Research

Dr. Sandra Barr, Earth and Environmental Science
Building mountain belts - the Appalachian model
5 year Award: $145,000.00

Sandra Barr

Each mountain belt on Earth is unique, but similar processes likely took place in the formation of all. One of those processes is the accretion of exotic fragments or terranes. My research program focuses on identifying such fragments in the northern part of the Appalachian mountain belt, interpreting from where on the Earth they were derived, and understanding how, when, and why they were attached to ancestral North America. My working model recognizes fragments in the northern Appalachian and correlative belts in Europe derived from three separate microcontinents named Meguma, Avalonia, and Ganderia.

We have made much progress toward understanding these fragments, but problems remain. This proposal focuses on two specific problem areas: (1) the part of Ganderia in central Cape Breton Island and (2) the part of Avalonia in northern mainland Nova Scotia. I will use field mapping as a basis to better define rock units, followed by mineral, textural, and chemical studies, dating, and isotopic analyses of carefully collected representative samples to decipher the ages and origins of the rocks in these areas.

This work is important to geoscientists who work in areas from which components of the mountain belt may have been derived and/or to which former components may have been dispersed after the break-up of Pangaea. More broadly, the work is important to those who are trying to understand the fundamental processes of mountain building as exemplified in the northern Appalachian orogen. The relevance of my work is demonstrated by the extent of my collaborations with geoscientists from not only Canada but also the USA, UK, Spain, France, and Germany. My research involves students at both the undergraduate and graduate (MSc) levels and hence funding for students is the largest component of my budget. My students learn how to interpret rocks in the field, acquire and use analytical data, make public presentations, and write scientific papers.

We anticipate that the new results, integrated with those from previous work and from other areas, will lead to a definitive and internally consistent model for northern Appalachian mountain building, with broad applicability to other mountain belts. Such understanding should lead to increased and more successful mineral exploration programs, especially if, as we anticipate, rock units related to those in mineral-rich areas in central Newfoundland and New Brunswick can be demonstrated to be present in Cape Breton Island.


Dr. N. Kirk Hillier, Biology
Pheromone diversity in Heliothine moths
1 year Award: $28,000

Kirk Hillier

Insects, and particularly moths, rely heavily on sex pheromones as a means of odor-based communication to draw together opposite sexes. To date, thousands of sex pheromones have been identified, with each species having its own unique blend of chemicals, which will attract a mate (typically produced by females to attract males to prevent costly mating mistakes with the wrong species). As such, there is incredible diversity in pheromone composition, but a poor understanding of the evolution and shifts in production, detection and preference of these chemicals as new species evolve and diverge from one another. In other words, “why are there so many unique pheromone blends?”

Despite the wealth of documented pheromones in insects, we are still struggling to understand the mechanisms by which pheromone composition and preferences shift during speciation (or if these features may, in fact, drive speciation). Understanding such shifts are paramount to our understanding of the olfactory system, and moreover, to adapting insect control strategies which use pheromones to monitor and control pests.

This research program will create an international collaborative network to characterize and compare pheromones, preference of pheromones, and neurophysiology of pheromone detection and processing across related species of heliothine moths. Heliothine moths represent an excellent model system for examining divergence of pheromone production, and mechanisms of detection and processing in closely related species. Divergence in olfactory communication is evident among heliothine species, based on shifts in the use of key components within each species’ sex pheromone blend. Heliothine species selected for this research range from benign to incredibly devastating (control of Corn Earworm and African Bollworm is estimated to cost US$3-7 billion annually) pest species, from six continents. Moths will be collected, analyzed for pheromone composition, tested for behavioral blend preference and receptors identified to detect pheromone components, and their brains examined for correlates of pheromone preference. Further, the basis for blend complexity will be investigated in the context of speciation.

By using a multi-faceted, integrated approach, incorporating ecology, physiology and genetics, we will make ground-breaking discoveries regarding the current theory of the evolution of pheromone-based species isolation, and physiology of olfactory processing. Through a better understanding of pheromone evolution, we will enable development of new, innovative technologies for pesticide-reduced, pheromone-based insect management of many species, benefiting Canadian agriculture, forestry and the environment as well as other countries around the world.


Dr. Holger Teismann, Mathematics and Statistics 
Fundamental mechanisms and obstacles in the bilinear control of Schrödinger equations
5 year Award: $65,000.00

Quantum engineering is an emerging discipline with the potential of fundamentally (re-)shaping our technological and economic universes. It deals with the controlled manipulation of physical systems which are governed by the laws quantum mechanics. Its applications range from precision measurement devices, over crypto systems, to the iconic quantum computer.

A solid grasp of quantum systems and their control will soon be part of the standard arsenal of engineers. This research program aims to identify some fundamental mathematical principles of quantum control to help develop a robust intuition about controlled quantum systems. The phenomena that will be studied include the role of dispersion in the control process and semiclassical approximations of the quantum dynamics. Motivated by the observation that a fair share of our intuition about quantum systems is derived from a few simple textbook systems that can be treated explicitly, the focus will be on simple one-dimensional systems, such as the infinite square well and the harmonic oscillator.


Dr. Ian Spooner, Earth and Environmental Science
The influence of environmental stressors on metal sequestration in shallow lakes
2 year DDG award: $20,000.00

Ian Spooner

Small (<40 ha), shallow (<10m) moderately productive lakes are a common and integral component of Atlantic Canada and are important recreational, municipal and ecological resources. Lake management has focused on the prevention of the deterioration of water quality, and recent paleolimnological studies that have focused on lake acidification and nutrient loading have provided important context for management. The proposed research will expand upon that research concentrating on metal sequestration and mobility in lakebed sediments. Lead, arsenic, mercury and uranium are toxic metals of interest in Atlantic Canada. Accumulation of these metals in lakebed sediments is a common concern along with increased bioavailability associated with changing environmental conditions. A 300-year history of mining and logging throughout Nova Scotia has had a significant environmental impact on lakes but separating anthropogenic contamination associated with these practices from the natural input of metals has been problematic.

In this research sediment cores from lakes will be used to better understand the sources of metals in lakebed sediments and the factors that influence mobility and bioavailability. Stable isotopes, Xray fluorescence, ICPMS, and a variety of abiotic proxies coupled with radiometric dating (14C and 210Pb) will be applied to lakebed sediment cores to reconstruct 500 year records of lake water quality and chemistry in order to decouple natural variability from anthropogenic influences. Research will focus on the identification of elements and isotopic analyses best suited to determining the effects of development. As well, the role of lakebed sediment composition and low oxygen levels in metal sequestration and mobility will be explored. This research is collaborative and will be integrated with bioaccumulation and toxicology research already in progress by Dr. M. Mallory and Dr. N. O'Driscoll at Acadia University. Established partners in this research initiative include Ducks Unlimited Canada, Halifax Regional Municipality, and Halifax Water.

The proposed research program will develop strategies that will facilitate effective resource management and help determine which lakes and water supply reservoirs are most susceptible to metal bioavailability and mobility. If environmental assessment of lakes is to be effective and if sustainable management and restoration is to be successful, cost-effective, time-efficient and readily accessible methods for the reliable determination of the effects of environmental change and watershed development on these lakes are required. The field and laboratory techniques required in this research program will train students, are transferrable and are relatively inexpensive; technology transfer to both the public and private sector will be an important component of this research. 


About Discovery Grants

The Discovery Grants Program assists in promoting and maintaining a diversified base of high-quality research capability in the natural sciences and engineering in Canadian universities. It fosters research excellence; and provides a stimulating environment for research training.

The Discovery Grants Program supports ongoing programs of research (with long-term goals) rather than a single short-term project or collection of projects. These grants recognize the creativity and innovation that are at the heart of all research advances. 

Quick Facts

  • NSERC investments in discovery are backed by a highly-functional quality control process.  Panels of world-leading researchers review and evaluate research proposals submitted by their peers.
  • The $341 million support for NSERC’s flagship Discovery Grants Program will foster research excellence in the full range of science and engineering disciplines. These grants, which are subject to rigorous quality assurance, support ongoing research programs with long-term goals and build the foundation for innovation.
  • The more than $82 million in Scholarship and Fellowships will launch a new generation of scientists and engineers, with support at levels of study from graduate to postdoctoral.
  • Researchers will share an additional $26 million in Research Tools and Instruments Grants, to purchase new research equipment needed for world-leading discovery, innovation and training.
  • In addition, NSERC is providing $15 million for resources to selected researchers to accelerate progress and maximize the impact of their promising research proposals through the Discovery Accelerator Supplements Program.





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