CFI grants help McGill get wired

DANIEL McCABE | McGill's computer network is about to get a major upgrade. Our field stations are going to be spruced up. And a fairly new research institute, the Montreal Genome Centre, ought to be able to expand its activities.

These are the three McGill infrastructure proposals that received a thumbs-up from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation in the competition for support from the CFI's Institutional Innovation Fund. This fund represents the bulk of the CFI's spending. Each proposal represents a big-ticket item seeking at least $350,000 in CFI money.

Established in 1997 by the federal government, the CFI is a non-profit entity with a capital investment budget of $1 billion.

Its mission is to reinvigorate the frayed research infrastucture in the country's universities -- labs, computer resources, high-tech machinery and other research materials have been badly neglected in recent years as a result of budget cuts across the country.

There is a catch. Before you can get any CFI money, you have to prove that you can attract substantial support for your project from your provincial government and other partners as well.

McGill sent off five proposals for Institutional Innovation Fund support, all five of which had Quebec City's backing. One proposal, headed by biochemistry professor Michel Tremblay and involving research in genetics, microbiology and insulin studies, will receive a decision in June. Another, centred on neuroscience research and led by neurology and neurosurgery professor Albert Aguayo, was rejected outright by the CFI.

The other three proposals received the go-ahead.

Vice-Principal (Information Systems and Technology) Bruce Pennycook led one proposal on computer network infrastructure that earned over $2 million from the CFI and another $2 million from the Quebec government. McGill will contribute an additional $2 million to the project.

While McGill's computer network "extends almost everywhere" at the University, "there are gaps," says Pennycook. A handful of buildings have yet to be wired. That will change, thanks to this funding.

In other buildings, the network links "were built with a technology that needs to be replaced so that we can deliver much better bandwidth to everybody."

The focus of the spending is on establishing or enhancing network connections in buildings that are linked to research activities. But since research, teaching and other activities generally take place in the same buildings, the improved network links ought to make life easier for people outside of labs as well. "The same pipes that service research, by default, also service everybody else," says Pennycook.

While many McGill buildings will enjoy quicker network access as a result of this project, certain groups of researchers, heavily dependent on computers, will benefit the most. "This will allow us to connect certain key resources at a very high bandwidth," says Pennycook. Scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute and the Centre for Intelligent Machines and physicists specializing in computational analysis will be among the researchers to benefit the most from this funding. Pennycook says the project "will start almost immediately and last about 24 months."

McGill's Canadian-based field stations -- the Mont St. Hilaire Biosphere Reserve, the Morgan Arboretum and Molson Nature Reserve on the West Island, the Memphremagog Field Station, the McGill Subarctic Research Station in Schefferville and the Axel Heiberg Station in the Northwest Territories -- will all benefit from support from the CFI.

Biology professor Martin Lechowicz headed up a successful application, "ECONET: network of long term ecological sites," that will earn $480,000 from the CFI and at least $250,000 from the Quebec government.

"McGill is an unusual university in North America in that it has so many research stations representing different biosystems," says Lechowicz. It's one of the University's strengths, says Lechowicz, and the stations tie in perfectly with the budding McGill School of Environment.

"This is a real shot in the arm for some neglected research infrastructure," says Lechowicz, adding that the budget cuts of the last decade haven't been kind to McGill's field stations.

The money won't all be spent on fixing things up. Lechowicz says the plan is to really take advantage of the ecological diversity offered by these different sites and put them at the disposal of researchers from the MSE and elsewhere.

For instance, graphical information systems (GIS) technology will be used to create a database cataloguing a wide range of detailed environmental information about the ecology of the various field stations.

Lechowicz says much of the credit for the successful CFI application goes to Dean of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Deborah Buszard and the late Mrs. Jane Sullivan, one of the heirs to the Molson family fortune.

Sullivan recently donated a large parcel of land in Île Perrot to Macdonald Campus, as well as money to support its upkeep. The Molson Nature Reserve, a tract of forests and wetland with a rich diversity of flora, amphibians, reptiles and birds, played a key role in garnering support from the CFI and Quebec City. "It was accepted as a contribution to this project worth over $1 million," says Lechowicz. "We were supremely lucky to have had [Sullivan's] timely donation."

Dr. Tom Hudson, from the Department of Medicine, heads up the Montreal Genome Centre, which earned $3.3 million in funding from the CFI and another $3.3 million from the Quebec government.

For Hudson, the timing of the new money couldn't be better. "I think we're going to see a lot of breakthrough research involving the genetic causes of human diseases" in the next few years, he predicts. The new money will go towards equipping the centre with the kind of technology it will require to take part in those breakthroughs.

Begun three years ago with departmental colleague Ken Morgan, the centre, headquartered at the Montreal General Hospital, has a dual purpose. One is to foster high-calibre genetics research by Hudson, Morgan and other members, such as biology professor Howard Bussey.

The unit is also a resource centre providing access to high-tech tools and lab expertise (DNA analysis, genotyping) for genetics projects involving other universities or industry. "Fifty different research groups in all have signed on," says Hudson.

"Canada is excellent when it comes to genetics research," says Hudson, but the country's scientists don't always have access to the specialized and costly instruments and machinery they require. Having the equipment all under one roof in centres such as his gives the country an opportunity to build a "critical mass" of researchers who can combine their skills in different areas such as biology, mathematics and computer science.

"It's very expensive to do this," says Hudson, who spends part of each week in Boston as the assistant director of MIT's Centre for Genome Research. "Canada isn't training people" with the ability to use specialized techniques and equipment to support genetics research, Hudson says. He sees that as part of the Montreal Genome Centre's mission as well.

McGill also plays a role in the largest grant doled out by the CFI -- $56.4 million towards the creation of the Canadian Light Source at the University of Saskatchewan. The facility is being set up to study synchrotron light -- which is generated by using strong magnets to accelerate electrons travelling near the speed of light. The resulting light is millions of times brighter than X-rays and has a very defined beam that can be pulsed for use in basic and industrial research.

Though located in Saskatchewan, the project involves researchers from across the country. Earth and planetary sciences professor Don Baker is the team leader for the building of one of the facility's key components -- a beamline that will be used for the analysis of inorganic substances.