will continue to work with leading individuals and institutions in
—Indira Samarasekera, president,
University of Alberta, Canada
The University of
Alberta gives a national and international voice to innovation in the
Canadian province and takes a lead role in placing Canada at the global
forefront. In an exclusive interview Indira Samarasekera,
president, University of Alberta, informs BioSpectrum Chief Editor E
Abraham Mathew about the research and partnership plans of the
university with India.
What have been the
key achievements of the University of Alberta in the life sciences and
The University of Alberta (UA) has a long track record of significant
advancements in the health sciences dating back to 1921 when chemistry
professor and alumnus James Collip played a key role in the development
of insulin to treat diabetes. While on a research sabbatical, he
refined the pancreatic extract obtained by Frederick Banting and
Charles Best so that it could be used in humans. Banting and Best were
awarded the Nobel Prize and many feel that Collip should have been
included in that award.
The university’s world-leading carbohydrate chemistry group
has about 50 years of significant breakthroughs to its credit,
including Raymon Lemieux’s discovery of
howIndia-International.gif to make synthetic sugar (synthesizing
sucrose) and how carbohydrates bind to proteins—crucial to
everything from immunology to cancer. The work of Lemieux and his
colleagues led to new antibiotics and blood reagents, drugs to prevent
organ transplant rejection, and improved treatments for leukemia and
More recent examples include:
- The development of the breakthrough Edmonton Protocol
method of extracting and transplanting islet cells to treat Type 1
diabetes, freeing patients from the need for supplemental insulin for
years at a time
- The first commercial drug treatment for hepatitis B by
professor and alumnus Lorne Tyrrell, MD
- Molecular biologist Chris Bleakley discovered the way in
which T-cells cause cell death.
The University of Alberta is among the best in the world at diabetes
research and is home to the Alberta Diabetes Institute, and is a leader
in neonatal and transplantation medicine research working in close
partnership with the local health authority to speed research from
bench to bedside.
universities is common. Where does the UA figure in such
rankings in the life sciences and health related sectors?
The Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings of the year
2008 listed the UA 74 overall, 50 in academic survey rank, 88 in arts
and humanities rank, 46 in engineering and IT rank, 45 in life sciences
and biomedicine rank, 51 in natural sciences rank and 113 in social
sciences rank. UA ranked 106 overall in the 2008 Shanghai Jiao Tong
University Academic Ranking of World Universities and 62 in North
Briefly describe the
biotech work being done at the university in the field of diabetes,
agriculture and fuels?
There is extensive biotechnology work happening at the
university. Researchers who make discoveries with commercial
potential can draw on the resources and expertise of TEC Edmonton, a
joint venture between the university and the city of Edmonton to
A significant amount of biotech work is done in the
university’s NanoFab (micro- and nanofabrication facility)
and the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT), a joint
partnership with the National Research Council, the university and the
province. In the words of Jillian Buriak, chemist and Canada Research
Chair in Inorganic and Nanoscale Materials, “This place is a
jewel in many ways. It has everything you need. The NanoFab
(nanofabrication facility) is fantastic with its micro and nano
fabrication equipment that is virtually unequaled in Canada —
that’s the reason NINT came here instead of Montreal,
Vancouver or Toronto. There’s also the Alberta Center for
Surface Engineering and Science that has equipment you won’t
find anywhere else in North America.”
Agriculture research at UA is instrumental in supporting a diverse and
economically critical agricultural sector. Food safety is one example
of this sort of work. That research is centered at the Rs 124
crore Agri-Food Discovery Place, which supports research in meat
safety, crop use for food (including nutritionally enhanced food) and
crop use for non-food products such as biodiesel and
bioplastics. In addition, there is extensive research and
development of crop variations for disease resistance or enhanced
The researchers at the Faculty of Engineering are working on
advancements in energy research, particularly in terms of energy and
environment. In many cases, researchers are working closely with
industry to find solutions to business needs such as clean coal
technology, oil sands bitumen extraction that uses less water and
produces less toxic waste, remediation of land and water used in
resources extraction (e.g. coal, oil, gas). The university is home to
the Imperial Oil-Alberta Ingenuity Center for Oil Sands Innovation and
the multidisciplinary School of Energy and the Environment (part of the
Canada School for Energy and Environment).
Some specific examples include:
Does the university
have associations with Indian institutions? If yes, what is the scope?
- David Wishart and his team completed the first draft of the
human metabolome, the chemical equivalent of the human genome, opening
the door to more targeted drug therapy.
- An interdisciplinary team creating a technology to
stimulate the regrowth of tooth root tissue.
- Engineering professors developing a new type of
“puffer” or inhaler that allows patients to inhale
- Robert Burrell’s development of medical uses for
nanocrystalline silver (while working in the private sector, he
developed the Acticoat burn dressing, considered the first commercial
therapeutic application of nanotechnology in the world).
- Interdisciplinary teams studying prion diseases and ways to
develop cost-efficient test for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad
cow disease) and chronic wasting disease.
- An interdisciplinary team that developed a “lab
on a chip” device that allows inexpensive and quick cellular
analysis with potential applications in disease diagnosis, remote water
testing and more.
- Chemist Jillian Buriak’s research
team’s development of a silicon-based drug delivery system
that has been licensed to a pharmaceutical company.
The University of Alberta has been actively developing linkages with
top Indian institutions such as Indian Institute of Technology (IIT),
Mumbai; the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore; Petrotech
Society, New Delhi; and Tata Consultancy Services.
In March 2009, the University of Alberta and IIT (Mumbai) signed an
agreement for international research on energy and nanotechnology. We
are looking forward to strengthen our research ties with the leading
institutions in India.
We have also been developing our linkages in the area of executive
education. In 2008, the Petrotech Society sent 24 executives
from leading Indian energy companies to UA for a customized one-week
training program through our School of Business. Another
group is expected to come in 2009.
Finally, through partner schools or companies such as Tata, the
University of Alberta is actively exploring study, work, and research
placement opportunities for outgoing as well as incoming students.
Describe your India
agenda if there is one?
The University of Alberta is committed to develop a broad range of
activities with India. Not only are we developing strong
science and technology linkages with institutions like IIT-Mumbai, we
are interested in the study of India. Through a generous donation by a
local Indian couple in Edmonton, Prem and Saroj Singhmar, a Chair in
Classical Indian Polity and Society was established in our Faculty
of Arts several years ago. The Faculty has also
recently hired a professor of Indian religions.
At the same time, we are expanding the scholarship funds offered for
undergraduate students from India. The University of Alberta
has excellent professors and facilities which help create an
outstanding learning environment for students at all levels. By
providing more scholarships, we hope to show Indian students what we
have to offer.
India is the only location outside of Alberta where our international
office has a staff member. I take a very personal interest in our
activities with India. I have been there twice in the past year and a
half and am chairing an India Regional Council that we recently
developed at the University of Alberta. During my trip in
December 2007, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to meet with the
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who has an honorary doctorate from the
University of Alberta. We will continue to work with leading
individuals and institutions in India to create mutually beneficial
Your roots are from South Asia.
What would be your
message to South Asian companies and students?
South Asia is a region of growing importance in the world and is gifted
with many talented people. I myself came from Sri Lanka to North
America as a student many years ago and am fortunate to have become the
president of one of Canada’s top research universities. I
have pursued my personal goals, and I have also laid out a vision for
the University of Alberta, to become one of the top 20 public
universities in the world by 2020.
I am very pleased to be engaging with South Asia, in particular India,
in my role as president of the University of Alberta. I believe there
are many synergies that can develop by working together, for example
through research collaboration and training. I would encourage South
Asian students and institutions to explore the many excellent
opportunities that the University of Alberta has to offer.
E Abraham Mathew in