Two newly appointed, world-leading researchers with UBC Science have been named Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC).
Dr. Kayla King has been appointed the CERC in Evolutionary Dynamics of Host-Pathogen Interactions, while Dr. Corey Stephenson, who will join UBC in 2024, will hold the CERC in Innovative Synthetic Methods for Translational Chemistry.
Their research aims to address some of the world's most pressing challenges, from uncovering infectious disease dynamics in the face of climate change to creating more efficient and sustainable processes for manufacturing medicines and agricultural chemicals.
The CERC program was established by the federal government in 2008 to to strengthen Canada’s ability to attract the world’s top researchers. UBC will receive up to $24 million over eight years to support each chair and their research teams to establish ambitious research programs. Today’s new appointments—which also includes a new chair in UBC Medicine—bring the total number of CERCs to join UBC to eight.
“On behalf of UBC, I would like to extend my warmest congratulations to our three newest Canada Excellence Research Chairs,” says UBC President and Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Benoit-Antoine Bacon. “Their commitment to scientific discovery is a testament to the calibre of research excellence we strive for at UBC. The ripple effects of their research will drive forward advancements that will touch the lives of every Canadian and further position Canada as a global leader in science and innovation.”
Understanding disease dynamics in a warming world
As the CERC in Evolutionary Dynamics of Host-Pathogen Interactions, Dr. King’s research focus is on evolutionary and ecological interactions between animal hosts and microbial pathogens. Microbial pathogens are tiny, often invisible organisms, such as viruses and bacteria, that can cause diseases in humans and animals.
Climate change is causing extreme heating and altering the distribution of microbial pathogens, while associated human activity and biodiversity loss are increasing human-animal contact—factors that might contribute to infectious diseases becoming more prevalent.
Dr. King’s research has implications for predicting virulence, transmission, and the tempo of evolution as microbial pathogens emerge in animals or move to new areas with shifting climates.
“My research aims to better understand the evolution of infection and immunity in a changing world,” says Dr. King. “The program will assess the impacts of climate change on pathogen evolution and host susceptibility, and study pathogen evolution after jumps across animal species. We hope to better predict changes in virulence and transmission, informing wildlife conservation, and helping us get ahead in the race against future pandemics.”
Dr. King, who received her undergraduate degree in Biology from UBC, returned after 10 years of teaching and research in Oxford University’s Department of Biology and Christ Church College. She is a professor in UBC’s departments of zoology, and microbiology and immunology.
Paving the way for next-generation medicines and sustainable manufacturing
Advances in areas like pharmaceuticals, agrochemistry, and energy are being driven by innovations in chemistry research, including new methods for creating or synthesizing chemicals or molecules in a more efficient manner. These new methods are providing scientists with improved capabilities to produce desired substances or achieve specific reactions that might have been challenging or even impossible with older techniques.
As the CERC in Innovative Synthetic Methods for Translational Chemistry, Dr. Stephenson will be spearheading the creation of new methods that involve photo- and electro-catalytic methods—techniques that use light and electricity to accelerate and improve chemical reactions. These methods offer several advantages: they work well with a wide range of chemical groups with mild reactions, can be scaled up easily, and are straightforward to use.
Dr. Stephenson, who was born and raised in Ontario, received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from the University of Waterloo. He completed his PhD at the University of Pittsburgh and began his independent career at Boston University, before joining the University of Michigan in 2013. He will be joining UBC on June 1, 2024 as a professor in the department of chemistry in the faculty of science, and the department of biochemistry and molecular biology in the faculty of medicine. Dr. Stephenson will also be joining the BC Cancer Research Institute as a research scientist.
“Returning to Canada as a Canada Excellence Research Chair at UBC, a world leader in innovation, fills me with excitement about the tremendous opportunity,” says Dr. Stephenson. “The Canadian government's substantial investment in fundamental and translational research underscores their dedication to propelling the nation to the forefront of research and innovation, and to accelerate the transformation of scientific breakthroughs into real-world solutions.”
Dr. Stephenson and his research team will be designing new tools that use light and electricity for use in drug creation and improving plant-protecting chemicals, using advanced data analysis to perfect their approaches. Additionally, they will be developing efficient ways to discover and refine these techniques. Their work will have important implications for health research, laying down the building blocks for the next generation of medicines, and will contribute to more environmentally friendly manufacturing processes.