The regional impact of university research

Dr. Andrew P. Dean
Vice-President, Research and Innovation
Lakehead University

Lakehead University is a comprehensive and research-intensive institution with campuses in Thunder Bay and Orillia, Ontario. Like other universities throughout Canada, Lakehead brings great social, cultural, and economic value to the communities we serve. Many Canadian cities have developed around one or two main industries. Thunder Bay, for example, is known for forestry. Relying on one main industry, however, can be risky for a community’s economic sustainability. By supporting diversification, universities can promote sustainability and economic growth. According to a 2017 study, Lakehead University’s economic impact in Ontario surpassed $1.4 billion.

Lakehead generates knowledge about locally relevant issues through research and innovation, which, in turn, helps attract new businesses and industries to our region. Dr. Pedram Fatehi, Canada Research Chair in Green Chemicals and Processes, is exploring ways to use leftover materials from the pulping process to create greener products and new revenue streams for paper mills. Dr. Fatehi’s work has received $5.4 million in funding and includes Resolute Forest Products, FPInnovations, and mining giant Goldcorp as partners.

FPInnovations, with its funding partners, decided to build the LignoForce pilot plant in Thunder Bay based on the results of an engineering study conducted in 2015. After the first plant was built, Lakehead University invested resources to conduct relevant and critical research on lignin – the material that holds together tree fibre and ends up as pulp waste. According to Jean Hamel, Vice President Industry and Member Relations at FPInnovations, this research encouraged their funding partners to invest in a second plant, TMP-Bio. FPInnovations now has scientists working at two major pilot plants in Thunder Bay. Dr. Fatehi’s fundamental research helps make it possible for Northwestern Ontario’s forestry industry to adopt greener and more sustainable practices.

For the last decade, Lakehead University has maintained an active partnership with the Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute (TBRHRI), the research arm of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre. Research at TBRHRI originally focused on medical imaging. A 28-tonne cyclotron was installed in 2015, enabling TBRHRI to independently produce unique isotopes for medical research and provide immediate care to local residents. TBRHRI has now developed to a point of maturity where fundamental research is being translated into clinical trials and the development of medical devices.

Dr. Alla Reznik is the Canada Research Chair in Physics of Molecular Imaging and is a chief scientific officer at Radialis Medical – the first joint venture between Lakehead University and TBRHRI. Radialis is developing a high-resolution, high-sensitivity positron emission mammography (PEM) detector that could dramatically improve early breast cancer diagnosis. The PEM prototype is a plug-in device the size of a shopping cart, meant to be compact enough for transport to under-serviced communities. Clinical trials are expected to start this year.

Thunder Bay firefighter participates in Dr. Kathryn Sinden’s research on occupational health.

Another researcher addressing local needs is Dr. Kathryn Sinden, an assistant professor in Lakehead’s School of Kinesiology. The broad aim of Dr. Sinden’s research is to develop tools to prevent and reduce the human and financial impact of workplace injuries. Since joining Lakehead in 2016, Dr. Sinden’s interest in occupational health has extended to the Thunder Bay Fire Rescue Service. Firefighters are uniquely predisposed to increased risk of injury due to high physical loads and wearing “bunker gear” which weighs up to 40 kilograms.

Dr. Sinden’s research focuses on firefighters in Thunder Bay, allowing her to find local solutions to local problems. “What’s different here is creating knowledge that’s specific to Northwestern Ontario,” Dr. Sinden says of the initiative, which involves both the fire service and the Thunder Bay Professional Firefighters’ Association. “We have a different geography, our environment is different. How does that impact the way Thunder Bay firefighters perform their work?” Dr. Sinden is a member of the newly established Research Institute for Enhancing Prevention of Injury and Disability at Work (EPID@Work). Led by Dr. Vicki Kristman, the institute’s aim is to reduce the effects of work-related injury and work disability, including mental health issues.

The institute’s philosophy of thinking globally, but acting locally captures the essence of much of our research. Universities like Lakehead contribute to our communities in many ways, including economic expansion and diversification. Whether revolutionizing an industry, individualizing health care, or alleviating workplace injuries, our researchers are exploring local issues that will have a global impact.