UPEI awarded Canada Research Chairs by Government of Canada

| Research
UPEI Canada Research Chairs
Left to right: Dr. Joshua MacFadyen, Dr. Jay Penney, and Dr. Sara Sadri

The University of Prince Edward Island has been awarded two new Tier 2 Canada Research Chairs, and a current Tier 2 Canada Research Chair has been renewed, all for five-year terms. 

The Canada Research Chairs for UPEI were among 230 new and renewed chairs included in a federal $1.7 billion research funding announcement held in Montreal on March 13 by the Honourable Pablo Rodriguez, Minister of Transport and Quebec Lieutenant, on behalf of the Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, and the Honourable Mark Holland, Minister of Health.

Dr. Joshua MacFadyen, UPEI’s current Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Geospatial Humanities, will investigate the social-ecological transitions that made modern agriculture in Canada. The energy transition from wood to coal—or from organic to mineral regimes—is widely considered a watershed moment in modern economic development. However, in Canada traditional energy carriers such as firewood and other biomass fuels persisted in most rural and some urban areas well into the twentieth century. The other large biomass energy flow was the feed metabolized by animals.

“Although firewood and feed represented enormous energy flows, these commodities were unenumerated, and they have been poorly understood by historians,” he said. 

Farmers who replaced mixed animal husbandry with specialized operations using fossil-fuel based machinery and synthetic fertilizers decoupled the animal-land dynamic essential to mixed agriculture. Similarly, the biodiversity of traditional agroecosystems has declined with non-livestock animals such as bees, birds, and micro-organisms playing a less essential role in modern agriculture. One result of this decoupling is a general misunderstanding of the centrality of forests and animals and the important relationship between humans and non-human animals in all but the most recent decades. By combining quantitative census analysis and qualitative research in farm diaries and other sources, this project reveals the range of food, feed, and fuel energy strategies in Canada over the last 150 years, including the role that non-human animals played in those dynamics.

As Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Genetics, Dr. Jay Penney will use human induced pluripotent stem cell and mouse models to examine the roles of microglia, the brain’s innate immune cells, in Parkinson’s disease. Neurodegenerative disease research efforts have traditionally focused on neuronal mechanisms, however, recent large-scale genetic studies have highlighted microglia as important players in the development of conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. 

Dr. Penney’s research program will probe the functions of Parkinson’s disease genetic risk factors in human microglia using advanced gene editing and stem cell differentiation techniques. In addition, stem cell-based neuron-microglia co-cultures, and microglia transplantation to Parkinson’s disease model mice, will be used to understand how gene edited human microglia affect neurodegeneration and disease-related neuronal pathologies. 

The roles of microglia in Parkinson’s disease pathogenesis remain understudied, with a particular lack of research using human model systems. As such, Dr. Penney’s research program will be among the first to examine microglial genetic risk factors for Parkinson’s disease using human stem cell-based models. 

As Canada Research Chair in Remote Sensing and Water Security at UPEI, Dr. Sara Sadri will focus on finding sustainable and affordable solutions to increasing regional and global water security and food security demands. Using novel approaches in data science, AI/ML, stochastic analysis of big data, and applied remote sensing, she will look at the availability and quality of water and its movement to inform stakeholders, farmers, and policymakers. 

“Although the relationship between water security and food security is complex, leaving it unaddressed undermines livelihoods, leading to migrations, general instability, and conflict. This study will develop a four-component nexus framework to understand the complex interrelationships among the food and water sectors,” she said.

The components Sadri will focus on are monitoring and predicting agricultural productivity, crop water demand, irrigation, and fertilizer scheduling; monitoring and predicting drought and pluvial conditions in higher resolutions; water resources, such as estuaries, groundwater, and rivers, sustainability, quality, and quantity in rural areas; and the effects of seasonality on household food security, public health, and solutions to household food insecurity. Additionally, she will focus on adaptation strategies and nature-based solutions for PEI, such as sustainable infrastructure design, toward achieving net zero under climate change. 

Sadri is also the recipient of a John R. Evans Leader Award from the Canadian Foundation of Innovation as part of her Canada Research Chair.

“On behalf of UPEI, I congratulate Drs. MacFadyen, Penney, and Sadri on their success,” said Dr. Greg Naterer, vice-president academic and research at UPEI. “Having these two new chairs awarded and another renewed points to the national recognition of research excellence at UPEI.” 

About the Chairs:

Dr. Joshua MacFadyen is an associate professor in the UPEI Applied Communication, Leadership, and Culture Program, and he leads the GeoREACH lab at UPEI, which supports geospatial research in Atlantic Canadian history. His first monograph, Flax Americana: A History of the Fibre and Oil that Covered a Continent, was published by McGill-Queens University Press, and he also co-edited a book with Dr. Edward MacDonald and Dr. Irene Novaczek called Time and a Place: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island. On November 29, 2023, he launched Time Flies: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island from the Air, a new book with Island Studies Press that examines land use change on the Island using aerial photographs.

Originally from Newfoundland and Labrador, Dr. Jay Penney obtained his BSc (biology, honours) and BA (history) degrees from the Memorial University of Newfoundland. He then earned an MSc at the University of New Brunswick Fredericton, where he studied Drosophila (fruit fly) molecular genetics, and a PhD at McGill University, where he worked on Drosophila neurobiology and molecular genetics. After receiving his PhD, he studied neurobiology and mechanisms underlying neurodegenerative disease using both mouse and human induced pluripotent stem cell models at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His work at MIT was supported in part by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Human Frontier Science Program. He is an associate professor in the Atlantic Veterinary College’s Department of Biomedical Sciences.

Dr. Sara Sadri is a statistical data scientist and remote-sensing hydrologist. Her research includes developing a water stress advisory model for the Prairies to predict farm-specific crop water deficits. Dr. Sadri previously worked at Princeton University on a global near-real-time soil moisture index monitor. Her projects funded by GIWS, NASA, USGS, and Natural Resources Canada span global to regional scales. While working on a drought monitoring project in Kenya, she experienced the many challenges of women and children to water security. Through filmmaking, she has helped educate the public about water resources and climate change. UNESCO used her short film “The River of Muddy Water” as an educational tool. She also brings diverse experience from the UN System and urban engineering consultancy management. She obtained her PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of Waterloo, Canada. She is an associate professor in the UPEI School of Climate Change and Adaptation and is also cross appointed with the Faculty of Sustainable Design Engineering.

UPEI acknowledges the assistance of Canada’s tri-council of federal granting agencies (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) through its Research Support Fund, which helps fund services and infrastructure that support research activities at the University. In 2023–2024, UPEI was allocated $931,234.00 from the RSF. 

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