Patty Wellborn

Email: patty-wellborn@news.ok.ubc.ca


 

From left: Dr. Margaret Macintyre Latta, Dr. Jennifer Davis Dr. Kyle Larson and Rhyann McKay.

Four UBC Okanagan researchers—whose work is making a difference locally and globally—were recognized at a special event last week when the campus celebrated the Researchers of the Year.

In a university dominated by timely and meaningful research, it’s hard to stand out in the crowd. But Phil Barker, UBCO’s Vice-Principal and Associate Vice-President of Research and Innovation, says the unique and outstanding contributions from this year’s winners allows UBCO to shine the light on their accomplishments.

“The Researcher of the Year ceremony is one of my favourite events of the year. It is a distinct pleasure to acknowledge some of our star researchers and highlight their contributions,” he says. “UBC Okanagan is one of the most rapidly expanding campuses in Canada and we are attracting top-notch scholars and researchers who are leaders in their fields.”

The winners of the prestigious awards are Dr. Jennifer Davis for health research, Dr. Kyle Larson in natural sciences and engineering and Dr. Margaret Macintyre Latta, the winner of the social sciences and humanities award. Rhyann McKay was recognized as the Student Researcher of the Year.

Teaching in the Faculty of Management, Dr. Jennifer Davis is a Canada Research Chair in Applied Health Economics. Her research focuses on improving the health of older Canadians who are at risk for falls or cognitive decline. Much of her work assesses the economic value of dementia and mobility intervention and prevention efforts through partnerships with clinicians. Dr. Davis’s international collaborations have resulted in policy change and significant advancements in applying health economic evidence to lifestyle interventions.

A professor in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science, Dr. Kyle Larson is an innovator of analytical techniques for tectonics research. His novel methods have led to fundamental discoveries about how major mountain belts form, including a solution to a decades-old geological controversy surrounding the origin of the Himalayas. As Director of the Fipke Laboratory for Trace Element Research, Dr. Larson’s work has helped develop paradigm-shifting methods for the rapid dating of geological material.

Teaching in the Okanagan School of Education, Dr. Margaret Macintyre Latta is a prominent researcher who transforms traditional approaches to education. A champion of interdisciplinary and community-based research, her focus is to advance curriculum as a shared learning experience that inspires reconciliation. Her research with Indigenous, school district and community partners helps educators to decolonize curriculum and teaching practices.

As a doctoral student in the School of Health and Exercise Sciences, Rhyann McKay conducted research in partnership with provincial spinal cord injury organizations across Canada to co-develop behaviour change interventions for support providers to enhance wellbeing and self-care. McKay is currently a health system impact fellow at the University of Alberta, evaluating the implementation of acute care intervention.

“The purpose of these awards is to highlight and honour the research excellence that makes UBC a top-40 global university,” adds Dr. Barker. “I am impressed with the calibre of all our researchers, grateful for their efforts, and am very proud of this year’s recipients. I look forward to tracking their careers and celebrating their future successes.”

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Work done by UBCO researchers determined that the hatchery population at the Whitehorse Rapids Fish Hatchery is no longer genetically similar to the wild population and helps inform further conservation efforts.

A chance discovery of salmon DNA samples, taken in the 1970s and stored in a drawer for decades, has given new insight into managing present-day kokanee populations in Kluane National Park and Reserve (KNPR).

The fin and scale samples were from fish in the Kathleen Lake System in KNPR, where Canada’s northernmost wild kokanee salmon population lives. The park is cooperatively managed by Parks Canada, Kluane First Nation and Champagne and Aishihik First Nations through the Kluane National Park Management Board, explains Parks Canada Site Manager and Champagne and Aishihik First Nations citizen, Linaya Workman.

“These archival samples had been carefully stored but were largely forgotten until unearthed during an office move in 2013,” says Workman. “The genetic health of the park’s kokanee salmon became a concern after we started seeing really low numbers of returning spawners.”

Historically, the average number of spawning kokanee in a year was 3,660. But by the early 2000s, the numbers dropped dramatically—and in 2009 there was an all-time low of 20.

“While the population has somewhat rebounded since, park managers were concerned that this long decline had impacted the genetic health of the population, leaving it less able to adapt to future changes or stressors in the environment,” says Workman.

The archival DNA samples were sent to UBC Okanagan researcher Dr. Michael Russello to investigate the history of the population by examining genetic variation between fin and scale samples taken pre- and post-crash. Dr. Russello worked with master’s student Chris Setzke to compare the old and new DNA specimens.

DNA sequencing techniques have rapidly advanced and UBC researchers used a novel approach to analyze DNA from these 40- and 50-year-old samples, says Dr. Russello, a Professor in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science. He says the long-forgotten DNA proved a valuable resource, especially when compared with samples from today’s population.

“If we had not had access to these archival samples, inappropriate conservation initiatives may have been enacted, misdirecting resources or even potentially leading to adverse outcomes for the kokanee population in KNPR,” he adds.

For example, an analysis using only current DNA suggested that, based on certain genetic signatures, diversity in the system may have been lost due to the severe period of decline. However, by including the historical DNA samples, they found these genetic features were present even before the kokanee population crashed.

Essentially, the researchers determined no significant diversity was lost as a result of the decades-long population decline in KNPR.

The work done by the researchers further determined that the hatchery population at the Whitehorse Rapids Fish Hatchery—which was established using kokanee from KNPR throughout the 1990s—is no longer genetically similar to the wild population. This means hatchery kokanee should not be used to restore the KNPR population.

“Without these studies, it is possible that KNPR would have been stocked unnecessarily with hatchery kokanee,” Dr. Russello adds. “This could have ultimately reduced the fitness of the wild salmon populations in that system, which is the opposite of the intended conservation goals.”

It wouldn’t have been the first time ill-informed, but well-intentioned stocking practices led to a decline and loss of diversity in wild populations elsewhere, he explains.

“This work really shows the importance of gathering the best available scientific information before making decisions that could negatively impact the populations targeted for protection,” he adds.

This particular research tested the efficacy of a technique called Genotyping-in-Thousands by sequencing (GT-seq) to analyze these largely forgotten historical samples, Setzke says. GT-seq can target and sequence hundreds of predetermined areas across the genome and can be used for thousands of individuals at the same time. GT-seq only needs short fragments of DNA to obtain genetic information, which led the investigators to suspect that it could be an effective method to sequence older, more damaged DNA.

“As archival DNA tends to be damaged, it is difficult to sequence using methods that need long, intact fragments,” explains Setzke. “While GT-seq has been in use for a few years now, ours is the first study to show that it can be employed to effectively sequence archival DNA.”

The most significant finding, says Workman, is the discovery that the fish hatchery population is not genetically similar enough to the historical or current wild population to be used to restock the Kathleen Lake System.

“Protecting the park’s kokanee is important for maintaining ecological integrity,” says Workman. “And using hatchery fish to supplement wild populations is a tool used by fisheries managers elsewhere. But thanks to the UBCO researchers, we now know that this currently is not an option for Kluane’s kokanee.”

The findings of the two studies have been recently published in Conservation Genetics and Scientific Reports.

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Dr. Derek Muller.

What: How Do We Know What’s True? UBC Okanagan’s next Distinguished Speaker Series event
Who: Award-winning YouTube content creator Dr. Derek Muller
When: Thursday, March 31 beginning at 7 pm
Venue: Zoom webinar

We live in a time where accessing and sharing content can occur simultaneously. With the circulation of information and misinformation being at an all-time high—how do we know what’s true?

Many people are conscious of the vast amount of information being spread but are unaware that cognitive biases play a role in how data is processed and content is consumed.

On Thursday, March 31, UBC Okanagan’s Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science hosts Dr. Derek Muller as part of its Distinguished Speaker Series.

Dr. Muller is a passionate science educator, communicator and filmmaker, best known as the creator and director of the science-based YouTube channel Veritasium. His channel has more than 11.5 million subscribers and won the Streamy award for Science or Education in 2017 and 2021. He has hosted award-winning documentaries—Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail, Digits and Vitamania for international broadcast networks.

During his presentation, Dr. Muller will explore how cognitive biases unconsciously shape our judgements and particular modes of thinking that can help to avoid these pitfalls.

The Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science’s Distinguished Speaker Series brings compelling speakers to the homes of Okanagan residents to share their unique perspectives on issues that affect our region, our country and our world.

This virtual event is free and open to all, but online pre-registration is required.

To register, visit: speakers.ok.ubc.ca

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UBCO researcher Dr. Robert Godin took on the challenging task of comparing how different solar energy conversion technologies work to determine which is most efficient.

Located only about 150 million kilometres away, the sun is Earth’s closest star.

Its close proximity and immense strength create enough power to provide the planet with more energy than is needed. The quantity of sunlight that strikes the earth’s surface in just 90 minutes is enough to power the world’s energy consumption for a full year.

To capitalize on this natural resource, solar technologies convert sunlight into usable energy through various processes, one of which is photovoltaic panels. UBC Okanagan’s Dr. Robert Godin conducts research examining the effectiveness of different green energy-producing technologies, like solar panels and photosynthesis.

In a new study led by Dr. Godin, an Assistant Professor of Chemistry based in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science, researchers took a closer look at existing solar energy conversion technologies to determine which types of characteristics and properties are useful indicators when considering how well devices made from various materials might perform.

“Part of the challenge with this type of research is the way different solar energy conversion technologies work—each is completely distinct,” explains Dr. Godin. “It’s not obvious how, or even if, you can compare photovoltaics—which generate electricity—to photocatalysts, which generate high energy chemical fuels such as hydrogen,” he explains.

While examining a range of conversion devices, the team determined how long in a device’s lifetime the excited state generated by light irradiation stuck around, and how long it took to complete the energy conversion process. Then, the team compared that ratio to the energy lost to make it happen.

“We were able to establish a clear link between these values—and that wasn’t something we were expecting going into the study,” says Dr. Godin. “This link between the ratio of lifetimes and energetic losses was found across all the different types of solar energy conversion devices we looked at—even machinery in natural photosynthesis systems.”

“We also predicted a similar trend when we greatly simplify the mechanistic model of solar energy conversion devices, which suggests that we found a useful way to condense many different and complex physics into a few critical factors,” he adds.

These findings may speed up the development of better solar energy conversion technologies, he says as this research identifies clear links between characteristics that are fairly easy to measure in isolated materials, and device efficiency that requires more complex fabrication.

“Being able to tell early on whether a new material has the potential to surpass current technology will greatly speed up the ability to move the best technologies into the marketplace—and as conversion technologies like solar panels become more mainstream, the less society will need to rely on the production of environmentally devastating fossil fuels.”

This study was recently published in the Chemistry Society Reviews.

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Dr. Thu-Thuy Dang shows undergraduate students how to harvest the happy tree (Camptothecin acuminata) for genome/RNA sequencing and chemical analysis.

It may come as a surprise to some, but many of the compounds used in modern-day medicine, including chemotherapeutic drugs, come from plants.

The tropical tree Camptotheca acuminata, known as “happy tree” in its native habitats in southern China and Tibet, produces a group of chemicals called camptothecinoids. These compounds are among the leading chemotherapeutic agents used to treat certain types of cancer.

Just two compounds derived from these camptothecinoids—irinotecan, used to treat both colorectal and small cell lung cancer, and topotecan, used to treat ovarian cancer—make up a multibillion-dollar global industry.

The parent chemical of these drugs in the happy tree, camptothecin, is a powerful cancer-killing agent itself. However, it has adversarial side effects and poor solubility.

Dr. Thu-Thuy Dang, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science, and her research team in UBCO’s Plant Bioactive Compound Research Laboratory, have discovered a group of enzymes from the tree that oxidize camptothecin, enabling the production of topotecan, irinotecan and other similar compounds.

“The conversion of camptothecin to its hydroxycamptothecin derivative is a one-step reaction that looks simple on paper but is very challenging to do with chemical synthesis due to the compound’s complex structure,” says Dr. Dang. “Finding and manipulating the genes responsible for making it in the tree is how we solve this problem.”

The issue, as Dr. Dang explains, is that labour-intensive and unsustainable processes are needed to turn camptothecin into more clinically useful drugs. Camptothecin needs to be extracted from the plant, then converted in multi-step chemical reactions, first to its oxidated derivative, and then to drugs such as topotecan and irinotecan. Its chemical synthesis from camptothecin requires harsh reaction conditions with limited yields.

Alternatively, the derivatives can be harvested from the plant, but this approach is destructive and endangers the future supply of camptothecin-derived drugs. The challenge was finding the right genes in the plant genome, which contains tens of thousands of genes.

“It was truly like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” she says. “But thanks to state-of-the-art bioinformatic approaches and biochemical intuition, we came up with a manageable shortlist of gene candidates.”

While the process of screening was painstaking, the team eventually found two genes encoding for two enzymes that convert toxic camptothecin into the derivative and its close analogue. The genes were then moved to common baker’s yeast, where fermentation produced a milligram-level abundance of the hydroxycamptothecins for the semisynthesis of clinically important anti-cancer drugs.

“These new enzymes allowed the transformation of plant-derived camptothecin in one simple step to a chemical that we could readily convert into more soluble and structurally diverse anti-cancer drugs,” says Anh Nguyen, a recently graduated master’s student and study co-author.

In addition, because the team is now dealing with enzymes, their reactions can happen at room temperature in mild conditions, as opposed to the harsh conditions required for chemical synthesis.

This discovery is particularly significant because it drastically reduces the amount of time and effort spent on anti-cancer compound derivatization and semisynthesis. It also highlights plants as reservoirs of natural and potentially malleable biocatalysts for sustainable chemical production.

“This enzyme technology presents a unique opportunity for us to expand the camptothecinoids’ chemical space, and make more effective and accessible anti-cancer drugs with a new, more efficient manufacturing method,” says co-author Dr. T. Don Nguyen. “Thanks to these enzymes, we now have access to a suite of chemicals that were never before available in nature or even laboratories.”

Dr. Dang is now looking at how the plant makes camptothecin. Her ultimate goal is to put together the complete camptothecin pathway in a microbial system such as engineered baker’s yeast, thereby, making anti-cancer drugs more accessible.

UBC has filed an international patent on Dr. Dang’s use of the new enzymes to diversify camptothecinoids, a move she says will open the door to additional opportunities.

“Cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada, and having an opportunity to work towards a future with more available treatments and ultimately, survivors, is a responsibility we take very seriously.”

This research was recently published in Communications Chemistry.

New computer modelling research from UBC Okanagan, is meant to help leaders determine the costs of shutting down an economy for a pandemic.

A team of researchers, including UBC Okanagan’s Dr. Rebecca Tyson, has created a model to help governments make decisions when it comes to shutting down communities during a pandemic.

Dr. Tyson, who teaches mathematics in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science, says that when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, many governments immediately introduced extensive lockdowns to limit the spread of the disease.

However, as the pandemic has continued, governments had to seriously consider the continued costs of imposing new or extended lockdowns.

“Our study is motivated by the hesitation shown by some leaders to implement strict control measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, in part due to the huge toll to the economy,” Dr. Tyson says. “For informed decision-making, it is clear that we need some objective quantification of the total cost of both the health crisis and the economic shutdown measures. With this research, we present a disease and economic cost model that is a useful tool for evaluating shutdown options.”

The research team used Canadian dollars to compute the economic costs of a shutdown as measured by loss of gross domestic product, while also including the expenses due to medical care of infected people and the value of lives lost.

“One of the issues is that there are ‘dollar costs,’ such as the loss of gross domestic product and medical costs,” says Dr. Tyson. “And then the much harder to estimate costs of lives lost.”

To separate those highly different, and incomparable costs, Dr. Tyson used an optimization tool called a Pareto front which allowed the team to decide how to value lives lost without sticking to a pre-configured statistical cost of a life.

The result is a curve that shows a rapid drop in deaths as the shutdown is introduced, followed by a much slower drop in deaths as shutdown levels are strongly increased.

“Some balance has to be struck between saving lives and the economic cost of the lockdown,” she says. “Our research presents a simple model, with both economic and epidemiological content to help assess the options. In particular, we aimed to determine what type of shutdown strategy minimizes costs over the period of the entire pandemic.”

Dr. Tyson says the research presents an interesting perspective on the shutdown tactics taken by the BC government and elsewhere. In almost all cases, after a severe initial shutdown, economies were reopened. It was hoped the transmission rate could be controlled through contact tracing combined with spread prevention measures such as mask-wearing, hand-washing, avoiding crowds and keeping business patrons two metres apart.

However, those prevention methods were not as effective as hoped, and as each wave approached, case numbers increased and governments began reimplementing significant shutdown measures.

The analysis suggests that the provincial and federal governments were wise to impose severe shutdown levels at the beginning of the pandemic. But perhaps a slower, more gradual decrease in shutdown levels would have led to a smaller overall economic cost of the pandemic.

“While our model is in no way a comprehensive representation of all of the costs and benefits of shutdown measures, it does contain the salient features of the system and the patterns in our results reflect real dynamics. Decision-makers must balance many competing and equally important demands when setting policies, and so it is critical that they have access to scientific studies that look at the whole picture.”

The paper, published recently in the Royal Society Journal, was completed in late 2021. Dr. Tyson explains the modelling is meant to be viewed as helpful for governments to make complex decisions, rather than simple, quick-fix prescriptions. The modelling tool will prove useful for governments as this pandemic continues or for future pandemics.

UBCO researchers have determined wolves living in high densities of human-created linear features need far less space to survive than wolves in the wilderness.

Wolves are intelligent predators. Like people, they use trails, seismic lines and roads to efficiently move through landscapes.

But new research from UBC Okanagan’s Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science has found that wolves living in areas with high densities of human-created linear features need far less space to survive than in less disturbed areas.

One of the most predominant forms of habitat alteration, particularly in Western Canada, are linear features such as roads, seismic lines or pipelines, explains Melanie Dickie, a doctoral student who works with UBCO biologist Dr. Adam T. Ford

“Smaller home ranges mean that, all else being equal, more wolves can fit into a given space. Our study is important for understanding how food and movement combine to influence home range size. Wolves can have profound impacts on their prey, and even plant communities. If humans are driving changes to those links in the food web, we need to understand how and then find a way to manage our part of the equation.”

Dickie’s team used data from 142 wolves outfitted with GPS devices to analyze the impacts of ecosystem productivity—a metric of food availability for ungulates and their predators. They also examined linear features as a measure of how easy it is for wolves to access food in their home ranges. The ranges covered more than 500,000 square kilometres of boreal forest spanning three Western Canadian provinces.

Linear features enable the movement of predators like wolves and this increases their encounter rates with prey and, consequently, their kill rates, says Dr. Ford. Increased wolf kill rates have important consequences for woodland caribou, which are in decline across much of their range as a result of increased predation.

“Millions of dollars are being spent on seismic line restoration in Canada’s forests with the hope of slowing down wolves and reducing predation on caribou,” he says. “This study is a valuable tool in helping to identify where the most effective areas for restoration will be.”

By restoring linear features, Dickie says areas of low ecosystem productivity may see a decrease in regional wolf abundance as a result of making it more difficult for them to hunt.

In contrast, in high-productivity areas, restoration may reduce wolves’ hunting efficiency, but likely will not affect regional density.

“This research is a great example of how ecological theory can support wildlife management,” says Dr. Rob Serrouya, study co-author and Director of the Caribou Monitoring Unit at Alberta’s Biodiversity Monitoring Institute. “Pushing our understanding of how movement and habitat use influences the distribution and abundance of species, will directly link to how we manage those species.”

Dr. Ford says it’s important for researchers to continue monitoring human activity when looking at species’ survival rates in Canada.

“In the 1960s, ecologists determined that rapid growth at the bottom of the food web—plants—was affecting the rest of the food chain,” he says “This study adds human activity to the equation with the goal to help save caribou within a rapidly-changing environment.”

This study was recently published in the journal Ecology and received funding from the Regional Industry Caribou Collaboration.

What: Fourth annual Life Raft Debate
Who: UBC professors debate to win a seat in a time machine and change history
When: Wednesday, January 26, beginning at 7 pm
Venue: Online, virtual event

Once again, UBC Okanagan professors are being called upon to share their expertise and help save the world. But this year, it involves going back in time to right the wrongs of humanity.

The annual Life Raft Debate is a fun way to showcase the talents of professors by using an “end-of-the-world” premise, explains Lyndsey Chesham, Society of Scholars Program Assistant and a fourth-year microbiology student. The professors must do their best to sway the audience to earn the last seat on the life raft. However, this year it’s a seat in a time machine.

“For this year’s debate, humans have made an irrevocable mistake leading to our demise,” Chesham says. “Our only option is an experimental time machine capable of sending someone on a one-way trip to the first known human civilization.”

The catch? There is only one seat in the time machine. Not only must the time traveller win the debate, they must—without any modern technology—be able to influence society to not make the same mistakes. It’s up to them to prevent the downfall of the human race.

“Our traveller must assert the importance of their discipline in order to lead the ancient society, fix the mistakes of the past, and lead us to a brighter, more promising future,” adds Chesham. “But we must also question if it is even worth sending anyone back at all. It’s up to our audience to decide who we send, or if we even bother.”

Competing for the chance to time travel include chemistry’s Dr. Tamara Freeman, creative writing’s Michael V. Smith, engineering’s Dr. Vicki Komisar, psychology’s Dr. Liane Gabora and management’s Tamara Ebl. Associate Dean of Research Dr. Dean Greg Garrard will play the role of devil’s advocate, suggesting no one deserves to go back in time.

After all the words are spoken, the audience—using Zoom technology—will decide if someone does go back and restart society. And who it will be.

“The Society of Scholars brought this student-led event to UBCO to give students a chance to get to know their professors through the scope of a light-hearted and fun event,” adds Chesham. “Our debaters get very passionate and it is wonderful to see the professors speak about their life’s work so enthusiastically.”

New this year will be opening remarks from UBC President Santa Ono and closing remarks from UBCO’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Principal Lesley Cormack.

The Life Raft Debate takes place Wednesday, January 26 at 7 pm. It is a free, virtual presentation and follows with a question and answer session. To register or find out more, visit: students.ok.ubc.ca/life-raft

Young volcanic rocks, made of fragmental ash deposits, are pounded by the sea along Oahu’s coastline. Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

Everyone knows research takes time. Scientific discoveries generally don’t happen overnight.

UBC Okanagan’s Dr. John Greenough, professor of earth, environmental and geographic sciences in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science, is testament to that. Dr. Greenough has spent his career studying the Earth’s mantle—that mysterious layer of solid to semi-molten rock that spans below the crust to the liquid outer core.

Almost 85 per cent of the Earth’s volume is made up of its mantle. Understanding the evolution and functionality of the mantle is key to understanding other important processes, like crust development and plate tectonics.

Yet, very little is known of the mantle’s history and chemical composition.

Dr. Greenough has made it his lifelong mission to dig into this mystery. Despite numerous setbacks, he has found some answers. Those results, recently published in Communications, Earth and Environment, provide new insight into the mantle’s mysterious past.

Can you explain your area of research?

My research focuses on the Earth’s mantle, its composition and evolution. More specifically, I study the chemical variation seen in volcanic rocks and use it to determine how the rocks formed by melting in the mantle.

You have been working on this research paper for 20 years. —How did this project begin, and how did it progress over the years?

I’ve actually been pursuing this line of research since receiving my doctorate in 1984. A major problem is that we have minimal information about when variations in the composition of the mantle were formed, so we know little about how the mantle evolved.

In 2000, a colleague and I wanted to change that and decided to try and find answers by collecting samples of the mantle and dating them using zircon. Zircon is a common mineral in the Earth’s crust but it is rarely found in mantle rocks.

Zircons contain small amounts of uranium, which is radioactive as it decays it turns into lead. By measuring the amount of lead produced, we can determine an age.

But you faced setbacks. Did you find zircon in the samples collected?

Unfortunately, not at first. We tested our samples, which were chunks of rock brought up by an explosive lava flow from Earth’s mantle beneath Hawaii. But we couldn’t find any zircon in slices through the samples.

However, we knew if they were in there, they were rare. The zircons would be only slightly larger than dust fragments, so we knew our chances of slicing through a rock and intersecting them were low.

What changed?

We knew we needed to grind the rock into tiny pieces to concentrate the zircon—like panning for gold. But we also had to minimize the possibility of contaminant zircon from other sources, because it is a fine dust particle and there are traces of zircons everywhere. There was technology that existed, but we couldn’t access it, so the project stalled.

In 2014, I learned a colleague at another institution had access to this technology and I contacted him. Luckily, he volunteered to essentially blow up our samples, making it more likely to find zircons if they existed.

And eureka! You found the zircon

Finally, yes. We found zircon grains in two of seven samples. They had complicated growth histories and the outer part was 14 million years old—much older than the island of Oahu where the samples came from. Parts inside our zircon grains were 40 to 100 million years old, while age modelling indicated the zircons first formed one to two billion years ago.

What did you learn from these samples?

Our discovery created another mystery for us.

What is so fascinating, is that the ages for the zircons suggested the crystals had come from below the continents. But once zircon is exposed to 1,000 degrees Celsius, it becomes an open chemical system that cannot be dated.

This means, for our zircon grains to have preserved their dates, they must have been at temperatures below 1,000 degrees for all these years. Considering the temperature of the lava flow that brought them up was about 1,300 degrees, and the part of the mantle that convects is also about 1,300 degrees—how could this be possible?

We propose the zircons may have been preserved in a cool part of the mantle called the sub-continental lithospheric mantle. More recently, thick sections of this sub-continental mantle were removed by mantle convection from below a continent.

The thick blocks shielded the zircons from the high temperatures in the partially molten and flowing mantle which delivered the rocks to Oahu. The rocks may have come from below Papa New Guinea where a tectonic plate is plunging back into the mantle and heading toward Hawaii.

Alternatively, they may be fragments of sub-continental lithospheric mantle stranded in the convecting mantle when the supercontinent Pangea broke up. Either way, it provides us with greater insight into the mantle’s age and its origin of chemical variability.

How do your results move this area of research forward?

We need to fully understand how the mantle’s chemical variability has evolved and our results serve as a foundation that future researchers can build on.

The atmosphere, along with our oceans, crust, mantle and core, form interacting parts of the chemical system we call Earth. An understanding of the mantle is essential for unravelling how humans can impact these large geochemical systems. This research will hopefully lead to a fuller understanding of how our planet, our home, evolved.

Doctors around the world who don’t have access to PCR tests need a way to rapidly screen patients for COVID-19. UBCO-developed CORONA-Net is a deep learning neural network that can quickly detect COVID-19 infections using X-ray images.

As COVID-19 continues to make headlines across the globe, many North Americans have gotten used to the idea of rapid testing to determine if they have been infected.

But UBC Okanagan researchers, who say rapid tests can be limited and expensive in many countries, are testing another testing method. And they believe, thanks to artificial intelligence, they have found one.

“There are two types of tests for COVID-19, namely viral and antibody tests,” explains Dr. Mohamed S. Shehata, an associate professor of computer science in UBCO’s Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science. “The viral test checks samples from the respiratory system for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease. This type of test can be performed in an hour or two, but in some cases, it can take up to one or two days to obtain results if the test has to be sent to a laboratory.”

The viral test only indicates if a current infection exists, but not if there was previous infection, he explains.

The alternative antibody test uses a blood sample and can detect if there was a previous infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, even if there are no current symptoms. However, the molecular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, common in North America, can be rare in other countries and usually costs several hundred dollars each time.

Doctors around the world need a way to rapidly test patients for COVID-19 so that they can begin immediate treatment for patients with the virus, he adds.

“The PCR method has some drawbacks, including longer detection time and lower detection rate of the virus,” says Dr. Shehata. “According to recommendations by the World Health Organization provided in October 2020, chest imaging examination is an effective method for detecting clinical symptoms of people who have been affected by and recovered from the virus.”

Dr. Shehata, along with his postdoctoral research fellow Dr. Mohamed Abdelpakey and graduate student Sherif Elbishlawi, have developed CORONA-Net, a deep learning neural network that can quickly detect COVID-19 infections using X-ray images.

“X-ray imaging has played a great role in many medical and epidemiological cases due to its wider availability, especially in countries that do not have wide PCR test deployment,” says Dr. Abdelpakey. “The use of a chest X-ray is promising for emergency cases and treatment due to its operational speed, cost and simplicity for the radiologists.”

Dr. Shehata explains that in many countries, people opt for the chest X-ray because of the cost of a PCR test or its unavailability. However, sometimes it is difficult to get the X-ray looked at by a specialist and accurately detecting the infection can take time. But by using CORONA-NET, the artificial intelligence system can flag suspicious cases to be fast-tracked and looked at quickly.

“COVID-19 typically causes pneumonia in human lungs, which can be detected in X-ray images. These datasets of X-rays—of people with pneumonia inflicted by COVID-19, of people with pneumonia inflicted by other diseases, as well as X-rays of healthy people—allow the possibility to create deep learning networks that can differentiate between images of people with COVID-19 and people who do not have the disease,” Elbishlawi adds.

Elbishlawi, who completed this work as part of his master’s in computer science thesis, says the developed CORONA-Net was able to produce results with an accuracy of more than 95 per cent in classifying COVID-19 cases from digital chest X-ray images.

The accuracy of detecting COVID-19 by CORONA-Net will continue to increase as the dataset grows. CORONA-Net, says Elbishlawi, can automatically improve itself over time and self-learn to be more accurate.

“The results on the testing set were obtained and can be seen in 100 per cent sensitivity to the COVID-19 class. There was a 95 per cent sensitivity in the classification of the pneumonia class and a 95 per cent sensitivity in the classification of the normal class,” he explains. “These results show that CORONA-Net gives a highly accurate prediction with the most sensitivity to the COVID-19 class.”

The developed CORONA-Net architecture substantially increases the sensitivity and positive predictive value (PPV) of predictions, making CORONA-Net a valuable tool when it comes to using chest X-rays to diagnose COVID-19.

“CORONA-Net can have a significant and positive impact on health-care systems as testing every person suspected of having the disease is difficult. CORONA-Net can provide accurate and promising results in terms of sensitivity, PPV and overall accuracy,” says Dr. Abdelpakey. “We hope our work can be used to more easily test for COVID-19 and help bring this pandemic to an end.”

The paper was published in the Journal of Imaging this spring and has already received several citations.