by Eric Smith
Two McGill researchers have been chosen for this year's Prix du Québec, the province's most prestigious award for arts and science achievement.
Dr. Charles Scriver of the Montreal Children's Hospital won the Wilder Penfield award for medical science and McGill metallurgical engineering Professor John Jonas was honoured with the Marie-Victorin award for basic and applied sciences.
Both received their awards-a silver medal designed by Quebec artist Natalie Narius and a $30,000 grant-from Daniel Paillé, minister of Industry, Commerce, Science and Technology, at a gala ceremony in Quebec City Sunday.
For Scriver, the award represents recognition not only for his own work but also for the field of genetic research. According to Scriver, genetic research is increasingly fundamental to medical research as a whole.
"As you improve conditions in society, you are reducing the likelihood of environmental disease, thereby increasing the probability that genes are a cause of illness," says Scriver. "The heredity of disease is increasing."
When Scriver began his work at the Children's in the 1950s, genetic research was still in its infancy. Although the existence of genes had been established, technology did not allow research scientists to see the genes themselves. "We worked in the in-between space, between the physical manifestations we could see and interpret and the gene we couldn't see. We had to try to infer what gene might be involved," says Scriver. "I found this experience very satisfying and different from the work of a clinician. As a research scientist you dealt with hypotheses, you did experiments and asked further questions. As a physician you had to deal with facts, with many questions in a single day rather than one or two big questions in a year."
But the theoretical work Scriver was carrying out at the Children's had some very practical manifestations, especially here in Quebec. There is evidence of an early discovery of Scriver's at every breakfast table. The addition of vitamin D to Canadian milk is the direct result of Scriver's study of the prevalence of rickets in Quebec children. The incidence of this childhood skeletal disease dropped dramatically from one newborn in 200 to one in 20,000 after 1969.
Since the beginning of Quebec's quiet revolution, Scriver has seen that his work has an impact on the province's health policies. "By the end of the 1960s, we had shown that there were things we could do as a society to improve health. Within the emerging Quebec health care system, we began to translate research into applied structures in society."
Quebec was in fact the first place in the world to provide an integrated system for identifying genetic predisposition to disease in infants. In addition to universal screening of newborns, the system provided diagnostic follow-up and treatment. Scriver was instrumental in setting up the Quebec Food Bank system to provide new parents with the nutritional information and products to help their children overcome genetic conditions early in life.
Scriver's recommendations continued to influence Quebec policy in the 1970s, when genetic screening and testing was combined with an education program in the province's high schools. According to Scriver, the program has a proven track record and has been recognized by the World Health Organization.
Scriver was also involved in the inception of the Human Genome Project, its launch by the U.S. Congress as well as Canadian participation and funding. His own work led him away from the project's task of cloning genes and sequencing the human genome, and towards the study of genetic variation.
The Interuniversity Institute for Research on Populations (IREP) maintains a database of genetic variation in Quebec. Scriver calls the organization "an example of an institute without walls that really works." Through the analysis of genetic variation in the Quebec population, researchers are able to identify how "to distribute limited resources in health care to the people who need it," says Scriver. "By paying attention to these genetic variations you can maximize the efficiency of health care prevention by introducing treatment early."
One gene that is tracked by the IREP database and now routinely screened in newborns in Quebec is phenylalanine hydroxylase, responsible for a form of mental retardation that can be averted with early treatment.
The "in-between space" Scriver describes in early genetic research is an area with which John Jonas is familiar in his own field of metallurgical engineering. That's because red-hot and white-hot steel possesses properties that cannot be evaluated through observation at such high temperatures.
Jonas's research uses sophisticated techniques and mathematical modelling to determine the processes steel undergoes during rolling and sheet formation. These studies have led to substantial improvements in the industrial manufacture of steel.
Steel rolling is the process whereby a lump of steel in the form of an ingot is subjected to massive pressure as it is forced through rollers at very high temperatures to produce ever-thinner sheets. These sheets are then once again subjected to extremely high temperatures so they can be formed to fit their industrial applications.
At these temperatures steel undergoes changes to its structure and microstructure and adopts a form that is obliterated once the metal is cooled.
The models Jonas has developed to explain what is happening to steel have allowed him to develop several improvements to the rolling process which have led both to greater production efficiency and to the increased strength of steel designed to withstand very cold temperatures.
"Controlled rolling can double the strength of steel. Steel can be very brittle, especially when used for pipelines in the North or for drilling in the Atlantic and the North Sea. This process makes the steel fracture-proof so that it will not crack on the coldest possible day."
The Canadian steel industry relies extensively on Jonas's work. His chair is funded by the Canadian Steel Industry Research Association (CSIRA) and NSERC, and patents developed by Jonas have been assigned to his sponsoring companies.
According to Jonas, downsizing in the steel industry means that there is less in-house technical expertise. Steel companies are increasingly relying on university and government laboratories for technological innovation.
And he says the relationship works well. "All over the world, there is pressure on universities to raise the GNP, to contribute more directly to growth and export sales. As academics, we live off the public purse. Are we contributing to raising the tax money from which we all live?" asks Jonas. "University and government labs are more important than ever."
In the last two years of his McGill undergraduate degree he spent his summers working at Stelco's sheet rolling plants in Hamilton. After graduation and before pursuing the Cambridge studies that would lead him back to McGill, Jonas worked for the Steel Company of Wales.
He says there is an "excitement or a romance" to these plants when 20 or 30 tons of red-hot metal shoots through a roller at a speed of 60 miles an hour.
Jonas is the first engineer to receive the science prize.