Labs get a boost

DANIEL McCABE | Christmas came early for young McGill scientists involved in 17 research projects. They were among the first recipients of funding from a new program instituted by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation geared towards helping young researchers purchase the equipment they'll need to do well in their work.

"This will be a major boost, not just to the individuals receiving the grants, but to their departments as well," says chemistry professor Robert Marchessault, the coordinator for McGill's CFI activities. "They'll be able to pick up major pieces of equipment, the type of machinery that can benefit several different research projects."

In all, $36 million was available to young researchers in the CFI's New Opportunities program. Two hundred and fourteen grants have been awarded nationally to researchers at 26 universities. The Universities of Toronto and Montreal were the most successful, each receiving funds for 23 projects.

McGill submitted 24 projects to Quebec City for its scrutiny (provincial governments supply matching funds as part of the CFI approach). The province approved 18 projects and passed them on to the CFI. Only one of the 18 was turned down by the CFI itself.

Of the projects that met with the CFI's approval, 10 were from teaching hospitals, two came from others in the Faculty of Medicine, three involved engineering professors and two were located in the Faculty of Science.

This marks the first time that the young CFI has actually handed out cash. Created a year ago by the federal budget, the CFI exists to help support and improve the country's research infrastructure. In all, the CFI has $900 million to be distributed to researchers over a five-year period.

Marchessault says the New Opportunities program is a good idea. Young scientists at the beginning of their careers can find it daunting trying to secure the money they need in order to set up a first-rate lab -- equipment is increasingly sophisticated and costly. McGill supports new scientists in this undertaking, supplying as much as $100,000, but that money doesn't go as far as you might think.

"When somebody comes in to set up a lab, there is a long list of items you have to buy that cost one to two thousand dollars each. Before you know it you've spent several thousands of dollars and you've only been able to buy basic pieces of equipment," says Dr. Peter McPherson from the Montreal Neurological Institute, one of the recipients of New Opportunities funding. "The CFI money allows us to be more innovative."

Although the program is aimed at researchers who have recently earned their first full-time academic positions, McPherson qualified for the grant because the CFI allowed for a "grandfather clause" this time round, enabling researchers who've been at their universities for a few years to apply for funding. McPherson joined McGill in 1995.

McPherson examines how cells in the nervous system communicate with one another by releasing chemical signals. He's particularly interested in the mechanisms that control how the chemical signals are released. To do his work, he needs access to a DNA sequencer and to protein purification equipment. Currently, he either has to go to outside labs for certain processes -- an expensive proposition over time -- or rely on makeshift approaches that eat up a lot of hours.

Now he'll be able to purchase equipment that will make his research much easier to do. "No way could we buy [the equipment] without the CFI program," McPherson says.

Next month, the CFI will announce the results of its Institutional Innovation Fund for projects costing less than $350,000. Sometime early next year, between January and March, the results of its competition for large-scale projects -- those that cost more than $350,000 -- will be announced.