2024 Discovery Award winners

As Canada’s first grant-giving charity in biomedical and health research, the Banting Discovery Foundation has announced the eight latest Discovery Award winners. The early-career scientists will each receive up to $30,000 to pursue their moonshot research projects.

We are proud to announce our 99th cohort of Discovery Awardees.

Gregory Pearcey

Assistant Professor, School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Banting – Ontario Brain Institute Discovery Award

Cracking the neural code of human MOVEment

Dr. Pearcey pursued a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Victoria to study how spinal reflexes (i.e., the body moving without thinking) change with sensory stimulation and rhythmic movements. He then completed two postdoctoral fellowships at Northwestern University, where he acquired a newfound love for how nerve cells and muscle fibres work together to create body movements in health and disease. Since 2020, Dr. Pearcey organizes the Motor Unit Group Seminar Series to promote networking between researchers around the globe.

Dr. Pearcey is now decoding the neural control of human movement and how motor function can recover after neurological impairment. Movement is essential for life, allowing us to eat, breathe, reproduce, and live fully. Movements happen when motor units send neural signals to our muscles, and we can study these signals by recording electrical activity from muscles and breaking them down into motor unit spike trains. However, understanding these signals during real movement has been difficult due to limited technology – until now. Combining translational neurophysiology with computing technology, Dr. Pearcey will decode how the brain sends neural codes to control real-world, dynamic movements and see if stroke-related movement problems are worse during natural activities compared to lab tasks. Understanding these neural codes is crucial for improving and restoring movement after injury or disease.

Neural interface for movement lab

Back (from L to R): Ben Nazaroff (NSERC CGS MSc student), Glenn Pearcey (Greg’s dad), Greg Pearcey, Emma Mitchell (Kinesiology honours student), Ethan Kean (Kinesiology honours student), Josh Skinner (Kinesiology honours student), Elmira Ahmadi (MSc student). Front (from L to R): Riley Pike (MSc student), Kaitlyn Sutton (MSc student), Nick Maher (MSc student), Olivia Ryan (NSERC USRA student), Brianna Chaulk (former Kinesiology honours student). Missing from photo: Zamaneh (Sara) Bonyatpour (MSc student).

Xian Wang

Assistant Professor, Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, Queen’s University

Banting – Ontario Brain Institute Discovery Award

Biohybrid Delivery of Magnetic Microrobots for Combinational Cancer Therapy

Dr. Wang has a PhD in mechanical and biomedical engineering from the University of Toronto, where he developed micro/nanorobotics to study the mechanical properties of cells. He then completed postdoctoral training at the Hospital for Sick Children to study how to treat cancers with mechanical nanosurgery. His research now focuses on bio-hybrid microrobots based on microbubbles and cells for understanding and treating cancers. Controlled by external magnetic, acoustic, and light fields, these small machines generate mechanical forces to measure mechanical properties of cancer cells, or to mechanically stimulate cancer cells.

Glioblastoma (GBM) is the most deadly and common adult brain tumour, with patients typically surviving only 14 months even with the best available treatment. As GBM often gradually becomes resistant to traditional chemotherapies, Dr. Wang proposes a new approach: a tiny robot made from safe, biocompatible materials that can deliver treatment directly to the tumour. This robot, fabricated from microbubbles and controlled by magnetic and sound fields, can physically destroy GBM cells and overcome therapy resistance. Also, this robot can be integrated into immune cells for targeted delivery to the tumour. This method can transform GBM treatment, offering patients a more effective, targeted, and less invasive option.

Small-Scale Robotics Lab

(from Left to Right): Cun, Annabel, Amina, Xian

Maryam Kebbe

Assistant Professor, Faculty of Kinesiology, University of New Brunswick

Banting – Heaslip Foundation Discovery Award

Nurturing Young Guts: A Randomized Controlled Trial of the Mediterranean Diet and Canada’s Food Guide on the Gut Microbiome

Dr. Kebbe received her PhD in medical sciences from the University of Alberta’s Department of Pediatrics. She then completed postdoctoral training in the Medical Sciences Division at the University of Oxford, followed by the Reproductive Endocrinology and Women’s Health Laboratory at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, before joining the University of New Brunswick in January 2023.

Dr. Kebbe’s research is on how the interplay between nutrition (including human milk), physical activity, and bacteria in the gut (also known as the gut microbiome) is related to obesity during infancy and childhood. Poor diets can upset the balance in the gut microbiome, leading to obesity and metabolic problems. This study will compare the effects of the Mediterranean diet and Canada’s Food Guide diet on the gut health of toddlers aged 2-3. Sixty-four toddlers and their caregivers will be randomly assigned to one of these diets. Each group will receive daily food boxes designed by a dietitian to meet nutritional needs. Stool samples will be collected from the toddlers on days 1 and 14 to analyze their gut bacteria. This study will help to understand how these common diets affect the gut health of young children.


(bottom to top, left to right): Maryam Kebbe, Ben Perrett, Denisha Coelho, Oula Maguire, Emma Murray, Peighton Johnson, Tamara Gray, Erica Blackmore

Jean-Philippe Leduc-Gaudet

Assistant Professor, Department of Medical Biology, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières

Banting Discovery Award – Jarislowsky Fellowship

Investigating novel genes and signaling pathways involved in regulating skeletal muscle health

Dr. Leduc-Gaudet completed his PhD in 2020 at McGill University for studying how autophagy (breakdown of damaged cells) and mitophagy (removal of damaged mitochondria via autophagy) maintain skeletal muscle health. After his postdoctoral training at the University of Padova, he joined UQTR, where his research predominantly centres on mitochondrial biology and skeletal muscle physiology, with a particular emphasis on novel genes that are involved in regulating skeletal muscle health, whole-body metabolism, and longevity. He also investigates how dysregulated mitochondrial quality control and autophagy can be harmful to muscle cells and lead to muscle-wasting conditions, including aging and neuromuscular diseases.

Autophagy is a crucial process for keeping the body strong and healthy. Despite its importance, we still know little about how autophagy works in muscles on the molecular scale. Dr. Leduc-Gaudet project will focus on how certain pathways control the breakdown and creation of proteins, with a special emphasis on new genes involved in autophagy. Specifically, his team will use genetic, molecular, cellular, and physiological approaches to study how two autophagy genes – Mytho and Bcas3 – help regulate muscle mass and health in both normal and diseased conditions.

From right to left: Jean-Philippe Leduc-Gaudet, Anthony Capobianco, Justine Deshaies, Suzanne Marie-Pierre Ina Lamizana

Katie Wilson

Assistant Professor, Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Banting Discovery Award – Jarislowsky Fellowship

Unveiling the molecular mechanism of lipopolysaccharide synthesis for the treatment of bacterial infections

Dr. Wilson received her PhD in computational chemistry from the University of Lethbridge. After two postdoctoral research positions – first at the Australian National University and then the University of Toronto Mississauga – she joined MUN in 2022. Known for using multiscale molecular modelling to understand biochemical systems that span all four major classes of biomolecules, Dr. Wilson studies how the membrane-embedded glycosyltransferase enzymes modify proteins, RNA, and lipids attached to polyssacharides. Unlike conventional wet lab approaches, her research approach in computer modelling offers unprecedented atomic-level insights into dynamic biochemical systems. Through her ground-breaking research, Dr. Wilson aims to help design novel diagnostic tools and therapies targeting a spectrum of ailments, including antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections and cancer.

The World Health Organization has declared multidrug-resistant bacteria as a serious global health threat. Among them, gram-negative bacteria are especially hard to treat because of their complex cell membrane, which contains molecules called lipopolysaccharides (LPS) that protect them from antibiotics. A protein called Waal helps make these LPS molecules, so Waal-targeting antibiotics could help fight these resistant bacteria. Dr. Wilson’s project will use computer models to study how drugs can target Waal, avoiding the dangers of working with harmful bacteria in the lab. The findings will then help develop new ways to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

(from left to right) Katie Wilson, Aaron Pye, Kyle Warren, Tama Ghosh and Farzad Mostafavi.

Janie Coulombe

Assistant Professor, Department of Mathematics and Statistics (DMS), Faculté des Arts et des Sciences, Université de Montréal

Banting – CANSSI Discovery Award in Biostatistics

Developing optimal treatment rules for the control of hypertension under irregular observation times

Dr. Coulombe received her PhD in biostatistics from McGill University. In 2022, she won the Pierre Robillard Award from the Statistical Society of Canada for the best PhD thesis on a statistics-related topic in Canada. Dr. Coulombe’s research focuses on developing statistical methods to understand the cause-and-effect relationship using real-world data from electronic health records. Currently, she is interested in strategies that help tailor treatment or visit choice to patient characteristics with the aim to optimize clinical outcomes.

Patients with hypertension have a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases. Many studies have looked at different drugs to alleviate hypertension, but none have focused on the best schedule for doctor visits to improve heart health. Dr. Coulombe’s proposed research involves a new statistical method to create the best monitoring schedules. Using data from the SPRINT (Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial) study in the U.S., they aim to find the best times for doctor visits based on a patient’s demographic, other health conditions, blood pressure, and current medications. The goal is to create a method that patients can use at home with their blood pressure monitors to decide if they need to see their doctors each month.

Coulombe Lab

Zong Yang Yu, Si Ming Xu, Emiliano Aviles Astorga, Janie Coulombe, Mathilde Dicaire-Cartier and Paguidame Sambiani.

Justin Slater

Assistant Professor, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Guelph

Banting – CANSSI Ontario Discovery Award in Biostatistics

Statistical emulators and discrepancy functions for agent-based models for hepatitis C virus (HCV)

Prior to beginning his PhD, Dr. Slater held industry positions as a biostatistical analyst at the Institute for Clinical and Evaluative Sciences, and analytics lead at Cytel (formerly Lighthouse Outcomes). Just before completing his PhD in March 2023 at the University of Toronto, he already started as a tenure-track assistant professor at the University of Guelph. Presently, Dr. Slater’s research focuses on modelling underreported infectious diseases at both the individual and population levels, and estimating disease prevalence even with minimal available data. In addition to his extensive industry and research experience, Dr. Slater is passionate about training the next generation of statisticians in Bayesian statistics, time series, and geospatial analysis.

Hepatitis C virus (HCV) spreads through activities like injection drug use and sexual intercourse, yet tracking those activities is difficult. Therefore, scientists often use computer simulations called agent-based models (ABMs) to understand HCV risk factors and estimate how widespread the disease is. However, these simulations are extremely time-consuming, so researchers have started using faster methods called statistical emulators, which are not fully understood yet. Dr. Slater’s project aims to create better statistical emulators that can account for even undiagnosed HCV cases. In the future, they will apply these new methods to individual-level HCV data and obtain a complete picture of HCV risk factors and infection rates in Ontario.

From left to right: Chung Yan Fong (Masters of Data Science Graduate), Gagan Umesha (Undergraduate researcher), Justin Slater, Vinay Joshy (Undergraduate researcher), Ege Durla (Undergraduate researcher).

Karine Choquet

Assistant Professor, Department of Biochemistry and Functional Genomics, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Université de Sherbrooke

Banting Discovery Award

Decoding pre-MRNA splicing order: a key to splicing accuracy

Dr Choquet completed her PhD in Human Genetics at McGill University, where she studied the molecular mechanism of rare inherited disorders. She then pursued a post-doctoral fellowship in genetics at Harvard Medical School, where she acquired expertise in RNA biology, long-read nanopore sequencing and bioinformatics. She then joined the Université de Sherbrooke and the Research Centre on Aging in 2023.

Dr. Choquet’s research focuses on mRNA splicing, its role in aging and in neuromuscular diseases, and how it can be targeted for treatments. Messenger RNAs (mRNAs) carry the instructions from our DNA/genes to make proteins. They start out as incomplete pre-mRNAs and need to go through a process called splicing to become complete mRNAs that can make proteins, which are essential for our cells. Errors in splicing can cause aging and many diseases like cancer and dementia, and not much is known about why those errors happen or how splicing works in human cells. Human pre-mRNAs are very long but scientists have only studied splicing in small sections at a time. Dr. Choquet’s project will investigate how different parts of a pre-mRNA communicate with each other from far away to avoid splicing mistakes, helping to understand how these errors contribute to aging and diseases.

(from left to right): Louis-Philippe Chaumont, Karine Choquet, Salomé Sabatié, Téa Malo, Mathia Canepa and Ibrahim Soumana Adamou.