Highlights 2011



Research and publications


Biology Department scientists have continued to make major discoveries in 2011. Irene Gregory-Eaves published evidence that even the most remote northern lakes have been affected by the last century of industrialization. Siegfried Hekimi challenged the notion that free radicals and oxidants are responsible for aging, and questioned whether consuming antioxidant supplements has any health benefit. Graham Bell and Andrew Gonzalez used miniaturized landscapes to show that dispersal among populations facilitates evolutionary adaptation to severe stress. Jackie Vogel used advanced biophysical methods to show how cell structures are modified to allow normal cell division.

Department members published 146 papers in 2011, a rate of nearly three a week, continuing the steady increase in research output that has doubled the publication rate in the last decade. These papers have a very high impact on their field. Three appeared in Science, the top North American scientific journal; four each in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Proceedings of the Royal Society; and many others in the leading international journals of each field, such as Cell, Developmental Cell, Ecology and Evolution.

The research infrastructure of the Department continues to grow. The latest acquisition is the Plant Phenomics Platform set up by Tom Bureau with a $2m grant from CFI. This allows high-throughput measurement of complex phenotypic traits in plants and is among the most advanced facilities of its kind in the world. The total research support to Biology faculty reached $21.24m. This included large infrastructure grants from CFI, but grants from the major funding agencies (NSERC, CIHR and FQRNT) amounted to $6.08m. This is comparable to last year’s level and represents an increase of about 50% over the last five years.

Teaching and learning

83 students graduated with a Biology BSc degree, and 10 with a BA&Sc. 474 students were enrolled in Biology programs. Enrolment in Biology courses, from all sources, stood at 7696 students. All of these numbers represent substantial increases of about 15% over the last five years.

The number of MSc students remained steady at 57, close to the average over the last five years, but the number of PhD students continued to climb, reaching a new high of 94. This represents an increase of almost 25% in the number of PhD students over the last five years, and confirms the trend towards an increasing proportion of graduate students in the PhD program.

A major overhaul of the introductory laboratory courses in organismal biology and molecular biology began this year. A new pedagogical approach based on the active learning concept is being used to improve the design and delivery of the courses, in collaboration with the Tomlinson Project for University-level Science Education. This is being coupled with a radical renovation of the laboratories themselves, which we shall plan in the coming year.

Involvement in the community

The main public interface of the Department is at the Gault Nature Reserve, where Gregor Fussmann took over as Director from Martin Lechowicz. Besides hosting a number of active research programs, the Reserve has a Nature Centre that welcomes about 200,000 visitors each year. Louis Lefebvre served as a member of the Comité des Programmes Universitaires (Ministère de l’Éducation), a crucial group that recommends to the Minister acceptance of all new university programs. Paul Lasko is the Scientific Director of the CIHR Institute of Genetics. Outside Canada, Lauren Chapman serves as an honorary lecturer in the Department of Zoology at Makerere University, the national university of Uganda, and assists in their graduate program. Catherine Potvin acts as Special Scientific Advisor to the National Authority for the Environment of Panama and plays an important role in developing policy in areas such as deforestation.

Partnerships

The Department is the focus of several major partnerships. Andrew Gonzalez is Director of the Quebec Centre for Biodiversity Science, an FQRNT-funded network that links 70 researchers from universities across Quebec, along with hundreds of graduate students and postdocs. Frédéric Guichard is co-Director of the Centre for Applied Mathematics in Bioscience and Medicine, which likewise links a large group of researchers in Montreal and elsewhere. Jackie Vogel has continued to develop the Quantitative Biology initiative, which involves faculty from five departments at McGill and two at Université de Montréal.

Milestones

This year was marked by the retirement of Bob Levine, who entered the Department as an Assistant Professor in 1975. At the same time, we welcomed two new faculty members, Alanna Watt and Simon Reader.

Honours, awards and prizes

Catherine Potvin won the Schlamadinger Prize for the best paper in the journal Climate Policy dealing with climate change in forestry, land use and bioenergy. Anna McNicoll won the Principal’s Award for Administrative and Support Staff. Andrew Hendry won the Tomlinson Science Award. On the national scene, Irene Gregory-Eaves served as President of the Canadian Quaternary Association, and Graham Bell as the President of the Academy of Science (Royal Society of Canada).

The Biology Department has been ranked 2nd in Canada and 18th in the world by an independent survey (www.topuniversities.com) using academic reputation, employability of students and citation record as criteria.