Jamie Edwards

Chief Tester

Chemistry
Other Titles: Just a guy who makes website stuff
Office: UNC215
Phone: 250.807.8406
Email: jamie.edwards@ubc.ca


Biography

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Responsibilities

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ISAAC LI HAS BEEN INSPIRED BY HIS RESEARCH ever since joining UBC Okanagan’s chemistry department in January 2016.

His current work focuses on developing force-responsive DNA nanostructures that can be used to study the physical interactions between cells. These interactions are key regulators in the development of organisms and diseases such as cancer metastasis. For this work, Dr. Li, an assistant professor in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science, recently received a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Single-Molecule Biophysics and Mechanobiology. He also holds a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Scholar Award.

“The human body is made up of connected cells and cells that migrate through tissues. How they physically interact dictates their behaviour, so we need to understand cell signalling beyond the traditional chemical means into the new realm of mechanobiology—or, how cells communicate through their sense of touch. And we need to do this at the molecular level to understand the interaction mechanisms.

“Our research drives a deeper understanding in basic biology, such as embryonic development, and helps us understand disease processes like inflammation and metastasis,” Dr. Li explains.

With state-of-the-art single-molecule biophysics tools such as optical tweezers, an atomic force microscope, and single-molecule and super-resolution microscopes, individual DNA molecules can be designed and used to directly visualize how individual cell receptors experience mechanical forces. Dr. Li’s lab develops novel DNA-based molecular tools and new biophysical techniques to solve these problems. For him, the end goal of his research is to better understand disease, adding that he finds the intricate nature of his work enjoyable.

“I consider my work to be a lot of fun. Understanding and controlling the actions of biological molecules one at a time is a fascinating and fundamentally important problem, especially if they can be applied to provide new mechanistic insights into disease processes,” he explains. “In particular, the CRC appointment will help us put a laser focus on research for the next 5-10 years.”

Dr. Li also recently received a $250,000 grant from the New Frontiers in Research Fund to work on a separate—but related—project to develop a new diagnostic tool to detect early signs of disease.

“We’re trying to find a way to take a liquid biopsy, like a blood sample, and find variations in an individual’s molecular make-up that may put them at higher risk for a particular disease. This is an interdisciplinary application that crosses different faculties on campus—chemistry, engineering and health and exercise sciences, and so far, has proved to be very fruitful.”

A culture of sharing and growth

Following his postdoctoral research, Dr. Li’s search for a tenure-track research position was short and sweet—with UBCO being his first interview. “I chose a career in chemistry at UBCO because of its wonderful colleagues and collaborative opportunities,” he says, adding that he feels very fortunate to have landed here.

“My colleagues, particularly in chemistry, are awesome—we’re a collaborative department that shares all sorts of things, including our equipment. We open our doors to discussion with everyone in chemistry and the entire campus.”

Though he spends most days in the chemistry department, Dr. Li and his colleagues are also actively involved in high-level conversations with campus leaders. “We’ve had a lot of discussions with the leadership team to help identify some of the strategic directions we should take, current problems we’re facing, and how to provide better opportunities and support to students. This campus is my second home, and how it grows is important to me,” he adds.

Teaching and supporting student research

Having spent most of his adult life as a student and researcher at large universities, Dr. Li now enjoys being part of a closer-knit campus community.

“Things are a bit different here,” he says. “I’m teaching small undergraduate classes and have the opportunity to build mentoring relationships with some of my students,” he explains. “I’m able to provide them with better guidance and help them reach their full potential or see the world from different perspectives. I find that very fulfilling.”

Dr. Li also tries to learn most of his students’ names. “Not only does it help with better engagement in class, but the students feel more connected to me, and that motivates them to try harder.”

While Dr. Li appreciates smaller class sizes from an instructional point of view, he says they’re also better for students. “It improves access to professors, meaning I’m available to carry out deeper science discussions with students beyond simply helping them with problem sets. It’s also much easier for students to get involved in research before graduate school to see if they like it, and to figure out what research direction interests them most.”

Researchers in Isaac Li's lab

UBCO offers undergraduate students a number of opportunities to pursue original research, including the Undergraduate Research Awards and Work-Study programs. “It’s a level of support you don’t always see at other institutions,” says Dr. Li.

As a research-intensive new faculty member, Dr. Li notes that producing quality research is not only good for growing the campus’ global reputation and research output, but it’s also beneficial for students.

“When students know they have a professor who deeply understands the content and works at the frontier of the subject—there’s a certain level of respect and curiosity that comes with that. I encourage my students to ask questions beyond my knowledge, and that inspires them to go explore the unknown.”

The post Dr. Isaac Li studies a cell’s sense of touch through designer DNA appeared first on UBC Okanagan News.

SOMETIMES SCIENCE leads to discoveries that change society. Sometimes societal changes open the door for scientific advancement.

Zach Walsh, Associate Professor of Psychology, studies medicinal cannabis use. He says we are at an historic turning point in the public perception and use of medicinal plants, and our understanding of how to use them to help people suffering from a variety of issues.

Why Psychology?

“We are at an extraordinary intersection of a social-change movement and scientific explosion that will directly affect the lives of people around the globe,” he says. “Canada and British Columbia are leading the way in the acceptance of using cannabis for therapeutic purposes. Canada was among the first countries in the world to have a medical cannabis program.”

CONNECTING TO THE COMMUNITY

Dr. Walsh, who is a registered clinical psychologist and co-director of the Centre for the Advancement of Psychological Science and the Law at UBC’s Okanagan campus, balances his work as a clinical psychologist with his active research program.

“Researching the medicinal use of cannabis allows for a mix of applied and theoretical perspectives, and gives people in the community answers to pressing issues. The place where community engagement and high-quality science mix is a rewarding place to be as a researcher and an educator.”

 

 

SUPPORTING STUDENT OPPORTUNITIES

Since joining UBC Okanagan in 2009, Walsh has supervised students through the Irving K. Barber School Undergraduate Research Award program, which gives undergraduate students the opportunity to pursue innovative and original research.

He also believes in the importance of students working in the community to see the “big picture science” and experience one-on-one contact with practitioners and patient. Students see how research directly affects the lives of people who rely on plant-based medicines.

Walsh’s students have visited local seniors groups to discuss the benefits of medicinal cannabis for ailments such as arthritis, and have presented work at international conferences and to the House of Commons in Ottawa.

UNTANGLING MISCONCEPTIONS

“There is so much we don’t know about the use of medicinal plants,” he says. “Refining medicines derived from cannabis and other plants will have a dramatic effect on the health of Canadians and people worldwide. How do we make the best use of these plants and combine them with other therapies to create better outcomes for people who are suffering?”

Walsh believes British Columbia and UBC Okanagan are perfect places to conduct this type of research. “Our campus is small enough that undergraduates can work closely with faculty and senior researchers, and be involved in high-level research at one of the top research universities in the world.

“And, what better place to study an issue like this than in Kelowna, Canada, where tolerance and freedom are valued and celebrated?”

—by Deanna Roberts

MATHIEU BOURBONNAIS ALWAYS LOVED THE OUTDOORS. Born in Edmonton and raised in St. Albert, Alberta, in what he describes as an outdoorsy family, he learned to appreciate nature from a young age.

“We were always outside,” he says. “Hiking, camping, you name it — we did it — some of my best memories are just being outside and poking around in the bush.”

Find out more about our Geospatial Information Sciences minor

But Bourbonnais’ career path wasn’t as clear to him as his love of the landscape.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do as a profession, but I always had higher grades in arts and social sciences, so I ended up studying history and psychology,” he says.

Bilingual in French and English, Bourbonnais attended Campus Saint-Jean, a francophone campus at the University of Alberta (U of A). During summers, he worked as a conservation officer for Alberta Parks at Dinosaur Provincial Park.

While there, it was a conversation with a colleague that got Bourbonnais thinking about a career as a wildland firefighter.

After graduating from U of A, Bourbonnais applied to Alberta’s highly competitive Wildland Firefighter Rappel Program — where men and women were trained to rappel out of helicopters to fight wildfires in remote areas. After six weeks of training, he was accepted.

A FEW YEARS IN FIRE

Bourbonnais completed the program and was hired on to one of the province’s nine rappel crews.

“The idea behind these crews is that there’s a lot of remote country, and many wildfires can be difficult to access,” he says. “Wildland firefighters need to action fires as quickly as possible. If crews are landing kilometres away and hiking in, that can take hours depending on the terrain and is actually quite dangerous because you have fuels between you and the fire.”

The highly trained rappel crews descend right next to wildfires, allowing them to begin fire suppression efforts immediately.

“The rappel crews functioned in a paramilitary style where one person was in charge of the whole operation,” explains Bourbonnais. “They were the one communicating with the pilot — all other communication during a rappel was done by hand signal,” he says.

Each crew consisted of seven team members, six people to rappel and one spotter. When the spotter determined a safe route, the crew would rappel down the rope into the fire zone one-by-one. With the crew on the ground, the spotter would then swing open the cargo arm on the helicopter and large bags — containing tools, fire pumps, hoses and chainsaws — were lowered to crews.

Mathieu Bourbonnais inside a helicopter

It was gruelling work. Bourbonnais’ shift rotation consisted of 15 days on, six off days, often working 12 hours or more per day.

“It sounds like a crazy number of hours to work, but I had days where an 18-hour shift would go by in a flash. I’d be out on the fire line and it would hit me, ‘Wow, I’ve been out here all day and haven’t stopped once,’” he recalls.

Occasionally, Bourbonnais would work on wildfires overnight.

“At first, it sounds scary that they leave you in the bush next to a wildfire, but it’s always the expectation that there will be no significant change in fire size because helicopters can’t fly at night. So, if something did go sideways, you’re really on your own.”

Despite the risks, Bourbonnais enjoyed his time working as a wildland firefighter. “It was exciting — the rush of adrenaline I got when I was rappelling from the helicopter and working on a fire. It was like nothing else,” he says.

Enthusiasm aside, Bourbonnais admits there were times when the job could get uncomfortable.

“If you have forest fires to begin with, it’s likely hot out already, and then you are rappelling and working on the fire line. The heat is extreme and, combined with heavy smoke, it can be a lot to handle,” he says, noting wildfire crews, unlike city firefighters, are not equipped with oxygen or respirators.

“Generally speaking though, I never felt unsafe,” he explains. “Yes, I dealt with some minor cuts and burns but it was to be expected in that line of work.”

MAPPING OUT A CAREER PLAN

Bourbonnais spent six years as a wildland firefighter, working with the Alberta Wildfire Service and Parks Canada. With both organizations, his team was given daily briefings on the status of large wildfires.

“I started to get really interested in satellite imagery,” says Bourbonnais. “I began asking around to get more information and started learning about geomatics, geographic information sciences (GIS) and remote sensing.”

Upon further research, Bourbonnais discovered there was a big demand for people trained in GIS, turning his new interest into a viable career option. Bourbonnais enrolled in a two-year, post baccalaureate program in geomatics at the University of Victoria, working on his Honours thesis with geography professor Trisalyn Nelson.

“It’s crazy how meeting one person can change the direction of your life,” says Bourbonnais. “After my BSc, Trisalyn talked me into doing my master’s — so I ended up doing that for two years, followed by a PhD studying grizzly bear health, habitat, and movement ecology.”

Grizzly bear sniffing bear trap

Grizzlies in Alberta have been listed as a threatened species since 2006. Current estimates suggest there are approximately 700 remaining in the province.

“Most of my research was working with global positioning system (GPS) telemetry data. Every year the Foothills Research Institute Grizzly Bear Program would capture 15 to 20 bears and fit them with a GPS collar during the non-denning period,” explains Bourbonnais.

“We were able to track individual grizzly bears which helped us develop statistical models to better understand their movements and behaviours and how these were influenced by humans and habitat.”

LEARN BY DOING

Bourbonnais’ background in geography, spatial analysis, statistics and modelling set him up well for a career teaching GIS at UBC Okanagan.

In his courses, students learn the theory and application of geospatial tools and technologies.

A hands-on learner himself, Bourbonnais wants his students to do more than memorize a textbook.

“Students who take my classes leave with an understanding of geographic data, broadly applicable GIS tools, how to use them and what they can tell you about spatial patterns and processes.”

“Having a background in firefighting and wildlife management, I try to draw a lot of that material into the class,” he says.

In his labs, Bourbonnais works with wildfire and grizzly bear telemetry data to demonstrate to students how the data can be analyzed to solve real world problems.

While Bourbonnais’ experience with GIS leans towards the environmental side of things, he tries to show students other uses.

“GIS has so many applications,” he explains. “It’s important for me to illustrate that, so we also do work related to social sciences, business, health sciences and other areas.”

Beginning January 2020, all BSc and BA students with third year standing will have the option to pursue a minor in GIS, known as GISC on the UBC Okanagan campus. Bourbonnais call this an exciting opportunity.

“I hope as the GISC program grows, I start to see more students from other disciplines in my classes. Having GIS training will be really advantageous to students in their future endeavours.”

IMPACTFUL RESEARCH

One of Bourbonnais’ current research projects focuses on how to better prepare communities for challenges presented by wildfire. The project, Living with Wildfire, recently received funding from the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF).

“Fire is part of the Okanagan Valley’s landscape and an important part of the ecosystem — communities need to understand the risks and get equipped to handle them,” says Bourbonnais.

Bourbonnais’ project uses Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) — an active remote sensing system that uses light emitted from a rapidly firing laser to capture information about the earth’s surface.

Typically flown from a plane, helicopter or drone, LIDAR measures the time it takes for the emitted light to reflect off something and return to the sensor.

In the summer of 2018, the Okanagan Basin Water Board, in collaboration with communities and the province, flew LIDAR over the entire Okanagan Valley. It’s given Bourbonnais’ team a detailed 3D model of the forest to examine.

“The energy emitted by the sensor reflects off trees, logs, shrubs, the ground and even buildings. It’s very precise and there’s a lot we can do with that data in terms of mapping forest structure and wildfire fuel loads,” he says.

Aside from the natural science aspect of the project, Bourbonnais’ team is also researching the social dimensions.

“There’s definitely a stigma associated with wildfire, and I understand why,” says Bourbonnais.

Helicopter fighting a forest fire

“Whenever a fire is threatening homes, of course people are angry and scared— but what if we could shift attitudes and get to a point where people understand the very important role fire plays in our ecosystems and communities accepted the use of prescribed burns and other activities to proactively manage wildfire risk?” asks Bourbonnais.

“When we hear about wildfires in the news, it’s generally negative and sensationalized — even in movies it’s about firefighters losing their lives in a heroic act,” he says.

“Having done it, I never felt like a hero. I was just out doing a job. Wildfires aren’t a battle or a war, they’re an important part of our ecosystems, and I’m hoping this project will help clarify that message.”

Living with Wildfire is funded through 2022, and Bourbonnais hopes to secure additional funding to make it a long-term, multi-year project.

CALLING THE OKANAGAN VALLEY HOME

Bourbonnais relocated to Kelowna from Victoria in July of 2018.

A dad to Hadley, two, and Nolan, six months, Bourbonnais says it was the right move for his family.

“We’ve really enjoyed living here — we love the landscape,” says Bourbonnais. “It’s a fair bit warmer than Victoria, which I like, and we’ve found Kelowna to be a really fun city.”

Bourbonnais and his family spend their weekends hiking, mountain biking, skiing, and spending time at local beaches.

“I feel like I’m at a good place in my life right now,” says Bourbonnais. “Sure it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do but looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.”