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In a global competition for talent, Canada is seeking to train the best graduate students to become “highly qualified personnel” – university-educated experts with the savvy and ingenuity to lead innovation in high-tech industries, government and academia.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada has announced two new programs at the University of Alberta to help fill needs in artificial intelligence and diabetes research.

Sam Wadsworth

Sam Wadsworth

Patrick MacDonald

Patrick MacDonald

Daniel C. Baumgart

Daniel C. Baumgart

“Our company more than doubled in size over the last two years, and in order to continue our rapid growth we need to draw from a pool of talented and well-trained individuals,” says Sam Wadsworth, chief scientific officer at Aspect Biosystems, a biotech company in Vancouver that uses 3D bio-printing to create living human tissues including pancreatic islet tissues for the treatment of Type 1 diabetes.

“We’re excited to be involved in this program to facilitate professional development and acquisition of the skills most highly valued by future bio-economy employers such as ourselves.”

“Our goal is to help our trainees to be as competitive as possible in a growing field that is going to make a significant impact on diabetes treatment over the next many years,” says Patrick MacDonald, professor in the Department of Pharmacology and lead for the Canadian Islet Research and Training Network.

Students from diverse fields such as natural and applied sciences (computing science, electrical engineering, chemistry, biology), humanities and social sciences (law, philosophy, psychology and education), and health sciences will be recruited for From Data to Decision (FD2D): Artificial Intelligence from Data Value Chain to Human Value.

Project lead Daniel C. Baumgart, professor and director of the Division of Gastroenterology, says it will provide an unmatched opportunity for mentorship and training.

“The stimuli come from industry and government – they know where the unmet need is – and we have the intellectual power to train the people who can take on complex AI challenges in the future,” he says.

The programs build on existing areas of excellence at the U of A. The university has been ranked in the top three globally for AI since 1997, when computing scientist Murray Campbell was part of the team behind IBM’s Deep Blue computer, which beat Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov. The tradition continues through the AI4Society signature area. The U of A is also home to the Alberta Diabetes Institute, Canada’s largest stand-alone research facility dedicated to translating diabetes research into treatments such as the Edmonton Protocol, a groundbreaking islet cell transplant technique.

The NSERC Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program aims to help new researchers become productive employees in Canada’s science-based workforce.

Up to 100 undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate students will be given advanced training, including cross-disciplinary courses, national and international academic exchanges, and work experience with industry and government partners.

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When looking ahead to the profound impact AI will have on Canada’s future knowledge-based economy, Baumgart likes to refer to a quote from a speech given by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the 2016 World Economic Forum:

“Canadians know that what it takes to grow and prosper isn’t just what’s under our feet; it’s what’s between our ears.”

Canada is projected to need 2.2 million skilled workers in the digital economy by 2026. AI-related job postings increased by 46 percent annually between 2015 and 2018, according to the FD2D proposal.

The program will train up to 40 students thanks to a total of $3.9 million in funding from NSERC, Mitacs and the U of A, bringing together 22 leading academic institutions and technology companies in North America, Europe and Asia, ranging from Nvidia to Volkswagen to the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute.

“We will train future leaders, managers, decision-makers and policy-makers across the spectrum of AI uses and societal impacts, from creating sensors such as wearable devices to countering problems with ethics, privacy, fairness and bias in applying AI,” Baumgart says.

Baumgart points out that Canada is the first country to develop a national AI strategy. He believes it will take cross-disciplinary expertise to ensure it is implemented using values of “fairness, opportunity, diversity, inclusivity, sustainability and community.”

“Training through the lens of computing science alone cannot realize the full value because AI derives from the entire data value chain, which begins with sensors to data to models to action,” Baumgart notes. “This obviously has an impact not only in the actual application area but also on society.”

Diabetes affects 11 million Canadians, and the annual cost of treating the disease was $30 billion in 2019, according to Diabetes Canada. The Canadian Islet Research and Training Network brings together 120 researchers at 40 labs across the country, all focused on improving diabetes treatments.

Up to 60 students will have the opportunity to train with Canadian biotech companies and national and international research partners, including Stanford and Vanderbilt universities in the United States. The program received $1.65 million from NSERC and matching funds from 11 academic institutions across the country.

“Depending on their background and interests, interns at Aspect may work with the engineering R&D team, the manufacturing team building our platform or the therapeutic tissues side of the company developing optimized cell and biomaterials technologies,” says Wadsworth. “Interns may also gain experience in process development, tissue manufacturing, or regulatory affairs.”

According to the proposal, graduates of the program will be sought after by companies developing treatments for obesity and diabetes, biomarker discovery, medical devices and biosensors.

“Insulin, even though it was discovered 100 years ago, is still driving technological advances in areas that include protein biology, transplantation, biomedical materials and devices, genetics, and regenerative medicine,” says MacDonald, who is Canada Research Chair in Islet Biology and director of the Alberta Diabetes Institute’s IsletCore, the largest islet tissue repository in the world.

“The goal is to strengthen Canada’s position in this field and train the next generation that will contribute to our long-term progress.”

The U of A’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry has successfully run two previous CREATE programs – one led by biochemist Joseph Casey and another by bionic limbs expert Jacqueline Hebert. Both MacDonald and Baumgart see CREATE as an ideal model for future training across disciplines to maintain Canada’s leadership in knowledge-based industries.

“If this program had existed when I was a student, it would have opened my eyes to all of the different opportunities that are out there for graduates and trainees, which would have been fantastic,” MacDonald notes.

“That transdisciplinarity and that diversity are required to shape a young mind,” Baumgart says. “And I believe that this is what eventually then makes the difference for an entire country.”

| By Gillian Rutherford

Gillian is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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