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Self-control and space-age biosensors: just another day at the office for two UTSC researchers

Professors Bernie Kraatz and Michael Inzlicht are this year's joint recipients of the Principal’s Research Award. (Photos by Ken Jones)

One is an award-winning chemist who focuses on creating new materials that can detect bio-molecules. The other is a renowned psychologist whose research has looked at prejudice, academic performance, religion and the underlying nature of self-control.

Together Professors Bernie Kraatz and Michael Inzlicht represent two of UTSC’s most talented researchers and the 2015 recipients of the Principal’s Research Award.

“Congratulations to both Professors Inzlicht and Kraatz, two exceptional researchers whose work has tremendous impacts on our community and the world beyond,” said UTSC Principal Bruce Kidd. “UTSC is an innovative, research-intensive, accessible, tech-savvy university, and the work being done by these two researchers reflects that spirit to a T.”

Both researchers delivered lectures on their life’s work and research as part of the Celebration of Research Excellence on November 25.

Inzlicht explores a range of topics covering social psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience. His recent work has focused on how finding pleasure in everyday activities may be the key to boosting self-control, and whether empathy is a matter of choice.

“Empathy has been in the news a lot lately, in particular through images of people suffering a great deal,” he said. “While empathy is almost always viewed as a positive force, it also appears to be one that is constrained.”

Inzlicht said that not only does empathy seem to fail when it’s needed most, it also appears to play favorites. Studies show that people tend to exhibit greater empathy when viewing images of an individual suffering as opposed to a group, and is also limited when the negative events are affecting racial groups beyond their own. Not only that, empathy diminishes with fatigue, and people with wealth and power tend to exhibit less empathy.  

“It’s a fascinating question; how do you get people to actually choose empathy? That’s where self-control comes into play,” adds Inzlicht.

Kraatz, who recently became UTSC’s vice-principal research, opened by reflecting on his childhood growing up in West Germany. He was influenced greatly by his toy chemistry set, watching the Apollo 11 mission and the famous sci-fi television show Star Trek.  

“I began to realize that science matters a great deal to civilization – it propels us forward and leads to progress that can create greater equality in society,” he said.

He was particularly amazed by the all the gadgets dreamt up by Star Trek, in particular the tricorder, which is a hand-held sensor used for scanning, data analysis and recording data. In many respects a part of Kraatz’s research team is working towards making the device a reality, developing biosensors that are portable, inexpensive and can detect a range of biomolecules including protein, DNA and chemicals.  

Started in 1992 as the Principal’s Research Award, the first lecture was delivered under the Celebration of Research Excellence format in 2013. The Research Recognition Award, added last year as part of UTSC’s 50th Anniversary celebration, went to Professor Marc Cadotte who will deliver his commemorative lecture in early 2016.

© University of Toronto Scarborough