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Biology professor named Canada Research Chair

Prof. Maydianne Andrade has been named a Canada Research Chair. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

Maydianne Andrade, a professor in the department of biological sciences, has been named a Canada Research Chair (CRC).

Andrade, the new Canada Research Chair in Integrative Behavioural Ecology, was one of 11 faculty members at the University of Toronto to be named recipients of the prestigious CRCs by the federal government this fall.

Her research involves the study of mating systems in three species of spiders across variable habitats to understand the links between the environment, behaviour, and individual gene expression. Andrade aims to shed light on the effects of social and environmental factors on genetic processes in nature, and to answer questions of evolutionary biology, genomics and neuroscience.

The CRCs were established by the government in order to position Canada as one of the top five countries worldwide for research and development. In the most recent round of funding, the University of Toronto earned $15.8 million with the announcement of 11 new chairs and the renewal of eight existing chairs, bringing the university’s total to 258. Twelve of the chair holders, including Andrade, also received infrastructure funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) Leaders Opportunity Fund.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Andrade. “Just to be nominated for a Canada Research Chair in the first place is a huge honour, and I was delighted and surprised because I didn’t even know that this was in the works until I heard about the nomination. The research is judged by external reviewers at arms-length, so it’s wonderful news.”

Andrade has been with the Scarborough campus since 2000. Her appointment brings to eight the number of CRCs here on campus, including Professors Michelle Aarts (Biological Sciences); Daniel Bender (History); Ian Brown (Biological Sciences); Anne-Emanuelle Birn (International Development Studies); Herbert Kronzucker (Biological Sciences); Michael Lambek (Anthropology); and Balint Virag (Mathematics).

“I’m excited because of the quality of work produced by other people in this group,” said Andrade. “Their research is fantastic, and I think having so many CRCs here at U of T Scarborough shows the importance that the university places on research at our campus. The fact that four of us are in biology really shows the strength of this area as well.”

“We are delighted to congratulate Professor Andrade on this prestigious and well-deserved award,” said Prof. Greg Vanlerberghe, interim chair of the department of biological sciences.

As a CRC chair, Andrade will be building on her existing research as well as expanding into new areas. “In the past, my research was focused almost exclusively on the mating behaviour of black widow spiders,” she said. “What I want to do now is begin to explore the mechanistic underpinnings of how behaviour and development work in terms of gene expression and physiology, and what triggers variation in those things in different populations worldwide.”

Sometimes the same species of spider demonstrates very similar traits regardless of where its populations live worldwide, whereas other species become radically different across different locations. “I’m interested in exploring why one group changes and shows increased biodiversity while another does not,” she said. Andrade will study three related cannibalistic species: the Western black widow, the brown widow, and the Australian redback spider. She will be testing a new theory about how the frequency and conditions of mating shape the evolution of what researchers call “plasticity” – variability in gene expression in response to environmental cues.

Asked what she likes best about her research, she says it is a combination of factors. “My research combines a sense of ‘gee whiz!’ behavioural science with more rigorous and mechanistic dissections of function, and so I enjoy the fact that the behaviour is fun and fascinating to watch, while at the same time we are probing in a disciplined and scientific way the general theories that underly that outcome.”

Her work will help to shed new light on the threat posed by the specific populations she studies – since the black widow’s venom is toxic to humans, and plasticity may increase their invasiveness. It will also help scientists learn more about how natural conditions shape diversity.

The CRC funding of $100,000 pays for part of a researcher’s salary as well as providing some funds to support graduate students and operating expenses. Andrade’s CFI grant of $230,000 (plus a matching grant of $230,000 from the Ontario Research Fund) provides additional infrastructure funding, which she will put towards the building and configuration of a new cell of four labs on campus. The renovated site will become the Integrative Behaviour & Neuroscience Research Facility and will house four researchers, including her colleagues Professors Andrew Mason, Nathan Lovejoy, and Mark Fitzpatrick, a behavioural geneticist who will be joining the faculty in July 2008. The new cell of labs will be set up in a space in the S-Wing that will be vacated due to the construction of the new Science building.

Other University of Toronto researchers who received CRCs in this round of funding announcements are: Timothy Barfoot of the Institute for Aerospace Studies, chair in autonomous space robotics; David Barner of psychology, chair in developmental psychology; Cindy-Lee Dennis of nursing, chair in perinatal community health, Stuart Foster of medical biophysics and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, chair in ultrasound imaging; Brenda Frey of electrical and compute reengineering, chair in information processing and machine learning; Anthony Gramolini of physiology, chair in cardiovascular proteomics and molecular therapeutics; Ray Jayawardhana of astronomy and astrophyics, chair in observational astrophysics; Andrea Jurisicova of physiology and Mount Sinai Hospital; chair in molecular and reproductive medicine; Olivera Kesler of mechanical and industrial engineering, chair of fuel cell materials and manufacturing; and Subodh Verma of surgery and St. Michael’s Hospital, chair in atherosclerosis. The new recipients were chosen from the December 2006 competition.

A short profile on Prof. Andrade’s research has been posted to the government’s Canada Research Chairs web site at: http://www.chairs.gc.ca/web/chairholders/viewprofile_e.asp?id=2396

More information on Maydianne Andrade’s research is available at

www.utsc.utoronto.ca/mandrade

by Mary Ann Gratton (with files from Jenny Hall)














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