Outstanding emerging researchers honoured during Convocation

Three highly accomplished early career researchers have received a significant McGill distinction: The Principal’s Prize for Outstanding Emerging Researchers

Since 2013, McGill has honoured 24 of its most talented and accomplished early career researchers with the prestigious Principal’s Prize for Outstanding Emerging Researchers. This year, three up-and-coming research stars – Stefanie Blain-Moraes, Kyle Elliott, and Marie-Claude Geoffroy – have joined their ranks.

“Professors Blain-Moraes, Elliott and Geoffrey have proven themselves as outstanding emerging researchers and inspiring role models for our community,” said Suzanne Fortier, Principal and Vice-Chancellor. “Already international leaders in their respective fields, I look forward to witnessing the important and innovative research they will produce in years to come.”

Administered by Research and Innovation, the prize, which includes a monetary award, honours researchers across all disciplines. McGill awards up to three prizes annually. Blain-Moraes was honoured at the Health Sciences Convocation Ceremony on May 26, Geoffroy will be honoured at the Education Convocation Ceremony on June 1, and Elliott will be honoured at the Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Convocation Ceremony on June 3.

Stefanie Blain-Moraes: Enhancing the way we interact with non-communicative individuals

Stefanie Blain-Moraes

There are various reasons why individuals may be non-communicative, from adults with life-threatening injuries in critical care, to children born with severe multiple disabilities, to elders with advanced dementia. Professor Stefanie Blain-Moraes’ research focuses on advancing the understanding of the neurophysiological and physiological basis of human consciousness and interaction. She translates this research into technologies that accurately assess and enhance consciousness and cognition in individuals who cannot produce vocal or other observable responses.

Blain-Moraes is an Assistant Professor at McGill’s School of Physical and Occupational Therapy, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. She holds a Canada Research Chair, Tier 2, in Consciousness and Personhood Technologies.

Blain-Moraes’ work and training program is broadly interdisciplinary, deliberately intersectoral and highly collaborative. Since joining McGill in 2016, she has actively sought to collaborate with caregivers of minimally communicative individuals at all stages of research. Community members with no academic standing are co-applicants on her grants and co-authors on over 20 per cent of peer-reviewed journals that she has published.

“This prize is a reflection of the extraordinary efforts of so many others who support me: my brilliant grad students and postdocs, my mentors, my devoted clinical and community collaborators, and above all, my husband and children,” says Blain-Moraes.

Developing technologies to better assess and interact with non-communicative individuals

Blain-Moraes’ research has developed novel physiological-based technologies to assess and enhance consciousness and personhood in minimally communicative individuals. In her short time at McGill, she created three innovative point-of-care technologies that serve to improve the quality of life of non-communicative individuals by enhancing their interactions with caregivers.

She developed the Adaptive Reconfiguration Index (ARI), which has predicted with 100 per cent accuracy in preliminary studies whether an unresponsive individual will recover consciousness. Another innovative technology, Biomusic, converts emotionally salient physiological changes into musical output. This invention is the foundation of her company, Expressiva, a platform designed to distribute the technology as well as research its effects on those who need it.

“My lab builds technologies to assess and interact with non-communicative persons,” says Blain-Moraes. “This research program has led me to many unexpected places: from recording EEG in intensive care units, to working with therapeutic clowns in CHSLDs [residential and long-term care centres]; from the living rooms of persons with dementia, to a stage of circus performers communicating our findings to the public. I am touched and grateful that this unconventional path is being recognized by the Principal’s Prize.”

An outstanding researcher in the field of consciousness science

Blain-Moraes’ work has attracted international attention in critical care and consciousness research. She was recently included among the ‘world’s top scientists under the age of 40’ by the prestigious World Economic Forum. Her research in disorders of consciousness earned her the Women in Neuroanesthesiology and Neuroscience Education and Research Award from the Society for Neuroscience and Anesthesia in Critical Care.

In response to the lack of connection and network among Canadian consciousness researchers, Blain-Moraes created, organized, and chaired the first Canadian Consciousness Symposium in 2021, attracting 150 participants from 16 countries. She has published 62 journal articles and her research has been cited more than 1,630 times.

Kyle Elliott: Working to conserve Arctic wildlife for future generations

“The Arctic is rapidly changing and, as Canadians, we have a special responsibility to protect northern wildlife,” states Professor Kyle Elliott, Canada Research Chair, Tier 2, in Arctic Ecology, in McGill’s Department of Natural Resource Sciences, Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Kyle Elliot

“My research takes me to the most remote areas of Canada, where I have seen the impacts of reduced summer sea-ice even during my relatively short career,” says Elliott. “My research team studies where and when wildlife occurs in the Arctic and the mechanisms contributing to their movement, so as to predict future distributions. To do so, we use portable physiological assays and miniature biologging equipment. This work is essential to conserve Arctic wildlife for our children and grandchildren.”

Elliott excels in conducting innovative and critical research on wildlife in fragile northern ecosystems that are under threat from climate change. His research focuses particularly on the ecology of free-living marine birds in the Arctic.

By using some of the world’s smallest bird-borne bio-trackers to log the whereabouts and health of marine birds in response to environmental changes and stressors, Elliott demonstrates how the northern ecosystem is impacted by climate change over time. His work has been applied to real-world problems, including zoning of one of Canada’s largest marine protected areas, banning of perflorinated compounds, the national animal care guidelines for wildlife, and oil spill responses.

Elliott’s research is both challenging and risky – for example, hanging on a rope from remote 100-foot high Arctic cliffs to observe bird behaviour – yet impactful for both local and international communities. These efforts could significantly transform Canada’s fossil fuel dominated mining into a green mining industry and possibly result in Canada becoming a global leader in sustainable engineering.

Understanding the impacts of climate change on northern ecosystems

By 2100, Arctic ice will be a fraction of its current size. Understanding how physical changes impact Arctic wildlife is critical to predicting how species will respond to a shrinking habitat. How species respond will affect the entire functioning of Arctic ecosystems. Energy is the fundamental currency in ecology, and Elliott’s work on energetics provides a basis for scaling to population and ecosystem-level processes, including in the context of increased energy released by global warming.

For example, one of Elliot’s recent papers showed that puffin bills – a textbook example of sexual ornamentation – also plays an important role in heat dissipation, a result highlighted by dozens of news outlets including the BBC and Science Daily. He showed that overheating causes significant mortality in wild murres (puffin relatives with smaller bills), which was surprising for an animal living in cold climates.

Another recent paper by Elliot, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, demonstrated how fear can impact populations. Using an experimental system, his team demonstrated that fear alone can increase the probability of extinction seven-fold. As new predators arrive in the Arctic, their indirect effects may lead to species extinction even if their direct consumption rates are low.

A highly productive leader in Arctic ecology research

Elliott has already received a number of significant awards within his discipline. This includes a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair, the Robert G. Boutillier New Investigator Award from the Canadian Society of Zoologists, and the Ned K. Johnston Young Investigator Award from the American Ornithologists Union.

In addition to his productive research, Elliot is an associate editor at three journals and received a prize from Publons as one of the top 50 reviewers in biological sciences worldwide. He already has 143 publications, has given over 100 international scientific presentations, and was recently recognized by the World Economic Forum as one of the world’s top young scientists.

In response to being awarded McGill’s Principal’s Prize for Outstanding Emerging Researchers, Elliot said, “I am deeply honoured to receive such a prestigious award from a University where I have so many very talented peers. I would like to thank my family, mentors, and students, without whose support I would not be in this position today. They share in the credit for this award. This recognition motivates me to continue my research contributions to northern knowledge and society.”

Marie-Claude Geoffroy: Leading research in the field of youth mental health and suicidality

Professor Marie-Claude Geoffroy focuses her research on suicide risk, youth mental health problems, and their prevention. Suicide is the second most common cause of death among youth in our country. An estimated 1.2 million young Canadians suffer from mental health disorders. Despite their devastating impacts, little progress has been made in understanding and treating suicidal behaviours and related mental disorders.

Marie-Claude Geoffroy

With a background in psychology and epidemiology, plus more than five years of clinical experience as a child psychologist, Geoffroy studies the roles of biopsychosocial influences that can contribute to mental health decline and suicide risk.

“My research team is devoted to suicide prevention, researching the protective factors – such as, interpersonal relationships and a healthy lifestyle – and preventative strategies to improve youth’s mental health,” says Geoffroy, Canada Research Chair, Tier 2, in Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, Faculty of Education

Her studies were among the first to show that different forms of bullying, including face-to-face and cyberbullying, are uniquely associated with serious suicidal ideations, suicide attempts, and even suicide mortality. This impactful research has led to the development of various prevention and intervention initiatives and has informed institutional and governmental policy in Quebec.

“The number of emergency department visits for suicide attempts in youth has been sadly rising even before the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Geoffroy. “I believe that school-based programs and training professionals in suicide prevention are of utmost importance. One young life lost due to suicide is one of too many.”

Leading major research groups to better understand youth mental health

Since 2018, Geoffroy has been the director of the McGill Division of the Groupe de recherche sur l’inadaptation psychosocial chez l’enfant (GRIP), an interuniversity research centre composed of 50 researchers from seven universities and seven disciplines centered around advancing knowledge of the biopsychosocial development of children.

Geoffroy also co-directs a research platform for Réseau québécois sur le suicide, les troubles de l’humeur et les troubles associés (RQSHA) that comprises a genotyping database of large cohorts of children followed by the GRIP with the aim of studying the role of environmental and genotypical interactions in the development of mental disorders. Through the GRIP and RQSHA platforms, she produced the first description of how adverse events and genetic vulnerability interact to affect youth suicide.

In 2021, Geoffroy was named as the director of the mental health axis of the Observatory for Children’s Health and Education, with $5 million in funding from the Fonds de recherche du Québec. She is currently examining the effects of childhood bullying on gene expression and suicide risk.

“I hope receiving this award will bring more awareness to the urgent need to improve youth suicide prevention. Suicide prevention will be my research team’s priority for the years to come,” notes Geoffroy.

A trailblazer in the field of biopsychosocial development of children

Geoffroy is recognized as one of the most promising young researchers in her field. She has authored more than 75 articles and book chapters in top-tier psychiatry and psychology journals and has published more than 30 peer-reviewed articles in the past two years. Her doctoral research included five articles and over 500 citations published in influential journals, including the Journal of Child Psychology, and Psychiatry.

She has received multiple awards over the course of her career, including the 2013 Young Investigator Award from the International Academy of Suicide Research via the RQSHA, and she won the clinician-scientist Junior 1 Award from the Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Santé, a highly competitive award bestowed upon the most promising scholars based on research productivity and excellence.

Public outreach and increasing knowledge in surrounding communities

As evidenced by this year’s Principal’s Prize for Outstanding Emerging Researchers, scholars today are placing a high importance on science outreach, engagement, and knowledge translation to increase interest and understanding among the public. The three recipients all strive to connect not only to the communities in which their research is relevant, but also to all Canadians and the world beyond.

Blain-Moraes is committed to public outreach activities and media engagement. She endeavours to make presentations of her research publicly accessible, including through TEDx talks, public lectures, and talks at local colleges and CEGEPS. She has created and installed nine public art installations and engages with initiatives to connect Canadian scientists with policy makers on Parliament Hill through the Science Meets Parliament initiative. Another standout example is her sustained 15-year commitment to the Shad program, a month-long, live-in enrichment program for outstanding Canadian high school students.

Elliott also sees outreach beyond the university as core to his research mission. He appears regularly on news and national television programs, including CBC’s The Nature of Things and Animal Planet’s Uncut and Untamed. His research was the focus of the documentary Arctic Cliffhangers, and he was featured extensively in the mini-series Aging in the Wild, which attracted millions of viewers worldwide. Through community lectures, bird walks, and articles in popular publications, including Nature Canada and Quebec Oiseaux, he fosters environmental awareness. As an Arctic scientist, he invests considerable time communicating his work to northern communities and investing in the development of research expertise in those communities. This includes collaborating with Environment Canada’s Inuit Field Training Program to expose high school students to field work, with the hope that they will consider wildlife ecology as a career path and perhaps eventually join his team.

Finally, Geoffroy is firmly committed to knowledge translation and public outreach initiatives, logging more than 200 public appearances since 2018. Her work has been featured in the national media, including CBC News, Radio-Canada, and La Presse as well as internationally in The Guardian and the Daily Mail. In 2013, she was listed among the “Most Cited Researchers in the Media” at the University of Montreal. She has advised governmental and non-governmental agencies on mental health and suicide prevention programs, including the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Consistently working to integrate research into clinical practice, she co-developed an eight-hour seminar for psychologists on suicide risk assessment. She also created short videos summarizing her research in simple terms for use on social media.