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Canada Excellence Research Chairs Program

UdeS launches two of the most ambitious research programs in its history

Sherbrooke, le 16 novembre 2023 – The Université de Sherbrooke has received extraordinary news that it has been awarded two chairships from the renowned Canada Excellence Research Chairs program for ambitious research projects in quantum sciences and green chemistry/sustainable materials.

After a lengthy three-phase selection process involving many Canadian universities, UdeS was awarded not one but two of the thirty-four available Canada Excellence Research Chairs, a first for the institution.

This is the second time in its history that the Université de Sherbrooke has been awarded this type of chair.

“The Canada Excellence Research Chairs program funds the most promising research in the nation and is one of the most coveted sources of funding for Canadian universities. The awarding of two Excellence Chairs confirms that UdeS is one of the most dynamic research universities in the country” says proudly Pierre Cossette, Rector.

In 2010, UdeS was awarded its first Canada Excellence Research Chair for a promising research program in quantum science. This chair, held by physicist Bertrand Reulet, helped strengthen UdeS’s position at the forefront of quantum computing research, a sector of great strategic importance for Quebec and Canada.

This time, UdeS’s ambitious research programs will be led by two eminent researchers: Nova Scotian chemist Leonard MacGillivray, who currently works in the United States, and Spanish physicist Maia Vergniory, who is currently based in Germany.

Canada Excellence Research Chairs allow institutions to recruit eminent researchers from around the world to substantially advance a field deemed a priority by the Canadian government.

“We already had the talent and cutting-edge infrastructure in quantum sciences, green chemistry, and sustainable materials to push scientific knowledge toward innovations in renewable energies, green technologies, precision medicine and pharmacology. Recruiting Leonard MacGillivray and Maia Vergniory further cements our already strong position” adds Jean-Pierre Perreault, Vice-President, Research and Graduate Studies.

The amounts received for these research programs will be spread over 8 years and total $8 million for Leonard MacGillivray and $4 million for Maia Vergniory.

A new branch of quantum chemistry : Maia Vergniory, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Topological Quantum Matter, Department of Physics, Faculty of Science

The dependence of our early 21st-century society on silicon-based technologies, such as cell phones, collides with intrinsic physical barriers. For example, the size of atoms constrains device miniaturization, an essential solution for reducing our energy needs.

To develop a more sustainable technology, physicist and materials scientist Maia Vergniory is looking to create a new branch of topological quantum chemistry that investigates the strong interactions between electrons.

Her research focuses on the fascinating properties of topological materials: “Topological materials transgress the traditional classification of matter,” she said. “Their interiors act as insulators while their exteriors act as conductors. Since we can control and quantify the electrical current flow on their surfaces, this makes them excellent candidates for a variety of applications.”

The researcher will also be working with metamaterials, which are structures that are periodic at a scale larger then the atomic scale and include technologies like dielectric rods and acoustic systems. Highly interdisciplinary, her research program lies at the crossroads between physics, chemistry, and computer science.

“This research is very exciting because it pushes the boundaries of knowledge,” said the researcher. “So many questions remain, and we have no idea how they will be answered.”

With a team of a dozen research students, Maia Vergniory will carry out her work, which is mainly comprised of simulations, at the Institut quantique of the Université de Sherbrooke. This chair program will develop many devices based on new quantum technologies and will contribute to the fields of quantum materials and quantum computing.

“The Institut quantique has very innovative ties with industry and is very well positioned globally; I can't wait to be part of it. We also can’t forget the thriving scientific environment in Canada. This whole project is very motivating.”

Maia Vergniory currently works at the Max Planck Institute for the Chemical Physics of Solids in Germany. She is due to start work at UdeS in summer 2024.

A young but already stellar career

Fourteen years is how long it took Maia Vergniory to become a world leader in materials science. The adventure began in her native Spain in 1998, when she did her undergraduate degree in physics, a subject that has always been easy for her. She did her master’s at Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble and then went back to the University of the Basque Country to pursue a doctorate in physics, which she obtained in 2008.

Since then, Maia Vergniory has continued to garner remarkable achievements. In particular, she co-created a new field of research called topological quantum chemistry. Three of her scientific articles have accumulated nearly 600 citations, and her work has appeared twice on the cover of the prestigious scientific journal Nature.

In 2021, Maia Vergniory joined the renowned Max Planck Institute for the Chemical Physics of Solids in Germany to advance her research into the prediction of new topological phases in electronic and magnetic materials. Her contributions to science during her young career have resulted in major accolades such as the L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Award in 2017. More recently, she was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 2022.

Solar energy storage, pharmacology, and organic semiconductors : Leonard R. MacGillivray, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Crystal Engineering for Green Chemistry and Sustainable Materials, Department of Chemistry, Faculty of Science

Leonard MacGillivray’s interdisciplinary work focuses on crystallized molecules, a recent discipline in chemistry with offshoots in green chemistry, pharmaceutical chemistry, and materials science.

“My research is part of crystal engineering, which aims to control the structures of molecular crystals,” he explains. “This field has many potential applications, from synthetic organic chemistry to medicine, but it could also be used to solve problems linked to climate change and energy storage.”

In his laboratory in the Department of Chemistry, he will be working with a team of around ten students and post-docs. “We will attempt to predict the properties of molecules in the solid state as they crystallize and then modify their solubility, bioavailability, porosity, and catalytic properties with a view to applying them commercially for tomorrow’s technologies.”

Leonard MacGillivray’s second laboratory will be at the Pharmacology Institute of Sherbrooke (IPS), “a world-renowned and unique institute,” as he describes it. Together with another team of around ten students and post-docs, he will focus on pharmaceutical cocrystals, an innovative pathway for the creation of new drugs. “Every small molecule under development at IPS and in Canada could be converted into a pharmaceutical cocrystal. This approach could give rise to start-up companies and many exciting prospects.”

The renowned researcher will also work with groups in the Faculty of Engineering to develop new devices using crystal engineering principles. “Another of this chair’s projects will focus on molecular solar thermal energy storage or MOST materials. Imagine if portable energy from the sun could be stored and then converted into heat.”

A fourth research focus will be on developing organic semiconductors, which may lead to flexible materials. “Potential applications include electronic paper and smart clothing. We are also looking to accelerate the design of crystalline materials using expertise in computational approaches.”

Leonard MacGillivray currently works at the University of Iowa, USA. He will begin his work at UdeS in winter 2024.

An impressive list of achievements

Originally from Sydney, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Leonard MacGillivray discovered his passion for research at the beginning of his undergraduate studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

In 1994, this first-generation student was awarded a major 1967 Science Scholarship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, which let him continue his learning at the institution of his choice. He opted for the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he obtained his PhD in Chemistry in 1998. He then returned to Canada to conduct independent research at the National Research Council’s Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences in Ottawa.

In 2000, he became a professor at the University of Iowa, where he was Executive Officer of the Department of Chemistry from 2019 to 2023.

Leonard MacGillivray is the author of over 255 scientific publications, holds 7 patents and has given over 210 national and international seminars in more than 22 countries. He has trained and mentored nearly 30 doctoral students and says that he is “excited to train more.”

Some of the many accolades he has received throughout his career include the Midwest Award (2021) and Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award (2007), both from the American Chemical Society. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Chemical Society.

Government of Canada welcomes world-renowned researchers that will push the boundaries of innovation

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Isabelle Huard, Media Relations Advisor
Communications Department | Université de Sherbrooke | 819-821-8000, extension 63395