From left to right: Regan Mandryk, Emily Jenkins and Jacqueline Toews.

U of S researchers awarded $8M to tackle social, climate issues

University of Saskatchewan (U of S) researchers have been awarded more than $8 million for projects ranging from designing videogames that promote social bonding to safeguarding Indigenous people from the northward spread of a nasty parasite, to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the cattle industry.

The awards to 45 U of S faculty and 29 students were among the Discovery grants and graduate scholarships announced today in Windsor, Ont., by Science and Sport Minister Kirsty Duncan on behalf the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

“This major investment in the wide-ranging research talent at the University of Saskatchewan advances fundamental high-quality science,” said U of S Vice-President Research Karen Chad. “This crucial support for discovery and innovation in science and engineering strengthens Canada’s economic future and contributes immensely to training the next generation of researchers.”

● Among the recipients of Discovery grants is Emily Jenkins, a veterinary microbiologist in the U of S Western College of Veterinary Medicine. She was awarded $200,000 (and a northern research supplement of $105,000) over five years to investigate the spread of the Toxoplasma gondii parasite within wildlife in Northern Canada. 

In the North, where imported food costs and rates of food insecurity are high, harvested wildlife are a key food source.

In addition to addressing community concerns about food safety, wildlife conservation and management, Jenkins aims to better understand and predict the effects of climate change on the parasite. Toxoplasmacan cause neurological, reproductive, and eye disease in humans.

Domestic cats, the main hosts for Toxoplasma, are scarce on the Arctic tundra. However, some Inuit communities have exposure to the parasite at levels two to four times higher than the rest of North America. 

“Our primary theory is that migratory water fowl like geese who fly up north every year by the millions are one source of exposure for Arctic residents,” said Jenkins. 

Another risk factor for Toxoplasma infection is a long cultural history of eating uncooked “country food” such as game meats, she said. Balancing the benefits and risks of this practice is an ongoing challenge for public health in the North.

● Regan Mandryk, a computer scienceprofessor in the College of Arts and Science, was awarded $375,000 over five years to study how the design of multiplayer videogames can have positive or harmful interactions among players. Her aim is to develop guidelines for designing games that promote player cohesion instead of toxicity.

The majority of gamers today play in multiplayer mode at least weekly because they feel video games help them to connect with friends and family, Mandryk said. Although studies show that interactions during online and in-person gaming can enhance the social well-being of players, the same mechanics and communication technologies can create a toxic gaming environment and social exclusion.

“I’m grateful for this Discovery grant, as it allows me to uncover the underlying factors that facilitate or prevent toxic communication, model the game conditions under which toxicity develops, and innovate digital solutions that work across various genres and platforms to promote social well-being,” she said.

● Graduate student Jacqueline Toews in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources is researching the efficacy of grazing cattle on mixed crop (polycrop) swaths to mitigate greenhouse gases (GHG) produced by the livestock industry, which accounts for up to 18 per cent of total global GHG emissions.

Toews received a $17,500 scholarship to study whether the species diversity of polycrops—which include grasses, legumes and brassica plants such as turnip—will improve soil health and sequester more carbon than barley. She will compare polycrop grazing of cattle to traditional barley swath grazing to see if polycrops deliver comparable animal performance and production costs.

“Cattle producers are being marketed polycrops as a silver bullet that’s going to fix everything,” Toews said. “It’s very important that we evaluate polycrops for the soil health aspect and look at it from both production and economic standpoints. A shift to polycrops needs to make money to make sense for a producer.”

Her research will be among the first peer-reviewed studies in Western Canada on the efficacy of polycrops.

A full list of U of S awards is available here.