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Think You Know UM? (Part II)

Think You Know UM? (Part II)

It might not be very Winnipeg-like to blow our own horn, but we’re proud of our herd of students, faculty and alumni and their impact in Manitoba, big and small. Check out our second installment of surprising UM trivia

By Michael Symons

Which UM professor emeritus counts Bill Gates as his biggest fan? What does UM have to do with Ebola? And how did the university become the birthplace of underwater football?

Dive in to get reacquainted with the University of Manitoba.

Water inequity

The link between aquatic environments and human health runs deep—down to the molecular level. Among the many UM researchers investigating water-related topics? Miguel Uyaguari, Indigenous Scholar and assistant professor in the Faculty of Science, who explores the microbiological makeup of fresh water in rural and urban areas. He and his team chart the “fingerprints” found in water and determine how best to improve or sustain its quality. Much of his work takes him into the field, including to First Nations communities in Manitoba, as he uncovers new ways to provide reliable sources of drinking water.

FROM UNDERWATER RESEARCH TO UNDERWATER FOOTBALL It was UM’s scuba club who invented the unusual sport of underwater football (in 1967) as a means of improving their diving skills. The game has since caught on in other provinces and even overseas as players try to carry a non-buoyant ball across the opposing goal line, while avoiding tacklers and ensuring it remains below the surface.

Infectious disease firsts

UM’s infectious disease researchers have made some widely influential medical discoveries over the decades. The world has taken note, with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation committing more than $380 million in funding towards global public health research at UM.

UM scientists, in a partnership with the University of Nairobi that spans over 40 years, revealed a surprising genetic immunity to HIV in some Kenyan sex workers, transforming the scientific community’s understanding of the widespread virus. And UM researchers showed that circumcision leads to a 50 to 60 per cent reduction in the risk of HIV infection (which TIME magazine deemed the most important medical breakthrough of that year, 2007). Countless lives have been saved since the findings have informed local practices.

And when it comes to Ebola and Marburg—two of the world’s deadliest disease—UM researchers have played a key role in prevention. Pivotal vaccines for these illnesses were developed in collaboration with UM at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory.

FROM BILL GATES TO VACLAV SMIL A Distinguished Professor Emeritus, and a longtime faculty member in environment and geography at UM, Vaclav Smil has written 40-plus books and happens to be the Microsoft founder’s favourite author, with his visionary views on topics like global energy and the environment. Gates once said, “I wait for Smil books the way some people wait for the next Star Wars movie.” In April, the World Energy Council awarded Smil with the Energy Systems Luminary Award, acknowledging how he’s bridged the gap between complex energy concepts and public understanding, fostering a more informed and conscious modern world energy society.

WinRho continues to save infant lives

A disease affecting many mothers is no longer a death sentence for their babies thanks to one of UM’s most significant contributions. Rhesus (Rh) disease, in which antibodies in a pregnant woman’s blood destroy her fetus’ blood cells, was once quite deadly, but an international collaborative effort in the ‘50s and ‘60s, which included former UM professor Dr. John Bowman [MD/49], changed that.

Bowman was the first pediatrician in North America to perform intrauterine transfusions to treat Rh disease in babies at risk of stillbirth. He then transitioned from treating Rh disease to preventing it by co-founding the Winnipeg Rh Institute and co-developing the first immune globulin, WinRho. His efforts, building on the pioneering work of Dr. Bruce Chown [MD/22], helped drop the mortality rate of Rh disease to virtually zero. In Canada alone, WinRho saves more than 1,600 babies every year.

FROM LEGACY TO THE LATEST BIG IDEAS Each year, the Winnipeg Rh Institute awards the advancement of knowledge in all fields at UM. The RH awards are given to established and burgeoning UM researchers who carry on the dedication and spirit of discovery that was so intrinsic to the work of Bowman and his colleagues. Among the 2023 winners: Evelyn Forget, for advancing innovative anti-poverty initiatives like guaranteed basic income.

Pathways to truth and reconciliation

It was UM alum Murray Sinclair [LLB/79, LLD/2002] who captured the country’s attention when he declared “Education got us into this mess and education will get us out of it.” The former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had just published their final report, with its 94 calls to action.

Sinclair participated in hundreds of hearings across Canada and listened to the stories of thousands of residential school Survivors, leading to the creation of the highly influential report, released in 2015. By then the University of Manitoba had been selected from a wide range of partner organizers as host to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, chosen in part for demonstrating a strong commitment to human rights research and to Indigenous governance.

The Centre operates out of Chancellor’s Hall but plans are now underway to bring to life the vision for a permanent home for the NCTR adjacent to campus, what will be an internationally renowned site of learning, healing and action.

FROM HISTORIC FIRST STEPS TO LEADERS OF TOMORROW UM brings education and collaboration to Indigenous communities through satellite learning hubs, thanks to a $16.1 million partnership with the Mastercard Foundation’s EleV program. More than 2,000 Indigenous youth in Manitoba have benefitted so far from its various funded initiatives, which include UM student mentorship of high school students wanting to pursue a career in law.

Nobel nobility at UM

The Nobel Prizes are some of the most coveted awards in history, given to those whose work has “conferred the greatest benefit on humankind.” UM alum and acclaimed cosmologist James Peebles [BSc(Hons)/58, DSc/89] was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize, recognizing his theoretical discoveries that helped form the foundation of our understanding of the universe’s history. After graduating from UM, he earned his PhD from Princeton, where he taught and continues to conduct research to this day.

While Peebles may be the first UM alum to outright win a Nobel Prize, we’ve had brushes with other notable Nobel wins. Alum Michael Landry [PhD/2000] is the current head of the U.S.-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory Hanford, whose original leaders won the 2017 physics prize for their observation of gravitational waves—a phenomenon predicted by Einstein 100 years ago as part of the General Theory of Relativity.

And Scott Cairns [BSc/2001] was an officer with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons when the watchdog group won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its extensive work to eliminate chemical weapons. The global recognition came after a deadly chemical attack in Syria, where Cairns led a team of inspectors.

FROM NOBEL TO GANDHI Alumni Gail Asper [BA/81, LLB/84, LLD/2008] and Moe Levy [BComm(Hons)/73, MBA/74] were presented with the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Award for their roles in establishing the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, the first national museum outside of the country’s capital. The Gandhi Peace Award is given to those who demonstrate originality in their thinking and a desire to initiate conflict resolution. Nearby this architectural marvel, which was built at one of the most important traditional Indigenous meeting places in Manitoba—The Forks—you’ll see a commissioned statue of Gandhi himself.

Did you miss our first installment of Think You Know UM?

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