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Think You Know UM?

Think You Know UM?

Grow your UM IQ with this first installment of intriguing facts that set Bisons apart

By Michael Symons

Did a UM grad really invent today’s rocket thruster? How did a UM researcher’s newly bred plant—canola—transform the agricultural landscape? And what does Ghost Busters have to do with our university?

From the outstanding to the oddly curious. From world-changing to locally impactful. The UM community has been at the forefront of big ideas and achievements for well over a century. And unlike our researchers who work 10 metres below the Greenland ice sheet, this list of UM facts explores only the tip of the iceberg.

Bumper Crop

The word “canola” is synonymous with Canadian farming, and for good reason. Canola was not only first developed on the Prairies but here at UM, in the early 1970s, from rapeseed cultivars in order to reduce the amount of erucic acid content (at the time believed to pose heart health risks to humans).

Researcher Baldur Stefansson [BSA/50, MSc/52, PhD/66, LLD/97], the “Father of Canola,” sought to produce a plant that could withstand the varied climate conditions across Western Canada. Stefansson’s canola—a portmanteau of can (Canada) and ola (oil, low acid)—is now grown by 43,000 farmers across the country and is the top cash crop in the western region, amounting to roughly $10 billion per year.

FROM INVENTING CANOLA TO IMPROVING ROCKET THRUSTERS UM alum Yvonne Brill [BSc/45] developed a vastly improved fuel-efficient rocket thruster, the Electrothermal Hydrazine Thruster, that launched in 1983 and became the industry standard. Her propulsion system is still found in the satellites orbiting the planet today. Brill received wide fame and many accolades during her lifetime, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, presented to her by then-President Barack Obama.

Anangong Miigaading

“Luke. I am your father.” Now imagine those iconic Star Wars lines in a language spoken by roughly 320,000 Indigenous people across Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Minnesota. UM has partnered with Lucasfilm and the Dakota Ojibway Tribal Council to record an Ojibwe dub of the original 1977 Star Wars (Anangong Miigaading) film (A New Hope if you’re a philistine). Producers aim to have the translation done in 2024, with plans for a premiere in Winnipeg and theatrical screenings across Canada.

FROM LUCAS’ SKYWALKER TO MATTEL’S BARBIE UM alum Sonya Ballantyne [BA(Hons)]/08], from Misipawistik Cree Nation, was named one of 60 Canadian Barbie Role Models for the iconic doll’s 60th anniversary in 2019. The filmmaker and author who’s challenged stereotypes in her works, also launched a petition to persuade Mattel to create a Cree Barbie.

Go-tos in Research

As one of Canada’s top 15 research-intensive universities, UM has an allocation of 50 Canada Research Chairs. There are also 32 endowed and sponsored research chairs, each from individually funded programs. Why are they so important? These positions attract world-class researchers to UM. And these scholars and scientists apply their expertise to the betterment of Manitoba communities. Specialities run the gamut, from global public health to Indigenous governance to ancient ice deep below the Arctic’s surface.

FROM SEASONED EXPERTISE TO CARING FOR NEW BABIES UM’s College of Nursing introduced a Bachelor of Midwifery program in 2021, providing students with the opportunity to train for a pivotal role in mother and newborn health in Manitoba. It began with half of the program seats being designated for Indigenous students, helping to meet the demand for Indigenous midwives in northern Manitoba. Knowledge of traditional Indigenous midwifery is woven throughout the curriculum.

Replacing Hubble

The famous Hubble Space Telescope, which is about the size of a school bus and can observe more than 13 billion light years away, launched nearly 34 years ago. But its 24/7 orbiting of Earth is taking its toll and a replacement is now needed to continue exploring the universe. Enter the Cosmological Advanced Survey Telescope for Optical and UV Research (CASTOR). This proposed mission is being led by the Canadian Space Agency, along with three Science Leads selected from across Canada, including UM’s Tyrone Woods. The astrophysicist is also championing Winnipeg as the manufacturing location for the new telescope. (Fun fact: The national animal of Canada is the beaver, which belongs to the genus Castor. Coincidence?)

FROM OUT OF THIS WORLD TO OTHER WORLDLY The University of Manitoba houses an archives into psychical research and spiritualism donated by the family of actor and screenwriter Dan Aykroyd of Ghost Busters fame. Part of the collection is said to be the source material for Aykroyd (whose father’s side was infatuated with the paranormal) for the blockbuster movie.

Building a Broken Heart

A multidisciplinary team from the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences is creating heart tissue using a 3D bioprinter in search of better treatments for people with rare metabolic heart diseases. Heart tissue samples from these patients are incredibly scarce, so there’s limited understanding of the metabolic and functional changes that result in heart failure.

Led by Dr. Adrian West, a bioengineer and assistant professor in physiology and pathophysiology, the team is tackling the knowledge gap, working with patients to replicate their unique tissue and cells. The project garnered support from the federal government’s New Frontiers in Research Fund, for high-risk, high-reward research.

FROM CREATING 3D HEARTS TO MOULDING POTTERY School of Art alum Jen Sonnenberg [BFA/08] won the first season of reality show The Great Canadian Pottery Throwdown. She took her first pottery lessons at UM and after graduating built her wood kiln on her family’s farm.

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