Undergraduate Student Research Awards

 Congratulations to UPEI’s 16 winners of NSERC’s Undergraduate Student Research Awards, or USRAs.

Some students spend their summer on a beach, while others choose to spend it working. Then there’s the rare student who can do both at the same time (click the link to bring you to the profile of one of our USRAs).

UPEI undergrads have a unique opportunity to get their hands dirty in research. Click here for a list of our 2010 USRA winners, and take some time to learn about some of their research. 

Replay: Lab coat on one hook, wet suit on an another

In honour of today's announcement celebrating a new partnership between UPEI and Nautilus Biosciences Canada, the ORD Blog is replaying a post from October 2009 about the research of Dr. Russell Kerr. Enjoy! 

Read the original post below (or here). Read about today's announcement here.


Dr. Russell Kerr, UPEI’s Canada Research Chair in Marine Natural Products, recalls the moment his career first turned down the road he now confidently navigates. It was the early 1980s, and he was just beginning his post-doctoral studies at Stanford University.

“Do you scuba dive?” asked his new supervisor.

“No,” replied Kerr. “But I’d love to learn.”

The conversation was in the early 1980s; his supervisor was Dr. Carl Djerassi, who is sometimes referred to as the father of The Pill. Within a week, Kerr was enrolled in his first diving course. Ever since, he has explored the ocean floor for a sustainable source of bioactive compounds to be used in pharmaceuticals.

Several times a year, Kerr leads a dive team on a collection trip to harvest specific types of coral or sponge, or an exploration mission looking for new specimens. Often, his research takes him to Florida or the Bahamas. Since coming three years ago to UPEI, he’s started searching waters closer to home.

“Memorial University has a research station on Bonne Bay, Newfoundland,” explains Kerr. “And while a lot of exciting research is going on in the bay, no one has explored it yet for bioactive compounds.”

Access to a lab is crucial on these trips, as Kerr’s specimens need to be prepared on site before transporting them back to UPEI. Unlike many researchers in this field, Kerr focuses on the bacteria and fungi living on the corals and sponges rather than the corals and sponges themselves.

“It would be much simpler to freeze our specimens in liquid nitrogen and bring them home frozen,” says Kerr. “And we’ve tried that. We could extract five to ten types of bacteria per specimen that way. But preparing them on site, we bring back 50 to 100.”

Kerr’s lab recently applied for a U.S. patent for a process he’s developed to produce a group of compounds called pseudopterosins that are useful for cosmeceutical and pharmaceutical purposes.

“They have potent anti-inflammatory, anti-irritant, and anti-allergenic properties, and there is a fairly large market for them. There have been used in human trials but the trials have been stalled because, until now, the only source of the compounds has been wild corals.”

Kerr’s process could produce the compounds in a lab environment, eliminating the need for costly harvesting trips. It’s also a much more sustainable method of production.

This discovery has led to the creation of Nautilus Biosciences Canada, a private company of which Kerr is CEO. It’s in this role he recently was awarded the Premier’s Medal for Innovation.

Kerr says there is at least another year of lab work to refine the production process to a commercially viable level. In the meantime, his lab continues to explore the seabed for more exciting discoveries.

UPEI researchers in the news, part 14

The “Mud Scud” Edition: probing Canada’s Arctic for valuable bioactive compounds.

UPEI’s Dr. Russell Kerr, Canada Research Chair in Marine Natural Products, is used to going deep in the search for possibly valuable bioactive compounds. He leads a team of researchers several times a year on dive trips to find and collect new specimens to study in his lab. Usually, these trips are to warm and sunny destinations, such as Florida or the Bahamas.

This summer, Kerr is exploring new territory as far bio-prospecting is concerned. His team will be collecting mud from the bottom of Frobisher Bay on Nunavut’s Baffin Island.

Monday, July 12, CBC North in Nunavut featured Dr. Kerr in an interview about his planned trip.

"Going up to the Arctic really represents the next really exciting steps for us," said Kerr, who heads up the University of Prince Edward Island's Marine Natural Products Lab. "Nobody has looked at, certainly, Canada's North in terms of the natural product potential of microbes.

"We view this as the first of a great many trips over the next many, many years to really try to get, initially, an understanding of what microbes are there. And concurrent with that, what sorts of natural products might these microbes be able to produce that could be of value in human health, animal health, cosmetic industry, and so on and so forth."

Read the rest of the article here.

When Kerr finally arrived in Nunavut a few weeks later, the CBC reported again on his negotiations with Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated the group charged with implementing the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. NTI called the negotiations “precedent-setting” for future agreements about sharing the profits of bio-prospecting in the North.

"I'm leaving with a very good feeling about being able to come back here, work with local groups, discover what's here and, should anything commercial be realized from this work, then share things with local people appropriately," Kerr said.

Read the rest of the article here.

Two days later, the Globe and Mail picked up on the story, in an article called “Will Canada be frozen out in great Arctic sweepstakes?” The article focuses on the issue of bio-prospecting in Canada’s North, and whether Canadian companies and researchers will be able to catch up to other countries in their exploration for new valuable compounds.

Kerr, a veteran of dives in much warmer and much more crowded waters, realized a few years ago Canada’s Arctic was virtually untouched by bio-prospectors.

“Later this summer, Dr. Kerr will return to the North to cruise into Frobisher Bay with a missile-like instrument he and his grad students call the Mud Scud. The scud scoops clumps of microbe-teeming sediment from ocean bottoms. Through a complex screening process, Dr. Kerr hopes to find unique actinomycetes, the microbes that give us 70 per cent of the world’s ever-shrinking library of usable antibiotics. ‘People all over the world are looking madly for these,’ said Dr. Kerr.”

Read the whole article here.

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