Thompson Rivers University

New research tools coming to TRU

  Posted on: August 25, 2020

Dr. Claudia Gonzales, assistant professor, psychology

Dr. Lauchlan Fraser, professor and NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Ecosystem Reclamation

TRU is getting several high-performance tools useful for faculty and students to conduct ground-breaking research, thanks to a $350,000 investment from the Government of Canada through the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI).

The funding, part of the CFI’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund, helps universities like TRU attract and retain top research talent from around the world by providing researchers with the highly specialized infrastructure needed to be leaders in their field.

Equipment a “game-changer”

A team of interdisciplinary researchers, including Dr. Lauchlan Fraser, NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Ecosystem Reclamation, Dr. Nancy Van Wagoner (geology), Dr. Ann Cheeptham (biology), and Dr. Kingsley Donkor (chemistry) have been awarded $235,000 for the purchase of two major pieces of equipment. The first, an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS), allows researchers to rapidly measure elements at trace levels in  water, soil and plant samples. The second, a desktop scanning electron microscope with integrated energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy, will allow researchers to study specimens at magnifications of up to 200,000 times to better understand how elements are distributed within samples. These machines, and others, are being used to establish the multidisciplinary Micro-Imaging and Chemical Analysis Laboratory (MICA).

“We have been talking about trying to get the ICP-MS into TRU for years. This instrument allows us to assess elements at really fine levels,” said Fraser. 

Previously, he and other researchers have had to send samples off to government labs for testing, which is costly and time consuming.

“This is a game-changer. We won’t be restricted in terms of the numbers of samples we can run, and it will be much more economical. This infrastructure will also help our students. They will be able to learn to use this equipment and gain valuable insights,” Fraser said.

“This new equipment and the creation of the MICA lab for TRU will transform in-house ability to engage in integrated studies of the complex interactions between the geosphere, biosphere and atmosphere, and encourage interdisciplinary collaborations among researchers and students,” Van Wagoner said.

Psychology lab goes high-tech

Dr. Claudia Gonzalez, assistant professor of psychology, was also awarded a CFI grant worth $115,000 for the purchase of a wireless functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy system (fNIRS), a high-resolution eye tracker and a portable eye tracker, as well as a transcranial magnetic stimulation tool. This equipment will be used within the Mobile Brain Imaging Laboratory (MoBIL), which include collaborators Drs. Jenni Karl and Catherine Ortner (psychology), and will assist the trio in linking brain function and behaviour in healthy development and aging, as well as disease.

The fNIRS system is a wireless, non-invasive way to measure brain activity while someone is engaged in real-world behaviour, for example, when a child is reaching for an object or throwing a ball, or when an older adult is trying to remember the location of something. The system includes a cap with light emitting sensors that identify active brain areas which can be linked with the behaviour in a specific task. The eye-tracking glasses enhance the research currently taking place and add portability, as research participants can move around while the researchers measure their eye movements. 

“Eye movements are a reliable and sensitive way of measuring thinking processes that influence behaviour, like attention or memory. From my work with older adults, I have found that they tend to have difficulty maintaining their focus on a single object when there are more exciting or distracting stimuli around compared to younger adults,” Gonzalez said. 

The third tool, transcranial magnetic stimulation, provides a non-invasive way of manipulating brain function to determine whether certain parts of the brain are important for performing a task.

“This technology allows us to determine cause and effect by directly disrupting brain activity in healthy individuals. We can then assess if that area is involved if we observe changes in behaviour. This is exciting for us, as it will allow us to move forward and make comparisons about normal and abnormal brain behaviour, increasing our knowledge about disease and disability,” she said.