Innovators and educators in Future 40 create hub of expertise in Manitoba

Manitoba researchers are working with people across the globe to bring new knowledge in fields like health care, and the Future 40 class of 2020 features some incredible educators and scientists.

“Manitoba is becoming a hub and leader for international collaborations,” says Natalie Rodriguez, one of the people in the province who is helping to build such a centre.

CBC Manitoba’s Future 40 Awards recognize the achievements of 40 Manitobans age 40 and younger who have made outstanding professional or service contributions to the community and who are making a difference in the lives of Manitobans.

The 2020 Future 40 have been named and will be profiled here and on CBC television and radio during this week.

This year’s group includes a strong selection of researchers and health-care workers who are making a difference not only in Manitoba, but across Canada and around the world.

Natalie Rodriguez directs a $14-million research portfolio that includes collaborators in 39 countries. (Submitted by Meghan Azad)

Natalie Rodriguez

Rodriguez, as program director at the Azad Lab in Winnipeg, works to build networks that bring together people scattered across the globe to study how children’s early years affect lifelong health.

In her role with Azad Lab, based at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute in Winnipeg — a place Rodriguez calls “Disneyland for researchers” — she directs a $14-million research portfolio that includes collaborators in 39 countries, says her nominator, former Future 40 winner Meghan Azad, head of the lab.

Rodriguez co-directs the International Milk Composition Consortium, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is analyzing milk from 1,200 mothers in five countries. She also directed implementation of the Manitoba Interdisciplinary Lactation Centre biorepository and is working with studies on the effects of COVID-19 on children.

Rodriguez drives the organization and planning, and finds the resources the projects and teams need. Her days can start with a call at 6 a.m. and go until 10 or 11 p.m., but the people she works with, and the importance of the work, keep her going, she says.

“It’s less about me and more about, you know, seeing others really shine and really … overcome the impossible or accomplish things that they’ve never even conceptualized,” Rodriguez said.

“I thrive off that.”

People said because of its size and scope, the breast milk study was going to take years and would take forever to get off the ground, Rodriguez said — but she takes “impossible” as a challenge.

“Despite COVID, we’ve overcome and we have samples arriving this week from Pakistan, and next week will be from Tanzania,” she said.

The work has included 30 legal agreements, data transfer agreements and material transfer agreements, but it’s happening, she said.

“The number of times we’ve been told ‘No, this can never happen. No one’s ever done it,’ and then you do it,” she said.

“You just keep pushing and you keep pushing, and one day you look back, and it’s like, ‘This is a reality.”

Dare to shoot for the moon and then go beyond that. Never let someone tell you you aren’t good enough, you can’t, or you won’t.– Natalie Rodriguez

It’s an attitude she also carries to her passion outside of work: bowling.

Rodriguez’s husband is a competitive bowler and she took up the sport herself eight years ago. She quickly became competitive and was on a team that won a master bowling national championship a few years ago.

She also coaches, taking teams to the nationals or just showing up at Dakota Lanes on Saturday mornings for youth bowling, giving kids the skills and sometimes even the bowling shoes they need to succeed. Last year she helped launch the Manitoba Bowling School for Coach and Athlete Development.

Every year Rodriguez looks back and thinks she’s hit a pinnacle, but there’s always another year. Now, she looks forward to helping make Azad Lab even more an international hub.

Her advice for others who would like to tackle big projects and make a difference?

“Dare to dream. Dare to shoot for the moon and then go beyond that. Never let someone tell you you aren’t good enough, you can’t, or you won’t,” she said. 

“If you work hard, if you do your best, even if you don’t see it in the moment, it will lead to success in the future — so just dare to dream big. Dream big.”

Laura Burns is trying to save the Poweshiek skipperling from extinction. (Assiniboine Park Conservancy)

Laura Burns

Conservation biologist Laura Burns accompanied her partner to Manitoba from Ontario and found her dream job at the Assiniboine Park Zoo, where she’s working to save the Poweshiek skipperling, a small butterfly that’s a step away from extinction in the wild.

“This is sort of my dream come true, to work on a project like this,” said Burns, who has a master’s degree from the University of Guelph but did fieldwork for that degree in Manitoba.

The Poweshiek skipperling has a chubby, fuzzy body, yellowy-orange wings, silver streaks on its hind legs and grows to about the size of a loonie, Burns said.

It’s critically endangered internationally, only surviving in the wild in Manitoba and Michigan.

Burns is part of the team that successfully bred the species in captivity for the first time this summer.

“It had never been done before anywhere,” she said.

Burns was watching when a pair in a small mesh popup enclosure bred.

“It’s sort of anxiety-ridden, just sitting and waiting and knowing that the success of that activity might dictate the future of that species, but when they did breed, it was such a relief and so exciting,” she said.

Burns also works to educate people about bird deaths from flying into windows.

“It’s something that people across Canada can easily cope with,” she said, by putting something on their windows — drawing on them with chalk, for example, or even a bar of soap during migration season.

“Then they can wash their windows afterwards.”

Horace Luong is a chemistry professor at the University of Manitoba who teaches tai chi and ballroom dance. He is also a competitive dancer. (Horace Luong)

Horace Luong

Horace Luong has a PhD in chemistry and has won awards for his teaching at the University of Manitoba, where he is associate head of chemistry. In his spare time, he’s a competitive ballroom dancer and teaches tai chi.

He loves learning new and better techniques for teaching and seeing others grasp what he’s conveying, he said — something that applies at university but also his dance and tai chi classes.

“When it does get through … that’s a great high for me,” he told the CBC’s Shannah-Lee Vidal. “I think that’s what I like about it — the continual learning process, the ability to challenge myself and challenge others.”

He also takes his love for chemistry to people outside his university classrooms and labs, participating in programs with children such as Let’s Talk Science and inviting teachers to bring their students for his tours of the U of M chemistry department.

He is a certified ballroom dance teacher under the Canadian DanceSport Federation who competes internationally and serves as a board member with the North American Same-Sex Partner Dance Association.

“We’re all about … seeing diversity on the floor and being welcoming to diversity.”

William Turk is an eye surgeon, inventor and scientist. (Gregory Schmidt)

William Turk

Dr. William Turk is an eye surgeon, scientist and 3D printing pioneer in the medical field whose interest in the science of eyes goes back to Grade 9 at Grant Park High School in Winnipeg.

“I did a research project on developmental genes in the mouse retina with a doctor named David Eisenstat,” which was the start of what he calls a “science fair career” that included being on the national science fair team.

Turk, a graduate of the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba, is also a pioneer in the use of 3D printing; a medical model he developed with plastic surgeon Dr. Christian Petropolis landed them on the front page of the Journal of American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus.

The pair used those skills in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to create the Manitoba mask, a 3D-printed protective mask that health-care workers could use if supplies of traditional protective equipment ran out.

“These are our colleagues and friends who are on the front lines, so to be able to use our skills in any way to help … it was a very rewarding thing,” he said.

Ashley Stewart-Tufescu is a registered social worker with a PhD in applied health sciences. (Janique Fortier)

Ashley Stewart-Tufescu

Ashley Stewart-Tufescu works to prevent violence against children, in Manitoba and in areas where children face extreme conditions, such as Gaza and the West Bank.

A registered social worker with a PhD in applied health sciences, Stewart-Tufescu works as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Manitoba, developing ways to promote resilience in parents and children faced with violence and adversity.

She educates community groups about non-violent parenting so they can help parents through their programs, and is collaborating on a virtual platform to support parents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She is on the board of the Mosaic Newcomer Family Resource Network and worked to develop a home-visiting program to support Syrian families arriving in Winnipeg. A former faculty member at Red River College, she helped develop the Science of Early Child Development, a free online resource that helps caregivers understand the impact of children’s early years.

Ayesha Saleem is an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba and a research scientist at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba. (Garrick Kozier/University of Manitoba)

Ayesha Saleem

Ayesha Saleem, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba and a research scientist at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba, studies cellular connections and how they change during aging, exercise and childhood diseases.

Saleem has a PhD in molecular physiology and was a post-doctoral fellow at McMaster University before bringing her knowledge to Manitoba.

She teaches in the faculty of kinesiology at the U of M but also takes her passion for science to younger students, doing strawberry DNA extraction experiments with elementary students and hosting students in her lab.

She also participates in Discovery Days — where kids get a chance to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) outside of their classrooms.

She has trained high school students and also works to recruit and support underrepresented minorities in STEM.

Biniam Kidane is a thoracic and foregut surgeon and clinician-scientist at the University of Manitoba. (University of Manitoba)

Biniam Kidane

Dr. Biniam Kidane, a thoracic and foregut surgeon and clinician-scientist at the University of Manitoba, has established endoscopic techniques in Manitoba that allow doctors to cure stomach and esophageal conditions without any incisions.

The techniques he established have been used to cure patients of cancer and treat patients whose conditions cause difficulty eating.

His research focuses on improving the care and quality of life for patients through better outcomes and less-invasive treatment.

He is also an assistant professor of surgery who works to improve representation and diversity in medicine.

He recently won the Aubie Angel Young Investigator Award in Clinical Research, a University of Manitoba award for young faculty members whose research has brought national and international attention.

Jennifer Hensel is a psychiatrist who has pioneered the use of e-health tools to deliver and co-ordinate care. (Submitted by James Bolton)

Jennifer Hensel

Dr. Jennifer Hensel has revolutionized the delivery of mental health care in Manitoba, says Dr. James Bolton, who nominated her for the Future 40 award.

A psychiatrist who trained at the University of Toronto, Hensel has pioneered the use of e-health tools to deliver and co-ordinate care.

An assistant professor at the University of Manitoba’s Max Rady College of Medicine and a psychiatrist at Health Sciences Centre, Hensel is also the provincial lead and an expert in virtual mental health care, which allows patients to receive care in the comfort of their own homes, including people in remote Manitoba communities.

She has authored dozens of published scientific papers and received more than $1 million in research grants and awards, including leading a study on the mental health of doctors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Natashalee Thompson’s research focuses on shifting from punitive to positive school-based discipline. (Rurian Morgan)

Natashalee Thompson

Natashalee Thompson is an educator who came from Jamaica for her master’s studies in educational leadership and administration at Brandon University.

Thompson’s research focuses on shifting from punitive to positive school-based discipline.

In her research, she found punitive measures enabled by provincial legislation, such as suspensions, do not fix problems or improve behaviour, but instead negatively affect students.

Thompson is pursuing studies at the doctoral level and hopes to contribute to positive school policy in Manitoba that is rooted in inclusion.

Tammy Wolfe’s master’s studies focus on the effects of colonialism on Indigenous women in Canada. (Roy Sabay Photography)

Tammy G Wolfe

Tammy G Wolfe, a teacher studying Indigenous governance at the University of Winnipeg, also runs a consulting service that helps businesses that want to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action and integrate Indigenous perspectives into the workplace.

A member of Norway House Cree Nation, her master’s studies focus on the effects of colonialism on Indigenous women in Canada. Missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people are a particular focus for Wolfe, whose mother died when she was 18.

As a teacher, she is passionate about educating people about social justice issues that affect Indigenous people in Canada. Her goal is to teach future leaders and help lead them to places where they can make social change.

As a volunteer, she hosts a radio show called Truth Before Reconciliation on CKUW, and sits on the community advisory board for homelessness in Winnipeg.

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