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Past Winner
1997 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship

C. Ross Ethier

Mechanical and Industrial Engineering

University of Toronto

Even as an undergraduate, Ross Ethier was doing engineering with a medical twist. His fourth-year thesis combined the two fields and he's never looked back. Ethier, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Toronto, puts it succinctly: "I got hooked." In recognition of his contributions to Canadian research, he recently earned one of the country's premier science and engineering prizes - a Steacie Fellowship awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

Ethier is currently working on three main projects, all in the area of biofluid mechanics. One is a study of glaucoma, a condition in which pressure in the eye builds up to dangerous levels causing the optic nerve to die. The damage is irreversible and the person eventually goes blind.

"There are drugs that reduce pressure in the eye," explains Ethier. "But if we understood why pressure builds up in the first place, more effective drugs could be designed.

"We recently found that something researchers in this field, including my own group, considered important is probably just an artifact of the way tissue is prepared. Now that we're on the right track, I want to come up with new ways to visualize tissue so we can really see what's going on."

Another project involves blood flow in arteries. There is experimental evidence that something about blood flow patterns promotes the development of arterial disease. "If we knew what it was, we could give this information to people who design drugs," Ethier adds.

"The problem is that these flow patterns are very complex. My group is using computer-based tools to simulate the flow of blood and develop better algorithms to analyze flow."

Ethier's third area is ultrafiltration, where a solution of polymers - long chain molecules - are pumped through a filter. Cartilage is such a filter, and some important human diseases, such as arthritis, are associated with changes in cartilage. Ethier's research team has been carrying out an engineering analysis of this process and is now applying the results to modelling cartilage.

"Research can be a frustrating process," says Ethier. "You can bang your head against a problem for years. But when you finally figure it out, when you say 'Oh, now I understand,' there's nothing that replaces that feeling."