Carleton University researchers Rowan Thomson, Department of Physics, and Boris Vukovic, Department of Industrial Design and the READ Initiative, have received $250,000 each for research that is considered high-risk, high-reward. The investment was announced by the Government of Canada and is provided through the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) 2021 Exploration competition which supports interdisciplinary research that pushes boundaries into exciting new areas.

From Physics to Biology: Connecting Cellular-Level Energy Deposition with Biological Response in Radiation Medicine

Rowan Thomson, Department of Physics

Radiation medicine plays a critical role in the lives of Canadians for diagnosis and treatment. However, fundamental questions remain regarding the interactions of ionizing radiation with tissue and ensuing biological response. Advancement of knowledge is hindered due to the limited approaches available to assess radiation energy deposition (dose) and connect with response at cellular levels.

Rowan Thomson, Sangeeta Murugkar and their team’s research bring together expertise in physics, biology, and bioinformatics to develop a novel system for evaluating radiation energy deposited in cells and the associated cascade of biological events. The physical component of the system is comprised of a population of cells adjacent to a chemical dosimeter, namely radiochromic film.

An approach will be developed to culture cells such that they may be irradiated simultaneously with the film. After irradiation, experimental measurements using Raman spectroscopy will detect (bio)chemical changes within the film and cells, generating micron-scale maps of response to radiation, which will be linked to cell viability and function. Monte Carlo simulations of the irradiation of the system of film and cells will be used to quantify energy deposition with micron-scale resolution. Machine Learning approaches will be used to correlate experimental and simulation results, mapping the impact of radiation on cellular response.

This research proposes a unique direction – the development of a system for carrying out micron-scale analysis of energy deposition within a population of cells coupled with biological response therein. Once established, this system will be used to investigate the effects of high and low dose radiation on various cell types (cancerous, normal) and in-vitro tumour cell and patient-derived systems. It offers the potential for high reward as a new paradigm-changing approach to study fundamental questions in radiation medicine by bridging the knowledge gap between radiation’s insult and biological response, leading to translational outcomes including better radiation treatments (improved tumour cell kill, less normal tissue toxicity). There are no other comparable systems in existence due to the considerable challenges in evaluating energy deposition and biological response on cell scales, and no established machine learning methods for connecting the two. Further high-risk elements come from variability in biological response, as well as experimental uncertainties.

Murugkar, Sangeeta – Co-Principal Investigator, Carleton University
Dang (Subedi), Sanjeena – Co-Applicant, Carleton University
Jirasek, Andrew – Co-Applicant, Carleton University
Andrews, Jeffrey – Co-Applicant, Carleton University


Cassol, Edana – Health Sciences, Carleton University
Muir, Bryan – Ionizing Radiation Standards, National Research Council
Chauhan, Vinita – Ionizing Radiation Health Services, National Research Council
Lum, Julian – Deeley Research Centre, BC Cancer

Artificial Intelligence in Assessment of Functional Limitations and Disability Services for Postsecondary Education

Boris Vukovik headshot
Boris Vukovic, School of Industrial Design and READ Initiative

Boris Vukovic, Majid Komeili and their team are researching an implementation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to augment disability-related assessment of functional limitations and service recommendations in higher education. Provision of disability services in postsecondary settings is a legislated human rights mandate. Participation and success in postsecondary education is one key factor that eliminates the large gap in rates of employment for persons with disabilities in Canada. This is a high-risk/high-reward, interdisciplinary project that aims to address the need for expertise, efficiency of procedures, strength-based considerations and student self-advocacy in assessment of functional limitations and interpretation of results to inform support for students with disabilities. There are critical ethical and technical challenges inherent in this project, but also potential for significant gains in increasing access and participation for persons with disabilities in higher education.

The research project will be carried out at a university where assessment of functional limitations is part of the intake process at the student disability services. The research data includes over 2000 existing samples collected from students in recent years with the World Health Organization’s WHODAS instrument and newly collected data. The AI methodology will consist of multi-label classification and a variation of the Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) applied to numerical WHODAS scores to select relevant interview questions and interpret free-text student responses along with their WHODAS profiles to generate recommendations and rationale.

Students with lived experience of disability and subject-area experts from disability services will collaborate with a multidisciplinary research team to ensure a meaningful and ethical approach to the development of AI-augmented assessment of functional limitations.

There are three overall components to the research project:

1) Collection and consolidation of functional limitation datasets from the WHODAS and student responses to clarifying background, historical, and strength-focused questions;

2) Development of sets of expert disability services recommendations with rationales for given profiles of student functional limitations;

3) Iterative design and training of a machine learning model to interpret numerical data and student responses, and produce outputs with recommendations for student services.

Komeili, Majid – Co-Principal Investigator, Carleton University
Chan, Adrian – Co-Applicant, Carleton University
Treviranus, Jutta – Co-Applicant, OCAD University
Aubrecht, Katie – Co-Applicant, St. Francis Xavier University
Nowrouzi-Kia, Behdin – Co-Applicant, University of Toronto

Fraser, Kathleen – Digital Technologies Research Centre, National Research Council Canada, Canada
Tanguay, Sonia – Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities, Carleton University, Canada
Brady, Cris – Centre for Accessible Learning, Algonquin College, Canada
O’Riordan, Darlene – Centre for Accessible Learning, Algonquin College, Canada

Other Expertise
Gunnell, Jessie – Research Projects Officer, READ Initiative, Carleton University
Connolly, Tara  – Assistant Director, Research & Development, READ Initiative, Carleton University

About the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF)

Launched in 2018, the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) funds high risk-high reward, interdisciplinary, and transformative research led by Canadian researchers working with Canadian and international partners. NFRF is designed to support world-leading innovation and enhance Canada’s competitiveness and expertise in the global, knowledge-based economy.

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