Sarah Gallagher

Why is an astrophysicist winning an award for her work on Covid-19? Perhaps it seems a non-traditional pairing, but look a bit deeper and it makes perfect sense. Sarah Gallagher of the Department of Physics and Astronomy is this year’s co-recipient of the Purvis Memorial Award of the Society of Chemical Industry Canada, recognizing her and a colleague, Cara Tannenbaum of the Université de Montréal, for leading the team that set up a nationwide network of researchers to come together and work on the once-in-a-century pandemic.

"Astronomers work in massive teams, often spanning continents, so we’re familiar with collaboration platforms and how essential they are for taking on complicated projects with many stakeholders," explains Gallagher. Instead of assembling a team of crack astrophysicists to study distant quasars in the universe, she and Tannenbaum led the implementation team that established CanCovid, a platform that unites researchers across many disciplines to collaborate on Covid-19 research and provide information and recommendations to governments and agencies throughout Canada. For their vision, Gallagher and Tannenbaum are accepting the award on behalf of the CanCovid implementation team, which also counts Mark Daley of Western’s Department of Computer Science amongst its ranks.

"It felt like we were building the train after it left the station," remarks Gallagher; the team launched the CanCovid framework within a fortnight, having put together a working manual in 24 hours. "We leveraged a great team – so many people from across the country volunteered to make the network a reality," says Gallagher. Two days after launching on April 1st, 2020, CanCovid had 1000 experts signed up and connected to one another, willing to start tackling the issues that brought Canada, and the rest of the world, to a grinding halt. "Primarily, we wanted a space for researchers and policy-makers working on Covid-related issues to say who they were, what they were working on, and ask for other input or expertise."

Dr. Sarah Gallagher holding her awardOnce the pandemic took hold within our borders, health officials had a long list of questions to address, on topics such as population immunity, ethnicity susceptibility, workplace safety guidelines, vaccine trials, and track-and-trace app design – to name a few. "From day one, we had experts from every field imaginable. Of course, many biomedical researchers and clinicians are on board, but there are also economists who are concerned about a different sort of recovery plan, there are engineers looking at how to best sanitize workspaces, the list goes on," says Gallagher. "The problem that was presented to us was so complex, and touched just about every facet of daily life, so such diverse perspectives on problem-solving are essential to finding solutions."

Having clinicians, researchers, government agencies, and Indigenous scholars at the same table, directing their energies toward solving a common issue, is a paradigm shift for pan-Canadian science policy. "Bringing science together with policy-making has been historically challenging, but Covid-19 was like an electric shock that aligned all these diverse groups," says Gallagher. A traditional, siloed approach to problem-solving often leads to professional networks becoming entrenched; now, with the new framework, nearly half of successful research proposals in the spring 2020 CIHR competition related to Covid-19 were made up of teams that found members through CanCovid.

"This type of network could serve to solve complex problems in the future. Already we can see a rapid proliferation and diversification of networks bringing unlikely allies together," explains Gallagher. Broader engagement, bringing together talent from a variety of institutional and geographic backgrounds, career stages, ethnic identities, and genders, will be essential for tackling future issues that impact Canadians. The "all-hands-on-deck" mentality aligned Canada’s scientific communities to rely on each other during a time of intense duress that demanded quick action – with a high cost of failure. And for the astronomer supporting the initiative: "I feel really lucky to have been able to aid the collective effort. It’s easy to feel sidelined as an astronomer during a public health crisis, but if you step back and see this as a collective effort, then there are all sorts of ways to lend a hand."

Sarah Gallagher is an Astrophysicist whose research focuses on better understanding black holes; their growth at the centres of distant galaxies and the interactions between galaxies in crowded environments. She is also the Science Advisor to the President of the Canadian Space Agency, the government body that represents Canada in the global space program.

Listen to her podcast on Western Science Speaks where she talks about Black Holes.