20th February 2014 Montreal, Canada

A long awaited visit to Montréal finally becomes a reality!

As promised, voilà! – the last chapter of the series “smarty blog themes”. The “smart and distinguished” British visitors came by train from Ottawa and stayed at same hotel where John Lennon and Yoko Ono did their Bed-In in Montréal in 1969 (which ended with a spontaneous recording of Give Peace a Chance).

But who are they?

On one of Montréal’s coldest mornings of this winter we warmly welcomed the UK Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts‘s first visit ever to Montréal. Renowned Professors Martyn Poliakoff (also Foreign Secretary and Vice-president of the Royal Society) and Mary Bownes from the Universities of Nottingham and Edinburgh respectively accompanied him.

Photo credits: Owen Egan from McGill University

We kept Minister Willetts extremely busy, which he was thrilled about! First stop on the agenda was Concordia University’s Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology (CASB) – a research theme the Minister is particularly fond of (as discussed on my previous blog The Frankencell). It started with a presentation on how to produce synthetic narcotic analgesics – such as codeine and morphine – “it’s great to see what’s going on in synthetic biology,” he said. The Minister believes that science and technology will become the backbone of the British economy. That’s why he set out eight great technologies he believes “will play a vital role in delivering economic growth.”  He added, “We’re certainly investing strongly in synthetic biology in the UK, so it will be great if the Concordia unit could co-operate more closely with the British SynBio centres not only the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial College London but also the three new UK synthetic biology research centres in Bristol, Nottingham and Cambridge/Norwich. There’s clearly a significant investment here, and I think the university’s making a very bold, strategic decision that synthetic biology is something they want to back”.

After this fascinating discussion on bilateral collaborations and gene selection, the visitors headed to McGill University. They were joined by McGill authorities and key academics to learn more about UK-McGill collaborations, particularly in the areas of neuroscience and green chemistry. As you may recall, on a scorching day of June 2013 McGill signed an unprecedented tripartite partnership with Oxford and the ZNZ Centre for Neurosciences (covered at my blog – The Brain Engima), to which Minister Willetts voiced his support in late 2012. At McGill’s Brain Imaging Centre, Dr Sylvain Baillet and his team revealed to us how Minister Willetts’ brain works in real time, eureka! Using a sophisticated and extremely expensive instrument – MEG (magnetoencephalography) – in a magnetically shielded room, they scanned his brain; it was so awesome to see a Minister’s brain in action – pictures speak by themselves!

Photo Credits: Owen Egan from McGill University
Photo credits: Owen Egan McGill University

The British delegation also visited McGill Department of Chemistry with a particular focus on their Green Chemistry Lab – named after Rudolph Marcus, in commemoration of the McGill alumnus laureate of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Professor Martyn Poliakoff felt right at home!

Later in the afternoon we sipped tea and ate sweet fine French cookies at CIHR’s Institute of Aging“now you are talking” the Minister gladly said! Here he was informed about the specific interests of the Canadian Space Agency and CIHR to investigate on Space Health and Aging with particular emphasis on the accelerated ageing process experienced by astronauts.

After a long and exhausting day, the British Consul General hosted a reception at his official residence. More relaxed, with a glass of wine or beer, British visitors and distinguished guests explored the taste of the cuisine Montréalaise and how the mixture of wine and good food loosens people’s tongues, even a Minister’s!

Accompanying Minister Willets McGill authorities and key researchers, SIN Canada and Consul General in Montreal (looks like a science football team!). Photo credits: Owen Egan from McGill University

About Mario Rivero-Huguet

Based in Montreal, I cover Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces. My focus is on aerospace & space, as well as life sciences and clean technologies. This year I’ll be working…

Based in Montreal, I cover Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces. My focus is on aerospace & space, as well as life sciences and clean technologies. This year I’ll be working with scientists in the UK and Canada to foster international research in those areas. I’ll also work with UK Trade & Investment to promote commercial opportunities for science & tech companies. In my spare time I enjoy outdoor activities; alternative films and eating (not cooking) French cuisine. Follow me on Twitter @mriverohuguet