Donation of $26-million boosts cosmic research in Montreal

Astrophysicists Matt Dobbs (right) and Vicki Kaspi are seen in the instrumentation lab at McGill University’s Space Institute. The institute has received a $16 million donation from the Trottier Family Foundation to support its work with an additional $10 million from the foundation allocated to the Institute for Research on Exoplanets based at the University of Montreal.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Scientists working at the cutting edge of cosmic exploration at two Montreal universities have been given a $26-million boost to sustain their efforts.

The donation from the Trottier Family Foundation was announced on Monday by McGill University and the University of Montreal. The funding will support a pair of institutes dedicated to astrophysics and the search for life on other worlds at a time when researchers at both centres are making key contributions to the field.

“There are so many benefits from this gift,” said Vicky Kaspi, a professor of physics and director of the Space Institute at McGill, which will receive a $16-million share of the total donation. “It’s incredibly valuable in terms of science.”

The interdisciplinary institute was founded in 2015 and has since grown to about 100 people, including faculty, post-doctoral researchers and graduate students.

Dr. Kaspi said that the institute has now outgrown the space in which it operates. Roughly half of the amount earmarked for McGill will be used for the construction of a new building on campus to house the research centre, which will be renamed the Trottier Space Institute at McGill. The other half will be used to fund students at the institute and bring in new expertise to help with the technology required to mount major projects. For example, advanced computing, including machine learning, has become increasingly important for astronomers because of the large quantities of data they routinely handle.

Among the scientific contributions the McGill institute has become known for is work by Dr. Kaspi and her team on fast radio bursts – powerful but mysterious eruptions of radio energy that emanate from distant locations in the universe and typically only last for a fraction of a second. Since 2018, the CHIME telescope, based in Penticton, B.C., and co-developed by the McGill team, has become the premier tool for studying the phenomenon globally. Other projects include astronomical observations in places as far flung as the South Pole.

Meanwhile, the remaining $10-million of the donation announced on Monday will be directed toward the University of Montreal’s Institute for Research on Exoplanets.

The institute has been prominent this past year because of its use of the newly commissioned James Webb Space Telescope to study the atmospheric composition of planets beyond our own solar system.

A Canadian-built instrument on board the telescope is playing a central role in such studies. René Doyon, who directs the institute and is also principal investigator for the instrument, said the infusion of funding would help ensure that the Montreal facility has the scientists on hand to receive and analyze the data it has gained access to through its contributions to the telescope for the next 10 years.

“We’re very serious about this business of finding life elsewhere,” he said. “But this is a long-term scientific endeavour and we need to have an institute that will survive over a long period of time.”

While Monday’s announcement marks the largest donation for either institute, both have previously received support from the Montreal-based philanthropic organization established by engineer and businessman Lorne Trottier.

Mr. Trottier, a McGill graduate who owns the computer-graphics company Matrox, said his long-standing interest in the work of the institutes has its roots in his youth when he first became enchanted with science.

“I chose electronics because that was my first passion,” he said. “But when I was studying engineering at McGill, I was following the space program closely and I wanted to become a space engineer.”

He added that while he chose a different career path, he never lost his appreciation for the long-term importance and unexpected benefits that can arise from basic research.

“One of the lessons we’ve learned since the scientific revolution is that lots of what appear to be esoteric discoveries at the time can turn out to have major importance later on,” he said.

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