Distinguished Professor Awards: Professors Ron Buliung, Robert Gerlai, and Kent Moore
A look into the works and accolades of the three recipients of the Distinguished Professor Awards at the University of Toronto.

New year, new awards! We’re well into this year’s awards season, with the Oscars, Grammys, and Juno nominations rolling in. But have you heard of the University of Toronto’s Distinguished Professor Awards? Just like how we honour film stars and musicians for their ability to entertain us, the University of Toronto has taken the opportunity to recognize the highly accomplished faculty members who work tirelessly to educate us as well as advance research in their respective fields. Professors Ron Buliung, Robert Gerlai and Kent Moore from the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) were among this year’s recipients of the Distinguished Professors Awards.

“Sometimes when people think about disability, they can come to focus on limitations and charity, without considering or imagining possibilities,” says Professor Buliung. His work on disability and ableism is motivated by his experience as a parent of a disabled child and is also shaped by how recent hearing loss has impacted his teaching and interactions with the environment and other people. Being hard of hearing produced interesting possibilities in the classroom for closer engagement with students, for example, during discussions, creating a more intimate, discussion-driven learning environment in courses such as GGR370: The Geography of Transportation, and a graduate seminar, named “Disability, Ableism and Place” in Geography and Planning. 

In his courses, Professor Buliung encourages his students to think about how disability is produced, what ableism is, and how we can make cities more accessible. In a future course at UTM, he hopes to have students map out resources for disabled persons that are not on the campus map, think of tactile wayfinding surfaces, grip tape on stairs to prevent falls, elevators, and more. Students are also encouraged to work on the current housing issue, food insecurity within the lives of disabled people, lack of accessible washroom spaces, and the problems behind highways being created across the protected Green Belt in rural Canadian communities north and west of the City of Toronto. 

Professor Buliung, the 2024 Distinguished Professor of Geographies of Disability and Ableism, works to “intersect disability studies and critical ableism with transportation geography and urban planning.” He would like to use his current position and recognition in academia to continue the conversation about the lack of accessible resources as well as opportunities in academia for disabled persons in the city of Toronto. As the recipient of this award, Professor Buliung felt greatly honoured and humbled to receive such a recognition and states that this “award is for his daughter and all the people along the way,” such as his teachers, teaching and faculty colleagues, department chairs, students, and all the people that worked with and motivated him. He’s excited that such an award will help further the conversation about disability and ableism in urban spaces, public discourse, and academia.

Another recipient of the Distinguished Professors Awards, Professor Gerlai shares how “oil painting can seem intimidating at first but the really nice thing about oil as a medium is that it does not dry up too fast, meaning that you can make changes to your work even hours after you begin to paint.” Professor Gerlai’s life and career trajectory can be likened to the creation of art with oil paints as he initially began his work in biological psychology, continued to specialize in experimental biology in Budapest, held leadership positions in US biotechnology and biopharmaceutical research companies such as Genentech, Inc. and Eli Lilly & Co. as well as being a professor at the University of Hawaii. He’s currently pioneering research in neurobehavioral genetics in zebrafish, a relatively new animal model in the world of behavioural neuroscience. 

Just as many would find oil as an intimidating medium to work with at first, many behavioral neuroscientists would say the same about zebrafish. Most prefer the use of mouse models, instead, due to a lack of research on behavioural genetics with zebrafish. However, Professor Gerlai, with his lingering desire to work with the fish, took on the challenge and explained how “humans and fish share 3.3 billion years’ worth of evolutionary characteristics, such as zebrafish neurotransmitter systems having the same or similar receptors as humans.” This allows him to see the effects of drugs and alcohol on the behaviours of zebrafish and their implications on human behaviour, with higher accuracy. This type of research led him to be named the “Father of Zebrafish Behavioural Neuroscience Research.” The behavioural analysis of zebrafish can be used in biomedical research with humans, as the comparable biological mechanisms can manifest in both zebrafish and humans, such as on antisocial behaviours, memory, and learning.

Aside from working with zebrafish, Professor Gerlai teaches four courses, three of which he established himself. These courses on animal behaviour genetics and mechanisms of memory pose many questions, such as, “How does gene influence behaviour?” and “How are neuroplasticity and underlying memory related to each other?” Another course he teaches is a behavioural neuroscience practical course that is shared with other professors, where students learn to use neuroscience and behaviour to analyze the brain. Outside of lecture halls, Professor Gerlai helps train and teach students in the laboratory on behavioural neuroscience research. 

As the recipient of the John Carlin Roder Distinguished Professor in Behavioural Neuroscience, Professor Gerlai feels wonderful, as most of the work this award recognizes is a result of the diligence and creativity of the students in his laboratory.      In a way, this award belongs to his students just as much as it does to him. He researches because it’s “thrilling and a lot like detective work, which can be invigorating,” and not for the recognition. Still, he is honoured to be recognized by his peers and superiors in the field, as this will help research students in his laboratory have more resources to do their research projects.

Flying over the waters of the Arctic or trekking parts of Mount Everest is a part of Professor Moore’s job as a geophysicist, who often asks questions, such as, “How does sea ice and ocean interaction in the Arctic region impact our atmosphere?” when studying the atmosphere, geophysics, and oceanic processes. Starting as a physicist, Professor Moore came across a scientific paper on climate modelling where they removed all the mountains to see what the Earth would look like in terms of the climate. This drew him to focus his studies and work on atmospheric physics. His work is mostly composed of analyzing satellite data and computer models to determine the climate in various regions, as well as the effects of climatic changes on the human body. In addition to that, Professor Moore shares how his experiences of being stuck in stormy weather conditions over the Arctic Ocean, feeling the impact of oxygen levels dropping on top of mountains, led him to truly understand the severity of such conditions on the human body. He goes on to say, “As much as I like the ability to experience the very conditions I do my research on, which is in and of itself is quite rare in any research field, being in the middle of an oceanic storm or having to take 20 minutes to catch a good breath on top of mountains, like the Everest, truly is a hard and profound experience when a researcher, such as myself, experiences those things in real-time. Reality feels very different from reading about it in a paper and trying to grasp the feeling just from theory alone.”

Awarded the Distinguished Professors Award in Theoretical Geophysics of Climate Change, Professor Moore was very surprised and humbled by the accolade, as he expressed his gratitude, saying, “it is nice to be recognized by the university and my peers in the field.” Presently, he works in the administrative role of Vice President of Research at UTM, where he’s primarily responsible for supporting faculty and student research across the campus, by providing access to funding opportunities like seed funds, research facilities, and hosting events. Before his administrative role, he taught a second-year course on electromagnetism (PHY241H5) and a fourth-year course on classical electrodynamics (PHY451H5), alongside a graduate course on atmospheric physics (PHY2509H1). During his teaching term, he enjoyed interacting with students and explained that “doing research is very different than coursework as students can do things people have never done before, try to find answers to questions that have not been answered yet or no one has seen before.”

Professors Buliung, Gerlai, and Moore truly deserve the title of distinguished professor in their respective research areas for their incredible and unique work, as well as their abilities to teach future researchers in both the classroom and the laboratory. We hope to see more talented and hard-working professors continue to be recognized by the university for their work as they ought to be acknowledged for the time and dedication they put into their craft. Congratulations again to all three professors on being recipients of the Distinguished Professors Awards of 2024! 


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