Naylor, Dr. David

2013 Finalist: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Science

Through the efforts of Dr. David Naylor, the University of Lethbridge has become an international leader in building instrumentation that provides the tools to better understand our universe.

Dr. Naylor co-developed the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) with scientists from eight countries. SPIRE is used on the Herschel space telescope to pick up heat signals that are not visible by optical telescopes. It will help astronomers answer the question they’ve have been asking for centuries: What’s out there?

“Astrophysics is about the basic unbridled search for truth,” says the professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Lethbridge. The desire to push the limits of knowledge has inspired Dr. Naylor over the past three decades.

He has developed a world-class research program at the University of Lethbridge in the design, construction and use of Fourier transform spectrometers (FTS) in astronomical research.

The novel FTS that Dr. Naylor co-developed had to survive launch forces equivalent to 10 times the acceleration due to gravity at temperatures of -270 C. They are now being routinely selected as the spectrometer of choice by the world’s leading space agencies and performing superbly 1.5 million kilometres from the earth-moon system.

Dr. Naylor’s latest exploration is to move astrophysics research to study breast cancer cells – and eventually to other forms of cancer. The idea came to him when a research group in Taiwan demonstrated that they could measure and detect breast cancer with 100-per cent accuracy using THz radiation. The detectors were one million times less sensitive than those used by Dr. Naylor.

Dr. Naylor’s stellar reputation as an astrophysicist has allowed him to  find collaborators and funding in and out of industry to apply the technology from space to diagnostic imaging for cancer.

“This is very much a new thing,” he explains. “We have forged links with the medical community to research the possibilities.” Those critical interdisciplinary links have provided Dr. Naylor and his lab with access to tissue banks of  cancer samples from Alberta patients, essential for this work. They will compare the original diagnosis to that obtained with their spectrometer.

“If we want to shape the future we need to look outside the bubble of our field of knowledge,” Dr. Naylor asserts. “ Never turn down the opportunity to collaborate and explore new synergies.”

Among the major funders of the $500,000 breast cancer research is Blue Sky Spectroscopy, the company Dr. Naylor founded to commercialize the technology developed in his lab. Blue Sky trains science students in the industrial setting and invests 25 per cent of its revenues back into R&D. Blue Sky sells instruments and expertise to leading universities and institutions around the world among them Harvard, Caltech, and Max Planck Institute. Three of its instruments operate in the adverse conditions in Antarctica.

While inventing instruments to decipher the universe, Dr. Naylor has inspired hundreds of students to pursue science professionally and he’s been rewarded by their success and admiration.

“The students are so smart that I just try to keep up with them,” says Dr. Naylor. “They are young, naïve, knowledgeable and industrious; they don’t know what’s impossible. It’s wonderful to see and I don’t let on, because I have seen the ‘impossible’ realized.”