The Cabinet Project: Using Art as a Medium to Explore the Sciences

Article by: Nina S Rafeek

The Art-Sci Salon at the Fields Institute for Mathematical Sciences is composed of a group of artists, scientists and art-sci tech enthusiasts who meet once a month to engage in critical discussions on topics at the intersection between the arts and science.

In January of last year, co-founders of the Art-Sci Salon, Professor Stephen Morris and Lecturer Roberta Buiani, put on a gallery show at an independant gallery at 401 Richmond St. which featured science-themed works of art.  The art and science exhibition was the first of its kind for the Art-Sci salon and it proved to be a success as the pieces sparked lively discussions and debate.  After the success of their first exhibition, they decided to put on a science-themed art exhibition once a year.  From there, the concept of the Art-Sci Salon Cabinet Project was born.

The Cabinet Project will bring life to the outdated and neglected spaces around the U of T St. George campus.  In March,  the students, faculty and the wider U of T community can expect to see science-themed works of art in 10 cabinets across the campus from 12 selected artists, bio-artists, media artists and visual artists.  The creative displays will engage with the objects and instruments created in the science labs nearby or stored in the UTSIC (University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection).

“There are so many cabinets near the science departments and they are empty and they have been empty for a long time”, says Buiani.  “Our hope is that this Cabinet Project will reanimate these public spaces and have people coming and realizing that there is actually a lot of liveliness behind these closed doors”.

In the 5th floor of the Physics tower, Professor Morris’ office is peppered with science themed art, including a framed poster-sized composite photograph of a row of a dozen icicles.  The icicles, however, are not hanging from a tree or a rooftop in a wintry background.  Each one is suspended from an artificial metal contraption and magnified enough for one to notice that each one has a distinct pattern formation.  It is a part of his ongoing research called “The Icicle Atlas”. Amongst his stacks of files and papers, he also has a photo of a magnifed soap bubble and a 3D printed model of a blue icicle   “The end goal is to have fun”, says Professor Morris.

Morris is the J. Tuzo Wilson Professor of Geophysics at the U of T.  His primary research and interest lies in emergent patterns in fluids, granular media, ice formations and fracture.

Roberta Buiani is a researcher, curator and media artist based in Toronto.  Her work is focused on the balance of theoretical and applied research at the intersection of science, technology and creative resistance.  She has earned a Ph.D communication and cultural studies and has worked in the space of Art and Science for almost a decade.

“Ultimately, I really hope to have the arts community and academic community a little bit closer and to engage the public in art and science”, adds Roberta.

Stay tuned for more updates on this extraordinary project.

Ask a Laureate

Calling all high school students and teachers! Did you know that the Department of Chemistry holds an annual outreach event for high school students and the general public? The Laureate Events include the Lunch with a Laureate Essay Contest and Ask a Laureate Lectures.  The 7th Annual Ask a Laureate Lectures will take place Friday May 12, 2017.

High school students grades 11 & 12 are especially encouraged to take part in the Lunch with a Laureate Essay Contest. Timely and progressive essay topics have been chosen that can be connected to the Ontario high school curriculum. Up to 18 students will be selected by a panel of University of Toronto chemists to receive the Chemistry Scholar Award and attend a celebration luncheon with the Laureates. Teachers who mentor student winners are selected to receive the Chemistry Mentor Award.

The Laureates are award-winning chemists who are helping to transform our world with their discoveries and innovations. This is an unparalleled opportunity to interact with these pioneers of science. At the Ask a Laureate Lectures they will explain their research in an accessible, easy-to-understand manner, and attendees have the opportunity to ask questions during the Q & A session that follows each lecture.

This is a free event that takes place on the St. George (downtown) campus of the University of Toronto.  Essay submission deadline is April 13, 2017.

 Everyone is welcome to attend the lectures, even if not participating in the essay contest.

Please see our website for more details and essay contest topics.

Female Chimpanzees employ babysitters to wean young faster: U of T research.

A babysitter can make a big difference in a parent’s life. For wild chimps in Uganda, it may even mean that mothers can wean their infants faster, which can allow them to reproduce again more quickly.

A University of Toronto study looked at 42 pairs of chimpanzee mothers and infants at Ngogo, Kibale National Park, Uganda. Researchers wanted to better understand the impact of “alloparenting” – or babysitting – when individuals other than the mother assisted with infant care.

In a paper published in the Royal Society Open Science (RSOS), they describe looking at two particular aspects of care that these other individuals provided: infant handling – carrying and holding the infants, and natal attraction – the interest in infants demonstrated through behaviours like grooming and playing.

Read the CBC story about the research findings

The researchers compared whether the extent of involvement of these individuals impacted the proportion of time that mothers spent foraging, the rates that infants nursed, and the contribution of milk to infants’ diets.

“Infants who were held and carried more by babysitters, nursed less often and drank less milk,” said Iulia Bădescu, a PhD candidate in evolutionary anthropology at the University of Toronto, and lead author of the study. “This means that they were becoming more nutritionally independent compared to infants of the same age who were babysat less or not at all. They were going through the weaning process quicker, and would likely be done weaning at a younger age.”

chiimps socializing

Babysitting may benefit mothers by enabling females to invest in their next offspring sooner through this accelerated weaning.

“But not all chimpanzee mothers relied on babysitters and, in fact, in other chimpanzee communities, babysitting may be a behaviour that rarely occurs. Our findings emphasize the significance of babysitting as a flexible component of female reproductive strategies in some species.”

In a separate study, Bădescu (pictured below) and her colleagues found that chimpanzee mothers let their “toddlers” nurse for comfort, even after lactation was over and they were receiving no milk.

photo of researcher

“The young chimps were already weaned but continued to make contact with their mothers’ nipple not for nutrition, but presumably for emotional purposes, when they needed to be comforted,” said Bădescu of the related study published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology last month.

The researchers employed a novel method in both studies to arrive at their conclusions, analyzing fecal samples to determine what the contribution of maternal milk was to the diet of the chimpanzee infants. Until now, it has been very difficult to actually measure what animal infants eat in the wild, and Bădescu and her colleagues are the first to use this non-invasive method with wild primates in large numbers.

”This novel method quantifies infant diets for us, so that we can know more precisely when weaning occurs for wild mammals, and also provides a biological way to determine if some infants are developing quicker than others” Bădescu said.

Food Systems Lab at U of T tackles Canada’s food waste problem

PhD student Tammara Soma wants to break the wasted food cycle

We’re all guilty of wasting food.

Sometimes we dump the leftovers in the trash after a big meal, or we find forgotten food in the fridge that has long since expired.

Restaurants, grocery stores and food distributors are also wasteful – throwing out ugly-looking but perfectly good produce and getting rid of products as soon as they hit the “best before” date.

In fact, according to Value Chain Management International, a sustainability-focused consultancy firm, it’s estimated that $31-billion worth of food is wasted every year in Canada.

Tammara Soma hopes to break the cycle of wasted food and wasted money. The University of Toronto PhD student in the Faculty of Arts & Science and Trudeau Foundation Scholar founded the Food Systems Lab, which aims to work with private, public and community organizations to find solutions to Canada’s waste problem.

Read more about Soma’s research

“The role of the Food Systems Lab is to bring all these diverse, multidisciplinary stakeholders and collaborate together,” she says.

The lab, funded by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, will be conducting a series of workshops beginning Nov. 24 to find the root of the waste problem

“The idea is that at the end of the Food Systems Lab, we would come up with interventions – a prototype that can be tested in a microfood system to see how it works,” says Soma.

According to U of T research, almost 12 per cent of Ontarians are food insecure – meaning they have trouble accessing the food they need to have a healthy, balanced diet.

“We can’t keep going on this path where we waste food and waste resources,” says Soma.

Planning graduate student Kelsey Carriere is doing research with the Food Systems Lab. She has been conducting interviews with different organizations along the food supply chain from restaurants to community groups.

“One of my most enlightening interviews so far has been with an elder from a traditional knowledge centre who was giving an Indigenous perspective on how food is valued, on gratitude and how nothing should go to waste,” she says.

Carriere says there is some reluctance on the part of food producers and suppliers to adopt a waste-reduction strategy.

“Nobody’s against it in principle. It’s really just a question of logistics. At a large-scale corporate-level, when you’ve got a system that works, and you’re being asked to redesign that, it’s a daunting task,” she says.

Changes also need to be made by consumers and retailers, says Virginia Maclaren, associate professor and chair of the department of geography and planning and an expert in waste management.

“Households are constrained in many ways in terms of how they reduce food and produce food waste by time constrains, by family constrains, by marketing constraints – they’re sold certain types of foods that they maybe don’t need,” says Maclaren, who is the special advisor to the Food Systems Lab.

Those who are willing adopt the “waste not” philosophy of a new generation of city planners.

“With growing urbanization and a growing population, we need to feed all the people. I think that’s part of the reason why I call myself a food systems planner,” says Soma.

This new type of planning is growing in popularity, says Maclaren.

“Demand for it is starting to explode because municipalities are developing food plans, food policy councils or trying to integrate food considerations into their official plan,” she says.

Read about the food waste symposium Soma helped organize

U of T study reveals key to a happy sex life

The secret to a happy sex life in long-term relationships is the belief that it takes hard work and effort, instead of expecting sexual satisfaction to simply happen if you are true soulmates, says a study led by a University of Toronto social psychology researcher.

These “sexpectations” — the need to work on sexual growth or rely on sexual destiny – are so powerful they can either sustain otherwise healthy relationships or undermine them, says Jessica Maxwell, a PhD candidate in the department of psychology in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

“People who believe in sexual destiny are using their sex life as a barometer for how well their relationship is doing, and they believe problems in the bedroom equal problems in the relationship as a whole,” says Maxwell.

“Whereas people who believe in sexual growth not only believe they can work on their sexual problems, but they are not letting it affect their relationship satisfaction.”

The findings are based on research involving approximately 1,900 participants, and the results published online today in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology included people from both heterosexual and same-sex relationships.

While the effects of so-called “implicit beliefs” have been studied in other aspects of human relationships, this is the first time they have been applied to the sexual domain.

Maxwell says there is a honeymoon phase lasting about two to three years where sexual satisfaction is high among both sexual growth and sexual destiny believers.

But the benefit of believing in sexual growth becomes apparent after this initial phase, as sexual desire begins to ebb and flow.

“We know that disagreements in the sexual domain are somewhat inevitable over time,” says Maxwell. “Your sex life is like a garden, and it needs to be watered and nurtured to maintain it.”

While her research did not focus on the influence of media on sex beliefs, it is clear pop culture has conditioned us to accept and understand that other aspects of relationships, such as the division of household chores, takes work and effort, Maxwell notes.

Hollywood’s glamorous portrayal of sex and romance in shows like The Bachelor are less grounded in reality, however, which may fuel a “soulmate” philosophy that is not as adaptable to conflicts and problems that arise over time.

Maxwell says her research provided at least one example of the media’s impact on the sexual domain. She was able to influence people’s beliefs by “priming” them with phoney magazine articles that either emphasized sexual destiny philosophies, or advocated the idea that sex takes work.

Like everything else concerning human relationships, however, the study suggests the distinctions between the two schools of belief are more shades of grey than black and white.

For example, the research demonstrated there are often aspects of both sexual growth and sexual destiny beliefs in the same individual.

And while many women are avid consumers of soulmate and romantic destiny stories, the study showed they are more likely than men to believe that sex takes work in a long-term relationship.

“I think that this could be because there is some evidence that sexual satisfaction takes more work for women, so they rate higher on the sexual growth scale,” Maxwell says.

The study showed that, while sexual-growth beliefs can buffer the impact of problems in the bedroom, they don’t help as much if the problems become too substantial.

There is also some evidence that sexual-destiny believers may be open to making changes in their sex life for the sake of their partners, but only if they are convinced they are their true soulmate.

The findings underscore the importance for counsellors and clinicians trying to help couples struggling with sexual satisfaction to promote the idea that problems in the bedroom are normal, and don’t mean the relationship is automatically in trouble.

“Sexual-destiny beliefs have a lot of similarities with other dysfunctional beliefs about sex, and I think it’s important to recognize and address that.”

Interview with Professor Molly Shoichet: Join us for an upcoming public talk

Regenerative Medicine: Finding the Cure at the Intersection of Engineering and Medicine at the University of Toronto  

Article by: Nina Rafeek

In 1963, biophysicist James Till and cellular biologist Ernest McCulloch publishes a ground-breaking study in Nature that demonstrates the existence of stem cells at the University of Toronto.  Since this discovery, stem cells and their potential use in the treatment of disease is studied all over the world.  In 2016, stem-cell bioengineer and U of T Professor Molly Shoichet wins the annual Till and McCulloch award for her exceptional contribution to stem cell research.

Professor Molly Shoichet is on the forefront of research in Regenerative Medicine, which is a field of medicine that promises to revolutionize the way we treat disease through the use of stem cells.  During her talk at the Toronto Reference Library at 7pm on November 21st, 2016, Shoichet will explain how the cure of cancer, blindness and stroke lies in changing the way we look at the cause and treatment of these devastating illnesses.

In the Shoichet Lab, solutions to these challenges begin with change: “If we really if we want to solve these big problems we have to think about them differently”, says Shoichet.

Shattering the glass…dish.

Cancer – a leading cause of death worldwide – starts with just one single cell.  Shoichet is addressing this huge problem by changing the way we look at cells.  The cell culture dish is a hard, flat two-dimensional surface: “99.9 of the world understands everything we know about cells by growing them in a completely artificial environment”, says Shoichet.  Furthermore, our cells are surrounded by auxiliary biological substances such as proteins and signaling molecules.  Her team created a hydrogel which is a “jello-like” water-swollen bio-material to better mimic the soft, spongy and three-dimensional environment of the human body.

In vivo veritas

With this new diagnostic platform, they are able to study the behaviour of cancer cells in a “human-like” three-dimensional sphere to better understand how cancer cells behave in response to different medicines.  The idea is to “treat your cells before actually treating you so we will know which drug you will respond to”, explains Shoichet.  Customized cancer treatment without the aggressive infusion of harmful chemicals or invasive surgery to the body is just one of the many possibilities of Regenerative Medicine.

The “holy-grail” of Regenerative Medicine

Shoichet will also explain how these tools have yielded positive results in the stimulation of resident stem cells in the brain – touted as “the holy-grail” of Regenerative Medicine –  which can potentially be used in the treatment of injury to the brain.

The future is bright

Attendees will also learn how this bio-engineered hydrogel has shown promise in the treatment of blindness through the increased rate of survival and integration of photoreceptor (vision) cells to the retina (back of the eye) during transplantation.  “For so long we’ve been treating the symptoms of disease and what regenerative medicine can do is stop the disease and ideally reverse it.  We want to give someone back their vision who’s lost it”, says Shoichet.

“The take home message is about change: if we really want to do things differently we just have to change the way we do them and what our lab represents is one of those ways”, says Shoichet.

Shoichet is just as passionate about communicating science as she is with discovering innovations in medicine through research. She is the Senior Advisor to the President for the Science and Engineering Engagement at the Uof T and one of the Founding Partners for Research2Reality, which are both concerned with communicating science to the public and enhancing science engagement.  When asked why she accepted the invitation to talk at the Toronto Reference Library, her response was “because I think we should”.  The implications of this research –funded by our tax dollars – has proved to be potentially beneficial to the field of healthcare: “Maybe we’re not treating your aunt or uncle today, but tomorrow we will be”, says Shoichet.

As the winner of L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award, Shoichet says her mom was the most important role model in her life: “she was a real trailblazer when she was growing up… she did things differently”.  At the U of T, Shoichet’s mentors are Michael Sefton and Mitch Winnik who always provide honest feedback in terms of her research.

Only a little over 50 years ago, Till and McCulloch discovered the existence of stem cells.  Today Molly Shoichet and her team are inventing customized tools that compliment stem cells in order to cure – and potentially reverse – the devastation of cancer, stroke and blindness.  It is exciting to think of what the next 50 years will bring.  Join Professor Shoichet, as she leads us through uncharted territory in the field of Regenerative Medicine.

This lecture is open to everyone and registration is not required. It is part of the Toronto Public Library’s Cutting Edge Series. Its purpose is to explore new ideas at the intersection of health and technology.

 

What do you get out of the Science Leadership Program?

Article by Nina Rafeek

Are you an academic scientist, engineer or a social scientist from U of T or another Canadian research-intensive university? If so, the Science Leadership Program was created just for you.

The Science Leadership Program is a 2+ day workshop that is designed revolutionize your potential as a communicator of research and science.  It will give you the tools to engage policymakers, the media, decision-makers, and the general public about your research.

The workshop is directed by Molly Shoichet, Senior Advisor on Science and Engineering Engagement (SEE) to University of Toronto President Meric Gertler, and is funded by the Connaught Fund.  This year, the workshop will begin with a special art-themed opening reception at 4:30pm on April 19th and will end with a group dinner on April 21st 2017.

Here is a list of things you will receive from the Science Leadership Program:

  • Creative instruction on effective communication and presentation skills

Nancy Houfek, formerly head of voice & speech at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University, will provide four 90-minute sessions entitled The Performance Art of Science Presentation.

  • A series of communications workshops facilitated by Peter Redstone and Dr. Martin Bloxham of The Barefoot Thinking Company

They are internationally recognized for leadership programs to scientists and researchers.  They will provide six 30-90min workshops on: Thinking Styles, Leadership Situations, Leadership Gearbox, Giving & Receiving Feedback, Strategic Communications Canvas and Action Planning

These workshops are designed to give you the communications tools to influence others, give and receive constructive feedback and to develop a plan for critical strategic communications issues.

  • A 60-second Pitch Exercise

Master your 60-second pitch and have fun with your peers while you are doing it! Participants get an opportunity to pitch their research to a panel of experts from science and media organizations (CBC, Daily Planet, Ontario Science Centre) and are given both written and oral feedback on each pitch. The SLP 2017 panel of judges will be announced in the new year.

  • A Fellowship with the SLP

This means that you will be able to expand your network and continue your development after you attend the SLP Program. You will have the chance to reunite with the SLP participants in your cohort to informally share your work and your thoughts on the SLP program at an annual SLP Fellows Reunion. The Reunion usually features an inspiring key note speaker or a refreshing professional development session. You will also have a chance to discuss ways to better improve the program for future SLP participants.

  • A headshot from a professional photographer

Jeremy Sale Photography will be on-site to take your professional headshot.  You will be given a digital file so that you can use this portrait on anything from your CV to your Twitter account.

Here is what some had to say about last year’s events:

“Learning the importance of capturing the energy of the audience and making meaningful connections. It was very powerful to see before and after examples of posture styles we tend to slide into.”

“The leadership gearbox and communication strategies were very useful and appropriate for scientists. I have seen other models that did not resonate as well with scientists/academics. This worked well.”

“Thank you for a truly transformative three days. I am excited to bring these skills back into my life.”

Here is a link to apply TODAY! Deadline for applications is Oct. 31st 2016.

Beakerhead Science Communications Program

Register TODAY to Attend the Beakerhead Sci Comm School at the Perimeter Institute, the World’s Largest Theoretical Physics Research Centre. 

Amazing faculty. Inspiring environment. Outstanding peers. Unforgettable experience.

As a participant, you will:
• Make your network go supernova:
• Rub shoulders with world-renowned physicists in
Perimeter’s awe-inspiring environment.
• Help your career defy gravity under the tutelage of
the best in the business when it comes to science on
stage and screens.
• Get an exclusive sneak peek at a massive, Canadawide
science exhibit that will hit the road in 2017!

Interview with Professor Lee Bartel

Music Medicine: A New Frontier in Healthcare and Medical Research

Interview with Professor Lee Bartel

You have been on shows such as TVO’s “The Agenda” and along with the upcoming event the North York Central Library, you also have a Ted Talk scheduled for next year.  Why have you chosen to engage with the public about music medicine? What are the main messages you hope to get across? 

I have found a great deal of interest in the public about the potential for music to impact health. I think this is because people inherently sense that music enlivens them, calms them, has power to emotionally move them, or to energize a walk. What people do not know but are eager to learn about is the scientific explanation for the effect music has – and then to discover that there is even more at work in the body and mind. So I am pleased to be able to help people understand to potential of music in relation to health.

First I try to clarify for people that music as music is a cultural phenomenon and most of its effect on us is the result of learning – of enculturation – and that is good and useful and has much potential in music therapy. But music is also vibration – it is pulsing sound waves that act on the cells of the body and the neurons in the brain. If this dimension of sound and music is controlled, it can become a way to treat medical conditions that are related to brain dysrhythmias.  I then like to illustrate these effects with stories.

Part of title of your talk is called “A New Frontier”. What is the state of music medicine today and where would you like to see it in the next 10 years?

What I am talking about is a new frontier for clinical treatments. Music therapy – the use of music as a means to accomplish goals like reducing anxiety, fostering communication, motivating movement, or stimulating reminiscence through a therapist-client relationship – has been practiced for many years. But, for example, the use of specific sound frequencies as a brain stimulant to accomplish goals pursued by electro-stimulation like deep brain stimulation or repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) is definitely a new frontier. I see music medicine as dosable – prescribable sound based on scientific research that has focused on mechanism and not just evidenced based research. This is essentially what we found very effective in a study we have completed and in another RCT we are just now wrapping [up].

What are some of the principal ideas in your talk at the North York Central Library?

At the North York talk I will talk about multiple levels (sort of a taxonomy) at which music and sound impact the person – from the most obvious – emotional response to learned associations to responses to associations we have learned during earliest infancy  – to how music uses particular brain channels so we can access language after a stroke and use it as a means to rehabilitation – to how sound vibration drives brain wave activity and how this can re-regulate brain dysrhythmias and brain connectivity – to how sound stimulates and affects us at the cellular- epigenetic level.

Are there uses for music medicine as a self-treatment at home or at work?  Like for those who have difficulty falling asleep, for example? If so, what are they?

Yes very definitely. We did a study at Mount Sinai where we used music designed to entrain brain activity at deep sleep – delta level. It resulted in strongly improved sleep. We are using a home device in our pain studies and in a depression study. This extends by implication from our recent research even to possible effects on Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. But most basic is to address one of the most pernicious problems of our 21st century society – stress. Take a 30- minute dose of your favourite music – and we are quite certain stress hormones like cortisol will be reduced, the immune system will be boosted, and pain levels will decrease. And most of us already know music calms and destresses us – that is no small feat for a medicine – and its easy, low cost, non-invasive, with few side-effects.