NiRC 2014: National Integrative Research Conference

The NiRC banner hangs proud outside the reception of the 2014 conference at McGill University (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance photographer)

The NiRC banner hangs proud outside the reception of the 2014 conference at McGill University (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance photographer)

Started in 2011, the National Integrative Research Conference (NiRC) is an initiative of McGill’s Bachelors of Arts and Sciences Integrative Council (BASiC).

ONE. To promote undergraduate research in interdisciplinary fields across the nation by providing an environment in which students can present their topics and interact/network with other speakers.
TWO. Encourage students to transcend the conventional boundaries of Arts and Sciences by introducing innovative perspectives and ground-breaking approaches to the traditional fields of studies.
THREE. Give interdisciplinary researchers a forum to voice their intellectual passions in an environment that is facilitative to the expression, reception, and discussion of their ideas.

– NiRC mission statement

Close on the heels of Ampersand 2014, the efforts of the NiRC committee and McGill’s Bachelors of Arts and Sciences Integrative Council (BASiC) have treated us to another event brimming with interdisciplinary innovation. In its fourth year, the National Integrative Research Conference presented a full roster of engaging speakers. Want to learn about all the speakers? Read on. Want to hear about a specific speaker? Click on their name below!

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Dr. Yves Gingras

Anthony Sardain

Anvita Kulkarni

Cameron Butler

Dr. Nitika Pai

Esther Bogorov

Guido Guberman

Courtney Ayukawa, Maggie Cascadden, Clara Payro

Chad Serels

Dr. Gad Saad

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Keynote speaker, Dr. Yves Gingras, opens the day's discussions. (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance photographer)

Keynote speaker, Dr. Yves Gingras, opens the day’s discussions. (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance photographer)

Keynote speaker Dr. Yves Gingras, professor at UQAM and co-founder of the Observatoire des sciences et des technologies, opened the conference with a discussion of “The Transformations in the Relations between Science, Policy, and Citizens.” He explained the gravity of the interactions between society and its needs, and science, recounting as a telling example the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Virus controversy. This was a case where a societal need to explain a given syndrome contributed to pressure to provide an explanation, the publication of a paper in Science blaming the XMRV retrovirus, and a subsequent retraction of the paper when its conclusions could not be replicated. Decisions and research focus can therefore be the result of a complex struggle between competing interests, and pressure from citizens can have good intentions, but dangerous consequences. On a more positive note, Gingras detailed  the pros of an increasingly “democratic” science; for example, how an increase in mixed forums and consensus conferences can be useful in fields with obvious social and ethical impacts. This results in an exchange between stakeholders, forcing leaders to look beyond the current paradigm, to evaluate and test new avenues, and to potentially adopt radical new ideas from “outside the box.”

Anthony Sardain (U4 Honours Biology Student) presented his research, “Towards a Dashboard of Sustainability Indicators: Directing Panama’s Developmental Strategy.” As the tenth most biologically diverse country in the world by area, there is “a pressing necessity to understand the impact of economic growth on [Panama]’s natural capital.” Sardain’s research seeks to fill this gap by developing a dashboard of indicators which, taken together, serve to calculate baseline values allowing the country to monitor the impact of economic development on the environment. In his talk, Sardain outlined his strategy of using a participatory method, by attracting locals to participate in focus group workshops, and drawing from a large bottom-up knowledge base to compile a list of indicators in economic, environmental, and social categories. His work demonstrates the intersection of humans and their environment, as well as the benefits of a sensitivity to the humanities in conducting research relevant to the human experience.

Anvita Kulkarni (U3 student of Liberal Physiology with a major concentration in Political Science) spoke about the intersection and convergence of neuroscience and national security, with its implications for academia and ethics. For instance, to truly understand the underpinnings of aggression, and what drives one to commit crimes such as terrorism, we have to understand – in Kulkarni’s words – the “neuroecology of everything.” As a species, we are impacted by neurological, genetic, biochemical, cognitive, and ecological inputs; all of which interact in a synergistic fashion. Kulkarni details the complexities of our methods of assessing each (for example, neuroimaging, nanotechnology, genomics, proteomics, social science, and even the humanities), and emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary undertakings if we are to even begin to compute a probabilistic inference of certain behaviours. However, like Gingras, Kulkarni points out certain issues with this approach. For example, there is a bias towards normativity in setting standards and thresholds for an “unacceptable aggression”; there is also the issue of data collection, as the amount of data required to predict a behaviour by this model is staggering; and there are issues of privacy and confidentiality, i.e. how would we ethically access all this information on a given individual; and, finally, there is the question of what we would do with the information if we, for example, managed to predict to reasonable confidence that a given individual was at risk for committing a certain crime. Kulkarni, in short, presented an exciting emergent field, whereby the synergistic intersection between fields could result in reasonable models of something as complicated as human behaviour.

The presentation of Cameron Butler (U3 student in Bioresource Engineering), “Home in the Garden: Developing an Eco-queer Framework for Sustainable Home Design“, deconstructed the traditional approach to engineering by targeting questions such as: Who are we designing for? Who can use our design? and Whose needs are we addressing? For instance, standard-sized airplane seats marginalize overweight people by forcing them to pay for two seats or, at the very least, feel stigmatized by having to ask for an additional seat. Other normalizing ideas are also found in our architecture – such as the assumption that homes are designed to separate us from the environment. Butler introduces “Queer Space Theory”; an architectural ideology which seeks to reduce the public/private duality (especially with regards to the double-standard encapsulated by the acceptance of heterosexual couples’ public displays of affection, and the negative view towards similarly affectionate homosexual couples) as well as the nature/culture duality. Butler argues for a fluid process of design, creation of more community space, and the construction of space-efficient housing such as Stephanie Malka’s “Pocket of Resistance” in France. In keeping with the themes of the day, Cameron Butler’s presentation once again drives home the idea of intersecting humanities with “hard science,” of allowing the human experience to shape our designs and to question the relationship between us and our environment. He presents the political implications of engineering, and shows off the home as a site of inquiry.

Cameron Butler explains his research to engaged guests at NiRC 2014. (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance photographer)

Cameron Butler explains his research to engaged guests at NiRC 2014. (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance photographer)

After a brief break for lunch during which attendees could view posters featuring some of many of the speakers’ research endeavours, NiRC continued with a talk by Dr Nitika Pai, assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill. Her latest research covers the creation and use of point of care tests for patient self-testing of different infectious illnesses, most notably HIV. These rapid tests will provide rapid diagnoses without any stigma, something which is reported to be a huge factor in the treatment and diagnosis of this disease. The latest at-home testing kit relies on urine samples or oral samples  which take 15 minutes to process, and are tested for the presence of HIV, Hepatitis C, and Hepatitis B. In July 2012, the FDA approved one such test which used oral mucosa fluid (a component of plasma) to test for HIV in a highly accurate manner. As Dr. Pai explained, “this approval was historic because it is leading to new ways of testing for other diseases, and there is a great push for this!” Doctors are interested in catching patients at an earlier path of their disease, especially with a highly treatable disease such as HIV. Although some worry about the accuracy of the results of an at-home testing kit, the specificity (how likely it is to diagnose people as negative if they are indeed negative) of the test ranges from 99.9 -100% and the sensitivity (the proportion of people that are positive and are correctly diagnosed) ranges from an unsupervised rate of 93-98% to a supervised rate of 97.4-97.9%. To counter this human error in testing, Dr. Pai has proposed an interactive phone app that walks you through the process of testing. The app would start off with some basic facts about the disease and its transmission and would ask users to rate their level of risk. Then it would provide the detailed steps needed to run the test, as well as post-test counselling information and how to contact a medical care professional. A version of this technology was recently tested in South Africa, a country with some of the highest rates of HIV and AIDS in the world. The truly radical outcome was that of those who tested negative, up to 44% also called in for counselling! Dr. Pai said this news was unprecedented, because for in-hospital testing, many patients aren’t even able to be contacted when the results come back in, and of those who test negative, few are heard from again. The desire for this negative-HIV population to find out more about the ways to reduce their risk of contracting HIV is only one of the side benefits of propagating the use of self-testing. It has also been shown to improve partner notification, as well as partner at-home testing!

Esther Bogorov (U3 Geography) was the next presenter. Her presentation, “From Unreal to Real: Designed Environments” took us through her research, which integrates the physical terrain of real world locations with the digital environment of video games, or in her own words, exploring the curious question of “what if real environments were designed for play?” Take for example Bingham Canyon Mine, an enormous open-pit copper mining operation surrounded by Utah’s snow capped mountains, just southwest of Salt Lake City. Using this very real location, Bogorov has “explored” the physical terrain by extracting and calculating slope data from different places, both in the mine and its surrounds, to construct a hydrology model which maps the water patterns of the mine, as well as the environment immediately surrounding it. The next step comes into importing this data in a “level design,” a term used to denote the “space” in which the game is played. The river patterns are scaled down to explorer paths, which can be designed by dividing the location into many nine-square grids, and assessing each of  these in terms of route complexity and direction. The implications of being able to construct this “game terrain” out of real life environments are exciting, as Bogorov proposes bridging this “strange disconnect” by synchronizing real space with imagined space, and pushing the real-world exploration potential of previously unexplored terrain.

Guido Guberman’s (U2 Cognitive Science) presentation, “Effects of Altered Auditory Feedback on Performance Timing Reveal Mechanisms of Error Detection,” is based on one of the most fascinating human capacity: to be able to produce long sequences of speech and music relatively rapidly and error-free. In order to accomplish this, we must be thinking a couple of steps ahead, planning what we want to produce next while we utter the current performance. Alterations in the feedback of our current work have an effect on this future production, as was investigated by Honours student Guido Guberman, who examined sequence production in piano players. Guberman asked pianists to memorize an isochronous melody and replay it on the piano; however, some participants’ feedback was occasionally manipulated to include incorrect tones. The manipulations were categorized into Future tones, Past tones or Unrelated tones. As suspected, the manipulation of this feedback led to timing errors in producing the rest of the melody, with Future tones (those that incorporated future notes of the melody) and Unrelated tones leading to the longest impairment, as measured by note duration. This supports the view that past events are suppressed whereas future events are more salient in the planning process for sequence production.

Courtney Ayukawa, Maggie Cascadden, and Clara Payro all worked together to produce a poster and presentation to explain “The Buzz on Bees.” Their work analyzed the effect of colony collapse disorder on the pollination of one of our favourite summer treats – watermelons. Based on their analysis, they assigned a monetary value to certain kinds of pollination, which they hope will help others understand precisely how literally and metaphorically valuable pollinators (like bees) are to our society and economy. All of the presenters are Interfaculty Arts and Science Program students, and their work is characteristic of some of the interdisciplinary work that exemplifies the goals of the program.

In his presentation entitled, “Ending the War in the Classroom: How to Solve the Debate Over Evolution,” Chad Serels (U2 Arts and Science student) unpacked some of survey data on the acceptance of evolution as scientific fact in the general population. Evolution is a particularly sensitive issue; oddly so, given that other scientific concepts don’t seem to encounter widespread opposition. (There are, however, notable exceptions to this generalization.) After presenting and lamenting the relatively low acceptance rates – particularly in the United States, where only 47% of the population accepts evolution – Serels discussed possible factors that have influenced such low acceptance rates and possible ways to increase acceptance. Serels noted that religion is a key correlate of evolution acceptance; 72% of reasons provided by individuals to explain why they do not accept evolution were grounded in religious beliefs. However, he emphasized that confronting religion will backfire and make individuals more defensive. Further, Serels noted that “religious” isn’t synonymous with “anti-science”, for a number of reasons. First, he noted that “there is no such concept as theistic mitotis, theistic gravity.” Clearly, then, the public is more than capable of accepting science. Serels also noted that “not all scientists are atheists,” and pointed to several successful scientists who hold religious beliefs and a survey on scientists’ spirituality. He believes that the best way to increase evolution acceptance is to change the environment in which scientists operate. Religious scientists need to be able to discuss their religious beliefs with their peers, without fear of being ridiculed. Further, scientists need to do (even more) public outreach. Serels also elaborated why increasing evolution acceptance is important.

Dr. Gad Saad, a professor at Concordia University, closed the conference with his presentation “The Evolutionary Roots of Our Consuming Instinct.” He first presented the case for biological roots of certain gender-based toy preferences, including evidence from animal studies. He also elaborated on the proposed biological roots of mate preferences, noting the relatively-static waist-hip ratios in statues and artwork from different civilizations and across millenia. Saad discounted entirely the cultural effect on either type of preference. An engaging presenter, Saad elicited laughs from the crowd and brought in elements from his personal life to illustrate selected examples. However, as one questioner noted, using evolutionary psychology to develop marketing strategies will necessarily exclude some segments of the population – specifically, LGBTQ individuals. The literature has generally ignored this segment of the population, although Saad speculated that the same general principles could be extrapolated.

Throughout the conference, we were thrilled to see so many undergraduate researchers participating in the final step of the scientific method – sharing their results. While we at MSURJ are used to helping students refine their writing skills to share their discoveries and outcomes on paper, presenting information clearly, concisely, and coherently is an important facet of any researcher’s career. It was an honour to attend this year’s National Integrative Research Conference.

With files from Kate Sheridan, Deborah Baremberg, and Tatiana Sanchez.

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