First Language Shapes Later Processing Patterns In The Brain

 

By Leanne Louie

Whether you still speak it or not, your first language dictates the way your brain processes languages learned later in life.

In a paper published in Nature Communications in early December, researchers at McGill and the Montreal Neurological Institute showed that children with different first languages had differing brain activation when performing a French language task. Of the three groups of children tested, one group had learned only French since birth. Another had known Chinese as their first language before adoption into French families, whereupon they learned only French and forgot their Chinese. The final group had Chinese as their first language, learning French as a second language around the same time as the adopted children, but retaining their Chinese. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers observed the brains of the children while they identified French pseudo-words, such as vapagne and chansette. Although all groups performed the task equally well, they had differing patterns of brain activation throughout it. The French speakers with no exposure to Chinese had activation in the brain areas normally associated with the processing of language-associated sounds (most prominently, the left inferior frontal gyrus and anterior insula). However, in the brains of the children who had learned Chinese as their first language, additional areas of the brain were activated (particularly the right middle frontal gyrus, left medial frontal cortex, and bilateral superior temporal gyrus), regardless of whether the first language was still spoken.

“These results suggest that exposure to a language early in life affects how the brain processes other languages that you learn later on, even if you stop using that early language,” explained Lara Pierce, a doctoral student at McGill and the first author on the paper. Scientists have long known that early childhood experiences such as being read to and hearing languages can shape long-term brain architecture. However, although early events can dictate neural development, the brain remains an adaptable and plastic organ, able to adjust to what it needs to learn later in life despite its underlying circuitry. Such is made obvious from the high proficiency of all of the children in French, each of the three groups performing the language task with great accuracy despite their different linguistic backgrounds. Thus, it’s clear that having a different first language doesn’t impede the ability to learn a second language— but early language experiences do influence the way the brain might learn and process future languages.

Such research contributes to a growing understanding of both neural development and neuroplasticity, demonstrating the influence that experience and environment have upon the brain. In the future, the scientists are interested in looking more in depth at the influence of early experiences on later language learning. One question of interest is how the results would differ if a first language more similar to French than Chinese, such as English, were to be tested. This would help to clarify how different elements of first languages might influence the learning of second languages. While it provides answers, this study also raises many new questions, paving new paths for future research on the brain.

To read the full article in Nature Communications: http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2015/151201/ncomms10073/full/ncomms10073.html

Photo Credit: Quinn Dombrowski – https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/16490650298
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We’ve been featured!

MSURJ, currently in its 11th year of print, was recently featured by the McGill Tribune as one of the best scientific publications at McGill, with a lovely segment written by Daniel Galef. At this time of the year while all of us here are hard at work putting together our newest volume, this was both a pleasant surprise and an honour.

Volume 11 of MSURJ will be published in March, 2016.

Until then, we, the MSURJ team, would like to thank our readers and contributors for their continued support.

(image: Huffington Post)

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.

Crickets, Cheese, and Computers: Ampersand 2014

Ampersand (Deborah Baremberg)

Alain Tascan, CEO of Sava Transmedia and Co-Founder of Ubisoft, presents at McGill’s Ampersand  Conference on March 22, 2014, recounting the history of disruptions in the gaming industry. (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance Photographer)

Interdisciplinary is hailed as the next big thing in academia and problem-solving. Bringing together two different disciplines and the perspectives of the people who work in them, and creating new academics who are comfortable with multiple subjects, will be paramount in tackling the complex problems inherent in modern innovation. When it comes to interdisciplinary studies at McGill, perhaps no one better understands the benefits and challenges of this approach than the students of the Bachelor of Arts and Science (B.A. & Sc.) and their association, the Bachelor of Arts and Science Integrative Council (BASiC). BASiC’s unique perspective and position – as interdisciplinary students with the power to organize and a budget – is exemplified in their annual Ampersand conference. This year, Ampersand combined two concepts that are usually thought to be incompatible – science and fiction – and explored how they shape our world and our lives.

On Friday, Jeff Dungen (CEO at ReelyActive) opened the conference with a dynamic presentation about the importance of integrating rational, quantifiable science and more effervescent creativity. Using the popular dichotomy the left and right brain’s respective symbolic roles, he spoke of his vision for the future as one of connectedness and an “Internet of Things.” He convincingly pushes for using technology to make things about “the human experience”; for example, allowing a room to tune into the number of people contained within it in order to allow it to adjust its temperature.

Hadi Adel, musician, treats the attendees of the first day of McGill's Ampersand Conference to a 78 minute set of background tunes on March 22, 2014. (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance Photographer)

Hadi Adel, musician, treats the attendees of the first day of McGill’s Ampersand Conference to a 78 minute set of background tunes on March 22, 2014. (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance Photographer)

Hadi Adel (musician and performer) followed up Dungen’s talk, keeping in line with the theme of unifying technology with creativity via the example of his own music. To paraphrase his main idea, technology and synthesizers take you far, but at the end of the day, you need to understand what you’re doing and know the theory of the music you wish to create. He exemplified this interplay in 78 minutes of prepared background score, which provided the atmosphere for the cocktail which followed his talk.

The next morning, Ampersand continued (despite a small delay due to the inclement weather), featuring five more engaging speakers. Christina Agapakis (synthetic biologist, artist, and writer), opened the day with a discussion centered around the necessity of diversity and cooperation – of looking at problems from different perspectives – in research and innovation within and without the scientific community. She set the stage by explaining the core of synthetic biology as a discipline which seeks to introduce the rigor and simplicity of engineering into the complexity of biology; using DNA as one would use screws and bolts in order to turn biology into the centerpiece of the next industrial revolution.

But Agapakis pointed out that a flawed central dogma is contained within our current model synthetic biology – DNA is viewed as an all-important, top-down commander of the development of a cell. This is contrary to the results of, for example, Natalie Jeremijenko, who planted 1000 trees cloned from the same genetic material, planted them in different areas, and found that the environment drastically changed their growth patterns. Agapakis chose to relate the perspective of DNA as a “machomolecule” that controls the outcomes of an organism to the alpha-male attitude of some prominent scientists in genetics, such as Craig Venter. Agapakis noted that Venter once said, when asked what his concerns were about the future, “well, I don’t worry about anything, because as an alpha-male, I believe I can and do work to solve problems and change the world.” Further, when discussing the possibility of cloning the Neanderthal, George Church said that cloning Neanderthals would be beneficial, as (genetic) diversity was needed. Unfortunately, Agapakis noted that women only appeared in this project when scientists were discussing the methods: all that was needed was a “particularly adventurous human female” to serve as a way for DNA to be replicated. She partially attributes these sorts of “tone-deaf” statements to the continued under-representation of women in science, arguing that a balance between genders is most conducive to innovative questions and solutions. We need to be aware “whose problem we [are] solving… who is going to benefit from this revolution” noted Agapakis. Limiting diversity, Agapakis explained, limits our imagination and our problem-solving capacity.  To illustrate this need for diversity, she cited data from the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. Prize-winning teams at iGEM have historically been more diverse than their competitors – 45% female versus 37% female, respectively. While it is difficult to determine causal links, it would seem that more diverse teams do better work. Her own artwork embodies a similar quest to showcase a different way of looking at things, for example making cheese out of bacteria cultivated from human subjects. By decontextualizing something as simple as a microbe, Agapakis hopes to give us “cheese for thinking,” and a contextualizing context for synthetic biology.

(Deborah Baremberg / Freelance Photographer)

Christina Agapakis, synthetic biologist, artist, and writer, emphasizes the importance of  tackling problems from diverse viewpoints in her talk at McGill’s Ampersand Conference on March 22, 2014. (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance Photographer)

This was followed by a presentation by Alison Sinclair, an author whose genre of choice is – appropriately enough – science fiction. She explained how science fiction is more than fiction; it has a relationship to the future, the present, science, and culture in that it is an attempt, however whimsical, to predict and influence the future.  Sinclair noted that this influence can be quite literal. “It’s not an accident that some science fiction writers… are not making their living” as futurists, she noted. The current state of things affects the kinds of predictions made in science fiction books, of course, but science fiction also affects the present; Sinclair invited us to consider the discourse drawn from Orwell’s 1984 when, for example, describing the NSA. “Big Brother” metaphors are shared knowledge only because of the tremendous impact of 1984 on our attitudes towards technology. Much like Agapakis, Sinclair emphasized the importance of diversity of thought in the process of innovation: the fundamental idea in science fiction is that things don’t have to be this way.

Alain Tascan, an entrepreneur in the gaming industry, current CEO of Sava Transmedia and one of the co-founders of Ubisoft, delivered the next talk and shifted the focus from how science shapes our imagination to how our imagination can shape our reality. He walked us through the history of disruptions in the gaming industry, structured by his own personal history. Attendees were taken from the early 1990s, when the first CDROMS were coming into use, to 2014, where mobile games are king and casual gamers are the major target market. Tascan also brought the city of Montreal into this history, pointing out that the conference was taking place only miles from they very place some of the earlier commercial 3D graphics were developed. The connections Tascan made with our city and the references he made to games we see every day – Angry Birds, Flappy Bird, and Candy Crush, to name a few – were appreciated by the audience, as was his description of the new business model for mobile games. “Now,” he said, “I’m not monetizing your entertainment. I’m monetizing your frustration.” All these disruptions and games in the industry has made him “scarexcited,” which he said was “scary, but exciting at the same time,” particularly for young people who are just beginning their career. “You are the people that should be the most excited,” he said to the crowd. “The older guys like me should be on the scary side, and you guys should be on the excited side.” Like Sinclair, Tascan’s talk emphasized an eye towards the future, and what we can do to mould the world in which we live.

Ovidiu Mija certainly has taken Tascan’s advice, and has used the disruption in the sharing economy to launch a company. Mija chose to discuss his path to his career as COO of Outpost Travel. Outpost Travel is, essentially, a search engine and “central hub” for sharing economy sites, which include AirBnB, Roomorama, and Flipkey. Currently, only the accommodations section of the site is live. Theoretically, rideshares and guided experiences will also be a part of the site; however, users who would like to use Outpost for these functions are told to check out the Outpost app available for iPhone and iPad, as these sections of the website are still in beta. Mija’s path to Outpost was a rocky one, including a very contentious stint at Dawson and a relatively lucrative career as a freelance web designer, which he described in detail. Those of you who have been paying attention to local news for a few years might recall the case of one student who was expelled from Dawson College after exposing a security flaw; this student was Mija’s friend and partner. While Mija was not expelled, he did not look back fondly on his time at Dawson. He was disappointed that the coursework he was doing wasn’t as immediately applicable as he had expected.

Mija’s presentation was followed by a brainstorming session, to try and expand the total market for sharing economy sites. The winning idea (which, full disclosure, Kate Sheridan’s team presented) involved emphasizing the trustworthiness of users on sharing economy sites by visually representing connections between users to possible hosts through integration of existing social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

Jakub Dzamba, a Ph.D. student in architecture at McGill, gave the final talk of Ampersand 2014. Dzamba may be familiar to some due to his involvement as a consultant to a team from McGill that won the 2013 Hult Prize competitionThe Abstract posted the responses given by the Hult Prize team and the Desautels Public Relations Office; Dzamba has also posted a number of illuminating documents related to the incidents on the website for his new company, Third Millennium Farming. His presentation was also focused around cricket farming and how new architectural designs can incorporate new, disruptive sustainable technologies. To illustrate (literally) how this could happen, he gave a tour of Toronto in 2050. Of course, crickets and other bugs were highly visible in this new city as a food source, which he says could be ground up, baked into incredibly high-protein flour, and used to make non-cricket-looking food products. While the food may not initially look appetizing, Dzamba noted that crickets tasted like “roasted almonds” and the cricket-based flour tastes like “bacon and roasted almonds.”

Crickets may not be the only source of food in the future; indeed Dzamba mentions they are a less than ideal microlivestock. Once a critical mass of crickets has been farmed, “the chirping is deafening,” he noted. Dzamba currently farms crickets in his home, and has managed to avoid conflict with his neighbours about his odd houseguests. He noted that the crickets can actually be great “white noise generators” – something that his neighbours appreciate, for now. The only sound made during his presentation was not from the box of live crickets Dzamba brought with him, but someone’s cricket-chirping ringtone going off during the presentation – much to everyone’s amusement. More innovative technologies were mentioned, including algae photo bioreactors found on buildings and within home window panes, and solar panels that follow the sun throughout the day.

Dzamba’s presentation was a wonderful way to close the conference, with an eye to the future and an optimistic perspective on how we might be able to take something that sounds like science fiction and bring it to reality. We hope to see more from Ampersand in the future, and look forward to seeing which frontiers they will push next in their quest for interdisciplinary innovation.

With files from Deborah Baremberg and Kate Sheridan.

Disclosures: KS received free admission as a member of the press, and a $10 gift certificate to Universel for her participation on the winning sharing economy challenge team. 

Sergeant Scientist: McGill’s Role in Military Research

Source: Douglas G. LaFon; U.S. Army/WIkimedia Commons.

(Douglas G. LaFon; U.S. Army/WIkimedia Commons)

McGill has a long and fascinating history of pseudo-military research: for example, the CIA conducted extremely damaging experiments on depatterning at the Douglas in the mid-1900s. More recently, you’ve probably seen a few simple grey stickers that attempt to lay out McGill’s current role in military research. These stickers have been created and posted by a group called Demilitarize McGill. This group, active in its most recent incarnation since early 2012, regrouped due to concerns about a possible war in Iran. While this group has adopted the same name that was associated with an effort in 2010 to change the McGill Research Ethics Policy, this group began as a separate entity. “The possibility of an imminent new war certainly played a part in encouraging a few of us to restart the kind of work that Demilitarize McGill had done in 2010,” Demilitarize McGill said via e-mail.  The work that members of this group chose to pursue include filing numerous Access to Information requests (ATIs), which have only recently been resolved. According to Demilitarize McGill, they “submitted access-to-information (ATI) requests [as individuals] to McGill in an effort to further solidify some of the connections we had been able to establish between McGill research and weapons development.”

McGill initially alleged that the extreme number of such requests were unreasonable. For this reason, they at first refused to fulfill them. Courts denied McGill the right to ignore all ATIs deemed “frivolous” or “overly broad”; last month, the McGill Daily reported that the ATI requests had been settled out of court. McGill will provide some of the information that has been requested, and some requests have been withdrawn. So, between February 28th and August 15th, McGill will release information about military research and fossil fuel investments. While Demilitarize McGill waited, they pursued information via other pathways. “We’ve actually had considerable success with research targeting publicly available information. By no means has this been a substitute for responses to our ATI requests, but we already know a lot about McGill’s military research on the basis of online and other public sources,” they said.

Undoubtedly, the work of Demilitarize McGill and the documents released as a result of the successful ATI requests will fuel commentary about the role McGill plays in controversial issues. It can be hard to process all the layers that separate researchers from drone strikes in Afghanistan. While none of Demilitarize McGill’s claims seem to be untrue, the relationship between McGill’s researchers and institutes and military research is murky at best.

Sticker shock

The ATI requests and the stickers we see around campus have particularly involve three McGill units: The Shockwave Physics Group (SWPG), the Institute of Air and Space Law (IASL), and the Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) lab. On the surface, none of these groups seem to have any directly military connection. However, Demilitarize McGill is concerned about the applications of their research and the possible conditions underlying the funding they receive.  The CFD lab exemplifies the concerns of Demilitarize McGill. This lab receives funding from a company based in Montreal that specializes in flight simulations. This company – CAE – is the recipient of a contract to train US Air Force drone pilots. The CFD lab also shares personnel with Newmerical Technologies, which sells software to drone and aircraft manufacturers. Specifically, Dr. Habashi – the lab’s director – is also the CEO of Newmerical Technologies. Demilitarize McGill claims that the “relationship clearly creates an incentive to shape CFD Lab research in favor of the needs of actual or potential Newmerical clients, in an industry where drones represent the fastest growing segment.” Habashi has cited drone crashes in Afghanistan as a potential motivation to pursue further CFD research – as he put it (in the linked paper): “crashing the computer is a hell of a lot preferable to crashing an airplane.”

The Institute for Air and Space Law (IASL) has also been a target. Demilitarize McGill has their resasons: “After an article was published last year about one of our walking tours which made a stop at the Institute for Air and Space Law, the Institute very publicly denounced our claims that they are in any way connected to military research. They did not mention the $500,000 Boeing Fellowship that began in 2008*, Boeing being a major weapons manufacturer whose main clients include the US Air Force. In this case, the IASL seems more interested in protecting their image than actually engaging with the question of ties to the military.”

McGill returns fire

The IASL, of course, has a different perspective. According to Professor Paul Dempsey, the Boeing Fellowship wasn’t tied to military research at all – the money went mostly towards funding graduate projects. “The money overwhelmingly went to students to cover tuition and living expenses,” Prof. Dempsey wrote in an e-mail to me, “and no students were required to do any specific research on military issues or anything else.  I remember one wrote a thesis on flying cars, another wrote on commercial spaceports, and another wrote on the regulation of small community airline service.” Some money was used for outreach activities, including conferences in Abu Dhabi, Macao, and New Delhi. Boeing executives spoke at these events but “not about military technology or military anything.  It was all about commercial aircraft.” Moreover, Prof. Dempsey wishes that Demilitarize McGill had spoken to them before making any claims or accusations in their extensive publications about the IASL and other organizations.

Advanced tactics

The group knows that it is unlikely that McGill’s research policy will ever specifically exclude military research: “it is far from clear that rejecting this research aligns with the interests of an institution as invested in a permanent war economy as is McGill. Therefore it is far from clear that we would get anywhere by petitioning the administration to reject this research. The University will defend its interests.” Instead, they hope that their ATIs serve to “create awareness about military research being done on campus and to open a dialogue between concerned students”, in the process allowing demilitarization to be challenged directly by students as a part of a larger effort to end militarization in the world. They also specify that: “we do not see our actions at McGill as separate from the greater fight to end militarization (…) We know that we must approach these issues in many ways to be most effective.”

While the group notes being “careful about the claims we make, and actively [pursuing] all relevant information,” their approach is still open to critique. McGill’s involvement in military research and relationship to active military operations is complex; it cannot – and perhaps should not – be summarized in a sentence on a sticker on the back of a bathroom stall. Everyone – researchers and members of Demilitarize McGill alike – would likely agree with something Prof. Dempsey wrote to me: “No one should throw hand grenades at innocent people” – be they literal or metaphorical. While Demilitarize McGill cannot be accused of falsifying the path between members of the McGill community and military forces beyond the Roddick Gates, they could be more careful about inflating what relationships do exist between McGill’s research or academic activities, and the military.

Neither the SWPG or the CFD lab could be reached for comment. 

Top Ten Scientific Breakthroughs: 2013 Edition

Were we to present our own informal awards to the top scientific discoveries of 2013, these ten breakthroughs would be at the top of our list. (Wikimedia Commons user Galileo Master / Wikimedia Commons)

Were we to present our own informal awards to the top scientific discoveries of 2013, these ten breakthroughs would be at the top of our list. (Wikimedia Commons user Galileo Master / Wikimedia Commons)

As an aspiring scientist, nothing excites me more than a good step forward in a research field, and by those standards, 2013 was a great year. The following are the discoveries that we at MSURJ think should have made the top ten.

Grunge colorful font. Number Coming in at number one, we have a topic perenially ripe for breakthroughs: cancer research. Even a couple of years ago, the field of  field of cancer immunotherapy – the mobilizing of the body’s immune system against tumours – was unsupported by the scientific community. However, this past year, clinical trials have solidified its viability as a treatment, although researchers admit that there’s much uncertainty as to which types of cancers and patients will benefit.

The idea started in the late 1980s, when French researchers identified a protein receptor on T-cells  (named CTLA-4) that prevented the immunity cells from releasing a full immune attack. Using this information, immunologist James Allison decided to block this protein blocker, thereby unleashing an immune assault on tumours in animal models. Initial results in mice showed that tumours shrunk, which gave the field momentum.

A couple of years later,  a Japanese biologist found a molecule PD-1 expressed by dying T-cells which also appeared to block them from releasing their full immune attack. Anti-PD-1 strategies were soon tested and appeared to have even better results, with fewer side effects than the anti-CTLA-4 treatments.

The latest advancement came this year from Steven Rosenberg. His chimeric antigen receptor therapy, or CAR,  aims to genetically modify a patient’s T-cells and use them to target cancerous cells in the body.  This therapy was applied by Carl June of the University of Pennsylvania  and has garnered impressive responses in some patients; 45 out of 75 adults and children with leukemia went into complete remission. CAR therapy is still relatively experimental, compared to the antibody strategies. However, all three methods have recently shown excellent trial results, leading the editor of Science to declare this concept “the birth of an important new paradigm shift for cancer treatment.”

Grunge colorful font. NumberThe next advancement will inspire lovers of biology and small things alike – I’m talking about the engineering of tiny “organoids” using pluripotent stem cells. Mini-kidneys, tiny hearts, and liver buds have been created in lab settings by researchers intent on using them as models of human disease. Little brains have already been used to gain more information on microcephaly – a neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs the growth of the brain.

three1 The idea of being invisible is supremely alluring and appeals to anyone’s who’s ever indulged in their imagination – or was envious of Harry Potter as he unwrapped his Invisibility Cloak. However, Harry’s infamous Christmas present became something less of a fantasy this year as scientists at the University of Toronto announced the creation of a device that can “cloak” objects by enveloping them in “small antennas that collectively radiate an electromagnetic field.” This field would cancel out any waves scattering off the hidden object. As professor George Eleftheriades explained, this approach differs from the method  of creating invisibility devices presented in 2006; here, the object does not have to be enveloped in “metamaterials,” which are impractical for real world use due to size considerations. Right now, the new approach is more suited to radio applications than light. However, since visual light is only a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum, we hope that the technology will rapidly improve to encompass the ability to scatter visual light.

four1When looking at the brain, nothing is clearer than CLARITY, the newest static brain imaging technique. CLARITY removes the fatty lipid molecules that form cell membranes and replaces them with molecules of a clear gel. The end result is transparent brain tissue, which can be processed with radioactive or fluorescent labels looking for specific proteins, cell types, or neurotransmitters. This technique could simplify basic molecular neurobiology tasks such as neuron counting, and allow scientists to see how different cell types are distributed throughout the brain – without having pesky lipid structures blocking the view.

fiveNews of the world’s first bionic eye rippled through the media in 2013, as it holds the promise to help 85% of the legally-blind population see the outlines of their surroundings. Created in Australia by a team of engineers and designers, the eye includes a small iPhone-like camera with a sensor to rotate it in conjunction with head movements. Much like an actual eye, this information goes through several levels of digital processing and is then sent wirelessly to a chip which is implanted into the occipital lobe. It codes and delivers its information as electric signals through microelectrodes, thereby stimulating the visual cortex, effectively allowing the brain to “see.”

sixAn innovation made in 2013 might change the way we harvest solar energy. A new material composed of cheap manufactured Perovskite crystals is already beating other developing solar cell designs; it can convert more than 15% of the energy in sunlight to electricity. Although still not as efficient as commercially-available silicon solar cells, the technology shows promise – because it is more economical. Most importantly, integrating the Perovskite layers among the silicon layers of a solar cell could lead to a hybrid material that could reach up to 30% sunlight-to-electricity efficiency.

sevenIt is striking to think that there are up to one hundred trillion microbe cells living and working inside your body – and we learned more about some of them in 2013. The variation of bacteria population in humans can affect responses to illness and medical treatments, to the point where scientists looking to develop personalized medicine will need to take into account each patient’s microbial portfolio to achieve the most effective treatments. In a 2013 study of obese mice, a boost in the mucus-eating gut bacterium Akkemansia muciniphila leads to weight loss even on a high-fat diet, leading scientists to predict that people who are obese or have Type 2 diabetes might have lower levels of the bacterium.

eightSeveral breakthroughs this year came from the innovative technique of 3D printing – that is, piling layers of material (usually plastic) to create a complete miniature structure. Although a breakthrough all on its own, 3D printing has found its way into several independently-important research fields. One application came from Harvard, where scientists who used material composed of lithium metal oxide particles to make a pin-sized lithium ion battery which is able to store as much energy per gram as the larger versions of its kind, currently known for powering items as diverse as electric cars and laptops. One prospective use for these is in powering miniscule medical devices and tiny robots.

nineJust when you thought you couldn’t get more anonymous, researchers at California Institute of Technology have estimated that of the 8.8 billion stars in the Milky Way (which is our galaxy), one of every five could have Earth-sized planets orbiting in what is referred to as the “Goldilocks zone.” This zone is “just the right distance” from the star to allow oceans – and life – to potentially exist. These stars were discovered through the use of the Kepler telescope; the next step is to see whether these exoplanets have an atmosphere, which is another indicator that they could potentially support life.

ten

In 1977, NASA sent out Voyager 1 on a mission to reach Jupiter and Saturn. 36 years later, the spacecraft has finally reached the edge of the heliosphere – a boundary of the solar system where the sun’s gravitational influence is no longer prominent. While the actual crossing happened in 2012, an aftershock of solar storms in September 2013 allowed scientists to confirm that the spacecraft was indeed 18.8 billion kilometres away from Earth. Pretty fast for something built in the 70s, huh?

In 2013, science took us one step closer to solving complex problems in healthcare and energy consumption; allowed us to see the far reaches of deep space and to zoom into the mysteries of the brain; to print tiny batteries and to construct invisibility fields. We hope that this year, researchers continue to build on these impressive achievements, making 2014 just as memorable for Science.