Tag Archives: University of British Columbia

TRIUMF accelerator used by US researchers to visualize properties of nanoscale materials

The US researchers are at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and while it’s not explicitly stated I’m assuming the accelerator they mention at TRIUMF (Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics) has something special as there are accelerators in California and other parts of the US.

A July 15, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now announces the latest on visualizing the properties of nanoscale materials,

Scientists trying to improve the semiconductors that power our electronic devices have focused on a technology called spintronics as one especially promising area of research. Unlike conventional devices that use electrons’ charge to create power, spintronic devices use electrons’ spin. The technology is already used in computer hard drives and many other applications — and scientists believe it could eventually be used for quantum computers, a new generation of machines that use quantum mechanics to solve complex problems with extraordinary speed.

A July 15, 2015 UCLA news release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme and briefly mentions TRIUMF’s accelerator (Note: A link has been removed),

Emerging research has shown that one key to greatly improving performance in spintronics could be a class of materials called topological insulators. Unlike ordinary materials that are either insulators or conductors, topological insulators function as both simultaneously — on the inside, they are insulators but on their exteriors, they conduct electricity.

But topological insulators have certain defects that have so far limited their use in practical applications, and because they are so tiny, scientists have so far been unable to fully understand how the defects impact their functionality.

The UCLA researchers have overcome that challenge with a new method to visualize topological insulators at the nanoscale. An article highlighting the research, which was which led by Louis Bouchard, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Dimitrios Koumoulis, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar, was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The new method is the first use of beta‑detected nuclear magnetic resonance to study the effects of these defects on the properties of topological insulators.

The technique involves aiming a highly focused stream of ions at the topological insulator. To generate that beam of ions, the researchers used a large particle accelerator called a cyclotron, which accelerates protons through a spiral path inside the machine and forces them to collide with a target made of the chemical element tantalum. This collision produces lithium-8 atoms, which are ionized and slowed down to a desired energy level before they are implanted in the topological insulators.

In beta‑detected nuclear magnetic resonance, ions (in this case, the ionized lithium-8 atoms) of various energies are implanted in the material of interest (the topological insulator) to generate signals from the material’s layers of interest.

Bouchard said the method is particularly well suited for probing regions near the surfaces and interfaces of different materials.

In the UCLA research, the high sensitivity of the beta‑detected nuclear magnetic resonance technique and its ability to probe materials allowed the scientists to “see” the impacts of the defects in the topological insulators by viewing the electronic and magnetic properties beneath the surface of the material.

The researchers used the large TRIUMF cyclotron in Vancouver, British Columbia.

According to the UCLA news release, there were also researchers from the University of British Columbia, the University of Texas at Austin and Northwestern University involved with the work.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Nanoscale β-nuclear magnetic resonance depth imaging of topological insulators by Dimitrios Koumoulis, Gerald D. Morris, Liang He, Xufeng Kou, Danny King, Dong Wang, Masrur D. Hossain, Kang L. Wang, Gregory A. Fiete, Mercouri G. Kanatzidis, and Louis-S. Bouchard. PNAS July 14, 2015 vol. 112 no. 28 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1502330112

This paper is behind a paywall.

Yarns of niobium nanowire for small electronic device boost at the University of British Columbia (Canada) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US)

It turns out that this research concerning supercapacitors is a collaboration between the University of British Columbia (Canada) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). From a July 7, 2015 news item by Stuart Milne for Azonano,

A team of researchers from MIT and University of British Columbia has discovered an innovative method to deliver short bursts of high power required by wearable electronic devices.

Such devices are used for monitoring health and fitness and as such are rapidly growing in the consumer electronics industry. However, a major drawback of these devices is that they are integrated with small batteries, which fail to deliver sufficient amount of power required for data transmission.

According to the research team, one way to resolve this issue is to develop supercapacitors, which are capable of storing and releasing short bursts of electrical power required to transmit data from smartphones, computers, heart-rate monitors, and other wearable devices. supercapacitors can also prove useful for other applications where short bursts of high power is required, for instance autonomous microrobots.

A July 7, 2015 MIT news release provides more detail about the research,

The new approach uses yarns, made from nanowires of the element niobium, as the electrodes in tiny supercapacitors (which are essentially pairs of electrically conducting fibers with an insulator between). The concept is described in a paper in the journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces by MIT professor of mechanical engineering Ian W. Hunter, doctoral student Seyed M. Mirvakili, and three others at the University of British Columbia.

Nanotechnology researchers have been working to increase the performance of supercapacitors for the past decade. Among nanomaterials, carbon-based nanoparticles — such as carbon nanotubes and graphene — have shown promising results, but they suffer from relatively low electrical conductivity, Mirvakili says.

In this new work, he and his colleagues have shown that desirable characteristics for such devices, such as high power density, are not unique to carbon-based nanoparticles, and that niobium nanowire yarn is a promising an alternative.

“Imagine you’ve got some kind of wearable health-monitoring system,” Hunter says, “and it needs to broadcast data, for example using Wi-Fi, over a long distance.” At the moment, the coin-sized batteries used in many small electronic devices have very limited ability to deliver a lot of power at once, which is what such data transmissions need.

“Long-distance Wi-Fi requires a fair amount of power,” says Hunter, the George N. Hatsopoulos Professor in Thermodynamics in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, “but it may not be needed for very long.” Small batteries are generally poorly suited for such power needs, he adds.

“We know it’s a problem experienced by a number of companies in the health-monitoring or exercise-monitoring space. So an alternative is to go to a combination of a battery and a capacitor,” Hunter says: the battery for long-term, low-power functions, and the capacitor for short bursts of high power. Such a combination should be able to either increase the range of the device, or — perhaps more important in the marketplace — to significantly reduce size requirements.

The new nanowire-based supercapacitor exceeds the performance of existing batteries, while occupying a very small volume. “If you’ve got an Apple Watch and I shave 30 percent off the mass, you may not even notice,” Hunter says. “But if you reduce the volume by 30 percent, that would be a big deal,” he says: Consumers are very sensitive to the size of wearable devices.

The innovation is especially significant for small devices, Hunter says, because other energy-storage technologies — such as fuel cells, batteries, and flywheels — tend to be less efficient, or simply too complex to be practical when reduced to very small sizes. “We are in a sweet spot,” he says, with a technology that can deliver big bursts of power from a very small device.

Ideally, Hunter says, it would be desirable to have a high volumetric power density (the amount of power stored in a given volume) and high volumetric energy density (the amount of energy in a given volume). “Nobody’s figured out how to do that,” he says. However, with the new device, “We have fairly high volumetric power density, medium energy density, and a low cost,” a combination that could be well suited for many applications.

Niobium is a fairly abundant and widely used material, Mirvakili says, so the whole system should be inexpensive and easy to produce. “The fabrication cost is cheap,” he says. Other groups have made similar supercapacitors using carbon nanotubes or other materials, but the niobium yarns are stronger and 100 times more conductive. Overall, niobium-based supercapacitors can store up to five times as much power in a given volume as carbon nanotube versions.

Niobium also has a very high melting point — nearly 2,500 degrees Celsius — so devices made from these nanowires could potentially be suitable for use in high-temperature applications.

In addition, the material is highly flexible and could be woven into fabrics, enabling wearable forms; individual niobium nanowires are just 140 nanometers in diameter — 140 billionths of a meter across, or about one-thousandth the width of a human hair.

So far, the material has been produced only in lab-scale devices. The next step, already under way, is to figure out how to design a practical, easily manufactured version, the researchers say.

“The work is very significant in the development of smart fabrics and future wearable technologies,” says Geoff Spinks, a professor of engineering at the University of Wollongong, in Australia, who was not associated with this research. This paper, he adds, “convincingly demonstrates the impressive performance of niobium-based fiber supercapacitors.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

High-Performance Supercapacitors from Niobium Nanowire Yarns by Seyed M. Mirvakili, Mehr Negar Mirvakili, Peter Englezos, John D. W. Madden, and Ian W. Hunter. ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces, 2015, 7 (25), pp 13882–13888 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.5b02327 Publication Date (Web): June 12, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Synthetic Aesthetics update and an informal Canadian synthetic biology roundup

Amanda Ruggeri has written a very good introduction to synthetic biology for nonexperts in her May 20, 2015 Globe and Mail article about ‘Designing for the Sixth Extinction’, an exhibit showcasing designs and thought experiments focused on synthetic biology ,

In a corner of Istanbul’s Design Biennial late last year [2014], photographs of bizarre creatures sat alongside more conventional displays of product design and typefaces. Diaphanous globes, like transparent balloons, clung to the mossy trunk of an oak tree. Rust-coloured patterns ran across green leaves, as if the foliage had been decorated with henna. On the forest floor, a slug-like creature slithered, its back dotted with gold markings; in another photograph, what looked like a porcupine without a head crawled over the dirt, its quills tipped blood-red.

But as strange as the creatures looked, what they actually are is even stranger. Not quite living things, not quite machines, these imagined prototypes inhabit a dystopic, future world – a world in which they had been created to solve the problems of the living. The porcupine, for example, is an Autonomous Seed Disperser, described as a device that would collect and disperse seeds to increase biodiversity. The slug would be programmed to seek out acidic soils and neutralize them by dispersing an alkali hygroscopic fluid.

They are the designs – and thought experiments – of London-based Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, designer, artist and lead author of the book Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature. In her project Designing for the Sixth Extinction, which after Istanbul is now on display at the Design Museum in London, Ginsberg imagines what a synthetic biology-designed world would look like – and whether it’s desirable. “

I have a couple of comments. First, the ‘Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature’ book launch last year was covered here in a May 5, 2014 post. where you’ll notice a number of the academics included in Ruggeri’s article are contributors to the book (but not mentioned as such). Second, I cannot find ‘Design for the Sixth Extinction’ listed as an exhibition on London’s Design Museum website.

Getting back to the matter at hand, not all of the projects mentioned in Ruggeri’s article are ‘art’ projects, there is also this rather practical and controversial initiative,

Designing even more complex organisms is the inevitable, and controversial, next step. And those designs have already begun. The British company Oxitec has designed a sterile male mosquito. When the bugs are released into nature and mate, no offspring result, reducing the population or eliminating it altogether. This could be a solution to dengue fever, a mosquito-carried disease that infects more than 50 million people each year: In field trials in Cayman, Panama and Brazil, the wild population of the dengue-carrying mosquito species was reduced by 90 per cent. Yet, as a genetically engineered solution, it also makes some skittish. The consequences of such manipulations remain unforeseen, they say. Proponents counter that the solution is more elegant, and safer, than the current practice of spraying chemicals.

Even so, the engineered mosquito leads to overarching questions: What are the dangers of tinkering with life? Could this cause a slide toward eugenics? Currently, the field doesn’t have an established ethics oversight process, something some critics are pushing to change.

It’s a surprising piece for the Globe and Mail newspaper to run since it doesn’t have a Canadian angle to it and the Globe and Mail doesn’t specialize in science (not withstanding Ivan Semeniuk’s science articles) or art/science or synthetic biology writing, for that matter. Perhaps it bodes an interest and more pieces on emerging science and technology and on art/science projects?

In any event, it seems like a good time to review some of the synthetic biology work or the centres of activity in Canada.  I believe the last time I tackled this particular topic was in a May 24, 2010 post titled, Canada and synthetic biology in the wake of the first ‘synthetic’ bacteria.

After a brief search, I found three centres for research:

Concordia [University] Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology (CASB)

[University of Toronto] The Synthetic Biology and Cellular Control Lab

[University of British Columbia] Centre for High-Throughput Biology (CHiBi)

Following an Oct. 27 – 28, 2014 UK-Canada Synthetic Biology Workshop held at Concordia University, Rémi Quirion, Vincent Martin, Pierre Meulien and Marc LePage co-wrote a Nov. 4, 2014 Concordia University post titled, How Canada is poised to revolutionize synthetic biology,

Rémi Quirion is the Chief Scientist of Québec, Fonds de recherche du Québec. Vincent Martin is Canada Research Chair in Microbial Genomics and Engineering and a professor in the Department of Biology at Concordia University in Montreal. Pierre Meulien is President and CEO of Genome Canada. Marc LePage is the President and CEO of Génome Québec.

Canada’s research and business communities have an opportunity to become world leaders in a burgeoning field that is fast shaping how we deal with everything from climate change to global food security and the production of lifesaving medications. The science of synthetic biology has the transformative capacity to equip us with novel technology tools and products to build a more sustainable society, while creating new business and employment opportunities for the economy of tomorrow.

We can now decipher the code of life for any organism faster and less expensively than ever before. Canadian scientists are producing anti-malarial drugs from organic materials that increase the availability and decrease the cost of lifesaving medicines. They are also developing energy efficient biofuels to dramatically reduce environmental and manufacturing costs, helping Canadian industry to thrive in the global marketplace.

The groundwork has also been laid for a Canadian revolution in the field. Canada’s scientific community is internationally recognized for its leadership in genomics research and strong partnerships with key industries. Since 2000, Genome Canada and partners have invested more than $2.3 billion in deciphering the genomes of economically important plants, animals and microbes in order to understand how they function. A significant proportion of these funds has been invested in building the technological toolkits that can be applied to synthetic biology.

But science cannot do it alone. Innovation on this scale requires multiple forms of expertise in order to be successful. Research in law, business, social sciences and humanities is vital to addressing questions of ethics, supply chain management, social innovation and cultural adaptation to new technologies. Industry knowledge and investments, as well as the capacity to incentivize entrepreneurship, are key to devising business models that will enable new products to thrive. Governments and funding agencies also need to do their part by supporting multidisciplinary research, training and infrastructure.

It’s a bit ‘hype happy’ for my taste but it does provide some fascinating insight in what seems to be a male activity in Canada.

Counterbalancing that impression is an Oct. 6, 2013 article by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail about a University of Lethbridge team winning the top prize in a synthetic biology contest,

If you want to succeed in the scientific revolution of the future, it helps to think about life as a computer program.

That strategy helped University of Lethbridge students walk away with the top prize in a synthetic biology competition Sunday. Often touted as the genetic equivalent of the personal computer revolution, synthetic biology involves thinking about cells as programmable machines that can be designed and built to suit a particular need – whether it’s mass producing a vaccine or breaking down a hazardous chemical in the environment.

The five member Lethbridge team came up with a way to modify how cells translate genetic information into proteins. Rather than one bit of DNA carrying the information to make one protein – the usual way cells go about their business – the method involves inserting a genetic command that jiggles a cell’s translational machinery while it’s in mid-operation, coaxing it to produce two proteins out of the same DNA input.

“We started off with a computer analogy – kind of like zipping your files together – so you’d zip two protein sequences together and therefore save space,” said Jenna Friedt, a graduate student in biochemistry at Lethbridge. [emphasis mine]

There are concerns other than gender issues, chief amongst them, ethics. The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network maintains an information page on Synthetic Biology which boasts this as its latest update,

October 2014: In a unanimous decision of 194 countries, the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity formally urged countries to regulate synthetic biology, a new extreme form of genetic engineering. The landmark decision follows ten days of hard-fought negotiations between developing countries and a small group of wealthy biotech-friendly economies. Until now, synthetic organisms have been developed and commercialized without international regulations. …

Finally, there’s a June 2014 synthetic biology timeline from the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society, and Policy (ISSP) which contextualizes Canadian research, policy and regulation with Australia, the European Union, the UK, and the US.

(On a closely related note, there’s my May 14, 2015 post about genetic engineering and newly raised concerns.)

Research2Reality: a science media engagement experience dedicated to Canadian science

As of May 11, 2015, Canadians will be getting an addition to their science media environment (from the May 4, 2015 news release),

Research2Reality to celebrate Canadian research stars

Social media initiative to popularize scientific innovation

May 4, 2015, TORONTO – On Monday, May 11, Research2Reality.com goes live and launches a social media initiative that will make the scientist a star. Following in the footsteps of popular sites like IFLScience and How Stuff Works, Research2Reality uses a video series and website to engage the community in the forefront of scientific discoveries made here in Canada.

The interviews feature some of Canada’s leading researchers such as Dick Peltier – director of the Centre for Global Change Science at the University of Toronto, Sally Aitken – director of the Centre for Forest Conservation Genetics at the University of British Columbia and Raymond Laflamme – executive director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo.

“Right now many Canadians don’t understand the scope of cutting-edge work being done in our backyards,” says Research2Reality co-founder and award-winning professor Molly Shoichet. “This initiative will bridge that gap between researchers and the public.”

Also launching Monday, May 11, courtesy of Research2Reality’s official media partner, Discovery Science, is a complementary website www.sciencechannel.ca/Shows/Research2Reality. The new website will feature the exclusive premieres of a collection of interview sessions. In addition, Discovery Science and Discovery will broadcast an imaginative series of public service announcements through the end of the year, while social media accounts will promote Research2Reality, including Discovery’s flagship science and technology program DAILY PLANET.

About Research2Reality:
Research2Reality is a social media initiative designed to popularize the latest Canadian research. It was founded by Molly Shoichet, Professor of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering at the University of Toronto, and Mike MacMillan, founder and producer of Lithium Studios Productions. Research2Reality’s founding partners are leading research-intensive universities – the University of Alberta, the University of British Columbia, McMaster University, the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo, and Western University – along with the Ontario Government and Discovery Networks. Discovery Science is the official media partner. Research2Reality is also supported by The Globe and Mail.

Research2Reality details

A Valentine of sorts to Canadian science researchers from Molly Shoichet (pronounced shoy [and] quette as in David Arquette)  and her producing partner Mike MacMillan of Lithium Studios, Research2Reality gives Canadians an opportunity to discover online some of the extraordinary work done by scientists of all stripes, including (unusually) social scientists, in this country. The top tier in this effort is the interview video series ‘The Orange Chair Sessions‘  which can be found and shared across

Shoichet and MacMillan are convinced there’s an appetite for more comprehensive science information. Supporting The Orange Chair Sessions is a complementary website operated by Discovery Channel where there are

  • more interviews
  • backgrounders,
  • biographies,
  • blogs, and
  • links to other resources

Discovery Channel is also going to be airing special one minute  public service announcements (PSA) on topics like water, quantum computing, and cancer. Here’s one of the first of those PSAs,

“I’m very excited about this and really hope that other people will be too,” says Shoichet. The audience for the Research2Reality endeavour is for people who like to know more and have questions when they see news items about science discoveries that can’t be answered by investigating mainstream media programmes or trying to read complex research papers.

This is a big undertaking. ” Mike and I thought about this for about two years.” Building on the support they received from the University of Toronto, “We reached out to the vice-presidents of research at the top fifteen universities in the country.” In the end, six universities accepted the invitation to invest in this project,

  • the University of British Columbia,
  • the University of Alberta,
  • Western University (formerly the University of Western Ontario),
  • McMaster University,
  • Waterloo University, and, of course,
  • the University of Toronto

(Unfortunately, Shoichet was not able to answer a question about the cost for an individual episode but perhaps when there’s time that detail and more about the financing will be made available. [ETA May 11, 2015 1625 PDT: Ivan Semeniuk notes this is a $400,000 project in his Globe and Mail May 11, 2015 article.]) As part of their involvement, the universities decide which of their researchers/projects should be profiled then Research2Reality swings into action. “We shoot our own video, that is, we (Mike and I) come out and conduct interviews that take approximately fifteen minutes. We also shoot a b-roll, that is, footage of the laboratories and other relevant sites so it’s not all ‘talking heads’.” Shoichet and MacMillan are interested in the answer to two questions, “What are you doing? and Why do we care?” Neither interviewer/producer is seen or heard on camera as they wanted to keep the focus on the researcher.

Three videos are being released initially with another 67 in the pipeline for a total of 70.  The focus is on research of an international calibre and one of the first interviews to be released (Shoichet’s will be release later) is Raymond Laflamme’s (he’s also featured in the ‘quantum PSA’.

Raymond Laflamme

Who convinces a genius that he’s gotten an important cosmological concept wrong or ignored it? Alongside Don Page, Laflamme accomplished that feat as one of Stephen Hawking’s PhD students at the University of Cambridge. Today (May 11, 2015), Laflamme is (from his Wikipedia entry)

… co-founder and current director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. He is also a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Waterloo and an associate faculty member at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Laflamme is currently a Canada Research Chair in Quantum Information.

Laflamme changed his focus from quantum cosmology to quantum information while at Los Alamos, “To me, it seemed natural. Not much of a change.” It is the difference between being a theoretician and an experimentalist and anyone who’s watched The Big Bang Theory (US television programme) knows that Laflamme made a big leap.

One of his major research interests is quantum cryptography, a means of passing messages you can ensure are private. Laflamme’s team and a team in Vienna (Austria) have enabled two quantum communication systems, one purely terrestrial version, which can exchange messages with another such system up to 100 km. away. There are some problems yet to be solved with terrestrial quantum communication. First, buildings, trees, and other structures provide interference as does the curvature of the earth. Second, fibre optic cables absorb some of the photons en route.

Satellite quantum communication seems more promising as these problems are avoided altogether. The joint Waterloo/Vienna team of researchers has  conducted successful satellite experiments in quantum communication in the Canary Islands.

While there don’t seem to be any practical, commercial quantum applications, Laflamme says that isn’t strictly speaking the truth, “In the last 10  to 15 years many ideas have been realized.” The talk turns to quantum sensing and Laflamme mentions two startups and notes he can’t talk about them yet. But there is Universal Quantum Devices (UQD), a company that produces parts for quantum sensors. It is Laflamme’s startup, one he co-founded with two partners. (For anyone unfamiliar with the Canadian academic scene, Laflamme’s home institution, the University of Waterloo, is one of the most actively ‘innovative’ and business-oriented universities in Canada.)

LaFlamme’s interests extend beyond laboratory work and business. He’s an active science communicator as can be seen in this 2010 TEDxWaterloo presentation where he takes his audience from the discovery of fire to quantum physics concepts such as a ‘quantum superposition’ and the ‘observer effect’ to the question, ‘What is reality?’ in approximately 18 mins.

For anyone who needs a little more information, a quantum superposition is a term referring the ability of a quantum object to inhabit two states simultaneously, e.g., on/off. yes/no, alive/dead, as in Schrödinger’s cat. (You can find out more about quantum superpositions in this Wikipedia essay and about Schrodinger’s cat in this Wikipedia essay.) The observer effect is a phenomenon whereby the observer of a quantum experiment affects that experiment by the act of observing it. (You can find out more about the observer effect in this Wikipedia essay.)

The topic of reality is much trickier to explain. No one has yet been able to offer a viable theory for why the world at the macro scale behaves one way (classical physics) and the world at the quantum scale behaves another way (quantum physics). As Laflamme notes, “There is no such thing as a superposition in classical physics but we can prove in the laboratory that it exists in quantum physics.” He goes on to suggest that children, raised in an environment where quantum physics and its applications are commonplace, will have an utterly different notion as to what constitutes reality.

Laflamme is also interested in music and consulted on a ‘quantum symphony’. He has this to say about it in an Sept. 20, 2012 piece on the University of Waterlo website,

Science and art share a common goal — to help us understand our universe and ourselves.  Research at IQC [Institute for Quantum Computing] aims to provide important new understanding of nature’s building blocks, and devise methods to turn that understanding into technologies beneficial for society.Since founding IQC a decade ago, I have sought ways to bridge science and the arts, with the belief that scientific discovery itself is a source of beauty and inspiration.  Our collaboration with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony was an example — one of many yet to come — of how science and the arts provide different but complementary insights into our universe and ourselves.

I wrote about the IQC and the symphony which debuted at the IQC’s opening in a Sept. 25, 2012 posting.

Music is not the only art which has attracted Laflamme’s talents. He consulted on a documentary, The Quantum Tamers: Revealing our weird and wired future, a co-production between Canada’s Perimeter Institute and Title Entertainment,

From deep inside the sewers of Vienna, site of groundbreaking quantum teleportation experiments, to cutting-edge quantum computing labs, to voyages into the minds of the world’s brightest thinkers, including renowned British scientist Stephen Hawking, this documentary explores the coming quantum technological revolution.

All of this suggests an interest in science not seen since the 19th century when scientists could fill theatres for their lectures. Even Hollywood is capitalizing on this interest. Laflamme, who saw ‘Interstellar’, ‘The Imitation Game’ (Alan Turing), and ‘The Theory of Everything’ (Stephen Hawking) in fall 2014 comments, “I was surprised by how much science there was in The Imitation Game and Interstellar.” As for the Theory of Everything, “I was apprehensive since I know Stephen well. But, the actor, Eddie Redmayne, and the movie surprised me. There were times when he moved his head or did something in a particular way—he was Stephen. Also, most people don’t realize what an incredible sense of humour Stephen has and the movie captured that well.” Laflamme also observed that it was a movie about a relationship and not really concerned with science and its impacts (good and ill) or scientific accomplishments.  Although he allows, “It could have had more science.”

Research2Reality producers

Molly Shoichet

Co-producer Shoichet has sterling scientific credentials of her own. In addition to this science communication project, she runs the Shoichet Lab at the University of Toronto (from the Dr. Molly Shoichet bio page),

Dr. Molly Shoichet holds the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering and is University Professor of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry, Chemistry and Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto. She is an expert in the study of Polymers for Drug Delivery & Regeneration which are materials that promote healing in the body.

Dr. Shoichet has published over to 480 papers, patents and abstracts and has given over 310 lectures worldwide.  She currently leads a laboratory of 25 researchers and has graduated 134 researchers over the past 20 years.  She founded two spin-off companies from research in her laboratory.

Dr. Shoichet is the recipient of many prestigious distinctions and the only person to be a Fellow of Canada’s 3 National Academies: Canadian Academy of Sciences of the Royal Society of Canada, Canadian Academy of Engineering, and Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. Dr. Shoichet holds the Order of Ontario, Ontario’s highest honour and is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2013, her contributions to Canada’s innovation agenda and the advancement of knowledge were recognized with the QEII Diamond Jubilee Award. In 2014, she was given the University of Toronto’s highest distinction, University Professor, a distinction held by less than 2% of the faculty.

Mike MacMillan

MacMIllan’s biography (from the Lithium Studios website About section hints this is his first science-oriented series (Note: Links have been removed),

Founder of Lithium Studios Productions
University of Toronto (‘02)
UCLA’s Professional Producing Program (‘11)

His first feature, the dark comedy / thriller I Put a Hit on You (2014, Telefilm Canada supported), premiered at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival in Park City. Guidance (2014, Telefilm Canada supported, with super producer Alyson Richards over at Edyson), a dark comedy/coming of age story is currently in post-production, expected to join the festival circuit in September 2014.

Mike has produced a dozen short films with Toronto talents Dane Clark and Linsey Stewart (CAN – Long Branch, Margo Lily), Samuel Fluckiger (SWISS – Terminal, Nightlight) and Darragh McDonald (CAN – Love. Marriage. Miscarriage.). They’ve played at the top film fests around the world and won a bunch of awards.

Special skills include kickass hat collection and whiskey. Bam.

Final comments

It’s nice to see the Canadian scene expanding; I’m particularly pleased to learn social scientists will be included.Too often researchers from the physical sciences or natural sciences and researchers from the social sciences remain aloof from each other. In April 2013, I attended a talk by Evelyn Fox Keller, physicist, feminist, and philosopher, who read from a paper she’d written based on a then relatively recent experience in South Africa where researchers had aligned themselves in two different groups and refused to speak to each other. They were all anthropologists but the sticking point was the type of science they practiced. One group were physical anthropologists and the other were cultural anthropologists. That’s an extreme example unfortunately symptomatic of a great divide. Bravo to Research2Reality for bringing the two groups together.

As for the science appetite Shoichet and MacMillan see in Canada, this is not the only country experiencing a resurgence of interest; they’ve been experiencing a science media expansion in the US.  Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Star Talk television talk show, which also exists as a radio podcast, debuted on April 19, 2015 (Yahoo article by Calla Cofield); Public Radio Exchange’s (PRX) Transistor; a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) audio project debuted in Feb. 2015; and video podcast Science Goes to the Movies also debuted in Feb. 2015 (more about the last two initiatives in my March 6, 2015 posting [scroll down about 40% of the way]). Finally (for the burgeoning US science media scene) and neither least nor new, David Bruggeman has a series of posts titled, Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of …, on his Pasco Phronesis blog which has been running for many years. Bruggeman’s series is being included here because most people don’t realize that US late night talk shows have jumped into the science scene. You can check  David’s site here as he posts this series on Mondays and this is Monday, May 11, 2015.

It’s early days for Research2Reality and it doesn’t yet have the depth one might wish. The videos are short (the one featured on the Discovery Channel’s complementary website is less than 2 mins. and prepare yourself for ads). They may not be satisfying from an information perspective but what makes The Orange Chair Series fascinating is the peek into the Canadian research scene. Welcome to Research2Reality and I hope to hear more about you in the coming months.

[ETA May 11, 2015 at 1625 PDT: Semeniuk’s May 11, 2015 article mentions a few other efforts to publicize Canadian research (Note: Links have been removed),

For example, Research Matters, a promotional effort by the Council of Ontario Universities, has built up a large bank of short articles on its website that highlight researchers across the province. Similarly, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which channels federal dollars toward research infrastructure and projects, produces features stories with embedded videos about the scientists who are enabled by their investments.

What makes Research2Reality different, said Dr. Shoichet, is an approach that doesn’t speak for one region, field of research of  [sic] funding stream.

One other aspect which distinguishes Research2Reality from the other science promotion efforts is the attempt to reach out to the audience. The Canada Foundation for Innovation and Council for Ontario Universities are not known for reaching out directly to the general public.]

Café Scientifique (Vancouver, Canada) makes a ‘happy’ change: new speaker for April 28, 2015

For the first time since I’ve started posting about Vancouver’s Café Scientifique there’s been a last minute change of speakers. It’s due to an addition to Dr. Kramer’s family. Congratulations!

So, Tuesday, April 28, 2015’s  Café Scientifique, held in the back room of The Railway Club (2nd floor of 579 Dunsmuir St. [at Seymour St.], will be hosting a talk from a different speaker and on a different topic,

Ph.D candidate and Vanier Scholar, Kostadin Kushlev from the Department of Psychology at UBC presenting his exciting research. Details are as follows:

Always Connected: How Smartphones May be Disconnecting Us From the People Around Us.

Smartphones have transformed where and how we access information and connect with our family and friends. But how might these powerful pocket computers be affecting how and when we interact with others in person? In this talk, I will present recent data from our lab suggesting that smartphones can compromise how connected we feel to close others, peers, and strangers. Parents spending time with their children felt more distracted and less socially connected when they used their phones a lot. Peers waiting together for an appointment connected with each other less and felt less happy when they had access to their phones as compared to when they did not. And, people looking for directions trusted members of their community less when they relied on their phones for directions rather than on the kindness of strangers. These findings highlight some of the perils of being constantly connected for our nonvirtual social lives and for the social fabric of society more generally.

On looking up the speaker online, I found that the main focus of his research is happiness, from the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Graduate and PostGraduate webpage for Kostadin Kushlev,

 Research topic: Happiness and well-being
Research group: Social Cognition and Emotion Lab
Research location: UBC Vancouver, Kenny Building, 2136 West Mall
Research supervisor: Elizabeth Dunn

Research description
My research focuses on the emotional experience of people. The topics that I am currently investigating range from what gives (or takes away from) people’s experience of meaning in life to how people react to shame and guilt, and to what extent new technologies introduce stress and anxiety in our lives.

Home town: Madan
Country: Bulgaria

Given that the United Nations’ 2015 World Happiness Report (co-authored by UBC professor emeritus John Helliwell) was released on April 23, 2015,  the same day that the Museum of Vancouver’s The Happy Show (Stefan Sagmeister: The Happy Show) opened, Kostadin Kushlev seems like a ‘happy’ choice for a substitute speaker just days later on April 28, 2015, especially since the original topic was ‘pain’.

Centralized depot (Wikipedia style) for data on neurons

The decades worth of data that has been collected about the billions of neurons in the brain is astounding. To help scientists make sense of this “brain big data,” researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have used data mining to create http://www.neuroelectro.org, a publicly available website that acts like Wikipedia, indexing physiological information about neurons.

opens a March 30, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily (Note: A link has been removed),

The site will help to accelerate the advance of neuroscience research by providing a centralized resource for collecting and comparing data on neuronal function. A description of the data available and some of the analyses that can be performed using the site are published online by the Journal of Neurophysiology

A March 30, 2015 Carnegie Mellon University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes, in more detail,  the endeavour and what the scientists hope to achieve,

The neurons in the brain can be divided into approximately 300 different types based on their physical and functional properties. Researchers have been studying the function and properties of many different types of neurons for decades. The resulting data is scattered across tens of thousands of papers in the scientific literature. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon turned to data mining to collect and organize these data in a way that will make possible, for the first time, new methods of analysis.

“If we want to think about building a brain or re-engineering the brain, we need to know what parts we’re working with,” said Nathan Urban, interim provost and director of Carnegie Mellon’s BrainHubSM neuroscience initiative. “We know a lot about neurons in some areas of the brain, but very little about neurons in others. To accelerate our understanding of neurons and their functions, we need to be able to easily determine whether what we already know about some neurons can be applied to others we know less about.”

Shreejoy J. Tripathy, who worked in Urban’s lab when he was a graduate student in the joint Carnegie Mellon/University of Pittsburgh Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC) Program in Neural Computation, selected more than 10,000 published papers that contained physiological data describing how neurons responded to various inputs. He used text mining algorithms to “read” each of the papers. The text mining software found the portions of each paper that identified the type of neuron studied and then isolated the electrophysiological data related to the properties of that neuronal type. It also retrieved information about how each of the experiments in the literature was completed, and corrected the data to account for any differences that might be caused by the format of the experiment. Overall, Tripathy, who is now a postdoc at the University of British Columbia, was able to collect and standardize data for approximately 100 different types of neurons, which he published on the website http://www.neuroelectro.org.

Since the data on the website was collected using text mining, the researchers realized that it was likely to contain errors related to extraction and standardization. Urban and his group validated much of the data, but they also created a mechanism that allows site users to flag data for further evaluation. Users also can contribute new data with minimal intervention from site administrators, similar to Wikipedia.

“It’s a dynamic environment in which people can collect, refine and add data,” said Urban, who is the Dr. Frederick A. Schwertz Distinguished Professor of Life Sciences and a member of the CNBC. “It will be a useful resource to people doing neuroscience research all over the world.”

Ultimately, the website will help researchers find groups of neurons that share the same physiological properties, which could provide a better understanding of how a neuron functions. For example, if a researcher finds that a type of neuron in the brain’s neocortex fires spontaneously, they can look up other neurons that fire spontaneously and access research papers that address this type of neuron. Using that information, they can quickly form hypotheses about whether or not the same mechanisms are at play in both the newly discovered and previously studied neurons.

To demonstrate how neuroelectro.org could be used, the researchers compared the electrophysiological data from more than 30 neuron types that had been most heavily studied in the literature. These included pyramidal neurons in the hippocampus, which are responsible for memory, and dopamine neurons in the midbrain, thought to be responsible for reward-seeking behaviors and addiction, among others. The site was able to find many expected similarities between the different types of neurons, and some similarities that were a surprise to researchers. Those surprises represent promising areas for future research.

In ongoing work, the Carnegie Mellon researchers are comparing the data on neuroelectro.org with other kinds of data, including data on neurons’ patterns of gene expression. For example, Urban’s group is using another publicly available resource, the Allen Brain Atlas, to find whether groups of neurons with similar electrical function have similar gene expression.

“It would take a lot of time, effort and money to determine both the physiological properties of a neuron and its gene expression,” Urban said. “Our website will help guide this research, making it much more efficient.”

The researchers have produced a brief video describing neurons and their project,

Here’s a link to and a citation for the researchers’ paper,

Brain-wide analysis of electrophysiological diversity yields novel categorization of mammalian neuron types by Shreejoy J Tripathy, Shawn D. Burton, Matthew Geramita, Richard C. Gerkin, and Nathaniel N. Urban. Journal of Neurophysiology Published 25 March 2015 DOI: 10.1152/jn.00237.2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Tune in, turn on, and drop out—LSD and psychedelic talk at Vancouver’s (Canada) Café Scientifique on March 31, 2015

There seems to be a lot of interest in psychedelics these days and not least here in Vancouver. Next Tuesday, March 31, 2015 Cafe Scientifique, held in the back room of The Railway Club (2nd floor of 579 Dunsmuir St. [at Seymour St.], will be hosting a talk on LSD (from the March 16, 2015 announcement,

Our speaker for the evening will be Dr. Michael Hughesa Research Associate in the Department of Medical Genetics at UBC (University of British Columbia) …

Psychedelic Medicine: The History & Science of LSD in the Clinic

Ergot is a fungus that grows on rye and other grains that has been blamed (rightly or wrongly) for episodes of mass hysteria throughout history. Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) was first synthesized from ergot in 1938 by a Swiss chemist named Albert Hoffman, who, at the height of World War II, also discovered (somewhat mysteriously) its psychedelic properties. LSD soon came to the attention of the U.S. Army who quickly proceeds to buy up all the supply – primarily to keep it out of the hands of its enemies. Throughout the Cold War, elements in U.S. defense and security agencies engage in experiments by secretly slipping LSD to citizens with dangerous (and sometimes comical) consequences with the goal of perfecting brainwashing and mind control. Canadian scientists at McGill participated in some of these studies, thinking they could use LSD to cure psychoses. These unethical and largely unscientific experiments were akin to psychological torture. Meanwhile, the public discovered the recreational benefits of LSD and the hippie movement adopted the drug as a symbol and vehicle to enlightenment. Largely for this reason, in the early ‘70s LSD was classified as a Schedule-1 drug in the U.S. restricted legal access stopped most research and hopes of the clinical benefits of LSD was abandoned and all but forgotten. Recently, scientists, mostly working outside of the U.S. and Canada, have rediscovered LSD’s efficacy for the treatment of psychiatric disorders including post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and existential fear in terminally ill patients. Are we ready for a new wave of ethical human research to (re)-discover the clinical benefits of LSD? Take a journey through the strange history of LSD research and learn about its potential applications in medicine. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

Hughes works as a team member in the Hematopoietic Cell Development laboratory at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Biomedical Research Centre.

Last week on March 18, 2015, The UBC Neuroscience Graduate Student Association hosted a screening of Neurons to Nirvana: Understanding Psychedelic Medicines at the Pacific Cinematheque theatre in Vancouver (Note: Links have been removed),

A thought-provoking and visually-stunning documentary that explores the potential of five powerful psychedelic substances (LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, ayahuasca, and cannabis) as psychotherapeutic medicines. Despite the potential promise shown by such drugs in research conducted in the 1950s, the increasingly restrictive anti-drug policies of successive governments effectively shut down further enquiry. As one of the many world-renowned researchers, writers, psychologists, and scientists interviewed in the film says: “The government does not allow this research to take place, and then says there’s no research to support it. It’s beyond hypocrisy.” The film is a cogent call to put irrational, fear-based beliefs aside in order to allow clinical, evidence-based research into psychedelics in areas such as addictions, PTSD, anxiety, depression, and end-of-life care.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Post-screening discussion with co-director Oliver Hockenhull and Mark Haden.

A teacher and essayist as well as a filmmaker, Oliver Hockenhull has presented at numerous universities in Canada, the US, and Europe. He has blended the documentary, essay, and experimental genres in such previous works as Aldous Huxley: The Gravity of Light (1996), Building Heaven, Remembering Earth (1999), and Evo (2002).

Mark Haden worked for Vancouver Coastal Health Addiction Services for 28 years and is now an Adjunct Professor at the UBC School of Population and Public Health. He is a pivotal voice in the drug policy reform movement, providing viable models for reforming drug education and regulating markets for currently illegal substances. Mark is also the Chair of the Board of MAPS Canada (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies).

Moderated by Dr. Harry Karlinsky, Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of British Columbia.

Perhaps popular demand will lead to another showing. In the meantime, there’s Hughes’ talk and if his description is indicative it should be fascinating.

For anyone who did not recognize it,  ‘tune in, turn on, and drop out’, is a phrase that Timothy Leary, the high priest of psychedelics, psychologist, and former lecturer at Harvard University popularized during the 1960s and 70s. According to the ‘tune in, turn on, and drop out‘ entry in Wikipedia, the phrase was given to Leary by Canadian media theorist, Marshall McLuhan.

ETA March 27, 2015 at 1610 PDT: I just received a newsletter from Canada’s National Film Board where the feature item is this,

All About Acid: Hofmann’s Potion

Open your mind with this powerful feature documentary that retraces the history of LSD, a substance first used to treat addiction and mental illness that became the self-understanding tool of a generation.

For more on Hofmann’s Potion, read Meet the Lab Coat-Clad Granddaddies of LSD on the NFB/ blog.

Watch Now

* ‘tun’ changed to ‘turn’ (sigh) March 27, 2015 at 1615 PDT