I imagine that most anyone who’s been in contact with Ms. Shoichet is experiencing a thrill on hearing this morning’s (November 10, 2020) news about winning Canada’s highest honour for science and engineering research. (Confession: she, very kindly, once gave me a brief interview for a posting on this blog, more about that later).
Why Molly Shoichet won the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal
Emily Chung’s Nov. 10, 2020 news item on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) website announces the exciting news (Note: Links have been removed),
A Toronto chemical engineering professor has won the $1 million Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal, the country’s top science prize, for her work designing gels that mimic human tissues.
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) announced Tuesday [Nov. 10, 2020] that Molly Shoichet, professor of chemical engineering and applied chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering at the University of Toronto is this year’s recipient of the award, which recognizes “sustained excellence” and “overall influence” of research conducted in Canada in the natural sciences or engineering.
Shoichet’s hydrogels are used for drug development and delivery and regenerative medicine to heal injuries and treat diseases.
NSERC said Shoichet’s work has led to the development of several “game-changing” applications of such materials. They “delivered a crucial breakthrough” by allowing cells to be grown in three dimensions as they do in the body, rather than the two dimensions they typically do in a petri dish.
Hydrogels are polymer materials — materials such as plastics, made of repeating units — that become swollen with water.
“If you’ve ever eaten Jell-o, that’s a hydrogel,” Shoichet said. Slime and the absorbent material inside disposable diapers are also hydrogels.
Shoichet was born in Toronto, and studied science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. After graduating, she worked in the biotech industry alongside “brilliant biologists,” she said. She noticed that the biologists’ research was limited by what types of materials were available.
As an engineer, she realized she could help by custom designing materials for biologists. She could make materials specifically suit their needs, to answer their specific questions by designing hydrogels to mimic particular tissues.
Her collaborations with biologists have also generated three spinoff companies, including AmacaThera, which was recently approved to run human trials of a long-acting anesthetic delivered with an injectable hydrogel to deal with post-surgical pain.
Shoichet noted that drugs given to deal with that kind of pain lead to a quarter of opioid addictions, which have been a deadly problem in Canada and around the world.
“What we’re really excited about is not only meeting that critical need of providing people with greater pain relief for a sustained period of time, but also possibly putting a dent in the operation,” she said.
The Herzberg Gold Medal is awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) in recognition of research contributions characterized by both excellence and influence.
“I was completely overwhelmed when I was told the good news,” says Shoichet. “There are so many exceptional people who’ve won this award and I admire them. To think of my peers putting me in that same category is really incredible.”
A pioneer in regenerative medicine, tissue engineering and drug delivery, Shoichet and her team are internationally known for their discovery and innovative use of 3D hydrogels.
“One of the challenges facing drug screening is that many of the drugs discovered work well in the lab, but not in people, and a possible explanation for this discrepancy is that these drugs are discovered in environments that do not reflect that of the body,” explains Shoichet.
Shoichet’s team has invented a series of biomaterials that provide a soft, three-dimensional environment in which to grow cells. These hydrogels — water-swollen materials — better mimic human tissue than hard two-dimensional plastic dishes that are typically used. “Now we can do more predictive drug screening,” says Shoichet.
Her lab is using these biomaterials to discover drugs for breast and brain cancer and a rare lung disease. Shoichet’s lab has been equally innovative in regenerative medicine strategies to promote repair of the brain after stroke and overcome blindness.
“Everything that we do is motivated by answering a question in biology, using our engineering and chemistry tools to answer those questions,” says Shoichet.
“The hope is that our contributions will ultimately make a positive impact in the cancer community and in treating diseases for which we can only slow the progression rather than stop and reverse, such as with blindness.”
Shoichet is also an advocate for and advisor on the fields of science and engineering. She has advised both federal and provincial governments through her service on Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council and the Ontario Research Innovation Council. From 2014 to 2018, she was the Senior Advisor to the President on Science & Engineering Engagement at the University of Toronto. She is the co-founder of Research2Reality [emphasis mine], which uses social media to promote innovative research across the country. She also served as Ontario’s first Chief Scientist [emphasis mine], with a mandate to advance science and innovation in the province.
Shoichet is the only person to be elected a fellow of all three of Canada’s National Academies and is a foreign member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, and fellow of the Royal Society (UK) — the oldest and most prestigious academic society.
Doug Ford (premier of Ontario) and Molly Shoichet
She did serve as Ontario’s first Chief Scientist—for about six months (Nov. 2017 – July 2018). Molly Shoichet was fired when a new provincial government was elected in the summer of 2018. Here’s more about the incident from a July 4, 2018 article by Ryan Maloney for huffingtonpost.ca (Note: Links have been removed),
New Ontario Premier Doug Ford has fired the province’s first chief scientist.
Dr. Molly Shoichet, a renowned biomedical engineer who teaches at the University of Toronto, was appointed in November  to advise the government and ensure science and research were at the forefront of decision-making.
Shoichet told HuffPost Canada in an email that the she does not believe the decision was about her, and “I don’t even know whether it was about this role.” She said she is disappointed but honoured to have served Ontarians, even for a short time.
Ford’s spokesman, Simon Jefferies told The Canadian Press Wednesday that the government is starting the process of “finding a suitable and qualified replacement.” [emphasis mine]
The move comes just days after Ford’s Progressive Conservatives officially took power in Canada’s largest province with a majority government.
Almost a year later, there was no replacement in sight according to a June 24, 2019 opinion piece by Kimberly Girling (then the Research and Policy Director of the Evidence for Democracy not-for-profit) for the star.com,
Premier Doug Ford, I’m concerned for your government.
I know you feel it too. Last week, one year into your mandate and faced with sharply declining polls after your first provincial budget, you conducted a major cabinet shuffle. This shuffle is clearly an attempt to “put the right people in the right place at the right time” and improve the outcomes of your cabinet. But I’m still concerned.
Since your election, your caucus has made many bold decisions. Unfortunately, it seems many are Ontarians unhappy with most of these decisions, and I’m not sure the current shuffle is enough to fix this.
 I think you’re missing someone.
What about a Chief Scientist?
It isn’t a radical idea. Actually, you used to have one. Ontario’s first Chief Scientist, Dr. Molly Shoichet, was appointed to advise the government on science policy and champion science and innovation for Ontario. However, when your government was elected, you fired Dr. Shoichet within the first week.
It’s been a year, and so far we haven’t seen any attempts to fill this vacant position. [emphasis mine]
I wonder if Doug Ford and his crew regret the decision to fire Shoichet especially now that the province is suffering from a new peak in rising COVID-19 case numbers. These days government could do with a little bit of good news.
The only way we might ever know is if Doug Ford writes a memoir (in about 20 or 30 years from now).
Molly Shoichet, Research2Reality, and FrogHeart
A May 11, 2015 posting announced the launch of Research2Reality and it’s in this posting that I have a few comments from Molly Shoichet about co-founding a national science communication project. Given how busy she was at the time, I was amazed she took a few minutes to speak to me and took more time to make it possible for me to interview Raymond Laflamme (then director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo [Ontario]) and a prominent physicist.
“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 [Mike MacMillan, co-founder] 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,
This world-class symposium, the sixth event of its kind, will bring together a record number (1000+) of renowned Canadian and international experts from across the nanomedicines field to:
highlight the discoveries and innovations in nanomedicines that are contributing to global progress in acute, chronic and orphan disease treatment and management;
present up-to-date diagnostic and therapeutic nanomedicine approaches to addressing the challenges of COVID-19; and
facilitate discussion among nanomedicine researchers and innovators and UBC and NMIN clinician-scientists, basic researchers, trainees, and research partners.
Since 2014, Vancouver Nanomedicine Day has advanced nanomedicine research, knowledge mobilization and commercialization in Canada by sharing high-impact findings and facilitating interaction—among researchers, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and life science and startup biotechnology companies—to catalyze research collaboration.
I have a few observations, First, Robert Langer is a big deal. Here are a few highlights from his Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),
Robert Samuel Langer, Jr. FREng (born August 29, 1948) is an American chemical engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, inventor and one of the twelve Institute Professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Langer holds over 1,350 granted or pending patents. He is one of the world’s most highly cited researchers, having authored nearly 1,500 scientific papers, and has participated in the founding of multiple technology companies.
Langer is the youngest person in history (at 43) to be elected to all three American science academies: the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. He was also elected as a charter member of National Academy of Inventors. He was elected as an International Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2010.
It’s all about commercializing the research—or is it?
(This second observation is a little more complicated and requires a little context.) The NMIN is one of Canada’s Networks of Centres of Excellence (who thought that name up? …sigh), from the NMIN About page,
The NCEs seem to be firmly fixed on finding pathways to commercialization (from the NCE About page) Note: All is not as it seems,
Canada’s global economic competitiveness [emphasis mine] depends on making new discoveries and transforming them into products, services [emphasis mine] and processes that improve the lives of Canadians. To meet this challenge, the Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) offers a suite of programs that mobilize Canada’s best research, development and entrepreneurial [emphasis mine] expertise and focus it on specific issues and strategic areas.
NCE programs meet Canada’s needs to focus a critical mass of research resources on social and economic challenges, commercialize [emphasis mine] and apply more of its homegrown research breakthroughs, increase private-sector R&D, [emphasis mine] and train highly qualified people. As economic [emphasis mine] and social needs change, programs have evolved to address new challenges.
The fund will invest $275 million over the next 5 years beginning in fiscal 2018-19, and $65 million ongoing, to fund international, interdisciplinary, fast-breaking and high-risk research.
NFRF is composed of three streams to support groundbreaking research.
Exploration generates opportunities for Canada to build strength in high-risk, high-reward and interdisciplinary research;
Transformation provides large-scale support for Canada to build strength and leadership in interdisciplinary and transformative research; and
International enhances opportunities for Canadian researchers to participate in research with international partners.
As you can see there’s no reference to commercialization or economic challenges.
Here at last is the second observation, I find it hard to believe that the government of Canada has given up on the idea of commercializing research and increasing the country’s economic competitiveness through research. Certainly, Langer’s virtual appearance at Vancouver Nanomedicine Day 2020, suggests that at least some corners of the Canadian research establishment are remaining staunchly entrepreneurial.
Canada remains strong in research output and impact, capacity for R&D and innovation at risk: New expert panel report
While Canada is a highly innovative country, with a robust research base and thriving communities of technology start-ups, significant barriers—such as a lack of managerial skills, the experience needed to scale-up companies, and foreign acquisition of high-tech firms—often prevent the translation of innovation into wealth creation.[emphasis mine] The result is a deficit of technology companies growing to scale in Canada, and a loss of associated economic and social benefits.This risks establishing a vicious cycle, where successful companies seek growth opportunities elsewhere due to a lack of critical skills and experience in Canada guiding companies through periods of rapid expansion.
According to the CCA’s [2018 report] Summary webpage, it was Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada which requested the report. (I wrote up a two-part commentary under one of my favourite titles: “The Hedy Lamarr of international research: Canada’s Third assessment of The State of Science and Technology and Industrial Research and Development in Canada.” Part 1 and Part 2)
I will be fascinated to watch the NFRF and science commercialization situations as they develop.
Part 1 covered some of the more formal aspects science culture in Canada, such as science communication education programmes, mainstream media, children’s science magazines, music, etc. Part 2 covered science festivals, art/sci or sciart (depending on who’s talking, informal science get togethers such ‘Cafe Sccientifque’, etc.
This became a much bigger enterprise than I anticipated and so part 3 is stuffed with the do-it-yourself (DIY) biology movement in Canada, individual art/sci or lit/sci projects, a look at what the mathematicians have done and are doing, etc. But first there’s the comedy.
Comedy, humour, and science
Weirdly, Canadians like to mix their science fiction (scifi) movies with humour. (I will touch on more scifi later in this post but it’s too big a topic to cover inadequately, let alone adequately, in this review.) I post as my evidence of the popularity of comedy science fiction films, this from the Category: Canadian science fiction films Wikipedia webpage,
As you see, comedy science fiction is the second most populated category. Also, the Wikipedia time frame is much broader than mine but I did check one Canadian science fiction comedy film, Bang Bang Baby, a 2014 film, which, as it turns out, is also a musical.
Daniel Chai is a Vancouver-based writer, comedian, actor and podcaster. He is co-host of The Fear of Science podcast, which combines his love of learning with his love of being on a microphone. Daniel is also co-founder of The Fictionals Comedy Co and the creator of Improv Against Humanity, and teaches improv at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. He is very excited to be part of Vancouver Podcast Festival, and thanks everyone for listening!
Jeff is the producer and co-host of The Fear of Science. By day, he is a graphic designer/digital developer [according to his LinkedIn profile, he works at Science World], and by night he is a cosplayer, board gamer and full-time geek. Jeff is passionate about all things science, and has been working in science communication for over 4 years. He brings a general science knowledge point of view to The Fear of Science.
Here’s more about The Fear of Science from its homepage (where you will also find links to their podcasts),
A podcast that brings together experts and comedians for an unfiltered discussion about complicated and sometimes controversial science fears in a fun and respectful way.
This podcast seems to have taken life in August 2018.(Well, that’s as far back as the Archived episodes stretch on the website.)
This is Vancolour is a podcast hosted by Mo Amir and you will find this description on the website,
THIS IS A PODCAST ABOUT VANCOUVER AND THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE THIS CITY COLOURFUL
Cartoonist, writer, and educator, Raymond Nakamura produces work for Telus Science World and the Science Borealis science aggregator. His website is known as Raymond’s Brain features this image,
Much has been happening on this front. First for anyone unfamiliar with do-it-yourself biology, here’s more from its Wikipedia entry,
Do-it-yourself biology (DIY biology, DIY bio) is a growing biotechnological social movement in which individuals, communities, and small organizations study biology and life science using the same methods as traditional research institutions. DIY biology is primarily undertaken by individuals with extensive research training from academia or corporations, who then mentor and oversee other DIY biologists with little or no formal training. This may be done as a hobby, as a not-for-profit endeavour for community learning and open-science innovation, or for profit, to start a business.
A January 21, 2020 posting here listed the second Canadian DIY Biology Summit organized by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). It was possible to attend virtually from any part of Canada. The first meeting was in 2016 (you can see the agenda here). You’ll see in the agenda for the 2nd meeting in 2020 that there have been a few changes as groups rise into and fall out of existence.
From the 2020 agenda, here’s a list representing the players in Canada’s DIYbio scene,
Most of these organizations (e.g., Victoria Makerspace, Synbiota, Bricobio, etc.) seem to be relatively new (founded in 2009 or later) which is quite exciting to think about. This March 13, 2016 article in the Vancouver Observer gives you a pretty good overview of the DIY biology scene in Canada at the time while providing a preview of the then upcoming first DIY Biology summit.
*The Open Science Network in Vancouver was formerly known as DIYbio YVR. I’m not sure when the name change occurred but this July 17, 2018 article by Emily Ng for The Ubyssey (a University of British Columbia student newspaper) gives a little history,
In 2009, a group of UBC students and staff recognized these barriers and teamed up to democratize science, increase its accessibility and create an interdisciplinary platform for idea exchange. They created the Open Science Network (OSN).
The Open Science Network is a non-profit society that serves the science and maker community through education, outreach and the provision of space. Currently, they run an open community lab out of the MakerLabs space on East Cordova and Main street, which is a compact space housing microscopes, a freezer, basic lab equipment and an impressive amount of activity.
The lab is home to a community of citizen scientists, professional scientists, artists, designers and makers of all ages who are pursuing their own science projects.
Members who are interested in lab work can receive some training in “basic microbiology techniques like pipetting, growing bacteria, using the Polymerase Chain Reaction machine (PCR) [to amplify DNA] and running gels [through a gel ectrophoresis machine to separate DNA fragments by size] from Scott Pownall, a PhD graduate from UBC and the resident microbiologist,” said Wong [ Wes Wong, a staff member of UBC Botany and a founding member of OSN].
The group has also made further efforts to serve their members by offering more advanced synthetic biology classes and workshops at their lab.
There is another organization called ‘Open Science Network’ (an ethnobiology group and not part of the Vancouver organization). Here is a link to the Vancouver-based Open Science Network (a community science lab) where they provide further links to all their activities including a regular ‘meetup’.
I have poetry, a book, a television adaptation, three plays with mathematics and/or physics themes and more.
In 2012 there was a night of poetry readings in Vancouver. What made it special was that five poets had collaborated with five scientists (later amended to four scientists and a landscape architect) according to my December 4, 2012 posting. The whole thing was conceptualized and organized by Aileen Penner who went on to produce a chapbook of the poetry. She doesn’t have any copies available currently but you can contact her on her website’s art/science page if you are interested in obtaining a copy. She doesn’t seem to have organized any art/science projects since. For more about Aileen Penner who is a writer and poet, go to her website here.
The Banff International Research Station (BIRS) it’s all about the mathematics) hosted a workshop for poets and mathematicians way back in 2011. I featured it (Mathematics: Muse, Maker, and Measure of the Arts) after the fact in my January 9, 2012 posting (scroll down about 30% of the way). If you have the time, do click on my link to Nassif Ghoussoub’s post on his blog (Piece of Mind) about mathematicians, poetry, and the arts. It’s especially interesting in retrospect as he is now the executive director for BIRS, which no longer seems to have workshops that meld any of the arts with mathematics, and science.
That sadly seems to be it for poetry and the sciences, including mathematics. If you know of any other poetry/science projects or readings, etc. in Canada during the 2010-9 decade, please let me know in the comments.
Karl Schroeder, a Canadian science fiction author, has written many books but of particular interest here are two futuristic novels for the Canadian military.The 2005 novel, Crisis in Zefra, doesn’t fit the time frame I’ve established for this review but the the 2014 novel, Crisis in Urla (scroll down) fits in nicely. His writing is considered ‘realistic’ science fiction in that it’s based on science research and his work is also associated with speculative realism (from his Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),
Karl Schroeder (born September 4, 1962) is a Canadianscience fiction author. His novels present far-future speculations on topics such as nanotechnology, terraforming, augmented reality, and interstellar travel, and are deeply philosophical.
The other author I’m mentioning here is Margaret Atwood. The television adaptation of her book, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has turned a Canadian literary superstar into a supernova (an exploding star whose luminosity can be the equivalent of an entire galaxy). In 2019, she won the Booker Prize, for the second time for ‘The Testaments’ (a followup to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’), sharing it with Bernardine Evaristo and her book ‘Girl, Woman, Other’. Atwood has described her work (The Handmaid’s Tale, and others) as speculative fiction rather than science fiction. For me, she bases her speculation on the social sciences and humanities, specifically history (read her Wikipedia entry for more).
In 2017 with the television adaptation of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, Atwood’s speculative fiction novel became a pop culture phenomenon. Originally published in 1985, the novel was also adapted for a film in 1990 and for an opera in 2000 before it came to television, according to its Wikipedia entry.
There’s a lot more out there, Schroeder and Atwood are just two I’ve stumbled across.
I have drama, musical comedy and acting items.
Pi Theatre’s (Vancouver) mathematically-inclined show, ‘Long Division‘, ran in April 2017 and was mentioned in my April 20, 2017 posting (scroll down about 50% of the way).
This theatrical performance of concepts in mathematics runs from April 26 – 30, 2017 (check here for the times as they vary) at the Annex at 823 Seymour St. From the Georgia Straight’s April 12, 2017 Arts notice,
“Mathematics is an art form in itself, as proven by Pi Theatre’s number-charged Long Division. This is a “refreshed remount” of Peter Dickinson’s ambitious work, one that circles around seven seemingly unrelated characters (including a high-school math teacher, a soccer-loving imam, and a lesbian bar owner) bound together by a single traumatic incident. Directed by Richard Wolfe, with choreography by Lesley Telford and musical score by Owen Belton, it’s a multimedia, movement-driven piece that has a strong cast. … “
You can read more about the production here. As far as I’m aware, there are no upcoming show dates.
There seems to be some sort of affinity between theatre and mathematics, I recently featured (January 3, 2020 posting) a theatrical piece by Hannah Moscovitch titled, ‘Infinity‘, about time, physics, math and more. It had its first production in Toronto in 2015.
John Mighton, a playwright and mathematician, wrote ‘The Little Years’ which has been produced in both Vancouver and Toronto. From a May 9, 2005 article by Kathleen Oliver for the Georgia Straight,
The Little Years is a little jewel of a play: small but multifaceted, and beautifully crafted.
John Mighton’s script gives us glimpses into different stages in the life of Kate, a woman whose early promise as a mathematician is cut short. At age 13, she’s a gifted student whose natural abilities are overlooked by 1950s society, which has difficulty conceiving of women as scientists. Instead, she’s sent to vocational school while her older brother, William, grows up to become one of the most widely praised poets of his generation.
John Mighton is a successful playwright and mathematician, yet at times in his life, he’s struggled with doubt. However, he also learned there was hope, and that’s the genesis of The Little Years, which opens at the Tarragon Theatre on Nov. 16 and runs to Dec. 16 .
In keeping (more or less) with this subsection’s theme ‘The Word’, Mighton has recently had a new book published, ‘All Things Being Equal: Why Math is the Key to a Better World’, according to a January 24, 2020 article (online version) by Jamie Portman for Postmedia,
It’s more than two decades since Canadian mathematician and playwright John Mighton found himself playing a small role in the film, Good Will Hunting. What he didn’t expect when he took on the job was that he would end up making a vital contribution to a screenplay that would go on to win an Oscar for its writers, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.
What happened on that occasion tells you a great deal about Mighton’s commitment to the belief that society grossly underestimates the intellectual capacity of human beings — a belief reiterated with quiet eloquence in his latest book, All Things Being Equal.
Mighton loved the experience but as shooting continued he became troubled over his involvement in a movie that played “heavily on the idea that geniuses like Will are born and not made.” This was anathema to his own beliefs as a mathematician and he finally summoned up the courage to ask Affleck and Damon if he could write a few extra lines for his character. This speech was the result: “Most people never get the chance to see how brilliant they can be. They don’t find teachers who believe in them. They get convinced they’re stupid.”
At a time of growing controversy across Canada over the teaching of mathematics in school and continuing evidence of diminishing student results, Mighton continues to feel gratitude to the makers of Good Will Hunting for heeding his concerns. [I will be writing a post about the latest PISA scores where Canadian students have again slipped in their mathematics scores.]
Mighton is on the phone from from Toronto, his voice soft-spoken but still edged with fervour. He pursues two successful careers — as an award-winning Canadian playwright and as a renowned mathematician and philosopher who has devoted a lifetime to developing strategies that foster the intellectual potential of all children through learning math. But even as he talks about his 2001 founding of JUMP Math, a respected charity that offers a radical alternative to conventional teaching of the subject, he’s anxious to remind you that he’s a guy who almost failed calculus at university and who once struggled to overcome his “own massive math anxiety.”
You can find out more about John Mighton in his Wikipedia entry (mostly about his academic accomplishments) and on the JUMP Math website (better overall biography).
It’s called ‘Math Out Loud’ and was first mentioned here in a January 9, 2012 posting (the same post also featured the BIRS poetry workshop),
“When Mackenzie Gray talks about the way Paul McCartney used a recursive sequence to make the song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” seem to last forever, you realize that part of the Beatles’ phenomenal success might have sprung from McCartney’s genius as a mathematician.
When Roger Kemp draws on a napkin to illustrate that you just have to change the way you think about numbers to come up with a binary code for pi (as in 3.14 ad infinitum), you get a sense that math can actually be a lot of fun.”
Produced by MITACS which in 2012 was known as ‘Mathematics of Information Technology and Complex Systems’, a not-for-profit research organization, the musical went on tour in the Fall of 2012 (according to my September 7, 2012 posting). Unusually, I did not embed the promotional trailer for this 2012 musical so, here it is now,
Since 2012, Mitacs has gone through some sort of rebranding process and it’s now described as a nonprofit national research organization. For more you can read its Wikipedia entry or go to its website.
Acting and storytelling
It turns out there was an acting class (five sessions) for scientists at the University of Calgary in 2017. Here’s more from the course’s information sheet,
Act Your Science: Improve Your Communication Skills with Training in Improvisation 2 hours a session, 5 sessions, every Wednesday starting November 14  …
Dr. Jeff Dunn, Faculty of Graduate Studies, Graduate Students Association, the Canadian Science Writers Association [also known as Science Writers and Communicators of Canada] and the Loose Moose Theatre have teamed together to provide training in a skill which will be useful where ever your career takes you.
The goal of this project is to improve the science communication skills of graduate students in science fields. We will improve your communication through the art of training in improvisation. Training will help with speech and body awareness. Improvisation will provide life‐long skills in communication, in a fun interactive environment.
For many years, Alan Alda, a well-known actor (originally of the “MASH” television series fame), has applied his acting skills and improvisation training to help scientists improve their communication. He developed the Alan Alda Centre for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.
The training will involve five 2hr improvisation workshop sessions led by one of Canada’s top professional improvisation trainers, Dennis Cahill, the Artistic Director from Loose Moose Theatre. Dennis has an international reputation for developing the theatrical style of improvisation. Training involves a lot of moving around (and possibly rolling on the floor!) so dress casually. Be prepared to release your inhibitions!
The information sheet includes a link to this University of Chicago video (posted on Youtube February 24, 2014) of actor Alan Alda discussing science communication,
Victoria Bouvier, a Michif-Metis woman, is of the Red River Settlement and Boggy Creek, Manitoba, and born and raised in Calgary. She is an Assistant professor in Indigenous Studies at Mount Royal University and a doctoral candidate in Educational Research [emphasis mine] at the University of Calgary. Her research is exploring how Michif/Métis people, born and raised in urban environments, practice and express their self-understandings, both individually and collectively through using an Indigenous oral system and visual media as methodology.
In a technology-laden society, people are capturing millions of photographs and videos that document their lived experiences, followed by uploading them to social media sites. As mass amounts of media is being shared each day, the question becomes: are we utilizing photos and videos to derive meaning from our everyday lived experiences, while settling in to a deeper sense of our self-in-relation?
This session will explore how photos and videos, positioned within an Indigenous oral system, are viewed and interacted with as a third perspective in the role of storytelling.
Finally, h/t to Jennifer Bon Bernard’s April 19, 2017 article (reposted Dec. 11, 2019) about Act Your Science for the Science Writers and Communicators blog. The original date doesn’t look right to me but perhaps she participated in a pilot project.
Neuroscience, science policy, and science advice
The end of this part is almost in sight
Knitting in Toronto and drawings in Vancouver (neuroscience)
In 2017, Toronto hosted a neuroscience event which combined storytelling and knitting (from my October 12, 2017 posting (Note: the portion below is an excerpt from an ArtSci Salon announcement),
With NARRATING NEUROSCIENCE we plan to initiate a discussion on the role and the use of storytelling and art (both in verbal and visual forms) to communicate abstract and complex concepts in neuroscience to very different audiences, ranging from fellow scientists, clinicians and patients, to social scientists and the general public. We invited four guests to share their research through case studies and experiences stemming directly from their research or from other practices they have adopted and incorporated into their research, where storytelling and the arts have played a crucial role not only in communicating cutting edge research in neuroscience, but also in developing and advancing it.
The ArtSci Salon folks also announced this (from the Sept. 25, 2017 ArtSci Salon announcement; received via email),
ATTENTION ARTSCI SALONISTAS AND FANS OF ART AND SCIENCE!! CALL FOR KNITTING AND CROCHET LOVERS!
In addition to being a PhD student at the University of Toronto, Tahani Baakdhah is a prolific knitter and crocheter and has been the motor behind two successful Knit-a-Neuron Toronto initiatives. We invite all Knitters and Crocheters among our ArtSci Salonistas to pick a pattern (link below) and knit a neuron (or 2! Or as many as you want!!)
BRING THEM TO OUR OCTOBER 20 ARTSCI SALON! Come to the ArtSci Salon and knit there!
That link to the patterns is still working.
Called “The Beautiful Brain” and held in the same time frame as Toronto’s neuro event, Vancouver hosted an exhibition of Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s drawings from September 5 to December 3, 2017. In concert with the exhibition, the local ‘neuro’ community held a number of outreach events. Here’s what I had in my September 11, 2017 posting where I quoted from the promotional material for the exhibition,
The Beautiful Brain is the first North American museum exhibition to present the extraordinary drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934), a Spanish pathologist, histologist and neuroscientist renowned for his discovery of neuron cells and their structure, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1906. Known as the father of modern neuroscience, Cajal was also an exceptional artist. He combined scientific and artistic skills to produce arresting drawings with extraordinary scientific and aesthetic qualities.
A century after their completion, Cajal’s drawings are still used in contemporary medical publications to illustrate important neuroscience principles, and continue to fascinate artists and visual art audiences. …
Pictured: Santiago Ramón y Cajal, injured Purkinje neurons, 1914, ink and pencil on paper. Courtesy of Instituto Cajal (CSIC).
From Vancouver, the exhibition traveled to a gallery in New York City and then onto the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Mehrdad Hariri has done a an extraordinary job as its founder and chief executive officer. The CSPC has developed from a single annual conference to an organization that hosts different events throughout the year and publishes articles and opinion pieces on Canadian science policy and has been instrumental in the development of a Canadian science policy community.
The magnitude of Hariri’s accomplishment becomes clear when reading J.w. Grove’s [sic] article, Science Policy, in The Canadian Encyclopedia and seeing that the most recent reports on a national science policy seem to be the Science Council’s (now defunct) 4th report in 1968, Towards a National Science Policy in Canada, the OECD’s (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) 1969 Review of [Canada’s] Science Policy, and 3 reports from the Senate’s Lamontagne Committee (Special Committee on Science Policy). Grove’s article takes us only to 1988 but I have been unable to find any more recent reports focused on a national science policy for Canada. (If you have any information about a more recent report, please do let me know in the comments.)
A November 5, 2019 piece (#VoteScience: lessons learned and building science advocacy beyond the election cycle) on the CSPC website further illustrates how the Canadian science policy community has gained ground (Note: Links have been removed),
… on August 8, 2019, a coalition of Canadian science organizations and student groups came together to launch the #VoteScience campaign: a national, non-partisan effort to advocate for science in the federal elections, and make science an election issue.
Specifically, we — aka Evidence for Democracy, Science & Policy Exchange (SPE), and the Toronto Science Policy Network (TSPN) [emphases mine] — built a collection of tools and resources to empower Canadian scientists and science supporters to engage with their local candidates on science issues and the importance of evidence-informed decision-making. Our goal was to make it easy for as many Canadians as possible to engage with their candidates — and they did.
Over the past three months, our #VoteScience portal received over 3,600 visitors, including 600 visitors who used our email form to reach out directly to their local candidates. Collectively, we took #VoteScience selfies, distributed postcards to supporters across Canada, and even wrote postcards to every sitting Member of Parliament (in addition to candidates from all parties in each of our own ridings). Also of note, we distributed a science policy questionnaire to the federal parties, to help better inform Canadians about where the federal parties stand on relevant science issues, and received responses from all but one party. We’ve also advocated for science through various media outlets, including commenting for articles appearing in The Narwhal and Nature News, and penning op-eds for outlets such as the National Observer, University Affairs, Le Devoir, and Découvrir.
Prior to SPIN, the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA; more about them in part 4), issued a 2017 report titled, Science Policy: Considerations for Subnational Governments. The report was the outcome of a 2016 CCA workshop originally titled, Towards a Science Policy in Alberta. I gather the scope broadened.
Interesting trajectory, yes?
Chief Science advisors/scientists
In September 2017, the Canadian federal government announced that a Chief Science Advisor, Dr. Mona Nemer, had been appointed. I have more about the position and Dr. Nemer in my September 26, 2017 posting. (Prior to Dr. Nemer’s appointment a previous government had discontinued a National Science Advisor position that existed from 2004 to 2008.)
The Office of the Chief Science Advisor released it first annual report in 2019 and was covered here in a March 19, 2019 posting.
Québec is the only province (as far as I know) to have a Chief Scientist, Rémi Quirion who was appointed in 2011.
Onto Part 4 where you’ll find we’ve gone to the birds and more.
*The Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC) section was written sometime in February 2020. I believe they are planning to publish an editorial piece I submitted to them on April 20, 202 (in other words, before this post was published) in response to their call for submissions (see my April 1, 2020 post for details about the call). In short, I did not praise the organization with any intention of having my work published by them. (sigh) Awkward timing.
Graphene fatigue operates under the same principle as metal fatigue. Subject graphene to stress over and over and at some point it (just like metal) will fail. Scientists at the University of Toronto (Ontatrio, Canada) and Rice University (Texas, US) have determined just how much stress graphene can withstand before breaking according to a January 28, 2020 University of Toronto news release by Tyler Irving (also on EurekAlert but published on January 29, 2020),
Graphene is a paradox. It is the thinnest material known to science, yet also one of the strongest. Now, research from University of Toronto Engineering shows that graphene is also highly resistant to fatigue — able to withstand more than a billion cycles of high stress before it breaks.
Graphene resembles a sheet of interlocking hexagonal rings, similar to the pattern you might see in bathroom flooring tiles. At each corner is a single carbon atom bonded to its three nearest neighbours. While the sheet could extend laterally over any area, it is only one atom thick.
The intrinsic strength of graphene has been measured at more than 100 gigapascals, among the highest values recorded for any material. But materials don’t always fail because the load exceeds their maximum strength. Stresses that are small but repetitive can weaken materials by causing microscopic dislocations and fractures that slowly accumulate over time, a process known as fatigue.
“To understand fatigue, imagine bending a metal spoon,” says Professor Tobin Filleter, one of the senior authors of the study, which was recently published in Nature Materials. “The first time you bend it, it just deforms. But if you keep working it back and forth, eventually it’s going to break in two.”
The research team — consisting of Filleter, fellow University of Toronto Engineering professors Chandra Veer Singh and Yu Sun, their students, and collaborators at Rice University — wanted to know how graphene would stand up to repeated stresses. Their approach included both physical experiments and computer simulations.
“In our atomistic simulations, we found that cyclic loading can lead to irreversible bond reconfigurations in the graphene lattice, causing catastrophic failure on subsequent loading,” says Singh, who along with postdoctoral fellow Sankha Mukherjee led the modelling portion of the study. “This is unusual behaviour in that while the bonds change, there are no obvious cracks or dislocations, which would usually form in metals, until the moment of failure.”
PhD candidate Teng Cui, who is co-supervised by Filleter and Sun, used the Toronto Nanofabrication Centre to build a physical device for the experiments. The design consisted of a silicon chip etched with half a million tiny holes only a few micrometres in diameter. The graphene sheet was stretched over these holes, like the head of a tiny drum.
Using an atomic force microscope, Cui then lowered a diamond-tipped probe into the hole to push on the graphene sheet, applying anywhere from 20 to 85 per cent of the force that he knew would break the material.
“We ran the cycles at a rate of 100,000 times per second,” says Cui. “Even at 70 per cent of the maximum stress, the graphene didn’t break for more than three hours, which works out to over a billion cycles. At lower stress levels, some of our trials ran for more than 17 hours.”
As with the simulations, the graphene didn’t accumulate cracks or other tell-tale signs of stress — it either broke or it didn’t.
“Unlike metals, there is no progressive damage during fatigue loading of graphene,” says Sun. “Its failure is global and catastrophic, confirming simulation results.”
The team also tested a related material, graphene oxide, which has small groups of atoms such as oxygen and hydrogen bonded to both the top and bottom of the sheet. Its fatigue behaviour was more like traditional materials, in that the failure was more progressive and localized. This suggests that the simple, regular structure of graphene is a major contributor to its unique properties.
“There are no other materials that have been studied under fatigue conditions that behave the way graphene does,” says Filleter. “We’re still working on some new theories to try and understand this.”
In terms of commercial applications, Filleter says that graphene-containing composites — mixtures of conventional plastic and graphene — are already being produced and used in sports equipment such as tennis rackets and skis.
In the future, such materials may begin to be used in cars or in aircraft, where the emphasis on light and strong materials is driven by the need to reduce weight, improve fuel efficiency and enhance environmental performance.
“There have been some studies to suggest that graphene-containing composites offer improved resistance to fatigue, but until now, nobody had measured the fatigue behaviour of the underlying material,” he says. “Our goal in doing this was to get at that fundamental understanding so that in the future, we’ll be able to design composites that work even better.”
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Fatigue of graphene by Teng Cui, Sankha Mukherjee, Parambath M. Sudeep, Guillaume Colas, Farzin Najafi, Jason Tam, Pulickel M. Ajayan, Chandra Veer Singh, Yu Sun & Tobin Filleter. Nature Materials (2020) DOI: DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1038/s41563-019-0586-y Published: 20 January 2020
Researchers of the Optoelectronics and Measurement Techniques Unit (OPEM) at the University of Oulu [Finland] have invented a new method of producing ultra-sensitive hyper-spectral photodetectors. At the heart of the discovery are colloidal quantum dots, developed together with the researchers at the University of Toronto, Canada.
Quantum dots are tiny particles of 15-150 atoms of semiconducting material that have extraordinary optical and electrical properties due to quantum mechanics phenomena.
By controlling the size of the dots, the researchers are able to finetune how they react to different light colors (light wavelengths), especially those invisible for the human eye, namely the infrared spectrum.
-Naturally, it is very rewarding that our hard work has been recognized by the international scientific community but at the same time, this report helps us to realize that there is a long journey ahead in incoming years. This publication is especially satisfying because it is the result of collaboration with world-class experts at the University of Toronto, Canada. This international collaboration where we combined the expertise of Toronto’s researchers in synthesizing quantum dots and our expertise in printed intelligence resulted in truly unique devices with astonishing performance, says docent Rafal Sliz, a leading researcher in this project.
Mastered in the OPEM unit, inkjet printing technology makes possible the creation of optoelectronic devices by designing functional inks that are printed on various surfaces, for instance, flexible substrates, clothing or human skin. Inkjet printing combined with colloidal quantum dots allowed the creation of photodetectors of impresive detectivity characteristics. The developed technology is a milestone in the creation of a new type of sub-micron-thick, flexible, and inexpensive IR sensing devices, the next generation of solar cells and other novel photonic systems.
-Oulus’ engineers and scientists’ strong expertise in optoelectronics resulted in many successful Oulu-based companies like Oura, Specim, Focalspec, Spectral Engines, and many more. New optoelectronic technologies, materials, and methods developed by our researchers will help Oulu and Finland to stay at the cutting edge of innovation, says professor Tapio Fabritius, a leader of the OPEM.
This posting will focus on science, technology, the tragic consequence of bureaucratic and political bungling (the technology disaster that is is the Phoenix payroll system), and the puzzling lack of concern about some of the biggest upcoming technological and scientific changes in government and society in decades or more.
Setting the scene
After getting enough Liberal party members elected to the Canadian Parliament’s House of Commons to form a minority government in October 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a new cabinet and some changes to the ‘science’ portfolios in November 2019. You can read more about the overall cabinet announcement in this November 20, 2019 news item by Peter Zimonjic on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) website, my focus will be the science and technology. (Note: For those who don’t know, there is already much discussion about how long this Liberal minority government will last. All i takes is a ‘loss of confidence’ motion and a majority of the official opposition and other parties to vote ‘no confidence’ and Canada will back into the throes of an election. Mitigating against a speedy new federal election,, the Conservative party [official opposition] needs to choose a new leader and the other parties may not have the financial resources for another federal election so soon after the last one.)
Getting back to now and the most recent Cabinet announcements, it seems this time around, there’s significantly less interest in science. Concerns about this were noted in a November 22, 2019 article by Ivan Semeniuk for the Globe and Mail,
Canadian researchers are raising concerns that the loss of a dedicated science minister signals a reduced voice for their agenda around the federal cabinet table.
“People are wondering if the government thinks its science agenda is done,” said Marie Franquin, a doctoral student in neuroscience and co-president of Science and Policy Exchange, a student-led research-advocacy group. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”
While not a powerful player within cabinet, Ms. Duncan [Kirsty Duncan] proved to be an ardent booster of Canada’s research community and engaged with its issues, including the muzzling of federal scientists by the former Harper government and the need to improve gender equity in the research ecosystem.
Among Ms. Duncan’s accomplishments was the appointment of a federal chief science adviser [sic] and the commissioning of a landmark review of Ottawa’s support for fundamental research, chaired by former University of Toronto president David Naylor
… He [Andre Albinati, managing principal with Earnscliffe Strategy Group] added the role of science in government is now further bolstered by chief science adviser [sic] Mona Nemer and a growing network of departmental science advisers [sic]. .
Mehrdad Hariri, president of the Canadian Science Policy Centre …, cautioned that the chief science adviser’s [sic] role was best described as “science for policy,” meaning the use of science advice in decision-making. He added that the government still needed a separate role like that filled by Ms. Duncan … to champion “policy for science,” meaning decisions that optimize Canada’s research enterprise.
There’s one other commentary (by CresoSá) but I’m saving it for later.
The science minister disappears
There is no longer a separate position for Science. Kirsty Duncan was moved from her ‘junior’ position as Minister of Science (and Sport) to Deputy Leader of the government. Duncan’s science portfolio has been moved over to Navdeep Bains whose portfolio evolved from Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (yes, there were two ‘ministers of science’) to Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry. (It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Sadly, nobody from the Prime Minister’s team called to ask for my input on the matter.)
Science (and technology) have to be found elsewhere
There’s the Natural Resources (i.e., energy, minerals and metals, forests, earth sciences, mapping, etc.) portfolio which was led by Catherine McKenna who’s been moved over to Infrastructure and Communities. There have been mumblings that she was considered ‘too combative’ in her efforts. Her replacement in Natural Resources is Seamus O’Regan. No word yet on whether or not, he might also be ‘too combative’. Of course, it’s much easier if you’re female to gain that label. (You can read about the spray-painted slurs found on the windows of McKenna’s campaign offices after she was successfully re-elected. See: Mike Blanchfield’s October 24, 2019 article for Huffington Post and Brigitte Pellerin’s October 31, 2019 article for the Ottawa Citizen.)
There are other portfolios which can also be said to include science such as Environment and Climate Change which welcomes a new minister, Jonathan Wilkinson moving over from his previous science portfolio, Fisheries, Oceans, and Canadian Coast Guard where Bernadette Jordan has moved into place. Patti Hajdu takes over at Heath Canada (which despite all of the talk about science muzzles being lifted still has its muzzle in place). While it’s not typically considered a ‘science’ portfolio in Canada, the military establishment regardless of country has long been considered a source of science innovation; Harjit Sajjan has retained his Minister of National Defence portfolio.
Plus there are at least half a dozen other portfolios that can be described as having significant science and/or technology elements folded into their portfolios, e.g., Transport Canada, Agriculture and Agri-Food, Safety and Emergency Preparedness, etc.
As I tend to focus on emerging science and technology, most of these portfolios are not ones I follow even on an irregular basis meaning I have nothing more to add about them in this posting. Mixing science and technology together in this posting is a reflection of how tightly the two are linked together. For example, university research into artificial intelligence is taking place on theoretical levels (science) and as applied in business and government (technology). Apologies to the mathematicians but this explanation is already complicated and I don’t think I can do justice to their importance.
Moving onto technology with a strong science link, this next portfolio received even less attention than the ‘science’ portfolios and I believe that’s undeserved.
The Minister of Digital Government and a bureaucratic débacle
These days people tend to take the digital nature of daily life for granted and that may be why this portfolio has escaped much notice. When the ministerial posting was first introduced, it was an addition to Scott Brison’s responsibilities as head of the Treasury Board. It continued to be linked to the Treasury Board when Joyce Murray* inherited Brison’s position, after his departure from politics. As of the latest announcement in November 2019, Digital Government and the Treasury Board are no longer tended to by the same cabinet member.
The new head of the Treasury Board is Jean-Yves Duclos while Joyce Murray has held on to the Minister of Digital Government designation. I’m not sure if the separation from the Treasury Board is indicative of the esteem the Prime Minister has for digital government or if this has been done to appease someone or some group, which means the digital government portfolio could well disappear in the future just as the ‘junior’ science portfolio did.
Regardless, here’s some evidence as to why I think ‘digital government’ is unfairly overlooked, from the minister’s December 13, 2019 Mandate Letter from the Prime Minister (Note: All of the emphases are mine],
I will expect you to work with your colleagues and through established legislative, regulatory and Cabinet processes to deliver on your top priorities. In particular, you will:
Lead work across government to transition to a more digital government in order to improve citizen service.
Oversee the Chief Information Officer and the Canadian Digital Service as they work with departments to develop solutions that will benefit Canadians and enhance the capacity to use modern tools and methodologies across Government.
Lead work to analyze and improve the delivery of information technology (IT) within government. This work will include identifying all core and at-risk IT systems and platforms. You will lead the renewal of SSC [Shared Services Canada which provides ‘modern, secure and reliable IT services so federal organizations can deliver digital programs and services to meet Canadians’ needs’] so that it is properly resourced and aligned to deliver common IT infrastructure that is reliable and secure.
Lead work to create a centre of expertise that brings together the necessary skills to effectively implement major transformation projects across government, including technical, procurement and legal expertise.
Support the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry in continuing work on the ethical use of data and digital tools like artificial intelligence for better government.
With the support of the President of the Treasury Board and the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, accelerate progress on a new Government of Canada service strategy that aims to create a single online window for all government services with new performance standards.
Support the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development in expanding and improving the services provided by Service Canada.
Support the Minister of National Revenue on additional steps required to meaningfully improve the satisfaction of Canadians with the quality, timeliness and accuracy of services they receive from the Canada Revenue Agency.
Support the Minister of Public Services and Procurement in eliminating the backlog of outstanding pay issues for public servants as a result of the Phoenix Pay System.
Lead work on the Next Generation Human Resources and Pay System to replace the Phoenix Pay System and support the President of the Treasury Board as he actively engages Canada’s major public sector unions.
Support the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development and the Minister of National Revenue to implement a voluntary, real-time e-payroll system with an initial focus on small businesses.
Fully implement lessons learned from previous information technology project challenges and failures [e,g, the Phoenix Payroll System], particularly around sunk costs and major multi-year contracts. Act transparently by sharing identified successes and difficulties within government, with the aim of constantly improving the delivery of projects large and small.
Encourage the use and development of open source products and open data, allowing for experimentation within existing policy directives and building an inventory of validated and secure applications that can be used by government to share knowledge and expertise to support innovation.
To be clear, the Minister of Digital Government is responsible (more or less) for helping to clean up a débacle, i.e., the implementation of the federal government’s Phoenix Payroll System and drive even more digitization and modernization of government data and processes.
They’ve been trying to fix the Phoenix problems since the day it was implemented in early 2016.That’s right, it will be four years in Spring 2020 when the Liberal government chose to implement a digital payroll system that had been largely untested and despite its supplier’s concerns.
That video was posted on September 24, 2018 (on YouTube) and, to my knowledge, the situation has not changed appreciably. A November 8, 2019 article by Tom Spears for the Ottawa Citizen details a very personal story about what can only be described as a failure on just about every level you can imagine,
Linda Deschâtelets’s death by suicide might have been prevented if the flawed Phoenix pay system hadn’t led her to emotional and financial ruin, a Quebec coroner has found.
Deschâtelets died in December of 2017, at age 52. At the time she was struggling with chronic pain and massive mortgage payments.
The fear of losing her home weighed heavily on her. In her final text message to one of her sons she said she had run out of energy and wanted to die before she lost her house in Val des Monts.
But Deschâtelets might have lived, says a report from coroner Pascale Boulay, if her employer, the Canada Revenue Agency, had shown a little empathy.
“During the final months before her death, she experienced serious financial troubles linked to the federal government’s pay system, Phoenix, which cut off her pay in a significant way, making her fear she would lose her house,” said Boulay’s report.
“A thorough analysis of this case strongly suggests that this death could have been avoided if a search for a solution to the current financial, psychological and medical situation had been made.”
Boulay found “there is no indication that management sought to meet Ms. Deschâtelets to offer her options. In addition, the lack of prompt follow-up in the processing of requests for information indicates a distressing lack of empathy for an employee who is experiencing real financial insecurity.”
Pay records “indeed show that she was living through serious financial problems and that she received irregular payments since the beginning of October 2017,” the coroner wrote.
As well, “her numerous online applications using the form for a compensation problem, in which she expresses her fear of not being able to make her mortgage payments and says that she wants a detailed statement of account, remain unanswered.”
On top of that, she had chronic back pain and sciatica and had been missing work. She was scheduled to get an ergonomically designed work area, but this change was never made even though she waited for months.
Money troubles kept getting worse.
She ran out of paid sick leave, and her department sent her an email to explain that she had automatically been docked pay for taking sick days. “In this same email, she was also advised that in the event that she missed additional days, other amounts would be deducted. No further follow-up with her was done,” the coroner wrote.
That email came eight days before her death.
Deschâtelets was also taking cocaine but this did not alter the fact that she genuinely risked losing her home over her financial problems, the coroner wrote.
“Given the circumstances, it is highly likely that Ms. Deschâtelets felt trapped” and ended her life “because of her belief that she would lose the house anyway. It was only a matter of time.”
The situation is “even more sad” because CRA had advisers on site who dealt with Phoenix issues, and could meet with employees, Boulay wrote.
“The federal government does a lot of promotion of workplace wellness. Surprisingly, these wellness measures are silent on the subject of financial insecurity at work,” Boulay wrote.
I feel sad for the family and indignant that there doesn’t seem to have been enough done to mitigate the hardships due to an astoundingly ill-advised decision to implement an untested payroll system for the federal government’s 280,000 or more civil servants.
Canada’s Senate reports back on Phoenix
I’m highlighting the Senate report here although there are also two reports from the Auditor General should you care to chase them down. From an August 1, 2018 article by Brian Jackson for IT World Canada,
In February 2016, in anticipation of the start of the Phoenix system rolling out, the government laid off 2,700 payroll clerks serving 120,000 employees. [I’m guessing the discrepancy in numbers of employees may be due to how the clerks were laid off, i.e., if they were load off in groups scheduled to be made redundant at different intervals.]
As soon as Phoenix was launched, problems began. By May 2018 there were 60,000 pay requests backlogged. Now the government has dedicated resources to explaining to affected employees the best way to avoid pay-related problems, and to file grievances related to the system.
“The causes of the failure are multiple, including, failing to manage the pay system in an integrated fashion with human resources processes, not conducting a pilot project, removing essential processing functions to stay on budget, laying off experienced compensation advisors, and implementing a pay system that wasn’t ready,” the Senate report states. “We are dismayed that this project proceeded with minimal independent oversight, including from central agencies, and that no one has accepted responsibility for the failure of Phoenix or has been held to account. We believe that there is an underlying cultural problem that needs to be addressed. The government needs to move away from a culture that plays down bad news and avoids responsibility, [emphasis mine] to one that encourages employee engagement, feedback and collaboration.”
There is at least one estimate that the Phoenix failure will cost $2.2 billion but I’m reasonably certain that figure does not include the costs of suicide, substance abuse, counseling, marriage breakdown, etc. (Of course, how do you really estimate the cost of a suicide or a marriage breakdown or the impact that financial woes have on children?)
Also concerning the Senate report, there is a July 31, 2018 news item on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online,
“We are not confident that this problem has been solved, that the lessons have all been learned,” said Sen. André Pratte, deputy chair of the committee. [emphases mine]
The Parliamentary Budget Officer has said the Phoenix situation could continue until 2023, yet government funding commitments so far have fallen significantly short of what is needed to end the Phoenix nightmare.
PSAC will continue pressing for enough funding and urgent action:
eliminate the over 200,000 cases in the pay issues backlog
compensate workers for their many hardships
properly develop, test and launch a new pay system
2023 would mean the débacle had a seven year lifespan, assuming everything has been made better by then.
Finally, there seems to be one other minister tasked with the Phoenix Pay System ‘fix’ (December 13, 2019 mandate letter) and that is the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, Anita Anand. She is apparently a rookie MP (member of Parliament), which would make her a ‘cabinet rookie’ as well. Interesting choice.
More digital for federal workers and the Canadian public
Despite all that has gone before, the government is continuing in its drive to digitize itself as can be seen in the Minister of Digital Government’s mandate letter (excerpted above in ‘The Minister of Digital Government and some …’ subsection) and on the government’s Digital Government webspace,
Our digital shift to becoming more agile, open, and user-focused. We’re working on tomorrow’s Canada today.
I don’t find that particularly reassuring in light of the Phoenix Payroll System situation. However, on the plus side, Canada has a Digital Charter with 10 principles which include universal access, safety and security, control and consent, etc. Oddly, it looks like it’s the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, the Minister of Canadian Heritage and the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry who are tasked with enhancing and advancing the charter. Shouldn’t this group also include the Minister of Digital Government?
The Minister of Digital Government, Joyce Murray, does not oversee a ministry and I think that makes this a ‘junior’ position in much the same way the Minister of Science was a junior position. It suggests a mindset where some of the biggest changes to come for both employees and the Canadian public are being overseen by someone without the resources to do the work effectively or the bureaucratic weight and importance to ensure the changes are done properly.
It’s all very well to have a section on the Responsible use of artificial intelligence (AI) on your Digital Government webspace but there is no mention of ways and means to fix problems. For example, what happens to people who somehow run into an issue that the AI system can’t fix or even respond to because the algorithm wasn’t designed that way. Ever gotten caught in an automated telephone system? Or perhaps more saliently, what about the people who died in two different airplane accidents due to the pilots’ poor training and an AI system? (For a more informed view of the Boeing 737 Max, AI, and two fatal plane crashes see: a June 2, 2019 article by Rachel Kraus for Mashable.)
The only other minister whose mandate letter includes AI is the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, Navdeep Bains (from his December 13, 2019 mandate letter),
With the support of the Minister of Digital Government, continue work on the ethical use of data and digital tools like artificial intelligence for better government.
So, the Minister of Digital Government, Joyce Murray, is supporting the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, Navdeep Bains. That would suggest a ‘junior’ position wouldn’t it? If you look closely at the Minister of Digital Services’ mandate letter, you’ll see the Minister is almost always supporting another minister.
Where the Phoenix Pay System is concerned, the Minister of Digital Services is supporting the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, the previously mentioned rookie MP and rookie Cabinet member, Anita Anand. Interestingly, the employees’ union, PSAC, has decided (as of a November 20, 2019 news release) to ramp up its ad campaign regarding the Phoenix Pay System and its bargaining issues by targeting the Prime Minister and the new President of the Treasury Board, Jean-Yves Duclos. Guess whose mandate letter makes no mention of Phoenix (December 13, 2019 mandate letter for the President of the Treasury Board).
Open government, eh?
Putting a gift bow on a pile of manure doesn’t turn it into a gift (for most people, anyway) and calling your government open and/or transparent doesn’t necessarily make it so even when you amend your Access to Information Act to make it more accessible (August 22, 2019 Digital Government news release by Ruth Naylor).
One of the Liberal government’s most heavily publicized ‘open’ initiatives was the lifting of the muzzles put on federal scientists in the Environment and Natural Resources ministries. Those muzzles were put into place by a Conservative government and the 2015 Liberal government gained a lot of political capital from its actions. No one seemed to remember that Health Canada also had been muzzled. That muzzle had been put into place by one of the Liberal governments preceding the Conservative one. To date there is no word as to whether or not that muzzle has ever been lifted.
However, even in the ministries where the muzzles were lifted, it seems scientists didn’t feel free to speak even many months later (from a Feb 21, 2018 article by Brian Owens for Science),
More than half of government scientists in Canada—53%—do not feel they can speak freely to the media about their work, even after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government eased restrictions on what they can say publicly, according to a survey released today by a union that represents more than 16,000 federal scientists.
That union—the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) based in Ottawa—conducted the survey last summer, a little more than a year and a half into the Trudeau government. It followed up on a similar survey the union released in 2013 at the height of the controversy over the then-Conservative government’s reported muzzling of scientists by preventing media interviews and curtailing travel to scientific conferences. The new survey found the situation much improved—in 2013, 90% of scientists felt unable to speak about their work. But the union says more work needs to be done. “The work needs to be done at the department level,” where civil servants may have been slow to implement political directives, PIPSC President Debi Daviau said. ”We need a culture change that promotes what we have heard from ministers.”
To better illustrate this concern, in 2013, The Big Chill revealed that 86% of respondents feared censorship or retaliation from their department or agency if they spoke out about a departmental decision or action that, based on their scientific knowledge, could bring harm to the public interest. In 2017, when asked the same question, 73% of respondents said they would not be able to do so without fear of censorship or retaliation – a mere 13% drop.
It’s possible things have improved but while the 2018 Senate report did not focus on scientists, it did highlight issues with the government’s openness and transparency or in their words: “… a culture that plays down bad news and avoids responsibility.” It seems the Senate is not the only group with concerns about government culture; so do the government’s employees (the scientists, anyway).
The recently announced Liberal cabinet brings what appear to be cosmetic changes to the science file. Former Science Minister Kirsty Duncan is no longer in it, which sparked confusion among casual observers who believed that the elimination of her position signalled the termination of the science ministry or the downgrading of the science agenda. In reality, science was and remains part of the renamed Ministry of Innovation, Science, and (now) Industry (rather than Economic Development), where Minister Navdeep Bains continues at the helm.
Arguably, these reactions show that appearances have been central [emphasis mine] to the modus operandi of this government. Minister Duncan was an active, and generally well-liked, champion for the Trudeau government’s science platform. She carried the torch of team science over the last four years, becoming vividly associated with the launch of initiatives such as the Fundamental Science Review, the creation of the chief science advisor position, and the introduction of equity provisions in the Canada Research Chairs program. She talked a good talk, but her role did not in fact give her much authority to change the course of science policy in the country. From the start, her mandate was mostly defined around building bridges with members of cabinet, which was likely good experience for her new role of deputy house leader.
Upon the announcement of the new cabinet, Minister Bains took to Twitter to thank Dr. Duncan for her dedication to placing science in “its rightful place back at the centre of everything our government does.” He indicated that he will take over her responsibilities, which he was already formally responsible for. Presumably, he will now make time to place science at the centre of everything the government does.
This kind of sloganeering has been common [emphasis mine] since the 2015 campaign, which seems to be the strategic moment the Liberals can’t get out of. Such was the real and perceived hostility of the Harper Conservatives to science that the Liberals embraced the role of enlightened advocates. Perhaps the lowest hanging fruit their predecessors left behind was the sheer absence of any intelligible articulation of where they stood on the science file, which the Liberals seized upon with gusto. Virtue signalling [emphasis mine] became a first line of response.
When asked about her main accomplishments over the past year as chief science advisor at the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa, Mona Nemer started with the creation of a network of science advisors across government departments. Over the past four years, the government has indeed not been shy about increasing the number of appointments with “science” in their job titles. That is not a bad thing. We just do not hear much about how “science is at the centre of everything the government does.” Things get much fuzzier when the conversation turns to the bold promises of promoting evidence-based decision making that this government has been vocal about. Queried on how her role has impacted policy making, Dr. Nemer suggested the question should be asked to politicians. [emphasis mine]
I’m tempted to describe the ‘Digital Government’ existence and portfolio as virtue signalling.
There doesn’t seem to be all that much government interest in science or, even, technology for that matter. We have a ‘junior’ Minister of Science disappear so that science can become part of all the ministries. Frankly, I wish that science were integrated throughout all the ministries but when you consider the government culture, this move more easily lends itself to even less responsibility being taken by anyone. Take another look at the Canada’s Chief Science Advisor’s comment: “Queried on how her role has impacted policy making, Dr. Nemer suggested the question should be asked to politicians.” Meanwhile, we get a ‘junior Minister of Digital Government whose portfolio has the potential to affect Canadians of all ages and resident in Canada or not.
A ‘junior’ minister is not necessarily evil as Sá points out but I would like to see some indication that efforts are being made to shift the civil service culture and the attitude about how the government conducts its business and that the Minister of Digital Government will receive the resources and the respect she needs to do her job. I’d also like to see some understanding of how catastrophic a wrong move has already been and could be in the future along with options for how citizens are going to be making their way through this brave new digital government world and some options for fixing problems, especially the catastrophic ones.
*December 30, 2019 correction: After Scott Brison left his position as President of the Treasury Board and Minister of Digital Government in January 2019, Jane Philpott held the two positions until March 2019 when she left the Liberal Party. Carla Quatrough was acting head from March 4 – March 18, 2019 when Joyce Murray was appointed to the two positions which she held for eight months until November 2019 when, as I’ve noted, the ‘Minister of Digital Government’ was split from the ‘President of the Treasury Board’ appointment.
ETA January 28, 2020: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has an update on the Phoenix Pay System situation in a January 28, 2020 posting (supplied by The Canadian Press),
More than 98,000 civil servants may still owe the federal government money after being overpaid through the disastrous Phoenix pay system.
… the problems persist, despite the hiring of hundreds of pay specialists to work through a backlog of system errors.
The public service pay centre was still dealing with a backlog of about 202,000 complaints as of Dec. 24 , down from 214,000 pay transactions that went beyond normal workload in November .
This time it’s the performing arts. I have one theatre and psychiatry production in Toronto and a music and medical science event in Vancouver.
Toronto’s Here are the Fragments opening on November 19, 2019
From a November 2, 2019 ArtSci Salon announcement (received via email),
An immersive theatre experience inspired by the psychiatric writing of Frantz Fanon
Here are the Fragments. Co-produced by The ECT Collective and The Theatre Centre November 19-December 1, 2019 Tickets: Preview $17 | Student/senior/arts worker $22 | Adult $30 Service charges may apply Book 416-538-0988 | PURCHASE ONLINE
An immigrant psychiatrist develops psychosis and then schizophrenia. He walks a long path towards reconnection with himself, his son, and humanity.
Walk with him.
Within our immersive design (a fabric of sound, video, and live actors) lean in close to the possibilities of perceptual experience.
Schizophrenics ‘hear voices’. Schizophrenics fear loss of control over their own thoughts and bodies. But how does any one of us actually separate internal and external voices? How do we trust what we see or feel? How do we know which voices are truly our own?
Within the installation find places of retreat from chaos. Find poetry. Find critical analysis.
Explore archival material, Fanon’s writings and contemporary interviews with psychiatrists, neuroscientists, artists, and people living with schizophrenia, to reflect on the relationships between identity, history, racism and mental health.
How do we trust what we see or feel? How do we know which voices are truly our own? THE THEATRE CENTRE and THE ECT COLLECTIVE are proud to Co-produce HERE ARE THE FRAGMENTS., an immersive work of theatre written by Suvendrini Lena, Theatre Centre Residency artist and CAMH [ Centre for Addiction and Mental Health] Neurologist. Based on the psychiatric writing of famed political theorist Frantz Fanon and combining narratives, sensory exploration, and scientific and historical analysis, HERE ARE THE FRAGMENTS. reflects on the relationships between identity, history, racism, and mental health. FRAGMENTS. will run November 19 to December 1 at The Theatre Centre (Opening Night November 21).
HERE ARE THE FRAGMENTS. consists of live performances within an interactive installation. The plot, told in fragments, follows a psychiatrist early in his training as he develops psychosis and ultimately, treatment resistant schizophrenia. Eduard, his son, struggles to connect with his father, while the young man must also make difficult treatment decisions.
The Theatre Centre’s Franco Boni Theatre and Gallery will be transformed into an immersive interactive installation. The design will offer many spaces for exploration, investigation, and discovery, bringing audiences into the perceptual experience of Schizophrenia. The scenes unfold around you, incorporating a fabric of sound, video, and live actors. Amidst the seeming chaos there will also be areas of retreat; whispering voices, Fanon’s own books, archival materials, interviews with psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and people living with schizophrenia all merge to provoke analysis and reflection on the intersection of racism and mental health.
Suvendrini Lena (Writer) is a playwright and neurologist. She works as the staff neurologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and at the Centre for Headache at Women’s College Hospital [Toronto]. She is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at the University of Toronto where she teaches medical students, residents, and fellows. She also teaches a course called Staging Medicine, a collaboration between The Theatre Centre and University of Toronto Postgraduate Medical Education.
Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), was a French West Indian psychiatrist, political philosopher, revolutionary, and writer, whose works are influential in the fields of post-colonial studies, critical theory, and Marxism. Fanon published numerous books, including Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961).
In addition to performances, The Theatre Centre will host a number of panels and events. Highlights include a post-show talkback with Ngozi Paul (Development Producer, Artist/Activist) and Psychiatrist Collaborator Araba Chintoh on November 22. Also of note is Our Patients and Our Selves: Experiences of Racism Among Health Care Workers with facilitator Dr. Fatimah Jackson-Best of Black Health Alliance on November 23rd and Fanon Today: A Creative Symposium on November 24th, a panel, reading, and creative discussion featuring David Austin, Frank Francis, Doris Rajan and George Elliot Clarke [formerly Toronto’s Poet Laureate and Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate; emphasis and link mine].
Sounds and Science: Vienna meets Vancouver on November 30, 2019
‘Sounds and Science’ originated at the Medical University of Vienna (Austria) as the November 6, 2019 event posting on the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Faculty of Medicine website,
The University of British Columbia will host the first Canadian concert bringing leading musical talents of Vienna together with dramatic narratives from science and medicine.
“Sounds and Science: Vienna Meets Vancouver” is part of the President’s Concert Series, to be held Nov. 30, 2019 on UBC campus. The event is modeled on a successful concert series launched in Austria in 2014, in cooperation with the Medical University of Vienna.
“Basic research tends to always stay within its own box, yet research is telling the most beautiful stories,” says Dr. Josef Penninger, director of UBC’s Life Sciences Institute, a professor of medical genetics and a Canada 150 Chair. “With this concert, we are bringing science out of the ivory tower, using the music of great composers such as Mozart, Schubert or Strauss to transport stories of discovery and insight into the major diseases that affected the composers themselves, and continue to have a significant impact on our society.”
Famous composers of the past are often seen as icons of classical music, but in fact, they were human beings, living under enormous physical constraints – perhaps more than people today, according to Dr. Manfred Hecking, an associate professor of internal medicine at the Medical University of Vienna.
“But ‘Sounds and Science’ is not primarily about suffering and disease,” says Dr. Hecking, a former member of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra who will be playing double bass during the concert. “It is a fun way of bringing music and science together. Combining music and thought, we hope that we will reach the attendees of the ‘Sounds and Science’ concert in Vancouver on an emotional, perhaps even personal level.”
A showcase for Viennese music, played in the tradition of the Vienna Philharmonic by several of its members, as well as the world-class science being done here at UBC, “Sounds and Science” will feature talks by UBC clinical and research faculty, including Dr. Penninger. Their topics will range from healthy aging and cancer research to the historical impact of bacterial infections.
Combining music and thought, we hope that we will reach the attendees of the ‘Sounds and Science’ concert in Vancouver on an emotional, perhaps even personal level. Dr. Manfred Hecking
Faculty speaking at “Sounds and Science” will be: Dr. Allison Eddy, professor and head, department of pediatrics, and chief, pediatric medicine, BC Children’s Hospital and BC Women’s Hospital; Dr. Troy Grennan, clinical assistant professor, division of infectious diseases, UBC faculty of medicine; Dr. Poul Sorensen, professor, department of pathology and laboratory medicine, UBC faculty of medicine; and Dr. Roger Wong, executive associate dean, education and clinical professor of geriatric medicine, UBC faculty of medicine UBC President and Vice-Chancellor Santa J. Ono and Vice President Health and Dr. Dermot Kelleher, dean, faculty of medicine and vice-president, health at UBC will also speak during the evening.
The musicians include two outstanding members of the Vienna Philharmonic – violinist Prof. Günter Seifert and violist-conductor Hans Peter Ochsenhofer, who will be joined by violinist-conductor Rémy Ballot and double bassist Dr. Manfred Hecking, who serves as a regular substitute in the orchestra.
For those in whose lives intertwine music and science, the experience of cross-connection will be familiar. For Dr. Penninger, the concert represents an opportunity to bring the famous sound of the Vienna Philharmonic to UBC and British Columbia, to a new audience. “That these musicians are coming here is a fantastic recognition and acknowledgement of the amazing work being done at UBC,” he says.
“Like poetry, music is a universal language that all of us immediately understand and can relate to. Science tells the most amazing stories. Both of them bring meaning and beauty to our world.”
“Sounds and Science” – Vienna Meets Vancouver is part of the President’s Concert Series | November 30, 2019 on campus at the Old Auditorium from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.
To learn more about the Sounds and Science concert series hosted in cooperation with the Medical University of Vienna, visit www.soundsandscience.com.
I found more information regarding logistics,
Saturday, November 30, 2019 6:30 pm The Old Auditorium, 6344 Memorial Road, UBC Box office and Lobby: Opens at 5:30 pm (one hour prior to start of performance) Old Auditorium Concert Hall: Opens at 6:00 pm
The idea of combining music and medicine into the “Sounds & Science” – scientific concert series started in 2008, when the Austrian violinist Rainer Honeck played Bach’s Chaconne in d-minor directly before a keynote lecture, held by Nobel laureate Peter Doherty, at the Austrian Society of Allergology and Immunology’s yearly meeting in Vienna. The experience at that lecture was remarkable, truly a special moment. “Sounds & Science” was then taken a step further by bringing several concepts together: Anton Neumayr’s medical histories of composers, John Brockman’s idea of a “Third Culture” (very broadly speaking: combining humanities and science), and finally, our perception that science deserves a “Red Carpet” to walk on, in front of an audience. Attendees of the “Sounds & Science” series have also described that music opens the mind, and enables a better understanding of concepts in life and thereby science in general. On a typical concert/lecture, we start with a chamber music piece, continue with the pathobiography of the composer, go back to the music, and then introduce our main speaker, whose talk should be genuinely understandable to a broad, not necessarily scientifically trained audience. In the second half, we usually try to present a musical climax. One prerequisite that “Sounds & Science” stands for, is the outstanding quality of the principal musicians, and of the main speakers. Our previous concerts/lectures have so far covered several aspects of medicine like “Music & Cancer” (Debussy, Brahms, Schumann), “Music and Heart” (Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner), and “Music and Diabetes” (Bach, Ysaÿe, Puccini). For many individuals who have combined music and medicine or music and science inside of their own lives and biographies, the experience of a cross-connection between sounds and science is quite familiar. But there is also this “fun” aspect of sharing and participating, and at the “Sounds & Science” events, we usually try to ensure that the event location can easily be turned into a meeting place.
At a guess, Science and Sounds started informally in 2008 and became a formal series in 2014.
There is a video but it’s in German. It’s enjoyable viewing with beautiful music but unless you have German language skills you won’t get the humour. Also it runs for over 9 minutes (a little longer than most of videos you’ll find here on FrogHeart),
There are movies, plays, a multimedia installation experience all in Vancouver, and the ‘CHAOSMOSIS mAchInesexhibition/performance/discussion/panel/in-situ experiments/art/ science/ techne/ philosophy’ event in Toronto. But first, there’s a a Vancouver talk about engaging scientists in the upcoming federal election. .
Science in the Age of Misinformation (and the upcoming federal election) in Vancouver
Science in the Age of Misinformation, with Katie Gibbs, Evidence for Democracy In the lead up to the federal election, it is more important than ever to understand the role that researchers play in shaping policy. Join us in this special Policy in Practice event with Dr. Katie Gibbs, Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, Canada’s leading, national, non-partisan, and not-for-profit organization promoting science and the transparent use of evidence in government decision making. A Musqueam land acknowledgement, welcome remarks and moderation of this event will be provided by MPPGA students Joshua Tafel, and Chengkun Lv.
Wednesday, September 4, 2019 12:30 pm – 1:50 pm (Doors will open at noon) Liu Institute for Global Issues – xʷθəθiqətəm (Place of Many Trees), 1st floor Pizza will be provided starting at noon on first come, first serve basis. Please RSVP.
What role do researchers play in a political environment that is increasingly polarized and influenced by misinformation? Dr. Katie Gibbs, Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, will give an overview of the current state of science integrity and science policy in Canada highlighting progress made over the past four years and what this means in a context of growing anti-expert movements in Canada and around the world. Dr. Gibbs will share concrete ways for researchers to engage heading into a critical federal election [emphasis mine], and how they can have lasting policy impact.
Bio: Katie Gibbs is a scientist, organizer and advocate for science and evidence-based policies. While completing her Ph.D. at the University of Ottawa in Biology, she was one of the lead organizers of the ‘Death of Evidence’—one of the largest science rallies in Canadian history. Katie co-founded Evidence for Democracy, Canada’s leading, national, non-partisan, and not-for-profit organization promoting science and the transparent use of evidence in government decision making. Her ongoing success in advocating for the restoration of public science in Canada has made Katie a go-to resource for national and international media outlets including Science, The Guardian and the Globe and Mail.
Katie has also been involved in international efforts to increase evidence-based decision-making and advises science integrity movements in other countries and is a member of the Open Government Partnership Multi-stakeholder Forum.
Disclaimer: Please note that by registering via Eventbrite, your information will be stored on the Eventbrite server, which is located outside Canada. If you do not wish to use this service, please email Joelle.Lee@ubc.ca directly to register. Thank you.
Location Liu Institute for Global Issues – Place of Many Trees 6476 NW Marine Drive Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z2
Sadly I was not able to post the information about Dr. Gibbs’s more informal talk last night (Sept. 3, 2019) which was a special event with Café Scientifique but I do have a link to a website encouraging anyone who wants to help get science on the 2019 federal election agenda, Vote Science. P.S. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to post this in a more timely fashion.
Transmissions; a multimedia installation in Vancouver, September 6 -28, 2019
Lisa Jackson is a filmmaker, but she’s never allowed that job description to limit what she creates or where and how she screens her works.
The Anishinaabe artist’s breakout piece was last year’s haunting virtual-reality animation Biidaaban: First Light. In its eerie world, one that won a Canadian Screen Award, nature has overtaken a near-empty, future Toronto, with trees growing through cracks in the sidewalks, vines enveloping skyscrapers, and people commuting by canoe.
All that and more has brought her here, to Transmissions, a 6,000-square-foot, immersive film installation that invites visitors to wander through windy coastal forests, by hauntingly empty glass towers, into soundscapes of ancient languages, and more.
Through the labyrinthine multimedia work at SFU [Simon Fraser University] Woodward’s, Jackson asks big questions—about Earth’s future, about humanity’s relationship to it, and about time and Indigeneity.
Simultaneously, she mashes up not just disciplines like film and sculpture, but concepts of science, storytelling, and linguistics [emphasis mine].
“The tag lines I’m working with now are ‘the roots of meaning’ and ‘knitting the world together’,” she explains. “In western society, we tend to hive things off into ‘That’s culture. That’s science.’ But from an Indigenous point of view, it’s all connected.”
Transmissions is split into three parts, with what Jackson describes as a beginning, a middle, and an end. Like Biidaaban, it’s also visually stunning: the artist admits she’s playing with Hollywood spectacle.
Without giving too much away—a big part of the appeal of Jackson’s work is the sense of surprise—Vancouver audiences will first enter a 48-foot-long, six-foot-wide tunnel, surrounded by projections that morph from empty urban streets to a forest and a river. Further engulfing them is a soundscape that features strong winds, while black mirrors along the floor skew perspective and play with what’s above and below ground.
“You feel out of time and space,” says Jackson, who wants to challenge western society’s linear notions of minutes and hours. “I want the audience to have a physical response and an emotional response. To me, that gets closer to the Indigenous understanding. Because the Eurocentric way is more rational, where the intellectual is put ahead of everything else.”
Viewers then enter a room, where the highly collaborative Jackson has worked with artist Alan Storey, who’s helped create Plexiglas towers that look like the ghost high-rises of an abandoned city. (Storey has also designed other components of the installation.) As audience members wander through them on foot, projections make their shadows dance on the structures. Like Biidaaban, the section hints at a postapocalyptic or posthuman world. Jackson operates in an emerging realm of Indigenous futurism.
The words “science, storytelling, and linguistics” were emphasized due to a minor problem I have with terminology. Linguistics is defined as the scientific study of language combining elements from the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. I wish either Jackson or Smith had discussed the scientific element of Transmissions at more length and perhaps reconnected linguistics to science along with the physics of time and space, as well as, storytelling, film, and sculpture. It would have been helpful since it’s my understanding, Transmissions is designed to showcase all of those connections and more in ways that may not be obvious to everyone. On the plus side, perhaps the tour, which is part of this installation experience includes that information.
The Roots of Meaning World Premiere September 6 – 28, 2019
Fei & Milton Wong Experimental Theatre SFU Woodward’s, 149 West Hastings Tuesday to Friday, 1pm to 7pm Saturday and Sunday, 1pm to 5pm FREE
In partnership with SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs and produced by Electric Company Theatre and Violator Films.
TRANSMISSIONS is a three-part, 6000 square foot multimedia installation by award-winning Anishinaabe filmmaker and artist Lisa Jackson. It extends her investigation into the connections between land, language, and people, most recently with her virtual reality work Biidaaban: First Light.
Projections, sculpture, and film combine to create urban and natural landscapes that are eerie and beautiful, familiar and foreign, concrete and magical. Past and future collide in a visceral and thought-provoking journey that questions our current moment and opens up the complexity of thought systems embedded in Indigenous languages. Radically different from European languages, they embody sets of relationships to the land, to each other, and to time itself.
Transmissions invites us to untether from our day-to-day world and imagine a possible future. It provides a platform to activate and cross-pollinate knowledge systems, from science to storytelling, ecology to linguistics, art to commerce. To begin conversations, to listen deeply, to engage varied perspectives and expertise, to knit the world together and find our place within the circle of all our relations.
Produced in association with McMaster University Socrates Project, Moving Images Distribution and Cobalt Connects Creativity.
Admission: Free Public Tours Tuesday through Sunday Reservations accepted from 1pm to 3pm. Reservations are booked in 15 minute increments. Individuals and groups up to 10 welcome. Please email: email@example.com for more information or to book groups of 10 or more.
Her Story: Canadian Women Scientists (short film subjects); Sept. 13 – 14, 2019
Curiosity Collider, producer of art/science events in Vancouver, is presenting a film series featuring Canadian women scientists, according to an August 27 ,2019 press release (received via email),
“Her Story: Canadian Women Scientists,” a film series dedicated to sharing the stories of Canadian women scientists, will premiere on September 13th and 14th at the Annex theatre. Four pairs of local filmmakers and Canadian women scientists collaborated to create 5-6 minute videos; for each film in the series, a scientist tells her own story, interwoven with the story of an inspiring Canadian women scientist who came before her in her field of study.
Produced by Vancouver-based non-profit organization Curiosity Collider, this project was developed to address the lack of storytelling videos showcasing remarkable women scientists and their work available via popular online platforms. “Her Story reveals the lives of women working in science,” said Larissa Blokhuis, curator for Her Story. “This project acts as a beacon to girls and women who want to see themselves in the scientific community. The intergenerational nature of the project highlights the fact that women have always worked in and contributed to science.
This sentiment was reflected by Samantha Baglot as well, a PhD student in neuroscience who collaborated with filmmaker/science cartoonist Armin Mortazavi in Her Story. “It is empowering to share stories of previous Canadian female scientists… it is empowering for myself as a current female scientist to learn about other stories of success, and gain perspective of how these women fought through various hardships and inequality.”
When asked why seeing better representation of women in scientific work is important, artist/filmmaker Michael Markowsky shared his thoughts. “It’s important for women — and their male allies — to question and push back against these perceived social norms, and to occupy space which rightfully belongs to them.” In fact, his wife just gave birth to their first child, a daughter; “It’s personally very important to me that she has strong female role models to look up to.” His film will feature collaborating scientist Jade Shiller, and Kathleen Conlan – who was named one of Canada’s greatest explorers by Canadian Geographic in 2015.
Other participating filmmakers and collaborating scientists include: Leslie Kennah (Filmmaker), Kimberly Girling (scientist, Research and Policy Director at Evidence for Democracy), Lucas Kavanagh and Jesse Lupini (Filmmakers, Avocado Video), and Jessica Pilarczyk (SFU Assistant Professor, Department of Earth Sciences).
This film series is supported by Westcoast Women in Engineering, Science and Technology (WWEST) and Eng.Cite. The venue for the events is provided by Vancouver Civic Theatres.
Screening events will be hosted at Annex (823 Seymour St, Vancouver) on September 13th and 14th . Events will also include a talkback with filmmakers and collab scientists on the 13th, and a panel discussion on representations of women in science and culture on the 14th. Visit http://bit.ly/HerStoryTickets2019 for tickets ($14.99-19.99) and http://bit.ly/HerStoryWomenScientists for project information.
I have a film collage,
I looks like they’re presenting films with a diversity of styles. You can find out more about Curiosity Collider and its various programmes and events here.
Vancouver Fringe Festival September 5 – 16, 2019
I found two plays in this year’s fringe festival programme that feature science in one way or another. Not having seen either play I make no guarantees as to content. First up is,
Adam and April are a regular 20-something couple, very nearly blissfully generic, aside from one important detail: one of the pair is an “artificially intelligent companion.” Their joyful veneer has begun to crack and they need YOU to decide the future of their relationship. Is the freedom of a robot or the will of a human more important? For AI Love You:
***** “Magnificent, complex and beautifully addictive.” —Spy in the Stalls **** “Emotionally charged, deeply moving piece … I was left with goosebumps.” —West End Wilma **** —London City Nights Past shows: ***** “The perfect show.” —Theatre Box
Red Glimmer Dusty Foot Productions Vancouver, Canada Written & Directed by Patricia Trinh
Abstract Sci-Fi dramedy. An interdimensional science experiment! Woman involuntarily takes an all inclusive internal trip after falling into a deep depression. A scientist is hired to navigate her neurological pathways from inside her mind – tackling the fact that humans cannot physically re-experience somatosensory sensation, like pain. What if that were the case for traumatic emotional pain? A creepy little girl is heard running by. What happens next?
CHAOSMOSIS mAchInes exhibition/performance/discussion/panel/in-situ experiments/art/ science/ techne/ philosophy, 28 September, 2019 in Toronto
An Art/Sci Salon September 2, 2019 announcement (received via email), Note: I have made some formatting changes,
28 September, 2019 7pm-11pm. Helen-Gardiner-Phelan Theatre, 2nd floor University of Toronto. 79 St. George St.
A playful co-presentation by the Topological Media Lab (Concordia U-Montreal) and The Digital Dramaturgy Labsquared (U of T-Toronto). This event is part of our collaboration with DDLsquared lab, the Topological Lab and the Leonardo LASER network
7pm-9.30pm, Installation-performances, 9.30pm-11pm, Reception and cash bar, Front and Long Room, Ground floor
Description: From responsive sculptures to atmosphere-creating machines; from sensorial machines to affective autonomous robots, Chaosmosis mAchInes is an eclectic series of installations and performances reflecting on today’s complex symbiotic relations between humans, machines and the environment.
This will be the first encounter between Montreal-based Topological Media Lab (Concordia University) and the Toronto-based Digital Dramaturgy Labsquared (U of T) to co-present current process-based and experimental works. Both labs have a history of notorious playfulness, conceptual abysmal depth, human-machine interplays, Art&Science speculations (what if?), collaborative messes, and a knack for A/I as in Artistic Intelligence.
Thanks to Nina Czegledy (Laser series, Leonardo network) for inspiring the event and for initiating the collaboration
Project presentations will include: Topological Media Lab tangibleFlux φ plenumorphic ∴ chaosmosis SPIEL On Air The Sound That Severs Now from Now Cloud Chamber (2018) | Caustic Scenography, Responsive Cloud Formation Liquid Light Robots: Machine Menagerie Phaze Phase Passing Light Info projects Digital Dramaturgy Labsquared Btw Lf & Dth – interFACING disappearance Info project
Earlier last month [August 2019?], surgeons at St Paul’s Hospital performed an ankle replacement for a Cloverdale resident using a 3D printed bone. The first procedure of its kind in Western Canada, it saved the patient all of his ten toes — something doctors had originally decided to amputate due to the severity of the motorcycle accident.
Maker Faire Vancouver Co-producer, John Biehler, may not be using his 3D printer for medical breakthroughs, but he does see a subtle connection between his home 3D printer and the Health Canada-approved bone.
“I got into 3D printing to make fun stuff and gadgets,” John says of the box-sized machine that started as a hobby and turned into a side business. “But the fact that the very same technology can have life-changing and life-saving applications is amazing.”
When John showed up to Maker Faire Vancouver seven years ago, opportunities to access this hobby were limited. Armed with a 3D printer he had just finished assembling the night before, John was hoping to meet others in the community with similar interests to build, experiment and create. Much like the increase in accessibility to these portable machines has changed over the years—with universities, libraries and makerspaces making them readily available alongside CNC Machines, laser cutters and more — John says the excitement around crafting and tinkering has skyrocketed as well.
“The kind of technology that inspires people to print a bone or spinal insert all starts at ground zero in places like a Maker Faire where people get exposed to STEAM,” John says …
… From 3D printing enthusiasts like John to knitters, metal artists and roboticists, this full one-day event [Maker Faire Vancouver on Saturday, September 14, 2019] will facilitate cross-pollination between hobbyists, small businesses, artists and tinkerers. Described as part science fair, part county fair and part something entirely new, Maker Faire Vancouver hopes to facilitate discovery and what John calls “pure joy moments.”
I have two stories about lungs and they are entirely different with the older one being a bioengineering story from the US and the more recent one being an artificial tissue story from the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa (both in Canada).
Lab grown lungs
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Quirks and Quarks radio programme posted a December 29, 2018 news item (with embedded radio files) about bioengineered lunjgs,
There are two major components to building an organ: the structure and the right cells on that structure. A team led by Dr. Joan Nichols, a Professor of Internal Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, were able to tackle both parts of the problem
In their experiment they used a donor organ for the structure. They took a lung from an unrelated pig, and stripped it of its cells, leaving a scaffold of collagen, a tough, flexible protein. This provided a pre-made appropriate structure, though in future they think it may be possible to use 3-D printing technology to get the same result.
They then added cultured cells from the animal who would be receiving the transplant – so the lung was made of the animal’s own cells. Cultured lung and blood vessel cells were placed on the scaffold and it was placed in a tank for 30 days with a cocktail of nutrients to help the cells stick to the scaffold and proliferate. The result was a kind of baby lung.
They then transplanted the bio-engineered, though immature, lung into the recipient animal where they hoped it would continue to develop and mature – growing to become a healthy, functioning organ.
The recipients of the bio-engineered lungs were four pigs adult pigs, which appeared to tolerate the transplants well. In order to study the development of the bio-engineered lungs, they euthanized the animals at different times: 10 hours, two weeks, one month and two months after transplantation.
They found that as early as two weeks, the bio-engineered lung had integrated into the recipient animals’ body, building a strong network of blood vessels essential for the lung to survive. There was no evidence of pulmonary edema, the build of fluid in the lungs, which is usually a sign of the blood vessels not working efficiently. There was no sign of rejection of the transplanted organs, and the pigs were healthy up to the point where they were euthanized.
One lingering concern is how well the bio-engineered lungs delivered oxygen. The four pigs who received the trasplant [sic] had one original functioning lung, so they didn’t depend on their new bio-engineered lung for breathing. The scientists were not sure that the bio-engineered lung was mature enough to handle the full load of oxygen on its own.
You can hear Bob McDonald’s (host of Quirks & Quarks, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation science radio programme) interview lead scientist, Dr. Joan Nichols if you go to here. (Note: I find he overmodulates his voice but some may find he has a ‘friendly’ voice.)
This is an image of the lung scaffold produced by the team,
In 2014, Joan Nichols and Joaquin Cortiella from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston were the first research team to successfully bioengineer human lungs in a lab. In a paper now available in Science Translational Medicine, they provide details of how their work has progressed from 2014 to the point no complications have occurred in the pigs as part of standard preclinical testing.
“The number of people who have developed severe lung injuries has increased worldwide, while the number of available transplantable organs have decreased,” said Cortiella, professor of pediatric anesthesia. “Our ultimate goal is to eventually provide new options for the many people awaiting a transplant,” said Nichols, professor of internal medicine and associate director of the Galveston National Laboratory at UTMB.
To produce a bioengineered lung, a support scaffold is needed that meets the structural needs of a lung. A support scaffold was created using a lung from an unrelated animal that was treated using a special mixture of sugar and detergent to eliminate all cells and blood in the lung, leaving only the scaffolding proteins or skeleton of the lung behind. This is a lung-shaped scaffold made totally from lung proteins.
The cells used to produce each bioengineered lung came from a single lung removed from each of the study animals. This was the source of the cells used to produce a tissue-matched bioengineered lung for each animal in the study. The lung scaffold was placed into a tank filled with a carefully blended cocktail of nutrients and the animals’ own cells were added to the scaffold following a carefully designed protocol or recipe. The bioengineered lungs were grown in a bioreactor for 30 days prior to transplantation. Animal recipients were survived for 10 hours, two weeks, one month and two months after transplantation, allowing the research team to examine development of the lung tissue following transplantation and how the bioengineered lung would integrate with the body.
All of the pigs that received a bioengineered lung stayed healthy. As early as two weeks post-transplant, the bioengineered lung had established the strong network of blood vessels needed for the lung to survive.
“We saw no signs of pulmonary edema, which is usually a sign of the vasculature not being mature enough,” said Nichols and Cortiella. “The bioengineered lungs continued to develop post-transplant without any infusions of growth factors, the body provided all of the building blocks that the new lungs needed.”
Nichols said that the focus of the study was to learn how well the bioengineered lung adapted and continued to mature within a large, living body. They didn’t evaluate how much the bioengineered lung provided oxygenation to the animal.
“We do know that the animals had 100 percent oxygen saturation, as they had one normal functioning lung,” said Cortiella. “Even after two months, the bioengineered lung was not yet mature enough for us to stop the animal from breathing on the normal lung and switch to just the bioengineered lung.”
For this reason, future studies will look at long-term survival and maturation of the tissues as well as gas exchange capability.
The researchers said that with enough funding, they could grow lungs to transplant into people in compassionate use circumstances within five to 10 years.
“It has taken a lot of heart and 15 years of research to get us this far, our team has done something incredible with a ridiculously small budget and an amazingly dedicated group of people,” Nichols and Cortiella said.
Here’s a citation and another link for the paper,
Production and transplantation of bioengineered lung into a large-animal model by Joan E. Nichols, Saverio La Francesca, Jean A. Niles, Stephanie P. Vega, Lissenya B. Argueta, Luba Frank, David C. Christiani, Richard B. Pyles, Blanca E. Himes, Ruyang Zhang, Su Li, Jason Sakamoto, Jessica Rhudy, Greg Hendricks, Filippo Begarani, Xuewu Liu, Igor Patrikeev, Rahul Pal, Emiliya Usheva, Grace Vargas, Aaron Miller, Lee Woodson, Adam Wacher, Maria Grimaldo, Daniil Weaver, Ron Mlcak, and Joaquin Cortiella. Science Translational Medicine 01 Aug 2018: Vol. 10, Issue 452, eaao3926 DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aao3926
This paper is behind a paywall.
Artificial lung cancer tissue
The research teams at the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa worked on creating artificial lung tissue but other applications are possible too. First, there’s the announcement in a February 25, 2019 news item on phys.org,
A 3-D hydrogel created by researchers in U of T Engineering Professor Molly Shoichet’s lab is helping University of Ottawa researchers to quickly screen hundreds of potential drugs for their ability to fight highly invasive cancers.
Cell invasion is a critical hallmark of metastatic cancers, such as certain types of lung and brain cancer. Fighting these cancers requires therapies that can both kill cancer cells as well as prevent cell invasion of healthy tissue. Today, most cancer drugs are only screened for their ability to kill cancer cells.
“In highly invasive diseases, there is a crucial need to screen for both of these functions,” says Shoichet. “We now have a way to do this.”
In their latest research, the team used hydrogels to mimic the environment of lung cancer, selectively allowing cancer cells, and not healthy cells, to invade. In their latest research, the team used hydrogels to mimic the environment of lung cancer, selectively allowing cancer cells, and not healthy cells, to invade. This emulated environment enabled their collaborators in Professor Bill Stanford’s lab at University of Ottawa to screen for both cancer-cell growth and invasion. The study, led by Roger Y. Tam, a research associate in Shochet’s lab, was recently published in Advanced Materials.
“We can conduct this in a 384-well plate, which is no bigger than your hand. And with image-analysis software, we can automate this method to enable quick, targeted screenings for hundreds of potential cancer treatments,” says Shoichet.
One example is the researchers’ drug screening for lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM), a rare lung disease affecting women. Shoichet and her team were inspired by the work of Green Eggs and LAM, a Toronto-based organization raising awareness of the disease.
Using their hydrogels, they were able to automate and screen more than 800 drugs, thereby uncovering treatments that could target disease growth and invasion.
In the ongoing collaboration, the researchers plan to next screen multiple drugs at different doses to gain greater insight into new treatment methods for LAM. The strategies and insights they gain could also help identify new drugs for other invasive cancers.
Shoichet, who was recently named a Distinguished Woman in Chemistry or Chemical Engineering, also plans to patent the hydrogel technology.
“This has, and continues to be, a great collaboration that is advancing knowledge at the intersection of engineering and biology,” says Shoichet.
I note that Shoichet (pronounced ShoyKet) is getting ready to patent this work. I do have a question about this and it’s not up to Shoichet to answer as she didn’t create the system. Will the taxpayers who funded her work receive any financial benefits should the hydrogel prove to be successful or will we be paying double, both supporting her research and paying for the hydrogel through our healthcare costs?
Getting back to the research, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
A new type of sensor could lead to artificial skin that someday helps burn victims ‘feel’ and safeguards the rest of us, University of Connecticut researchers suggest in a paper in Advanced Materials.
Our skin’s ability to perceive pressure, heat, cold, and vibration is a critical safety function that most people take for granted. But burn victims, those with prosthetic limbs, and others who have lost skin sensitivity for one reason or another, can’t take it for granted, and often injure themselves unintentionally.
Chemists Islam Mosa from UConn [University of Connecticut], and James Rusling from UConn and UConn Health, along with University of Toronto engineer Abdelsalam Ahmed, wanted to create a sensor that can mimic the sensing properties of skin. Such a sensor would need to be able to detect pressure, temperature, and vibration. But perhaps it could do other things too, the researchers thought.
“It would be very cool if it had abilities human skin does not; for example, the ability to detect magnetic fields, sound waves, and abnormal behaviors,” said Mosa.
Mosa and his colleagues created such a sensor with a silicone tube wrapped in a copper wire and filled with a special fluid made of tiny particles of iron oxide just one billionth of a meter long, called nanoparticles. The nanoparticles rub around the inside of the silicone tube and create an electric current. The copper wire surrounding the silicone tube picks up the current as a signal. When this tube is bumped by something experiencing pressure, the nanoparticles move and the electric signal changes. Sound waves also create waves in the nanoparticle fluid, and the electric signal changes in a different way than when the tube is bumped.
The researchers found that magnetic fields alter the signal too, in a way distinct from pressure or sound waves. Even a person moving around while carrying the sensor changes the electrical current, and the team found they could distinguish between the electrical signals caused by walking, running, jumping, and swimming.
Metal skin might sound like a superhero power, but this skin wouldn’t make the wearer Colossus from the X-men. Rather, Mosa and his colleagues hope it could help burn victims “feel” again, and perhaps act as an early warning for workers exposed to dangerously high magnetic fields. Because the rubber exterior is completely sealed and waterproof, it could also serve as a wearable monitor to alert parents if their child fell into deep water in a pool, for example.
“The inspiration was to make something durable that would last for a very long time, and could detect multiple hazards,” Mosa says. The team has yet to test the sensor for its response to heat and cold, but they suspect it will work for those as well. The next step is to make the sensor in a flat configuration, more like skin, and see if it still works.