McGill News Magazine
Chloë Grysole, BA’98, has helped bring some of the biggest blockbuster films of recent times to life, from the Harry Potter series to the James Bond thriller Skyfall, but her latest role might be her most challenging yet: building a new state-of-the-art visual effects studio from the ground up.
Earlier this year, the McGill alumnus and Montreal native was named general manager of the new Montreal branch of London-based visual effects company Cinesite. It was a perfect opportunity for Grysole to bring her passion for world-class visual effects back home.
“It’s exciting to be entrusted with such a big project,” Grysole says. “It allows me to put to use the things I’ve learned about the visual effects industry over the years as a producer and a manager.”
Grysole’s 16-year journey from an undergraduate degree in cultural studies to working on the latest X-Men film and the epic Tom Cruise action flick Edge of Tomorrow is anything but science fiction. She worked her way up, starting as a production assistant for the special effects supervisor on the television series The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne.
“I didn’t know anything about visual effects at first. I was more into documentaries,” Grysole recalls. “I ended up meeting so many artists who could truly influence the look of a film in a very real way.”
She moved up the ranks, from bringing Thai chicken to her boss to becoming an office manager, and then a producer. In 2001, Grysole co-founded Montreal-based Meteor Studios, and was their director of business development. After Meteor, Grysole moved on to FX Cartel, serving as a visual effects producer for such projects projects as the Will Ferrell comedy Stranger Than Fiction and Across the Universe, a drama based on the music of the Beatles.
In 2007, Grysole relocated to London to work for Cinesite on the famed Harry Potter franchise, starting with Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince.
“Being a part of that big Potter family was an extraordinary experience,” she says. “It was a chance for me to manage a large team and budget. Resources aren’t scarce with a franchise like that – our goal was to create something unparalleled.”
During Grysole’s three years of working on the Potter series, she was responsible for managing the computer graphics artists and overseeing the studio’s cutting edge research and development.
“Just for something like Voldemort’s nose, it was a huge undertaking to create a skin shader that could render skin so it didn’t look like plastic,” she explains.
Since February of this year, Grysole has been tasked with building a Montreal studio that lives up to the reputation of Cinesite’s London headquarters. Over the next two years, the studio is expected to expand and hire 250 employees.
“We’re seeing an explosion of the visual effects industry in Montreal. It’s becoming a world centre,” she says. “We’ve always bred talented people, but at a certain point they would leave. Now we’re seeing a maturing of the industry in Canada. There’s more interest in coming here.”
In her position, Grysole says she serves as the main liaison between the directors and producers who are chiefly responsible for films and the visual effects staff she oversees. She tries to ensure that her team has the time and resources it needs to do their work properly and that the visual effects being produced for the filmmakers is on time, on budget and high quality.
“Visual effects keep pushing the envelope and getting better. Directors have more tools for storytelling than ever before,” Grysole explains, adding that a common misconception is that visual effects are only important for sci-fi summer blockbusters.
“Even a romantic comedy you think has no special effects, could have a background that has been replaced. Visual effects are becoming a more important portion of making a film, which wasn’t the case 15 years ago. Sometimes there will be more people in VFX and post-production than working on the movie itself.”
When the finalists were announced for Canada’s most lucrative fiction prize on October 6, it was revealed that half the shortlist was comprised of writers who had studied English at McGill. Three of the six writers in the running for the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize are McGill graduates – David Bezmozgis, BA’96, Heather O’Neill, BA’94, and Sean Michaels, BA’04. A fourth graduate, Claire Holden Rothman, BA’81, BCL’84, had been named to the Giller longlist for My October, a novel that explores some of the aftereffects of the 1970 October Crisis. While Rothman didn’t make it into the final six for the Giller, she did receive a splendid consolation prize. She is a finalist for another of Canada’s top fiction honours, the Governor General’s Literary Award.
We invited Bezmozgis, O’Neill and Michaels to answer some brief questions for us. Here’s what they had to say.
David Bezmozgis is the author of The Betrayers, a book that deals with, among other things, a very unexpected reunion in Crimea between former friends. One is now an Israeli politician, who is punished for his unyielding principles with a public disgrace. The other is a man whose act of betrayal decades ago resulted in a life-altering incarceration in a gulag for the politician.
What do you admire the most about the protagonist of your book?
How did the novel you set out to write differ from the one you ended up completing?
In the usual formal ways. For instance, I had initially thought it would all be written in one voice, but in the end it was written in as many as three. I also intended the book to be set in a Yalta of 2014 but political events undermined my plans.
When you were a McGill student, what were the temptations you faced that would most likely result in you skipping a class or two?
I don’t remember skipping many classes. I am rather dutiful that way.
Who was your most memorable teacher at McGill? Why?
Stewart Cooke. I took a couple of classes with him. One was on the postmodern novel that proved unexpectedly influential in my development as a writer. [Cooke now teaches at Dawson College, but he is an adjunct professor at McGill and the associate director of the University's Burney Centre].
Heather O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, follows the lives of a 19-year-old woman and her fraternal twin brother, the children of a charming, irresponsible and past-his-prime Québécois folk-rock star. The siblings pursue a bohemian lifestyle in Montreal against the backdrop of the 1995 Quebec referendum campaign.
What do you admire the most about the protagonist of your book?
I love how full of life she is. I love that she’s a romantic and the crazy declarations that she makes. I love her bad decisions and the way she dresses. But what do I admire about her most? I would say her ability to make sense of any situation. She’s like a 19-year-old philosopher with a flower behind her ear giving a hilarious version of the History of the World in 10 & 1/2 Chapters on the street corner.
How did the novel you set out to write differ from the one you ended up completing?
It just ended up much bigger. Like the characters really took on lives of their own and started having their two cents, so the book became more political and sociological. I knew that the book was going to swerve out of my hands when I created those characters. I think about four of them are off the charts brilliant. It’s a family of orators. So I knew they would be talking about things that I knew nothing about. I was reading books just to catch up with them.
When you were a McGill student, what were the temptations you faced that would most likely result in you skipping a class or two?
I guess it all had to do with boys. If I studied too much, I would get dumped. So I had to be a party girl sometimes, even though it wasn’t really in me. It always seemed like the tomfoolery was the hard part for me. I would get home with a little gold party hat on the side of my head, thinking thank the lord that’s done, now I can just read some plays in peace.
Who was your most memorable teacher at McGill? Why?
Hmm… I’m really biased towards the ones that gave me As. [Retired English professor] Christopher Heppner comes to mind immediately. Because once I wrote this really crazed essay on William Blake in a fit of inspiration. And I handed it in. I was sure that I would fail the course and I sat at the bus stop hitting myself on the head with my binder. But then I got the paper back and he wrote “a risky endeavor… a bird of parallel flight… bravo!” I remember those words 20 years later.
Sean Michaels is the author of Us Conductors, a fictionalized account of the extraordinary life of Léon Theremin, the brilliant Russian inventor who introduced the ethereal sounds of the theremin to the world (if you’ve ever heard seen Hitchcock’s Spellbound or the Bugs Bunny cartoon “Knighty Knight Bugs,” you’ve heard a theremin).
What do you admire the most about the protagonist of your book?
Lev is a fine scientist, a good noticer; but I did not set out to write a character the reader would admire. He is shallow, selfish and irresponsible. He is deeply flawed in ways we too rarely acknowledge as flaws.
How did the novel you set out to write differ from the one you ended up completing?
It is longer than I intended. Sorry!
When you were a McGill student, what were the temptations you faced that would most likely result in you skipping a class or two?
Late concerts at la Sala Rossa or the Jailhouse, with bands that glinted in the dark.
Who was your most memorable teacher at McGill? Why?
I deeply enjoyed classes with Michael Bristol and Derek Nystrom, but by far my favourite instructor was Jackie Buxton – a professor of English literature who taught us with relentless intelligence and impervious wit, transforming the way I think about modern writing and critical theory. She was brilliant, funny, an incredible teacher; I took as many of her classes as I could. Not long after my graduation, McGill let her go; it makes me furious and disappointed.
The number of McGill students seeking help from the professionals at the University’s Mental Health Services Clinic has risen sharply in recent years. Just this past year alone, there was a 24 per cent spike in new cases over the year before.
Do the growing numbers indicate that students are experiencing depression and anxiety more often than in the past? Or is there simply less stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues, prompting more students to do so?
“It’s probably a bit of both,” says Nancy Low, MSc’02, the clinical director for Mental Health Services and an assistant professor of psychiatry at McGill. A survey organized by the clinic last year indicated that more than 40 per cent of the University’s students have experienced symptoms associated with serious anxiety or depression. Low says those numbers roughly parallel the findings of similar studies done at other universities.
Thanks to a $500,000 grant from Bell Canada, Low and her colleagues are developing a valuable new tool to address the mental health needs of McGill students.
Low and her team will be using the Bell funding to fine-tune the McGill Wellness Portal. The website, which will be launched next fall, will allow students to assess their own mental health needs.
“The portal will offer feedback,” says Low. “In some cases, it might suggest that students make use of the peer-to-peer resources we have at McGill. If there is evidence of medium to severe symptoms of a mental health problem, students will be advised to come to Mental Health Services.”
For some students, the thought of doing an online self-assessment might be less intimidating than going to a psychologist or counsellor straightaway. “One of the major things associated with mental health problems is social isolation,” says Low. “People often don’t know if what they’re experiencing is normal or not.”
The portal will focus on the most common mental health issues faced by McGill’s students: depression, anxiety, eating disorders and alcohol abuse. It will include first-person accounts of individuals who have struggled with various mental health issues, as well as tips on combating anxiety and information on the stress-busting benefits of being physically active and getting enough sleep.
It will also offer information on all the support systems that exist on and off campus for students. Low says there is a lot of help available for students encountering difficulties, but they often don’t know about those resources. “During orientation, new students do hear about all the support systems that are in place at McGill, but it’s a lot to take in. And then the semester starts and they’re focused on doing well in their courses. A lot of that other information gets washed away.”
Low says that international students and out-of-province students are especially at risk for mental health problems. “It’s a huge transition for them. They’ve typically done very well in school, but now they’re away from their parents and their friends and family. The support systems they had in place aren’t close by anymore.”
As a psychiatrist, Low says she’d like to see a day when “people found that talking about their mental health concerns was just as easy as talking to your doctor about diabetes or hypertension.” She sees some hopeful signs.
“When students do come in to the clinic, we ask what prompted them to book the appointment. A lot of the time, it’s because of urging from their friends. That makes me think that there is less stigma associated with mental health issues than there once was. Students are more comfortable talking to their friends about this and the friends are being supportive.”
In fact, Low says McGill students have been very sensitive to mental health concerns. Students are very much involved in the evolution of the McGill Wellness Portal – they’ve been closely consulted throughout the process. And Low recently took part in Student in Mind, a student-organized campus conference dedicated to mental health issues.
She gives Bell credit too. Since its launch in 2010, Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign has committed more than $68.5 million to supporting various mental health programs throughout Canada. “I think that’s fantastic.”
“We will shut down China and reboot.”
With that brazen pledge, the hacker collective Anonymous declared cyber war on the Chinese government earlier this month for their refusal to listen to pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. Within days, the online rabble rousers began delivering on their promise, successfully infiltrating more than 50 government websites and leaking the names, phone numbers, IP addresses and email addresses of hundreds of government officials.
The campaign marked the latest in a long string of daring cyber-attacks from the loosely connected group of hacktivists, who have made a name for themselves by taking on high-profile targets like the CIA, Visa and the Vatican.
Gabriella Coleman, McGill’s inaugural Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy, is considered by many to be the leading expert on Anonymous. A trained cultural anthropologist, she has spent the last half-dozen years keeping close tabs as “Anons” – as Anonymous members refer to themselves – targeted government agencies and banks, corporations and child pornography sites around the world.
Now, in her soon-to-be-released book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, Coleman is taking readers behind the Guy Fawkes mask as she chronicles the complex sphere of cyber insurgency and provides never-before-seen insight into the motivations of the hackers, pranksters and activists who operate under the Anonymous moniker.
But what exactly is Anonymous and how has it evolved into a worldwide movement that sends shivers down the spines of nation-states and big business?
“Anonymous is not an organized group per se, but it can be quite organized in different moments,” Coleman explains. “At any given time, there are small teams who work behind the scenes to harness spontaneous outcries and collective anger in very effective ways, and then allow for broader participation in these different operations.”
Though Anonymous took shape in 2003 on 4Chan, an online image board popular among hackers, the group only started to garner attention after it launched a series of pranks and online assaults aimed at the Church of Scientology five years later. Coleman, who was conducting research on free and open-source software at the time, was intrigued and began to study the subversive subculture.
“I was immediately hooked, though I never thought it would grow beyond that narrow issue,” she says.
At first, Coleman’s research into Anonymous was mostly straightforward; she attended protests and followed discussions on web forums and on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) – a popular online destination for hackers. But in 2011, as Anonymous grew bolder and their attacks on government and corporate websites increased, so did Coleman’s interest.
For the next two years, she was constantly jacked in, spending long days and late nights glued to her computer screen examining, interviewing and debating the hackers, and struggling to keep abreast of all of their simultaneous operations. In her book, she equates the process with “following a thread through a dark and twisty path strewn with rumours, lies, secrets and the ghoulish reality of spies and informants.”
The deeper that Coleman delved, the more trusted she became by the group’s members. Eventually, she served as a confidante and interpreter, editing manifestos, teaching journalists how to find Anonymous and correcting misconceptions – though Coleman stresses that she always limited her involvement to activities that are legal. But was Coleman ever concerned that she became too close to the people she was watching?
“That is always an issue whenever anthropologists become so enmeshed in a community they are studying, but there are always elements that allow you to create some critical distance,” she says.
Coleman states that not bearing witness to their illegal activity allowed her to maintain some distance. The fact that she disagreed with many of the group’s more controversial actions, like inadvertently targeting and exposing the personal information of innocent people, also served as an important reminder not to get too friendly.
Still, she says the work left her exhausted and paranoid that law enforcement was tracking her movements.
“The journey has been marked by soaring thrills, disappointing dead ends and moral pretzels – wherein seemingly intractable ethical conundrums coexist easily with clear-cut examples of inspirational risk and sacrifice,” she writes.
Ultimately, despite Anonymous’ covert methods, some of its more notorious members were arrested and convicted in recent years. But the police takedowns seemed to have had little impact on the group’s overall operations. After all, anyone can decide to be Anonymous, Coleman explains.
“Anonymous is composed of people who decide together and separately to take a stand,” she writes. “Who might these people be? A neighbour? A daughter? A secretary? A janitor? Student? A Buddhist? An incognito banker? You? Whatever sort of people are involved today, one thing is certain: what began as a network of trolls has become a wellspring of online insurgency.”
Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Story of Anonymous hits book shelves on November 4 – just in time for Guy Fawkes Night.
Meet Mirella Amato, BMus’98, a good gal to know during Oktoberfest. She is Canada’s first Master Cicerone – a certified global beer sommelier. Her new book, Beerology, offers plenty of insights into tasty beer options for ale aficionados and neophytes alike. McGill News contributor Tiffany Pope recently spent some time with Mirella and put together this video.
Matt Nichol, BEd’98, regularly puts millionaires through the wringer, introducing them to all kinds of acute physical discomfort. And they happily pay him for the privilege.
“What these athletes do isn’t natural,” says Nichol, a highly regarded strength and conditioning coach who counts NHL stars and Olympians among his clients. “Your body doesn’t want to be pushed past the point of exhaustion.”
Nichol’s clientele also includes athletes from the NFL, the NCAA and the CFL. But mostly they’re NHL players. Sportsnet.com recently called Nichol “hockey’s best trainer.”
Each summer, shortly before NHL teams begin their training camps, dozens of NHLers and NHL prospects attend Nichol’s BioSteel Camp in Toronto, looking for a boost to jumpstart their seasons. This year, the camp attracted Dallas Stars sniper Tyler Seguin, Philadelphia Flyers power forward Wayne Simmonds and New Jersey Devils winger Mike Cammalleri, among others.
“Some of the guys who come here are stars who regularly play 20 minutes a night and some are just trying to find a way to crack a NHL roster,” says Nichol. “[Winnipeg Jets coach] Paul Maurice used to say that the days of fat guys at [NHL] training camps are over. You might get away with being an out-of-shape superstar, but you can’t be an out-of-shape ordinary guy. Somebody will take your job.
“The facilities we have here don’t look like much,” Nichol acknowledges. “The gym kind of looks like a dungeon.” His clients don’t turn up for the ambience. The draw for them is Nichol’s expertise. “He’s so well researched. He’s so confident,” Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Jay Harrison told Sportsnet. “His results speak for themselves.”
Back when he was studying at McGill, Nichol couldn’t have imagined that he’d become such an in-demand commodity in the hockey community. His focus was on a different sport entirely. While doing a double major in kinesiology and history, Nichol was a defensive lineman for the McGill Redmen football team. “I went from riding the bench in my first year to leading the conference in sacks.”
Shortly after completing a master’s degree at York University in Toronto, where his thesis focused on injury prevention and enhancing performance, Nichol was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs as a strength and conditioning coach and nutritionist. He admits to being nervous at first. “I wasn’t a hockey guy. I felt like a fraud.”
In retrospect, Nichol thinks the fact that he didn’t know much about hockey was a blessing in disguise. “I wasn’t attached to any particular style of training, so I was able to take a step back and think, ‘OK, how do you build a hockey player?’ I looked at the biomechanics and all the other factors involved [in the sport]. I remember thinking this was my one shot at the job. I was either going to be a flop or I was going to succeed. Whichever way it worked out, I wanted to do it on my terms.”
Thankfully, says Nichol, he gained the trust of the team’s veterans. “The leadership on that team was incredible. Six or seven of those guys could have been team captains. When Mats Sundin and Gary Roberts and the other veterans are the hardest working guys in the gym, everybody buys in.”
Nichol worked for the Leafs between 2002 and 2009. In 2004, he served as Team Canada’s head strength and conditioning coach, helping the squad win a gold medal at the World Cup of Hockey. As a consultant, he worked with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers in 2007 and for the Russian Hockey Foundation in 2010. “My advice to the Russians was simple: ‘Get back to basics. You guys were the pioneers.’ A lot of my work is based on what they did 30, 40 years ago.”
Nichol’s focus isn’t entirely on his clients’ physiques. Michael Del Zotto, a talented young NHL defenseman coming off a sub-par season, spent the summer working out with Nichol and credits the trainer with helping him gain back his confidence.
“Any really good coach does that,” says Nichol matter-of-factly. “In pro sports, we’re talking about highly talented guys making a lot of money. What gets forgotten is that they’re still people. They get anxious, they get stressed out, they get down on themselves.”
Nichol is quick to name the coach who had the biggest impact on him.
“I’ve worked with coaches in the NHL, in the NFL and in the Russian Hockey Foundation, and I can honestly say that the best coach I ever dealt with was at McGill. All the Redmen coaches were great, but [defensive line coach] Gary Kirchner was special. He never raised his voice. He didn’t have to. After one particularly bad game, in a season when we were a particularly good team, he had a talk with us. He said he was really disappointed in us. That was like a dagger through the heart, because we all knew how much he cared about us.”
Nichol says no two athletes are completely alike. “Every client is unique. No two bodies are the same and everybody has different issues with diet or sleep patterns. Athletes in different sports need completely different training programs. A basketball player who’s on the court for almost the whole game is different from a hockey player who goes out for short shifts requiring bursts of energy. Even in the same sport, in football, a 5’10” punter weighing 175 pounds and a 6’7’ linebacker weighing 310 pounds are very different physical specimens.”
In recent years, Nichol’s company BioSteel has become a fast-rising player in the sports supplement industry. Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price and Olympic gold medalist Heather Moyse are among the many prominent athletes who have enthusiastically endorsed BioSteel’s sports drink. According to Forbes, 23 NHL teams use BioSteel products, along with 14 NBA organizations and 18 MLB franchises.
That part of his business was largely an accident, says Nichol. Back when he was working for the Leafs, the NHL introduced more stringent rules about performance enhancing drugs and Nichol went looking for a sports drink he could recommend to his players. His criteria was simple. He wanted natural ingredients, with nothing suspicious in the mix and he wanted a product that had been vetted by a trustworthy independent third party. He couldn’t find anything.
“I couldn’t just tell the players, ‘Don’t use any supplements.” Athletes looking for an extra edge wouldn’t take that advice, he explains. So he set about creating a drink that he could have faith in. “It was the only way I could guarantee that they could get something safe.”
It was an unexpected shift in his career path, but one that proved to be fortuitous. Nichol prides himself on not being set in his ways. “I’m always building a bigger, more diverse toolbox. I’m learning all the time.”
Like a plot straight out of a nightmarish Hollywood blockbuster, the world’s worst-ever Ebola epidemic continues to rage in West Africa. Over 8,300 cases of Ebola have been reported since the start of the outbreak and more than 4,000 people have died, according to data from the World Health Organization.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been working on the frontlines to contain the Ebola virus since March, sending nearly 3,000 staff members to the region to treat infected patients. But it hasn’t been nearly enough, cautions Dr. Joanne Liu, MDCM’91, IMHL’14, the Montrealer who is the international president of the medical relief organization.
“The sick are desperate, their families and caregivers are angry, and aid workers are exhausted. Maintaining quality of care is an extreme challenge. Fear and panic have set in, as infection rates double every three weeks. Mounting numbers are dying of other diseases, like malaria, because health systems have collapsed,” she told the United Nations General Assembly on September 25.
Dr. Liu recently spoke to the McGill News about the desperate situation in the affected West African nations and what the international community needs to do to get it under control.
Previous outbreaks of Ebola have been localized, but this threat is much broader. Why is this epidemic different from previous outbreaks?
The magnitude of this Ebola outbreak is different in that it has spread through different countries. Why has that happened? We don’t have all of the information yet, but one reason is that past epidemics occurred in rural, isolated areas, where people were not very mobile. The chain of transmission would stop after a few hundred people were infected and the disease would essentially die out on itself.
The epicenter for this new outbreak was in Guéckédou, which is in Guinea, but close to the borders of both Sierra Leone and Liberia. The people who live in this area are quite mobile and cross the borders regularly, so the disease was able move very quickly into other urban areas such as Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has led the response against Ebola. What has it been like to work on the frontlines and to deal directly with victims?
Working on the frontlines and working with victims is MSF’s bread and butter. This is what happened in Sierra Leone last year, this is what happened in Gaza this summer, and this is what is happening right now in South Sudan and in Central African Republic – so [responding to the Ebola outbreak] is more or less the usual modus operandi for MSF. And one reason we have such autonomy is because we are financially independent, so we can immediately start to deploy resources when we see a crisis.
In terms of the Ebola crisis, what has been the most distressful for the teams in the field is the fact that we have known for many months that this epidemic is different from past epidemics. And we’ve known for several months that there are only a few non-governmental organizations that are capable of containing this epidemic. That is why we have been ringing alarm bells since the spring, though it only actually got traction by the end of the summer.
What are the main challenges that MSF has faced in treating the virus?
Our main challenge is the scale of the outbreak – it has spread all over the place and we don’t have enough isolation centres to care for all of the infected patients. Over the last month or so, especially in Liberia and specifically Monrovia, we’ve had to turn people away because our isolation centres are full. We are sending these people back into their communities knowing that they’re going to spread the virus to loved ones and neighbours. It’s a paradoxical situation and one that is completely untenable. This is why we’ve been telling whoever will listen that we need more hands in the field and we need to open additional isolation centres for infected patients.
Another major challenge, which is on a more personal, human level, is dealing with so many deaths. We are physicians trying to save lives, but we have found ourselves in a situation where we are building crematoriums rather than building hospitals. When someone dies of Ebola, we have to treat the body, place it in a bag and then dispose of it, and cremation is the best way to cut the chain of transmission. This is something we’ve never had to do, and it has been very, very difficult for our team.
Over 300 frontline health workers have died from Ebola, while others have been attacked and even killed. Are you worried about your own safety or the safety of your MSF colleagues?
We are always concerned about the health and safety of our staff. It has been paramount in contexts like Somalia, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and Gaza, and it is something we are now dealing with in West Africa. We have very strict rules for personal protection at our isolation centres as we want to ensure that we are not exposing our staff to undue risks. However, it also adds a lot of constraints and it is one of the reasons why it has been very difficult for us to scale up our operations. But it is necessary because the fatality rate of this current Ebola outbreak is 50 per cent, which means there is no forgiveness [for errors].
You’ve warned that “the world is losing the battle to contain Ebola.” What more do governments need to do to curb the epidemic?
I think my message to the United Nations was heard, because the UN Security Council has passed a resolution to set up the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response to address the outbreak. And right now, we’re seeing different governments and NGOs come to the field to conduct assessments and open new centers, though none of them are yet operational.
So there is some momentum, but the reality is we still need people to feel a greater sense of urgency. The number of Ebola cases is doubling every three weeks, so if we don’t take the necessary steps now, it is going to be much more complicated to answer the epidemic in the future.
There are forecasts that 1.4 million people could be infected by January if the disease is not contained. Should Canadians be concerned about Ebola spreading to this country?
I have been asked this question a lot. In terms of the projection, this is the worst case scenario presented by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but we don’t really have a model in place to project the future. What we do know is that the situation can be pretty dramatic if nothing meaningful is done over the next few weeks.
What are the chances of Ebola coming to Canada? Very unlikely, and if it does come to this country, the patient will quickly be placed in isolation and the chain of transmission will be cut almost immediately. The reality is that the best way to stop Ebola from spreading is to invest massively in the countries that are already affected. It’s not by barricading ourselves in our home country that we will help contain the epidemic; it is by increasing our aid in West Africa.
The race is on to develop a vaccine that can treat Ebola. How close are we?
I think we are fairly close as we have two vaccine candidates that are beginning clinical trials. We really need a game changer to cut the chain of transmission, and a vaccine could be that for us. But in order for this to happen, we need to have more collaborative research and open source data, and we need to ensure that a vaccine will be affordable, accessible and rapidly delivered to the affected populations. We don’t want just a select few to be immunized; we need a widespread vaccination campaign, which means creating and delivering millions of doses.
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
Called in at the last minute to fill in for another tour guide who’s absent, Jeremy Rothschild, BSc’14, bolts into McGill’s Welcome Centre with the firm look of concentration that he likely conveys when tackling his physics assignments, or stealing the soccer ball from an opponent in one of his intramural games. Parents, as well as prospective students with their younger siblings in tow, mill around the open, brightly lit room on McTavish, evincing quiet anticipation. They have made the long – and in some cases, expensive – trek to McGill specifically to explore the campus.
“We are finding more and more that families are making university tours into a holiday experience, and they’ll be doing the circuit,” says Welcome Centre supervisor Tania Raggo. “At the same time, they’re going to so many universities, that one of the pitfalls of doing so many tours, they may begin to blend together.”
Still, Raggo suspects the the McGill tours will stand out for these families. “We offer a different experience than most tours by providing [people] with an authentic sense of what the student experience is like. We look for tour guides with personality, who can transmit their distinct view of student life, drawn from their own experiences, rather than giving them statistics and numbers,” says Raggo. “We encourage our tour guides to use personal anecdotes. We do have a script, but try to keep it fairly loose.” The Welcome Centre organizes about 500 tours each year and almost 15,000 people take part in them.
On today’s tour, families from Iran, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco are aptly representative of the mix Rothschild says he tends to see in his groups: “I’d say it’s about two-thirds from the U.S. and the rest are either international or Canadian.”
Rothschild, beginning a master’s degree in physics, begins the tour with a radiant smile. And then it’s full-steam ahead. Covering as much ground as possible on a sunny September afternoon, he winds his way to locations such as the Rutherford Physics Building, Morrice Hall, and then, with the intent to show – and disarm fears about – large first-year classrooms, he takes the group into the belly of the beast that is Leacock 132, which seats over 600 people. The room is crammed with students just settling in for a lecture. Some peer up at the group, likely remembering their own tours not so long ago. Having to raise his voice in the buzzing auditorium, Rothschild tells the group, “Don’t worry. The classes get much smaller after freshman year, and many freshmen, such as myself, actually have fond memories of this room!”
Hustling the group quickly over to the imposing Leacock 132 means that the tour bypassed the student-run ice-cream parlour, Frostbite. “[It] just cannot fit into the tour,” says Rothschild. “I tried once, and we were left waiting far too long for people to get their scoops. They’ll just have to come back later.” And many do.
“Nowadays, it’s rare to see students who don’t come with their parents,” says Rothschild. Raggo concurs: “Choosing a university has evolved. It’s become a lot more of a family decision, partly because of the high cost involved in sending a child away for university. There is also the idea that going away is just an incredible, irreplaceable life experience. So, when they come here, we understand why they have so many questions.”
On the ground, Rothschild tells it like it is, and doesn’t coddle. Parents ask most of the questions along the way, and one wonders whether some of the prospective students would ask more questions, or take more initiative, if they were sans parents.
One parent inquires about the student protests of 2012, and Rothschild provides balance in addressing her concerns, saying that, yes, it was an intense time, while adding that the campus itself wasn’t much affected by the protests. When one parent raises an eyebrow to his use of the term “McGill ghetto,” Rothschild doesn’t miss a beat, explaining, “You’ll get to understand that ‘McGill ghetto’ is a term of endearment – it’s a really nice area where students live in close proximity to campus, and actually, it’s just over there,” pointing east. Several parents remark that they will check out the area at the end of the tour.
One of many unheralded ambassadors for McGill, Rothschild evidently loves his job, and often goes above and beyond the call of duty. “I like showing the University off, yet there are so many nice places on campus that you can only do so much in an hour and a half. But if I have extra time after a tour, sometimes I’ll take them out to show them a bit more.” The group is engaged and hangs on his every word, which makes it all the more meaningful when he tells them that he chose to stay and do his master’s at McGill because he loves the University too much to go elsewhere.
Venturing in or out of the Welcome Centre, one passes by coordinator Darleen Maselli, unassuming front-desk sentinel and veteran answer-provider, who admits she suspects some of the uninitiated view the role of the Welcome Centre as something akin to Tourism Montreal. “We get lots of questions about where to eat, what to do in Montreal. Of course, we get the normal questions about McGill, such as entrance grade requirements and residence life, but then we also field some very peculiar questions once in a while. I’ve received calls about where to donate bodies, where to look for fossils – in that particular case, I was quite concerned the woman was going to show up with a shovel! Well, it makes the job lively.”
As the tour comes to a close, the group splinters off, with many staying behind to ask Rothschild and Maselli additional questions. Off in the distance, one of the families with several small children appear to be heading over for a trip to Frostbite.
Do you ever have trouble keeping your focus? Do you find that random thoughts distract you at inopportune moments? Are you exhausted by the sheer amount of data that you encounter each day?
Daniel Levitin is sympathetic. “Attention is a limited capacity resource,” he notes in his new book, The Organized Mind, and it’s a resource under constant assault in an age of information overload. In the book, Levitin uses the fruits of recent neuroscience research to explain why our memories falter and why concentrating on what we’re doing is often so difficult. He also offers plenty of helpful suggestions, based on how our brains process information, to help us overcome these cognitive challenges.
The book’s message has found a receptive audience. Since it debuted a few weeks ago, the book has been firmly anchored on best seller lists in both Canada and the U.S. Levitin recently spoke to McGill News editor Daniel McCabe, BA’89, about The Organized Mind.
I felt a bit better about myself after reading your book and I suspect I’m not the only one who has that reaction. There are times when I feel I’m too easily distracted by email or Twitter, times when I feel I should be doing a better job juggling all the things that I’m supposed to be doing. According to your book, it’s all connected to how our brains function – there are scientific reasons why email can be so distracting, for instance. Was part of your intention to reassure people?
That’s part of it. My intention was to dispel some myths, using research-driven data. There are a lot of people out there who are worried that they’re experiencing cognitive impairment as they get older. And in most cases, the answer is no, they aren’t. Information overload takes a toll on us. The good news is, there are things that we can do about it, whether it’s jotting a thought down on an index card so you don’t have to worry about forgetting it, or placing your umbrella near the front door to remind yourself that the forecast is for rain the next day. You don’t need hi-tech solutions to make a difference.
One study that you point to in the book indicates that Americans in 2011 were exposed to five times as much information on a daily basis as they were in 1986. It’s not surprising we’re all feeling a little overwhelmed.
Absolutely. In 1976, the average supermarket carried about 9,000 different products. Today, that number is more like 40,000. There are eight or nine different versions of Cheerios available. We have low-fat, no-gluten and low-salt versions of everything. The average person gets most of their needs met through about 150 of those grocery store products, but we still have to wade through everything else that’s on the shelves. There is a cost to be paid for having so many options available to us. Decision overload wears us down.
In your book, you talk about the dangers of multitasking and about how our brains aren’t really equipped to do too many things at once. You write about how the cognitive losses we experience from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses associated with smoking marijuana. That sounds like something that every manager ought to know.
Here is something else that we overlook. People who work more than 40 hours a week – at some point, you’re faced with the law of diminishing returns. So, someone working 60 hours, of those extra 20 hours of work, research suggests that you’re only getting about seven hours’ worth of productivity. Now, if you’re an emergency worker in an earthquake zone, or a medical professional trying to stem an Ebola outbreak, putting in those extra hours can be crucial. With most of us, though, there is a lot less at stake. Is it really worth it to work 60 hours just to get an extra seven hours of work done?
You’ve had the chance to meet music stars, CEOs and political leaders. You mention how these people are often surrounded by small armies of executive assistants who sweat over all the small stuff and how these HSPs (highly successful people) are able to bring a Zen-like focus to whatever it is that they’re doing as a consequence. Is there any hope for those of us who aren’t HSPs?
The interesting thing to me isn’t that they have executive assistants, it’s what the executive assistants are actually doing. They take away some of the mental clutter, so the HSPs can relax and bring their full attention to what they’re doing in any given moment. We can learn to do that for ourselves. Once we understand how our brains function, we can find ways to offload some of the things that are inside our heads into our surrounding environment.
Part of your book explains why our brains are so easily distracted by things like email. You talk about the sheer, overwhelming amount of information that comes our way via computers. Is technology the enemy?
I don’t know if technology is the enemy. When TV was first introduced, the doomsayers said it would rot our brains. It’s given us The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. When the printing press was invented, people worried that it would be a huge waste of time, with people just sitting around, idly reading. There’s a certain “same as it ever was” aspect to all of this. Technology certainly poses some challenges, but it offers solutions too. For instance, I love the little calendar app on my smart phone that gave me a 15-minute warning before you called me for this interview.
You do raise an alarm about one aspect of technology. You talk about how search engines and databases that zero in on specific search terms right away are eroding the benefits we used to derive from chance discoveries. You write about the joys of stumbling upon really interesting articles in research journals while looking for something else, or happening upon a terrific book on a library shelf when you were looking for a different title.
That’s true. I think we do run the risk of losing something in a world where our computers zero in on the exact thing we’re looking for in an instant. We’re losing sight of the pleasures of serendipity. Hopefully, as professors, that’s what we’re doing at McGill, opening up the minds of our students to ideas that they wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. I still think students wandering the aisles in a McGill library might be stumbling upon books that could change their lives – get them to think about a different sort of career, for instance.
I actually gave a talk at Google recently where I raised some of these concerns. I told them that they should provide us with some sort of serendipity button. That didn’t go over too well.
In the book, you reference research that you’ve been directly involved with at McGill, as well as research done by several of your McGill colleagues.
One of the things that I hope people take away from the book is an appreciation for the fact that McGill has a very distinguished history when it comes to exploring and understanding the workings of the brain. There is some really exciting research going on here. I’ve been proud to build my career at McGill.
I was recently in Vancouver. When I asked my host for a lunch recommendation downtown, she said, “You should stop in at Japa Dog! That’s the hot thing now.”
“Oh, yeah? Is it really something special?” I asked.
She paused. “No… it’s really just hot dogs with weird stuff on them.”
I took a pass, pegging this ‘classic cuisine with a twist’ approach as a gimmick. But it’s also a proven way to tempt taste buds, we learn in The Tastemakers. The new book by David Sax, BA’02, an accomplished and funny journalist who specializes in covering business and food, examines the fruit of that interest pairing — food trends.
Writing a few articles for Bloomberg Businessweek on the topic whet Sax’s appetite. “Why,” he wondered, “is every Toronto restaurant putting its own spin on poutine? I love poutine, but I don’t need lobster or mac ’n’ cheese poutine, Korean-style… It’s become slightly ridiculous.”
His questions multiplied: “We all have individual tastes, yet together we all crave a certain thing at a certain time. Why? Just because it’s really tasty, or is there something else?” The book idea was born.
Sax jokes that a McGill Bachelor of History “prepared me well for a career in journalism: ‘Write an essay on something random.’” One such essay, for Professor Morton Weinfeld’s course, “The Sociology of Jews in North America,” led to Sax’s first book. Save the Deli chronicled the history and decline across North America of his culture’s signature restaurant. The book’s strong reception — it reached #6 on the Los Angeles Times non-fiction bestseller list and won a James Beard award — gave Sax and his publisher, McClelland and Stewart, confidence that readers would come back for seconds.
Sax’s abiding passion for food arose while he was at McGill, during a bout of mononucleosis. Too beat to hit the books while convalescing, he watched TV. “The only good thing on in the middle of the day was the Food Network — Emeril and all these great chefs teaching you how to cook.”
He credits the channel not only with his own culinary renaissance, but our society’s, too. “The Food Network turned cuisine from something that was really only accessible to very wealthy, well-educated, well-traveled people to being accessible to anybody. It democratized it, created this culture of food as entertainment, and then the Internet allowed these ideas to spread more easily.”
Sax defines a tastemaker as “anyone with the economic or cultural power to create and influence food trends” — everyone from restaurant consultants to celebrity chefs to food conglomerate reps. Trying to cover all angles of a vast phenomenon, Sax breaks food trends down into four types — cultural, agriculture-based, chef-driven, and health-based. Although he doesn’t definitively answer why some novel foods become fashionable while others don’t — who could? — his examination of how they start, spread, and why they matter at all is witty and informative.
Take cupcakes, “the most chronicled food trend of all time.” Once a low-frills kid’s birthday treat, in the late nineties their popularity grew organically, from one New York bakery to the next. But a several-second scene on Sex and the City and a prominent role in the show’s Hotspot Tour grabbed the attention of the New York food media echo chamber.
Timing played a key role in the zooming popularity of cupcakes. In the wake of 9/11, people craved comfort foods. Social media played a role too, as stories featuring colourful and creatively decorated cupcakes, like so many other frivolities, went viral.
Now there are cupcakeries around the globe, from Paraguay to Pakistan, and reports of the trend’s death have been greatly exaggerated — by the same media that launched it, now bored and hungry to anoint the next food trend.
Some food trends do run out of steam. Sax focuses on fondue to illustrate how our craving for faster food seemed to push this time-consuming fad past its sell-by date (though, like bellbottoms or bangs, it has revivals).
Sax chronicles a range of colourful characters in his book, including wild-rice hunters and Baconfest revelers, while noting that food trends often have an internationalizing effect: hummus and pita, or salsa and nachos at a wine and cheese right beside, well, wine and cheese. As our palate expands, new jobs are created — for kimchi resaurateurs, chia seed farmers, and cupcake bakers.
Sax admits he was ambivalent about food trends when he started this project. And now?
“I’m less judgmental. If putting a gourmet poutine on your menu is a good business decision, there’s no harm in it. The question is, what does it leave us with? If the answer is better poutine, or it makes poutine available more places than just Quebec, then I think that’s positive.”
Maybe I should have grabbed that Japa Dog…
The quest to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, which affects about 750,000 Canadians, has been maddeningly difficult. Most approaches have focused on identifying the genetic and environmental risk factors responsible for causing or accelerating the progression of this devastating condition.
“More than 110 new, experimental drugs have been tested in Alzheimer’s patients and they all failed miserably,” says professor of psychiatry and medicine Judes Poirier. His research team recently looked at the problem differently, by asking why certain people develop the disease much later in life – or, sometimes, not at all.
After examining 800 brains over an eight-year period, Poirier discovered a protective gene variant that delays the onset of the common form of Alzheimer’s disease by almost four years. The gene in question, called HMGCR, regulates cholesterol production and one in four Canadians carries this protective variation of the gene. In a key follow-up study, Poirier showed it can also protect people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) by slowing their progression to Alzheimer’s.
Intriguingly, among MCI patients with a high-risk Alzheimer’s gene called APOE4, those who carry the protective HMGCR gene are much less likely to develop the disease within three years of their MCI diagnosis than non-carriers. Two decades earlier, Poirier identified APOE4 – a harmful variant of a cholesterol-transport gene – as an important Alzheimer’s risk factor. “This protective cholesterol-regulating gene cancels the risk of the bad gene,” explains Poirier, associate director of the Centre for the Studies in the Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute.
Nature has given certain people a genetic buffer against Alzheimer’s disease. Poirier’s new finding is promising because it provides a molecular target for developing a medication to mimic the effect of the protective gene in people who don’t carry it. Fortunately, a class of cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins, best known for fighting heart disease, work by blocking the specific enzyme made by the HMGCR gene to prevent cardiac problems. Although blockbuster statins, such as Lipitor, were never designed to enter the brain or prevent brain diseases, several research studies have found that some older statins with a greater ability to cross the blood-brain barrier may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by up to 70 per cent.
Poirier has uncovered a vital new clue to help explain the larger puzzle of how the movement and synthesis of cholesterol in the aging brain can significantly lower or raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. This finding creates opportunities for heart and brain researchers to develop new brain-specific statins, or test existing compounds with the right properties for their possible effectiveness in preventing or delaying the disease. “This is not a novel field, but the focus has been on preventing heart disease, not brain disease. There might a compound on the shelf that could do what we want,” he says.
The McGill researcher hopes to begin testing one of these compounds in the spring. He is planning a small-scale, preventive trial to determine whether an older cholesterol-lowering medication, called probucol, which affects both cholesterol transport and production, can significantly prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s in a group of 50 people at risk for the disease.
“I’m not even asking for a cure,” says Poirier. “Delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s would have a much bigger impact than delaying other diseases that are not age-related. Many people would die of old age before developing the disease. If we can use a medication to delay the onset by five years, we could eradicate 50 per cent of Alzheimer’s cases within one generation.”
For years now, thanks to crowdfunding initiatives, people with modest bank accounts have been able to pool together their resources to help cover the costs of albums, films and video games produced by their idols. And while diehard Kristen Bell fans were no doubt thrilled to see Veronica Mars make it to the big screen thanks to their efforts, a new crowdfunding initiative launched by McGill has somewhat different goals in mind.
The University’s new Seeds of Change platform will promote a wide range of projects – all of them student-run and student-focused.
Crowdfunding, initially popularized by American-based websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, marks a significant departure from the more traditional ways that universities have historically positioned their fundraising efforts, said Derek Cassoff, the director of communications for University Advancement.
“Put another way, rather than simply giving to McGill, donors can now give through McGill to support the projects that are closest to their hearts and see, in real-time, how their gifts are having a profound and immediate impact,” he says.
Among the projects being promoted is a Skype-based tutoring program linking McGill students with children in Kirinyaga, a rural community in Kenya.
“I’m very excited because, like many people, I’ve never really known how to formally fundraise or grow support, which is the service crowdfunding will now provide,” says associate professor of economics Matthieu Chemin, the leader of the Elimu Community Library Online Tutoring Program. “We can direct people to the site and engage the whole community to make the cause more known; it’s a very powerful tool.”
Chemin’s group is hoping to fund and oversee the purchase and set-up of computers with Internet access in Kirinyaga, and ultimately work to improve the kids’ performance in school through online tutoring.
“But we’re also opening a window to the world for McGill students who are very interested in international development, but don’t have the means to travel,” he adds. “It’s a wonderful experience for them.”
Emma Gilman, BA’14, is an Elimu project ambassador who first became involved in the project during her McGill studies. She is currently in Kenya. “The students of Kirinyaga high school are intelligent, outgoing, funny, and especially eager to interact with other young people from outside of Kenya and practice their English,” she says. “They would benefit greatly from the online tutoring program and it’s my hope that Seeds of Change will enable Elimu to raise the necessary funds for this amazing initiative.”
Another project supported by Seeds of Change is DON’T bE-FLAT! The Clarinet Brotet, formed by four clarinet majors at the Schulich School of Music, is raising money to purchase one of the instruments direly needed by the School: an E-flat clarinet. The initiative will support Schulich’s on-going Instrument Project, which seeks to maintain and replace musical instruments at the University as needed, in order to allow students to maximize their learning and performance experiences.
Auxiliary instruments are essential to the orchestral, chamber, and contemporary music repertoires. The E flat clarinet, for instance, is a key component of several major compositions, including Ravel’s Boléro and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Most university students don’t have the funds to buy these supplementary instruments themselves, so they rely on the resources available at their educational institution. A brand new E flat clarinet alone costs $5,000.
According to Ayesha Mayan, BA’02, the director of annual giving for University Advancement, the Seeds of Change effort marks “the beginning of a new philanthropic chapter for McGill.”
Mayan says she was excited by the success of a pilot project launched last spring and targeted to graduating students and their parents, which, despite minimal promotion, attracted the support of nearly 400 donors who gave close to $18,000 in funding to nine projects. The initiatives supported by that money included a peer support network for students, a unique educational pavilion devoted to bees, and the MacAction High Tunnel, designed to extend the growing season at the McGill Student-Run Ecological Gardens.
“For the majority of donors, these gifts represented their first-ever contributions to McGill,” Mayan says. “This shows that the platform has the potential to have a serious impact on philanthropy at McGill.”
McGill’s new Minor Concentration in Indigenous Studies is barely a few months old, but it’s fast become a popular offering for undergraduates in the Faculty of Arts. The fall semester courses filled up quickly—in one case, in less than 24 hours—and those involved in the program have high hopes for its future.
Though McGill has long had a selection of courses dealing with Indigenous issues, the minor concentration bundles them together in a coherent way. Housed within the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), the program will be launching two brand new courses in the winter semester: “Introduction to Indigenous Studies” and an upper-level interdisciplinary seminar in Indigenous studies.
Heading both these courses is Allan Downey, MISC’s new academic associate in Indigenous studies and a member of the Nak’azdli First Nation. Downey is collaborating on another course this fall, “Decolonizing North American Indigenous History,” which he is co-teaching with Ned Blackhawk, BA’92, a Yale University professor of history and American studies and the award-winning author of Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. “This is a really exciting class and I was overwhelmed by the positive response to it, I think it took 24 hours to reach capacity,” says Downey. “[It] is about re-imagining the narrative of North American history, focusing on Canada and the United States, and placing Indigenous perspectives, knowledge, and voices at the forefront. The goal is to challenge students to not just think of Indigenous peoples as a new part of each nation’s multicultural or multi-racial mosaic but to reconsider the terms of these histories altogether.”
Fresh from finishing his PhD in history at Wilfred Laurier University, Downey joins McGill at a moment when universities across the country are keen to make Indigenous knowledge part of their educational experience.
“Indigenous studies has quickly become one of the fastest growing fields of study in Canadian universities,” Downey says. “There seems to be a momentum in Canada to re-evaluate and improve the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and I think the discipline’s growth is a by-product of that.”
For Downey, the positive reception the program has received so far is a sign of students’ desire to learn about Indigenous cultures. But the aim of the minor isn’t solely to provide an orientation through various histories and social issues. It’s also to spur undergraduates “to consider worldviews that aren’t their own.”
The program was announced earlier this year, and is the product of a collaboration between MISC and the University’s First Peoples’ House, which had conducted research on similar programs at other universities. Alongside the new course offerings, the program also brings together a range of different approaches to Indigenous issues. As part of the minor, students will be able to take courses in anthropology, English, law, history and social work, among other disciplines.
MISC director Will Straw acknowledges the minor was an idea whose time had come. He is optimistic the program will be able to expand in the near future, given the importance of Indigenous issues for the study of Canada. “It is less and less easy for Canadians, and Montrealers, to think of these as issues that exist far away and have nothing to do with us,” he says. “These issues are at the core of a whole debate over environmental policies, questions of education, and medicine. It is impossible to deal with these questions without confronting with the status of Indigenous peoples.”
Downey’s own research revolves around the history of lacrosse, which he sees as a useful entry point to understanding the often troubled relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in Canada. If the game has been considered one of the country’s national sports since the 19th century, it has played a central role in Indigenous culture for even longer than that. “Following Confederation it was a critical link between Canadians as one of the country’s most popular games,” Downey notes. “Similarly, in many Indigenous communities such as Kahnawà:ke, the game’s importance has not wavered and players, teams, and the Indigenous game itself continues to be a great source of pride.”
That said, Downey simply has a soft spot for the game itself. He started playing when he was 10. By the time he completed high school, Downey had developed a prowess with the lacrosse stick that earned him a scholarship to Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania. He was even drafted professionally, but in the end opted for the academic route, turning his passion for the game into a PhD dissertation. “As an Indigenous person, I had always connected with the game because it was common knowledge in the ‘lacrosse circle’ that it was an Aboriginal game and I took a great deal of pride in that as a kid.”
This interest in the exchanges between settler and Indigenous cultures is what Downey hopes he can pass on to his students. He sees the program in general as a chance to create dialogue between groups that haven’t always spoken to each other as equals. “I think the Indigenous studies program at McGill can have a positive impact and help facilitate relationships between the University and Indigenous communities.”
One effect of reading Susan Pinker’s new book, The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter, is that you may suddenly feel compelled to leave your house and find someone – anyone – to talk to. Don’t worry: this will be good for you. Pinker, BA’79, guarantees it.
In The Village Effect, the Montreal-based psychologist and journalist draws on numerous, long-terms behavioural studies, as well as advances in social neuroscience (brain-imaging now makes it possible to “spy on the way our relationships transform our bodies”), to prove what we should all know, but too often forget, in this age of the Internet. People, actual, not virtual ones, need people.
“We are intensely social creatures,” Pinker explains. “We’ve evolved to live in groups. Surveys of what drives human satisfaction are pretty consistent: we’re happiest when we feel we belong… Social contact and the drive to belong is a powerful physiological appetite, like hunger.”
One statistic, in particular, is likely to leap out at readers of The Village Effect. “If you’re surrounded by a tightly connected circle of friends who regularly gather to eat and share gossip,” Pinker writes, “you’ll not only have fun but you’re also likely to live an average of 15 years longer than a loner.”
Pinker was sufficiently impressed by what she learned researching her book she ended up becoming “more intentional” about her habits. “If I’d gone a whole day and hadn’t done anything expressly social, I’d make sure I did, even if it just meant talking to the local librarian.”
For as long as she can remember, Pinker’s social circle has extended to include McGill. Her parents attended the university, as did her uncles. In the late nineties, she was an adjunct professor in the psychology department, while her husband taught in the law faculty. Pinker’s daughter is a recent graduate and her eldest son is in medical school at McGill. Then there’s her brother, Steven Pinker, BA’76, DSc’99, a world-renowned expert in evolutionary psychology and a bestselling author. “This place is kind of our family business,” she says.
Pinker’s own business model shifted dramatically a decade ago. In 2004, after 25 years as a clinical psychologist, she decided to write full-time. That included, until 2012, a weekly column for The Globe and Mail. In 2010, she published her first book, The Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women, and the Gender Gap, which became an international bestseller, was translated into 12 languages and received the American Psychological Association’s William James Book Award.
Like The Sexual Paradox, The Village Effect is an engaging mix of common sense and scientific revelations. Indeed, The Village Effect has its origins in Pinker stumbling onto a surprising bit of research.
“Working on my last book, I discovered that women who had this expanded, complex, in-person social network, experienced less dementia. I thought, ‘Whoa, this is important. And no one is talking about it.’ We’re always being told we should use our smart phones and tablets for networking, but what about real human contact and connection. That must be at least as good for us as hot yoga, for instance.”
Probably better, it turns out. Breast cancer studies, cited in The Village Effect, show that women “with large networks of friends are four times as likely to survive as those with sparser social connections.” Meanwhile, “a simple hug or pat on the back lowers one’s physiological stress,” aiding the body in fighting infection. There’s this rush, Pinker says, that you can, if you’re paying attention, feel.
The Village Effect argues that the more time we spend on, say, Facebook or Twitter, the less time we’ll be spending with family, friends, and colleagues. Indeed, what Pinker calls “the come-hither aspect of electronic media” keeps making it harder for us to differentiate between actual and virtual human contact.
“I know the digital age is great and here to stay. There’s no denying that or stopping that train,” Pinker acknowledges. “But, in this book, I want to suggest a course correction. As the latest research shows, the fact that we’re less socially engaged than we used to be is having an impact on our health and our levels of loneliness. Studies are showing that as our Internet use goes up, our levels of happiness have gone down.”
“Maybe I’m going out of my mind, but I get the feeling that the world revolves around me somehow.”
– The Truman Show
Can our culture be making us crazy?
That’s one of the provocative questions raised in Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness, a new book by McGill Canada Research Chair in Philosophy & Psychiatry Ian Gold, BA’84, MA’87, and his brother, Joel Gold, MDCM’95, a clinical associate professor at the New York University School of Medicine.
The book has been attracting plenty of attention. The New Republic praises it as “contrarian, insightful, and important.” The Boston Globe describes the book as ”clear, witty, and engaging; the tone is by turns entertaining and alarming.”
The springboard for Suspicious Minds is the Truman Show Delusion, which affects a small, but growing, number of psychiatric patients who become convinced that they are the unwilling subjects of a reality TV show. The name of the condition refers to the 1998 hit movie starring Jim Carrey, in which a man stumbles unto the fact that his every action is being filmed for a television audience.
Joel Gold first encountered the delusion in one of his patients 11 years ago. When other patients emerged with the same symptoms — and when some of Gold’s colleagues mentioned that they had treated similar cases — he knew something was up. The Golds collaborated on a case study describing the condition in 2012, but decided that a book might better explore the broader implications. They believe the delusion has a lot to say about today’s society.
“I do think that today’s society and culture could be affecting everyone’s mental health, to some degree,” says Ian Gold. “Not everyone will become delusional, but many people today feel that their mental health is under assault.”
Gold draws an analogy with the noxious effects of pollution.
“To the extent that the environment is becoming increasingly toxic, more people are becoming sick as a result. It doesn’t mean everyone will develop lung cancer. Similarly, our culture may be increasingly toxic in some respects, but not everyone will have Truman Show Delusion. But everyone will feel the effects to some degree.”
One of the central tenets of the book is the brothers’ theory that the human brain has developed what they call a “Suspicion System”, an ancient survival mechanism which looks for signs of danger and various kinds of threats posed by those around us.
“Human cognition evolved, to a certain extent, under the pressure of social living. When you live with others, this has benefits, but also risks and potential threats. And we believe that the human mind has evolved to adapt to these risks,” explains Gold. “To the extent that the social world becomes more threatening, we think that will put pressure on human mental life.”
In the book, the Golds explain that a healthy Suspicion System makes social life safer through “heightened responses to subtle, uncertain, and ambiguous signs of social danger.” However, a poorly functioning Suspicion System “will sound the alarm without good reason and detect evidence poorly — that is, see malign intent where there is none.”
They further hypothesize that an era of hyper-swift technological and social changes, coupled with information overload, provides exactly the kind of environment that could overwhelm some people’s Suspicion System. ”Delusional beliefs are not real, but they have a basis in reality,” notes Gold. “We live in a culture with cameras in public places, where governments sometimes spy on their citizens, and someone could reveal your secrets on Facebook. People who are predisposed to certain kinds of mental illness are very sensitive to fears of being watched and manipulated by others. So our culture could be pushing these people over the edge.”
The brothers hope that their book will help to restore some balance to psychiatry, which they feel strongly emphasizes biological causes for mental illness, while neglecting the role played by social influences.
“We would never say that cancer is [simply] a biological illness, so it doesn’t matter whether or not you smoke. But, in psychiatry, certainly in the case of severe mental illness, the causal role of the environment is considered very secondary.” The book points to evidence, for instance, that urban dwellers face a slightly larger risk of developing psychosis than their small-town counterparts.
Though schizophrenics are often regarded as living in their own imaginary world, the irony is that their delusions are often the result of hyper-sensitivity to the realities of today’s society.
“Schizophrenia is often characterized as a break with reality,” says Gold. “But these people are, in fact, very sensitive to the ideas in the environment. Unsurprisingly, when the possibility of real threats emerge in the culture, it will be latched onto by people with schizophrenia or other psychotic illnesses.”
In the past, the mentally ill were dismissed as “the other,” a breed apart from us, locked away in asylums and forgotten. While they were once seen as having a spiritual malady, now they are seen as having a physical illness — a view which still encourages a sense of otherness.
“When we see how the environment is playing a role, that challenges our view of the boundary between us and people with severe mental illness,” says Gold. “We have more in common with [the mentally ill] than we like to think. Sanity is a continuum; there is no clear separation between sanity and madness. For example, we all have crazy ideas at times. Psychosis is just the extreme end of that continuum, and not something that is qualitatively different.”
Alan Desnoyers, BCom’85, the new incoming president of the McGill Alumni Association (MAA), is nothing if not committed to his alma mater.
Desnoyers, Regional Vice-President and Managing Director for Quebec at BMO Harris Private Banking, has served on the MAA’s Board of Directors since 2007, occupying roles as vice-president, treasurer and secretary during that span. He was also a volunteer for Campaign McGill, the chair of McGill Homecoming in 2010, and a member of the Desautels Faculty of Management Advisory Board and the Advisory Committee of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital.
But why such a persistent passion for McGill? Desnoyers took some time to sit down with the McGill News to answer questions about himself, his two-year term as president and his vision for the future of the MAA.
Q: Congratulations on your role as MAA president. What does the opportunity mean to you?
A: It has been wonderful to be an ambassador for McGill, and to have the chance to be involved with both students and the broader alumni community. Now, with the presidency, I feel like I have the opportunity to do even more on the University’s behalf.
Everything that we do at the MAA boils down to finding new and meaningful ways to engage alumni. For instance, if you’re moving to a new city and are looking for commonality and community, McGill can help with that. If you’re looking for career services or networking opportunities, McGill can help with that as well.
At the end of the day, if you have a positive experience with McGill, you’re going to want to be an ambassador and promoter for the University. Those relationships can continue throughout a lifetime, and they can continue equally when someone has the financial means to support the University.
Q: What are your aspirations for the MAA as president?
A: Over the last few years, there was a huge amount of foundational work completed by the MAA around governance – efforts that made the board smaller and more nimble, and made the structure around it better, smarter and more modern. Moving forward, we want to build on that work and focus primarily on two things.
First and foremost, we need to do a much better job of bringing our student and alumni communities closer together. We want to encourage graduates to take a more active role in helping and supporting McGill students, whether it be as mentors or through philanthropy and internship opportunities. On the flip side, we want to educate students about the importance of alumni involvement to the University’s overall success – and therefore their own success.
Secondly, the MAA largely operated on its own in the past, and it is critically important that we bring the Association’s priorities closer in line with the University’s advancement and alumni relations goals. You would think that this would be a given, but the reality is that it hasn’t always felt that way.
Q: That’s a tall order. What are some of the ways that the MAA will better engage alumni and bring them closer to students?
A: After lengthy discussions over the past year, we determined the best way to assist with this process was through the creation of two councils: the Alumni Leaders Advisory Council and the Alumni Student Engagement Council.
The membership of the Alumni Leaders Advisory Council will include the Montreal Branch presidents along with other MAA volunteer leaders in key alumni communities across Canada and internationally. The council will provide an opportunity for these volunteer leaders to have a voice, provide advice and guidance to the board of directors on specific issues, as well as advance the MAA’s initiatives and events in those communities.
The membership of the Alumni Student Engagement Council, meanwhile, will include the presidents of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), the Student Organization for Alumni Relations (SOAR), the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS), and other student leaders on campus. The council will provide an opportunity for student leaders to have a voice with the MAA and to provide advice and guidance to the board of directors on specific issues concerning the student body.
Q: You’ve volunteered with the MAA and other parts of McGill for almost a decade now. What was your motivation to get involved?
A: When I graduated from McGill and entered the workforce, University fell off my radar screen for many years. I later worked in Toronto for several years, and when I was transferred back to Montreal, I started to hear about all of these great things taking place in the Desautels Faculty of Management. I poked my nose in and volunteered with the Faculty’s advisory board in 2006 because I liked what they were trying to achieve. When I was approached to join the MAA the following year, I was happy to get involved.
My biggest enjoyment, both during my time with the faculty advisory board and now with the MAA, comes from interacting with students. It makes me feel like I am contributing and making a real difference at the University, and that’s what keeps me engaged.
Q: And what was it that you valued the most about your own experience as a McGill student?
A: I’d like to start with a caveat. I often tell students that they should take advantage of the exciting and enriching opportunities that lie beyond what is simply offered in the classroom, yet I worked part-time as a student so I didn’t really have the chance to do that. But I do think it is important that students invest time in extracurricular activities such as student government and social clubs.
But when I look back at my own experience, I think that McGill gave me a great, well-rounded education in finance and international business, and an experience that provided a real sense of belonging. By the time I graduated, I had developed a myriad of foundational skills and competencies that enabled me to look at issues from different perspectives, as well as an aptitude for decision-making and analysis.
Q: You mentioned a sense of belonging. What is your favorite memory from your time as a McGill student?
A: One of the highlights for me was a class I took on organizational behaviour, in which students spent one semester learning how to teach the course and the second actually teaching it. We were a total 28 students and we developed a phenomenal bond of friendship during that year, spending a lot of time together, going to cottages together, etc.
In fact, 25 years after graduation, during the time I chaired McGill Homecoming, we organized a reunion and over 20 people from the class came from as far away as Paris, London, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and even Moscow. I have many wonderful memories from my time in that class.
Q: Thanks for taking the time to talk. It sounds like alumni have plenty to look forward to from the MAA over the next two years. Is there anything you’d like to add?
A: It is a privilege and an honour to come into this role and serve McGill. This is about what I can do to try and move forward the MAA’s agenda and leave it in a better position than the one I inherited. It’s not about me; it’s all about McGill.
In 2013 alone, police in New York City responded to over 280,000 domestic violence incidents. That’s an average of 765 calls each day – or roughly one every two minutes. And that only includes the victims, most of them women, who were able to reach out for help.
Yet despite these macabre statistics, many of us still turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the violence next door, thinking of it as a brutal but private family matter. But not so for Sarah Flatto, BA’09, who has devoted her career to increasing access to education, safety and services for those marginalized by crisis and violence.
“Destructive violence happens through power, control, and a lack of respect for humanity. That’s true in the case of something as catastrophic as genocide, but also in something as intimate as domestic violence,” she says. “There is something at my core that makes me want to work towards a society where people don’t have to live in fear.”
Flatto is the director of programs and outreach for the newly minted Manhattan office of the New York City Family Justice Center, a safe haven that offers civil legal, social and criminal justice services for victims and survivors of intimate partner violence, human trafficking, elder abuse, and sex crimes– all free, confidential and available under one roof. Family Justice Center clients and their families experience harmful physical, emotional, sexual, and financial abuse.
As part of her job, she works directly in communities across the borough, running a gamut that includes transit hubs, street fairs, cultural events and beauty salons to provide people with vital information about victim’s rights and the center’s services. She also collaborates closely with first responders such as hospitals, clergy and community-based organizations to ensure that the center’s important message reaches as many people as possible, including under-served groups such as new immigrants, low-income and lesbian gay bisexual transgender queer (LGBTQ) communities.
“Our goal is simple: we want people to know that there is help available no matter what their situation is,” she says.
That help can include providing victims, often with children in tow, with comprehensive advocacy: counseling and support groups, emergency shelter and affordable housing, job readiness, public benefits, immigration, and legal assistance with family court, criminal complaints and orders of protection.
It is a job laden with challenges, but also the opportunity to make a real difference. Based in the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence in partnership with District Attorney’s Offices, community and city agencies, the NYC Family Justice Centers have served over 100,000 people in need since 2005 in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Since opening its doors to the public this past March, the Manhattan center receives over 150 weekly client visits.
Working for the Family Justice Center seems like a natural fit for the Manhattan-born Flatto. Her interest in building healthier and safer communities is inspired by her family, who as Jews were forced to flee from Nazi Germany to New York City. Guided by social justice values, she has been involved with community service since she joined the girl scouts at age six. In elementary school, she helped organize a supply drive for Kosovo refugees. After the 9/11 attacks hit so close to her family, she was active in the peace movement and started a high school human rights club. Building upon that experience, at age 13 she started to volunteer with the Operation Hope community shelter in Connecticut. During high school she worked weekly in the shelter’s kitchen serving meals to hungry people down on their luck.
That drive to help those in need followed Flatto when she went to McGill, where she worked with the Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) Office, the Office for Students with Disabilities, and the Office of International Research. Besides additional jobs as a bookstore cashier, receptionist, hospitality clerk and editor, she also interned with the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies and served as vice-president (external affairs) for the International Relations Students’ Association, overseeing community volunteer opportunities for students as well as Junior Peacemakers, an interactive outreach program in local elementary schools.
At the end of Flatto’s second year, McGill gave her the chance to work internationally. Through an internship award from the Arts Internship Office, she spent a summer abroad working with Never Again Rwanda, a human rights organization started by genocide survivors. The experience, funded through philanthropy, enabled her to learn about survivor-centered education by revising the organization’s peacebuilding curriculum and assisting workshops promoting dialogue and political engagement. The internship award also laid the groundwork for future academic scholarships she received to conduct research and study in Pakistan and India.
But what seared into Flatto’s memory most was the incredible resiliency of witnesses and survivors. “One of my colleagues told us, ‘Those who ignore what happened also in a way kill themselves.’ There was this foundational idea that everyone in society must work together to address extreme violence so that they can move on. I found that very powerful,” She says.
After graduating, Flatto returned to New York City, where she most recently managed the citywide community engagement “One NYC One Nation” public/private initiative for over two years at the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Previously, she worked at UNICEF USA and UNICEF Headquarters, an English program for Jewish and Arab youth at Jerusalem’s first integrated bilingual school, and a literacy professional development organization. She credits her experiential learning at McGill, such as the internship in Rwanda and her extracurricular activities, for shaping her aspirations to work in the educational and advocacy spheres.
“I realize that a significant normative shift to challenge pervasive violence and oppression is difficult,” she says, “but providing information for people to make empowered decisions about their own lives can be transformative in itself.”
Sandra Horley, BA’79, is the driving force behind Refuge in the U.K., which assists 1,600 women and children on any given day.
by Gary Francoeur
Canadian hockey goalkeeper Charline Labonté, BEd’12, has some news to share: She’s gay and she’s proud.
In a recent first-person account for Outsports and Lez Spread the Word, the four-time Olympic gold medalist came out publicly for the first time, revealing that she is a lesbian and in a relationship with a fellow Olympian, speed skater Anastasia Bucsis.
Labonté recently sat down with the McGill News to discuss her reasons for going public, the support she’s received from teammates and her hope that other gay athletes also find their way out of the closet.
Why did you decide to come out publicly now?
I think an objective in life is to get to a point where you are completely comfortable with who you are, and I feel like I have reached that point. I spent the last four years training for the Olympics and didn’t want to create any distractions for the team, but now I felt the time is right.
The article isn’t really about me though; it’s much bigger than that. It’s about trying to help other people get to that point where they can just be themselves. While there have been a few male athletes who have come out, I felt there was a lack of female athletes and role models for the younger girls [to emulate]. It seemed like the right thing to do, but I really didn’t know how people would react to the article.
And how have people reacted to it?
I’ve been overwhelmed by all of the support and love. I received a number of messages from young girls saying, ‘Thank god, I didn’t know what to do, I’ve been in the closet for three years, but reading your letter gives me the strength to tell my family.’ Even older women reached out – people who had never had the strength and were now able to come out. As I said earlier, my goal was to help people get to the point where they are comfortable enough [to come out], so that was very flattering to hear and made everything worth it.
You wrote in the column that you feel completely at ease being yourself among your Team Canada teammates. Was there a time when you were concerned about how they would react to your sexuality?
Not really. I’ve been on the team for a long time, and I’ve always known that there were gay people [on it] just like everywhere else. Our group is very accepting, so we don’t really care about anything except you being a good person, you being a good teammate and achieving the same goals. I always felt I could be myself, and when I did come out to my team, their reaction was, ‘so what?’ It has never been an issue.
Is that the norm or do most gay athletes still have a difficult time even today?
It is still very difficult, and the way you can tell is because there are so few athletes coming out. If it was accepted everywhere, I think they would be OK with coming out and it wouldn’t be considered such a big deal. In fact, athletes wouldn’t even need to come out, because it would just be normal and accepted.
Take men’s hockey, where I don’t think there has ever been a player who has come out publicly. People might say there are no gay players in the NHL, but of course there are. It’s just that their environment isn’t very accepting, so it hasn’t been seen yet. It will be a huge step for sports in general when the first NHLer does come out publicly.
Michael Sam did become the first openly gay player to be drafted in the NFL earlier this year. That had to be significant.
It was a huge step [for openly gay athletes becoming more accepted in sports]. It’s not easy to be the first person to do it, and he probably got more coverage and attention than he wanted, but I think he is confident in who he is and probably has an amazing support system. At the end of the day, he’s a good player and that’s all that should matter.
When did you first realize that you were gay and did you struggle with your sexuality?
I always had boyfriends while growing up, and it was only at the age of 19 that I started to question myself [about my sexuality]. I wasn’t OK with it at all at first. I didn’t want to be gay and I struggled with it. But I had amazing people who supported me and shared their own experiences, which made me feel better and become comfortable with myself over time.
What was your experience like as a gay athlete at McGill?
When I started my undergrad at McGill in 2006, my close friends knew I was gay, but I really didn’t advertise it. But people found out and it was totally fine. My teammates on the Martlets have always been amazing, and my coach, the staff and teachers were all very supportive. It’s been great, and [my sexuality] was never really an issue.
You’re on track to graduate from McGill with a master’s in sport psychology later this year. What does your future hold?
Oh gosh, I don’t know [laughs]. I was very fortunate to hopefully get two degrees from McGill and I’m hoping that will play out for me in a good way. I love hockey – it’s my passion – but the reality as amateur female athletes is that we also need to further our real careers after sports. I might have four Olympic gold medals, but that doesn’t guarantee me a job at the end, which is why education is so important. Right now, I’m in a transitional stage and trying to figure out where I want to go from here.
The scene from the idyllic town of Lac Mégantic in Quebec’s Eastern Townships was horrific: a runaway unmanned freight train carrying crude oil crashed and exploded on July 6, 2013, killing almost 50 people and destroying half of the town core. A year later, the people of Lac Mégantic have started the long and painful process to heal and rebuild. Joining them are three McGill students, whose vision of an incubator facility for young entrepreneurs to help revitalize the town centre has been embraced by the local community.
Bernard d’Arche, Cécile Branco-Côté and Ségolène Rolin, BCom’14, developed the idea of the “Centre Magnétique,” as they have dubbed it, as a project in Anita Nowak’s “Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation” course. Upon returning the assignment, Nowak, BA’97, BCom’97, PhD’11, encouraged the trio to enter the proposal into this year’s McGill Dobson Cup startup competition, organized by the Desautels Faculty of Management.
After three rounds of pitches and presentations, the team was announced co-winner of first place in the social entrepreneurship category on June 5, claiming $5,000 in seed money.
“One of the great things about this competition is that in each of the three rounds you receive coaching, which helped us evolve our project,” says d’Arche. “The judges challenged some of the ideas in our earlier versions, so we had to rethink whether they were central to the project.”
But the most important test comes from the people of Lac Mégantic, and their support has been evident since the project was conceived.
“When we started our class project we sent a survey to local businesses, and in three days we received 84 responses,” says d’Arche. “The community’s passion and commitment became a catalyst; we had to give our very best to this project.”
Since then, the team has visited Lac Mégantic three times to consult with people, build networks and formalize plans, working closely with local entrepreneur and teacher Jacques Cloutier, who has served as a mentor. As envisioned, the Centre Magnétique would occupy a new edifice housing both established organizations such as the local Chamber of Commerce, while also providing space and facilities for young entrepreneurs to nurture their startups.
“The Centre Magnétique would be a collaborative space for all of these organizations involved in supporting entrepreneurship,” d’Arche explains. As Cécile Branco-Côté said in an interview with Montreal’s The Gazette, “We want to create something that would help retain young people in the area.”
How do they plan to turn talk into action? Construction requires a hefty investment, so the team will apply for support from government organizations and NGOs.
“We are bringing together important local actors, which fits within the economic development strategy of the region, so we fit a lot of funding criteria,” says Branco-Côté. “When we came here, we found people who have shared our vision for a long time. So we are doing the organizational spadework. We’ve listened to what our partners in the community want, and we are the hands that will make it happen.”
“Collaboration is at the heart of all of this,” d’Arche stresses. “We are bringing different agents together in one building to promote collaboration and incubate startups, and the idea of the Centre Magnétique itself results from collaboration. We wouldn’t be at this stage without the help of the local community, the McGill Dobson Cup and our professor.”
The three students share a deep interest in social entrepreneurship: Rolin is considering pursuing graduate studies in this field; in 2012 Branco-Côté, as a junior fellow with Engineers without Borders Canada, organized a five-day conference on social entrepreneurship for secondary school and university students in Ghana; and last year, d’Arche helped launch Standpoints, an online journal that encourages students to debate ideas, and which has led to a student-run conference on social entrepreneurship.
Grab the ice cream out of your freezer. Pop a spoonful in your mouth. Now, really pay attention. Is it sweet enough? Too sweet? The sour notes – are they smooth, or spiky? How about the texture?
Now, imagine this is your job. Performing this delectable work, or analyzing its results, is a key element in Food Science, a field that combines chemistry, biochemistry, nutrition, microbiology, engineering and statistics to deliver appealing products. With the market for quick-prep foods growing by the day, this mixed discipline is taking off, and nowhere faster than in the Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry Department at Macdonald Campus.
“Consumers have become more demanding,” says Professor Salwa Karboune, “Now, food has to be safe and healthy, but consumers want it to taste and look good, too.” Demanding student-consumers are packing her Food Product Development class more every year.
Developing a new food is the class’s all-consuming main course. Small student groups start by targeting a product platform – ice cream, for example. They verify that there is a market niche to be filled, present their idea to classmates, vote on the best three proposals and formulate prototypes. Then come the all-important taste tests, known as “sensory evaluations,” to narrow it down to a final formulation.
Past in-class winners have included a cheese analog made of soy, a high-protein muffin, a bagel already filled with cheese, and a yogurt cup paired with an oat bar for dipping, a portable breakfast substitute for cereal and milk that’s both pre- and pro-biotic. “From year to year, the products are getting better in terms of innovation, taste and quality,” says Karboune.
The whole process, from proposal to product, takes food companies one to three years. Karboune’s class accomplishes it in a semester. It’s demanding, but fascinating, explains her PhD student, Amanda Waglay, BSc(FSc)’10.
“It’s so all-encompassing and applied. You can take a product from the lab bench to a pilot scale and then actually deal with the consumer within one project,” she says.
While nutrition and safety can be objectively engineered, consumer appeal, which ultimately makes or breaks a product, must be taste-bud tested. Trained tasting panelists provide more useful guidance in the initial formulation stages, says Waglay. “But when you want to know what a consumer would taste, an untrained, bigger panel is more comparable to a consumer.”
Managing multiple groups of 60-100 student tasters, Waglay ran the sensory evaluation testing both for McGill’s shelf-stable frozen dessert, a product that did well in a recent North American competition, and for the high-protein flour made from crickets that won the $1-million Hult Prize last year. Respondents graded the products on smell, taste, texture, mouth feel (how texture breaks down), after taste and overall liking to isolate a winning formula.
Waglay is currently sensory testing her own PhD project – isolating potato proteins, which are in many ways healthier than animal proteins, and don’t carry any animal-rights or religious stigma.
“Sensory evaluation is a science in itself,” explains Karboune. “We’re optimizing the product from the consumer’s perspective, not an expert’s, an approach I hope the students take away with them.”
But Karboune’s main goal? “To train students in all aspects of product development – and pass along my passion.”
A sweet treat with a twist
This year, McGill’s shelf-stable frozen dessert, the winning tasty treat from Salwa Karboune’s class, finished third in the prestigious Food Product Development Competition run by the U.S.-based Institute of Food Technologist Students’ Association.
The dessert can be stored at room temperature, obviating refrigeration and its attendant hassles at every step from production plant to the consumer’s home. Simply open the container to let air in, throw it in your freezer and enjoy two hours later.
Air exposure activates nitrous oxide, generating tiny bubbles that help create a light, creamy texture rather than a syrupy popsicle in a bucket. The creators engineered its smooth flavour and such factors as freezing and melting rates by sensory testing the perfect combination of natural sugars.
It was the first time a Canadian team has even qualified for the IFT finals in over a quarter century. Seasoned U.S. teams were more accustomed to the intense competition, says Karboune, the team’s supervisor. “I saw our team grow during these three days. Their commitment was immense.”
The next step for the development team: finding an investor to bring the product to market.