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Updated: 18 min 38 sec ago

Bâtisseur d’image

Tue, 06/23/2015 - 12:15

A hospital for the 21st century

Tue, 06/23/2015 - 10:44

After years of careful planning and the largest hospital move in Canadian history, the MUHC Glen site is fully operational. Health-care in Montreal will never be the same.

by Patrick McDonagh

The McGill University Health Centre’s Glen site is now operational.

Doubled over from painful contractions, the last thing on Marie Brilleaud’s mind when she arrived at the hospital was the fact that she was about to make Montreal medical history. Just a little more than half an hour later, at 6:55 am on April 26, Brilleaud’s son Arthur made an auspicious debut – the first child to be born at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) Glen site.

Indeed, Brilleaud herself was the hospital’s first patient, although many more would soon arrive in the following hours. The Glen had opened its doors to the public at 5 am that morning, synchronized with the shutting down of the Royal Victoria Hospital. The 122-year-old Royal Vic then officially passed the torch in the form of an ambulance convoy ferrying its 154 remaining patients to the MUHC Glen. The first to arrive was another newborn, en route to the neonatal intensive care unit. And with these two infants – one born at the Glen, the other leading the exodus from the Royal Vic – a new era began for health-care provision in Montreal and for research and teaching programs at McGill’s Faculty of Medicine.

The MUHC Glen, situated next to the Vendome metro station in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood, boasts 2.5 million square feet of floor space and a hi-tech approach to health-care that feels distinctly futuristic.

Paper medical charts will be eliminated – all medical information will be digitized and accessible through computers at the site. The 20 spacious new operating rooms all feature telehealth technology. ROBOT-RX, the site’s new automated medication delivery system, will keep careful tabs on the hospital’s supply of pharmaceuticals, making sure that shortages don’t occur. An extensive pneumatic tube system described as “the veins of the Glen site” will be used thousands of times a day to transport an array of items throughout the hospital complex – blood samples, for instance.

Gearing up for the Glen

The April 26 relocation of patients from the old Royal Victoria Hospital to the Glen site was part of the biggest single hospital move in Canadian history. (Photo: MUHC)

For all the 21st century elements that characterize the Glen, its April 26 opening was preceded by comprehensive planning from the turn of the millennium. “A hospital is one of most complex facilities to plan and build, because you have such a wide variety of needs and such a large number of people going through it,” says Imma Franco, MMgmt’14, the MUHC’s associate director for planning of programs and services.

The MUHC picked the brains of clinical, academic and research experts, including 800 of its own, along with architects and engineers experienced in building such specialized facilities. Members of the planning team also made numerous visits to academic health-care centres around the world, exploring different models and defining a set of best practices that touched on everything from emergency room layout and the organization of nursing stations to the floor plan of single-patient rooms. All that consultation eventually got factored into a master plan that was handed over to the Group immobilier santé McGill, a consortium led by SNC-Lavalin and Innisfree Canada that was tasked with transforming the planning into physical reality.

That process took another four years, with the MUHC receiving the keys to the new complex last November and launching its “activation” phase to prepare the site for the researchers, hospital staff and patients who would be arriving in the ensuing months.

The MUHC Research Institute (RI) came first, unpacking labs and setting up equipment in February and March. The Royal Victoria moved in on April 26 and was followed on May 24 by the Montreal Children’s Hospital, and then on June 14 by the Montreal Chest Institute. Some services from the Montreal General – most notably the cancer clinic – also migrated to the Glen. The Shriner’s Hospital for Children – not a McGill teaching hospital per se, but one with deep links to the university’s hospital network – is slated to be the final addition, opening in September. Overall, it is the most comprehensive hospital move Canada has ever seen, and one of the biggest anywhere.

It got off to a great start. “Having been involved in 400 of these efforts worldwide, this I have to say was the best executed patient move I’ve seen,” said Patrick Moriarty, president of Health Care Relocations (the firm assisted the MUHC with the moves), after the Royal Vic transfer, which represented the biggest single hospital move in Canadian history. “My hat is off to the MUHC staff.”

“The new building is really a huge, very complex machine, so getting everything just right is difficult,” says Ewa Sidorowicz, MDCM’81, an assistant professor of medicine at McGill. As the MUHC’s associate director general of medical affairs and director general of professional services, Sidorowicz chaired the MUHC’s “war room” that oversaw the transition. “Like any new building, things are not always as we anticipated, so our activation process revealed lots of work to be done. If you’ve ever built a house, you’ll know what I mean,” she laughs. “I’ve learned in this process that the most important things in life are ventilation, electricity and access cards.”

A learning process

The automated ROBOT-RX will keep careful tabs on the inventory of medications at the Glen site to prevent shortages from occurring (Photo: Dario Ayala / Montreal Gazette)

Another part of the activation process has involved introducing the 8,000-plus staff who would eventually be working at the Glen to the new site: Each day about 200 clinical and support staff received orientation, and training sessions were held featuring different clinical scenarios. “Work processes aren’t easily transposed from a previous facility to this new one. You have to get to know the environment and figure out how to set up your supplies or move patients from one area to another,” explains Ann Lynch, BScN’78, MSc(A)’86, the MUHC’s associate director general of clinical operations for adult service and an assistant professor at McGill’s Ingram School of Nursing. “These are profound learning challenges.”

Emergency room physician Jim Welch, director of the MUHC’s short stay units, recounts participating in a “code orange” mass casualty simulation involving well over 100 participants. “At the Royal Vic, if someone told me a patient was in a specific room, I could immediately associate the room with its equipment and other factors, because I knew it so well,” he says. “In this exercise, I was told, ‘We have a 57-year-old male in room 63,’ and just blanked – it meant nothing to me. The whole space was a big blank.” But that said, Welch, an associate professor of medicine at McGill, is enthusiastic about the Glen. “We are moving from a very cramped area at the Royal Vic to a bigger ER with better equipment and better organized space,” he says. “For sure there will be bumps and hiccups. But we should expect that, and we’ll get over it.”

“The Glen offers an unbelievable platform for providing a very high level of sophisticated care, and it represents a massive change for health-care in Montreal,” says Lynch. “Everything is designed with patients and their families in mind, including 500 private rooms for patients, 154 in pediatrics and another 346 for adults, each with its own bathroom, a folding couch for family members, and a spectacular view.” The emphasis on private rooms isn’t prompted by the desire to boost patient morale alone. Recent studies, some of them done by MUHC researchers, indicate that private rooms for patients cut down substantially on the risk of potentially dangerous infections and result in shorter hospital stays.

While the Glen provides almost 100 fewer beds than the sites it replaces, Lynch points out that the MUHC is part of a province-wide health network, and that beds are being added to community-based hospitals to ensure that there is no net loss. The Glen will be focusing on areas of care that require high levels of specialized expertise. As Franco explains, “The MUHC will not be the place where everything will be treated, but will serve people who need specialists.”

And for those people, the Glen should be a godsend. For instance, the Cedars Cancer Clinic, a three-story facility, consolidates most of the MUHC’s cancer treatment services, previously spread across the Montreal General, Royal Victoria, Montreal Children’s Hospital and Montreal Chest Institute.

In an interview with Global TV News, Armen Aprikian, the medical director of the MUHC Cancer Care Mission, said, “The Cedars Centre will be the house where patients will have most of their services, meet with professionals, have radiation and chemo therapy – all under one roof.”

The Cedars Centre is also equipped with cutting-edge technology, including the Glen’s most costly piece of medical machinery, the CyberKnife, which can pinpoint radiation treatment to attack cancer cells, while leaving the surrounding healthy tissue undamaged.

New era for research

The Cedar Cancer Centre’s CyberKnife delivers radiation treatments with pinpoint accuracy (Photo: MUHC)

The Glen’s clinical operations will only be a stone’s throw away from the research programs being carried out by the MUHC Research Institute (the buildings are linked underground and by an elevated walkway). “We aim to create a fertile environment that will facilitate interactions between people – chemists, physicians, biologists, epidemiologists, and so forth – to generate ideas,” says Vassilios Papadopoulos, executive director of the MUHC RI. “Before the move, our research teams were scattered across 65 locations on four hospital sites.”

Papadopoulos recounts an anecdote from shortly after the RI arrived at the Glen: a diabetes researcher who had been at McGill for 30 years being able to find answers to a difficult research question simply by going to another lab one floor away, and finding someone whose work addressed that question. “When I hear stories like this from researchers, I feel good, because this is a goal: making sure our researchers have the environment to communicate and collaborate.”

The RI is comprised of three independent, but interlinked centres: the Centre for Translational Biology (CTB), the McConnell Centre for Innovative Medicine (CIM), and the Centre for Outcomes Research and Evaluation (CORE). All three share a focus on transforming the latest discoveries of medical science into improved patient care as swiftly as possible.

Research at the CTB will be directed towards uncovering a better understanding of the nature of diseases.  CORE studies will use a multifaceted approach (researchers at CORE include specialists in epidemiology, economics and biopharmaceutics) to carefully gauge how diet, new medications and environmental factors affect health outcomes. CIM research will centre on clinical trials that test the efficacy of potential new therapies. “As the space where clinical medicine and research meet, the CIM is really the heart of the hospital,” Papadopoulos says.

One innovative CIM project has already sparked newspaper headlines across the country. CIM will coordinate data collection for the Quebec Cannabis Registry, the world’s first research database on the use of cannabis for medical purposes. Mark Ware, an associate professor of family medicine and anesthesia, played the lead role in launching the registry.  “We need to improve our understanding of the real-world use of medical cannabis and to make these data available to other researchers and collaborators.”

Unusually, for academia, the research groups in the MUHC RI centres are defined by their programs – for instance, cancer or respiratory diseases research – rather than being divided along traditional departmental lines. “This arrangement requires more coordination, but it also creates a more intellectually dynamic space,” says Papadopoulos. “And in terms of our teaching, it means that we are giving the next generation of researchers a truly interdisciplinary training environment.”

“Collaboration is a combination of opportunity and will,” says Michael Shevell, BSc’80, MDCM’84, the MUHC’s pediatrician-in-chief and the chair of McGill’s Department of Pediatrics. The move to the Glen, says Shevell, “is certainly creating all kinds of opportunities for new collaborations.

“Immediately adjacent to the Montreal Children’s will be the Shriners and that will open up new opportunities to interact with their experts in rehabilitative medicine,” says Shevell. “And immediately adjacent to us on the other side of the building will be our colleagues in adult medicine.”

Parents Marie Brilleaud and Sylvain Perreault with baby Arthur, the first baby born at the Royal Victoria Hospital’s new home at the Glen site (Photo: John Mahoney/Montreal Gazette)

Shevell expects to see some interesting partnerships develop as a result of the new proximity of the Children’s and the Royal Vic. “A lot of kids are now surviving into adulthood with chronic disorders and one of the challenges that we face is how do we make a smooth transition [for these patients] into adult care.” Shevell believes that the process will become easier to navigate now. “I’m hopeful that we’ll see pediatric nephrologists bumping into nephrologists from the Vic at the cafeteria, for instance, and there will be new opportunities for some outside-the-box thinking as a result.”

In addition to transforming research and patient care, the Glen will also have a huge impact on medical education. “Medical students learn from practitioners, and where those practitioners work makes a big difference,” says Dean of Medicine David Eidelman, MDCM’79. As the Glen is oriented to complex cases referred by other hospitals or physicians, it will provide a highly focused learning environment for students on rotation and for residents pursuing specialties practiced there. But other specialties must be taught elsewhere, either at the Montreal General or at another institution in the McGill network. The Glen will not be a one-site-fits-all learning environment. “We are starting to have to think a little differently about how we organize rotations and carry out our teaching mission,” Eidelman says.

Students are partners in this process. “The kids in the second-year group are used to being guinea pigs,” says Eidelman, noting that these students were the first to experience the Faculty’s new curriculum, introduced last year. “They have rolled with the punches and helped us improve the curriculum; I’m sure they are going to discover things that we need to fix with the Glen too,” says Eidelman. “But this will be a great opportunity for them to work in a facility that is so much more advanced than what they were dealing with at the Royal Vic or the Montreal Children’s Hospital.”

So far, the student response is enthusiastic. “We’re already lucky to have such great teachers at McGill, and now we are going to be able to learn in one of the most up-to-date facilities anywhere,” says Nebras Warsi, BSc’13, past president of McGill’s Medical Students Society.

“It’s an exciting time,” says Lynch. “The spirit with which people have taken on this change is extraordinary.”  “This has been one of the best bonding experiences imaginable,” says Sidorowicz. “And preparing a new facility on this scale is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Patrick McDonagh is a Montreal-based writer. He is the author of Idiocy: A Cultural History, and has contributed to the Globe and Mail, The Walrus and Chatelaine.


Saying goodbye

The Black Watch Association Pipe and Drums playing at a closing ceremony outside the Royal Victoria Hospital (Photo: Vincenzo D’Alto)

While enthusiasm runs high for the Glen, there were many misty eyes as the venerable Royal Victoria Hospital locked its doors. “I have been part of the Royal Victoria since 1986 and I know every inch of it,” says Ann Lynch. “When you think of the amount of care here since it opened, the births and operations – well, I think there [is] a twinge of the bittersweet.” Ewa Sidorowicz agrees. “I did my residency at the Royal Vic, so it’s home for me. You tear up a little bit when you think, ‘I’m never going to sit in this dirty old chair again, with this dirty old desk and terrible looking wall’ – because it’s home.”

“I’m very fond of the Vic, and have been here most of my professional career,” says ER physician Jim Welch. “It’s the birthplace of emergency medicine as a specialty in Canada, so it’s a very meaningful place for me.”

The final closing ceremonies for the Royal Victoria Hospital featured 16 bagpipers from the Black Watch Association Pipes and Drums playing “Amazing Grace” while marching from the Vic’s Emergency Room at the top of University Boulevard to its main entrance on Pine Avenue. The event was organized at the last minute, so the crowd of staff and former patients was small – but the impact was profound. “People were crying,” says Sidorowicz.

The old Montreal Children’s Hospital site was a part of Michaell Shevell’s life since he began his pediatric residency there in 1984.

“It’s like leaving your childhood home. You have a lot of affection for the old place. But there is no disguising the fact that it’s no longer a hospital for the 21st century. Our patients and their families deserve something better.”

Reinventing chemistry

Tue, 06/23/2015 - 10:39

A new branch of science aims to do away with the toxic waste that’s associated with industrial manufacturing. Some of the brightest lights in this green chemistry movement are pursuing their research at McGill.

by Mark Witten

Tomislav Friščić wants to be a catalyst for reinventing chemistry. That’s the ambition that propels the projects in his research lab. Friščić wants to help transform traditional chemical reactions and processes – reactions and processes that often result in huge amounts of waste and toxic by-products – by making them cleaner, leaner and greener.

Friščić – and many of his departmental colleagues at McGill – are part of a fairly young branch of chemistry known as “green chemistry.”

“Classical chemistry is based on attempts to get chemical products and materials quickly, without much concern about the by-products,” says Friščić, an assistant professor of chemistry. He is developing new approaches for the chemical synthesis of pharmaceutical drugs and the chemical extraction of ores, for example. The goal in both cases is to devise a manufacturing process that is cheaper, safer and more environmentally sustainable.

“Green chemistry is a relatively new field and the great thing about working in a new field is there are so many new discoveries you can make,” says C-J Li, PhD’92, McGill’s Canada Research Chair in Green/Organic Chemistry and the co-director of the Centre in Green Chemistry and Catalysis, a Quebec-based research consortium that involves seven universities.

“The ultimate goal of our [lab’s] research is to take whatever is available in nature – such as CO2, lignin and cellulose – and by inventing very simple chemical reactions through catalysis and clean solvents, like water, turn them into useful chemical products directly,” says Li.

Friščić believes that the work being done by green chemists will soon have “a huge impact on chemical and industrial manufacturing.” He’s not the only one who feels that way. The U.S.-based consulting firm Pike Research recently predicted that the market for green chemistry, estimated to be worth $2.8 billion in 2011, will soar to $98.5 billion by 2020.

The expanding market for green chemistry and the products and processes it creates is being driven by environmentally conscious consumers and by increasingly stringent regulatory agencies. But that’s only part of the tale. Yale University professor Paul Anastas, credited with coining the term “green chemistry” in 1991 when he was a staff chemist with the United States Environmental Protection Agency, recently spoke to the research journal Nature about the origins of the phrase.

“People ask me how I came up with this name ‘green chemistry’… and they think I’m joking when I say, well, green is the colour of nature, but in the United States, green is also the colour of our money. It’s always been about how you meet your environmental and economic goals simultaneously.”

New approaches to medicine and mining

Assistant professor of chemistry Tomislav Friščić (Photo: Will Lew)

Friščić’s work embraces both environmental stewardship and cost efficiency.

In industrial chemistry, the large quantities of solvents used pose potential threats to health and the environment, and their responsible management is expensive. Friščić uses mechanochemistry (the use of mechanical force to bring about chemical reactions) in new ways that reduce or eliminate the need for solvents in many important chemical reactions.

Almost all products and industrial processes require a chemical reaction of some sort. But all that manufacturing creates an enormous amount of waste. In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, for every one kilogram of valuable product that’s produced, an average of 25 kilograms to 100 kilograms of waste is created. And that waste is often toxic.

In several of his studies, Friščić has demonstrated how mechanochemistry can be applied to synthesize pharmaceutical compounds in cheaper and more energy-efficient ways that involve far less waste. He used ball milling – where steel balls are shaken with reactants and catalysts in a rapidly moving jar to drive chemical reactions – to synthesize three existing anti-diabetic drugs (tolbutamide, chlorpropamide and glibenclamide) without solvents.

He recently applied his approach to a more familiar pharmaceutical product, the popular stomach remedy Pepto-Bismol. Friščić converted bismuth oxide into Pepto-Bismol’s active ingredient, bismuth subsalicylate, by loading the components into a mixing vessel with some metal or ceramic balls. His technique for synthesizing the drug required less energy, no solvents and produced no wasteful by-products.

“We’ve shown you can make drugs by milling, which hasn’t been done before. You can make the drugs solvent-free and shorten the steps in the synthesis sequence. Pharmaceutical companies are very interested in our techniques. They want to manufacture drugs more cleanly and cheaply,” says the Croatian-born Friščić, who arrived at McGill from the University of Cambridge in 2011.

Extracting useful metals from mineral ores taken from mines usually relies on methods that involve mixing the minerals with massive amounts of volatile solvents at high temperatures. Friščić has pioneered a new technique called accelerated aging that uses high humidity and very mild temperature increases (up to 45 degrees Celsius) for the solvent-free chemical separation of mineral ores into base metals, such as copper, zinc and lead. The accelerated aging technique also holds potential as a solvent-free chemical separation process for such precious and rare metals as gold, silver and tellurium (used widely for hi-tech devices).

If Friščić is a rising star in green chemistry circles, Robin Rogers is one of the field’s leading lights.

Rogers arrived at the University last fall as McGill’s new Canada Excellence Research Chair (CERC) in Green Chemistry and Green Chemicals. Created by the federal government, the CERC program is designed to attract world-class researchers to Canadian universities. As a CERC, Rogers will receive $10 million over seven years in federal research funding and more than $1.2-million for research infrastructure support through the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

The research support was a powerful inducement, but Rogers says there were other reasons why he decided to move here after spending almost 20 years at the University of Alabama, where he was director of its Center for Green Manufacturing. “I’m excited about working with some of the best green chemistry researchers in the world here at McGill,” he says.

Canada Excellence Research Chair in Green Chemistry and Green Chemicals Robin Rogers (Photo: Will Lew)

Rogers has had considerable success in translating fundamental discoveries in green chemistry into commercial applications. He and his colleagues discovered a new way to dissolve, regenerate and process cellulose – the world’s most abundant biorenewable material and a major component of wood – using ionic liquids (liquid salts) to develop environmentally-friendly textiles and plastics. Unlike traditional solvents, many ionic liquids tend to be non-toxic, non-flammable and they don’t evaporate, thus significantly reducing potentially harmful emissions.

Rogers received the 2005 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award in recognition of this new technique. The technology was later licensed to BASF, the world’s largest chemical company, where the process is being commercialized to manufacture products like rayon in a more economical and environmentally-friendly way.

“Robin is going to be a game changer,” says associate professor of chemistry Audrey Moores, a Canada Research Chair in Green Chemistry. “Apart from his impressive research program, he has a lot of knowledge of industry and brings the commercialization expertise. We have strong scientific knowledge in green chemistry [here] and he can provide valuable leadership and direction to help apply this research in the real world.”

Rogers is eager to do just that. “McGill has unparalleled expertise in new, green manufacturing technologies. If we can find the right companies to work with, we have the potential to make a major contribution.”

Shrimp shells to the rescue

In his own work, Rogers discovered a way to use ionic liquids to extract chitin – the most abundant polymer in the marine environment – from shrimp shells that would otherwise be thrown away by seafood businesses. He and his colleagues received a $1.5-million award from the U.S. Department of Energy for their start-up company, called 525 Solutions, that has developed transparent mats, composed of tiny chitin fibres, to potentially mine uranium from the ocean for use as a nuclear fuel source.

In an interview a few years ago, Rogers explained why the use of these mats might prove to be enormously beneficial. “Once you put this material in the ocean, it will attract uranium like a magnet, and the uranium will stick to it. Mining uranium from land is a very dirty, energy-intensive process, with a lot of hazardous waste produced. Imagine the positive environmental potential of reducing or eliminating the need to mine uranium on land, simply by recovering it from the ocean.”

The biorefinery concept is central to Rogers’ vision of how he and his green chemistry colleagues at McGill can transform Canada’s wealth of renewable resources into viable products for commercial use. He envisions using ionic liquids to cleanly extract, separate and process the three major components of wood – cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin – and convert them into new products such as renewable plastics and advanced composite materials.

Similarly, Canada’s fishery industry and marine resources provide opportunities to use chitin extracted from shrimps, crabs and other crustaceans as the basis for medical products such as bandages, sutures and biocompatible supports for bone growth. Rogers believes that chitin is versatile enough to be used in dozens of ways – in everything from cosmetics to agrochemicals. In fact, he wouldn’t be surprised if the shells that supply chitin eventually become more valuable than the shrimp or crab meat they contain.

Challenging assumptions

Canada Research Chair in Green/Organic Chemistry C-J Li (Photo: Will Lew)

One of Rogers’s new colleagues at McGill, C-J Li, can be described as a green chemistry pioneer in his own right. Li’s work is frequently referenced by other scientists. According to Thomson Reuters, Li was one of the four most highly cited Canadian research scientists working in chemistry last year.

Li made a pivotal contribution by proving that water could be used as solvent to facilitate chemical reactions. Traditionally, chemists didn’t consider water as a viable solvent for organic reactions because organic molecules typically don’t dissolve in water. Water was also thought to be problematic for chemical reactions involving organic compounds and metals, because the metals were believed to be too sensitive to the presence of water.

Li and his McGill mentor, emeritus professor of chemistry Bill Chan, challenged that thinking, testing dozens of metals and discovering that some – such as indium, zinc and tin – could work very well as reagents (substances that cause chemical reactions when combined with other substances) in water. Indium worked particularly well. “The reactions were faster [and] more efficient.”

As well as being more environmentally benign, reactions in water can offer better results by speeding up reaction times and saving steps in the synthesis sequence, says Li. “Water is natural, non-toxic, cheap and readily available. Using water as a solvent greatly reduces toxic waste products and it makes many chemical manufacturing processes far more efficient, which is very interesting to industry because it also lowers costs.”

Thanks to the work of Li and other green chemists, organic reactions in water now have many industrial applications. The paint industry, for instance, is now dominated by water-based paints. Water-based chemistry also plays an increasingly important role in the pharmaceutical industry. Pfizer, for instance, has adopted water-based chemistry for every step in the synthesis of Lyrica, its blockbuster drug for neuropathic pain.

Healthier hydrogenation

Audrey Moores is also focused on creating cleaner, more efficient chemical processes. In collaboration with Li and researchers in Japan, Moores uncovered a method for making the widely used chemical process of hydrogenation more environmentally friendly and less expensive.

Hydrogenation is used in many industrial applications from making food products (such as margarine) to petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals. But there are significant problems associated with the standard approaches to hydrogenation – including its reliance on toxic and expensive heavy metal catalysts such as palladium and platinum.

Canada Research Chair in Green Chemistry Audrey Moores (Photo: Will Lew)

Moores and her colleagues developed new techniques that use magnetic iron-based nanoparticles as catalysts. Iron, which is both naturally abundant and far less toxic than either platinum or palladium, works just as efficiently as a catalyst. Moores has also recently shown that hollow iron oxide nanoparticles can be an effective, efficient and recyclable catalyst for the synthesis of almond aroma (known as benzaldehyde), the second most widely used food flavouring agent.

Gold nanoparticles are used in electronics, healthcare products and cancer-combating pharmaceuticals. The process to make the nanoparticles, however, requires the use of dangerous and toxic chemicals. Moores recently collaborated with Tomislav Friščić to develop an alternate approach that uses mechanochemical milling to rapidly synthesize gold nanoparticles without the use of any solvent.

Moores is enthusiastic about the future of green chemistry. She gets a glimpse of that future every time she teaches.

“There is a lot of excitement about green chemistry among students. Green chemistry helps to answer some of the big questions around energy and using it efficiently, about how to develop renewable materials, and how to respect the environment. Students really want to make a difference in these areas.”

For a public that has become increasingly suspicious of chemical processes in general, Friščić believes green chemistry “can transform how chemistry is perceived by society.”

That is also the hope held by Paul Anastas, the man regarded as green chemistry’s founding father. In his interview with Nature, Anastas said, “I believe that the ultimate goal for green chemistry is for the term to go away, because it is simply the way chemistry is always done.”

Mark Witten is an award-winning writer whose work focuses on medical science and engineering. His work has appeared in Canadian Living, Reader’s Digest, Toronto Life and The Walrus.


A $100 million boost for research

Tue, 06/23/2015 - 10:34
by Daniel McCabe, BA’89

Alain Ptito, a neurology and neurosurgery professor, has explored the impact of concussions on McGill athletes and on others. He is one of 10 McGill researchers who are leading projects that recently received funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (Photo: Pierre Dubois/MUHC)

The Canada Foundation for Innovation, a national funding body that directs millions of dollars towards investments in research infrastructure, recently announced that it would be spending $333 million to support research projects at universities across the country. Close to 10 per cent of that money – $30 million – is going to projects led by McGill researchers. No other university received as much.

The CFI money is matched by provincial governments and funding for CFI-supported projects is also received from other sources. All told, McGill-led CFI research projects will be receiving $100 million. McGill researchers are also involved in seven CFI projects that will be headquartered at other universities.

“This important investment in state-of-the-art research infrastructure enables Canadian researchers and their partners to continue to be among the world’s leaders in areas of great importance to Canada and globally,” says Principal Suzanne Fortier, BSc’72, PhD’76, who thanked the CFI and the Canadian and Quebec governments for their support.

One of the McGill researchers who will be receiving CFI funding is neurology and neurosurgery professor Alain Ptito, BA’75.

The CFI support will allow Ptito to establish a unique research facility at the Montreal General Hospital devoted to assessing and exploring the effects of mild trauma brain injury (mTBI).

“It doesn’t feel ‘mild’ for the person who suffers from one,” says Ptito, noting that 80 to 85 per cent of all head injuries could be characterized as instances of mTBI.

The symptoms associated with mTBI include persistent headaches, memory loss, dizziness and depression. The principal causes of these injuries include motor vehicle accidents, falls (particularly among the elderly) and sports-related injuries.

Conventional technologies like MRI or CAT scans often don’t detect any evidence of damage in mTBI patients, which makes the injuries difficult to diagnose, says Ptito. It also creates further problems for those who suffer from mTBI symptoms. “An insurance company might question the validity of the symptoms because of the results of these scans.”

Thanks to the CFI funding, Ptito and his team can purchase an Ultra High Performance MRI system that offers a resolution 64 times greater than a conventional MRI. “We’ll be able to look at the subtle shearing of [nerve fibres], things that we just can’t see with conventional technologies.” The only other Ultra High Performance MRI system in North America is at the Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Richard Chromik, an associate professor of materials engineering, heads up another McGill-led CFI project, one that involves a variety of aerospace companies as well as four universities.

Chromik’s CFI project focuses on the surface properties of materials used for aircraft or space vehicles. When you’re building an airplane, Chromik explains, you have to put a lot of thought into the materials that will be used on the exterior. What materials do the best job of reducing friction? Which ones provide the best protection against corrosion?

The CFI funding will allow Chromik and his collaborators to use highly specialized vacuum chambers that simulate environments in outer space. The researchers will be needing these unique tools as they assess the surface materials that would work best for satellites and spacecraft that travel in the vacuum of space, as well as for vehicles and probes that will be used to explore the surface of the moon or Mars. “It’s an opportunity to work with the international community on future space exploration missions,” says Chromik.

Some of the other CFI projects led by McGill investigators will focus on mood disorders (headed up by James McGill Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology and Neurosurgery Michael Meaney), the microenvironments that surround tumours (led by Goodman Cancer Research Centre director Morag Park), the role that neural microcircuits play in brain dysfunction (led by physiology professor Katheen Cullen) and the scientific study of live musical performances and recorded sound (led by William Dawson Scholar and associate professor of music technology Marcelo Wanderley).


Meet the candidates

Wed, 06/17/2015 - 09:38

Canadians will be heading to the ballot boxes in a few months to select the country’s next government. McGill graduates play key roles in all three of the main political parties running in the election (Istockphoto)

by Daniel McCabe, BA’89

Canada’s next federal election is scheduled for mid-October, but most pundits would agree that the campaigning actually began months ago. According to opinion polls, this could end up being one of the most unpredictable elections in the country’s history. Some polls project a virtual three-way tie between the main political parties – the Conservatives, the Liberals and the NDP.

The next few months promise to be hectic for candidates from all parties. That’s true for Conservative ministers hoping to hold on to power (Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander , BA’89, and Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford, BCL/LLB’05, for instance). It’s true for young NDP MPs eager to prove that the last election’s Orange Crush breakthrough in Quebec was no fluke (MPs like Charmaine Borg, Matthew Dubé, BA’11, Mylène Freeman, BA’11, and Laurin Liu – otherwise known as the “McGill Four” for their surprising transition from McGill students to MPs). And it’s true for first-time candidates hoping to make their mark in Parliament (One example would be David Lametti, BCL’89, LLB’89, an associate professor of law at McGill, who is running for the Liberals).

The spotlight will shine on three McGill alumni in particular during the campaign – NDP leader Tom Mulcair, Conservative finance minister Joe Oliver and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. All three recently found some time to share a few thoughts with the McGill News.

Tom Mulcair, BCL’76, LLB’77

NDP leader Tom Mulcair (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Tom Mulcair scored his first major electoral success as a McGill law student, becoming the president of what is now known as the McGill Law Students Association. He began his law studies right after completing CEGEP and, in an attempt to look older (he was one of the youngest students in his law class), started growing the beard that has become one of his signature traits (political observers note that Canada hasn’t had a bearded prime minister in more than a century).

Mulcair has attracted plenty of attention for his prosecutorial approach to his Question Period exchanges with the government (former prime minister Brian Mulroney declared that Mulcair was the best leader of the Official Opposition in Canada since John Diefenbaker). A former Quebec cabinet minister, Mulcair has led the NDP since 2012, when he succeeded another McGill graduate, the late Jack Layton, BA’71. When he was officially declared the NDP’s new leader, Mulcair took to the stage sporting a red McGill tie.

What advice would you give to a 20-year-old version of yourself?

The decisions being taken politically today will affect you for the rest of your life. So find a way to get involved. It’s surprising that in the last federal election, about two-thirds of young people didn’t bother to vote.

What was the most important thing you learned as a student at McGill?

Learning how to think for yourself and how to apply that theoretical learning to real-life situations.

Which of your McGill professors had the biggest influence on you?

In my first year of law school, Frank R. Scott, an emeritus professor, gave a lecture series. He made the law a living thing and that stayed with me during my career and my life in politics. I also remember Richard Field, who became a very respected judge in the U.K.

What was your favourite job before you became a politician?

Soon after the Parti Québécois [first] came to power, I headed to Quebec City for a job in the legislative drafting branch where we were preparing the legislative tools to put into effect the very progressive social vision of that government.

What has been the biggest surprise for you about life in politics?

I guess the biggest surprise was how demanding it is. But I got to see the inside workings of government before being elected, so that was helpful.

Once you step down from politics, how do you want to be remembered?

I’d hope to be remembered as someone who worked really hard and who tried to do well by his fellow citizens – as simple as that.

Which MP from a party other than your own do you admire the most?

In our first year of law school, everyone had “a tutor” – someone you met with once a week, to see how your studies were going. Mine was [emeritus professor of law and Liberal MP] Irwin Cotler. I’ve never considered him an adversary, even though we sat on different sides of the house. [Former Conservative finance minister] Jim Flaherty had a sense of fairness that I thought was really admirable.

What was the best book you read in the last six months?

I just finished a biography of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons and it was wonderful. There’s a lot of McGill in there and a lot of Montreal.

The best thing about attending university in Montreal was…

Montreal is a very vibrant city. I lived in the student ghetto at the beginning. Living so close to McGill, you sensed the influence it had over the whole area.

Joe Oliver, BA’61, BCL’64

Finance Minister Joe Oliver (Photo: Mark Blinch/Reuters)

In an interview with Maclean’s last year, Joe Oliver explained the thought process that led to him pursuing a law degree at McGill. “It was law or medicine. I didn’t particularly like the sight of blood, but I was comfortable with words.” He proved to be very comfortable with words during his time at McGill – chairing the McGill Daily’s editorial board and serving as editor-in-chief of the McGill Law Journal. The former director of the Ontario Securities Commission and former CEO of the Investment Dealers Association of Canada, Oliver is a latecomer to politics, winning his parliamentary seat in 2011.

As finance minister, the budget he presented in April will almost surely be a focal point for the next election battle. Oliver himself said as much in an interview with Report on Business earlier this year. “The critical message we’re going to be conveying to Canadians is that we are good economic stewards and the country is strong, doing better, despite the external risks.”

What advice would you give to a 20-year-old version of yourself?

Load up on Microsoft stock, put on sunscreen and never wear burgundy bell-bottom seersucker pants. Oh yes, to thine own self be true.

What was the most important thing you learned as a student at McGill?

Play to your strengths, keep your long-term goals in mind, be strategic and have fun.

Which of your McGill professors had the biggest influence on you?

Donald Webb, who taught Psych 101, and Professor Paul-André Crépeau, who gave me the idea of saying I wanted to study under the great civil law professors the Mazeaud brothers – which probably was what got me a Quebec scholarship to study in France.

What was your favourite job before you became a politician?

Selling encyclopedias in the interior of B.C. and investment banking. Both were good preparation for politics.

What has been the biggest surprise for you about life in politics?

Surprise: Answers are limited to 35 seconds in Question Period. Not a surprise: There is no longer a distinction in the media between opinion and news.

Once you step down from politics, how do you want to be remembered?

I don’t want to leave prematurely, so ask me after I have left.

Which MP from a party other than your own do you admire the most?

Irwin Cotler, the former editor-in-chief of the McGill Daily (before it went totally radical, which it still is today), former minister of justice and a great international civil rights advocate – even though he does not know the difference between a debit and a credit.

What was the best book you read in the last six months?

The Budget. (And no, it was not fiction.)

The best thing about attending university in Montreal was…

Smoked meat sandwiches at the Snowdon Deli, the Orange Julep and deconstructing the socialist psyche.

Justin Trudeau, BA’94

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau (Photo: David Chidley/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau had one of the famous roommates in Canada while he was attending McGill – he was living close to the downtown campus with his father (and former prime minister) Pierre. During his studies at the University, Trudeau joined the McGill Debating Union, describing the experience as “an education on its own.” It helped cement a deep friendship with a fellow student who was the Debating Union’s vice-president at the time – Gerald Butts, BA’93, MA’96, now Trudeau’s principal adviser. Between 2002 and 2006, Trudeau chaired Katimavik, a national organization that encourages young people to become active in community service through volunteer programs.

First elected to the House of Commons in 2008, Trudeau became the leader of the Liberals in 2013, inheriting a party that was reeling from its worst election performance ever. Since taking over, Trudeau has helped steer the Liberals to surer ground. The party enjoyed its best fundraising results in a decade last year and it attracted 200,000 new members in 2014.

What advice would you give to a 20-year-old version of yourself?

Take morning classes. It’s too easy to waste time by sleeping in.

What was the most important thing you learned as a student at McGill?

Interesting professors are more important than interesting classes. A great professor can make any subject fascinating and enjoyable, but unfortunately, the reverse is not true.

Which of your McGill professors had the biggest influence on you?

Peter G. Brown [from the Department of Geography]. His work on sustainable development, and the interconnected relationship between the global economy and the environment had a profound impact on me. How we interact with the planet as individuals and as governments, and our responsibility to address the ecological deficit that exists remain two of the greatest challenges we face as political leaders and as human beings.

What was your favourite job before you became a politician?

Being a high school teacher. A good teacher, like a good politician, isn’t someone who provides the answers, but who understands the needs and challenges people face and gives them tools to help them succeed.

What has been the biggest surprise for you about life in politics?

How much of an impact you can really have on your riding, as an MP, helping the people and organizations in the communities that you serve.

Once you step down from politics, how do you want to be remembered?

As someone who worked hard and made a difference.

Which MP from a party other than your own do you admire the most?

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May for her passion and dedication.

What was the best book you read in the last six months?

The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer.

The best thing about attending university in Montreal was…

Being able to share my hometown – the best city in the world – with all of my McGill friends.


An end to allergies?

Tue, 06/16/2015 - 11:11

For many allergy sufferers, the joys of spring are intermingled with runny noses and itchy eyes.

by Shannon Palus, BSc’13

Imagine this scenario: newborn babies receiving an effective vaccination that protects them against allergies. The inoculation would come in the form of a quick spritz of fluid into their nostrils. The impact of such an approach would be huge. Nearly one-third of Canadians currently suffer from allergies.

It might sound like the stuff of science fiction, but associate professor of pediatrics Christine McCusker is working on a vaccine along those very lines. It’s still early days, but a recent study she and her team produced is very promising: they successfully prevented a population of mice from ever developing airborne allergies, by training their immune systems to react calmly in the presence of pollen.

Allergies are controlled by what biologists call the TH2 response. The TH2 protects against things that you very much want to be protected against – like big parasites. But sometimes it tries to protect your body against benign stuff. For most people, when faced nose-on with a blooming flower, “their immune systems go, ‘yeah yeah, it’s just pollen,’” says McCusker. But for people with allergies? The immune system freaks out. The result is an overblown and unnecessary allergic response.

Though the predisposition for allergies is genetic, the reaction itself isn’t automatic. Our immune systems develop the overblown responses triggered by allergies over time. It is a learned response.

McCusker has found a way to alter the TH2 response that occurs when the immune system is learning what kind of response to have to allergens, by administering a specific peptide to young mice.

The peptide had previously been shown to block an allergic response in progress. Similarly, the peptide turns down the TH2 response in the baby mice.  When given at a young age, the peptide “teaches” the mice’s immune systems to remain calm in the presence of a minor offender, like pollen or animal hair.

“It’s suggesting that instead of having all your sensors [be hyper-alert] to every allergen, turn some of those down,” says McCusker. In the event of a pathogen that’s really dangerous, the immune system will still kick in with an appropriate response.


A fresh look at a Canadian icon

Tue, 06/09/2015 - 19:18
by Linda Sutherland

Sarah Milroy (left) accompanies Prince Charles as he visits an exhibition of Emily Carr’s work in London that she co-curated. The exhibition, “From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia,” is now at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Milroy also co-edited a new book inspired by the exhibition. (Matt Dunham/AP Photo)

Emily Carr may be one of Canada’s most beloved artists, but her evocative depictions of British Columbia’s landscape and indigenous people were virtually unknown beyond the country’s borders. That is, until recently, when an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, England, introduced more than 100 of her works to a new – and rapturous – audience.

In its review of ”From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia,” London’s The Observer described Carr as “Canada’s very own Van Gogh.” Urging readers to see the exhibit, The Telegraph declared, “Believe me, you’ll never ask who Emily Carr is again.”

Mounting the exhibition was a labour of love for its Toronto-based co-curator Sarah Milroy, BA’69. “Given my identity as a proud British Columbian, I was eager to put Carr’s best foot forward, and make the most of this unique opportunity for her,” she wrote in The Globe and Mail, where she once worked as the paper’s art critic.

This challenge had an added dimension, given that the show would be seen by two very different audiences; following its four-month sojourn in London, it travelled to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, where it is on view until August 9, 2015.

“In England, Carr was an unknown entity, whereas in Canada she is a national treasure. So, the question was how to introduce her in one country and show her in a new and interesting way in another – by highlighting her diligence, her perseverance, her empathy and how these qualities are embedded in her work,” says Milroy, who spent the past three years putting together the exhibition with co-curator Ian Dejardin, director of the Dulwich Gallery. Milroy and Dejardin also collaborated on a lavishly illustrated new book that accompanies the exhibition.

The curators decided to organize the show poetically, rather than chronologically, by showing different aspects of Carr’s personality and conveying a sense of her inner life – as expressed by the lush forest interiors of the central British Columbia coast, and then by the open, light-filled seascapes she painted near her Victoria home.

In a bold move aimed at delineating Carr’s oeuvre from the First Nations cultures, Milroy and Dejardin decided to show her works in dialogue with dozens of indigenous artifacts from the Pacific Northwest that were carefully selected with the help of James Hart, a Haida hereditary chief and master carver.

“We were initially concerned that these objects would be perceived as an adornment for Carr’s paintings and drawings,” says Milroy. “But these artifacts illuminate Carr’s connection to indigenous cultures and allow viewers to appreciate the attachment to landscape from both European and First Nations perspectives.”

Yan, Q.C.I is one of the paintings featured in “From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia.”

Carr was impoverished for much of her adult life and she abandoned painting for almost 15 years, keeping herself financially afloat by running a boarding house and breeding sheep dogs.  A big breakthrough came in 1927, when she was 56. The National Gallery of Canada included some of her works in an exhibition, Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern. The exhibition drew her into the orbit of Lawren Harris, a driving force in the Group of Seven, who encouraged her to resume landscape painting.

Desperately short of funds, she resorted to using gasoline-thinned oil paint applied to manila paper for many of her later works.  In these works, we see Carr release her creative energies, boldly describing her surroundings with loose, fluid brush strokes that seem to dance across the paper.

While previous exhibitions have focused on Carr’s often dark and heavy oil-on-canvas paintings, Milroy wanted this show to draw attention to her works on paper, where the artist tended to give full rein to her sensuous vision. “Carr’s mood swings were as wide and dramatic as those of the British Columbia landscapes she depicted, and we wanted to offer audiences that full roller-coaster ride.”

From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia” will be featured at the Art Gallery of Ontario until August 9. The book based on the exhibition is available in bookstores and online.


Recommended Reading and Listening

Tue, 06/09/2015 - 11:15
The Carbon Bubble by Jeff Rubin, MA’82

Back in early 2014, when most of us were still grumbling about high gas prices, a prescient Jeff Rubin was forecasting a future plunge in oil prices and its deleterious impact on Canada’s economy.

Turns out, he was right.

A former chief economist at CIBC World Markets, Rubin contends that Canada’s energy-based economic strategy is a failure, stalling Canada’s manufacturing sector and leaving the country’s dollar in free fall. To explain why, Rubin weaves together a story of Canada’s oil sands, climate change, pipelines, fracking and even Warren Buffett’s vested interest in oil tanker rail cars (he owns a lot of them).

It’s a brisk, engaging narrative replete with numerous pop culture references (The Walking Dead, Tim Horton’s, The Lord of the Rings, The Big Lebowski — to name a few). At the epicentre of Rubin’s scathing critique stands Stephen Harper and his vision of Canada as an energy superpower. Each time the name “Harper” is cited,
it comes with an implicit intonation reminiscent of Jerry Seinfeld uttering the name of his nemesis: Newman.

Looking ahead, Rubin offers some sobering insight.  His advice is a little dystopian (invest in water infrastructure, food and agriculture) but, then, no one ever said that being prescient was fun.

Andrew Mahon

Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History by Andrew Cohen, BA’77

As Andrew Cohen himself asks in his introduction to Two Days in June: Do we really need another book about John F. Kennedy? The answer turns out to be a resounding yes, given this highly readable tale of two days that defined the U.S. president.

Drawing from newly uncovered materials, Cohen pulls back the curtain to take us behind the scenes of the presidency, focusing on two landmark speeches given by Kennedy in June 1963.

The June 10 speech, “A Strategy of Peace,” tried to dial down the nuclear arms race from its Cold War heights. The Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty would be signed months later.

The Civil Rights Address of June 11 focused on the plight of black America during what Kennedy called “a time of profound national unrest.” Indeed, on that very same day, Kennedy would go up against Alabama’s segregationist
governor George Wallace, who attempted to block the University of Alabama’s first two African-American students from entering the school.

Two Days in June covers a lot of ground. American policy in Vietnam, the Profumo spy scandal in Britain and the murder of a civil rights activist only hours after Kennedy’s June 11 speech, all factor into a story that Cohen relays with novelistic pacing.

Andrew Mullins

Ravenscrag by Alain Farah

Like his authorial namesake, Alain Farah, the protagonist of Alain Farah’s twisty Ravenscrag, is a respected writer, a McGill academic (in French language and literature) and a dapper dresser (or so the photos I’ve seen would suggest). But the fictionalized Farah has a decidedly tenuous grip on reality. He’s also a man bent on assassination.

His accomplices include a shady Umberto Eco. His target is the notorious Ewen Cameron, a McGill psychiatrist in the fifties and sixties, whose radical approaches — and their potential application to mind control — piqued the interest of the CIA. Did I mention that Farah was a time traveller?

This is a book that David Lynch, at his Twin Peaksiest, could thoroughly admire. A finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award in its original French version (here translated by Lazer Lederhendler), Ravenscrag is odd, spooky and, at times, laugh-out-loud funny (no matter how dangerous or weird his predicament, the book’s Farah can’t stop himself from savouring the fashion choices of the women around him). For all the book’s quirks, though, one gets the sense that Farah is decidedly serious about one of his themes — the horrific toll of mental illness.

Daniel McCabe, BA’89

Peoplewatching by Socalled

Every CD by Socalled (alias Josh Dolgin, BA’00) feels like a party with an eclectic, one-of-a-kind guest list. Heck, a lot of individual Socalled songs feel that way too.

For instance, the title track to his playful new album manages to involve Montreal indie-country staple Katie Moore, BA’98, seventies-era Québecois disco king Pierre Perpell, Punjabi singer Kamal Chamkila and trombonist Fred Wesley, a key collaborator of soul legend James Brown during the sixties and seventies.

Like the best parties, you’re never quite sure who  — or what — you’ll encounter next on Peoplewatching. And, like the best parties (which, in this case, ends with a funky, flute-driven update to Moe Koffman’s “Curried Soul,” the familiar theme song for CBC Radio’s As It Happens), you’ll exit with a grin, wondering how the time flew by so fast.



Enhanced outreach program to shine a spotlight on Mac

Wed, 05/20/2015 - 12:59
by Andrew Mahon

As part of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ Community Farm Outreach Program, a summer day camp offers kids the chance to learn about poultry and egg production, examine soil microbes under a microscope, make butter and bread and help feed calves.

Bridging the gap between the agricultural producer, the consumer and the community is the mission of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ Community Farm Outreach Program, and it’s a program which is also near and dear to the heart of Macdonald College of McGill alumnus, J. William Ritchie, BSc(Agr)’51.

The Outreach Program took a giant step forward with the recent announcement of a $1 million gift from Ritchie. The donation will support construction and renovations to an original stone dairy barn dating back to 1907. The historic building will serve as the centrepiece of the Faculty’s renewed outreach efforts and become a principal part of the Macdonald Farm Community Engagement Centre, which will include the centrally-located Lorna and William Ritchie Educational Hall. The 279-square metre hall will serve as an initial point of contact for visitors, accommodate a 140-seat instructional area and be home to multimedia displays and other exhibits portraying the workings of the Macdonald Farm and themes related to agriculture, nutrition, and food production.

In addition, the centre will promote the activities of the Morgan Arboretum, the Lyman Museum, and the horticulture orchards.  The Engagement Centre will become the focal point through which the public, including elementary and high school students, as well as university and college students, will become familiar and knowledgeable with the wide range of academic and outreach programs that Macdonald has to offer. It will be the community and public outreach face of the Faculty.

“As a graduate of Macdonald College, I have come to appreciate the Faculty’s role and its proud tradition when it comes to agriculture, food, nutrition and the environment,” says Ritchie.  “Supporting the Macdonald Farm Community Engagement Centre is an opportunity to open the campus, and its many activities, to even more students and more people in the community.”

Over the course of his life, Ritchie has defied easy stereotypes. He was born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, but attended university in Montreal. He graduated with a BSc in agriculture at Macdonald College, but achieved career success as a stockbroker and investment dealer. He is a down-to-earth pragmatist who, at 85 years of age, has a track record of involvement in bold, unconventional start-ups like Salter Street films (which produced the long-running This Hour Has 22 Minutes), DHX Media Ltd. (a $1 billion TSX exchange-listed company), Watts Wind Energy (a Nova Scotia company generating electricity from wind power) and SimplyCast Inc., which develops interactive and multi-channel communication software.

The Community Outreach Program aims to provide a behind-the-scenes look at food production and cultivate critical thinking at a young age. The program currently involves educational tours of Macdonald’s facilities, and collaborates with the Macdonald student-run Ecological Gardens. It also works with Farm to School, a student club that is developing science education modules with hands-on activities to Montreal schools.

Last year, more than 5,000 children participated in activities on the Ste. Anne de Bellevue campus during a limited spring and summer schedule.  Valerie Toupin-Dubé, one of the students involved in Macdonald’s outreach activities, helped launch a summer day camp for children last year. “At the camp there’s a freedom of questions,” she says. It’s important for kids to know where their food comes from, adds Toupin-Dubé, because the children will relay that information to their parents who might be prompted to rethink some unhealthy habits as a consequence.

Operating on a year-round basis out of the new centre, the Faculty estimates that the campus and the farm could welcome up to 20,000 visitors a year, mainly from surrounding suburban communities as well from areas close to Montreal’s inner city.

“Thanks to the outstanding generosity of William Ritchie, our Faculty will be able to connect our teaching and research programs even more deeply with the community of which we are a part,” says Dean of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Chandra Madramootoo, BSc(AgrEng)’77, MSc’81, PhD’85.

with files from Natalie Coffen


An inventive mind

Tue, 05/19/2015 - 21:52
by Daniel McCabe, BA’89

Blood bank pioneer Charles Drew was recently inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame.

On May 12, the late Charles Drew, MDCM’33, joined a very exclusive group. During a ceremony held at the at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., the blood bank pioneer became only the fourth McGill graduate to be inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame.

While doing his medical degree at McGill in the early thirties, Drew began working with John Beattie, a visiting professor from Britain interested in a developing area – blood transfusions. That collaboration put Drew on a fateful path.

His subsequent PhD research at Columbia University focused on blood preservation. Along with others in the field, Drew noticed that blood plasma was easier to store for longer periods of time than whole blood. It was easier to transport too – important characteristics to keep in mind when blood supplies were required for emergency situations.

Drew’s work attracted attention.

As Nazi war planes rained destruction on British cities at the height of the Second World War, Drew was recruited to be the medical director for the Blood for Britain project that processed and delivered blood supplies to wounded soldiers and civilians.  In 1941, he became the first head of the American Red Cross Blood Bank, introducing such innovations as refrigerated mobile collection units – dubbed the “bloodmobiles.”

An African-American, Drew was sharply critical of policies favoured by both the Red Cross and the U.S. military in the early forties that led to the segregation of blood received from black and white donors, a practice he decried as “indefensible from any point of view.” He later campaigned against regulations that barred black doctors from joining local chapters of the American Medical Association. He went on to serve as a consultant to the U.S. surgeon general and became the chief of surgery at Howard Medical School.

Apart from Drew, the other McGill alums inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame include Willard Boyle, BSc’47, MSc’48, PhD’50 (for co-creating a light sensitive microchip that’s crucial for digital imaging), W. Lincoln Hawkins, PhD’38 (for co-creating a polymer cable sheath that helped make universal telephone service possible), and David Pall, BSc’36, PhD’39, DSc’87 (the inventor of a filtration system that made blood transfusions safer).



Wrong turn set her on the right path

Tue, 05/19/2015 - 16:38
by Neale McDevitt

McGill arts student Hannah Taylor is the driving force behind the Ladybug Foundation, a non-profit that has raised more than $4 million to support organizations that focus on the needs of the homeless in Canada (Photo: Brian Sanders)

A mother driving with her five-year-old daughter in the backseat takes a wrong turn and ends up in a dark back alley, forever altering the young girl’s life. It sounds like the ominous beginning of a grim film, but quite the opposite is true.

The little girl in the backseat of that car was Hannah Taylor, now an arts undergrad finishing her first year at McGill. Taylor remembers that fateful day like it was yesterday. “It was December in Winnipeg so it was freezing cold. I looked out my window and I saw a man searching through a garbage dumpster for food,” she says. “I asked my mother why he was doing that and she said he had to do that to eat.

“I had never seen homelessness and I was struck by it,” she says. “My five-year-old heart just wouldn’t let it go.” One night, Taylor asked her mother yet another question about homelessness as she was being tucked in for the night. “My mom said to me, ‘You know, Hannah, maybe if you do something about it, your heart won’t feel so bad.’” In the years that followed, Taylor got busy, following her mother’s advice.

She met with business leaders and politicians, flew around the country for speaking engagements and collected money in jars decorated with ladybugs – her good luck charms.

By the time she was eight, Taylor had raised enough money to launch the Ladybug Foundation, a non-profit that supports other charities across Canada in providing food, shelter and support for the homeless. To date, the foundation has raised more than $4 million for dozens of frontline soup kitchens, emergency shelters, food banks and youth shelters.

That same year, Taylor founded her second registered charity – the Ladybug Foundation Education Program, a kindergarten to grade 12 classroom resource designed to teach kids how to affect change in their own community, country and throughout the world. “When I speak at schools, I see kids have that light bulb moment where they say, ‘Hey if she can do it, so can I.’ We don’t give kids enough credit, but they do care and they are driven to help change things.”

Since starting at McGill last September, Taylor has had to curtail her Ladybug Foundation activities somewhat in order to concentrate on her studies – although she has still managed to do a few speaking engagements via Skype. Having declared her major in international development, states and governance, her plan is to get a law degree. Not surprisingly, she wants to work in human rights.

“Some people spend their lives trying to find [their] passion, but I got lucky and I found it when I was five,” says Taylor.

That passion is never more obvious than when Taylor discusses the people she has met in her coast-to-coast travels.

She talks about watching Brian, a homeless man at a Winnipeg shelter, give his new vest – that he had just received for Christmas – to another man who was distraught. “He said ‘You need this more than me,’” says Taylor. “Despite how hard life has been on him, he was so generous and kind. How can you not be inspired by that?”

Then there was the time Taylor took a tour of a Toronto children’s shelter and ended up hanging out with the kids for much of the day. “I was getting ready to leave and this one tiny girl who had been there the whole time but hadn’t said anything stepped out from behind the crowd and gave me a hug. She said ‘Before today I thought nobody loved me. Now I know you do.’”

And then there is Rick. “Rick is a former residential school student who was homeless for about 25 years. He now has a place to stay and is retired from a job, so he’s doing well,” she says. “He is so wise and special and kind and loving. When things get especially tough or busy, I call him and we talk and it reminds me how much work like this matters.”


There’s something funny about Virginie

Thu, 05/14/2015 - 14:09
by Brendan Kelly, BA’85

Virginie Fortin is one of the busiest young comedians in Quebec (Photo: Joanie Rousseau)

It’s safe to say that no other franco Québécois comic followed the same route into the stand-up biz as Virginie Fortin, BA’08.

She was recently a finalist for Discovery of the Year at the Gala les Oliviers, Quebec’s annual comedy awards. Fortin was a cast member on SNL Québec, the local French-language adaptation of Saturday Night Live, and she will be starring in a new sketch-comedy series, Le nouveau show, coming to ICI Radio-Canada Télé next season.

But she came late to the métier.

Fortin majored in French literature at McGill with minors in Hispanic studies and Russian and Slavic studies (a particular highpoint was a six week advanced class in Russia she took at  the University of St. Petersburg). She had little interest in stand-up comedy back then, but improv was a different story.

She’d been performing with Quebec’s Ligue Nationale d’Improvisation since she was a teenager, alongside her dad, Bernard Fortin, a well-known local actor who has been part of the improv league since the mid-eighties.

But Fortin, now 28, only did stand-up for the very first time at the age of 24 – and it was in Chicago, in English. She had gone to the Windy City to study with the fabled Second City troupe and that’s where she first tried to crack wise on stage. And she loved it.

After a few months in Chicago, she moved back here, spending some time with her sister Corinne in their comic-pop band Which is Which. Then she headed off to another Anglo city, Toronto this time, and she took a course there – she calls it Stand-Up 101 – with the T.O. branch of Second City.

She did a show at Absolute Comedy on Yonge St. and, like in Chicago, she had a blast.

“I felt more comfortable in English,” says Fortin.

Amazingly enough, given all of the success she’s had in the language of Martin Matte, she only began doing stand-up en français in the spring of 2011.

She feels that, given her background, her comedy has more of an Anglo feel than many of the comics here. In fact, she didn’t grow up as a big fan of homegrown comedy chez nous.

“I wasn’t a fan of what we see here in Quebec,” says Fortin. “I’ve always been a bigger fan of British and American stand-ups. What I like about English comedy is I feel they rely more on the jokes they write and not on the funny faces they make. When I do stand-up, I like it to be classic. When I came back here from Toronto, my stand-up was more like something you would see in Toronto. It’s more classical. I stand up and I speak in the microphone. I hate moving. I don’t like it. My mic is on a stand and I talk.”

Her first big break ici came when she beat out 125 other contestants in the spring of 2013 in the TV competition En route vers mon premiere gala Juste pour rire, winning the top prize, which was a spot on a Juste pour rire gala that summer hosted by Emmanuel Bilodeau.

“For me it confirmed that that was what I wanted to do,” says Fortin. “I’ve always tried a lot of things. I’m super curious. I think that’s what makes me like school as well. I wanted to study a bunch of things. And I’ve tried improv and acting and music, and I found stand-up and I said – ‘This is what I want to do because I can say whatever I want and share it with people’.”

The next break was being chosen as one of the six up-and-comers on SNL Québec, which just ended its run on Télé-Québec. That show might be dead but the six of its cast members  will be featured on Le nouveau show, to air on Radio-Canada and ARTV next season. She has also been doing shows with her great pal Mariana Mazza, another rising star on the comedy scene ‘round these parts. They’d originally planned to do four shows together in the summer of 2013, but it’s turned into a full tour. By this fall, they’ll have done 70 gigs together.

She is also one of five comics featured on Les 5 prochains, an ARTV documentary series that focuses on young comics. As if she wasn’t busy enough, she’s also been signed by Just For Laughs to develop a one-woman-show.

“I feel like it’s a good time for [young women] in comedy because there’s a huge wave,” says Fortin. “I feel like things are transitioning in French comedy. I came with Mariana Mazza, Katherine Levac and Korine Côté.  The nineties were all about music and now it’s all about comedy.”


A voice for the voiceless

Wed, 05/13/2015 - 21:08

Syrian refugees arrive in a dinghy on Kos island, Greece, 06 May 2015. According to the Greek coast guard, the number of undocumented migrants entering Greece by sea reached 10,445 in the first quarter of 2015, compared to 2,863 people for the same period last year. (Photo: Yannis Kolesidis/Landov)

McGill law professor François Crépeau, BCL’82, LLB’82, is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, a position he has held since 2011. He recently found himself in high demand after the drowning deaths of more than 1,200 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea in April. Besieged by journalists, Crépeau took part in dozens of media interviews in one day. He recently agreed to sit down with McGill News contributor Sylvain Comeau.

Can you tell us about your role as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants?

It is a six-year mandate given by the Human Rights Council of the UN. I am the third person to hold that mandate, which was created in 1999. My role is to press nations to ensure the following: that whatever policies they develop on migration issues, the human rights of the migrants will be at the core. That’s probably never been the case.

No one has ever granted anyone their human rights [without political pressure]. It has always been wrestled, through politics and law, from the hands of the powerful.  The problem, for migrants, is that they’re not citizens, so they don’t vote. As a result, they can’t punish politicians, and they provide no electoral incentives.

In addition, nationalist populist movements, who bank on fears, fantasies and myths, gain from disseminating those myths. And there is no push-back by migrants, because they fear speaking out. Irregular or temporary migrants are in a very precarious position. But, even people with permanent residence status fear being detected, detained and deported if they speak out. That [fear is] hanging over their heads all the time.

So, there is a need for people who will speak for [migrants]. That is my role.

Does it take a tragedy, like the drownings in the Mediterranean Sea, to get the world’s attention?

There is a flurry of interest, but when the next tragedy strikes, people quickly forget. People are already talking much more about the tragedy in Nepal.

However, I am more fortunate than my two predecessors, because the views I am expressing are getting more attention today. In 2006, the UN created the Global Forum on Migration and Development, which today includes 150 states — three quarters of the states in the world. So states have started to discuss the issue between themselves — exchanging good practices and lessons learned. This is different from the attitude of the past, which was that migration is an issue of sovereignty, and no one could tell any government what to do about it.

Why do you think there is such a backlash against migration?

The backlash comes from the political stage. If migrants do not participate in the political debates about migration policies, you’re missing one key player. We have made tremendous progress when it comes to the rights of women, gays and lesbians and other groups. But today, if you ask a majority of the population in many countries of the global north, they believe that migrants take jobs. Social science has demonstrated, time and again, the benefits of migration, but that does not displace the myths.

One exception is the U.S., where there is a significant Mexican-American population that votes.

At the moment, many countries are still recovering from the financial crisis that started in 2008. Some have very high unemployment, for example Greece, at 25%. So how can you tell such countries that they can afford to accommodate large numbers of migrants?

I’m not saying that. Migrants don’t go to Greece and Italy; those are transit countries for most migrants. They pass through them on the way to [other destinations]. If you talk to the Syrians who cross the Mediterranean, they want to go to Germany, Sweden and the U.K. These people are smart, they don’t go to a country that doesn’t have jobs for them.

You mentioned in other interviews that many countries have low-paying jobs, such as picking fruit, that tend to be filled by migrant workers. Is part of the problem the fact that countries don’t want to acknowledge that they have an underground economy?

Absolutely. And these are highly exploitative jobs, in some cases controlled by [organized crime]. The migrants might make 20 euros for a hard, 10-hour day of work. These people are stuck, they cannot afford to go back to their countries, they are just subsisting day by day. This kind of exploitation needs to be eradicated.

You have mentioned before that trying to seal borders is a fantasy, and only creates networks of human traffickers.

Human trafficking is a crime, but the smuggled person doesn’t commit any crime. If you have a behaviour that most people don’t consider criminal, and you want to prevent it, what do you do? You impose a prohibition, and suddenly you have created a market for mafias. That is what happened during the Prohibition era in the U.S., and today with the war on drugs. After 40 years of that war, nothing has worked, no matter what we have tried.

Similarly, mobility cannot be stopped. People have always been on the move; it’s the human condition. Settlement is often a temporary or generational thing. So what happens when you try to prohibit the movement of people? You just create [opportunities for criminals].

What you want to do, instead, is to offer opportunities for mobility that are strictly regulated, but respond to the majority of the needs. To incentivize people to use the legal mechanisms, and not go to the smugglers. In order to do that, we have to respond to their needs. We have to allow them to come to look for work if they wish, and to provide the kind of visa that will allow them to stay within the legal mechanism.

For example, nations could create a visa, valid for five years, which allows migrants to come look for a job for four months. At the end of that period, they have a choice. They can stay and forfeit the rest of the visa, or they can go back home for eight months, pumping up their CV, maybe learning some more English. What will most smart people choose? Probably the second option, because they know they can come back for another four years.

But if you say “no, you can’t come”, they will come over in two weeks, through the human traffickers. Then you’ve lost control of the labour market and lost control of the border. You have to incentivize people to do it through the legal route. You want people to go to the border guard, not to the smuggler.

There have always been refugees and immigrants. How is the situation different today?

There is more migration globally. The number of migrants has grown exponentially, because the world population has grown. But the proportion of migrants doesn’t change much — [it's] about three per cent of the world’s population. From what demographers tell us, it was the same percentage 100 years ago. Movement is a constant of humanity.

What has changed is that, for a long time, people did not think much beyond their own little corner of the planet. Maybe they would send one son to the big city. What is impressive now is that many more people think that the whole planet is theirs. The idea of spending two years working in Japan is valued in a resumé. Fifty years ago, it was unthinkable. When I was young, as a Montrealer, even going to Ontario was a challenge!

And people don’t just move South to North; people might move from Mali to Senegal.

So the three per cent figure has remained constant. But to those who fear migration, they seem to envision an outright invasion.

Yes. I have urged wealthy nations to accept one million Syrian migrants over the next five years. For the U.S., their share would probably be 70,000 Syrian migrants per year. And an American wrote to me saying, “How can you imagine that we can take such a huge amount of refugees?” But the U.S. welcomes 700,000 migrants every year. So the Syrians would represent only 10 per cent of their intake.

It’s unfortunate that people’s conceptions don’t correspond to reality. There was a poll in the U.K., in which people were asked how many migrants were in their city. The vast majority of people over-estimated the true numbers by two- or three-fold. They may see a muslim veil three times a day, and they think that means they are being invaded.

Those are the kinds of myths and fantasies that we need to dispel.


Championing the Canadian horse

Tue, 05/12/2015 - 13:31

McGill doctoral student Richard Blackburn, his wife Louise Leroux and their horses during their unusual journey to Texas to deliver DNA samples crucial to a research project examining the genetic origins of North American horse breeds.

by Andrew Mahon

The Canadian horse is an icon of Canada’s heritage and, according to legend, the original breed of horses in North America – but proving its rightful place in history and drawing attention to its dwindling numbers has been a long and arduous saga.

Pursuing the story of the Canadian horse and sharing it with others has been a major pre-occupation for Richard Blackburn, BEd’99, MA’11, co-author (along with Anas Khanshour, Rytis Juras and Gus Cothran) of a study conducted at Texas A&M University and published last November in the Journal of Heredity entitled, “The Legend of the Canadian Horse: Genetic Diversity and Breed Origin.”

Using DNA samples from 981 horses from across North America, the study investigated the validity of ancient legends claiming the Canadian horse as North America’s first equine breed and foundation bloodstock to many American breeds like: the American Saddlebred, Standardbred, Pinto, Appaloosa, Northern Plain Mustang, and the Morgan.

But that’s only part of the story.

In fact, the study’s ‘Canadian content’ was due, in large part, to Blackburn’s abiding interest in, and love of, the Canadian horse.  It started 10 years ago when Blackburn acquired three Canadian horses at his farm in Morin Heights. He was instantly impressed by the breed which was nicknamed “the little iron horse” for its characteristic strength and endurance. The horses are also known for their gentle disposition towards people.

“I learned a bit about the Canadian horse and got more interested in the legend,” says Blackburn who is currently completing his doctoral thesis at McGill in creativity in education, specifically empathy and affect (informed, he says, by his work and experience with horses). “I was also alarmed by the fact that the breed hovers on the brink of extinction.”

The more he learned, the more fascinated Blackburn became with the rich heritage of the Canadian horse which dates back to 1665. As part of a Louis XIV’s plan to encourage settlement in Nouvelle France, the famous ‘filles du roi’ arrived in Quebec by ship as prospective marriage partners. On the same ships were the first Canadian horses from the Royal Stables of the Sun King.

Of course there was no actual proof that these 17th century horses were the archetypes of all breeds in North America until a world-renowned professor of animal genetics at Texas A&M University, Gus Cothran, initiated a study in 2007. The study would definitely determine the oldest breed of horse in North America.

“I heard he was mapping genealogy of horses and called him to find out how the Canadian horse fit in,” says Blackburn.  The problem was Cothran didn’t have enough Canadian samples to find out.

As a horse owner and a colleague of members of Quebec’s breeder association, Blackburn was well placed to collect the Canadian horse DNA samples needed to complete the study. As a documentary film producer with an eye for a good narrative, he came up with a unique plan for transporting the samples from Quebec to Texas. He would do it by horse.

The resulting journey became the basis for a one-hour documentary which chronicled Blackburn’s 4,000 km trip in 2009 on a Canadian horse, carrying the DNA samples in a saddlebag.  Accompanied by his director and wife, Louise Leroux, Blackburn made the trek to draw attention to the plight of the Canadian horse and to prove the mettle of the breed, travelling an average of 50 km per day, across nine mountain ranges, traversing the Mississippi by barge and even trotting up to the occasional McDonald’s drive-thru along the way.

When he arrived at the Texas A&M campus, Blackburn met Cothran and handed over the DNA samples. After that, it was a question of waiting for the results, waiting to see if the legend of the Canadian horse was more than myth.

Once the study was published, it finally confirmed that the legend of the Canadian horse was, in fact, true. At a recent event at the Maison Saint-Gabriel Museum in Montreal, Blackburn formally presented the results of the study and his documentary to a rapt audience of Quebec horse lovers and Canadian breeders.

“When we announced the results, there was great joy,” says Blackburn. “The people behind the story are the Canadian heritage horse breeders and for them to have validation through a study by the largest equine genetics lab in the world, at Texas A&M, was very emotional.”

But the joy of confirming the Canadian horse’s rightful place in history is mitigated by the fact that the population is severely endangered. Superseded by more ubiquitous breeds in North America and a victim of benign neglect, Canada’s national horse population has declined to just 2,500 worldwide.

“The reason I did all this was because this horse was the original breed of North American horse and those genetics are important because every horse breed on this continent comes from that bloodline,” says Blackburn, who would like to see a national foundation established to ensure the genetic diversity and survival of the Canadian horse. “I believe we have a role to play in saving the oldest equine bloodstock in North America.”

As part of events marking the 350th anniversary of the Canadian horse, Richard Blackburn and Louise Leroux will present the film, La Légende du cheval Canadien, as well as the study at the Lachute Fairgrounds on July 11, 2015, and at Théâtre le Patriote in Ste-Agathe-des –Monts on September 23, 2015.


Behind the scenes at Jeopardy!

Thu, 05/07/2015 - 21:02
by Andrew Mahon

Billy Wisse has won eight Daytime Emmy Awards as a member of the writing team for Jeopardy! (Photo: Matt Harbicht)

There’s only one way to begin a profile about the head writer of Jeopardy!

Clue: The career of this McGill alumnus spans 25 years at a legendary television quiz show.

Answer: Who is Billy Wisse, BA’84, MA’94.

Wisse has served as head writer of Jeopardy! since 2011, and is quick to acknowledge that his path to the hugely popular show (it averages 25 million viewers a week) was unplanned and unlikely.

“I was born and raised in Montreal,” says Wisse. “My mother [Jewish studies scholar Ruth Wisse] taught at McGill for 25 years. My father went there. It was kind of a family institution for us.”

With such strong McGill roots, Wisse entertained the notion of pursuing an academic career, but that idea faded in favour of another plan. Once he completed his BA and the course work for his MA, he headed for Los Angeles to become a screenwriter. There was only one snag. (Answer: What is no knowledge of the craft or business of screenwriting?)

Wisse worked at an assortment of temporary jobs until he spotted an ad in Variety magazine seeking a researcher for a game show. Not knowing what the show was, Wisse applied, got the job and began working at Jeopardy! in 1990. He started as a researcher, fact-checking clues and verifying the answers. In 1996, Wisse became a writer and gradually took on more responsibilities.

A team of eight writers generates the 3,000 categories and associated clues a year needed for the show. A category like ‘Potent Potables’, for example, comprises seven clues. Two of the clues are either rejected or reserved as backups, the rest go on the board.

Wisse’s job is to review the material from his team and assemble the various categories into what we actually see on television as the Jeopardy! round and the Double Jeopardy! round. A good game covers a wide variety of subjects which are balanced in difficulty.

Wisse has a soft spot for esoteric categories like “Chairs” – within reason.

“I wouldn’t want a whole board of ‘Chairs’ and ‘Shelving’ and the ‘Holy Roman Empire’,” he says. “But one category on chairs is good medicine for everybody.”

Show tapings take place year-round at studios in Culver City, west of Los Angeles, at a rate of five per day with a break from April to July. Most tapings go smoothly and Wisse reports no fist fights or melees over particularly cryptic clues or aggressive buzzer techniques.

“We’ve had a couple of contestants faint because they were dieting too hard to look good on TV or were stressed out,” he says.

Then there’s that other Canadian on the show. (Answer: Who is host Alex Trebek?)

“Alex and I are probably the only two people on the show who are familiar with Stompin’ Tom Connors and Weetabix, so that’s a little bit of a bond,” says Wisse.

If pressed, Wisse will confess to some of his favourite clues during his long tenure with the show, like the one that is often held up as a model for other writers because it’s funny, interesting and tells you something you didn’t know.

“The clue is, ‘one of the jobs of a Deshi in Japan is to wash the places on these athletes that they can’t reach themselves’,” says Wisse. (Answer: What are Sumo wrestlers?)

Although Wisse is now a true Angeleno, married with two young children and a home in L.A., he says he still misses Montreal and McGill. As proof he reveals his son’s middle name, which just happens to be the name of a major thoroughfare outside the Roddick Gates. (Answer: What is Sherbrooke?)

And the category is, “McGill Skill”

Sure, Billy Wisse might be clever enough to be Jeopardy! head writer, but how would he fare as a contestant? We decided to put him to the test through our own carefully constructed ‘McGill Skill’ category. You can give it a shot too, but remember to put your answers in the form of a question.

$100: The University’s founder, James McGill, shares his name with a shady lawyer in this Breaking Bad spin-off series.

$200: McGill students boldly go to this building that they named after an alumnus and Star Trek actor

$300: Neither The Body Shop’s Anita nor Microsoft’s Bill had anything to do with this monument honouring a former dean of medicine.

$400: The University of Oxford has welcomed 138 of these students, the most of any Canadian university.

$500: The NCAA’s March madness would not exist without the sporty invention of this McGill graduate.

Final Jeopardy Question:

In 1901, this McGill physics professor was heckled for suggesting that radioactivity was the product of fracturing atoms.

(Wisse answered all the clues correctly, but lost points for failing to put two of his answers in the form of a question. He really should know better.)

Answers: 1.) What is ‘Better Call Saul’?  2) What is The William Shatner University Centre?   3) What are the Roddick Gates? 4) What are Rhodes scholars? 5) Who is James Naismith? Final Jeopardy question: Who is Ernest Rutherford?


This backpack could be a life changer

Wed, 04/15/2015 - 12:09
by Andrew Mahon

McGill student Salima Visram’s innovative Soular Backpack could help improve the educational prospects of students who don’t have easy access to electricity.

When Salima Visram had her ‘lightbulb’ moment, it came with a backpack, a solar panel, a battery and a lamp.

“I thought of the solar backpack last summer while I was studying in a café,” says Visram, an international development studies student and the recipient of a Gretta Chambers Student Leadership Award from the McGill Alumni Association.  “I was searching for an idea which would allow me to touch lives and use my education to give back.”

Visram pursued the idea and now her solar backpack ensemble is poised to make a difference in her native village in Kenya, enabling children without access to electrical power to study in the evening by the light generated from the backpack’s solar-powered lamp.

Driving the concept of the solar backpack were Visram’s vivid memories of Kenya and the struggles of families and children in her native village of Kikambala, near Mombassa.  Although Visram’s own family runs a successful business, life is much more difficult for many of the village’s 22,000 inhabitants. Education is a particular challenge. Since electricity is not available and kerosene for lighting is expensive (and dangerous), many children cannot study after sunset which, in turn, means they can’t get good grades which inevitably leads them out of school at an early age and often into a life of poverty.

That’s where the backpack comes in.

Dubbed the Soular Backpack (a combination of the words solar and soul), it’s a regular canvas backpack equipped with a solar panel on the outside and a rechargeable battery. During the day, the abundant sun charges the battery and at night the battery is able to power a small LED lamp, perfect for several hours of study.

Visram knew it was a great idea but going from lightbulb moment to prototype was quite another story.

“I contacted suppliers in China,” she says. “I started with 200 and eventually narrowed it down to three or four.”

Then there was the design and myriad considerations to take into account like ensuring that the battery was customized to connect exclusively to the study lamp (so it wouldn’t be appropriated for use with other devices like cellphones).

In December 2014, Visram took two prototype backpacks to Kikambala to do some field testing. She talked with families at meetings in villages, demonstrated the backpack and listened to feedback. Her testing confirmed the merits of the device.

“One father told me that his kids only study three times a week because he can only afford kerosene for that amount of time,” she says. Visram returned to Montreal and made modifications to her original prototype. The result is the Soular Backpack 2.0 which incorporates several design changes including a brighter lamp.

The next phase was funding. A successful crowdfunding campaign generated $50,000, enough to place a first order of 2,000 backpacks for distribution to the Kikambala village as a pilot project.

Now, with graduation on the horizon, Visram is looking for ways to keep the Soular Backpack momentum going. One idea is to create a North American version of the backpack (suitable for recharging cellphones and other mobile devices) as a means of funding her original project on an ongoing basis.

“Selling one backpack in North America could pay for a backpack for students in Kenya,” she explains.

Whatever the future holds, for Visram, it’s not about the backpack but rather about doing something to contribute to a better world. Two years ago, she convinced classmates to join her for an event dubbed “Pay it Forward” which consisted of giving free hugs to passersby on campus.

“I wanted to create an event to spread happiness and positive energy,” she says matter-of-factly. “I feel incomplete if I’m not working on something.”


Salima Visram joins four other outstanding students receiving a Gretta Chambers Student Leadership Award this year. Here are the other worthy winners:


Eric Brulé-Champagne, BSc(NutrSc)’15 has served as a Macdonald student representative on the Board of Governors and, for the past two years, has been involved with the Campus Life & Engagement program as a student life ambassador.  He has served as vice-president (internal) of the Macdonald Campus Students’ Society (MCSS). An enthusiastic singer, he is a founding member of the MACappella singing group which has performed for Founder’s Day at Mac, and has also volunteered with the Farm to School project.


As president of the Management Undergraduate Society (MUS), Sean Finnell, BCom’15 and his team manage the operations of a $1.4 million not-for-profit association representing more than 2,400 undergraduate business students. He has championed the overhaul of the governing constitution and policies and led a widespread rebranding effort for events, clubs and services. He also helped lead MUS to raise over $60,000 for various philanthropic causes and is founder of the Desautels Entertainment Management Conference, which focuses on the business behind the entertainment industry.


Tara Sullivan, BA’15, has worked for several years for the Student Organization for Alumni Relations (SOAR), MEDLIFE McGill, and the Montreal World Health Organization. She served as the student chair of the McGill Alumni Association’s Alumni-Student Engagement Council and co-president of SOAR. She has also been a volunteer with McGill’s Youth Outreach Program, an initiative between McGill students and Montreal’s Batshaw Youth and Family Centres. As a member of the non-profit organization MEDLIFE McGill, she raised money and travelled with other students to Esmeraldas, Ecuador, to work on a mobile health clinic.


Valérie Toupin-Dubé, BSc(AgEnvSc)’15 played a key role in developing the Macdonald Student Ecological Garden (MSEG), helping to create a community-supported agriculture basket program and a weekly market stand on campus. Under her leadership, MSEG has become a training/educational component for students in a number of courses. She initiated the first summer camp through the Farm-to-School Club in 2014 and the program was awarded a Catalyst Award for Applied Student Research in Sustainability. She also helped make MSEG sustainable through a Seeds of Change crowdfunding campaign.

All McGill Alumni Association Honours and Awards will be presented at this year’s Honours and Awards Banquet on May 11, 2015.


How Making Waves is making waves

Wed, 04/15/2015 - 11:05
by Andrew Mahon

Science student and Making Waves swimming instructor Rachel Gupta shares in some splashing with her young charge. (Photo: Owen Egan)

In many ways, Making Waves defies the traditional model of a not-for-profit group.

The organization comprises 14 chapters in cities across Canada (but has no offices), provides swimming lessons to more than 850 kids (and is expanding rapidly) and does all this with an all-volunteer staff of 750 students (including many McGillians).

The chief beneficiaries of all this are children with disabilities aged three to 15.

“Children with disabilities often require one-on-one instruction to learn to swim,” explains Hillary Post, BA’10, president of Making Waves Canada. “Making Waves removes the barriers for families who otherwise could not find or afford private swimming lessons for their children.”

Lessons typically cost $20-$35 per semester (a semester comprises 8-10 lessons). Parents register their kids on a local Making Waves website and lessons take place on weekends in facilities which would otherwise go unused (like CEGEP pools).  All staff are trained and a certified lifeguard is always on duty during instruction.

The idea behind the program can be traced back to a Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) club created to teach swimming to visually-impaired children. The group soon expanded to serve all kids with disabilities and became the first Making Waves chapter in Montreal in 2006, with the help of funding from the McGill Alumni Association.

In 2009, the group received a grant through Forces Avenir, a provincial program which promotes student creativity and entrepreneurship. Thanks to the grant, Making Waves expanded to Hamilton, London, Halifax, Ottawa, and Okanagan.  The group then received funding from the Clinton Global Initiative University and committed to grow the organization in Canada and abroad. That led to the first international chapters (in Lebanon and Mauritius) and also led to the establishment of Making Waves Canada, an umbrella organization to oversee the country’s chapters.

And what was the catalyst for this ambitious growth spurt?

“I began noticing that many campuses were similar to McGill, in that they were full of under-utilized student volunteers and I thought the Making Waves concept had potential,” says Making Waves Canada founder Matthew Morantz, MSc(A)’12, who oversaw the creation of eight new chapters while president of Making Waves Montreal. “Besides, I had some free time. I liked doing it and it was lots of fun.”

That mantra has proven contagious as dozens of McGill students have joined the organization over the years.

“Making Waves played a huge role in my time at McGill and is an important influence on where I am today,” says Nikki Fischer, BA&Sc’08. “I was looking for ways to become involved on campus and the program caught my eye as it combined my love of swimming and working with children with special needs.”

Fischer was president of Making Waves Montreal from 2006 to 2008. During that time, the program grew from four students to more than 40.  When Fischer moved away to further her education in London, Ontario and then Toronto, she brought Making Waves with her, either volunteering with existing chapters or starting new ones. In 2011, she founded Making Waves Toronto and then helped other students launch Making Waves Mississauga in 2012. Now a pediatrics resident at the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, Fischer is helping to set up a Making Waves Calgary chapter.

Arts student and Making Waves instructor Andrea Helfant looks like she knows how to make a swimming lesson fun (Photo: Owen Egan)

It’s a pattern which is common to many McGill students and alumni who bring the organization with them to new cities and communities. What makes this rapid growth possible is the Making Waves structure which is versatile enough to support the rapid growth of new chapters, without the constraints of a traditional not-for-profit organization.

“Chapters are located in cities with universities in them, as university students run all chapters,” explains Post. “Making Waves Canada is the umbrella organization and exists to connect, support, and advocate for chapters. Chapters are self-sufficient in programming. They train volunteer instructors and the children who will participate in the program. They handle pool rental and other logistical aspects of the program.”

“We’re part of a new breed of organizations,” adds Morantz, who is currently completing his law studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, but remains involved as a director on the board of Making Waves. “We have no facilities, no storefronts, no offices. We are what some may call an ‘ultra-lean organization’. This is really only possible because of the creativity of our volunteers in their use of new tools, technology and resources.”

In the future, Making Waves is aiming for more expansion so that its programs reach even more children with disabilities.

“Thanks to the passion and energy of our volunteers, we’re getting close to having 1,000 children enrolled in our programs across the country,” says Post.

Interested volunteers can learn more at www.makingwavescanada.org and/or www.facebook.com/makingwavescanada



A rising star in Quebec film

Tue, 04/14/2015 - 15:27
by Brendan Kelly, BA’85

Film producer Nancy Grant’s Mommy, a movie directed by her frequent collaborator Xavier Dolan, recently dominated the Quebec film industry’s Jutra Awards, winning 10 prizes (Photo: Denis Beaumont/Canadian Press)

For Nancy Grant, BA’06, it’s all about the relationship with the filmmaker.

The McGill graduate is one of Quebec’s hottest feature film producers and has worked with some of our most talented auteurs, including Denis Côté, Maxime Giroux, and Anne Émond. But if she’s top of the class right now – and she is! – it’s mostly thanks to her collaborations with totally-happening cineaste Xavier Dolan.

Over the course of a recent one-hour chat with Grant at a café just down the block from the McGill campus, it was abundantly clear that Grant is one driven individual. So when she decided she was going to work with Dolan, she made sure it happened.

She contacted Dolan via Facebook in the fall of 2012. They kind of knew each other, but they weren’t friends. At first, he said he was too busy. Then Grant told him she’d like to invest in his film Tom à la ferme, which he was preparing at the time, and, given that Dolan was the Canadian producer of Tom and was trying to cobble together the financing, he suddenly had a change of heart and agreed to meet.

Says Grant: “I invested thinking – ‘I’m bored. I want to work with this guy. If he accepts my money and we work together and it works, then maybe it’s going to be a long-term collaboration. If it doesn’t work, then, oh well, I will have attempted something and I will have failed.’ ”

But Grant and Dolan immediately clicked. One night they had dinner together and he invited her back to the editing suite, and as he edited, she started making comments about what he was doing. He appreciated the input and soon asked her to take a more active role in the film.

“That’s really where the creative collaboration began,” says Grant.

Next she produced College Boy, the controversial videoclip Dolan made for the French rock band Indochine, a heavy mini-drama starring Antoine Olivier Pilon of Mommy fame. Then came Mommy, which is the film that really propelled Grant into the spotlight. Dolan’s latest film is one of the biggest successes of the past couple of decades of Québécois film. The emotionally-charged French-language drama about a blue-collar single mother and her unstable teenage son won the Prix du jury at the Cannes Film Festival, the César (the French equivalent of the Oscar) as best foreign film, and swept both the Canadian Screen Awards and the Quebec Jutra Awards. It was also the top-grossing Quebec film of 2014.

Grant talks of the whirlwind process of making Mommy. Dolan wrote the screenplay in May and June of 2013, they went to the Venice and Toronto film festivals with Tom à la ferme in August and September, and then jumped right into shooting Mommy over 24 days. They began filming even before most of the financing was in place. The major funding agencies, Telefilm Canada and Quebec’s SODEC, hadn’t yet given them the greenlight, but Grant and Dolan decided to throw caution to the wind and just get going because they wanted to make sure it was ready for Cannes the following spring.

“Some people around us were thinking – ‘They’re crazy’ – and some people were thinking – ‘They’re so cool’,” says Grant.

Grant made agreements with various suppliers to pay them later and eventually the agencies kicked in the cash to balance the budget. At the same time, another Grant production was also shooting – Giroux’s Félix et Meira, a Mile End-set drama about a franco Québécois guy who has an affair with a married woman who’s a Hasidic Jew.

“We were shooting Félix et Meira with no money at all,” says Grant. “That was a true indie film. We were shooting it with $500,000, that’s it, and we shot in Venice, Italy, and in Brooklyn. With Mommy, we just went for it, Xavier and I. We had faith. We would tell people – ‘We don’t have money’. Then we’d come up with a helicopter [to shoot a scene] and people would be – ‘What the f—! What’s going on guys? You don’t have money.’ But Xavier re-invested everything. [Grant's company] Metafilms re-invested everything. We just felt we had the right to put this money into helicopters if we wanted to.”

Next up for Grant is co-producing Dolan’s first English-language film, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, a showbiz satire with a big-name cast: Jessica Chastain, Kit Harington (Game of Thrones), Susan Sarandon, and Kathy Bates. They are currently finalizing the financing.

Grant, who hails originally from the village of Petit-Matane in the Bas-St-Laurent, has fond memories of McGill, where she studied psychology and international development in the first half of the ‘00s.

At the time, she wanted to become a psychologist. But after she graduated in 2005, she began hanging around with some budding film-scene types and decided she wanted to become a producer. She hasn’t looked back since.


The finance minister’s right-hand man

Tue, 04/14/2015 - 13:55
by Sheldon Gordon

Paul Rochon, BA’83, is Canada’s deputy finance minister (Photo: UNICEF)

The days are counting down before the Harper government is to present its much-anticipated budget on April 21.  Finance Minister Joe Oliver, BA’61, BCL’64, keeping with tradition, is expected to buy new shoes to wear for his budget address to Parliament.  But what does his fellow McGill alumnus, Deputy Minister Paul Rochon, BA’83, buy for the occasion?

“The deputy minister wears his old shoes to the budget lock-up,” says Rochon. “Maybe the deputy minister buys a bottle of scotch at the end of the day.” He adds, self-effacingly: “Our role is to support the minister, to provide him advice.”

That’s what Rochon has been doing since he was named deputy in April 2014.  He was deputy minister of international development at the time.  His return to the Ministry of Finance, where he spent almost his entire bureaucratic career, came a month after Oliver succeeded the late Jim Flaherty as minister.

While this transition at the top echelons of Finance unfolded smoothly, the 2015 budget process did not. Rochon had to advise the government that the collapse of oil prices affected the department’s forecast for the economy as well as the tax revenues that Oliver was counting on for a budget surplus.

Oliver postponed the budget by several weeks while Rochon and his team factored in the new economic and fiscal realities.  During this extended period of budget-making, Rochon met personally with the minister every second day, and was in contact with Oliver’s office daily.  He also held budget discussions with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Oliver together.

As a career civil servant, Rochon declines to discuss issues he deems “political” — such as the government’s income-splitting policy – or sensitive – such as the loonie’s exchange rate.  But he does push back against the suggestion that the red-hot housing markets in Toronto and Vancouver may be headed for a crash.  “We’re not concerned that there’s a bubble,” he says. “We monitor that situation very closely.”

He also believes that concerns about income inequality in Canada are mitigated by findings that all income categories have experienced  growth.  “In addition to the distribution of the pie,” he says, “another important question is whether all segments of the pie are growing. For Canada, the answer is yes, pretty well across all income cohorts over the last 15 years.”

Also, he says, “inter-generational income mobility in this country is quite strong — stronger than in the U.S. and the U.K.”

Rochon, 54, was born in Quebec City and moved to Montreal in 1979 to do his BA at McGill. He liked that McGill “has a much more international student body that most Canadian universities, as well as the anglophone/francophone dimension. I had access to a great group of professors who were all very engaged and helped in my intellectual [development].”

Though he majored in history, he also took several electives in economics. Discussions with his professors persuaded him that economics offered “greater employment prospects,” so he switched into that field for graduate  school.

Rochon was a researcher at the Conference Board of Canada for three years before joining Finance in 1990. “What attracted me was dealing with a much wider array of topics,” he says.  The scope of files that one gets to deal with as a public servant, particularly in Finance, is  almost without equal.”

By 2007, he had climbed to assistant deputy minister, economic and fiscal policy branch, the senior official leading the budgetary process.  In that role, the following year, he encountered his most memorable challenge – the global financial meltdown.  “We pulled together a budget in two months in late 2008, early 2009,” he says.

“I think it was quite successful as a response to the financial crisis.  As well, the government’s decision a couple of years later to end the stimulus was also important.  It was an intense period of time.  We’re still dealing with the after-effects of it today.”





New probe hunts down elusive cancer cells in brain

Mon, 04/13/2015 - 15:51

McGill neurosurgeon Kevin Petrecca has co-developed a new technique that might make it far easier for surgeons to track down cancer cells hiding in healthy brain tissue. (Photo: Alex Tran)

by Mark Witten

Neurosurgeons need help during operations to accurately distinguish between normal brain tissue and cancer cells that have infiltrated into healthy brain tissue. These invasive, outlier cells that extend from the main tumour into healthy tissue often can’t be detected visually, or with technologies now used clinically, like MRI. “Your task is to remove the cancer, but you can’t see the full extent of it, so invasive cancer cells frequently remain after surgery. This leads to cancer recurrence and shorter survival times for patients,” says Kevin Petrecca, BSc’94, PhD’00, MDCM’02, professor of neurology and neurosurgery, and chief of neurosurgery at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital.

A new hand-held, fibre-optic probe developed by Petrecca and Frédéric Leblond, an engineering professor at Polytechnique Montréal, promises to improve surgeries and extend survival times for brain cancer patients. The Raman spectroscopy probe enables surgeons, for the first time, to accurately detect virtually all invasive brain cancer cells in real time during surgery. It uses laser technology to measure light scattered from molecules and distinguish between the molecular fingerprints of cancer tissue and normal brain tissue. “The probe tells you with greater precision where there are cancer cells and where there aren’t. Survival time isn’t just about how much cancer you remove, it’s about how much cancer you leave behind. You can double and sometimes quadruple survival time by minimizing the volume of residual cancer,” says Petrecca.

The device was first tested on 17 patients with grade 2, 3 and 4 gliomas, which are highly invasive brain cancers. Since then Petrecca has used it on a total of over 40 patients without adverse effects. “We showed that the probe is equally capable of detecting invasive cancer from all grades of invasive glioma with greater than 90 per cent accuracy. Minimizing the residual cancer improves survival for all the grades. For patients with grade 2 and grade 3 tumours, who are often younger, you could lengthen the survival from five years to 10 years,” he says.

To show that using the probe-guided technique will help improve patient outcomes, Petrecca is launching a clinical trial at the Neuro for patients with newly diagnosed and recurrent glioblastoma. If this results in fewer or no cancer cells remaining after surgery, some patients could also benefit by avoiding or delaying neuro-debilitating radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Petrecca and his colleagues have also begun commercializing the new device to meet a growing interest from surgeons in Canada and internationally. “We know that it works and surgeons will probably be using the probe as a decision-making tool within a year or two,” he says.