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Macdonald Campus kicked off its centenary with the launch of a commemorative Canada Post stamp on September 26. There are many more celebrations to come, including the opening of the newly renovated Macdonald Library and Learning Centre. Dean Madramootoo talks of the close-knit Macdonald clan of yesterday and today, the future of agricultural and environmental sciences, and the exciting new fields of nutrigenomics, bioprocessing, food safety and bioinformatics.
Q: Macdonald celebrates 100 years of scholarship this year, tell us about that.
A: We're excited about the centenary. We've a wide variety of academic and extracurricular events to celebrate the founding of the college. Homecoming, on October 21, will be a special one because of the opening of the new library, a really welcome development that brings in a completely new era of electronic learning tools and individual study rooms for library staff to teach in small groups. And we'll have bigger rooms where students can work together in groups on team design projects using the latest computer technologies.
We're building an above-ground atrium linking the library and the Macdonald-Stewart Building, with a small coffee shop, where student groups can gather informally. Students have complained, here and downtown, that they don't have enough spaces where they can sit down and have small meetings and discussions. They'll be able to do that, looking out onto the grounds, and we'll build a courtyard outside behind the atrium, too, to make a nice welcoming environment. It's a 4.25 million project, raised from donors and alumni who have rallied around our new Library and Learning Center.
What else will specially mark Homecoming celebrations?
When I became dean, I decided to establish the Macdonald Distinguished Alumni Award. We'll award five this year and five next year to mark the centenary. This year, we've chosen five of our outstanding alumni who have gone out into the world and been good ambassadors for Macdonald College. They were always proud to note their affiliation to Macdonald and have continued to support us in a< myriad of ways.
We're also bringing back the Green and Gold Revue, a musical night that used to be put on every year. Students from the '50s and '60s will perform — they've gone back to the start of the college in 1907 and picked out the key songs of every decade. The alumni are delighted!
Alumni who haven't come back frequently are making a real effort to come from far and wide for the centenary, because they realize this is a big event in our history.
And on November 3 we'll have an all-day research symposium, bringing in key international researchers in nutrition, plant science, animal science, biotechnology, parasitology and water resources management, to talk about what they see as the evolution of these fields, and how they will change and develop over the next 100 years, if you can look that far ahead.
What challenges do you think Macdonald Campus will face?
The areas we're concentrating on right now are the applied biosciences in the plant and biotechnology areas. Especially the development of new plant and animal products that can be used in the production of safe, nutritious food. In nutraceuticals, for example, our staff is isolating the compounds and flavonoids that are nutritious, that help treat and minimize diseases like cancer, heart disease, stroke and obesity. And we're trying to do this in an environmentally safe and clean manner without degrading our land, water and air resources.
We're also building on developments in nutrigenomics — how nutrition and genes come together, how to choose foods taking into account genetic differences between people who are predisposed to certain types of cancers and heart disease, and so on. We're trying to understand the human body better. Combining basic genetic sciences with nutrition and food sciences is as exciting an area of research as you can imagine.
With the increase in mass food production, more chemicals are put in our food, both in and on the storage shelf. How is Macdonald addressing that?
One of the things we're working on is to minimize chemical inputs in the food system. And that's important, not just from a nutritional standpoint, but from a disease standpoint. It's alleged that some of these chemicals are carcinogenic, so obviously when we talk about a clean, safe food supply, we want to minimize chemical input, antibiotics that are applied to animal products, pesticides and fertilizers.
What about the faculty's environmental sciences?
The environmental side is an expanding area at Macdonald. The faculty has growing teaching and research programs in water management, climate change, forest ecology and wildlife biology. With the McGill School of Environment, we see increasing numbers of students who want to study here because our farm facilities, the arboretum, the ecomuseum, and the lakes and mountains nearby, allow us to do hands-on, applied training. The students can be involved in analysis of soil and water samples, they can learn by doing.
Preparing engineering drawings in Guyana, where I was born. The Dutch, when they colonized Guyana in the 1700s, built a dike of several hundred kilometres all along the Atlantic coast to prevent flooding of the costal cities. This dike is constantly being repaired and rebuilt, so I worked with engineering consultants, sat at a drafting table, did drawings, and calculated how much earth was to be excavated and how much concrete needed to be poured for different sections of the embankment.