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A ‘super-puff’ planet like no other

Campus news - Fri, 01/22/2021 - 12:32
The exoplanet WASP-107b is a gas giant, orbiting a highly active K-type main sequence star. The star is about 200 light-years from Earth. Image by ESA/Hubble, NASA, M. Kornmesser

The core mass of the giant exoplanet WASP-107b is much lower than what was thought necessary to build up the immense gas envelope surrounding giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn, according to a Canadian-led team of astronomers, including McGill University Professor Eve Lee.

This intriguing discovery by Caroline Piaulet of the Université de Montréal under the supervision of Björn Benneke suggests that gas-giant planets form a lot more easily than previously believed. Published in Astronomical Journal by a team of astronomers from Canada, the U.S., Germany and Japan, the new analysis of WASP-107b’s internal structure has big implications.

“This study pushes the boundaries of our theoretical understanding of how giant-sized planets form. WASP-107b is one of the puffiest planets out there, and we need a creative solution to explain how these tiny cores can build such massive gas envelopes,” says co-author Eve Lee, Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics at McGill University and McGill Space Institute.

As big as Jupiter but 10 times lighter

WASP-107b was first detected in 2017 around WASP-107, a star about 212 light years from Earth in the Virgo constellation. The planet is very close to its star — over 16 times closer than the Earth is to the Sun. About as big as Jupiter but 10 times lighter, WASP-107b is one of the least dense exoplanets known: a type astrophysicists have dubbed “super-puffs” or “cotton-candy” planets.

The astronomers first used observations of WASP-107 obtained at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii to assess the planet’s mass more accurately. They used the radial velocity method, which allows scientists to determine a planet’s mass by observing the wobbling motion of its host star due to the planet’s gravitational pull. They concluded that the mass of WASP-107b is about one tenth that of Jupiter, or about 30 times that of Earth.

In analyzing the planet’s most likely internal structure, they came to a surprising conclusion: with such a low density, the planet must have a solid core of no more than four times the mass of the Earth. This means that more than 85 percent of its mass is included in the thick layer of gas that surrounds this core. In comparison, Neptune, which has a similar mass to WASP-107b, only has 5 to 15 percent of its total mass in its gas layer.

A gas giant in the making

Planets form in the disc of dust and gas that surrounds a young star called a protoplanetary disc. Classical models of gas-giant planet formation are based on Jupiter and Saturn. In these, a solid core at least 10 times more massive than the Earth is needed to accumulate a large amount of gas before the disc dissipates.

Without a massive core, gas-giant planets were not thought able to cross the critical threshold necessary to build up and retain their large gas envelopes.

How then do we explain the existence of WASP-107b, which has a much less massive core? Professor Lee, who is a world-renowned expert on super-puff planets like WASP-107b, has several hypotheses.

“For WASP-107b, the most plausible scenario is that the planet formed far away from the star, where the gas in the disc is cold enough that gas accretion can occur very quickly,” she said. “The planet was later able to migrate to its current position, either through interactions with the disc or with other planets in the system,” she says.

Discovery of a second planet

The Keck observations of the WASP-107 system cover a much longer period of time than previous studies have, allowing the research team to make an additional discovery: the existence of a second planet, WASP-107c, with a mass of about one-third that of Jupiter, considerably more than WASP-107b’s.

WASP-107c is also much farther from the central star; it takes three years to complete one orbit around it, compared to only 5.7 days for WASP-107b. Also interesting: the eccentricity of this second planet is high, meaning its trajectory around its star is more oval than circular.

“WASP-107c has in some respects kept the memory of what happened in its system,” said Piaulet. “Its great eccentricity hints at a rather chaotic past, with interactions between the planets which could have led to significant displacements, like the one suspected for WASP-107b.”

The researchers plan to continue studying WASP-107b, hopefully with the James Webb Space Telescope set to launch in 2021, which will provide a much more precise idea of the composition of the planet’s atmosphere.

Read the study online

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Robert B. Winsor (1939-2021)

Campus news - Fri, 01/22/2021 - 08:01
Robert B. Winsor was a lifelong member of the McGill community, from his days as an mechanical engineering student who played on the varsity football team, to his service on the Board of Governors.

An exemplary and generous alumnus, Robert B. Winsor passed away on January 14, 2021, at the age of 81. Winsor, who had been battling leukemia for three years, died of COVID-19 related issues in the Sherbrooke Hospital intensive care unit.

Born in Montreal on May 2, 1939, Winsor earned his first degree from Mount Allison University in 1960, where he was a two-time all-star. Soon after, he enrolled in mechanical engineering at McGill. During his time at McGill, he played intramural basketball and was a member of the Psi Upsilon fraternity—but earned a place in the history books for his time on the legendary 1960-61 men’s varsity football team.  Winsor played defensive halfback and offensive end for the team, which captured McGill’s first Yates Cup in 22 years, winning the sudden-death playoff at Queen’s by a 21-0 score in front of 8,000 fans to win the Ontario-Quebec Intercollegiate Athletic Association title. The team also cruised to a stunning 46-7 victory over Alberta in the Churchill Bowl. That tight-knit team, which was inducted into the McGill Sports Hall of Fame in 2000, became friends for life; last month, they celebrated their 60th anniversary with a Zoom call.

In 2011, Bob and Sue Winsor pledged a $1.5 million endowment to the McGill football program

After graduating from McGill in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Winsor began his professional career in railway freight transportation at DuPont Canada, later joining Napanee Industries and sister companies International Equipment Company and IEC-Holden Inc. In 2005, he became owner, chairman and CEO of the Holden America Group.

Bob and his wife Sue were long-time supporters of the Montreal community. In 2011, the Winsors pledged a $1.5 million endowment to the McGill football program. It still stands as the largest gift to any varsity sports team at the University. The funds provide support for coaching, player recruitment and program development.

Bob Winsor was also instrumental in the creation of the Friends of McGill Football, an alumni support group that helps stimulate the program’s interests through fundraising. He made substantial donations to establish the Winsor Varsity Clinics in both the Currie Gymnasium and at McConnell Arena, which provide medical and therapy services to student-athletes.

A long-time volunteer, Winsor served as an Alumni rep on McGill’s Board of Governors, and was a member of both the Athletics Board and Alumni Association. He served as a trustee of the Martlet Foundation and was a member of both the McGill Sports Hall of Fame Committee and the McGill Athletics and Recreation Advisory Board.

Winsor’s service to the community has included volunteering on many McGill committees. He also gave his time to the Good Samaritan Foundation, Nature Conservancy Canada, the Special Olympics Canada Foundation Board, the Mount Allison University Board of Regents, and the Atlantic Salmon Federation, as well as the United Church of Canada.

“Forget about 9-5,” Robert Winsor told the Class of 2014 when he was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws. “Successful people love their work and if you don’t, you should look for a change. Follow your passions.”Owen Egan / Joni Dufour Owen Egan / Joni Dufour

Winsor  often credited his experience in varsity sports for providing him with the confidence, character and discipline to succeed in business.

“I am very fortunate to have had the privilege to play for McGill and particularly in 1960 and ’61,” he said when the endowment was announced. “These outstanding teams were peopled with the finest group of men I have ever met. It is my belief that McGill, as part of its recognized leadership role, needs to offer the opportunity for student-athletes to compete on top-tier competitive teams. We see our gift as an opportunity to make a solid investment to this end for the varsity football program at McGill.”

In 2014, McGill awarded Winsor an honorary doctorate of laws in recognition of his lifetime commitment to his alma mater. During his address, he shared his four-point life plan with the  graduating class: chase your dreams, build a solid team,  build your reputation, and learn from your mistakes.

“Adopt the work/life mission of Go For It,” said Winsor. “The ‘It’ is your choice and yours alone. It is what you want to do in life and hopefully something you are passionate about.

“But let’s understand what going for that special It really means. It means being totally focused, totally determined and entrepreneurial in pursuit of your dreams,” he added. “Strive to be innovative, to be creative, to be imaginative, to be visionary. Think outside the box.”

Bob Winsor is survived by his wife Sue, daughter Jennifer, son Greg and many grandchildren.
In honour of his memory, the flag will fly at half-staff on McGill’s campuses.

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Cindy Blackstock touted as one of Canada’s most influential people

Campus news - Thu, 01/21/2021 - 14:13

Cindy Blackstock, a professor at the School of Social Work, has been named one of the nation’s 50 most influential people according to Maclean’s Magazine’s. The annual Power List is comprised of those Canadians “who are breaking ground, leading the debate and shaping how we think and live.”

Calling Blackstock “a relentless champion for Indigenous children’s rights,” Maclean’s ranked her 27th on the most-influential list, ahead of such notables as Green Party leader Annamie Paul (#31), New Democrat Party leader Jagmeet Singh (#37) and Masai Ujiri (#42), President of the Toronto Raptors and one of the architects of the Raptors’ 2019 NBA championship team.

Cindy Blackstock has been named to Maclean’s list of most influential Canadians

“Blackstock, a member of the Gitksan First Nation and doctor of social work, has championed the rights of Indigenous kids for decades,” says the Maclean’s citation. “She serves as executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, whose litigation against Canada has secured hundreds of thousands of services for First Nations youth. Its landmark victory at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2016 ordered the federal government to immediately end discriminatory practices, recognize some 165,000 First Nation children’s right to access federal support on par with their non-Indigenous peers and compensate children shortchanged by a two-tier system.”

Blackstock has over 30 years of experience working in child welfare and Indigenous children’s rights and has published more than 75 articles on topics relating to reconciliation, Indigenous theory, First Nations child welfare and human rights.

Her research interests include Indigenous theory and the identification and remediation of structural inequalities affecting First Nations children, youth and families.

“If we can raise a generation of non-Indigenous kids who don’t normalize discrimination, and have the tools to peacefully and respectfully advocate for the end of this kind of apartheid system, then we’ll be in a position where First Nations children never have to recover from their childhoods again,” Blackstock says in the Maclean’s article. “And non-Indigenous children never have to say they’re sorry.”

Read Maclean’s Power List


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Campus Public Safety presents annual Safety Ambassador Awards 

Campus news - Thu, 01/21/2021 - 11:22

The prevention and outreach week Campus Public Safety (CPS) holds each year, Safety Week, usually held in September, was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic. But in a year where health and safety inevitably became the top consideration in most University decisions, CPS felt it was important to maintain Safety Week’s flagship event, the Safety Ambassador Awards ceremony.

“Recognizing these individuals, even if done remotely, was important for us because the work and their contributions have not stopped,” Pierre Barbarie, Director of Campus Public Safety, said. “This is just a small token to recognize their efforts in 2020. It’s important for us to say ‘thank you’.”

The Safety Ambassador Awards are presented to members of the McGill community who have been key collaborators of the CPS teams, even if their actual job is not directly related to health and safety. The awards were presented at a virtual ceremony held on January 19.

“The setting may be different this year, but I think that it’s never been more important to highlight both the work of our teams dedicated to health and safety and the contribution of our partners across the University,” Yves Beauchamp, Vice-Principal, Administration and Finance, said.

The recipients of the 2020 Safety Ambassador Awards were introduced by Denis Mondou, Associate Vice-Principal, Facilities Management and Ancillary Services (FMAS):

Claudia Carpanzano – Assistant Project Manager, Project Management, FMAS (nominated by Security Services/Macdonald Campus)

“Safety has been a top priority for Claudia since she first started at Macdonald Campus as an assistant project manager. She is constantly educating herself on the safety protocols and ensures that they are always respected as part of her projects,” the Security Services team noted. “If she is unsure of a procedure or protocol, Claudia takes all the necessary steps to obtain the information in order to proceed in the safest manner. Always prepared to lend a hand when needed, Claudia is an exemplary member of our community.”

Nakita Darveau – Events Support Supervisor, Buildings and Grounds, FMAS (nominated by Security Services/Downtown Campus)

“Nakita has been at the forefront of event coordination at McGill in recent years and CPS has had the pleasure of working alongside her to ensure the many events on campus run as smoothly and as safely as possible. Her remarkable diligence is witnessed at every turn,” the Security Services team said. “Since the onset of the pandemic, Nakita has played an integral role in the implementation of COVID-specific health and safety measures on campus and has placed great care in these new responsibilities.”

Isabelle Harvey – Chief Research Technician, Department of Biochemistry (nominated by Environmental Health & Safety)

“Isabelle has been a true supporter of occupational health and safety matters in her workplace and in the Life Sciences Complex. She has actively participated in the set-up and implementation of safe work practices and the application of EHS policies and procedures in labs,” the EHS team noted. “Isabelle has suggested and applied corrective measures to non-compliant matters identified in lab inspections. She consistently demonstrates leadership and perseverance in elevating health and safety standards – within her unit and within the University at large.”

Carmen Lampron – Manager, Research Infrastructure, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (nominated by Hazardous Waste Management)

“Carmen has been a key collaborator for the HWM department for the past ten years. She wears many different hats, which all have something in common: health and safety,” the HWM team said. “Whether it is coordinating lab chemical moves on campus, acting as a project manager for a lab decommissioning or arranging for large scientific equipment deliveries, she is a valuable link to the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. She also sits on the University Laboratory Safety Committee, confirming her true commitment as a leader for improving safety, which she does with enthusiasm and persistence.”

Luca Mascetti – Supervisor, Buildings & Grounds, FMAS (nominated by Parking and Transportation Services)

“Luca has shown great diligence in reporting and correcting potential hazards on campus roadways and parking lots. He and his team have ensured that parking lots and garage entrances on the downtown campus are quickly plowed and salted during the winter months,” the Parking and Transportation Services team noted. “On Lower McTavish Street, Luca and his team were indispensable when it came to the bollard repairs. Luca also suggested some improvements to reduce the potential for accidents, which have been or are in the process of being implemented.”

François Pouliot – Director, Procurement Services (Nominated by Emergency Management and Preparedness)

François and his team have been instrumental in setting up reliable supply chains for personal protective equipment (PPE) and other materials essential to the COVID-19 response on campus,” the Emergency Management and Preparedness team said. “In addition to keeping a pulse on global PPE market trends, the team is also a key Subject Matter Expert for the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). With this award, we acknowledge and thank François and the team for their proactive approach as well as their commitment to safety on our campuses.”

McGill Childcare Centres (nominated by Fire Prevention)

Wendy Gamboa – Director, SSMU Daycare
Jeanne Humphreys – Executive Director, McGill CPE (Macdonald Campus)
Lisa Gallagher – Executive Director, McGill CPE (Downtown)

The directors of the daycares at McGill have shown a continued dedication to safety despite having had to deal with challenging circumstances this past year. “Beyond their daily operations [and the precautions related to COVID], they have had to contend with a lot of construction in and around their buildings, some of which led to changes in emergency procedures,” the Fire Prevention team noted. “They have faced issues that come with occupying older buildings, without ever compromising on safety or losing patience. They have been proactive in requesting changes that included better carbon monoxide detection; they have participated in fire prevention activities and have diligently followed fire safety training.” 

Departmental Safety Committee Productivity Award

Each year, the awards ceremony is also an opportunity to celebrate the work of another group of people, those who make their contribution by participating in departmental safety committees.

“We recognize these efforts with the Departmental Safety Committee Productivity Award,” Denis Mondou said. “The committees are evaluated based on the results of their lab inspections and other aspects of safety compliance, as well as for implementing any safety projects or activities over the past year.”

This year’s recipient was the Faculty of Dentistry, who was represented at the event by Wendy Somerville, Coordinator of the Infection Control Program.


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Four McGill researchers awarded prestigious AI chairs

Campus news - Thu, 01/21/2021 - 01:00
From left to right: Dzmitry Bahdanau, David Rolnick, Adam Oberman and Xujie Si

Consider a question: “How many students took each calculus class?” A seemingly simple inquiry that soon turns complicated if you are trying to teach an artificial neural network to produce a database query based on the question – something that could be usefully applied in an academic setting.

“We want neural models that can discover, that, for example, when predicting \” as the grouping attribute, the relevant part of the question to focus on is \each calculus class”, or even just \class””, says Dzmitry Bahdanau, a newly appointed Adjunct Professor in the School of Computer Science, describing one of his research focuses – what AI researcher refer to as ‘learning rationales to induce context-independence.’

One of the first to develop some of the first successful neural speech recognition systems, Bahdanau’s contributions to the deep learning revolution in natural language processing (NLP) are widely recognized.

Today, Bahdanau and three other emerging McGill AI research leaders – Adam Oberman, David Rolnick and Xujie Si – garnered the support of a dedicated research funding program through the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR). They are among the 29 world-class AI researchers named CIFAR AI Chairs.

AI researcher to watch

Rolnick, an Assistant Professor in the School of Computer Science, is named by CIFAR as one of four AI researchers to watch in 2021. He is building a field applying machine learning algorithms to tackle one of the greatest problems of our time: climate change. Rolnick is the co-founder of Climate Change AI, an initiative that brings together experts from industry, academia, and policy to use machine learning to help mitigate climate change and adapt to its consequences.

“I am thrilled to join the CIFAR AI Chairs program, which brings together some of the world’s foremost researchers in AI,” says Rolnick. “This community also represents an exceptional opportunity for synergy between research, industry, and policy, which is essential for enabling impactful AI work on topics such as climate change.”

Wide-ranging research

Across Canada, the newly appointed AI Chairs are advancing research in a wide range of areas, including machine learning for health and responsible AI. The Canada CIFAR AI Chairs program, a cornerstone of the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy, aims to attract outstanding researchers to Canada by providing them with long-term, dedicated funding to pursue innovative ideas.  Since 2017, 57 researchers have taken up their first faculty position in Canada as Canada CIFAR AI Chairs. 1,200 graduate and postdoctoral fellows have been trained at the AI institutes (Amii, Mila and the Vector Institute).

“I am delighted to congratulate the newest McGill cohort of Canada CIFAR AI Chairs”, says Martha Crago, Vice-Principal, Research and Innovation. “They will join a growing network of talented AI researchers at Mila, who are seeking to transform many human pursuits while also developing novel interactions between academia and industry. With CIFAR’s support, AI researchers are equipped to advance the field of Machine Learning and to tackle the problems we don’t yet know how to solve, such as climate change.”

Each of McGill’s four CIFAR AI Chairs will be affiliated with Mila a Montreal-based research institute and partnership between McGill and the Université de Montréal, closely linked with Polytechnique Montréal and HEC Montréal.

From climate change to health sciences

For Rolnick, innovations in deep learning can be driven by a mathematical understanding of which functions different neural networks are able to express and learn. Through collaboration with experts in domains such as electricity systems, ecology, and atmospheric science, Rolnick uses machine learning to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase society’s resilience to the effects of climate change.

As a CIFAR AI Chair, Adam Oberman, Full Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, has set a research goal to develop a rigorous mathematical understanding of deep learning algorithms, through the lens of generalization, robustness and averaging. Resolving the issues of robustness and generalization of deep neural networks is essential before these methods may be adopted in applications where reliability and safety are the primary concern, for example in the example of self-driving cars. The theory, techniques, and applications, as well as the algorithms and models developed under this research project, will be broadly applicable to a wide variety of fields, including Health Sciences.

One-of-a-kind opportunity

Xujie Si, Assistant Professor, School of Computer Science, brings an interesting new angle to Mila’s research efforts. Si’s research lies in the intersection of programming languages and machine learning. He is interested in developing learning-based techniques to help programmers build better software with less effort and apply program reasoning techniques to improve data-efficiency of machine learning. His expertise in programming languages, particularly, inductive logic programming, program synthesis, and program verification, will complement Mila’s research in several important sub-fields of AI, such as symbolic AI, interpretable learning, AI robustness and reliability.

Bahdanau looks forward to the research opportunities afforded by the CIFAR AI Chair program: “This is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for me as an industrial researcher to maintain active ties with AI academia in Montreal and across Canada,” he says. “I am looking forward to supervising graduate students and to interacting with other Chairs. I believe that the resulting collaborations will be uniquely fruitful for my research ambition to enable wide-spread use of AI-powered language user interfaces, all while being a great way for me to contribute back to the academic research community that I come from.”

Read the CIFAR announcement here

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Mathieu Maheu-Giroux shares Scientist of the Year prize for 2020

Campus news - Thu, 01/21/2021 - 00:11

Mathieu Maheu-Giroux, an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, has been named one of four co-winners of Radio-Canada’s Scientist of the Year prize for 2020. The prize was shared between four Canadian researchers doing data modelling work that has “supported, informed and guided decision-making by public-health bodies and governments relative to management of the COVID-19 pandemic response.”

Mathieu Maheu-Giroux

Sharing the award with Maheu-Giroux are Julien Arino (University of Manitoba), Marc Brisson (Université Laval) and Caroline Colijn, (Simon Fraser University).

Maheu-Giroux is the Canada Research Chair in Population Health Modeling. His research focuses on infectious disease modelling, epidemiological surveillance and monitoring, and impact evaluation of public health interventions. The overall goal of his program is to support development of policies and responses aimed at improving population health, in particular those designed to control and eliminate infectious diseases. He has worked on forecasting hospitalization requirements for Quebec.

In announcing the award winners on January 17, the Radio-Canada touted scientists across Canada who have developed mathematical models to simulate and/or predict the spread of COVID-19. “Their epidemiological modelling has enabled governments and public-health bodies to forecast the various scenarios and the likely consequences of their decisions,” said the press release. “Policy-makers have in turn used those models to build their pandemic response in an effort to reduce mortality, safeguard health-care systems and minimize social disruption.”

Radio-Canada Executive Vice-President Michel Bissonnette hailed the importance of their work. “Understanding how a virus spreads through populations has never been so important,” said Bissonnette. “This vital work being done by teams of scientists is enriching both science and society, and that is what we sought to acknowledge in awarding them Scientist of the Year honours.”

Learn more about the work being done by Mathieu Maheu-Giroux

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Zombie cells and flu fighters

Campus news - Wed, 01/20/2021 - 16:34

Arthritis is Canada’s most prevalent chronic health condition, and there’s no known cure. Six million Canadians are currently living with one of the 100 types of this potentially devastating condition, which causes painful inflammation and stiffness in joints.

Every January, the Canadian Arthritis Society selects the previous year’s Top 10 Research Advances that promise to improve health outcomes for people living with arthritis – and the 2020 list includes breakthroughs by projects by two researchers in McGill’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences: Hosni Cherif and Dr. Inés Colmegna.

Taking out “zombie” cells Hosni Cherif

Degeneration of parts of the spine can cause debilitating back pain and osteoarthritis. While some treatments can help manage the pain, there is no cure or way to prevent the degeneration from progressing. Hosni Cherif, a postdoctoral fellow under the supervision of Prof. Lisbet Haglund (Dept. of Experimental Surgery), studies the role of senescent cells – also known as “zombie” cells because they’ve stopped multiplying but haven’t died – in spine degeneration. He’s found that RG-7112, a synthetic drug, and o-Vanillin, a natural compound, triggered changes that helped grow new, healthy cells while also killing senescent cells.  These findings could lead to new drugs for back pain that slow the degeneration of the discs and reduce pain.

Fighting the flu Dr. Inés Colmegna

Patients living with rheumatoid arthritis are more prone to infections than people without the condition –and one of the most frequent causes of infections is seasonal influenza. Dr. Inés Colmegna, Associate Professor in the Division of Experimental Medicine, studies how patients with rheumatoid arthritis are affected by the flu. She led the first study to show that the use of a high dose influenza vaccine provides better protection from the flu in RA patients compared to the standard dose vaccine. These results support the use of the high dose influenza vaccine for people with RA of any age, potentially enhancing vaccine-induced protection and lower the risk of influenza in those patients

“We’re proud and excited about all the research we support,” said Dr. Sian Bevan, Chief Science Officer at the Arthritis Society, which is the largest charitable funder of cutting-edge arthritis research in Canada.  “Our annual list of the Top 10 enables us to shine a spotlight on some of the projects that really stood out for their potential impact in the fight to stop arthritis. Congratulations, and thank you to the researchers we’ve highlighted.”


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Making medical imaging more accessible with better molecules

Campus updates - Wed, 01/20/2021 - 14:04
<p>Medical imaging often relies on radioactive substances, but those can be expensive and they come with challenges in terms of logistics and availability. A research collaboration between the California-based company, Fuzionaire Diagnostics (Fuzionaire Dx), and <a href="" target="_blank">McGill University</a> aims to find alternatives that will make medical imaging more accessible and able to diagnose more diseases.</p>
Categories: Campus news HP

Campus update - January 20 2021

EOC updates - Wed, 01/20/2021 - 10:23
<p>Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update – January 20, 2021 / Le point sur la maladie à coronavirus (COVID-19) – Le 20 janvier 2021</p> <p><i>This message is sent on behalf of Fabrice Labeau, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning), on behalf of the Emergency Operations Centre.</i></p> <p><i>La version française suit.</i></p> <p>Dear members of the McGill community,</p>
Categories: Campus news HP

McGill researchers launch Multicultural Mental Health Resource Centre

Campus news - Tue, 01/19/2021 - 14:31
Members of the Multicultural Mental Health Resource Centre, led by Dr. Laurence Kirmayer (front, centre)

Bell Let’s Talk, McGill University, The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) and the Lady Davis Institute at the Jewish General Hospital are pleased to announce the official launch of the Multicultural Mental Health Resource Centre (MMHRC). This unique online resource seeks to improve the quality and availability of mental health services for people from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, including new Canadians, refugees and members of established ethnocultural communities. With these populations disproportionally affected by the global pandemic, the MMHRC will provide a timely and critical new resource.

A joint initiative by researchers at McGill’s Division of Social & Transcultural Psychiatry, The Neuro and the Lady Davis Institute, supported by a $250,000 donation from Bell Let’s Talk, MMHRC is led by Dr. Laurence Kirmayer, an international researcher in the field of transcultural psychiatry. Dr. Kirmayer has pioneered efforts to approach mental health within the cultural context of those who are being treated and the communities in which they live.

Promoting equity in mental health care

“Addressing issues of language, culture, religion and other aspects of diversity, the MMHRC will promote greater equity in mental health care,” said Dr. Kirmayer. “Mental health is often viewed differently in different cultures, which requires culturally responsive approaches to meet the needs of those seeking help. With the generous support of Bell Let’s Talk, we have drawn on our extensive research to strengthen and develop our online platform in order to better reach out to those in need and make this resource more accessible.”

“Our partnership with McGill University and its affiliated hospitals to increase access to mental health services in multiple languages reflects the Bell Let’s Talk commitment to support culturally informed mental health supports for diverse communities,” said Mary Deacon, Chair of Bell Let’s Talk. “We’re proud to play a role in making it easier for people from a wide range of communities to get the help they need and to provide health professionals all over Canada with resources to better help their patients. This new website with its practical tools and videos will make a real difference for so many living with mental illness.”

The MMHRC has developed information and tools for several different groups:

  • For patients and their families – multilingual information on mental health issues and treatments, information about how to find culturally appropriate mental health services, and ways to help family members maintain their well-being.
  • For health care professionals – information on cultural-assessment tools and methods, access to interpreters and culture brokers, and recommendations for culturally adapted treatment interventions.
  • For community organizations – materials for educators about support programs for people living with mental health issues, and advocacy and stigma reduction.
  • For policy makers, planners and administrators – information on health disparities, recommendations to improve cultural competence in organizations, and models of mental health services and interventions to address diversity.

When COVID-19 is brought under control and out-patient visits to hospitals resume, interactive kiosks at The Neuro and the Jewish General Hospital will be available where patients and clinical staff can consult the website. In the meantime, the importance of online tools has increased with the mental health challenges COVID-19 has meant for many people. The pandemic’s impact on cultural communities has been particularly devastating, both in terms of the disproportionate physical toll it has taken, and the associated mental and emotional effects.

Webinars about Diversity and Mental Health

In partnership with Bell Let’s Talk, McGill and the Jewish General Hospital are hosting a webinar on mental health in diverse communities to engage in discussion about resiliency and mental well-being. Moderated by Dr. Ghayda Hassan, this French-language webinar will be held Thursday, January 21 at 12 pm EST. To register for the webinar, please click here.

A second webinar in English presented by Queen’s University and moderated by Dr. Jane Philpott, takes place Friday, January 22, 12 pm EST. To register for this event, please click here.

Bell Let’s Talk Day is January 28

On Bell Let’s Talk Day January 28, Canadians everywhere will join in the global mental health conversation. You can use a wide range of communications platforms to join in – and directly drive Bell’s donations to Canadian mental health programs simply by participating.

On Bell Let’s Talk Day, Bell donates 5 cents to Canadian mental health programs for every applicable text, local or long distance call, tweet or TikTok video using #BellLetsTalk, every Facebook, Instagram, PinterestSnapchatTikTokTwitter and YouTube view of the Bell Let’s Talk Day video, and every use of the Bell Let’s Talk Facebook frame or Snapchat filter. All at no cost to participants beyond what they would normally pay their service provider for online or phone access.

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Principal Fortier to participate in Davos Agenda

Campus news - Tue, 01/19/2021 - 11:51

Principal Suzanne Fortier will take part in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Davos Agenda virtual summit (January 25 – 29), around the same time the WEF generally hosts its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The in-person event has been postponed due to the pandemic and is now scheduled to take place in Singapore in May.

Davos Agenda convenes heads of state, industry leaders and public figures to discuss how to advance and accelerate public-private collaboration on critical issues such as COVID-19 vaccination, job creation and climate change, among others.

Principal Fortier will be a featured panelist in the Reimagining Education session on Monday, January 25, beginning at 7:30 am EST. The livestreamed session will focus on how the disruptions in education caused by COVID-19 have provided an opportunity to reset the skills that are prioritized at all levels of education.

Principal Fortier will discuss new skills priorities emerging within university education, and new approaches to teaching and measuring employability skills.

Rebuild and reform

The Davos Agenda will also mark the launch of the WEF’s “Great Reset Initiative.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that no institution or individual alone can address the economic, environmental, social and technological challenges of our complex, interdependent world,” says the Davos Agenda website. “The time to rebuild trust and to make crucial choices is fast approaching as the need to reset priorities and the urgency to reform systems grow stronger around the world.”

A priority partnership

The World Economic Forum has become a priority organization for McGill and the University has built a strong partnership over the years. McGill has been a member of the WEF’s Global University Leaders Forum (GULF) since 2016, and Principal Fortier continues to serve as the Chair of the GULF. Created in 2006, GULF is comprised of some of the top 29 universities in the world, with McGill standing as the only Canadian member.

In 2021, the GULF community will focus on how universities can facilitate a more equal and inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, including through exploring the skills for the future, reskilling, social inclusion and climate action.

Principal Fortier is also co-chair of the Global Future Council on the New Education and Skills Agenda. The World Economic Forum’s network of Global Future Councils is a multi-stakeholder, interdisciplinary knowledge network dedicated to promoting innovative thinking to shape a more resilient, inclusive and sustainable future.

People are invited to watch the livestreamed session with Principal Fortier on Monday, January 25, beginning at 7:30 am EST

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COVID-19 Q&A: Samuel Veissière on the epidemiology of conspiracy theories

Campus news - Tue, 01/19/2021 - 10:14
Samuel Veissière, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Psychiatry

“COVID-19 is a hoax that world leaders, including PM Justin Trudeau, have orchestrated to take control of the global economy.”

“The virus was developed in a lab in China.” 

“Masks are, in fact, dangerous.”

“5G technology is responsible for the speed with which the virus has spread.”

There are no shortage of conspiracy theories relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. But why are people drawn to these theories – even ones that are so far-fetched? What is it about the human psyche that makes us susceptible to embracing – and spreading – these bogus theories? Samuel Veissière, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry; Co-director of the Culture, Mind, and Brain program; and an Associate Member of the Department of Anthropology answers these questions and more.

An interdisciplinary anthropologist and cognitive scientist, Veissière studies social dimensions of cognition, consciousness and human well-being through a variety of projects including placebo effects and hypnosis, hyper-sociality in smartphone addiction, social polarization, gender and mental health, and the theoretical study of cultural evolution.

What are conspiracy theories?  

We can define conspiracy theories as overly simplistic, empirically false, uniquely catchy stories that seek to explain the root causes of perceived harm and suffering through the intentional actions of powerful agents. Conspiratorial ideation resembles magical thinking and paranoia, in that it perceives patterns where there are none, and posits the presence of dark, hidden, malevolent and personified forces – usually in the form of a small group of people.

Is this a relatively new phenomenon?

Conspiracy theories have likely been around for a very long time, ever since we became a symbolic, linguistic species. The human mind – especially the untrained, unwise human mind – is constrained by many evolved cognitive biases that make it uniquely vulnerable to ‘fake news’ and divisive, conspiracy-like false beliefs. These biases all confer important survival and fitness advantages, but it is important to recognize the conditions in which they become hyperactive and dangerous.

What is it about the human condition that makes many of us so open to conspiracy theories?

To understand the epidemiology of conspiracy theories, we must first appreciate the vulnerabilities of the human mind. We can then identify the social conditions in which they breed, the vectors through which they spread, and the groups that are most at-risk. The basic cognitive ingredients include:

  • Threat-detection: Our species only became predatory through collective intelligence, tool-use, and cooperation. We first evolved as preys in highly volatile environments full of dangers. Being able to detect predators from cues indicating their presence was key to our survival.False positives (wrongly assuming that something poses a threat, like a fluttering leaf that turns out to be caused by the wind) frequently occur because they are adaptive: better to overreact than fail to detect a wild cat coming at us. A lot of the routine stress and anxiety we experience in the modern world can be attributed to overactive threat-detection modalities in environments where lethal threats have mostly been eliminated. Note how conspiracy theories recruit this instinct when we describe our perceived enemies as ‘predatory’!
  • Pollution-detection: Our minds also evolved to be overly sensitive to the presence of invisible predators like bacteria and parasites that cause infection, inflammation, and equally invisible sickness. By the time zoonotic viruses co-evolved with the animals we domesticated, our minds were well-equipped to be obsessed with infection by invisible agents. After the agricultural revolution around 6,000 years ago, these new viruses caused the first pandemics that ravaged human settlements. It is likely that the first paranoid xenophobic narratives evolved at that time, as the sight of human strangers conveyed the likely presence of infectious disease.Note how conspiracy theories employ virological and immunological metaphors when we speak of the “sick” or “gross” individuals and “vermin” that “infect” our minds, “poison” our water, or spread disease through cell phone towers and invisible electromagnetic fields. Note again how the powerful actions of dark agents are always posited to be hidden or invisible.
  • Agency-detection and mind reading: The need to cooperate for survival conferred onto us a unique ability to understand each other’s needs, mental states and intentions. We tend to project these human mental characteristics on the world around us, for example, when we see faces in the clouds or feel like Gods and spirits are watching over us. Just like we need to understand that a predator wants to eat us, we tend to project all kinds of dark intentions to harm us, even when there are none. Conspiracy theories typically posit the existence of a dark plot, with invisible groups that intentionally inflict harm on passive victims
  • Protecting the weak: Altruism is our species’ greatest strength. As physically weak animals, we evolved by caring for one another, and working together to protect frail, slow-maturing infants, and equally frail elders who passed on important cultural knowledge. Conspiracy theories always recruit this instinct by seeking to protect the purity and innocence of perceived victims. The catchiest – hence most viral – conspiracy theories will invoke the grossest possible harm inflicted on the weakest victims. This explains the intrinsic appeal of the Q-Anon narrative, with its “cabal of satanic pedophiles”.
  • Finding our tribe: Being able to identify allies who will care for us is a fundamental human need. Our psychology remains very tribal for this reason. Conspiracy theories provide a guide to form coalitions and identify enemies.
  • Uncertainty reduction: The final ingredient is the need to make accurate predictions about the workings of a very complex world with many moving parts. The human mind abhors uncertainty, exhibits great difficulty in comprehending multiple factors involved in a problem, and tends to favour explanatory models with a single cause. Conspiracy theories go viral because they are simple, intrinsically “interesting”, easy to remember, and seem important to communicate to others.
What about social ingredients? Are there certain social conditions that encourage the proliferation of conspiracy theories?

New conspiracy theories tend to emerge in the context of rapid social change, the erosion of traditional systems of collective ritual and meaning, and increased uncertainty. Wars, natural disasters, economic crises and pandemics are the typical breeding grounds. The black plagues of the middle ages, for example, led to unprecedented peaks in antisemitism, witch hunts, and violence against other marginalized groups as people sought to identify culprits for failed crops, famine and death.

The COVID crisis occurred in a rapidly changing and increasingly individualistic world where decreased trust in religious, moral, scientific, medical, and political expertise was already the norm. From a complex systems perspective, conspiracy theories reflect homeostatic cultural mechanisms that aim to restore order, predictability and clear goals – “meaning” – in a chaotic world. People want to understand the cause of their suffering, know whom to trust, and what to do.

The highly uncertain, constantly evolving nature of the pandemic, and the mixed messages people feel they have received from experts has unfortunately led many to lose trust in our scientific and democratic institutions. The highly volatile and divisive political climate since 2016 has further exacerbated this worrying trend.

What role does technology play in the dissemination of conspiracy theories?

Conspiracy theories, because they are so catchy and divisive, show us the extent to which humans can fight over meaning, values, and moral models. All political and social movements are premised on the desire to do good in the world and protect innocent victims from perceived enemies. History has shown that when vectors of information diffusion become more efficient, conflict tends to be on the rise. The invention of the printing press at the dawn of the Renaissance, for example, enabled the fast, efficient, and divisive spread of new ideas that contributed to increasingly lethal religious, then ethnic warfare, peaking in the horrors of the first two world wars five centuries later.

The internet – by now, the mobile Internet via smartphones – has ushered a constant stream of access to information with unprecedented reach, scale and speed. When faced with an abundance of information, our minds will zero in on the most evolutionarily salient, catchy and conspiracy-like material. Rather than seek comfort in the conviction that ‘fake news’ are only consumed by our perceived enemies, we need to recognize that we are all at risk of believing in conspiracy theories.

How can we protect ourselves against conspiracy theories?

The first step is to realize that, in their least nuanced form, most of the stories, myths, narratives, and belief systems that humans have devised to make sense of the world are ‘conspiracy-like’. From the vantage point of perceived victimhood and protection of one’s group, all conspiracy theories are well-intentioned and promote one vision of justice! Try to “stretch” the stories you believe about the world to see if they entail a clear split between good and evil people, and blame most of the world’s problems on a single group of people. In their simplest form, for example, all social justice and identity politics narratives are conspiracy-like, and will be perceived as such by people who believe a different narrative.

The world can only heal from this chaotic moment if we all make the effort to challenge and expand our stories and moral goals to include people who are different from us.

We can leverage the good parts of our conspiratorial nature to achieve this goal. Protecting the weak, building alliances, preventing disease, eliminating lethal threats, are the building blocks of universal, sacred values that we can all agree on.   The common threat of global virus can provide an opportunity for unprecedented unity.

Magical thinking, tribalism, and allergy to ambiguity and nuance are the bad parts of our conspiratorial nature that we must all work to overcome. Academics, public intellectuals, scientists, and the mainstream media have a big part to play in this project. As more and more people turn to seemingly crazy and dangerous ideas, members of elite institutions must also ask themselves how, by promoting the certainty that they are on the side of science, truth, morality, and the “good side of history”, they may inadvertently alienate larger and larger segments of the population. While we are all prone to conspiratorial belief, it is those groups that feel most excluded, misunderstood, demonized, and alienated that are most at risk of falling for – and acting on – dangerous false ideas.

The current political crisis in which people appear to believe in increasingly alternative realities should serve as a reminder that we are not working hard enough to understand and welcome each other, in our commonalities and differences.


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The future of shopping is here: McGill launches frictionless laboratory store

Campus news - Fri, 01/15/2021 - 15:04
Professors James Clark (left) and Maxime Cohen (right), co-directors of the retail innovation lab at the Bensadoun School of Retail Management

As mom-and-pop stores and multinational corporations alike confront historic challenges to their industry during the pandemic, they are looking outward for ideas and technologies that will put them on solid footing both now and in the future. A world-class university and a global retailer have joined forces to provide solutions as they unveil one of the first live laboratory stores in North America.

“The impact we aspire to make through this retail innovation lab goes far beyond headlines and ribbon cuttings,” says Maxime Cohen, an associate professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management who serves as the co-director of the lab. “We aim to shape the future of retail in a critical time for the industry.”

Inside a new kind of retail store

The opening of the retail innovation lab on McGill’s downtown campus will introduce the public to a Couche-Tard convenience store that, from the outside, looks like the hundreds of other Couche-Tard locations throughout Quebec. Customers will be greeted by the brand’s iconic winking owl on the store sign as they enter, and the store will keep its doors open for reduced hours as public health guidelines and government regulations evolve during the pandemic.

As soon as they step inside, however, customers with a discerning eye will immediately spot the differences between the average Couche-Tard store and this particular one. A designated Couche-Tard Connecté section of the store, which customers can choose to enter using an app, leverages frictionless technology to make autonomous, contactless checkout possible. Using sophisticated computer vision systems, the store will be able to recognize selected items in real-time and process payment directly through the app. Outside of the Connecté section, store cameras will track customer trajectories and dwell time in an aggregate and anonymized fashion in all areas of the store. In addition, customers can use a self-checkout counter that automatically detects items and adds them to the bill.

Funded by the Bensadoun Family Foundation and Bensadoun School of Retail Management Founders Circle, the lab’s inaugural retail partnership is with Alimentation Couche-Tard and designed with a high degree of intentionality. “Every last detail has a purpose,” says James Clark, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering who co-directs the lab alongside Maxime Cohen.

Testing the waters

Over the span of three years, the retail innovation lab will provide an unprecedented opportunity for McGill researchers and students across several disciplines to explore the central questions that occupy the time and energy of leaders in the retail industry. “Our goal is to provide data-driven insights to help retail leaders pivot and reimagine their operations in a post-COVID world,” says Cohen.

As the retail innovation lab opens its doors for the first time, it will initiate the first inaugural class of the new Master of Management in Retailing (MMR) program into a more immersive classroom than they could have imagined. Working in tandem with BCom students and students from the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, MMR students will “gain rare access to leading-edge technology and opportunities to test new ideas in a real environment,” says Cohen.

The first research theme that student and faculty researchers will pursue at the retail innovation lab involves helping consumers to make healthier food and beverage choices through incentives like strategic pricing and display location, personalized mobile messaging, and social media contests. If all it takes to sell a healthier food option to a customer is moving an item to a higher shelf, retail innovation lab researchers will find out. They will use tools from experimental design, biostatistics, econometrics, and machine learning to analyze the effects of each type of influencing factor on consumer behaviour.

The second line of research focuses on personalization and privacy. “Our objective is to provide personalized recommendations to customers in a way that meets the highest standards of data privacy and confidentiality,” says Clark. Using state-of-the-art artificial intelligence methods, data collected through cameras will improve demand forecasting and offer consumers recommendations to enhance the overall shopping experience. Longer term, the retail innovation lab may also explore the use of augmented reality to reduce customer friction and provide “gamified” shopping experiences.

While other brands have implemented frictionless technologies, the retail innovation lab will be the first to make the results of its research projects publicly available. “By studying interactions between people and technology and publishing our findings, we hope to play a pivotal role in helping retailers develop practices that benefit consumers, retailers, and society as a whole,” Clark says. “We’re excited to get started.”

Watch a video about the new retail innovation lab

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Prakash Panangaden honoured by the Association for Computing Machinery

Campus news - Thu, 01/14/2021 - 14:46
Computer science professor Prakash Panangaden

Prakash Panangaden, a professor of computer science, has been named a Fellow by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). Panangden was honoured “for making continuous state systems amenable to logical and computational treatment.”

The new Fellows were announced on January 13.

With a research career that has spanned computer science, mathematics and physics, Panangaden is interested in mathematical foundations of machine learning. He has worked on bisimulation, metrics and approximation for Markov processes. Panangaden has also worked on logics for probabilistic systems, Stone duality for Markov processes and programming languages.  His recent activity includes a quantitative extension of equational logic and semantics for a stochastic lambda-calculus. In other recent work, he and his collaborators developed a notion of approximate minimization of weighted finite automata and bisimulation for such automata.  This has led to current activity in automata learning. Past research activities include quantum information theory, concurrent programming semantics, modal logic and category theory.

Top one per cent

Panangaden, who joined McGill in 1990, was one of 95 newly-named ACM Fellows recognized for wide-ranging and fundamental contributions in areas including artificial intelligence, cloud computing, computer graphics, computational biology, data science, human-computer interaction, software engineering, theoretical computer science, and virtual reality, among other areas.

The ACM Fellows program recognizes the top one per cent of ACM Members for their outstanding accomplishments in computing and information technology and/or outstanding service to ACM and the larger computing community. Fellows are nominated by their peers, with nominations reviewed by a distinguished selection committee.

Pivotal contributions to transformational technologies

“This year our task in selecting the 2020 Fellows was a little more challenging, as we had a record number of nominations from around the world,” said ACM President Gabriele Kotsis. “The 2020 ACM Fellows have demonstrated excellence across many disciplines of computing. These men and women have made pivotal contributions to technologies that are transforming whole industries, as well as our personal lives. We fully expect that these new ACM Fellows will continue in the vanguard in their respective fields.”

The contributions of the 2020 Fellows run the gamut of the computing field – including algorithms, networks, computer architecture, robotics, distributed systems, software development, wireless systems, and web science – to name a few.

Additional information about the 2020 ACM Fellows, as well as previously named ACM Fellows, is available through the ACM Fellows site.

Read the ACM press release

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Stephanie Fernandez is Homeward Bound

Campus news - Thu, 01/14/2021 - 13:09

Stephanie Fernandez admits it: “The first thing that thrilled me about Homeward Bound was the prospect of adventure and seeing penguins in their natural habitat.”

But the McGill chemical engineering PhD candidate, who has been chosen as one of 100 women worldwide to participate in the program that includes a trip to Antarctica, has a grander vision than simply playing tourist.

Stephanie Fernandez is a PhD candidate in chemical engineering

“It really attracted me because of the gender equity issue,” said Fernandez, who earned two undergraduate degrees from McGill, one in biochemistry and the other in bio-engineering. “The main goal is to amplify the voice of women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine) and increase their influence and impact, especially in leadership positions because that’s where we are really under-represented.”

Launched in 2016 in Australia, Homeward Bound is a 12-month global leadership program. Fernandez’ cohort begins in March 2021 with an 11-month online collaborative learning course that includes workshops, discussions, coaching and master classes. In early 2022, the 100 participants will assemble from around the world at base camp in Ushuaia, Argentina, where they will take a four-week “face-to-face on-the-ground” course, followed by “the world’s largest all-female expedition to Antarctica.” All of this assumes a globally accepted and accessible vaccine for COVID-19 by travel time.

They – Fernandez chooses the self-identifying pronoun ‘they’ – have started a crowdfunding page to raise the roughly US$17,500 that covers her half of the program’s per-person cost, and is accepting corporate donations through her website and blog and LinkedIn account.

Fernandez, who conducts research at McGill’s Stem Cell Bioprocessing Lab, founded and is the former director of the Graduate Engineering Equity Committee (GEEC), which earlier this year won McGill’s Equity and Community Building award in the Team category.

Climate change, sustainability, gender equity

Fernandez said that the focus of the program, climate change and sustainability in a context of gender equity, was what convinced them to apply.

“It was open to anyone working in a STEMM-related field who is a woman or is female-identifying, and at any stage of their career – early, middle or late. So it’s a pretty diverse bunch of people.”

One of the goals of the program is to “work together to build skills, knowledge and connections that can help empower us to be successful as leaders in our respective fields.”

“Climate change is a major crisis, so this is a nice way to have a focus on all these women to come together to look at one of the big scientific problems that we’re facing, whether or not we specialize in climate change, because I certainly don’t as a biomedical researcher.

“Antarctica is one of the most vulnerable places on the planet, where you can really see the effects of humans. Temperatures are rising… which affects the rest of the globe – the surface temperature affects the flora and fauna and the ecosystem animals [and humans] live in. It highlights how global sustainability is everybody’s responsibility. You don’t have to be an oceanographer or study [greenhouse-gas emissions] to recognize the role you can play.”

Authentic identity

Homeward Bound’s leadership component is particularly important, they noted.

“The questions in the application made me think deeply… on the gender equity issue. We’re often presented with this very narrow vision of this extroverted, often hyper-masculine image of what a good leader should be, which for many of us is at odds with our character. So we might feel like ‘I can’t fill this position’ or ‘I have to change myself to be a great leader,’ and Homeward Bound takes a different approach.”

“That struck me. It’s not ‘We need more women in the fields’, it’s ‘We need more of you as you are, with the authentic identity that you have, and all of the experiences and traits that come with that.’”

Fernandez contacted a participant in a previous edition of the program, who gave them glowing reports of the focus on leadership.

“That’s what I’m looking forward to: exploring your own, unique perspective and strength and developing your own brand of leadership. How you can move forward successfully without necessarily comparing yourself to others.”

Fernandez expects to obtain their doctoral degree this year, and is thinking about what’s next.

They noted that “in engineering, you can feel boxed in; you either go into academia or in industry. I’ve never felt either of those worked for me. I have an intersectional approach and a broad range of interests.”

A friend of a friend with a similar background in biochemistry now lives in Europe and has worked in sustainability, communications and outreach.

“That really appeals to me,” said Fernandez. “It gave me inspiration as to the paths others have taken outside of my bubble here.”

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Innovative industry partnership uses artificial intelligence to improve survival rates of cancer diagnosed patients

Campus news - Thu, 01/14/2021 - 10:40

The McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) Foundation and MEDTEQ+ has announced a new partnership with the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC), MIMs, and Caprion-HistoGeneX, respective leaders in cancer research, artificial intelligence, and precision medicine, to increase survival of stage IV colorectal cancer patients.

A research team, led by Dr. Peter Metrakos, Cancer Research Program Leader at the RI-MUHC and Professor of Surgery at McGill University, is planning to use artificial intelligence (AI) to improve survival rates of patients diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer. Stage IV colorectal cancer is incredibly deadly, with a five-year survival rate of only 12 per cent. It is the second leading cause of cancer death in Canadians and is responsible for more deaths than breast cancer or prostate cancer. In 2016, Dr. Metrakos and his international colleagues provided new insight on how colorectal cancer liver metastases sometimes co-opt existing blood vessels. Following this discovery, Dr. Metrakos turned to personalized medicine to ensure each patient receives the best treatment for their disease.

Dr. Peter Metrakos is leading a team that will use AI to improve survival rates of patients diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer

“The Cancer Research Program at the RI-MUHC is home to some of the top scientists in Canada, including Dr. Metrakos,” says Dr. Miguel Burnier, Interim Executive Director of the RI-MUHC. “Personalized medicine is the next step in ending cancer as a life-threatening disease.”

With liquid biopsy techniques, Drs. Metrakos and Anthoula Lazaris, with their team will help separate DNA, RNA, proteins and other constituent parts of the blood, to identify the ones associated with a patient’s cancer. This critical anonymized data will be recorded for each patient. MIMs, a Montreal-based AI company will use its state-of-the-art AI program to identify patterns and insights into the data gathered from each patient’s blood sample, key to personalized treatment and improved survival. The hope is to establish a signature from this wealth of data to determine which patients will not respond to standard treatment and thus quickly guide alternative treatment plans. This signature will then be developed into a clinical test, in collaboration with Caprion-HistoGeneX.

This groundbreaking project is possible, in part, thanks to the generosity of donors. In the case of this project, Dr. Metrakos’ funding is provided by generous donors to the MUHC Foundation. Recognizing the potential of this important cancer research project, MEDTEQ+, funded by the Ministère de l’Économie et de l’Innovation, agreed to provide matching funds for industry investment and donations. This process enables donor funds to be matched three times. With over 26,000 Canadians diagnosed with colorectal cancers each year, this project has the potential to affect millions of lives, from the patients going through cancer treatment to their families, friends and colleagues.

“This exceptional partnership between leaders of their respective fields will allow to accelerate further the research against cancer. We’re confident that artificial intelligence will bring tremendous added-value in improving treatment to stage IV cancer patients,” says Diane Côté, CEO of MEDTEQ+. “MEDTEQ+ has always favoured the collaborative development of innovations exploiting new enabling technologies, such as artificial intelligence in several forms, and this project is a great example of our approach.”

“This innovative new partnership demonstrates Quebec’s continued leadership in the field of artificial intelligence applied in health care. I am certain that this collaboration will ensure many promising developments in healthcare, for the benefit of patients here in Québec; as well as Canada and the world.” says Pierre Fitzgibbon, Quebec’s Minister of Economy and Innovation.

“We are grateful to our donors for their confidence in medical innovations like this one.” says Julie Quenneville, President of the MUHC Foundation. “Thanks to investment by our industry partners and MEDTEQ+, gifts to projects like this have triple the impact, helping donor dollars go further.”

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COVID-19 Q&A: Jeff Derevenski on screen time for kids during the lockdown

Campus news - Thu, 01/14/2021 - 09:41
Jeff Derevensky is James McGill Professor, Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology

Children’s screen time has long been a contentious issue for the modern parent. The situation has become more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The pandemic has created a perfect storm for increased screen usage with children out of school for longer periods of time, their inability to visit with friends and the need for parents to work uninterrupted from home,” says Jeff Derevensky, Chair and James McGill Professor with the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, is an expert on child and adolescent high-risk behaviours.

In this Q&A, Derevensky discusses video game addiction, its impact on developing minds and strategies parents can employ to place reasonable limits on their children’s screen time.

Derevensky’s research focuses on child and adolescent high-risk behaviours. He is well known for his research on youth gambling, the effects of social media on youth and adolescents’ gambling habits, as well as the social costs of gambling behaviours among young people. Derevensky has worked internationally and provided expert testimony before legislative bodies in several countries and his work has resulted in important social policy and governmental changes.

Screen time and children has long been an issue of great concern for parents. How has COVID-19 impacted the situation?

The pandemic has certainly exacerbated the issues surrounding screen times for parents and children. The pandemic has created a perfect storm for increased screen usage with children out of school for longer periods of time, their inability to visit with friends and the need for parents to work uninterrupted from home. Coupled with remote learning and the perceived need to stay connected to friends through digital media, more and more youth are engaging in increased amounts of time on their computers, smartphones, tablets and video game consoles. As a result, screen time, both academic and recreational has increased.

What makes video games so addictive?

Video games are designed to be immersive. The graphics and story lines are especially appealing to people. For some youth, becoming involved in video games enables them to succeed in a “safe environment” that may not be possible in their other pursuits; failure only means restarting the game.

Additionally, these youth develop friendships or relationships with other gamers that can enhance a sense of belonging. Many of the games played are free (or at least start off free), enabling youth to relieve stress, engage in fantasy or role playing, and relieve boredom.

Are younger children more susceptible to becoming addicted to video games than adults? Are the negative impacts greater for the developing brain?

The research is mixed. While some studies suggest elementary school age children are more susceptible, others say adolescents or even adults are at greater risk for an addiction. Typically, boys tend to game more frequently and experience greater gaming-related problems than girls. Screen time for all children, especially young children, should be monitored.  Young children need to interact with other children and adults to develop healthy social skills. Parents must recognize they are important role models for their children.

What kind of impact are we talking about?

Excessive video game playing can lead to impaired social skill development, inability to make and maintain friendships, academic difficulties if gaming consumes disproportionate amounts of time, sleep problems, and financial difficulties if in-game purchases are made excessively. Mental health problems such as anxiety and depression can also develop or be exacerbated, as well as physical health issues related to sleep derivation. Eating can also become problematic.

What are the signs that our children are developing an addiction to video games?

Needing to play for longer periods of time; an inability to stop when asked; lying about how much time they are playing; stopping or curtailing participating in other activities in order to spend time gaming; interpersonal and familial problems; depression; and increased anxiety. For some youth, gaming takes precedence over all other activities and negatively impacts academic/work activities, social engagement, and interferes with family social interactions. Gaming 20-30 hours per week is typically a red flag; gaming 30+ hours per week is a problem (this excludes educational online games).

What about social media? Is it as addictive or as impactful as video games in terms of negative consequences?

Social media is the medium by which young people (as well as adults) frequently communicate. They can be easily negatively impacted by others which can result in social isolation, low self-esteem and increased anxiety and depression.

How much screen time per day should a child have? Does it differ depending upon their age?

Screen time amounts should be based on a child’s age.  The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends:

  • For children under two years old screen time is not recommended.
  • For children two to five years old limit screen time to less than one hour a day.
  • For children older than five limit screen time to less than two hours a day.

Screen time also has an affect on physical health and children should be encouraged to exercise or participate in other activities. It is important to note that one must look at the context in which screen time occurs. For example, is it interfering with your child’s performance? Is it after schoolwork is completed? What about weekends or holidays?

Remember the importance of parents as role models.

Are there any guidelines we should follow when trying to reduce our children’s screen time? Any strategies?
  • Model good behaviour
  • Monitor the games they are playing.
  • Establish and maintain time limits. It is easy to set time limits but enforcing them becomes more problematic. This is particularly difficult with older children or when we are trying to work from home.
  • Encourage family time and activities with friends.
  • Establish device-free spaces and times in the home.
  • It is important to differentiate between active and passive screen time – active screen time involves learning and schoolwork. During the pandemic, this is particularly difficult to manage.
During the lockdown, our children are physically interacting less and less with their friends. Social media and some gaming help them connect on one level. What can we do to encourage healthy interactions between our children and their friends?
  • If permitted, promote outdoor activities within their ‘bubble.’
  • Encourage online Zoom game playing or activities such as baking as a shared project.
  • Encourage games that require active participation in board games which can be done remotely.
  • Work on a collaborative project.
Final thoughts?

While we are all feeling a sense of isolation this can be invaluable family time. Listen to your children and spend as much time together as possible. Children grow up quickly and we can never recapture the moments we spend with them. In an interview in 2019, President Barack Obama said “On my deathbed, I am confident I will not remember any bill I passed. I won’t be thinking about the inauguration. I will be thinking about holding hands with my daughters and taking them to a park or seeing them laugh while they are playing in the water. That is going to be the thing that lasts.”


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McGill takes home seven CASE Awards

Campus news - Wed, 01/13/2021 - 17:32

On January 11, McGill emerged as one of the big winners at an annual competition celebrating excellence in higher education advancement.

Up against Ivy League schools and other top colleges in Quebec, Atlantic Canada and the northeastern U.S., McGill received seven medals – four gold, one silver and two bronze – from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) at the District I Excellence Awards.

CASE recognized McGill University Advancement (UA) for best-in-class alumni relations, fundraising and communications initiatives, several of which were the result of a rapid and successful shift to virtual programming in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once it became clear that in-person activities were no longer possible, UA had to come up with new ways to engage alumni, donors and volunteers. One of the ensuing initiatives, launched within six days of the first lockdown, was a popula rwebcast series that harnessed McGill expertise – like leading global health and infectious disease experts Tim Evans and Marcel Behr – to share valuable information with the community. Another successful venture was a webinar series hosted by Professor Karl Moore from the Desautels Faculty of Management that reached over 1,200 alumni in cities around the world, helping to ease lockdown isolation.

One of the winning projects that took place before the pandemic was the on-campus launch of McGill’s $2 billion fundraising campaign – an unforgettable event in fall 2019 that involved building an interactive “Homecoming Village” on the lower field.

Here is the full list of McGill’s 2021 CASE District I Excellence Awards:

  • McGill Checks In: Alumni webcasts on COVID-19: In the Communications Pivot category, a series of weekly pandemic-focused webcasts featuring experts from across the University took the top prize.
  • Welcome Class of 2020 Campaign: A redesigned approach to the graduating class – which included tailored resources, supportive messaging, and ways to celebrate convocation virtually – won in the Alumni Relations Pivot
  • One Expert, Unlimited Audiences: A Global, Branded Webinar Series: A budget-friendly webinar series hosted by Professor Karl Moore topped the Alumni Engagement on a Shoestring
  • National Philanthropy Day – A Day in the Life Video: An initiative showing the impact of philanthropy on a student’s daily life earned first place in the Videos: Fundraising
  • “Made by McGill: the Campaign for Our Third Century” Launch: A spectacular campaign launch event and McGill Expo took silver in the Special Events: Single Day
  • McGill University Giving Website: In the Websites (Micro-sites) category, a new Made by McGill Campaign/Giving website, which promotes a digital-first fundraising approach, earned bronze.
  • A multi-purposed communications tool to engage volunteers: A versatile document to keep McGill volunteers informed during the pandemic received accolades in the Volunteer Engagement

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Campus update - January 13 2021

EOC updates - Wed, 01/13/2021 - 09:36
<p>T<i>his message is sent on behalf of Fabrice Labeau, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning), on behalf of the Emergency Operations Centre. </i></p> <p><i>Le présent message est envoyé au nom de Fabrice Labeau, premier vice-principal exécutif adjoint (études et vie étudiante), au nom du Centre des opérations d’urgence (COU).</i></p> <p><i>La version française suit.</i></p> <p>Dear members of the McGill community,</p> <p>Now that we are officially into the swing of the new semester, I want to wish everyone a smooth and successful back to work, school, teaching, and research.</p>
Categories: Campus news HP

Child marriage is legal and persists across Canada

Campus news - Tue, 01/12/2021 - 13:41

Canada is at the forefront of global efforts to end child marriage abroad. Yet this practice remains legal and persists across the country. In Canada, more than 3,600 marriage certificates were issued to children, usually girls, under the age of 18 between 2000 and 2018, according to a new study from researchers at McGill University. In recent years, an increasing number of child marriages have been common-law unions.

Child marriage, defined as formal or informal (common-law) marriage before the age of 18, is a globally-recognized indicator of gender inequality because the negative consequences for health and personal development disproportionately affect girls. While much research has focused on developing countries, in wealthier nations like Canada, child marriage practices are overlooked and understudied.

Using data from vital statistics agencies and recent censuses, the researchers found that child marriage remains in practice from coast to coast, with the highest estimates of formal marriage found in Alberta (0.03 per cent) and Manitoba (0.04 per cent), and the highest estimates of any type of child marriage (formal or common-law) in Saskatchewan (0.5 per cent) and the territories (1.7 per cent). The study, published in Population and Development Review, is the first to shed light on how common child marriages are in the country.

“Our results show that Canada has its own work to do to achieve its commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which call for an end to child marriage by the year 2030,” says co-author Alissa Koski, Assistant Professor in Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health at McGill University.

The researchers found that Canadian-born children are slightly more likely to marry than those born outside of the country. More than 85 per cent of all marriage certificates granted to children were issued to girls, who typically wed much older spouses. This gendered patterning is consistent with child marriage practices observed across the globe, according to the researchers.

Common-law unions more prevalent

The study shows most child marriages in recent years have been common-law. In 2006, formal marriage accounted for more than half of all child unions. By 2016, formal marriage accounted for only 5 percent and common-law unions were twenty times as prevalent.

“While the number of marriage certificates issued to children across the country has declined, it’s possible that individuals are opting for more informal unions in response to growing social disapproval of child marriage,” say the authors. This makes it increasingly challenging to determine to what extent child marriage has actually decreased or whether concerns about social or legal consequences have led to changes in reporting behaviours.

Informal unions can be just as harmful as formal marriages, the researchers say. In fact, informal unions often provide less social, legal and economic protection. In Quebec, for example, individuals in common-law unions are not entitled to alimony or division of property if the union ends. This raises questions about how best to address the issue. Preventing common-law unions among children will require different and innovative approaches that address the deeper motivations for this practice.

“The persistence of this practice within Canada highlights some of the inherent challenges to fully eradicating child marriage and reveals an important inconsistency between Canada’s domestic laws and its global policies” says co-author Shelley Clark, James McGill Professor of Sociology at McGill. The next steps will be to examine the mental health consequences of child marriage in Canada and to investigate motivations for the practice.

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