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Systemic racism impacting the health of Canada’s Black population

Campus news - Tue, 02/02/2021 - 17:39

Systemic racism in Canada is taking a heavy toll on the physical and mental health of the country’s Black population. But, according to Dr. Onye Nnorom, people can lessen at least some of the impact through resistance and ancestral wisdom and traditions.

“There are three key lessons that are the foundation of this presentation,” said Dr. Nnorom at the beginning of the keynote address at yesterday’s Opening Ceremony for McGill’s fifth annual Black History Month (BHM). “Systemic anti-black racism is making us sick, both mentally and physically as black people; resistance to anti-black racism can contribute to wellbeing; and we must value Afro-centric approaches and perspectives, values and practices, in order to improve health and wellness.”

A graduate of McGill’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Dr. Nnorom is a leading voice pushing Canada’s medical system to recognize, study and address anti-Black racism. She is the Associate Program Director of the Public Health & Preventive Medicine Residency Program at the University of Toronto, and is the Black Health Theme Lead for the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. As the Black Health Theme Lead, Dr. Nnorom is tasked with developing educational content for teaching medical students about Black Canadian health, and inequities due to systemic racism.

The virtual event drew 300 people making it one of the most successful Opening Ceremonies yet, according to Shanice Yarde, Equity Education Advisor (Anti-Oppression & Anti-Racism Education), one of the main organizers of BHM and emcee for yesterday’s event.

Indigenous Elder Charlie Patton opened the event with a traditional welcome. This was followed by introductory remarks from politicians Jennifer Maccarone, MNA for Westmount–Saint-Louis; and Cathy Wong, City Councillor for the Ville-Marie Borough.

Commitment to confronting anti-Black racism

This ceremony is a very meaningful opportunity to highlight the presence and achievements of McGill’s Black community – a community that enriches our campuses in so many ways,” said Principal Suzanne Fortier in her opening remarks, “as students and staff, as social entrepreneurs, as Rhodes scholars, as musicians, as people who teach and do research so that we can share knowledge and advance our understanding of the world.”

Created by danielle murrell cox, this year’s poster for Black History Month reflects the important aspect of community and connectedness when it comes to healing and what it can look like for everyone to be seen, included, and valued.

“Of course this recognition must go beyond the month of February,” said the Principal. “We must work hard, throughout the year, to ensure that McGill’s Black community has the tools and the resources and the opportunities to excel in all their activities and their fields.”

The Principal said that BHM is also a time to reflect upon McGill’s commitment to confronting anti-Black racism.

“As you know, this fall, McGill launched its Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism. This is a very important step toward ensuring that we build, and will continue to build, a more inclusive and equitable environment for all students and staff,” she said. “This plan sets a very important commitment for McGill as we embark on our third century.”

Provost Christopher Manfredi also spoke of the Action Plan as an important step on a critical journey.

“Through the Action Plan, we have made a broad number of ambitious commitments that will lead us to understand more fully, and to address with conviction, anti-Black racism in our environments,” said the Provost. “We have already begun work on many of the commitments set out in this Plan, including the creation of a Working Group on Black and African Studies at McGill and the launch of a strategic hiring initiative in Black knowledges and experiences across Faculties and disciplines. These are just two of the important steps we are taking to live up to our commitments in the Action Plan.”

“We have taken some important steps but we still have a way to travel. At McGill, we will continue on the path toward full equity through iterative, reflective efforts,” continued the Provost. “I recognize that these efforts must emanate from leadership. At the same time, critical work is done by students, faculty, staff and alumni. While many groups have made important contributions to McGill’s anti-racism efforts, I note in particular the Dr. Kenneth Melville Black Faculty and Staff Caucus, whose members have helped shape the development and implementation of McGill’s Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism.”

Racism felt at every stage of life

In her keynote address, Dr. Nnorom said that while Blacks experience racism on a daily basis in many forms, there is one form that is more insidious and impactful. “Whether the racism occurs at the individual level, or the interpersonal level, whether it is conscious or unconscious, the main damage caused at a population level is caused by systemic racism,” she said.

McGill grad Dr. Onye Nnorom delivered the keynote address at the Opening Ceremony for Black History Month

“Our systems, institutions, policies and work cultures were founded on the belief that European appearance, customs, norms, beliefs, behaviours and standards were, and are, inherently superior,” she said. “That sets the stage in which we have these systems and structures that have created and then maintained systemic racism.”

The impact of systemic racism is felt throughout a person’s lifecycle. Black women in Canada have a higher incidence of low birth weight babies and preterm births. Blacks are more likely to be investigated by child welfare services, more likely to drop out of high school, and more likely to be incarcerated. Studies have shown that Blacks earn 75 cents for every dollar non-racialized people earn, and that Blacks with a graduate degree have a higher unemployment rate than non-Black high school dropouts.

“When you look at the statistics, you realize that we are constantly facing barriers due to the color of our skin,” she said. “And the anti-Black racism is there in the classroom, in the courtroom. And yes, even in the boardroom.”

The never-ending gauntlet of racism is exhausting, said Dr. Nnorom, only increasing the “allostatic load,” or the wear and tear on the body which accumulates when an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress. This increased allostatic load leads to higher levels of chronic disease, such as hypertension, and mental health issues.

As well, this exhaustion can lower a person’s motivation to stay physically active or to cook healthily, resulting in higher levels of obesity and other chronic conditions. The situation is only exacerbated because many Blacks hesitate in seeking medical help “because of the stereotyping and bias” they experience at hospitals and healthcare centres.

Resilience and resistance work best “as team sports”

Dr. Nnorom said that there are any number of important factors that can help reduce stress levels, ranging from positive family support to “city-level programs that teach you how to navigate systems with regards to upward social mobility.”

Ignoring or shrugging off anti-Black racism is an unhealthy coping mechanism for individuals. Instead, she said, people need to push back.

Dr. Nnorom cited a study that looked at coping mechanisms among Black women and men. The study found that ignoring anti-black racism actually increases stress and the allostatic load. “Being the type to engage and to either fully resist at an individual level, or collective level is associated, particularly for black women, with a decrease in allostatic load.”

Blacks must also “tap into our ancestral wisdom” and “practices within the African diaspora that we have been taught, to disregard, and to be ashamed of,” said Nnorom. Greeting each other on the street, talking to strangers and practicing gratitude are all behaviours common “back home,” as Dr. Nnorom called it, that promote wellbeing.

“Random acts of kindness – when somebody just brings over food, or you can drop in at their house, unannounced, and spend the day,” she said, adding to her “shortlist” of positive activities. “Exercise, like dancing. Support Carnival… I think it’s very important for us to not lose these and to keep these in mind as communities.”

“In my own experience, I would say that when it comes to resistance and resilience, they are best played as team sports,” said Dr. Nnorom. “And we know that from our history that it needs to be done at the level of the collective.”

To learn more about Black History Month 2021, including the schedule of events, consult the webpage or the BHM Facebook page.


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Overcoming vaccine hesitancy

Campus news - Tue, 02/02/2021 - 09:43

After achieving the monumental feat of developing and approving, not one, but two COVID-19 vaccines in under a year, the focus has now shifted to immunization – arguably the most important phase of the pandemic yet. “Ensuring effective and equitable delivery of these vaccines is our best hope of charting a course to a post-pandemic world,” says Dr. Don Sheppard, Chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences and Director of the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity (MI4).

Failing to administer the vaccine to enough people to achieve herd immunity – the point at which the virus is unable to find enough hosts to spread – would be akin to falling at the finish line of a marathon. Yet there are significant barriers to vaccination, ranging from logistical challenges associated with distribution, to public resistance rooted in cultural attitudes.

“MI4 launched a call for proposals in the fall with the aim of developing strategies to overcome these barriers in a real-world setting,” says Dr. Sheppard, who is also a senior scientist with the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) Infectious Diseases and Immunity in Global Health Program. Six studies were selected and received grants of up to $100,000 each from MI4, supported by the fundraising efforts of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) Foundation, McGill University Advancement and the Jewish General Hospital Foundation, who are proud to have their vibrant researchers and related communities collaborating under the MI4 umbrella.

Fast track, not short cut

Considering what the world has been through over the past year, it would seem incredible that anyone is on the fence about embracing a potential solution. Yet, studies suggest many remain unconvinced about vaccination. Research published in the fall of last year found that only 39 per cent of Canadians would take a vaccine as soon as one became available, down from 46 per cent in July.

One of the reasons for this vaccine hesitancy is a perceived safety concern related to the speed at which these vaccines have been developed. Vaccines commonly take between 10 and 15 years to reach the market. Mumps reset the bar in the 1960’s, at just four years. But the rapid spread, and staggering death toll, of COVID-19 helped fast track the development of several vaccines in record time.

“Many aspects of the approval process, such as administrative reviews, were started early so as not to delay the process, and factories were built to mass produce the vaccine while it was still under-development,” explains Dr. Sheppard. “It’s important for people to understand that fast track does not mean short cut.”

Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, a lie can travel half way around the world, while the truth is still putting on shoes. That is particularly true today, when misinformation can be shared to a massive social network at the click of a button. “Vaccine hesitancy is, to a large extent, rooted in a lack of trust in social institutions, including science itself,” says Dr. Ian Gold, Professor of Philosophy and Psychiatry at McGill, who is leading one of the new MI4 projects.

Gold’s study aims to overcome this by developing a trust-based strategy for increasing vaccine uptake. Dr. Inés Colmegna, McGill Associate Professor based in the Division of Rheumatology at the MUHC, aims to address similar fears and misconceptions by adapting strategies learned through influenza vaccination campaigns.

Targeting specific demographic groups

The other MI4 studies, funded through the new initiative, are focused on specific demographic groups. A study led by Dr. Zeev Rosberger, McGill Associate Professor in the Departments of Oncology, Psychiatry and Psychology at the Lady Davis Institute of the Jewish General Hospital, aims to encourage altruistic behaviour in the relatively low-risk 20-to-40-year age group. Dr. Moshe Ben-Shoshan, Assistant Professor in Pediatrics based at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, is leading a study focused on children and Dr. Abhinav Sharma, McGill Assistant Professor based in the Division of Cardiology at the MUHC, aims to encourage vaccination in cardiovascular patients and other high-risk individuals.

The last of the six newly funded projects aims to shed light on the spread of coronavirus in Canada’s correctional facilities – an area that has received too little attention. “Prisons are congregate settings, very much like long term care facilities, where the virus can spread easily among inmates, guards and support staff, and into surrounding communities,” explains principal investigator, Dr. Nadine Kronfli, McGill Assistant Professor based in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the MUHC. “While vaccine uptake rates have been historically low in Canada’s prisons, studies have shown that vaccination programs have the potential to increase uptake if partnered with educational intervention.”

Dr. Kronfli will determine what form this educational intervention should take to be effective, including who should be delivering the information. Anecdotal evidence suggests that nurses or inmate peers may be best suited to do so in correctional settings.

Each of these studies has a timeframe of just six months, which should allow the results to provide real and actionable insight that can improve Canada’s vaccination program this year and help bring an end to the pandemic. As Dr. Gold, explains: “These COVID-19 vaccines have covered a vast distance from the lab bench, where it began, but this effort will do nothing to alleviate the pandemic if the vaccine doesn’t cover the final inches to the recipient’s arm.”

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New approaches to teaching and learning: Thriving in the virtual classroom

Campus news - Mon, 02/01/2021 - 16:50

Faced with strict COVID-19 government protocols that have largely precluded in-person learning for much of 2020 and into 2021, professors and course lecturers across McGill’s campuses have found creative ways to connect with their students and optimize their new e-learning environments. The shift to remote delivery can be especially challenging for classes that involve laboratory or field work. But a look at two Mac campus courses, in Food Science and Farm Management and Technology, show how instructors and students are rising to the challenge.

Thinking outside – and inside – the box

Jennifer Ronholm, Food Science professor in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, was forced to rethink her approach to labs when it came to equipping her fourth-year students with the supplies required to successfully complete their at-home food fermentation experiments. Although it would prove challenging to deliver materials to students in all corners of the world, Ronholm decided it was the only logical approach.

“In August, we designed and assembled a course pack that we sent out to all the students containing the materials and instrumentation to make wine, sauerkraut, cheese, yogurt and to observe food spoilage,” she explains. “The course actually lends itself quite well to remote learning because most of the things you would do to demonstrate fermentation or spoilage can and do happen in peoples’ houses.”

And although shipping equipment directly to students seemed straight-forward enough, the process faced its own unexpected hiccups, particularly for packages destined for those in China, Mexico and India. “Unfortunately, parcels were held up at a couple of international borders. It was just weird what people lost from their kits… one student had their grape juice, bacterial culture for the cheese and a hydrometer removed. It was unfortunate, but we did our best,” Ronholm says.

Thankfully, the lack of materials didn’t detract from students’ ability to learn, as they were encouraged to share their experimental triumphs and failures with each other – an approach that Ronholm’s students appreciated.

“What I like about this course is that the goal is not for your experiment to go perfectly, it’s just to learn from the process,” says Food Science major Arusha Fleming. “We were encouraged to connect with our classmates, talk about and compare our results. That’s been really beneficial.”

And when it comes to the online labs, students were able to follow in tandem and interact live with the instructors or watch the recordings at a later time.

“I was engaged throughout it,” Bridget O’Brien, a U3 student majoring in Microbiology and Immunology, says of the labs. “It’s easy to follow because the lab manual has very straightforward steps that you can do on your own time or join in on the lab session and see either the prof or the TA demonstrate it. If you’re having trouble, you can ask a question at any point and they’re more than happy to help you figure out what is going wrong in your lab.”

A Food Microbiology student displays cheese her fermentation experimentJennifer Ronholm

The at-home nature of the work is also producing some unexpected positive consequences, drawing interest from other students or family members who may not have otherwise been exposed to food fermentation techniques.

“My microbiology friends would watch me make cream cheese or wine and they’d think it was so cool,” Bridget explains, adding that her experience in the course introduced some of her Downtown Campus colleagues to the fascinating classes offered at Macdonald Campus.

“It’s like science outreach at the same time as you’re doing science experimentation,” says Ronholm. “Students were engaging their roommates in the experiments and talking about the science behind it, which is kind of neat.”

The fall semester edition Food Microbiology was so well-received that it has prompted some of Ronholm’s students to contemplate their career paths. “I was already pretty interested in microbiology, but now it’s really up there on my list,” says Arusha. “It’s been a really inspiring course, especially with the hands-on stuff that we could integrate some of that theory into, like actually making a product that people could see on shelves later on.”

Arusha also credits Macdonald Campus with making “a really big effort to create spaces for students to connect virtually, which has been great. There are all kinds of activities you can sign up for, specify what classes you’re in and be paired other students in your class to form study groups. This semester I’ve actually tried to get involved in a lot more of the clubs on campus.”

And though she’s encouraged by the level of resilience and creativity she’s seen in students, Ronholm looks forward to resumption of the in-class activities that make teaching so fulfilling.

“Everyone’s doing the best they can under difficult circumstances,” she says, “but we will continue to look forward to a time when we can reconnect on campus. It will be good for everybody’s mental health to see humans again.”

Planting seeds of knowledge

David Wees, a Faculty Lecturer in McGill’s Farm Management and Technology (FMT) Program, was not particularly excited to learn that his highly interactive, hands-on courses would be shifting to a digital environment in fall 2020. “Even though these are courses that I’ve taught several times before, I knew that I would have re-evaluate everything, and spent quite a bit of the summer thinking about what was going to happen in the fall,” he says with a laugh.

And he’s not alone. Teachers across the university had to get creative about their approach not only to course delivery, but to project submissions, evaluations, labs, and testing.

One assignment that Wees traditionally gives students in the first-year Introduction to Plant Science course requires them to collect and identify different weeds, glue them to paper and submit the collection in class. But given the circumstances, asking them to mail in these collections would risk damaging the fragile specimens; so, the process had to be rethought.

Wees and his teaching assistant decided not only to convert these collections to digital, but to take the extra step of giving each student personalized feedback on their drafts.  “We reserved 20-minute blocks to meet with each student online to review their drafts specimen by specimen, photo by photo, and give them tips and suggested improvements,” Wees explains. “It’s the first time that I’ve actually been able to speak to every single student in the class. It was pretty intensive, but it means that the student and I actually got to connect for a few minutes together, which was refreshing.”

Students responded so positively to the tailored feedback that Wees is determined to find a way to continue these one-on-one meetings in the future.

Landscape Design students participate in a tree planting projectCaitlin MacDougall

In a separate Wees-led FMT course – Landscape Design –he and his students partnered with Macdonald Campus’ Sustainability of Operations Working Group in a tree-planting project made possible by McGill University’s Sustainability Projects Fund.

A pillar of landscape design is the ability to select the species of plants that will thrive in a particular site, and the planting activity – which saw 20 trees planted between the S-Road and Eco-Residences at Macdonald Campus – allowed for the practical application of those lessons.

“We want to illustrate to students why we plant what we plant and why we plant it where we plant it,’” explains Wees. “For example, we planted certain shrubs on the north side of some tall trees because these are shrubs that can tolerate shade, whereas other trees that are going to be much bigger need full sunlight, and so we put those away from the existing trees.”

Students were more than eager to break out of their online routine to work outdoors alongside their classmates in person, and to be part of an initiative that would benefit the campus and community for generations.

“The tree planting was definitely one of the highlights of the course,” says Jeremy Chevalley, third year FMT student. “When I come back to campus in 10 or 15 years, I’ll know that I helped to plant those trees.”

“It was also nice to see classmates that I haven’t seen in a while – following Covid regulations and socially distanced of course,” adds fellow FMT student Stacey Godin. “It was nice to see everyone again and work on this project together as a class.”

And the beauty of the tree-planting exercise is that its impact extends far beyond the Landscape Design students who did the planting. Future students, like those enrolled in Plant Science’s Flowering and Plant Diversity course, will observe and analyze the tree species as they grow. In addition, the project contributes to the city of Montreal’s “Plan Canopée” project, which aims to increase canopy coverage of the island from 20 percent to 25 percent by 2025.

And although he admits the delivery process isn’t perfect, Wees represents one of the many faculty members committed to continuously enhancing the virtual learning experience for his students. “It still needs tweaking,” he says, “so I’m always trying to get a little more sophisticated and a little bit more creative in how to use all these technologies.”

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McGill honours victims of Quebec Mosque shooting in virtual ceremony

Campus news - Fri, 01/29/2021 - 17:03
In 2018, McGill planted an ironwood tree and laid a plaque in honour of the men who were killed in the shootings of Jan. 29, 2017.Neale McDevitt

On January 29, 2017, an armed white nationalist terrorist entered the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City (CCIQ) and opened fire, killing Khaled Belkacemi, Azzeddine Soufiane, Aboubaker Thabti, Mamadou Tanou Barry, Abdelkrim Hassane and Ibrahima Barry. The tragedy stands as the worst mass murder in a house of worship in Canada’s history.

Today, on the four-year anniversary of the shooting, members of the McGill and Montreal community came together in a virtual ceremony hosted by the University to honour the victims and their families, and to make an impassioned call for unity.

“On this sombre day, as we remember the senseless acts of violence that took place, we also gather to champion diversity and ensure that our future is built upon inclusion and respect for all,” said Principal Suzanne Fortier, addressing almost 100 people who took part in the ceremony.

The Principal spoke of Amir Belkacemi, whose father Khaled was murdered that day.

“Amir joined us at a campus commemoration in 2018 and spoke of the power of unity and the importance of looking to the future,” said Fortier. “Drawing from his words, today’s anniversary is also an opportunity to reaffirm McGill’s ongoing commitment to the values of mutual respect and inclusion – and ensuring that they are upheld into our future.”

“Protecting these values takes continued effort– it requires courage, leadership and resilience – even in the face of unimaginable challenges,” said the Principal. “At McGill, we are dedicated to meeting this responsibility steadfastly, because we know what can be achieved when we empower people from all walks of life to succeed.”

Representatives from all levels of government – federal, provincial and municipal – also spoke during the ceremony.

Marc Miller, the Member of Parliament for Ville-Marie—Le Sud-Ouest—Île-des-Sœurs, told people that the Liberal government will make January 29 a National Day of Remembrance of the Quebec City Mosque Attack and Action Against Islamophobia.

“Today, we honour the victims and express solidarity with the survivors of this tragedy and we will remember them and recommit ourselves to resisting hate, discrimination and Islamophobia in all its forms,” said Miller.

Collective effort needed to combat ignorance

Mustafa Fakih, a fourth-year bioengineering student and the President of the Muslim Students’ Association of McGill University said that he’s attended every commemoration ceremony at McGill. While he said it was “heartwarming” to see so many allies attending these ceremonies, “discrimination and hate toward Muslims and other religious communities does not seem to be declining.”

“It seems to be due to ignorance… This ignorance breeds hate,” said Fakih. “I’d like for all of us here today to go the extra step to eliminate that ignorance once this Zoom call ends. Whether you are in the highest levels of government or just a first-year student here it is our collective effort in educating others that will help impact this broad change.”

After Muslim students read the names and brief biographical information of each of the victims, Fakih led a moment of silence in their honour.

Building a future together

The ceremony ended on a celebratory note, with Ehab Lotayef, IT & Technical Services Manager, announcing that Khadija Ahmed, a second-year Law student and the Co-President of the Muslim Law Student Association, was the winner of the Centre culturel islamique de Québec Memorial Award. Established by McGill in 2018, the award goes to students who show a commitment to fostering the inclusion of Muslims within the larger Quebecois and Canadian societies.

“While today is a sombre occasion during a particularly difficult winter for all of us, I’m very hopeful. This is because in Islam we are taught that with every hardship comes ease, so I’m hopeful that despite our hardships as a collective we are on a path to a more inclusive, brighter and just future,” continued Ahmed.

“I am particularly inspired by my McGill Law school community and peers who are mostly non-Muslim who’s friendship collaboration and solidarity are helping to build exactly this kind of future that we all want to live in. The Quebec mosque shooting and COVID-19 should always remind us that we are only as strong as our whole community, as exemplified by your presence here today.”

Watch a video of the ceremony

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LSD may offer viable treatment for certain mental disorders

Campus news - Fri, 01/29/2021 - 09:02

Researchers from McGill University have discovered, for the first time, one of the possible mechanisms that contributes to the ability of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) to increase social interaction. The findings, which could help unlock potential therapeutic applications in treating certain psychiatric diseases, including anxiety and alcohol use disorders, have been published in the journal PNAS.

Psychedelic drugs, including LSD, were popular in the 1970s and have been gaining popularity over the past decade, with reports of young professionals claiming to regularly take small non-hallucinogenic micro-doses of LSD to boost their productivity and creativity and to increase their empathy. The mechanism of action of LSD on the brain, however, has remained a mystery.

Studies in mice provide clues

To conduct their study, the researchers administered a low dose of LSD to mice over a period of seven days, resulting in an observable increase in the sociability of the mice. “This increased sociability occurs because the LSD activates the serotonin 5-HT2A receptors and the AMPA receptors — which is a glutamate receptor, the main brain excitatory neurotransmitters — in the prefrontal cortex and also activates a cellular protein called mTORC 1,” explains Danilo De Gregorio, PharmD, PhD, who is a postdoctoral fellow in the Neurobiological Psychiatry Unit at McGill and the study’s first author. “These three factors, taken together, promote social interaction in mice, which is the equivalent of empathy and social behaviour in humans.”

The researchers note that the main outcome of their study is the ability to describe, at least in rodents, the underlying mechanism for the behavioural effect that results in LSD increasing feelings of empathy, including a greater connection to the world and sense of being part of a large community. “The fact that LSD binds the 5-HT2A receptor was previously known. The novelty of this research is to have identified that the prosocial effects of LSD activate the 5-HT2 receptors, which in-turn activate the excitatory synapses of the AMPA receptor as well as the protein complex mTORC1, which has been demonstrated to be dysregulated in diseases with social deficits such as autism spectrum disorder,” as specified by Prof. Nahum Sonenberg, Professor at the Department of Biochemistry of McGill University, world renowned expert in the molecular biology of diseases and co-lead author of the study.

Using the cutting-edge technique of optogenetics, a technique where genes for light-sensitive proteins are introduced into specific types of brain cells in order to monitor and control their activity precisely using light signals, the researchers observed that when the excitatory transmission in the prefrontal cortex is de-activated, the prosocial effect of LSD was nullified, highlighting the importance of this brain region on the modulation of the behavioural effects of LSD.

Moving forward to apply the findings to humans

Having found that LSD increases social interaction in mice, the researchers are hoping to continue their work and to test the ability of LSD to treat mutant mice displaying the behavioural deficits similar to those seen in human pathologies including autism spectrum disorders and social anxiety disorders. The hope is to eventually explore whether micro-doses of LSD or some novel derivates might have a similar effect in humans and whether it could also be a viable and safe therapeutic option.

“Social interaction is a fundamental characteristic of human behaviour,” notes the co-lead author Dr. Gabriella Gobbi, Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at McGill and psychiatrist at the McGill University Health Centre. “These hallucinogenic compounds, which, at low doses, are able to increase sociability may help to better understand the pharmacology and neurobiology of social behaviour and, ultimately, to develop and discover novel and safer drugs for mental disorders.”

Read the study online.

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McGill researchers receive grants from Arthritis Society

Campus news - Thu, 01/28/2021 - 14:52
Both Dr. Lisbet Haglund and Shawn Robbins have earned operating grants worth approximately $300,000 over three years

Dr. Lisbet Haglund and Shawn Robbins have both been awarded strategic operating grants from the Arthritis Society. These grants provide funding for projects that have great potential for improving the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of arthritis.

Both researchers are working on projects related to osteoarthritis. Dr. Haglund, Associate Professor of Surgery, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, is studying therapies that may lead to the first disease-modifying drugs for osteoarthritis of the spine. Robbins, Associate Professor, School of Physical and Occupational Therapy, is conducting a randomized clinical trial aimed at identifying the most effective knee implants for patients with osteoarthritis.

“These researchers and these projects hold great promise for the future of arthritis diagnosis, care and prevention,” says Dr. Siân Bevan, Chief Science Officer at the Arthritis Society. “We look forward to how this important work will help us solve the unanswered challenges of arthritis.”

In 2019-20, the Arthritis Society committed over $4.5 million to arthritis research and the development of researchers and clinicians.

Disease modifying drugs for spine osteoarthritis

Dr. Haglund’s project, Senolytic drugs to treat back pain from spine OA, received $300,000 in funding over three years.

World-wide, low back pain due to osteoarthritis (OA) of the spine is the single largest cause of years lived with disability. Current treatments like physiotherapy or medication may reduce pain and slow degeneration of the intervertebral discs in the spine but do not stop the progression of the disease. Senolytic therapy destroys senescent (or arrested) cells that cause inflammation in old tissues, leading to rejuvenation and slower progression of many age-related conditions. Dr. Lisbet Haglund will study two promising senolytic therapies, a natural compound, o-Vanillin, and an approved drug, RG-7112. This study may lead to the first disease modifying drugs for low back pain resulting from OA of the spine.

How different knee replacement designs influence knee movement during walking

Robbins’ project is titled The effectiveness of medial pivot knee arthroplasty implants at improving gait and clinical outcomes in patients with knee osteoarthritis: A randomized controlled trial. It received $298,723 over three years.

Over 67,000 knee replacements are performed annually in Canada for knee arthritis and 20 per cent of patients remain unsatisfied after surgery. New implants have been designed, called medial pivot implants, which claim to more closely mimic normal knee movements. There has been limited testing of these implants, so their effectiveness and safety are not clear. Dr. Shawn Robbins will compare knee movement before and after surgery for walking and stair climbing, pain, and physical function between patients who had medial pivot or traditional knee replacement implants. A better understanding of the most effective knee implants will help to maximize patient outcomes, minimize negative side effects, and decrease demands on the healthcare system.

See the Arthritis Society’s competition results page.

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Record numbers connect, learn and have fun at McGill Physics Hackathon

Campus news - Thu, 01/28/2021 - 13:56

Of all the disruptions the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought, the loss of opportunities to connect with other people is one that many at McGill and beyond are feeling especially keenly. In November 2020, in the depths of a Zoom-fatigued fall semester, a 24-hour online coding challenge run by McGill physics students and faculty members achieved remarkable success in bringing people together to tackle projects around shared interests.

Over 190 hackers took part in the fifth edition of the McGill Physics Hackathon, setting new records not only for the total number of participants, but also for the relative numbers of first-time hackers and participants from outside McGill. The strong turnout was a pleasant surprise for organizers, who were concerned about how effectively they would be able to attract interest and keep participants engaged in an online event.

Thomas Abbott, who is in his final year of a Bachelor of Science at McGill, says while the Hackathon had often appealed to him in the past, the greater accessibility of this year’s online edition was a compelling reason to finally take the plunge and sign up.

“It was so easy this year,” he says. “I didn’t have to go anywhere or make too much time in my schedule. I just had to log in to the computer.”

Keeping the ball rolling

Lead organizer Nick Vieira describes the special atmosphere of previous in-person editions of the Hackathon, which have seen participants and mentors come together for 24 hours of intensive collaboration at venues like Mila, the sleek artificial intelligence research institute that hosted the Hackathon in 2019.

“When you have to actually show up to the event, and you’re surrounded by other people working hard on their projects, and there are mentors milling about in case you have any questions or you’re stuck with your code, you want to stick around, you don’t want to go home,” Vieira says.

“But when you’re literally at home – maybe in your pyjamas – and your project’s not going well, it’s really easy to just say, ‘Peace out.’”

Sabrina Berger, member of the Hackathon’s 12-strong organizing team, says while she missed being able to meet participants in person, running an online event in the shadow of a pandemic brought its own opportunities to get to know people and the projects they were working on.

“We would play games with the hackers or just interact with them in ways that felt more connected,” she says. “During that weekend, I remember not feeling the normal COVID loneliness.”

To help keep participants engaged, the 2020 Hackathon included mini-challenges, small side projects with well-defined goals that allowed hackers to switch focus when they wanted to take a break from their main objective. Different “channels” on the Hackathon’s Discord server also gave the hackers a virtual space to chat and play Pictionary and other games. In place of the on-site catering that has fuelled participants through previous years’ events, 2020’s participants were sent vouchers for a popular food delivery service, a gesture appreciated by many a late-night coder and one that was extended to Hackathon participants all around the world thanks to the tenacity of organizers in overcoming logistics challenges great and small.

Connections made

The thoughtful efforts of organizers were matched by the goodwill of participants in creating a sense of community. The event was marked by respectful, collaborative interactions, often between people who were meeting each other for the first time.

“It was really quite inspiring to see folks banding together and making new friends when we’re all so socially distant from each other,” says Vieira.

“We were pleasantly surprised that people were forming teams really quickly because that’s challenging when you can’t walk up to people and say, ‘Hey, what do you do? Do you want to be in a team?’

“I think it was a testament to the fact that people were willing to make that step and say, ‘I’ll get out of my bubble. I’ll be a social person today, and I’ll make a new friend.’”

Thomas Abbott, who, like roughly a third of all 2020 Hackathon participants came to the event without a pre-formed team, confirms the process of finding teammates through the event’s Discord server was quick and easy. With one teammate in Ontario and another in India, Abbott says it was exciting to connect with people from all over the world and that his team benefitted from a diversity of skills and expertise.

“It was nice having fourth-year and first-year students in our team,” he says. “We were able to explain our steps. We shared our screen to show what we were coding and walked each member through it. It was a nice learning experience, for sure.”

Knowledge shared

The McGill Physics Hackathon distinguishes itself from many other software development events in bringing computing skills to bear on problems in the physical sciences. Those new to programming were welcome to participate in the Hackathon and were supported with numerous introductory coding workshops in the weeks leading up to the main event.

Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, renowned epicentre of the global tech industry, Sabrina Berger finds it refreshing that the McGill Physics Hackathon focuses on goals other than creating the next big thing in the world of smartphone apps.

“Compared to all the other hackathons I’ve participated in, it’s nice that this one is not driven by the thought, ‘Ok, there’s going to be 10 venture capital investor people there and you’ve got to try and get your next start-up funded,’” she says.

Thomas Abbott’s team came together around a shared interest in astrophysics. After discussing a few ideas, they settled on a project to develop a three-dimensional animation depicting what happens when stars explode, an astrophysical phenomenon with some intriguing features.

“[In the life cycle of a supernova], there is something called a Sedov Taylor phase, where the expansion of the blast is not linear. That kind of surprised me,” Abbott explains.

The project was an opportunity for the fourth-year mathematics and physics major to gain a more a detailed understanding of the phenomenon his team was modelling.

“We spent time researching the expansion of [an exploding star] and learning about the equations that model it. I hadn’t actually covered supernovas in detail before, so it was all new knowledge,” he says.

Abbott was especially pleased to find himself working with a teammate from the University of Waterloo whose coding skills complemented his own.

“[He] was familiar with doing animations in Python and, before the Hackathon, I had no idea how to do that, but I had done some 3D plotting. So we really built off each other and ended up with, I think, a result to be proud of.”

A sense of purpose

As much as the 2020 McGill Physics Hackathon proved a valuable opportunity for participants to connect with others and learn new skills, it was just as rewarding an experience for the organizers and nearly 40 student mentors. The organizing team was made up of ten students, from undergraduates to PhDs, and two professors. All were overjoyed at the success of the event.

A master’s student in astrophysics, Nick Vieira was fresh out of CÉGEP when he participated in the first McGill Physics Hackathon in 2016. He enjoyed it so much that he has returned nearly every year since, becoming a mentor and subsequently leading the 2020 organizing team. The experience has helped solidify Vieira’s sense of how much he enjoys helping others find a way into the world of physics.

“When I started doing the Hackathon, and when I started doing physics outreach in general, I already really liked teaching and I really liked communicating with people about science,” he explains.

“[But] I didn’t think that I would love it quite as much as I do. I was pleasantly surprised by how rewarding it is to do the Hackathon – and not just the Hackathon, but all of our other programs – just reaching out to people and helping them feel like they can be physicists one day, or just teaching them a little bit of physics.

“I think I learned after the fact how much I love doing outreach. And now I’m hooked,” he laughs.

 Outreach in the time of COVID-19

The McGill Physics Hackathon is just one of countless outreach initiatives that are part of a tradition of McGill students and researchers making connections with the wider community. In the present time of crisis, the online edition of the Hackathon is a testament to how outreach groups across the Faculty of Science have found new ways to connect in response to the restrictions on in-person activities that have been in place since March 2020.

Science Outreach Program Adviser Jacky Farrell notes that, while online programming was rare prior to 2020, the number of groups providing virtual outreach quadrupled in a matter of months. Farrell and her team have supported these groups with special training workshops. Thanks to these and other efforts, 160 students involved in outreach have learned how to actively engage learners online, communicate science virtually, write outreach grants for new funding, and explore equity issues in STEM.

“The past nine months have been a time of high creativity and learning for the science outreach groups and the public programming team at the Redpath Museum,” Farrell says.

“They have developed new skills, fostered a sense of connection and tried out different programming to meet the needs of the communities we serve. Everyone has worked extremely hard to find new ways to connect and engage online with schools, families and the public in meaningful ways. The results have been inspiring.”

Learn more about Science Outreach at McGill

The post Record numbers connect, learn and have fun at McGill Physics Hackathon appeared first on McGill Reporter.

Black History Month 2021: Healing Forward 

Campus news - Thu, 01/28/2021 - 12:34
McGill grad Dr. Onye Nnorom will deliver the keynote address at the Opening Ceremony for Black History Month on February 1

Under the theme Healing Forward, McGill’s Black History Month 2021 will bring together students, staff, faculty, alumni and community members to honour and celebrate Blackness at McGill and more broadly in the greater communities of Montreal, Quebec and Canada.

This, the fifth edition of BHM, is co-organized by the by the Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic), the Black Students’ Network of McGill (BSN) and the McGill African Students’ Society (MASS).

“Healing Forward as a theme was certainly inspired by the overwhelm of this past year but also speaks to a much larger reflection of where we are as an institution and as a society, and where we want to head in the future. It is an invitation to imagine what that future can look like and for me, healing needs to be an integral part of that process,” says Shanice Yarde, one of the key organizers of Black History Month at McGill.

Adapt and overcome

While the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted in-person BHM proceedings, there is a full slate of virtual activities, including a discussion on mental health in Black communities (Feb. 10),  the Africa Speaks conference, and the five-part Being Black@McGill workshop series. All events are free and open to the public.

“The reality of COVID means that we are not going to be able to gather in the ways that many of us are accustomed to, especially at this time of the year. It also means that sadly, we are not going to get to enjoy the delicious food which is always a favourite element of our Black History Month events,” says Yarde. “Regardless, we are hoping to be able to recreate some of that familiar connection in a virtual way, and it’s challenged us to think about various barriers and how to best adapt.”

Also included on McGill’s BHM webpage are community events happening across Montreal and beyond, including The ABCs of Canadian Black History (Feb. 4), a lecture on Black feminism (Feb. 5) and a webinar on the impact of COVID-19 on Black Canadians. (Feb. 18).

People are encouraged to consult the BHM webpage regularly as new events are being added. To add an organized event to the schedule, contact Shanice Yarde at

Dr. Onye Nnorom to deliver keynote address

Black History Month will kick off with the Opening Ceremony on February 1.

Always one of the marquis events of BHM, the Opening Ceremony will feature a number of speakers, including Principal Suzanne Fortier, Provost Christopher Manfredi and keynote speaker, Dr. Onye Nnorom.

A graduate of McGill’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Dr. Nnorom is a leading voice pushing Canada’s medical system to recognize, study and address anti-Black racism. She is the Associate Program Director of the Public Health & Preventive Medicine Residency Program at the University of Toronto, and is the Black Health Theme Lead for the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. As the Black Health Theme Lead, Dr. Nnorom is tasked with developing educational content for teaching medical students about Black Canadian health, and inequities due to systemic racism.

A brief history of Black History Month

In 1926, Carter G. Woodson declared the second week in February to be Negro History Week. Woodson, an African American historian, educator and publisher, chose that week to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

The celebration was first expanded for the full month of February in 1970 at Kent State University. Six years later, U.S. President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month, calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history.”

In December 1995, the House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month in Canada following a motion introduced by the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament, the Honourable Jean Augustine. The motion was carried unanimously by the House of Commons

In 2006, the National Assembly of Quebec recognized February as BHM in Quebec. McGill adopted a Senate motion recognizing the annual celebration of BHM in 2017

The Opening Ceremony of Black History Month will be held on Monday, February 1, from 4:30-6:30 pm. Tickets for the virtual event can be reserved here.

The post Black History Month 2021: Healing Forward  appeared first on McGill Reporter.

Chapter opens on Indigenous Writer in Residence program

Campus news - Thu, 01/28/2021 - 10:17


Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is the inaugural Mellon Indigenous Writer in Residence Nadya Kwandibens

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson has been described by CBC Radio’s Rosanna Deerchild as “a wealth of stories, and ways to tell them.”

Simpson is a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, activist, musician, artist and author. Whether she is writing poetry, short stories, essays, novels or songs, the member of Alderville First Nation is regarded as one of the most compelling Indigenous voices of her generation.

In her work, Simpson deals with ideas of Indigenous environmentalisms and land-based knowledge, resurgence and resilience, and Indigenous futurities. She holds a PhD from the University of Manitoba and currently teaches at Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning. She is a member of Alderville First Nation.

This semester, Simpson will bring that incredible voice to McGill as the inaugural Mellon Indigenous Writer in Residence.

Promoting Indigenous scholarship and community building Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies is Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s most recent book

The Writer in Residence program is one of the initiatives funded by the five-year US$1.25-million grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in June 2019 to support McGill’s Indigenous Studies and Community Engagement Initiative (ISCEI). The ISCEI promotes the growth of the Indigenous Studies Program in the Faculty of Arts, and aims to serve as a nexus for Indigenous scholarship and community-building and to facilitate communication and collaboration both across units at McGill, as well as in partnership with Indigenous communities.

This semester also marks the launch of the Mellon Indigenous Artist in Residence program, featuring Caroline Monnet, an Algonquin-French multidisciplinary artist from Outaouais, Quebec.

“This is the inaugural year for the new annual Mellon Indigenous Artist- and Writer-in-Residence programs supported by the grant,” says Jessica Coon, Associate Professor of Linguistics and Director of the ISCEI. “These programs bring creative professionals to McGill to share their expertise, engage with students and faculty members, and to increase knowledge of and exposure to Indigenous art and writing among the campus community and the general public. We are excited to be able to launch these programs despite the challenges of being online, and are so honoured that Caroline Monnet and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson will be joining our community this semester.”

“While COVID delayed the Mellon Indigenous Writer in Residence program by a year, we are lucky to have Leanne Betasamosake Simpson bringing her insights into the power of art and storytelling at this culturally and historically fragile time, and thrilled that she is initiating the residency program,” says Tabitha Sparks, Associate Professor, Department of English, and Associate Dean, Research and Graduate Studies, Faculty of Arts.

Prior to her beginning as Mellon Indigenous Writer in Residence, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson spoke with the Reporter.

You are the inaugural ISCEI Writer in Residence. How important is it for McGill – and other institutions – to have initiatives like this?

It is very important right now for universities to support the Black and Indigenous faculty, staff and students they currently have, and it is also very important to be hiring more permanent Black and Indigenous faculty across disciplines and providing them with the support and influence they need to make systemic changes that will enhance research and learning for students. Artistic practice, including writers also contribute to knowledge production and so having positions like Writers and Artists in Residence not only support individual artists particularly in pandemic times, but also enhance the academic environment with different forms of knowledge and practice.

What do you hope to accomplish during your residency?

I have an up-coming book deadline for a co-written project with Robyn Maynard called Rehearsals for Living: Conversations on Abolition and Anti-Colonialism. I will be working on that project during my residency.

You are a writer, a poet and a musician. Do you have a preference or a facility for specific genre? Or is it a question of you preferring a specific genre to express or explore specific subjects?

Genres don’t make a lot of sense to me. In many ways, the themes I explore in my academic work are the same themes that I explore in fiction and performance. Genres, like disciplines, are rooted in western thought and practices. My body of work comes from a different place, and I want my creative and intellectual thinking to do different work in the world.

Could you expand a bit on this and tell us more about that “different place” from which your writing comes? As well, could you tell us more about the “different work” you want your work to do in the world?

The spine of my practice is the land, and Michi Saagiig land-based practices. That is a very generative space for me whether I’m doing academic or creative work. Nishnaabeg intellectual and storytelling practices don’t conform to western disciplines or literary genres. Our world, and our knowledge is organized differently. Ethically and politically, this is my first concern.

I recently watched Dionne Brand’s NFB documentary where she is in conversation with poet Adrienne Rich. Brand talks about writing to her people. I think there is something similar in my work – I write to and for Nishnaabeg and Indigenous peoples first. Of course, non-Indigenous audiences are welcome to read and engage as well, but this sets up a different writing and a different reading experience. My work refuses, rejects and critiques, but at the same time I hope it gives glimpses of how to live otherwise, and how to build otherwise.

Are there recurring themes or overarching topics in the stories you tell?

I think most of my work in one way or another interrogates or perhaps refuses colonialism, heteropatriarchy and capitalism. There are themes of reciprocity, relationality, world building, flight and fugitivity in my work. I am most concerned and interested in the present.

Writers are often told to “write what you know.” How much do your own personal experiences inform your writing?

Personal experience is one source of information amongst many. I like to layer meaning which requires a layering of knowledge. Oftentimes personal experience might be the original source of inspiration, but that leads to research or imaginings, or thinking through things with other writers, artists and thinkers.

Have you always been drawn toward writing? Was there a specific moment when you knew you wanted to be a full-time writer?

Writing is one of the things I’m drawn to, but it certainly isn’t the only thing. It is exceedingly difficult for Black and Indigenous writers to be full time writers in Canada, and so like a lot of other writers, I do a lot of other things – like teaching, for instance to pay the bills. Stories and storytelling have always been very precious to me. Stories have most often brought me joy, meaning and insight. I think I hold storytelling and oral practice very close to my heart. 

Do you have any mentors or people who inspired you to follow this path? Any other writers in your family?

My family is a family of storytellers. I’ve had lots of people of all ages who have supported and encouraged me in my life, and I think that’s actually been more important to me than actual mentors.

Do you work on one project at a time or do you have several going at the same time? What projects are you working on at present?

I generally have several things going on in my life at the same time. In writing, particularly if it is a longer form project, I generally only generate new writing on one project at a time. I may be editing, or doing research for another project, but I find it difficult to generate multiple new works at once.

I understand that you are quite concerned with promoting other Indigenous writers and their works. How would you describe the Indigenous literary landscape at present and are there specific writers you would recommend? Why is it important for people to read more Indigenous writers?

The Indigenous literary landscape has really come into itself in the past few years, with writers winning major literary awards, putting their books out with big publishing companies and having a presence at Writers festivals and in the literary world. Queer and Trans Indigenous writers have really produced a powerful body of work in the past few years, and Indigenous writing has much more visibility than it did when I started writing. This year, I found Christa Couture’s How to Lose Everything moving and insightful, as is Mojave poet Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem.

Black writers are also really gifting us with some amazing works right now. I really loved emerging poet Junie Désil’s eat salt | gaze at the ocean. Black Writers Matter, edited by Whitney French is also a terrific read, as is Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada edited by Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson and Syrus Marcus Ware.

Learn more about Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and her work online. She will deliver an online lecture titled A Short History of the Blockade: Beavers, Affirmation and Generative Refusal on February 4, at 10 am. Get more details and register online.

The post Chapter opens on Indigenous Writer in Residence program appeared first on McGill Reporter.

Caroline Monnet set to begin inaugural Indigenous Artist in Residence

Campus news - Tue, 01/26/2021 - 16:54
Caroline Monnet, the inaugural Mellon Indigenous Artist in Residence, will deliver a virtual lecture on January 28 at 4 pm. Details can be found at the end of the article

Hailing from Outaouais, Quebec, Caroline Monnet is a multidisciplinary artist whose work has garnered international exposure and acclaim. Monnet, who is of French and Algonquin ancestry, uses visual and media arts to explore complex ideas around Indigenous identity and bicultural living through the examination of cultural histories.

Having studied Sociology and Communication at the University of Ottawa and the University of Granada in Spain, she decided to pursue a career in visual arts and films. Her work has been programmed internationally at the Palais de Tokyo (Paris), Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin), TIFF (CAN), Sundance (US), Aesthetica (UK), Palm Springs (USA), Cannes Film Festival, Museum of Contemporary Art (Montreal), Arsenal Contemporary NY, Axenéo7 (Gatineau), Walter Phillips Gallery (Banff), Division Gallery (Montreal) and the National Art Gallery (Ottawa).

This semester, Monnet comes to McGill as the inaugural Mellon Indigenous Artist in Residence.

Promoting Indigenous scholarship and community building

The Artist in Residence program is one of the initiatives funded by the five-year US$1.25-million grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in June 2019 to support McGill’s Indigenous Studies and Community Engagement Initiative (ISCEI). The ISCEI promotes the growth of the Indigenous Studies Program in the Faculty of Arts, and aims to serve as a nexus for Indigenous scholarship and community-building and to facilitate communication and collaboration both across units at McGill, as well as in partnership with Indigenous communities.

Renaissance (2018), by Caroline Monnet

This semester also marks the launch of the Mellon Indigenous Writer in Residence program, featuring Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, activist, musician, artist and author. We will feature Simpson in the Reporter in the coming days.

“This is the inaugural year for the new annual Mellon Indigenous Artist- and Writer-in-Residence programs supported by the grant,” says Jessica Coon, Associate Professor of Linguistics and Director of the ISCEI. “These programs bring creative professionals to McGill to share their expertise, engage with students and faculty members, and to increase knowledge of and exposure to Indigenous art and writing among the campus community and the general public. We are excited to be able to launch these programs despite the challenges of being online, and are so honoured that Caroline Monnet and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson will be joining our community this semester.”

We are thrilled that Caroline Monnet – a brilliant internationally acclaimed artist and filmmaker – will join us this semester,” says Mary Hunter, Chair of Art History and Communications. “By taking part in a variety of events with students and faculty, Monnet will share her knowledge of contemporary Indigenous art and film. We have much to learn from Monnet and her artworks, which explore the complexity of Indigenous identity. While there are many academics who are excellent teachers at McGill, learning from a practicing artist is a particularly special and engaging experience. We are incredibly fortunate that the Mellon has given us this opportunity.”

Prior to her beginning as Mellon Indigenous Artist in Residence, Caroline Monnet spoke with the Reporter.

You are the inaugural ISCEI Artist in Residence. How important is it for McGill – and other institutions – to have initiatives like this?

It’s a tremendous honour to be invited to participate in this important residency. I was surprised at first by the initiative but also think it comes at a necessary time in today’s Quebec social context. Indigenous students continue to be underrepresented in Canadian higher education institutions and McGill seems to be committed to do its part to close this education gap, recognizing the urgency of this issue for the country and institutions like McGill.

I believe this type of initiative can be a transformative experience by expanding knowledge, nurturing critical thinking and inspiring new ideas, creativity and innovation. I think the main focus of creating residencies, similar to this one, is to engage in dialogue and sharing, which is always a stepping stone for more inclusion and understanding.

What do you hope to accomplish during your residency?

Residencies are always a good time for research and to focus on a specific project. The timing of this residency this semester is ideal, as students will be able to witness the evolution of my research and art production leading to the installation and presentation of an upcoming solo exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal next Spring. I will use the residency to advance my research, and work on new pieces for the show.

This is an interesting time for me to get feedback from staff and students as my project evolves, shifts and transforms. Opportunities like this are highly valuable because they allow me to dig deep into research, to discuss topics revolving around the exhibition and stimulate conversations. Overall, what really comes come to mind is the desire to share, build bridges and engage with students.

What different mediums do you work with? Do you have a preference or a facility for specific disciplines or mediums, or is it a question of you preferring a specific medium to express or explore specific subjects?

I am a strong believer that it is concept that dictates the medium I choose. Some things are better expressed under a sculptural form, while others are more appropriate when told with the medium of video and sound. It all depends on what it is that I want to talk about.

It comes quite instinctively in the early stages of the creative process. I have no intentions in choosing one medium over the other.

On the contrary, switching between mediums, techniques and disciplines keep me curious, invested and challenged. I have a high respect for artists that truly master their technique and work on it continuously. But in my case, the versatility of mediums allows me to be in a stage of exploration and experimentation both for myself and the work.

Over recent years, I’ve flirted with many different mediums but would say that I tend to be drawn back to installation, video and sculpture. I am currently finishing the postproduction of a feature film, so it feels natural that in my visual art practice I am less inclined to use video as a medium, but rather excited to work with materials in a sculptural context.

When exploring, I am not limited to what comes out of my research, but also how the research affects my rendition – meaning that I am not limiting myself to how the piece is made but also why the piece is made so that it extends outside of materiality and so that the narrative embedded in the work can come into play.

The multidisciplinary approach in my practice is also a way to simply adapt my skills to each project that comes my way. I appreciate being outside of my comfort zone, as I feel this is a place where one can learn and grow as an individual and as an artist.

You have French and Algonquin roots. How does your ancestry – both Indigenous and Colonial – inform your art?

Both Indigenous and Colonial inform my art since I come from both backgrounds. I grew up between Brittany and Outaouais, so it is obvious that this upbringing would also be reflected in the work I do. I cannot shy away from the fact that I am of a mixed ancestry. Both my French and Algonquin roots have been present from the very beginning of my art practice. I’ve explored the duality of my identity in many of my earlier works.

Through research and art, I have been able to connect deeper with my mom’s community, understand my family’s history, and learn about traditional craft making and the anishinaabemowin language. This is often paired with European references in history, art, cinema and literature that were taught to me during my education. My set of values are both Algonquin and French.

What are the stories you tell in your art? Are there recurring themes or overarching subject matter?

I studied sociology, so my work is often rooted in social interest. I’m interested in history and how that particular history, whether oral or factual, has had an impact across generations. I’m interested in how aggressive assimilation politics from the government has shaped Indigenous realities today. I’m also committed to bringing positive Indigenous representation on screen, showcasing strong Indigenous women and giving them as much space as possible so we can be seen, heard and listened to.

I talk about issues that are important to me. I believe that, as artists, we have the responsibility to spark dialogue and contribute to society. Just like sociologist, we are observers and respond to the world around us. I don’t want my work to be simply beautiful, I want it to contribute something to the larger debate, to be accessible to a large audience, but when you actually take the time to read and understand the work, you start picking up the messages and issues embedded in it. My practice is often rooted in research and carries multiple layers of meaning.

How much traditional symbolism and imagery do you incorporate into your work? Is there a lot of blending of traditional and contemporary in your art?

I’m inspired by history, traditional teachings and craft. I use that inspiration to inform a present and a future but that is always entwined with the past. However, I always adapt it to my urban contemporary reality by using tools that are readily available, that being technology and materials sourced at a local hardware store.

Have you always been drawn toward art? Was there a specific moment when you knew you wanted to be a full-time artist?

I’ve always been drawn to art, but I don’t come from an artistic family.

Being an artist wasn’t a career choice when I was growing up. The shift happened when I lived in Winnipeg for five years and started hanging out at places like Urban Shaman Contemporary Art Gallery. I was meeting all kinds of very interesting, vibrant people who were doing art and advocating for Indigenous inclusion on the broader art scene. It was an inspiring time. I made my first artwork, a short video titled Ikwé, in 2009, through the Winnipeg Film Group.

I discovered a way to express myself that felt gratifying at a time where I was quite introverted and shy. I soon realized that I was truly passionate about it and didn’t want to do anything else. I dropped everything else and dedicated all my time to writing, directing, painting and making art.

Do you have any mentors or people who inspired you to follow this path? Any other artists in your family?

My parents always encouraged me to follow my heart and my passion. I didn’t have any artistic models growing up, but my mother was always an avid consumer of art and culture. She was very curious about everything, and at a young age I was exposed to all kinds of different music from around the world. She also loved reading and watching movies. I think this has contributed to expanding my mind and opening my spirit to other ways of doing things. I’m pretty sure my avid curiosity comes from her.

At the early stages of my career, some artists and curators played a significant role in encouraging me to pursue my practice. Artist Nadia Myre is one of them, but also Kevin Lee Burton, Stefan St-Laurent, Jason Ryle and Danis Goulet.

Do you work on one project at a time or do you have several going at the same time? What projects are you working on at present?

I have multiple projects in the works. It’s hard for me to focus on only one project at a time. I find a lot of things inspiring, and I always have ideas that I want to explore.

Each project is different and they vary in length. Some take five years to complete, others can be finished within a month. It really depends on the nature of the project.

I am incredibly lucky and thankful to be able to work on projects that I am passionate about. I try to approach each project with the same level of professionalism, rigour and care.

Currently I am finishing old projects such as my first feature film. As well, I am diving into new ones, including two major solo exhibitions at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Koffler Centre for the Arts in Toronto. I also have several side projects on the go, including a collaboration with choreographer Clara Furey and a multimedia installation for Nuit Blanche Toronto, curated by Dr. Julie Nagam.

Learn more about Caroline Monnet and her work.

Caroline Monnet will deliver a virtual lecture on January 28 at 4 pm. Learn more about the Artist Talk: Caroline Monnet event and register online.

The post Caroline Monnet set to begin inaugural Indigenous Artist in Residence appeared first on McGill Reporter.

Fall Reading Break starts this October

Campus news - Tue, 01/26/2021 - 16:18

Starting in October, McGill undergraduate and graduate students will enjoy an annual Fall Reading Break (FRB). Like the existing Winter break, the new FRB will allow students to catch up on their work, provide extra study time, maintain their mental and physical wellness, and rest.

The creation of the FRB follows years of extensive cross-campus consultation and close collaboration. Bryan Buraga, who was president of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) in 2019-20, said he was “extremely pleased that we were able to bring about an FRB in collaboration with administrators, key staff, and students.”

The inaugural FRB will be Saturday, Oct. 9 to Wednesday, Oct. 13, inclusive.

Buraga was the SSMU representative on the Enrolment and Student Affairs Advisory Committee (ESAAC), a standing committee with administrative responsibility for various student affairs, chaired by Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Fabrice Labeau. In January 2019, ESAAC struck the Sub-committee on Fall Reading Break to examine different possible scenarios for how to implement an FRB, and to identify what trade-offs would be required to make it happen. The sub-committee included representatives from SSMU, the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) and the Macdonald Campus Students’ Society (MCSS).

A fourth-year student in the Bachelor of Arts and Science program, majoring in Sustainability, Science and Society, Buraga says the resulting FRB “strikes the right balance between the needs of all members of the McGill community, and demonstrates how student-led advocacy on issues can lead to long-term, long-lasting positive change for the University.”

Trade-offs needed

Students have advocated for a Fall break for some years, but the complex logistics of implementing it— a 13-week, three-credit course requires at least 39 contact hours, and academic programs must have 130 teaching days over the Fall and Winter semesters—required time for reflection and close coordination. Contact hours lost to an FRB would need to be somehow added back into the schedule by making lectures, or the semester itself, longer.

The SSMU held a referendum among the undergraduate student community in March 2018 to assess the level of support for an FRB. The students voted 96.6 per cent in favour of the idea.

Gillian Nycum, McGill’s Registrar and Executive Director for Enrolment Services, said that “in light of that [referendum], students were informed that we have to have a trade-off in order to maintain the contact hours in the Fall semester to make room for the FRB.”

Nycum noted that after the referendum, the sub-committee conducted “a feasibility analysis of whether it was possible to implement it in our schedule.” Early in 2019, the sub-committee concluded that the break was indeed possible, but added that further consultation was necessary “to capture a clear direction, a sense of consensus on the right way to do this.”

The sub-committee consulted deans and various staff members on the feasibility of the academic pause. Their feedback was captured in a memo that Deputy Provost Labeau submitted to Senate in May 2020.

Students surveyed

In the fall of 2018, the SSMU held a second referendum asking undergraduate students which trade-off options they preferred. The compromises included starting the semester earlier, holding final exams on weekends, and having courses begin earlier in the morning and going later into the evening. More than 75 per cent of students preferred the idea of maintaining the required number of contact hours by starting the semester earlier.

The sub-committee then did “a much deeper dive into the issue,” Nycum said, consulting deans, associate deans, faculty councils, department chairs and administrative staff “to ensure that we catalogued the implications of implementing the FRB.”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the process somewhat, the sub-committee was able to make its recommendations to McGill’s Senate in May 2020. Senate approved new guidelines for setting the academic calendar dates while maintaining contact hours.

Break dates not fixed

“The sub-committee decided to take a balanced approach by making space in the calendar for the FRB by starting the Fall semester earlier by the fewest number of days possible,” Nycum said. “We coordinated with Student Services around Orientation week, and worked to avoid [shifting the dates of] residence move-in weekend up one week” to minimize any inconvenience to students. Because Labour Day isn’t a fixed date, the Fall semester has traditionally started anywhere from Sept. 1 to 6, and in some years before Labour Day. Under the revised academic calendar, the semester could now start as early as the end of August. Fall 2021 will begin on Sept. 1.

Although the exact dates, and length of the break, will vary each year depending on the Labour Day wildcard, the FRB will always be an expansion of the Canadian Thanksgiving long weekend in October.

“Obviously, I would love for it to [always] be a full week,” said Kristi Kouchakji, the PGSS’s University Affairs Commissioner, “but this will still offer students at all levels a chance to catch their breath and reflect on what supports they might need or what tweaks to their work process they might want to make to have the second half of the semester go more smoothly, which is especially important for incoming students at all levels.”

Administration on board

Students on the committee praised the University’s thorough consultation process and extensive collaborative approach, singling out Labeau’s enthusiasm and receptiveness, and Nycum’s deep commitment.

The PGSS’s Kouchakji said that she is “very grateful that so many key administrators were willing to listen to what students were overwhelmingly telling them about the need for a FRB, and were willing to collaborate so closely with SSMU and to include PGSS and other stakeholders in the process as well. In particular, I’d like to commend Gillian Nycum and her team for making this work despite the many constraints.”

Kouchakji added that she is “continually in awe of the mobilization efforts SSMU puts forth on this and many other issues.”

U4 political science undergrad and SSMU VP Maheen Akter, who served on the sub-committee, said she is “thrilled that the Fall Reading Break has finally come to fruition, given the many years of advocacy and labour that have gone into it. I’m extremely thankful to all the students who have worked to implement it, including previous SSMU presidents Bryan Buraga and Tre Mansdoerfer.”

“The new break will be incredibly helpful for managing the workload of students and will allow for some alleviation of stress,” Akter noted. “I’ve very happy that students had such heavy involvement in both the sub-committee and in the work that led up to its conception.  As Kristi mentioned, there was significant and crucial buy-in from administrators like Gillian Nycum and the FRB would not be a reality without them.”

Nycum returned the compliment.

“It’s been a really great collaboration. The students have been with us every step of the way.”

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Implementation of Fall Reading Break at McGill

Campus updates - Tue, 01/26/2021 - 16:12
<p>S<i>ent on behalf of Gillian Nycum, Registrar and Executive Director, Enrolment Services</i></p> <p><i>La version française suit.</i></p> <p>Dear colleagues,  </p>
Categories: Campus news HP

Principal Fortier extols integrated learning in World Economic Forum session

Campus news - Mon, 01/25/2021 - 16:38
Clockwise from top left: Nzinga Qunta, South African Broadcasting Corp.; Tariq Al Gurg, CEO of Dubai Cares; Principal Suzanne Fortier; and Henrietta H. Fore, Executive Director of the United Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Principal Suzanne Fortier was a featured panelist in a World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Davos Agenda virtual session on Reimagining Education on Monday, during which she stressed the importance of integrated learning.

Principal Fortier was joined by moderator Nzinga Qunta, an anchor with the South African Broadcasting Corp., Henrietta H. Fore, Executive Director of the United Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Tariq Al Gurg, CEO of Dubai Cares, a philanthropic organization that aims at improving education opportunities in developing countries.

The livestreamed session centered 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.

Bringing a new generation into the workforce

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

“We need to create a community of learners,” Principal Fortier said. “Students in universities can be in the communities globally… Learners with learners is a way to ensure that everybody in the world will have access [to education] and maybe solve some of the problems that technology alone cannot solve.”

“The model of integrated learning is used in many countries. While students are learning, they have an opportunity to also be part of a firm or a governmental agency, so that they can learn also on the workforce. They have an increased chance of being hired because they do a great job being seen in action and people realize how important it is to bring the new generation into the workforce.”

McGill and WEF

McGill is the only Canadian member of the WEF’s Global University Leaders Forum (GULF), comprised of some of the top 29 universities in the world. GULF was created in 2006, and Principal Fortier has served as its chair since 2019. She is also co-chair of the Global Future Council on the New Education and Skills Agenda, part of a WEF interdisciplinary knowledge network dedicated to promoting innovative thinking to shape a more resilient, inclusive and sustainable future.

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.

This time each year, WEF traditionally hosts its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, but the in-person event has been postponed due to the pandemic. It is now scheduled to take place in May in Singapore. In its stead, the Davos Agenda virtually 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.

Watch the Reimagining Education session online

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Campus update - January 25 2021

EOC updates - Mon, 01/25/2021 - 16:19
<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>La version française suivra lorsque disponible dans un courriel séparé.</i></p> <p>Dear members of the McGill community, </p>
Categories: Campus news HP

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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