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Zombie cells and flu fighters

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

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

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

Taking out “zombie” cells Hosni Cherif

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

Fighting the flu Dr. Inés Colmegna

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

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


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Making medical imaging more accessible with better molecules

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

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

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

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

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

Promoting equity in mental health care

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

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

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

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

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

Webinars about Diversity and Mental Health

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

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

Bell Let’s Talk Day is January 28

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

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

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Principal Fortier to participate in Davos Agenda

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

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

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

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

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

Rebuild and reform

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

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

A priority partnership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Masks are, in fact, dangerous.”

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

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

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

What are conspiracy theories?  

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

Is this a relatively new phenomenon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can we protect ourselves against conspiracy theories?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Inside a new kind of retail store

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

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

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

Testing the waters

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

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

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

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

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

Watch a video about the new retail innovation lab

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Prakash Panangaden honoured by the Association for Computing Machinery

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

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

The new Fellows were announced on January 13.

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

Top one per cent

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

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

Pivotal contributions to transformational technologies

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

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

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

Read the ACM press release

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Stephanie Fernandez is Homeward Bound

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

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

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

Stephanie Fernandez is a PhD candidate in chemical engineering

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

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

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

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

Climate change, sustainability, gender equity

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

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

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

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

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

Authentic identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What makes video games so addictive?

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

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

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

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

What kind of impact are we talking about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember the importance of parents as role models.

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

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


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McGill takes home seven CASE Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Campus update - January 13 2021

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

Child marriage is legal and persists across Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common-law unions more prevalent

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

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

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

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

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Climate change: Threshold for dangerous warming will likely be crossed between 2027-2042

Campus news - Tue, 01/12/2021 - 11:56

The threshold for dangerous global warming will likely be crossed between 2027 and 2042 – a much narrower window than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s estimate of between now and 2052. In a study published in Climate Dynamics, researchers from McGill University introduce a new and more precise way to project the Earth’s temperature. Based on historical data, it considerably reduces uncertainties compared to previous approaches.

Scientists have been making projections of future global warming using climate models for decades. These models play an important role in understanding the Earth’s climate and how it will likely change. But how accurate are they?

Dealing with uncertainty

Climate models are mathematical simulations of different factors that interact to affect Earth’s climate, such as the atmosphere, ocean, ice, land surface and the sun. While they are based on the best understanding of the Earth’s systems available, when it comes to forecasting the future, uncertainties remain.

“Climate skeptics have argued that global warming projections are unreliable because they depend on faulty supercomputer models. While these criticisms are unwarranted, they underscore the need for independent and different approaches to predicting future warming,” says co-author Bruno Tremblay, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at McGill University.

Until now, wide ranges in overall temperature projections have made it difficult to pinpoint outcomes in different mitigation scenarios. For instance, if atmospheric CO2 concentrations are doubled, the General Circulation Models (GCMs) used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), predict a very likely global average temperature increase between 1.9 and 4.5oC – a vast range covering moderate climate changes on the lower end, and catastrophic ones on the other.

A new approach

“Our new approach to projecting the Earth’s temperature is based on historical climate data, rather than the theoretical relationships that are imperfectly captured by the GCMs. Our approach allows climate sensitivity and its uncertainty to be estimated from direct observations with few assumptions,” says co-author Raphaël Hébert, a former graduate researcher at McGill University, now working at the Alfred-Wegener-Institut in Potsdam, Germany.

In a study for Climate Dynamics, the researchers introduced the new Scaling Climate Response Function (SCRF) model to project the Earth’s temperature to 2100. Grounded on historical data, it reduces prediction uncertainties by about half, compared to the approach currently used by the IPCC. In analyzing the results, the researchers found that the threshold for dangerous warming (+1.5oC) will likely be crossed between 2027 and 2042. This is a much narrower window than GCMs estimates of between now and 2052. On average, the researchers also found that expected warming was a little lower, by about 10 to 15 percent. They also found, however, that the “very likely warming ranges” of the SCRF were within those of the GCMs, giving the latter support.

“Now that governments have finally decided to act on climate change, we must avoid situations where leaders can claim that even the weakest policies can avert dangerous consequences,” says co-author Shaun Lovejoy, a professor in the Physics Department at McGill. “With our new climate model and its next generation improvements, there’s less wiggle room.”

Read the study online

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Campus update - January 7, 2021

EOC updates - Thu, 01/07/2021 - 17:12
<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 </i></p> <p>Dear members of the McGill community,</p>
Categories: Campus news HP

Two McGill-led brain cancer studies among top 10 discoveries in Quebec for 2020

Campus news - Thu, 01/07/2021 - 16:37

Now in its 28th year, Québec Science magazine’s annual list of top 10 scientific discoveries in celebrates breakthrough research being done in Quebec. This year, a pair of McGill-led initiatives – both focussing on brain cancer – have made the list.

“Lively, diverse, surprising: This is how we could describe research in Quebec in a few words,” said the editors of the magazine in publishing the list today, noting that each year, Quebec researchers publish more than 17,000 studies.

The Top 10 list was selected by a jury of scientists and journalists. The one caveat: None of the discoveries in this year’s list involve COVID-19 as a number of studies are still underway.

As per tradition, Québec Science’s top discovery of 2020 will be chosen by the voting public. Visit this page to see the top 10 discoveries and to vote for your favourite.

While both McGill discoveries involve research into brain cancer and fall under the same item on the Québec Science list (“Incursion inédite dans les tumeurs du cerveau”), they are independent of each other.

Deconstructing glioblastoma complexity reveals its pattern of development

Brain cancers have long been thought of as being resistant to treatments because of the presence of multiple types of cancer cells within each tumour. A study led by Drs. Kevin Petrecca, a neurosurgeon and brain cancer researcher at The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital) of McGill University; and Charles Couturier, a neurosurgery resident, has uncovered a cancer cell hierarchy that originates from a single cancer cell type, which can be targeted to slow cancer growth.

Drs. Kevin Petrecca (right) and Charles Couturier

The study, which is the largest ever single cancer cell RNA sequencing project, included 55,000 glioblastoma cells and 20,000 normal brain cells. The team found that there are five main cancer cell types within each tumor, and these cancer cell types are similar to the cell types that are in the normal human brain.

For the first time, researchers detected what they describe as a progenitor glioblastoma stem cell (GSC) – a cell type from which all other cancer cells develop. They showed a cellular hierarchical organization to the cancer which originates from progenitor GSCs.

After identifying molecular vulnerabilities in progenitor GSCs, the researchers then targeted these and found that progenitor GSC survival and proliferation decreased as a result. In preclinical disease models, this reduced tumor growth and increased survival.

“Our work has gone a long way to resolve the complexity of glioblastoma heterogeneity, and provides a new framework to reconsider the nature of glioblastoma,” said Dr. Petrecca when the study first came out. “Understanding how these cancer cells interact with the cancer microenvironment is not well understood in this disease, but this study serves as a good starting point to begin to understand how glioblastoma originates and evolves prior to treatments.”

Editor’s note: Dr. Petrecca and Frédéric Leblond of Polytechnique Montréal won Québec Science’s 2017 Discovery of the Year for developing a cancer-detection probe.

Identifying the cellular origins of pediatric brain tumours

Progenitor cells are also key to the research being done by a team led by Dr. Claudia Kleinman, an investigator at the Lady Davis Institute at the Jewish General Hospital and Dr. Nada Jabado, of the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC).

Drs. Claudia Kleinman (left) and Nada Jabado

The team, along with Dr. Michael Taylor of The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), discovered that several types of highly aggressive and, ultimately, fatal pediatric brain tumors originate as a result of stalled development of progenitor cells in the pons and forebrain. The genetic event that triggers the disease happens in the very earliest phases of cellular development, most likely prenatal. Rather than developing normally, the cells’ progress is halted and they transform into malignancies.

The condition is called Peter Pan Syndrome as these cells are in a state of arrested development. The challenge for researchers has been to identify how best to “unlock” these cells and allow for normal development.

Applying sophisticated single cell sequencing techniques and large-scale data analysis, researchers compiled the first comprehensive profile of the normal prenatal pons, a major structure on the upper part of the brainstem that controls breathing, as well as sensations including hearing, taste, and balance.

“The cornerstone to fighting these conditions is to identify the biological process at work, which is what our research has achieved,” said Dr. Kleinman when the study first came out. “Once we understand the underlying mechanisms, the search can begin for the means to unblock the arrested development of the cells. The complexity of the brain is astounding, and we now have narrowed down where to search.”

Cast your vote on the Québec Science website.

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Music professor Brian Cherney appointed to the Order of Canada

Campus news - Thu, 01/07/2021 - 08:44
Brian Cherney has been a professor at the Schulich School of Music since 1972

Brian Cherney, a professor of composition at the Schulich School of Music has been appointed a Member of the Order of Canada (OOC). Cherney was recognized “for his lifelong devotion to Canadian music, as an internationally renowned composer, educator and scholar,” according to the OOC citation.

Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette (BEng’86, DSc’03), Governor General of Canada, announced the 61 new appointees to the OOC on December 30.

“Created in 1967, the Order of Canada recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation,” read the announcement. “More than 7,000 people from all sectors of society have been invested into the Order. Those who bear the Order’s iconic snowflake insignia have changed our nation’s measure of success and, through the sum of their accomplishments, have helped us build a better Canada.”

Appointments are made for sustained achievement at three levels: Companion, which recognizes national pre-eminence or international service or achievement; Officer which recognizes national service or achievement; and Member which recognizes outstanding contributions at the local or regional level or in a special field of activity. Officers and Members may be elevated within the Order in recognition of further achievement, based on continued exceptional or extraordinary service to Canada.

Closing on 50 years at Schulich

Cherney has been a fixture at the Schulich School of Music since 1972, where he teaches composition, twentieth-century analysis and twentieth-century music history. In 2005, he was the recipient of an Outstanding Teaching Award from the Faculty.

Cherney is also an award-winning composer who has written more than one hundred pieces, including concertos for violin, oboe and piano; chamber concertos for viola and cello; music for orchestra and much chamber music; as well as for solo instruments and choir. His music has been performed and broadcast throughout Canada, the USA, South America, Japan and Europe.

His String Trio (1976) and his orchestral work Into the Distant Stillness (1984) both won recognition at the International Rostrum of Composers in Paris, the former tying for first place. In 1985 he was awarded the Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music for River of Fire.

“The Schulich School of Music congratulates Professor Cherney on this well-deserved honour and celebrates, with pride, his long association with the School and McGill University,” says Brenda Ravenscroft, Dean of the Schulich School of Music. “In addition to the key role he has played in shaping Canadian music and culture through his creative and scholarly work, Professor Cherney has inspired generations of students and colleagues through his musical and intellectual prowess.”

On top of the Cherney, another 12 members of the McGill family were appointed to the Order of Canada. They include:

Guy Berthiaume (Member of the Order of Canada)

OC citation: For his leadership in the preservation of our collective heritage and for making it more accessible to all Canadians.

Guy Berthiaume (BCom ’80. MBA’86) is Librarian and Archivist of Canada Emeritus. A historian specialized in the study of Classical Antiquity, he served as Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec from June 22, 2009 to June 21, 2014, and, from June 23, 2014 to August 29, 2019, he served as Librarian and Archivist of Canada.

Myer Bick (Member of the Order of Canada)

OC citation: For his exemplary leadership in fundraising for health establishments as well as for his multifaceted community service.

Myer Bick (BA’66, BCL’69) is the President Emeritus of the Jewish General Hospital Foundation. Bick was involved with the JGH for 17 years, serving as President and CEO until his retirement in 2018. During his tenure at the JGH, Bick led two major capital campaigns that achieved $200 million and $250 million respectively.

John Burrows (Officer of the Order of Canada)

OC citation: For his scholarly work on Indigenous rights and legal traditions, which have had a significant impact across Canada and abroad.

John Borrows is Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria Law School and is considered a leading authority on Canadian Indigenous law and constitutional law. Burrows is a recipient an Aboriginal Achievement Award in Law and Justice, a Fellow of the Trudeau Foundation, and a Fellow of the Academy of Arts, Humanities and Sciences of Canada. He was a Distinguished Tomlinson Visiting Professor at McGill’s Faculty of Law, in residence for the 2017-2018 university year.

John Challis (Officer of the Order of Canada)

OC citation: For his seminal contributions to the field of obstetrics and gynaecology, and to health research and innovation in Canada and abroad.

John Challis, who did is renowned for his research with colleagues from around the world focusing on pregnancy, preterm birth and the lingering impacts of stress on the fetus. Challis completed his training at Universities of Cambridge, University of California, San Diego and Harvard Medical School and held a junior research fellowship at Wolfson College, University of Oxford and McGill.

Serge Demers (Member of the Order of Canada)

OC citation: For his multidisciplinary research into marine ecosystems and for his leadership within several marine science organizations.

Former Director of the Institut des sciences de la mer, Serge Demers (Graduate Management 2000) is renowned for his multidisciplinary research on marine ecosystems and for his leadership in several organizations related to marine sciences.

Elizabeth A. Edwards (Officer of the Order of Canada)

OC citation: For her foundational contributions to bioremediation and for amplifying the value of cross disciplinary collaboration.

Elizabeth A. Edwards, (BEng’83, MEng’85) is internationally known for her work on bioremediation, on the application of molecular biology and environmental genomics to microbial processes, and the translation of laboratory research into commercial practice.

Vivek Goel (Member of the Order of Canada)

OC citation: For his contributions as an academic and administrator who is committed to the advancement of public health services, evidence-based health care and research innovation.

Vivek Goel (MDCM’84) is a distinguished scholar with an extensive background in teaching, research and university administration. His research has focused on health services evaluation and the promotion of the use of research evidence in health decision-making.

Marilyn McHarg (Member of the Order of Canada)

OC citation: For her expertise and leadership of global health initiatives supporting underserved communities, notably through Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières.

Marilyn McHarg, who earned a Master’s degree in Applied Sciences in Nursing from McGill in 1987, was President and CEO of Dignitas International, as well as a founding member and General Director of the Canadian section of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, the world’s leading independent medical humanitarian organization.

Morris Moscovitch (Member of the Order of Canada)

OC citation: For his contributions to the fields of clinical neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience, notably his ground-breaking memory research.

Morris Moscovitch (BSc ’66) has been a professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto since 1971. Moscovitch is a senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute and Baycrest Centre, where he is also the Max and Gianna Glassman Chair in Neuropsychology and Aging. There he works exploring the brain mechanisms that mediate cognitive functions, such as memory.

Brian David Segal (Member of the Order of Canada)

OC citation: For his leading business acumen in Canadian academic administration and for supporting numerous charitable endeavours.

Brian David Segal (BSc.’64) was President of Ryerson University from 1980 to 1988 and President and Vice-Chancellor of University of Guelph from 1988 to 1992. From 1992 to 1999 he was Publisher of Maclean’s magazine and Senior Vice President of Rogers Publishing. From 1999 until his retirement at the end of 2011 he was President and CEO of Rogers Publishing.

Daniel John Taylor (Officer of the Order of Canada)

OC citation: For his achievements as an internationally renowned opera singer and for his commitment to mentoring the next generation of Canadian singers.

Countertenor Daniel Taylor, (LMus’92), is one of Canada’s most celebrated cultural ambassadors. Distinguishing himself with moving performances and known for his warmth and humour, he has appeared on the world’s greatest stages with prestigious orchestras, composers and artists. Serving as founding artistic director and conductor of the Theatre of Early Music, and of the critically-acclaimed ensemble The Trinity Choir, he is highly regarded as a university professor and mentor to the next generation of singers.

Frances Westley (Member of the Order of Canada)

OC citation: For her contributions to the study and application of social innovation in Canada and abroad.

Frances Westley (DipEd’72, MA’74, Phd’78) is a renowned scholar and consultant in the areas of social innovation, strategies for sustainable development, strategic change, visionary leadership and inter-organizational collaboration. She was the James McGill Professor of Strategy at the Desautels Faculty of Management, where she designed and directed an MA program in national voluntary sector leadership and the McGill Dupont Program for Social Innovation.

Did we miss anybody? If you know of an Order of Canada honouree with ties to McGill who was announced in this latest round but isn’t mentioned above, please let us know at






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TLS student survey wins award for innovation

Campus news - Mon, 01/04/2021 - 12:42

A team from McGill’s Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) has been named winner of the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network’s 2020 Innovation Award for its survey asking students to assess the types of assignments that best helped them learn.

The award-winning team is comprised of Carolyn Samuel Senior Academic Associate; Eva Dobler, Teaching and Learning Consultant; Mariela Tovar, Senior Academic Associate; and Bruktawit Maru, Graduate Student Assistant.

“This project is particularly exciting because it brings student voices into conversations about learning-focused assessment, and because it provides a valuable resource to faculty that can be replicated at other institutions,” said Adriana Streifer, the POD Network’s Innovation Award Chair. The POD Network is North America’s largest educational development community, supporting more than 1,400 members representing every US state and more than 30 countries, to develop professionally through meaningful and sustained interaction.

According to the POD press release, the Innovation Award received a record-breaking number of submissions. The work of Samuel and her colleagues stood out to the selection committee for “its emphasis on the value of student contributions to the work of educational development, and for its approach to creating a lasting resource that supports instructors in creating learning-focused assessment practices.”

Assessing a diverse student body

The student survey, which was conducted in the Fall of 2019, is part of TLS’s ongoing efforts “to raise instructors’ awareness about assessment for learning (AfL) and the importance of varied assessment practices to ensure all members of our diverse student population have the potential to succeed regardless of their differences,” says Samuel. “Our multi-faceted approach involves intentional interconnections among several strategies, such as learning communitiesblog seriesstudent videos and symposia.”

  • According to Samuel, the student survey was used to:
  • learn about assessment practices at McGill
  • enhance a collection of strategies to support instructors with implementing AfL
  • increase the network of instructors TLS works with
  • recognize instructors’ contributions to student learning
  • raise students’ awareness about AfL

The survey had a broad reach, with respondents from approximately 60 different programs. “Many students described assignments that allow for practical application of the material they are learning and for creativity,” says Samuel of the results. “They also perceive that assignments where they need to submit some work on an incremental basis helps them stay on track with their learning.”

Assessment strategies during the pandemic

The original plan was to share the results with McGill instructors in a 2020 TLS symposium on assessment; however, the event was cancelled in light of COVID-19. Organizers are currently considering alternative ways to share the results with the McGill community.

“We hope that by sharing examples that students cited, instructors may be inspired to implement a variety of assessments in their courses,” says Samuel. “Students’ learning experience can be enhanced when they are afforded more and more varied opportunities to demonstrate their learning.”

Assessing student learning is a key part of the remote learning puzzle and TLS is a good resource for McGill instructors.

“COVID has compelled higher education to rethink assessment practices. TLS has created a web page called Beyond Grading: Strategies from McGill Instructors. The page highlights various assessment strategies used by McGill instructors, a number of which (strategies) have been drawn from the survey responses,” she says. “As we indicate on the web page, many of the strategies can be easily adapted to a remote learning environment. We encourage instructors who are seeking inspiration for how to assess student learning – in remote or on-campus learning environments – to check out the variety of strategies on the page.”

The post TLS student survey wins award for innovation appeared first on McGill Reporter.

Studying science at McGill in Fall 2020: Remote learning in review (Part 2)

Campus news - Sat, 12/19/2020 - 11:46

At the end of a semester few will forget, undergraduate students and instructors in the Faculty of Science speak to the McGill Reporter about their experience of remote teaching and learning in Fall 2020. Part two of this two-part report focuses on two particularly tricky aspects of studying science remotely: laboratory learning and assessments. Read Part 1 here.

Lab teaching in a pandemic: Baking soda, rabbit holes and remote-controlled data collection

Few in the Faculty of Science would dispute that creating go-anywhere versions of the activities that normally take place in McGill’s undergraduate teaching laboratories has been among Fall 2020’s thorniest remote teaching challenges. There have been frustrations and unintended consequences, but lessons have also been learned and creative solutions developed along the way.

Pallavi Sirjoosingh taught three undergraduate chemistry courses during the fall, including the laboratory component of Introductory Chemical Analysis (CHEM 267). Like many of her colleagues, Sirjoosingh singles out student engagement as being the biggest challenge in her teaching this semester.

“When you’re in a lab setting, you really have the attention of the students,” she says. “It’s a small group – six to eight students – they’re looking at the experiment, they collect the data themselves, and they analyze the data themselves.”

In the remote version this fall, CHEM 267 students instead watched a video demonstrating an experimental procedure and were then given some data to analyze. But, as Sirjoosingh observes, the shift from actively collecting data to passively receiving it had an adverse impact on students’ learning.

“One thing I learned early on is that a lot of times students couldn’t connect the video with the data they were being given – there was a gap,” she says.

To address the problem, Sirjoosingh interspersed the labs with discussion sessions and short assignments to reinforce the underlying concepts. Later in the semester, her co-instructor Jean-Marc Gauthier went a step further, using a remote-controlled computer to allow data collection in an electrochemistry experiment. Students were able to control the computer through Zoom with a few basic mouse clicks. Sirjoosingh believes this level of interactivity, limited though it may have been, made a difference, and that students learned more than they would have watching a video and being spoon-fed a set of experimental data.

“It was only clicking a button from far away,” she says. “But the students actually collected data based on what they clicked. They could change certain conditions in the experiment, and that helped them to see where that data were coming from.”

Another approach to remote lab teaching was to get students to work with at-home kits. Marie Walker, a freshman physiology student who took General Chemistry 1 (CHEM 110) in Fall 2020, says her instructors did a “good job” adapting labs to an at-home format. After an initial outlay to equip herself with beakers and syringes, Walker was able to undertake a range of experiments with readily available ingredients, including old favourites baking soda and vinegar.

“It wasn’t your classic volcano experiment,” she says. “We [used fluid displacement to] measure the CO2 that was released in the reaction. I thought, ‘Whoa, this is cool. I actually feel like a scientist’.”

Others found the at-home freshman lab experience less rewarding. Alberto Lopez, who took CHEM 110 and the physics course, Mechanics and Waves (PHYS 131), was unsure about his ability to set up experiments properly and make accurate measurements.

“I recognize the professors have made a huge effort in simplifying the labs – I appreciated that, but I still struggled with them,” he says.

Ken Ragan, instructor for PHYS 131, has found that some students ended up spending two to three times longer on at-home lab tasks than he anticipated they would need.

“I didn’t count with the fact that they were stressed,” he says. “They want to do very well, so they’re redoing it and they go down these rabbit holes where, in a normal year, if they were in a physical lab space and [constrained by a set amount of] a lab time, a teaching assistant would eventually lean over and say, ‘Well, that looks to me like you’re going off on a tangent’. Or maybe just the time pressure of needing to get the lab report done would rein them in. But these feedback mechanisms don’t exist at home.”

Low-stakes assessments – good intentions gone awry?

Without the benefit of in-person contact this semester, the Faculty of Science has sought to create other opportunities for students to share feedback on their experience of remote learning. At a remote learning forum run by the Faculty’s Office of Science Education in October, students spoke about assessment as being an area of particular concern.

More frequent assignments, students said, were increasing their anxiety levels and not leaving them enough time to digest the material being covered in their courses. These outcomes were the opposite of what instructors had hoped to achieve. In the remote teaching context, more frequent, lower-stakes assessments had been seen as a way to alleviate the stresses associated with the conventional make-or-break model of one or two mid-terms and a final making up the lion’s share of a student’s grade.

Ken Ragan, who is not scheduled to teach in the Winter 2021 semester, says if he were to teach remotely again, he would rethink his assessment strategy: “I would ramp back, for instance, from five formative quizzes to, I think, two midterms, as opposed to one, and try to get out of this scheme where students just always have something in front of them.”

For freshman students, most of whom take a broadly similar set of basic science courses, Ragan says he would also try harder to coordinate the timing of assessments with colleagues in other disciplines to limit the concurrence of multiple graded tasks.

Pallavi Sirjoosingh, who will teach CHEM 120 (the sequel to CHEM 110) in the winter, says she and her colleagues also plan to reduce the number of assessments: “We did have some assignments that were every three weeks; we thought that was enough space, but then I think students are still just overwhelmed with other things.”

Melanie Dirks, who teaches upper-level psychology courses, believes senior students, too, have found the shift to more frequent assessments challenging. Dirks notes the change was abrupt and came under circumstances that were anything but typical.

“All of a sudden, it’s all five of your classes with some kind of assessment every week and, potentially, no adjustment in the amount of material getting covered,” she says.

“Weekly assessments have been stressful for students, and I wouldn’t do it exactly like this again next semester, given the feedback I’ve heard. But I wouldn’t rule it out completely, moving forward.”

One advantage Dirks does see in more frequent assessments is the insight it gives her into how well her students are understanding the material as the semester progresses: “For me, it’s really helpful because you can clearly see where you’re losing people. You’re getting very real feedback in terms of what they know and what they don’t know, on a much more regular basis.”

Dirks surveyed current PSYC 304 students who have also registered for the course she will be teaching in Winter 2021, Developmental Psychopathology (PSYC 412), to gauge their preference as to assessments.

“The overwhelming majority said they would prefer weekly quizzes like the ones I was giving in 304 (along with a midterm and a final) to a scheme with two midterms and a final exam, and very few suggested other options,” she says. “That’s inconsistent with the impression I had originally, and it seems like, under some conditions, students do prefer the weekly assessment.”

For the advantages of more frequent assessment to outweigh the potential stress, Dirks recognizes a need to adjust the overall amount of material covered in a course. For PSYC 412, she is also thinking about ways to make assessment tasks less a source of anxiety and more a way to support learning.

“One of the things we do is learn the diagnostic criteria for different disorders, and – you know, I’m probably not the right audience because I grew up to be a clinical psychologist – but I really enjoy reading descriptions of cases, and then trying to apply the diagnostic criteria to them,” she says.

“I think doing that kind of thing on a regular basis, and then getting some feedback on that, could be a really interesting way for students to engage and keep on top of the material.”

What do you think about remote learning? McGill Science and Arts & Science students are invited to share their experiences of studying remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Send your comments to

The post Studying science at McGill in Fall 2020: Remote learning in review (Part 2) appeared first on McGill Reporter.


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