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Prakash Panangaden honoured by the Association for Computing Machinery

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

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

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

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

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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Child marriage is legal and persists across Canada

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

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

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

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

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.”

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

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

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Studying science at McGill in Fall 2020: Remote learning in review (Part 1)

Sat, 12/19/2020 - 11:23

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 one of this two-part report looks at the challenges encountered in connecting with each other and staying engaged in the learning process. Part 2 can be read here.

Extraordinary circumstances

Psychology professor Melanie Dirks, who taught Child Development (PSYC 304) in Fall 2020, says it is important to recognize the distinction between online learning under ordinary conditions and the sudden shift to remote learning brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think one of the mistakes I made early on was not thinking enough about that. I thought about ‘How do I teach this in a remote context?’ and not more specifically about ‘How do I teach this in a remote context during a global pandemic?’” she recalls.

Cramped living arrangements and limited internet access are just two of the difficulties that have added to Dirks’s students’ levels of stress and anxiety this semester. As well, there are the challenges unique to each of the many locations around the world in which students find themselves. Throughout the fall, physics professor Ken Ragan has responded to countless messages from students enduring natural disasters, armed conflict, and personal hardship.

“Whether it’s a hurricane in Louisiana, or record snowfall in Calgary, I will have people in both those places email me and say, I’m about to lose power for three days because a hurricane is roaring through. I’ll see you on the other side, and in the meantime… I can’t do my assignments.”

Engaging students at a distance

While for some students being away from Montreal has meant being closer to the support of family and friends, instructors are keenly aware that many are finding it difficult to stay engaged with their studies under the twin pressures of learning remotely during a global pandemic.

“I think my greatest worry is that it’s all too easy for students to become disengaged,” says Ragan, who teaches two freshman courses in mechanical systems, PHYS 101 and PHYS 131. “I’ve noticed that attendance at my Zoom lectures is no better that 50 to 60 percent of the registered class enrolment, whereas typically my classes are more like 85 or 90 percent.”

Despite the reduced attendance, Ragan says online lectures turned out to be more interactive than he thought they would be. He credits the teaching assistants and T-PULSE student mentors who worked with him during live Zoom lectures to monitor and respond to questions students were asking through the chat screen. Zoom has also made it easier for Ragan to get to know students by name, a consistent challenge in classes with as many as 500 students.

Pallavi Sirjoosingh, a lecturer for CHEM 110, a freshman chemistry course with an enrolment of around 950 students, says she appreciates a phenomenon that many other instructors have noted, namely that there is “no front row” in a Zoom lecture. While she saw that students were more willing to ask questions via chat than they might be when sitting at the back of a large lecture theatre, Sirjoosingh suspects that the level of student-to-student interaction was lower on Zoom than it would be in person:

“In a lecture theatre, if they don’t understand something, they can just look at the person next to them and say, ‘You know, I didn’t get that. What did you think?’”

Making connections

For Ken Ragan, tactile in-class demonstrations are integral to his physics teaching.

“I teach classes on mechanical systems, so there’s some classic demos you can do,” he explains. “I’ve got a bowling ball pendulum that I hang from the ceiling of Leacock 132, a spinning chair that I can move weights around, and a spinning bicycle wheel, and tops and all sorts of stuff.”

Ragan has worked with McGill’s audiovisual unit to create high-quality videos of these demonstrations but he says interactivity is a vital element that’s missing: “With these demos, people would come up after class, and they want to do the demo themselves, they want to put their hands on the wheel and figure out how it turns.”

While he is enthusiastic about some of the emerging possibilities of educational technology, Ragan has found it “kind of surprising” to realize just how effective the familiar university teaching format can be, where a single instructor leads discussion from the front of a lecture theatre.

“It may be a 1000-year-old model, but the fact is we’re all humans, we like personal contact,” he says. “Yes, there will be changes and education will perhaps never be quite the same. But my sense is that students would like nothing better than to come back to Leacock 132 and be in their classes.”

Enhancing the remote learning experience

In psychology, Melanie Dirks has also found technology only goes so far in helping her connect with her students: “I think one of the things that’s been hardest about teaching in this context is that the best learning happens in the context of a relationship – and it’s hard to develop a relationship under these circumstances.”

Mindful of the difficulty students might face tuning in to live lectures, Dirks pre-recorded her lectures for the fall semester, a choice she compares to offering a “concert film designed for home viewing” rather than “a grainy bootleg of a concert your friend took on their phone.”

She kept the videos as short as possible, referred to them as “episodes” rather than “lectures”, and dropped in some of her favourite music clips to highlight milestones in child development. (What better way to capture the essence of Jean Piaget’s theory of morality and intentions than with Culture Club’s 1982 breakout single, Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?)

Dirks added life to another of her videos by asking a colleague to join her on screen to help explain a particularly tricky theory about how babies understand cause and effect in much the same way as adults.

“We sat in my garage so that we could be socially distant and outside, and I taught and she basically provided colour commentary on the lecture. And it was fun!” Dirks recalls. “We’ll see what the student feedback says, but I think it was better for it. It’s more interesting to listen to people talk about something than to hear one person monologuing.”

Learning from each other

Working with her colleague in this way reminded Dirks of the immediate feedback she gets when lecturing in person.

“I would say something and my colleague would say, ‘I don’t understand what you meant. Can you go back and explain it again?’

“I think that’s a major challenge of asynchronous delivery – you can’t see when you’ve lost people. When you’re lecturing live and somebody brave puts up their hand and says, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ that often means 200 other people don’t know either.”

Students, too, have found the lack of in-person contact a challenge this semester. Those in their first year at McGill are at the added disadvantage of not having had the opportunity to establish relationships in previous semesters. Nevertheless, there have been some success stories of connections made online, with students benefitting both socially and academically.

Alberto Lopez, a first-year Bachelor of Arts & Science student who aims to major in cognitive science, says that although it has been difficult to get to know people this semester, his efforts to reach out to fellow students in his mathematics and physics courses have paid off. After establishing contact via WhatsApp, Lopez formed study groups that have helped him come to grips with the challenging course material.

“Studying in a group really enhances my learning,” he says. “It’s easier when someone explains something to me directly, rather than me looking it up on the internet or in a textbook. I also have to say that math and physics are the most demanding courses, so it would have been especially difficult to do all the work by myself.”

Kelly Gallacher, who is in the first year of her computer science degree, has also found working with other students beneficial, and has found opportunities to do so built into some of her courses. In her math course, Linear Algebra and Geometry (MATH 133), for instance, Gallacher is part of a tutorial group of just 14 students – a size she says suits her learning style. In Foundations of Programming (COMP 202), meanwhile, Gallacher appreciates the interactive nature of working in a group of five students on projects that involve weekly class presentations.

Outside of these structured activities, though, Gallacher evokes a more spontaneous kind of interaction, largely absent from the remote learning experience this fall – “the part of university where you go to the library and meet friends, and you’re all studying, and you have that sense of solidarity that you’re going through this together.”

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

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McGill establishes fair-trade carbon offsetting project in Panama with new partnership

Thu, 12/17/2020 - 14:37
Alvaro Omi and his mother Luz Karina Lana, project participants from the community of Piriati, plant trees on their lot.

McGill has committed to a new fair-trade carbon offsetting project in partnership with Indigenous Panamanian communities, furthering the University’s efforts to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040 by planting trees to offset greenhouse gas emissions.

Through the partnership, the University has committed to providing the financial contribution necessary for the project’s implementation until, at least, the end of 2022. In 2020, the project successfully planted 25,000 native tree seedlings in collaboration with 25 families in Panama.

When regular business travel resumes post-COVID, McGill community members who travel by air on behalf of the University, such as researchers travelling for work or to attend conferences, will also be invited to contribute additional funds to the project to compensate for the greenhouse gases emitted during their travels. In doing so, community members will be offsetting their emissions and contributing towards McGill’s 2040 carbon neutrality target.

“This is a unique opportunity for the wider McGill community to relate their emitting activities, such as flying, to tangible mitigation efforts,” explained Catherine Potvin, a professor in the Department of Biology and Canada Research Chair in Climate Change Mitigation and Tropical Forest.

The project is led by the McGill Office of Sustainability and the Asociacion de Mujeres Artesanas de Ipetí Emberá (AMARIE), “an organization founded by the women of the Indigenous Ipeti Embera community, residing in Eastern Panama,” with the collaboration of Potvin who has a history of working with AMARIE through her past research in Panama.

Project empowers women

In addition to contributing to McGill’s carbon neutrality target, the project hopes to improve livelihoods of its partner communities. Through the partnership with AMARIE, the project is implemented with complete transparency including full consultation with local populations, respect of land rights, and local management and ownership of the project and its benefits.

This reforestation project is “very meaningful as it empowers women of our community to restore the lands that have been affected by deforestation,” said Sara Omi, from the Indigenous community of Ipetí Emberá de Alto Bayano and president of Congreso general Emberá de Alto Bayano Panamá.

By planting trees, Omi continued, “We have shown our society the importance of restoring our forests and re-establishing access to our traditional medicine while taking action on climate change.”

“This project has created space for our youth to connect with the forest and learn more about the importance of protecting biodiversity,” added Omaira Casama, president of AMARIE. “Our youth plays a significant role in this project as they embody the present and future of our communities.”

Important step toward carbon neutrality 

A governance committee has been established by all involved with the partnership, including the  traditional Emberá authorities of Congreso General de Alto Bayano. The group’s tasks will include reviewing the reforested areas, ensuring a fair price is maintained, and reviewing updated scientific research relevant to the project.

“Though the amount offset in the first year of the project represents a small fraction of McGill’s typical annual carbon footprint, it is an important step in demonstrating the level of commitment that will increasingly be required, in order to get to net zero by 2040,” said Lucie Viciano, Climate Officer with the Office of Sustainability.

AMARIE will act as a liaison on the ground with landowners and other individuals involved in the reforestation activities. They will ensure the proper implementation and on-the-ground governance of the project, and maintain the reforested areas for 25 years.

Making a difference in the world

Potvin’s work in Panama includes the Panama Field Study Semester (PFSS), in which McGill students travel to Panama to explore ongoing environmental issues in the country in collaboration with Panamanian institutions. The goal of the PFSS is to challenge the western perspective of global problems, allowing them to build “a more pluralist vision of the world’s environment.”

Undergraduate students enrolled in Potvin’s PFSS will get hands-on experience by monitoring the progress of the reforestation efforts. As such, the project aligns with both McGill’s Strategic Academic Plan 2017-2022 and Strategic Research Plan, of which sustainability is one of seven Research Excellence Themes.

“I see real-life applications, impacting lives at the community level, as well as making a difference globally, from a climate viewpoint,” said Katia Forgues, a former PFSS student currently working towards her master’s degree. Her research on carbon stocks accumulation through reforestation helps inform the project.

You can learn more about the  McGill-AMARIE Carbon Offset project, the related research opportunities, and the communities involved here.

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Wayne Pollard earns Northern Science Award

Thu, 12/17/2020 - 12:32
Wayne Pollard has been recognized by Polar Knowledge Canada “as one of the world’s finest northern scholars.” Courtesy of Wayne Pollard

Wayne Pollard, a professor in the Department of Geography, has been named the recipient of the 2020 Northern Science Award and the Centenary Medal. Overseen by Polar Knowledge Canada, a federal government agency, the Award is presented annually to an individual or a group who has made a significant contribution to meritorious knowledge and understanding of the Canadian North.

“Dr. Wayne Pollard, Professor of Geography at McGill University, is recognized as one of the world’s finest northern scholars. Over the course of his career he has generated substantial new knowledge of northern geocryology, and of the geomorphology and hydrology of permafrost,” says the Polar Knowledge citation. “His work has also brought new understanding of Antarctic environments, and of processes affecting permafrost-influenced landforms on Mars.”

Pollard has been the director of the McGill Arctic Research Station (MARS) since 1990. Located on Axel Heiberg Island, just below Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, it is one of the oldest university research centres to operate in the Canadian Arctic. Its location has offered insight into the capacity of microbial organisms to survive in extremely harsh conditions, work that eventually led to a partnership with the Canadian Space Agency and NASA to aid in the search for water, and potentially life, on other planets with extremely cold climates.

In addition to his work at MARS, Pollard also heads the McGill Subarctic Research Station in Schefferville, Quebec, and is a veteran of multiple research explorations in Antarctica with international scientific teams.

Commitment to collaboration

The Polar Knowledge citation also praised Pollard for “his strong commitment to collaboration and the sharing of knowledge.”

“He has trained and mentored countless students and early career scientists. Leading by example, and in a spirit of kindness and generosity, he has inspired a new generation of researchers with his passion for polar research and his extensive and multifaceted expertise.”

In addition to his research and teaching at McGill, Pollard has also provided courses for the Nunavut Arctic College Teacher Education Program (NTEP), delivered science camps for Inuit high school students, and run workshops for Inuit science teachers.

Community partnerships

Pollard’s community involvement did not go unnoticed by the Northern Science Award selection committee.

“Dr. Pollard has built and maintained relationships with northern community members, governments, and non-governmental organizations, and has made significant contributions to Inuit and northern Cree teacher education programs,” said the Award citation. “He has also been active in educating the southern public about the Canadian Arctic and its critical scientific issues.”

“Dr Pollard’s work has been transformational both for the knowledge he has generated, adding to Canada’s profile as an international leader in polar science, and for the lasting impact he has had on the lives of others studying and living in Northern Canada.”

This time last year, Pollard was awarded the Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research. The Weston Prize recognizes his nearly four decades of research in Canada’s North and in particular, his investigations into the permafrost that underpins the landscape in this remote region.

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Xue Liu named Distinguished Member of ACM

Thu, 12/17/2020 - 12:21

Prof. Xue (Steve) Liu of McGill’s School of Computer Science has been recognized as a 2020 Distinguished Member of the Association for Computing Machinery, which describes itself as “the world’s largest computing society” with a mandate to “raise awareness of computing’s important technical, educational, and social issues.” The ACM has 100,000 members around the world, representing universities, research institutions and the private sector.

In 2017, Prof. Liu was awarded the Mitacs Professor Award for Outstanding Leadership.

Prof. Liu is the founding director of McGill’s Cyber-Physical Intelligence Lab, which focuses on research in green IT, smart energy, smart vehicles (including driving safety and traffic efficiency) and mobile computing. The William Dawson Scholar and IEEE Fellow is one of 64 ACM members worldwide recently honoured as Distinguished Members for “a range of accomplishments that move the computing field forward.”

In a statement, the ACM noted that Liu and his ACM colleagues “have made contributions in a wide range of technical areas including data science, mobile and pervasive computing, artificial intelligence, computer science education, computer engineering, graphics, cybersecurity, and networking, among many other areas.”

“I feel extremely honoured and fortunate to be chosen and recognized by the ACM and by peers,” Liu said. “It motivates and encourages me to push further [into my] journey to carry out more impactful and innovative research. It is intellectually rewarding to see my research… contribute to society by advancing state-of-the-art research.”

“I have been contributing to the advancement of intelligent performance and power management of computing and networked systems. Together with my collaborators, colleagues, and students in the field, I have made several important contributions in this exciting and important area in the past two decades, especially after I joined McGill University in 2007.”

“I want to thank all those who have taught me, supported me, and helped me.”

Liu added that he is determined to continue discovering and inventing, and hopes that his contributions are adapted by industry so that they may have “a continuous impact.”

“I am currently doing research and development on new technologies to make computing and communication systems more intelligent, scalable, sustainable, and robust. These systems include next-generation telecommunications, cloud computing and data centers, smart energy systems, and social networks.”

“To this end, I am investigating new mathematical tools, advanced AI and machine learning, control, and optimization algorithms.”

ACM President Gabriele Kotsis said in a statement that “the active participation of ACM members, in our organization and in the field more broadly, is the foundation of a global scientific society. With the Distinguished Member designation, ACM celebrates specific contributions of these members and their career growth as reflected in a long-term commitment to the field, as well as their collaboration with peers in supporting a global professional association for the benefit of all.”

“Significant impact”

The ACM’s Distinguished Member program was initiated in 2006 to recognize members with at least 15 years of professional experience “who have made significant accomplishments or achieved a significant impact on the computing field.”

Prof. Liu is also an associate member of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA) and vice-president for research and development, chief scientist and co-director of the Samsung AI Center Montreal. The Center does machine-learning research and “serves as an outpost for collaboration with top universities, academic centers, and start-ups within the Greater Montreal AI community, while tapping into the tremendous AI talent in the region.”

From 2016 to 2019, Liu was also the chief scientist for Tinder Inc., the dating and social discovery app. He has co-authored a number of books, including a recent one on storage in cloud computing. In 2017, Liu received the Mitacs Professor Award for Outstanding Leadership, awarded in recognition of his commitment, outstanding leadership, and exceptional talent for merging industry with academic research.





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McGill PhD candidate on being part of the UN World Food Programme’s Nobel Peace Prize

Thu, 12/17/2020 - 07:53
On December 10, David Beasley, Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme, received the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the WFP. WFP/Rein Skullerud

December 10, was a typical day at the office for Kate Sinclair… Kind of, but not really. Not by a long shot.

Her job, as an International Nutrition Consultant for World Food Programme Sri Lanka, was uneventful that day. But when Kate returned home, she tuned in to the virtual Nobel Peace Prize ceremony where the UN World Food Programme (WFP), was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2020.

It’s not every day that you and your 20,000 colleagues around the world win a Nobel Peace Prize.

In fairness, the Norwegian Nobel Committee actually announced the award on October 9, with the virtual ceremony taking place on December 10. It gave Sinclair, and her 20,000 co-winners, two months to process the good news.

“It was a real surprise to hear the World Food Programme won the Nobel Peace Prize – I was not expecting that,” says Sinclair in an email interview from Sri Lanka, where, on top of working for the WFP, she is completing her PhD in Human Nutrition at McGill. “It is such an honour for all of us working at WFP, including myself. Being awarded this prize is such a humbling moment for us all.”

First on the scene in some of the world’s most desperate situations 

The largest humanitarian agency in the world, WFP delivers vital food assistance in emergencies – often first on the scene to deliver vital food to the victims of war, civil conflict, drought, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, crop failures and natural disasters. About two-thirds of WFP’s work goes to people facing severe food crises, most of them caused by conflict, where people are three times more likely to be undernourished than those living in countries without conflict. In 2019, WFP assisted an astonishing 97 million people in 88 countries.

“The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to WFP in recognition of our efforts to combat hunger, our contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict,” says Sinclair. “The award recognizes food as the pathway to peace and acknowledges the work of WFP staff who put their lives on the line every day to bring food and assistance to more than 100 million hungry children, women and men across the world.”

A journey that began at McGill

Sinclair’s road to Sri Lanka began at McGill.

She says she was first drawn to McGill’s School of Human Nutrition because the Applied Master’s program allows participants to earn their Master’s degree while also completing their dietetics credentialing.

Kate Sinclair (left) discusses the paddy harvest with colleagues in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

“It was only after taking a Public Health Nutrition course during my first semester, which was taught by Dr. Hugo Melgar-Quiñonez, who is now my PhD supervisor, that I was inspired by the work he was doing and switched to the thesis stream, allowing me to do a more in-depth research project,” said Sinclair. “Hugo’s passion and positivity has hugely motivated my ever-growing enthusiasm for global food security, nutrition and academia.”

Sinclair fed that burgeoning interest in global food security by doing research projects around the world. “I have learned a tremendous amount from conducting research during my time at McGill both professionally and personally,” she says. “These experiences helped prepare me for my role at WFP in many ways. It has honed my ability to adapt and work in different contexts with individuals from diverse backgrounds… I have been fortunate enough during my time at McGill to live and work in many different countries – Colombia, Haiti, Costa Rica, Barbados and now Sri Lanka.”

Sinclair’s work at WFP Sri Lanka started modestly enough when, in August 2018, she began a six-month internship. Two years later, as WFP Sri Lanka’s International Nutrition Consultant, she supports the development, implementation and evaluation of a wide range of nutrition-related programs. This includes school feeding, rice fortification, knowledge management and resiliency building, among others.

“Also, given my strong background in global food security, I have been supporting the Research Assessment and Monitoring team as well, namely related to food security assessments, knowledge management activities and policy review,” says Sinclair.

Doing a lot with a little

WFP is funded entirely on donations. WFP Sri Lanka is a “small Country Office in a middle-income context” that faces constant funding challenges. “However, we are quite an innovative and dynamic team, working closely with the government, which allows us to often ‘do a lot with little,’” says Sinclair.

School-aged children receiving their mid-day meal as part of the National School Meal Menu, Sri Lanka

In terms of challenges, however, COVID-19 has presented a challenge “unlike any other,” says Sinclair.

In Sri Lanka, Sinclair and her colleagues are monitoring the situation closely, adapting existing programs to continue helping people in need, and working closely with the government to respond to needs as they arise.

In mid-March the Sri Lankan government closed schools to help curb the spread of the virus. But it meant that many children were suddenly cut off from the free meals they received as part of a long-standing national school meal program supported by WFP.

“With the protracted closure of schools and disruption to the school meal program, WFP together with the Government of Australia worked with the Ministry of Education and other government partners to supply take-home food rations as an alternative method of providing food security to children until the recommencement of the national school meal program,” says Sinclair.

Food security: Multifaceted challenge requiring multifaceted response Kate Sinclair in Sri Lanka’s Puthukkudiyiruppu, Mullaitivu District, working with participants of the WFP/ILO EMPOWER project which aimed to increase former female combatants’ access to economic empowerment, social integration, resilience and peace building

Despite tremendous research advances in food production; storage and processing; food safety; nutrition and health, more and more people around the world are going hungry. “From 2000 to 2015, the world witnessed a prolonged decline in the overall number of hungry people; however, recent estimates indicate that for the first time in 15 years this number is now on the rise,” she says.

It is a multifaceted problem that requires a multifaceted response. “We need nutrition-sensitive investment across the food system, including efforts to reduce food loses and enhance efficiencies,” she says. “Strengthening livelihoods and building resilience amongst smallholder farmers, particularly those who are vulnerable to recurrent natural shocks and climate change will be imperative. Redressing agriculture policies and incentives will be foundational in these efforts.”

And then there is conflict.

“The link between hunger and armed conflict is a vicious circle: war and conflict can cause food insecurity and hunger, just as hunger and food insecurity can cause latent conflicts to flare up and trigger the use of violence,” says Sinclair. “Without peace and stability, we cannot hope to achieve food security for all or end hunger.”

Watch the video made during Kate Sinclair’s original internship with WFP Sri Lanka in 2018

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Scientists show what loneliness looks like in the brain

Wed, 12/16/2020 - 11:23

This holiday season will be a lonely one for many people as social distancing due to COVID-19 continues, and it is important to understand how isolation affects our health. A new study shows a sort of signature in the brains of lonely people that make them distinct in fundamental ways, based on variations in the volume of different brain regions as well as based on how those regions communicate with one another across brain networks.

A team of researchers examined the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data, genetics and psychological self-assessments of approximately 40,000 middle-aged and older adults who volunteered to have their information included in the UK Biobank: an open-access database available to health scientists around the world. They then compared the MRI data of participants who reported often feeling lonely with those who did not.

Differences in brains of lonely people

The researchers found several differences in the brains of lonely people. These brain manifestations were centred on what is called the default network: a set of brain regions involved in inner thoughts such as reminiscing, future planning, imagining and thinking about others. Researchers found the default networks of lonely people were more strongly wired together and surprisingly, their grey matter volume in regions of the default network was greater. Loneliness also correlated with differences in the fornix: a bundle of nerve fibres that carries signals from the hippocampus to the default network. In lonely people, the structure of this fibre tract was better preserved.

We use the default network when remembering the past, envisioning the future or thinking about a hypothetical present. The fact the structure and function of this network is positively associated with loneliness may be because lonely people are more likely to use imagination, memories of the past or hopes for the future to overcome their social isolation.

“In the absence of desired social experiences, lonely individuals may be biased towards internally-directed thoughts such as reminiscing or imagining social experiences. We know these cognitive abilities are mediated by the default network brain regions,” says Nathan Spreng from The Neuro (Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital) of McGill University, and the study’s lead author. “So this heightened focus on self-reflection, and possibly imagined social experiences, would naturally engage the memory-based functions of the default network.”

Major health problem

Loneliness is increasingly being recognized as a major health problem, and previous studies have shown older people who experience loneliness have a higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Understanding how loneliness manifests itself in the brain could be key to preventing neurological disease and developing better treatments.

“We are just beginning to understand the impact of loneliness on the brain. Expanding our knowledge in this area will help us to better appreciate the urgency of reducing loneliness in today’s society,” says Danilo Bzdok, a researcher at The Neuro and a Canada CIFAR AI Chair at Mila – the Quebec AI Institute, and the study’s senior author.

This study was published in the journal Nature Communications on Dec. 15, 2020. It was partially 

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What makes certain groups more vulnerable to COVID-19?

Wed, 12/16/2020 - 11:01

What makes the elderly and people with underlying conditions more vulnerable to COVID-19? According to a new study led by McGill University researchers, clues can be found in the proteins involved in initiating infection, as the virus binds to host cells of different animals. Greater cellular oxidation with aging and sickness may explain why seniors and people with chronic illness get infected more often and more severely.

Over 60 million people have been infected and around 1.5 million have died from COVID-19. The virus is disrupting economies and food supply chains all over the world. Understanding why some animals get infected and others do not could be the key to unlocking new treatments and therapies. In a study published in Computational and Structural Biotechnology Journal, researchers analyzed available protein sequences of the virus and host cell receptors across different species to find out why.

“We know that the virus can infect humans, cats, dogs and ferrets but not bovine and swine. Also, COVID-19 hits the elderly and people with underlying conditions more severely than the young and healthy ones. Until now reasons for this were unclear,” says McGill Professor Jaswinder Singh.

The research was conducted by a multidisciplinary team of scientists led by Professor Singh. The team includes Professor Rajinder Dhindsa (McGill University), Professor Baljit Singh (University of Calgary) and Professor Vikram Misra (University of Saskatchewan).

How COVID-19 infects cells

Once inside a host cell, the virus hijacks the cell’s metabolic machinery to replicate and spread. The virus’s protein spikes attach to a protein receptor on the surface of the host cell called ACE2, fusing the membranes around the cell and the virus together. This process allows the virus to enter the cell and co-opt its protein-making machinery to make new copies of itself. The copies then go on to infect other healthy cells.

In analyzing the proteins and their amino acid building blocks, the researchers found that animals susceptible to the virus have a few things in common. Such animals like humans, cats, and dogs have two cysteine amino acids that form a special disulfide bond held together by an oxidizing cellular environment. This disulfide bond creates an anchor for the virus. “Our analysis suggests that greater cellular oxidation in the elderly or those with underlying health conditions could predispose them to more vigorous infection, replication and disease,” says co-author Rajinder Dhindsa, an emeritus professor of biology at McGill University.

In the case of animals resistant to the virus, like pigs and cows, one of these two cysteine amino acids is missing, and the disulfide bond cannot be formed. As a result, the virus cannot anchor on to the cell.

According to the researchers, preventing the anchor from forming could be the key to unlocking new treatments for COVID-19. One strategy, they suggest, could be to disrupt the oxidizing environment that keeps the disulfide bonds intact. “Antioxidants could decrease the severity of COVID-19 by interfering with entry of the virus into host cells and its survival afterwards in establishing further infection,” says Professor Singh.

In terms of next steps, the researchers say CRISPR technology could be used to edit protein sequences and test out their theory. The researchers are also looking into other proteins near the ACE2 receptor that may facilitate entry of the virus to see if they behave the same way.

Read the study online

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Twenty-five Canada Research Chairs awarded to McGill

Wed, 12/16/2020 - 08:26

In its twentieth year, the Canada Research Chairs Program (CRCP) is awarding 25 McGill researchers with eleven new and fourteen renewed chairs. The projects supported by this round of CRC funding tackle a variety of topics, including, racial inequality in democratic societies, arctic ecology and data mining for cybersecurity.

Some of McGill’s CRC recipients, such as Professors Nicole Basta, Guillaume Bourque, and Brett Thombs, are conducting COVID-19-related research, including real-time modelling of virus transmission, mental health during the pandemic, and outcome prediction and treatment response in hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

The distinctive pin awarded all Canada Research Chairs.

One new McGill CRC recipient, Professor Ali Seifitokaldani, is also receiving $206,500 in funding support from the Government of Canada through the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) John R. Evans Leaders Fund (the JELF-CRC partnership). The CFI partners with the CRCP to provide researchers with cutting-edge equipment they need to carry out their important work. Professor Seifitokaldani will also receive matching funds from the Quebec government for her research project.

“I am delighted to see the talent of these McGill researchers recognized by the Canada Research Chairs Program,” said Christopher Manfredi, Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic). “I want to congratulate all of our new CRCs and wish them well as they embark on their new research ventures over the next five or seven years.”

The CRCP is driving a national strategy to make Canada one of the world’s top countries for research and development. To achieve this objective, they fund research chairs – experts in their fields. By attracting and retaining a diverse cadre of world-class researchers, the program reinforces academic research and training excellence among Canadian postsecondary institutions. With the addition of this newest cohort, McGill currently has 182 active chairholders (Tier 1 and Tier 2).

There are two types of Canada Research Chairs:

  • Tier 1 Chairs, valued at $200,000 annually for seven years with one opportunity for renewal, are for outstanding researchers, acknowledged by their peers as world leaders in their field.
  • Tier 2 Chairs, valued at $100,000 annually for five years and renewable only once, are for exceptional emerging researchers, acknowledged by their peers as having the potential to lead in their field.
McGill’s CRC-JELF recipient:
  • Ali Seifitokaldani, Canada Research Chair in Electrocatalysis for Renewable Energy Production and Conversion, NSERC, Tier 2 (New). $206,500 from JELF; $206,500 matching provincial funds.
McGill’s 2019-2 round of CRC recipients:
  • Nicole Basta, Canada Research Chair in Infectious Disease Prevention, CIHR, Tier 2 (New)
  • Guillaume Bourque, Canada Research Chair in Computational Genomics and Medicine, CIHR, Tier 1 (New)
  • Jonathan Britt, Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Neuroscience, CIHR, Tier 2 (New)
  • Marie Brossard-Racine, Canada Research Chair in Brain and Child Development, CIHR, Tier 2 (New)
  • Thomas Brunner, Canada Research Chair in Astroparticle Physics, NSERC, Tier 2 (New)
  • Khanh Huy Bui, Canada Research Chair in Structural Cell Biology, CIHR, Tier 2 (Renewal)
  • Bastien Castagner, Canada Research Chair in Therapeutic Chemistry, CIHR, Tier 2 (Renewal)
  • Jessica Coon, Canada Research Chair in Syntax and Indigenous Languages, SSHRC, Tier 2 (Renewal)
  • Luda Diatchenko, Canada Research Chair in Human Pain Genetics, CIHR, Tier 1 (New)
  • Kyle Elliott, Canada Research Chair in Arctic Ecology, NSERC, Tier 2 (Renewal)
  • Benjamin C. M. Fung, Canada Research Chair in Data Mining for Cybersecurity, NSERC, Tier 2 (Renewal)
  • Natalya Gomez, Canada Research Chair in Ice Sheet – Sea Level – Solid Earth Interactions, NSERC, Tier 2 (Renewal)
  • Irene Gregory-Eaves, Canada Research Chair in Freshwater Ecology and Global Change, NSERC, Tier 2 (Renewal)
  • Yasser Iturria-Medina, Canada Research Chair in Multimodal Data Integration in Neurodegenerative Disease Research, CIHR, Tier 2 (New)
  • Jianyu Li, Canada Research Chair in Biomaterials and Musculoskeletal Health, CIHR, Tier 2 (New)
  • Judith N. Mandl, Canada Research Chair Immune Cell Dynamics, CIHR, Tier 2 (Renewal)
  • Timothy Merlis, Canada Research Chair in Atmospheric and Climate Dynamics, NSERC, Tier 2 (Renewal)
  • Catherine Potvin, Canada Research Chair in Climate Change Mitigation and Tropical Forests, NSERC, Tier 1 (Renewal)
  • Amélie Quesnel-Vallée, Canada Research Chair in Policies and Health Inequalities, CIHR, Tier 2 (Renewal)
  • Keiko Shikako-Thomas, Canada Research Chair in Childhood Disability: Participation and Knowledge Translation, CIHR, Tier 2 (Renewal)
  • Faleh Tamimi Marino, Canada Research Chair in Translational Craniofacial Research, CIHR, Tier 2 (Renewal)
  • Brett D. Thombs, Canada Research Chair in Patient-Oriented Disease Management and Preventive Health Care, CIHR, Tier 1 (New)
  • Debra Thompson, Canada Research Chair in Racial Inequality in Democratic Societies, SSHRC, Tier 2 (New)
  • Sylvia Villeneuve, Canada Research Chair in Early Detection of Alzheimer’s Disease, CIHR, Tier 2 (Renewal)

View the full list of Canada Research Chairs

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McGill Reads: 2020 holiday edition

Tue, 12/15/2020 - 07:59
Bucolique – Henri-Jean Guillaume Martin (1932)

Welcome to the McGill Reads 2020 holiday edition – the 8th instalment of our annual book list created with the suggestions by members of the McGill community. This year’s list of contributors is long and varied. Students, staff, faculty – current and retired – administrators and alumni answered our call for the books they recommend for others, and those they are planning to tackle themselves. Some offered brief insight into their selections, others went into more detail. Whatever the word count, each submission is illuminating.

As always, the recommended reads are wide both in scope and style. Poetry, biographies, fiction, historical non-fiction, graphic novels and children’s classics – in French, English, Spanish and Portuguese – on the printed page, audio or e-book formats– are featured on our list. Our community is nothing if not eclectic and curious.

It is interesting to see how McGill Reads is influenced by external factors. In the year of the pandemic, a number of people were drawn to distinctly dystopian books. Others say they purposely reached for books that were escapist in nature, affording them respite from the hourly updates and running tote boards.

Fittingly, as Donald Trump’s presidency – called the most disruptive in U.S. history by many – draws to a close, the most popular book on this year’s list was Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. Trump, no doubt, would not be amused.

In this time of social unrest galvanized to combat systemic racism and violence against racialized people, it is equally fitting that the second-most recommended book is Dr. Samir Shaheen-Hussain’s Fighting for a Hand to Hold – an unblinking look at the mistreatment of Indigenous people by a Canadian medical system rooted in racism and colonialism.

We hope this year’s McGill Reads holiday book list entertains you, informs you and, most of all, inspires you to pick a book of your own. Thank you to everyone who contributed to our list and may you have a happy and healthy holidays!


“I’ve been at McGill for just over a year, but I didn’t see this Christmas reading list last year. What a trove,” writes Cathryn Somrani, of the Faculty of Engineering where she is the Pedagogical Consultant for the Enhancing Learning and Teaching in Engineering initiative.

“Thanks so much for putting these lists together. It’s so fun getting such a cross-section of recommendations!”

Eritrea (fresco) – Michelangelo, 1512

The first book Somrani recommends is Lost Connections, by Johann Hari “He writes about the chronic global issue of isolation,” she writes. “Reading it was a confirmation of so many things I’ve thought about isolation over the years, but never actually tied together. I found myself saying ‘Oh, that’s it!’ at almost every chapter. And that was pre-COVID!

Somrani says she was “deeply touched” by Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women. “She tells the story, under a microscope, of three very different real women and how they face the wear and tear of… being female!”

Finally, Somrani suggests people read Codex 632 by Jose Rodrigues dos Santos. “I bought it for my daughter but ended up sneaking it first,” she says. “It’s a great read, a historical mystery about Christopher Columbus woven into a modern-day page-turner!”

For this holiday, Somrani  has her literary sights set on a pair of books, another mystery from Jose Rodrigues dos Santos, The Einstein Enigma, (“I bought it straight for myself this time!”); and  Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters (“which I found in a book exchange, and chose remembering another novel of his I loved over a decade ago, A Fine Balance, a tale of people, life, coping and meaning.”)


Victor Chisholm has been a long-time supporter, fan and contributor to McGill Reads. In fact, it was his idea to begin the spinoff McGill Reads summer edition.

“For my 2020 holiday reading list, I will put aside the frankly depressing political history I’ve been reading for the past while, and will turn to a different set of books that have elements of geographic, linguistic or cultural mixing,” says Chisholm, Student Affairs Administrator, Faculty of Science.

“I have just started reading The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, by María Rosa Menocal. This book has been on my to-read list ever since Prof. John Galaty recommended it to me some years ago. I think it will make a very nice non-fictional counterpart to the novel Leo Africanus, which I read earlier this year, and whose author (Amin Maalouf) came to my attention from one Kendra Gray’s recommendations in the 2019 holiday edition of McGill Reads. After Menocal, I hope to turn to Dominoes at the Crossroads: Short Stories, by Kaie Kellough, or Faire les sucres, by Fanny Britt. Finally, Kim Thúy has just put out another roman, this one called Em, and I can’t wait to read this because her prose is achingly beautiful.”


Irresistable – Tihamér von Margitay (1896)

André Lametti (MDCM’20), Resident Physician, Anatomical Pathology at the McGill University Health Centre, is looking forward to reading Fighting for a Hand to Hold, by Dr. Samir Shaheen-Hussain, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics’ Division of Emergency Medicine. However, there is a slight problem. “A friend already borrowed it from me, so I’ll have to wait for him to return it,” he says.

Fighting for a Hand to Hold looks at anti-Indigenous systemic racism in Canadian health care and the medical establishment’s role in colonial genocide – “a very important topic,” says Lametti.


Dilson Rassier is just one of McGill’s Deans who submitted his picks for this year’s McGill Reads list. Rassier, Dean of the Faculty of Education, plans to read the following books:

If time permits, Rassier intends to read Capital and Ideology, by Thomas Piketty.


Landscapes and Beauties- Feeling Like Reading the Next Volume – Utagawa Kuniyoshi (Edo period, 19th century)

As the Senior Advisor, Emergency Management & Preparedness, Campus Public Safety, Sarah Delisle has had a very busy year. “My reading goals for 2020 were sidetracked by the COVID-19 response,” she says. “I have a lot of ground to make up over the holidays.”

Delisle’s list includes:

Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, by Erik Larson. “This book focuses on the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 – often referred to as the ‘greatest natural disaster in American history’ – and is mainly told through the eyewitness account and records of Isaac Cline, a meteorologist at the U.S. Weather Bureau,” says Delisle.

No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality, by Michael J. Fox. “This caught my eye recently while browsing the virtual bookstore.”

“Finally, my first book for 2021 is going to be Kathleen Tierney’s tour de force book Disasters: A Sociological Approach, which delves into the social conditions that produce and exacerbate disasters. I’m looking forward to delving into the multidisciplinary mix of theory, research, and case studies, and considering how this can help us better understand the current situation we are living through.


“Since retirement in 2019, I have organized the French version of the McGill University Retirees Association (MURA/ARUM) book club: le Cercle de lecture de l’ARUM,” says Claude Lalande. “Our little group of six meets monthly to discover and discuss books by Canadian / Québécois authors.”

“One of the recurring themes of our first year and a half has been writings by or about our First Nations. We were captivated by two books by Innu writer Naomi Fontaine: Kuessipan and Shuni.”

Kuessipan is a moving book that introduces us to everyday life on an Innu reservation. It is with the grace and accuracy of a beautiful language that the author Naomi Fontaine evokes this reality, in a rather impressionistic style,” says Lalande. “It does not hide some of the dreadful aspects of life on a reservation, but describes delicately the humanity of the relationship between two Innu girls who grow up into very different circumstances. It also depicts the untouched nature surrounding the reservation, showing its majesty. The movie inspired by this novel tells the story from a different, hyper-realistic, angle. Both are superb, each in their own way.”

The Fairy Tale – Jean Mannheim (c.1910)

Shuni, is written as a long letter by the Innu author to a white Québécoise friend who is about to work in an Innu community, talking to her about the reality of being an aboriginal woman, and advising her on how to approach the community with the respect it deserves. Chapters of the novel feature the Innu author teaching her young son about their identity, and learning from him.  It is a must-read book.”

“Anthropologist Serge Bouchard, in a collection of short stories and essays published under the title Les yeux tristes de mon camion takes us on a physical and temporal road trip through North America, to discover the widespread and devastating impact of colonization across the continent on the First Nations,” says Lalande. “It is also an interesting yarn about French Canadians who have been trading all through the US. Ever wonder the origin of Provo, Utah and Laramie, Wyoming? Yes, those towns were first established by people named Provost and Laramée.”

Panik by Geneviève Drolet is written from the point of view of a rebellious adolescent girl who, after being expelled from school, is sent by her father to spend months in Igloolik, under the tutelage of an uncouth friend of her father’s, whom she nicknames ‘The Yeti.’ Through her eyes, we discover life in an isolated village on a small island in Nunavut.  We see the effects transforming a nomadic hunting society into a sedentary one depending on colonial industry, without the long-promised infrastructure and therefore resulting poverty. Still, this society functions according to its own rules and culture, with its own sense of community.  By the way, Panik means daughter, and not what you may originally have thought.”


“I did enjoy reading Where Angels Fear to Tread, by E.M. Forster. I would recommend it,” says Liliana Cetola, Administrative Assistant, in the Department of Neuroimmunology at The Neuro. “If anyone likes reading short stories – The Necklace and Other Tales, by Guy de Maupassant is nice.”


Robert Leckey, Dean of the Faculty of Law is a regular contributor to our little list. As always, his selections are eclectic and thought provoking. This holiday season, Leckey is planning on reading the following books:


Allison Gonsalves has a suggestion with a personal twist. “I’d like to recommend Songs for the End of the World, by my friend Saleema Nawaz.”

Scholar – Harry Roseland (c. 1900)

“I read this book at the beginning of the lockdown in April, and at the time, prescient was the word most often used to describe it. It was remarkable. Nawaz describes the unfolding of a pandemic involving a fictional airborne coronavirus. Reading the events in the book while experiencing those same events in real time was thrilling and chilling,” writes Gonsalves, an assistant professor of science education in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education “But I plan to read this book again. The characters are rich. Their responses to the pandemic are varied and revealing. Most importantly, I’ll be reading the book again because it is hopeful. Now that we are seemingly at the beginning of the end, I’d like to revisit this story with the perspective of the light at the end of the tunnel.”


Tim Wilfong has two books on his holiday reading list this year. “It would be cool to connect with anyone else who ends up reading them,” says the Co-Curricular Program Officer, Career Planning Service


Daniel McCabe, Editor, McGill News Alumni Magazine, is a regular – though sometimes cantankerous – McGill Reads contributor. “Every year, I hope you forget, and every year, you don’t,” grouched McCabe when he was solicited for his annual submission. But to paraphrase William Shakespeare, if McCabe’s loquacious response is any indication, we think the venerable editor doth protest too much.

Man Reading – Rotislav Barto (1928)

“Quebec cartoonist Michel Rabagliatti is only a few years older than I am, so I recognize a lot of the world I grew up in in his semi-autobiographical works,” writes McCabe. “His previous books focus on a number of milestones in the life of his fictitious counterpart Paul (his first summer job; moving away from his parents into his first apartment; the death of a beloved father-in-law) with gentle, self-deprecating humour. His latest book, Paul at Home, captures Paul at a sombre moment in his life – recently divorced, a little unmoored, and trying to look out for his aging mother.”

“Joe Sacco is another cartoonist whose work I have followed for years,” says McCabe. “Considered a pioneer of comics journalism, Sacco has published nuanced and critically acclaimed explorations of troubled and complicated places like Gaza and the Balkans. His newest book, Paying the Land, focuses on Canada – more specifically, on the Dene in the Northwest Territories, and how their lives have been affected by the residential school system and the decidedly mixed blessings of resource development.”

“Even before her book won the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize, I had been looking forward to reading Souvankham Thammavongsa’s short story collection How to Pronounce Knife, a tender, vivid and frequently funny exploration of the immigrant experience,” says McCabe.

“Finally, for my non-fiction read, I’m looking forward to diving into Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, a book largely about the U.S. presidency by a man who held the job, who, however imperfect, was thoughtful, self-questioning and intellectually curious – and not a narcissistic bully prone to peddling poisonous mistruths. Imagine that.”


In a rare moment for McGill Reads, we received a joint submission. Alum Janet Boeckh (DipEd’69, MEd’77) and Lawrence Mysak, Emeritus Professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, have submitted the following three titles to our list.

  • Michael Christie’s Greenwood
    “A Canadian saga based on themes of trees and climate change with an engaging plot,” says Boeckh.
  • Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
    “Indigenous wisdom and botany showing how we need to protect rather than exploit Mother Earth.”
  • Sara Seager, The Smallest Lights in the Universe
    “A very personal memoir by a Canadian astronomer, now at MIT, specializing in exoplanets.”


An Artist’s Son – Charles James Adams

“I wanted to add Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things to the McGill Reads list,” writes Andee Shuster, Marketing and Communications Officer, Faculty of Education. “With the #BLM movement growing in full force this year, I’ve found that reading some historical fiction and contemporary #BLM themed stories based on real events is a great way to gain new insight and sensitivity to help promote diversity and inclusion in our communities.”

“Small Great Things tells the events of the death of a newborn from three points of view: the black nurse who was directly involved, her privileged lawyer, and the white supremacist father of the deceased,” says Shuster “It was a riveting and emotional legal drama that prompted new thoughts, great discussion, and re-ignited my love of reading.”


Rare as it may be, we received a second joint submission this year, from Sean Goldfarb and his mother Janice.

Sean, a Master’s student in Cell Biology, has read or plans on reading the following books

  • Up the Down Staircase, by Bel Kaufman.
    “An inspiring, tear-jerking antinovel illustrating the joys and difficulties of working in a public school and dealing with all the bureaucracy that gets in the way,” says Sean.
  • Of Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham.
    “My mother’s favourite book and now probably mine too. About a clubfooted man named Philip Carey, his life and how he learns to grow into his life despite his deformity.”
  • Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov.
    “A co-worker recommended this classic, it’s my next book.”
  • A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit.
    “A book about dealing with the negative emotions such as loss and sadness and finding positivity and meaning in them, a friend from Europe recommended it to me. Also, my next book.”

Janice Goldfarb, MSc. Physiology, has read or wants to read the following books:

  • In Two Worlds, by Ido Kendar.
    “A very interesting foray into the life of a non-speaking severely affected autistic young man. Well worth the read,” says Janice. “A definite eye-opener to the world of diversity and a segment of the population even overlooked by even those moderately or mildly affected by autism.”
  • Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Dafoe.
    “Very old classic, read it when I was 18 and now rereading it with my youngest son.”
  • Dune (first trilogy), by Frank Herbert.
    “Classic of science fiction, really hits home with its themes of environmentalism, sustainability, greed and power struggles. Of course, who can forget that the first trilogy inspired Star Wars!”
  • 12 Angry Men, by Reginald Rose.
    “A classic play about a jury debating the truth of a murder case. Got us interested in how to critically think and how to determine what is the truth.”
Femmes lisant dans un paysage – Maurice Marinot (1904)


“Two wonderful books for the armchair explorer take us on a discovery of the Lake Superior region and an epic journey to our underdog former planet, Pluto,” writes Lois Manton, a McGill retiree. “The Wolf’s Head: Writing Lake Superior, by Peter Unwin is a magical mix of history story-telling, geography all wrapped up in one tidy volume. Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto, by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon takes us on a breathtaking journey from a dream to flyby.”


A warm welcome to Carrie Hanson, Skills Development Officer, Teaching and Learning Services, a first-time contributor to McGill Reads.

“This fall I re-read (actually re-listened, McGill Library has all the audiobooks!) the first three books in the Stormlight Archive (Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, and Oathbringer) by Brandon Sanderson, to prepare for the release of the fourth book, Rhythm of War, on November 17 of this year!” says Hanson. “Each book is around 1,000 pages, so it’s a commitment, but what better time to dive into fantasy than this holiday season at home? Sanderson is an incredible world builder, the magic system is intricate, and the fourth book is providing so much lore for the entire universe he’s created. It’s a fantasy reader’s dream.”

“Since the fantasy genre is often oversaturated with white men authors (Sanderson being no exception) I also want to recommend an incredible woman of color fantasy author, N.K. Jemison. I’m hoping to get the Broken Earth trilogy for Christmas, and I read the Inheritance trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods) earlier this year,” says Hanson. “The trilogy covers three distinct eras in a world, so you get to see the long-term effects of events that happen in the first book. Also, the main character of the second book is blind, and I had never read a book from that perspective, it’s really beautifully done!”


Crystal Noronha, Graduate Studies Officer, Faculty of Dentistry, has a trio of books lined up for the holiday break.

  • How to Pronounce Knife, by Souvankham Thammavongsa.
    “Checking this book out since it won the 2020 Scotiabank Gilles prize,” she says.
  • Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande.
    “Since health is my all-time favourite topic.”
  • Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah.
    “Reading this book once again because it’s inspiring, it’s sad, it’s funny.”


Hilah Silver, a PhD student in the Department of Family Medicine, was so impressed with Fighting for a Hand to Hold, by Dr. Samir Shaheen Hussain, she wrote a review of the book to the Journal of Transcultural Nursing – “Something I have never done before,” she says, “but that’s how powerful the book was for me!”

Die Geschwister – Hans Thoma (1873)

Silver condensed her review for us:

“Fighting for a Hand to Hold is a deeply moving and accessible account of how the Canadian medical establishment maintains health inequities and injustices among the Indigenous communities it is tasked to protect. Charting the history of medical colonialism in Canada, the book illustrates its ongoing presence in a healthcare system renowned for its principles of universality and equity. It unflinchingly confronts the dilemma faced by medical providers today: having inherited a medical system rooted in racism and colonialism, providers are unknowingly enlisted to advance the colonial genocidal agenda. Fighting for a Hand to Hold demonstrates succinctly and clearly how contemporary colonialism and systemic racism hide in plain sight within the healthcare system, and offers a path towards meaningful Indigenous-settler reconciliation and decolonization of our healthcare system. A must-read for settler allies, who no longer wish to maintain the colonial status-quo.”


Michelle Mussuto, a second-year Master of Information Studies student submitted three titles to our list:

  • Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night.
    “Because who doesn’t love the library and ANYTHING written by Manguel!”
  • Ursula LeGuin’s The Left-Hand of Darkness.
    “LeGuin is an amazing writer. She can write about politics, love, prejudice, friendship all in one book and you don’t even realize she’s done all that until you’ve turned the last page.”
  • Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore.
    “I’ve read so much of Murakami’s work, but haven’t gotten around to this one and he already has another book coming out. Murakami is a skillful writer who I think is on the fringe of sci-fi, poetry and the more traditional novel. I adore the twists and turns in everything from his full length works to his short stories.”
Madame Helleu lisant sur la plage – Paul César Helleu (1896)


Elena Bennett, CRC in Sustainability Science, Department of Natural Resource Sciences and the Bieler School of Environment, shared her reading list for the break:

Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson.
“Robinson’s books are always an interesting meditation for me on what makes a world a utopia or a dystopia,” says Bennett. “Often there is some sort of deep crisis (dystopia) but people respond well (utopia). This one, like a few of his latest, uses the lens of the climate change disaster we’re currently living in to set the stage. His books are also always well-researched and chock-full of well-explained science.”

Utopia Avenue, by David Mitchell
“Mitchell’s books are often marked by interesting and novel structures and gorgeous writing, and I hope this one, about a fictional psychedelic rock band, follows that same pattern.”

All We Can Save, Edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katherine K Wilkinson.
“This book is ‘essays from women at the forefront of the climate movement who are harnessing truth, courage, and solutions to lead humanity forward.’ I’m really looking forward to it.


“This is my first time sharing my reads but I always enjoy this column,” writes Emily Love, Manager, International Student Development & Communications. “The last few years, I read over 30 books on my metro commute. This year, I’m down to a dozen.”

Here are Love’s Top 3:

  • The Guest List, by Lucy Foley.
    “A fun thriller and page turner.”
  • Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb.
    “This book is like reading free therapy.”
  • My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell.
    “This was my first book I couldn’t put down during COVID, which says something since my attention span withered down severely.”

“I hope to get my metro reading on again in 2021!” writes Love in closing.

Alfred Tennyson – Helen Allingham


“This year, I will be knitting socks instead of reading,” writes Isabelle Lalonde, Administrative Coordinator Scholarships, McCall MacBain Scholarships and Student Aid Centre. “But I bought myself a little book – The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy – that is a real gem, I predict it will be a classic before long. You just need to open it at any page and you find instant wellbeing….and that is what we need these days. Here’s a little appropriate quote for the current situation:”

‘What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said? asked the boy.
‘Help,’ said the horse.
‘Asking for help isn’t giving up,’ said the horse. ‘It’s refusing to give up.”


Jim Nicell is facing a quandary this holiday season. “I am having a lot of trouble figure out my list this year. I have too many books to choose from,” says the Dean of Engineering, a legend of the McGill Reads circuit. “When I look at my shelves of unread books, I have the same feeling I used to have when I went to a video store and felt helpless in choosing which one to take home. Come to think of it, it’s the same feeling I get when I open Netflix.”

While Nicell hasn’t nailed down his final lineup, he’s submitted his “most likely reading list for this holiday season.”

First up on Nicell’s list is The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, by Simon Schama. “This might sound like a strange book to read when trying to relax, but I have been quite taken by Schama’s work lately, especially after having read Rembrandt’s Eyes this past summer, which probably now ranks amongst my top five favourite books,” says Nicell.

Next, Nicell will read Vietnam: A New History, by Christopher Goscha, who is a professor of history at UQAM. The book was a finalist for the 2017 Cundill History Prize.

And, finally, Nicell has his sights set on The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Pulitzer-prize winning author Daniel Yergin.

“I am looking forward to staying remote from remote platforms this holiday and spending time with books and family,” he says.


Who knows books? Kimberley Stephenson, that’s who. The Trade Buyer for the Le James Bookstore, Stephenson will be tackling the following books over the holidays:


The Blue Book – William McGregor Paxton (1911)

“Working remotely from home since March has not been that easy of a transition,” says Bruna Salhany. “I took for granted the importance of my usual Métro, boulot, dodo routine which brought me in to work at 2001 McGill College to the Accreditation and Education Quality Improvement office [where she is Accreditation & Quality Improvement Administrator for the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences]. “I can admit to missing the freedom of grabbing lunch, and of walking around campus in the spring, summer and autumn. It’s like I missed key components to three seasons: not seeing them reflected in the colours of the trees on lower campus and Mont Royal, nor in the ebb and flow of students as their numbers trickle down over the Summer term and then come back in full force for the fall one.”

Salhany says one of the great consolations in the work-from-home experience has been her “rediscovery” of McGill Overdrive, McGill Library’s popular e-book and e-audiobook lending service.

“Since March, I’ve read the complete Neapolitan Quartet, by Elena Ferrante; Dear Girls Dear, by Ali Wong; The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood; and Beirut Hellfire, by Rawi Hage – just to name a few,” says Salhany.

Over the holiday break, her reading list will include Ready Player Two, by Ernest Cline (“I really hoping it’s a good as the first book!”); The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid; Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs, by Camilla Townsend, winner of the 2020 Cundill History Prize.

“The only in-hand book I’ll be diving into is Solutions and Other, by Allie Brosh,” says Salhany. “I believe it is important read because while she was experiencing great success with her blog (Hyperbole and a Half) and career, Allie fell into clinical depression and was out of the scene for a good seven years. Solutions describes her journey of mental health struggles and how she came through it.”

“As usual, an ambitious reading list, but just in case any of my family and friends read my entry: No, I’m not asking for any books as Christmas gifts this year,” says Salhany in closing.


Stephanie Wereley, Communications Officer, University Advancement, says she is looking to “fill a gap in my classic literature repertoire by finally reading Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. I figure it’s a wholesome read and therefore perfect for the holidays. Then maybe I’ll finally get around to watching one of the movie versions as well!”


A McGill Reads veteran, Chris Buddle always impresses us with his wide-ranging literary interests. This year is no different.

“First up on the fiction front is Ridge Runner, by Gil Adamson, which has received quite a bit of press and it sounds just amazing,” says the Associate Provost (Teaching and Academic Programs). “I’ve heard it described as ‘gothic western,’ and a vivid historical novel. Plus, it’s by a Canadian author, which I always like.”

Le petit dejeuner – Daphne Maugham Casorati (1920)

Next, Buddle will read The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón – a recommendation by his wife and eldest son “They are both avid readers, and I take their suggestions VERY seriously.”

Buddle will then tackle A Song for Dark Times, the latest Rebus mystery from Ian Rankin. “I have long enjoyed the Rebus series – they are dark, gritty, and the characters in his books are wonderfully flawed. And the title seems fitting this year…” says Buddle.

Not done yet, Buddle also has some non-fiction selections lined up for the holidays.

Buddle will finish The Banjo: America’s African Instrument, by Lauren Dubois. “I’ve been learning to play the Banjo during the pandemic, and as I discover the instrument in more depth, I’m also learning about how and why it is so misunderstood, and this book is a historical treatise on the Banjo, from its origins in Africa, and its movement to North America via the slave trade, and how it has evolved and changed over time,” he says.

“I’m also very intrigued by A Pattern Language which is an architectural/urban design book published in the late 1970s,” says Buddle. “I can’t exactly recall where I heard about this book, but it has been described as the ‘most calming book’ and seems to be about design, space, and connections.”

Lots of us are getting excited about chess, and the revival has reminded me of another book I’ve been meaning to read, and a pandemic holiday season seems just the time,” says Buddle. “Bobby Fisher Goes to War, by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, is about the most notorious chess match in history (one that I don’t think is featured on Netflix!), and is set against the political backdrop of the early 1970s.”


Andrea Di Stefano, Manager Registration, Programs, and Degree Evaluation, Enrolment Services sends us her choices for books she wants to read as well as a “bonus suggestion” of a book she has read and highly recommends. “These choices reflect my preference for autobiographies, spiritual/religious, and personal/professional development books.”


Having been a fan of McGill Reads for a while, Erin Richardson, a Masters of Information Studies student, has decided to join in the fun. “This winter I’ll be reading The Clean Body: A Modern History, by Peter Ward as well as starting the epic fantasy series Malazan Book for the Fallen series, by Steven Erikson with the first book of the series, Gardens of the Moon.


Once again, Fighting for a Hand to Hold, by Dr, Samir Shaheen-Hussain, gets a glowing review.

Cotton exchange – . Edgar Degas (1873)

“I am a second-year medical student at McGill and I have been recommending this book to all my friends and colleagues. I believe [Fighting for a Hand to Hold] should be required reading in all medical schools across Canada,” writes Susan Joanne Wang. “It is a strongly researched historical piece that reads somewhat like a horror or tragedy; not because of how it’s written, but just due to the raw reality of its contents. It reveals, with meticulously researched stories and documents, the terrible truth of Canada’s long history of genocidal acts inflicted upon Indigenous people, including but not limited to: residential schools, nutritional experiments, skin grafting experiments, forced sterilization, missing and murdered Indigenous women, the foster care system and forced separation of children from their families on emergency medevacs. It really opened my eyes to the horrors of Indigenous-Canadian history and the importance of education on these topics, not only for medical trainees, but for the Canadian population at large. If you care about people, you should give this book a read.”


Krithika Ragupathi, a graduate student in Economics, recommends Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. “The growing digital attention economy has reduced the time we live in flow,” says Ragupathi. “This book describes flow and hints at how we can reclaim it.”


Anne Leahy has the distinction of being the only person to submit a bilingual book list. An Affiliate Member School of Religious Studies, Leahy recommends the following books:

  • L’architecture de l’identité : arts et patrimoines en hommage à Luc Noppen (The architecture of identity : a tribute to Luc Noppen), sous la direction de Lucie K. Morisset.
    “A wonderful collection of short essays and illustrations about the unique character of Québec architecture that reveals its originality over the centuries,” says Leahy.
  • SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard.
    “Published in 2015, already a classic and given the current upheaval in the world order, ever more a must-read.”
  • All the Devils are Here (the latest in the series about Inspector Armand Gamache), by Louise Penny.
    “I’m curious about this plot not located in Three Pines but in Paris. It’s the fine psychological description of her characters that attracts me to Penny.”
  • Ma vie, Feodor Chaliapine, Albin Michel, editor.
    “An autobiography of the world’s greatest singer in a turbulent Russian/Soviet Union that reminds us what resilience really entails.”
  • Elles ont fait l’Amérique. De remarquables oubliés. (Tome 1). Serge Bouchard et Marie-Christine Lévesque.
    “Quinze portraits de canadiennes qu’on devrait connaître et qui ont marqué l’histoire de ce qui est devenu le Canada de Shanadithit à Robertine Barry. Fifteen portraits of Canadian women who deserve to be known for their contribution to the history of what will become Canada. From Shanadithit to Robertine Barry.”


“My reads for this holiday season are a bit dark, but the books were chosen as an escape to allow my mind to wander in the fantastical and immersive,” writes Sacha Young, Ethics Review Administrator, Faculty of Medicine Institutional Review Board

Lovely Granny – Max Rentel (1911)

Young will tackle Mexican Gothic, by Canadian author, Silvia Moreno-Garcia. “From the reviews I have read, the author weaves together the impacts of empire, colonialism and eugenics into the story of a small community of 1950s Mexico,” writes Young, a long-time McGill Reads contributor. “The story is centred on High Place, its history as well as its allure, and the protagonist’s (Noemi) attempt to rescue her cousin from this place and the family who created the legacy.”

Next up is Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. Young includes notes by the publisher (Bloomsbury): “In his notebooks, day after day, he makes a clear and careful record of its wonders: the labyrinth of halls, the thousands upon thousands of statues, the tides that thunder up staircases, the clouds that move in slow procession through the upper halls. On Tuesdays and Fridays Piranesi sees his friend, the Other. At other times he brings tributes of food to the Dead. But mostly, he is alone. Messages begin to appear, scratched out in chalk on the pavements. There is someone new in the House. But who are they and what do they want? Are they a friend or do they bring destruction and madness as the Other claims? Lost texts must be found; secrets must be uncovered. The world that Piranesi thought he knew is becoming strange and dangerous.”

Finally, Young will read Stephen Graham Jones’s novel The Only Good Indians. “It is a horror novel about revenge, sorrow, and identity (also recognizing that ‘identity’ is not monolithic),” writes Young. “The identity here is Native American, Blackfeet. The story examines tradition as well as the consequences of breaking away from its core.”


“In this strange and isolating year, I’ve found community through reading, including through the PGSS Equity & Allyship book club, a collaborative reading and discussion group which began this fall,” writes Mary Miedema, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Bioengineering & Biomedical Engineering. “In that light, it seems only natural that I’m finishing the year by hunkering down at home with my roommate as we read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.”


Portrait of Sir Edward Cotsford of Clyst St George – Lemuel Abbott

Abida Subhan, Co-ordinator, Department of Animal Science and Natural Resource Sciences, is looking forward to reading a pair of books over the break.

Friends and Enemies A Memoir, by Barbara Amiel came  highly recommended, I am looking forward to reading it hoping to get a glimpse of Conrad Black as well,” writes Subhan. “The other book is a fiction, White Ivy, by Susie Yang, a coming of age story. It came highly recommended as well. Staying focused on a book these days is challenging I find, I am blaming it on the pandemic. If the books are as good as they are touted to be I might just get into them whole-heartedly.”


Now retired, Gail Youster worked in the Marvin Duchow Music Library for 39 years, and before that she spent 10 years at the McLennan Library. To say she likes her books would be an understatement. Youster directs readers toward two books – Hamnet and Judith, by Maggie O’Farrell, and A Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami. Youster says she recommends both books “strictly for the love of a well written story.”


“Rarely have holiday vacations felt so desperately needed. After nine months of non-stop zoom/webex/teams meetings, discussing with and waving at people popping up in 2D on the computer screen instead of interacting with them in 3D, I am looking forward to getting away from the computer and holding a hardcopy book in my hands. Preferably, while curling up in front of the fireplace with a snowstorm howling,” writes Anja Geitmann, Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Two girls by the sea – Kafu (c.1920)

“I intend to continue reading Bill Bryson’s latest: The Body – A Guide for Occupants. I started it recently, and in addition to enjoying Bryson’s entertaining writing style, I am learning an embarrassing amount, considering that I am a biologist by training. Let’s blame it on the fact that I study plants, not animals, let alone human biology,” says Geitmann.

“For the delivery of the second book, I am counting on Santa, to whom I sent the following request: Katie Mack’s The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking). Dr. Mack is Assistant Professor in Physics at North Carolina State University and I follow her very active Twitter account,” says Geitmann. “According to the description, the book promises to explore ‘five universe-ending possibilities proposed by cosmologists, exploring what they would look like (if anyone were still around to see them) and how new cutting-edge astronomical observations and particle experiments can tell us which way our cosmos, and everything in it, might reach its ultimate demise.’ I guess, this (plant) biologist occasionally needs some physics in her life, and the holidays might be the time to let astronomy take the mind off the latest regulations for social distancing and masks.”


Last year, Caitlin MacDougall achieved superstar status among McGill Reads fandom when she knocked off 75 books in 2019. So, what did she do for an encore this year? Joining the Century Club, of course.

“I managed to meet my 2020 Goodreads reading challenge of 85 books back at Thanksgiving (happy dance!), so everything I’ve read since then is bonus,” says the Liaison Officer, Farm Management and Technology Program. “I’m currently on No.98 – Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning a short read I will finish in the next day or two. As for holiday reading, I’m excited to surpass 100 books before Christmas (a new personal best).”

A Monk At Study – Lionel Charles Henley (1882)

Next up for MacDougall is The New Wilderness, by Diane Cook. “I don’t really know what to expect, but it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year so I figure that is good enough for me!”

Following that, MacDougall will tackle The Pull of the Stars, by Room author Emma Donoghue.

“Lastly, if I can get my hands on the audiobook copy of Dearly, by Margaret Atwood, her latest collection of poetry, I will be very happy,” says MacDougall. “Right now, there’s a four-week waitlist, but I’m hoping it won’t take that long to become available.”

“If I can recommend a book I’ve already read this fall and loved, it would be The Mountains Sing, by Nguyễn Phan Quế. Set in Vietnam and spanning the lives of three generations, it is so poetic and descriptive. After reading it I really want to visit Vietnam and see the country for myself, once we can safely travel again.”


“This holiday season I’m hoping to read two new-ish releases by authors I admire; Ann Patchett’s family drama The Dutch House, and Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and Judith, a fictionalised take on the short life of Shakespeare’s son and how his death a few years before the writing of Hamlet may have shaped the play,” says Jan Bottomer, Music and Arts Career Advisor, Career Planning Service.

“I always love the chance to curl up with a good mystery over Christmas; I’m currently part-way through Deborah Crombie’s great Kincaid and James series. On the seasonal front, my family started a new tradition last year, a Book Advent Calendar! Each night we unwrap and enjoy an old holiday favourite like Mem Fox’s Wombat Divine, Sheryl Haft’s Goodnight Bubbala, or Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.


Last year, Chris Chipello turned heads with a strong performance as a McGill Reads rookie. There’s no sign of the sophomore jinx as he’s come back this season with two solid picks.

“I’m halfway through Barack Obama’s new memoir, A Promised Land. It’s excellent,” says the Associate Director, Integrated Editorial Group, Communications and External Relations. “I’m also reading Louise Penny’s All the Devils Are Here. I started one of her mystery novels last year, and never got into it. But I’m finding this one to be a page-turner.”


Carola Weil, Dean of Continuing Studies, submitted a long list of books she is currently reading. “As always in a pile and eclectic as ever,” she writes. Weil’s list includes:

La lecture sur le transat – Julie Manet


Robin Beech, Dean of Students, is a first-time contributor to McGill Reads. Beech recommends a trio of books for people to tackle over the holidays.

A Morbid Taste for Bones, by Ellis Peters. “The first in a series of 21 books about a crime solving 12th century monk,” says Beech. “Wonderful writing with a common theme throughout the series of adversaries working against each other with mutual respect aiming for the right outcome. Very different from the TV series that inserted anger and hostility as a cheap dramatic tool.”

Beech also touts The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Canadian author, Alan Bradley. “Another first in a series focusing on the adolescent, self-taught chemist, Flavia de Luce who solves crimes with a vivid imagination and sense of humour,” says Beech.

Finally, Beech suggests The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield. “Mystery novel with many twists and turns,” he writes. “Contains some difficult imagery but an absorbing story and one where I did not see the answer until the last pages.”


What are the holidays without tradition? One of our favourite McGill Reads traditions is to sign off with the wise, funny and often poignant words of McGill’s Great Communicator, Bud Martin. Sometimes people’s explanations for why they choose a certain book tells us more about them than the choice of book itself. We think Bud’s swell.

“Like my waistline, my holiday reading has been shaped by the pandemic. During the early, crazy days, when the workday finally wound down at midnight or whatever, I’d cool my jets with an episode of Lodge 49, Jim Gavin’s wonderful TV series about failure, misfits, friendship, hope and an esoteric fraternal order,” writes the University’s beloved man of mystery. “The main character carries around a battered paperback of Dune. So, after spending my whole life shunning all things Arrakis, I got hooked on Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi worldbuilding. If I finish Children of Dune over the holidays, God Emperor is waiting in the wings. (I’ve got a copy of Gavin’s own short story collection, Middle Men, at the ready, too.)”

“We’ve been using the pandemic as an excuse to clean up at home, so I’ll balance out my winter reading with not-Dune books found forgotten and unfairly unread,” says Martin. “Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, for sure. Sabermetrics guru Bill James’ non-baseball passion project Popular Crime and Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović’s memoir Walk Through Walls. Maybe Patricia Highsmith’s last Ripley novel, or Edward St Aubyn’s last Melrose one, or Harry Stephen Keeler’s The Riddle of the Traveling Skull?”

“One more to mention,” he continues. “A big part of my reading life in the last decade-plus has been with my kids at bedtime. That ritual petered out a year ago. We tried to revive it during lockdown, but with schedules out the window, it didn’t stick. I knew they’d outgrow it one day, just like I knew they were ready for mom and dad to stop walking them to school. But just because they’re ready, it doesn’t mean I am. If I’d known March 12 was the last morning we’d speedwalk through the park together (late, of course), I would’ve savoured every step and squabble – so I’m insisting we finish the book we dropped, Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks At Last. That series meant a lot to us over the years. I want to know how it ends.”

Dona llegint – Ramon Casas i Carbó (c.1890)

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