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Cutting Edge

Initiated in 2003 with the express purpose of fostering communication between scientists in different disciplines as well as between scientists and the public, Cutting Edge Lectures in Science are made possible through the generous support from the Faculty of Science (Dean); Faculty of Medical Sciences, and the Centre for Applied Mathematics in Bioscience and Medicine (CAMBAM).

Where: Auditorium, Redpath Museum, 859 Sherbrooke Street West, Metro McGill/Peel
Seating is limited. No reservations necessary.
When: 6 PM, followed by a reception.
Cost: FREE, everyone welcome.

Please help us to continue with the series.

Most of the Cutting Edge Lectures in Science are available on iTunes U and on McGill podcasts. Go under the section entitled "Science and Technology" for video and audio recordings of Cutting Edge lectures.

Fall 2015

Sept. 17: Designing biophysical models using evolution in silico

By Paul Francois (Assistant Professor, Dept. of Physics, McGill)

Cells are complex dynamical systems: they are able to react to their environment and to perform sophisticated biological computations to take decision. However, the huge complexity of biomolecular interactions makes it difficult to understand and properly model the emergent repertoire of cellular responses. I will introduce an approach inspired by physics to automatically generate "phenotypic models" of cell behaviors , using an evolutionary algorithm. I will illustrate our approach on several examples where our simplified models led to new biological insights, including early immune recognition by T cells.

  Oct. 15: An abundance of other worlds - The exoplanet zoo

 By Andrew Cumming (Assistant Professor, Dept. of Physics, McGill)

This lecture will tell us how the last two decades have seen the discovery of thousands of exoplanets — planets orbiting other stars in our Galaxy. We now know that planets are common in our Galaxy, with most stars hosting planetary systems. These planetary systems are incredibly diverse, and often quite different from our Solar System. This has important implications for our understanding of how planets form and what the “typical” planetary system looks like. He promises to give us a tour of the known exoplanets, and to describe what further discoveries we might expect in the coming decade. Dr. Cumming works in Theoretical Astrophysics. He studies the physics of compact objects and extrasolar planets. Professor Cumming received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of California, Berkeley, in December 2000, where he worked with Lars Bildsten. He then spent a year as a postdoc at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) in Santa Barbara, before moving to the University of California, Santa Cruz as a Hubble Fellow. Professor Cumming joined the McGill Department of Physics in September 2004. He has been a Scholar of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) Cosmology and Gravity program since 2004, and was awarded an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship in 2006.


 Nov. 12: For Peat Sake! - Northern peatlands, carbon and climate

  By    Nigel Roulet (James McGill Professor, Dept. of Geography, McGill)

Peatlands have been a sink for atmospheric CO2 since the end of the last glaciation and as a consequence they now store about one third of the World’s terrestrial carbon.  However, because they are wet ecosystems they also emit methane to the atmosphere.  The importance of peatlands in the carbon and methane cycles is controlled, in part, by their climatic and hydrological setting, which is likely to change with climate change.  However, peatlands are complex ecosystems that, have through strong feedbacks among their hydrology and the production of plants and the decomposition plant litter, managed to remain reasonable stable through time.  I will establish the importance of peatlands in the global carbon and methane cycles, illustrate how feedbacks with their hydrology emerges and then attempt to assess their potential sensitivity, or lack of, to climate and other environmental changes.

  Dec. 10: Getting "radically" practical about our economy and environment

By Chris Ragan (Associate Professor, Dept. of Economics, Faculty of Arts, McGill)
Few issues are more polarized in today’s Canada than how best to improve the economy and the environment at the same time. Many think it is simply not possible, and that better environmental outcomes are only possible by paying a significant economic price. Chris Ragan, an Economics professor at McGill and also the Chair of the recently created "Ecofiscal Commission”, will discuss an effective and practical path forward for Canadian policymakers at all levels of government. He will focus on the creation of the Commission, the central findings from its first two reports, and the issues yet to be explored over the next few years. He will also address the difficulty of bridging the gap between academics and policymakers, and why it is so crucial to Canada’s future.

Winter 2016

  Jan. 14: Improving the design and discovery of personalized treatment strategies using methods from artificial intelligence

By Joelle Pineau (Associate Professor and William Dawson Scholar at the School of Computer Science, McGill)

In this talk we will explore new methods for automatically discovering and optimizing sequential treatments for chronic and life-threatening diseases using approaches from computer science.  The methods we propose are based on algorithms developed in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to learn directly from data.  In particular, we will focus on how we can use data collected in multi-stage sequential trials to automatically generate treatment strategies that are tailored to patient characteristics and time-dependent outcomes.  We will show how this approach is being  used to learn adaptive neurostimulation policies for the treatment of epilepsy. Brief examples will be drawn from some of our other projects, including developing new long-term treatment strategies for mental illness, diabetes and cancer.

 Feb. 11: How do groups of people coordinate their actions? Extending beyond individuals and pairs

 By Caroline Palmer (Canada Research Chair, Cognitive Neuroscience of Performance; Professor, Dept. of Psychology, McGill)
Speakers, singers, athletes, and even furniture movers must work together with their teammates or partners to coordinate the timing of their actions. The timing of speech and music - two human behaviours that demonstrate our speed and flexibility - must be precise for successful communication. I will give examples from ensemble music performances to address questions such as: how does the balance and stability of relationships among group members change, as the group size changes? How do roles such as leadership influence temporal coordination? I will describe experiments with performing musicians, and computational models that predict when coordination is successful and when it fails.

  March 10: Some reflections on gold’s glitter and gloom

  By Nil Basu (Canada Research Chair in Environmental Health Sciences; Associate Professor, Dept. of Natural Resource Sciences, Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, McGill)

Do you know where you gold comes from?  Perhaps it may come as a surprise that a large amount of the world’s gold comes from the artisanal gold mining sector.  Found in 70 countries worldwide (mainly in the low- and middle-income bracket), the sector provides employment for 15 million miners and more than 100 million people live in such mining communities.  Profits abound yet for all its glitter, the sector is notoriously unsafe.  Artisanal gold mining is an inherently risky activity with documented adverse impacts on public health and ecosystem quality.  The push/pull nature of this industry are synonymous with my shifting views, and in the lecture I will share my encounters with the sector  – from our scientific endeavors and outreach activities to my personal anecdotes and cultural awakenings  – and get you thinking about the glitter and gloom of your gold assets.

  April 14: Spies and lies - Cold war science, the CIA, and the case against Ewen Cameron

  By Andrea Tone (Canada Research Chair in the Social History of Medicine; Faculty of Medicine, McGill)

This talk revisits the history of the CIA-funded mind control program, MK-ULTRA, which funded the research and patient treatments of Dr. Ewen Cameron, the chair of McGill's psychiatry department, during the Cold War. Drawing on newly available archival materials, oral histories, and other sources, it explores and historicizes MK-ULTRA's' objectives, Cameron's work, and the controversy and legacy both engendered.