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McGill Reporter
October 11, 2001 - Volume 34 Number 03
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Naomi Lear: The business of taking care

Photo PHOTO: Owen Egan

For a long time, Naomi Lear was torn between becoming a doctor or a rabbi.

"When I'd tell people that," says the 22-year-old who's in her final year of honours studies in science, "they'd say, 'Oh, I can see the connection.'" Short burst of laughter. "But they couldn't."

For Lear, the connection is just that: connecting. She speaks eloquently -- punctuated by uncommonly long, thoughtful pauses -- about her "obligation to be a member of society," and believes in a holistic approach to understanding human need.

"A lot of people think that health care doesn't do that," she explains, "but I think that it should. For me, medicine and rabbinics are so similar. One of the reasons I wanted to be a rabbi was because of that idea of how communities are responsible for nurturing children in all kinds of different ways. And how the Jewish community looks at the whole life cycle and integrating things."

As for her career coin toss, Lear only recently opted for psychiatry. She hopes to enter med school next fall, with an eye toward a career in child advocacy, a decision greatly influenced by an inspiring field placement at the Douglas Hospital's therapeutic nursery for autistic children.

Lear manifests her beliefs with tireless volunteer commitments. She downplays her myriad extracurricular activities, maintaining that just taking classes "would be boring," but her CV is far too extensive to be born of mere boredom.

A longtime volunteer at the McGill Students' Society's Sexual Assault Centre, Lear currently serves as one of two external coordinators, attending Students' Society meetings, responding to media treatments of sexual assault issues, and generally acting as the centre's "public voice."

Other campus work includes coordinating an open forum on sexual harassment policy, working as a tutor (chemistry, psychology and statistics) for McGill Tutorial Services, and running sensitivity training workshops for campus leaders.

Off campus, Lear volunteers as a Big Sister for Jewish Family Services, taking her 15-year-old "sister" on weekly outings. "We go to the movies, or skating, or to the Biodome -- I wouldn't do fun things if it wasn't for her!"

Just as impressive is Lear's list of scholarships and awards. This year's honours alone include the Dow-Hickson Scholarship, the E. R. Crawford Scholarship, the J. W. McConnell Award for ranking in the top five per cent of students in the Faculty of Science, and the Scarlet Key Award for Student Leadership at McGill.

But Lear says that her "favourite thing of everything I do" is her volunteer work as a phone counsellor at two Montreal help lines; she listens to sexual assault survivors, offering information, medical referrals, and often just an understanding ear. Lear's senior psychology thesis is on the relationship between childhood sexual abuse and bulimia, two recurring themes heard at the help lines.

"There's a lot of things I like about working the lines," she says, before settling into yet another long pause. "People always ask me, 'Isn't it upsetting or depressing?' and you do listen to difficult things -- it's not 'fun' like watching a comedy on television.

"But you also listen to people who have survived really, really difficult things and still have hope and still try to connect with people. That's really inspiring." Another long pause. "I just love listening to people, and I get to talk to people who have incredible resources of strength and hope."

Lear even works six hours a week as an emergency phone counsellor for other phone counsellors who need to discuss difficult calls.

Typically, she underplays this extra commitment, explaining that she gets a lot of schoolwork done during downtime. In fact, she resists the idea that she's exceptionally busy. "Classes don't take up that many hours," she maintains, insisting that her flurry of activity is a necessary part of her social commitment.

"Most people today understand warranties," she says. "But warranties and guarantees and rights only come from trusting that other people are committed to caring for you." Long pause. "The only things that really give you guarantees are making commitments to other people, sometimes making sacrifices, and making sure other people can trust you.

"And I get a lot out of all the things I do," she adds. "I'm not volunteering to do clerical work. I hate filing and I don't do that. I only volunteer doing things I like, and I've met so many amazing people that I learn so much from.

"I just really like connecting with people."


The Quran is very clear on matters of the conduct of war. There are certain principles that aren't compromised. Children and women and the elderly have some sanctity, and the civilian population is not to be violated.

Islamic studies professor Wael Hallaq, an expert on Islamic law, speaking to Newsday.

Ig Nobel but never Ig nored

Photo Look out below!

It's the sort of recognition most researchers might shy away from, even if it does mean that your name will be flashed in newspapers around the world.

The Ig Nobel prizes, sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research, go to scientists, scholars and inventors who, in the words of Ig Nobel organizers, "have done remarkably goofy things -- some of them admirable, some perhaps otherwise."

This year's Ig Nobel laureates include Buck Weimer, who came up with the idea of airtight underwear fitted with a flatulence filter. "Wear them for the ones you love," Weimer told the New Scientist. Televangelist Jack Van Impe was recognized for determining that black holes met all the technical requirements for being pathways to hell.

And the Ig Nobel in medicine this year went to McGill epidemiologist Peter Barss.

Barss is recognized for a paper he published in 1984 in the Journal of Trauma, "Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts."

"It does sound like something to laugh at," warrants Barss. Unless you lived in New Guinea, as Barss did during the '80s and served as the director of a rural hospital, as he did, where one in 40 patients who turned up had serious injuries caused by coconuts.

Barss and a visiting astronomer looked into the phenomenon and determined that the kinetic force generated by the heavy fruits dropping from a height of 35 metres -- the trees tend to be tall and the coconuts grow at the top of them -- "was enough to tear a hole through the roof of a car."

Doing that research sparked an interest in injury prevention. "That really set me on my career path." Today Barss is doing work that is always taken seriously.

He recently earned a national citation from the Red Cross Society of Canada for his ongoing coordination of the national drowning report, "the only report of its kind in the world," he says.

He has witnessed an 80% drop in reported cases of infants drowning in Canada, in part due to the alarm he sounded about the number of infants who died in bath tubs while being left unattended for brief periods.

He is currently pointing to another health hazard -- the shortage of self-latching, self-closing gates on swimming pools designed to prevent children from swimming unsupervised.

"In Quebec over 95% of home pools don't have these doors. Swimming pool vendors don't explain the risks or sell the safety equipment. It costs thousands of dollars to buy a pool and $25 to make it safer."

At the Ig Nobel ceremony, Barss encountered a woman who told him she felt bad he was singled out for the Ig Nobel since he has done such important work.

That's not the way Barss sees it.

"Even if it's a bit oddball, it's been an opportunity to talk to all kinds of media. I've been interviewed by The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Italian state radio. Injury prevention doesn't usually get this kind of attention."

He's happy he took part for another reason. With real Nobel laureates taking part in a mini-opera about scientists trying to plan a wedding scientifically, with presentations by such figures as the inventor of the pink flamingo, with audience members bombarding the stage with paper airplanes, the ceremony is an absolute hoot.

Barss explains that as part of his work on monitoring water-related deaths in Canada, "every day I'm receiving data that's quite tragic. It's nice to have an opportunity for a lot of laughs."


This is a country that prides itself on its diversity. I'm going to keep practicing my faith, carrying on my studies and living my life. If that makes me a target in some people's eyes, so be it.

Wahiba Ali, a McGill student and a devout Muslim who wears a hijab, told The Gazette about how she has been hassled by some strangers since the September 11 attacks on the U.S.

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