Don’t deny it: your password is terrible

by Viet Hoang

We have all been down this road: you are making a new account and you need to choose a password. You decide to use the same, easy-to-remember password that you have already used for every other account. You feel a little guilty because you know if someone gets ahold of one of your accounts, every other account will be compromised. Unfortunately, this has probably already happened. Avast, an antivirus company, has released a tool that will check a database of 30 million leaked passwords and search for yours: https://www.avast.com/hackcheck/. Over the years, many large companies have had large security breaches, such as Linkedin and Dropbox with over 117 million and 68 million passwords being leaked respectively (1,2).

Fortunately, all the passwords that were leaked were heavily encrypted. Before passwords are stored, they are processed using a hash function, which is a mapping between the input (password) and the output (hash) (3). 

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A hash is a string of seemingly random characters that is unique to every password. The hashed password is stored in place of the real one. When a user is trying to log in, their input is hashed, and if the resulting hash matches with the hash stored in the database, then we know they have given the correct password without actually needing to know the password.

Despite the apparent strength of storing hashed passwords, hackers can also compute the hash of any string and compare it with leaked passwords. With access to modern computing power, they are able to compare millions of possible passwords per second (3). More powerful hash functions can slow down this process, but it is of no use if the password is easy to guess. 

What are bad passwords?

Any password under eight characters long is unacceptable, as it can easily be brute-force attacked (4). Suppose you have an eight-character password composed of only lowercase letters and numbers. There are 26+10=36 characters to choose from and you have to choose eight. Therefore there are 368 possible combinations, which may seem like a lot, but if the hacker is making millions of comparisons per second, then after a few days at most, your password is likely cracked. 

There is still no guarantee of safety for passwords greater than eight characters. Ideally, people would use random characters as their passwords. Unfortunately, humans are lazy and predictable and use simpler passwords that are easy to remember. They use common words, such as “password”, or names. Some are more diligent and will substitute some letters with numbers like exchanging “E” for “3” or “S” for “5”. Most modern password cracking techniques take advantage of this and use dictionary attacks, which use a list of commonly used words, names, and substitutions to crack passwords. 

How to construct an uncrackable password

A good password should be easy to remember and immune to both brute-force and dictionary attacks. Dr. Mike Pound from the University of Nottingham recommends that a password should be composed of four uncommonly used words (4). Any password of this structure should easily exceed eight characters, making traditional brute-force impossible. Furthermore, since there are approximately 170000 English words, the number of possible passwords is 1700004 which is far too large to use dictionary attacks. For even further complexity, words from different languages, misspelled words, and random symbol insertions can all be used as well. Putting everything together, below is an example password that is almost uncrackable:

terracot_taportfolliomagn1ifiqueabstract

The four words used are terracotta, portfolio, magnificent (in french) and abstract. Note that this specific password should never be used as it is now on a public website!

 

  1. https://blog.linkedin.com/2016/05/18/protecting-our-members
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/aug/31/dropbox-hack-passwords-68m-data-breach
  3. https://www.geeksforgeeks.org/store-password-database/
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NjQ9b3pgIg

 

Let’s Get Ethical

by Sofia Reynoso

Recently, I watched a documentary series called Unnatural Selection on Netflix. The show details how an emerging field of genetic engineering has caused a stir not only in the scientific community but among the general public as well. Concepts like “gene drive” and “biohacking” irked me for days after binge-watching the show, so I dove into the McGill eCalendar to find a class on bioethics, but to no avail. If this show had shaken me, finding not many options for my newfound interest shocked me even more. How was it that the future scientists of the world were not required to have an understanding of the ethical implications of their work?

Just this past December, the scientist responsible for editing the genome of twins using CRISPR for a study on HIV was sentenced to three years in prison. (1) The embryos of these twin girls were genetically modified to prevent HIV from being passed on from the HIV+ father. When he presented his work in 2018, he was met with outrage from scientists around the world. (2) Jennifer Doudna, a co-inventor of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology, cited the implications of a non peer-reviewed report by the scientist in question. (3) She also stated, “It’s very disturbing. It’s inappropriate. It goes against all of the guidelines that were established by the National Academy of Science’s report from 2017, and I think there’s just no way to defend it.” (4)

In addition, the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment is a classic example of how bias contributed to an obviously unethical study when African American subjects were misinformed regarding their treatment for syphilis, leading to a lack of consent. The study was conducted over 40 years. Following public outrage, the subjects and their families reached a $10 million settlement in 1974. (5)

Biology is not the only field subject to such scandals. In high school history classes, often students engage in debates surrounding the events that transpired in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. This is not just a debate of history. The development of the atomic bomb would not have been possible without advancements in physics and chemistry. Had the Manhattan Project not existed, the world would be drastically different. So was it ethical for scientists to develop the atomic bomb or other weapons of mass destruction?

While it may seem that McGill is somewhat detached from debates like these, in 2016, Dr. Alain Brunet, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, developed a treatment plan for those who experienced heartbreak using a pill originally intended for those suffering from PTSD. (6) The groundbreaking work showed tremendous success but also begs the question: how far is too far?

Last semester, my friends in engineering mentioned a course they’re required to take called FACC 100 (Intro to Engineering Profession). When asked to explain the course description, one of my friends said, “I don’t know, ethics and stuff.” One assignment for the class posed an ethical question for the students and required them to write how they would grapple with the proposed situation. And while some may complain about the course, I longed for something similar in my Biology program. 

Although some ethics-related classes are available to science students, I still struggle to grasp why engineering students are required to discuss the ethical qualms of their future work, while science students are not. 

One of MSURJ’s goals is to encourage undergraduate students to engage in research on campus. Part of being a researcher is comprehending the impact of one’s work. McGill should encourage students to participate in ethical scientific research. If McGill wishes to raise the world’s best scientists, science students should be required to take an ethics course.

Even though the Faculty of Science does not require students to complete an ethics course, you can still search for one that may interest you. Here is a list with some options for science ethics courses:

Courses with a focus on ethics:

  • NSCI 300
  • PHIL 343
  • PHIL 341
  • ENVR 203
  • ENVR 400

Courses with portion of class dedicated to ethics:

  • PHGY 488 
  • EXSU 500 
  • BMDE 505
  • PHAR 508
  • BASC 201
  • HGEN 400
  • BIEN 200
  • BIEN 330
  • PHGY 351

*Note: Some courses listed may be restricted to you; make sure to check out the McGill eCalendar to confirm. In addition, some classes are in faculties other than science.

If you are a science student, be aware of this gap in our learning. McGill affords us an incredible education and opportunity to learn; in this case, we just have to seek it out. 

 

References:

  1. https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/30/china/gene-scientist-china-intl-hnk/index.html
  2. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/11/crispr-bombshell-chinese-researcher-claims-have-created-gene-edited-twins
  3. https://news.berkeley.edu/2018/11/26/doudna-responds-to-claim-of-first-crispr-edited-babies/
  4. https://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2018/11/28/news-stream-stout-doudna-crispr-chinese-scientist-babies.cnn
  5. https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm
  6. https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/montreal-research-broken-heart-there-might-be-a-pill-for-you

Scientific Research – a long term investment cut short by underfunding

by Alina He

Funding in scientific research has suffered a decade long decline in Canada. A recent reinvestment attempts to recover from this major setback.   

Most research is funded by government grants. In Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) are the major providers of federal research funding (1). The state of basic research in Canada was evaluated in the Naylor Report conducted in 2017 by the Advisory Panel on Federal Support for Fundamental Science (3). The report concluded that research funding had been on a decade long decline in Canada (3). In 2018, the government made its largest contribution to research funding with an investment of $1.7 billion over five years (5). However, this funding will mainly go towards attempting to recover from the underinvestment during the previous decade.

Canada was ranked 15th worldwide in funding for university research and development as a share of GDP in 2017 (2). This ranking alone does not necessarily give pause. However, if we look at the change in funding from 2011 to 2017, Canada is ranked 34th worldwide (2). This reveals the decline in government funding placed Canada in a less competitive position on the global level.

Underfunding resulted in research labs cutting down on lab members, equipment, and even closing down (3). A survey revealed 51% to 63% of mid-career and senior investigators will decrease their number of trainees, and 30% to 40% are considering moving from Canada or stopping their research altogether (3). The short term consequences of underfunding are severe. However, the long term consequences are far worse. There is an immense loss of research that could potentially have significant implications.

This issue does not only affect researchers, but also society as a whole. There is a general lack of public awareness about how critical research is to the progression of society. Basic research is the foundation for the healthcare and technology we have today, and it is the pathway for future innovation. As Professor Robert Dijkgraaf puts it, research is a long term investment, like saving for retirement (4). The federal funding put towards many projects has been directly linked to their success (4). Meaning, our return is based on our initial investment. The underfunding in previous years demonstrated a prioritization of short term over long term goals. This short-sighted view has held research progress back, and societal progress is paying the cost.

For those of us just getting into research, a lack of funding is especially troubling as it directly affects our job opportunities in the future. However, this is an issue that ultimately affects everyone. There is hope that the funding situation will improve. The recent budget increase was a step in the right direction, but continuous federal investment is necessary in order for research to move forward in a strong and sustainable manner.

 

Links 

  1. https://www.mcgill.ca/research/research/funding/federal
  2. https://itif.org/publications/2019/10/21/us-funding-university-research-continues-slide
  3. https://www.macleans.ca/opinion/innovative-science-research-in-canada-is-dying-a-silent-death/)
  4. https://futurism.com/expert-todays-lack-of-funding-for-basic-research-could-prove-devastating-in-the-future
  5. https://www.universityaffairs.ca/news/news-article/budget-2018-gives-major-boost-fundamental-research-canada/

The hidden treasure that is CHEM396

by Elias Andraos

As a U2 chemistry student that completed a CHEM 396 project this past summer, I am surprised by how often other students that I mention the course to have not heard of it. I had a really great experience with it, so I thought I’d write up this little FAQ to let people know about the opportunities a CHEM 396 course can offer. 

Most of this applies to any 396 course, but I thought I’d make a pitch for CHEM 396 in particular.

What is a 396 course?

A 396 course is an independent research project that a student completes under the supervision of an instructor. It counts as an elective course and is designed to provide an introduction to undergraduate research. 396 courses are offered under all departments in the faculty of science.

I’m not a Chemistry student, can I still do a CHEM 396?

Yes! Any Bachelor of Science student can take a 396 course in any department at McGill. 

Why should I do a CHEM 396?

Even if you find chemistry absolutely boring (and I’m sorry if you do) it is a very useful tool in many different fields such as environmental science, biochemistry, biology, and many others. Many of the research groups in the department of chemistry at McGill are working on problems relevant to diverse topics such as cancer research, antibiotic resistance, and materials science. Doing a CHEM 396 project can help you see how chemistry can be used to further research in any field you may be studying. Additionally, the chemistry department at McGill has one of the highest research group to student ratios, meaning that there are many professors who have spots for undergraduates in their labs.

How do I approach a professor to ask for a project?

Find a professor whose research you find interesting by reading the short descriptions of their research here: https://www.mcgill.ca/chemistry/researchthemes. Many professors also link to the website of their research group. Read about their current research to be able to express informed interest in one of their research areas. Whether you want to write an email or try to talk to the professor in person (ideally in a situation where they will have time such as office hours) is up to you, but in either case, have a CV and a transcript ready. Be brave and remember; you’ve got nothing to lose.

Read more at…

https://www.mcgill.ca/science/research/undergraduate-research/science-research-courses

https://www.mcgill.ca/science/research/undergraduate-research/finding-opportunities#units

Think Outside of the Box When it Comes to Getting into Research

by Janet Wilson

The benefits of doing undergraduate research are extensive. It can teach you how to deal with failure, build key transferable skills and help you form an academic network. Understandably, undergraduate research positions are coveted by many. But truth be told, it is tough to know where and how to begin as a student-researcher and it can be intimidating to seek out a research position for the first time. But fear not, MSURJ is here! You may think that the only way to get involved as an undergrad is in a lab at your university, but that is far from true. There are many other research opportunities that you may not be aware of that can serve as an excellent way to begin as a student-researcher.

First off, I began as a student researcher in a hospital, administering surveys to patients, collecting and analyzing data. I was able to learn from diverse mentors at the top of their field of research, acquired valuable clinical and research skills, and was able to actively participate in all aspects of my project. Although it was very different from a traditional student research position in a university lab, I don’t think I missed out in the slightest.

Sometimes it can be challenging to obtain a paid research position in a hospital right away, especially if you don’t have connections. Therefore, it may be necessary to start by volunteering, in order to network and show your supervisors that you are a good fit for their position. If you are highly motivated to make money, there are many funding opportunities to seek out such as the Canada Summer Jobs program which your employer can use to subsidize your pay. When contacting professors/employers that you are interested in researching with, tell them about such funding sources. Often taking on an undergraduate student can be extra work for the lab, therefore it can be beneficial to let them know of funding sources.

Apart from a position in a hospital, another non-traditional research opportunity is in the private sector. Many companies look for student interns, particularly in the fields of mathematics, computer science and the physical sciences. Opportunities in the private sector are not only great for building your resume, but they also teach you key industry-specific skills, many of which cannot be taught in the lecture hall. They will also help you when you begin the inevitable post-university job search!

If you are passionate about a specific research topic, don’t be shy to expand your search outside of only the labs of McGill professors. Other universities in Montreal such as UdeM and Concordia are great resources. Also, research institutes such as the Computer Research Institute of Montreal (CRIM), the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) and the Montreal Clinical Research Institute (IRCM) are all great institutions within our hometown to look into.

Finally, some faculty-specific research awards can serve to kick start your research career. These include the Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering award (SURE), which provides a 16-week, full-time paid internship position in an engineering lab at McGill. The Science Undergraduate Research Award (SURA) and NSERC Undergraduate Research Student Awards (USRA) also provide funding for aspiring researchers in the Faculty of Science.

In summary, don’t be shy to pursue non-traditional research opportunities and good luck with your search!

Research-backed tips to help you work smarter, not harder this finals season

By Katharine Kocik

The last finals season of the decade is approaching, and whether it’s your first set of finals or last, it can be a stressful time. Here are some tips backed by recent research to help you survive the next few weeks.

Sleep – you’ve likely heard it before, and for good reason. Research consistently links better sleep quality, duration, and consistency with better academic performance. One recent nature paper found that factors related to sleep accounted for approximately 25% of variation in academic scores (1)! Although it’s easy to sacrifice sleep for more study time, knowing it can affect performance to this degree may encourage you to give it greater priority during finals. Anxiety is a serious challenge for many students while studying for finals, and research indicates that getting enough sleep can help to keep anxiety levels down. One study showed that even small increases in sleep duration lowered anxiety during the day, making it worth your time to sleep a little more for your well-being during a stressful time at school (2).

If you’re not getting enough sleep at night, research indicates that taking a nap can improve memory recall. A 2019 nature study looked at how different sleep patterns impacted chronically sleep-deprived high school students (3). Interestingly, students that “split” their sleep into a period of 5 hours at night and a 90 minute nap at 2:00pm performed better at memory tests than students that slept the same amount of time, 6.5 hours, all in the same period at night.

Don’t be afraid to shift your schedule to what naturally works best for you. A study of Seattle high school students in 2018 revealed that delaying school start times by an hour reduced sleepiness and improved academic performance (4). Fortunately, you can make your own schedule, so if you work better by waking up later and going to bed later, it may be better to lean into it rather than forcing yourself to wake up earlier than what is natural. McLennan Library is open 24 hours during finals, as well as Burnside for Science/Arts & Science students, and the Tim Hortons on Sherbrooke and University is always open (and also so much less busy at non-peak hours) for your coffee and snack needs. Just make sure to account for the time of your final!

In terms of mindset while studying, a study looked at students’ strategies for persevering through a task and identified a few mindsets correlated with success in completing challenges (5). Although it may be intuitive, it’s helpful to know what is shown to be effective for other students. The first of three strategies is “Emotional Regulation”, or maintaining a positive mood while working. This involved mentally reminding oneself to stay positive, if not taking other steps to stay in a good mood, like taking a break or studying with friends. Two other mindsets are thinking about completion being near, and thinking about the positive consequences of completing the task. For the former strategy, an example is reminding oneself that only finals remain after a semester of hard work, and for the latter, thinking about improving grades. A final strategy is keeping track of one’s progress towards a goal, by breaking a challenge into multiple steps and tracking completion of each part one-by-one.

Although research is a powerful tool in predicting if a lifestyle shift or new strategy might be effective, it’s also important to consider what is tried and true for yourself–you know yourself better than anyone else. If something isn’t working, though, it may be time to try something new, and research can help point towards what could make a difference

Best of luck this finals season!

 

  1. Okano, K., Kaczmarzyk, J.R., Dave, N. et al. Sleep quality, duration, and consistency are associated with better academic performance in college students. npj Sci. Learn. 4, 16 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41539-019-0055-z
  2. Cousins, J.N., Rijn, E., Ong, J.L. et al. Does splitting sleep improve long-term memory in chronically sleep deprived adolescents?. npj Sci. Learn. 4, 8 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41539-019-0047-z
  3. Ben Simon, E., Rossi, A., Harvey, A.G. et al. Overanxious and underslept. Nat Hum Behav (2019) doi:10.1038/s41562-019-0754-8
  4. Dunster, G.P., De La Iglesia, L, Ben-Hamo, M., et al. Sleepmore in Seattle: Later school start times are associated with more sleep and better performance in high school students. Science Advances. 4, 12 (2018) doi:10.1126/sciadv.aau6200
  5. Hennecke, M., Czikmantori, T., and Brandstätter, V. ( 2019) Doing Despite Disliking: Self‐regulatory Strategies in Everyday Aversive Activities. J. Pers., 33: 104– 128. https://doi.org/10.1002/per.2182.

 

What’s wrong with the peer review process and how can it be improved?

By: Janet Wilson

Publishing is the “be all end all” for researchers – publications allow them to pay their lab bills and researchers and make profit. It increases their reputation and allows them to contribute to their field. Once a innovative research question has been developed, after the infinite hours spent in the lab and after the countless hours analyzing and synthesizing data and writing reports, a scientist must cast what they believe to be a polished product that is both meaningful and relevant to their field into the abyss of what is the peer review process. This process is not without its downfalls, is highly criticized and should be revised in order to benefit the field of science.

Here at MSURJ we also use a peer review process to assess the validity of submissions to our journal. All submissions are reviewed by three peer reviews that are experts in the field of the article. This allows for critical analysis in regards to both the quality and validity of the research, with the ultimate goal of identifying whether the article is worthy of being published. Nonetheless, our peer review process differs from that of journals like Nature, Cell and the like because we, the editors, ultimately want every eligible article to be published. Resources aren’t scarce and it doesn’t cost us to publish undergraduate research, thus there isn’t a limit on the number of articles that can be published in each edition of the journal. The more articles that are deemed eligible according to our criteria, the more can be published.

On the contrary, the journals publishing science today have extremely low acceptance rates. For example, that of Science is 7% and declining every year. The peer review process is inherently rigourous – and so it should be – in order to ensure that only the highest quality science is allowed to be published. It is usually a blinded process meaning that the authors’ identity is not revealed to the peer reviewers, and the peer review comments are fully anonymous.

Some argue that the peer review process is keeping science as we know it locked in a slow, expensive process that is prone to error. It relies on the opinions of researchers in the field to deem an article worthy or, the more frequent outcome, unworthy of publication. This is inherently subjective and can frustrate authors when, for example, two peer reviewers may deem an article acceptable, while one may not. The low numbers of peer reviewers allotted to each paper perpetuate this problem. Additionally, many reviewers may turn down requests to review articles because it is so time consuming, or may review it in a rushed manner that cannot be justified.

So how can the peer-reviewing process be improved you ask? First off, it would be best if reviewers could be recognized in some way for their contribution to the article. Although this would eliminate the anonymity of the process, it would reward reviewers for their contributions and lead to an increased interest in reviewing positions.

Additionally, the process could be improved by allotting a rating method which scores reviewers based on their involvement in the editing process. Reviewers could be ranked based on their scores, and those with the highest scores could be rewarded by the journal for their contributions. This would lead to more commitment from reviewers to the improvement of the paper in question.

Another more radical approach could be to eliminate the peer review process altogether. Articles could be published without verification of their validity but as they are read by researchers in the field the article could be up-voted or down-voted based on their validity. This process would be similar to the manner in which citations of published articles are currently tracked. Over time, articles of the highest quality would acquire the most upvotes and articles with multiple down-votes could be recognized by their authors as needing revision.

This method would also present challenges such as ensuring only individuals who are specialists in a particular subject area are allowed to vote. Nevertheless, statistically speaking, it would present a more reliable method for assessing an article’s validity because more individuals would be able to vote on an article than in the peer review process.