Sustainable Farming (feat. Rocks!)

Climate change is one of this generation’s most persistent and pressing problems. It not only affects sea levels, habitats, and wildlife, but also resources vital to human survival. One of theses resources is food: as we deplete fertile land, waste fresh water, and cause severe weather changes, we increase the risk of our global food security.

The rapid growth of the human population means that food security will soon become a concern for both developing and developed countries alike. To address this issue, Dr. David J. Beerling and his colleagues from the University of Sheffield are researching agricultural practices that not only preserve the environment, but also act to undo human pollution. In a paper published by Nature on 17 January 2018, the team put forth a farming practice that uses silicate rocks to remove carbon dioxide from the atmospheres.

The process involves the regular addition of small pieces of calcium and magnesium-bearing rocks into the soil. The silicate rocks react with the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to form stable alkaline forms of carbon dioxide (namely bicarbonate and carbonate), then carry the compounds with the rest of the soil runoff into the ocean. This process therefore assists with the reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (a major cause of Earth’s severe climate change).

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Image courtesy of Nature

Dr. Beerling’s research also indicates that his team’s process improves crop performance, and can act as a substitute for fertilizers. The silicate rocks can also increase the pest and disease protection of the crop. Dr. Beerling hopes that the benefits will create an incentive for farmers to adopt the practice.

Of course, there are financial and practicality issues preventing this novel process from being adopted. For instance, a substantial amount of silicate rocks is required to accomplish the carbon sequestration (or removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere). For 10 to 30 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare of crop per year, 9-27 pentagrams of silicate rock is needed. Moreover, a cost-effective way to obtain these rocks does not exist either. Our current rock mining, grinding, and spreading technologies would likely yield carbon emissions equivalent to 10-30% of the carbon that would be sequestered by the silicate rocks obtained. The research paper consequently emphasizes the need for innovation in the industrial sector in sustainable rock mining practices.

Finally, because this idea is so novel, further research and greater public acceptance is needed for it to become common practice. If effective, however, silicate rocks have the potential to reshape sustainable agricultural practices.

Resources

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41477-018-0108-y

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Alcohol and Potential DNA Damage

A recent study completed by the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge suggests a novel reason for why alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer. In a study published in Nature on 3 January 2018, the Cancer Research UK-funded experiment found that alcohol consumption causes DNA damage in stem cells. In particular, the DNA of haematopoietic stem cells (blood stem cells) are adversely affected by alcohol consumption.

Previous studies that have investigated the carcinogenic effects of alcohol used cell cultures for their experiments. The experiment conducted by the MRC laboratory adopted a novel approach and exposed live mice instead of cultures to ethanol. After chromosome analysis and DNA sequencing of the mice’s genetic information, the team noticed permanent chromosome alterations in the blood stem cells. In particular, the acetaldehyde produced by the body upon consuming alcohol breaks the double-stranded DNA and causes chromosome rearrangements. These mutations increase the risk of cancer because the stem cells become faulty.

The MRC laboratory experiment also observed the role of the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) in the body’s response to alcohol. They noticed that mice lacking a functioning ALDH enzyme had four times as much DNA damage as those who did. This confirms our understanding that ALDH is one way the body mitigates the effects of alcohol; ALDH converts acetaldehyde into acetate, which the body uses as energy.

The insight into ALDH’s function in the body compliments our current understanding of the enzyme. For example, a large portion of South East Asians, who on average have lower alcohol tolerances, lack functional versions of ALDH enzymes. This study may also suggest that, based off of one’s inherited ability to produce ALDH enzymes, some individuals may be more prone to the carcinogenic effects of alcohol than others.

Lastly, the study did recognize that cells have DNA repair systems. However, not everyone carries a seamless DNA repair system, as they can often be lost due to chance mutations. Further, with substantial enough alcohol exposure, these systems may fail (as they did with the mice) and result in DNA damage.

The study did not conclude whether such DNA damage was hereditary, as the lab only looked at blood stem cells. Nevertheless, Cancer Research UK has publicized this study as a compelling reason to control alcohol intake and consume in moderation.

Resources

https://www.nature.com/articles/nature25154

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180103132629.htm

A Weekend of Engineering: MEC 2017

The Feature photo was taken from the McGill Engineering Competition Facebook page.

Each year, a handful of McGill engineering students organize the McGill Engineering Competition (MEC): a three-day event open only to students in the Engineering Faculty. The 2017 MEC ran from 24 to 26 November. Over the course of a weekend, participants competed in one of eight categories for the chance to represent McGill at the Quebec Engineering Competition in late January.

The eight competition categories were: Junior Design, Senior Design, Consulting Engineering, Impromptu Debate, Engineering Communication, Innovative Design, Re-Engineering, and Scientific Research Presentation. Some of the categories allowed competitors to prepare beforehand, while others presented challenges to the participants the day of. For example, the Junior Design category challenged competitors to build an environmentally-friendly boat that could hold up to one kilogram without sinking.

Teams presented their projects in front of a volunteer judging panel consisting of company representatives or McGill Alumni. The teams were scored based off of a predefined rubric distributed at the beginning of the competition. The top three teams of each event were announced at the awards ceremony on Sunday evening.

The registration fee for the event was $25 and could be purchased during tabling hours in the McConnell Engineering Building or online. The registration fee also included a T-shirt, lanyard, and complimentary meals for the weekend.

MEC is an annual competition at McGill University, held near the end of the Fall term. For more information, please visit the McGill Engineering Competition Facebook page.

Not Sure About SURE?

McGill’s Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering (SURE) Award gives undergraduate students a 16-week, full-time internship position at an engineering research lab at McGill. Awarded as a scholarship, recipients receive an endowment valued at a minimum of $5,625 and the opportunity to work at a lab for the summer.

The 2018 SURE Application period opened on 16 January, initiated by an information session held on the same day. This year, the Faculty of Engineering is offering 125 awards: a substantial jump from the 90 offered last year. The decade-old program is funded by the NSERC Undergraduate Summer Research Award Program, the Faculty of Engineering, the Trottier Institute for Sustainable Engineering and Design, and other donors.

Overview

The “summer research traineeships” provide students with exposure to research and the graduate school experience. For the first time ever, SURE will also be recognized with an entry on students’ transcripts.

SURE participants work on one of the many research projects associated with the program. The research projects for 2018 were posted on the Faculty of Engineering website on 16 January. There are projects from the Departments of Architecture, Bioengineering, Chemical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Mining and Materials Engineering, and Urban Planning. Each project has an associated professor, and some require a minimum study year.

Application Process

Interested students need to contact the supervising professors of the projects they are interested in, to a maximum of 3 projects. Supervisors must first agree that the student should apply to the project before the student can complete the Online Student Application.

Once the student has filled out the application, they will submit it to their selected supervisor. The deadline to apply is 26 January 2018, and the first round of awards will be announced after 19 February.

If you would like more information about SURE, or to access its application, please visit the Faculty of Engineering’s website here.

Technology as our Teachers

Technology plays an increasingly important role in our everyday lives. Gone are the times when the average person didn’t own a smartphone, didn’t rely on Google Maps, or didn’t feel lost without wifi. Technologynamely the Internethas integrated itself into numerous aspects of our lives; we use it to communicate, to stay organized, to capture moments, and, rather recently, to teach.

Using technology to teach is a new concept that has recently emerged. With centuries of traditional teaching approaches under our belt, we unsurprisingly have adopted educational technologies at a rate slower than the field has advanced. Even in 2011, a study by Dr. Charles Crook in the Oxford Review of Education revealed that integrating new technology into the UK secondary school system is a difficult task that relies on the cooperation of both educators and students. Moreover, studies such as a 2010 publication by Kent State University that focused on the negative effects of Facebook on academic performance reinforce the belief that technology only distracts students. Fortunately, some institutions across the world have recognized the potential that technology has in reshaping how we approach education. There is a growing field of research regarding the use of technology in education.

In March 2017, Dr. Christine Greenhow and Dr. Emilia Askari at the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education of Michigan State University published a paper entitled, “Learning and teaching with social network sites: A decade of research in K-12 related education.” The publication provided an extensive and cumulative review of twenty four research papers regarding educational social networking sites that were published throughout the world.

Apart from evaluating each study’s approach to analyzing the data (mixed, quantitative, or qualitative), Dr. Greenhow and Dr. Askari also categorized each into one of four types. These four types are distinguished in a 2005 study by Dr. M.D. Roblyer in the Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education Journal. Dr. Roblyer claims that research in the field of educational technology either establish the technology’s effectiveness at improving student learning, investigate implementation strategies, monitor social impact, or report on common uses to shape the direction of the field.

Dr. Greenhow and Dr. Askari conclude that the most prevalent type of study are those that look at the implementation strategies of technology. Furthermore, these implementation strategies usually take place informally outside of school time. The co-authors were not shocked by this conclusion: “it is not surprising that educational researchers have focused their investigations mainly on learning with new media where it most occurs, beyond the school day.” However, while such studies are important, the authors also emphasize that research into the use of technology in formal teaching settings is needed. Applying technology in formal educational settings is an uncharted field; research will likely result in the most insightful findings.

Technology has the potential to introduce new tools, resources, and materials to school cultures. It can alter the way educators present content, and accommodate for different learning styles. Educational technology is a growing field, and it’s important that we not only research it, but also analyze how to research it. Dr. Greenhow and Dr. Askari have unveiled a number of insightful findings regarding how we study the effectiveness of educational social media sites. However, the applications of all varieties of technology, in both informal and formal settings, still demand more research. Undoubtedly, there are numerous technological applications in the educational industry that are waiting to be discovered. Technology is a tool; it’s about time educators start treating it like one.

Resources

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10639-015-9446-9

https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs10639-015-9446-9.pdf

http://digitalcommons.kent.edu/flapubs/72/

http://www.citejournal.org/volume-5/issue-2-05/seminal-articles/educational-technology-research-that-makes-a-difference-series-introduction/