I’m sorry, what?

Written by: Howard Li

Two weeks ago, I met up with a friend who I haven’t seen for a long time. We met in first year and both studied life science, albeit in different departments. Facing the onslaught of tedious assignments, ruthless exams, and frankly ridiculous lab reports, we drifted apart in our second and third year. So, after an awkward exchange of pleasantries, I asked him how his research was going in the hopes of sparking up a casual conversation about the fun times in a research lab as an undergraduate student. Little did I know, he would launch into a passionate verbal barrage of technical terms to describe the work he was doing that took me back to my childhood years trying to parse English from Chinese and not understanding the majority of either language.

“I’m sorry, what?” was all that I could pathetically mutter when he finished. I watched as his face changed into a smirk as he realized, undoubtedly from my blank expression, that I must have not understood a lick of what he said (to my credit, I understood that he was doing something with viruses). He asked me what I though of his project and I hit him with another cheeky “I’m sorry, what?” to confirm that I indeed had no idea of what he was saying. With the awkwardness broken, we went on to catch up about each others lives and I was even able to get a confused expression out of him when I tried to describe my project at the lab.

Now, I think that we’re both pretty on top of our classes and that we’re generally pretty savvy in keeping up with science (i.e. we’re both pretty big nerds). So I was surprised that we had such a hard time describing our undergraduate level research projects to each other. Granted, mine is a biochemistry project while his is more focused on immunology. But with both fields falling under the category of life science, I thought that it is reasonable to assume that they were related enough that two newbies to science can freely converse with each other. And both of us have taken both biochemistry and immunology classes too! However, it seems that nowadays, science is so specialized that beyond the very introductory ideas, the entire knowledge base and mindset of people from different fields is completely different.

If two undergraduate students studying closely related sciences had such a hard time talking to each other, then imagine the breakdown in communication when a problem requires experts from vastly different fields of science and engineering to work together to solve. And while we all know how badly the media butchers and misrepresents scientific findings, can we really fault them? If scientists have trouble understanding other scientists, then how can we expect the general audience to understand with anything short of a universal translator. To most people, science may as well be an entirely alien language.

While I joke, I think that scientific communication is of vast importance to our future. More and more problems now absolutely require the input of experts from all over science and engineering to tackle. And with issues such as climate change urgently knocking on our doorstep, science needs to play a key role in informing the public, politicians, and policy makers. The only way to do this is for us to learn to overcome this language barrier and to communicate science in a simple, but accurate way. To the public, and to other scientists.

Right now, we are students. Our job is to learn so that in the future, we can contribute to society. Part of that learning needs to be in effective scientific communication. When we graduate (hopefully), we will become engineers, researchers, professors, and doctors; and we will need to work with people from all varieties of disciplines in order to face the challenges that await us. So at the very least, we should all be speaking the same language so that “I’m sorry, what?” ceases to be a response.

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An Investigation on our love for blackboards

By: Mathilde Papillon

The blackboard. This archaic teaching tool is in practically every single class of any science student. It also furnishes most math departments and shows up in theoretical labs everywhere. Why is that? How is it that scientists and mathematicians working on the finest, newest technologies still bother with the messy chalk? Today, there are so many other presentation tools available to us, and yet, this 1801 invention remains a favourite. As it turns out, there are a few reasons justifying this choice.

 

Many scientists and mathematicians explain that this love is rooted in the tool’s sheer simplicity. As Harvard’s math professor Oliver Knill will say, no other method communication allows for such freedom in expression of thought. No reliance on batteries or projectors, nor paper or erasable marker ink. Just plain old chalk with a wooden eraser. The audience’s attention is funnelled towards this “point of focus,” as physicist Lewis Buzbee describes it in an article for Slate.

This Californian author also points out the blackboard’s contribution to how we teach. This tool allows for a true, authentic development of an idea, whether that be solving an equation or stating a proof. The speaker exerts full control over the lesson’s progress and has the liberty of emphasizing any aspect with a simple dab of the chalk. As the subject at hand unfurls itself onto the boards, the drawings, equations, and definitions appear as an ensemble to the student, facilitating otherwise abstract connections.

Not too surprisingly, the blackboard presents a lot of advantages for the audience as well. First off, as Knill points out, the blackboard forces the speaker to slow down, allowing for students to better process the material at hand. As mathematician and historian Donald Mackenzie points out in his essay Dusty Discipline, the large gestures involved with black boards, like sliding boards around or erasing, allow for structured pauses and break down the material into smaller bites. Furthermore, most students will agree that chalk is simply easier to perceive than ink, the latter often leading to messy, smudged writing. Knill actually points this out using images from the movie Arrival in which a whiteboard renders rather simple equations quite messy and difficult to decipher.

On this note, it would appear as though many of the future’s brightest innovations will continue to be developed (and then explained) on this timeless tool, enamoured by the simplicity and structure it provides to a lesson.

Reference List:

http://mbarany.com/DustyDisciplineBWM15.pdf

http://www.math.harvard.edu/~knill/pedagogy/blackboards/index.html

https://slate.com/human-interest/2014/10/a-history-of-the-blackboard-how-the-blackboard-became-an-effective-and-ubiquitous-teaching-tool.html

Alan Guth and the Multiverse

Feature Photo: The Atlantic

The content from this article was produced by Mathilde Papillon.

On the evening of January 18, 2018, Alan Guth, a famous American theoretical physicist and cosmologist, visited McGill University to deliver a talk entitled “Inflationary Cosmology: Is our Universe Part of a Multiverse”. Over the course of his career, Guth has won several prestigious awards in physics. He currently works as a professor at MIT, and is recognized as the inventor of the Inflation Theory. Across the scientific community, it is largely agreed that the Inflation Theory is humanity’s best guess to date of how to universe came to be.

The talk took place in McGill University’s biggest Lecture hall: Leacock 132. Notably, the room was packed, and organizers had to send dozens of people home due to a lack of seating space. This talk was part of Anna I. McPherson Lectures in Physics, a series of lectures regarding hot topics in physics that McGill has taken part of for twenty years now.

Guth’s talk addressed three main subjects: The theory of inflation, evidence for such, and the resulting possibility of a multiverse. He began by making the distinction between the conventional Big Bang theory, a concept that only addresses the aftermath of the “bang”, and inflation. Inflation describes what happened during the bang. By the laws of general relativity, gravitational repulsion is theoretically possible. In this, gravity works in an opposite way to what we are all used to.

The Inflation theory states that in the beginning, matter was comprised of tiny patches of negative pressure – on the order of 10E-28 cm large – that continued to exponential expansion. The phenomena is driven by repulsive gravity.

The “second miracle of physics”, and the other main idea that is at the heart of the theory of Inflation, is negative energy. This simply states that there exists negative energy, allowing the total amount of energy in the universe to the 0. All the energy that people are “familiar with”, are counterbalanced by negative energy. It is theorized that in the beginning of time, there was an exponential expansion of both positive and negative energies.

Photo: Mathilde Papillon

Next, Guth presented evidence for inflation. He asked a series of questions that are left unanswered by the conventional Big Bang theory, and proceeded to show how Inflation can resolve or explain these gaps in the knowledge.

  1. In a macroscopic sense, why is the universe so uniform? Inflation suggests that the universe is stretched out in each region in order to accommodate specific density.
  2. Why is the universe flat? If we define Ω to be the ratio between the universe’s measured mass density and the critical mass density for flatness, we find that Ω is equal to 1 to 16 significant digits. Inflation’s gravitational repulsion drives Ω to 1, making the universe’s mass density closer to the mass density required for flatness.
  3. On a small scale, why is the universe so non-uniform? Inflation uses a quantum mechanical approach that is based on probability. Therefore, in the beginning of the universe, there is a very high chance that there were improbably, tiny fluctuations caused by gravity. These regions would be a little more dense, and have a gravitational pull that is a little stronger. This phenomenon is known as quantum fluctuations. There is evidence for quantum fluctuations in the universe’s cosmic radiation background.

After addressing these questions, Guth described the possibility of a multiverse as suggested by inflation. Assuming that inflation is correct, since the universe has started to inflate, it should inflate forever. Physicists have determined that the basis for inflation, the material with negative pressure, has a half-life, and decays. However, the rate of inflation is so high, by the time one half-life has gone by, the remaining half that is still ‘active’ has grown to be beginning than the lost half. Therefore, it is possible for the universe to inflate forever.

In the process of inflation, it is possible for pieces of inflating material to break off, creating “pocket universes” on their own. From this, it is possible that our universe is one of these pockets.

Guth kept the large audience engaged for the hour he spoke for, receiving a few rounds of applause. He closed off his talk with a question period, in which an audience member asked him what his thoughts were on the religious and philosophical beliefs that humanity holds. Guth believes that his work shows us how small and insignificant humanity is, but that humanity is important to ourselves. As such, it is important to keep building a civilization that we wish to keep living in.

Undergraduate Research 101

Undergraduate research is one of the most rewarding activities at McGill. Experience in undergraduate research exposes students to scientific inquiry, laboratory procedures, and the graduate school environment. However, as rewarding as research is, if you’re just starting university, securing it may be daunting and unfamiliar.

Fortunately, MSURJ is here to help! The following is our breakdown of undergraduate research: what skills to have, how to apply, and what to do in the lab. After reading our guide, you’ll hopefully have the confidence and knowledge to secure that research position you’ve wanted!

Lesson 1: Preparing a Strong Application

A strong application which displays your best qualities is key when contacting professors for research. Here are some tips on how to make your application stand out.

Skills

Research requires more than just technical skills. Some helpful qualities in research include communicationcreativitypersistence, and organization. In particular, creativity is vital when conducting independent research projects. Make sure to emphasize these skills on top of your technical ones when drafting a CV or email.

Get Involved, Attend Events

Research-related events are constantly happening across campus and they’re a great way to meet faculty and talk with professors about their research. Most of the time, professors who attend these events are looking for students to join their labs!

For example, departments often hold Departmental Research Days and Departmental wine and cheeses, while the Faculty of Science holds Soup and Science. You can also attend special research-related events, or stay connected with the Student Research Initiative. Another good way to be in the loop about these events is through SUS and faculty newsletters.

Other Tips

It’s important to be proactive when securing research. Contact more than one professor or researcher because labs are often full, and don’t wait until the last minute! Making contact as early as possible is just as important because labs often fill up quickly.

Secondly, all research labs are relying more and more on programming. Computer software is invaluable for data analysis, visualization, and computational modeling. As a result, knowing how to program adds another skill that will make you useful in the lab. The most common languages in research are Python, MATLAB, ImageJ, C, and R. While you can self-teach yourself these, taking a course such as COMP 202 is a good way to start learning.

Lesson 2: Getting into Research

Now that you have the skills for research, it’s time to find laboratory opportunities. McGill has countless resources to give your research experience, and not all of them involve contacting professors.

Research Opportunities (During the Term)

Courses

McGill offers numerous research courses that you can take for credits. Specifically, there are a total of 396 classes that involve supervised research, which you can take with any department in the Faculty of Science, and 466 classes involving independent research, which you must take with your own department in Science.

Honours Programs

If you wish to do a thesis during your undergraduate studies, considering applying for the Honours option of your program, if offered. The Faculties of Science and Engineering offer Honours programs for specific majors.

Work-Study

Finally, if you have demonstrated financial aid, you can secure a work-study position with any faculty that can involve paid research.

Online Resources

There are numerous online resources for finding research opportunities during the term. Professors often post on CAPS, and the Science Faculty has resources on their website as well.

Research Opportunities (Summer)

Faculty of Science and Engineering

Students in the Faculty of Science are eligible for two research awards: the Science Undergraduate Research Award (SURA) and the NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA). Students in the Faculty of Engineering also qualify for USRA as well as the Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering (SURE). All of these awards give its winners a stipend to fund their personal expenses while doing research over the summer.

International Opportunities

Going abroad to do research is a great way to establish oversea connections and expose yourself to different research environments. Some research programs McGill students can apply to include the DAAD Research Internship in Science and Engineering (a German academic exchange), the EPFL Research Internship, and the UTokyo UTRIP Program.

More research opportunities can also be found on the Science Faculty’s website.

Contacting Professors

Make sure to do your homework before contacting professors. This will show that you genuinely care about their research and are eager to join their lab.

We recommend researching potential fields and departments that interest you, and specifically reading the research of the professor you plan on contacting. Scanning the abstracts from their recent publications will really demonstrate that you understand what you’re signing up for. For an even deeper understanding of what the professor’s lab is like, you can talk to other students who have worked in their lab. Make sure to never assume that a professor’s research is closely related to a course that they teach!

Also remember to approach the faculty with respect (address them formally) and understand that they’re busy. It may be best to contact professors during their office hours or via email. However, an in-person exchange can be very valuable, (and professors get swarmed with emails!) so try to schedule a time to talk as a follow-up to your email.

When introducing yourself, talk about your interests, qualifications (coursework and past experience), and your expectations of what the lab will be like. Have your CV and letter of intent available. If possible, try to think of an idea for a project that aligns with the skills of the supervisor you’ve contacted; think about what you want out of the research opportunity.

If a professor informs you that their lab is full, don’t be discouraged! Follow up with questions like when would be a good time to ask again, what skills they are looking for, and what you could work on in the meantime.

Lesson 3: What to do in the Lab

Your first laboratory experience may not be what you expect it to be; research positions can be very self-directed, and your supervisor may not be there to hold your hand through everything. In big labs, you can expect to be working with other graduate students and research assistants. The development of your research skills is up to you, so make sure to demonstrate a genuine interest and initiative. Feel free to have your own interests and discuss them with your supervisors.

Undergraduate research is still a professional position. When you’re working in a lab, always respond quickly to emails, be polite, and be on time. Remember that the research you’re helping with is someone else’s life’s work. If you’re not sure about something in the lab, or if you’re asked if you can do something, never lie. The safest option is to always be honest about what you can do, and show an eagerness to learn.

Keep on Trying!

Don’t expect to receive a yes to your first attempt at securing research. Always work to improve your skills through attending events, keeping updated on your field, and taking relevant courses.

If you’re interested in more research-related events or research publication, make sure to also follow the Abstract and the McGill Science Undergraduate Research Journal!

MSURJ Launch 2017

The 12th annual launch of the McGill Science Undergraduate Research Journal took place in the Bellini Atrium, where students from science, engineering, and other faculties joined to celebrate the achievements of undergraduate researchers at McGill. The authors, editors, and peer reviewers were also in attendance. Attendees grabbed some food and drinks, and then gathered to listen to the guest speakers. Three McGill leaders in scientific research generously shared their experiences in research and academia with the next generation of scientists.

First to speak was Dr. Tomoko Ohyama, the newest faculty member in the Biology Department. She talked about her research experiences in Japan, the United States, and Canada. Her research focuses on studying Drosophila larvae and their nervous system. She specifically studies the process of decision making in these larvae. When faced with a decision to make, “you think you are deciding, but I don’t think you are,” she hypothesizes. She hopes to be able to further elucidate the decision making process in humans by studying this process in Drosophila larvae.

Dr. Durcan, an assistant professor researching at the Montreal Neurological Institute, gave a short presentation on his experience in research over his lifetime. Currently, Dr. Durcan uses mouse models and stem cells to study the molecular basis behind neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease. He obtains stem cells from blood, which can become pluripotent, or stem cell like. He can then develop the cells into dopaminergic neurons. Before this technique was developed, it was exceedingly difficult for researchers to study neurons. In Dr. Durcan’s lab, he hopes to understand the cellular biology causes behind Alzheimer’s. Since the population of Canada is aging, he described neurodegenerative disorders as epidemics that are sweeping the nation. These disorders have become one of the leading causes of death, particularly for the older generation. Dr. Durcan said that without further research, these diseases will begin to overwhelm the healthcare system. His lab hopes to develop therapies for Alzheimer’s that will repudiate this dire future.

The final professor to speak was Dr. Kenneth Ragan. He is one of the faces that most new science and engineering students at McGill will become well acquainted with. He has been teaching first year physics classes for over 10 years and runs an astrophysics lab that specializes in studying the wave behaviour of particles at very high energies. After the casual mingling, he gave an equally casual speech on more than just what he researched, but rather on how he got to where he was. He talked about the fun and the spontaneity of life. He talked about how a scientist’s dream is to have their research appear on the Big Bang Theory. He talked about how it is okay not to know what one wants to do immediately, because in the end, everything will turn out fine. For a man of few words, he is one of many memorable speeches.

After the professors spoke, the author of the paper featured on the cover of this year’s edition of MSURJ gave a brief talk. She highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary research, as well as creating interdisciplinary teams for policy making. She emphasized that problems can be tackled from many different angles, and that we are more likely to create better solutions by combining the varied skills of different professionals.

This year’s event highlighted some of the exceptional research being done at McGill University by students and professors alike.

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McGill Biochemistry Research Awareness Day (RAD) 2016

Research Awareness Day (RAD) is an annual event run by the Biochemistry Undergraduate Society (BUGS), which seeks to inform and inspire students about research being done by some of the foremost professors in McGill’s Biochemistry department.

Professors at this event first gave short presentations about the research being conducted in their labs, and then spent lunchtime answering questions from students. Students attending RAD were then given the chance to meet with three different professors in small groups, affording students the opportunity to ask professors more questions about their research and career path. After lunch, Dr. Young gave a presentation detailing ways for students to get involved in research as an undergraduate. The event ended by transitioning into an intimate cocktail hour, during which there were poster presentations by graduate students in these professors’ labs.

Overall, RAD was a well-structured, successful event that gave insight into the groundbreaking research being done by professors in the Biochemistry department. It provided students the opportunity to learn more about a career in research, and how to get involved as an undergraduate.

Listed below are some of the professors at this event, along with a brief overview of the research that they discussed.

 

Professor Albert Berghuis:

With the rapid development of antibiotic resistance, the need for new antibiotics has become increasingly urgent. This is the focus of Dr. Albert Berghuis’ research. The Berghuis lab uses structural biological approaches to examine various biochemical interactions. The goal is to use techniques such as X-ray crystallography, electron microscopy, and NMR spectroscopy to examine the enzymes with which bacteria destroy antibiotic molecules, and use that knowledge to create next generation antibiotics that can bypass the enzymes but remain biologically active. With pharmaceutical companies stopping antibiotic development due to a decreased profitability, it’s up to independent laboratories such as that of Dr. Berghuis to continue the research in this field. His lab also studies the development of anticancer drugs.

Dr. Kalle Gehring:

The prime focus of Dr. Gehring’s lab is to decipher the structure of various proteins, particularly those involved in neurodegenerative diseases and the ubiquitin system, protein folding in the endoplasmic reticulum, and bacterial virulence factors. A typical project at the Gehring lab consists of growing bacteria to extract and purify a certain protein, crystallizing the protein, and the analyzing its structure using X-ray crystallography and NMR spectroscopy. Recently, the lab is pursuing the study of parkin, a protein involved in a link between mitochondria and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease.

Dr. Sidong Huang:

Dr. Huang’s research is focused on using a functional genomics approach to study cancer-related mechanism, and to create new treatment strategies for cancer using this information. The current approach to cancer treatment primarily involves chemotherapy and drugs that target cancer cell mutations. Current cancer drugs are not very effective as resistant cancer develops in almost all patients. While the main solution to this problem is through the development of new drugs, Dr. Huang uses another approach. Using functional genomic tools such as shRNA, cDNA and CRISPR libraries, Dr. Huang and his students systematically screen each gene and create custom drug combinations that target those that modulate drug resistance. They also hope to uncover genetic dependencies of cancer pathways which then can be exploited therapeutically. This novel approach hopes to overcome drug resistance in cancer patients and to provide a more effective treatment strategy.

Dr. William J. Muller:

The Muller lab creates and uses murine models of human breast cancer to understand the effects of oncogene activation in normal cells, discover the cooperation between oncogenes and tumour suppressors, and eventually develop preclinical models.

Dr. Bhushan Nagar:

The Nagar lab uses structural techniques to analyse macromolecules, with specific focus on determining innate immunity mechanisms and nucleotide-specific interactions in mRNA silencing.

Dr. Nahum Sonenberg (represented by Argel Valles and Nathaniel Robichaud):

The Sonenberg lab conducts diverse research on two major topics: mRNA translation and translational control of cancer. Through researching how different pathways are affected and alter mRNA translation, the Sonenberg lab hopes to better understand Autism spectrum disorders and psychiatric disorders. Research in translational control of cancer aims to understand how non-cancer cells can promote tumour survival, as well as develop methods of tumour selective killing of cancer cells.

Dr. Jose Teodoro:

The Teodoro lab aims to determine the role that transcription factor p53 plays in tumour angiogenesis. Angiogenesis is a natural process in human development and wound healing, but in tumours, angiogenesis allows the cancer cells to have access to nutrients that otherwise would be inaccessible. The Teodoro lab also hopes to use virus target specificity in cancer treatment.

Dr. Ian Watson:

The Watson lab aims to translate the genome of melanoma, the deadliest form skin cancer, in hopes of developing new therapeutic strategies.

Dr. Jason Young:

The Young lab focuses on the function of chaperones in protein folding, with emphasis on the roles of misfolded proteins in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. The function of the Hsp70 chaperone system and its role in disease states are of particular interest.

McGill’s 2016 Undergraduate Research Conference

The Undergraduate Research Conference that took place during the fall semester of 2016 featured original research projects by students selected across various science majors. The keynote address was given by Dr. Frederic Bertley (B.Sc 1994, Ph.D. 2000; Senior Vice President of Science and Education, The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), entitled “A Note to Our Future Scientists: Pay Attention to the Importance of Science in a Growing Clueless Society”. Some highlights from the many great research projects are given below.

Jason MacKay is a U2 Honours Math and Physics student. He has worked on developing a cost-effective Compton gamma ray imager. This device detects the presence of gamma rays and is currently used around the globe in astrophysics, nuclear medicine, and detection of nuclear threats during security checks. MacKay was able to develop a model that significantly reduces cost, while still maintaining the resolution of current Compton gamma ray imagers by using PMT detectors on either side of a scintillating material.

Michael Chen‘s research centred on organic dust (OD), a pollutant that pig farmers are exposed to. Prolonged exposure to OD can result in inflammation of pulmonary airways. His project focused primarily on examining the role of Nrf2, a protective transcription factor, whose inhibition may be the cause of inflammation caused by exposure to OD.

Carina Fan studied the relationship between memories and decision-making. Memories can be classified into episodic memories, created by personal experiences, and semantic memories, created by the memorization of facts. This research project sought to discover which of the two categories had a greater influence on clinical decision-making. She assessed this through a case study, and concluded that engaging episodic memory processes when learning appears to bias later diagnostic decisions.

Miles Cranmer is a physics student who spent last summer developing “BiFrost.” This software allows one to analyze data much more efficiently in only a line of code. Cranmer’s project has applications in analyzing data from interferometers, such as the powerful Event Horizon Telescope, by deleting useless data and keeping the useful ones.

Marilena Anghelopoulou‘s research project explored the impact of the production, use, and disposal of metal halide lamps compared to their more modern counterparts – solid state lighting. The latter emerged victorious as it was determined to be the safest for the environment and human health during its entire life cycle.

Johnson Ying is a neuroscience student who studied the progress of Alzheimer’s disease in model J20 mice and the effect of the disease on special navigation. He tracked the behaviour of grid, head-direction, and border cells in the mice with the help of microdrives that held moveable tetrodes. Ying’s results showed that the cells begin to disrupt as early as two months, thus affecting the special navigation of the mice.

Ariel Geriner‘s project was on the topic of habitat loss. This research project studied how habitat connectivity impacts an ecosystem’s health. It found that the less connected an ecosystem is, the greater the impacts are, and that these impacts can take effect in a much shorter time.