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.


What Is The Human Brain Project?

(image: Greg Dunn –

In 2013, the Human Brain Project (HBP) was granted €1-billion by the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies program. Spearheaded by neuroscientist Henry Markram, this 10-year project aims to develop new technologies to simulate a computer model of the human brain to better understand it and to treat neurological diseases. In theory, this research initiative is ground-breaking as it tries to link together the disorganized research results in neuroscience into one consolidated model, which will provide new insight into the mysteries of the brain. However, over the last 3 years, the HBP has spiraled off track while receiving a multitude of severe criticisms regarding the project’s feasibility, practicality, and cost effectiveness.

Perhaps one of the largest controversies surrounding the HBP is in its justification for its €1-billion funding. Although it proposes a successful simulation of the human brain, many neuroscientists have spoken out about how this will do very little to enlighten undiscovered aspects of the brain. A digital brain reconstruction requires biological data, and this simulation will end up as just a project to organize results from already tested and discovered hypotheses. Furthermore, there is insufficient data right now to create a full reconstruction of the brain. The current state of this simulation initiative, named the Blue Brain Project, is detailed in one of Markram’s papers, and shows lacklustre results. Firstly, this research project focuses on the digital reconstruction of a singular neocortical column of the immature rat brain. In addition, it fails to recognize many important aspects of neuronal connectivity such as gap junctions, glial cells, plasticity, homeostasis, and more. Therefore, it becomes difficult to say that the simulations are nearing completion.

Aside from the unrealistic goals of the project, the HBP also suffers from severe governance issues that stems from Markram’s autocratic management. An independent committee was established to investigate and mediate these disputes, and on March 2015, they published their results. The report details comments on Henry Markram: “[he] is not only a member of all decision-making, executive and management bodies within the HBP, but also chairs them and supervises the administrative processes supporting these bodies. Furthermore, he is a member of all the advisory boards and reports to them at the same time. In addition, he appoints the members of the management team and leads the operational project management.” It is clear that the HBP management system requires an overhaul. Right now, because of the huge amount of funding backing this project, the HBP continues to run despite its poor outcomes, while smaller and more promising projects are prevented from realization.

That being said, this research initiative is taking measures to get back on track such that it becomes more organized and cost-effective. One step that they are taking is to narrow down the focus of the project, as the current goals are far-fetching and unrealistic. Rather than trying to simulate the brain and encompass broad aspects of neuroscience, the project will focus on developing new data tools and software that can be used in all aspects of neurological research. This approach will help the project become more organized and directed towards realistic goals. Furthermore, every group in the HBP will now have to reapply for funding every two years, including Markram. By doing this, the project now allows for authority to be distributed amongst several bodies for independent oversight. It is not certain whether these changes are enough to put the HBP fully back on track, but hopefully now the project will be able to focus on producing important and significant results to unveil the mysteries of the brain.

The HBP is not the only currently undergoing neuroscience megaproject initiative. The US government launched a large research project, the BRAIN Initiative, in the same year. The BRAIN Initiative aims to develop and apply new technologies towards the production of better images of neural connections. Unlike the HBP, this program is progressing much more smoothly. There exists one main difference between this and HBP— although the BRAIN Initiative is also packaged and sold as a megaproject, it is in fact a model of distributed innovation under a central funding source, which also encourages collaboration. Thus, rather than depending on a single scientific vision, there are multiple research teams competing for grants while leading projects into new and different branches of neuroscience. The competition factor also prevents similar ideas from overlapping, thus allowing the initiative to be more cost-effective. Without debilitating and non-transparent governance issues, the BRAIN Initiative can place its focus solely on scientific endeavours.

The final outcomes of both the HBP and the BRAIN Initiative are not yet clear. It is not certain whether these very expensive projects will produce long-lasting, worthwhile discoveries such as the Human Genome Project. However, with the HBP starting to get back on track, results and tools from these initiatives can complement each other, producing meaningful outcomes both in neuroscience and medicine. There will be many expectations in the next several years in these fields.

Resources for further reading:;jsessionid=3915C94B7BAA70A47A69D5E9E2B25238?__blob=publicationFile



First Language Shapes Later Processing Patterns In The Brain


By Leanne Louie

Whether you still speak it or not, your first language dictates the way your brain processes languages learned later in life.

In a paper published in Nature Communications in early December, researchers at McGill and the Montreal Neurological Institute showed that children with different first languages had differing brain activation when performing a French language task. Of the three groups of children tested, one group had learned only French since birth. Another had known Chinese as their first language before adoption into French families, whereupon they learned only French and forgot their Chinese. The final group had Chinese as their first language, learning French as a second language around the same time as the adopted children, but retaining their Chinese. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers observed the brains of the children while they identified French pseudo-words, such as vapagne and chansette. Although all groups performed the task equally well, they had differing patterns of brain activation throughout it. The French speakers with no exposure to Chinese had activation in the brain areas normally associated with the processing of language-associated sounds (most prominently, the left inferior frontal gyrus and anterior insula). However, in the brains of the children who had learned Chinese as their first language, additional areas of the brain were activated (particularly the right middle frontal gyrus, left medial frontal cortex, and bilateral superior temporal gyrus), regardless of whether the first language was still spoken.

“These results suggest that exposure to a language early in life affects how the brain processes other languages that you learn later on, even if you stop using that early language,” explained Lara Pierce, a doctoral student at McGill and the first author on the paper. Scientists have long known that early childhood experiences such as being read to and hearing languages can shape long-term brain architecture. However, although early events can dictate neural development, the brain remains an adaptable and plastic organ, able to adjust to what it needs to learn later in life despite its underlying circuitry. Such is made obvious from the high proficiency of all of the children in French, each of the three groups performing the language task with great accuracy despite their different linguistic backgrounds. Thus, it’s clear that having a different first language doesn’t impede the ability to learn a second language— but early language experiences do influence the way the brain might learn and process future languages.

Such research contributes to a growing understanding of both neural development and neuroplasticity, demonstrating the influence that experience and environment have upon the brain. In the future, the scientists are interested in looking more in depth at the influence of early experiences on later language learning. One question of interest is how the results would differ if a first language more similar to French than Chinese, such as English, were to be tested. This would help to clarify how different elements of first languages might influence the learning of second languages. While it provides answers, this study also raises many new questions, paving new paths for future research on the brain.

To read the full article in Nature Communications:

Photo Credit: Quinn Dombrowski –

We’ve been featured!

MSURJ, currently in its 11th year of print, was recently featured by the McGill Tribune as one of the best scientific publications at McGill, with a lovely segment written by Daniel Galef. At this time of the year while all of us here are hard at work putting together our newest volume, this was both a pleasant surprise and an honour.

Volume 11 of MSURJ will be published in March, 2016.

Until then, we, the MSURJ team, would like to thank our readers and contributors for their continued support.

(image: Huffington Post)

RAD 2015: Biochemistry Research Awareness Day

As per tradition, this year’s Research Awareness Day, organized by the Biochemistry Undergraduate Society, was kicked off with coffee, treats, and a few presentations by its faculty. 

(The day would turn out to be a long but eventful one, involving networking opportunities, more food, poster presentations, tours, and closing off with a wine and cheese.)

The full list of presenters, with a brief introduction to their research, is as follows: 


Sidong Huang


Prof. Huang’s research at the Goodman involves functional genomics as a guide to cancer therapy, with methods including chemotherapeutics, genetic tools, and high throughput barcode screening to downregulate, kill, and identify various genes in accordance to their drug resistance, thus identifying novel genes and cancer-dependent pathways.


Thomas Duchaine


Dr. Duchaine’s lab focuses its study on RNAi regulatory functions in the onset and development of cancer, in a setting that fosters passion and creativity. His work spans several levels of study, from molecular to physiological—including biogenesis, dsRNA silencing, and microprocessing, and multiple approaches including systems experimentation, bioinformatics, and genetics.


Kalle Gehring


Dr. Gehring’s research is focused mainly on structural biology, utilizing NMR spectroscopy in its study of proteins and nucleic acids, combining approaches from chemistry, biology, and bioinformatics. Undergraduate research is highly encouraged in the Gehring lab, and the annual GRASP symposium is an event where students interested in structural biology will be able to learn more about this field of study.


Vincent Giguere


Also located in the Goodman building, Prof. Giguere’s lab studies approaches to fighting diseases by reprogramming metabolism, and the role of nuclear receptors in cancer, with an integrated approach involving transgenics and functional genomics.


Albert Berghuis:

Dr. Berghuis is pursuing the answer to antibiotic resistant bacteria using structural biology.One area that his work focuses on is next-generation antibiotics which prevent enzymatic degradation of antibiotics.


Bhushan Nagar:

Dr. Nagar uses structural biology to gain insight into the structures of molecules involved in the human innate immune system. One application for his research involves the creation of potential therapies against infectious diseases and autoimmune disorders.


Joe Teodoro:

The focus of Dr. Teodoro’s research is tumor angiogenesis and apoptosis. By using viruses to attack blood vessel formation, Dr. Teodoro hopes to gain insight into specific destruction of cancer cells.


Jason Young:

Dr. Young’s lab is investigating the mechanisms of molecular chaperones in regulating protein folding and the roles of co-chaperones in determining the function of these regulatory enzymes. Dr. Young and his team aim to use their knowledge of chaperones to better understand neurological diseases caused by protein misfolding and aggregation.


Martin Schmeing:

Using X-ray crystallography and electron microscopy, Dr. Schmeing’s lab is exploring the architecture of large enzymes in order to better understand how they perform their functions. During the presentation, Dr. Schmeing played a very detailed animation of a ribosome during translation, coupled with a compilation of pop music to explain each step in the process. These animations and more can be found at Dr. Schmeing’s website


We also interviewed a few attending personalities, and what they were hoping to get out of RAD 2015. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with a few excited grins eager to learn the works of research at McGill. Here’s a few of them. 


Jean Luo:

Jean Luo is a U1 Biochemistry student currently working in Dr. Gehring’s laboratory. She is helping with purification and crystallization of a protein called LPG0195, and is attending today’s event to learn about new research being done in biochemistry.


Maria Levshina:

Maria is a U2 student in honours biochemistry, as well as a first timer at RAD. She is attending to learn more about the research being done at McGill, as well as the plethora of personalities amongst our professors, which she feels is something that she is not exposed to much in classes. She finds the event refreshing.


Jessica Del Castillo:

Jessica is an exchange student from Mexico, currently completing a dual program in biology and biochemistry. She is working in Dr. Schmeing’s lab, and is attending RAD to learn more about other labs at McGill, as well as to learn more about the skills she can develop both as a student and a potential future researcher.


To get involved with RAD 2016, keep an eye out for posters and announcements from BUGS.

Wine and Cheese Tips for the Socially Awkward


A good wine and cheese can be a perfect opportunity to network - just be sure not to commit any of these social faux-pas while you snack. (John F. Francis, oil on canvas / Wikimedia Commons)

A good wine and cheese can be a perfect opportunity to network – just be sure not to commit any of these social faux-pas while you snack. (John F. Francis, oil on canvas / Wikimedia Commons)

Pretty much every department at McGill hosts at least one wine and cheese night. These events are a great chance to mingle with your professors, ask for advice from upper-year students, and sneak a snack before heading back to the library. Sounds perfect, unless you are a socially-awkward person… like myself.

If you are guilty of any of the below offences, you might be socially awkward, too. Fret not; I have also explained how to correct this behavior. Mostly though, this list has been compiled for the sake of a good laugh. We have all made some interesting mistakes as we learn to network.

Offence #1: Have you ever over-stuffed yourself?

Let’s face it, at every wine and cheese, there is a gathering of scared first-years around the food table. To make up for not talking, plates are piled up with enough cheese, crackers, and fruit to feed a small army of mice. When a professor finally enters enemy territory to talk to students, they’ve all just had three crackers and no drinks in between. The next minute spent chewing makes for one awkward silence.

The Fix: I know you might be hungry after a long day, but eat slowly so that you can have a conversation when the researcher you have always wanted to talk to makes his way over. Try to not hover by the food table – get out there, bring your food with you, and go back for more later.

Offence #2: Have you ever been tipsy or flushed at a wine and cheese?

For everyone who gets the “asian flush”*, you know that even one glass of wine could mean a red glow for the evening. Nothing is more embarrassing than looking drunk in front of your professors at a networking event, even if you are not. Yet if you do not have a glass with you, it feels as if you are breaking some unspoken social rule. Keep it classy, people.

The Fix: All University-sanctioned events have to provide an alternative to alcohol, so you can always fill that wine glass with juice. There is no shame in sipping OJ, just saying. But you can also just get grape juice, which looks the same as red wine.

*i.e. everyone with a genetic modification that impacts the functionality of the ADH enzyme

Offence #3: Have you ever unsuccessfully pushed in on a conversation?

If you have been to one of these events, you have either been this person or you have felt sorry for them. In the midst of a beautiful conversation, she hedges in and starts nodding. Unfortunately, when she chooses to make a remark, silence reigns. The professor plows on with the conversation as if nothing has happened, but everyone knows something has.

The Fix: Laugh it off and listen to the conversation more closely for cues as to when would be a good time to jump in. Know that people around you totally understand how it feels to be in the same situation.

Offence #4: Have you ever fished for opportunities?

There is at least one person who asks if the professor has space in their lab for more students. This is what networking events are for; there is no rule saying that we cannot ask. However, when the question is too blunt or aimed at the wrong person at a wine and cheese, things can get messy. As soon as the question is broached, it is like an alarm has gone off, and half the room is listening for the reply.

The Fix: This situation is tricky. Asking is always worth a shot, but make sure that you understand the work. Also, try to get a conversation going first to see if you get along with the professor. A supervisor is a mentor – one of the few a student might find at McGill. Sometimes, the chemistry between mentor and potential mentee just is not there – better to figure this out at a wine and cheese than 50 hours into a research project. Ask a potential supervisor if they have time for coffee – or ask them when their office hours are – so that you can talk more.  If a professor has space and funding in their lab for students, the professor will try to recruit intelligent, interested people. When faced with rejection, do not take it personally. Funding restrains the number of students – even the number of volunteers – that a lab can support. Training a student is also a large commitment. Sometimes, it’s not you, it’s them.

Too shy to ask in-person about research opportunities? Fire off an e-mail later, making sure to specify when and where you met them. Check out The Abstract’s guide to snagging a research position here.

[Photo] A Silver (or Mother-of-Peal) Lining

The crew at the McMurdo Station, Antarctica, captured this beautiful example of Nacreous (a.k.a. mother-of-pearl) cloud on 25 August, 2013. (Jack Green / National Science Foundation)

The crew at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica captured this beautiful example of nacreous (a.k.a. mother-of-pearl) clouds on 25 August 2013. (Jack Green / National Science Foundation)

Located in a coastal region at the southern tip of Ross Island – a scant 1,360 km north of the South Pole – is the main U.S. research centre in Antarctica. The McMurdo Station, which is now the largest community in Antarctica and the location of the only ATM on the continent, has been open since 1956. As such a frigid location, it boasts ideal conditions for the formation of nacreous clouds (also known as polar stratospheric clouds), such as those in the picture above. For obvious reasons, nacreous clouds are also often referred to as mother-of-pearl clouds.

They are most visible within two hours after sunset or before dawn, forming in the lower stratosphere (15-25km above the ground) at temperatures of around 85C. Their bright iridescent colours are result of their composition – similarly sized, fairly uniform ice crystals, about 10µm across.

As if the aurora borealis didn’t give you enough reason to bundle up and head to the poles.

Read more about McMurdo Station here, or research the phenomenon of nacreous clouds here.

Crickets, Cheese, and Computers: Ampersand 2014

Ampersand (Deborah Baremberg)

Alain Tascan, CEO of Sava Transmedia and Co-Founder of Ubisoft, presents at McGill’s Ampersand  Conference on March 22, 2014, recounting the history of disruptions in the gaming industry. (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance Photographer)

Interdisciplinary is hailed as the next big thing in academia and problem-solving. Bringing together two different disciplines and the perspectives of the people who work in them, and creating new academics who are comfortable with multiple subjects, will be paramount in tackling the complex problems inherent in modern innovation. When it comes to interdisciplinary studies at McGill, perhaps no one better understands the benefits and challenges of this approach than the students of the Bachelor of Arts and Science (B.A. & Sc.) and their association, the Bachelor of Arts and Science Integrative Council (BASiC). BASiC’s unique perspective and position – as interdisciplinary students with the power to organize and a budget – is exemplified in their annual Ampersand conference. This year, Ampersand combined two concepts that are usually thought to be incompatible – science and fiction – and explored how they shape our world and our lives.

On Friday, Jeff Dungen (CEO at ReelyActive) opened the conference with a dynamic presentation about the importance of integrating rational, quantifiable science and more effervescent creativity. Using the popular dichotomy the left and right brain’s respective symbolic roles, he spoke of his vision for the future as one of connectedness and an “Internet of Things.” He convincingly pushes for using technology to make things about “the human experience”; for example, allowing a room to tune into the number of people contained within it in order to allow it to adjust its temperature.

Hadi Adel, musician, treats the attendees of the first day of McGill's Ampersand Conference to a 78 minute set of background tunes on March 22, 2014. (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance Photographer)

Hadi Adel, musician, treats the attendees of the first day of McGill’s Ampersand Conference to a 78 minute set of background tunes on March 22, 2014. (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance Photographer)

Hadi Adel (musician and performer) followed up Dungen’s talk, keeping in line with the theme of unifying technology with creativity via the example of his own music. To paraphrase his main idea, technology and synthesizers take you far, but at the end of the day, you need to understand what you’re doing and know the theory of the music you wish to create. He exemplified this interplay in 78 minutes of prepared background score, which provided the atmosphere for the cocktail which followed his talk.

The next morning, Ampersand continued (despite a small delay due to the inclement weather), featuring five more engaging speakers. Christina Agapakis (synthetic biologist, artist, and writer), opened the day with a discussion centered around the necessity of diversity and cooperation – of looking at problems from different perspectives – in research and innovation within and without the scientific community. She set the stage by explaining the core of synthetic biology as a discipline which seeks to introduce the rigor and simplicity of engineering into the complexity of biology; using DNA as one would use screws and bolts in order to turn biology into the centerpiece of the next industrial revolution.

But Agapakis pointed out that a flawed central dogma is contained within our current model synthetic biology – DNA is viewed as an all-important, top-down commander of the development of a cell. This is contrary to the results of, for example, Natalie Jeremijenko, who planted 1000 trees cloned from the same genetic material, planted them in different areas, and found that the environment drastically changed their growth patterns. Agapakis chose to relate the perspective of DNA as a “machomolecule” that controls the outcomes of an organism to the alpha-male attitude of some prominent scientists in genetics, such as Craig Venter. Agapakis noted that Venter once said, when asked what his concerns were about the future, “well, I don’t worry about anything, because as an alpha-male, I believe I can and do work to solve problems and change the world.” Further, when discussing the possibility of cloning the Neanderthal, George Church said that cloning Neanderthals would be beneficial, as (genetic) diversity was needed. Unfortunately, Agapakis noted that women only appeared in this project when scientists were discussing the methods: all that was needed was a “particularly adventurous human female” to serve as a way for DNA to be replicated. She partially attributes these sorts of “tone-deaf” statements to the continued under-representation of women in science, arguing that a balance between genders is most conducive to innovative questions and solutions. We need to be aware “whose problem we [are] solving… who is going to benefit from this revolution” noted Agapakis. Limiting diversity, Agapakis explained, limits our imagination and our problem-solving capacity.  To illustrate this need for diversity, she cited data from the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. Prize-winning teams at iGEM have historically been more diverse than their competitors – 45% female versus 37% female, respectively. While it is difficult to determine causal links, it would seem that more diverse teams do better work. Her own artwork embodies a similar quest to showcase a different way of looking at things, for example making cheese out of bacteria cultivated from human subjects. By decontextualizing something as simple as a microbe, Agapakis hopes to give us “cheese for thinking,” and a contextualizing context for synthetic biology.

(Deborah Baremberg / Freelance Photographer)

Christina Agapakis, synthetic biologist, artist, and writer, emphasizes the importance of  tackling problems from diverse viewpoints in her talk at McGill’s Ampersand Conference on March 22, 2014. (Deborah Baremberg / Freelance Photographer)

This was followed by a presentation by Alison Sinclair, an author whose genre of choice is – appropriately enough – science fiction. She explained how science fiction is more than fiction; it has a relationship to the future, the present, science, and culture in that it is an attempt, however whimsical, to predict and influence the future.  Sinclair noted that this influence can be quite literal. “It’s not an accident that some science fiction writers… are not making their living” as futurists, she noted. The current state of things affects the kinds of predictions made in science fiction books, of course, but science fiction also affects the present; Sinclair invited us to consider the discourse drawn from Orwell’s 1984 when, for example, describing the NSA. “Big Brother” metaphors are shared knowledge only because of the tremendous impact of 1984 on our attitudes towards technology. Much like Agapakis, Sinclair emphasized the importance of diversity of thought in the process of innovation: the fundamental idea in science fiction is that things don’t have to be this way.

Alain Tascan, an entrepreneur in the gaming industry, current CEO of Sava Transmedia and one of the co-founders of Ubisoft, delivered the next talk and shifted the focus from how science shapes our imagination to how our imagination can shape our reality. He walked us through the history of disruptions in the gaming industry, structured by his own personal history. Attendees were taken from the early 1990s, when the first CDROMS were coming into use, to 2014, where mobile games are king and casual gamers are the major target market. Tascan also brought the city of Montreal into this history, pointing out that the conference was taking place only miles from they very place some of the earlier commercial 3D graphics were developed. The connections Tascan made with our city and the references he made to games we see every day – Angry Birds, Flappy Bird, and Candy Crush, to name a few – were appreciated by the audience, as was his description of the new business model for mobile games. “Now,” he said, “I’m not monetizing your entertainment. I’m monetizing your frustration.” All these disruptions and games in the industry has made him “scarexcited,” which he said was “scary, but exciting at the same time,” particularly for young people who are just beginning their career. “You are the people that should be the most excited,” he said to the crowd. “The older guys like me should be on the scary side, and you guys should be on the excited side.” Like Sinclair, Tascan’s talk emphasized an eye towards the future, and what we can do to mould the world in which we live.

Ovidiu Mija certainly has taken Tascan’s advice, and has used the disruption in the sharing economy to launch a company. Mija chose to discuss his path to his career as COO of Outpost Travel. Outpost Travel is, essentially, a search engine and “central hub” for sharing economy sites, which include AirBnB, Roomorama, and Flipkey. Currently, only the accommodations section of the site is live. Theoretically, rideshares and guided experiences will also be a part of the site; however, users who would like to use Outpost for these functions are told to check out the Outpost app available for iPhone and iPad, as these sections of the website are still in beta. Mija’s path to Outpost was a rocky one, including a very contentious stint at Dawson and a relatively lucrative career as a freelance web designer, which he described in detail. Those of you who have been paying attention to local news for a few years might recall the case of one student who was expelled from Dawson College after exposing a security flaw; this student was Mija’s friend and partner. While Mija was not expelled, he did not look back fondly on his time at Dawson. He was disappointed that the coursework he was doing wasn’t as immediately applicable as he had expected.

Mija’s presentation was followed by a brainstorming session, to try and expand the total market for sharing economy sites. The winning idea (which, full disclosure, Kate Sheridan’s team presented) involved emphasizing the trustworthiness of users on sharing economy sites by visually representing connections between users to possible hosts through integration of existing social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

Jakub Dzamba, a Ph.D. student in architecture at McGill, gave the final talk of Ampersand 2014. Dzamba may be familiar to some due to his involvement as a consultant to a team from McGill that won the 2013 Hult Prize competitionThe Abstract posted the responses given by the Hult Prize team and the Desautels Public Relations Office; Dzamba has also posted a number of illuminating documents related to the incidents on the website for his new company, Third Millennium Farming. His presentation was also focused around cricket farming and how new architectural designs can incorporate new, disruptive sustainable technologies. To illustrate (literally) how this could happen, he gave a tour of Toronto in 2050. Of course, crickets and other bugs were highly visible in this new city as a food source, which he says could be ground up, baked into incredibly high-protein flour, and used to make non-cricket-looking food products. While the food may not initially look appetizing, Dzamba noted that crickets tasted like “roasted almonds” and the cricket-based flour tastes like “bacon and roasted almonds.”

Crickets may not be the only source of food in the future; indeed Dzamba mentions they are a less than ideal microlivestock. Once a critical mass of crickets has been farmed, “the chirping is deafening,” he noted. Dzamba currently farms crickets in his home, and has managed to avoid conflict with his neighbours about his odd houseguests. He noted that the crickets can actually be great “white noise generators” – something that his neighbours appreciate, for now. The only sound made during his presentation was not from the box of live crickets Dzamba brought with him, but someone’s cricket-chirping ringtone going off during the presentation – much to everyone’s amusement. More innovative technologies were mentioned, including algae photo bioreactors found on buildings and within home window panes, and solar panels that follow the sun throughout the day.

Dzamba’s presentation was a wonderful way to close the conference, with an eye to the future and an optimistic perspective on how we might be able to take something that sounds like science fiction and bring it to reality. We hope to see more from Ampersand in the future, and look forward to seeing which frontiers they will push next in their quest for interdisciplinary innovation.

With files from Deborah Baremberg and Kate Sheridan.

Disclosures: KS received free admission as a member of the press, and a $10 gift certificate to Universel for her participation on the winning sharing economy challenge team. 

McGill Students’ Astronomy Club: Out of this World

The area surrounding Coudersport is known for some of the darkest skies in the east. This photograph was taken across 15 minutes at 30" exposures, 2 hours away from Erie, the closest major city. (Pieter Kuiper / Wikimedia Commons User)

The area surrounding Coudersport is known for some of the darkest skies in the east. This photograph was taken across 15 minutes at 30″ exposures, 2 hours away from Erie, the closest major city. (Pieter Kuiper / Wikimedia Commons User)

Between the COSMOS series, recently reintroduced with Neil deGrasse Tyson as host, and the BICEP2 discovery, the realm beyond our atmosphere has been receiving a lot of attention lately. But for the members of the McGill Students’ Astronomy Club, this level of interest is the status quo.

In August 2012, a group of undergraduate and graduate students in the Physics Department decided to start the club. Since then, they’ve organized a number of events, both independently and cooperatively. Of course, a key set of events are their regular sky-gazing trips. Usually, they aim for one trip a semester – as long as the Canadian climate cooperates. They also head out to the Rutherford Reservoir for observation nights. For those who want to explore the night sky on their own but are unfamiliar with how a telescope works, the club also organizes telescope training sessions. While three sessions were offered in 2013, the weather has so far prevented the club from holding any this semester. They also organize AstroTalks, which gives members a chance to pitch a topic, prepare a twenty-minute talk, and deliver it.

More recently, they’ve also provided a place for students to watch COSMOS. Those who were looking for a communal viewing experience could have found one in Rutherford 118 last Friday. (For those with cable at home, it can be seen on Global TV at 9PM on Sundays – GlobalTV also makes the episodes available and free to stream for one week after their appearance on TV.) Additionally, the club hosted a talk on March 21st by Professor Ken Ragan (who many McGill science students know and love from their 100-level physics courses) about dark matter and dark energy. The club has a few major events left to run this school year, including a partnership with the Redpath Museum for Earth Hour on March 29th and a trip to Mt. Megantic, an international dark sky reserve, on April 4th. (Incidentally, according to the club’s Facebook page, tickets are still available.)

And anyone can join them, no matter what their field of study. For example, you certainly wouldn’t expect the McGill Students’ Astronomy Club to be led by a Political Science student, but it’s clearly a passion project for Avital Drucker, the president of the club this year. After her first year, having read “a lot of Carl Sagan,” she sought out a club where she could continue to learn and develop her interest. While the clear majority of members are involved in a physics major or minor, they welcome anyone with open arms.

The club has also integrated itself into the larger McGill astrophysics community. Their partnership with AstroMcGill, the astrophysics department’s outreach program, has given the club access to two telescopes which they use for their telescope training sessions, as well as a support network. The two organizations complement each other nicely; AstroMcGill looks beyond the McGill campus, and the club focuses within.

Over the last few years, the club has developed bigger events, and increased the attendance at these events. And “we have an office now,” points out Drucker, which is located in SSMU 435. In the future, the club hopes to experience “more growth” and to solidify the role they already play. Drucker hopes that the club will expand their educational offerings – including developing a more theoretical telescope training program – and maybe help communicate research opportunities for students interested in astrophysics. While “citizen science” isn’t really on the club’s radar, Drucker seems optimistic: “We did have this program called the Radio Telescope Project.” She details that they were planning on observing the speed at which the galaxy rotates, for starters. “I want to bring that back,” Drucker told me, but as the telescope is currently under renovation, the club would need someone who is dedicated to ensuring the equipment is functional. Whatever happens in the next few years, it seems that the McGill Students’ Astronomy Club is well on its way to ensuring that McGill students – whether they are in Physics, Political Science, or Philosophy – can always have a place to go if they want to look up at the beauties of the night sky with the curiosity of a scientist.

You can connect with the McGill Students’ Astronomy Club on Facebook

[Photo] The Borexino Experiment

The light concentrator inside the Borexino Experiment, a real-time detector for low-energy solar neutrinos. (Borexino Collaboration)

The light concentrator inside the BOREXino Experiment, a real-time detector for low-energy solar neutrinos. (Borexino Collaboration)

“BOREXino” refers to an experiment performed by an international collaboration centered on solar neutrino physics.

Neutrinos are released in radioactive beta-decays, like what happens in the sun during nuclear fusion. Given the enormity of the sun, this would correspond to a flux of about 6.5 x 1010 neutrinos per square centimeter per second hitting the earth. However, neutrinos are notoriously difficult to detect and measure. Early experiments calculated far less (about 40%) neutrinos than predicted actually hitting the earth, and did not find significant variations with either day/night or season.

The Borexino detector, located underground in the Laboratori Naxioli del Gran Sasso in Italy, is a new look at this problem. It is capable of detecting low-energy solar neutrinos in real-time, and is capable of precisely measuring the beryllium solar neutrino flux and its day/night asymmetry – and its ultrapure scintillator (acting as a light concentrator) makes for some really cool pictures.

Learn more by checking out the official website for the Borexino Experiment, or check out an excellent introduction to Solar Neutrinos and Other Solar Oddities.