Finger regeneration draws concern

Evolutionary adaptations have led to fascinating traits in certain groups of organisms, many that we wish to make applicable to humans. In the animal kingdom, some members of the phylum Echinoderms, like sea stars, are able to regenerate body parts that have been separated either voluntarily or by a predator. A sea star can grow a lost arm readily after detaching it from its body to either escape a predator or rid itself of a damaged limb. A similar trait has also evolved in certain snakes and lizards, now capable of readily regenerating their tails after losing them, a trait called “caudal autotomy.”

These phenomena fascinate scientists who wonder whether we can apply the basic principles of “regeneration” to humans. For people who have lost limbs, parts of their fingers or organs, or whose skin is severely damaged, regenerative medicine could completely change their lives. And some have already found a way to regenerate severed human body parts.

Take Lee Spievack, a Cincinnati hobby-store salesman, for example. Spievack says that he successfully grew back a portion of his middle finger that was sliced off by a model airplane propeller in an accident in August 2005.

“I pointed to [the model airplane],” Spievack recently recalled, “and said, ‘You need to get rid of this engine, it’s too dangerous.’ And I put my finger through the prop.”

The removed portion of his finger could not be found, so the emergency room doctor bandaged his hand and suggested a skin graft. Fortunately, Spievack’s brother is the founder of regenerative medicine company entitled ACell Inc. and a former Harvard surgeon. Dr. Alan Spievack gave his brother a powder created from pig bladder extracts used to help horses regrow ligaments. The powder, comprised of collagen and a few other substances, contains no pig cells, according to ACell scientific advisor Dr. Stephen Badylak, also a regeneration expert at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Spievack had already employed this powder on another man who had cut his fingertip off in an accident one year prior to Lee Spievack’s model plane incident. That man’s fingertip was successfully regenerated over four to six weeks, according to the doctor.

Naturally, scientists remain skeptical of this magical substance. While they do not deny that the tip of Lee Spievack’s finger has regrown, they believe it occurred naturally. “It appears to regenerate because new skin grows over the end of the finger—that’s a normal recovery,” Simon Kay, professor of hand surgery at the University of Leeds, told the BBC. “It can be utterly surprising how well it repairs after what appears to be a ghastly injury but it’s what you might expect from the most peripheral part of the body.”

Admittedly, it is difficult to understand what the powder does to signal the initiation of regeneration. But the very fact that we know little about the basic principles of regeneration, an established trait that has evolved multiple times in many groups of organisms, may represent our incomplete knowledge of the scientific practice. Studying this powder, whether it has contributed to the cause of the regeneration or not, may offer researchers a new perspective on regeneration. That, combined with studying existing traits in animals capable of this evolved talent, could lead to greater research advancements.

Emotion: enemy of science or friend of reason?

Does emotion belong in science? This simple question is one that many scientists would answer with a simple “no.” Emotion clouds rational thought, and should be avoided in favor of untainted observation of facts. When observing natural phenomenon of any type, the observer’s bias could colour the outcome, portraying an unrealistic picture of what was observed. In a quest for objective truth, emotion appears to be the enemy.

Many types of science are deeply tangled with emotion due to their subject matter. Dr. Harvey Armstrong, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at U of T, studies childhood sexual abuse. He sees no problem with incorporating emotion into his scientific research. “Human beings… are run by the limbic system,” he says, relaying insight into the difficulty of separating our feelings from any human endeavor (the limbic system is the neural network that supports emotion and behaviour).

Dr. Armstrong also believes that there is a total lack of emotion in the “hard” sciences. “All of the engineers I’ve run into are emotionally blind and deaf,” he noted fervently. While some level of disinterest is necessary for basic research, it is important to remember whom your findings will ultimately affect. “Who cares [about the age of the Earth]? If you’re likely to be shot on your street because people have not done appropriate things with kids and families, that’s rather more important,” Dr. Armstrong added.

The perceived separation of emotion and science in the physical sciences may not even truly exist. As soon as you step out of a laboratory (and usually before that), human emotion begins to infect lives. Many of the so-called “hard” sciences are afflicted with personal involvement as soon as they are applied to the real world. Nuclear physics as an academic discipline may not be an expressive activity, but as soon as its concepts are applied to nuclear energy or weapons, passions rise in a hurry. Dr. Ray Carlberg, Professor of Astronomy at U of T, commented “I don’t accept that the physical sciences…are not emotional.” Carlberg noted that all scientists are passionate about their work; otherwise, why spend long hours on tedious experiments?

Ideally, there would be a smooth transition from unbiased scientific observation to its caring, principled application. Still, this uneasy relationship between emotion and science will remain as long as scientists continue to ask questions.

Admin lay academic charges

U of T appears to be continuing its crackdown on fee hike protesters. The administration has threatened four student leaders, including a governor, with action under the Code of Student Conduct over disruption of an April 10 Governing Council meeting. The move came after Toronto Police arrested 14 protesters involved in a March 20 sit-in at Simcoe Hall, following complaints filed by the administration. Twelve of the 14 are also being investigated under the student Code of Conduct.

“Clearly, what we are seeing on this campus is an unprecedented repression of students organizing,” said Farshad Azadian, an AlwaysQuestion organizer and one of the so-called “Fight Fees 14.” “Nobody is going to claim that the sit-in was perfectly organized. But the charges are ridiculous, and we have gathered lots of support,” Azadian added.

Student and staff unions have offered support for the accused and condemned the investigations as a campaign to silence dissent. “We have received support from Unite Here, CUPE Ontario, OCAP, OPIRG, several community groups, [and] from students from universities across Canada,” said Deena Dadachanji, a spokesperson for the accused.

Todd Gordon, a U of T professor in Canadian studies, said the charges amounted to a attack on debate. “When people in positions of power have no meaningful response to dissent, they resort to coercion,” said Gordon. “They hope they can stamp it out through heavy-handed tactics: scaring others away from future dissent, […]

and suffocating the movement by targeting those they see as the ‘leaders.’”

The university has acted to distance itself from the charges, laying responsibility on the police, who decided to charge the 14 after receiving evidence and complaints from the administration. “We referred the matter to Toronto Police for their assessment, they decided to lay charges,” said Rob Steiner, U of T’s chief media spokesperson.

But Dadachanji said the administration was involved in the arrests. “Fourteen people have been hand-selected by the university because of their positions as key organizers,” she said. “There is no way the Toronto Police could have known their ability to mobilize against issues. It’s clear that the university has played a hand.”

Dadachanji also claimed that the administration may have given personal information, such as the demonstrators’ email addresses and phone numbers, to police. Steiner was not available to comment on this allegation.

Students investigated under the Code of Conduct were notified during the second week of April. Shortly afterward, they received emails from Toronto Police telling them to turn themselves in to Division 52 headquarters. Most were held for several hours before being released on stringent bail conditions.

Steiner confirmed that protesters were being investigated under the code but declined to comment on specifics, saying that cases under student code are confidential.

At the April 10 GC meeting, student governor Alexandru Rascanu read from a petition against the proposed fee increases until he was stopped by chair John Petch. While governors are not usually given time-limits on speaking during the meeting, Petch ruled that reading out the petition did not contribute to the ongoing discussion on the fee increases. Student activists then took over, continuing to read the petition aloud until the meeting had to be adjourned and relocated.

Petch sent letters to Rascanu and three of the students who read out the petitions: UTSU president Sandy Hudson, former Arts & Science Students’ Union executive Alanna Prasad and former UTSU VP university affairs Michal Hay, who was also arrested for the sit-in protest.

In an April 29 letter, admin advised Hudson that they were considering action against her under the student code for “the persistent disruption of the meeting, despite calls to order by the Chair.”

Rascanu said that his letter called for him to meet with the chair about matters relating to the student code. At that meeting, he said, he was told the student code charges would be discussed by the GC’s executive committee on Monday, May 12.

“I think that me being under investigation is a far stretch of the situation in which the code should be used. It is a way to silence student leaders on campus,” said Rascanu, who did not comment on the specific nature of the allegations against him.

A petition demanding that all charges against students be dropped had gathered 1592 signatures online at press time. The petition was started by the Allies for Just Education, a group formed to support the 14 accused.

AJE plan to hold a rally at Old City Hall on June 3, when the 14 will appear at a hearing.

Former baseball star pitches great advice

What approach do great pitchers take when facing a batter? This question was posed during the Toronto Maple Leafs 40th home opener. The sun-drenched affair took place at Christie Pits on Sunday, May 4. Before the game, this reporter sat down with former Boston Red Sox great Luis Tiant, on hand alongside a number of Hall of Famers to throw out the opening pitch(es). Tiant was the only non-HOFer invited to participate, but what he lacked in accolades, he made up for in wisdom. A Cuban immigrant famous for his Fu Manchu mustache and love of cigars, Tiant explained how he faced batters during his playing career, cautioning that “you can’t show everything in your repertoire.” This applies to teaching as well as pitching, as he led young pitchers by example. Instead of dictating to athletes when and how to throw pitches, Tiant was concerned with how to approach big game situations. Tiant repeatedly stressed that baseball should be fun. Both pitchers and batters should enjoy every aspect of the game, and that is how he prepares for big games.

Interestingly, Tiant used the analogy of a batter when discussing his specific approach to baseball. “If you go 0 for 4 in a game, you won’t kill yourself afterwards. Next time out, you may go 4 for 4. You do not want to let the first game affect you.” After all, it is important to see the progress that you make. Tiant expressly stated that the size of a pitcher does not matter. Notably, one of Tiant’s most famous protégés is former Red Sox hurler Pedro Martinez, who is generously listed as 5’11. Tiant is also small for a pitcher, but he always remembered to not let big pressure intimidate him. Tiant also relayed the importance of having a heart and a great first pitch. Too often, the mental aspect of pitching is ignored.

That day, the Maple Leafs chose Drew Taylor, the son of former Major League pitcher Ron Taylor to start in his Intercounty debut. When I asked Taylor, a lefty who bears a significant resemblance to Brendan Fraser, about his approach to the game ahead, he replied that he would “throw strikes.” This seemed to run counter to the ways of the greats. However, he clarified that he would also throw “whatever the guy’s not looking for.” Taylor went on to pitch the Leafs to victory. After my afternoon on the field, it was clear how the Toronto Maple Leafs managed to attract so many wise pitchers to opening day. The fan-friendly yet competitive atmosphere of the Intercounty Baseball League requires serious dedication from its pitchers, but above all, as Luis Tiant stresses, they cannot forget to have fun.

GC raises tuition

Get ready to beg, borrow or steal. Governing Council voted on April 10 to approve tuition fee hikes, which will see an average increase of 4.27 per cent for domestic students and 6.6 per cent for international students. Fee increases have been an almost annual practice since the Harris government’s cutbacks to post-secondary funding in the 90s. After premier Dalton McGuinty ended a brief, two-year fee freeze in September 2006, activists have been campaigning for a reinstatement of the freeze. Last year, after GC voted to increase fees, financial reports showed a net income of $134.5 million on U of T’s operations.

The new fee hike has student unions worried that U of T will become less financially accessible.

Rob Steiner, U of T’s AVP of strategic communications, dismissed the possibility of financial barriers. “The university has an iron-clad accessibility guarantee that financial considerations will not keep you from either entering or completing a program you’re admitted into,” said Steiner. “A large amount of our budget goes into that guarantee.”

A bigger deterrent, according to Steiner, is the belief that university is more expensive than it actually is. “When folks go around pretending that there are 20 per cent fee increases, that’s fear-mongering,” he said. The whopping 23.5 per cent increase, the highest of the fee hikes, applies to international students entering the Masters music composition program, which Steiner called a “separate matter.”

“It has an unfortunate effect on people who don’t realize how accessible education already is,” he said.

UTSU VP external Dave Scrivener disagreed, saying that while students from the lowest-income groups can barely get by with financial aid grants, the fee hike would affect the middle class the most. “It’s the middle class that is not being allowed to access the grants,” he said, “and not being able to pay fees without a massive debt-load and a part-time job.”

Artsci calendar reshuffled

The Arts & Sciences Faculty Council has approved sweeping changes to the academic schedule, as well as curriculum requirements that will affect all programs of study.

Starting in September, Arts & Sciences programs will begin incorporating a whole new bag of tricks termed “degree objectives” into degree requirements. The faculty council proposed that programs implement additional requirements within five years.

The new criteria are meant to enhance academic learning by focusing on areas such as information literacy, communications, social ethics, and quantitative reasoning. “Achieving these degree objectives will prepare our graduates with the transferable skills necessary given the dynamic nature of the workforce and the world today,” said Suzette Stevenson, vice dean of students in Arts & Science, who oversaw the changes.

The restructuring of the academic calendar will take effect in September 2009. The bottom line: more free time. Final exams will not be scheduled after April 30, giving students a chance to find summer jobs that will actually look good on a resume. Both fall and winter semesters will receive an additional “study break”.

This move is meant to ease academic workload by providing students with as much time as possible to focus on classes, without having to worry about cramming for exams.

An “intersession” has also been carved into the calendar. Right before the summer session, students will have a chance to go on field studies or get international work experience.

Combining theories learned in lecture halls with practical and technical training sounds like a great idea. Giving students an extra week to catch up sounds even better. But if students receive more breathing room, only to have to complete another set of requirements, doesn’t that put us back at square one?

Dept. of Electile Dysfunction: Hayes Vs. Grove-White

The divisive showdown for the ASSU presidency just got messier. Thanks to a lack of clear rules, two controversial elections between incumbent Ryan Hayes and challenger Colum Grove-White have sparked complaints to admin, who have threatened to withhold funding to the student union.

Grove-White was elected ASSU president by a narrow vote of 25-21 at the March 18 council meeting. Hayes, however, presented a formal complaint to CRO Ausma Malik, alleging pre-campaigning violations on the part of Grove-White.

Malik threw out the election results on April 23, on grounds of “procedural issues” and libel in campaign material and held a re-election. This time, council voted 23-21 in favour of Hayes.

At that meeting the council debated over muddled rules—and who’s to blame for them. While Malik dropped the issue of pre-campaigning, she noted that the CRO of the initial election failed to provide all candidates with rules. Sheila Hewlett, council member, then pinned the problem on the executive, who she said “failed to let the CRO know that he was CRO for the election in question.”

According to executive member Patrick Adler, no election rules actually exist. Hayes and Grove-White both took the opportunity to give their interpretation of proper election procedures.

Reading an excerpt from an MSN conversation with Saswati Deb, Hayes said that the only set of rules that were ever generally accepted had to do with pre-campaigning. Grove-White responded that since neither the ASSU constitution nor the operating Bourdinot’s Rules of Order have rules for elections, no rules were broken.

Following Hayes’ victory in the second election, Grove-White’s supporters, Adler among them, filed a complaint with Jim Delaney, director of the Office of the Vice-Provost. Accusations include undemocratic process in electing the president, executive, and chair of the meeting, as well as failure to inform council members of the April 23 meeting and election.

These objections, along with a complaint on the ASSU’s spending habits, prompted Delaney to send a formal letter to Hayes, requesting a response to the allegations and minutes of the meeting, by May 2. The letter also cites the Policy for Compulsory Non-Academic Incidental Fees, which states that further installments of student fees may be withheld if constitutional problems are not reviewed.

Hayes argues that the administration is infringing on the rights of a student union, and likens it to “the management of a corporation withholding the core funding of their workers’ labour union.” Admin interference, he said, is not unique to this situation and has involved numerous legal threats over the years, including a lawsuit over the CFS referendum. “ASSU is a democratic body that follows its own by-laws and constitution. Any disagreement can be brought to our executive or addressed at council meetings.”

Council member Adler expressed reluctance at the admin’s involvement, but said they are best suited to mediate as the ASSU can’t seem to settle the matter on its own. The next step, he said, would be to establish concrete policies for elections in the ASSU constitution.

Dalla Lana lures Canuck back home

This September, U of T is set to open the largest public health school in Canada. The Dalla Lana School of Public Health will be geared towards researching epidemics such as avian flu, and studying health care systems, both domestic and international. The school is named after Paul Dalla Lana, who gave $20 million to fund research chairs and scholarships.

The university has recruited Canadian epidemiologist Jack Mandel back from the U.S. to head the new school. The Winnipeg native is returning from a similar position at Emory University in Atlanta.

“My goal is within five years we’re a destination university for public health […] among top schools in the world,” said Mandel.

The new school is to be housed within the Faculty of Medicine and will build upon its existing department of public health sciences, as well as collaborate with other faculties like nursing, dentistry, and law. Prevention of infectious diseases and better communication between researchers are among the school’s goals, as U of T looks to grow as an internationally competitive research university.

Paul Cantin, director of communications for the Faculty of Medicine, said the “significant increase” in the number of students and faculty studying public health is imperative for the university to be recognized as a global establishment.

The new grad school was unveiled in an April 30 press conference, soon after U of T president David Naylor announced his long-term intentions of boosting graduate studies and decreasing undergrad spots.

Naylor argued that cutting the number of undergrad students would improve the faculty-to-student ratio. “We believe we can be better at undergraduate education on the St. George campus if we just reduce the numbers,” he told the Globe & Mail.

While UTM and UTSC will see an increase in undergrad enrolment, the St. George campus will lose spots by a greater number. Graduate enrolment is set to grow at all three campuses.