Economic disaster crowds grad schools

Grad school applications are pouring in as the economic downturn prods many to continue their education instead of entering an uncertain job market. With entry-level job postings down as much as 25 per cent, U of T has received 12,631 grad school applications so far this year, a nine per cent increase from last year according to grad student dean Susan Pfeiffer. Applications to Queen’s MBA program have doubled since last year, and undergrad applications are also at record levels.

Gregg Blachford, McGill University’s director of career planning services, remains encouraging. “There are still jobs and […] opportunities out there, especially for university graduates,” he told the Globe and Mail. Many experts agree that the downturn will likely only delay career advancement, before evening out when the situation improves.

Making the connection between genes and diet

Imagine a diet specifically designed for you. It has all of the nutrients you need and all of the foods you love. But it doesn’t end there. The nutrients in this diet are at an optimal level, so their interactions with your genes result in positive health outcomes, providing the opportunity for a healthier lifestyle. The foods are unique to you—your favourite tastes based on your unique genetic makeup. This diet may not be as far off as it sounds.

Dr. Ahmed El-Sohemy, an associate professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Canada Research Chair in Nutrigenomics, studies how diet interacts with genetics to produce health outcomes. He is also the project leader of the Toronto Nutrigenomics and Health Study, which involves the construction of a database of individuals and their diet and genotype information. Despite being one of the leading nutrigenomics researchers in the world, El-Sohemy has a background that most life science students can identify with. The Varsity sat down with Dr. El-Sohemy to discuss his educational experiences, and why he loves what he does.

The Varsity: Can you tell us about your background and how you became interested in research?

Dr. El-Sohemy: I did an undergraduate degree in nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto. At the time I thought I wanted to go to medical school, along with just about everybody else in the program and in the life sciences. I did some summer research, as a way to improve my application to medical school and [it] turns out I was really fascinated by research.

TV: What was fascinating about it?

D E-S: Just the idea that we were working on a problem and addressing it in a way that no one else anywhere in the world was. The opportunity to provide new knowledge—rather than applying information from a textbook, we would be creating the knowledge that would go into future textbooks. From there I decided to go to graduate school and I made some very interesting, yet unexpected, observations in the area of cholesterol and cancer that resulted in a couple of publications for me in the first year of graduate school, which again heightened my enthusiasm even more for research. So I switched from the Master’s program, reclassified straight into the PhD program. From there I became interested in how genetic variations could affect our response to different dietary factors. It was kind of an observation we’d made using animal models, but I wanted to study it in humans. So I went to Harvard for a post-doc, where I worked with a group there that was one of the few labs in the world that was exploring human genetic variation in response to diet.

TV: What would you say is the most rewarding part of being a scientist?

D E-S: Certainly the opportunity to create new knowledge that improves our understanding of how the foods and beverages that we consume effect our health is very rewarding. Making discoveries that no one else has ever made, that ultimately will improve the health of individuals and populations. There are other rewarding aspects. The research community is very global, and so there are many opportunities to meet other very interesting scientists from all over the world. I am collaborating with researchers from Costa Rica, Korea, the U.S., and Europe, and I have been invited to so many countries that I’ve lost count.

TV: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career?

D E-S: One challenge from a research perspective is moving from being trained in basic research towards epidemiology, and to establish recognition in that area. I think a challenge was getting new ideas accepted in terms of getting grants funded. My first grant was not funded, I think in part because the idea was very novel and not widely accepted. But eventually, it did get funded and we published some very exciting results. It was a bit discouraging to have some reviewers of my grant say that this avenue of research was not worth exploring. So I basically ignored that advice and proved them wrong.

TV: Was there ever a person or situation that was particularly inspirational for you, or had some impact on you that led to you becoming a scientist?

D E-S: There was my PhD mentor Dr. Archer, chair of our department, who gave me the freedom to explore by letting me have a major say in the direction of the research. You start off working in the lab, working on a problem that’s assigned to you as a graduate student, but then depending on the lab and I think your supervisor, some may be more limited in terms of the opportunities to explore different ideas that were not originally part of the grant. He really gave me the freedom to do that, and provided a very supportive research environment.

TV: What are you currently working on in your lab?

D E-S: We’re working on a number of different problems, but all of them centre around understanding how common genetic variations influence the foods that we select, as well as our response to those foods. So with that we’ve developed the Toronto Nutrigenomics and Health Study, which currently has data on over 1,300 individuals, and we’ve collected a variety of information on dietary habits, food preferences, as well as genetic variation. My grad students are all working on very different problems. Because this area of research is so fertile, there’s so much that hasn’t been explored, so many interesting problems that we can address, in a way that has never been possible before. Because the integration of genomics into nutrition research is so new, there are very few people doing that, and this gives us an opportunity to be the first to make many important contributions to science.

TV: Can you tell us a little more about nutrigenomics?

D E-S: Nutrigenomics is a science that deals with the interaction between nutrients and food bioactives with the human genome. It enables us to understand why some people respond differently than others to the same dietary factors, and also to understand how genes influence, or explain our likes and dislikes of certain foods.

TV: Can you give us some examples?

D E-S: Well, one example is sensitivity to caffeine. For some people, a small amount—just a few sips of a caffeinated beverage—will make them very nervous and anxious. So they limit their consumption. Others can drink several cups a day and not have a problem falling asleep within an hour. Another is metabolism of vitamin C. If you give two individuals the same amount of vitamin C, one person’s blood levels will shoot up, and another’s will barely go up.

TV: Is there any advice you can give to aspiring researchers?

D E-S: Research can be very rewarding. I think it’s very exciting to have the opportunity to solve an important biological problem, or address an important health issue. But it involves a different way of thinking from what you might be used to as an undergrad. I think the only way to know whether research is for you is to give it a try. But also recognize that there are very different kinds of research going on in different labs across campus. If your first research experience is not particularly fulfilling, you may want to give another lab a try because the experience might be very different. I was very fortunate that in all of the labs I’ve worked in have been very rewarding experiences.

Are profs overstaying their welcome?

Although the university has publicly attempted to assauge concerned professors, George Luste, the president of the University of Toronto Faculty Association has expressed his concerns over what he calls the “inconvenient truths” of the school’s pension plan, in his Information Report.

“Thinking about your pension plans probably ranks right up there with thinking about your next visit to the dentist for a root canal,” Luste comments in the latest edition of the UTFA newsletter. “For the year ending June 30, 2008, our pensions plan investments lost about $177 million […] At present, as U of T pension plan members, we have virtually no say in the governance of our pension plan.”

In a time of economic turmoil, professors are reconsidering when they should retire. Until recently, the “ultimate nerd-dream” came to an abrupt end with a mandatory retirement that forced scholars to bow out of university service at age 65. The University of Toronto abolished this clause in June 2006 in response to Ontario legislation as well as changing attitudes towards ageism.

The trend has been evident across Canada. Most major universities have eliminated mandatory retirement—to mixed results. There is a small contingency of professors taking early retirement, but one-third of professors in Canada currently take their retirements at a later age.

If faculty maintain their status in their current universities, do they inevitably stunt the progress and dynamic thinking that defines academia? One professor of economics at the University of British Columbia finds the problem to be moot, instead citing a change in demographics that works to the short-term advantage of long-standing faculty members. In his opinion, there is an ongoing surge of available professors, as the echo boom have yet to complete their education.

In his fifties, the professor plans to retire at 65 to pursue his interests in writing and continued analysis.

Mark Kingwell’s comments about taking time off over the winter break seem to sum up the mindset of most professors. “I don’t know what I’ll do without you guys,” he jokingly commented to his Introduction to Philosophy class, “I’ll probably wander the streets from 12 to 1 p.m. every week, like a crazed man, begging people to listen to me talk about philosophy.”

Chili Peppers

Chili peppers are characteristic of numerous international dishes, popular for their zest and flavour. However, most are unaware of the plethora of health benefits associated with members of the cayenne pepper family.

Their history can be traced back several thousand years to Central and South America. Today they are grown on all continents, with the largest producers in China, Spain, Turkey, Nigeria, and Mexico. In nature, some peppers use their spiciness as a defence mechanism against microbial and fungal attack.

Capsaicin, found primarily in the seeds and ribs of the pepper, is responsible for giving chili peppers their heat. They contain almost 30 per cent of the recommended dietary intake of Vitamin A, and are an excellent source of beta-carotene—both of which are important to epithelial tissue health. Cayenne peppers are filled with antioxidants and Vitamins C and K.

Recent research has elucidated some of the medicinal uses and benefits of this piquant veggie. Studies indicate that capsaicin promotes prostate cancer cell suicide. It boosts immunity, promotes fat oxidation, clears congestion (and for this reason is found in many cold remedies), and helps the body create stomach acid.

“Hot peppers and their active ingredient, capsaicin, act as an anti-inflammatory agent, reduce risk for heart disease, and are great for people with arthritis or marathoners regarding inflammation. It’s a pretty special spice,” explains registered dietician Dawn Blatner.

Chili pepper consumption is said to aid cardiovascular health because it reduces blood cholesterol, platelet aggregation, and triglyceride levels. Over 1,300 studies have confirmed that capsaicin and cayenne relieve arthritic symptoms, repress joint pain, and improve joint flexibility. Hot pepper consumption is connected with weight loss because it increases thermogenesis and oxygen consumption for more than 20 minutes after consumption. Capsaicin has been employed in several studies as a topical pain reliever and to alleviate itching, with some research showing promising results.

Contrary to popular belief, chili peppers are not a cause of ulcers and irritation of the small intestine. Though they may add to pain and irritation if these conditions are already present, and are known to promote heartburn.

If you’re not used to enjoying a large amount of spice in your diet, an immediate transition may be unwise. But by gradually incorporating cayenne pepper into your diet you can begin to reap the benefits of this wonder spice.

Camping for a cause

Exam month isn’t the only time you’ll find students sleeping at Robarts.

Seven Canadian university chapters of DREAM (Discover the Reality of Educating All Minds) are taking part in Live-in for Literacy 2009. From January 16 to 26, two students live in their campus’ main library, sleeping in tents and seeking donations.

Today until 1 p.m., you can see a tent behind the first-floor Robarts Library escalators containing Rebecca Nugent, a fourth-year English student and Christopher Somma, a third-year undergraduate in architectural design.

“It’s been pretty awesome,” Nugent told The Varsity on day five. “Although I expected to study more. Oh, and I just got food poisoning.”

The students are permitted a five-minute break each hour, which can be banked to shower at friends’ houses. For hygiene, the adjacent washrooms are used.

The pair, who has access to a fridge, laptop and microwave, has relied on pre-packaged and take-out food brought in from friends.

The organizatin hopes to raise $40,000 among all 14 participants in order to build nine school libraries in India.

“Other than sleeping with the lights off, I’m looking forward to knowing we’ve made a difference,” said Somma.

This is the fourth year since Live-in for Literacy started at Queen’s University, and the first for U of T. The two hope to raise $5,000 through cash, cheque, and corporate donations.

Although most have been curious and respectful, not all have welcomed the duo.

“The other day someone thought we were funding some sort of terrorist organisation or fake charity,” said Nugent. “Another jumped our barrier and said ‘You smell like sex.’”

A 24-hour webcam is viewable at www.liveinforliteracy.com.

NHL All-Star Game has lost its lustre

Today’s NHL All-Star Game is a joke. Recently, the lack of interest was dismissed as a result of playing in cities like Atlanta that can barely support their own franchises. Although this year’s game is in the hockey-crazed city of Montréal, it is little more than a corporate gimmick. When the All-Star first originated, it was an opportunity for fans to see the NHL’s greatest players on one sheet of ice. Back then, the game even meant something to the players. Now, it’s evolved into a weekend of corporate sponsorship and merchandise as the NHL desperately tries to increase profits. Even though fans packed the Bell Centre in Montréal’s centennial year, the players, the media, and much of the American market still remain uninterested in a game with no significance.

The All-Star game is supposed to be a collection of hockey’s brightest stars. Yet as a result of fan balloting, none of the top four teams in the NHL were represented in the starting lineups. Instead, ballot stuffing by Montréal fans led to four Canadiens voted in alongside Penguins’ players Sidney Crosby (who didn’t play) and Evgeni Malkin. The Western Conference was no better, as both San Jose and the defending Stanley Cup Champions Red Wings were unrepresented while a resurgent Chicago and stumbling Anaheim filled the six available starting spots. It’s ridiculous that the starting lineups were filled by four teams when none of these teams are even leading their respective divisions.

On top of the fans, the NHL makes the game more of a farce. As an unofficial rule, each team is supposed to be represented by at least one player. Instead of seeing the best players in the game, Keith Tkachuk of the St. Louis Blues will play while Marián Hossa of the Red Wings stays at home. The way the All-Star Game is set up, too few teams are represented in the starting lineup and too many teams are represented on the roster.

Even after the players have been picked (deserving or not), many players simply don’t want to play. The Red Wings had two players appointed to the roster, Nicklas Lidström and Pavel Datsyuk, but both chose to skip the game to rest their insignificant injuries. Younger players are also uninterested in being present at the All-Star weekend, as Steve Mason of Columbus and Nicklas Bäckström of Washington have both opted out of the YoungStars Game. Though Roberto Luongo has refused to go to games in the past, he is only in attendance this year due to his Montréal-area upbringing.

The NHL has dealt with the lack of interest by enforcing an unofficial rule that players who miss the All-Star Game will receive a one-game suspension. On Tuesday, Detroit will be forced to play without their two All-Stars. Although Sidney Crosby didn’t play, he avoided suspension because he attended the festivities in Montréal. Meanwhile, both Steve Mason and Nicklas Bäckström will play for their clubs on Tuesday as there is no unofficial rule for the YoungStars Game. It’s ridiculous that the NHL has had to resort to forcing players to participate in an event that is supposed to showcase the best of hockey.

Finally, regardless of fan voting and player interest, the game itself is far from a typical NHL game. Instead, the score is commonly above the 10-goal mark for each team, while the concept of defence is completely forgotten.

If the NHL is trying to grow, it would accomplish the task much better with a game that matters like the Winter Classic, where players actually play with intensity. The NHL is unlikely to separate itself from the All-Star Game despite recent discussion, for one simple reason: no matter who is playing, the All-Star Game makes money. The NHL knows that a weekend of “celebrating” the game creates increased revenue. At worst, it goes a long way to selling the game to corporate sponsors. Until money no longer matters, it is unlikely that the NHL All-Star Game or an all-star game in any sport will go away. But it’s equally unlikely that the game will become any better.

Of peace and underpants

“Our objective should be to give capacity to civil society groups, especially women’s organizations,” Dr. Razmik Panossian, director of policy, programs, and planning at Rights and Democracy in Montreal and instructor at the London School of Economics told students gathered at Hart House last Thursday.

Panties for Peace, a women’s advocacy group pushing for reform in Burma, is one such organization. Women’s movements are often at the forefront of combating dictatorships, a speaker at Hart House told students yesterday. The Panties for Peace campaign taunts the Burmese leadership on its superstitious belief that contact with a woman’s underpants will rob a man of his power. The group asks women around the world to mail their panties to Burmese embassies to protest the regime’s gross violations of human rights, especially offences committed against Burma’s women.

Razmik outlined a strategy of non-violent resistance in ending dictatorships. He emphasized the crucial role of citizen groups in finding points of oppression in the systems and pushing through them.

For anyone who has grappled with the question of what Canada can do to help end the tyranny of dictators like Robert Mugabe and the Burmese junta, the Hart House talk on Thursday evening offered a place to entertain the question.

In collaboration with the Canadian International Council, the Hart House debate club hosted a panel of three experts, each bringing a different perspective to human rights issues.

In contrast to Dr. Panossian’s citizen-group approach, Dr. Rhoda Howard-Hassman, Canada’s Research Chair in International Human Rights at Wilfred Laurier University and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for International Governance and Innovation, advocated increased scope for military intervention in combating dictatorships in the Zimbabwe.

The first problem, according to Howard–Hassman, is that “We don’t have a name for what is going on in Zimbabwe—there is no ethnic cleaning through violence to speak of. International law and international practice have not caught up with the many ways that a government can systematically cause its people to die and suffer.”

The Genocide Convention of 1984 refers to national, ethnic, religious or racial groups, but does not consider what some scholars are calling politicide and genocide by attrition. Even if the Genocide Convention was amended to include politicide and state-induced famine, the international community is not required to intervene militarily to enforce its mandate. This is the second obstacle to ending the crisis in Zimbabwe, she argued.

The final panelist, Judy Jackson, an award-winning social justice documentary filmmaker, spoke emotionally of her experience as a journalist in Chile during the rule of Augusto Pinochet. She described the psychological importance for victims to see their oppressors put to justice, and of her incredulity at how little is being done for the people of Zimbabwe.

“It is extremely important that whenever a person stands up to speak of an experience of personal suffering, that it is acknowledged and validated by those listening,” said Howard-Hassman. “It takes tremendous courage for a person who has suffered extreme persecution to speak to strangers about it. Often when they speak and no one says anything they go home. They think that nobody cares about them or understands them. That they made fools of themselves.”

Give up the fight

In a split-second, the hockey world saw tragedy. Twenty-one-year old Don Sanderson hit his head on the ice while playing for the Whitby Dunlops during a fight in a Major Hockey League game. After weeks in a coma, Sanderson succumbed to his injuries and died on Jan. 2. With this tragedy in mind, the NHL needs to debate the place of fighting in the league, at least for the sake of the Sanderson family.

The argument needs to be brought to the forefront. Precautions should be made in order to prevent this from happening in the NHL, or in any league ever again.

In the Major Hockey League, fighting is penalized with an automatic game suspension, yet it was Sanderson’s fourth fight in 11 games. Even in a league that does not permit violence, there seems to be no real attempt at reduction as it continues to happen, with players having multiple offenses from the rules set in place.

When fighting is debated, some suggest that the instigator rule should be removed. Yet, this empty rule is barely enforced. Finding the last time the instigator was enforced is like finding a hundred people who admit to liking the Atlanta Thrashers. The NHL rule book states that unless a player is deemed to be the clear aggressor in the fight, a game misconduct is only given if the instigator is called within the final five minutes of the game, or a player starts a fight for the second time. Allowing two acts of instigation shows that the rule is bogus, and that the league is inept at curbing fights.

It’s argued that fighting is an act done by two willing participants, who both know the risks involved. But the NHL is a business and an employer, and they owe it to their players to ensure their safety. They can educate the players about helmet safety all they want. They can change the rules deciding whether helmets remain on, or off, during fights. But ultimately, a tighter chin strap will not prevent a tragedy from happening again.

Don Sanderson’s death was an event guided by the changing hockey culture. We now see players who exclusively train to fight. They play for two minutes, sit in the box for five, and then are benched for the remainder of the game. The size and stature of these players have increasingly grown to accommodate the new perception of the hockey goon. Past goons actually played substantial minutes, put up decent numbers, and their ability to fight didn’t take away from their skill. Today’s goon is someone like George Parros who has a total of 19 points in five seasons, while having 490 penalty minutes.

Yet people protect fighting because they see it as a way for the players to police themselves. These same fans see the death of Don Sanderson as a tragic accident, but a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence. The accident has shed light on the dark side of fighting which should no longer be perceived as a sacred act that separates the game from other professional sports. Although people defend fighting to their grave, they demand no-touch icings and stop signs on youth players’ backs to help prevent serious injuries. While it’s true that driving, smoking, drinking, or eating fast food could kill us but isn’t outlawed, fighting in hockey is an act that that can be prevented. Hockey should be praised for skill, finesse, and strength that isn’t associated with a right hook.

The swift removal of violence from hockey is too harsh at this point. But it is time to seriously question its role within the game. The “sacred act” of fighting needs to be brought down to earth. Out of all the great hockey statistics, the game will forever be etched with one dark stat: one dead from a meaningless hockey fight, which is one too many.