TAs ratify deal

The members of CUPE 3902 voted 97 per cent in favour of the new settlement reached last week between its bargaining team and U of T. The deal lasts three years and expires April 30, 2011, which throws a wrench into CUPE’s plans for a province-wide strike in 2010, when a number of university contracts expire. The union, which represents teaching assistants, contract course instructors and accessibility workers, will now start to implement the new settlement.

CUPE 3902 has announced their next objective: launching a drive to organize post doctoral fellows, one of the few remaining groups on campus who aren’t represented by the union. A launch event at Alumni Hall is scheduled for Feb. 10.

The details of the settlement:

  • Three per cent salary increase per year, starting September 2008, except for 2009-10, which will see .5 per cent. Payment will be made retroactively to cover the fall 2008 term.

  • For childcare benefits, the university will make a yearly increase of $60,000.

  • U of T will pay the union $2.4 million to run its own healthcare plan. The new HCSA will have maximum allocation of $500 for employees who work 50 hours or more.

  • Increased sick leave, which includes three days of full pay for TAs, and 5 days of full pay for course instructors.

  • New mothers can choose between two months’ paid maternity leave or an EI provision top-up of salary, which lasts up to 17 weeks.

  • A month of paid parental leave, which applies to adoptive parents, fathers, and mothers who wish to take added time off after maternity leave.

  • A new healthcare fund for international students. U of T has agreed to provide the union with a lump sum to offset UHIP expenses. International students can bring in receipts for added costs, and the union will disperse the appropriate funds.

  • A new Provost’s Working Group on the Undergraduate Tutorial Experience, consisting of four professors and two TAs. The group will assess the educational value of U of T’s tutorial groups and present a report by March 2010.

Much ado about neurons

Understanding how the brain works is one of the greatest questions facing biologists today. Speaking to a group of students and professors, Dr. Bryan Stewart described the formation of neural synapses, which is an interesting step in brain development. Dr. Stewart is the Canada Research Chair in Molecular Genetics of Neural Communication and Professor of Biology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. His lab is interested in how these important cellular structures of the brain and central nervous system originate.

Neural development can be divided into a number of highly controlled steps. It starts with the transformation of stem cells into neurons, the extension of axons and dendrites into the body (two cell protrusions required for neuron function), the recognition of a target cell by the neuronal axon, and finally, the formation of the synapse, where communication takes place. Each of these steps is important in the development of the brain and central nervous system. Without each one, the complex tasks the brain performs, like moving muscles, would not be possible.

Communication between a neuron and its target cell—a muscle cell, a gland cell, or another neuron—requires the release of message molecules known as neurotransmitters from the tip of the neuronal axon into a junction known as the synapse. The neurotransmitters can then diffuse across the synapse to receptors on the target cell to effect a change. For example, the release of neurotransmitters at the neuromuscular junction (NMJ) and the synapse between a motor neuron and a muscle cell causes the muscle to contract.

To determine how the neuron develops to form a complete and functional synapse between its axon and the target cell, the Stewart lab uses the fruit fly as a model. The fruit fly NMJ is remarkably similar to the NMJ of other animals, including humans.

So how does the neuron know when to make a synapse? Dr. Stewart believes that the N-Ethylmaleimide-sensitive fusion protein 2 (NSF2) is involved. NSF2 is a large protein that is ubiquitous in the fly and is a member of the large family of proteins known as the AAA ATPases. NMJs of fruit flies that have mutations in the NSF2 protein display strange morphologies: the NMJs are longer, more branched, and have a characteristic circular pattern. This observation led to the hypothesis that NSF2 may be involved in controlling how the synapse forms.

In support of this, Stewart’s group was able to show that the protein NSF2 specifically interacts with Highwire, a protein known to be involved in limiting synaptic development. Taking a multi-pronged approach involving genetics, immuno-precipitations, and fluorescence microscopy, Stewart believes that his group has shown that NSF2 is a regulator of a pathway that leads to synapse development.

He believes that NSF2 helps the protein Highwire to perform its function of controlling synapse formation. Highwire has been shown to act at the top of a complex cellular signaling pathway that is responsible for synapse formation. Highwire actually turns this pathway down and prevents synapses from over-growing. By positively regulating Highwire, NSF2 may be important in keeping synapse growth in check and explains why NMJs with mutant NSF2 have large, disordered morphologies.

Stewart’s group’s most exciting results suggest that when the signaling pathway is turned off, protein filaments that are important for synapse structure cluster much more intensely than synapses that have normal levels of pathway activation. As filament restructuring at the nerve terminal is almost certainly important for the formation of a synapse, Stewart’s group may be on the path to determining how the pathway actually outputs to the formation of a synapse.

Atheist bus ads roll into Toronto

Toronto commuters are already asked to question their cell-phone plan and sexual performance. In two weeks, they’ll be challenged on existence of God, too.

The TTC will begin posting advertisements reading, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

The campaign, funded by the Freethought Association of Canada and individual donations, aims to advance public dialogue on secularism and society.

“We want to raise awareness of atheism and give atheists a place at the table when it comes to social discussions,” said Chris Hammond, who heads the Canadian campaign.

Last June, The Guardian humour columnist Ariane Sherine saw a London bus advertisement with a Bible quote informing non-Christians they would “spend all eternity in torment.” Sherine wrote a column suggesting readers donate five pounds each for a counter-campaign. A political blogger approached her to start the fund, prominent atheists signed on, and donations poured in.

Since the January launch in the U.K., similar campaigns have started in Spain, Italy, and Australia.

Hammond, a York University political science student, started a website before approaching FAC for support. Although $7,000 by May was the initial fundraising goal, $34,000 came in just over two weeks.

Not surprisingly, the ads have seen a mixed response.

“It’s interesting that they equate God with worry. I would argue people of faith would say the opposite; that faith in their life brings them joy, peace, hope,” said Neil McCarthy, director of communications at the Archdiocese of Toronto. “[The advertisements] will likely prompt discussion around faith and personal beliefs. Done respectfully, this can be a very healthy thing.”

Anita Bromberg, a legal counsel for B’nai Brith Canada, took a less benign view. “I don’t get the point and wonder why they wasted their money. The majority of society questions God’s existence daily,” she said. “Religion gives moral values. I’m not sure if this campaign’s helpful in building an inclusive, respectful society.”

Ronald de Sousa, a philosophy professor emeritus at U of T, called the campaign “an amusing, provocative, and timely response to sanctimonious tip-toeing around religious belief which most people seem to feel it’s polite to indulge in.”

“It’s not really an attack on people of faith,” said Yusuf Badat, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Theologians. “We live in a democratic society and see many things we may not be comfortable with. Everyone is entitled to their own view. When people who firmly believe in God look at these ads, it reinforces their own faith.”

Despite some endorsement, there have been setbacks.

“One of our campaign workers has received death threats that she’ll be beheaded in the name of Allah,” said Hammond.

Charles McVety, president of Canada Christian College, criticized the campaign as an “attack [on] what other people believe.”

Hammond said people like McVety “don’t realize that advertising isn’t a one-way street. If they can run their religious advertisements then we have every right to advertise a non-belief advert.”

The ads will appear on buses, downtown streetcars, and along the Yonge-University-Spadina subway line. The campaign is targeting Calgary, and tackling a Halifax transit rejection.

Last weekend, the United Church of Canada launched national print advertisements asking readers to choose between the original message and another one: “There’s probably a God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Readers can vote in an online poll.

The Ingenuity Gap of the 21st Century

The Graham lecture series were established in 1930 through the generosity of UC alumnus Mr. Neil Graham, with the aim of bringing a visitor of international importance to the University of Toronto every year. This year, our very own professor Kim Vicente— author of The Human Factor and Cognitive Work Analysis, E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship recipient, and founding director of the Cognitive Engineering Laboratory—was invited to give his take on our technologically advanced world and to share a view he has appropriately dubbed “Human Tech.”

The educational objective in engineering, according to professor Vicente is “to achieve technical excellence.” Simply put, if you do not design for the real physical world, things do not turn out so well. As an example, consider stove controls and the ingrained human tendency to expect things beside each other to control things near each other. If you have an ‘old-school’ four-burner stove, however, this may not be the case. In fact the very opposite is true: you will find that the two knobs near each other control burners that are diagonally separated. According to professor Vicente, “Once in a while, you may make a mistake.”

Granted, that is intuitive. Yet, as professor Vicente points out, the implications for us progressing deeper into the age of technology are great. In Canada, between 11,500 and 23,500 preventable deaths that stem from medical error owing to a defunct human-technology interface occur annually. In the United States, $10 billion is spent every year on accidents in the petrochemical industry owing to inadequate human-technology integration. At present, human errors lead to inefficiency, frustration, alienation, and a failure to exploit potential of both people and technology—and nobody is immune. The proper functioning of the local petrochemical plant or nuclear reactor, as witnessed by the Chernobyl disaster, is dependent on proper human-tech interaction. Transit system operations and avoidance of accidents depends on the human-tech interaction. Surgical procedures, airline traffic control systems, emergency response systems, and many other things in our day-to-day lives depend on this interaction, as well. Technology now is far more complex than we have seen in the past and the pace of change is groundbreaking. In the most serious situations, “human error leads to threats to safety, accidents, litigation, clean-ups, disasters, injuries, and deaths.”

So where does the problem originate? According to professor Vicente, it comes from humans adopting one of two perspectives: either the humanistic, focusing primarily on people, or the mechanistic, focusing on machines and information technology. And now more than ever, there exists an ingenuity gap between these two perspectives. The ingenuity gap principle was initially introduced by Canadian academic Thomas Homer-Dixon. It is as much a statement as a reflection of the complexity of problems faced by our society and our underachieving abilities to solve them.

Before we try and implement solutions we need to face the questions. Assume that man and machine function as one system. If you are not sure about this assumption, take a moment to realize how technology-dependent we are. What exactly is the role of technology in the system? And what is the role of people in this same system? Does technology extend or replace human capabilities?

There is no easy answer to these questions. What we do know is that technological progress is rapidly ongoing and will continue to do so. With that fact in mind, professor Vicente extends the engineering perspective from achieving technical excellence to doing so with the human factor in mind: engineering to help solve social problems. After all, says Vicente, “if technology doesn’t work for people, then it doesn’t work.”

French club prez to UTSU: J’accuse!

On Jan. 29, Antonin Mongeau attended his last meeting of U of T Students’ Union’s Clubs Committee, the group responsible for the allocation of long- and short-term funds for over 100 student clubs on campus. At the meeting, Mongeau was ousted in a secret-ballot process. He was replaced by Natalie Orelana of the Current Affairs Exchange Forum, who was not present at the meeting.

UTSU president Sandy Hudson said the meeting was in accordance with UTSU bylaws, which call for all committees to be re-struck for the new academic session after bi-elections.

Mongeau is not convinced that the decision was purely policy-related. He said the process was hastily put into practice without many of the committee members’ knowledge. He claims that when he asked the reason for secret ballots, his committee-mates responded it was so that they wouldn’t have to justify their decisions.

The Clubs Committee is made up of UTSU execs, board members, and three general members elected by the board. It is the only committee where members other than UTSU board members are allowed to sit. In its minutes, the Clubs Committee is consistently referred to as a commission.

“When you start asking questions that they (the union) don’t want to answer, they kick you out of the building,” Mongeau said.

On Jan. 20, Mongeau formally lodged a request for the UTSU’s bylaws, election procedures, and minutes. While Mongeau eventually received the 150-page packet on Feb 2, about two weeks following his request, he maintained his removal is related to his request for information.

“For the current UTSU, Athmika and them, any attempt to become better informed and more involved is seen as a threat,” Mongeau writes in an email to The Varsity. “So they run their little patch of sand like a fiefdom and cling meagerly to whatever power they have. Ironically, that power is relatively marginal, it is simply knowledge about the bylaws and policies themselves. That’s why they hide them.”

Mongeau was voted out by the UTSU’s directors present, including Executive Committee members Hudson, VP internal Adnan Najmi, VP campus life Athmika Punja. Hudson said Mongeau’s claims are completely unfounded. “It’s a rule,” she said. “We always have bi-elections. It’s to allow all board members to fulfill their duty of serving on a committee.” “We really wanted to keep him involved and stuff but he made everything much harder than it has to be,” said Punja.

Mongeau and Punja gave differing accounts of Mongeau’s comments on Chinese clubs. According to the meeting minutes, Mongeau stated that the Trinity Cantonese Christian Fellowship overlaps with the Chinese Christian Fellowship and suggested that both groups be funded equally.

“He said that there shouldn’t be so many Chinese clubs on campus because Mandarin and Cantonese were basically the same thing,” Punja said. That’s why I voted the way I did. Apparently it’s general knowledge, but it’s still a secret ballot.”

“That’s a lie. I did not say that there are too many Chinese groups,” Mongeau responded. “It’s true that we have many Chinese clubs at U of T. Given that we have many Chinese constitutents, it’s unsurprising.”

“I said there must be some way that we can reunite certain groups. My point about Mandarin and Cantonese is that they share the same writing system, so there must be some cultural overlap we can find,” Mongeau added. “I’d like to see one giant Chinese New Year [celebration] at U of T.”

At the Jan. 29 meeting, the board voted in two new members from the clubs—Black Students’ Association chair Daniella Kyei and Natalie Orelana, who was not present at the meeting.

Regnier, on staff at UTSU as executive director, said it was “threatening” and “inappropriate” of Mongeau to include campus media on his request for UTSU documents.

Hudson said, “I have no comment on his behaviour or anything—we’re fulfilling his requests. The only potential issue in the request is that he put a time limit on it that was physically impossible.” Mongeau responded that he gave two weeks, and that Hudson initially refused the request.

Punja, VP campus life, said Mongeau was disruptive to the committee. “He was pretty brash,” she said. “He tended to speak overtop of other people.” Mongeau ran for VP university affairs in November, to be beaten to the spot by the then-executive assistant Adam Awad.

Mongeau called the secret ballot “democracy through obscurity,” indicative of UTSU’s lack of transparency.

“I want a democratic and transparent student union,” said Mongeau. “The Clubs Committee has essentially run its course, so there’s no need for me to be reinstated—but there is need for reform in the student union.”

Natalie Orelana will join Vita Carlino, Lucas Lawrence, Athmika Punja, Admin Najmi, Sandy Hudson, and Marissa Derochers on the Clubs Committee.

With files from Jane Bao and Naushad Ali Husein

A previous version of this article reported that Athmika Punja accused Antonin Mongeau of racist comments. This article has been updated to give Punja’s specific accusation, Mongeau’s response, and what was recorded in the meeting minutes.

Biologists confirm early Chinese text

Kevin Judge confirms what an ancient Chinese text stated 800 years ago about male cricket fighting—the bigger the head, the better the fighter.

Judge, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Toronto Mississauga, along with co-author Vanessa Bonanno, conducted experiments on male field crickets Gryllus pennsylvanicus, test their hypothesis about sexually-selected male weaponry. They reported sexual dimorphism in head and mouthpart size and showed that males with larger heads, maxillae, and mandibles indeed win more fights against their male rival in aggressive physical contests. Their study was published in the December 2008 issue of PLoS One, a journal by the Public Library of Science.

Male crickets fight each other for territorial control, which leads to greater access to potential mates. The techniques in male aggressive combat include head-butting and grappling with their mouth-parts. Cricket fights have been a form of entertainment in China since the Sung dynasty (A.D. 960-1278). Judge and Bonanno’s findings are not only a contribution to the scientific community, but also highlight the Chinese cultural tradition of male cricket fighting.

In nature, male field crickets defend their territories, from which they sing to attract females. Responding to their song, females visit that territory to mate. “The more space you control as a male, the more likely you are to attract a female,” explains Judge. As a result, males always encounter each other as enemies and engage in physical combat.

Through a series of experiments, Judge and Bonanno were able to prove which traits make a male cricket a winner. In the first experiment, males were paired based on body size, and in the second, by body mass. They set up the cricket fights in a tiny arena and watched each battle unfold. “It’s a delicate dance between the meeting and the actual outcome,” says Bonanno, a recent MSc graduate, in a phone interview. She described what went on in the arenas, saying “they start checking each other out…meet antennae. Then it’s a series of escalations. They gyrate, kind of bop up and down, lock mandibles, and with that they try to knock each other over.” Through these experiments Judge and Bonnano showed that between males increasing differences in the size of weaponry heightened the fighting success of the male with larger weaponry.

Judge made the link between his findings and Chinese cricket fighting unintentionally. Taking his advisor’s advice to research the earliest scientific sources associated with cricket fighting, Judge found his hypothesis “wasn’t terribly novel.” He elaborates saying, “The Chinese knew about this head-size relationship with fighting ability a thousand years ago.” The earliest source he found was a work on cricket fighting by Shia Szu-Tao in the thirteenth century, stating that the best fighters have large heads. Judge explains how he found himself in the University of Toronto’s Asian Studies Library with an ancient Mandarin translator studying Szu-Tao’s text, as reading it made his research into male cricket fighting “more exciting.” He adds, “I also wanted the chance to cite an 800 year-old book.” Bonanno recalls her reaction to Judge’s discovery of the ancient Chinese sources, asking herself,“Can we prove that this information, used for hundreds of years, actually has a scientific basis to it?”

Making parallels between science and culture when discussing the ancient Chinese cricket fighters was natural to Judge. “When culture approaches [something] with scientific methodology, it can arrive at sound conclusions,” he says. The Chinese discovered what made the best male cricket fighters because “they were being scientific by…controlling for body size. The one thing they weren’t doing was analyzing the results statistically. They were analyzing it more for anecdotes.”

Judge and Bonanno’s statistical analysis of cricket fighting paid off. Their results are the first evidence that the head and mouthpart size of field crickets are under positive selection by male-male competition. Cricket fighting remains a cultural tradition and popular pastime in China. Despite how ancient Judge’s cricket fighting findings are, he says he is still motivated as a scientist by the “thrill of discovery.”

Budget snubs research councils

“It would be a shame for Canada to lose the great edge that it has right now,” lamented Guri Giaever, an assistant professor and genomics researcher at U of T. She, along with her husband and fellow scientist Corey Nislow, moved to Canada in 2006. The couple found that the Bush Administration did not make for a friendly educational environment, as research grants dried up. Three years later, the two find themselves in a familiar predicament.

Genome Canada, a major source of research funding, will not receive new money in the 2009 budget. Scientists can’t help but look southward, as the Obama stimulus package adds $3.9 billion to the National Institute of Health, America’s main funding agency for medical research. While Giaever and Nislow receive more funding from the NIH than Canadian agencies, they fear coming up short.

“We’ll have to see how things play out. If we can’t get funded, we have to explore all options,” said Giaver. “We got lucky this round of funding and we’ll be funded from the NIH for the next four years.” Even a single grant from the Canadian Institute for Health Research is not sufficient to run a genomics laboratory, so the scientist has to devote more time to grant-writing, which detracts from research.

Initially attracted by Canada’s reputation in the field, Giaever is discouraged as she sees world-class colleagues passed over. “Canada is a place that is really leading in genomic research, and it would be a missed opportunity not to train good people and create good jobs and more top-notch science.”

The Social Sciences and Humanities Council and the National Science and Engineering Council get snubbed. Professor Carl Wieman of the University of British Columbia knows what Giaever and Nislow are going through. The 2001 Nobel laureate in physics moved to Canada in 2006, who voiced his dismay at the lack of funding.

“In science and your science infrastructure, these aren’t things that you can turn on and off,” he told the Globe & Mail. “Funding that fluctuates up and down just wastes money ultimately. People get started and then it has to stop, a program stops; students go off and work on other things, and it’s just very inefficient so you kind of need this long-term stability.”

The funding gap is a concern, said U of T spokesperson Rob Steiner, but some sources of funding actually have increased. “On infrastructure and graduate students this budget actually does a good job for us,” he said. Steiner pointed out that though agencies like Genome Canada are missing out, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation will get $750 million over the next three years. Another $2 billion in infrastructure money will go to labs across the country. Steiner says U of T is in position to get a sizable share of these grants.

“On the graduate side the budget actually included $87.5 million over the next three years to expand the Canada graduate scholarship program,” said Steiner, though the full effects of the budget on university research are yet to be seen. “We’re trying to understand from the federal government what is going on with tri-council [major agencies such as Genome Canada] funding in the long term and what the actual effects might be.”

The empty bandwagon

When the New York Giants upset the heavily favoured New England Patriots during Super Bowl XLII, football fans all seemed to speak in unison. But none seemed to say “Hooray for the Giants!” aside from the immediate families of the players such as the quarterback’s brother, sitting in the press box. The messages were “Patriots suck,” “18-1, So much for the perfect season,” and “Take that, cheaters.” Yet, if the New England Patriots had won Super Bowl XLII, the consensus among fans probably would have been “Patriots rule,” “19-0. A perfect season,” and “What cheating?”

Upon the conclusion of Super Bowl XLIII, the Pittsburgh Steelers managed to eke out a victory in a game they were expected to dominate, the consensus among fans was, “Wow, what a well played game. It could have gone either way. We are not ecstatic that the Steelers won, nor are we exceptionally unhappy either.” There were a few dissenting voices, but those were mostly from fans that had bet large amounts of money on the Arizona Cardinals winning the game outright, and perhaps residents of Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas. While there are diehard Steelers fanatics, nobody new is jumping on the bandwagon.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have now won six Super Bowls, more than any other team. In the other three major sports, the teams that have won the most championships are the Montréal Canadiens, Boston Celtics, and of course, the New York Yankees. The teams that have won the second most championships are the Toronto Maple Leafs, Los Angeles Lakers, and the St. Louis Cardinals (the Boston Red Sox are third, despite an eighty-six year break). For casual fans, it is extremely likely that one of the aforementioned teams is either a favourite, or a least favourite.

Pittsburgh was previously tied for the most Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. Unlike the Steelers, these teams are often loathed by football fans, but also have many supporters, especially among female fans, like Jessica Simpson and Cameron Diaz’s “Mary”. Why are the Steelers, the franchise with the most championships, not considered part of sport’s true elite?

It may be the location. In most sports, the largest media markets feature the most popular teams: New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Toronto. While many NFL players were born in and around Pittsburgh, many fans simply feel sorry for the city. The hockey team is seriously slumping. As for the Pirates, the MLB held the All-Star Game in Pittsburgh twice in ten years to attract fans, which did not work. Sixteen straight losing seasons have not helped either. Since all Pittsburgh teams wear black and yellow, they seem to blend together in pathos.

The Pittsburgh Steelers do not feature a player that transcends the team, like Kobe Bryant in basketball or Alex Rodriguez in baseball. There are just a bunch of solid character guys on the team, like quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who recovered from a motorcycle crash, and wide receiver Hines Ward, who played the Super Bowl with a sprained MCL. James Harrison, the linebacker that ran the ball back 100 yards, was cut many times early in his career, and almost retired to become a veterinarian. Standing in opposition to the coach of the New England Patriots, lightning rod of controversy Bill Belichick, the worst thing that can be said about Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is that he resembles actor Omar Epps. The Steelers have likable players, but this doesn’t necessarily translate into a likeable team. Pittsburgh is famous for its defense, and while defense wins championships, it doesn’t win over the fans.

While other teams get the glory and the abuse, the Pittsburgh Steelers win championships. In the last four years, seven different teams have made it to the Super Bowl. The only team to make it twice is the Pittsburgh Steelers, winning the big game both times. While the fans wave terrible towels, this is one terrific team.