Engineer strike ends

After a seven-day strike, the Canadian Autoworkers local 2003, representing the University of Toronto’s 90 operating engineers, returned to work yesterday.

The small union was looking for a pay increase after its three-year contract expired on August 30. Negotiations between the university and the CAW hit a roadblock the next day.

“All we’re asking for is a fair agreement, nothing more,” said John Venetas, a CAW member.

Picketing took place on all three campuses. But the strike was most evident at UTSC, where buses had to cancel their routine stops through the campus.

So as to not disrupt the university’s daily functions, U of T passed the task of running the university’s air conditioning and ventilation systems onto the operations and service staff.

The university and the CAW returned to the bargaining table on Friday. After several hours, the university agreed to the union’s demand of a one-year agreement to a 1.5 per cent pay increase.

Comic relief

The Toronto Reference Library played host to sequential art stars foreign and domestic this weekend, with the fourth installment of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. Aiming to promote “the literary and artistic merits of comic books and graphic novels,” the previously annual festival is now held every two years. Organizers expected this year to at least match the numbers of the 250 artists and 6,000 visitors who attended 2007’s TCAF, held at Victoria College.

As a prelude to the following weekend’s events, May 2 was Free Comic Book Day. Comic shops across the city, including The Beguiling, co-presenter of many TCAF events, offered select comics—including a compilation by TCAF artists featuring local talents Kate Beaton, Kean Soo, Ryan North, and Willow Dawson—for free.

Comic artist and turntablist Kid Koala kicked off the festival with a dance party at Lee’s Palace on Thursday. The following day, Harbourfront saw an exhibit of comic arts tools and installations, as well as a discussion with artists Seth, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, and Adrian Tomine, all of Montreal comics mag Drawn & Quarterly fame, on how each artist goes about creating cartoons.

The main event, however, was the weekend’s happenings at the Toronto Reference Library–among them, Jason Thompson, author of Manga: The Complete Guide, presenting on the history of Japanese comics in North America. The roster also featured Emmanuel Guibert, TCAF’sA French guest of honour, discussing his graphic novel The Photographer. Guibert’s harrowing story centres on the work of photojournalist Didier Lefevre, who covered a Doctors Without Borders mission to Afghanistan in the 1980s.

An off-site event called “Comic Books Are Totally Gay!” featured conversations with queer comic artists on everything from Batman and Robin to Alison Bechdel’s classic strip Dykes To Watch Out For. Rounding out the festival were seminars on how to get involved in the industry, from a panel discussion on going to school for comic arts to a DIY comics workshop by Willow Dawson.

Overall, the event proved that the wide world of comics isn’t just about saving the world in tight spandex. Then again, that stuff’s pretty important, too.

The Varsity caught up with guest of the fest and local funnyman Ryan North, creator of Dinosaur Comics and author of Dinosaur Comics: Your Whole Family Is Made Out Of Meat.

The Varsity: How did you get started creating comics?

Ryan North: My comic started in my last year of undergrad, where we got this class assignment to do something interesting with the Internet…I’d recently wanted to do this comic, but I can’t really draw at all. I had this idea for a comic where it was always the same story and was told with different pictures all the time. Then, [I realized] that’s the exact wrong comic for me to be doing, so I sort of flipped it around:“What if it was the same pictures and I just change the words?” That’s where the comic comes from.

TV: What was it about dinosaurs?

RN: [laughs] I wish I had a better answer for that. When I started the comic I had no art [computer] programs at all, except for this very old program called Warbird that had all this clip art of WWII planes, and also some dinosaur clip art. It had dinosaur parts like a dinosaur lower jaw, a T-Rex upper jaw, arms, legs, bodies…and the dinosaurs had facial expressions, so I went with them. Yeah, I always feel bad because people are like, “Wow, so you don’t draw it, and you use clip art.” But it shows that you don’t need to draw to do a comic!

TV: Were you inspired by other comics that use repeated imagery, such as David Lynch’s Angriest Dog in the World?

RN: No, I didn’t know about any of that, I thought I was being super original. [laughs] But then a year in, I found the comic, and it was funny because I’d seen only one Angriest Dog In The World comic before—and they’re all kind of the same structure, right? There’s a very angry dog and there’s a one liner in the last panel…I actually worked it into the comic when I discovered it. There’s an early comic where T-Rex adopted the Angriest Dog in the World as his pet, so I sort of capture all of his continuity and folded it all in to my own comic, without even talking to David Lynch. I just assumed it was fine.

TV: Had you done humour projects before Dinosaur Comics?

RN: In university, in undergraduate, I used to have this website where I just posted robot erotica. [laughs] I found [a picture] of these guys in robot suits holding hands, [and] I made this page saying, “This is robot porn. Here, you can come look at it and it’s very erotic.” I was making it up thinking that there wasn’t, there could be no such thing as a robot fetish,which shows how naïve I was at the time. I remember the day I [found] there was an actual robot fetish.

Arts & Science council election thrown out

The spring election results for the Faculty of Arts & Science Council have been thrown out following objections from a candidate. Fanxum Peter Zeng, an international student from Beijing, pointed out that nominations for the elections had been opened for only six business days between April 12 and 20—less than the 10 required by election procedures.

Colum Grove-White, out-going president of ASSU, said that Zeng made the complaint after being disqualified from the election for an unrelated matter. Zeng claims that he spoke to some students who were unaware of the election, so he requested the CRO and Faculty Registrar Glenn Loney “give other students the opportunity to run for the election […] in the interest of fairness.” When Loney denied his request, he took it to the office of the dean, following which the Executive/Agenda Committee decided to set the entire election aside.

“Because it’s quite clear in the constitution that there needs to be ten business days for nominations, we threw out the election results,” said Grove-White

With the spring election results scrapped, all the positions on the Arts & Science council and its committees have been reopened. A new nomination period and election are scheduled for early October 2009 when the council usually elects first-year student representatives.

Forensic biology helps shrink elephantiasis

Scientists in Ghana recently unveiled a novel strategy that relies on cutting-edge Canadian biotechnology to fight the disease lymphatic filariasis (LF), more commonly known as elephantiasis.

LF spreads via mosquitoes that have fed on infected people, thereby transferring the parasitic worms that cause the disease to the next blood meal. The worms enter through the skin, colonize the bloodstream, and clog the lymphatic system. These clogged lymphs swell to painful proportions, often leaving victims permanently disfigured. Today over one billion people in over 80 countries are at risk of infection. A large proportion of these potential victims reside in West Africa.

In an effort to eradicate LF by 2020, health authorities are treating people in LF-affected communities annually with a drug cocktail that works to lower the density of worm larvae in human blood, a strategy designed to reduce the ability of mosquitoes to transfer LF.

The mosquito family is diverse and each species has different LF larvae transmission rates. The particularly dangerous species are those able to transfer larvae from individuals that have been treated with anti-LF drugs—thereby thwarting conventional methods of LF control.

This fact led scientists to speculate that the key to controlling the spread of the disease is in assessing the mosquito population of LF-affected communities. By determining the proportion of menacing mosquito species in a community, public health workers will be able to supplement drug treatment with pesticides targeting at-risk regions. But how do you design a fast and easy way to profile a community’s mosquito population?

Canadian scientists may have the answer.

In 2003, researchers at the University of Guelph, headed by Dr. Paul Hebert, showed that every organism can be identified on the basis of a simple DNA-based assay, even those that are very closely related and difficult to distinguish by other methods. The assay relies on the fact that all species encode evolutionarily related genes, with members of the same species possessing an almost identical genome. This provides scientists with a genetic “barcode” to catalogue earth’s biodiversity.

The mitochondrial genome presents an ideal source for this approach. In addition to being the “power plants” of a cell, mitochondria also encode their own genome, separate from that in the cell’s nucleus. Mitochondrial genes undergo a higher rate of mutation than nuclear genes and therefore display more genetic variability between species.

A number of foundations are currently dedicated to compiling encyclopedias of genetic barcodes.

Dr. Jim Woodgett, director of research at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, and senior investigator at the Ontario Cancer Institute at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto, agrees that DNA barcoding “is a good way to differentiate between related species, and is relatively fast.”

“Variants [of species] can be correlated with behaviour […] and variant genes can be associated with [that] behaviour,” says Dr. Woodgett.

In the case of LF, barcoding can distinguish between the innocuous species of mosquito and those that are able to transmit LF larvae from an individual treated with anti-LF drugs.

Until now, DNA barcoding has been used by taxonomists and ecologists to catalogue the biodiversity of different environments. For the first time, this biotechnology is being employed in the war on a major global disease. Scientists at the University of Ghana, in collaboration with the JRS Biodiversity Foundation in Philadelphia, are using this system to lessen the transmission of LF.

DNA barcoding enables researchers to protect biodiversity while targeting disease. In communities affected by LF, researchers will be able to determine whether drug treatment is enough to contain LF infections or if pesticide treatment is also required. This approach will ensure that only communities inhabited by the most dangerous mosquito species will be sprayed, thereby maintaining as much biodiversity as possible and protecting fragile ecosystems from pesticides that are not mosquito-specific.

However, Dr. Sandra Smith, a professor within U of T’s Faculty of Forestry and an expert on insect ecology and management, isn’t so sure that they’ve found the silver bullet. She says that differentiating between species of mosquito is already possible on the basis of morphology, but she is quick to mention that barcoding can be useful in determining the identity of larvae, which may be more difficult.

To control the mosquito population public health workers can employ pesticides and biological agents, as well as reduce standing water to prevent mosquito breeding. However, Dr. Smith warns that pesticides can’t be used “endlessly and at high concentration,” or they will push mosquitoes to evolve resistance.

Whether DNA barcoding can be applied to other human diseases remains to be seen.

Dr. Woodgett is optimistic that DNA barcoding, and in the future, deep-sequencing (which can sample more regions of the genome) will aid in the fight against other human diseases. He predicts that barcoding may one day be used to investigate the effects of dietary change on the complex gut flora of patients with inflammatory bowel disease.

Dr. Smith suggests that the work on mosquitoes and LF may be translated to stemming the transmission other mosquito-borne diseases such as yellow fever, malaria and some forms of encephalitis that are also only transmitted by certain species of mosquito.

DNA barcoding alone may not eradicate LF by 2020, but as Dr. Smith says, “you don’t solve a problem with a silver bullet; you solve it with a toolbox.”

Critics bite the hand that fees them

Meric Gertler, the dean of Arts and Science, bluntly told U of T’s Business Board last month that students would intensify their course loads in order to get their money’s worth. In addition, he said, the introduction of a program fee will provide an incentive for students to complete their studies within four years or less and start earning income.

As the Program Fee Implementation Committee did not conduct quantitative analysis to investigate the relationship between course load and resultant GPA, it is not known for certain how flat fees will affect academic performance.

However, students on campus have been speculating for themselves about how flat fees might change the quality of university life.

One of these students is Innis College’s Webnesh Haile. Having devoted much of her time to the Innis College Student Society and the Innis College Council, Haile has learned a thing or two about the relationship between campus involvement and academic achievement. Now finishing up her last year at the university, Haile looks unfavourably on the imposition of flat fees.

“Being heavily involved with these extracurricular activities was a fantastic learning experience, but meant that I had much less time and energy to focus on schoolwork or on other aspects of [my] personal life,” she says.

This year Haile’s extracurricular involvement was much lower than in previous years, because she felt the need to focus on academic achievement. As a result her GPA was almost half a point higher.

“It’s not unreasonable to expect that people who wish to make significant contributions to nonacademic causes will need to take fewer courses in order to do well,” said Haile.

“I don’t see how increasing the number of courses a student takes per year can enrich the learning experience, especially outside the classroom,” she said. “This initiative appears to exacerbate the mentality of education as tool to be acquired quickly and painfully rather than a journey of growth—isn’t this contradictory to the spirit of higher learning?”

According to Gertler, the upshot of any increase in the number of courses students take per year will result in a parallel increase in government grants to the university. The plan is for this revenue to be funneled back into enriching the learning experience.

Victoria College student Ige Egal disagrees. “I think it’s going to take away from the character of the school because the reasons for introducing flat fees are so academic. It provides a financial incentive for you to focus only on academics, and the value of extracurricular activities or jobs is not taken into consideration.”

Ige has spent much of his time as an undergraduate playing soccer for his college team and refereeing for intramural soccer teams. In addition to athletic pursuits he serves as a residence don and a research assistant for an African Studies professor. This year he had to drop a course, because between school and other activities he found there was just too much to do.

He predicts student life will have difficulty engaging students on campus with the introduction of flat fees, as they would have to go against a financial barrier that is institutionally supported.

Qualms over the quality of the student experience are hardly new to the University of Toronto, since the National Survey of Student Engagement gave U of T failing marks on student-faculty interaction and support services in 2004. David Farrar, then deputy provost, blamed the abysmal ranking on a decade of under-funding and initiated the Stepping Up plan. Since its inauguration, the plan has sought, among other things, to enhance the student experience at the university.

Corrine Aberdeen, a Victoria College student and a recipient of U of T’s Gordon Cressy award for student leadership, feels flat fees will profoundly worsen U of T students’ lives.

“If tuition is not based on courses it would make more sense to sacrifice everything for a shorter period of time, struggle, finish with a mediocre GPA, and no debt,” said Aberdeen. “Rather than finish with a fantastic GPA and participate in campus life, have a lifetime of debt and enter an uncertain work world with an Hon. BA that may get you a job at an American Apparel or Starbucks, if you’re lucky.”

Faculty members on the dissenting side of the flat fee camp argue students often take a reduced course load to improve their academic lot.

“I feel a tremendous amount of respect for the integrity and the intelligence of our students who are taking the lead on this issue,” said Judith Taylor, the undergraduate coordinator for the Institute for Women and Gender Studies. Taylor has filed a statement against the university in a lawsuit brought by students to block the imposition of flat fees. The case is due to be heard in court on July 10.

“What we need is more pie, not more students looking for a piece,” summed up Webnesh Haile. “It’s no wonder that the university sought to sneak this initiative through during spring exams, when students are least able to grasp the implications and fight against the proposed changes.”

Breakthroughs from the big chill

In May 2007, a one-month-old woolly mammoth (Mammathus primigenius) gave scientists an incredible glimpse into the past when her perfectly intact remains were discovered near the shores of Yuribei River on the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia. Frozen for 40,000 years in permafrost, the baby mammoth named Lyuba by researchers is the most well-preserved mammoth—right down to her eyelashes and tufts of her dark brown hair—ever found.

Lyuba is not the first woolly mammoth found in Siberia. In fact, she is only one out of the dozen mammoth remains uncovered since researchers’ first mammoth discovery in 1806. Dr. Dan Fisher, a paleontologist from University of Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology, was one of the scientists who studied Lyuba.

“When I saw her, my first thought was ‘Oh my goodness, she’s perfect.’ It looked like she’d just drifted off to sleep. Suddenly, what I’d been struggling to visualize for so long was lying right there for me to touch,” explains Fisher.

Scientists went to work right away using CT scans to generate the most comprehensive three-dimensional images of Lyuba’s entire 220-pound, three-foot-tall body, allowing a closer look at her internal organs.

Dr. Fisher remarked, “Though she is not large, no other specimen preserves this much of the original anatomy. That makes her a remarkable scientific resource.” The CT scans indicated that Lyuba had healthy amounts of fat tissue and no skeletal damage. Since her organs were frozen in pristine condition, scientists were able to photograph and collect tissue samples from her body.

Milk residue in Lyuba’s intestinal tissue provided scientists with the first ever sample of mammoth milk and suggested that she had fed on her mother’s milk and feces just before death. The latter proved very interesting to scientists, as it is common behavior among modern baby elephants to consume feces. Unable to digest their food at such a young age, baby elephants eat fecal matter to assemble colonies of bacteria that will aid them in digestion of plant material. Until now, this behavior was never documented among mammoths, but suggests that they share common behavioral traits with modern elephants.

Trapped inside Lyuba’s trunk, trachea, and mouth was mud, revealing a plausible cause of death: asphyxiation. It is likely that while crossing a muddy stream, Lyuba’s young, uncoordinated body may have become stuck in the thick medium, thus forcing her to flail in fear and choke on mud, either suffocating or drowning.

Scientists also obtained samples of her tusks and premolars. The composition of her teeth provides scientists with a record of her life story, telling them everything from the climate she lived in to her behavior, diet, and the season in which she died.

“This is the first time we have been able to do a detailed comparison of a mammoth’s tusk and tooth data with soft tissues from the rest of its body,” said Dr. Fisher.

Scientists concluded that Lyuba died in spring.

After a DNA analysis of her tissue, 70 per cent of the mammoth genome was successfully decoded and comprised 4.7 billion base pairs—the largest known mammal genome and the first to be reconstructed from an extinct animal. Because the woolly mammoth shares 99.4 per cent of its DNA with the Asian elephant, some scientists hypothesize that they may be able resurrect the woolly mammoth via in vitro fertilization or cloning. In vitro fertilization would entail isolating a sperm cell from a frozen mammoth, fertilizing an elephant egg with the mammoth sperm, and implanting the fertilized egg in a female elephant, culminating in the birth of a mammoth-elephant hybrid.

Over many generations, backcross hybrids of elephant-mammoths may be genetically engineered to create a purer mammoth species. The cloning process would involve removing the nucleus from the egg of an elephant and replacing it with the nucleus of a frozen mammoth cell. The cell would then be chemically or electrically stimulated to divide and then implanted in the uterus of an elephant. If the process was a success, the elephant would give birth to a mammoth.

“I laughed when Steven Spielburg said that cloning extinct animals was inevitable,” says Hendrik Poinar, director of the Ancient DNA Centre at McMaster University, on Spielburg’s film Jurassic Park. “But I’m not laughing anymore, at least about mammoths. This is going to happen. It’s just a matter of working out the details.”

Renowned AIDS researcher heads south for greener pastures

World-renowned AIDS researcher Pierre-Rafick Sekaly, a resident of Canada since 1986, is packing up his labs at the University of Montreal and McGill. He’s taking with him more than 20 researchers who will move to the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute in Florida, where Sekaly expects to double his research fund to $7 million.

Sekaly wants to proceed to clinical trials on humans, which is impossible with his current funding in Canada of $3.5 million. “I want to move my research into an area that can make a difference for humans,” he said. “So I need to move to a place with the necessary funding.”

The move is symptomatic of the climate in the research world: while Obama has invested some $10 billion into scientific research in his stimulus package, Harper has cut $148 million.

Though the recent federal budget was a catalyst, Sekaly says he has been debating the move for some time.

“It’s really a problem of overall vision,” he said. “In the U.S., there’s a lot more.”

In addition to the heightened research capacity, Sekaly said he is also motivated by more opportunities for his young staff south of the border.

Michael Hammond, a spokesperson for Industry Canada, pointed out that Canada had not cut its “base funding,” and that it has increased investment in research in previous years, “surpassing a historic level of $10 billion in 2007-08.” Sekaly maintains that the life of a researcher is very difficult in Canada.

“I’d like to see what Obama has done in the U.S.—he’s put science back where it should be, which is on top. Canadian science should be a top priority,” said Sekaly, adding that “if not, we are going to lose our best people.”

As of yet, this has not been the experience at U of T, according to Cheryl Misak, vice-president and provost. “We haven’t yet seen any mass exodus of our top people because of the last budget. It might be that none of our people had their grants cut, or it’s early days, but we haven’t seen this yet.”

Nevertheless, Misak is familiar with the drain to the States. “Our people are always being recruited away by fantastic places elsewhere,” she said. “In my office, we’re always dealing with what I call retention battles for our finest people. We’ll have Ivy League offices offering our people just unbelievable amounts of money.”

If there are no changes in Canadian funding, however, universities may start losing these battles. This past March, over 2000 Canadian researchers signed an open letter urging Harper to return the $148 million to basic research.

“We need to put the young generation on a track where they value research,” said Sekaly. “Right now, it’s such a tough job.”

Go ahead, spoil my appetite

The expressions “you make me sick” and “it left a bad taste in my mouth” may be more than just evocative turns of phrase. A recent study by University of Toronto researchers shows that our sense of moral disgust may have evolved from a basic instinct that helps us distinguish between good and unappetizing tastes and smells.

Hanah Chapman, a PhD candidate with the University of Toronto’s Affect and Cognition Lab, along with Adam Anderson, Joshua Susskind, and David Kim, have found that the facial muscles we use to make an “ugh, gross!” expression when we eat or smell something unpalatable are the same as those we use to express displeasure towards immoral behaviour.

“We were wondering if [moral disgust] is actually the same emotion you feel if you open up Tupperware that’s been in the fridge for too long or step on something nasty on the sidewalk─ or if it was just a powerful metaphor to condemn people’s behaviour,” explains Chapman.

To study whether there is any connection, Chapman and her team studied the facial expressions of people exposed to unappealing tastes, disgusting imagery, and moral transgression using a technique called electromyography, whereby small electrodes are placed on muscles to measure the electrical impulses that occur when they contract.

Chapman’s study measured contractions in the muscle region of the face called the levator labii, the area that raises the upper lip and scrunches up the nose, creating the distinctive “disgusted” expression.

Participants in the study experienced moral transgression when they played the “recipient” in “The Ultimatum Game.” In this game, two participants are given a sum of money and one player is asked to split it. The “decider” may choose to divide it evenly, or may keep a larger proportion of the cash and offer the recipient a smaller sum. The recipient is then free to either accept the offer or reject it and receive no money at all.

“What is interesting is that even though it is in the economic interest of the recipient to accept the offer, when people get offers that are too unequal they’ll reject them because [they are] motivated to punish the other player,” says Chapman.

Chapman and her team found that the levator labii region was consistently stimulated among the recipients when they felt they were being short-changed or treated “immorally.”

“These findings may change the way we think about the human moral impulse,” explains Chapman. “People think of human morality as the pinnacle of human development. What this work shows is that emotions play an important role as well. [Moral] thoughts and judgments are backed up by ancient emotional forces.”

Chapman’s results support Darwin’s contention that the expressions we use to convey emotions evolved from their role in regulating the sensory organs of the face. Reacting to unpleasant tastes and smells by wrinkling our noses and curling our lip may have originally developed to help prevent us from consuming harmful substances such as rotten or toxic food. “It wasn’t until more recently,” says Chapman, “that it was adapted for use in a social context.”

The next step will be to investigate whether this facial expression is learned behaviour or “hardwired” from birth. Chapman and her team plan to test subjects who have been legally blind since early childhood, and haven’t had the opportunity to learn to make the facial expression for disgust in response to social stimulus.

“If they do show it, [that] implies that [the facial expression] happens without learning and that it’s in your genes,” says Chapman. “If they don’t show it, then it’s something you learn from your parents as you grow up.”