UTSU directors talk election business

Questions around upcoming UTSU elections dominated last Thursday’s UTSU board of directors meeting. David Berliner, representing Victoria College, opened the discussion, asking executives to justify the “rushed” ratification of Lydia Treadwell as Chief Returning Officer.

The board was presented with Treadwell as the only choice for CRO at the board meeting two days after nominations had already opened, two weeks after election notices had appeared on the UTSU website and The Varsity. By then, it was too late for her to approve election notices or dates.

The notices advertise incorrect numbers of board members for Woodsworth College, New College, and the engineering faculty, which do not correspond with the size of the constituencies. UTSU will go ahead with the numbers as they are. This matter did not come up at the meeting.

“A number of the [Election and Referenda Committee] members have been extremely difficult with scheduling meetings,” said VP external Dave Scrivener. “As you can see in this room, a lot of people have gotten used to proxying and calling in their positions.” Scrivener said the ERC found it difficult to schedule meetings, but that he and committee members would come up with a system for future elections.

Scrivener said that the ERC picked Treadwell from several candidates because she is not a student, not involved with any club or college, and has never been elected to any position at U of T or any other university, and is therefore a neutral third party to the election. Three UTSU directors and three execs sit on the ERC, according to the bylaws.

Berliner later moved to create a working group to promote the election, in an effort towards inclusion and transparency. “The UTSU needs to make a better effort to reach out to students,” said Berliner.

His motion was met with varying degrees of dissent from other board members, specifically those on the UTSU executive. VP university affairs Adam Awad said the proposed group would be a “shadow ERC,” and echoed Scrivener’s earlier concerns that people just wouldn’t show up to its meetings. Awad, Scrivener, the chairperson (who was allowed to speak because of informal discussion), and others said that the functions of the proposed group would be better performed by the ERC herself with oversight from the board of executives.

Berliner withdrew the motion before a vote.

Collective energy, collective funds

Sunday, February 22nd marked the third annual Power of Movement, the world’s largest yoga fundraiser in support of the Arthritis & Autoimmunity Research Centre (AARC). Organized into “mega sessions” across the country, do-gooders and yoga aficionados came together nationwide to practice yoga, raise awareness, fundraise, and breathe. The Toronto mega session was held at the Wellesley Community Centre, providing two time slots to work out your karma.

Power of Movement appeals to the au courant who live and breathe spirituality, organics, and social consciousness. The environment at the Toronto mega session was bright and blissful on a beautiful Sunday morning. Toronto’s hottest yoga butts were in attendance, clad in a sea of Lululemon apparel. Whole Foods provided delectable organic treats and goody bags.

The woman behind the mega sessions is Erin Moraghan, who was dually impassioned to create this event as both a Moksha yoga instructor and the senior development officer at the AARC.

Moraghan is sensitive and passionate about her cause. She revealed that she was initially drawn to yoga for its restorative purposes, to de-stress and address the pain of arthritis that came about as a result of a joint injury.

An alarming 4.5 million Canadians are living with some form of arthritis, and many of the afflicted are young men and women. It’s a common misconception that arthritis and autoimmunity conditions are a plight of the elderly. In fact, the charitable event was created to honour the struggle of Dorna Chee, a young mother who used yoga to ease her pain. Exercise became the vehicle that brought her comfort and strength. Moraghan adds, “People feel empowered taking control of chronic pain. Johns Hopkins has done studies on the positive effects of yoga for people with rheumatoid arthritis. Doctors are starting to sit up and take notice.”

Teaming up with Moksha Yoga created perfect harmony for Moraghan and the AARC. Moksha’s website describes themselves as “a group of independent hot yoga studios committed to ethical, compassionate, and environmentally conscious living. We strive to collectively communicate that the benefits of yoga are limitless and accessible to all.”

Accessibility was an important theme at Power of Movement—not only was the event free, but those unable to attend a mega session for distance or health reasons were encouraged to practice at home via sponsor myyogaonline.com, or at yoga studios nationwide that joined in on the challenge. For those confined to their homes due to arthritic pain or any affliction, this was a way to connect. Moraghan comments, “It’s a gentle practice—it welcomes everyone to it.”

When asked about the overwhelming success of the Power of Movement, Moraghan credits her colleagues at Moksha. “Moksha supports forward thinking and was committed to trying to bring the message through a unique approach. Power of Movement went national and happened so fast because of the Moksha community. They really understand.”

Last year’s event boasted 250 participants, raising over $50,000 in Toronto alone. This year, the Power of Movement mega sessions went national, featuring locations in 10 major Canadian cities. POM 2009 received unprecedented media and sponsorship attention, with the fundraising meter on powerofmovement.ca sitting above $200,000.

All told, the event featured 1,000 people across Canada at mega sessions and yoga studios, practicing yoga and creating an outpouring of good will. POM volunteer and U of T alum Lillian Lourenco summed up the spirit of the event: “Imagine that every time you are exercising for your own health, you are saving the lives of others.”

POM attendee Ann Marie Deboran agreed. “It’s an excellent cause that draws the community and the country together in a way that benefits everyone involved. The participants benefit from the incredible workout and the positive environment, and the charity receives attention and generous donations. The word yoga means union, and that’s what I think Power of Movement is—a union between yourself and those in need.”

To check out the initiative or to donate online, visit powerofmovement.ca.

For Vic, new digs don’t come cheap

Students at Victoria College will see a dramatic increase in student fees once construction begins for the Goldring Student Centre, a $21-million project set to replace the Wymilwood building.

The new centre will triple the amount of student space, offer new facilities, and be more environmentally friendly. Unlike Wymilwood, it will be wheelchair accessible.

“For everybody who will be able to use the centre at some point, they’ll pay an increase of $100 [per year] until the centre is complete,” said James Janeiro, president of Victoria University Student Administrative Council. “Once the centre is complete, people start paying $200 [per year in additional fees] until the mortgage is paid off, which is approximately 15 years.”

Construction is expected to begin next winter, and admin hope to have the centre open by 2011.

Currently, Vic students pay $1,074 in ancillary student fees. With the proposed increase, Vic will pass St. Michael’s College, almost matching Trinity College as the most expensive college at U of T.

In 2006, VUSAC passed a motion that promised to help fund the project. Vic admin and alumni will each contribute $7 million dollars to the project, and students will pick up the remaining $7 million. VUSAC has negotiated the specifics of the budget with admin since September.

Unlike the Student Commons, a centre for all St. George students, Vic students will not be able to approve or reject the proposed increase in fees with a referendum. Instead, the decision to ratify the hike in student fees will be made solely by VUSAC when members of the council vote on decision on Feb. 5.

“We thought it would be a lot more efficient to get it done like this,” said Janeiro. “We feel that we are a very good organization at getting student feedback. Rather than having to waste time and money mounting a ‘Yes’ campaign and then getting a ‘No’ campaign started and then having to set up polling stations or [go] online or anything like that, we decided that the best way to do it would be to use ourselves as a representative body of students.”

VUSAC has sent out representatives to talk with students and the heads of clubs to gather opinions. It has also worked closely with the Strand, Victoria College’s student newspaper, to spread awareness.

“I’m as confident that VUSCAC speaks for everyone at Vic as much as any other government speaks for anyone,” said Jason Hunter, Vic’s dean of students. “I don’t think that we would go ahead and do it without the approval of VUSAC.”

“We have faced some opposition, of course,” said Janeiro, but said students have given mostly positive feedback. “There’s not been a huge protest,” Hunter said.

Janeiro said he hoped VUSAC would ratify the fee hike and avoid any delays. “We want to get the shovel in the ground as soon as possible so that students that are at Vic right now will be able to profit from the centre.”

Here comes the sun

Like today’s food industry, technology is going organic.

Research recently published by Dr. Greg Scholes and Elisabetta Collini of the Department of Chemistry, the Institute for Optical Sciences, and the Centre for Quantum Information and Quantum Control at the University of Toronto is at the forefront of the organic revolution.

“In general, the theme of our lab is to understand how light interacts with materials at the nanoscale level and how these interactions can help develop future technology,” explains Scholes. Specifically, this new research involves the study and manipulation of unique molecules known as conjugated polymers.

Conjugated polymers are large organic molecules composed of small repeating units. Since the 1950s, it has been known that these conjugated polymers can interact with light to let the molecule emit a unit of light known as a photon. This type of technology is currently used in new models of super thin televisions that contain organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs).

“In conjugated polymer systems once we apply a voltage, the plus and minus charges come together at some point in the plastic (polymer) and it is now in an excited state,” says Scholes. What happens after this excited state is the main focus of research involving these polymeric systems. “Once this excited state is achieved the energy can be transferred along the chain throughout the system or it can emit light as is the case for OLEDs,” he adds.

Instead of emitting light, the desired result with organic solar cells is energy transference along the polymer chains. These cells will eventually encounter an interface where the electrical energy is extracted. “Today’s solar cells contain a semiconductor, which releases energy carries after excitation,” says Scholes. “But with organic solar cells, energy transfer [and not carriers] is involved and we need to design it completely differently.”

Like all plastics, polymers contain impurities that can take the excited energy of the polymer, usually dissipating it as unwanted heat. “Since it is very difficult to remove these impurities, another approach is for the energy to travel between different types of materials,” says Scholes. However, a new problem arises out of this method: there is no control over the energy transfer—instead, it “hops” along randomly.

“To control this transfer, we used quantum effects,” explains Scholes. A team of scientists used a powerful short-pulsed laser to alter the conjugated polymers to a new state of coherence. This quantum coherence means it is simultaneously in two different states. In this case, the system is in its normal ground state as well as an excited state, due to the laser pulses.

“We put the system in a purely quantum mechanical state and asked the question: can it move?” says Scholes. “Normally it shouldn’t do anything at all, especially at room temperature where a complex system like this is easily destroyed.” However, the researchers found that “the system can be in this quantum superposition state and actually move—just like energy—even at room temperature.”

Scholes and Collini’s discovered that energy transfer between molecules isn’t random hopping, and that a quantum mechanical reasoning and logic are behind this energy movement. Their research shows that these complex coherent states can actually exist and move at room temperature, not just at sub-zero levels as previously thought.

This research will not only advance the area of solar cells, it could potentially develop the field of quantum computing. Specifically, data storage and processing would be much faster and more efficient than today’s conventional computers.

For now, polymer chemistry needs improvement in order to develop successful organic solar cells. One of the major drawbacks of organic solar cells is their efficiency, which is much lower than modern cells. Dr. Scholes is optimistic about the future. “The next step is to understand what makes one polymer a better semiconductor than another one and then design a plastic that has all these properties.”

Scholes believes that this new research will spark the possibility of better and cheaper future organic technologies. “This research resonates in many areas of quantum physics and we hope it will inspire research worldwide,” says Scholes.

Paradise regained

Paul Stevens’s office is nondescript—largely undecorated, with a plain view. The walls are bare, except for one, which is lined from floor to ceiling with books. This eclectic library is the first clue to the mixed bag of Stevens’s diversity and scope of knowledge.

Professor Stevens, as any of his students can say, is remarkably talented at enriching his lectures with topics that run the gamut from the hellfire sermons of puritan America to the made-for-TV movie he watched last night. Combined with his unpretentious wit and genuine interest in student dialogue, it is no wonder Stevens is one of 10 finalists chosen by TVO as the best lecturers in Canada.

Adam Lee, a student of Stevens, described him as “ultra casual. You would think by the way he includes the students in the class that he was just speaking off-the-cuff, but then he begins to spin an elaborate web of an idea.”

Fellow student Cindy Williams echoed this sentiment. “He was always able to give context to very complex concepts,” she said. “He made 17th century literature come alive, [with] often outrageous and irreverent humour.”

“Milton’s Satan is a presence in our culture,” Stevens told me. “You can actually see how it’s genealogically linked. How someone reading in the late 18th century, reading Milton’s Paradise Lost, then produces a character like the Indian called Magwar, a version of Milton’s Satan.”

“And then somebody else reads that, and produces another version. For example, Byron’s Corsaire, a pirate, who’s just like Milton’s Satan. But where it gets really fascinating is that that seeps into Hollywood. Byron’s Corsaire will become Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and you can run it right up to recent times, where it always seems to me that when I’m looking at the artist formerly known as Prince, it’s a kind of version of a Byronic hero, and that Byronic hero is itself a version of Satan.”

Stevens’s experiences reflect his diversity of knowledge. Rather than following the typical academic path, Stevens said he was “absolutely, totally, infatuated with the army,” and enlisted at 18.

He fought for three years as an ordinary soldier, and then went to university. After earning his Master’s degree, he returned to the army as an officer and performed a wide range of duties, from commanding a rifle platoon in Northern Ireland to guarding Rudolph Hess, a Nazi war criminal who was held in West Berlin. “What fascinated me about it was a sense of joining history, that you were part of that history,” said Stevens on guarding Hess, “which, at that age, was very exciting.”

After two years back in the army, he said he missed the openness of intellectual life and returned.

Stevens uses his wide-ranging knowledge and experience to make literature relevant and vital to his students. In studying Milton, he said he wants the students to discover “the roots of their own culture, or the culture in which they live.”

Chemicals That Changed The World: Botulinum toxin

Imagine a super-toxin thousands of times more potent than dioxin and millions of times more deadly than rattlesnake venom. The botulinum neurotoxin, produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, is one of the most poisonous substances known to science. A mere 0.1 grams of this toxin could kill more people than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. A few grams could wipe out the entire population of Canada.

Not surprisingly, botulinum toxin is widely feared as a biological weapon. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) classifies the substance as a Category A bioterrorism agent. Many organizations have developed recommendations to defend against possible attacks. Fortunately, the toxin is unstable and degrades over time, limiting its utility as a biological weapon.

Botulinum toxin is also a concern in the food industry. Foods contaminated with the bacterium can harbor lethal amounts of the toxin, yet smell and taste completely fresh. Canned foods are especially prone because the bacterium thrives in oxygen-free environments. Luckily for us, the toxin is easily destroyed at temperatures over 60°C—just another reason to cook your food.

Despite its extreme potency, botulinum toxin can sometimes be desirable, even beneficial. Every year, millions of people are injected with the toxin, not as victims of terrorism, but as patients of cosmetic and medicinal treatments. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved Botox—as it is commonly known—for a variety of cosmetic and therapeutic purposes. At minute doses, Botox can reduce facial wrinkles and treat a variety of disorders, including pain, involuntary muscle contractions, and excessive sweating.

Botulinum toxin kills in much the same way it heals—by paralyzing the muscles. At lethal doses, paralysis of the chest muscles responsible for breathing leads to respiratory failure and eventual death. However, at sub-lethal doses, the toxin affects only muscles at the site of injection, allowing it to treat rather than to kill. For example, paralysis of the facial muscles reduces wrinkles, while paralysis of the sweat glands reduces sweating.

Ontario report urges undergrads-only university

A new university focusing on undergraduate education should be created in the GTA, according to a report from Ontario’s advisory board on higher education. The report calls on the province to consider the creation of a Toronto-area free of the research intensity of a full-service institution.

The study comes on the heels of what education leaders say is an excess demand for spaces in undergraduate studies. With growing interest in post-secondary education fuelling an expected increase of 25,000 students to the GTA over the next 15 years, the document urges the province to consider opening a new university to quell the demand.

Since the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario released the 30-page report on Feb. 13, it has met with criticism from the president of Humber College, who views it as a “very university-centered view of the world.” Officials from Toronto’s three major universities, however, praised the idea of a new undergraduate university, saying they cannot handle the increased demand for higher education.

The new campus-based institution would focus mainly on arts and science with more emphasis on teaching then research. Those seeking the quality and reputation of a “full-service” university need not worry, said co-author Glen Jones, an OISE professor. “There are quite a number of very highly respected liberal arts colleges in the United States that provide an excellent undergraduate education,” Jones said.

An open online university without academic requirements for applicants is another option the province could take. Jones said an online university provides accessibility to those who work full time, have credit-transfer issues, or are returning to their education. The report cites Athabaska University in Alberta, which provides a virtual campus for students to attend online from any location. “The fact that almost a third of the students enrolled at Athabaska University are from Ontario says something about demand,” said Jones.

He acknowledged only a limited number of students seek online education: “I would not imagine that the open university would attract many traditional students who are interested in a traditional on-campus student experience.”

The possibility of online schooling has its supporters. “We go to school to learn, not to party,” said George Bolduc, a former online student of Ryerson University. He said that open online universities offer something to students who want post-secondary education without the traditional campus experience or costs. The report doesn’t mention fees, but for some universities that already follow the online model, the annual tuition costs are usually lower, because they forgo campus commodities like residence or extra-curricular activities.

The report suggests expanding existing universities by upping satellite campus enrolment. U of T’s president David Naylor, however, said he supported the suggestion for a new undergraduate university over expansion. “We welcome the proposal for a new undergraduate institution with laser-like focus on the liberal arts,” he told the Toronto Star. Naylor said that both of U of T’s satellite campuses are already stretched to the limit.

Urban moods and urban myths

While the Gladstone Hotel seems an unlikely setting for a symposium on mental health and neighbourhoods, the Queen West staple recently served just that purpose. With pitchers circulating amongst the sardine-packed crowd and a panel of distinguished experts at the head of the room, this Tuesday night dubbed “Science On Tap” was far from the average auditorium talk.

“We have a social epidemiologist, a human geographer, a psychiatrist—and I’m a philosopher,” said discussion moderator and U of T professor Mark Kingwell. “With the four of us together, we can solve any problem.”

Bold words, considering the issue at hand: an attempt to answer how the neighbourhoods we live in shape the way we feel and think.

In this year’s first instalment of the Centre for Research on Inner City Health’s (CRICH) Café Scientifique series, the discussion addressed the issue of why neighbourhoods matter for our mental well-being. Panellists Patricia O’Campo, a social epidemiologist, Jim Dunn, a human geographer, and psychiatrist Kwame McKenzie discussed the current research concerning the topic. Drawing from multiple disciplines, the dialogue encompassed issues of affordable housing, health equity, social justice, and the question of how to measure the links between mental health and neighbourhoods.

But what do we mean by the term neighbourhood? According to Dunn, neighbourhoods are, in the practical sense, defined by physical boundaries used in statistical population sampling. They also include a social dimension, the primary focus of current research. Social definitions of neighbourhood include elements of community, cohesiveness, and proximity to services.

“It’s a state of mind,” said McKenzie, whose research explores the effects of diversity on mental well being. “Things that cause you stress in your neighbourhood are bad for your mental health.”

According to O’Campo, who specializes in urban ecosystems and the societal causes of disease, additional factors between neighbourhoods and mental health include noise level, crime, traffic, green space, and neighbour interaction.

On top of these factors, Dunn emphasized that the way your neighbourhood aligns with your identity is crucial for your mental health. Positive mental health is associated with a certain level of stability in the sense of who you are.

This is important to consider when analysing the effects of immigration and cultural diversity on neighbourhoods. According to McKenzie, if you’re a member of a visible minority in a neighbourhood with little diversity, you’re at a higher risk of developing a mental illness.

With factors ranging from cultural diversity to traffic volume, it comes as no surprise that studying neighbourhoods and mental health has proven difficult. Research in the past decade has focused on the rediscovery of geographical space as a key factor in psychological well-being.

Looking back at some of the housing disasters that plagued mid-century modern architecture, researchers recognize the important connections between the space we live in and our degree of mental health. The concept of vertical slum pathologies has emphasized the link between the poor design of physical space and detrimental social and mental states. In fact, statistics show that residents on higher floors in apartment buildings are at a greater risk of mental illness. In contrast, greater contact with nature has proven to be beneficial. Studies in environmental psychology have shown that even nature videos of can produce positive physiological response.

These findings are at the forefront of efforts to introduce better planning, design, and green space into cities like Toronto. What’s more, studies regarding ethnic diversity and its impact on community cohesion are proving to be very significant to large cities with multicultural markets. According to Dunn, “the lessons we learn in Toronto are lessons we can export to other world capitals.” With any luck, these lessons will be coming soon to a neighbourhood near you.