Fear factor

Fear is a hard-wired human emotion that, when functioning efficiently, produces a lifesaving reaction to life’s mishaps. While fear is helpful in dealing with catastrophy, it often induces debilitating inaction, ranging from “exam blank” to psychiatric disorders such as generalized and social anxiety.

Anxiety disorders affect over two million Canadians each year, inhibiting their ability to function in the world. In the eyes of a person suffering from social anxiety, a routine trip to the grocery store can seem threatening due to an irrational fear of being ridiculed by others. Treatments, such as systematic desensitization behavioral therapy, exist for treating anxiety disorders such as this. In this form of therapy, patients work with a psychiatrist to become exposed little by little to their anxiety triggers. The hope is that eventually they will be able to manage their fear while completely exposed. However, fear-renewal can prevent patients from transferring their therapeutic improvements from the context of their therapist’s office. Fear-renewal occurs when a patient who initially learns to overcome their anxiety in one context suddenly encounters their past fear in a different context, reviving the old fear response once again.

Improving the understanding of fear-renewal is critical to strengthening therapies aimed at anxiety disorders. Fortunately, an article recently published in the journal Nature provides a new biological perspective.

Lead researcher Dr. Cyril Herry and his team from the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research in Switzerland set out to determine which, if any, neuronal circuits in the brain instigate fear-renewal. To investigate this question, the team employed an army of mice, each one fitted with electrodes in their basal amygdala. This almond-shaped portion of the brain was chosen because previous research suggested it was important in the mediation of both fear and fear-renewal.

The team conditioned fear into the mice via both loud noises and mild shocks, and then desensitized them to such treatments. The researchers were able to produce fear-renewal responses by placing the mice in new contexts and reintroducing the old fear-inducing noises and shocks. With help from the implanted electrodes and subsequent behavioral and brain analyses, the researchers pinpointed two groups of nuclei in the amygdala responsible for modulating fear-renewal responses. When these nuclei fire, their neuronal circuits connected to other parts of the brain instigate renewal of fear.

“Our data show that the [basal amygdala] contains distinct populations of neurons for which activity is oppositely correlated with high and low fear behaviour,” the researchers wrote. “Our findings are consistent with the idea that in mammals, as in invertebrates, switches between appropriate behavioural states can be driven by discrete neuronal circuits. It may be a general principle of the functional micro-architecture of the nervous system in diverse species, that circuits mediating switches between distinct behavioural states are located in close anatomical proximity thereby allowing for local interactions.”

With the mapping of the neuronal circuits responsible for fear-renewal complete, the researchers can determine how to best modulate them in order to prevent context-dependent fears from reoccurring. In the future, a drug may be able to tip the balance of activity between the neuronal circuits in order to help prevent fear-renewal and treat anxiety disorders.

Monosodium Glutamate

Monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG, is used as a taste enhancer. It was isolated in 1907, used primarily by Japanese corporations. Pure MSG has an appearance of white crystalline powder and dissociates into positively charged sodium ions and negatively charged glutamate ions in water. MSG is the sodium salt of glutamate and has a similar flavouring function as glutamic acid, a naturally occurring amino acid. MSG is low in sodium and contains a third of the sodium found in regular table salt. In fact, incorporating MSG into cooking can reduce the amount of table salt added by 20 to 40 per cent.

MSG is said to have a “fifth taste,” independent of bitter, sweet, salty, and sour. It is called “umami” in Japan and is described by North Americans as savoury. It is sold under several names, such as Ajinomoto, Vetsin, and Accent. Commercial MSG is generated by the fermentation of sugar cane, starch, sugar beets, or molasses, much like the processes used to produce beer or vinegar. MSG is found in canned products, frozen dinners, fast food, instant noodles, and many condiments.

The body treats MSG similarily to natural glutamate. The average American consumes about 11 grams of glutamate per day from natural protein sources and less than one gram of glutamate per day from MSG. In contrast, the body creates about 50 grams of glutamate daily as a vital component of its metabolism.

The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology has stated that MSG is not an allergen. In addition, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have classified MSG as “generally recognized as safe.” A review of glutamate safety sponsored by the FDA in 1995 reaffirmed the safety of MSG when consumed at levels used in cooking and food manufacturing. There is no evidence to suggest that MSG contributes to long-term health problems. Nevertheless, the FDA did acknowledge that some people may have short-term reactions to MSG, known as MSG symptom complex. Symptoms may include headache, flushing, sweating, and heart palpitations.


The word “science” originates from the Latin word scientia, meaning “knowledge.” And yet, there is much more to understand than just the practice. So what is it that makes science more than just facts and data?

In order to answer this question, we must define science itself. By dissecting the key elements of its process through examination of historical evidence, as well as current news and research, we can gain a better understanding of the present and potential pathways science has to made available.

Many underestimate the importance of the scientific process. We have built a society based on science and technology to the point where our survival depends on how well we can apply science to solve our problems. We have disturbed our planet and the environment, and are making destructive impacts like no other species. Despite this, we still have the option to understand and appreciate science. In this critical moment, we must choose knowledge first.

Fortunately, our species is a curious one. We have always wanted to know more about the world we live in, and how everything around us works. It was our ancestors who determined that the Earth orbits around the sun, not the other way around. They accomplished this counter-intuitive conclusion based solely on evidence from experiments and data recorded over many years. This discovery proves that keeping an open mind when faced with new ideas is one of the most valuable exercises one can achieve.

Science is arguably the most powerful tool in the hands of humanity, ultimately guiding us toward a more complete comprehension of the human race, our universe, and our place within it. This column, inspired by the work of astronomer Carl Sagan, is an endeavor to reveal the extraordinary power of the self-correcting process of science that remains hidden to many of us, science and non-science students alike.

U of T athlete walks for Africa

During the month of July, Mila Miguel, a three-time first-team OUA volleyball all-star for the Varsity Blues, walked from St. Jean Pied de Port, a small town of less than 1,500 people in the south of France, across the entire northern coast of Spain, ending her journey in Cape Finisterre. The distance covered 870 kilometres and took Miguel 34 days to complete.

For the first 780 km, her trip followed a historic pilgrim route, the El Camino de Santiago (the way of St. James). She then continued for another 90 km to the aforementioned Cape Finisterre, which in ancient times was considered to be the end of the flat world.

Miguel’s pilgrimage aimed to raise money and awareness for Athletes For Africa, a campaign committed to the promotion and protection of human rights. The organization works to provide education and opportunities to empower youth in Africa. Two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash and WNBA all-star Tammy Sutton-Brown are among those already on board besides Miguel.

Only a few days after returning from her trip, which included stops in London, England and her home town of Victoria, B.C., I had a chance to speak with her about her experience.

THE VARSITY: You left for London, England only a few days after finishing up your first year nursing exams. Why did you start in your trip there?

MILA MIGUEL: London was a place between the old, comfortable surroundings of home and the new, exciting adventures of my upcoming pilgrimage. It was a great buffer zone. I had a good friend and old teammate at my side and we saw everything there is to see in London.

TV: Why did you want to be an Athlete for Africa?

MM: Volleyball was a huge part of everything in university for me. But after five years I had a volleyball void to fill. The values instilled in me from sports are the same ones Athletes For Africa look for, which makes it a wonderful fit.

TV: How bad were the blisters on your trip?

MM: Everyone had blisters. The climb up the first day was 1200 meters, followed by an 800 m drop the second day. Your feet swell up in your shoes and by the end of the first week I had blisters on four toes and my heels burned with the heat. The people were so helpful. Everyone kind of had their own home remedies to help cure the blisters. One of them was to have a thread running in and out of the blister so that it would absorb everything and you wouldn’t have to remove the skin.

TV: What about snoring? Some of hostels you stayed in must have had quite a few snorers.

MM: The hostels had anywhere from five or six beds to a couple hundred. I didn’t have earplugs at first, but quickly got them. The snoring was like a symphony: there would be like three people snoring, four people laughing. One German man named Paul told me about his desperate attempt to make earplugs in the dark with toilet paper and Vaseline. [The snoring] ended up being really funny.

TV: You mentioned how hard the walk was on your feet several times in your blog (http://asmallwalkforabigcause.blogspot.com/). Did you ever consider biking the route at all?

MM: Well, the bikers could do the route in eight to 12 days. But I realized how happy I was to do the Camino by foot instead of bike. These two Americans [who biked] had been on the road for eight days, traveled the same distance, and had not met nearly the same number of people nor did they have as many stories to share.

TV: What were your favourite moments?

MM: The people made it worthwhile; the camaraderie and support from strangers. There were so many stories of people wanting to give up, but it wasn’t like you were seen as a big failure. We would support people as far as they could make it and if they felt they couldn’t go any further there would be no pressure on them to continue on.

Everyone had their own reasons for the pilgrimage: [to give] thanks for life, or they once were ill, badly injured, or for soul-searching, religious reasons, etc. We always were of the attitude of whatever you decide to do on the journey, don’t stress over it. You’ve come as far as you can. You should be proud of the journey you’ve completed.

[One woman who contemplated quitting] went with me and some other friends I had made for a bit, but we lost her and thought she was done. One day I was making CDs so I could exchange photos with someone else and she walked through the doors! I wanted her to make it so badly. That showed me how useful friendship is to people. Sometimes you need a reminder of how important friendship is.

TV: So how do plan on filling the volleyball void now?

MM: After I complete my Nursing degree I’d love to go to Africa and help out. I also want to complete my Master’s in International Global Health.

That’s the ticket

Say what you will about “tradition” and “academic excellence”—one of the greatest reasons to attend the University of Toronto is the location. Toronto is the only city in Canada (and one of only fourteen in North America) to feature a team from all of the big four sports: baseball, hockey, basketball, and football. Perhaps that last statement was exaggerated; Toronto technically has three teams from the four major professional sports: the Blue Jays, Raptors, and Bills, plus the Maple Leafs. The St. George campus is located close to all of the major stadiums. University of Toronto sports fans, especially those that hail from a city outside of Toronto, have the opportunity to see a game live and up close. The problem is that major league teams do not offer discounts to students on a minor league budget. But just because tickets are not priced appropriately does not mean that students should give up trying to see a game this year. Here are some tips for students trying to obtain cheap tickets. U of T students should be able to take themselves out to a ballgame without being taken for all of their money.

Toronto Blue Jays

It looks like the Blue Jays are going to miss the playoffs for the fifteenth consecutive season. Yet this does not mean that tickets are discounted at the end of the season. In fact, September visits by the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are classified as super premium games, (as opposed to regular premium games), and each ticket costs more than a game against any other opponent. This is understandable, as Red Sox and Yankees fans usually make the trek to the Rogers Centre and fill the seats. But if you’re looking for value in September, you should try the series against the Orioles on September 16th to 18th. These tickets are classified as regular games and are significantly cheaper and easier to obtain than their premium counterparts. Also, students should not underestimate the appeal of seeing two teams that are out of the playoffs. In these cases, the Jays offer more specials, and batting practice is sparsely attended. Plus, the possibility of scoring a ball or an autograph is greater, and there is plenty of room to stretch out and enjoy the game. Games against lower ranked teams are always great opportunities to bring a large group of friends and be able to sit together.

If you still want to see the Red Sox and Yankees on the cheap, there are a number of possible strategies. Even during sold-out games, you can get tickets simply by showing up to the stadium. Ticket holders who cannot attend the game will stand outside the Rogers Centre offering their unused tickets to fans in need. Another strategy is to search craigslist. Corporate sponsors, who get free or cheap tickets, use the site to sell their seats way below face value. Plus, someone may have bought tickets to the game and then realized that they cannot make it. Happy hunting, but watch out for the scams.

When the Jays return next April, they’ll offer a promotion called “Toonie Tuesdays” where tickets cost a mere $2. This promotion could be discontinued because of rowdy fans and drunkenness, so if you managed to score cheap tickets, celebrate by quietly rejoicing.

Toronto Raptors

For a team that has not found much post-season success, Raptors seats are surprisingly difficult to come by. Single game tickets can easily run into the three digits for unspectacular views. For this reason, try to take advantage of team-run promotions. Most seats in the Air Canada Centre offer decent views of the action. The worst place to see a game is in the box seats, which are located somewhere in the sky. For Raptors fans on a budget, I offer three possibly unknown bits of wisdom:

  1. For whatever reason, the Raptors tend to attract a lot of fans on the outskirts of Toronto, in places like Maple and Woodbridge. Perhaps you can find someone with an extra ticket from these places and you can offer them access to a bed or parking space downtown.

  2. Basketball, as opposed to other sports, has every team play against every other team each year. As such, the Raptors play relatively few games against the Celtics and Knicks. Teams from the West often have less of a local fan base than teams from the East. Forget the highly overrated Lakers and Suns, and focus on acquiring seats to see the Portland Trailblazers, the L.A. Clippers, or the brand new Oklahoma City Thunder. One of those teams could surprise, and you’ll have paid a lot less than it cost to see the 76ers or Nets.

  3. The Raptors are the only team in the NBA to play (almost) every Sunday, and mainly at 1 p.m. This can work to a cheap fan’s advantage. I imagine that some ticket holders like to stay up late on Saturdays and the early bird catches the worm.

Check out next Thursday’s paper to find out how to score tickets to Toronto hockey, football, and soccer games.

Editorial: Welcome back new and returning students

We were smoking cigarettes outside The Varsity tent at Clubs Day, observing fresh-faced frosh flock to the annual parade, their faces glowing with school spirit (amplified by Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is A Highway”) when it hit me: at 21, I’ve become the old guy. Entering my victory lap during what my parents pray is my last leg at the University of Toronto, I no longer feel that warm and fuzzy back-to-school feeling that makes one dream of cable neck sweaters and unlined Hilroy notebooks. While the idea of a Whole New Year of pseudo post-modernist lectures, student council hypocrisy and crushworthy Diablos baristas should fill me with glee, I mostly feel nonplussed. For all those students edging their way onto senior year and beyond, I have one question: if it’s a victory lap, what exactly are we celebrating?

The university experience contains multitudes, and carries no guarantees. As much as I would love to, I can’t promise you, dear reader, that the co-ed of your dreams will ask to borrow your pen in Art History class, or that your kooky roommate won’t have sex on your bed without asking permission first. There’s no assurance that you will graduate from this fabled institution with a 4.0 GPA and several offers to American graduate schools, or even that your ANT 100 professor will know your name by the end of first semester. Truth be told, you probably won’t graduate without a debt of several thousand dollars, and even if you occupy the President’s office you might end up in jail. This university has many deeply rooted systemic problems on top of a boatload of bureaucracy, and even for those who stay behind, it’s hard to feel that the real world is any kinder.

But don’t jump off the top of Robarts just yet, for I have a novel solution—write for The Varsity. Sure, multitudes of inferior publications across campus are offering you the same dazzling opportunity, but what they don’t know is that we matter. In attendance at a Governing Council meeting (mostly for the oatmeal cookies), I ran into President Naylor, who assured me that he makes his way through the paper every Monday and Thursday. “While I found it really hard to get through before, now I make a point to read it,” he boasted. While I’m fairly certain our content is on par with a Grade 9 reading level, I did appreciate the vote of confidence.

Think your $5,000 tuition fee is bullshit? Write an editorial. Hate the fact that your residence makes you attend Hawaiian-themed suite events just to get back in? We want to know. Ever feel prejudice because of your skin colour, sexual orientation, class background, or the way you look? We’re here for you. At The Varsity, we’re bored as hell and we just can’t take it anymore. Complacency might be rampant at U of T, but it sure as hell isn’t here. With the same student politicians running the show for years now, this publication might provide the only opportunity for an honest dialogue on how things really work around here. And if something in this paper makes you feel impassioned, for better or for worse, write me a letter at editor@thevarsity.ca

You’re paying $1.25 of your tuition fees to fund this historic, and, let’s face it, ego-inflated publication, so it might as well be yours. State your views in The Varsity and state them often. And quit smoking while you’re at it.

Yours truly,

Chandler Levack

Editor In Chief

The Varsity Newspaper


UTSU exec calls it quits

Binish Ahmed has packed up her desk and handed over her keys. Elected as vice president of university affairs at the University of Toronto Students’ Union this spring, Ahmed is resigning as of Sept. 8, the fi rst day of school.

Ahmed cited personal and academic reasons. “It was a really hard decision to make, but in the end I had to look after myself,” she said.

UTSU will not be holding elections to replace Ahmed. VP External Dave Scrivener cited UTSU by-laws, which require elections to be held to fi ll vacancies occurring in May, June, July or August but not after September 1.

Ahmed gave notice of her resignation on August 22. The succeeding VP of university affairs will be hired internally, in a procedure similar to the hiring of the VP of campus life, said Scrivener.

UTSU bylaws do not lay out a specific procedure for dealing with vacancies occuring after September 1 and before fall general elections have begun. At press time, UTSU VP internal Adnan Najmi could not immediately clarify what bylaws would be followed

The position entails working with admin and college councils. This year, the University Affairs Commission will be working extensively on the Code of Student Conduct, which has been under UTSU scrutiny since several students were charged for a protest in March. Another project is David Naylor’s planning document Towards 2030, which the university will vote on adopting as a guiding principle during the first round of Governing Council meetings this fall.

UTSU will decide on hiring specifics at their next exec meeting, scheduled for this Tuesday. According to Scrivener, the procedure will be according to precedents set by the last such resignation in 2006, where Emily Shelton was hired to replace Paul Bretscher.

As her biggest accomplishment over the summer, Ahmed named the Student Rights Handbook, which she said UTSU has been trying to complete for the past two years. Scrivener said the handbook is now almost complete, with UTSU officials working to make it more readable.

She also recalls her work organizing Frosh Week, especially the parade. “I have been working on Frosh for the last three years, so it’s something I love doing.”—

Average Joe

With his easy smile, golden tan and silver hair, Joe Biden boasts the congenial appeal of a classic game show host. Instead, the 65-year-old veteran senator from Delaware will try to make history by helping Barack Obama become America’s first black President.

In a campaign where the Democrats are making the need for change a major theme—employing slogans like “McBush” and “More of the Same” to attack Republican candidate John McCain—Obama’s choice for running mate is telling. First, by stressing Biden’s foreign policy experience—he played a key role in passing legislation endorsing the air raid in Kosovo in 1999—Obama aims to neutralize his own lack of experience in the same field. Second, by emphasizing Biden’s working-class roots, Obama is implicitly acknowledging the Republicans’ and right-wing media’s criticism of him as an elitist celebrity, and seeks to counter that perception by painting Biden as an “Average Joe.” When introducing his running mate for the first time, Obama gushed that Biden “is still that scrappy kid from Scranton [Pennsylvania] who beat the odds.”

Lastly, Obama’s choice of a white male Washington insider panders to independents and conservative democrats who find Obama unappealing. This is where the choice of Biden could backfire. It is unlikely that anyone who is uneasy about a Black president would vote for Obama anyway. And while Obama’s fresh, Oprah-approved face is integral to the Democratic Party’s theme of change, doesn’t Biden, who has been a member of Congress since 1972, represent more of the same? The sobering reality is that Obama’s choice of a white male Washington power player as vice president was a no-brainer. Selecting a black running mate would have been political suicide. Selecting a woman would have been too. Ironically, McCain, in what many view as a desperate attempt to pull even odds with Obama in the polls and win over Hillary Clinton supporters, has selected little-known Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin’s lack of foreign policy experience and rapidly increasing celebrity status—her designer specs are all the rage amongst political geeks—should take some of the pressure off of Obama.

Now that Obama has won the Democratic nomination, it’s crucial that he moves towards the centre of American politics, attracting those much-coveted mainstream voters. This means abandoning the idealistic rhetoric that attracted so many during the early days of Obama mania; that image of the charming senator from Illinois single-handedly transforming Washington politics. By appealing to urban intellectuals and blue-collar workers, the Obama-Biden ticket is designed for mass appeal. Biden is a hard-nosed veteran who knows his way around the halls of Congress and the corridors of power. Only time will tell whether that proves to be an asset or a liability to those clamouring for genuine change.