Undergraduate research opportunities take learning beyond classroom

Research opportunities abound for U of T’s undergraduates

Undergraduate research opportunities take learning beyond classroom

As a science student, it can be easy to forget where all of the theories and equations encountered in class come from. The long days of trial-and-error, of running experiments, and of chance discoveries can be hidden by the passage of lecture slides. Going behind the curtain and participating in the actual research process can be extremely rewarding for an undergraduate student; thankfully, a research-intensive university provides many opportunities to do so.



Participating in an undergraduate research project is an early opportunity to be exposed to the inner workings of your chosen field. An “early opportunity where an undergrad can be exposed to research in the lab, outside the classroom, would be a good experience to understand more what [the field] is,” said Armando Marquez, undergraduate counsellor of the Department of Chemistry, “and possibly develop that interest so that … students would continue and do research, go to graduate studies, do a lot more research down the line.”

It can be hard to know if a research career is right for you unless you try it, and the wide range of opportunities at the University of Toronto make undergraduate years the perfect time to give it a whirl.

The experience can certainly boost a resume. “When students get involved with this, it gives them a better opportunity as an experience, that when they go out, when they finish their education here, it makes them a very competitive person when they do apply to graduate studies or work,” said Marquez.

Research InfoYet even if you decide to apply to work in industry, professional school, or change fields entirely, a summer or semester spent doing research provides benefits that will stay with you for years to come.

Some of these wide-ranging benefits are detailed in a document by the Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology (LMP) department, and include gaining important lab skills, learning how to design an experiment, critically analyzing data, and communicating results. Students gain a deeper understanding of course material and will also have a wide-range of work opportunities after graduation. These important skills can also be taken back to the classroom.

Not only can research enhance scientific knowledge, it can also contribute to one’s personal development. “One of the opportunities for the students who get involved in research is that they are able to network with the grad students [and] with the faculty, and are given the opportunity to do presentations,” said Marquez, adding that, “students who go through this develop a more critical way of thinking instead of just what is fed to you in the classroom.”

Ishita Aggarwal, campus ambassador for the pan-discipline Undergraduate Awards program, pointed out that doing research can affect your world view. “When you participate in research, even at the undergraduate level, you really are able to better interpret claims that are made, not only in the academic setting, but also in popular media and everyday life,” she said. “I think it’s really important not only to be a producer of research, but also to be a better consumer of research.”

U of T offers a wide variety of opportunities for undergraduates to do research, including the second-year Research Opportunity Program (ROP) courses and summer research positions aimed at second- and third-year students. Each department awards positions differently:some require an application to the department as a first step, whiles others require the interested student to email potential supervisors before applying.

In the Department of Chemistry, students submit a résumé, cover letter, and application to the department before the supervisor selection process. “The competition is so fierce that we could probably have between 150 to 200 applications for an average of 25 positions,” said Marquez, who then insisted that he encourages all students to apply, as even the application process is beneficial to them. By applying, he says, students learn how to present themselves professionally on paper, an important post-graduation skill.

If one application is not successful, students should remain positive and keep looking, even if that means investigating opportunities outside of U of T ­— Toronto’s hospital system is a great place to start, for example.

According to Aggarwal, persistence is key: “One of the things that really prevents undergrads from getting involved in research is that they don’t know how and they’re just too scared … the key is not to get discouraged … if you keep attempting to contact the people whose research you’re genuinely interested in, eventually you’ll hear an affirmative answer. But you need to keep trying.”

Lack of interest in science is hurting the economy

Reduced enrolment in STEM subjects restricts career choices for Canadian youth, women remain underrepresented

Lack of interest in science is hurting the economy

How much does it cost the country when high school students drop out of math and science courses? Too much, says a recent “Spotlight on Science Learning” report by Let’s Talk Science, a national charitable organization committed to fostering engagement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in children and youth.



In Ontario, as in most provinces, math and science courses are optional after Grade 10. As a result, fewer than half of Canadian high school grads actually complete senior-level STEM courses, despite the fact that 70 per cent of top jobs and well over 50 per cent of university and college programs require at least some stem background.

The result? Huge costs, both for students — who may have to go back to school to make up prerequisites or miss out on potential job options and future earnings ­— and for Canada’s economy, since a decreased interest in these fields leads to a smaller talent pool and the loss of potentially key workers and innovators. Ontario alone “loses $24 billion in economic activity annually because employers can’t find people with the skills they need to innovate and grow,” according to the Let’s Talk Science report.

Part of the problem, according to the report, is that students are often unaware of how many doors they close when they drop out of math and science. If students are not fully aware of the benefits of pursuing STEM courses throughout high school, taking them can seem like a waste of time and effort. Yet many university and college programs, even those in fields like culinary arts, technical theatre, or fitness ­— at first glance fields unrelated to STEM ­fields — require Grade 12 math and science courses as prerequisites to admission.

Science GraphsIn a 2012 report, the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) also emphasized the importance of early math and science education in the development of Canada’s future researchers: “Young Canadians lack sufficient knowledge about educational requirements for future careers, as well as a clear understanding of what PCEM [physical sciences, computer science, engineering, mathematics] careers entail… Evidence indicates that there is a disconnection between the educational choices some students make at the secondary level and their post-secondary or career goals.”

Dr. Bonnie Schmidt, president of Let’s Talk Science, stresses in the report the importance of science literacy in any of a student’s potential careers, and emphasizes that if educators are to engage children and youth in STEM fields, that engagement needs to start early: “We need to inform our youth of the importance of STEM courses for their future careers, engage them in experiential science learning from an early age, and sustain their interest in science throughout their studies.”

Another contributing difficulty highlighted in the Let’s Talk Science report is the need to engage all segments of Canadian society, including groups that have been traditionally under-represented, such as women and Aboriginals. According to Statistics Canada, women currently account for 53.7 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 25 and 64 with a university degree. However, women represent less than one third (32.6 per cent) of Canadians with a university degree in STEM subjects.

The CCA also noted that women’s representation, not only at the undergraduate and graduate level, but also in research careers and academic positions, varies significantly by discipline. Although women are comparatively well-represented in the humanities, social sciences, and life sciences, they account for only 24 per cent of students enrolled in university programs in computer science, engineering, or mathematics or the physical sciences, and only 14.8 per cent of faculty members in these disciplines.

There is a clear need for more outreach and education, and U of T has recognized this need for some time. A number of programs on campus actively work to combat this lack of interest by getting elementary and high school students involved in exciting, hands-on projects. For instance, U of T works with Let’s Talk Science to mobilize undergraduate, graduate, and faculty volunteers, who run science activities for children and youth at both the St. George and Scarborough campuses.

The Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering has a range of programs in place, like the the Da Vinci Engineering Enrichment Program (DEEP). The DEEP Saturday workshops are classes “designed to introduce students in grades nine to 12 to graduate-level research in science and engineering.” Engineering Outreach also runs Jr. DEEP, aimed at students in grades five to eight, as well as March Break and summer programs. Sample activities include making slime, building model cars, rockets, and roller coasters, or creating musical instruments.

U of T is also leading efforts to address the gender gap. The Jr. DEEP program offers sessions for girls in grades three to eight. On October 19, U of T participated in Go ENG Girl, a province-wide program that invites girls to visit a local university and learn about opportunities for them in engineering from current female engineering students and graduates. Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) at U of T is a co-ed student organization that sends volunteers to high schools across the GTA to encourage and inspire students to pursue science and engineering at the postsecondary level.

A great deal of work is being done to address the lack of interest and lack of knowledge about stem subjects that both the CCA and Let’s Talk Science have identified. Nevertheless, it’s important to keep in mind that Canada’s potential for innovative excellence in these fields depends on students’ talent ­—and if they aren’t interested, everyone loses.

Toronto gamers play to give SickKids Hospital an “Extra-Life”

Twenty-five-hour eSports marathon raises funds on behalf of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals

Toronto gamers play to give SickKids Hospital an “Extra-Life”

A team of Toronto gamers hosted a 25-hour gaming marathon in support of SickKids Hospital this weekend. The Digital Kids Extra-Life Event began at 9:00 pm on Saturday and ended 25 hours later on Sunday evening. Extra-Life is a larger North-American charitable organization made up of eSports enthusiasts in support of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. The annual Extra-Life game day event is in its fifth year. Last year, the event raised nearly $2 million worldwide.

kdsDigital Kids organizer Gabriel Swanson ­— or GZSwanson, as he is known in the gaming community — is a SickKids alumnus. He spent a large part of his childhood at SickKids in treatment for haemophelia. In a reddit post made in the r/Toronto subreddit, Swanson describes the spirit of the event: “The hearts and minds of the gaming community have come together to raise funds for local children’s charities. The entirety of the gaming community, comprising of tens of thousands of gamers, bring together their various talents and skills spanning from consoles to tabletop games and everything in between to save lives and make a difference in their communities. Extra-Life gives gamers and spectators alike [a chance] to show that they have heart.”

The main event was a StarCraft 2 showmatch between Hendralisk and MaSa, two top professional eSports players in Toronto. Swanson provided commentary. There were also Xbox stations and pcs set up for tournaments and casual gaming. Microsoft provided door prizes, and refreshments were available to encourage mingling among the local gaming community.

In an interview with The Varsity, Ric H. Prager, a producer of the event, spoke to the passion shared by the gaming community as a true strength of the event. “The motivation behind Digital Kids is a reflection of the intense passion behind SickKids and the equally intense passion in the gaming community, specifically our experience with competitive gaming or eSports,” he says. “SickKids has saved the lives of many Toronto children, including members of the active gaming community we have here. It’s a way for us to give back, and a way to showcase the passion behind the competitive gaming community, and how it can be leveraged for a great cause.”


In the future, gaming may have a more direct connection with helping children in the process of healing, says Prager. “Ken Silva, our director, is an eSports veteran, working gaming events across North America and South Korea for the past few years. He’s been in talks with SickKids for a few months now, and really sees a space for video games within the hospital. Competition is a natural part of childhood, and these games can give a great positive outlet to some of the kids that need it the most.”

For more information on Extra-Life visit www.extra-life.org. You can donate to Extra-Life through their donation portal. Follow Team Digital Kids on twitter at @DigitalKids2. 

Research reveals the real reasons you’re having sex

U of T study investigates avoidance and approach in sexual motivation

Research reveals the real reasons you’re having sex

A recent University of Toronto study explores the real reasons couples have sex. U of T post-doctoral fellow Amy Muise led the study, in which motivations for sexual activity were broken down into two broad categories. The study, “Getting it on vs. getting it over with: Approach-avoidance sexual motivation, desire and satisfaction in intimate bonds,” was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.



Unlike most animals, humans use sexuality to shape levels of happiness in a romantic relationship. Sex is an act that goes beyond reproduction, and a healthy sex life is often considered a key part of a healthy relationship.  According to the study, romantic couples engage in sexual activity more often than those who have sex with one-off partners.

There are many reasons why couples engage in sex. A 2007 University of Texas study identified 237 distinct motivation for sex, which ranged from the simple ­— stress reduction, physical satisfaction — to the complicated — revenge-cheating. The University of Toronto study was able to significantly simplify the number of motivations; only two were described, “avoidance” and “approach.”

An avoidance motive is a motive that seeks to avoid a negative outcome for the couple’s status, such as feelings of guilt in one part of the partnership or a certain conflict that may transpire if sex does not happen. Conversely, an approach motive seeks a positive outcome for the relationship. This approach often results in feelings of intimacy or a desire to be closer with the special person.

What this study found was that on days in which the couples were having sex for approach reasons, the sex was better, the relationship was stronger, and the level of satisfaction was much higher. On days in which couples had sex for avoidance reasons, the opposite was true ­— the relationship was less healthy, the sex was not as good, and overall satisfaction was much lower. Avoidance motivations were believed to be more common in older relationships than in newer relationships, in which couples are beginning to explore their sexual tendencies.

Of course, this does not imply that couples do not enjoy the sex in an avoidance situation, but only that it is more of an “in-the-moment” satisfaction with negative psychological outcomes coming later. It is apparent that approach motivation leads to healthier and stronger relationships.

In order for couples to engage in approach-motivated sex, as opposed to avoidance-motivated sex, the study found that there needs to be more meaningful communication between couples. This communication needs to be much more in-depth than small talk — it must explore new and challenging emotional connections. It becomes apparent, as couples begin to build a relationship outside of the bedroom, that the sex becomes better as well — a win-win scenario.

3D printers and the future of medicine

The exciting new technology opens up amazing possibilities for international access to health care

3D printers and the future of medicine

A revolution brought about by the advent of 3-D printing technology is beginning to emerge on the horizon. A brief excursion into the current state of affairs shows the countless ways in which 3D printers may have a revolutionary impact on our society.  Through a clinical, industrial, or military lense, the 3-D printer has the potential to become a primary technology of the future. Two of the most transformative effects of this phenomenon, at least in my opinion, will be in the fields of medicine and industrial mass-production; in the former, a radical paradigm shift in the field of organ transplantation, and in the latter, a democratization of production.



Today, owing to the marvels of marrying tissue engineering and 3-D printing technology, we are able to construct skulls, kidneys, and even skin. Bone printing is in the works as well. The mere possibility of a world in which an ill person in need of a new organ wouldn’t have to worry about the availability of a suitable donor or the probability of a transplant rejection is fascinating. For instance, perfecting a 3-D-printed human kidney could drastically reduce the mortality rates associated with kidney failure. In addition, we can envisage a future in which cardiovascular disease is no longer a leading cause of death — provided, of course, that the field invests time and resources in engineering and perfecting a 3-D-printed human heart.

Kevin Shakesheff, a professor of advanced drug delivery and tissue engineering at the University of Nottingham, reports: “I’m optimistic that people 100 years in the future will look back and see that now was when all those human structures started being created. If we work hard, and we’re lucky we could be transforming transplants so you never have to wait for a donation again.”

Interestingly, one of the major challenges this field faces is not technological, but  biological. Human organs exhibit a very distinct, biological complexity. Think of your liver, the powerhouse of a plethora of metabolic functions — can we mimic such biological complexity, with its state-of-the-art regulatory mechanisms? Put another way, can we reconstruct the ever-changing, dynamic character of such an organ? Let’s imagine that
we can. What’s next?

According to Carlo Quinonez, a research scientist at Autodesk, another major challenge deals with the very insertion of the 3-D-printed organ. As the reconstructed organ will also be biologically alive and constantly changing (exactly like the blueprint organ from which it was derived), doctors might have only one chance to transplant it into the patient.

Working with a team of interdisciplinary experts, professor Shakesheff’s current project aims at constructing a 3-D-printed liver. While the project is still in its infancy, and will undoubtedly face many difficulties along the way, it highlights a new orientation in medical research. This project, among others, has the potential to rise as a tour de force in the field of organ transplantation.

Just like prosthetic arms, bionic eyes, or Google Glass, 3-D-printed organs also raise various ethical concerns. Who will have access to the benefits if they are ever perfected? Will their production be privatized; will they be a luxury only the elite can afford? Will such feats of bioengineering exacerbate the existing gap between the rich and the poor? Indeed, the questions are almost as endless as the possibilities.


Omar Al Bitar studies neuroscience and sociology. 

Ripley’s Aquarium brings the ocean downtown

New Toronto attraction features 5.7 million litres of water, over 15,000 marine creatures

Ripley’s Aquarium brings the ocean downtown

Last week, Ripley’s Aquarium opened in the heart of downtown Toronto. Since its grand opening, the aquarium has overflowed with excited visitors ready to explore the great depths. Visitors to the aquarium will be delightfully surprised by the various species and enormous tanks full of marine life.

The building is quite a statement; the architecture is well-thought out and creatively designed. The flight of stairs leading up to the aquarium also has large screens with promotional videos. The 12,500 square-metre structure boasts several exhibits — including Canadian Waters, Rainbow Reef, and Planet Jellies.



The touch tanks, located near the entrance, allow visitors to interact with many animals such as the Atlantic stingrays and whitespotted bamboo sharks. In the Ray Bay, divers enter the tank and feed the stingrays during frequent live shows. The stingrays have their barbs
removed — a harmless procedure, for their own safety and that of the divers. The divers are willing to speak to the public after their shows; one diver discussed her studies in Marine Biology and her seven years diving in countries as far away as Thailand.

The largest and most impressive exhibit, at nearly 2.5 million litres, is the Dangerous Lagoon. It features a moving sidewalk that metaphorically journeys through the ocean.The exhibit contains green sea turtles, sand tiger sharks, and more. The shark exhibit is very informative about both the beauty of the creatures and the scientific efforts that ensure that they  thrive. The aquarium has a total of 5.7 million litres of water, in which over 15,000 marine animals live.

There are separate sections that cater to different interests. For those interested in sustainability, the aquarium has several areas dedicated to conservation and takes significant effort to maintain a sustainable environment. The Discovery Centre is great for budding marine biologists and offers interactive games like the horseshoe crab touching pool. The aquarium offers educational programming, and there are plans to expand its research initiatives and day camps. Ever dreamt of sleeping among sharks? There is a sleepover program that allows visitors to sleep in the Dangerous Lagoon after a day full of activities. The aquarium also hosts birthday parties and events, but is already booked up until January.



The price of a visit to the aquarium is slightly higher than the Toronto Zoo, at $33.88 a ticket, but the experience is truly worth it. If you are looking to get a behind-the-scenes-tour of the animal husbandry areas, you’ll have to pay an additional fee. Looking to save a couple bucks? Round up a group of 15 friends  and qualify for a group rate. On a mid-week evening, the aquarium was surprisingly crowded.  It is truly a breath of fresh air ­­— or perhaps a cool drink of  water ­— from the bustle of city life. The soft music, relaxed atmosphere, and beauty of life on display are calming  — imparting a  state of tranquility. Visiting the aquarium is recommended to those interested in the field of marine biology and students who are simply seeking a breather between midterms and assignments.

Toronto350 lobbies U of T to divest shares in fossil fuels

Environmentalist group seeks to stop university from investing in fossil fuel corporations

Toronto350 lobbies U of T to divest shares in fossil fuels

Toronto350.org, an environmental activist organization, continues to pressure the University of Toronto and its administration to divest its shares in fossil fuel corporations. The local chapter, which was founded in June 2012, hopes to go before an ad hoc committee at the request of U of T president David Naylor.

Milan Ilnyckyj, an organizer with Toronto350.org, outlined the group’s four main pillars of divestment: an official statement of intention to divest, the cessation of new investments in fossil fuel corporations, the gradual divestment from any existing ventures in fossil fuel, and a complete divestment from Royal Dutch Shell within a year.

Toronto350 organizer Milan Ilnyckj. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

Toronto350 organizer Milan Ilnyckj. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

“Universities are these entities … that expect to exist forever and are making investment decisions on this very long term basis,” Ilnyckyj said. “Investing according to a different philosophy would send a message to others that fossil fuels are a problematic place to invest your funds.”

With $9.84 million invested, Royal Dutch Shell is the university’s largest holding both domestically and internationally. When asked about the potential financial risks to U of T of divestment from the company, Ilnyckyj responded with a cautionary warning: “as climate change becomes a more prominent issue, governments will be more willing to regulate fossil fuel corporations, ultimately leading to a real possibility of [hindered] university endowments.”

Ilnyckyj also cites a potential “uptick in donations from alumni, as people begin appreciating the progressive stance [U of T] has taken.” This contrasts sharply with the reality of the movement’s global accomplishments. So far, only six American colleges and universities have pledged to pursue fossil fuel divestment. Following a failed attempt at McGill, no Canadian divestment movement has been succesful.

Dr. Anthony Gray, director of strategic initiatives and research for the president, issued a statement regarding Toronto350’s goals and the plan of divestment. In it, the Office of the President stated that it has “been involved in providing procedural guidance to Toronto350.”

The statement continues, saying that “if and when [the president] does receive a formal petition, then, following the terms of the Policy and Guidelines, the president may establish an ad hoc committee to consider it. The committee may seek additional information and advice from the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM) and others before arriving at any list of recommendations in response to the petition.” UTAM did not respond to The Varsity’s request for a statement.

Meanwhile, investment apprentices within the U of T community have come out against Toronto350’s platform. Justin Lee, president of U of T’s Rational Capital Investment Fund, deconstructed the purpose of U of T’s asset management policy: “If we have an investment fund and its primary goal is to provide financial support for students to attend university and learn, then it’s clear that there should be no restrictions. This is clearly an attempt to politicize what should be non-political issue.”

Representing the only student-run investment portfolio at U of T, Lee spoke more broadly about the moral relativism of the investment strategy. “Where do you draw the red line? Whose morals trump everybody else’s? This strikes me as an attempt to subvert the process and subordinate the original goal of the fund.”

Regardless, Toronto350.org will continue its two-pronged approach towards divestment. The plan includes both a petition, which anyone can sign, as well as an endorsement attestation, which is a university-mandated procedure that requires adequate support from faculty, students, and alumni in order for Governing Council to consider a petition. The petition is currently at 700 signatures, while the attestation is at upwards of 100 endorsements. It remains unclear whether Toronto350 will gain the momentum needed to put it on the map as the first Canadian divestment platform to achieve traction with university administrators.

Nuit Blanche: Arts and Science Pieced Together in Your Dreams

Nuit Blanche: Arts and Science Pieced Together in Your Dreams

I am seated in front of a screen that tells me to relax. That may be easier said than done considering a stranger just secured a headband around my head and attached two clips to my ears like earrings. For a moment, I feel like I am in a science fiction
movie — about to have my mind read, analyzed, and/or stolen by a mad scientist.

The other participants and I play a short game in the style of Mario Party for Nintendo 64, in which our minds are controllers. Afterwards, to the side of the screen, trained musicians and a talented singer begin to play their instruments; suddenly I no longer feel like I am in an evil lab or an arcade, but rather in a cultural haven.

Part experiment, part art installation, the My Virtual Dream  exhibit combined both arts and science in a way I’ve never experienced before. The correct name for the contraption placed on my head is a Brain Computer Interface, BCI for short, and  it was used on Saturday night to transmit participants’ brain signals so that they could alter what was happening on the domed screen above. The movement on the screen reflected thinking processes and physical movements that are controlled by the brain. Before beginning the faux-dream, one of the facilitators instructed me to blink, and watch how the line on the screen jumps. I was immediately fascinated at how my mind could be projected to a screen through a simple headset.

Dr. Randy McIntosh leads the My Virtual Dream team. MICHAEL CHAHLEY/THE VARSITY

Dr. Randy McIntosh leads the My Virtual Dream team. MICHAEL CHAHLEY/THE VARSITY

The simplicity of the headsets is an achievement in hardware. The Virtual Brain team is lead by Dr. Randy McIntosh — a professor at U of T’s Institute of Medical Science and vice-president of research at Baycrest Health Sciences. The function of this experiment, he says, is to “find a more accurate way to read brain waves,” which can then be used for clinical purposes. “The hope for this technology is to be able to use it anywhere — in your home, your car, bathroom, restaurant, wherever,” says McIntosh. It is mind-boggling to think that in the near future, with the help of a comfortable headset, brainwaves will be transmittable on the subway.

While no mind reading happened at the My Virtual Dream exhibit, the activity of my brain and the software’s ability to read it were being analyzed. McIntosh said that while the hardware of The Virtual Brain is pretty advanced, the software still needs some work. He believes the involvement of those who participated in the “challenging environment” of Nuit Blanche will help perfect the technology.

Many Nuit Blanche visitors, myself included, understood the My Virtual Dream exhibit as merely an awe-inspiring artistic experience; however, to the neuroscientists involved in the international The Virtual Brain project, the experiment-installation is more than just art — it is a stepping stone to convenient and accurate brain analysis.

To learn more about the research behind The Virtual Brain and its objectives, click here