Local institutions do more to renew independence post-disaster

Effective disaster relief depends on cultural and social context on the ground

Local institutions do more to renew independence post-disaster

Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda has killed more than 5,000 people and devastated the livelihoods of 13 million. An overwhelming majority of those affected are traumatized, hungry, thirsty, hurt, and homeless.

This is an appeal to aid, but perhaps not a conventional one. I wish to convince you to donate to local agencies that I believe have more expertise, empathy, and long-term outlook to provide a more resilient post-disaster Philippines.


Relief is complicated. It carries political and methodological baggage. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will be fighting on the field as to what, how, and to whom aid should be distributed. Cash or food? Women or men? Shelter or medicine? With limited resources come hard decisions. “The choice is to use the same truck either to distribute food or collect bodies” said Tacloban’s mayor, bleakly. There is no doubt that there is a need for resources and thus I will not discredit the efforts of larger agencies — such as the World Food Program, the UN Refugee Agency, Oxfam and Red Cross/Crescent that are well-intentioned. But with relief, intentions are never enough.

Relief is contextual. Money rarely translates into what the donor intended, more importantly, beneficiaries are rarely provided with the aid they need. The social context into which foreign aid is introduced will determine how that aid is distributed. I witnessed this first-hand when I studied a post-cyclone relief effort in India. Cultural nature, political rivalries, ethno-religious divisions, and economic stratifications are essential to understanding how to propagate a relief effort. I am not Christian, but I would not think twice about donating to a smaller, Christian organization if they are effectively getting aid through to those in need. Aid comes first, not ideology.

International aid is rarely as effective as locally tailored aid. Local knowledge is essential to effectively providing aid. It can be as simple as knowing another route in case of traffic, or completely understanding what people’s priorities are and how to deal with the various demographics. That is why I recommend donating to Filipino or regional agencies that have a robust local network. The Philippine Red Cross stands out, as do Citizens’ Disaster Response Centre, the Asia-Pacific Alliance for Disaster Management, and Community and Family Service International. You can also donate directly to the government’s Department of Social Welfare and Development — which, though facing criticism, is still one of the most effective agencies in the field.

Relief is human. Affected people always have pride, and if provided with the correct tools, they develop some agency. This is far from the conventional image of helpless, dejected, and submissive victims. Even with their houses destroyed, these people rarely submit to begging, or discarded old T-shirts. Local agencies are usually more aware of this. Because they are inherently invested in the society around them, they do more to provide agency to the affected people.

Relief is never over. This current and essential relief effort will die down. International agencies will pack up and leave when critical needs have been met; the initial crisis will have been averted, but the essential job of rebuilding livelihoods remains.

Post-disaster reconstruction efforts are achingly slow due to lack of funding, and international agencies rarely deal directly with these efforts, as there are no glamorous media-bites.

However, disasters due to climate change will only increase in frequency — we need to design our cities to be resilient, but also socially and environmentally appropriate, which can only done by locally aware agencies. Donate localy, not only will these charities provide better and faster aid but they will also be there to do the serious rebuilding that comes after the big organizations leave.


Ankit Bhardwaj is a fourth-year student at the University of Toronto

First global health competition held at Hart House

First global health competition held at Hart House

Juxtaposition, the University of Toronto’s global health magazine, hosted its first annual Toronto Thinks competition on November 8 and 9. Toronto Thinks aims to further expand awareness of global health. The winners of the competition were Nour Bakhache, Danielle Smalling, and Betty Yibrehu.

According to India Burton, one of the Toronto Thinks co-directors, the opportunities for global health are limited in undergraduate studies.

Sarindi Aryasinghe, the other co-director, discussed her plans to “Make U of T a central hub for other universities to connect with us.” Many students seem to think that their only option for involvement in the global community is to go abroad. “This allows them to interact with the same issues and use the same skills they would employ abroad, here at home,” said Aryasinghe.

The competitors were asked to prepare arguments for properly dealing with traffic incidents in Ghana. Eight groups competed, representing a total of 25 undergraduate students, competed. Bakhache, Smalling, and Yibrerhu’s arguments mainly focused on building a community-based approach to this issue.

The winners cited proper work ethic as the key to their victory in this competition. “You really have to commit yourself and the team to the project, and say ‘we’re not going to bed, until we do this, because this is what needs to be done,’” stated Yibrehu, who is studying physiology, pharmacology, and classical civilizations.

“I think it was a phenomenal event,” said Smalling, who is majoring in human biology, global health, and psychology. She then stated that the event could have been improved had they had an extra day to prepare.

The team will be leaving for Emory University, Atlanta in May for the 2014 International Emory Global Health Case Competition. Last year, students from John Hopkins University won the top prize, $6,000.

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.”

Expression Against Oppression events give voice to marginalized students

Two week series of events raise awareness about mental health, LGBT students

Expression Against Oppression events give voice to marginalized students

The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) held a series of events over the past two weeks to raise awareness of marginalized voices on campus. The semi-annual Expression Against Oppression (XAO) was hosted by the Social Justice and Equity commission — one of five divisions within the UTSU — which is responsible for the planning and execution of six anti-oppression events spanning from October 21 to 30.

Yolen Bollo-Kamara, vice-president, equity of the UTSU, discussed XAO’s significance to the university. “The main idea for XAO is to try and cover as many different issues as we can,” she said. “Although the kinds of events vary each year, we are usually always able to do a Night of Expression, which is the one that really brings all of the events together.”

This year’s Night of Expression took place on Thursday October 24. According to Bollo-Kamara, it attracted spoken word and rap sets, along with a drag performance. “Everybody was very supportive, and it was definitely our largest crowd — although different events draw different people. We do look at the popularity of each event in determining what issues to cover, and we also encourage multiple student organizations to get involved with our events.”

This year’s XAO was held in conjunction with many different student groups that worked to not only enable a variety of perspectives, but to draw additional interest beyond social justice and equity. Each event collaborated with one other organization, including the African Students’ Association (ASA), Health and Wellness, LGBTOUT, Brazilian Culture in Canada (BRAZUCA), and the Community Safety Office.

The first week started with a women’s self-defence workshop, followed by VisibiliTEA, an evening of tea and crafts, along with a discussion surrounding the implications of queer women’s visibility on campus. The second week included a Brazilian martial arts workshop, a film screening, and a five-dollar lunch.

The film screening of Venus Noire told the story of Sarah Baartman, a South African woman infamously exhibited in a 19th century freak show in Europe because of her “exotic and unique” sexual features, such as her large buttocks and elongated labia. The film chronicled Baartman’s life as she struggled for independence in a newly abolitionist society. The screening was coordinated by Bollo-Kamara and ASA president Vanessa Jev, who was inspired to share the matter after seeing the film in her French culture studies class.

“I immediately thought the film was very controversial, yet representative of black culture in the media these days,” said Jev, “When you think about it, Sarah Baartman was the first video vixen. You really get to see the inner struggle from her perspective and how everything seems to defeat her. The film asks you to ask tough questions of yourself: is she really complicit? She is being exploited but is being given money at the same time for exposing her body. The movie really speaks to modern day issues.”

Third-year life sciences student Olayinka Sanusi, a member of the ASA, agreed that the film encouraged a critical reflection of racial inequity: “Looking at her body in a sexual manner is oppression, and it’s important that this was a real event in history. I like the fact that I can come to these kinds of events on campus and learn to further express myself by talking about the common problems my community faces.”

Another highlight of this semester’s events was the five dollar lunch at Hart House, which focused on raising mental health awareness on campus. The UTSU partnered with U of T’s Health and Wellness Centre, as well as other related student groups, for a resource fair that aimed to provide support and information on mental health issues. In the hall outside the lunch, many students had the opportunity to engage with representatives from student associations such as Peers are Here, Powerful Minds at U of T, Active Minds at U of T, and Let’s Talk Health.

The lunch itself attracted many students who hadn’t heard of the XAO event itself, but showed interest in the presentations at the front of the Great Hall. “The lunch is a great price and it will definitely attract lots of people to find out about new activities and groups on campus,” said Tracey Zhao, a third-year economics student.

The main goal of this semester’s XAO events was to eliminate the stigma surrounding various social issues, and to foster a more inclusive environment both on and off campus.

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. 

Behind the scenes: Hart House

Behind the scenes: Hart House

From archery to squash, the Hart House Fitness Centre facility provides many fun fitness options to keep students, faculty, and members of the community healthy. But keeping this 94-year-old facility open 365 days a year is no small task; with almost 500,000 visits just last year, it is no wonder that the Hart House Fitness facility’s manager, Tom Moss, has his hands full.

Although it is clear that Moss loves his job, he does not deny that running the fitness facilities at Hart House “keeps you on your toes.” Even though he has held his position for the last three years, Moss still finds staffing to be one of his biggest daily challenges. From front-line customer service staff to drop-in fitness instructors, it is his responsibility to make sure that every position is filled with knowledgeable personnel.

Students of all fitness levels are found working out at Hart House.

Students of all fitness levels are found working out at Hart House.

Staffing aside, Moss’s greatest task is keeping a multifaceted athletic facility running  in a space that is almost 100 years old. Unlike the Athletic Centre, every piece of mechanical equipment that goes into the athletic facilities at Hart House has to be retrofitted to accommodate the age of the building.

For example, Moss points out that finding solutions to heat and cool Hart House without changing its structure is no easy task.  Many students who use the basketball court at Hart House do not notice the giant fan above them; this was Moss’s answer to how to cool the area without taking away
from its charm.

Moreover, many students are unaware of the fact that Hart House Fitness has begun to “green” its facilities. Moss mentions that being “healthy for another hundred years” is the Hart House Fitness facility’s new long-term goal. One of the ways in which he plans to do this is by exploring more environmentally friendly heating and cooling methods that expend less energy.

Moss explained that making the environmental change to such an old facility takes a lot of thought. Despite all of the challenges that Hart House’s age brings, Moss believes that the architectural beauty of Hart House adds a unique touch to members’ workout experiences.

Drop-in and scheduled organized sports are offered to students and members on a regular basis.

Drop-in and scheduled organized sports are offered to students and members on a regular basis.

Another aspect of Hart House Fitness is the tradition of the facility. Moss remarks that there is not a day that he or his staff can remember when they have not been open; the facility is open 365 days a year. Although this poses inconveniences for maintenance of equipment, as the only time that the gym is empty is at night, Moss strongly believes this constant accessibility to the gym is an integral aspect of the facility.

In addition to the multitude of athletic classes that Hart House offers, it also provides an area that members can rent for free. With the variety of organized activities going on, it is not difficult to imagine how scheduling is a huge part of what goes on behind the scenes at Hart House. Moss explains that he treats every area like “its own separate and unique entity,” and considers “what people’s reality is” when he is scheduling the facilities. He tries to make classes jive with as many people’s schedules as possible.

Hart House offers a number of scheduled and drop in fitness classes.

Hart House offers a number of scheduled and drop in fitness classes.

Creating a non-threatening, welcoming vibe is another aspect that goes on behind the scenes of Hart House Fitness. Moss mentions that he and his staff go to great lengths to try to “provide the utmost customer service” to all members of the Hart House community. Moreover, Moss thinks that the fact that there are no varsity teams who have designated training out of Hart House results in people who are not necessarily the most athletic or who might be new to the gym feeling more comfortable using the facilities.

The Hart House Fitness facility is open every day of the year and offers everything from yoga classes to classes that help improve swimming strokes. For many students, Hart House is a great place to embark on their fitness goals. Whether you register for a class, hit the cardio machines, or book a space to rehearse a dance, it is an amazing facility that U of T offers its students.

University of Toronto athletics should consider redistributing sports funding

Playing fair with intercollegiate athletes

University of Toronto athletics should consider redistributing sports funding

For the first time in 20 years, the University of Toronto’s Varsity Blues football team managed to finish its season with a 4–4 record. While the team has still not achieved a winning season for many years, there are now signs that the organization is well on its way to a successful revival. The changes in the win column have largely been brought about by University of Toronto Athletics, which is working to improve the program by hiring a savvy and accomplished coaching staff and striving for stronger player recruitment. That impending success story is balanced by less well-funded programs, whose lack of success is set to result not in increased assistance and effort from the university, but in the loss of intercollegiate status and the Varsity Blues name.

The review of the university’s sports model that is accompanying the ongoing review of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education will affect any program that falls under the faculty, not just intercollegiate sports. The criteria to be used for the revision of the current sports model was made public last year. At that time, affected teams and individuals were offered the opportunity to meet with Beth Ali, director of intercollegiate sport, for a 90-minute consultation to react to and express concerns about the remodel.

The remodel is multifaceted and addresses 14 areas within the faculty. It proposes to make substantive changes, ranging from the manner in which sporting organizations such as the Canadian Intercollegiate Sport (CIS) and Ontario University Athletics (OUA) rank the sports in question, and the financial costs incurred by the athletes, to the frequency and severity of injury to players in the sport, and the success of individual athletes on provincial, national, and international scales.

There is a sound basis for each of these criteria, but affected athletes have objected to the way they are being applied to various teams and groups. As The Varsity reported last year, the women’s rugby team has expressed concern about a lack of training facilities available to them on campus. Rather than providing the team with the facilities they need to be competitive, or the time to use other facilities on campus, the administration is considering reclassifying the team as an intramural sport. The remodel seems to be penalizing teams that the university currently does not provide sufficient support for, rather than attempting to rectify the problems that these teams are facing.

Ali has said that “U of T used to have many, many examples [of top athletes competing at U of T], and our lack of success has diminished our ability to produce athletes like that in all of our sports.” Ali and the Varsity Blues’ office seem to be ignorant to the fact that students are attracted to U of T for its academic reputation, rather than its athletic one. A student whose criteria in choosing a university include its athletic programs would be better served applying to almost any American university; even if they were to stay in Canada, U of T is hardly an athletic powerhouse.

There is an inherent contradiction in the current plan for U of T’s athletic programs. The impending remodel evidently places a premium on a team or individual athlete’s successes if it is looking to demote varsity programs that are struggling to compete — except in the case of the football team, which has been a perennial disappointment for the past two decades, where the department seems willing to spare no expense to help the team get its head above water. Only now, after 20 years of continued focus and effort, is the football team showing signs of life. One is left to wonder: Why would U of T choose to focus on a select few teams, rather than invest in programs that are struggling without necessary resources? Teams like women’s rugby have trouble competing because they cannot attract, retain, or develop top-tier talent without the resources or facilities they need. Rather than reclassifying programs that cannot reach their full potential without investment, U of T Athletics should consider redistributing sports funding.

Football is not the only sport likely to score poorly in a number of categories on the model that will not face demotion. Men’s hockey requires a large medical, equipment, and event staff; players have a high injury rate, both in terms of frequency and severity; the team has not seen significant success for several years, and has had few or no provincially or nationally ranked players on its roster in that time. Nevertheless, the chances that the team will face damaging changes under the new model are slim, due no doubt to the prominence of the sport in this country.

The remodel seems to give preference to the “big” sports — football, hockey, soccer, field hockey, volleyball, basketball, track and field, and swimming. Meanwhile, the women’s golf and men’s baseball teams have both won back-to-back OUA championships, and the badminton teams are consistently very successful, yet receive little attention and funding in comparison to those with bigger public profiles.

Many varsity teams are completely self-funded and self-driven, meaning that they have to do a significant portion of their administrative work themselves; these are the teams being threatened with a downgrade by the sports remodel. Meanwhile, sports that receive a high level of attention do not always perform in a way that reflects the time, money, and effort put into them.

U of T should try to mould its system such that it does not punish teams that already function without much assistance from athletics staff. If, as it claims, the university hopes to attract a range of strong student-athletes who are both academically and athletically gifted, the solution is to provide a range of teams that are properly funded and supported on a relatively equally footing. The currently proposed sports remodel does not meet these goals.

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.