A mental meet-up

Rendezvous with Madness' program aims to use art to educate and raise awareness about mental health issues

A mental meet-up

One in five children under the age of 18 have a diagnosable mental health issue. 70 to 75 percent of mental illnesses appear before the age of 20. Only one in six have access to the treatment they might need.



All of these are reasons that youth mental health is an important topic of discussion, according to child psychologist Dr. Marshall Korenblum. He was speaking at the Youth Mental Health Symposium on the last day of Rendezvous with Madness, a six day festival showcasing films from Canada and abroad with a focus on mental health.

“The goal of the festival is to sort of expose people to mental health and to decrease stigma, eliminate discrimination and prejudice that goes toward a lot of people with mental illness and addiction,” said program manager Jeff Wright in an interview with The Varsity. The festival is presented by Workman Arts, a local organization that provides training and opportunities for artists with mental illnesses.

While the festival explored a variety of angles and perspectives on mental health, it was bookended by art representing the experiences of children and adolescents.

The opening night was a screening of Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12, a startling and engrossing film about a foster care facility. The main character, Grace (Brie Larson), herself a survivor of abuse and her own mental health challenges, sees much of herself in new charge, Jadeyn, and goes to great lengths to reach out to her. The talented ensemble cast brings each characters’ story to life, creating a highly relatable and human portrayal.

Saturday afternoon’s symposium featured a pair of films, both documentaries, of treatment facilities and the experiences of the young people who go through them. Echoes of Short Term 12 were apparent in Allan King’s Warrendale, despite the latter having been made almost 50 years prior. A documentary filmed for the
CBC — which for decades refused to air it ­—  Warrendale is an observational look at the treatment centre in Etobicoke, showing reactions of the children and the attempts of the staff to restrain and console them. In a subsequent discussion, Korenblum  pointed out that it shares many themes with Short Term 12, and the other films show “how much has changed and how little has changed” in the field of mental health in the past 50 years. The second film, Nuria Ibañez’s The Naked Room, continues with the theme of emotional realism by presenting a series of interviews with children in a mental health facility in Mexico. The camera remains trained on each child’s face, even when their parents are the ones speaking, revealing every reaction and creating an remarkable amount of empathy.

The whole festival aimed to instill empathy in its audience members, as emphasized in the panel discussions following each screening designed to create conversations about mental health. “If people aren’t that familiar with mental health issues to come see a film, they might have thoughts or questions they might want to ask, and we sort of give that platform for them to ask and we have people there who can answer better than going home and googling,” said Wright.

Rendezvous with Madness certainly succeeded in making me think more consciously about mental health. Statistically, six of the 30 people on the streetcar ride home with me deal with these kinds of issues on a daily basis. I thought about what Wright said about what he learned while programming the festival: “You see people in the street and it’s a lot more evident how many people are affected by it, and that’s just visibly. And to think that so many people are suffering from mental illness without it being a visible thing, and maybe the stigma or prejudice that goes towards people with mental illness, not being able to speak about it or get help.”

U of T researchers invent functional “cloaking devices”

Researchers build revolutionary device for under $2,000

U of T researchers invent functional “cloaking devices”

Two members of U of T’s Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering have invented a functioning invisibility cloak. Professor George Eleftheriades and PhD student Michael Selvanayagam used the principle of wave interference to conceptualize a thin “cloak” of atennae that renders an object invisible to radar. To accompany the research, published last week in the journal Physical Review X, Selvanayagam built a functioning model of the device for less than $2,000.

Radio devices read the appearance and position of objects by interpreting the waves that bounce off object ­— the same principle behind human sight, but in a different spectrum. The cloaking device built by Eleftheriades and Selvanayagam  radiates a field that cancels out the waves bouncing off the object it covers, rendering the object invisible in the radio spectrum. The device can also alter the appearance or the apparent location of the object when viewed through radar.

The device was created in an effort to improve upon existing research, says Selvanayagam. “The idea of cloaking an object was first proposed in 2006 or so by a group at Duke University… they were the ones who first showed that cloaking is something that you can actually do using specially designed materials and structures.” A structure of metamaterials shields the object inside from rays by bending light around the object. The problem with these structures was their relative scalabilty and complexity: early structures were large and awkward, and techniques designed to shield smaller objects weren’t very modifiable. Eleftheriades and Selvanayagam’s research has solved these problems ­— their device is scalable and flexible, and can also be retuned to work with different wavelengths.

Though for a functioning invisibility device an under $2,000 cost seems impressively cheap,  Selvanayagam didn’t view the budget as a limitation. “The reason it was a small budget was because we wanted to do everything as simply as possible,” he says. “So all the components are discrete parts, we didn’t try to integrate anything into a package, we did everything very modularly, very system level, very part-by-part, so we could switch things in and out for the ease of the experiment.” A larger budget would allow experimenters to fully integrate the device ­— or make it more reactive. Currently, the device must be manually tuned, but in the future, the device may contain a mechanism that would allow it to detect radio waves and then automatically tune itself to the approproiate frequency.

The most obvious applications for the new device are military ­— hiding or disguising objects from prying eyes. “But in general, there are some more basic, not-very-fancy, but more down to earth applications,” points out Selvanayagam. “If you think about the city of Toronto, there are antenna towers all over the city, that’s just how our wireless system works. And some of them are being blocked by various objects, there are buildings in the way.” The device could cloak buildings that interrupt cellular communications. “If you pinch around them with these antennas, the buildings disappear.”

Further applications — especially those that would require use of the technology in the visible spectrum, including medical imaging applications ­— are a matter of technology. “We did it with radio waves because the technology is mature enough that you can apply established technological ideas like atennas,” explains Selvanayagam. “At higher frequencies, as you approach the visible spectrum or the region beyond x-rays, the technology is very different, so there are some serious challenges in taking what we did and moving it up.”

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.”

Science and Cinema: The Fifth Estate

Tracing the fall of internet privacy

Science and Cinema: The Fifth Estate

The recently released motion picture The Fifth Estate is the latest pop culture discourse on the controversial issue of  “hacktivism.” Benedict Cumberbatch brings star power to the movie with his onscreen depiction of Julian Assange, the controversial founder of WikiLeaks. The film is quite topical, given the recent alarming exposure of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the ongoing discourse surrounding Chelsea Manning. These issues have brought internet security to the forefront of public consciousness. Social media users are now debating the legitimacy of their online privacy settings ­— what if it isn’t only your friends perusing your pictures and life events, or laughing at that witty status update you just posted?



The problem might not be as discomforting here as it is in the United States, where the NSA has been spying on its citizens for over a decade and counting: with this program, the US government has been keeping tabs on the phone calls, geolocation information, and internet communications of its citizens.

The worst part of the program is that the public didn’t know anything about it until Edward Snowden, former NSA contractor and former CIA employee, leaked information about this surveillance. Through thousands of leaked documents, Snowden also revealed confidential information regarding European nations. Before this controversy, Assange made thousands upon thousands of confidential documents available to anyone with an internet connection. Assange and Snowden have been labeled as black-hat (or criminal) hacktivists by the government, and have been effecively exiled from the countries they “betrayed.”

From governments’ perspectives, hacktivism is a matter of national security. Supporters of the surveillance argue that the decisions made by a government are for the greater good of its people and that there are good intentions behind the surveillance.

Various hacktivists around the world argue that they are simply promoting human rights and ethical judgement by uncovering and exposing digital information. Detractors commonly reference dystopian works such as 1984 by George Orwell or V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. They claim that programs like the NSA represent blatant breaches of privacy reminiscent of the police states in these works.

The trailer for The Fifth Estate depicts an argument between Cumberbatch’s Assange and lesser-known WikiLeaks co-founder Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl) about the ethics of releasing the Manning documents. “Lives are at stake!” yells Domscheit-Berg, upset about the danger posed to those named in the documents his partner plans to release. The argument is a dramatic representation of the debate that led to Domscheit-Berg’s split from WikiLeaks. (He later would go on to form his own organisation, OpenLeaks). Even hackivists are split about how best and most ethically deal with releases of confidential government information.

Too often online, the heart of the debate is the question of who ­— between the hackers and the government — is protecting citizens, and who is merely paranoid. But the debate is not nearly so simple. The internet matures and the debate complicates further­, ­and there is unlikely to be a clear resolution anytime soon.

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.

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. 

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson awarded Dunlap Prize

“Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive” to visit U of T in March 2014

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson awarded Dunlap Prize

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson has won the first Dunlap Prize from the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics. According to the institute, the prize recognizes those who embody “the institute’s vision for sharing scientific discovery with the public, training the next generation of astronomers, and developing innovative astronomical instrumentation to enable breakthroughs in observational research.” Tyson’s impressive career and academic achievements easily distinguish him as a renowned astrophysicist, but these factors alone did not earn him the Dunlap prize, nor did his reputation as the “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive.” The award also recognizes his role in scientific outreach and education.



Tyson is the current director of the Hayden Planetarium in the America Museum of Natural History, located in New York. As an astrophysicist,  Tyson has followed an exceptional academic path: he earned his BA in physics at Harvard and a PhD in astrophysics at Columbia. He also completed his post-doctoral research at Princeton. He was twice recruited by former President George W. Bush to serve on White House commissions, and was part of the NASA advisory council from 2005 – 2008.

Born in the same week that NASA became operational, Tyson became fascinated with astrophysics on his very first visit to the Hayden Planetarium at the age of nine. “The universe called me,” he said during a conversation with Stephen Colbert. Now, as director, he has been tirelessly pushing public education of science and inspiring the young generation to explore space.

Dr. Tyson has authored multiple books, including Death By Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries, an anthology of his most popular essays in Natural History magazine, and The Pluto Files: The Rise And Fall of America’s Favourite Planet — an analysis of Pluto’s cultural impact as well as a collection of public responses to Pluto’s demotion. The latter is especially fitting, as Tyson took part in the decision to “downgrade” Pluto. In his most recent book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, Tyson not only provides a well-documented list of NASA’s contributions to our society and daily life, but also calls for greater recognition and expansion of the space program.

Tyson’s efforts in educating and inspiring the public can also be reflected in his radio show, StarTalk. The weekly show explores a wide variety of topics, scientific and non-scientific alike, and analyzes them from a scientific perspective. Past topics include dark matter, time travel, zombie apocalypses and hip-hop. Tyson’s humour, together with the expertise of guest co-hosts, keeps the show entertaining and lighthearted, yet informative and scientifically accurate. He has also collaborated with many well-known names ­— like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Nye  ­— to discuss science topics and encourage students to keep pursuing their dreams in science.

His witty and sometimes sarcastic style has gathered him a dedicated audience not only in universities but also online; his twitter account, followed by nearly 1.5 million people, is composed of fun facts, interesting thought experiments, scientific reviews of sci-fi movies, and other humorous quirky comments. In 2014, he will also be the host of Cosmos, a continuation of the legendary science show first popularized by Carl Sagan.

Tyson’s immense popularity has earned him 18 honorary doctorates, a NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal and an asteroid named in his honour (Asteroid “13123 Tyson”). On March 21, 2014, Tyson will visit at U of T for the Dunlap Prize ceremony and give a free public lecture in Convocation Hall. Registration for this event will be available later this winter.


With Files from the Dunlap Institute, Hayden Planetarium, and Colbert interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson at Montclair Kimberley Academy.