UTM celebrates Stem Cell Awareness Day

Students organize day of activities to engage Toronto youth in Canadian science

UTM celebrates Stem Cell Awareness Day

Last Wednesday marked the seventh annual International Stem Cell Awareness Day, a celebration first introduced by the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. On this day, scientists from around the world take time to raise awareness for one of the most important fields of science currently being developed.

Stem Cell Awareness Day is particularly relevant to the U of T community, as stem cells were first discovered in 1961 by two Canadian scientists who were U of T alumni: Dr. James Till and Dr. Ernest McCulloch.

Till and McCulloch discovered special cells that grow in clusters during early development of organisms. The cells differ from other cells because they have the ability to renew themselves and multiply. Their most coveted property is their ability to heal, which is why scientists believe that they may have the potential to cure numerous diseases, such as heart attacks and diabetes. They may also have the potential to regenerate organs. In fact, a recent study is trying to use adult neural stem cell injections to treat spinal cord injuries.

UTM participated in this year’s Stem Cell Awareness Day by holding an annual series of symposium-styled seminars. The seminars are part of a larger organization, ‘Let’s Talk Science,’ which focusses on engaging youth in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Workshops held by Let’s Talk Science include activities such as the Slime Lab, in which students get their hands messy while learning about non-Newtonian fluids, and Hydration Nation, where students analyse physical and chemical properties of various samples of water and help make recommendations for which water samples are safe for drinking.

Osman Mahamud, from Let’s Talk Science provided some details about the specific initiatives of UTM on the day. He explained that UTM “holds a variety of symposiums… which [are] held in Toronto each year.” One of these events is ‘StemCellTalks,’ which helps draw attention to the important field of stem cells, as well as getting students interested in the topic.

“Considering [that] U of T is the [place of] birth of stem cell science [in Canada], it’s a huge accomplishment and something that should be continually challenged to its excellence,” said first-year Forensic Science student, Hira Humayoun.

“Stem cell science is a new emerging field in the subject and has huge potential of curing some of the most fatal disorders, so I believe this awareness is important to educate the youth with, who are currently exploring future career options,” said Mahamud.

Student theatre review: The AGM

The UTSU’s annual performance is a stark look at student politics

Student theatre review: The AGM

Maybe it was all the samosas I ate, or the feeling in my knees after sitting down for four hours, but about halfway through the UTSU’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) I suddenly felt as though I was surging through the desert on a steam-punk-themed jeep in a scene directly out of Mad Max. Consider, if you will, what these two things have in common: a) wanton chaos, b) an unexpected musical guest, c) political disorganization, and d) a notably unsatisfying ending.

The lengthy meeting was more of a theatre production than it was anything else, so for the sake of critiquing our own form of governance, perhaps it is most fitting to write about the AGM in the form of a theatre review.

The lengthy meeting was more of a theatre production than it was anything else

The UTSU’s performance of The AGM started comically late and went on far longer than was seemingly necessary. Act One was expected to hold an election of the board structure proposal, but it was almost two hours in before the agenda had even been approved. When the ‘intermission’ came around — initiated by a motion to recount the votes in what was clearly a decisive majority — students stood up, stretched, went to the bathroom, and awaited an election of the board structure that had still yet to arrive. If the wheels of democracy were turning, they were in desperate need of a tune-up.

The performance was also equipped with everything necessary to make up a mindlessly entertaining production — a gavel, a soundtrack, and a variety of Oscar-winning performances all made their dutiful appearances. Breaking traditional theatre customs, clapping was prohibited, and was instead replaced with a mysterious form of audience approval that the chair labeled as ‘spirit fingers.’

But what began as a comedy slowly transformed into tragedy, and what had looked hopeful at the beginning became increasingly futile as the play wore on. The problem lay not in the actors, nor the presentation, but rather in the lofty responsibility that the performance asked of its audience. In total, seventeen items were scheduled for the meeting, yet only four were actually completed. If the student body takes two hours before reaching the approval of the agenda, how can it possibly be expected to complete a whole seventeen items in one night?

Similarly, the performance lacked the much-needed co-operation that was required in order to complete these items. Plan B, one of two board structure proposals, was elected by a simple majority in the first round; however, it failed to meet the two thirds majority in the confirmation vote. Looking at the raised ballots, it was evident that most of those who had voted against the proposal in the first round had also opposed it in the second round. Rather than simply preferring Plan C to Plan B, the opposition was so unwilling to settle that they chose to leave the UTSU without any board structure whatsoever.

Naturally, democracy is intended to hold such obstacles, but it is moments like these that should encourage us to reconsider the power placed in our hands. What if Canadian citizens were expected to vote on the structure of Parliament? Aside from electing a local candidate, what if we were expected to vote on the amount of seats we had per contingency, and what each of these seats would be in charge of governing? While democracy is certainly integral to our student’s union, perhaps a direct democracy is not what we’re looking for.

Considering that merely some of the students participate in the AGM, only a small portion of us are deciding upon a structure that is wholly important for the larger student body. In situations like these, there is no time for misinformed voting, or for decision-making based on any reason other than to find the best solution possible for the UTSU.

The early days of American republicanism aimed to solve these sorts of problems and determined that a representative democracy would, for the most part, avoid such obstacles. This system would mitigate a tyranny of the majority, and more specific to this case, would allow for goal-oriented politicians to properly represent the values of their people. At some point, the power of policy-making must shift from the students to the people representing them. But as we currently stand, comparable to the Athenians when they first discovered democracy, the AGM remains little more than student theatre.

Jacob Lorinc is a third-year student at Innis College studying political science. He is The Varsity‘s Arts & Culture Editor.

Vote strategically

No need to compromise principles for pragmatism

Vote strategically

If there is one thing that many Canadians appear to agree on this election campaign, it is that they want Stephen Harper gone. Nevertheless there is a distinct possibility that he will win his fourth election because of vote splitting between progressive voters — when voters divide their support among multiple similar candidates.

In Canada, the progressive vote is divided amongst the Greens, Liberals, and NDP such that Conservative candidates win in many ridings, even where the combined progressive vote is greater than 50 per cent.

This issue is due in part to the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system in Canada. In the FPTP system, votes for a candidate in a specific riding will count for nothing if that candidate loses, because FPTP dictates that the winning candidate takes a seat in Parliament and the losing candidates get no other form of institutionalized representation. Given that candidates only need a plurality of votes to obtain a seat in Parliament, the progressive sentiments of Canada’s citizenry can often be lost in vote translation.

Strategic voting is a way to try and combat this problem by encouraging voters to rally around the candidate most likely to defeat the dissimilar candidate. In Canada, this does not necessarily mean voting for the party leading in the national polls. Instead, you must vote for the candidate who is most likely to unseat the less favourable option in your specific riding. With this strategy, partisan allegiances are downplayed, and the emphasis is on voting against a specific candidate.

While this is a pragmatic way to oust Harper, strategic voting is not without it’s critics. Many decry the decline of democracy they argue that we compromise our moral conscience by ‘voting against,’ rather than ‘voting for.’ Another criticism is that this strategy leads people to consider supporting parties that they are ideologically opposed to.

In reality though, voting strategically does not require a significant departure from one’s values, given that progressive Canadian parties have relatively similar values. So similar, in fact, that 42 per cent of Canadians in a recent poll struggle to differentiate between the Liberals and the NDP — the two most prominent progressive parties.

While many may criticize the Liberals for supporting Bill C-51, when the NDP starkly opposed it, criticisms that the Liberal party is not progressive enough can also be made about the NDP. For instance, the Liberals have pledged to run deficits and raise taxes on the wealthy one per cent while the NDP promise to run a balanced budget with no income tax increases. The bottom line is that the net difference in the progressiveness of these party platforms is largely negligible compared with the immense ideological gap between the progressive and Conservative parties.

Each of the progressive parties have proposed electoral reform this election so perhaps strategic voting will become a thing of the past. It is worth noting that proportional representation can lead to a host of other problematic issues, such as the rise of radical parties with narrow platforms, as well as increased discord and instability within parliament.

The argument for strategic voting is motivated by the fact that the Conservative party have not committed themselves to electoral reforms; and while strategic voting may be unpalatable, it may also be necessary to maneuver our current elections policies into a position where voting by principle is actually going to be represented by the electoral process.

Alex Hempel is a third-year student at Trinity College studying economics and European studies.

Science around town

Your look at the top science-related events this week

Science around town


The public lecture is presented by the Canadian National Committee of International Commission on Illumination (CN/CIE), featuring Dr. Brainard, who will be discussing the implications of light therapy in relation to circadian and sleep disruption associated with jet travel, spaceflight, and shift work, as well as lighting systems under development for the International Space Station.

Monday, October 19

6:30 pm to 8:30 pm

Medical Sciences Building

1 King’s College Circle

Room 3154

Admission: Free


Come out to the International Society of Pharmaceutical Engineering’s UofT chapter’s presentation series and social event featuring Dr. Suzanne Cadarette and Dr. Geoffrey Liu.

Wednesday, October 21

5:15 pm – 6:30 pm

Mars Discovery District

101 College Street

Room: 4-204

Admission: Free


In collaboration with the Planetary Health Commission, Ryerson University presents a conversation between Stephen Lewis and Dr. Alan Whiteside regarding the subject of AIDS: AIDS in 2030, medicalizing AIDS, high susceptible groups and related matters.

Wednesday, October 21

7:00pm – 9:00 pm

Ted Rogers School of Management

Room: 1-067

Admission: Free


The 8th annual Student-Led Conference at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health focuses on racial health inequities. The two-day event involves keynote speakers, plenary panels, research showcases and more.

October 23 & 24

11:30 am – 18:00 pm

Health Sciences Building

155 College St.

Admission: $10, Limited pay-what-you-can options available

Ontario to fund in-vitro fertilization

Two perspectives on the IVF process

Ontario to fund in-vitro fertilization

The process of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) has recently received a lot of attention in the media. The province of Ontario has agreed to cover the costs of the IVF procedure, which normally costs tens of thousands of dollars.

For those unfamiliar with IVF, it can be summed up clearly in one sentence: IVF is the process by which an egg and a sperm are fertilized in a laboratory and then implanted into a human womb to develop.

Although Ontario is making an attempt to make an expensive procedure more available to the masses, it is my belief that the decision is not ideal.

The Ontario Public Health Unit has agreed to put $50 million of tax payer money into the IVF program. This sum of money could be put into other programs that are applicable to a larger portion of the population. In one year, only 4,000 Ontarian women will be eligible for this service. In 2015, Ontario accounted for 4,730,300 women between the ages of 15 and 64. The program is only available for women who are 43 years of age or younger. This means that many women that have potential problems conceiving will not receive financial aid from the program.

Vague guidelines leave treatment in the hands of doctors who determine, on a case-by-case basis, for which patients they will recommend treatment. At the moment, the question of which women will be recommended to receive treatment rests entirely in the hands of doctors. Some women may be prevented from gaining financial aid from the government because their doctors do not recommend IVF treatment.

As mentioned earlier, an age restriction has been imposed on the IVF program. Some researchers have pointed out that this age limit should be set lower to reduce the chance of side effects of IVF and improve the success of IVF births.

This would also prevent the disappointment and emotional side effects that may occur.

Ontario is only covering part of the treatment cost. The expensive drugs that are required by the program still need to be paid for by the patient. If the patient lacks these funds this may render them ineligible for the program, therefore it is still not accessible to every woman that might need it.

Mishka Danchuk-Lauzon is a first-year student studying Life Sciences.

IVF is often used to treat infertility — a condition estimated to affect one in six couples in Ontario. The procedure helps patients towards a successful pregnancy where they would otherwise not be able to conceivet is estimated that one round of IVF can cost up to $10,000, which can take an immense toll on individuals and families’ finances.

With this hefty sum, having a child is out of reach for many; however, starting this December, Ontario will fund one round of in-vitro fertilization for women up to 43 years of age. This is to counteract the effects of infertility caused for whatever reason, regardless of family status or sexual orientation. This move by Ontario, if implemented and regulated effectively, will be a step forward for our health care system. 

Many of those against the government’s announcement to fund IVF raise the issue of wasting tax dollars. These individuals argue that Ontario’s tax dollars can be better spent on other health issues; however, government regulated funding for IVF could actually save hundreds of millions of dollars in the long run. What is more, many women undergoing IVF — for fear an unsuccessful procedure and its costs —— receive multiple embryos in one single IVF. This can lead to an increase of multiple births which can not only be more costly but also dangerous for these women. These babies are more likely to be born pre-term, and require C-sections and additional expenses in care after birth. In funding IVF, the hope is that the procedure will be regulated, and funding will only be granted to implant one embryo at a time. This would help to prevent multiple births and make the overall process safer for patients. Certainly, those conditions that affect a greater number of people should receive more funding for mass effect; however, issues that affect a smaller number of the population should not be ignored. Furthermore, Ontario’s population is aging as a whole, with birthrates declining. This program will not only benefit individuals looking to start families, but can also help the entirety of Ontario’s population to grow and increase fertility rates for coming years.

Infertility is a health issue, and it is about time that was treated like one by our government. If regulated, this program will save money for our healthcare system in the long term, which can be used to fund future health services. Although there is much to fight for in the future for health care coverage of other medical conditions, the funding of IVF is a step forward for healthcare in Ontario. 

Sandy Wang is a fourth-year studying Neuroscience and Psychology.

REINVENTing health

Global health students organize full-day conference on neglected diseases

REINVENTing health

The full-day conference, which was packed with debates, thought-provoking inquiries, and avid discussion brought serious topics pertaining to global health to the table and scrutinized them through a kaleidoscope of perspectives.

REINVENT brought together intellectuals from public health, international development, political science, history, anthropology, sociology and public policy at the George Ignatieff Theatre to discuss and analyze, with the goal of shaping our understandings of neglected diseases.

“REINVENT is an interdisciplinary, academic conference that will push participants to question the social inequalities that allow neglect to proliferate in the context of global public health,” explained Jessie MacAlpine, who helped run and organize the conference.

The conference began as an idea to promote discussion around neglected diseases, eventually receiving support from the Canadian Institute for Health Research via a grant in 2014. 

“We went through revisions and revisions,” said Abtin Parnia, who is pursuing a masters of public health and was the conference coordinator of REINVENT. “We really tried to grapple [with] how to best create this discussion in a way that generates a better and more complex perspective of the issues we have to deal with and the challenges in issues of diseases and neglect.”

The goal of REINVENT was not only to spread awareness about the issue of neglected diseases, but to promote an entirely new way of thinking about them. In the organizers own words, the goal of the aptly-named conference is to “reinvent our way of thinking about these issues so we can apply it to a broader spectrum of problems.”

This statement pinpoints a core issue discussed during the conference: effectively identifying the reason for the neglect of diseases. The conference challenged attendees to consider how we as a global society can drive change, when many of us have never even heard of the matters of concern. It was brought  to light how few people know about the 17 diseases discussed at the conference (to list a few: leishmaniasis, Chagas disease, schistosomiasis, and trematodiases) that affect more than 20 per cent of the world population.

“Awareness of this problem is a start towards, perhaps, reconceptualising how we deal with healthcare globally,” said historian Deborah Neil, who was one of the panelists at the conference.

How we deal with healthcare must not be solely based on knowledge in the medical domain, as diseases are not exclusively medical issues. They are matters that transcend the borders of sociology, history, economics, and politics as well.

The intersectional aspect of REINVENT allowed ideas and information to flow between these disciplines, ultimately promoting a comprehensive approach to neglected diseases.

Unlike other conferences, “it’s not about learning the facts, but about how to think,” Parnia explained.

When viewed in context of current and local news, perspectives often change.

“We grappled with some real issues in real time,” Parnia said. “As we were organizing, we were talking about the 2014 Ebola crisis. It wasn’t like looking at statistics; it was looking at things as they were happening.”

True to their word, the team constructed an innovative sphere for thoughts and discussion, complete with brilliant panels of insight from interdisciplinary specialists.

“[The conference] reinvented not only my way of thinking, but my whole understanding of global health.”

Queen’s professor proven Nobel

Prestigious physics prize awarded to Ontario researcher for neutrino research

Queen’s professor proven Nobel

The Nobel Prize committee has awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics to Arthur B. McDonald and Takaaki Kajita for establishing that neutrinos — a type of subatomic particle — possess mass.

McDonald has been the director of the Ontario’s Sudbury Neutrino Lab (SNOLAB) since 1989, and is also a professor emeritus at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Kajita is the director of the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research and a professor at the University of Tokyo. They will split the eight million Swedish kronor (almost $1.3 million CAD) prize.

Working on opposite sides of the world, the two physicists both found that neutrinos are able to oscillate from one state to another, which is a distinctive characteristic of particles with mass. So far, the researchers have found three different states: electron-type, muon-type and tau-type.

“This discovery requires additions to the Standard Model of Elementary Particles, in which neutrinos were postulated to have zero mass,” McDonald wrote to The Varsity by email. “The new properties of neutrinos must also be incorporated into cosmology, or how the Universe evolves, as well as into the physics of stars and supernovae.”

In 1998, Kajita published his results from the Super-Kamiokande detector, which is buried 1 kilometre under Mount Kamioka in Japan, demonstrating that the state of cosmic ray neutrinos shifted as they entered the atmosphere.

In complementary fashion, McDonald and his team of researchers were investigating neutrinos emanating from the sun using SNOLAB’s Neutrino detector, which is buried in an old nickel mine nearly two kilometres below ground. They also found that solar neutrinos shifted states as the entered the Earth’s atmosphere, confirming what Kajita’s results had postulated.

On the importance of SNOLAB’s location to solar neutrino detection, McDonald says, “At two km underground, it was the deepest site in the world available for the SNO experiment and it shielded out cosmic rays to the degree that they did not interfere at all with the detection of neutrinos from the sun.”

Neutrinos, Italian for “little neutral ones”, are universally plentiful, as they are constantly created by radioactive decay, supernovae, and solar nuclear fusion. Due to this abundance, it was puzzling to physicists that between one half and a third of the theoretical neutrino bombardment was reaching Earth. Kajita and McDonald’s observations that neutrino states oscillate as they enter Earth’s atmosphere shows that the missing neutrinos are there, just in a different state.

In their analysis of solar neutrinos, SNOLAB was also able to investigate and confirm various nuclear processes in the Sun’s core, which could be practically applied to the development of nuclear fusion and clean energy on Earth.

While the discovery of neutrino mass has been a triumph, McDonald says that there are many questions left unanswered including, he said, “attempts to determine the mass ordering of the three types, the absolute mass of all the neutrinos, asymmetries for neutrinos that can provide information related to how the anti-matter decayed away after the Big Bang, leaving a matter-dominated Universe as well as more detailed studies of solar models to refine models further.”

Is stress stressing you out?

One expert explains the science of keeping calm during midterm season

Is stress stressing you out?

With the onset of midterm season, students find themselves experiencing higher level of stress over the demands of approaching deadlines. Lifestyle medicine expert Dr. Sher Bovay shares scientifically proven ways to train for stress endurance and capacity, thereby improving performance. Stress is a physiological response, and it’s normal for individuals to experience acute stressors everyday. Acute stress can help you abruptly brake your car to avoid collision or motivate you to get started on an assignment. It is chronic stress, however, that becomes problematic.

“This [stress] is a primitive response to get the body moving, the stress response in acute phase is completely appropriate,” said Bovay. The same response is triggered in modern life despite the absence of an immediate threat.

Over time, the strain of consistent stress on the body becomes detrimental to one’s overall health. Bovay explained that perpetual stress can cause problems in the cardiovascular system, increase hypertension, induce gastrointestinal problems, eating disorders, and chronic mental health issues.

There are ways to train yourself to respond accordingly to stressors, whether your source of stress is midterms, demands of the workplace or personal relationships. Some stressors pose real threats, and while other sources are merely perceived, when unchecked, can become a cause of chronic stress.  “One of the things that you can do is to completely disengage from your work, from demands, having down time where one can give themselves mentally, a complete break,” said Bovay. While it might seem sensible to invest long hours in studying before a midterm, if a student finds themselves cramming, Bovay suggests that students approach study periods as a series of sprints rather than a marathon and to take mental breaks in between study period of ninety minutes.

A 2008 study by Richard Chambers, Barbara Chuen Yee Lo and Nicholas B. Allen shows improvement in attention and improved performance in test taking through the introduction of mindful meditation. Bovay suggests that students commit to a habit of practicing relaxation exercises like deep breathing, yoga, stretches, and meditation in their daily endeavours.

“Everybody is different” said Bovay, reminding us that susceptibility to stress and stress experience is specific to each individual. Aspects like the individual’s environment and genome vary, which affects the size of the amygdala. The amygdala is the gland responsible for producing stress hormones. Integrating relaxation exercises ten minutes a day has shown to shrink the amygdala, Bovay explained.

The three main stress management techniques that Bovay emphasizes are rest, diet, and exercise.  “For an athlete to perform, they need to train hard but they also need a break. Training harder does not mean they will receive better results. It’s that full engagement and full rest time[sic],” Bovay said while discussing the importance of rest and recovery in between intensive study sessions. 

Dr. Bovay herself is the mother to a third-year university student and she shared her astonishment toward her son’s study habit; “when my son is studying he has music [with] like 10 different things going on, how do you focus? That actually affects the effectiveness and these multiple elements can induce a stress response.”

“[The] mind can only entertain one thing at a time, so having all these things [going on], the depth of concentration will be affected by every interruption, and it takes about eight minutes to get back to that depth of concentration,” Bovay added.

To achieve this depth of concentration and to keep your stress levels in check, managing your diet plays an important role. Bovay suggested that students eat every three hours, leaning toward higher nutrient food, high quality protein and vegetables. She finds that it helps to think of your body as a car — you need to be fed well to achieve good mileage.

It’s also important to recognize that chronic stress is a precursor to mental illness like anxiety and depression. You might want to reward yourself after a long study session by having a talk with a friend, or spending time away from the stressor. Whether that is a short walk around the park, doing some push-ups in the middle of your living room, or even dancing by yourself in your room, it helps to rejuvenate even for a moment.“If you don’t have time, instead of going to the gym, even taking the time to walk to places helps. For example, get off one stop early and walk,” said Bovay. She also added that even walking ten to fifteen minutes, four times a week can help with sleep and stress.

Bovay explained that sleep and stress are intertwined, if you don’t sleep long enough it affects your stress level, you become easily irritable and are likely to feel overwhelmed. In the same way, if you are experiencing high levels of stress, it may be hard to fall asleep.

Physical activity, sleep, and diet are key components of healthy integrative treatment toward building stress capacity. Bovay believes that anyone can reap the benefits once they adopt these simple habits.  It’s also important that students seek help if they are feeling overwhelmed and find someone to talk to during a stressful period.