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Highlights of 2017–2018

As the semester wraps up, The Varsity’s Science contributors share their memorable experiences and most interesting tidbits from this school year.
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In the 1960s, scientists discovered Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR) — traces of radiation in space from the Big Bang. On a human scale, the CMBR is uniform in temperature, but incredibly precise measurements have located its minute temperature fluctuations. These anisotropies are deeply scrutinized by cosmologists trying to understand the early universe.

In my PHY289 seminar course, I had the privilege of listening to Raman Sundrum, a professor from the University of Maryland, explain one of the more startling properties of CMBR anisotropies: their fractal nature. Fractals are a beautiful realm of mathematics that describe the nature of shapes that are self-similar and identical when zoomed in or zoomed out. Think of the Amazon: sinuously curved on a topological map and equally snakelike as it rushes past the shade-laden trees of the jungle.

CMBR temperature anisotropies are, to be more precise, stochastic fractals, so their scale-independent consistency does not reveal itself without the aid of statistical analysis. Yet it is no large exaggeration — and I checked with Professor Sundrum — to say that the CMBR, the snapshot of our universe’s infancy, is in some sense like the phenomena we might find here on Earth. Such examples include the branching arcs of lightning in a spring storm or the rabbit hole whorls of a seashell. They are ubiquitous in nature and surround us from the form of the ceilings of the Alhambra to the cosmic scales of space.

— Tahmeed Shafiq is a first-year student studying Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

In my CJH332 — Neurobiology of the Synapse class, I learned that some research has suggested that stress is as transmissible as the flu virus. This made me think of the many instances when I sat at the back of the room during an exam, looking at everyone in front of me, my mind rampant with stressful thoughts.

I would look around the room and watch people scratch their head vigorously or watch someone leave the exam room. The anxiety used to weigh on me so much that being in the exam room started to stress me out more than the exam itself.

After learning about how stress can be transmissible, I started sitting at the front of the exam room, where I would only be aware of myself and no one else. It is pretty amazing how something I learned in class unexpectedly changed my behaviour in a positive and meaningful way.

— Charmaine Nyakonda is a third-year student studying Neuroscience and Health Studies.

Life in a biochemistry lab is never boring: there are curious people, interesting facts, and lots of fun experiments. Still, when you are in the process of discovering just how correct Edison was in saying that there are 10,000 ways that things don’t work, lab duties can sometimes feel like the tagline from Groundhog Day: “He’s having the worst day of his life… over, and over.”

You emerge after a long day of work, the sun has set, and the shadow of a failed experiment follows you home by moonlight. Waking up the next day, the realization hits that you’ve got to do it all over again — but this time, you have a slightly better understanding of what lies ahead: tweaks to the protocol, followed by slightly more promising failures day after day.

That was how my academic year started until one day, contrary to the dark omen of a snowstorm outside the window, a shimmering diffraction of light under the microscope met my eye, hinting at success — a protein crystal. As they say, hope springs eternal in a science lab. There are always peaks and troughs when working, depending on expectations and the experimental results. In tough times, perseverance is the only way to survive.

— Vaibhav Bhandari is a graduate student in the Department of Biochemistry.

This year I had the honour of taking BIO130 — Molecular and Cell Biology with Professor Kenneth Yip, who is by far the funniest professor I’ve met at U of T. He has a way of teaching biology — a subject synonymous with ‘boring’ and ‘memorization-oriented’ for many — that makes me want to attend every 6:00–9:00 pm lecture.

His pre-lecture preamble indulges our scientific curiosities and makes us actually laugh out loud. He shows us funny science commercials, cheesy biology pick-up lines, and amazingly relevant memes to explain that science isn’t just about sitting in a lecture hall and taking notes. Being a scientist doesn’t mean that you are always serious all the time.

My favourite moment was when he explained nanotechnology with unbelievable ease: “We just use membranes to send a drug or other substances to a target location in the body — that’s nanotechnology!” That changed my life.

— Anya Rakhecha is a first-year Life Sciences student.                                                                        

With the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) Friday Night Live (FNL) and the Art Gallery of Ontario’s First Thursdays becoming popular party destinations, museums and art galleries are beginning to look more and more like night clubs — and I think that is fantastic. In a trick-like manner, these events beckon you to come for the drinks and the DJs, but you end up staying for the dinosaurs. While lately events like these have helped renew my interest in these institutions, it was a course I took this fall that showed me how critically important our museums are.

In EEB466 — Approaches to the Study of Biodiversity, I had the privilege of visiting the ROM’s collections, which are all the specimens behind closed doors. In fact, one of the things that I learned in this class is that the majority of museum specimens are hidden from the public eye.

Although hidden, these specimens are not useless — it turns out that dead things are extraordinarily useful for researching the living. By providing a snapshot in time, museum specimens have been used to study the effects of past climate change, helping scientists make informed predictions about the effects of the global warming of today. Specimens have even been used to solve mysteries: through testing preserved museums’ specimens, it was discovered that the virus responsible for the 1918 flu epidemic likely did not originate in birds, as previously thought.

Beyond appreciating the scientific importance of museums, this class allowed me to experience childlike wonder again by showing me marine isopods larger than my torso and extinct bird species. Although it was the smallest specimen I saw, the 300-million-year-old fish vertebrae I got to hold in the palm of my hand during a lab session was the turning point for how I thought about museums.

To know that life on Earth is old and ever-prospering was humbling. At the ROM, FNL-goers dance alongside Futalognkosaurus and are among hundreds of millions of years of life. It is our duty to preserve it for a few hundred million more.

— Clara Thaysen is a fifth-year student studying Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She is an Associate Science Editor at The Varsity.