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Women in STEM: Marianne Hatzopoulou

How her interdisciplinary contributions could improve the quality of urban life

Women in STEM: Marianne Hatzopoulou

Associate Professor Marianne Hatzopoulou researches transportation and air quality at U of T’s Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering. She discussed her experience as a woman professor in the most male-dominated field in STEM to The Varsity, and why she believes that positive self-perception is crucial for women to succeed in STEM fields. 

What it means to be an engineer

Hatzopoulou’s research team looks at the generation of vehicle emissions, emission dispersal in urban areas, the effects of emissions on populations, and the population’s exposure to air pollution. 

The goal of her research is to advise new policymakers and government agencies to make informed decisions about investing in transportation. Her advisement helps reduce the emission of greenhouse gases associated with these investments, which could improve both air quality and public health in cities.

This interdisciplinary work is not classified as traditional civil engineering. 

Civil engineering is defined by the U of T program website as the “design, construction and maintenance of structures and infrastructure.” 

Following her completion of her Bachelor’s of Science in physics in 1999, she grew interested in research that was not at the time under the umbrella of physics research. This led her to study civil engineering, completing a Master of Science in 2001, and a Ph.D. in the field at U of T in 2008.

“[The way] I identify as being a civil engineer,” explained Professor Hatzopoulou, “is [with] the kind of questions that I am asking and to whom they are relevant.”

The reality of research

To Hatzopoulou, interdisciplinary research is essential to solving major problems in the world. “The questions the world is asking,” she said, “Are so complex that there is no single discipline that can actually answer those questions.” 

She has applied her research to solving everyday problems through an online tool named the Clean Ride Mapper

The Clean Ride Mapper is a map that allows cyclists to plan their routes and navigate Toronto with minimal exposure to air pollutants. 

The idea came from a need to disseminate research results. It originated from a map generated of sampling campaigns, which was then developed into a statistical model to spatially interpolate air pollution in different locations. 

“It wasn’t a research project,” she explained, “It’s really a dissemination project. It’s a way to disseminate research results in a way that’s meaningful for the public.” 

Research dissemination is essential according to Professor Hatzopoulou, as “people have the right” to access research. 

The power of perception

The most difficult gender-based challenge she has experienced is the perception of her as a woman in engineering. 

“Sometimes you’re the only one around the table participating in decision-making at any different level,” she explained. “It has nothing to do with your capability — it has to do with how people perceive you.”

“The challenge is always in the sense of making yourself heard, making sure that your opinions are actually weighed at the same level as anyone else’s opinion.”

The importance of woman role models

Throughout a 12-year academic career, Hatzopoulou had only one course with a woman professor.

While she was not mentored by a woman, she realizes the importance of woman interaction and support through her woman graduate students. 

“Being in academia,” she explained, “you constantly feel that you are not doing enough.”

What Hatzopoulou is describing is imposter syndrome. 

Imposter syndrome was defined by the Scientific American as “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” 

She reinforces the concept to her students, especially women, that the effects they may experience from imposter syndrome stem from flawed self-perception, rather than a lack of genuine ability. 

“It’s the sense that… most women constantly feel that they’re less able, and [it] has nothing to do with their abilities.”

Women, stressed Hatzopoulou, are “as able.”

Opinion: Mental health services for youth don’t need to be inaccessible

A growing body of research sheds light on solutions to unique obstacles faced by youth

Opinion: Mental health services for youth don’t need to be inaccessible

This past year alone marks the deaths by suicide of three students at the University of Toronto. Their aftermath opened a barrage of criticisms toward the administration for their lax services for at-risk youth. While alarm bells have been rung for increased mental health and substance use services across campus, systemic change has been slow to come.

Indeed, the issue of mental health accessibility for youth — on and off campus, throughout the province, and across the country — remains a pressing policy and health care concern affecting millions of Canadians.

Among the sobering statistics that shroud youth mental health are the following: some 12.6 per cent of people under 18 years of age in Canada experience mental health and substance use disorders, while Statistics Canada cites suicide as the second most common cause of death, after accidents, among youth aged 15 and over. Importantly, Indigenous youth are disproportionately affected by suicide and addiction, and little research thus far has focused on this issue.

Many youth facing mental health challenges avoid treatment

Who are ‘youth,’ anyway? The McCain Centre for Child, Youth & Family Mental Health at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) roughly categorizes those ages 12–25 within this demographic, though CAMH more broadly includes those up to 29 years old in their definition.

Unquestioningly, this demographic is particularly susceptible to various mental health challenges as they pass through the hoops of development: commencing and finishing a university or college degree or vocational program, navigating the ebbs and flows of intimate relationships, and searching for employment.

Despite numerous treatment options available for youth, many still go untreated. Why is this? The reasons are plentiful: youth’s preference for self-managing, societal stigma, lack of assessments and screening, and even system fragmentation. With these barriers in mind, how can Canada’s health care system improve and cater diligently and efficaciously to youth across the country? 

The solutions, too, are plentiful

When I asked Dr. Joanna Henderson, Director of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Centre for Child, Youth, and Family Mental Health at CAMH, and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at U of T, if mental health services for youth are adequate, or even optimal, her answer was a hard no.

Henderson has worked with many teams and professionals to increase mental health and substance use services for youth. She explained that good services involve “creating spaces for young people who can walk in without an appointment or referral, and access high quality mental health and substance use services as an entry point.”

Long wait times, however, are a ubiquitously understood concern across the health care continuum, leaving young people with few, and often inadequate, options to choose from. The trope of “service delayed, service denied” captures this concern. 

“When young people have to wait for service, several things happen,” Henderson said. “One, the symptoms they were originally presenting for become exacerbated, so they get worse. Two, the impact on their functioning can have significant long-term consequences. And three, the overall [health] outcomes are poorer.”

“From a system perspective, that means our delays have increased the cost of providing care to young people.”

In Canada alone, the economic burden of mental illness is high, with an estimated 51 billion dollars spent per year. This includes “health care costs, lost productivity, and a reduction of various quality-of-life health indicators.”

To be clear, this also means that young people requiring mental health and substance use support resort to emergency rooms where they may be hastily ushered in and out, without receiving thorough long-term care. 

So what do youth-friendly mental health and substance use services look like? Among the many salient features, they are inclusive, safe, confidential, bright, and comfortable. Equally as critical, however, is that they involve consulting with youth for their input. 

“How is it that the whole commercial for-profit industry figures out how to sell their product or their service?” Henderson asked. “You engage with and learn from consumers. We fail to do that in mental health and in health largely.” 

Solutions to increase accessibility of mental health services for youth

The research on this is clear. A cardinal rule for youth-friendly services involves youth actively engaging with the system — from policy development to the implementation of strategies and programs. 

We know that youth-friendly services can benefit immeasurably by having youth co-design these spaces, but we also know that to do so, current systems that feature the old-fashioned clinical model of care, whereby one presents a set of symptoms and is discreetly greeted, treated, and discharged, ought to be neatly folded and set aside for more modern and progressive models. 

An optimal system, therefore, requires a flexible model of care. For starters, it’s making programs visible to youth so that they know where they can go when they need help, and one they can choose to enter and leave as they wish, without the rigidity of a treatment timeline and discharge date.

This includes drop-in visits and telephone conversations, where hours of operation are accessible, such as during weekends and evenings when youth would not need to worry about missing school or work. Artistic and innovative approaches to treatment, emphasizing non-verbal methods of communication such as music and drama therapy, could also be more accessible to youth. 

Additionally, youth-friendly mental health and substance use services ought to be accessible in communities where public transit exists. Costs, too, must be fair and inexpensive, as Hawke and colleagues note in their recently published paper on this topic: “Youth who cannot afford services will not likely access them.” 

Inclusivity mandates changing outreach platforms and engaging with technology to relate to and connect with youth. Social media platforms are pertinent sites of connection, as are websites that are colourful, up-to-date, and practical.

Steering clear from “disease language,” Henderson remarks, can shift the conversation away from pathologizing and lead youth to feel genuinely heard and understood.

Given also the wide range of development during this period of one’s life, youth services ought to be comprehensive and individualistic. There is no one-size-fits-all model, and clumping youth together under a monolithic category fails to address the transient and not-so-transient challenges children and adults experience.   

The solutions to providing youth-friendly services are exhaustive, albeit refreshingly so. It’s good to know that we matter, but it’s perhaps more important to know that the system, warts and all, is gradually shifting to welcome youth input.

This can be achieved by hiring caregivers whom young people can bond and relate to, and expanding our very conceptions of mental health and the unique pins and needles experienced by every young person.

If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
  • Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
  • Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

How do you fit 14 billion years of cosmic history into a 30-minute talk?

A theoretical astrophysicist tells the story of the universe in AstroTour talk

How do you fit 14 billion years of cosmic history into a 30-minute talk?

Dr. Patrick Breysse, a postdoctoral researcher at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, dragged our minds back in time, painted a picture of the universe, and explained how laughably inadequate the term “Big Bang” is at capturing the birth of our reality, in a public talk delivered at U of T on August 1.

How early conceptions of the universe evolved over time

The talk, titled “A Brief History of Everything,” was attended by around 300 audience members at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology. Breysse opened with an introduction to the works of American astronomers Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Edwin Hubble in the early 1900s.

At that time, philosophers believed that the Milky Way was at the centre of the universe and was surrounded by a sea of unchanging, unmoving stars. But the discovery of massive swirling clouds called spiral nebulae threw a wrench in that model. 

“There was a great debate around [1908 about] whether these were little gas clouds in our galaxy or enormous things outside of it,” explained Breysse.

Leavitt noticed the blinking of special stars called Cepheid variables, and she figured out that the speed of this blinking could tell us how bright the star is. Hubble used this to figure out how far bright stars are. The giant cluster of stars they quantified eventually became known as the modern galaxies. 

Hubble also showed that these clusters of stars are separate from the Milky Way. The closest galaxy to us, Andromeda, is a whopping 24 quintillion kilometres away — that’s eighteen zeros!

“If I say Andromeda is as far as the moon is away from us, as the moon is from the earth, then the earth would have to be the size of a virus,” noted Breysse.

Hubble concluded that everything in the universe was moving away from us, and so there must have been a point when everything was together, and that an explosion resulted in this scattering of matter.

Decades of investigation later, we know that we are not at the centre of the universe, but are instead surrounded by massive constellations of massive galaxies and cosmic phenomena. 

“Astronomy is, if anything, good for telling you, you are not special in any comprehensive way!”

How theoretical physics underpins our current understanding

From the centre-of-the-universe conception, Breysse brought us up to date with the Lambda Cold Dark Matter model of the universe. This model is, in essence, the Big Bang Theory – the universe started out in a “hot dense state, and then nearly 14 billion years ago,” something happened and here we are.

Astronomers study the origin of the universe by constructing images of cosmic webs of matter and empty space using powerful telescopes and satellites. These researchers glean knowledge from ergo-planetary discs, and learn about the birth of galaxies from nebulae. 

Despite all this, there is a two-billion-year gap in our knowledge. Breysse and his research team use microwaves and intensity mappings to construct an idea of what our cosmic past might have looked like – the universe’s “baby pictures.”

“Every telescope is secretly a time machine,” said Breysse. “Telescopes look at light, and light travels at a constant speed.”

As light travels at nearly 300,000 kilometres per second, images captured from the distant reaches of the universe represent moments taken from the past. This is accounted for by the time it takes for the light to reach our instruments.

The further out we take observations from, the closer we get to the moment the universe originated.

Reactions from audience members

Audience members were given the opportunity to ask questions and express their appreciation at the end of the evening. 

“It was a fun and informative talk. He made a topic that’s quite difficult to understand simple, and did it in an entertaining way,” said Maeesha Mahbub, a third-year Fundamental Genetics and its Applications specialist, to The Varsity

The audience was also, surprisingly, filled with children from the neighbouring communities accompanied by their families. One brave nine-year-old, Leffe Monette, enthusiastically asked Breysse questions during the talk.

“I really enjoyed the talk! I liked how he showed us how far the other galaxies are,” said Leffe, a student of St. Michael’s College School. “I want to be a [space] scientist!”

Following the talk, audience members were given the chance to view Saturn and Jupiter through telescopes from U of T’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics atop McLennan Physical Libraries.

AstroTours also set up a free planetarium show for audience members following Breysse’s talk, conveying further information on the vast expanse of the universe to interested attendees.

Dr. David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis urge U of T students to vote “Climate First”

Climate crisis should be a top priority for voters in the federal election, say the activists

Dr. David Suzuki and Stephen Lewis urge U of T students to vote “Climate First”

Dr. David Suzuki, a prominent Canadian environmentalist and author, and Stephen Lewis, a respected humanitarian and former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations (UN), are advocating for the climate crisis to be a key issue in Canada’s upcoming federal election.

As part of a tour called “Climate First,” Suzuki, Lewis, and Indigenous activist and singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie are speaking about their advocacy at U of T’s Convocation Hall on September 14

The environmentalists are advocating for U of T students to support candidates who prioritize fighting the climate crisis in this year’s election on October 21.

The opportunity of the upcoming federal election

In the 2015 Canadian federal election, the Liberal Party of Canada won a parliamentary majority with the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

As the Canadian federal election is fast approaching, Suzuki and Lewis have felt it crucial to draw voters’ attention to the effect this election’s result could potentially have on climate change.

Suzuki and Lewis spoke to The Varsity about their perspectives. “We want the next four years for Canada to play a leading role internationally in getting the world to recognize that we are in danger of self-destruction if we don’t respond dramatically,” explained Lewis.

Lewis continued by listing a series of catastrophic consequences of significant rise in average global temperature, including “the destruction of agricultural land, the melting of the polar caps, the inundation of the coastal regions, the way in which people are experiencing upheaval, [and] millions of [people displaced by the crisis] as it gets worse and worse.”

Controversy on 11 years left to save the climate

Lewis highlighted the urgency of the matter, saying that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has “made it clear that there are only 11 years left to save the planet.”

The IPCC is an association of the UN that aims to provide regular scientific assessments of the climate crisis.

The deadline has been reaffirmed by UN General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, according to a press release.

However, the widespread stance that there are 11 years left to save the climate has been controversial among climate scientists.

“We don’t have 12 years to prevent climate change — we have no time,” said Dr. Kate Marvel, a NASA scientist, in a January 2019 interview with Axios. “[C]limate change isn’t a cliff we fall off — it’s a slope we slide down.”

Scientists writing in Nature Climate Change have also challenged the legitimacy of setting a deadline for the climate crisis, though research institutes such as Concordia University maintain that a tipping point could be in 11 years.

Regardless of the deadline’s controversy, 97 per cent of scientists agree that climate change is caused by humans, according to NASA. Both Marvel and the writers of the Nature opinion piece agree that the climate crisis is an urgent issue that people should address.

How U of T students can fight the climate crisis in the upcoming election

When it comes to what U of T students can do to help fight climate change, Suzuki encourages them to positively get involved in voting for the election.

Since young adults from the ages of 18–22 traditionally have a poor record of voting, Suzuki thinks it necessary for current U of T students to be aware of the “big decisions” the government can make on the issue of climate change. 

“We want to remind the students at the University of Toronto that they’re going to face [the consequences of the climate crisis],” reinforced Lewis.

Suzuki encouraged voters to treat climate crisis advocacy as warfare. Framing the crisis this way, he added, enables voters and political representatives to “respond as a single country, as if we were going to war.”

Students should attend campaign meetings to raise the issue of the climate crisis, Lewis noted, and advocate to their parents and friends about the urgency of the crisis. Crucially, said Lewis and Suzuki, students should prioritize the climate crisis at the ballot box.

“You ought to be voting for people that are saying that climate is an issue of the highest priority,” said Suzuki.