U of T team wins silver at international synthetic biology competition

Students developed alternative wastewater cleaning system using genetically engineered bacteria

U of T team wins silver at international synthetic biology competition

A U of T team took home a silver medal at this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Giant Jamboree competition for their project on an “environmentally friendly and economically feasible” way to clean wastewater using genetically engineered bacteria.

The competition, held on October 24–28 in Boston, Massachusetts, brought together more than 6,000 students and professionals of all levels and countries to showcase achievements in synthetic biology.

In trying to find an alternative wastewater cleaning solution, the U of T team used biomass flotation for bioremediation processes.

“We hypothesized that one could genetically engineer E. coli to bind to waste particles, and then float to the surface of the reactor, allowing for easy E. coli removal,” wrote the team in their drylab model.

“We have engineered bacteria to float by producing gas vesicles, and now we are trying to get these bacteria to bind pollutants so that they can float up with them and separate them from wastewater,” wrote Vice-President Internal Jack Castelli to The Varsity. The team has also mathematically modelled a bioreactor platform that makes use of their system.

According to President Amy Yeung, the group came up with the idea by talking to graduate students at their lab and reading scientific literature, and then searching for novel tools to find solutions to the problems they encountered.

“Coming across the use of gas vesicle in ultrasound imaging we also thought that it could be expressed in bacteria and used as a novel wastewater cleaning solution. So naturally, we decided to combine the two,” wrote Yeung.

When asked about any challenges they faced during their project, Lab Manager Tashi Rastogi said that the group had problems troubleshooting their genetically engineered constructs in the lab.

“With time we realised the importance of exercising reflexivity in our scientific process,” wrote Rastogi.

She also credited advice from graduate mentors in helping the group understand “both the biological systems [they] worked to engineer and the needs of the industrial systems [they] were designing [their] solution for.”

“The overarching goal of our project is to construct an efficient and inexpensive bio-remediation system, capable of separating pollutants from wastewater using bacteria,” wrote Castelli, who added that current processes are very costly and not environmentally friendly.

“If you have a substrate of interest that cells can bind or uptake, say heavy metals, and that’s present in a liquid medium, say mining effluent, then you could adapt the system to bind to or uptake the substrate and remove it from the medium,” he continued.

“This same logic can then be applied to microplastics, hormones, pharmaceuticals and other molecules of interest in other industries.”

The team included over 30 U of T students from across the Faculty of Arts & Science and the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. This is the third medal that U of T has won since the club was founded in 2007.

The competition is run by the iGEM Foundation, which has its roots in an independent study course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since its founding in 2003, it has grown into the non-profit organization that runs this international competition.

The Explainer: 20 Calls to Action for Indigenous reconciliation at U of T

Faculty of Arts & Sciences calls for Indigenous class requirement, expanded support services for Indigenous students

The Explainer: 20 Calls to Action for Indigenous reconciliation at U of T

The creation of new courses to study Indigenous languages and culture, the construction of an Indigenous College, and an expansion of support services for Indigenous students in the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS) were called for in a report by the Decanal Working Group (DWG), an internal FAS commission.

The report was presented by FAS Dean David Cameron to the FAS Council in February.

The fulfilment of a key recommendation to create and construct a new “Indigenous College with Residence Space” was announced at a Massey College event on September 17. But the recommendation was only one of twenty Calls to Action released in a report by the DWG, which aim to ensure “equal opportunity” for academic achievement by Indigenous students, preserve “forms of cultural expression” of Indigenous societies, and support academic research into Indigenous history and culture at U of T.

New coursework on Indigenous languages and culture

In response to Call #10, the FAS supported plans for the Centre for Indigenous Studies (CIS) to develop Programs of Study “based on Indigenous languages such as Anishinaabemowin, Kanien’kéha, [and] Inuktitut.”

The CIS is a multi-departmental teaching and research group for staff and students involved in Indigenous studies. The suggested programs were based on existing programs in the French Department, described in the table below, sourced from the report.

SCREENSHOT VIA FAS REPORT ON INDIGENOUS TEACHING AND LEARNING (Click to Expand)

Call #13 was for the development of “sufficient courses to support a 0.5 FCE breadth requirement in Indigenous Studies/Contemporary Issues,” preferably by 2022.

While the DWG did not call for a mandatory 0.5 FCE breadth requirement in the near future, its report did recommend that the FAS “revise breadth regulations to require that each student complete at least one breadth requirement” in Indigenous studies, once “sufficient appropriate offerings exist within each breadth category.”

The categories include “systems of knowledge [of local Indigenous communities]; the current structure and history of settler colonialism in Canada, and the residential school system.”

Such offerings may be available by 2022, should the Call to Action be implemented.

Call #16 was for the establishment of “land-based pedagogies”— that is, outdoor-based courses and/or field excursions designed for the study of the relationship between Indigenous cultures and nature.

In a similar vein, Call #17 addresses the creation of opportunities for students to participate in Indigenous language learning immersion, as well as community service and Work Study experiences.

The environment for language immersion “could start as a floor in an existing residence of an existing college.” The community service and Work Study program may take place in Indigenous communities.

Review of existing coursework on Indigenous studies

The FAS also called for a review to ensure that current “course content [within the FAS] concerning Indigenous peoples reflects best practices and contemporary scholarship,” via the development and circulation of informational resources to faculty.

There is also a call to increase awareness among “current and prospective students” of Indigenous coursework currently available, with the creation of an Indigenous Teaching and Learning course guide as a “good first step.”

Development of a graduate program and new spaces for Indigenous studies

Call #1 was for the construction of an Indigenous College available to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, which was announced in the Massey College event.

There is also a call for the development of a graduate program in Indigenous Studies, which is not currently offered by U of T but is offered by Trent University, the University of Alberta, the University of Manitoba, and the University of Saskatchewan. The program would be housed within the CIS.

Accommodating for these new programs requires the expansion of physical space available for the CIS, which may be fulfilled through the realization of Call #1.

Employment of Indigenous staff members and staff training on Indigenous issues

The hiring of Indigenous staff for registrarial positions, the development of training for registrarial and student support staff about issues especially relevant to Indigenous students, and an effort to increase awareness among staff about on-campus services available for Indigenous students was recommended in Call #6.

An increase in the number of Elders and Traditional Healers employed by U of T, as well as verification that their services will be accessible to “Indigenous Two-Spirited, LGBTQ and genderfluid students” was recommended by Call #9.

A Two-Spirited student would identify with a non-binary gender person officially recognized by Elders of an Indigenous community.

Call #14 was for an increase in the “number of Indigenous faculty and staff who have knowledge of Indigenous languages and culture” by 2027.

One of the calls to action wants to ensure that all FAS staff members are provided with critical race analysis training about the relationships between Canada and Indigenous people.

Following that, the provision of ongoing resources for faculty who wish to integrate Indigenous perspectives within existing courses — such as through team teaching, guest speakers, and field trips — was recommended by Call #19.

Expansions of support systems for Indigenous students

The report also called for new academic supports, a strategy to increase Indigenous student enrolment, as well as “networks of support for those engaged in Indigenous Teaching and Learning.”

Academic supports would include First Year Learning Communities, and networks of support could be created through events such as annual research fairs about Indigenous knowledge.

Leadership positions to advise on these changes

The DWG has also called for the creation of a leadership position within the Dean’s office to coordinate the implementation of the Calls to Action.

Call #5 was for the creation of a Dean’s Advisory Group on Indigenous Teaching and Learning to “follow through on the recommendations of this report.” The FAS has acted upon this, and has appointed Professor Pamela Klassen, Vice-Dean Undergraduate, and Professor Susan Hill, Director of the Centre for Indigenous Studies, as co-chairs.

In addition, Call #20 was for the Dean to formally respond to the DWG’s report, and to provide a road-map for implementation.

The DWG presented a possible timeline for the implementation of the Calls to Action of its report, as captured below:

SCREENSHOT VIA FAS REPORT ON INDIGENOUS TEACHING AND LEARNING (Click to Expand)

Administrative delays only add to student stress

From delays in posting marks on ACORN to the untimely release of the exam schedule, the Faculty of Arts & Science should be more concerned with timeliness

Administrative delays only add to student stress

Over the past few months, students in the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS) have been subjected to various inconveniences. At the beginning of the winter semester, marks for several courses from the fall semester were not available on ACORN, with some marks not posted until as late as January 17. Students in CSC236, CSC324, CSC411, STA347, JAV200, and ARC251 were particularly affected by this.

The FAS did not offer a satisfactory explanation or an apology. Instead, Deborah Robinson, Faculty Registrar and Director of Undergraduate Academic Services, excused the delay by stating that most students had their marks by January 11.

More recently, “technical issues” caused a delay in the release of the FAS exam schedule. Some students did manage to access the schedule after refreshing the page several times, creating a situation in which only a small handful of students were able to access what should have been available to all.

Though the exam schedule was eventually released online after a couple of days, the FAS failed to fully explain what the exact nature of the problem was, let alone issue any kind of apology. They released a GIF of a cheerful student when the exam timetable finally became available.

Both of these delays may seem like mere inconveniences, but they can, in fact, cause real problems for students. The delayed first semester grades resulted in a great deal of uncertainty: some students found themselves unsure if they were able to apply to a certain program of study, if they had fulfilled necessary prerequisites, or if they needed to retake any classes to obtain a credit or improve their marks.

And while it is fortunate that the exam schedule was posted shortly after the scheduled release date, one can imagine the many potential problems that can come from not knowing your exam schedule. Deferring exams, or rescheduling them due to conflicts, can be an onerous process in and of itself, while uncertainty in the schedule can also delay students’ ability to make summer plans.

After these delays, the best the FAS has managed to offer its students has been to thank them for being patient. What they should have done instead was explain what was going on and clarify any technical issues while also telling students how those issues were being addressed, even if they were unable to specify a timeline.

It’s also important for students to know if these delays are merely flukes in a system that generally works well, or if they are symbolic of larger technical or organizational problems in the FAS. Students have a right to know what’s going on, especially with so much at stake. The consequences of grade delays can be very serious — they can even impact the educational and career tracks of students who need their grades to apply to graduate programs or jobs.

Incidentally, technical difficulties at U of T do not just occur within the FAS. In May 2017, thousands of U of T email accounts were inaccessible for days after access was meant to be restored. However, in that instance, there was a clear explanation: the accounts had been temporarily deactivated to facilitate their transfer to a more local data centre. The lack of access was obviously frustrating, but at least we all understood the source of the problem and knew that it was unlikely to happen again.

Hopefully the posting of the exam schedule signals the end of the FAS’s technical issues. If not, I hope that student frustration will at least encourage the FAS to be more open about the causes of any future issues as they take steps to fix them.

Adina Heisler is a third-year student at University College studying English and Women and Gender Studies. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.

Arts & Science marks posted on ACORN after delay for some courses

Students expressed concern when fall marks weren’t back by January 15

Arts & Science marks posted on ACORN after delay for some courses

As of January 17, all submitted marks from the Faculty of Arts & Science have been posted on ACORN after some students expressed concern that their grades were not yet posted. The only remaining exceptions are some students in Individual Studies courses or those who deferred an exam.

The faculty’s submission timeline requires that all marks be submitted by January 11 to be reviewed by their corresponding department. Professors have seven days to grade and submit the marks, not counting winter break or weekends. This allows exams taken on the last day of the exam period to have the same seven-day timeline.

Deborah Robinson, Faculty Registrar and Director of Undergraduate Academic Services, told The Varsity that by January 11, 98.1 per cent of courses had their marks posted on ACORN. According to Robinson, the remaining 1.9 per cent had grades posted by January 17. “Not very many courses were late.”

Some students voiced concern about the time they received their grades largely due to the fact that certain fall semester courses were prerequisites for winter semester courses.

Marking delay in some courses leaves students without first-semester grades

Arts & Science registrar says marks should be posted by mid-January

Marking delay in some courses leaves students without first-semester grades

Students in at least six undergraduate courses have yet to receive their marks from the first semester, a delay that has not been explained by the university as of yet.

The Faculty of Arts & Science registrar has tweeted that grades should be available on ACORN by mid-January and has thanked students for their patience.

Students took to online forums over the past week to voice their concerns regarding the missing grades, largely among Computer Science classes.

“So, I’m over a week into the winter semester, and I don’t know whether I should be re-attempting the course (in order to get into the POSt), or continuing my studies in computer science,” wrote reddit user DMihai on the U of T subreddit. “I was hoping I would be out of this limbo soon. Since admission into the computer science post is already incredibly stressful, releasing CSC236 marks this late is insulting.”

Komania, another Reddit user in a different computer science course, CSC324, wrote that prior to writing their final exam on December 16, the class had only 20 per cent of their total mark returned. “I’m venting because I’m really annoyed. I just wish there would be some communication but [the professor] just ignores all of us. I pay $13,000 in tuition and they can’t hire enough TAs to adequately mark.”

Reddit user jjstat4 expressed concern for students who have to decide on back-up courses if they fail CSC236, “as the wait-list end date and drop date rapidly approaches.”

As of press time, marks for CSC236, CSC324, CSC411, STA347, JAV200, and ARC251 have not been posted to ACORN.

U of T Media Relations did not respond to The Varsity‘s inquiries on the grading delays by press time.

If you are a student who has been affected by the grading delay, The Varsity would like to hear from you. Email deputynews@thevarsity.ca with tips.

Editor’s Note (January 17): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that CSC165 had not released course grades by January 15. CSC165 had, in fact, released course grades by January 15. 

Arts & Science students report general course enrolment difficulties

Problems with functionality of ACORN, ROSI

Arts & Science students report general course enrolment difficulties

Following the updated procedures, many students experienced problems with course enrolment on August 5.

After reports of ACORN not working on that date, the official U of T ACORN Twitter account encouraged students to enrol with ROSI.

Ana Fonseca, second-year Neuroscience and Physiology student, told The Varsity that she was not able to log into ACORN until two hours after her start time; she was able to log in to ROSI 45 minutes after her start time and enrol in a course.

After logging into ACORN later on, Fonseca discovered that she was not enroled in her course, perhaps due to a malfunction in ROSI; by this time the waitlist had gone up by 20 spots. Regarding her overall experience, Fonseca said, “It was so much more stress than it should have been.”

Jay Zuo, second-year Computer Science student, said that U of T had “failed us again.” He said both ACORN and ROSI were unresponsive for him from approximately 10:30 am to 12:00 pm.

According to Zuo, there was a glitch in ROSI that may have given some students an unfair advantage over others while enroling in courses: “If you clicked the enrol button repeatedly on ROSI, then click any section on the grey sidebar, six out of 10 times you will be enroled in said course, while others wait fruitlessly.”

U of T Media Relations Director Althea Blackburn-Evans commented on the problems students faced during course enrolment: “Unfortunately, efforts to alleviate potential overload on ACORN didn’t have the desired effect,” she explained.

The university was planning to have ACORN permanently replace ROSI by late 2016; Blackburn-Evans, told The Varsity that “[ROSI] will remain active until we have a good solution in place.”

Blackburn-Evans noted one positive outcome of the staggered enrolment times: students were able to contact staff directly when they encountered problems, as the 9:00 am start time aligned with the start of the business day.

“We’re very focused on improving the enrolment experience for students, and Arts & Science will continue to work with the ACORN team to ensure the new system is stable during heavy enrolment periods,” said Blackburn-Evans.

Faculty of Arts & Science introduces timetable maker

Similar tools already offered by UTM, third-party developers

Faculty of Arts & Science introduces timetable maker

The Faculty of Arts & Science has launched an official timetable planner, which allows students to plan the courses they would like to take.

It is similar to unofficial timetable planning websites such as Griddy, Findacourse, and Semester.ly.  “Other timetabling services may not provide the latest information, and do not include important information about enrolment controls,” reads an email sent to students by the Office of the Faculty Registrar.

UTM already offers a similar service that is almost identical in function to its UTSG counterpart. Both systems offer search options for session, level, subject area, instructor, online courses, date, time, and available space; they also provide enrolment control information. UTSG’s planner additionally allows students to search by department and breadth requirements.

Griddy allows students to search courses by code and session; Findacourse allows students to search courses by code. Findacourse also offers an option to search for courses without prerequisites. Semester.ly allows students to search for courses by department, breadth, level, date and time, and semester.

The Faculty of Arts & Science’s official timetable maker does not include the option to save a mock schedule. With an account, Findacourse and Semester.ly will save the progress students have made; Griddy can create a custom URL for a mock timetable.

Funding boost for graduate students

The Faculty of Arts & Science introduces three-pronged approach to enrich graduate education

Funding boost for graduate students

From the invention of the first electronic heart pacemaker to the discovery of a drought-resistant gene in plants, the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Arts & Science has a legacy of cutting-edge research. From 2010–2014, the faculty pioneered numerous innovations, including 240 new inventions, 24 patents, and 29 start-up companies. Graduate students were the backbone of these novel research findings.

The Faculty of Arts & Science makes up one of Canada’s largest graduate student bodies, hosting 70 graduate programs and 4,299 graduate students, as of 2015. In an era of rapid technological and ideological advancement, graduate students encounter numerous obstacles during the course of their education.

Starting September 2016, a new policy will be in effect to improve graduate education for domestic and international students on all three campuses. The faculty has identified areas of concern and will be addressing them through professional programs, improved financial support, and by allocating resources on a program level.

More specifically, the faculty will be undertaking a three-pronged approach to increase financial support, create networking opportunities, and provide career directions to graduate students. This new initiative emerged through extensive collaboration between graduate students, faculty members, and administrative leaders across the university.

Although this initiative is not directly associated with the 2015 teaching assistants strike, the policy was designed to respond to the needs of graduate students.

“It is important to recognize that the strike itself was reacting to a certain set of circumstances graduate students at this university and not just at this university face,” said Joshua Barker, Vice-Dean of Graduate Education & Program Reviews in the Faculty of Arts & Science. “The challenges that they are facing are real.”

According to Barker, who was appointed in July 2015, improving graduate student education has been on the faculty’s agenda for some time prior to last year’s TA strike. However, it was only last year that the faculty was able to achieve a balanced budget and was finally in the position to institute an increase in graduate funding.

The Fellowship Initiative supports the university’s long-standing commitment to high quality research by increasing the base funding package for all eligible graduate students within the faculty. Starting with an increase of $1,500 in September 2016 to be followed by an additional $250 per year in the next two years, eligible students will receive an overall increase of $2,000 by 2018-2019.

Barker acknowledged that hourly work — like that of teaching or research assistants — poses a significant burden on graduate students and could hinder them from finishing their programs in a timely manner. Rather than increasing the hourly wage of teaching assistants, the direct increase in fellowship income provides students with opportunities to work on their research and recognizes their valuable contributions to the university.

“We are really trying to invest in the students as researchers,” said Barker.

In 2017–2018, the faculty will also oversee the establishment of Program-Level Fellowship Pools, which are financial resources dedicated to each academic unit within the Faculty of Arts & Science.

Barker explained, “The purpose of Program-Level Fellowship Pools is to allow departments and institutes who have graduate students in their program to identify where they have a discipline-specific need which they can provide fellowships for.”

These pools provide academic units with the flexibility to allocate their resources according to their priorities. For example, the Department of Anthropology may choose to invest in pilot fieldwork for graduate students, while other units may focus on introducing additional scholarships or increasing base funding. “All the funds that come through the Program-Level Fellowship Pools will end up in students’ pockets,” noted Barker.

The allocation of resources will be established in a transparent fashion: academic units will identify priorities in consultation with their graduate students and faculty members.

Overall, the Faculty of Arts & Science is undertaking a major investment in graduate education. This initiative marks the third significant change in graduate student funding throughout the history of the university. It is also the first major effort under the 2006–2007 new budget model, in which authority for revenues and spending was shifted from the university to the faculty level. Under the new policy, the faculty will be providing $3.35 million in 2016–2017; this annual investment will double by 2018–2019.

Besides financial support, the faculty aims to prepare graduate students for transition into full-time careers through the establishment of two new programs, Milestones and Pathways. Milestones will provide students with support to successfully complete their graduate training, and Pathways aims to expose students to alternative careers and valuable networking opportunities.

The form of professionalization that graduate students require is often discipline-specific. These new programs within the Faculty of Arts & Science are designed to complement the initiatives undertaken by the School of Graduate Studies, which typically targets broader skill sets required for a wide range of careers.

The Faculty of Arts & Science in conjunction with the School of Graduate Studies will be conducting research over the summer to examine the distribution of graduates in academic and non-academic careers. By examining the career trajectory of previous graduates, administrative leaders within the faculty will gain insight on ways to support current graduate students and to further enhance the their experience.