2019 Schmidt Science Fellow Dr. Ina Anreiter discusses behavioural genetics research

U of T researcher recognized for her work modifying fruit fly foraging behaviours

2019 Schmidt Science Fellow Dr. Ina Anreiter discusses behavioural genetics research

Dr. Ina Anreiter from the University of Toronto was selected as a 2019 Schmidt Science Fellow for her research in behavioural genetics in April in New York.

The Schmidt Science Fellowship is a prestigious program that brings some of the best emerging scientists in the world together, and equips them with new skills to make a positive change in society. Candidates are chosen for their exceptional performance during PhD studies and strong intellectual curiosity to broaden the scope of their future research.

Each fellow, including Anreiter, will complete a year-long postdoctoral placement in a different field than their PhD topic to promote interdisciplinary thinking.

Anreiter’s work as a PhD candidate

Anreiter completed her PhD in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at U of T, and was supervised by Dr. Marla Sokolowski. As part of her studies, Anreiter wanted to understand how genetics and environment could influence behaviours. She studied this by looking at the foraging gene of two strains of fruit flies with distinct foraging behaviours: the rovers and the sitters.

The rovers are more active and are usually willing to travel farther for food, while the sitters are less active and tend to travel shorter distances to forage.

“When the food is in the middle of the arena, you have a trade-off of safety versus getting to the food,” explained Anreiter in an interview with The Varsity. “So you can see this difference in rovers and sitters… It’s a circular arena, food is distributed in the middle, and you can see that sitters tend to hug the edges, while rovers are much more exploratory.”

An earlier paper published in 2017 by Anreiter and her colleagues described how they were able to genetically engineer the foraging gene to transform sitters into rovers.

Challenges along the way

Anreiter had to overcome multiple challenges to accomplish what she has. “The way that our publishing system works is very positive-result-oriented. It’s very hard to publish negative results, and there are many arguments to be made,” she remarked.

“We ended up publishing this really nice story about this one epigenetic regulator that regulates individual differences, but that wasn’t the only regulator that we looked at,” she continued. Epigenetic engineering makes modifications to an organism by altering which genes are expressed, rather than directly changing the DNA sequence itself.

However, her research team looked at many other regulators that did not show a positive result. “So there’s a lot of work that goes into this project that is never published because the results are not positive,” she elaborated.

She further acknowledged the challenges that she experienced as a PhD student, but she advised students to not get discouraged when a project seems to come to a dead end.

“It’s not the end of your PhD; it’s not the end of your research. You just change gears a little bit and continue with something new,” she concluded.

Next steps for future research

Anreiter’s work opens up many possibilities for future research in epigenetics. One of the significant findings in this study was that the effect of epigenetic regulators is dependent on the strain of fruit flies. In other words, “You have an interaction where the epigenetic modification is dependent on a genetic difference, and that’s an interaction which… when I started my PhD, [people] weren’t looking at,” she said.

“And that applies not only to fruit flies, not only to feeding behaviour, but applies broadly to animal research.”

Currently, Anreiter has undertaken a project in computer science, where she aims to develop a new computation mechanism to examine epigenetics modifications in RNA as a required component of the Schmidt Science Fellowship.

Offering advice to undergraduates about graduate studies, “Don’t do grad school because you are just not sure what you want to do, because grad school can be really, really tough,” she remarked. “But it is also really rewarding in my experience.”

“If you are excited about research, if you are excited about science, it is a really cool environment where you can really have the freedom of developing you own interests.”

In the Spotlight: Kerry Bowman

Bioethicist talks to The Varsity about conservation efforts, Amazon forest fires, Indigenous rights

In the Spotlight: Kerry Bowman

“Moved and horrified” is how Dr. Kerry Bowman described himself when he found that he was the only Canadian able to report from the Amazon rainforest fires in August. Now, he is trying to raise awareness for the situation with his research, arguing for protecting Indigenous land to promote both human rights and climate protection. Currently, Bowman teaches in the human biology department at U of T, though he is also cross-appointed at the School of the Environment.

Bowman’s work has seemingly pulled him in all directions, from Toronto to the Amazon to the Congo, and his research has attempted to put human well-being at the forefront of various issues, whether the backdrop is a Toronto hospital or the Amazon rainforest.

Along with his environmental work, Bowman worked for many years as a clinical bioethicist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, and he still consults as a bioethicist.

Bowman wrote his PhD on cultural differences in bioethics, focusing on Chinese-Canadian attitudes toward end-of-life treatment. “We all acknowledge them, and then we tend to ignore them,” Bowman said of the prevailing attitude about cultural differences.

A lot has changed throughout Bowman’s career in bioethics. “I really watched the whole movement of the care of dying people move from completely supportive care to now being in a position where people, if they meet the criteria, could say, ‘in fact, I want to hasten my death’ and they would be allowed to do it. So in my working life, I’ve seen that. I’ve been a part of it.”

But before he was bioethicist or social worker, Bowman started his environmental work studying the behaviour of the orangutan, a project he volunteered on while traveling around the world in his twenties. He said that he learned through his work with great apes that “none of this is relevant if you do not factor in the human realities of the environments that any animals or ecosystems live within. And that the key to [a] healthy environment is almost always human-based.”

Bowman cites renowned primatologist Jane Goodall as an inspiration and a friend. “She really, really taught me just how much an individual can do.” Goodall also taught him that when dealing with global issues like the climate crisis, “you’ve actually really got to get out and talk to everybody… you’ve got to go way beyond academic journals.”

The connection between environmental and human rights is the line of Bowman’s work in the Amazon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). During the most recent war in the DRC, Bowman witnessed how the guards at Kahuzi Biega National Park remained dedicated to protecting the land. “I was very moved by the fact that people really, really stuck to the protection of the park, knowing that it matters to their survival as well as everything else. Even in war conditions.”

Now, the Canadian Ape Alliance, founded by Bowman, works to fund an environmentally-focused school for children in the region. Many of these children will follow in their parents’ footsteps and work in the park themselves, on the front lines of protecting the critically-endangered eastern lowland gorilla.

Bowman had to consider the ethics of cultural differences as he worked to ensure equitable access to the environmental school for three groups that are often excluded: girls, those with albinism, and the subjugated Pygmy people.

Indigenous people are also at the centre of Bowman’s work in the Amazon. For the past eight years, he has been studying the benefits of protecting Indigenous land in the Amazon region. Protecting this land deters deforestation and promotes biodiversity. “What I’m really interested in is the fact that you can create essentially a climate shield and again, climate health, by protecting large areas of the Amazon forest [and] by protecting Indigenous people.”

Currently, he wants to raise awareness of the “profound human rights issue” occurring in Brazil, with Indigenous people and environmental activists being targeted. Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, a protector of Indigenous land and a colleague of Dr. Bowman’s, was assassinated earlier this month.

Explaining that much of the rise of Brazil’s exploitative attitude toward the Amazon is due to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Bowman called for greater intervention of the international community. “He’s really creating a climate where the laws of the nation — the nation being in Brazil — are not being adhered to,” said Bowman.

For combatting a problem such as the climate crisis, Bowman criticized the lack of a global infrastructure for decision-making. Bowman argued that “we have a heightened responsibility in wealthy Western nations like Canada to do something,” as those who are the most disadvantaged will continue to experience the worst effects of the climate crisis. Fires are set every year to clear land for other uses, although 2019 saw the highest number of Amazon fires in the past couple of years. The fires are a risk to the whole ecosystem, but the Indigenous people who live in the Amazon are particularly at risk.

“I would say as Canadians, we’re struggling in this country to figure out our own very dark history with Indigenous people,” Bowman said. “But what we have now going on in Brazil is this massive violation. And so for us to be silent on something like this, I would argue we’ve made no progress since colonial times because what’s happening in Brazil is no different than what occurred here.”

Looking into the future, Bowman said that he is inspired by the current climate strikes, calling it “just the beginning.”

“I think the university really has to set policies that are environmentally sound with consultation with its students and with the public. The time is here.”

What he’s learned from his own often-multidisciplinary work is that there is no single approach to any subject. “I would say to students that nobody should be leaning away from doing, things like environmental work or even bioethical work because they don’t think they have the right qualifications. These are complex problems and everyone is needed.”

Professor Dilip Soman named Canada Research Chair

Rotman researcher studies how businesses, people make decisions

Professor Dilip Soman named Canada Research Chair

Most people say that the elevation of Mount Everest is 29,000 feet, forgetting the final 29 feet. During the last 29 feet is when the bad things occur — people fall prey to physical exhaustion, give up mentally, and get caught. People often put in a lot less effort at the end compared to the hard work and preparation that has led them to these last steps.

Similarly, most companies spend much of their effort on at the beginning, from the product design, brand strategy, and optimization of the production process in the hopes of putting out the best product on the shelves. Companies often forget about the final step, where customers enter the store and talk to a salesperson or click a website, to make the choice of whether to purchase the product.

This irrational shortcoming of human behaviour is what caught Professor Dilip Soman’s attention.

In 1992, Soman began his PhD program at the University of Chicago where he focused on marketing and management. However, he was drawn to the implications of consumer behaviour on the market and decided to delve into the field of behavioural economics: the study of how cognitive and emotional factors affect the decision-making processes of individuals and institutions.

Twenty-seven years later, Soman is the Director of the Behavioural Economics in the Action Research Centre at Rotman (BEAR) and serves as a Senior Policy Advisor on the Impact and Innovation Unit for the Government of Canada, while fulfilling his teaching duties at the Rotman School of Management.

“So much [of behavioural economics] I think is interesting because it says that there’s a deviation between what people want to do and what they end up doing,” Soman told The Varsity.

Now, Soman holds the Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Science and Economics. The Canada Research Chairs Program aims to help chairholders launch Canada into the forefront of research and development.

Making choices easier

The presentation of choices to individuals and consumers can impact their decision-making. Different designs can either facilitate action or impede it. “As a behavioral scientist, my contribution is that I can help consumers — you must see that and I can help organizations see that,” said Soman.

He went on to explain that, “People are impulsive, people don’t think too much about the future. They’re emotional. Anything in the context that exaggerates those tendencies tends to make people deviate from what they should do.”

Small and seemingly irrelevant details that make a task more challenging often make the difference between doing something and putting it off. Opting out of email subscription lists appears to be a menial task that will declutter our inboxes and make our lives a little bit easier, but because it is so complicated and inconvenient many people stay subscribed to email lists.

It is easy to see this tendency for people to deviate from what they intend to do becoming a lot more problematic — think retirement saving options and health care plans. When choices are confusing and require more effort to understand, people tend to stick with the default, even if it does not benefit them much, or at all.

Soman’s work consists of developing tools to help government officials and businesses create architecture that guides individuals to make choices that are in their best interests. It has a heavy focus on bridging the gap between the ideas of behavioural economics and how to practically implement those ideas in a real-world setting.

Soman’s work at the BEAR is a prime example of his contributions toward converting academic ideas in behavioural science to implementation-oriented framework.

“Our biggest work is in scaling what we know in the lab to the marketplace… with the goal of shifting the research agenda in behavioural science from the big ideas to where can we use it and how,” said Soman.

On being a Canada Research Chair

The Varsity asked Soman what it means for him to be named the Canada Research Chair in Behavioural Science and Economics, a prestigious title awarded to Canada’s most outstanding scholars.

Rather than reflecting upon his personal achievements, Soman viewed his appointment as a larger recognition of the field of behavioural economics.

“I think it’s more a recognition for the field… [that] this is the first candidate chair at the intersection of Behavioral Science and Economics,” said Soman.

Whereas the government has worked with an economic assumption of citizens’ decision-making when drafting policy, Soman believes that his appointment as the first Canada Research Chair in the field of behavioural economics marks a changing attitude towards the idea that people are not always rational actors.

“That’s a big acknowledgement for the fact that the field is now not only considered legitimate, but that it can impact society,” said Soman. “I think once there’s a Canada Research Chair in behavioural economics… all [of the] ideas of our team are now much more easily received.”

On what’s next

Soman wants to do more than understand the existing friction organizations have in place that prevents individuals from making good decisions — he wants to reduce it by applying the tools of behavioural economics to the complex problems of the real-world.

His main priorities for the upcoming years include converting academic findings into accessible information that businesses and individuals can digest; incorporating the ideas of behavioural economics toward a preventative health system; and improving the financial literacy of average citizens by using smart choice architecture to help people make better economic decisions.

Despite being an expert in understanding human imperfections in decision-making, Soman is the first to admit his shortcomings. He is currently working on his latest book, About Time, but when The Varsity inquired about the book, Soman confessed that he hasn’t had the time to work on it yet.

“I mean, one of the reasons I studied this stuff I’m doing is I’m pretty bad myself,” joked Soman. “I procrastinate.”

In conversation with Cavan Biggio

Getting to know one of the Toronto Blue Jays’ most underlooked prospects

In conversation with Cavan Biggio

Blue Jays fans know that a team rebuild is well underway in Toronto. Since their last playoff appearance in 2016, the Blue Jays front office has produced one of baseball’s top farm systemsa collection of minor league teams which are responsible for developing promising young players. From Class-A affiliate Lansing Lugnuts to Triple-A affiliate Buffalo Bisons, Toronto is stacked with talented prospects. Even casual fans may be aware of the MLB’s first-ranked prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and tenth-ranked Bo Bichette. However, even some Blue Jays loyalists haven’t heard of the Jays’ hidden weapon: Cavan Biggio.

These three infielders are part of the core group of prospects projected to make their debuts in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. However, though Toronto media has shined the spotlight on Guerrero Jr. and, in part, Bichette, less attention has been given to Biggio.

The Toronto Blue Jays drafted Biggio in 2016 from the University of Notre Dame. Coming from a baseball family, Biggio learned the game from his father, Hall-of-Famer second baseman Craig Biggio. After spending the 2016 and 2017 seasons in Class-A and Class-A Advanced, in 2018 Biggio moved to the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the Blue Jays’ Double-A affiliate. There, he began demonstrating his leadoff potential. While he only had a .252 batting average, Biggio got on base at a rate of .388, making him third in the Eastern League and first on the team based on his on-base percentage.

After the regular season, Biggio took part in the Arizona Fall League, an off-season development league. In an interview with The Varsity, Biggio said, “Fall League was incredible. [I] played with a lot of great players… guys that I’ve been playing against for the past two, three years.” He added, “I was able to play the outfield there and be able to get some good work out there and set myself up for the season. So overall, I think [it] couldn’t really be better.”

It’s clear that Biggio got some great work in during the off-season. 28 games into the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons’ season, he’s already off to a blistering hot start. As of May 5, Biggio is first on the Bisons in home runs and runs scored, second in on-base percentage and runs batted in, third in batting average, and fourth in slugging.

When asked what he credits his early season success to, Biggio simply replied, “I would credit that to just trying to use the whole field a little more.”

He noted that last year he was “a little bit… pull-happy in Double-A,” and so going into this off-season he relied on the full field to put the ball into play. He says that that is “where you see the two strikes and trying to battle and put the ball in play, versus trying to get the head still and striking out more when I was in Double-A.”

Biggio also focused on developing his fielding during the off-season. He said, “I worked on it a lot… in spring training… I take a lot of pride in my defense, trying to separate offense from defense as best as I can.”

He added that he also tried to smooth his footwork out because he saw it is very important, “especially playing second, third, and first: they’re very different. And I think just being able to get some reps at all three of those positions.”

In the early going, the off-season work has been paying off, as Biggio has only committed one error the entire season. Biggio has always been a phenomenal fielder but has seen drastic improvements in the last year, committing just one error in the Arizona Fall League’s innings and 14 errors in Double-AA’s innings.

Once Biggio breaks into the big leagues, he might be something that the Toronto Blue Jays have recently been lacking — a true leadoff hitter. As mentioned, Biggio is in the top three of the Buffalo Bisons in batting average and on-base percentage at .341 and .478, respectively, as of May 5. While those numbers are sure to regress, it doesn’t change the fact that Biggio has consistently been able to get on base throughout his career. But what makes him an important component and a future weapon of the Blue Jays are his baserunning abilities.

“I think it’s very important to my game just because I walk a good bit and I don’t think I’m really any good when I’m walking a lot… I think I can score on a double in the gap, but to make things easier… I [like] to pick my spots to be able to get in scoring position for my teammates to drive me in.”

He added that he thinks it is very important to be able to steal a run early in the game. “I see it dying out in baseball, but I’m trying to be consistent with it in my game and just trying to pick my spots when I can go.” In the early going, Biggio has the second most stolen bases on the team, tied with Jonathan Davis.

With his power, contact, and speed, Blue Jays fans should expect to see Biggio leading off in big league games soon. He has the toolset to be part of the rare 30-30 club — 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases — a feat that only 40 players in history have accomplished.

While the limelight is on Guerrero Jr.’s call-up and Bichette’s broken hand, Biggio is quietly developing into a five-tool player that can challenge the likes of his teammates and the rest of the MLB. The fifth-ranked second-base prospect in baseball made his Blue Jays debut with the Bisons this season and should be a key piece in many future playoff runs.

Catching up with Blues two-sport star Emily Principe

Principe plays a key role on Blues fencing and rowing teams

Catching up with Blues two-sport star Emily Principe

A few years after Emily Principe’s parents refused to buy her a horse, she became the youngest épée fencer to win the senior Australian national competition at 17.

Principe’s passion for fencing started with the modern pentathlon, which seemed like a natural direction because it combined her swimming, running, and horseback-riding abilities, while not requiring her to own a horse.

“Modern pentathlon,” she explains, “is one of the oldest Olympic sports and consists of five events: running, shooting, swimming, horse-riding (show jumping) and fencing. Part of the challenge is that competitors are randomly assigned unfamiliar horses to compete on rather than having to bring their own.”

Easier still, the fencing club was only 15 minutes away from her house.

Principe started at a small club called Rozelle Fencers in her native New South Wales, Australia. She describesthe club with fondness and respect. “It was an awesome little community club that was run by a fierce woman, Frances Stone, who was already in her nineties when I met her… The community vibe was a supportive place to start fencing and had many older fencers who were full of wisdom.”

The club’s size, however, meant that it strictly offered foil fencing, and by 2013, Principe was consistently beating all her older club mates. In search of a new challenge, she turned to épée, and Stone encouraged the switch on the condition that Principe would be coached by Simon Jin, who was the head coach at the much bigger University of Technology Sydney fencing club.

Principe’s subsequent successes in épée did not stop her from revisiting Rozelle until the small club closed in 2017.

The importance of support throughout Principe’s career is clear when she recalls her fondest memories of fencing. When asked about the highlights of her career, she responds with, “Winning a senior Australian national competition at the age of 17, making me the youngest épée fencer to ever do so. I was fortunate to have my mother, coach, and teammates at that competition supporting me.”

“The day before had been the Under-23 national event and I had done poorly. Being able to shift my mindset and turn around my fencing to post such a strong performance the following day was very gratifying.” She adds that succeeding with many of the people who supported and contributed to her accomplishments in the stands was a great feeling. 

As for what’s kept her there? “While I don’t consider myself to be at all violent, stabbing someone with a weapon is quite satisfying.”

What distinguishes Principe from many other high-level athletes is that she excels at not one, but two sports. Her motivation to start rowing, unrelated to her parents’ unwillingness to buy a horse, was pursued as a way to make friends after she moved to a new school at the start of seventh grade. Principe recalls, “I was the only new student from my primary school that moved to my new school. I also had not grown up in the area and so did not know anyone in my grade. In order to make friends, and fast, I figured that I would join a sports team or two.” Like many other rowers, her height gave her an advantage, and the team environment kept her there.

While her fondest memories of fencing link back to hard-earned victories, her rowing experience is more about people than it is about trophies. Specifically, Principe highlights Barbara Ramjan and Anne Craig, her two old rowing coaches who also coached the para-rowing squad at her club during high school.

“Given the amount of time that Barbara and Anne had put into me, I wanted to give back some of my time to them and so volunteered to help with their para-rowers.” She mentioned that during her volunteering, she rowed with a visually-impaired rower named Sam, who up until then primarily rowed alone, and so was nervous about partnering.

Principe says, “Throughout our session I could see Sam relax and we even managed to strike up a conversation in between pieces. Once we were off the water, Sam thanked me for my time and said that it had been the best on-water experience that he had ever had.’” That experience has been impactful, since she was able to give back to her rowing community.

It may seem odd that her fondest memory of rowing, a sport frequently associated with a degree of mechanic monotony, is shaped so strongly by the connection between people. Principe enjoys the objectivity of rowing, but she also notes that the best indoor rowing times and wins “tend to blend together into being good seasons or fast crews.”

In fact, the importance of the people who surround her is the most consistent theme raised. Regarding her successes in individual épée, she explains that “given fencing is an open-skill sport, much of my training is done directly against other athletes. Accordingly, I feel that my teammates contribute significantly to my individual success.”

What led her to successes like the Ontario University Athletics gold medal for individual épée, a silver in the épée team event, and the consistent strong performances in rowing?

“I have been lucky to have some particularly knowledgeable and supportive coaches that have been instrumental in helping me to better myself both as an athlete but also as a person. My teammates not only help me to train but also are a source of motivation, accountability and support.”

Her parents, her teammates, Stone and Jin, Ramjan and Craig, Sam: these are only a few of the people she singles out when she discusses her performances in two sports that are more individual than they are team-based. The importance of these people lies beyond her athletic achievements — they did not just shape her as an athlete, but as a person.

Her hard work is clear in her preparations for competitions, both rowing and fencing. As a rower, she reviews her race plan meticulously “to know exactly where I am going to be pushing and what sort of pace I am looking to maintain.” For fencing, she keeps a notebook in which she writes down all of her competitors’ names, their go-to offensive and defensive manoeuvres, and what she can do to combat these moves. She exhibits a studious ruthlessness that can only truly be associated with competition.

Although competing in two varsity sports can be taxing both mentally and physically, Principe does not struggle with identifying both as a rower and a fencer. Instead, the differences in the two sports appear to complement each other to provide both excitement and a team environment.

On the differences, Principe explains, “I really love the team aspect of rowing and the objectivity of it. Ultimately, if you’re willing to put in the work then the results will come. As well, the feeling when a crew is perfectly in sync and the boat starts to hum is wild! It feels like what I imagine flying to be like. Fencing, on the other hand, is more enjoyable to train for, as the training tends to change session to session.”

As Principe’s season draws to a close, she is already looking toward next season’s goals. One source of her inspiration: “I think that my parents always taught me not to stop until I am satisfied, or I simply cannot go further.” Based on her relentless athleticism, hard work, and dedication, it seems Principe has not yet reached this point.

The power of sport: how Mahal De La Durantaye’s passion created a movement

Graduating Blues basketball guard reflects on her career and bond with her sister

The power of sport: how Mahal De La Durantaye’s passion created a movement

‘Mahal’ is the Tagalog word for ‘love.’ It is also the first name of Varsity Blues women’s basketball player Mahal De La Durantaye, and it could not be more fitting.

De La Durantaye has been a fixture with the women’s basketball program for the past four years, recently wrapping up her last season in blue and white. The journey of the 22-year-old guard, a Neuroscience and Global Health double major, stands in stark contrast to that of a run-of-the-mill U of T student athlete.

Part of what makes her unique is her heartfelt passion and purpose. Beyond her strength as a competitor and love of all things hoops — which often has her wreaking havoc while guarding the other team’s best players — her extensive dedication to grassroots organizations and their initiatives, and her bond with her sister Destiny, Mahal’s heart sets her apart from her fellow peers.

Brave beginnings

On any given weekday afternoon, one can typically find Mahal’s familiar face perched on the rafters of the Kimel Family Field House at the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport. Her usual attire? Hoodie, sweats, and a messy bun. Typical student athlete behaviour for a not-so-typical student athlete.

She grew up in a mixed French-Canadian and British household of four, raised by parents Sherri Jones and Robert De La Durantaye along with her younger sister Destiny, who is two years her junior.

Adopted at the age of five, she moved a total of seven times during her upbringing, attending 13 different schools along the way — mostly before she reached fourth grade.

It was a situation that could have made it easy for Mahal and her sister to grow up lacking a real sense of community or lasting opportunity. However, Mahal’s parents — especially her mother, who she cites as her role model — were determined to ensure that their two girls had the chance to pursue their dreams no matter what.

Her parents’ “open-mindedness” and the “language” they used to discuss her identity — including Mahal’s “adoption… ethnicity… [her] history [and her] family” — clearly affected how Mahal internalized her understanding of empowerment from an early age.

From the little things — like her father, a former MTV employee, playing “culturally appropriate music,” or her mom ensuring she had the right care products for her hair — to more prominent incidents, such as her mom fighting for her to be able to participate in a Filipino basketball tournament that she had been denied entry to due to being mixed race, Mahal felt a sense of pride in her ancestral identity growing up.

Mahal shares a particularly close bond with her sister, Destiny, who is now 19.

“My younger sister Destiny grew up with a learning difference, so I’ve always been protective of her. I didn’t want anyone picking on her at school.” Inspired by Destiny’s courage and will to overcome adversity, Mahal picked her neuroscience major partially to honour her bond with her sister.

Her first encounter with basketball came in the fourth grade.

She began to pursue the game more intensely during the onset of her high school days, but she never missed an opportunity to provide mentorship to others through her school.

In grade 10, she began her own basketball mentorship program for younger girls at The Linden School, the majority of whom were in the fourth grade. In her senior year, she had the chance to travel to Havana for a cultural and sports exchange.

She found herself impressed by the skill level of the Cuban athletes as well as Havana’s cultural and historical significance. More importantly, it was a profound moment where “despite the language barrier, it was amazing how we all still got to bond through sport.”

Student of the world

Coming into university, Mahal relied on basketball to ground her as she adjusted to the new pace of her daily life. “I definitely needed it for structure… I just needed it. It was a good transition, coming into university,” she reflected.

Following a productive first year in which she averaged around 19 minutes per game, Mahal found herself in unfamiliar territory when she suffered a season-ending ACL tear just days away from the start of her sophomore campaign.

“[It] was the hardest thing ever… Bouncing back and having people doubt you… that was just a whole other struggle that I had to overcome.”

And while it gave her a “new perspective” on the game, she also admits that the injury continued to pose a hurdle to her game in the years to come. “Even by my fourth year, I still hadn’t come back to me fully.”

Undeterred by adversity, Mahal found meaningful ways to cement a legacy as a leader. This past season — her fourth with the program, and third of eligibility — she was second on the team in steals, and registered 13 starts. She recorded a career best in total minutes played during the season, and was one of only four players to see action in all 23 of the team’s regular season games. She was counted on for leadership, energy, hustle, and a rebounding presence, and was often in the thick of things during game-changing momentum shifts.

Off the court, however, Mahal’s exhaustive dedication to campus and community life during her four years thus far at U of T has been nothing short of remarkable.

On top of the rigorous schedule that student athlete status demands, Mahal has also involved herself in nearly too many initiatives to count: she’s done educational outreach programs for elementary-aged children, like Blues Buddy Up and Brain Waves; she’s been a program coordinator for the Canadian Sport Film Festival; and she has volunteered with the Brampton Northwest Connects Special game.

She currently mentors youth as a development coach with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, part of the Toronto Raptors organization, and is a three-year member and current co-president of U of T’s varsity board, which advocates for student athletes.

She’s also currently working on developing an outreach program through the varsity board with the YMCA, which would set up sports skills clinics for underprivileged youth.

Amazingly, on top of all of this, she has also found time somewhere in there to fit in her job as a referee for U of T’s intramurals.

Her incredible commitment to impactful, positive change is punctuated by one experience in particular. Last year, for the month of May, Mahal traveled to Middelpos Farm in Western Cape, South Africa, where she worked with Inspire Children & Youth, a local grassroots non-profit whose mission is to diminish rural poverty.

After weeks of planning — and packing “two extra suitcases” — Mahal found herself immersed in the organization’s day-to-day operations as a program facilitator and assistant youth worker. She was a key cog in implementing positive, permanent changes, such as a “brain-shaped food garden.” She also single-handedly built a multi-purpose athletic court from the ground up to provide opportunities for the kids to play organized sport.

It was a life-changing experience, to say the least. It solidified Mahal’s belief in the power of sport to impact lives and create change, and gave her a unique opportunity to apply her academic knowledge of neuroscience to a real-life situation.

The next chapter

Mahal’s playing days in blue and white may be over, but she’s only just beginning the next exciting chapter of her life.

Building on her extensive service work and social action, Mahal recently started her Power of Sport initiative. Her Instagram portfolio, @thepowerofsport_, was created out of a desire to build an accessible platform that would showcase herself, her experience, and her vision, while simultaneously acting as a point of connection and a conversation starter among other non-profit organizations and initiatives.

Captain and fellow graduating player Keyira Parkes, who has known Mahal for about 12 years, described her as a “superhuman” who is a “passionate and considerate leader” with immense insight. “She has a huge heart and always finds way to help people or better a community just because. That is what is unique about her… She has really been an inspiration to me.”

Mahal’s passion for travel has taken her to Italy, the Philippines, Uganda, and South Africa, among other countries. Her love of neuroscience and youth empowerment have immersed her in countless community-led opportunities. And above all, her vision and belief in “the power of sport” are a beautiful combination of all three.

After all, it is a dream rooted in so many affirming instances of reality. From her formative years, in which basketball was a force that brought her family closer together and bridged a language and cultural gap, to her more recent experiences — such as the permanent changes she implemented in a rural community on the other side of the world — her experiences truly embody the amazing “power of sport.”

Mahal’s successes are a direct result of years of blood, sweat, and tears poured into her greatest passions. Nothing has been an accident: her given name, Mahal, was chosen strategically by her birth mother to ensure that she wouldn’t “forget that she loved [Mahal], no matter where she went.”

Similarly, her middle name, Namuimbwa, was selected specifically as a means of maintaining a strong, unbreakable connection to her Ugandan roots, to make sure that “no one would forget” and that she would never be separated from her ancestral line.

It was only fitting that a young woman whose names represent love and strength embodies those two qualities to a premium.

Two extraordinary names for an extraordinary person. The basketball gods could not have predicted it any better.

What makes Michèle Bélanger tick

Blues women’s basketball coach reflects on 40 years

What makes Michèle Bélanger tick

The Varsity Blues women’s basketball team’s long and difficult season has concluded, leaving behind a trail of injuries and constantly changing lineups. The season went down to the wire, as a victory against the York Lions and several other alternative outcomes could have led to a playoff run. Despite the inconsistent lineups all season, the one stalwart constant was coach Michèle Bélanger’s commitment to developing strong and team-oriented players.

During halftime of the Blues’ final game, Bélanger’s 40th season milestone was recognized. The ceremony had more to do with fans’ appreciation for and recognition of a great coach than for Bélanger herself. In fact, Bélanger has found success by making her job about everyone but herself — the mark of a truly devoted leader.

Bélanger admits that she’s not easily excited by celebrating Coach of the Year awards, coaching Team Canada, or making it to year 40 with the Blues. Instead her main source of excitement and pride is working with the hundreds of Varsity Blues players whom she has helped improve, both on and off the court.

The Varsity spoke with Bélanger before the final weekend of the regular season about her coaching career and how she builds team communication and leadership.

The Varsity: Can you tell me what you were like as a player?

Michèle Bélanger: I really picked up the game in grade nine. We had one weekend tournament and I got kind of hooked on it. I thought it was kind of an exciting game. The coach basically told me to go from one end to the other underneath the basket, and I thought, “Oh, this is a lot of fun!” I learned that team sports is really what I’m all about. I played big in high school and then when I got to Laurentian, I was mostly inside out. I was more of a 3, 4 [a forward], and on the national team I was a 3 [small forward]. Back in the day we had no three-point line, so I learned how to do a pull-up jumper in my last two years of playing, because women really didn’t do a pull-up jumper. It was a set shot: catch, shoot. The guys did it and I wanted to know how to do that, [so] I went to coach and he just walked away. I transfered to Victoria and asked a good friend of ours who was coaching the men’s team, and said I want to learn how to do this!

TV: When did you realize you wanted to stay with basketball as a coach?

MB: I got cut from the national team in my last year playing at Victoria, in 1978–1979. That spring, I got really sick that year, and I still thought I could do it. The competing level is always there but the body wasn’t. So anyway, I got cut. I was really hurt by it, I didn’t know how to fill that void. [My friend] encouraged me to apply for this job — it was open — I said I don’t know much about coaching, so I did. I came in for an interview. In my mind it was going to be a one-year deal.

TV: Over the 40 years of coaching here, what has been your biggest accomplishment?

MB: Coming into work never feeling like it’s actually work. My biggest accomplishment? I don’t know, I don’t have one. It’s really hard to say. What I find more rewarding than anything else is the athletes coming back and remembering the good times that they’ve had, and telling stories and liking to be around each other. They always think that their teams were better than everyone else’s.

TV: Has there been one really low point?

MB: No, no, no, no, no. No dark days. I still love it every day. There’s not one day where I rethink: do I really want to be here?

TV: What about the U of T program has kept you around?

MB: The support has been outstanding. We’ve had great support from the institution, I think this institution in particular really fosters women moving forward and keeping women involved in the game, or in sport itself. There’s not a lot of institutions that [have] lots of women in positions of authority. The athletic director is female, they’re not afraid of doing that — they’re really open-minded. I think that showed a lot of progress, we’ve done that right from the get-go. When I started in 1979, we had women in powerful positions, and they were great mentors. You don’t see a lot of that. So it’s been a really welcoming environment.

TV: Your overall record before this season, including playoffs, is 838–462, giving you about a .650 record.

MB: .650, this year that’s going down the tubes!

TV: Do you ever think about those stats?

MB: No, oh my god, no! That to me is all irrelevant.

TV: What about your eight Coach of the Year awards?

MB: No, no. I don’t even like this whole celebration thing. It’s really not about me, it’s about the players… It’s not about being singled out, it’s not about the amount of wins, it’s not about the awards. It’s really about the experiences that you are providing those 12–15 athletes that are on that given year. And to give them the best and move them forward as best [as] you possibly can.

TV: What are your main coaching strategies and morals?

MB: To be always ethical in everything that you do. To treat each and every person as an individual within the context of the team, and to try and get everyone to mould together as a team. It has gotten harder and harder over these last 10–12 years because of social media.

TV: How?

MB: The world is different today than it was 10–12 years ago. People are growing up with phones, people don’t communicate as well as they used to. It’s made it very difficult to get players to talk to each other authentically. The sense of urgency in the now is very different than it was. It’s just a matter of putting it all together. I think they really desperately want to be great communicators. And I think it’s going to be a lost art if we don’t fix it.

TV: Are there team rules regarding phones?

MB: Oh yeah, they’re good. The girls are outstanding. They don’t bring phones to meetings, their phones are not on in the team room. We don’t need to put those rules in, they know.

TV: So you’ve always made the effort to always get to know players?

MB: I got to get to know people. You get a sense of what they’re like and then that’s what you have to build the relationship. If you don’t know, then how could you build a relationship? If you don’t have a relationship then it’s hard to trust. If they’re going to work hard for the whole, then you need to know about the whole. Like if there’s a hardship going on in someone’s life, if it’s not shared with the coach or the team, then it’s very difficult to have empathy and sympathy… to build that connection so people have your back. It’s hard to have your back on the court if you don’t know what’s going on in their life. I’ve got to believe that.

TV: When you took the job did you see yourself staying here for 40 years?

MB: Oh my god, never! I didn’t see myself here until I was forced to buy into the pension plan [laughs]. I think you have to be 30 or something and then you have to buy into it, so I was like oh, I guess I have no choice. In my mind it was always going to be a short-term thing and then you start to love it… then you start to live it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Vanessa Wallace wants to be a student of the world

Former Blues women’s basketball player on overcoming playing struggles and working with youth facing barriers

Vanessa Wallace wants to be a student of the world

It’s been four years since Vanessa Wallace last suited up for the Varsity Blues women’s basketball team, for a game she never anticipated would be her last.

Wallace, a role player and sharp shooter for the Blues, scored a single three-pointer during three minutes of action in the final home game of Toronto’s 2014–2015 season, which would result in a loss against the Queen’s Gaels.

Wallace didn’t see any action in the Blues’ opening round playoff victory over the Brock Badgers, nor did she play when the team bowed out of the competition following a 15-point loss to the Windsor Lancers.

The following season, Wallace was cut from the team.

The entire experience has been an invaluable lesson, but one she never expected to have to go through. Wallace admits that she failed to meet the expectations that she’d had for herself in basketball when she first entered U of T.

She started playing in a recreational basketball league when she was nine years old, but basketball was “nothing serious” until she made a club team in Grade Six. As a first-year student unsure of what to major in, the sport was the only thing she knew she wanted to do at university. The Ottawa native admits that she placed more emphasis on where she wanted to play than on where she wanted to live when choosing a university.

Wallace graduated from U of T in August 2017 with a degree in English and a double minor in history and anthropology. She still plays the sport that she loves, but in an arguably more meaningful way. She teaches a blend of basketball and life skills to underprivileged youth at her job with the Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment (MLSE) LaunchPad, an organization seeking to “explore and measure how sport can help improve the lives of youth.”

The Varsity sat down with Wallace to discuss her current role with MLSE, her time with the Blues, and the women who inspired her growing up.

The Varsity: How did you make the transition into the workplace after graduation?

Vanessa Wallace: I only played my first three years of undergrad, and so [during] my last two years, I was in school but I was also not loving school. It was really important to find out what was out there workwise and be able to build up my résumé that way, because English is not necessarily something that lends to one specific industry. I knew I loved basketball, being involved, so it took a lot of creativity, and I really took to volunteering.

TV: Can you describe your experiences volunteering?

VW: I was trying to create an internship for myself and go do all these different placements. You Can Play has been the organization that I’ve been involved with since 2016 and that’s been really awesome. It’s an organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ inclusion in sport. I get to work with youth, go into high schools, and run workshops about how to identify casual homophobia in sport. I’ve worked with kids for a really long time, so that was great to marry that with sports advocacy.

TV: What’s working with kids like?

VW: It’s really fun, for starters. Kids are so fun and I love getting to share that experience with them. Living in a city like Toronto, being in U of T, you kind of forget that there’s information that you kind of just take for granted, that isn’t something you automatically knew. Somebody taught you that and at some point you have to be the person who teaches it to somebody else. So getting that opportunity has been an honour.


TV: Can you describe your role working for MLSE?

VW: I’m a sport program lead, basketball specifically at MLSE Launchpad. Youth can participate in basketball, soccer, volleyball, ball hockey, there’s a rock climbing wall… The program isn’t sport for performance, it’s really sport for development. There’s a life skills component that we teach. This month, the life skill of focus is social competency and the last program cycle it was self-regulation. The outcome that’s hoped for is sports [being] the hook that brings youth in, but when they leave they have all of these life skills that will take them much further than layups, footwork, and physical fitness.

I knew I had basketball knowledge, but I didn’t know how that would translate into a coaching role. Being able to write up the program, convey it to supporting staff, and see it go start to finish was a huge growth point for me. Having confidence in the program I was writing [and] how I wanted it to be delivered, that’s been a really big turning point in the last few months. I felt really solid about that and initially I wasn’t.

TV: Would you say that your experience with the Blues really helped you hone those skills?

VW: I definitely have had some great coaches to look up to on the Blues [team] and not until I started coaching did I realize that — I was doing things similarly to how they would. So you don’t even know how much you’re getting from that person until a while after, how much you’re emulating the things that they do… As an athlete something that I found really difficult is you really have one main focus and that’s your performance. It’s cool now to reflect on how much you’ve learned from everyone — teammates, seniors, and captains. You don’t recognize that until you’ve moved on.

TV: What was your experience like playing for the Blues?

VW: Michelle [Belanger] is a fantastic coach, she eats, sleeps, and breathes basketball. What I learned from her in the short time that I was on the team was just the tip of the iceberg. 

Overall, I’d say my time on the team was some of the most challenging years of my life. I dealt with some mental health issues and then the pressure of being a Varsity athlete on top of that my experience wasn’t going as planned. I had such high expectations for how I would perform and how it would feel. Although I did make really great friends and got to travel and play basketball, which is what I love, I didn’t really have any self-worth because I wasn’t performing well. After my third season, I was cut and that was really tough.

I didn’t have any direction, and that’s when I started applying to all these different jobs and learning what was out there beyond playing, which is kind of how I forged my path. [Eventually], I realized that all of these hard lessons that Michelle and sport taught me… even though the experience didn’t go as planned, I learned so much from [them] and I’m so grateful for it.

TV: Do bonds between Blues teammates really last forever?

VW: Yes, definitely. I was just visiting a teammate who’s since moved to the States and it was awesome. We didn’t even make any plans. The idea was [that] we were just going to hang out and spend time together. The funny thing is, you spend everyday with them, practice, a nutrition session, individual practice, weight session — that could all be in one day. Maybe you have classes with them, maybe they’re also your roommate, and then you spend months apart but when you see them again, it’s like no time has passed.

TV: How important is growth for women’s sports?

VW: It’s definitely really important to me. It wasn’t until I started working with girls and seeing what I experienced growing up, [what] they are continuing to experience as well, [only then] did I realize how great of an impact that they actually had on me.

Not getting the same amount of gym time, women’s basketball shoes aren’t really a thing — you just get men’s shoes, you lace them up as tight as possible, and, you know, different social norms.

I see that there’s still similar hurdles that I and teammates of mine have faced, but there is more awareness and more organizations, like Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport [and] Fast and Female.


TV: Which female athletes inspired you growing up?

VW: I wasn’t big into watching professional sports on TV, but I was really lucky I had so many female role models in the basketball community that I could look up to. At U of T, there were some girls that came in and Michelle was the first female coach that they’d ever played for… To me, that was shocking because Ottawa is a big basketball town. Every weekend, I was either at a Carleton game or a UOttawa game, so a lot of those players at Carleton and Ottawa U, I really looked up to and then my own seniors that I would play with.

There were three seniors when I was in Grade 11 that I really looked up to. They were on a rep team I played for; it was Kellie Ring, Rashida Timbilla, and Kim Pierre-Louis. At U of T, I got to play with Jill Stratton, who is, I think, still the program’s leading scorer and that was amazing, but also playing with Rachel Sider, Liane Bailey, [and] Jasmine Lewin.

TV: Where do you envision yourself in the future?

VW: I’m learning. I still feel like I’m in the position where I’m learning more than I’m giving back. I have that foundation of basketball knowledge and experience playing, but in really understanding how the game can impact more marginalized communities, I feel like I’m a rookie.

It’s hard to see… myself in five years because there’s so much more information that I want [to learn].

I’m finding as many opportunities to be kind of a student of the world, whether that’s [through] a program that benefits girls or whether that is a program that helps with poverty reduction or violence against women, I’m just pursuing all of those opportunities right now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.