The World Wide Web: 30 years of connecting Canada

How did the information superhighway evolve?

The World Wide Web: 30 years of connecting Canada

March 12 marked the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web. Three decades after its invention, it continues to transform the world by linking people using words, pictures, sounds, and all other digital media.

How did Canada become connected to this information superhighway?

The World Wide Web and the internet

In March 1989, Timothy Berners-Lee, then a software engineer at the European Organization for Nuclear Research Council (CERN), wrote a report titled “Information Management: A Proposal” which detailed his vision for an interconnected web of computers.

Berners-Lee felt that it was too difficult to access information at CERN because it was physically spread out across different computers. He realized that he could use existing internet infrastructure to share information on a large scale between computers.

People often conflate the World Wide Web and the internet, but the internet existed decades before Berners-Lee’s invention. The web as we know it today is all the images, videos, and webpages that can be accessed with a web browser, whereas the internet is the network connection that allows us to access the web.

“The Internet… refers to a much older technology,” explained Dr. Brett Caraway, Assistant Assistant Professor in UTM’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology, in an email to The Varsity. The internet can be traced to 1969, said Caraway, and its decentralized way of routing messages contrasts greatly with the centralized systems of traditional telephone networks.

By 1990, Berners-Lee had developed three key technologies that would make up the foundation of the web: HyperText Markup Language would be the formatting language for the web, Uniform Resource Identifiers would refer to the addresses of World Wide Web pages, and HyperText Transfer Protocol would allow users to retrieve linked resources from across the web.

The web comes to Canada

The first website went online in December 1990, and on August 6, 1991, the World Wide Web became publicly available.

A few years later, several Canadian companies and government agencies ventured to become a part of the web.

The world’s first search engine was Canadian, developed in 1990 by Alan Emtage, Bill Heelan, and Mark Parker at McGill University. Dubbed “Archie,” it was used to search for files on anonymous File Transfer Protocol sites.

The web in its earliest phase was a collection of text-based sites created by a handful of organizations who had the technical ability to create them. Today, the web has evolved into a complex interactive front where creating user-generated content requires little skill and populates a multitude of web pages, including social media sites.

“The conundrum that this remarkable availability presents us with is a signal-to-noise ratio problem,” noted Caraway. “Trying to figure out who or what to listen to is more challenging than ever. And that basic problem is amplified in any number of political, economic, social, and cultural arenas.”

“If you’re not studying women at all, you’re biased”

Rehabilitation Science Graduate Students’ Union hosts panel discussion on brain health in women

“If you’re not studying women at all, you’re biased”

The Rehabilitation Science Graduate Students’ Union hosted its inaugural Speaker Series event to discuss women and brain health on March 25. The panel was held at the Rehabilitation Sciences Building.

Kyla Alsbury, PhD student in Rehabilitation Science, explained that the Speaker Series is a reincarnation of what was previously a monthly awareness project.

Mary Boulos, master’s student in Rehabilitation Science, hopes that these events will bridge the gap between research and the community.

“We’re doing research on these different diseases and disorders, but those findings aren’t being shared with the people who are most affected,” said Boulos. 

The goal of the event was to share research and engage with members of the community who are affected and ultimately better their health.

The speakers included Professor Gillian Einstein from the Department of Psychology and adjunct scientist at Women’s College Hospital, who discussed the relationship between sex, gender, and women’s brain health; Reema Shafi, a PhD candidate at the Rehabilitation Sciences Institute, who explained the vulnerability of women’s brain after concussions; and Melissa Biscardi, who recently completed her master’s degree and spoke about the endocrine reproductive health outcomes of women after brain injury.

Mental rotation differences between the sexes

Einstein explained that women’s brain health is important, simply put, because “thinking about… organisms [with XX chromosomes] brings new ideas.” Taking sex into account, Einstein said, “ensures that we can develop effective and safe treatments for  [people with XX chromosomes].”

There are differences in biology, such as phenotypic expression, gene expression and epigenetic signatures, and life experience, when comparing to organisms who possess XY chromosomes to those with XX.

Members of Einstein’s lab created an experiment to determine whether sex plays a role in mental rotation tasks and when transcognition is formed.

Different groups of people were asked to complete a Vandenberg and Kuse mental rotation task. People with XX chromosomes in the follicular and luteal stage of their menstrual cycle, female-to-male transgender people on testosterone hormone therapy, and people with XY chromosomes were asked to complete the task, which shows a 3D representation of an object. The subjects then had to match that impression to another one of the same object from a different angle. 

It was found that people with XX chromosomes at low estrogen states did as well as people with XY chromosomes and people with XX chromosomes on hormone therapy. Therefore, a sex-based difference in performance is seen in the luteal phase. They also discovered that the hormone therapy that female-to-male transgender subjects receive allows them to test as cisgender males.

Concussions and menopause

Biscardi discussed the state of menopause in women who suffered a traumatic brain injury.

She explained that “most women experience new onset of changes in menstruation despite being at least one year post-injury.”

Furthermore, in the tested sample, Biscardi found that menopause symptoms were more intense when compared to the general population.

As the symptoms of menopause and post-concussion are similar, Biscardi noted that investigation is needed to determine which symptoms are due to menopause and which are due to concussive effects.

Shafi explained that there is evidence of females experiencing vulnerability after a concussion due to a combination of factors such as structural disadvantages, which can affect cognitive processing after a concussion.

Following the speakers, there was a short panel discussion with questions from the audience.

Einstein explained that in terms of research funding, she finds a lack of understanding, saying that “if you’re only doing research in females, they really don’t know why you’re doing that.”

“Fifty per cent of the population is women,” said Shafi. “So if you’re not studying women at all, you’re biased [against] women. You have to have a reason to not study sex and gender.”

Pelted with rocks from outer space

Are we in danger of suffering the same fate as the dinosaurs?

Pelted with rocks from outer space

On December 18, a meteor with an estimated diameter of 10 metres, travelling at approximately 32 kilometres per second, exploded over the Bering Sea. The meteor exploded with 10 times the strength of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 — equivalent to the energy of 173 kilotons of TNT.

The explosion went relatively unnoticed and was not reported on by scientific and general media until early March. It was recorded by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization at the time, but the organization did not report on it or attempt to study it further, as it was not a nuclear threat.

The event recently surfaced in the media only after Dr. Peter Brown, a professor at Western University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, observed the explosion in the organization’s database.

NASA then added the event to its Fireballs database, which compiles the details of such events, including their location, size, and impact energy.

The incident has led to discussion surrounding the potential threat of meteors. Their seemingly unpredictable nature makes it difficult to track them and prepare for impact if and when they occur.

The Bering Sea explosion went unnoticed because the meteor arrived at a more northerly angle than most observed events, where fewer telescopes are focused. The relative proximity to a populated area — the meteor impacted just 300 kilometres off the coast Kamchatka, Russia, a peninsula housing over 300,000 people — suggests that future meteors could pose a danger if effective monitoring is not in place.

Are we in danger?

Every day, between 80 and 100 tons of dust and small meteorites fall from space, yet the impact of larger objects is a far rarer occurrence.

A January study by Dr. Sara Mazrouei, who completed her PhD in Planetary Geology at U of T last year, and Dr. Rebecca Ghent, Associate Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, suggests that large asteroids are colliding with Earth more frequently than before, and this change in frequency began around 290 million years ago. 

While ‘asteroid’ typically refers to any celestial body composed of rock and metal which orbits the sun, the U of T study focused on rocks capable of creating craters greater than 20 kilometres in diameter.

The researchers found that the rate of collisions has more than doubled over the past 290 million years compared to the ones recorded 300–650 million years ago. However, this does not mean that collisions occur often. On average, these very large asteroids only hit Earth every few million years.

So what is out there?

Around 90 per cent of objects in our solar system that are 140 metres wide or larger have been found through NASA’s Near-Earth Objects (NEO) Observations Program.

Through this program, NASA maintains a list of large NEOs that could pose a risk to Earth, determined by factors such as the size, shape, orbit trajectory, mass, and rotational dynamics.

This list, and other planetary defence studies, are used to plan for collisions. Hypothetical efforts would focus on mitigating the effects of unpreventable impacts and implementing measures that can deflect or disrupt other NEOs.

NASA’s current stance is that there are no major threats of a crash.

Looking ahead

In 2017, NASA’s Science Definition Team reaffirmed that objects that are 140 metres in diameter or smaller would only result in regional effects on impact. Large NEOs could have sub-global effects if they are 300 metres in diameter or larger, and global effects if they are one kilometre in diameter or larger.

As of 2019, over 19,000 NEOs have been discovered, compared to 10,000 in August 2013. Over 1,500 NEOs have been discovered each year since 2015, raising the possibility that objects that could pose a threat may be discovered in the future.

Although roughly two-thirds of large NEOs are estimated to be undiscovered, NEO detection continues to improve as technology advances.

The Ontario Autism Program: what you need to know

A U of T medical student reflects on the proposed changes and what they mean for patients and families

The Ontario Autism Program: what you need to know

Last month, Lisa MacLeod, Ontario Minister of Children, Community and Social Services (MCCSS), announced sweeping changes to the provincial autism program. These changes were met with outrage from parents, health care professionals, educators, and autism advocacy groups, culminating with the resignation in protest of a Ford staffer — who was the former head of the Ontario Autism Coalition and a parent of a child with autism.

These changes affect a subset of Ontarians in ways that many may not fully be able to grasp. With April being Autism Acceptance Month and U of T accepting a $25-million donation for establishing the Leong Centre of Healthy Children, now is an important time to discuss how changes to the Ontario Autism Program will affect patients and families.

Defining and managing Autism Spectrum Disorder

According to the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by “persistent deficits in social communication and interaction,” as well as “restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activites.”

Individuals with ASD present in a variety of ways. Some may only require help learning complex language skills and particularly nuanced social situations, while others may need more comprehensive training to develop basic language and life skills, as well as deal with challenging and potentially dangerous behaviours, including running away from home, food refusal, and aggression toward themselves and others. Due to this variability in presentation, each individual with ASD is affected differently, and programming must be personalized to their unique strengths and weaknesses.

Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI) is a high-intensity application of the principles of the gold standard therapy for ASD: Applied Behavioural Analysis. IBI involves up to 40 hours of one-on-one therapy per week for at least two years, and is generally recognized by published literature and by the Board Certified Behaviour Analyst guidelines as achieving favourable results.

The Ontario Autism Program

Currently, treatment for ASD is primarily managed through the Ontario Autism Program (OAP). Children under 18 are admitted into the program and assessed by an experienced analyst. This assessment determines the amount of funding they require to receive the best possible treatment to address their needs, which may cost up to $100,000 per year.

This cost is covered entirely by the Ontario government, allowing all enrolled children, regardless of income or age, to access effective treatment with the goal of learning to manage behaviour, enhance communication, and participate effectively in schools and communities.

The OAP’s biggest flaw is undoubtedly its massive waitlist. IBI is demanding in terms of time and funding, although economic analyses show that providing effective and early IBI to a greater number of children actually saves money in the long term. However, it is not feasible under current funding levels to provide effective IBI to every single child diagnosed with autism beginning at the time of their diagnosis. This leads to waiting periods that can last over two years, according to Amy Fee, Parliamentary Assistant to the MCCSS. Recent statements by MacLeod claim that over 8,000 children are receiving IBI through the OAP while 23,000 are still on the waitlist, a number the Ford government is accused of inflating by instructing regional providers to covertly stop accepting waitlisted families.

Changes to the program

Blaming financial constraints, the Ford government’s priority shifted to eliminating the waitlist. Over the next two years, the amount allocated for autism programs in the annual budget will remain at $321 million, but coverage will be rationed between all 31,000 children who are either waitlisted or currently receiving full therapy.

Funding will be awarded to children based on age and family income, with clients receiving up to $20,000 per year until the age of six, followed by $5,000 per year between the ages of six and 18. Families with a household income exceeding $250,000 won’t receive any funding at all.

While earlier treatment is correlated with more effective outcomes, scaling funding with age has been criticized due to the highly variable nature of the disorder. For example, a more neurotypical child at age five could be less functionally impaired than a 10-year-old farther along the spectrum.

However, since March 21, the Ford government announced a number of concessions for which details are still unclear, with MacLeod announcing that she would take the next few months to deliberate further. These updates included removal of the consideration of household family income in determining funding maximums; additional funding for children with autism to access speech language pathology, occupational therapy, and physiotherapy; increasing the total budget allocation to a minimum of $600 million; and committing to additional needs-based funding, without any further numerical or logistical details.

Despite MacLeod’s alleged threats to the Ontario Association of Behaviour Analysis warning the organization against disagreeing with the changes, pushback against the policy from groups across the board as been immense. The OAP revamp has been met with protests and criticism by parents, therapists, and self-advocacy groups. Many parents are saying that despite the unfairness and deep flaws of the previous system, they would rather wait for a full, intensive course of therapy than try to make do with what the government is providing. A significant number of families are being forced to choose between paying differences in cost that can amount to multiple times the Ontario median income, which may involve selling family property and depriving their child of effective therapy.

In response to backlash, the Ford government announced that it would be providing school boards with an average of $12,300 per child with autism enrolled in school, to help train teachers and ensure there are additional supports available. However this was not a new announcement — according to an August 2018 announcement by the provincial government, school boards will receive $12,300 for any student enrolled in school, regardless of their diagnoses or educational needs. Other significantly smaller funds in addition to the standard $12,300 are available for students with special needs in Ontario, but MacLeod’s announcement was deliberately misleading. The push for earlier integration of children with ASD into Ontario schools is particularly ominous when set against the backdrop of significant cuts to education, which will increase class sizes and reduce staffing at Ontario schools.

The broad impact of the changes

No amount of deception by the Ford government can hide the fact that all children, especially those with more severe autism coming from families with lower incomes, will be affected by the sweeping changes to the OAP and the education system as a whole. The ripple effects of these changes should be of concern to all of us. Anyone, from high school students soon joining U of T to mature student parents unable to afford both tuition and appropriate childcare, could be affected. It is up to us to join with all of them and advocate for evidence-based solutions to the needs of some of the most vulnerable citizens of this province.

Imaan Javeed is an MD student in the Faculty of Medicine. The author would like to acknowledge Kristin Bain, a Senior Therapist at AlphaBee, an intervention centre specializing in IBI and other behavioural analytic therapies.

Reflecting on a year of bringing science out of the ivory towers

A letter from the Science Editor

Reflecting on a year of bringing science out of the ivory towers

Over 100 articles, 23 issues, and one incredible team — I could not be more thankful to our readers and contributors for making the Science section a success this volume.

I once regretted pursuing a Professional Writing and Communication minor on top of my Biological Chemistry specialist. But now, more than ever, I’m thankful that I didn’t drop it. The writing skills that I’ve developed have complemented my work as an undergraduate researcher, and if we want to become better researchers, we must not neglect the arts.

What brought me to The Varsity was my love for science writing, but what has kept me here is the undeniable sense of community. My fellow editors and staff at The Varsity have taught me more about journalism than I ever could have learnt at an academic institution.

The impact of science journalism

Thank you to all the contributors, whether you’ve written one or a dozen articles.

Scientific discoveries aren’t conducted by one person, but by teams comprised of postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, undergraduate students, visiting scientists, lab technicians, and more. The media often recognizes the principal investigator — often a professor — when new research is published, but seldom speaks with the lead author, who is often a graduate student, or other researchers on the team. After all, there’s a reason why publications have multiple authors.

With this in mind, I felt The Varsity should leverage its position as a student paper to publish content that is more reflective of U of T’s diverse scientific community.

Javiera Duran has worked on a series of profiles on women in STEM over the volume. Her profiles are intersectional and showcase the people behind the science at U of T. The section has also published a photo series on student researchers at U of T and highlights from the Arts and Science Students’ Union’s Research Conference.

Ashima Kaura, an Associate Science Editor, wrote on retractions in scientific journals in November. The feature-length article delves into the repercussions that scientists and their laboratories face when hit with a retraction, looking into the retraction process as a whole and how it varies from journal to journal.

After it was published, readers, including a U of T professor and a cancer patient, wrote to The Varsity, expressing gratitude and noting the importance of publishing an article on the double-edged nature of scientific retractions.

Since January, Ashima has spent weeks speaking with patients who have been affected by scientific misconduct. Her follow-up investigation comes out this month.

The response to Ashima’s article attests to the important role that journalism plays in our society, even at the student level.

Spencer Ki, an Associate Science Editor, has taken on the unofficial space beat. Spencer has covered talks to outreach activities led by the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics.

In her article on permafrost, Elizabeth Benner explores the societal implications of a thawing permafrost. We often forget that climate change isn’t just a scientific issue, and we can’t file all articles on climate change under the Science section, because it’s a problem that will continue to impact every aspect of our lives.

Science doesn’t live in a bubble

Science isn’t objective, and it doesn’t exist in a bubble — it has a widespread cultural and societal impact.

What most of us consider science is Western science. However, while Indigenous people have contributed to science for generations, their findings often only make up a couple of pages of science textbooks, if at all.

As journalists, readers, and citizens, we are responsible for shifting this flawed narrative of scientific research.

Science is not a bunch of old white men in lab coats. It’s comprised of individuals of different races, genders, and abilities. Some of these researchers have learning or physical disabilities, or chronic illnesses.

And although it often seems like it, science isn’t confined to a lab or a scientific journal. It’s our job as journalists to separate the science from the jargon and make it engaging and accessible for a non-expert audience.

The faster the scientific community learns to embrace the diverse community that it serves, the faster science will progress.

— Srivindhya Kolluru
Science Editor, Volume CXXXIX

How are scientific artifacts preserved?

Exploring new and traditional conservation methods

How are scientific artifacts preserved?

In September, a fire engulfed the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. Estimates on how much of the collection was lost are as high as 90 per cent. 

In the face of such a tragedy, it’s hard not to wonder what the costs associated with the conservation of physical artifacts are and whether alternative methods for preservation exist. 

What do conservation and preservation entail?

Helen Coxon, Senior Conservator of Preventative Conservation at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), said that conservation is “about preserving cultural heritage of any size and the best condition possible in the best way possible so that future generations will be able to look at it just as we can.”

Preserving artifacts includes anything from active hands-on conservation to managing proper display and environmental conditions. It is typically done on artifacts that will be on display. 

Coxon’s role in conservation involves managing the environment in which artifacts are held. This includes controlling humidity and temperature, storage, handling of artifacts, and monitoring which materials are being used with and in the vicinity of artifacts. 

In the acquisition process, the condition of each artifact is used to determine whether to purchase it or to accept it as a donation. Artifacts in good condition require less conservation efforts in the future.

Likewise, when an artifact is being prepared for loan, its condition has to be maintained. The artifact’s condition, packing, transportation, and the journey back must all be considered. 

According to Coxon, the time spent on active conservation is a “question of degree.” If a piece needs a light dusting, it can be in the gallery faster than a chair with a wobbly leg or an artifact with a piece of veneer lifting up. 

The costs of conservation 

Since the ROM is an agency of the Ontario government, the government provides funding for the museum. In 2016–2017, the museum received 36 per cent of its revenue from the province. 

Ticket sales also make up part of the museum’s funding. In 2016–2017, it was reported that the ROM had 1.35 million visitors and received 17 per cent of its revenue from admission fees. 

A portion of funding also comes from donations. The same report stated that one per cent of the museum’s revenue came from donations. 

Other areas of revenue include events and concession, which made up 11 per cent of the total, and memberships, which accounted for four per cent. 

While it is difficult to pinpoint the exact amount of funds needed for conservation, the salaries of the seven conservators, the costs of materials, and the expenses of controlling the building’s environment to suit the needs of the artifacts are all factored in. 

The evolution of conservation practices

Conservation science is a field that involves researching and developing innovative preservation methods like gels for localized cleaning.

Past conservation methods could be problematic because they often resulted in further damage to artifacts. Such counterproductive methods include drilling holes and using a rivet to keep to pieces of a ceramic together. Today, adhesives are used to seamlessly put pieces together.  

Digital avenues

Before the fire, Google had been collaborating with the National Museum to digitize their collections. Currently, a virtual representation of the museum is available online.

Digital curation is, essentially, the preservation of digital data. Museums can use digital methods to put more of their collections online for the general public to view, and uploading 3D models may even change how we view and study historical artifacts. 

“There are aspects of science that can only be measured once, scientific work that results in single measurements,” said Dr. Seamus Ross, Professor at U of T’s Faculty of Information. “Digital records are a relationship between the data, the software in which that data is stored or referenced, and the computer environment or the information system in which that software and data is stored.” 

Matthew Brower, Assistant Professor in the Museum Studies program, explained that digital conservation involves making “images of things to document them, we make images of things to publicize them, and we make images of things as a substitute for them.” However, digital archives inevitably only represent a fraction of what the museum has physically displayed or stored in its collections.

Another issue that arises with digitization is the degradation of data quality over time. For example, an object may need to be photographed multiple times with the advent of better image quality. But the time and funds required could instead be used to conserve the object itself. 

Ross explained that since “data doesn’t do so well with benign neglect,” it is necessary that “the efforts of preservation are consistent, they are well-funded, and they are not intermittent.”

As well, a digital model cannot replace the authenticity that comes with viewing an object in person. “There’s an intangible something [in] my mind about the real artifact, about looking at it and thinking, ‘Goodness, this is 3,000 years old and here it is and I’m standing here looking at it,’” said Coxon.

The loss of cultural and historical capital in the fire that engulfed the National Museum of Brazil could have been prevented. But according to Ross, preventing such a tragedy requires societies to respect and value cultural heritage. 

“We consistently support activities where we see that we can create economic growth,” said Ross. “Protecting our heritage is not just about memory, it’s about these other benefits that we can actually create and improve.” 

Bringing Indigenous Knowledges in astronomy to the forefront

The scientific community should respect and learn about Indigenous Knowledges

Bringing Indigenous Knowledges in astronomy to the forefront

Betelgeuse, glowing a fiery red, is one of the brightest stars in the sky, and one of the largest visible to the naked eye. Betelgeuse’s brightness varies periodically, a phenomenon first recorded in scientific literature in 1836 by Sir John Herschel, an English astronomer. 

In his article, Herschel also observed that the brightness of Eta Carinae, a star system, had increased. Eta Carinae is unstable and erupts from time to time, causing it to shed its outer layers, grow, and outshine some of its neighbours. The event that Herschel observed would come to be known as The Great Eruption. 

Herschel, however, was not the only person to observe and record the event. In southeast Australia, the Boorong clan of the Wergaia language also passed down reports of this astronomical event through oral communication. Yet Herschel’s report is the most well-known.

“So much Indigenous Knowledge has been lost due to colonization,” said Hilding Neilson, an assistant professor in the Department of Astronomy at U of T.  UNESCO defines ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ as the “understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings” — for example, the Boorong clan’s description of the Great Eruption. 

Indigenous Knowledges offer different perspectives on scientific phenomena 

The availability of Indigenous Knowledges in our current education system is scant. According to Neilson, any given science textbook will have a couple of pages dedicated to Indigenous Knowledges — but much of the content on these pages is written by Western scientists from an anthropological perspective.

A 2010 study examining the presence of Indigenous Knowledges in a Canadian high school science textbook found that only 20 per cent of the chapters mentioned Indigenous Knowledges. 

Neilson, who is Mi’kmaq and a member of the Qalipu First Nation Band, divides his research program into two realms. One side of his research involves the life, death, and evolution of stars, and the physics that govern these processes. The other side centres on the development of curriculum modules that integrate Indigenous Knowledges into the astronomy classroom.

“These modules would take stories that are shared by Indigenous leaders or communities and integrate them into astronomy courses so that students can see Indigenous Knowledge in action and learn about the universe through these stories,” said Neilson. He points out that U of T is an ideal place to begin this integration because it is a public university on Indigenous territory.

Neilson said that we tend to stand on the shoulders of giants like Galileo and Einstein, while ignoring other peoples and other methods of crafting knowledge. “In some respect, that’s kind of a form of colonization.”

Dismissing the importance of other knowledge systems can limit our understanding of science and could even halt scientific progress. 

The author of the 2010 study also found problematic language, including the use of words like “traditional” to describe Indigenous lifestyles in textbooks, which implies a lack of authenticity and equivalence to Western science methodologies.

In a 2018 Nature article, two researchers made a case for triangulation in scientific research to produce robust insights into a research question. Triangulation involves the use of “multiple approaches to address one question” where “each approach has its own unrelated assumptions, strengths, and weaknesses.”   

One of the ways in which Indigenous Knowledges and Western science differ is the way in which phenomena are analyzed. 

At the core of Western science is the belief that everything in nature can be understood and explained if you break it down enough. According to Neilson, Indigenous Knowledges do not follow this axiom: they accept that there is some mystery to the world.

As such, implementing different knowledge systems, like Indigenous Knowledges, in astronomy and other fields of scientific research can probe questions from different angles. 

Furthermore, these two knowledge systems differ in what kinds of observations are accepted as truths. For example, the only observations accepted in Western science are the objective ones. “If I see a phenomenon in nature, and it’s happening independent of my observations… I should be able to go across the hall to my colleague and he should be able to see the exact same thing… In that respect, knowledge is independent of the person,” said Neilson.

Observations using Indigenous Knowledges methodology, on the other hand, can differ based on context. 

“Indigenous Knowledges tend to be more relational, like… how looking at the universe relates to me or my community… My knowledge, my truth, can be different from your truth, and be just as equivalent,” said Neilson.

Indigenous Knowledges are much more holistic and draw on truths and values from outside the sciences. An Indigenous story about a constellation can tell us not just about the stars, but also about the seasons, how they connect to the behaviour of animals, and the ethics and morality that are embedded in these topics. 

Incorporating Indigenous Knowledges into the classroom 

While the development and implementation of Indigenous teachings into current curricula has been slow, Neilson already weaves Indigenous astronomy into his lectures and says that the students are receptive. 

“I’ve found that students do very well with it and leave with a different appreciation of how astronomy and science work.”

Students have a role in the integration of Indigenous Knowledges into curricula too because “departments will react to what students want,” said Neilson. “If students ask for Indigenous Knowledges and Indigenous Learning in their courses, I think faculty will shift a lot faster.”  

Neilson explained that a crucial step in asserting the equivalence of Indigenous Knowledges with Western science is to step back and let Elders and Indigenous Knowledge Keepers tell us what we can do. “That’s kind of hard because scientists tend to feel like we’re the authorities [on] things — we have to let some of that go,” said Neilson.

Ultimately, Indigenous Knowledges allow us to see a different worldview than what is accessible through Western science — and acknowledging this alternative worldview is important. As Neilson noted, “Western people looked at the night sky, Indigenous people looked at the night sky, everyone views the night sky. So everyone has a perspective [that] we should be seeing in our classrooms.”

In conversation with Ayan Gedleh

Industrial engineering student and NSBEHacks organizer talks academics, research, and advocacy

In conversation with Ayan Gedleh

Finding a balance between school, work, and extracurriculars is an eternal problem for the university student.

According to fourth-year industrial engineering student Ayan Gedleh, one solution to this problem is prioritizing passion. “I think when you’re passionate about something and you truly feel connected with the people that you’re working with you find a way to make things work.”

Gedleh herself is a student of many passions, including her area of study in information engineering and her work with the U of T chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

Information engineering centres on the optimization and efficiency of systems and information management.

Gedleh’s first experiences in the program were with human factors engineering, having worked at a lab that investigated driver distraction in rural and urban areas.

Last year, she completed her Professional Experience Year as a data quality intern and business analyst at Environment and Climate Change Canada. She is currently working there part-time.

Through these roles, she managed “the quality assessment for data being disseminated to government clients for weather” and developed policies that were then implemented in business processes.

Gedleh is also involved in community outreach and advocacy through the NSBE.

Having heard about the organization in her third year, Gedleh attended their annual conference in Pittsburgh. She noted that it was empowering “to see all these successful Black people in engineering and in STEM just doing amazing things.”

After the conference, she joined the executive team as their programs director.

In this role, Gedleh planned the program for the club’s upcoming year working closely with the President and Vice-President of the club.

On January 26, the club hosted NSBEHacks which Gedleh described as “one of our biggest achievements this year.”

The team identified a gap and gauged the interest of Black students in computer science to create a hackathon specifically for Black students.

The response to the hackathon was positive, and a high demand from students at both local institutions like U of T and Ryerson and more distant schools in Ottawa and Vancouver prompted the need for a waitlist.

Gedleh said that as an organizer, it was rewarding to see “how everybody was just happy even if they didn’t win an award, they left there with something that they learned.”

Through her involvement in NSBE, she helped run their mentorship series. In this program, NSBE alumni are matched to undergraduate and graduate students to foster a mentorship which enables students to see where their career could take them.

“There’s that feeling of family and validation, that they feel like they actually belong in the space and they can actually [say] ‘Okay, this is where I will be when I’m in fourth year,’” said Gedleh. “It’s a great space to mentor other students and to bring them in.”

She described her experience in industrial engineering as a learning process, to “make sure that I always put my best foot forward and I always show my best side of myself so I can make sure that I’m making the most out of my education and extra curricular activities.”

In order to foster equity, Gedleh stressed the importance of acknowledging the different barriers faced by Black women and providing support and encouragement as you would to anyone else.

She encourages high school students or students interested in pursuing higher education in STEM fields to keep at it. “At the end of the day, society and external pressures, they always change and you will still be there regretting not doing something.”