Ontario’s plan for STEM is vague but encouraging

Re: “Provincial policy aims to increase number of STEM grads“

Ontario’s plan for STEM is vague but encouraging

The choice to invest heavily in locally educated science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees is plainly and unequivocally a good one. As evidenced by the recent investment by Google into the Waterfront and Toronto’s optimistic bid to house Amazon’s Canadian headquarters, it is clear that the tech industry is booming in Ontario. Likewise, it is in the logistical and economic benefit of everyone involved that the accompanying jobs and opportunities be filled with Ontario-educated talent.

However, attempting to become North America’s number one producer of postsecondary STEM graduates per capita is no easy feat. While I am cautiously optimistic, the vague nature of the government’s announcement that it intends to do just that raises questions as to how exactly Ontario will achieve this bold vision. With big talking points like increasing STEM graduates by 25 per cent over the next five years, the only concrete policy on the matter so far appears to be a $30 million investment into creating applied master’s degrees in artificial intelligence. It remains to be seen precisely how the province will promote other areas in the STEM fields.

Regardless, the announcement is a breath of fresh air for scientists in Ontario. With Canada still feeling the effects of the Harper administration’s ‘war on science’ and the concerning anti-intellectual and anti-scientific rhetoric south of the border, Ontario is taking a stand in the name of progress and innovation. Combined with governmental promises to look into the Naylor Report and the potential reversal of American-Canadian ‘brain drain,’ the future is looking bright.


Spencer Y. Ki is a second-year student at Victoria College studying Astrophysics and Mathematics.

Student-funded, space-bound

The University of Toronto Aerospace Team prepares to launch a satellite into space

Student-funded, space-bound

Article by Mari Ramsawakh

The University of Toronto may make its claim to space following the U of T Aerospace Team’s (UTAT) successful levy referendum last spring. The money from the levy goes toward its Innovation Fund, which was established to create a new project for UTAT: a student-built and student-funded satellite to launch into space. Members of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) from UTSG will pay the $2.77 per term levy over the next two years.UTAT is a student-run research and design group that aims to incite curiosity and spark interest in aerospace engineering. While the satellite is UTAT’s latest project, the Space Systems Division is only one of several branches of the group. The group also has a Rocketry Division currently working on a hybrid rocket that could break Canada’s high altitude record and an Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Division that is currently the defending champion of the Unmanned Systems Canada competition.
So, how has UTAT been using the Innovation Fund since its inception? How is the satellite coming? I met with UTAT at their office in McLennan Physical Laboratories to find out.


The team

The office, located in the basement of the building, snugly fits five of the Space Systems team members. Every workspace is covered in small plastic and metal components, which were later identified to me as 3D-printed prototypes of components of the satellite.

Although the whole Space Systems Division couldn’t meet with me, several of the Division’s team leads met to tell me more about the satellite project. Before delving into UTAT’s specific plans, I spent some time getting to know a little bit about how these undergraduates got involved with aerospace design.

Ridwan Howlader is a prime example of the sort of trajectory that UTAT can inspire; he’s the Executive Director of UTAT and the Senior Engineering Designer for the Space Systems Division. Howlader first joined UTAT during one of its outreach programs run through high schools — this means he’s been with UTAT longer than he’s been at U of T. As Executive Director, Howlader is part of the strategic and technical planning of all the projects that UTAT is involved in.

“I really appreciate the members and the energy and being curious and wanting to learn,” he told me. “It just aligns with our mission and vision.”

Katie Gwozdecky is the Director of Space Systems and a fifth-year engineering student. She’s in charge of the administrative details of the Space Systems Division, although her focus has shifted away from her initial interest in the technical aspects of the work and toward the team’s culture and keeping them aligned with their passions and needs.

“I think that no team can operate at their best if people aren’t considered to be contributors in any way,” said Gwozdecky. “We also have to make sure that people are given the space they need to do what they want to do.”

Gwozdecky has been with UTAT for five years, initially discovering the group in her first year. She explained that from the moment she saw the rockets at a clubs fair, she knew this was a group she wanted to join. Gwozdecky has been with the Space Systems Division since its creation.

Addy Bhatia, the System Design and Attitude Control Lead, has been with UTAT since fall of last year. The third-year engineering student was determined to join the team and jumped at an opportunity when he could. Now, his role involves figuring out how and where the satellite points as it separates from the rocket, as well as mechanical integrations of smaller projects into the satellite.

Victor Nechita is an aerospace engineering student who has also only been working with UTAT for the last year. Nechita is the Project Manager of the Space Systems Division, meaning that he is the one in charge of managing deadlines and scheduling as well as liaising with their launch providers.

“Your task is not just limited to a competition, we kind of extend beyond that in that we’re trying to have a real impact on the world by creating an open platform for these microbiology experiments,” said Nechita. “Being able to conduct that as a student team has been fantastic, so I hands down love being a part of the team.”

Avinash Mukkala, the Payload Lead, is a member of the team who isn’t focusing so much on the satellite, but rather the experiment for which it’ll be collecting data. Mukkala is a fourth-year molecular genetics student who joined during the first iteration of the satellite three years ago. As much as team culture has taken precedent in this group, Mukkala found that he was most proud of the scientific and technological progress UTAT has actually made on the satellite since its first iteration.

“It isn’t just a bunch of students that are just building something and putting it into space,” explained Mukkala. “There is a lot of advisors involved, there’s a lot of critical design reviews involved. The process is what I enjoy.”

They also get to learn from real experts in their fields. For example, shortly after meeting with me, several leads on the team travelled to Huntsville, Alabama to attend a NASA conference.

The mission

The first iteration of the satellite was designed for the Canadian Satellite Design Challenge, in which universities across Canada were challenged to design a satellite in a two-year cycle that, once built, could survive the rigorous qualifying testing in order to win the competition. While the contest originally promised that the winning designs would be launched, there weren’t any formal offers to actually launch the satellites. UTAT decided to take the launch into their own hands.

But as Mukkala said, UTAT is more than just a couple of students sending something into space for bragging rights. There is a purpose to the satellite and its launch: a microbiology experiment.

The purpose of the satellite is to send up a payload of genetically modified cells and examine how they grow and react to an environment that is under the effect of microgravity. Mukkala was part of the team that genetically engineered the cells to send up into space. The cells they are using are a form of yeast that is found in the human gut, called candida albicans.

According to Mukkala and Bhatia, there have been several studies from NASA and other researchers that suggest that astronauts who experience long-duration space flight in microgravity can experience immunological changes because of the upregulation of the expression of certain genes in their T-cells and B-cells.

Mukkala said that space is very sterile, but our own bodies contain bacteria, and long space flights require more than one astronaut. If an astronaut is immunocompromised — meaning their immune system is impaired — they can become more susceptible to urinary tract infections or other kinds of infections. Bhatia added that this is a significant concern because, in these situations, necessary medical aid is not accessible in space.

The yeast cells will be loaded onto the UTAT satellite and examined to see how much the genes change over the course of two days in orbit. The sensors they’ll be using in the satellite have already demonstrated that they can be used in a space-like environment and can produce reproducible results. If these studies go on to prove the theories put forth by NASA and other scientists, then similar studies can continue to explore how medications may behave differently in space.

“For that reason we’re putting together a very small-scale, cheap platform that students like us can build and keep on building in the future across the world, to do studies that are as significant as this to the scientific and space community, that would benefit future space exploration,” explained Bhatia.

“Something else to note is that the results that we get from an experiment are usually applicable to more than just one situation,” added Mukkala. “Science is very spontaneous. Things happen as they go. It’s a matter of developing technology that can pace with the spontaneity of science.”

The Innovation Fund was planned to serve only on the Space Systems project and the satellite launch. According to Howlader, a large portion of the levy will be used for the launch costs, which can be “hundreds of thousands of dollars” paid through several installments over the two-year period. All other funds go directly into designing and developing the satellite.

While the first iteration that was built for the design competition withstood the structural testing that it required, the designers of the Space Systems Division found that it was difficult to manufacture and develop. That’s why the satellite has now entered its second iteration; included in this iteration is a new outer design of the satellite. Additionally, each system is being designed to be prototyped and manufactured more quickly.


The future

The true importance of a project like this is not in the immediate results of the launch but rather in the longevity of the project and the doors that it will open. The purpose of UTAT is to get students not only excited about aerospace engineering, but to make it more accessible. UTAT wants to create an environment where students can learn outside the classroom and put the theories they have learned into practice.

“The ability to show that students at the undergraduate level can get involved very deeply into something that only people like NASA have done before is very, very big,” said Howlader.

UTAT is more than just for students in STEM fields. Students involved in commerce, marketing, finance, and outreach can get involved to work on the business development aspect to the group.

“We have an entire system that can be for anyone who has any curiosity to come and learn this stuff,” Howlader told me. “I think a really big thing is how interdisciplinary the aerospace community really is.”

The Ontario Science Centre is already using old UTAT equipment for educational purposes. It’s only a matter of time before the first U of T student-launched satellite becomes the next attraction.

U of T releases advocacy toolkit to support Naylor Report

Toolkit provides resources for those who wish to lobby Canadian government

U of T releases advocacy toolkit to support Naylor Report

The U of T administration has released an advocacy toolkit for students, faculty, and staff to persuade the federal government to implement the recommendations from Canada’s Fundamental Science Review Panel, also known as the Naylor Report. The report was commissioned by Science Minister Kirsty Duncan and released in April.

From the findings of an independent panel of experts, the Naylor Report reviews the state of fundamental sciences in Canada. It concludes that federal support in fundamental science has been lacking in recent years, a decline that reduces Canada’s international competitiveness and Canadian innovation.

The report provides recommendations on how the government can improve Canadian research.

“This report sets out a multi-year agenda that, if implemented, could transform Canadian research capacity and have enormous long-term impacts across the nation,” said panel chair and former U of T President David Naylor in the report.

“The Fundamental Science Review presents a thoughtful, coherent plan that addresses all dimensions of Canada’s research system through a set of tightly linked recommendations,” Vivek Goel, U of T Vice-President of Research and Innoation told U of T News. “We will continue to work with our university colleagues across Canada to encourage the government to act on all 35 recommendations made by the panel.”

The Canadian government has not promised to act on all 35 recommendations made in the report, which include a $1.3 billion increase in research funding over four years. In June, nearly 200 researchers gathered in Toronto to discuss making the implementation of the Naylor Report’s provisions a reality. It is unclear if the toolkit is an outcome of this talk.

The advocacy toolkit, announced in a press release by U of T Chief of Government Relations Andrew Thomson, provides “quick facts about the Report, why it matters, and why the University of Toronto strongly endorses its recommendations.” It states that the Naylor Report is “sensible, affordable,” and that the implementation of its recommendations would benefit all Canadians. It further posits that investing in fundamental science is important for innovation, economic growth, and promoting curiosity among young Canadians.

Additionally, the toolkit encourages all members of the U of T community to support the panel through whatever means they have available, including using the hashtag #supportthereport on social media.

“The toolkit asks members of the U of T community to take action and participate in the campaign to convince the federal government of the critical importance of supporting fundamental science,” Thomson wrote.

Is Canadian science back?

The federal government has promised to improve transparency and funding of Canadian research; if done right, it could be a pivotal moment for scientists

Is Canadian science back?

In late 2015, Kirsty Duncan, Member of Parliament (MP) for the riding of Etobicoke North, was appointed Minister of Science in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet.

Duncan has no direct predecessor to emulate. The position was introduced by Brian Mulroney in 1990 and existed until 1995, when Jean Chrétien nixed it and added the new title of Minister of Industry to his cabinet. Stephen Harper reintroduced a Science and Technology portfolio to his cabinet, but demoted the person in this position to Minister of State, which is a lower cabinet rank. It was therefore a significant change when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Duncan with a full mandate. The move seemed to reflect the Liberal Part of Canada’s campaign promise to restore the voice and funding given to Canadian researchers and scientists.

With $1.1 billion in research funding granted at U of T in 2013–2014 — 31 per cent of which came from federal agencies — there is no doubt that the university is a major player in Canadian research. It educates thousands of students hoping to participate in research each year. Many from the U of T community will be watching as the new federal government attempts to change the political climate surrounding research in Canada.

Money and ‘muzzling’

Under Stephen Harper’s government, scientists across Canada reported a variety of challenges related to the government and their work. A common grievance was the reduction in federal research funding to various  programs and facilities. In January 2014, CBC News reported that 2000 government scientists had been laid off within five years, and that research in climate change, water quality, and other areas had seen dramatic financial cutbacks. 

In recent years, Canadian researchers have also expressed concerns over political censorship in the publication of data. The Harper government was accused of preventing scientists employed by the federal government from sharing information that did not align with the goals of the administration. Public scientists’ interactions with the media were carefully controlled by government media managers.

In particular, climate change research conducted by government scientists allegedly did not reach the general public. Some groups, including the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, called these practices ‘scientific muzzling.’

The new government seems eager to distance itself from these criticisms and to prioritize transparent scientific research. When asked about the goals of the new Ministry of Science, Duncan said, “The goal is to return science to its rightful place and to return science to its rightful place in government. We have two ministers with science in the title, and it I think it shows the importance this government places on science.”

Duncan is a scientist first and isn’t afraid to admit that. She is a U of T geography and anthropology alumnus, holds a PhD in geography, and is known within the community for her research on historical epidemics. Her work focused on understanding the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, as the world worried about an outbreak of another global flu in the late 1990s. 

Duncan taught meteorology, climatology, and climate change at the University of Windsor from 1993 to 2000. Her research led to the publication of a book called Hunting the 1918 Flu: One Scientist’s Search for a Killer Virus in 2003. She entered politics in 2008 and won her riding, even as the federal Liberal Party failed to win nationally.   

It is Duncan’s opinion that the government should not influence scientists’ communications with the public. “Scientists should be able to speak freely in an official capacity where they have direct responsibility or expertise, or scientific and technical matters related to their work. That’s what science is about. Scientists share their work; they have to be able to do that. Part of my mandate is to ensure that government scientists can talk freely about their work, that government science is made available to Canadians and that we have this evidence base to inform decision making,” she said. 

The Conservative Party of Canada maintains that its stance on science has been fair. Marilyn Gladu, MP for the riding of Sarnia-Lambton and Conservative Party of Canada science critic, said, “My view is that scientists are free to speak about their work, but they do not speak for the government on issues of science policy.”

Gladu also defended the Conservatives’ record on science. “Canadian Science never left the main stage while the Conservatives were in power. A lot of very positive things happened, in fact, like a Canadian research team finding a cure for Ebola, that just simply never got a lot of media attention,”she said.

The tension between government regulation and scientific expression was enough to prompt students to speak out about the right to free expression of scientific findings. At U of T, a group known as Students for the Right to Know was started in response to the alleged muzzling of scientists by the Harper government. The group, led by Emma Pask, continues to advocate for the freedom to disseminate scientific findings. 

Pask felt that awareness of the importance of transparency in research has increased. “More professors are presenting their work through alternative avenues, instead of having it written up by public relations representatives or journalists, as dictated by the mandates for government funded research [under Stephen Harper].” To ensure the free expression of their work, Pask said, “Academics are creating more direct ways of sharing their work by starting blogs and appearing on shows, such as TED Talks, to ensure the transparency that their work requires and to secure the proper communication of the scope of their research.”

These measures may no longer be necessary if the new government begins to dismantle the policies put in place by the Harper government, but the lengths researchers go to secure free expression of their findings is representative of how important transparency is to Canadian researchers. 

The ‘Gross Research Product’

The budget allocates an additional $30 million for NSERC and CIHR, and an additional $16 million for SSHRC. As well, an additional $19 million has been granted to the Research Support Fund, a fund “to support the indirect costs borne by post-secondary institutions in undertaking federally sponsored research.” The total increase in funding for research is $141 million in 2016-2017. In total, the final budgets will rise to $1.12 billion for NSERC, $1.03 billion for the CIHR, and $720 million for the SSHRC. Smaller increases were provided to other institutions, like Genome Canada and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

While more generous than previous budgets, an increase of $141 million dollars does not spread well over an entire country and is not likely to significantly improve the ability of researchers to obtain grants for their work

Canada’s research and development expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) remains significantly lower than those of many other top research countries. In 2013, Canada’s per capita GDP spent on research was 1.62 per cent; Israel’s was 4.21 per cent. France’s expenditure on research was 2.23 per cent of GDP in 2013. 

Kennedy Stewart, MP for the riding of Burnaby South and New Democratic Party science critic, thought more should be done to improve research in Canada. “Stephen Harper and the Conservatives undermined scientific research in Canada by reducing funding, firing and muzzling government scientists, and eliminating key tools such as the long form census. As a result, our global reputation took a severe hit and we dropped on most key comparative tables concerning scientific output and innovation,” he said. 

He added that the increases in research funding under the Liberals failed to meet his ideals: “In a recent letter to the new science minister I asked Dr. Duncan to increase funding to our tri-councils by $1.5 billion over the next four years and to tie these increases to inflation to [guarantee] adequate funding over the long term. While a good start, the recent Liberal budget fell short of these goals.”

While researchers would like greater funding, governments are understandably constrained by their budgets. The scarcity of government funding begs the question: should governments prioritize research that is likely to be economically productive? 

Duncan said that the 2016 budget delivers on a mandate to increase funding for “fundamental” science, rather than just research for commercial gain. “Under the framework of the previous government, [researchers] felt that funds were being tied, that there had to be a commercialization aspect to their research to get funding. The example I’ll give is with SSHRC. Between 2000 and 2006, there was 0% tied funding. In 2006, it was 9%. Today it stands at 37%. We heard repeatedly that [increases in research funding] should be unfettered, and [these increases are] unfettered money,” she explained.

Dr. Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice president of research and innovation, noted that U of T researchers enter into funding agreements that guarantee their ability to publish their results and therefore have not been subject to censorship by the government. He hopes for Duncan and the Liberals to implement improvements to the process of applying for funding, which can sometimes be burdensome. 

“Right now… in order [for researchers] to maintain their research programs, their labs, and their support, their graduate students, post docs and so on have to write multiple applications for the same project to different organizations,” he explained. Goel wants this process to come under the Ministry of Science review that was also announced in the 2016 budget. He also wishes that the government can improve access to funding for new scholars and increase international collaborations.

Dr. Edward Andrew, professor emeritus of the U of T political science department is in favour of research for the sake of research. “My view is that governments should be strong supporters of research, even if it is not economically productive,” he said.

He warned of what can happen if governments fail to support research, regardless of their potential payoff. Andrew predicted, “The alternative to government funding is that all research will be funded and controlled by capitalist corporations. To avoid researchers becoming lackeys of corporations or governments, a multiplicity of patrons or funding agencies is essential.”

Meanwhile, funding agencies have been struggling in recent years. In 2013, both the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science and the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy were shut down due to a lack of funding.

While research funding rarely improves the national bottom-line immediately, research should not be undervalued. Rock-solid research is needed to maintain Canada’s position on the global stage. National research and development strengthens our medical care and often leads to new ways to make complicated procedures more effective and cost-efficient.

The National Research Council (NRC) funds a number of medical technologies that improve the way our federally-funded physicians conduct life-saving procedures. Government funding of globally-renowned Canadian health non-profits, like Grand Challenges Canada, also saves thousands of lives abroad. The Defence Research and Development Canada agency conducts important research on how to improve military technology.

While these investments may not pay off immediately, it’s important that a global leader like Canada takes the necessary risk of investing in research, regardless of the outcome.

Goel echoed these sentiments: “Government[s]… can fund fundamental research without having to make the case that it’s going to be economically productive.” Furthermore, he made it clear that governments have a role in funding research for the “social good.”

“[Governments fund] research for which no single entity on its own, particularly a private sector organization, would necessarily invest in because it’s so fundamental [that] it doesn’t lead directly to products and commercialization,” continued Goel. “So, [the] particularly important role for government[s] is to fund the research that nobody else or nowhere else in society would be funded.”

Goel also said that the importance of research in the humanities should not be forgotten or ignored. “I think another part of this [that is] really important for the university is research in humanities and in the social sciences, [which] quite often [are] not directly related to economic activity in the way that people think about it.” noted Goel. In particular, he drew attention to the role the social sciences have in national security. “It is fundamental to our society and understanding social forces within society. Understanding why, for example, people might get radicalized… If we took an economic lens, [that research] might not get funded, [which] can often end up being the most important for us as a society.”

While it is clear that the Liberal government is attempting to improve the Canadian research climate, it remains to be seen whether the measures they have proposed will be enough to realize substantial change. Duncan seems to be hopeful. She concluded, “I just hope that science is back, and that there is respect for science and scientists and the important work they do.”

Correction (April 5th, 2016): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the 2016 federal budget allocations for research. The Varsity regrets the errors.

Science around town

Your guide to the top science-related events this week

Science around town


Special lunches and cooking classes will be hosted at several locations across the St. George campus this week to mark UeaT’s Nutrition Education Week. More information, as well as the event schedule, can be found on the UeaT website. 

Monday, March 7 — Friday, March 11


This hands-on event is aimed at providing interested attendees with some introductory lessons in designing and printing 3D objects using tools such as Sculptris and Autodesk 123D Design.

Monday, March 7


Digital Innovation Hub

Fort York Branch

Admission: free with registration


The Ryerson University chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) invites graduating students to attend a professional development seminar featuring presentations from Dr. Vincent Chan, an associate professor in Ryerson’s department of mechanical engineering, and Derek Smith, Career Experience Manager at Faithcareer.com 

Tuesday, March 8


Oakham Lounge

55 Gould St.

Admission: $5, includes meal


The 2016 Health and Human Rights Conference hosted at OISE will address several facets of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. 

Friday, March 11–Saturday March 12

Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

252 Bloor St. W

Admission: $10 deposit, $8.40 refunded at event

Science around town

Your guide to the top science-related events this week

Science around town


The U of T Hatchery features Toronto entrepreneur Basma Hameed, founder of scar camouflage and paramedical micro-pigment implantation clinic Basma Hameed Clinic.

Monday, February 22nd

5:00–7:00 pm

Ramsay Wright,

25 Harbord St.


Admission: Free with registration


The EWH’s annual full day symposium aims to expose global health initiatives in developing countries via engineering and interdisciplinary approach. It will feature talks, panel discussions and poster sessions exploring global health initiatives via engineering solutions.

Monday, February 22nd


New College

45 Willcocks St.

Room: William Doo Auditorium


Professor Bryan Gaensler, the director of the Dunlap Institute, will answer all your space-related trivia questions. What’s the coldest place in space? What is the fastest object in the Universe? What is the biggest object we’ve ever seen in space, and the smallest? How strong and weak does gravity get? And many more.

Thursday, February 25th

Starts at 8:00pm

MP 134

255 Huron Street


An opportunity for students to work together in group of interdisciplinary teams and come up with applicable ideas to tackle global health issues.

Sunday, February 28th


Rosebrugh Building,

164 College St.


Admission:  Registration required (deadline: February 22nd)

Chilly days, muted spirits

What we know about Seasonal Affective Disorder, and how students venture to cope

Chilly days, muted spirits

It is no secret that Torontonian winters can be hard. Short days, freezing dorm rooms, and long waits for the streetcar in the snow are all frustrating enough on their own. Dragging yourself away from the fire to get to the pub on a Friday night can be a Herculean task for anybody, especially when the thermometer reads -20C outside.

It seems somehow counterintuitive that a drop in temperature, something that could be easily remedied by a hot chocolate or a warm blanket, causes so much turmoil that for some simple activities such as waking up for class or meeting a friend for coffee are rendered very difficult or even impossible. For some U of T students, this is a fact of life three months of the year.  

It is likely that you are starting to notice a prevalence of the words ‘seasonal affective disorder’ (SAD) come up increasingly in conversation. Although one third of Canadians report feeling worse off in the winter, for a small portion of the population the common experience of feeling ‘down’ when it’s cold outside turns into a full-blown and extremely debilitating disorder that shares some similarities with depression.

SAD is diagnosed by a medical professional but it has also taken on a colloquial meaning for those who suffer through winter weather rather than enjoy it. In an environment that pressures people to go out and be productive in both your social and academic life, it is understandable when tired students turn to clinical terms with a self-explanatory name to make sense of their otherwise unexplained lack of motivation. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMAH), only two to three per cent of Canadians experience SAD in their lifetimes. As with many mood disorders and mental illnesses, understandings of SAD differ between the public, the patients, and the medical community. We spoke to several SAD-suffering students and mental health professionals to work through the  facts and myths surrounding this cryptic disorder.

The truth about SAD

As with depression and other mood disorders that can result in depressive episodes, simply feeling ‘down’ is not the same as having SAD. “[I]t’s characterized by a fairly distinct set of symptoms, and those symptoms include not necessarily a sad mood,” says Dr. Robert Levitan, Cameron Wilson Chair in Depression Studies, and professor in the departments of psychiatry and physiology at U of T.

Although SAD and depression are similar, there are important differences between the two disorders.

Levitan explains that while SAD is characterised by oversleeping and carbohydrate cravings, many people with non-seasonal depression will experience insomnia, loss of appetite and loss of weight. “[SAD] is somewhat of a different syndrome when you look at the overall number of symptoms and it doesn’t always necessarily involve sadness,” he adds, “so typically what we see is more that patients lose their motivation and energy. I would look at [SAD] almost as related to energy regulation as I would just a pure mood disorder.”

Although Levitan gives a fairly clear definition, between SAD the disorder, and having sad feelings, the differences remain somewhat ambiguous. Students living with SAD report distinct and often debilitating symptoms.

Polly*, a U of T undergraduate student, describes how her SAD causes lethargic symptoms that affect her schoolwork during the winter semester.

“ …[N]o matter how important [my homework] is, it can be like a 20 page paper and I’m just like ok later. [Later] never comes.”

For Polly, the disorder has led to problems with her social life and self-worth in addition to school work.

“I think in second year and third year [my SAD] was the worst, because that’s when it got like the darkest. I was just never leaving the house and I didn’t fully understand why,” she says.

“I tried to just like attribute [my symptoms] to other things, and there was all this imagined pressure. I was like ‘oh well it’s because I’m not succeeding that’s why I’m not happy’ or like ‘[I] haven’t done anything with my life yet, that’s why I’m not happy’ and it was just a lot of excuses.”

Ali* is a fourth-year psychology student who describes similar difficulties: “I guess I’ve been experiencing the effects [of SAD] probably pretty much since I came to Canada,” he says, “I usually just experience a lot of lethargy, like it’s hard… for me to get going in the morning.”

The lack of sunlight causes Ali particular difficulty. “It’s hard for me to get motivated and do anything throughout the day, and it can be really hard for me to [prevent] my sleep cycle [from going] out of whack very quickly when I just don’t get enough sunlight.”

Lack of motivation left Ali confused and helpless prior to diagnosis. One result of this was devastating academic consequences.

“Actually that’s how I sort of in retrospect realized that I was having problems with SAD,” Ali reflects, “in first-year… my motivation to get out of bed and go to school plummeted, and basically just wasn’t there anymore.” he explains.

Ali nearly failed high school, and failed his first year of university as a result of his SAD.

An evolutionary process

It is not clear how the complicated relationship between the brain and the body affect the onset and treatment of mental illnesses — a puzzle which continues to challenge researchers and health care professionals. Thatsaid, most mental illnesses can be recognized from physical symptoms; mental states are heavily influenced by diet, exercise, and environment. Levitan believes that environmental factors may have a greater impact on SAD than other mood disorders. “If you think about your day-to-day biology and mood, it’s profoundly affected by light and dark cycles,” he says. “They’re a fundamental aspect of nature, of biology, and life on the planet.”

Levitan explains that his research on SAD has led him to believe that the way our bodies have evolved is more connected to our geographical location than we may expect.

According to Levitan “we all have body clocks within us, and those body clocks are very sensitive to changes in light.” Levitan believes that the root cause of SAD may lie in the body’s attempt to regulate energy given these natural ‘clocks.’

This could also explain why fatigue and carbohydrate cravings are a common symptom of SAD. “I think that when the fall [and] winter comes there are changes [in the body] to help us adapt to the winter time that perhaps during the ice age were very very helpful to us in terms of conserving energy and avoiding problems,” he adds, “and so I sort of see SAD as a natural process that has an evolutionary significance.”

A contentious disorder

As is often the case when it comes to mental illness physicians do not all agree on the definition — or indeed, the origin — of SAD.

The overlap of SAD symptoms with regular depressive symptoms contributes to why there are disagreements surrounding this disorder.

Dr. Edward Shorter, Jason A. Hannah professor of the history of medicine in the Faculty of Medicine at U of T, and a cross-appointed professor of psychiatry, goes so far as to say that SAD may not even exist.

“Let me make a few little points: I don’t think SAD is a legitimate form of depression,” he says in a phone interview with The Varsity. “I think it’s a kind of construct that [has] been imposed on the world of affective [mood] disorders.”

Shorter considers the depressive symptoms caused by SAD to be  legitimate, but is not convinced that the disorder stands on it’s own. He believes that it is more likely that regular depression provoked by difficult experiences that some individuals undergo in the winter.

“Depression can be profoundly biological experience, to be more likely trigger[ed] by your genes or some terrible personal crisis,” he says. “Or whether the sun is shining that particularly February day.”

Levitan, however, sees SAD differently. “It definitely exists,” he states. “It’s just that you have to see a lot of patients with depression to understand the difference between somebody with a true seasonal depression versus somebody who says they’re seasonal but probably aren’t.”

He goes on to emphasize that — despite the overlap in SAD symptoms with those of depression —he believes that SAD is distinguished by the measurable physical changes that it causes.

“What we use clinically is not just the patient’s report,” he says, “but then we’ll get into the symptoms over a long period of time and consider other factors. In our research we’ll also do brain scans or we’ll look at actual measures of [patients’] biology and see whether there are changes that match our models.”

Although the most effective way to categorize SAD still remains unclear, the medical community has agreed on a temporary classification outlined in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM). The DSM is the main standardized text that North American doctors use to diagnose all kinds of mental illnesses. ‘Seasonal affective disorder’ is coined in the fourth edition of the text, known as the DSM-IV. In the fifth edition of the DSM (the DSM-5), SAD is now classified as a sub-disorder under depressive disorders.

SAD no longer stands alone in the DSM but researchers agree that the harm it could cause is real, and serious.

“Real depression is characterized by anhedonia — the inability to experience pleasure,” Shorter says. “That means you don’t get pleasure from your children or grandchildren. You don’t get pleasure from working out. You don’t get pleasure from anything.”

Finding treatment, getting through

Antidepressive drugs such as Zoloft and Prozac are the general practitioner’s ‘go-to’ solution for many problems involving depressive symptoms; specialists, however, are beginning to believe that medication is not the only form of treatment for SAD.  

One type of non-chemical treatment for SAD gaining popularity is light treatment; the CAMH SAD clinic notably uses devices



called ‘SAD lamps’ to treat their patients. The lamps are specially designed to imitate the light of the sun; they do so by radiating light at the exact same wavelength. Shorter credits the effectiveness of SAD lamps, largely, to the placebo effect. Levitan, on the other hand, sees things differently.

“The specific way it works is still not completely understood,” Levitan says, “[but] I see it very much as a stimulant… not unlike a psychostimulant drug that boost the levels of different systems in your brain so that they’re functioning normally.”

Levitan again refers to the biological and environmental sources of SAD. “If you think about it, every day in the morning you wake up, that’s a profound change in your biology,” he explains. “You’re going from a state of sleep to a state of activity, and so light speeds that up…[and] that’s difficult to do on the short days of fall and winter.”

“I think all of us to some extent are sensitive to light in our environment, and using very very bright lights… at just the right time of year in the right individuals, I think corrects essentially a tendency to be in a state of low arousal which leads to the sleep problem of fatigue and the overeating.”

Support for this theory may be found in the usage of SAD lamps to treat jet lag, Levitan suggests. “Jet lag is, when you think about it, in some ways is similar to [SAD],” he says, “it’s just something that happens very quickly when your body is out of sync with respect to the day and night cycle.”

Along with regular sunlight, or imitative sunlight, proper nutrition may also be key in combating SAD. There have been several studies in recent years indicating that SAD might be a consequence of not having enough vitamin D in the body — a deficiency from which many North Americans are believed to suffer.

Some have even suggested that seasonal changes in sunlight affect the circulation of vitamin D3 — the chemical responsible for keeping us energetic and motivated — the lack of which results in the symptoms of fatigue and lethargy.  

One group of Danish researchers performed a double-blind trial in 2014, where one group of SAD patients were given vitamin D supplements and another group were given a placebo. The group that took the vitamin D scored higher on a standardized depression test known as the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale — a bleak result for supporters of vitamin D as a SAD treatment. The link, however, was only established after participants had taken the supplement for a period longer than 12 months. On top of that, only 34 participants completed the study.

A 1999 study performed by the Union Memorial hospital in Baltimore indicated that vitamin D is a far more effective treatment for SAD than light therapy, with a 74 per cent and a 34 per cent positive result respectively. This study, however, was only conducted on 15 participants and used a ‘randomized control’ method but did not make use of a placebo.

Despite turbulent evidence, the vitamin D SAD treatment idea has caused a large stir among the psychology as well as nutrition communities, and many SAD sufferers have already taken it upon themselves to self-medicate using this method. “I actually have a SAD lamp [at home]…but mostly these days I find that just taking large doses of vitamin D keeps me ‘up’,” says Ali.

Ali says that he “stumbled onto” vitamin D when a doctor prescribed it to him, and he credits this discovery with immense improvement in his life.

“It seems kind of weird that a couple of pills that you can get for a couple of dollars was one of the reasons I like failed my first year and you know lost thousands of dollars doing that,” Ali adds. “But yeah, shit happens.”

Fourth-year English student Anya Zaporozhchenko, also cites vitamin D as a simple, cheap remedy for students with SAD.

She also emphasizes the importance that students with SAD treat their disorder as they would any other illness. “I think it’s important to take time for self-care. Maybe schedule something indoors with your friends, even if you have work,” she says. “You know, you gotta pick a night to do something indoors and cheer yourself up a little bit.” Zaporozhchenko also discusses how important it is for U of T students to fight mental health stigma and treat SAD as a reality faced by many, rather than something we need to be ashamed of.

For Zaporozhchenko, openness and understanding within the U of T community is integral to helping SAD sufferers manage their illness. “It’s nice to even be able to talk about things,” she says. “It sounds so silly, but it’s nice, even when I’m talking to my friends who also struggle with mental health issues. Even when you say ‘try this medication, I tried it. These are the side effects that I got’…[M]aybe, there’s a new hobby that keeps you motivated a little bit. It’s nice to be able to talk about that sort of thing.”

Though antidepressive drugs, vitamin D supplements, morning light therapy, nutrition, and exercise have all been referenced by mental health professionals as effective treatments, it is clear that none are universal.

Students have taken note, meanwhile, that SAD lamps and vitamin D supplements are both accessible to patients who may not have access to psychiatric health care and those without a diagnosis.

Students helping students

Due to the confusion within the medical mental health community surrounding SAD, the denial from many parents and educators about its existence, the extent to which it affects student lives, and the societal stigma that is still always present many  students have found it necessary to take SAD treatment into their own hands. For example, last year Auni Ahsan, Victoria College Director at the UTSU, launched a SAD lamp campaign with funding from Vic Student Projects, a program where Victoria College student initiatives can obtain financial support.

Ahsan successfully procured $785 dollars to purchase three SAD lamps, that students can borrow from the Victoria College Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC) office for free at any time. He says he got the idea from a post on the U of T subreddit, in which a student noted that other universities had SAD lamps available on campus.

“I think that something really prominent about seasonal affective disorder is that it’s both like underdiagnosed and underrepresented,” Ahsan says. “A lot of people suffer from symptoms of it or even the clinical diagnosis of it, but [are] not really … aware of it.”

Ahsan believes that awareness of SAD and accessibility to treatment go hand in hand. “I think that a big part of the campaign, or a big part of getting SAD lamps, is you need to have the lamps here,” he explains. “And you need to start having a campaign about awareness for the fact that students might be suffering from this issue, so that they become more aware of it and more willing to use the resources that are here.”

Ahsan explains the method behind SAD lamp use: “The basic idea is that you sit next to this lamps for thirty minutes every day…like 12 to 14 inches away, you can be like eating cereal or like doing homework at the same time, and you’re supposed to do it every day.”

Levitan agrees that the free availability of SAD lamps is a great resource. “I think it’s a wonderful idea,” he says of the initiative. “The advice I have is that early [in the day] is better…you can still benefit later [in the day], but often the way it works is to reset your biological clock so that you’re waking up earlier, and that ability to wake up earlier is often what makes people feel a lot better.”

He also explains the most effective way to use the lamps, “I would say a half an hour is good; [students] can study while they use the light…the light should be in front of them but they shouldn’t be staring right at it.”

After realizing the simplicity and usefulness of the SAD lamp program, Ahsan decided to extend it to the greater St. George population, and brought the idea to the UTSU in 2015. He obtained funding for the UTSU to buy four additional SAD lamps, which are currently available for use in the basement of the UTSU office.

Ryan Gomes, UTSU VP internal explains that a poster awareness campaign to advertise the lamps is underway. “I expect [the posters] to reach out all over campus, hopefully from as far as here at VUSAC to all the way down at Bahen,” says Gomes. “Because I think that this is a disorder that affects people all across campus.”

Both Gomes and Ahsan recognize the importance of solidarity when it comes to mental illnesses within the community. Even for those who not diagnosed with SAD, there are many U of T students who may suffer from winter blues.

“There’s no harmful side effects from the SAD lamps for the most part anyway,” Ahsan concludes. “But like my hope is that more people will become aware of the fact that these sorts of mental illnesses can affect you on a really small scale, affect your school performance, or affect your social life, and can take the steps to get better. And we hope we can help with that.”

*Names changed at individuals’ request

With files from Clara Osei-Yeboah

Correction (February 10th, 2016): An earlier version of this article listed an incorrect acronym for the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Women get WISE at annual conference

U of T WISE 2016 National Conference proves to be a great opportunity for students to connect with professionals

Women get WISE at annual conference

U of T Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) hosted its annual national conference at the Toronto region board of trade last weekend. The conference brought together industry experts and approximately 250 student attendees for on opportunity to participate and connect with professionals.

Jaquelyn Monis, the conference chair of WISE 2016 explained that their objective was not only to provide professional development, but also to connect students with companies hiring for summer internships. 

“This year we have 15 different companies, compare[d] to two or three in the past years” said Monis in reference to industry attendance at the event.

The 2016 WISE Conference featured keynote speaker Jacqueline Shan, founder of Afinity Life Sciences, who spoke during the opening ceremony.

Shan opened by sharing her experience as an international student who struggled with English as a second language, and how she overcame barriers and prosper as an entrepreneur and scientist.

She delivered a powerful speech, promoting persistence and perseverance in her pursuit of success.

“It’s simple, but often hard to do. It’s hard to believe in yourself, believe in your dream when you’re laying off your co-workers,” Shan added. 

In addition to providing networking opportunities for students, the WISE conference also featured a group of panelists, including Cathy Tie, co-founder and CEO of Ranomics.

Cathy was a first-year life sciences student at U of T when she received venture capital funding in 2015 for her project. She spoke to attendees about what she learned from the experience and why it’s so important to have self confidence in order to move forward.

“Even though it’s a chapter of women in science and engineering, one of our messages is to [be] inclusive of everybody and to showcase that it’s possible to get far regardless of gender,” said Monis. 

As a fourth-year student, Monis expressed excitement to hear from the speakers on their diverse experiences.   

On its second day, the WISE conference closed its doors following the announcement of the winners of their poster and case competitions.

The WISE 2016 National Conference Poster Competition, sponsored by General Electric, gave students an opportunity to present their research to judges for the chance to win a $1000 cash prize. Sahil Gupta, graduate student at the U of T’s  Institute of Medical Sciences, was announced as the winner for his research in Heat Shock Protein 90 (HSP90) in relation to sepsis and experimental inflammation. 

Amada Persaud, Eashita Ratwani, Nadia Khan, and Shawna Wei were the winners of the case competition, earning the $1000 prize and an interview opportunity for a position at Tata Consultancy Services, another of the competition’s corporate sponsors.

Throughout the school year, WISE at U of T is also involved in other initiatives such as providing opportunites for professional development, mentorships, high school, as well as community outreach. With initiatives like its annual conference, WISE continues to try to improve the state of women in science and engineering.