Soup and Science entered its eighth year at McGill this past week. A twice-a-year event that spans one week at the beginning of both the Fall and Winter semesters, Soup and Science brings lecturers from several departments together to present their research to students over lunch. Not many universities are able to provide undergraduate students with the opportunity to interact one-on-one with researchers from the top of their respective fields. Presented here are the highlights from five days of Soup and Science. Featured speakers included chemists, mathematicians, biologists, and physicists, all willing to share the focal points of their research.
McGill’s Soup and Science lecture series kicked off on Monday.
The event highlighted the research of five McGill professors, whose interests ranged from superconductors to mitosis. Though the presenters’ fields varied, their enthusiasm did not, and the research topics stayed hot well after the soup cooled off.
The days’s first presenter was Professor Christopher Barrett, a chemist trying to imitate nature in his lab. This technique, called biomimicry, uses biology to improve man-made products. While the idea seems novel, biomimicry is actually responsible for a number of products that people already use every day, such as Velcro, swimsuit fabrics, and even paint.
Barrett’s lab is exploring light-sensitive molecules, such as the ones found in our eyes. These molecules change shape when exposed to certain frequencies of light, channel light in optical circuits, and change the properties of polymer surfaces. This can afford insight into the molecular origins of the optical and mechanical behaviour of these surfaces.
Next up was Professor and biomedical engineer, David Juncker. He provided attendees with a glimpse into the wide range of avenues of research available to undergraduates, highlighting undergraduate projects such as the development of breast cancer diagnostic tools and a new method for observing connections between neurons.
Professor Tami Pereg-Barnea left the audience well-informed about the field of superconductors. After describing how regular objects conduct electricity, Pereg-Barnea threw the audience for a loop by introducing the superconductor—an extraordinary material with properties that defy everything she had just discussed. She went on to explain how the materials that she is most concerned with are even more exotic than regular superconductors; however, they are called—rather unimaginatively—“unconventional superconductors.”
Following the talk of futuristic superconductors, Professor Piotr Przytycki’s presentation took place entirely on a blackboard. The mathematician began by drawing an unassuming square. He then challenged the audience with a question. “What is the least number of acute triangles required to fill this space?” After leaving the audience to muddle through the problem, he then spoke about his own work, which was, in essence, an exponentially tougher triangle problem.
Professor Jackie Vogel took students back from the abstract world of mathematics to the concrete mechanisms of cell division. Her research looks at the very mechanisms by which cells divide, by using computational techniques to better observe what happens in the cell as it prepares itself for mitosis.
The second day of Soup and Science brought in five new speakers: Professors David Cooke, John Kildea, Petra Rohrbach, Christie Rowe, and Jason Young. In only twenty minutes, these professors were able to capture the attention and curiosity of a room full of undergraduate students.
Rowe, an experienced field geologist, began her presentation with a map of North America illustrating all the earthquakes that had taken place over the last 30 days. Her work centres on the investigation of ancient faults and the geological processes that generate earthquakes, which consequently leave behind ore deposits.
Rowe’s hands-on research takes her all around the world. When asked to share one of the most exciting moments in her research, she described her time in Namibia, on the southern coast of Africa.
“I was in the Orange River in low water, and the fault floor itself was coming up out of the river,” Rowe said. “You could see in the fabric of the rock how everything had been stretched out, and I was just looking into the rock and thinking about the stories that the rock was going to tell me, and I turned and looked into a little patch of sand right next to me and I saw a tiny perfect diamond crystal—I was like, ‘Thank you geology!’”
Other talks were equally informative. Cooke engaged the audience, claiming that “the hottest stuff on Earth is in [his] lab.”
Cooke’s research involves using high power femtosecond laser technology to generate and detect advanced forms of light—specifically those in the terahertz spectrum. Short pulses of this light are then used to probe inside materials. Future use of this product appears limitless.
In his presentation, Cooke employed several visual aids to demonstrate what it would be like to see the world through terahertz eyes and use this technology in practical settings, such as in security operations. Terahertz light also enables non-destructive testing, since it allows scientists to see the composition of materials without breaking them apart.
“There are even new applications [for terahertz light] in food science,” Cooke added. “There have been cases where glass has dropped inside vats of chocolate, but we’re now able to detect that using terahertz light.”
Kildea, who works in the field of medical physics, summarized his work in radiation oncology. Currently, his research interests include finding ways to take neutron spectral measurements in radiation therapy. In his presentation, he also mentioned the importance of radiation protection, which is important to keep in mind when designing facilities like hospitals.
Rohrbach—another member of the medical field—studies parasitology, specifically the cellular processes involved in malaria. To illustrate the significance of the disease, Rohrbach stated that, “a person in Africa dies of malaria every minute.” According to Rohrbach, drug resistance is also becoming an increasingly prevalent issue, making anti-malarials less effective and the battle against this fatal disease even more challenging. In her research lab, Rohrbach uses live cell imaging as well as fluorescence microscopy techniques to better comprehend the mechanisms involved in drug resistance in the stages of Plasmodium falciparum, the human malaria parasite.
At the end of the lunch, Professor Jason Young discussed his work on molecular chaperones, which play a key role in preventing protein mis-folding and aggregation. His research aims to explore how chaperone function is integrated into the biogenesis of cellular structures using biochemistry, molecular, and cell biology techniques.
The first speaker of Wednesday’s talks, Professor Yogita Chudasama from the Department of Psychology, discussed her research on frontotemporal interactions in executive function. Her focus primarily deals with the physiology of brains by comparing different animals.
Perhaps most interesting about her research is that for the most part, structures do not change from one mammal to the next—yet the physiology does. As such, she investigates what happens when brain circuits are disturbed, with a particular focus on comparative cognition and the frontal temporal circuits.
Professor Andrew Cumming from the Department of Physics presented his research in astrophysics, which specializes in finding planets orbiting other stars, otherwise known as exoplanets. His hope is that one of these exoplanets has Earth-like characteristics, bringing us one step closer to finding extraterrestrial life.
Cumming has been working with state-of-the-art technology, specifically a machine by the name of SPIRou. SPIRou is an infrared spectropolarimeter specially designed to detect and characterize‘exo-Earths’—habitable exoplanets. It has several other uses in the astrological realm, including atmospheric tracking of weather patterns and measuring the effect of magnetic fields on star and planet formation.
The third speaker, Professor Tomislav Friščić from the Department of Chemistry, presented his research in green chemistry.
Chemical waste generated by laboratories is a problem many researchers currently aim to tackle, and his research aims to alleviate that by creating a solvent-free laboratory. Currently, the majority of chemical waste is a result of the use of solvents. With the help of the NSERC-CREATE program, Friščić is getting closer to his goal.
Professor Michael Hallett from the Department of Computer Science is crossing departmental lines and using his skills in computer science to develop methods of breast cancer bioinformatics.
His work primarily focuses on solving the continuing cancer puzzle—detecting the early stages of breast cancer through modern screenings. These early stages are key in finding cures and creating preventative medicines.
The ultimate goal of his research is to create a screening test for the public—comparable to the Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) screening test for prostate cancer. Although prostate cancer causes PSA levels to rise, a number of benign conditions do as well.
He hopes that his screening test will go above and beyond the flawed PSA screening test and look for genes as well as proteins, thus increasing accuracy.
The last presenter, Professor Simon Rousseau from the Faculty of Medicine, discussed his efforts to develop a cure for Cystic Fibrosis (CF). CF is a genetic, congenital disease that causes the lungs to produce increased inflammatory signals.
Unfortunately, more signalling increases the influx of inflammatory markers and products, stimulating an overexuberant immune response. This ends up damaging the cell and decreasing cellular functioning.
Though there is no medical cure for this disease, the average CF patient lifespan has more than doubled from 25 to 52 years. While this is an incredible step, there is still room for improvement. If a drug that could control the inflammatory signals without completely blocking the immune response is developed, the expected CF lifespan could be on par with unaffected individuals.
“Suppose we are working on a ‘big conjecture,’” proposed Professor Marcin Sabok, whose research focuses on a mathematical concept called ‘forcing.’ “We want to either prove that the big conjecture is true, or prove that the big conjecture is false. But what if neither of these can be done?”
Sabok stressed the precise mathematical definition of a proof and how it could be used to create alternative mathematical universes to better understand the logical process behind forcing, which is a way to prove independent mathematical results.
Professor Kaleem Siddiqi, a professor in the school of computer science, also talked about his interdisciplinary research, which stretches across geometry, biology, physics, and computer science. His focus: Shape analysis in medical imaging.
“In biology, patterns arise in anatomical structures,” Siddiqi said. “Here, we use physics. A certain technique in diffusion imaging [is used] to measure the direction in which water moves in myocytes. [It] is amazing […] that no myocyte knows the existence of any other myocyte, but collectively, they work together.”
Siddiqi highlighted a program called NSERC-CREATE in Medical Image Analysis, a research journal. The program is one of the first of its kind in Canada and aims to provide funding for research students while simultaneously providing them with the chance to apply their skills in an industrial environment.
Dr. David Dankort, an associate professor in the Department of Biology, works on mouse models to better understand RAS and BRAF, two prominent oncogenes responsible for many types of human cancer. An oncogene is any given gene that can potentially cause cancer, while a tumour suppressor gene works to safeguard a cell from cancerous mutations. Dankort’s lab, along with other cancer research labs also working on cancer pathways, is looking for ways to target both these genes in order to find treatments for cancers such as melanoma.
Dankort spoke about a drug called Vemurafenib, which inhibits BRAF in order to treat late-stage melanoma.
“While it works really well with people who have the BRAF mutation, 99 per cent of them will relapse,” he said. “At this point, they’re no longer treatable by the drug.”
Consequently, Dankort’s lab is consequently trying to discover a method to treat individuals who relapse—or to avoid relapse altogether—by targeting other genes within the BRAF pathway.
Professor Lisa-Marie Munter, an assistant professor in the pharmacology department, also researches disease treatment—specifically, Alzheimer’s disease. Her research differs, however, in that she focuses on alternative methods of drug development.
“Drug development is extremely expensive,” Munter said. “Researchers figured out that if people already went through toxicity qualifications [for developed drugs, they could] repurpose [them] for another disease.”
She cited thalidomide, which was originally developed as a sedative and morning sickness pill in the 1950s. Nowadays, it has been repurposed as a treatment for certain cancers instead.
“What I really like about science is that as a researcher, we can boldly go where no man has gone before,” Munter said.
Professor Jonathan Britt ended Friday’s lunch by presenting his research on reward learning, drug addiction, and the neural circuitry that underlies them. He briefly demonstrated how he is looking to identify specific circuits in the basal ganglia, a collection of brain cells that are associated with habit learning and routine formation. The results from his research could be applied to treating disorders such as Tourette’s Syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Next, Professor Lindsey Duncan presented her project of ‘serious games.’ These are video games designed to educate and promote healthy behaviours in adolescents, including one that helps prevent teenagers from participating in unprotected sex and abusing drugs and alcohol. She is also currently developing a game that will educate teens about the health risks of smoking tobacco and related substitutes and teach them how to say “no.”
“Teenagers and young adults actually know what the correct decision [is], so in the game, the right decision is actually locked for them,” Duncan said. “They need to first acquire the me-power, the refusal power […] that they need to be in the right situation.”
Preliminary evidence shows that the greater the number of levels a player completes, the more likely they will be to refuse risky behaviours like unsafe sex and substance abuse.
Dr. Sarah Moser, cultural and urban geography assistant professor in the Department of Geography, presented her research of four major ‘master plan’ economic cities designed by Saudi Arabia as a strategy to diversify the country away from oil. The country is hoping to address social, economic, and political struggles, including high unemployment rates, rising demands for oil that is likely to outmatch Saudi Arabia’s production, and discontent with the political situation from a restless elite class.
One of the cities Moser cited was King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), a 173-square kilometre city named after the king of Saudi Arabia. According to Moser, this is part of a larger trend of creating new cities for economic and rebranding purposes, with new cities being announced in many Asian and Middle Eastern countries. She explained that KAEC is privately gated and is run by a CEO, as opposed to a mayor. The city is staffed with private security, and police forces are not allowed within. KAEC is even publicly traded on the stock market. Moser’s research focuses on exploring what cultural and legal implications these corporate cities will create.
Dr. Russell Steele, an associate math and statistics professor, presented his research on a model that can help provide more accurate estimates in measuring what the actual effects of treatments are. Steele explained that research statistics can be misleading when there is a group of non-compliers undertaking the active treatment. His research is involved in figuring out the statistical problems that are involved in using this mathematical model.
Alasdair Syme, an assistant professor in medical physics, spoke about his research on using organic electronics as radiation detectors. He defined radiation detectors as any device that generates a detectable sign at certain levels of radiation and explained that this could include anything from a typical handheld device to a white blood cell, which accumulates measurable damage in its DNA when exposed to radiation. An organic radiation detector would be more useful in detecting smaller energy levels in human bodies, as its behaviour is closer to water than that of silicon, the current detector.