At the 22nd edition of Soup and Science, hosted by the Office for Undergraduate Research, professors took the stage to explain their research. The event, held last week at the Redpath Museum, offered students a chance to hear about professors’ research and meet with them to find out how to get involved—all while enjoying free lunch.
The final two days of Soup and Science covered disciplines ranging from psychiatry to pharmacology to bioinformatics. Though professors’ short presentations do not offer enough time to fully explain their complex research, Soup and Science is designed to give undergraduates a taste of science research at McGill. To find out more about each professor's area of interests and opportunities to get involved, check out the Tribune’s coverage below.
Tuesday’s presentations started off with Assistant Professor Peter Douglas, the newest member of the Department of Earth and Planetary Science. He explained how he uses various isotopes—versions of an element that have a different number of neutrons—to better understand how carbon is cycled through the environment as well as how Earth’s climate has changed in the past. After his presentation, he discussed how he analyzed lake sediment samples for hydrogen isotopes present in plant wax in order to build evidence that a significant drought occurred during the collapse of the Mayan civilization.
It seems that Soup and Science not only helped build connections between students and professors, but also between the professors themselves. Associate Professor of Biology Irene Gregory-Eaves, who studies freshwater ecosystems, started her presentation by saying that she intends to work with Douglas by sharing techniques for analyzing lake sediment. Gregory-Eaves also explained the importance of understanding freshwater systems, noting that they are hotspots for biodiversity while providing an estimated $6.5 trillion USD worth of ecosystem services—benefits people obtain from their environment—worldwide.
Associate Professor Erin Strumpf, from the Department of Economics as well as the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Occupational Health, spoke about how the classic “No Free Lunch” economic concept can apply to health care systems. She explained this idea using the literal free soup lunch the audience received as an example. The soup, she contended, was not actually free because everyone there paid for it by giving up their time.
“[My goal is to] find ways to generate the most health with as few resources as possible,” Strumpf said.
Associate Professor of Physics Paul François began his presentation describing how new properties emerge in a physical system when it becomes more complicated or has more parts.
He demonstrated this concept by explaining that a volume of gas has different properties than an individual gas particle. He has used this concept as well some advanced mathematics to describe the complex network of how human immune cells recognize invaders and each other.
Associate Computer Science Professor Paul Kry kicked off Wednesday’s Soup and Science by introducing his research using computer graphics to simulate physical movement. He gave multiple examples during his talk, including of a human rock-climbing and gripping motion, which require multiple types of forces to produce movement. The key to computer graphics, Kry explained, is the composition of details; however, when trying to collect as many details as possible, he also must consider the trade-off between speed and accuracy of attaining results.
Department of Physics Assistant Professor Thomas Brunner’s research project revolves around what might be the smallest particle in the universe–the neutrino.
“It’s one of the most abundant particles that we know [of],” Brunner explained.
There are millions passing through just the tip of a thumb alone, yet, it is still considered a relatively new and mysterious subject to physicists. Neutrinos can only be detected through complex neutrino detectors. Scientists involved in this worldwide research project are hopeful that they will soon be able to physically observe neutrinos.
Elin Grundberg, Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Genetics, and her lab are studying the relationship between genetic and environmental risk factors of diseases such as obesity and type two diabetes. Her work is specifically centered around epigenetics–the study of how an individual’s genes can be modified through environmental influence. Grundberg highlighted some of the discoveries from her lab’s research.
“We can detect a smoker by only looking at the epigenetic signatures in that specific cell,” she said.
They are now working towards how to effectively screen certain genetic risks associated with diseases.
Assistant Professor of Psychology Ross Otto presented his research on how people make decisions and how certain individuals are more prone to risk-taking. They have successfully demonstrated a positive correlation between an individual’s level of happiness and the likelihood of risk-taking by comparing the amount of money spent on lottery tickets and gambling with factors such as the weather, time of the year, and the performance of sports teams in New York City. Yet this doesn’t mean that the good fortune of someone’s favourite sports team will cause them to go out and buy more lottery tickets than usual.
“We can’t say anything about the cause of the relationship, it’s purely a correlational type of data”, Otto emphasized.
Instead of focusing on a narrow area, Assistant Professor of Geography Brian Robinson’s sustainability research takes on a much more interdisciplinary perspective. His research explores the way in which populations are supported by natural landscapes by taking soil composition, organismal biology, and economy policy analysis into consideration.
Robinson’s research interests are largely based in Mongolia and northern China. For example, he examines the effectiveness of local farming government policy on economization of water usage in these regions. When asked about his geographic research interest, Robinson explained that it is due to a mixture of factors. He enjoyed his time living in China, and at the same time found China to be a perfect laboratory for environmental study because of its accelerating industrial development.
-Seara Chen and Rebecca Zhuang
Sept. 15th’s first presentation was given by Assistant Professor Kim Berlo from the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences. She discussed her research on the various processes involved in magma degassing—gases that escape from volcanic rock during eruptions—and the samples that quench below the surface. The bubbles and fractures that form from degassing act as evidence in Berlo’s crystallized volcanic samples. By studying the chemical makeup of these gases, she is able to link the gases to an impending volcanic eruption. In addition, the emitted gasses can be used to determine whether the magma below the surface is degassing efficiently.
Assistant Professor Yajing Liu, also from the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, spoke about her work on earthquake mechanics and seismicity. Using about 400 seismometers to detect waves created during earthquakes, her group was able to determine the speed of these waves. This wave data provides amplitude, polarity, and travel time differences, which can be used to find the point of origin of the earthquake and the underlying geological structures located there. Liu’s work also demonstrates that increased stress caused by fracking is correlated with an increase in seismic activity.
“We must consider the amplitude or magnitude of the earthquake triggered; the larger the injection rate [during fracking] the larger the potential earthquake,” Liu said. “In British Columbia, the /Traffic Light Protocol/ may be implemented. A yellow light would be called for a 3.5 [magnitude] earthquake and a red light would be called for a 4.0. The US doesn’t really have such regulations, whereas Canada holds a more collaborative relationship between the fracking industry, the government, and academia.”
Associate Chemistry Professor Anthony Mittermaier began his presentation on the biological activity of proteins with a comparison between steam and molecular turbines: Both obey the laws of thermodynamics. To study proteins and their thermodynamic properties, Mittermaier uses several different methods. For example, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, which measures the magnetic interactions between nuclei, is used to obtain information on the structure and dynamics of these organic molecules. Other methods measure absorbed heat and stability of the molecules. His research can be applied to drug design and the development of new enzymes for use in industrial processing.
Assistant Professor Yi Yang from the Department of Mathematics & Statistics spoke about software he designed.The software predicts expected claim laws based on client data, such as aige and income, which is usually collected by insurance companies.
“[Premiums are] one of the most important problems in the insurance business,” Yang said.
Inaccuracies in these predictions could result in loss of clientele for these companies. He was able to develop a statistical model for insurance businesses to more accurately predict insurance premiums.
The final day of Soup and Science presentations started with McGill’s Bioinformatics Director and Human Genetics Associate Professor Guillaume Bourque, who delved deep into the world of the human genome.
“The human genome […] is this very long string of 3.2 billion bases of information and a key component of the human genome are really the genes […which] get copied to RNA and to proteins and to molecules that are active in your cell,” Bourque said. “If you look, the human genome is very, very big [but] these genes turn out to be […] this very small component.”
Bourque and his team are focusing on what the rest of the human genome does. They found that eight per cent of the human genome is made up of viruses. Although the DNA of viruses is still present in the human genome, the viruses are inactive and so cannot make a person sick. Bourque is examining whether or not this DNA has an underlying function. He mentioned that they have learned that both the human placenta and the regulation of stem cells come from parts of virus DNA.
From human genetics to human psychiatry, Associate Professor Cecilia Flores researches the neurological effects of drug abuse in early adolescence. Flores is especially interested in the prefrontal cortex of the brain and how this region interacts with drugs of abuse. Her research focuses on a protein called Netrin-1, which acts as a guidance cue to neurons as to how their connections will form.
“We [took] adolescent mice and we [treated] them with drugs of abuse or a controlled solution,” Professor Flores said. “Then, when these rodents grew into adulthood, we looked at the prefrontal cortex and we have actually found that the mice that received drugs during adolescence show many changes in connectivity. In fact, they show [fewer] connections.”
With fewer connections, these drugs interfere with neural connectivity, slowing down key messages within the brain.
Assistant Professor of Pharmacology Jean-François Trempe researches Parkinson’s disease, a debilitating neurological disorder. He and his team have found two genes called PARKIN and PINK1 that, when mutated, cause early-onset Parkinson’s disease. He explained their importance in mitochondrial quality control and PARKIN’s dependence on PINK1. Trempe explained how a better understanding of these genes’ function and relationship could help find possible drugs to treat Parkinson’s disease.
Soup and Science concluded with Assistant Biology Professor Stephanie Weber, a recent arrival at McGill. She studies how cells are organized and how they function. She explained that certain cells have their organelles in membranes, which function as physical barriers to allow them to have their own unique chemical composition. However, Weber and her team were surprised with the cells that do not have these membranes.
“In the absence of membranes, molecules are free to just diffuse around and mix […] but advances in fluorescence microscopy have revealed a variety of membrane-less organelles such as germ granules and stress granules,” Weber added. “These granules lack a barrier [to] separate them from the surrounding cytoplasm or nucleoplasm. Instead, they are just local concentrations of protein and nucleic acid.”
Currently, Weber is researching how cells function in such an interesting organization. Her findings could help to discover the cause of many neurodegenerative diseases, as some believe the same soluble molecules could condense to become protein aggregates.
Soup and Science returns to curious minds this January.
-Miguel Principe and Rebecca Zhuang