a, Science & Technology

19th edition of Soup and Science

Soup and Science, presented by the Office of Undergraduate Research in Science, has provided a platform for undergraduate students to hear professors discuss their research and potentially secure a position as an undergraduate researcher in their labs. As Dean of Science Martin Grant explained, Soup and Science offers students a chance to participate in “multidisciplinary speed dating.” Participating professors briefly present their fields of research, and students are encouraged to mingle and network with the participating professors over a bowl of hot soup.


Professor Karine Auclair from the Chemistry Department kicked off the 19th edition of Soup and Science with a presentation about her lab’s work in understanding P450 enzymes, which are found in the liver and play an essential role in drug metabolism. Auclair’s goal is to understand the role P450s play in antibiotic resistance.

“We can’t do the chemistry that these enzymes can do,” she explained.

By understanding P450s’ roles as biocatalysts in antibiotic reactions, resistance mechanisms can then be inhibited.

The next speaker, professor Shirin Abbasi Nejad Enger from McGill’s Department of Medical Physics, focused on a unique cancer treatment called brachytherapy. Enger’s lab delivers injections of radioactive iodine seeds near cancerous tumors; this technique offers the advantage of targeted treatment and facilitates removal of radioactive substances. Drawing from many disciplines, Enger and her lab decide on the specific dose and placement of these radioactive seeds, taking into account nearby radiosensitive tissues.

Chemistry professor Janine Mauzeroll opened up her dynamic presentation by identifying chemistry’s newest trend: Magnesium alloys. Mauzeroll and her team can measure the surface topography of materials like batteries using a method known as scanning electrochemical microscopy (SECM). Her lab works on producing stable magnesium which could be used to avoid the degradation of car batteries. Though magnesium offers a tempting solution for increasing car battery life, the catch is its rapid corrosion rate.

Professor Boswell Wing from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences came prepared with a roll of toilet paper to conclude Monday’s session. As he unrolled the toilet paper across the room, Wing explained that it represented the scale of time. According to Wing, only the last sheet represented the existence of humans—microbes had begun to populate the earth much earlier. Wing explained that through isotopic ratios found in the rock record, he and his team are able to approximate the microbial composition of ancient Earth.

— Lydia Kaprelian


Chemistry professor Amy Blum presented her work in nanomaterial design to open Tuesday’s Soup and Science. Given the fact that a virus’ structure is determined by its genetic code, Blum and her team are able to design nanostructures with specific optical properties through genetic manipulation. According to Blum, the application of this can lead to the creation of metamaterials—materials with properties that do not exist in nature—with a negative index of refraction. In other words, a cloaking device.

Physiology professor Maurice Chacron followed Blum, explaining how behavioural output changes with a person’s state of mind. According to Chacron, the sight of sushi can lead to salivating or nausea. As such, Chacron’s lab studies the neuromodulators responsible for these changes, and tries to understand the brain’s translations of sensory signals to behavioural outputs.

Computer science professor Bettina Kemme’s presentation described server architecture in massive multiplayer computer games. Kemme’s team attempts to resolve data overload issues by separating the world into rooms or operating with parallel servers, a computational method where large problems are subdivided into smaller ones and then all solved simultaneously. 

Kemme has done this by creating a virtual McGill world. “If you don’t spend enough time on the real world campus, you can now spend your virtual life there too,” she promised.

Physics professor Alex Maloney’s presentation on theoretical physics concluded Tuesday’s speeches. He began by outlining an irreconcilable compatibility issue with two theories of modern physics: Quantum physics and its characteristic quantum “fuzziness”—or the existence of particles as a particle and a wave—and general relativity with its smooth curve geometry. The inconsistency between the two is often not a problem because they operate on different scales. The problem only arises, he clarified, when we consider black holes. This is because their radius is a kilometre long, and their mass can be as large as the sun’s. Maloney’s lab works on math theory that revolves around quantum gravity to rectify this discrepancy.

— Lydia Kaprelian


Wednesday’s Soup and Science began with an appropriate analogy made by medical physics professor Isaam El Naqua.

“[In our research] we collect information; biological, physical, and imaging data [information] create a big soup, where people like me stir this soup,” El Naqua said.

Through his multidisciplinary study, El Naqua tries to alleviate the negative effects of cancer radiation treatment by collecting and analyzing clinical data using various advanced methods such as imaging technology and complex systems analysis.

Continuing with the theme of data and information, mathematics professor Abbas Khalili’s research focuses on new statistical technologies to solve the challenges posed by the enormous amounts of data now available to us from modern technologies, ranging from genomics to Google.

Chemistry professor Jean-Philip Lumb—who calls himself a “firefighter of chemistry”—followed Khalili by explaining his research on fire. His team is looking for methods favouring partial combustion over complete combustion in organic reactions. His motivation revolves around the fact that partial combustion generates large amounts of waste and is highly inefficient. As a possible solution, Lumb pointed out the enzyme tyrosinase, which controls combustion in living organisms and could potentially be used in chemical industry as a catalyst.

Next, immunology professor Martin Richer introduced his immunological research, which focuses on the antigen sensitivity of CD8+ T-cells. These cells  are involved in autoimmune diseases such as diabetes or immunity deficiency conditions, including cancer.

The day ended with professor Shane Sweet, from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, who spoke about his research on the psychological factors that motivate people to engage in physical exercise. His two focus groups of study include people in cardiovascular and spinal injury rehabilitation.

“The idea behind my work is: Let’s get moving,” Sweet said.

— Alex Pozdnyakov


Thursday kicked off with a peek into the wild world of quantum physics. Professor Guillaume Gervais, a physicist, spoke about his work with “quantum faucets”—openings just a few atoms across—that allow physicists to see the effects of quantum mechanics on passing electrons. “Everything you know about Ohm’s law, about circuits […] doesn’t apply here,” Gervais said.

His research also explores dimensionality. Gervais’ work in this field attempts to observe particle interactions in one dimension. The solutions to equations describing the positions of particles are expressed very differently in three dimensions and one dimension.

After Gervais, biochemistry professor Sidong Huang explained his research, which explores biology on the molecular scale in genetic determinants of chemotherapy resistance. Many tumours, he explained, show promising initial responses to chemotherapy treatments, going into remission before developing resistance to the drugs. His work attempts to determine why this occurs, using functional genomic techniques to find the mutations that cause this resistance.

Physiology professors Ana Nijnik and Jason Tanny’s work explored the effects of DNA packaging on the human body. When a cell divides, DNA is wrapped around proteins called histones. These proteins can affect which genes are expressed later on in the cell’s life. Nijnik examines the effects of these proteins on blood cell production, a process known as hematopoiesis, whereas Tanny is especially interested in the role that gene translation—in particular, the gene PTEFb—plays in cardiac hypertrophy.

Rounding off the day, pediatrics professor Pia Wintermark discussed the topic of neonatal brain research. Her lab attempts to determine both treatments for and the causes of brain injury in infants. For example, in infants who have been asphyxiated, hypoxia—a type of brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen—is often worsened after resuscitation due to a sudden influx of oxygen, otherwise known as hyperoxia. Wintermark explores methods of reducing this damage, while also attempting to determine why these methods work better for some individuals than others.

— Clare Lyle


The final day of Soup and Science lectures began with biology professor Thomas Bureau talking about his research on transposons, also known as the “jumping genes.” Bureau compared the genome to “an ocean with genes as islands in open waters,” which are filled with “strange entities” of transposons. By discussing the artificial selection of corn from maize, Bureau demonstrated how transposons destroy existing genes or contribute to the emergence of new ones.

Next, computer science professor Yang Cai introduced his research on algorithmic game theory, which finds its applications in “markets, social networks, evolution, internet advertisement, and elections.”

According to Cai, the problem of these models lies in the fact that they lack central design, components, and information richness history theory—a framework to describe a communications medium by its ability to reproduce the information sent over it—and therefore cannot be solved with standard approaches. In these cases, the algorithmic game theory comes into play.

Geography professor Benjamin Forest opened his lecture by letting the audience know that he is well-versed in parties. Indeed, his research is focused on analyzing geographical data of elections. By using a spatial technique called LISA (Local Indicator of Spatial Autocorrelation), Forest was able to identify certain patterns of electoral preferences across Quebec.

Microbiology and immunology professor Corinne Maurice followed by discussing her work on gut microbiota. With the human body containing trillions of microbial cells, Maurice characterized humans as “walking microbial systems.” Even though metagenomics techniques have been able to identify most of those microbes, Maurice emphasized that there is still a lot that is unknown about gut microbiota.

To wrap up the week, physics professor Robert Rutledge posed a question: What does a cell phone become when it shrinks until it becomes almost as dense as a black hole? Rutledge’s interests are focused on studying the bulk dense nuclear matter and strong nuclear force. Even though current theoretical predictions are still off by a significant margin, Rutledge’s research attempts to tackle this issue by observing neutron stars, black holes and gamma-ray bursts, and optical and radio observatories.

— Alex Pozdnyakov

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