The curious, the questions, and the answers
From Jan. 26 to 30, the Science Undergraduate Society (SUS) hosted its annual Academia Week. The event sparked students' curiosity about science and life in academia, bringing in world-renowned scientists to present interesting questions related to their field of work.
SUS Academia Week is made up of five days of lectures, workshops, and information sessions geared around academia. The week features workshops on applying to grad school, writing standardized tests, obtaining funding, and lectures on cutting-edge research ranging from healthy eating to the birth of the universe.
"We look for topics that people will find really interesting," said Vivian Ng, co-director of Academia Week. "Interdisciplinary talks are something we've really been trying to drive towards [….] We never wanted it to just be hardcore science—we wanted it to be relatable to others."
These interdisciplinary subjects draw students from a variety of faculties. Academia Week not only shows science students new ways to get involved with research, but also introduces students from Arts, Engineering, and Education to the role of science in the world.
"People tend to think that science is just 'one thing,’ like just research or just classes,” explained Annie Tseng, Academia Week co-director. “For me, what's so important about Academia Week is that [it] exposes you to the fact that science is not just excluded to one little thing in class that you learn.”
But at its core, beyond interesting applications, Academia Week is about showing people how cool science can be.
"I think Academia Week inspires curiosity,” Tseng said. “Nobody is tied down to come to these talks; they come because they're sincerely interested and want to learn [….] When I see the number of people who after going to the presentations stay [to chat with the speaker,] that's the moment that makes me the happiest.”
The sound of music
SUS Academia Week kicked off on Monday with Dr. Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist who studies how the brain processes music and seeks to explore the neurological basis of the answer to this question.
Music has been around for about as long as humans have. Archaeologists have found bone flutes dating back approximately 35,000 years and have found music in every culture, from the familiar diatonic scale to the maqams of the Middle East.
To find out why music is so pervasive, scientists have turned their attention to the brain. Early brain stimulation studies in the 1960s found that when certain areas of the brain were electrically stimulated, patients were hearing music. As neuroimaging technologies grew more sophisticated, scientists were able to pinpoint exactly which brain regions are activated by music.
One interesting discovery from these studies is that there is a large overlap between the brain areas activated when individuals imagine music and when they hear music. The specific structures involved are located in a range of areas in the brain, from the frontal cortex to the temporal regions located near the ears.
But beyond mapping brain regions associated with music, Zatorre’s research explores why humans like music in the first place. A survey of McGill students found that it ranked above food, money, and art as a source of enjoyment, and similar studies have found that it consistently ranks in the top 10 sources of pleasure.
Listening to music activates similar pathways in the brain that eating food and taking drugs like cocaine and amphetamines do. It also increases production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.
To study this phenomenon more closely, Zatorre looks at the physiological experience of “chills” when listening to music. Functional brain imaging techniques allow researchers to look at what’s going on in subjects’ brains in almost real time as they undergo a chill.
At the moment a subject experiences a chill, skin temperature decreases, heart rate goes up, and certain brain regions are activated. There are two major areas that light up: One in the leading-up to the chill, found in the front of the brain and associated with cognition, and another associated with the moments after the chill, found in the back of the brain and associated with emotions.
Zatorre says that it’s this interplay between brain structures that makes music so enjoyable.
“Humans have found a way to link up these two [brain structures] in ways we don’t yet understand, such that what starts off as an abstract set of sounds ends up being pleasure by virtue of these two systems working in sync,” Zatorre summarized.
The light at the end of the tunnel
When we talk about death, we typically approach it from the religious and philosophical side of things. However, as part of SUS Academia Week, two speakers took the floor on Tuesday to discuss the physical realities of death.
The first speaker was Christine Gaspar, president of the Cryonics Society of Canada. Cryonics, which involves cooling a recently deceased person to liquid nitrogen temperatures in order to keep their body preserved indefinitely, was introduced in 1962 by Robert Ettinger and has been increasing in popularity ever since.
The basic premise behind this technology, as described by Gaspar, is that “the survival of the structure means the survival of the person.” By preserving the body through the process of cryonics, scientists hope to be maintain patients in a form of suspended animation until the future, at which point medicine will have advanced to a degree where treatment options are available to them.
“Cryonics should be viewed as an ambulance,” Gaspar explained. “What we’re arguing is that the expert medical staff at the hospital, not 30 minutes from here but 30 years from now, will be able to take what was considered lethal today and, as a matter of routine, prepare and treat it successfully.”
As part of her lecture, Gaspar addressed the many questions and uncertainties people had regarding the effectiveness of cryonics, and acknowledging certain flaws in the technology.
“The chances are not great for this to succeed,” Gaspar admitted. “But […] the alternative is just to be put into the ground—and you are not coming back at that point.”
Ultimately, Gaspar relented that much of the discomfort people feel towards cryonics is primarily ethically based.
“I get a lot of vitriol about this—how dare I try to mess with the natural human life span?” Gaspar said. “And I look at this with a different moral argument [….] It’s rooted in human dignity and human life. I don’t know when I’m going to die, but I’d like to do everything I can and do everything within my power to [delay it].”
The next speaker, Professor Geoffrey Noël, Director of the Anatomical Sciences Division at McGill, took the talk in a different direction to focus on what happens when people donate their bodies to science. First focusing on the importance of becoming an organ donor, Noël started with a basic discussion on how one applies to have their body donated to science, before moving into a more technical discussion of what donated bodies can be used for.
“Most of the people wanting to work with these bodies are medical students,” Noël explained. “That’s still the case; but after that [is] the training of residents. These bodies are [also] used for a lot of research [….] Biomechanical studies—you don’t want a surgeon to see if you have the full mobility of your arm after surgery, you want them to know beforehand. There are some imaging techniques […] and finally of course there’s the need to test new surgical approaches.”
Noël proceeded to describe various discoveries made through the use of using donated bodies in research, including the design of new prosthetics and improved treatments for scoliosis.
Noël concluded his talk by driving home the ultimate benefit that donated bodies provide to those utilizing them. Everyone is different, he explained, and that’s what practitioners need to learn. Ultimately, the best way to do this is by practicing on as many different cadavers as possible, making donated bodies invaluable.
Underwater robot project
Jonathan Tremblay, a Computer Science Ph.D. candidate at McGill, kicked off Wednesday’s SUS Academia Week talk with an algorithm, asking the audience to count the number of people in the room. Everyone in the audience stood up and through polite introductions and forced small talk, fumbled before finding a sum of 38.
The trick is, Tremblay pointed out, the algorithm never told us to say anything to another person. But as humans, we interpreted the algorithm beyond what it asked us to do.
“The algorithm didn’t tell you to do these things,” Tremblay said. “Humans aren’t good at following these directions.”
Tremblay’s research focuses on creating algorithms to test video game design. He posits that if he needed to test a video game level 1,000 times, he’d need to find 1,000 friends to play the game for him.
Tremblay uses rapidly-exploring random tree (RRT) algorithms to test game space. RRT is focused on a simple algorithm that yields powerful results in determining game space qualities.
The algorithms get trickier when gamers have to navigate around enemies and guards, because adding another dimension of time requires recalculation.
With the ability to run simultaneous tests and create heat maps of aggregate player movement, Tremblay is able to gather information quickly about a game level. RRT is able to efficiently answer questions such as: Where did you die? Where did you fight the guards? Where did most of the players go? Which path is safest?
Following Tremblay’s presentation, team SONIA (Systeme d’Operation Nautique Intelligent et Autome) from Montreal’s Ecole de technologie superieur, brought its autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to Wednesday night’s talk.
The undergraduate team outlined the calculations and statistics that went into the creation of its AUV. Since 1999, SONIA has been competing in an annual RoboSub completion that puts its AUV to the test with tasks that change every year.
“All these effects cannot be planned, [so] we must always be ready to react,” explained team member Jérémie St-Jules-Prévost.
As a result, SONIA’s AUV is equipped with spatial sensors, cameras, and acoustic pingers but maybe most importantly, “we can shoot torpedos,” he beamed.
The origins of the universe
On Thursday, physics professor Robert Brandenberger introduced his talk by asking the audience questions that sought to push the limits of scientific inquiry.
“The goal of cosmology is to understand the origin and early life of the universe,” Bradenberger said. “Where does the universe come from? What is spacetime? Was there a Big Bang? If there wasn’t a big bang, what was [there]? These are the types of questions which humanity has asked for centuries, and for a long time, these questions were thought to be outside the realm of science.”
Now, however, answers to these questions lie within the domain of physics. Admittedly, the physics required to answer these questions is different from what’s covered in high school or PHYS 101.
Physicists need to use Einstein’s theory of general relativity to describe the universe on a large scale. To describe the universe on scales smaller than the size of atoms, however, the rules of quantum mechanics are required.
“Matter can be described on large scales by classical physics, but on small scales, classical physics breaks down—that’s where quantum mechanics takes over. If you want to describe the early universe, you need quantum mechanics. But the quantum mechanics you learn in the most advanced undergraduate physics class is inconsistent with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. So you need something better, and this is where you need superstring theory,” explained Brandenberger.
According to string theory, matter at its most elementary level is made up of tiny vibrating strings. The way that these strings vibrate determines their properties—just like the way a guitar string’s vibration determines what note it produces.
String theory is just one theory that attempts to describe the origins of the universe, and Brandenberger spent much of his talk describing the birth of the universe itself. Current evidence suggests that about 13 billion years ago, the universe was incredibly small, then it exploded outward, expanding exponentially in an “inflationary period” before settling down to a slower growth rate.
“That’s the Big Bang,” Brandenberger said. “It’s a point, a finite time back, when the density and temperature were infinite.”
The notion of infinity is at odds with what physicists observe in the universe. Ovens do not produce an infinite amount of heat, and events occur in finite amounts of time. Nonetheless, this picture of the early universe is currently the most plausible one.
Brandenberger’s presentation revealed there is much we do know about the universe—its composition, growth, and constituent particles—but there is even more that we still need to learn.
Are we addicted to food?
Professor Alain Dagher from the Montreal Neurological Institute and McGill’s Department of Neurology began Friday’s talk by explaining why it’s hard to be a koala.
“It has nothing to learn about the world in order to feed itself,” Dagher explained. “The leaves of the eucalyptus tree have all of the nutrients that it needs.”
Because of this, if the koala were to be placed in an environment where there was no eucalyptus, it would likely starve. Omnivores, on the other hand, can eat all foods, a trait that has allowed two species of omnivores—humans and rats—to exist almost anywhere.
However, when entering into a new environment, the brain must learn about its new food sources. Omnivores will use their brain to respond to the body’s needs. If the body needs salt, the brain will trigger a response to seek out salty foods. However, the body will have had needed to be previously exposed to those foods high in salt content. In particular, it’s crucial to learn which foods are high in calories, Dagher explained.
“Nothing in the brain makes sense except in the light of eating,” Dagher said. “You can consider the brain as an organ designed to find food.”
Today, some are going so far as to say that hunger is an addiction to food.
From an early age, we are conditioned to associate hunger and feeding via reward pathways. Babies with empty stomachs experience discomfort, cramps, and anxiety that cause the baby to cry. In response to this, the mother will feed the baby, relieving those pains. This cause-and-effect conditions the baby to associate food with pleasure.
Furthermore, because of the risk associated with going out to seek calories, humans want to store calories to be able to access and use them later. So no matter how satiated a person may feel, the sight of food will still induce cravings.
“The sight of food can induce craving—even when we’re not calorie deprived—and hunger is learned,” Dagher said.
These traits, Dagher explained, are pushing people to label hunger as an addiction to food. When a person is addicted to drugs, the sight of the drug induces cravings. For example, the sight of a cigarette will trigger a person trying to quit smoking.
Furthermore, the ability to control these cravings is based on what are often called the ‘big five personality dimensions’. The five factors are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
“The important ones are conscientiousness, neuroticism, and extraversion,” Dagher said.
Those who have high conscientiousness and neuroticism are more likely to control their emotions, self-regulate, and will therefore be more likely to have a low body mass index (BMI). On the other hand, those who score high in extraversion were more likely to have low self-regulation and high impulsivity. These people are more likely to have higher BMIs and will live on average 10 years less than those with high conscientiousness.
There is also an economic variable for food consumption.
“Cognitive and emotional factors can overcome [your] taste and homeostatic system and control your behavior,” Dagher said. “A good example of this is allostasis, [the ability to predict future needs.]”
According to Dagher, if a person is going on a hike, they will bring water with them, despite not immediately being thirsty, so they are planning for the future. This also applies to going to the supermarket, when we buy groceries for the week. Unfortunately, today, the less healthy foods—and therefore higher caloric foods—are cheaper, making people more inclined to purchase them.
According to Dagher, 40 per cent of the recent increase in weight in the U.S. can be attributed to reduced food prices. As the cost goes down, we eat more.
When this was necessary for basic survival in an agricultural society, it made sense to over-eat when food was cheap, and weight gains and losses correlated with harvest cycles.
“If you’re wired to over consume when food is abundant and you have a society where food is always abundant—as opposed to certain periods of the year, especially processed food—you’re going to have significant weight gain,” said Dagher.
So are we addicted to food? It’s hard to say, explained Dagher, because addiction doesn’t have a clear definition. But in order to further understand trends in obesity, it’s vital to understand how and why we respond to food.