How students have adapted to limited lab time, cancelled programs and remote research
Doing a thesis or capstone project can be difficult in regular circumstances. In this virtual year, students have shown incredible innovation, determination and have made the most out of these trying times. These eight students from a range of disciplines and types of research have shared their challenges and triumphs navigating this strange and unpredictable year.
While each of their experiences is unique and insightful, many of these students had similar challenges and benefits in this online year.
Rya Buckley, who is also the Silhouette's Arts and Culture Editor, and Lee Higgins both had trouble with remote desktop access. Buckley couldn’t access the data or statistics program, SPSS and instead conducted her data analysis through Zoom calls in which she shared her screen with research coordinator Caroline Reid-Westoby. Higgins had concerns about speed and file safety.
“I needed one software which was on those computers and I just bought it instead because I didn’t want to deal with it. I just spent $120 on the software and bit the bullet,” said Higgins.
Several of the students had to change their research methods. Titi Huynh and her group were restricted to online surveys for their data collection, rather than interviews. Christy Au-Yeung hoped to choose clinical assessments and apply them to patients in a memory intervention program, but the program was cancelled in the fall due to COVID-19.
Julia Wickens and Higgins, both in the faculty of engineering, were able to be more ambitious and creative with their capstone projects because they no longer had a manufacturing component.
“We didn’t have to take into account the cost of materials and building time and stuff like that, so we were able to make something a bit more interesting,” said Wickens.
Peipei Wang had very limited access to the laboratory she belonged to but was still able to expose mice to cannabis smoke and the influenza virus and analyze the results with the help of a masters student and laboratory technician.
Though Rodoshi Rahman could have done further experiments with more laboratory access, she was able to take her experiments home. She built two snail compartments in a tank and studied their growth.
Sarphina Chui’s thesis changed completely. She was initially going to study the effects of dance and music on people with Parkinson’s. Instead, she has studied pedagogy to inform a new integrated program at McMaster.
Every student highlighted the challenges and benefits of online communication. For some, the logistics of setting up a common meeting time was a hurdle. Others found it simpler to meet online, to have several questions answered at once and to have quick check-ins.
Huynh mentioned that she hoped to spend more time in the community she researched. Wickens wanted to spend time with her group members in a social setting.
All students expressed gratitude for the support they’ve received over the past year, from supervisors, group members and classmates.
“I would say, overall, even though it’s not what I had expected, it’s been a positive experience and I’m sure that’s maybe what you’re hearing from a lot of people," said Au-Yeung.
That is exactly what I heard from the eight students I was fortunate to interview and share their experiences.
Thesis: identifying which clinical predictors — like age, personality, cognitive abilities, depression and stress — could predict better outcomes in memory following a cognitive remediation intervention in patients with mood disorders.
Supervisor: Heather McNeely, associate professor at McMaster in PNB and clinical lead for neuropsychology at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton.
Christy Au-Yeung has a long-term interest in mental health interventions, especially on the cognitive symptoms of depression or bipolar disorder, such as memory. She is interested in identifying how clinical factors will impact the outcomes of interventions.
Initially, she was supposed to choose clinical assessments and administer them before and after intervention; however, because the program was cancelled for the fall, Au-Yeung instead used data from previous patients to analyze clinical predictors and outcomes.
“I would say, overall, even though it’s not what I had expected it’s been a positive experience,” explained Au-Yeung.
Au-Yeung said that apart from the research question, she was really interested in this project to gain clinical experience and she was a bit sad to find out she couldn’t. Luckily, the program ran online in the winter term and she was excited to sit in. Au-Yeung hopes she can use what she’s learned in her pursuit of clinical psychology.
Though she initially felt disconnected, she said the online environment has made it easier to meet with her supervisor and that the other thesis students have been supporting each other.
Au-Yeung said she relied a lot on being motivated by her peers but, with the nature of an online thesis, she’s learned to work more independently.
“I would say, overall, even though it’s not what I had expected it’s been a positive experience,” added Au-Yeung.
Thesis: association between socioeconomic status, the uptake of the enhanced 18-month well baby visit and speech and language problems in Ontario kindergarten children.
Supervisor: Magdalena Janus, core member at Offord Centre for Child Studies and professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University.
Rya Buckley is interested in child psychology and especially socioeconomic status differences, as SES is a predictor of many outcomes for children. For her thesis, Buckley used data from the early development instrument, co-created by her supervisor, that measures school readiness through various domains of development.
Buckley said that the main adaptation she’s had to make due to COVID-19, apart from no in-person meetings, is access to the data.
“I feel like I’ve learned a lot and I still feel like it has been a useful experience,” said Buckley.
Typically, students use the computers at the Offord Centre in McMaster Innovation Park to access the database and run analysis on SPSS.
Due to technical difficulties, they were unable to create access through a remote desktop. Instead, Buckley had weekly meetings with Caroline Reid-Westoby, research coordinator at the Offord Centre, where Reid-Westoby would share her screen with the data and SPSS. Buckley would talk about the next steps in the analysis, Reid-Westoby would perform the commands and send the outputs to Buckley.
“I still feel like supervisors, for the most part, are trying to give their students the best experience,” said Buckley, adding that it’s been a rewarding experience.
Thesis: development of a STEM and music four-year double major degree program at McMaster University.
Co-Supervisors: Matthew Woolhouse, director of the Digital Music Lab and associate professor in the School of the Arts at McMaster University and Chelsea Mackinnon, sessional instructor of health sciences at McMaster University.
Sarphina Chui’s initial thesis on the benefits of dance for people with Parkinson’s disease was cancelled due to COVID-19. Instead, Chui joined the STEM and Music double degree project, specifically looking at music pedagogy and how to best design an integrated program.
Chui designed a 30-minute online interview for current students in integrated programs at McMaster to understand their undergraduate experience and inform the structure of the proposed STEM and music program.
"To see how we can . . . build an undergraduate degree program that’s most beneficial for students to learn,” said Chui.
Chui said that it would have been easier to advertise her study in person, but she said that online interviews haven’t impacted the quality of the research she has done.
“I would say it’s been really great and it’s because of my supervisor. I know that thesis can suck for some people, with it being online, but my experience has been amazing,” said Chui.
The student explained that her supervisors prioritized mental health and that she has learned a lot of really valuable skills from her thesis.
Capstone: pitch and roll adjustable active rear wing for touring and road car applications.
Supervisor: capstone course professor.
Lee Higgins and his two group members are spending January to December designing and simulating a rear spoiler. The design that Higgins and his group are working on will be able to pitch forward and backwards and tilt side to side and the force these movements produce, as it goes.
There is typically a manufacturing component to the capstone but that became optional due to COVID-19. Higgins noted that he was able to create a more complex design but that he lost out on the practical component.
So far, he has worked on a literature review of the necessary concepts and is beginning the modelling stage. Later in the year, he will simulate the model and add any necessary revisions.
“I wanted to really do something cool, something that I was proud of,” said Higgins.
“While it’s different, it’s not as different as I expected it to be. It’s not as bad as I expected it to be. I still had an opportunity to do something that I really cared about that I really liked. Even though it was slightly different I was able to bend it in a way that I was still happy with,” added Higgins.
Thesis: the influence of social media on undergraduate students’ perceptions of reality.
Supervisor: thesis course professor.
Titi Huynh and her four group members looked at the communities that are formulated online through social media and how they can recreate norms and biases amongst individuals, as well as how online behaviours affect offline behaviours.
Huynh said that they were restricted to online surveys because of COVID-19, which had challenges and benefits.
“I know we wouldn’t have been able to reach the 53 students that we did end up reaching if we were to do interviews,” said Huynh, noting that it was initially difficult to recruit students.
To analyze their data, Huynh and her group members would call each other over Zoom, someone would screen share SPSS software and they would go through the analysis verbally. Once they moved from SPSS to Microsoft Excel, it became easier as everyone could access the sheet at the same time.
Huynh also conducted a sustainability thesis as part of her minor. This thesis was in a group of five and they collaborated with the Hamilton Farmers Market to look at vendors’ perceptions on trying to implement or co-develop a food recovery program. Huynh hoped that the vendors could collaborate with a non-profit, such as Meals with Purpose, to donate any unsold healthy and nutritious foods.
This thesis hoped to address food insecurity and food waste in Hamilton. They conducted interviews with vendors and used NVivo to conduct their analysis. However, their McMaster license to NVivo expired after the first semester, before they had data to analyze.
“Everybody planned a schedule for each person to start their two-week free trial and then we would overlap it, so two people would be able to work on it within the same two-week period,” said Huynh.
Huynh said that she would have liked to be more involved within the community, such as the participants in her social psychology thesis or the vendors at the Farmers Market. She also noted the benefits of two of these at the same time, where she completed an ethics application for one and then immediately started the application for the other thesis.
“It’s been good. I am very thankful we did these in groups,” said Huynh.
She wished that she could have been more hands-on with her theses and worked directly with the communities.
“With the online environment we seem to have taken a step back and observed everything, which was different, but they were both very enjoyable,” said Huynh.
Thesis: phenotypic plasticity of snail shell morphology induced by architectural constraints.
Supervisor: Jonathon Stone, associate professor of biology at McMaster University.
Rodoshi Rahman has spent the year with snails to see how their shells grow and physically adapt to an architecturally constrained environment. Rahman said that some snails naturally can live in areas that are more sheltered while others live in areas that are more open, including more open to predators.
The nature of her design and the fact that snails are invertebrates meant that Rahman was able to build and conduct her experiment at home. Rahman grew the snails in one of two compartments that she built, one without restrictions and one with a maze, for about two and a half months.
Rahman said that she was acquainted with Stone’s lab before COVID-19.
“I was super excited to experience that because I feel like Doc Roc’s lab was super energetic, they were super friendly but they were also very educational,” said Rahman.
She was really let down that she couldn’t experience this, especially the challenges with making connections, but felt that the online adaptation was smooth.
“[Doc Roc’s] been super available and flexible and helpful,” said Rahman, crediting part of her success within the thesis to Doc Roc’s guidance and training, even if it had to be through Zoom.
Thesis: investigating the in vivo effects of cannabis smoke on lung immune response to influenza infection.
Supervisor: Jeremy Hirota, assistant professor at McMaster University and Canada research chair in respiratory mucosal immunology.
Peipei Wang has been exposing mice to short periods of consistent cannabis smoke to see how it affects different lung functions. Partway through the cannabis smoke exposure period, they infected the mice with influenza.
“Let’s say lungs are damaged due to cannabis smoke. How does that damage their specific response to specific diseases?” said Wang.
She planned to analyze the gene expression within these mice, but she found out in early March that she was unable to get the RNA data in time. Instead, Wang changed her focus to cell populations and immune mediator expression. Although she found her new topic interesting, she was initially looking forward to analyzing the data that would result from her gene expression analyses.
“There were definitely still upsides. I felt really included by my master’s student, so when he was smoke-exposing and anything happened, he would WhatsApp me and say “Oh, this happened, this looks kind of cool take a look,” and I thought that was really nice,” said Wang.
The student spoke to how interactions with others helped her complete her research.
“Everyone has been so nice and conducive to helping me learn. Even through the pandemic I felt like I had these mentors who were checking up on me and that was really nice,” said Wang.
Capstone: universal muscle stretching equipment.
Supervisor: Philip Koshy, professor of mechanical engineering at McMaster University.
Julia Wickens and her three group members have spent their year responding to the lack of gym equipment focused on stretching. They are creating a piece of equipment designed specifically for a gym environment that can guide people through stretching, especially for those who aren’t as experienced.
The group collaborated on the design but then divided the modelling of each station among themselves, where Wickens and another group member developed the legs and back station. In a typical year, capstone students make a prototype but that was made optional this year due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“One of the nice things about doing this online is that we were able to go a little bit more ambitious than we would have if we did have to build it,” said Wickens.
They designed the equipment to be highly adjustable to accommodate different flexibility levels and body sizes.
Wickens completed a capstone for the society component of her degree in the fall term. The capstone challenged the students to research and propose a protocol to implement a program.
The program was meant to address a sustainability problem. Wickens and her three group members chose to focus on a social and financial sustainability problem.
Her group of four developed a proposal for a community program to distribute low-cost computers and computer classes in downtown Hamilton. The computers would be partially made of recycled materials, involving an environmental sustainability lens and a Raspberry Pi. Raspberry Pis are affordable small computers that can connect to the internet and run programs similar to Microsoft Suite programs.
Wickens said that overall the capstone was a good experience and she felt very lucky to have the technology that enabled them to accomplish everything they did.
“The thing we were kind of sad about is that we got along really well as a group and we couldn’t hang out outside of working on the project,” said Wickens.
By: Neda Pirouzmand
Abeer Siddiqui, McMaster’s librarian and adjunct lecturer for the school of interdisciplinary science, partnered with Steel City Stories to create “Science: an evening of true, personal stories about science,” an event held on March 12 featuring personal stories told by STEM professionals to community members.
Hamilton storyteller Lisa Hunt, a member of the Steel City Stories Planning Committee, met Siddiqui through the LIFESCI 4L03 course. This new course was designed and implemented just this past fall by Siddiqui and her co-instructor.
Hunt introduced students to the art of oral storytelling through a guest lecture and provided feedback to students in the class.
Speakers at the story-telling event last week included Roopali Chaudhary, the owner of a cake business called (C6H12O6)^3. Her first order came from the McMaster’s biology department. Chaudhary made them a Madagascar hissing cockroach cake for a retiring entomologist who supposedly loved the insect.
The department of biology now commonly orders cakes from her online business.
Chaudhary promotes her creations by bringing awareness to the importance of communication in science. Her passion is driven by a goal to combine art and science in an edible form.
The story she shared revealed the path that led her to where she is today.
“My story was inspired by a critical moment in my life as a post-doc that completely changed how I viewed science as a whole,” said Chaudhary. “It led me to quit my research position, but also allowed me continue doing everything I loved about science without organizational constraints that had been holding me back. Now I get to bake cakes too, and I am happy.”
Rodrigo Narro Perez shared his story of immigrating to Canada at a young age. He highlighted the first decade of his rocky journey to learn English and integrate with Canadian culture.
“My first day of school is vivid in my mind. My parents decided to enroll me in primary school just three days after arriving in the frigid cold of Canada’s November,” said Perez. “When they introduced me to my teacher Ms. Smith, I did what every good Peruvian boy would do and I tried to kiss her on the cheek. I will never forgive my parents.”
As a sessional instructor for McMaster’s school of geography and earth sciences, Perez piloted a field course to bring 10 McMaster students to his home of Peru. As the liaison between two countries, he is responsible for the translation of documents and conversations crucial to his research on the retreat of South American glaciers.
“The fact that my two homes are collaborating in the pursuit of greater knowledge is extremely meaningful to me. I have fully embraced that Peru and Canada are a part of me, not one is more and not one is less,” he said.
McMaster university librarians built on their momentum from the story-telling event and continued to celebrate contributions to STEM by by giving away about 3,000 pies in H.G. Thode Library, Hamilton Hall and Mills Memorial Library for Pi day.
On April 24, an open house will give students a first-hand look at iconic scientific texts, dating from the 12th century to present day.
By: Saad Ahmed
A recent publication co-authored by a McMaster alumnus links a major biological pathway to fat, stress, and aging. The study was conducted by Ayush Ranawade, a PhD alumnus from the Gupta Lab at McMaster University who is currently pursuing postdoctoral studies at Harvard University, and Avijit Mallick, a University of Melbourne graduate and current PhD student in the Gupta Lab, under the supervision of Prof. Bhagwati Gupta, a professor of biology at McMaster.
The research was supported by a discovery grant from the natural sciences and engineering research council of Canada.
The team’s study demonstrated the important role of a protein called PRY-1, or Axin in mammals, which negatively regulates a well-studied Wnt signaling pathway. Wnt signaling pathways are typically associated with the regulation of cell fate determination, cell migration and organogenesis throughout embryonic development.
“Wnt proteins form a family of highly conserved, secreted signalling molecules that regulate cell-to-cell interactions during embryogenesis. Mutations in Wnt genes or Wnt pathway components lead to specific developmental defects, while various human diseases, including cancer, are caused by abnormal Wnt signaling,” reads a statement on the Gupta Lab’s website.
For decades, the specific Wnt signaling pathway has been studied for its key role in development, cell fate specification and organ formation. The pathway’s clinical importance was demonstrated by mutations that lead to various diseases, including but not limited to breast and prostate cancer, glioblastoma and type two diabetes.
According to the paper, Axins are defined as scaffolding proteins that play a significant role in signal transduction pathways through interaction with multiple factors and coordination of protein complex assembly. PRY-1, an Axin family member, showed differentially regulated genes related to lipid metabolism.
“Our paper has demonstrated, for the first time, the role of this protein in lipid metabolism. When the function of this protein is muted, the animals have a very severe lipid defect. Further study revealed that this protein might regulate lipid synthesis and involve yolk lipoproteins, which is a very interesting discovery,” said Mallick.
Research at the Gupta Lab focuses on key biological processes related to cell signalling, cell proliferation and cell differentiation. The team has been working on this study for the past three to four years, and their paper was recently accepted to the internationally reputed peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, which is published by the “Public Library of Science” of the United States of America.
“Initially, our focus was to understand the processes that this protein regulates and as such a whole genome transcriptome profiling was done in the mutants. For the involvement of this pathway in cancer and organ development, we were expecting genes mostly involved in those processes,” said Mallick. “To our surprise, we found highly enriched genes involved in lipid metabolism and the aging process.”
After a number of years involving rigorous study, the team presented their findings on the crucial protein.
“One part of our research got published recently in PLOS One where as the research on aging is still going on, which will hopefully be submitted next year for publication,” said Mallick.
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The recent change to the Honours Life Sciences curriculum tops what has been a year of many changes for the program. The current curriculum draws in students looking for flexibility in course selections. Despite graduating with the same degree, students in the program have taken a variety of courses such as biology, psychology, ecology and more. The reasoning behind the changes in curriculum arose from concerns surrounding whether the flexibility ultimately held students back from developing the necessary skills that they need to progress past graduation.
For Biology professor Kimberly Dej, this is a major concern. “We knew that students appreciated the flexibility but we also worried about what students ended up with when they graduated. Whether you’re in health care, politics and policy – you have to think like a scientist … And what we found is that by fourth-year students were still taking a group of courses that were very broad and they were still experimenting with courses. So there was no progression upward through the years.”
A committee made up of all the contributing departments and two student members was assembled to revise the curriculum. While in the past, required courses were grouped by year level of the course, the new curriculum groups required courses by broader skill sets: research skills, communication skills and an experiential component. Courses that were mandatory before are conserved under this system, but are organized differently.
Under the umbrella category for research skills is the living systems laboratory course that aims to introduce students to novel research techniques. Making statistics a required course was done as a means of ensuring that students in science are able to understand and interpret data presented in research. Past analyses showed that most students take Genetics, so making it a required second year course was not considered to be a big change.
The communication courses ensure that students have the necessary skills to hold their own symposium, hold a debate and develop other skills necessary in the scientific field. Finally, the experiential component features a thesis or project course in third or fourth year, a placement course, community engagement course or peer-mentoring course.
“It’s a real shame if you graduate with a science degree and you’re never in a lab and all you do is fill in multiple choice bubble questions. I think we are letting down the students if they spend four years doing that, so we wanted to think about how they can apply these skills in really meaningful ways,” said Dej.
The number of electives that students are able to take is conserved in the new curriculum, meaning that there is no loss in flexibility to do a minor or to take courses outside of science.
Students currently in their second year of Honours Life Sciences and higher will not be affected by these curriculum changes. Students currently in level one of a gateway program that plan on entering into the Honours Life Sciences stream will take courses as per the new curriculum but will have the same admission requirements as the previous years. The following year will also see changes to the courses requirement for entry into the program, with math, biology, chemistry and physics being required.
“What we found is that by fourth-year students were still taking a group of courses that were very broad and they were still experimenting with courses. So there was no progression upward through the years.”
The next step is to develop subplans, or specific smaller sets of courses within Honours Life Science that allow for a greater variety of interests. Students will be actively involved in the development of these subplans, as they were involved in the development of the curriculum through surveys and a public discussion.
Students with questions or concerns are encouraged to reach out to the administrative department, as well as those who are interested in being involved in the creation of curriculum changes.
Photo Credit: Kareem Baassiri/ Photo Contributor
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By: Anna Goshua and Arshia Javidan/ Meducator
Why do we get sick? Moreover, why do we get better? That essentially encapsulates the research being done by Dawn Bowdish and her team at McMaster University’s Immunology Research Centre. Bowdish is an Associate Professor in the Department of Pathology, and her research focuses on pneumonia, the most costly bacterial infection in Ontario.
The bacteria that causes pneumonia is initially found in the nose, where no symptoms are observed unless it enters the lungs, bloodstream or cerebrospinal fluid. Bowdish specifically investigates why the bacteria leaves the nose in the first place, with a focus on the aging population.
“We’re particularly focused on older adults, as they contract pneumonia at much higher rates, and the consequences can be very serious,” Bowdish said. The long-term complications of contracting pneumonia include increased risk of dementia, type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease later on in life. In order to shed light on why older individuals are more susceptible to contracting pneumonia, Bowdish researches age-related changes in the immune system that may be involved.
The data is compelling in demonstrating that as we age, our levels of inflammation increase. Inflammation is a cellular response to injury or infection that is carried out by the immune system. Many age-related diseases, such as conditions involving dementia, some forms of cancer and cardiovascular disease, are linked to inflammation.
“For reasons that we’re just beginning to understand, this increasing inflammation seems to impair white blood cell function. The bacteria is able to capitalize on these inflammatory changes in the immune system in order to thrive,” Bowdish explained.
“We think that we can target age-related inflammation as a way of improving immunity. We’re testing this in an animal model at the moment. By reducing their age-related inflammation, we can improve their outcomes from pneumonia, which is a finding we’re quite excited about,” she said.
If the preclinical testing phase determines that age-related inflammation is a viable drug target, then the next phase would be a drug-screening program that would further examine the effectiveness of anti-inflammatory drugs in improving immune function. This drug has the potential to decrease the risk of devastating illnesses such as pneumonia.
Bowdish has seen how older adults benefit younger generations. “I think grandparents are really important. There’s a lot of data to support the positive role of older adults in society. They volunteer more hours than younger people and they provide a lot of unpaid caregiving. So we want them to be as healthy as they can possibly be. Essentially, my research is about keeping grandchildren and grandparents together for many years to come.”
Photo Credit: Yung Lee/ Photo Reporter
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By: Steven Chen/News Writer
We never really outgrow our childhood dreams of walking alongside extinct creatures. This fantasy has been vividly imagined in popular literary works, television shows and movies. The only thing left is for scientists to undertake the daunting task of bringing it to reality.
On Oct. 27, the compelling question of whether extinct species can truly be revived was discussed in the talk, “Reviving Extinct Species — Fiction or Fact”, featuring Prof. Hendrick Poinar, current director of the Ancient DNA Centre at McMaster University.
Prof. Poinar’s public lecture at the David Braley Health Sciences Centre marked the launch of the “Research in the City” series. The series, which was established by McMaster University in partnership with The Hamilton Spectator, aims to revitalize community interest in research done in Hamilton.
As an evolutionary biologist specializing in the genome of ancient species, Prof. Poinar offered a passionate recount of the work currently being done in the field. His team at McMaster has been investigating the DNA present in fossil remains for more than two decades — notably pushing research frontiers by using novel methods to sequence the genome of the extinct woolly mammoth.
The allure in uncovering the mystery to these extinct species has propelled Poinar to a life-long quest. “These are extinct creatures that once roamed the earth and then [simply] vanished. Why and what drives species to extinctions when they have managed well for so long?” Poinar asked.
The public lecture supported the prospect of reviving recently extinct species, such as the passenger pigeon and the Tasmanian wolf. It is reassuring that in the grand scheme of biological evolution, these species have only vanished in recent memory. Remarkably, specimens of the woolly mammoth, who last trudged the earth 10,000 years ago, are still preserved intact in the Siberian tundra. This offers immense potential for scientists to extract the genetic information to make clones of extinct creatures in the future.
With the rapid development of genome sequencing technologies, Prof. Poinar offers foresight on the possibilities and dangers. “We can expect genome analysis [to occur] in minutes,” he said . . . “Should gene therapy become a reality, I hope mostly for the better, but the changes surrounding the ethics need to occur now.”
Whether or not we will be able to witness the marvel of the woolly mammoth or glimpse the ferocity of the saber-toothed cat remains a question. What is more important to consider is how our aspirations for the future are invested in the research being done on a local and global scale.
The “Research in the City” series hopes to continue engaging the public with upcoming talks, ranging from topics on the life and death of hitchBOT to the Atacama Large Millimeter Array Radio Telescope.
Poinar mused, “Fascinating research is going on in Hamilton and the people have a right to know about what we do. The great thing about McMaster is that research is portrayed without the attitude, for the public to engage with at all levels.”
Photo Credit: Jason Lau/Photo Reporter
For 38 years, Art Yeas was the McMaster greenhouse manager. He could often be found diligently watering each plant, the top of his head peeking over a shrub. When he wasn’t nurturing his fauna, he was sharing his extensive knowledge and enthusiasm with students. Despite all the life around him, Yeas still stood out.
Unfortunately, Art Yeas passed away in early September, a loss that has been deeply felt in the McMaster community.
Robin Cameron is a professor in the Department of Biology at McMaster who worked closely with Yeas on developing the lab aspect of the second year “Biology 2D03: Plant Biology and Biotechnology” course. Cameron is aware of just how much thought Yeas put into mapping out the whole year ahead for students.
“We provide a lot of plant material during the course, and sometimes we need seedlings that are [various sizes] so that students can look at the development of the plant… He had this big board, cork board, with when to plant everything.”
Despite working a job whose description put him in the background, his dedication and effort did not go unnoticed by the students and community at large. He worked as a supervisor for students working on biology practicums, aided graduate students with research and was an integral component to undergraduate plant labs.
Yeas managed over 217 plants at a time, many of which he brought in of his own accord. The more outrageous, the more likely it was that Yeas had ordered them. Susan Dudley, also a professor in the Biology department, attributes the diversity of plant life in the greenhouse to Yeas’ quirky tastes.
“He loved weird and interesting and outrageous plants, so we have a lot of those. We have a great collection of carnivorous plants for example… and we have plants that move, and just kind of amazing, or pretty, or bizarre dyed orchids for example… He was working on maintaining the collection; he was looking at propagating our chocolate tree… He had just gotten in a shipment of seeds, including seeds of indigenous varieties… and some strange seeds that we aren’t even sure what they are.”
His acquisition of the Titan Arum corms brought crowds of visitors through the greenhouse this past year. The six-foot tall flowers are infamous for their odour which resembles that of rotting flesh, but bloom beautifully for no more than a few days. Dudley remembers how the plants brought out Yeas’ giddy side.
“When the Titan Arum was blooming, he decided he was going to keep the greenhouse open to 11 o’clock at night. He was not sleeping very much at night. He was surviving on Red Bull and telling people stories. When I had gone away he set up a fog machine, because he liked the atmosphere.”
For the last few years of his life, Yeas could not sit still. He acquired the Titan Arums; he grew bamboo shoots to feed the Giant Pandas at the Toronto Zoo. Cameron believes that Yeas put the greenhouse on the map.
This past July, Yeas was awarded the 2014 President’s Award for Outstanding Service. The award is for any McMaster employee that is nominated for their meaningful contribution to university life. Other members of the community write letters in support of each nominee, justifying why they deserve the title. Art Yeas won—not because of anything a paper said, but because he had won over the community.
Art Yeas had big plans ahead for the greenhouse. Cameron knows that he was hoping to replace the old greenhouse, which is costly and inefficient, with a newer model.
“The long-term goal was to have a new greenhouse…That was the last thing I did with Art… in August. [We] visited Vineland, which is an agricultural research station run by Ontario… They have a new greenhouse that’s just being completed, so we toured this new greenhouse to see what new innovations they have today. And Art was so excited, and just so thrilled that we would have, maybe, a new greenhouse.”
Whether the plan for a new greenhouse is realized or not, it is because of Yeas that the option is even on the horizon. No one is going to forget about Yeas any time soon. He embodied the greenhouse and it now embodies him—a physical reminder of a member of the McMaster community who will be dearly missed by many.
Photo Credit: Jon White/Photo Editor
Sulawesi is a small island in the Indonesian archipelago. Its geographic location makes it a hotbed of biodiversity, and it is home to species not found anywhere else on the planet. Many biologists have looked there to solve some of the mysteries of evolution, including McMaster’s Ben Evans.
“I’ve been interested in evolutionary processes in general and this has been an arena to explore things like how species disperse across marine barriers, how they compete with one another when they arrive in a novel habitat, and how adaptation occurs and what it depends on,” said Evans, whose work over the last 15 years has focused on endemic primate and frog species exclusive to Sulawesi.
The species garnering the most attention is the fanged frog, which Evans explained has been divided into subspecies based on body size. The larger frogs are found in fast-flowing water, while small frogs are found on land. These smaller frogs spend more time on land than in water, and have undergone a unique adaptation that Evans and his colleagues believe has occurred to combat predation.
Most frogs reproduce by laying eggs that are externally fertilized. One species of fanged frogs, however, gives birth to live tadpoles, while another lays eggs with jelly coats on leaves. Evans finds these discoveries fascinating, but he claims it is not the most interesting aspect of this adaptation.
“I think the more important message offered by this new species is that there’s a lot of diversity we don’t even know about and therefore that there’s a lot more research to be done,” he explained.
The unique reproduction of fanged frogs has been compared to that of placental and marsupial mammals.
“If you look at it coarsely, it’s quite similar in that internal fertilization and internal gestation in mammals is advantageous because it increases offspring survival,” Evans said.
However, there are still important distinctions to make between the two groups. The phenomenon of fanged frogs giving birth to live young has evolved separately from mammals’ ability to reproduce in the same way.
“It uses a distinct set of genetic tools and probably someway comparable to mammals but it’s an independent evolution of a similar characteristic,” Evans explained.
He added that a female fanged frog has been observed giving birth in standing water already containing tadpoles. He admits it cannot be confirmed yet whether or not the tadpoles came from the same female, though he believes it is unlikely.
“It’s probably the case that she doesn’t provision the tadpoles, so she doesn’t come and bring them food like a mammal would.”
This discovery opens many doors in the fields of evolutionary biology and genetics. Evans discussed his desire to better understand the specific details of how female fanged frogs are able to give birth to live tadpoles as well as the larger scale of species diversity on Sulawesi.
“That’s going to involve field work, genetic work, it’s going to involve careful ecological studies and comparison to other species of frogs, and even other vertebrates.”
In 2014, Mick Bhatia and his team discovered that adult stem cells are hardwired to remember the type of cell they were originally. His breakthrough has not gone unnoticed. In December, the Canadian Cancer Society listed Bhatia’s research as one of the top ten discoveries of the year.
“We’ve known for several years now that you can take human skin cells and turn them into [pluripotent] stem cells that are almost identical to embryonic stem cells…[if] you’re taking cells from an individual, you can transplant those cells back in without fear of rejection,” Bhatia explained.
As he and his team learned however, the practice of reprogramming adult cells need not be restricted to skin tissue.
“We found…that you can take blood cells and turn them into pluripotent stem cells, but when you do that, it turns out these blood cells remember. So the stem cells derived from blood remember that they were blood,” Dr. Bhatia said.
When this observation was first recorded, Dr. Bhatia admits it was ignored.
“But then we started to notice a pattern and we started getting patients where we asked to take some blood and then asked to take some skin,” he said. By removing the patient as a variable, the researchers discerned that the cell origin determined how the new pluripotent stem cells would differentiate.
There are many areas in the medical field that will benefit from this advance in stem cell research; however the most prominent and immediately applicable is regenerative medicine. Since this work has only been done with blood so far, leukemia will be one of the first diseases to be treated in this manner.
“You give a drug like chemotherapy to kill the leukemia, but what happens is you kill the normal blood system. So if you can get a supply of the patient’s own blood cells and keep giving that to them at the same time as the chemotherapy, that actually allows the patient to undergo chemotherapy treatment for a longer period of time, which we know improves survival,” Bhatia explained.
Researchers can easily separate leukemic cells from healthy cells and reprogram the latter to stem cells capable of producing ten times as many blood cells.
Bhatia’s research can also be applied to cystic fibrosis. He explained that the complications associated with generating enough lung tissue would inhibit the process of testing new drugs to combat the disease. However, thanks to this development in stem cell technology, healthy lung tissue samples can be taken from CF patients and reprogrammed to lung-inclined stem cells.
Despite the implications of his work, Bhatia is as excited about his colleagues as he is about the research itself.
“What I love about this particular field that we’re in now is that…we’re working with chemists, we’re working with robotics specialists—these are people who don’t do anything with cell biology, but it’s so nice to work with people in other disciplines to solve a problem,” he said. “There’s nobody in the world doing this kind of work specifically.”