Own the lectern

I had asthma as a kid. And a lazy eye. And a glorious lack of speed, strength and dexterity. I could never climb a rope, or do the flexed-arm hang, although I did have an above-average knack for getting smacked in the face by assorted pucks, balls, rackets and other team-sport weapons.

“Nurse, come quick! Get this boy an extra-large roll of gauze and a membership card for the chess club.”

That was me.

It wasn’t merely that I was terrible at playing sports – I never even managed the art of watching them. Even the basics of sports viewership eluded me.

For instance, I’d be flummoxed when the home team would be victorious, and people would shout, “We won! We won!”

My response was always, “Really? ‘We’ won? Were you personally responsible for putting the little whatzit in the net-type area more times than the opposing team? Because my distinct impression was that there were a bunch of highly trained, highly paid professional athletes who actually won, while your contribution was to watch the game on TV, drink beer, and periodically utter the nonsensical syllable ‘Woo!’ So, you know, congratulations on that.”

(To clarify: this response was in my head only. I may not know sports, but I am a champion at minimizing the odds of physical violence being inflicted upon my person.)

There was always one exception, though. One sporting event that transcended my athletic incompatibilities, drew me in, and kept me riveted day after day: The Olympics.

On one level, Olympic competition seems every bit as compromised by doping scandals, injuries, excess and ridiculous levels of testosterone-fueled aggression that help turn me off most sports. But the weird variety of sports, the global nature of the competition, and the outlandish pomp and ceremony create a product that is both quirky and awe inspiring.

The Olympics are about much more than sports. They are about international cultural exchange, urban infrastructure megaprojects, performance psychology, sponsorship and branding, citizenship, gender issues, local politics and international peace.

And this is where the worlds of academia and athletics meet.

It’s curious. I’ve been looking into who does research related to the Olympics, and it turns out there’s a lot happening in Ontario. A Carleton prof is studying the games’ effect on low-income youth. A U of T Law prof studies the politics of how some countries provide elite athletes with citizenship just so they can compete. Meanwhile, a sports psychologist at Laurentian has a SSHRC Insight Grant to study the acculturation of elite athletes who immigrate to Canada. Western is home to the International Centre for Olympic Studies, and a kinesiology grad student at Brock is actually competing at the games.

I’ll be following up on some of these stories and others throughout the Olympics. But my one point today is that, when I talk about these researchers I find myself saying, “We do some interesting Olympics-related branding research in Ontario,” or “We’ve got some great kinesiology work happening at several universities in the province that’s making a difference to Canada’s showing at the London Olympics.” I say “we” even though I am no more responsible for these researchers’ theories and insights than I am for a sports team getting the puck-ball in the goal zone.

In the end, that feeling of “we” comes from a sense of community. Sports fans and journalists might think one player is a great and another is a bum, but in general, they’re interested in the game, excited by the pursuit of excellence, and while they’re not athletes themselves, they are part of the culture. This is exactly how I see the academic world – the passion, the competition and the aspiration are all there. “Go team!” I say.

I’m not anticipating there being university researcher trading cards or fan clubs any time soon, but I do believe that Ontarians can take some justifiable pride in the research that happens in their province.

So, as the Olympics begin, I think of all those university researchers who have helped improve athletes’ performance, who have provided such fascinating insight into ancillary Olympic issues, and who, in their own way have become world champions.

I would like to say to those researchers, “Woo!”

You deserve it.

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From farm to fork

ORION staff | October 9, 2015

It’s morning. Farmers across Ontario are waking up to tend to their animals. You might be sitting down to a plate of scrambled eggs—maybe even a few strips of bacon. We take it for granted that this food will be safe to eat. But we rarely think about why. That, in part, is thanks to people like University of Guelph systems design engineer Deborah Stacey. Relying on a high-performance computing network, her research helps inform the regulatory structures that ensure our food is free of contamination and that the animals it comes from are healthy. It is, in part, due to her work that we now have modelling programs such as NAADSM, the North American Animal Disease Spread Model. This is the software governments and industry rely on to plan for and prevent epidemics. “NAADSM allows you to put in various scenarios for various animal diseases to see how they would spread,” says Stacey. “My interest is in looking at the network connections within that: contact, moving animals from one herd to another, and licking or touching other animals. I’m interested in how these contact networks differ across industries, which could suggest a different path of disease spread.” This research is then used by organizations such as the Guelph-based Poultry Industry Council to help determine which transportation and feed networks most effectively limit or eliminate things like avian diseases—in other words, how to ensure your scrambled eggs are safe. Stacey’s work produces a staggering amount of data, and it requires a lot of statistical analysis. It’s done through the Shared Hierarchical Academic Research Computing Network, or SHARCNET, a consortium of Ontario universities, colleges and research centres using a shared system of distributed high-performance computing, linked together through the ORION network. “Studying these networks made me more aware of how we develop and distribute the food we eat,” Stacey says. “It was surprising to find out how critical these farming systems are, and that they can be understood using mathematical models. These human systems that we’ve evolved are incredibly complex, and it was enlightening to see how much we need to study this—our food safety and security depend on understanding these systems.” A  version of this story was originally published by ORION.  It has been edited for clarity, accuracy and brevity, and is republished here with permission. 
Student studying

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Sharon Oosthoek | September 28, 2015

Nipissing University sociologist David Zarifa studies the educational and labour market experiences of disadvantaged youth, and he has good news and bad news. The good news: access to undergraduate education continues to increase for traditionally disadvantaged students, including those from low-income families or whose parents did not continue past high school. The bad news: at the higher levels — post-graduate and professional programs — the playing field is much less level. Zarifa came to this conclusion after a close examination of Statistics Canada’s National Graduate Survey of the year 2000 cohort. The survey looks at the experience of 35,000 undergraduates who completed various programs across all provinces and territories. Sociologists have long known that social origins can influence a student's educational experience, directly through parents’ level of education and indirectly through student performance, aspirations, and academic confidence. But there is very little research in Canada about how social origins influence professional or graduate school attendance. When Zarifa crunched the Statistics Canada numbers, he found nearly 35 per cent of undergrads whose parents had a master’s or doctorate degree entered a professional or graduate level program. That compares to only about 13 per cent of graduates whose parents did not have a postsecondary education. He also found about 21 per cent of graduates without government-sponsored student loans entered a graduate or professional program, compared to only about 14 per cent of graduates with loans above $15,000. Zarifa says he is discouraged to see parent education still has an impact at the graduate and professional level, even when taking into consideration other important factors such as academic abilities, aspirations and the educational experiences of graduates. "You would hope by the time students have their undergraduate degree, they wouldn't have this disadvantage in carrying on and trying to better their career prospects," he says. He hopes his study draws attention to some of the challenges facing groups from less privileged backgrounds: "While more and more students are continuing on into some form of postsecondary education, not all social groups are accessing the most lucrative segments within the postsecondary system equally."  
immigration canada document

Welcoming newcomers

Robyn Dugas | August 25, 2015

Most research into Canadian immigration focuses on its three largest cities: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Yet mid-sized cities such as Ottawa are just as dependent on newcomers to maintain populations, boost local economies and offset labour shortages. “Canada’s approach to managing the admission of newcomers is undergoing a fundamental change," says Western University social psychologist Stelian Medianu. "In particular, the new system that is taking shape will lead to greater involvement by employers and by colleges and universities.” But in places such as Ottawa, these organizations may lack the infrastructure and tools to help integrate immigrants. The answer, says Medianu, is interagency collaboration. Settlement agencies have the expertise — so why not bring that expertise to employers, universities and colleges as they help immigrants transition to Canadian society? Connecting with the experts Medianu’s research is just one part of the Pathways to Prosperity Partnership, a nation-wide alliance of university, government and community partners researching the integration of immigrants and minorities in Canada. He is working with an umbrella group representing Ottawa's settlement organizations called Local Agencies Serving Immigrants (LASI) Coalition. With the coalition's help, Medianu is identifying the needs of each stakeholder group: employers, educational institutions, immigrants and international students. He is also researching the most successful initiatives around the world to determine which ones could be put to use in the Ottawa region. His work is part of a year-long Mitacs Accelerate internship. Mitacs is a national non-profit organization that supports research partnerships between universities and partner organizations. Medianu is identifying how each LASI-affiliated settlement group is uniquely suited to furthering immigrant integration. "Each settlement agency has its own capacity and expertise," he says.  "Together they can create suites of services that better match the needs of employers, educational institutions and newcomers.” With that information at hand, Medianu has been  mapping potential partnerships between these settlement groups and the companies and institutions that could benefit from their expertise. At the end of the project, he’ll provide LASI with recommendations and research results that will help its member organizations build fruitful partnerships in the community and, ultimately, provide a streamlined settlement experience for new Canadians in mid-sized cities.

Tracking turtles

Sharon Oosthoek | August 24, 2015

James Paterson spent the spring of 2009 and 2010 hiding behind trees and crouching in the underbrush of Algonquin Park. Thus camouflaged, he allowed himself an occasional peek as he waited patiently for turtles to lay their eggs in the woods. But as soon as they left, he would dash out with a screen to cover the nests and protect the eggs from predators. read more »
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When exile drags on

Araina Bond | August 19, 2015

When James Milner visited Kenya's Dadaab refugee camps in November 2001, they had been in place for almost a decade.  The camps are now nearly 25 years old and their occupants — mostly Somalis fleeing civil war and drought — number 350,000, making the camps the largest refugee settlement in the world. read more »
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