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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Marketing women’s fantasies

Eleanor Ty | February 8, 2016

Eleanor Ty is a professor in Wilfrid Laurier University's English and film studies department.  Ty offers Research Matters her take on Jane Austen and the endurance of romance literature, particularly romances that reach back in time. In “The 39 Steps to Being A Gentleman,” Rupert Uloth includes the following: #30 Has read Pride and Prejudice.  However tongue-in-cheek the list is (ex. # 34. Sandals? No. Never), that Austen’s novel is the only book mentioned suggests its importance in our cultural repertoire. Scholars have written many critical interpretations of Austen’s novels, but in popular culture, she is best known for romance and love.  Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, about a thirty something single woman living in London looking for Mr. Right, is based on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  Costume dramas of Pride and Prejudice, most recently the BBC TV series by Andrew Davies featuring Colin Firth (1995) and Joe Wright’s 2005 film with Keira Knightley emphasize falling in love rather than politics, philosophy, or morals. Austen would have been disturbed to find that Pride and Prejudice (1813) has become the prototype for today’s mass marketed romances, but the novel does highlight two of the most often used tropes of contemporary romances: the Cinderella rags-to-riches story, and the taming of the beast by a beautiful woman. While women have made great strides in the last 200 years, it's fascinating how our fantasies have not. Judging by the sales of adult romances, which in 2013 had an annual total sales value of $1.08 billion, love, the search for true love and reading about love are alive and selling very well. In 2014, romance novels constituted 13 per cent of the share of adult fiction in hard and paper books, but a whopping 39 per cent of ebooks. The formula has changed and yet not changed since the days of the queen of Regency Romance, Georgette Heyer. Heyer’s romances, inspired by Austen, featured protagonists from the upper class: men were strong, authoritative, powerful and older than the young, beautiful, and innocent heroines. The romances attempted to give historically accurate depictions of the period’s social activities, such as dinners, plays, assemblies, carriage rides, fencing, hunting, riding, and boxing.  Often, they featured marriages of convenience and mistaken identities, but tended to be comedies of manners. Changing time and place Today’s historical romances are still set in England before the 1950s, but also in the Medieval period, in colonial American, the American West, and in Scotland.  Settings, clothes, weapons, cooking and travelling methods are historical, but attitudes tend to be contemporary.  As publishers realize readers' changing preferences, historical romances have become more explicitly sexual, and reflect more independent and strong-willed heroines, albeit anachronistically. Love and ultimately heterosexual marriage are still the end goals, but the verbal and physical interaction between the couple, and the means to get to the happily-ever-after end distinguish one romance and one author from another. One way present-day authors rewrite the stereotype of the helpless heroine is by making them proficient at wielding weapons. K.J. Jackson’s Stone Devil Duke begins with the heroine disguised as a hack coach driver who coerces the hero into helping her shoot and kill four thugs. In Glynnis Campbell’s Captive Heart, a warrior maid who is trained as a swordswoman kidnaps a lord in order to prevent her sister’s unwanted marriage.  Both of these women are initially not interested in courtship and marriage but rather wish to protect their family or clan. Other authors deal with contemporary women’s issues such as the after effects of violence and rape. Claire Delacroix’s Frost Maiden’s Kiss features a pregnant heroine who has been raped by an army of mercenaries in Medieval Scotland while Barbara Ankrum’s hero in Holt’s Gamble rescues the heroine from an abusive relationship with her saloon master in 19th century colonial America. In both these romances, the handsome hero has to care for a psychologically-wounded woman, reversing the nurse romances of the 1960s and 70s. A favourite plotline of historical romance today is the time travelling story popularized by Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, about a nurse from the Second World War who is mysteriously transported to the Highlands of 1743. How she and her Scottish husband fight the ruling English soldiers at Culloden has been adapted into a TV series nominated for a Golden Globe recently. Similarly, Tanya Anne Crosby’s heroine in Once Upon a Highland Legend, who is studying Archeology and Anthropology, is searching for the Stone of Destiny and instead finds herself falling for a half-naked Pict in the 9th century. These time travelling women happily forego flushed toilets and penicillin to live with their Medieval or 18th century kilted heroes.  Ah, true love!

How rising temperatures affect ...

Sharon Oosthoek | February 4, 2016

Starting around the mid 1900s, Canada's northern and Arctic areas have seen some of the largest temperature increases in the world — up to 4 C in some cases. As climate change turns up the heat in the North, Indigenous populations, particularly Inuit, are grappling with significant health effects, says the University of Guelph's Sherilee Harper, an eco-health researcher who works with Indigenous communities. "A one degree temperature change can mean the difference between stable and unstable ice," says Harper. "That's important for people's ability to hunt for food, which affects their physical and mental health." Harper says while the consequences are significant, her research suggests communities have a built-in resilience that is too often ignored. "Climate change will have an impact everywhere," says Harper. "It's already affecting the North and we can learn a lot from Inuit wisdom as they adapt. Their ingenuity is amazing." Location, location, location Most Inuit communities in the Arctic are located along the coast on small, rocky outcrops of land surrounded by vast amounts of water. In the summer, people use boats as their main source of transportation. In the winter, when the water turns to ice it forms a highway that links often road-less communities together, while also shaping new hunting grounds. But the “in-between time” can be dangerous travelling. That's when water is a slushy combination of solid and liquid, and people can't trust its stability. Rising temperatures in the North mean these conditions are more common than ever before. Forced to stay put, Inuit are physically inactive and have less access to food, says Harper.  Grocery stores — where a turkey no bigger than a soccer ball can cost more than $200 — are few and far between. Those who do venture out when the ice is unstable do so at their own risk. The possibility of drowning or injury not only affects their own physical and mental health, but the mental health of those left at home to worry over their loved one's safety, says Harper. "There have always been safety concerns, " she says. "But in the last 20 years, changes in temperature have been bigger and more difficult to predict." Word of mouth In an effort to deal with this uncertainty, some Inuit communities have begun posting online photos and videos of unsafe parts of established routes. "They are building on their oral culture and increasing the availability of information," says Harper.  In fact, oral traditions that highlight information-sharing are a crucial part of climate change adaptation in the North, says Harper. That became clear while her team searched for solutions to repetitive problems that were identified during a study she conducted with Inuit in Nunatsiavut, Labrador. The team found heavy rainfall and snowmelt — a more common occurrence as temperatures rise — are followed by significant increases in visits to the local clinic for diarrhea. The connection is fairly simple, says Harper: "Heavy rainfall and snowmelt washes E. coli and other bacteria into the water. If people drink brook water after it rains, it can make them sick." The answer, developed by local high school students, was also simple: radio ads warning people not to drink brook water after heavy rain or snowmelt. While people in the community follow a longstanding tradition of drinking fresh brook water, students urged them to temporarily turn to treated tap water. "Inuit are natural adaptors," says Harper. "Sure climate change is a huge challenge, but they are resilient."

Canada’s vanishing ice ...

Sharon Oosthoek | February 1, 2016

In February 2008, Derek Mueller flew over the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf off the coast of Canada's Ellesmere Island, warily eyeing the enormous cracks along its edge. The Carleton University researcher studies the impact of climate change in frozen parts of the world and was visiting the area's ice shelves to gather data about the changes he and his team had observed via satellite. "When we saw the cracks, we thought, 'Wow, those are really big. It's a sign of things to come,'" recalls Mueller. read more »
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Building a better hearing ...

Araina Bond | January 25, 2016

At the age of 85, Henry Becker still enjoys playing the violin and his ability to hear the nuances of the music is partly thanks to his daughter’s research. Sue Becker, along with colleagues from McMaster University's Intelligent Hearing Aid Group, has developed a technology that completely changes the way hearing aids interact with our ears and brains. It is a project spanning 15 years and several disciplines, with contributors from the university's departments of psychology, and computer and electrical engineering. read more »
deli counter

Smart packaging that eats ...

Jessica Shapiro | January 19, 2016

People have been preserving food for centuries — from flash-freezing fish in Inuit villages to pickling vegetables on the farm. But we have yet to come up with a surefire way to keep preserved food safe for human consumption. Every year, about four million Canadians suffer from food-borne illnesses such as E. coli and Salmonella. As recently as 2008, an outbreak of the listeria bacteria in some packaged Maple Leaf meat products led to 57 confirmed and 23 suspected deaths. read more »
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