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.

Share: Print

Leave Comments

Blog Posts

In money we trust

U of T Staff (With introduction by Patchen Barss) | October 20, 2014

A few years ago, late, late at night, I was tooling around the streets of Ottawa in the back seat of a Jeep being driven by former Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge. American economist and Nobel Laureate George Akerlof was riding shotgun. read more »
digital wallet

Phony shoppers

Marianne Koh | September 30, 2014

Cash gave way to magnetic strips, which gave way to chip-and-PIN, which gave way to “tap-and-pay” credit card scanners. Get ready for the next thing. read more »
smart packaging

The whole package

Teresa Pitman | September 26, 2014

If you’ve ever bought ready-to-eat sushi, you may have noticed a blob of wasabi on the tray. It’s a convenient way to add pungent flavour to your lunch, but it also serves another purpose: it protects your food from micro-organisms. As food science professor Loong-Tak Lim explains, wasabi contains allylisothiocyanate, (AITC) a natural and potent anti-microbial that kills yeast and bacteria. Of course, not every food is enhanced by the strong flavour of wasabi, so Lim has developed a packaging system that offers the same antimicrobial benefits . Lim derives his AITC from ground mustard powder, and uses a patented nanotechnological process to spin tiny fibres that encapsulate the naturally sourced agent in the packaging. “The conventional approach to adding preservatives has been to add them to the food,” says Lim's research colleague Suramya Mihindukulasuriya. “But processing the food may break down the preservative. By having the preservative in the packaging, we don’t need as high a concentration to enhance the shelf-life, safety and quality of the food.” So-called “active packaging,” responds to changes in the environment and the food itself, Lim says. In this case, the membrane responds to a certain level of moisture and releases a preservative to prevent spoiling. Other active packaging materials respond to heat and light. Mihindukulasuriya works with a preservative called hexanal, the volatile organic compound you smell when you cut grass or slice a cucumber. Hexanal helps preserve cell membranes of fruits and vegetables so they don’t become soft or soggy as they ripen. The preservative also has some anti-microbial properties, which are activated by heat and humidity. Mihindukulasuriya calls her technique of enclosing the preservative using ultra-high electrical forces “electrospinning.” Lim jokes that “we are like Spiderman, spinning tiny fibres.” And the fibres are tiny – about 400 times smaller than a human hair. When exposed to humidity or water, these fibres become permeable and release the hexanal. During her PhD studies, Mihindukulasuriya also developed an oxygen indicator that is activated by ultraviolet radiation. When there is little or no oxygen in the package, the indicator is white, but if the package is damaged or torn, allowing oxygen to enter, the indicator turns blue. This matters because oxygen causes rapid deterioration of some foods, and higher levels of oxygen encourage the growth of more micro-organisms. These foods are sealed in vacuum packs or in packages flushed with nitrogen to remove the oxygen, but if the package becomes damaged at some point, oxygen can get inside. That’s where Mihindukulasuriya’s product comes in: a label with a blue line would indicate that the package should not be purchased. What’s next in active and intelligent packaging? Mihindukulasuriya is planning to develop a compound that will detect the volatile compounds produced by food when it spoils and indicate to consumers that the food should not be eaten. The technique would supplement expiry dates, which are only estimates based on typical situations. Not only would such packaging warn people that food had spoiled, it could also reassure them when it was safe to eat – even if the expiry date had passed. “People throw away lots of food that has expired but is still perfectly good to eat,” says Lim. This article was originally published by the University of Guelph. It has been edited for brevity, clarity and style, and is republished here with permission.
More Blogs »