Why I research: Neil Emery
November 20, 2013
The first in an occasional series in which Ontario university researchers explain why they do what they do. Today’s guest blog comes from Trent University’s Vice President, Research & International, Neil Emery
I didn’t start out as a particularly hard working undergraduate student. I did science (at first) simply because I found it easy to study.
While I enjoyed my classes, they didn’t necessarily light a fire within.
But as my B.Sc. moved on, I noticed a group of science faculty who had that fire. In my third year I was taking courses in both human biochemistry and plant biochemistry. The former was taught by a bored speck at the front of a 400 person lecture hall; the latter by a manic team of high-flying researchers in a small room with about 15 students. They injected their enthusiasm and personal stamp into topics I might have never thought interesting before. (I wouldn’t have imagined it would be so exciting, for example, to get on board the fructose-1,6 bisphosphatase regulatory bandwagon.) After a challenging (and near-failure) of an Honours research project, I realized I had caught the bug. While I merely enjoyed studying science, I loved creating knowledge in a field as wide open as plant chemistry.
Fast forward to 1994 and a PhD completed in the evolution of a plant hormone system in the natural chickweed populations of Alberta’s mountains and foothills … not exactly applied science. Academic job prospects in the early 1990s were as grim in Canada as they are today. Luckily Australia was hiring, and I landed a job in agriculture research – I was based at a university but my work was funded by a Farmers’ Association.
It was a bit daunting suddenly to have to rationalize my professional existence to some very practical-minded funders. But it turned out Ihad lots of transferable skills. After I toned down the pure science mantel, I found myself becoming an expert on yield potential of grain legumes (that’s right – beans).
I learned agri-speak, figured out how to collaborate with industry, and how to diversify goals and land funding. Looking back, it was probably the best career training I encountered. It impressed on me how important the spectrum of research is from pure to applied, and how difficult it would be to carve out a career only claiming to do one or the other. Government and funding agency priorities swing in various ways over time and this will isolate spectrum extremists. Recently, Canada has surely shuffled resources into jobs and the economy and, hence, applied research. The change can be hard, but many researchers are able to respond.
Personally I’m left with an amazing mix of challenges. On one hand, my lab is endeavoring to improve non-GMO soybean yields in cooperation with an SME (Sevita International) and wheat yields with a multinational (Dow Agrichemical). On the other hand, we are uncovering freakishly unexpected results like the discovery that insects, bacteria and fungi all make plant hormones. The latter NSERC-Discovery funded research may turn out to have great consequences for improving crop growth and yield. One can perhaps envisage the perfectly time growth message to a seed or fruit as devised not by the plant itself, but by an insect or fungal agent.
I find all these avenues exciting and it’s my continuing realization that, regardless of political winds, the field of plant chemistry will remain as wide-open now as it ever has been – providing fertile research ground for years to come.
From manuscript to search ...
Guest blog by Chris Nighman | October 23, 2014Long before the advent of the Internet, and well before Gutenberg invented moveable type, medieval intellectuals devised information technologies to take advantage of a growing mass of Big Data repositories known as “manuscripts.” read more »
If you’re happy ...
Cathy Majtenyi | October 22, 2014Brock University recently launched a series of monthly podcasts covering a wide range of themes. As part of our own package of “Belief” related blog posts, Research Matters is pleased to present this exclusive interview with Brock Associate Professor of Psychology, Michael Busseri. Busseri will join two other colleagues to explore this topic in Brock’s January 2015 podcast, “What gives us a sense of wellbeing?” read more »
Lucid dreaming depends on ...
Trent University Staff | October 21, 2014New research by Trent University Oshawa Anthropology professor Roger Lohmann and graduate student Shayne Dahl indicates that cultural learning shapes the kind of awareness and control people can experience while dreaming. “Scouring the ethnographic record on dreaming for hints of lucidity under Professor Lohmann’s guidance, I found something surprising: that lucid dreaming is widely thought to have serious consequences,” said Dahl, who completed his M.A. thesis, “Knowing Means Connecting with the Source of Life: Knowledge and Ethics among Blackfoot Traditionalists” at Trent in 2012. (He is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto.) “As one of my Blackfoot informants put it, ‘You could die in your dream.’” Lohmann and Dahl’s findings were published in the 2014 collection, Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep. Lucid dreaming – waking consciousness arising during a dream – has been a hot topic of scientific research in recent years. According to Lohmann and Dahl, the common assumption that dreams are products of isolated imaginations has distorted our understanding of lucidity’s variation in form, function, and real-world outcomes. Pop culture portrayals in films such as Avatar and Inception present fantasies where lucid dreaming enables marvelous real-world powers. Many traditional and religious cultural worldviews take the relationship between waking and dream worlds as reality rather than fantasy. Lohmann’s fieldwork in Papua New Guinea among the Asabano people explored how they used dreaming as evidence for and contact with supernatural beings. “Asabano converts often told me that seeing dreams of Jesus or Heaven convinced them that what the missionary told them was true,” said Lohmann. “It struck me that they had to believe their dreams were more than figments of their own imaginations to reach that conclusion, and that I, for example, would not be convinced by the same experience because of my different cultural background.” Similarly, Dahl’s fieldwork in Alberta included encounters with Aboriginal medicine men who practiced lucid dreaming. “Shayne’s field experiences and his search of ethnographic literature brought home to us that lucid dreaming has profound potential for people who think it’s more than just a fantasy. We found that descriptions of lucid dreams are radically different in form, function, and outcome depending on the cultural assumptions of the dreamer,” said Lohmann. Their research revealed evidence that in some cultures, lucid dreaming is unknown, while in others it is a commonly taught skill. In some, lucidity is tacit rather than acknowledged, but people nevertheless believe that they actively undertake goals in their dreams. Lohmann and Dahl found that this implicitly lucid “volitional dreaming” commonly appears in ethnographic accounts of dreaming. In cultures where “generative” theory holds sway, dreaming of something is understood to cause it to happen in the waking world. This leads people to experience lucid dreams as opportunities to create or do magic. By contrast, people who believe dreams are what one sees during “soul travel” use lucid dreams as an opportunity to spiritually visit real places. “Even when we consciously disbelieve our dreams,” Dahl said, “They still affect us at a deeper, emotional level that we can’t easily control with reason.” “All of this shows that cultural dream theories are multiple, that people invoke them in complex ways, and that they are at the very core of what lucid dreaming is and what it makes possible,” said Lohmann. This story was originally published by Trent University on, July 15, 2014. Is has been edited for style, brevity and clarity and appears here with permission.
In money we trust
U of T Staff (With introduction by Patchen Barss) | October 20, 2014A 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 »