Why I research: Neil Emery

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.

Tagged: Economy, Nature, Resources, Stories

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Humanitarian or missionary?

Noreen Fagan | October 27, 2014

Andrea Paras is a professor at the University of Guelph who studies the relationship between religion and humanitarian work. She explores how the religious values of different humanitarian organizations affect their practices, and how Christians in Canadian faith-based organizations distinguish themselves between missionary and development work. “I am trying to question the idea that there is a strict separation between the religious and the secular,” says Paras. “It is something that is taken for granted by Western societies – the assumption that religion should be delegated to the private sphere.” Paras argues that going into a foreign country to deliver relief or assistance has strong historical roots in religious activity, and that religious actors have been involved with development work since it started. However, over the last 50 years the dynamics of humanitarian aid have changed, and so have the requirements for organizations interested in development work. For Canadian faith-based organizations to receive funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (formerly known as the Canadian International Development Agency or CIDA) they are required in to separate their development work from their religious mandate. This mandatory adherence to a secular format prompts Paras to question whether religious organizations can separate the two, and if they are really different from any other humanitarian organization. “I don’t think they are that separate,” says Paras. “Organizations buy into the secular fiction, but once they go down that road it can put them in tricky position. If they go too far away from their religious identities then their church-based constituencies start getting worried.” She says ultimately secular and the non-secular agencies may assume different appearances, but in humanitarian work they share a common set of values. “If you look at the values of dignity and humanity that Medecins Sans Frontiere talks about, they are not all that different from the values that would motivate a Christian or a Muslim organization, ” says Paras. She states these values are rooted in western values, which are in turn based on religious beliefs. But, as the Western world’s approach to development changed, the religious tenets gave way to a more humanistic set of values. “As Western society in general became more secular, the [development] organizations that emerged wanted to do the same kind of work, but not for religious reasons,” says Paras. In Canada, this shift from the religious to the secular became more apparent as the amount of humanitarian aid increased. Audiences started to understand the problems associated with development work. Hence, over the last 20 years agencies have steered away from the traditional paternalistic approach to development. The same fear of paternalism extends to faith-based organizations. “They [Canadian audiences] are putting pressure of church-based agencies to stay relevant and to minimize the negative effect of what they are doing,” says Paras. In order to minimize any negativity, religious organizations have become more self-reflexive about their own identities, and more concerned about staying relevant. By staying relevant, Paras means faith-based organizations have to prove they are equitable, non-discriminatory, and that they engage multiple-faith audiences in their work. While non-secular organizations may only be driven by humanistic values, faith-based agencies still have to find a balance between satisfying their church-based constituents and their role in development. They have to position themselves very carefully between secular donors and church-based audiences that might expect certain things of them. Finding the right balance can be tricky. “If they stay too close to their traditional mandates – and this is the case for a number of organizations in Canada that started off as traditional missionary sending agencies – they risk becoming extinct,” says Paras.    

Georges Sioui on spiritual ...

Araina Bond | October 24, 2014

Georges E. Sioui studies Aboriginal education, culture and religion at the University of Ottawa. Sioui, who is Huron-Wendat, has recently noticed a resurgence of matricentrist values among young people. read more »
Manipulus florum

From manuscript to search ...

Guest blog by Chris Nighman | October 23, 2014

Long 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, 2014

Brock 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, 2014

New 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.
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