Science and the City: November and December | By Hanhmi Huynh

Welcome back to a new semester and another edition of Science and the City! November and December marked the end of the fall semester for thousands of students in the city and the concluding months of 2015 for everyone. In the midst of the staggering pressure to perform well on exams, the anxiety of reviewing a semester’s worth of material for multiple courses (or for those who are not students, the distress that at times accompanies the overwhelming bustle of the holiday season), it is easy to take for granted the invaluable opportunities we have to learn. Each month, I am continually in awe at the outstanding opportunities in Edmonton that highlight the enthusiasm of learning and discovery, and these past two months have been no exception.


First in November was the University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry Science in the Cinema feature movie, Dallas Buyer’s Club. The movie, featuring Academy Award winning performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, sheds light on the challenges faced by HIV patients in the mid 1980s, a time when little was understood about HIV, and stigma, discrimination, criminalization, and oppression surrounded the disease. The screening was followed by a discussion and Q & A with Dr. Matthias Götte, Chair of the Department of Medical Microbiology & Immunology, and Laura Keegan, Director of Resource Development and Public Engagement with HIV Edmonton. In Edmonton, there are currently an estimated 5000 people living with HIV/AIDSSince the 1980s, there have been significant advances in antiviral therapy and treatment as prevention (TasP); unfortunately, much of the stigma and discrimination towards those living with HIV has not changed. Events like this offer an opportunity to understand those challenges and to drive positive change.

Also playing at the Metro Cinema in November and December was a theatrical take on The Stanford Prison Experiment, a psychological experiment well-known to any student who has taken an intro psychology course. The movie chronicles the 1971 psychological study, led by psychologist and professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo, on the effects of becoming a prisoner or guard and the psychology of imprisonment. Much to the surprise of the researchers, the volunteers demonstrated extreme psychological abuse, described by Zimbardo as “truly sadistic behavior.” Even more surprising was that the researchers became so involved in the simulation themselves that they let much of the abuse continue, until the experiment was shut down only six days into its planned two week course. Director Kyle Alvarez’s portrayal of the experiment is quite captivating, demonstrating how the power of authority can profoundly affect behavior. As Zimbardo describes, “Situational variables can exert powerful influences over human behavior, moreso than we recognize or acknowledge.” Although caution must be exercised when generalizing such results, the movie is definitely worth a watch (if you are interested, you can watch real clips of the experiment online).

Although I didn’t get a BB-8 or a lightsaber for Christmas, I did get to play with some pretty cool rotating objects and lights at two of the TELUS World of Science‘s new exhibits. Our writer Srosh Hassan explored the Beyond Rubik’s Cube exhibit as the internationally-acclaimed exhibit about the best-selling toy of all-time makes its way through our city. Equally fun and interactive, the TELUS World of Science also debuted the Science Garage. Our team had tons of fun climbing the walls, playing with the interactive sandbox, and testing the interactive displays. Both exhibits are still running and will leave you feeling like a kid again!

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The TELUS World of Science also hosted another Dark Matters event — Dark Matters: Game on! — allowing participants to play their favorite board games, retro games, and to try out some new Oculus Rift games. The event also featured a giant-screened video game tournament. Imagine the glorious fun of playing Mario Kart on an IMAX screen! Nerd Nite at the Citadel was another popular 18+ science event these past two months, selling out again for the November show. The theme for Nerd Nite #23 highlighted topics on persuasive speech, anticoagulants and particle physics. The upcoming themes for January are invisibility, chasing tail, and a literary lens on Harry Potter. Nerd Nite always has a great mix of scientific topics to enjoy over cocktails!

Speaking of ideas worth sharing, there were a number of events on campus highlighting research and innovative ideas from the university featured on a global stage. On campus, the Health Science Council at the UofA live-streamed the 2015 TEDMED talks hosted in Palm Springs. The “Mind Matters” session featured talks on the profound effect of positive emotions, the beauty of ageing from renowned geriatric psychiatrist Dilip Jeste, the applications of mindfulness in aiding with addictions by Dr. Judson Brewer, art therapy in treating veterans with PTSD, and the interesting use of psychogenic drugs in a therapeutic context. In between sessions, Jay Walker featured beautiful, rare, hand-painted anatomical drawings from centuries ago. The “Who Cares for Health Care?” session was just as intriguing, with lectures exploring the digital age of medicine and big data, the stunning art of Street Anatomy, and whether exploring race as a variable in health studies is scientifically necessary or doing more harm than good by using a social construct. Dr. Thomas Lee summarized the session best: “You can’t have truly excellent care without empathy at it’s core.”

Off-campus, the Faculty of Nursing hosted a successful 2015 Margaret Scott Wright Research Day at the Westin Hotel early in November with hundreds in attendance. The annual research event focused on the future of nursing and bridging the gap between practice and academia. The day featured keynote speaker Dr. Ginette L. Rodger, as well as workshops and opportunities for students to present their research findings. The panel discussion at the event highlighted important factors of professional practice as we move towards a future of changing roles, changing settings, and new technology. These past two months have also brought a number of exceptional speakers on campus, including leading Osseointegration of Prosthetic Limb expert Dr. Munjed Al Mudens from Australia, Dr. Daniel Laforest on Health Storytelling, Narratives & Authenticity hosted by the Arts & Humanities in Health & Medicine program on campus, and Dr. Cameron Wild’s 10 Things to Know about Addictions lecture as part of the School of Public Health’s lecture series.

Students represented the University of Alberta on a global stage both in research and innovation. Lian Willetts’ presentation on early detection of prostate cancer metastasis earned her the second-place spot at the Falling Walls Lab finals in Berlin early this November. Willetts presented alongside 100 young academics and professionals from over 30 countries around the world, sharing their exceptional ideas and research of all disciplines. Congratulations Lian! In addition, the inaugural Hult Prize University of Alberta chapter competition took place on campus in November, where teams of three to four competed with their social enterprise ideas to solve this year’s challenge of Urban Crowded Spaces. The winning team from the final rounds on campus will represent the University of Alberta with their biometric idea at the Regional Rounds in San Francisco in March.

Lian Willetts – Breaking the Wall of Prostate Cancer Metastasis – Falling Walls Young Innovator of the Year 2015 from Falling Walls on Vimeo.

World-renowned social psychologist, author, and academic Dr. Carol Tavris was the fourth guest speaker of the Lougheed Lecture Series. Dr. Tavris’ lecture, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): The Psychology of Self-Justification, explored underlying cognitive biases, the state of cognitive dissonance, and the theory of self-justification. In other words, why do good people do bad things and why is it so difficult to admit when we are wrong? Dr. Tarvis was genuinely entertaining and insightful, explaining, “When new knowledge challenges us to question ourselves or when we do something that conflicts from ourselves, [we can] admit we were wrong or justify why we do it.” She seamlessly synthesized relevant, relatable examples with her expert insights on the psychological theory of admitting mistakes. In her words, “We cannot short circuit understanding before moving to self-forgiveness…something we did can be differentiated from who we are and who we want to be. The mark of a great leader is not being error-free. It depends on what we do when things might go the other way.”

Lastly, the guest speaker for the 23rd Annual E. Garner King Memorial Lecture in December was Nobel Prize Recipient Dr. Peter Agre, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and Director of the John Hopkins Malaria Research Institute. Dr. Agre, best known for his discovery of aquaporins, is also part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Center for Science Diplomacy. In his lecture, Opening Doors Worldwide through Medical Science, he focused not on his scientific research findings, but on international collaboration, particularly through science. He spoke of the Nobel Prize winning discovery of aquaporins as a team effort rather than an individual breakthrough, acknowledging each member of his team and their international backgrounds. Dr. Agre has led visits of US scientists around the world, including Zimbabwe, Cuba, and even North Korea, reflecting his belief that “science is international.” He shared his experiences in science diplomacy, including a fascinating conversation with Fidel Castro and his visits with scientists in Pyongyang. Dr. Agre emphasized that we are most definitely living in a global community and that science can bring about an opportunity to find common ground, to move forward, and to collaborate. In his words, “the human spirit transcends any political doctrine.”

That concludes the remarkable science events we’ve had in our city these past two months. As we move into another semester and another year, I’d like to leave our readers and students with one of my favourite quotes by Albert Einstein:

Never regard study as a duty, but as the enviable opportunity to learn to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit for your own personal joy and to the profit of the community to which your later work belongs.

~Albert Einstein

Hanhmi Huynh | Science Editor

Banner design courtesy of Wanderer Online Design Editor Janelle Holod; photography courtesy of Wanderer Online Science Editor Hanhmi Huynh.

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