Science and The City: September and October | By Hanhmi Huynh

Edmonton is thriving with innovation; our university is a leader in research, and our city is bustling with scientific activity. Edmonton is in a unique position to lead in science innovation as we have phenomenal university experts coupled with a supportive community for collaboration and advancement. In Science in the City, we hope to highlight science events here in Edmonton and to reflect on the implications these new technologies and issues have on our city, our nation and our world.

September and October were busy months for science in Edmonton! In these two months, I explored the importance of basic science, entrepreneurship and innovation in science, nerded out at some pretty sweet themed events, and caught a glimpse of the future of technology and global health.

IMG_20150924_185923Let’s start with the importance of basic science. Pre-election, there was a push to make science an election issue by academics and researchers, and rightly so with the federal government’s elimination of approximately 5,000 science-related jobs, the muzzling of researchers, and a shift away from basic science towards fettered, targeted funding. In Edmonton, The Canadian Association of University Teachers, supported by Evidence for Democracy, organized the Get Science Right Town Hall on September 24th at the Telus Centre on campus during Science Literacy Week. The event highlighted the intersection between government and science and the implication the “muzzling of scientists” has on the future of science research and society.

Canada is already lagging behind the US and the European Union in higher education spending on Research and Development, and in total Research and Development as a percentage of GDP. Host Kevin Kane of the U of A Association of Academic Staff emphasized that underfunding basic, curiosity-driven, discovery science research limits innovation, economic diversification and growth. The panelist of scientists, including U of A molecular biology professor Dr. Chris Bleackley, biological sciences professor Dr. Colleen Cassady St. Clair, and engineering professor Dr. Morris Flynn, echoed these same concerns. “Successful science research often follows from the cross-pollination of ideas from one field to another and it is difficult to predict scientific outcomes in terms of results, pathway and reception,” Dr. Flynn emphasized in his presentation. There was no doubt that basic science has led to many important innovations and has had a formative role in the advancement of medicine, agriculture and society. Without support and advocacy from the government, it is difficult to imagine how we could make those same integral strides moving forward.

In addition to basic science research, there were a number of events that highlighted and supported the need for entrepreneurship and innovation of science in Edmonton. Falling Walls on September 30th showcased researchers and breakthrough ideas on campus. Participants competed with their pitch for ideas in three minutes. The winners — Lian Willetts, Gem Shoute and Joshua Lee — will go on to compete in Berlin in early November. Their breakthrough ideas included advancements in predicting metastasis of prostate cancer, an alternative thin-film transistor that could change the architecture of electronics, and advancements in interpreting genetic information.

On October 8th, TEC Edmonton hosted Innovation…Makes sense, an event that featured 16 new patent recipients and four Spin-off companies from Edmonton in a variety of areas including medicine, agriculture and food sciences, microbiology, chemistry, engineering, nanotechnology and physics. Chris Lumb, the CEO of TEC Edmonton, recognized the groundbreaking technologies developed at the U of A and pointed out that Edmonton is among the Top 20 in North America in creating spin-off companies that last. Women in Science, Engineering, and Research (WISER) also featured innovators at their Leadership and Entrepreneurship Conference on October 24th. The event included Jill Drader, the founder of The Steel Toe Stiletto and Women in Work Boots, as well as panelists from High Level Analytics Inc, DF Technical, The AgentC Perspective & Tap the App, The Organic Box, and Alberta Research Chemicals Inc. With events like these, it’s clear that Edmonton does have a real impact on research, innovation and enriching the quality of life of people around the world.

20150820_195013On a lighter side, taking a look within the city, there were many opportunities these past two months that offered Edmontonians the chance to nerd out. Nerd Nite hosted events on September 17th and October 15th featuring speakers on medieval relics, politics, modern journalism, supramolecular chemistry, the science of Zumba and the microbiology of charcuterie. The Telus World of Science hosted another Dark Matters event in October; this time it was Rock & Roll themed and included Laser Daft Punk shows. Ah, drinking, learning and science — just a few of my favourite things.

September and October brought in big name guests as well. At the Edmonton Comic and Entertainment Expo, thousands attended to dress up as their favourite superheroes and pop culture characters, and to get a chance to meet legendary comic icon Stan Lee. Let’s Talk Science was present to help attendees explore superhero science. Let’s Talk Science University of Alberta also hosted their own Harry Potter themed event on campus for kids on October 24th with their School of Witchcraft and Wizardy: The Science of Magic! The Katz Group Centre was transformed into Hogwarts for a day for kids to learn about science with magic-themed experiments and demonstrations. Last, but definitely not least, Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield came to town for a speaker series on the 25th of October in St. Albert and also dropped by West Edmonton Mall HMV for a signing and the release of his new album, Space Sessions: Songs from a Tin Can. My personal favorites are Beyond the Terra and his cover of Space Oddity.

20150925_191319 (1)These past two months, I also had the opportunity to look towards the future of technology, science and global health. At the Manning Symposium Virtual Reality Showcase at the Telus World of Science in September, I glimpsed into the world of virtual and augmented reality and had a chance to try out the Oculus Rift. The symposiums featured applications of virtual reality in health, education, rehabilitation, athletic training and creating immersive reality environments. As Dr. Martin Ferguson-Pell, Senior Advisor to the President and Professor in Rehabilitation Medicine at the U of A mentioned, “Virtual and augmented reality has a profound effect in democratizing education and knowledge around the world.” Imagine the possibilities of learning, especially with health sciences, in 3D — incorporating VR into rehabilitation for patients of stroke, training the eyes and brains of athletes, giving the world a chance to experience situations they would otherwise not be able to experience in reality. These new technological advancements are available at the touch of your fingertips. Try out some virtual reality for yourself with Google Cardboard or the dozens of augmented reality apps available on your phone!

IMG_20151117_192951Besides a world immersed in virtual reality, what will the future look like in The Next 100 years? The Alumni Association explored the possibilities in their event on September 26th with acclaimed author Curtis Gillespie, accessibility advocate Kuen Tang, rights advocate Kris Wells and Singularity University graduate Shawna Pandya. Dr. Pandya gave a captivating speech that predicted future challenges including climate change, overpopulation, war and nuclear threats, and ways we might overcome them through women’s rights, collaboration and innovation. Possible technological advancements may include a 3D traffic grid, autonomous vehicles, further space exploration, vertical farming, and artificial reality. Medical advancements may move from the eradication of chronic disease towards enhancement and augmentation. The evening helped us imagine a future in which the greatest global risks to survival could be overcome by truly respecting human dignity, human rights, social responsibility, and social justice.

These values were echoed in two other events that looked towards the future. The FACTS Conference on Climate Change and Energy Transition and Douglas R. Wilson lecture: Conflict, Hope, Peace and Public Health both emphasized the need for collaboration and responsibility on a global scale. The FACTS (French Ameri-Can Climate Talks) Conference, organized by the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary and the Consulate General of France in Vancouver, focused on climate change and energy transition. It featured scientists, policy-makers, energy companies, innovative businesses and entrepreneurs that gathered to discuss the contributions of our province in energy transition leading up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015.

Conflict, Hope, Peace and Public Health featured three-time Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and renowned peace activist Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish.  In his moving speech, Dr. Abuelaish shared the emotional loss of his daughters and niece in the 2009 Gaza War and his own journey in committing to peace.  Dr. Abuelaish underscored that the real costs of war are lost lives as well as losses less visible, but no less damaging, including mental scars, human suffering, and the millions left alone to cope. “People are not numbers, they are human. They have names, faces, families, dreams and a future,” he stressed.  He urged the audience to not stand by in silence but to “strive for just and good for all, [as] no life is unworthy.”  It was comforting to think that amidst a world endemic with violence, disease, conflict and poverty, there is hope for a future in which true health in freedom from fear, poverty and disease can exist. “The more we sweat for peace, the less we will bleed in war…let us make the 21st century a century of hope, health and women’s education,” Dr. Abuelaish wisely stated.

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With that, we conclude two jam-packed months of Science in the City — what an inspiring and exciting two months it has been! I truly believe our city can and will be a global leader in science, innovation and change for the better. I am really looking forward to November, which includes events for Diabetes Awareness Week, TEDMED talks, another installation of NerdNite, and the Beyond Rubik’s Cube exhibition at the TELUS World of Science. I can’t wait to continue to share with you the wonderful science happenings around our city.

Until next time,

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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