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Making sense of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in Russia: Lessons from the past and present

Coverage of Russian vaccination rollout has focused largely on concerns about ethics of development and inconsistent messaging. But Russian-language research complicates this picture.


A person is injected with a COVID-19 vaccine in their arm
In Russia, just 19 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. The issue isn't vaccine supply but a deeply hesitant population. (Unsplash / Mufid Majnan)

In August 2020, Russia became the first country in the world to approve a COVID-19 vaccine. One year later, just 19 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. With such a low vaccination rate, a summer surge in infections has produced the highest death rates since the pandemic began. According to official figures, since mid-July close to 800 people have died each day, and these numbers are almost certainly undercounted.

The Conversation logoWhile other countries have struggled to meet vaccine demand, Russia has faced the opposite problem: an excessive supply, resulting from tepid uptake among a deeply hesitant population.

English-language coverage of the failures of the Russian rollout has focused largely on concerns about safety and ethics protocols in the vaccine development, the prevalence of conspiracy-fuelled vaccine skepticism, inconsistent public health messaging and fear mongering by the media.

Each of these factors plays a part, but Russian-language research (Natalia Mukhina, one of the co-authors, translated the Russian-language research for this article) complicates this picture, highlighting the importance of attending to both the historical roots and contemporary specificities of public health challenges.

From passive subjects to responsibilized consumers

In the former Soviet Union, there was no room for vaccine hesitancy. The national immunization program was massive and mandatory. It was also highly successful, mobilizing domestically produced vaccines to eradicate polio, smallpox, measles and a host of other communicable diseases.

This approach to vaccination started to change in the late 1980s, when the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, launched a series of reforms that would loosen the stranglehold of the authoritarian regime and open a path for the free market.

For the first time in almost seven decades, people were allowed to criticize the Soviet way of life, including the health-care system. Then, during the 1990s, foreign vaccines gradually became available, and new laws required citizens to consent to any medical procedure, including vaccination.

Citizens in what was now post-Soviet Russia went from being passive recipients of state-controlled health-care interventions to responsibilized consumers, who, if they had the necessary resources, could make choices about how to protect their health.

Vaccine skepticism, which was intensifying globally during the 1990s, became one way through which to express resistance to lingering Soviet ideology. But mistrust was rampant across the political spectrum, and vaccine decision making became an arena for the enactment of resistance to the state, even for Russians who believed in vaccines.

Mistrust and marginalization

It is within this context that Russian sociologist Ekaterina Borozdina cautions that public hesitancy about Sputnik, the Russian COVID-19 vaccine, is not “about mistrust in medical science as such.” Rather, hesitation or refusal to get vaccinated emerges in the context of fraught relations between citizens and the state.

In research that predated the pandemic, Borozdina reveals how perceptions of a technocratic, heartless and incompetent government bureaucracy shape the attitudes of Russian parents towards the vaccination of their children.

For educated and economically privileged citizens especially, postponing vaccination, following an alternative schedule, or choosing a particular make of vaccine to be delivered at a particular clinic, are all ways of asserting choice and delineating their independence from the state as they protect what they believe to be the best interests of their children.

Sociologist Anna Temkina further complicates the picture. She says the educated middle classes, a demographic which overlaps significantly with the “activist classes” opposed to the Putin regime, were among the first to get vaccinated, even though they generally try to avoid following government rules and advice. These dissidents make the argument that not everything emerging from the government is bad, and they try to break the link between what they see as a corrupt and oppressive state and effective epidemiological measures.

It may seem surprising that the most enthusiastic consumers of the vaccine are the economically privileged who have the benefit of being able to work from home, but Temkina explains that those who are “indifferent” to vaccines are the couriers or cashiers who worked through the pandemic and “have already overcome COVID-19 or at least the fear of it.”

At the same time, the massive population of migrant workers in Russia who may want protection have largely been denied access — even as Putin offers foreigners the chance to travel to Russia and pay for the vaccine.

Regaining trust

The latest spike in infections has prompted a slight improvement in vaccine uptake, but mistrust is not an easy thing to fix and Russians are once again facing mandatory vaccination as part of an effort to jumpstart the campaign.

This time, the responsibility for enforcement has been offloaded to employers. And employees are finding creative ways to circumvent the new policies. The lengths to which people go to obtain fake vaccination certificates may make for lighthearted news coverage, but wearing a prosthetic limb to a vaccine appointment is an indication of a historical context worth taking seriously if we are to make sense of the challenges ahead.The Conversation


Samantha King, Professor, Kinesiology and Health Studies, Queen's University and Natalia Mukhina, PhD Student, Kinesiology and Health Studies, Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

Tick-Talk with researcher Robert Colautti

The evolutionary biologist discusses ticks, tick-borne diseases, and his part in developing a portable device to test ticks for Lyme disease while in the field.

Deer tick closeup
Closeup of female deer tick underside, showing the barbed, needle-like hypostome (i.e. mouth) and palp (i.e. mouth cover). (Courtesy of Colautti Lab)

In the past two decades, tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease have increased in Canada. Queen’s professor Robert Colautti and a team of researchers are developing a portable device that will get purified DNA/RNA from ticks on site. Instead of waiting for results from a lab, this device can be used in the field to quickly determine if the tick carries pathogens that cause Lyme disease. The Gazette recently spoke to Dr. Colautti about the device and the myLyme project, which brings together a multidisciplinary team of scientists to tackle the problem of tick-borne diseases in Canada.

Research demonstrates that deer ticks are more abundant in Ontario than 10-20 years ago. Can you give us some insight into why this is?

The main tick that transmits Lyme disease is the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) and it has definitely increased in abundance and expanded its range northward into Canada over the last 20 years or so. We also see in Canada a rapid increase in Lyme disease cases over the same timeframe. The ecology of ticks is key to understanding why.

Deer ticks live for two years and require only three blood meals during this time. Many pathogens like Borrelia are not transmitted through the eggs so the number and types of pathogens depend on what the tick is feeding on. Different hosts species (e.g. mice, racoons, deer) are fed on by different life stages and each species can carry different pathogens in their microbiome. Human impacts on climate and habitat can directly impact the survival of ticks but more importantly they impact the host populations, and this can create some complicated dynamics in the number of ticks and the health risks they pose each season.

Lyme disease is caused by a group of bacteria carried by deer ticks called Borrelia burgdorferi, but it’s important to know that there are other emerging diseases in Canada caused by other pathogens carried by deer ticks. These include other bacteria that cause Anaplasmosis and a Lyme-like relapsing fever, as well as a malaria-like parasite that causes Babesiosis, and the Powassan virus, which is a flavivirus related to the viruses that cause Zika, West Nile and dengue.

How should people adapt to this new reality of living with a greater amount of deer ticks?

At an individual level, prevention is a very effective and relatively simple strategy. Deer ticks live in wooded areas in leaves and brush, so whenever I am out in the deep woods, I wear long pants tucked into my socks, which I spray with a strong repellent. A common misconception is that ticks are insects, but they are actually arachnids like spiders, mites and scorpions, so not all insect repellents will be effective against ticks. It’s important to read the label carefully. Ticks tend to grab on to you when you brush against leaves or sticks near the ground and then slowly crawl up your body, so I spray my clothes and shoes from the waist down and this is usually enough to deter them. In conservation areas, I stay on the main trail and avoiding going off into heavier leaf or brush where ticks might be waiting. Pets are another source of ticks, and even though there is a vaccine for dogs, they can still bring ticks into the house. After returning from the deep woods or a day in the field I will shower, wash my clothes, and check for embedded ticks as soon as I get home.

At the public health level, there is also a lot we need to do in terms of monitoring natural populations, educating health practitioners, improving diagnostic tools, and understanding complex symptoms and treatments of tick-borne diseases.

Can you tell us about your work into developing a portable device to test for Lyme disease? How would it work?

The device is still in the development stage. It is being developed with Indumathi Prakash, an intern from Harvard University funded by a scholarship from the Mitacs GlobaLink program. Our device is designed to get DNA and RNA out of ticks and then purify and stabilize the DNA/RNA for analysis.

Usually, we would bring the tick back into the lab, sterilize it, freeze it to -80 C, grind it up in a machine, and then begin a long process of lysing the bacterial cells and purifying the DNA/RNA. Once we have the DNA we can use other tools in the lab to amplify specific genes and then sequence them. From the DNA and RNA sequences we can reconstruct the entire microbiome of the ticks as well as the genes of the tick itself. Analyzing tick genomes and microbiomes lets us probe the ecological factors that affect the spread of ticks and the microbes they are carrying.

The key innovation for this project is that we are trying to do the whole lab extraction process in a small device in the field. Getting purified DNA/RNA from these ticks is the key step that would enable field-based sequencing and rapid tests for specific tick-borne diseases. But this requires another device or two.

If someone finds themselves bitten by a tick, what should they do?

The simple and best answer is to talk to your doctor. If a tick is embedded, then it’s important to try to remove it with tweezers by the head to avoid breaking it open. You can kill it in your freezer and then bring it to the doctor who can request for testing from Public Health Ontario. You can try to assess how long it has been feeding, which is important because the risk of disease increases with feeding time, which can last three to four days for nymphs and seven to 10 days for adults. You might be able to figure out feeding time based on your activity, for example if you just got back from a three-hour hike in the woods then you know it hasn’t been feeding more than three hours. You can also look at the tick. If the body is still flat, then it hasn’t been feeding long. If it is expanded like a tiny balloon, then it may have been feeding for a while and you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

Can you tell us about myLyme project?

The myLyme project is funded by a Wicked Ideas grant from Queen’s and an Exploration grant from the New Frontiers Research Fund. These grants support a new approach to science called “convergence research” or “transdisciplinary research.” Convergence research combines expertise from broadly different areas to tackle difficult problems in a way that can’t be done through more conventional approaches. The myLyme project brings together health scientists, social scientists, and natural scientists to tackle the problem of tick-borne diseases in Canada. We think tick-borne diseases represent a wicked problem because health impacts depend on the complex ecology and genetics of ticks and the microbes they carry, but symptoms also depend on human genetics and behavior, and treatments by healthcare practitioners who vary in their knowledge of this emerging healthcare threat.

Tell us about the myLyme project 2020 survey and the current 2021 survey?

The 2020 survey was developed by Emilie Norris-Roozmon who is co-supervised by Rylan Egan (Health Science) and myself. That survey has ended, and Emilie is currently writing up her Master's thesis based on the results. More than 1,200 anonymous respondents reported being bitten by a tick with symptoms ranging from none to multiple, long-term chronic effects. We were expecting 100 to 200 for this kind of study, so the large number shows us how many people care about this issue. Emilie’s focus is to see how well the self-reported symptoms can predict their reported diagnoses. We are also trying to see whether there is evidence for syndromes or clusters of symptoms that might indicate different diseases in the cohort.

The 2021 survey is the work of Tim Salomons (Psychology) and Nader Ghasemlou (Health Science), who both study chronic pain and cognition. It is open to anyone who self-identifies as suffering from a tick-borne disease — regardless of diagnosis — and it includes a general online survey followed by an optional follow-up survey that uses a smartphone app to help patients track their symptoms over time.

Queen’s researcher awarded NSERC Discovery Grant for breakthrough work in novel organic coatings

Federal funding will help organic chemistry expert Cathleen Crudden accelerate new research and support training that could advance innovation across industrial, healthcare, and technology sectors.

[Photo of Cathleen Crudden]
Dr. Cathleen Crudden, Canada Research Chair in Metal Organic Chemistry

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) has awarded Queen’s researcher Cathleen Crudden (Chemistry) the highest value Discovery Grant in Canada this year. The funding, which totals to $605,000 over five years, will be used to support her research project in the development of organic coatings that bind to metal surfaces. After proving that carbon-to-metal bonds can be significantly more stable than previously thought, Dr. Crudden and her team will work to discover the implications of these linkages by analyzing films 100,000 times thinner than a human hair.

The development of novel organic coatings has potentially wide-ranging applications, as it could help advance innovation and improvements across many sectors — from computer electronics, oil and gas safety, healthcare, automotive, and more.

"What I love about this project is that we are taking something that has been known about organic chemistry for 30 years and applying it to new systems resulting in game-changing approaches to a wide range of problems," says Dr. Crudden, Queen’s professor and Canada Research Chair in Metal Organic Chemistry. "We are currently looking at using organic coatings to protect metal surfaces, which will help mitigate carbon dioxide emissions due to the need to replace metallic infrastructure."

Her fundamental research will not only serve as a baseline for further scientific innovation but could also be used for nano medicines in cancer treatment, for creating better semiconductor chips in electronics, and in the development of automotive materials.

The NSERC grants are awarded to innovative and bold research projects with the potential to create big impacts. The Discovery Grants help fund projects with long-term goals and aim to give researchers flexibility to explore multiple avenues in their field of study.

"These funds will help us pay for things like state-of-the-art analysis of samples we prepare," she says. "The grant enables us to purchase the metals and the organic components that we can't make in the lab." The funding will allow for broader experimentation and deeper analysis of samples.

For Dr. Crudden, receiving this grant also means being able to provide training and support for her immediate collaborators domestically and abroad, as well as her graduate and post-doctoral students, all of whom she credits for tirelessly supporting the work throughout the pandemic. "There's no way our lab could do even a fraction of this work without a great team," Dr. Crudden says.

Given her years of experience in ground-breaking research, Dr. Crudden advises early-career scientists and researchers that pushing boundaries is the best thing you can do, even if it produces negative results, because it always teaches you something new.

"Follow what you are excited about and don’t be afraid to try something risky!" she says. "I often tell my students that if you know how to make molecules, you can do anything."

To learn more about Dr. Crudden and her research project, see the Crudden Research Lab.

Funding provides leading-edge technological resources to researchers

Ten researchers at Queen’s University receive funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation John R. Evans Leaders Fund.

Queen’s University has been awarded over $1.1 million in funding in the latest round of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF). The money will help fund nine projects at the university.

The John R. Evans Leaders Fund helps exceptional researchers at universities across the country conduct leading-edge research by giving them the tools and equipment they need to become leaders in their fields. The Government of Canada recently announced $77 million in funding for 332 research infrastructure projects at 50 universities across Canada.

The funding for Queen’s will help support research in a range of areas, including robotics, architecture and technology, energy conversion and storage, and ocular health.

"For almost 25 years, the CFI has helped create the conditions that allow researchers to accelerate discovery and innovation," says Nancy Ross, Vice-Principal (Research). "I thank the CFI for their support, I congratulate the researchers on their success, and I look forward to watching their projects unfold."

The projects receiving funding are:

  • Cao Thang Dinh (Chemical Engineering) - Electrochemical CO2 Conversion to Fuels and Chemicals, $125,000
  • Matthew Reeve and Norman Vorano (Art History) – Mobarch: Mobile Laboratory for the Study of the Built Environment, $100,000
  • Dixia Fan (Mechanical and Materials Engineering) - Intelligent Water Flume, an AI/ML-Enhanced Fluid Experiment Platform for Exploration and Exploitation on Flow Physics, $125,000
  • Majid Pahlevani (Electrical and Computer Engineering) - Supercapacitors: The Future of Energy Storage, $125,000
  • Nahee Park (Physics, Engineering Physics and Astronomy) - Cosmic-Ray and Neutrino Detector Development for the Future, $165,000
  • Matthew Robertson (Mechanical and Materials Engineering) - Multi-Material Robotics Research (M2R2) Lab, $125,000
  • Nir Rotenberg (Physics, Engineering Physics and Astronomy) - Active Quantum Photonic Technology, $150,000
  • Sara Nabil (School of Computing) - Interactive Architecture and Smart Environments, $150,000
  • Jacob Rullo (Ophthalmology; Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) - 1,25 Hydroxyvitamin D3 Metabolism in the Eye: A Regulator of Normal Ocular Physiology and Pathological Disease, $100,000

For more information on the program and for a full list of funded projects, visit the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

Cities after COVID: Resiliency is about embracing the crisis as part of a new brand story

A picturesque image of the Kingston, Ont. waterfront at sunset. (Evi T/Unsplash)

Cities as we know them are under attack thanks to COVID-19. Their growth, sustainability and ability to attract investment, tourism and talent are extremely vulnerable during times of crisis. In the last 100 years, cities have seen an increase in crises, pandemics and economic pressures — but not all are hit equally.

The Conversation logoLarge global cities are much more insulated from economic change than small cities. Places relying on only one main industry are more vulnerable than diversified economies, and those with once-robust tourism and travel economies are often hit the hardest.

Place branding (how we picture places in our imagination and what makes places notable) is complex, much more complex than singer Jason Collett’s flippant lyrics “if you can tweet something brilliant, you’ve got a marketing plan.”

A place’s brand is its overall image that’s constantly in the making. Its brand is being established through every photo, comment, and tweet.

Place brand transformations can be documented in real-time, as seen through social media. Throughout the pandemic we can see that place brands have evolved and those likely to survive are the ones that were already well established to begin with or that continue to show differentiation in what they offer.

Branding evolves in times of crisis

During times of crisis, the predominate voice is often tipped too far one way or the other, and the sentiment the place brand message is hoping to convey can take a dramatic turn.

A snapshot in time (pre-COVID) of the Twitter feed for #ygk — a city hashtag for Kingston, Ont. — on May 29, 2019, highlights a balance of waterfront, parks and artistic events shared by both residents and visitors.

On the same day in 2020 and 2021, in the midst of the pandemic, the images shared primarily by residents contributed to a new place brand for the city that focuses on gardens, home offices, and take out. This place brand is not unique to #ygk.

The value of these new symbols and mental souvenirs may prove to have limited long-term value to the post-crisis Kingston brand due to the lack of differentiation.

3 screenshots from Twitter advanced search illustrating what people were sharing pre-pandemic, during and now
Twitter, #ygk search results, May 29, 2019, May 29, 2020 and May 29, 2021. (Screenshot/Twitter)

Off-limits in branding discourse

Economic crises and other categories such as crime, terror, political or natural disasters are considered off-limits in branding discourse. However, the motivation for place branding often depends on or is a built-in response to a crisis.

The Williamsville Neighbourhood Association in Kingston was born out of an anti-growth agenda, but the real neighbourhood place brand was most notably established during the 1998 city-wide ice storm that left many residents without power for several weeks.

In an interview, one local resident noted:

“We’ve seen key events that have brought people together that created more feelings of connection. One example is the 1998 ice storm. In our immediate neighborhood, and I would say a little bit further afield as well, people made connections as we all wandered the streets making sure neighbours had enough food and fuel to burn in the fireplace, seeing neighbours and helping out clearing the downed trees … there was a real sense of everybody helping each other to the point where, for the first few years after the ice storm we’d have a block party every summer to celebrate the coming of spring.”

Several other residents noted the “new, neighbourly feel” that attracted them to move to Williamsville post-ice storm. Without the ice storm, the neighbourhood may have continued to suffer as a run-down industrial place to get your car fixed instead of a vibrant, family-oriented place where potlucks became the norm.

Perceptions impact place brands

Place brands such as the romanticism of Paris or the innovation aura of Silicon Valley are slow to develop, but they show remarkable stability and elasticity with an ability to revert to pre-crisis perceptions.

But following a crisis, place brands are much more vulnerable to place brand substitutions — like going to Kelowna for wine tasting versus a trip to Spain — and fragile to stereotypes, made more prevalent through social media platforms.

Place brands, more so than the realities of places themselves, have often faltered due to negative stereotyping or brand imaging.

The Spanish Flu didn’t start in Spain, but became a place brand for Spain through media, leaving Spain’s brand image woven into a history of poor public health.

Negative perceptions are major economic obstacles for cities hoping to attract investment and promote tourism. This will perhaps be the same fate for the U.K. or India, both having COVID-19 variants attributed to them.

The recovery and resilience of cities, and in particular their brands, during major economic events are highly stratified and individualistic.

Jon Coaffee, urban geographer, helps us understand brand resiliency as “the ability to detect, prevent and, if necessary, handle disruptive challenges.” With that definition of resiliency in mind, local economies have proven that it is possible to be both vulnerable and resilient at the same time.

These complex situations present uncertainty where both unknowns and unpredictability are highly prevalent. Resiliency planning to ensure survival post-crisis relies on lived experience. The only way to overcome this uncertainty is to consider resiliency as performative, that is, city brands are always in the making and striving for sustainability rather than resilience.

The road to recovery is likely through relying on industries with better demand and lower operating costs or through increasing social cohesion such as what has been seen through the #BuyLocal movement over the last year.

Either way, the answer to place brands post-crisis will not be found through advertising. Resiliency will only be built through policy and embracing a place brand that is always in the making — embracing the crisis as part of a new brand story.


Lindsey Fair, Ph.D. Candidate, Urban Geography, Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

Don’t try to replace pets with robots – design them to be more like service animals

Robot pets can be useful, but won’t replace the love and companionship of a living animal. (Shutterstock)
Robot pets can be useful, but won’t replace the love and companionship of a living animal. (Shutterstock)

Robopets are artificially intelligent machines created to look like an animal (usually a cat or dog, but they can be any animal). There are numerous robopets on the market right now, being sold to consumers as “pets” or companions. There is an especially fervent effort being made to set caregivers’ minds at ease by buying these robopets for older adults to replace their deceased or surrendered companion animals.

Animal lovers will tell you they would rather have nothing than have a robot for a pet. While a robopet can be programmed to simulate the actions of a real animal, people know it is fake.

There should be a pivot from the companion-based marketing strategy for robopets — which has deep ethical issues associated with replacing emotional bonding between living beings — to address the needs currently being met by service animals.

In my research on the effects of the human-animal bond on human health, participants point out the reciprocal nature of their relationship with pets. The human showers the animal with love, yummy food, cuddles, scratches and pats, and the animal, in turn, responds with unconditional love. The vast majority also say that the non-human animals in their lives are family members, integral to their happiness and well-being.

It is condescending to present an adult with a robot and suggest that it will take the place of a loved one — whether that loved one is human or non-human.

New markets

However, there is a huge and, as of yet, untapped market for robopets and other social robots to perform the role of service robots. Let’s call them Serv-U-Bots. These personal service robots are different from those developed to replace humans in some manufacturing and service sectors.

Serv-U-Bots would be much like a robotpet — small, portable and intended for personal use — and would employ many of the technologies already built into social robots. These onboard sensors could include cameras for observation, microphones for audio recording, temperature sensors, communication technologies and even autonomous motion, moving around based on programming rather than human input.

Serv-U-Bots would be programmed to replace service animals, which are currently raised and trained to support human mobility and independence. However, this is an expensive endeavour.

Many organizations that provide service animals have breeding programs, training facilities and huge budgets that are subsidized by donors or get charged back to governments, insurers or families. The Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind graduates approximately 23 dogs per year from its training program, at an average operating cost of more than $74,300 per dog.

These dogs are not considered pets by the organizations that breed and train them. They are service dogs, trained to provide assistance. If their current placement ends due to death of the person they were helping or for other reasons, they are generally returned to the organization for another placement.

Robots as service animals

But what about replacing service dogs with Serv-U-Bots: social robots that are programmed to perform service related functions? We have the technological know-how to create Serv-U-Bots that can increase independence through programming that can provide an alert if the toast is burning, the kettle boiling, the doorbell ringing and so on. They could even take on the functions of medical alert dogs which can detect medical issues such as a seizure or low blood sugar, or alert the user to the presence of allergens.

Serv-U-Bots could even support older adults to continue to enjoy the companionship of animals by feeding them, checking that they have water and even cleaning the litter box.

If an automobile can be programmed to drive itself, avoiding obstacles and life forms, why not program a Serv-U-Bot to guide people around the city? They could also be programmed to facilitate actual interactions with living beings. This technology can save and enrich lives and help people to be mobile.

Serv-U-Bots would be able to support the independence and mobility needs of humans without exploiting non-human animals.The Conversation


L.F. Carver, Assistant Professor, Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

Ontario invests in research and innovation

The Government of Ontario is providing $4.3 million in funding for four Queen’s research projects.

The Ontario government is funding Queen’s research to help support the development of homegrown ideas, products, and technologies. Four multidisciplinary Queen’s projects have received a total of $4.3 million in funding through two grant initiatives: the Ontario Research Fund and the Early Researcher Awards program. The funding will be used to cover research operations and infrastructure, ensuring Ontario’s researchers have access to the latest technologies, equipment, and talent.

"Ontario’s universities, including Queen’s, play a key role in advancing research that matters to Ontarians," says Betsy Donald, Associate Vice-Principal (Research). "Thanks to our Government partners, our researchers have the tools they need to further develop these important research questions."

Ontario Research Fund

Pascale Champagne (Civil and Chemical Engineering; Chemistry) and her colleagues have received $3.9 million in funding through Ontario Research Fund-Research Excellence (ORF-RE) for their project titled, "Integrated approaches to characterize, detect, and treat Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CECs) in the aquatic environments of Ontario."

CECs are chemicals and other contaminants that are found in consumer products and waste streams and may pose hazards to human health and aquatic ecosystems. Nevertheless, these health and environmental impacts are poorly understood, and CECs remain largely unregulated in Ontario.

Through their project, Dr. Champagne and her team will investigate the origins, transport, and effect of three broad classes of CECs, namely microbial, nanoparticles, and industrial and agricultural products in key sub-systems of the water cycle, such as watershed recharge and runoff zones, recycling systems for agriculture and aquaculture, wastewater and drinking water systems, septic systems, and surface water ecosystems. The team will also work to develop new technologies for the detection and treatment of CECs in these key sub-systems.

This research will lead to the development and commercialization of sensor prototypes for rapid detection of pathogens, bacteria, and toxic biological products as well as treatment technologies for the removal of CECs. Tools created through the study will also innovate engineering consulting services to support investigation and remediation of CEC-contaminated sites in Ontario jurisdictions.

The project is supported by a large consortium of industry, policy researchers, and municipal government partners who are contributing a further $951,000 as well as substantial in-kind contributions that will increase project funding to $11.9 million. As end users, the consortium of key stakeholders will facilitate uptake of research outcomes into industrial and municipal processes to affect real-time change.

The project is an initiative of the Contaminants of Emerging Concern Research Excellence Network (CEC-REN) at Queen’s, an interdisciplinary initiative focused on the detection and treatment of emerging contaminants in the natural and built environment that pose environmental and human health risks.

Early Researcher Awards

Three Queen’s research projects have received Early Researcher Awards valued at $140,000 each:

Joseph Bramante (Physics, Engineering Physics, and Astronomy)

Project title: Neutron stars as thermal dark matter detectors

Description: Dark matter has a significant impact on stars and galaxies yet remains a mysterious entity. One of the primary goals of modern physics is to understand dark matter's interactions with visible particles like the proton and electron. Dr. Bramante and his team recently discovered that when dark matter falls into neutron stars, it heats them to infrared temperatures. Now, they are investigating how dark matter interacts with the superdense nuclear fluid in neutron stars. These findings will help transform neutron stars into world class dark matter detectors.

Robert Colautti (Biology)

Project title: Genetics of range expansion in ticks and tick-borne pathogens

Description: Global trade and anthropogenic changes to the environment can facilitate the spread of problematic species (e.g. weeds, pests, diseases). In Ontario, the deer tick (a.k.a. blacklegged tick, Ixodes scapularis) has rapidly risen in abundance, increasing risk of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses. Dr. Colautti and his team are developing a new database and field protocols to reconstruct the geographic spread of deer ticks in eastern Ontario and to identify ecological factors that impact pathogen prevalence. Study results will inform strategies to mitigate exposure to tick-borne pathogens, helping reduce future cases of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses in Ontario.

Jason Gallivan (Psychology)

Project title: Functional mapping and enhancement of brain network function through multi-site neurostimulation

Description: Deep brain stimulation (DBS) was introduced two decades ago as a revolutionary treatment for Parkinson’s disease (PD). Since then, it has been trialed for numerous other neurological illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease and depression. Despite its initial promise, DBS has failed, in all but a few cases, to improve patient outcomes, reflecting our poor understanding of how it operates and impacts the function of whole-brain networks. Dr. Gallivan and his team will use a multi-disciplinary approach to map how DBS changes the activity of whole-brain networks in vivo. Subsequently, these findings will be used to help improve DBS efficacy.

For more information on the Ontario Research Fund and Early Research Award, visit the website.

Queen’s health researcher hits research milestone

Dr. Stephen Archer, Head of Medicine at Queen’s and Canada Research Chair in Mitochondrial Dynamics and Translational Medicine, achieves an h-index of >100.

[Photo of Dr. Stephen Archer]
Dr. Stephen Archer, Canada Research Chair in Mitochondrial Dynamics and Translational Medicine

In academia, there are many ways to measure research productivity and career success. One such quality indicator that is especially relevant in the biomedical sciences and other STEM fields is the h-index. Invented in 2005 by the American physicist Jorge Hirsch, the Hirsch-index or h-index, quantifies the citation impact of the publications of a scientist. Simply put, the h-index describes the number of papers a scholar has published (h) that have been cited at least h number of times. For example, an h-index of 10 indicates that, among all of their publications, a researcher has 10 publications that have received at least 10 citations each. Hirsch notes that, after 20 years of research, an h-index of 20 is good, 40 is outstanding, and 60 is truly exceptional.

Achieving a high h-index is no small feat and often correlates with other success indicators, such as holding positions at top institutions, being accepted for prestigious research fellowships, and winning top research prizes. Recently, Stephen Archer, clinician-scientist, Head of Medicine at Queen’s and Kingston Health Sciences Centre, and Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Mitochondrial Dynamics and Translational Medicine, hit the milestone of an h-index of >100 (101 with >42,000 citations total).   

"Reaching an h-index of 100 reminds me of the incredible experiences that I have had as a clinician-scientist since I published my first article in 1983," Dr. Archer says. "I have had the amazing privilege to lead a wonderful Department of Medicine, direct a state-of-the-art research center, the Queen’s Cardiopulmonary Unit (QCPU), care for cardiac patients, and perform research. I am grateful to all the people I have trained over the years, many of whom appear as co-authors on my articles. I am also grateful to my patients who inspire me to learn, discover, and invent. This milestone is truly a group achievement."          

With this h-index milestone, Dr. Archer joins several other Queen’s faculty who have also achieved an h-index of over 100, including Daren Heyland (128) and Ian Janssen (107).

An Illustrious Career

Dr. Archer, a cardiologist by training, completed medical school at Queen’s in 1981. After an internship at the Royal Columbian Hospital and 16 years as first a trainee and then a faculty member at the University of Minnesota, he returned to Canada where he served as Chief of Cardiology at the University of Alberta for 12 years. He then moved to the University of Chicago as Chief of Cardiology. In November 2012, he packed up his hockey bag and returned to Queen’s as Head of Medicine. He was named a tier one Canada Research Chair in 2017.

Throughout his illustrious career, Dr. Archer has coupled his clinical interests in pulmonary hypertension, persistent ductus arteriosus (PDA), and strategies for improving cardiovascular care, with a research focus on mechanisms of oxygen sensing, mitochondrial biology, and experimental therapeutics for pulmonary hypertension and cancer. He has made numerous research discoveries that can undisputedly be considered firsts. Notably, Dr. Archer and his team have identified the role of mitochondria, an energy-producing organelle in cells, as oxygen sensors in lung circulation and have described biochemical pathways that govern blood vessel constriction and relaxation. Furthermore, they have also shown that these oxygen-sensing mechanisms fail in various human diseases, including pulmonary hypertension, PDA, and lung cancer, just to name a few.

Dr. Archer has published over 220 peer-reviewed articles (nearly half of which have been cited at least 101 times, as indicated by his h-index). Additionally, he has received numerous honours and awards, including being selected as an inductee of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences (2007), a Distinguished Scientist of the American Heart Association (2016), and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (2018), as well as receiving the Chicago American Heart Association Coeur d’Or Award (2013) for leading the creation of a heart attack care network in Chicago.

COVID Pivots

In recent months, Dr. Archer and his team have turned their attention to coronavirus, discovering it can attack mitochondria in lung cells, cause death of airway cells, and impair hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction. This discovery may help explain the low oxygen levels seen in COVID-19 pneumonia and play a role in developing new treatments for similar viral infections. Dr. Archer’s future work includes exploring the role of inflammation as a cause of right ventricular failure in pulmonary hypertension and manipulating mitochondrial dynamics to treat a range of medical conditions, including heart ischemia, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Archer’s already significant mark on his field is likely to gain traction with his h-index milestone. "A high h-index is tangible evidence of a prolific and impactful research career that continues to inspire further study," says Jane Philpott, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences. "My sincere congratulations to Dr. Archer on this significant achievement."

For more information about Dr. Archer's research, visit the Research@Queen's website.

Rethinking our approach to tackling plastic waste

Researchers, manufacturers, and governments are working toward a new paradigm, where plastics will be made from recycled or biodegradable components. (Unsplash / Erik McLean)

What can genomics teach us about the breakdown of plastic? To answer this question, a multidisciplinary team of Queen’s researchers made up of Laurence Yang (Chemical Engineering), David Zechel (Chemistry), George diCenzo (Biology), and James McLellan (Chemical Engineering) have received a $7.9 million grant from Genome Canada for a new project exploring a microbial platform for breaking down and valorizing waste plastic, which can then be repurposed to produce recycled products.

Plastic is a widely used cheap and effective way to store and transport goods. However, its popularity, especially for single-use products, has made it a pervasive environmental contaminant. In Canada, 2.8 million tons of plastic wind up in landfills every year and an additional 29,000 tons leak into our environment and oceans. Waste plastic has devastating environmental impacts, one of which includes the death of 100,000 marine mammals annually, through ingestion or entanglement. Despite this, demand continues to grow and Canadian plastic production is increasing, with an additional 4.8 million tons being produced every year.

Traditional methods of curbing plastic pollution are underutilized and only nine per cent of plastic is currently recycled worldwide. Consequently, academics, manufacturers, and governments are working toward a new paradigm, where plastics will be made from recycled or biodegradable components, facilitating transition from a linear use to a circular use model and better enabling a zero-plastic waste future.

To help drive this paradigm shift, Dr. Yang, his colleagues, and their team consisting of multiple universities, industry and municipal partners are working on an economically-viable innovation that harnesses genomics technologies to recover value from waste plastic. Affiliated with the Contaminants of Emerging Concern - Research Excellence Network (CEC-REN) at Queen’s, this project will use metagenomics, metatranscriptomics, whole-genome sequencing, and functional genomics to identify and engineer bacteria and enzymes that can break down plastics into recyclable components or into valuable fine chemicals that can be used for other purposes. A secondary aim of this project involves investigating the impact of these newly-developed plastic biotechnologies on the environment, economy, and society as a whole.

“Our team of 21 investigators from six universities are developing a systems approach to tackling plastic waste: from genomes to new enzymatic processes, fully integrated with environmental, social, economic, and policy research to facilitate uptake,” says Dr. Yang, Principal Investigator on the project. “Our open science framework will allow us to rapidly share knowledge with diverse private and public sector partners, as we collectively innovate toward a zero-waste future where plastics benefit society without causing a negative impact on the environment.”

Plastic biotechnologies could help revolutionize Canadian plastic production and use. It has been estimated that diverting 90 per cent of our national waste plastic from landfills to recycling can reduce 1.8 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year in greenhouse gas emissions, save $500 million per year in costs, and create 42,000 jobs in new industries. Globally, a circular economy for plastics is projected to lead to billions of dollars in savings. An environmentally sustainable future may not be one that eliminates the use of plastics altogether, but rather one where plastics are deliberately chosen and circulated as resources, not discarded as waste.

The project funding was announced today as part of an investment of over $60 million from Genome Canada, provincial and federal partners, universities, and industry collaborators for eight large-scale applied research projects across Canada. The projects will harness genomics research and technologies for natural resources conservation, environmental protection, and sustainability. For more on the announcement, visit the website.

The project, titled Open Plastics, is affiliated with the Contaminants of Emerging Concern - Research Excellence Network at Queen's
The project, titled Open Plastics, is affiliated with the Contaminants of Emerging Concern - Research Excellence Network at Queen's.

Belief in touch as salvation was stronger than fear of contagion in the Italian Renaissance

A sculpture of two saints meeting and embracing embodies the importance of touch in Renaissance culture as a form of devotion and ultimately a way to access the divine. (Renaissance Polychrome Sculpture in Tuscany database), Author provided


In 1399, a crowd gathered in the Tuscan city of Pisa, even though people understood that a plague ravaging the area was contagious. Devotees travelled from town to town and carried a crucifix — a sculpture of Jesus on the cross — which the crowd longed to touch.

Authorities tried to ban the group but had to bow to public pressure. A witness exclaimed, “Blessed is he who can touch it!” Those who could not reach the sculpture pelted it with offerings, including candles, so that these objects could touch it by proxy.

That year, in the midst of a plague, often hundreds of people gathered and fought to touch and kiss crucifixes. The belief in touch as salvation was stronger than the fear of contagion.

As we are all too aware now, after over a year of social distancing due to COVID-19, touch was and is a much-desired privilege. In the Italian Renaissance, people longed to touch not only each other, but also religious sculptures — touch was a form of devotion.

Accessing the sacred

Statue bust of a woman's head and shoulders.
Sculpture of St. Anastasia with receptacle embedded in the chest that contains a relic of the saint. Made by the workshop of Matteo Civitale in the 1490s, housed in the Museo di Santa Maria Novella. (Renaissance Polychrome Sculpture in Tuscany database)

Renaissance Italy was home to Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians.

For Christians in the Renaissance, objects could be holy, and so touching them was a way to access the sacred. The cult of relics illustrates this. Relics are physical remains of a saint, either of the saint’s body (such as bones) or of something the saint touched.

These holy physical things are housed in reliquaries, containers to protect and display relics. In the Italian Renaissance, reliquaries took the form of naturalistic sculptures that seemed to bring the saint back to life.

Pilgrims travelled sometimes hundreds of miles on foot to reach these relics — and, for those who could afford it, buy a “contact relic,” which was made by submerging the relic in oil and then dipping a cloth into that oil. By touching that cloth, perhaps wearing it as a talisman, the believer was a part of a chain of physical contact that led to the divine.

Others touched reliquaries. A relic of St. Anastasia is embedded in a glass covered receptacle buried in the chest of a lively, blushing sculpture, so that the faithful could see it. The lucky few could reach forward and touch the jewel-like container, as the martyr would seem to look with heavily lidded eyes, almost bemused at this rather intimate gesture.

Sculptures with joints

Sculpture of Christ on the cross showing arm hinges.
Movable joints can be seen in this crucifix, which allowed devotees to take the figure of Christ down and embrace and kiss it. Sculpted by Donatello, c. 1408, housed in Santa Croce, Florence. (Renaissance Polychrome Sculpture in Tuscany database)

People also longed to touch sculptures that did not have relics, including life-sized crucifixes, which in the Renaissance were sculptures of a muscular Jesus, whose body is covered only by a small loincloth. Before Michelangelo, crucifixes were the public nudes in Renaissance cities. Many crucifixes hung high in churches, and Renaissance writers describe saints miraculously elevated, so that they could embrace and kiss the sculpted body of Christ.

Some sculptures have joints in the shoulders, so that at the annual commemoration of Christ’s death (on Good Friday) devotees could take part in a sacred drama, in which the figure of Christ was taken down from the cross and mourned, wrapped in a shroud and placed in a tomb.

During this re-enactment, a lucky few believers could embrace and kiss the sculpture and feel as if they had the ultimate privilege of touching Jesus’ body, reciting the prayer: “I, a sinner, am not worthy to touch you.”

In the home

A woman in a headcovering embraces a baby.
Sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus, originally kept in a home for private devotion. Made in c. 1400-1450 by Lorenzo Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi or Nanni di Banco, and currently housed in the Museo Bandini in Fiesole. (Renaissance Polychrome Sculpture database)

Wealthy families had sculptures that they could touch at home, such as small crucifixes, which often have feet worn down by repeated touch so that the toes are barely visible.

Young women getting married or becoming nuns were given painted wooden life-sized sculptures of baby Jesus or another infant saint, which they would tend as if they were real infants, dressing them in luxurious clothing.

Meditational handbooks told women to imagine that they were fondling baby Jesus.

Anyone who could afford it would have an image of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus in the bedroom. These sculptures place emphasis on touch, as Mary and Jesus’ limbs are gently intertwined.

But wealthy parents rarely touched their children – infants were sent away to live with a wetnurse until about the age of three, and handbooks on child rearing warned parents not to embrace their children when they returned home. So, in some cases, mothers may have touched sculptures of babies more than they touched their own children.

Interacting with sculptures

Though devotional touch was a privilege for the wealthy, practices of interacting with sculptures as if they were bodies of flesh and blood cut across social classes.

A pair of life-sized painted terracotta sculptures of the Virgin Mary and her husband Joseph watched over a stone crib at Florence’s orphanage, the Ospedale degli Innocenti. Abandoned infants were placed temporarily in the care of these sculpted parents.

A woman in a simple red dress with hands folded in prayer next to a kneeling man.
Babies abandoned at Florence’s orphanage were placed in a stone crib between these statues of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph. Made by Marco della Robbia in c. 1500, and now housed in the Museo degli Innocenti in Florence. (Renaissance Polychrome Sculpture in Tuscany database), Author provided

The figure of Mary was sculpted only with a simple red under dress, with no cloak or veil, and so was likely dressed in fabric clothing, probably donated by a local woman. Women would have also dressed and undressed this sculpture and others like it as an act of devotion, as it would be scandalous to have a man be so intimate with a sculpture of the Virgin Mary.

Sculpted bodies inhabited cities

Sculpted bodies inhabited Renaissance cities along with living people, filling Renaissance churches, watching over the streets and gracing the bedrooms of even moderately wealthy patricians.

In a society that was ambivalent about the proprieties of touching living flesh, touching sculpted bodies could offer comfort or even salvation.

Renaissance philosophers and clergymen argued that touch was sensual and earthy and that supposedly weak-minded women and children were more in need of such physical aids in their devotions than educated men.

But ultimately, touching art was a privilege, a way of touching the divine.The Conversation


Una Roman D'Elia, Professor, Art History and Art Conservation, Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.


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