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Research Prominence

Cast your vote for the Art of Research

The public has until June 2 to vote for their favourite Queen's research photo in the People’s Choice category.

[Collage of photos with text: Art of Research photo contest]
A selection of Queen's research photos included in the People's Choice vote as part of the Art of Research photo contest.

Voting is now open for the People’s Choice prize in the annual Art of Research photo contest. The public is invited to cast their ballot and participate in promoting the diversity of research happening across Queen’s.

Hosted by the Office of the Vice-Principal (University Relations), the annual contest is an opportunity for Queen’s researchers to mobilize their research beyond the academy. The contest is aimed at providing a creative and accessible method of sharing the ground-breaking research being done by the Queen’s community and celebrating the global and social impact of this work.

Contest prizes

The 2022 contest has been reimagined through the lens of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to celebrate the impact of research in advancing these important global goals. Five new categories inspired by the SDGs were introduced for this year’s contest alongside the popular People’s Choice prize.

Images selected for voting in the People’s Choice are entries that generated discussion and were shortlisted by the adjudication committee.

All prizes come with a monetary prize of $250.

Cast your vote

The survey closes on June 2 at midnight. Winners of the 2022 Art of Research photo contest will be announced shortly following the vote.

To learn more about past contests, visit the Research@Queen’s website.

2022 Art of Research Adjudication Committee

  • Nancy Ross, Vice-Principal (Research)
  • Kanonhsyonne - Janice Hill, Associate Vice-Principal (Indigenous Initiatives and Reconciliation)
  • Nicholas Mosey, Associate Dean (Research), Faculty of Arts and Science
  • Heidi Ploeg, QFEAS Chair for Women in Engineering, Mechanical and Materials Engineering
  • Ruth Dunley, Associate Director, Editorial Strategy, Office of Advancement
  • Jung-Ah Kim, PhD Student, Screen Cultures and Curatorial Studies
  • Melinda Knox, Director, Thought Leadership and Strategic Initiatives, University Relations
  • Véronique St-Antoine, Communications Advisor, NSERC

Cancer groundshot: Access to proven treatments must parallel development of new therapies

Globally, most cancer patients die not because they don’t have access to newer drugs, but because they don’t have access to even basic treatments.

A woman enters an MRI machine for a brain scan.
A woman enters an MRI machine for a brain scan. Cancer groundshot highlights that investment in improving access to treatments already proven to work saves more lives than discovery of a new treatment. (Unsplash/National Cancer Institute)

Where should investment be made today in order to save the maximum number of lives from cancer tomorrow? That is the underlying principle behind the “cancer groundshot” philosophy.

Annually, billions of dollars are spent on ambitious “cancer moonshot” programs. These programs focus on the discovery of new drugs and technologies aimed at solving the cancer burden. The hope is that discovery of a new target, a new drug or a new mechanism will help to cure cancer or reduce the cancer burden.

The United States’ ambitious Cancer Moonshot program marks its fifth anniversary in 2022, and certainly, cancer is still very much a global problem that needs addressing. Some new drugs have been developed in this time frame, but the percentage of patients who has benefited from these newer drugs has remained small.

Globally, most patients with cancer die not because they don’t have access to these newer drugs, but because they do not have access to even the basic treatments.

More than 90 per cent of patients in low-income countries, and more than half of patients in low- and middle-income countries, do not have access to basic radiotherapy services. More than half of patients globally who need cancer surgery will go without, and services needed for accurate cancer diagnosis are lacking.

These are interventions that help cure cancer and save the most lives, as opposed to newer drugs that only marginally extend survival or delay cancer growth. If inequity in access to proven effective interventions persists, newer treatment options will not reduce global cancer burden.

Cancer groundshot

I coined the term “cancer groundshot” in 2016 in a blog post to encourage prioritization in cancer care and research. It is a part of the common-sense revolution in oncology.

Cancer groundshot highlights that investing in improved access to interventions already proven to work saves more lives than discovery of a new intervention. When patients are dying due to lack of access to surgery or accurate diagnosis, a new cancer drug is not going to solve the problem.

Cervical cancer is a good example. It is probably the only cancer for which elimination is a realistic goal. HPV vaccination, cervical cancer screening and effective treatment of early detected cervical cancers may help us eliminate this cancer.

At the same time, newer drugs like pembrolizumab reportedly improve two-year survival rates in metastatic cervical cancer by 10 percentage points. While not discounting this medical advancement, it is more prudent for countries around the world to invest in cervical cancer screening, HPV vaccination and early treatment, rather than investing in access to pembrolizumab (one year of this drug costs roughly US$150,000).

In this example, the use of pembrolizumab represents the cancer moonshot approach to cervical cancer. Focusing on vaccination, screening and early treatment represents the cancer groundshot approach.

A woman gets a breast exam while a doctor helps.
A woman gets a mammogram while a doctor helps. Severe disparities in access to care exist within high-income countries as well and several pockets of population are underserved and lack access to timely and adequate cancer care. (Unsplash/National Cancer Institute)

Costs and priorities

The cost of pembrolizumab is not an outlier. Modern cancer treatments are quite expensive. On average, based on 2018 data, a new cancer drug costs more than US$150,000 per patient per year. On the other hand, barring a few good drugs, the benefits these drugs provide are not very impressive on average. For example, some new cancer drugs delay progression by a median of only three days.

Although valuation of life is inherently an impossible task, I think as a society we can agree that our resources can be better allocated than spending $16,000 per month for delaying tumour growth by three days. A new study shows that these extra days of delayed tumour growth may not necessarily mean good quality of life, either.

Cancer groundshot is a philosophy that calls for prioritization of strategies in global cancer control. The underlying principle of cancer groundshot is that one must ensure access to interventions that are already proven to work before focusing on the development of new interventions. We need to realign our priorities and invest on equitable access to high-value interventions.

This is not only an issue in low- and middle-income countries. Severe disparities in access to care exist within high-income countries as well. There are several pockets of population in countries like the United States and Canada, that are underserved and lack access to timely and adequate cancer care. There are disparities in socio-economic status, awareness levels, insurance coverage and other factors that lead to differential outcomes, even within the same country.

Advocacy and implementation

I laid out the details of the cancer groundshot philosophy in a 2018 paper in the journal Lancet Oncology. Since then, it has been gaining momentum in the cancer policy world. I have spoken about this at several international and national meetings, and this concept has been discussed both in academia and beyond. This year at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), the world’s largest oncology conference, I am chairing a session on cancer groundshot.

This recognition from ASCO will certainly add to its recognition, and hopefully, adoption. The session is organized into three talks, which have also been compiled into a book chapter:

  • Cancer groundshot and how clinical trials fit into this philosophy.
  • Disparities in low- and middle-income countries, and if technology can help address this challenge.
  • Disparities in cancer care within high-income countries.

However, the real metric for the cancer groundshot is implementation of the philosophy and reduction in the inequities in access to proven therapies. Advocacy is the first step to achieve that end.The Conversation


Bishal Gyawali, Associate Professor of Oncology and Public Health Sciences, 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, Director, Thought Leadership and Strategic Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

Inspired by the human brain

Queen’s researchers advance the evolving field of neuromorphic photonic computing.

Male researcher looking at a microscope.
The field of photonics looks at how to send and process information using light instead of electricity.

The idea that the human brain, the most impressive machine ever known, could inspire the development of computers is not new. In fact, the concept of artificial networks inspired by neurons, the central units that make up the brain, first surfaced in the 1950s. But the last decade has seen a resurgence of research programs looking at building neuromorphic computing with the help of a new ally: photonics.

Computers are traditionally built as electronic devices, relying on transistors to communicate information – roughly, a transistor works like a switch that can be on or off, and a specific sequence of commands tells the computer what to do. This digital system is very efficient in performing several tasks, and over the years, we’ve developed better, faster, and smaller transistors to power our computers. Today, a standard computer has tens of billions of them.

While electronics are an excellent solution for many of our computing needs, they are not ideal for addressing challenges like advancing artificial intelligence or machine learning capacity. And that’s why the human brain has surfaced once again as an inspiration for computing.

“We have realized that our brains are very good computers, but they do not operate with transistor-like switches. The brain uses a very different computing model,” explains Bhavin Shastri, assistant professor of in the Department of Physics, Engineering Physics, and Astronomy and a pioneer in the emerging field of neuromorphic photonics. “Our brain does not operate with ones and zeros, but with analog, continuous signals.”

Because electronics cannot provide a good model for analog systems, scientists started looking at photonics, a field that investigates how to use light – instead of electricity – to send and process information.

 “Light behaves very differently from electrons, and in some cases, those are advantageous behaviors for certain applications,” says Alex Tait, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “For instance, in communications, fibre optic cables replaced electronic wiring because light is just more effective: it can communicate more information per second.”

Bhavin Shastri and Alex Tait
Bhavin Shastri and Alex Tait have been collaborating for over a decade in research to advance neuromorphic photonic computing.

For over a decade, Shastri and Tait have been collaborating on research that looks at how photonics can benefit neuromorphic computing. After doing proofs of concept, fabricating, and demonstrating devices, they are now working on how to build this knowledge into an actual, usable computer.

The distributed, non-sequential, parallel communications between neurons are crucial for tasks like pattern matching, reasoning, and categorizing information – tasks a brain does well, but computers have limited ability to do.

“Our brains are also extremely efficient in performing those tasks using very little energy. Our brain can do a thousand times more operations than the fastest existing supercomputer, using a million times less energy,” suggests Shastri.

Tait explains that the goal in developing light-based neuromorphic computers is not to substitute what we use today but rather to explore specific needs that can’t be met by traditional computing or that photonic can address more efficiently.

“It has great potential in situations where you need to reduce energy consumption – like in data centers where you're doing tons of number crunching. And they can be applied in situations where you need faster processing, like in a self-driving car where you must make decisions very quickly,” he adds.

Photonic computing can also be key in advancing other science areas, like high-energy physics and experiments to detect new fundamental particles. Shastri explains: “When you are looking at particles that collide in a particle accelerator, you collect a lot of data, but not all of it is useful. Machine learning techniques can help sort the useful information faster – and photonics might be the bridge to link these two disciplines together.”

To learn more about how Queen’s is advancing the field of neuromorphic photonics, access the Shastri Lab website.

Personalizing cancer treatment

Queen’s has partnered with leading companies and clinical networks on the CanDETECT Supercluster project to advance innovation in cancer detection and treatment.

[Art of Research photo: Leaving Home by Eric Lian]
Queen's Art of Research photo depicting cancer cell invasion and migration by Eric Lian, PhD Student (Pathology and Molecular Medicine) 

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, nearly half of Canadians are expected to receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. Early detection and close monitoring of treatment response are crucial factors to recovery and survival. However, the effectiveness of the current ‘one size fits all’ approach to cancer treatment is limited, often providing generic data on the presence of cancer, with no specific guidance. To advance personalized cancer treatment and improve patient outcomes, Queen’s has become a founding member of the new Digital Technology Supercluster project CanDETECT.

With a total investment of $17.8 million, CanDETECT will use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to develop a precision oncology software that will more effectively monitor cancer reoccurrence in survivors and provide real-time assessments of a patient’s response to targeted therapies. Led by Imagia Canexia Health, the CanDETECT project is bringing Queen’s together with BC Cancer Research, DNAstack, Microsoft, University Health Network, Illumnia, Kingston General Health Research Institute, Kingston Health Sciences Centre, and Oxford Nanopore Technologies in a collaborative partnership. Under the Supercluster model, academic institutions, not-for-profit organizations, and companies of all sizes work together with support from the federal government to accelerate innovation and create jobs.

Researcher Harriet Feilotter (Pathology and Molecular Medicine; Queen’s Cancer Research Institute) will advance several key research components for the project. Leveraging Queen’s connection to the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR)-funded OCTANE network, Dr. Feilotter’s team will oversee the collection of patient samples from across Ontario to provide high throughput sequencing of DNA results from patient tumour and plasma specimens.

Queen’s researchers will also report relevant results back to clinicians and patients and assist in the development of AI tools generated from CanDETECT results. The novel software will use predictive analytics to help oncologists tailor treatments to individual patients, ensuring the best possible outcome, more accurately and at less cost than current solutions.

[Photo of Dr. Harriet Feilotter]
Dr. Harriet Feilotter (Pathology and Molecular Medicine; Queen’s Cancer Research Institute) 

This is not the first time Dr. Feilotter has advanced research innovations through a Supercluster. In summer 2020, she was a member of Access to Cancer Testing & Treatment in Response to COVID-19 (Project ACTT) as part of the Digital Technology Supercluster’s response to COVID-19 program. This project developed a minimally invasive blood test that assessed circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) through remote delivery to detect cancer and guide treatment decisions. Project ACTT exceeded its goal of distributing 2,000 patient liquid biopsy tests across the country. Successfully generating a large amount of data, the project can now move into the critical stage of evaluating the test method for potential clinical implementation and widespread adoption.

In both Supercluster projects, Dr. Feilotter considers the collaboration with industry partners a winning combination. "My team and I are committed to advancing research and development that will improve the lives of Canadian cancer patients," says Dr. Feilotter. "The idea that we could be part of a national group aiming to identify biomarkers of early cancer recurrence is of great importance to all of us. Networking opportunities that bring together academic and private sector partners, that span provinces across the country, and that seek to find common ground between multiple disciplines are best maximized when everyone sees the importance of the clinical question at the heart of all of it and is driven to solve it."

To maintain the balanced approach to research and industry applications in the Supercluster model, Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI) has been a key internal partner for Dr. Feilotter and her team. From helping to build and manage the relationships, to responding to opportunities and fulfilling funding obligations, QPI has provided the supports needed to let the research be the focus for the Queen’s team, helping to advance their goals for innovation in cancer detection.

To learn more about CanDETECT, see the Digital Technology Supercluster website.

A new earthquake warning system will prepare Canada for dangerous shaking

About 10 million people live in Canada’s earthquake-prone zones. Yet few have practical knowledge of what to do with new early warning system alerts which aim to save lives and protect livelihoods.

Vancouver Island’s historic earthquake was a 7.3 magnitude event that occurred at 10:13 a.m. on June 23, 1946. It damaged buildings in nearby communities, including the Bank of Montreal in Port Alberni.
Vancouver Island’s historic earthquake was a 7.3 magnitude event that occurred at 10:13 a.m. on June 23, 1946. It damaged buildings in nearby communities, including the Bank of Montreal in Port Alberni. (Natural Resources Canada)

Large earthquakes can wreak enormous violence upon lives, livelihoods, infrastructure and the environment. High-density urban populations in the relatively small, seismically active areas of British Columbia and the Québec City-Montréal-Ottawa corridor leaves residents extremely vulnerable to earthquakes.

A 2013 report commissioned by the Insurance Bureau of Canada notes that “a major earthquake would have a significant economic impact regionally, and cause a domino effect on the economy of Canada, with major impacts on critical infrastructure, such as roads, electricity, communication and agriculture, public assets, residences and much more.”

It concluded that a 9.0-magnitude earthquake in British Columbia would rack up almost $75 billion in costs, and a 7.1-magnitude earthquake in the Québec City-Montréal-Ottawa corridor would cost almost $61 billion.

Canada does not have an earthquake early warning system to provide alerts to the 10 million people who live in these areas — or a national education initiative to develop an earthquake-aware culture. But that will soon change.

10 million at risk

Canada’s most active seismic zones fall into three main areas:

Seismologists forecast significant shaking for Québec (Montréal, Québec City, Rivière-du-Loup), Ontario (Ottawa, Toronto) and British Columbia (Vancouver and Victoria) in the future. But earthquake prediction timelines are an imprecise science.

For example, the recurrence interval for a large earthquake in the Pacific Northwest is about 500 years — there have been seven in the past 3,500 years. Seismologists say there’s a 30 per cent chance of a megathrust earthquake — a very powerful quake that occurs at a subduction zone — in this fault zone in the next 50 years. But earthquakes are quasi-random — they don’t occur at regular time intervals.

In my work with communities in New Zealand, Samoa and Nepal that have experienced lethal earthquakes, I’ve learned about individuals’ heightened risk awareness after an earthquake. Their stories taught me that time lost is lives lost, and that those who took protective action survived.

This life-risk awareness is the foundation of an earthquake early warning system. With only seconds of advance warning, people can take protective action such as drop, cover and hold on. But developing an earthquake-aware culture can take time.

Earthquake-prone communities often experience fatalities, anxiety and fear, and widespread damage to homes, infrastructure and economies. A community with an earthquake-aware culture has grasped lessons from seismology, social science and economics, painfully aware of what damages and losses it might experience.

Developing an earthquake-aware culture relies on the data collected by seismologists. Their interpretations help us understand how local fault lines will shake during an earthquake, how often the shaking has occurred in a location and how fast the shockwaves might travel.

The front page of Le Soleil newspaper on Feb. 28, 1925, comprising only stories about the earthquake
The 1925 Charlevoix-Kamouiraska earthquake was felt all the way in Virginia and along the Mississippi River. It damaged several towns and cities along the St. Lawrence River and the aftershocks lasted for weeks. (Natural Resources Canada)

2024: All systems go

In March, Natural Resources Canada set up an earthquake-monitoring station at the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal in West Vancouver, B.C., the first station in what will become a national early earthquake warning system by 2024.

The system uses the same software as the early-warning system located along the U.S. West Coast. It aims to reduce the number of injuries, the cost of damage and losses, and the impact to critical infrastructure operations.

Millions of people — and the Canadian economy — could benefit from the early earthquake alert system. Once it is fully operational, it should provide five to nine seconds advance warning to those in Haida Gwaii, Queen Charlotte and Masset, B.C., for ruptures in the Queen Charlotte Fault, and 43 to 91 seconds for the mainland towns of Bella Bella, Prince Rupert and Kitimat, B.C. In Québec, a repeat of the 1988 Saguenay earthquake would offer 84 seconds advance warning for Montréal and 29 seconds for Québec City.

How people will respond to the alerts remains unknown. But Natural Resources Canada has funded the University of Calgary to work with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology to learn from their experience of building an earthquake-aware culture, as well as with other nations, including Japan, China, Turkey, Greece and Italy.

Challenges and next steps

By 2024, the Canadian earthquake early-warning system will have more than 400 land-based sensors deployed throughout Ontario, Québec and British Columbia. It will send the alerts to radio, television, internet and cellular networks, allowing people to take action quickly.

The advance notice is meant to avert deaths. A mere 10 to 90 seconds warning could save lives, protect infrastructure and utilities. Researchers, however, still need a better understanding of how Canadians will respond to these alerts.

For example, Canada’s earthquake hazard maps suggest there are two widely separated seismically active areas: one in Ontario, Québec and New Brunswick, and the other in British Columbia. But each location will suffer different types of damage and losses after a large earthquake.

These maps give the erroneous impression that the earthquake risk applies to everyone equally. My preliminary research shows distinct geological, political, economic and emergency management contexts between Eastern Canada and Western Canada.

For example, those in Eastern Canada are very vulnerable to seismic hazards: The soft soils in the Charlevoix-Kamouraska seismic zone amplify ground motion and the heritage housing cannot withstand shaking. There’s also low participation in earthquake preparedness exercises.

According to a 2017 report by Swiss Re, 65 per cent of home owners in Vancouver and Victoria have purchased residential property earthquake insurance. In contrast, in the Charlevoix–Kamouraska seismic zone, only two per cent of home owners in Québec City and five per cent in metropolitan Montréal have residential property earthquake insurance.

The ultimate goal of the earthquake early warning system is to ensure that those most at risk — the disabled, elderly, very young, caregivers and those living in remote rural areas — have practical knowledge of what to do — and what not to do — during an earthquake.The Conversation


Shona L.van Zijll de Jong, Adjunct Professor, Geological Sciences and Engineering, 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, Director, Thought Leadership and Strategic Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

Canada faces huge physical costs from climate change, making net zero a great investment

Reducing greenhouse gases is expensive, but it’s a great investment compared to the damage we can expect to the Canadian economy if the climate warms 5 C by 2100.


A family watches a wildfire from the safety of a ridge.
A family watches a wildfire from the safety of a ridge. (Unsplash/Caleb Cook)

There has been a lot of discussion in Canada lately about the financial costs of achieving the country’s climate targets. And rightly so. The situation is urgent and we need to act now.

Fighting climate change will require a concerted effort, affecting all sectors of the economy. And while there will be great economic opportunity and lots of new jobs in the green economy, there will be considerable disruptions in the workforce, major economic challenges and significant capital investment required.

However, we in the finance business like to look at both sides of the ledger. And when one considers the damage to the Canadian economy we can expect from fires, floods, melting ice caps and loss of biodiversity due to climate change, the investment in greenhouse gas reductions starts to look very worthwhile indeed.

Climate change impacts economic prosperity

In a new study we recently published with the Institute for Sustainable Finance, we posit that economic value is sacrificed every day that action is not taken to mitigate the economic and ecological risks posed by climate change. Existing economic models agree that losses are unavoidable without change and investment. But questions remained regarding how much value will be lost and how quickly.

Our study modelled the physical risk to Canada, or how much capital output might be lost, over various warming scenarios between now and the end of the century. We found that under a business-as-usual scenario, with no new international greenhouse gas mitigation measures taken, allowing the climate to warm 5 C by 2100, the cumulative cost to Canada would be $5.5 trillion.

That’s a big number. And it’s a lot higher than the damage we would see under a scenario where global warming is kept to 2 C, which we estimate to be around $2.8 trillion.

Of course, this is just the financial cost and does not take into account the suffering of those who will lose livelihoods, homes and businesses, or even their lives, due to climate-related disasters.

Our study further reveals that the associated costs of physical damage are larger than the investments required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the difference is up to $45.4 billion larger than the required investment. And this doesn’t even consider the potential economic benefits of transitioning to a low-carbon economy.

Yes, it is true that Canada can’t fight climate change on its own, and that it’s a global effort. But the incentive is clear for a rich, developed, industrialized country like Canada to take a global leadership role and meet our own net-zero targets.

A worker installs solar panels on the roof of a house.
A worker installs solar panels on the roof of a house. (Unsplash/Bill Mead)

Quick action is crucial

There is also a big incentive to act now, as we will face some inflection points in the coming decades that will make the challenge considerably more difficult.

Our study found that the costs of climate change damage are expected to grow gradually until 2050, around which time there is a sharp increase under all scenarios. By 2070 there is an exponential increase in damages. These dates correspond to two of the significant target dates for achieving net zero noted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its reports.

Despite the recent increased attention to addressing climate change, progress has been too slow. It is becoming clear that we are not on pace to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. Estimates from the IPCC and others suggest that with current progress, and if the world meets its existing commitments, we are more on pace for a 3 C warming scenario. There is a very real risk that warming will be higher still.

This is all bad news for Canada, which is highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change and is warming at twice the rate of the global average. But until now, we haven’t had an effective assessment of the physical risks and the potential capital cost to Canada.

We have much to lose. And it should now be clear that tackling climate change more than pays for itself in terms of avoided physical damage alone.The Conversation


Neal Willcott, PhD Candidate - Finance, Queen's University and Sean Cleary, BMO Professor of Finance, 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, Director, Thought Leadership and Strategic Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

Research that reaches for the stars

Multidisciplinary Queen’s research projects explore impact of space travel on health, including bone loss and aging.

Experiencing space flight and being amongst the stars is a dream out of this world for many, but for astronauts, there can be serious health implications that accompany space travel.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has identified three human space flight risks as high priorities: bone fragility, mission risks associated with altered metabolism, and the effect of nutrient composition of diet on health during space missions. With support from the CSA, Queen’s research teams are exploring how to make space travel safer by better understanding how astronaut diets affects bone loss, and how space flight may impact astronauts’ DNA and the aging process.

Preventing bone loss in space

Rachel Holden
Rachel Holden (Medicine)

Research shows that astronauts lose substantial amounts of bone during space missions. It's a mystery that has inspired researchers at Queen's to take a closer look at a mineral that is commonly found in many foods — phosphate. Phosphate is important for bone health, but abnormalities in the way the body processes phosphate have been linked to bone loss on Earth. Since astronauts on the International Space Station consume high levels of phosphate, it led the multidisciplinary research team of Heidi Ploeg (Mechanical and Materials Engineering) and Rachel Holden (Medicine), experts in orthopaedic biomechanics and vascular calcification in chronic kidney disease, to question if there is an association.

Normally, the phosphate a person consumes would go into their blood and any extra would be removed by the kidneys. However, if a person’s kidneys don't work properly, they can develop high phosphate levels in their blood which can stimulate the loss of calcium from their bones. Researchers are now seeing this outcome of weaker bones in people without kidney issues as influenced by diets that are high in the amount of phosphate due to its addition by food manufacturers. Since food in space is enriched with inorganic phosphate for preservation, this could be contributing to bone loss in astronauts as well.

“In the last five years it has become evident that dietary phosphate intake may promote cardiovascular disease and bone loss in people with adequate kidney function. Dietary phosphate intake has risen substantially over the past 10 years as inorganic phosphate is increasingly added to food for preservation by the food manufacturing industry,” Dr. Holden says.

Heidi Ploeg
Heidi Ploeg (Mechanical and Materials Engineering)

For Dr. Ploeg, the Chair for Women in Engineering at Queen's, the project provides interesting insights into how bone can adapt to its environments.

“Bone is an amazing structure. It's beautifully complex and best of all it adapts in response to its environment. Engineers can learn about optimal and self-heal structures by studying biological structures like bone,” Dr. Ploeg says. “If we can better understand this process, we can better assess fragility fracture risk and reduce these fracture rates through treatments including diet, physical therapy, and pharmaceuticals.”

Understanding how dietary phosphate promotes bone loss could reduce the burden of chronic disease in our aging society on Earth through regulations, and could contribute to the overall health of astronauts and the success of long-duration space missions in the future.

How does DNA replicate under microgravity?

Another Queen’s research team looking at human health during space travel is Virginia Walker’s lab in biology. The team's research has shown that DNA replication under microgravity — a small amount of gravity such as what is found in space, causing astronauts to “float” — is less accurate than under Earth gravity. This could pose risks for astronaut health including cancer and age-related problems during extended periods in space — like on missions to a future Moon station or Mars. To do this work, graduate student Aaron Rosenstein flew two missions aboard the CSA and National Research Council’s Falcon 20 jet, better known as the “vomit comet,” which simulates space flight.

Dr. Walker’s interest in space began when she was a child and the first lunar mission, Apollo 11, launched in 1969. This interest was reinforced by the show Star Trek, while Rosenstein was fittingly inspired by Star Trek, Next Generation.

Aaron Rosenstein prepares for a flight on the 'vomit comet'.
Aaron Rosenstein, Queen's graduate student at the time, flew two missions aboard the CSA and National Research Council’s Falcon 20 jet, better known as the “vomit comet,” which simulates space flight. (Supplied Photo)

Dr. Walker’s research in the area of the molecular genetic responses to stress led her to research extreme habitats, including those that are models for Mars. Her lectures on astrobiology caught Rosenstein’s imagination, who at the time was an undergraduate life science student. He and others created a student club and invited Dr. Walker to be the faculty advisor. This club’s work led to a CSA research grant that has recently concluded.

Their study found that DNA polymerases — the enzymes essential for DNA replication — make more errors in microgravity. This means there could be a health risk for astronauts on extended missions in space — since decreased DNA replication accuracy could lead to premature aging and cancer. Dr. Walker says this demonstrates the importance of designing spaceships that alleviate such negative effects.

“Our research, showing that more mistakes can be made when replicating DNA in microgravity, will surely bolster efforts by the international community to create artificial gravity by rotating space stations, for example,” Dr. Walker says.

As humans continue to push the boundaries of space travel, there are important health implications that the CSA has identified. The work by Dr. Walker, Dr. Ploeg, and Dr. Holden will contribute to the research to make space flight safer for those who venture off Earth.

Are we really racing to the finish line?

A new study led by Queen’s researcher Jessica Selinger shows that runners default to a pace that saves the most energy

Two women runners tie their shoes.
A new study led by Queen’s researcher Jessica Selinger (School of Kinesiology and Health Studies) shows that runners often run at the same speed, regardless of distance, because that particular speed is the most energetically efficient.

With the warmer weather upon us, many will be lacing up their sneakers to step out for a run. As we consider our running pace, we might assume that as we log further distances, we will naturally start to slow our pace to conserve energy. A new study led by Queen’s researcher Jessica Selinger (School of Kinesiology and Health Studies) challenges that view.  

“We often run at the same speed, regardless of distance, because that particular speed is the most energetically efficient,” Dr. Selinger says.

The research study, published in Current Biology, analyzed data from more than 4,600 runners totaling more than 28,000 hours of running. Researchers compared energy-saving running speeds measured in a lab setting to the preferred, real-world speeds measured by wearable trackers and found the two to be indistinguishable.

The researchers gathered data from 26 runners on treadmills and identified the energetically optimal speeds based on their oxygen consumption. They compared this to data collected from thousands of recreational runners outfitted with a waistband tracker from Lumo Run.

The findings show that the preference for energy efficient movement is strong. Even when we go for a jog, with the goal of burning calories, we move at a speed to minimize them.

“This means that if we want to run at a faster pace, we may need to consciously focus on doing so. Or, use other tricks like running with a faster partner or listening to fast paced music,” says Dr. Selinger. “It is important to understand what objectives shape our locomotion, and what influences how we move if we are looking to train athletes, develop assistive devices, or even understand our evolutionary history.”

There are evolutionary advances to moving in an energy optimal way — we can travel further on few calories.

“We share this trait with other animals, be it flying birds, swimming fish, or galloping horses – there's evidence that we all move in calorie conserving ways out in the wild,” Dr. Selinger explains.

The runners that Dr. Selinger and her team analyzed in the lab were limited to younger, fit individuals.

“In the future, it would be really nice to have the lab-based energetic measures for a broader swathe of the population,” she says.

Although the data from lab studies may be more consistent and manageable, Dr. Selinger, the study's lead author who started the research as a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, said that the sheer volume of information made available through wearables is unobtainable in the lab.

“Wearables can also reveal the choices we make in the real-world without the oversight of a researcher or constraints of the lab environment. By fusing the two, a new window has opened up into runners' behaviour,” Dr. Selinger says.

By applying useable data from wearables, and perhaps improving wearables by adjusting algorithms according to research results, the researchers envision expansive ways to enable fitness based on natural, “free-living” human behaviour.

The study is now available in Current Biology.

Stress can make you more selfish if you’re good at understanding others’ points of view

While it might not be the first thing that comes to mind, new and effective ways to reduce stress in vulnerable members of our communities could be key to ensure supportive social environments.

Stressed out young man covers his face with his hands.
Targeted interventions that reduce stress levels may improve altruism among Canadians. (Christian Erfurt/Unsplash)

If you’re feeling stressed right now, you’re not alone. One-quarter of Canadians report experiencing high levels of stress on most days and almost half of Canadians say their stress levels have increased since the pandemic began.

The ConversationAnd unfortunately stress affects how we treat the people around us — sadly, its often not in a good way. Being stressed can actually make people more egotistical and greedy.

Stress affects us all on multiple levels. It affects our body, mind and behaviours. I was recently part of a team of researchers who examined how stress affects generosity and who is particularly vulnerable to changes in social behaviours when under pressure.

We wanted to understand how stress hormones, brain responses and our thoughts about others work together to explain how stress can make people selfish and why it doesn’t happen to everyone to the same degree.

Stress impacts altruism

In our study, we asked participants to donate to various charities before and after undergoing a social stress. To simulate the consequences of most altruistic acts in the real world, donations in this experiment had real consequences.

Participants were given 20 euros and could keep whatever money they decided not to donate. We found that while keeping the money and being selfish literally paid off, most participants were willing to support charitable causes.

However, after participants were exposed to a social stress, their biological stress responses — as captured in increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol — were negatively linked to their generosity.

In other words, higher bodily stress responses diminished altruism.

But not everyone was affected by stress in the same way. Participants’ susceptibility to the stress hormone cortisol was related to their ability to understand others’ inner mental states (like their needs, beliefs, goals or points of view). This ability is sometimes referred to as mentalizing or theory of mind and is positively related to altruistic behaviors.

Participants with high mentalizing skills were the ones who were particularly vulnerable to becoming more selfish under stress.

The brain after stress

We measured participants’ brain activity during charitable giving, both before and after stress, using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

We found that there is a region of the brain that mediates a cortisol-related shift of altruism: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This area has long been known to play a key role in altruistic decision-making and cognitive control.

The stress hormone cortisol altered the activation patterns in this brain region and mediated the negative effects of stress on altruistic behaviour. It provided the missing link between bodily stress responses and observed changes in our social behaviour. Specifically, it explained how exactly the brain responds to stress and contributes to the changed willingness to help under pressure.

Our study’s findings are important because they reveal several things:

  1. They help understand the link between the body’s stress responses and the change in our willingness to help others. Societies depend on people’s willingness to share, cooperate and help. Altruism is a building block of functioning societies — high levels of stress reported by many Canadians represent a potential risk factor.

    Understanding how stress can impact our prosocial behaviours towards other people and organizations is vital. Understanding this can ultimately help develop new interventions that target the elements altered by stress experience.

  2. Not all people are the same: not everyone shows the same response under stress. Identifying the characteristics that explain susceptibility to stress effects is useful because they can help protect vulnerable people by informing us who they are.

  3. These findings point towards strategies to buffer against the potentially harmful ways we treat others due to stress responses. Specifically, the results suggest that targeted interventions that reduce stress levels may improve altruism among Canadians (especially in those who are high mentalizers).

More research is needed to prove this proposition, but it provides an exciting avenue for anyone interested in creating more prosocial communities and environments. While it might not be the first thing that comes to mind, new and effective ways to reduce stress in vulnerable members of our communities could be key to ensure supportive social environments.The Conversation


Anita Tusche, Assistant Professor, Psychology, 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, Director, Thought Leadership and Strategic Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

Migrant workers are flipping the script and using Photovoice to tell their own stories

Undocumented migrant workers use Photovoice to share their experience working and living in Greece.

Migrant men work in the strawberry fields. (This is Evidence), Author provided

What happens when undocumented Bangladeshi and Pakistani men in Greece pick up their cell phones to record their lives as migrant agricultural workers?

“This will let the people learn how we live our lives here,” said one of the men, referring to the photos and videos they were taking. For the workers, these serve as evidence of their migrant existence.

COVID-19 and worries about food security have resulted in increased media coverage about migrant agricultural workers, with stories usually told on their behalf. Four sets of South Asian migrant men in Greece wanted to flip the script and tell their own stories.

They used Photovoice, an arts-based social justice tool, to present themselves and their concerns directly to people. This eventually transformed into a travelling multi-media exhibition and a digital archive, This is Evidence.

Long hours, low wages

Each year, thousands of young South Asian men arrive in Greece, Europe’s frontier, often driven by poverty, climate change, political unrest, or ethnic or religious violence in their home countries. Undocumented and hence “illegal,” they end up in Greece’s agrarian and urban informal economy as flexible workers. Despite 90 per cent of Greek agriculture being dependent on migrant labour, they are paid low wages, face wage theft and are forced to work long hours without breaks.

A screenshot from a WhatsApp group
A screenshot of one of the WhatsApp groups, ‘Migrant Workers Welfare Collective’ (the names of participants are pseudonyms). (This is Evidence), Author provided

Since 2017, I have been conducting research with many of these men to study how their “illegality” and restrictive immigration policies shape labour outcomes and the men’s masculine aspirations.

The process behind the exhibition emerged organically as the men used WhatsApp to send me images of their lives. I suggested the use of Photovoice so they could share their lives with a wider audience.

Photovoice is a participant-oriented visual research strategy used to collaborate with socio-economically and politically marginalized populations.

Participants take images of what they consider important and not what researchers wish to highlight. The photos are accompanied by texts that emerge through conversations among Photovoice participants. These narratives are often used to advocate for policy changes.

The unique insider perspective provided by Photovoice makes it highly valuable for cultural mediation and self-representation.

Sharing their thoughts

Three groups of Bangladeshi men employed in the strawberry agribusiness, and one group of Pakistani men engaged in the informal economy in Athens, formed separate WhatsApp groups, including me in each. The groups were active from mid-2018 to late-2021.

They used their phones to take photos, to record video and voice messages about the precarity of life as migrant workers. They also spoke of workplace injuries, sub-standard housing and worker activism for free access to COVID-19 vaccines. The ubiquity of cell phones made it easy to do without drawing attention to themselves.

Through this project, the men were able to communicate with each other and myself using WhatsApp groups as forums for discussion. So their worries about being detained from gathering in one place, combined with unpredictable work hours, did not stop them from being able to document their experiences. This resulted in greater dialogue and collective decision-making.

The rules were simple: permission had to be granted from those photographed and all shared images implied fair use for exhibitions and other methods of awareness-generation

A man takes a photo of another man on his cellphone
Participants in the project shared photos and stories via WhatsApp. (This is Evidence), Author provided

This is Evidence

Their work resulted in a multi-media exhibition I helped curate. We worked together to select images, videos, soundscapes and plan a replica of migrant shacks from Manolada.

The exhibition, This is Evidence, was thematic, addressing border crossings, backbreaking labour, COVID-19 and activism. Quotes were selected from their voice messages and interviews.

The exhibition premiered in early April 2022 at Technopolis City of Athens. It will move on to Canada to venues such as Kingston, Ont., Toronto and Waterloo, Ont.

While this project engages with a small set of migrant South Asian men in Greece, the visual articulation of their migrant experience resonates with other migrant workers across the world — including those employed under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program in agrarian communities across Canada.

Men sit in a circle, cross-legged
Men come together to destress by singing Sufi songs. (This Is Evidence), Author provided

This project challenges the stereotypes of migrant men, often vilified because of their gender identity, race and religion. It also serves to empower by allowing the experiences of “disposable” migrant agricultural workers in Greece to reach a wider audience through multi-city exhibitions and the digital archive.

The men recognize that when it comes to being heard by ordinary people, policy and changemakers, many avenues are closed to them. This is Evidence serves as an accessible mode of communication. By disrupting their “othering,” the men seek to give voice and power back to racialized migrant workers. For them, this project is a political act of resistance.

“We participate to get our voice heard. We want change in the way people view us and our plight.”The Conversation


Reena Kukreja, Assistant Professor, Global Development 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, Director, Thought Leadership and Strategic Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.


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