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The cultural sector needs support in order to benefit from a digital remake

A man records a Concert with his phone
The pandemic shifted many concerts, events and performances online. (Unsplash/John Mark Arnold)

The COVID-19 crisis has dealt a massive blow to the cultural and creative sectors in Canada and around the world. The impact was broad and deep.

In 2020, museums were closed for an average of more than 155 days, and in 2021, many of them had to shut their doors again, resulting in a 70 per cent drop in attendance.

The film industry, which relies heavily on box office revenue, has seen most theatrical releases cancelled or delayed. The crisis shook the book publishing industry, putting smaller publishers at risk and delaying the launch of several new books and literary works. Music festivals, concerts and plays were forced online, delayed or cancelled and many artists had to find other work.

When these sectors hurt, Canada hurts.

Creative industries have long been one of the leading drivers of innovation and economic growth in this country, making up almost three per cent of the GDP. By promoting social inclusion and social capital, the cultural sector is a key contributor to well-being as well. Our culture drives our identity as community and as country.

Just above survival level

The pandemic has exposed the structural fragility of the businesses and people foundational to supporting the cultural and creative sectors.

For the most part, these are small businesses, non-profit organizations like art centres, fairs, festivals, museums or theaters and independent artists and creative professionals like writers, painters or musicians — many who are operating just above survival level.

The pandemic has removed their main sources of revenue but has not diminished their costs of creation. If they go under, they may never recover. This would create a long-lasting dent in the production of cultural content in Canada.

Even though the federal and provincial governments have implemented support policies for organizations and professionals affected by the pandemic, the measures have not adapted to the new reality.

Supports also appear to be poorly targeted and fail to account for the medium- and long-term impact of digital transformation on how we produce and consume cultural products and experiences.

For many arts institutions and creative professionals, continued survival and relevance will hinge on how well they can transition from in-person to digital. Doing so will build their resilience to face future shocks and offer an economical pathway to reach larger audiences.

Supply and demand

In the near future, emerging technologies such as virtual and augmented reality have the potential to fuel new types of cultural experiences that can be marketed not only to large audiences but also to new audiences who were not consuming the cultural content before.

In economic terms, digitalization has affected both the demand and supply for cultural content. Thanks to increasingly sophisticated technology and the adoption of digital devices to experience things remote because of the pandemic, consumers have developed a taste for new ways to “tour” museums, “attend” theatre and participate in book readings.

For culture producers, this has forced them to re-imagine not only what and how they create but also their business methods, distribution channels, advertising and funding.

Digitalization of cultural experiences

The digitalization of cultural experiences takes many shapes and forms: musicians streaming concerts when live concerts aren’t possible, museums providing online tours or online book releases with authors reading from their homes.

The pandemic forced cultural producers to think about how they might transition the delivery of their cultural content from in-person to digital in ways that wouldn’t diminish the experience of cultural consumers.

Digitalization has affected competition as well, in cross-cutting ways. It has lowered the cost of starting a new culture-based enterprises, which should spur competition. But it has also led to greater concentration among those who are able to adapt to the digital world, adding to the decade-long trend of increased market concentration in cinemas, radio, television and the press.

Greater market concentration usually leads to higher prices and poorer quality, with serious long-term consequences for access and diversity of content — that is the most worrisome.

Access to culture and the guarantee of respect to one’s culture are not only rights explicitly recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and promoted by the United Nations and UNESCO, but they are quintessential to our identity as a community and country.

Policy interventions

Given the importance of access to culture, public policy interventions must aim to support the digitalization of cultural experiences as one way to help face the uncertainty of the future.

Even in stable times, governments have struggled to adapt their policies to the nontraditional business models that mark the cultural sector. That needs to change.

The form of measures and aid provided can vary but two objectives must be prioritized.

One, the aid must help to guarantee the survival of companies and organizations, employees and artists who make access to culture possible. Cultural producers — particularly those that are small and independent — will need help to build their digital skills.

And two, looking to the future, the aid must be competition-neutral — business and organizations must not be favoured over others — to ensure lively innovation by new entrants. If necessary, anti-competition law should be applied to avoid abusive practices that reduce access to culture.

With the fulfilment of both conditions, we can emerge from this crisis a culturally stronger and more forward-looking and resilient country than before.The Conversation


Ricard Gil, Associate Professor, Smith School of Business, 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.

Showcase your research … but do it quickly

The Three Minute Thesis graduate student competition tests the ability to present one’s research projects in a clear, concise way in only 180 seconds.

  • Participants and judges gather at the end of the Queen’s Three Minute Thesis competition at Mitchell Hall. The winning presentation was delivered by Amtul Haq Ayesha, who participated remotely. (Queen's University)
    Participants and judges gather at the end of the Queen’s Three Minute Thesis competition at Mitchell Hall. The winning presentation was delivered by Amtul Haq Ayesha, who participated remotely. (Queen's University)
  • Navjit Gaurav, a PhD student in Rehabilitation Science, was selected as the runner-up in the Queen's Three Minute Thesis for his presentation 'What goes inside a designer's mind?' (Queen's University)
    Navjit Gaurav was selected as the runner-up in the Queen's Three Minute Thesis for his presentation 'What goes inside a designer's mind?' (Queen's University)
  • Lydia Johnson, a master's student in biology, delivers her presentation 'Why is two better than one' during the Queen’s Three Minute Thesis final competition at Mitchell Hall. (Queen's University)
    Lydia Johnson delivers her presentation 'Why is two better than one' during the Queen’s Three Minute Thesis final competition at Mitchell Hall. (Queen's University)
  • Provost Mark Green, one of the judges at the Queen’s Three Minute Thesis final competition, listens to Amtul Haq Ayesha, a master's student in computing, as she makes her presentation remotely. (Queen's University)
    Provost Mark Green, one of the judges at the Queen’s Three Minute Thesis final competition, listens to Amtul Haq Ayesha, a master's student in computing, as she makes her presentation remotely. (Queen's University)

It is often challenging for researchers to summarize their findings into a paper to be published or into a short presentation for a meeting, let alone to put years of work into a three-minute pitch. But that’s exactly the challenge proposed by the Three Minute Thesis Competition (3MT) organized by Queen’s School of Graduate Studies.

Each year, masters and doctoral candidates are invited to present their research and its impact in front of selected non-specialist judges and a live audience. The winner gets to represent Queen’s in an Ontario-wide 3MT event and can be among the few selected to participate in national and international competitions. This year marks the 10th year Queen’s has hosted a 3MT.

On March 24, the 10 finalists who made it through qualifying heats showcased their ability to communicate research in a clear, engaging way. The winner of the $1,000 grand prize was Amtul Haq Ayesha, a master’s student in the School of Computing. She will represent Queen’s at the Ontario-wide 3MT competition to be hosted at the University of Guelph on May 4.

Working on methods to allow remote measuring of vital signs – heart rate, oxygen saturation, blood pressure, and others – using online video calls, Ayesha has dived deep enough into technical knowledge to understand how challenging it can be to talk about her research in a way non-experts can engage with.

“When you have spent such a long time on one project, everything in your mind is crystal clear. This makes us think that whatever we are talking is very simple to understand,” she says. “But when someone hears your subject for the first time, it takes time to absorb and understand. That is the most challenging part – to infer how much a person hearing about it (and for only three minutes) comprehends. As presenters, we want the audience to understand everything clearly”.

Ayesha believes participating in 3MT helped her practice “the art of explaining the technical jargon in such simple words that the audience relates with it” – an ability she foresees being very useful in her journey as a researcher.

Watch Ayesha's winning presentation:


Lessons learned on how to communicate research

Another presenter that stood out to the judges was PhD candidate Navjit Gaurav (Rehabilitation Science), the runner-up for this year’s competition. He presented his project on new ways to design schools in India to promote inclusion of children with disabilities.

For Gaurav, the main challenges of the research communications exercise were managing time, speaking in a jargon-free way, and knowing what not to communicate.

“Most of the time we have a lot to convey, and we think each piece of information is indispensable. We had to reflect on what is the most important thing that we want the audience to know about our research,” he explains.

To prepare for his presentation, Gaurav practiced with family members who are not familiar with his area of expertise. He believes this was very useful to help him craft his pitch in plain language to engage non-expert audiences.

Watch Gaurav's presentation:


People’s choice voting is open

The 10 finalists that participated in Queen’s 3MT final event are now competing for a People’s Choice prize. Voting will be open today from 4 p.m., until April 6 at 4 p.m. For more information and to cast your vote, visit the website.

A tool to boost cancer care access

New index assesses need for radiotherapy equipment and can guide investments in cancer care infrastructure.

Linear accelerator (LINAC)
Radiation therapy is one of the pillars of cancer treatment. However, many countries lack the appropriate infrastructure, compromising access to cancer care. (National Cancer Institute/ Unsplash)

Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, is one of the pillars of curative oncology and plays a key role in providing better outcomes for patients with some of the most common cancers, like prostate or breast cancers. In high-income countries, over a half of all cancer patients receive radiation therapy to cure or control the disease, and sometimes for palliative care. However, many developing countries still face radiotherapy equipment shortages that compromise access to even basic or standard cancer care.

In a study led by Queen’s and University of São Paulo (Brazil), researchers developed a new tool to help set priorities for radiotherapy infrastructure building: an index that combines information on linear accelerators (LINACs) – the primary technology used in radiation therapy – distribution, cancer incidence, and the distance patients need to travel to access radiotherapy services.

A pilot analysis was conducted using data from the public health system in Brazil. Results, published in Lancet Oncology show that all Brazilian states have insufficient numbers of LINACs. “There is a national LINAC shortage: Brazil has 121 per cent less than the required radiotherapy capacity,” highlights Fabio Ynoe de Moraes, oncologist and assistant professor in Queen’s Health Sciences, who led the study.

Although the situation is worse in Brazil's poorer regions, like Midwest, North, and Northeast, even states with stronger healthcare infrastructure face equipment shortages. Dr. Moraes was surprised to realize that only 30 per cent of cancer patients in the São Paulo state, the wealthiest in Brazil, are receiving radiation therapy. “Literature suggests that 50-60 per cent of patients should receive radiotherapy during their cancer journey,” he says.

Fabio Moraes
Fabio Ynoe de Moraes, oncologist and assistant professor in Queen’s Health Sciences.

Another concerning result is that, because some states have little to no available equipment, patients often must travel long distances to access therapy. For instance, the data show some patients in Amazonas needed to travel an average of 3,841 kilometers to São Paulo to receive treatment.

The team hopes the analysis can assist in public health planning, prioritizing regions with the most need for radiotherapy infrastructure. “Connecting to decision makers and high-level politicians is our end goal now in Brazil, but we know how challenging it can be. We started by engaging some key stakeholders, like the Brazilian societies supporting oncology and NGOs, and distributing our results via our social media networks,” says Dr. Moraes.

In addition to advocating for better cancer care in Brazil, Dr. Moraes and his colleagues also plan to use the same index to evaluate radiation therapy infrastructure in other countries, including Canada and the US.

“The problems of access and distribution of LINACS are not unique to Brazil,” Dr. Moraes states, noting that even higher-income countries face challenges regarding equality in cancer care. Even in these nation access to LINACs, he believes, is usually uneven and tends to benefit wealthier patients. 

In Canada, we see patients needing to travel hundreds of kilometers to reach a cancer care centre, and treatments can be limited by patients’ ability to access transportation or financial constraints. “If you consider that a standard radiotherapy treatment encompasses five to 35 visits to a cancer centre, it will translate to thousands of kilometres travelled, and also expenses on gas, hotel, food, and parking,” warns Dr. Moraes.

Accessing appropriate infrastructure, while fundamental for cancer care, is not all, and countries face additional challenges in guaranteeing long-term sustainability of radiation facilities, including training human resources, doing overtime maintenance and, when needed, upgrades. Regulatory, technical, and societal investments are also needed to expand access to radiation therapy, including, for instance, safety regulations, power supply chains, and meeting parking and road needs.

Dr. Moraes hopes that the new tool can be used to inform decisions regarding cancer care access worldwide. “We believe that the LS index can have a substantial impact on public health planning and investment not only in Brazil, but globally,” he says.

Call for UN to help Haitians affected by cholera

A United Nations’ mission introduced cholera to the country, but its promises to compensate those who suffered remain largely unfulfilled.

Street in Haiti
Former UN base in Cité Soleil (blue and white building) with damage around from an earthquake. Cité Soleil is a division of the capital city, Port-au-Prince, in Haiti.

Cholera is an infection of the small intestine caused by ingesting food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, which can be deadly. The bacteria can easily spread through water and to humans, especially in places with poor sanitation and lack of clean drinking water. A new article in The Lancet Regional Health - Americas, co-authored by Queen’s global health researcher Susan Bartels (Emergency Medicine) and Sandra Wisner, senior staff attorney with the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, raises awareness of the cholera epidemic in Haiti caused by United Nations peacekeepers.

The peacekeeping mission inadvertently introduced cholera into Haiti's most extensive water source in October 2010, after sewage leaked from a UN camp housing cholera-infected peacekeepers. Since 2010, confirmed cholera infections have claimed around 10,000 lives and infected over 820,000 people in the country.

In 2016, after the UN acknowledged its part in spreading cholera in Haiti, it promised financial assistance for improved water and sanitation infrastructure and assistance for families affected by cholera. These promises have largely gone unfulfilled, especially the assistance for families. What concerns Dr. Bartels is that the UN will be able to declare Haiti cholera-free if there are no new cases of cholera transmission in three years — and the three-year period was reached at end of January 2022. Due to the pandemic, cholera testing decreased in Haiti as health care providers pivoted to focus on COVID-19. This has raised doubts about whether there is truly no cholera transmission in Haiti or whether it is just not being detected with the decreased testing.

Dr. Bartels says the pressing concern is that the UN might disengage even further once the country is declared ‘cholera-free’ and that the support and assistance owed to affected community members will not be provided. Dr. Bartels’ Lancet publication is a call-to-action for the UN to uphold their financial commitments to Haiti.

“We wrote this Lancet article to raise awareness about the fact that Haitian community members affected by cholera are still waiting on the assistance and support promised by the UN. In 2016, when the UN finally acknowledged their role in the cholera epidemic, the organization promised $200 million towards cholera elimination and improved water and sanitation infrastructure, in addition to $200 million towards material assistance for cholera-affected families. For the most part, Haitian community members are yet to receive this support,” Dr. Bartels says.

As well, research has shown that despite the UN's promises to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene, there is an ongoing lack of access to clean water and adequate sanitation in Haiti.

To learn more about Dr. Bartels’ research on sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by UN peacekeepers against host community members, please visit this website.

For Dr. Bartels, this work initially began as research into sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by UN peacekeepers in Haiti, and quickly expanded to include a focus on cholera. The topic of cholera came up repeatedly in the surveys and discussions with Haitian partner organizations. Since little data about how Haitian community members were affected by the cholera outbreak exists, Dr. Bartels and her team felt it was important to analyze the collected data for advocacy purposes. 

Dr. Bartels began researching cholera in Haiti in 2017, conducting mixed qualitative and quantitative research. This was done in collaboration with three Haitian organizations Komisyon Fanm Viktim pou Viktim, the former Enstiti Travay Sosyal ak Syans Sosyal, and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti/ Bureau des Avocats Internationaux.

Studies have shown that cholera has had significant socio-economic impacts in Haiti, with a relationship between cholera and household food insecurity.

“The structural violence, including that introduced by foreign intervention in Haiti, needs to be recognized and addressed as it continues to contribute to intergenerational cycles of poverty and oppression,” Dr. Bartels says. “It is important for the UN to provide the remedies promised in 2016. It is equally important, however, to ensure that all Haitian community members have access to clean water and appropriate sanitation.”

For more information, read the article in the Lancet.

Creating meaningful change through the arts

Queen’s researcher, Ben Bolden, UNESCO Chair in Arts and Learning, is committed to improving access to arts education worldwide.

Ben Bolden
Ben Bolden, associate professor in the Faculty of Education and UNESCO Chair in Arts and Learning.

For Ben Bolden, a musician, composer, researcher and associate professor in the Faculty of Education, arts have always helped to transform the world. Bolden is a passionate advocate for arts education and its possibilities for empowering people to address some of the world’s biggest challenges. Now beginning his second term as the UNESCO Chair in Arts and Learning, he leads initiatives that aim to foster arts education – including music, drama, dance, and visual arts – in Canada and internationally.

His efforts align with some of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 4: Quality Education, which seeks to advance inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Arts education, believes Dr. Bolden, can be a powerful tool to help learners understand themselves and their relationship with the wider world. He recently spoke to the Gazette about his research goals, current projects, and how Queen’s can contribute to improving arts education globally.

Can you tell me about your mandate as the UNESCO Chair in Arts and Learning?

A UNESCO chair is an individual or a team at a higher education or research institution who partners with UNESCO to advance knowledge and practice in an area that is a priority for both the institution and UNESCO. For me, that priority area is arts education.  The mandate of the UNESCO Chair in Arts and Learning is to promote access to and quality of arts education through research, communication, and collaboration, in alignment with the UNESCO priorities for education, culture, and sustainable development.

The role is a good fit for me because I’ve had the privilege of benefitting from all kinds of arts education, since I was very young. While this education certainly didn’t make me into a great artist, it did make my life infinitely richer. And when I started teaching in schools I wanted desperately to help others tap into all the wonderful things the arts can offer. But as teachers we are constantly learning, and my goal is to figure out how I, and others, can be effective teachers in and through the arts.

You’re starting a collaboration with the UNESCO associated Schools Network (ASPnet) to develop materials that will support arts education within 11,500 schools worldwide. What are the main goals of this program and what are its main challenges?

UNESCO focuses on what is called transformative education, that is, education that can help students transform themselves and the world they live in. Through transformative education, we educate learners so that they can address real challenges – climate change, sustainability, promoting peace. We are developing a model to communicate and illustrate how teachers can support transformative education with arts learning experiences.

A major challenge is to do something meaningful for people across cultures. We plan to describe specific practices – things that teachers and/or students are doing in different contexts around the world – that will help illustrate what this kind of education can look like.

Mural shows a hand holding a small plant
Receiving and creating arts are both ways to build students' understanding of the world and their relationship with topics like climate change and conservation. (Jonne Huotari/ Unsplash)

How can arts education support the achievement of the SDGs beyond addressing access to quality education?

This is very much at the heart of the transformative education model: helping learners better understand what they can do to support the SDGs. Thinking about climate change, for example, arts education might lead to creating a mural that identifies negative effects of climate change, or how people can work locally to minimize its impacts.

Queen’s is committed to advancing the UN SDGs through our research, teaching, outreach and stewardship activities. For more information on the contributions the university is making to social impact and sustainability, visit the website.

That’s an obvious example. But there are also more subtle ones. The real value in arts education is to provide opportunity for learners to better understand themselves and their relationship with the world. The SDGs are all about that relationship, and the importance of nurturing it. Art is a brilliant tool for building understanding. By receiving art – listening to music, experiencing drama and dance, spending time with creative writing and visual artworks – we can gain new perspectives on all sorts of issues, and think about how to negotiate our own interactions with them. Mental health, inequality, peace, justice: What do those things mean to us? To others? How do we position ourselves in relation to them? What can we do? The arts tell the stories that help us find answers.

And arts education is not only about receiving art but also creating it. Let me offer an example. Dance students in Argentina virtually collaborated, during a recent Covid lockdown, to explore and communicate what it meant to them to be confined in bedrooms and apartments, dancing alone. The new relationships that developed with physical surroundings. Dancing in tiny spaces between the wall and the edge of the bed. In making the compilation video the dancers explored what it meant to be confined in this way and how to metaphorically step beyond those confines. By watching the video, I came to understand what that experience was like for those dancers, and I gained new perspective on my own lockdown experiences—the new relationships that I developed with my own physical surroundings, and indeed with myself.

Tell me about the arts education projects Queen’s has been supporting in Nigeria?

We have been working with three NGOs that support education in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa: 1 Million Teachers, Five Cowries Arts Education Initiative, and Girl Rising. Together they have established a fantastic teacher education program, online modules that people who are learning to be teachers can access on their cell phones. These is such a need for teachers, and so few resources to help them. I am now supporting the development of a new module on arts education.

This June, Kingston will be hosting an event and exhibition called Muna Taro to build awareness of the work that these three groups have been doing and to increase connections with the Queen’s, St. Lawrence College, and Kingston communities.

International group of arts education researchers
International network of arts education researchers gathered in Winnipeg in 2019.

You helped set up an international research group focused on arts education, gathering researchers and students from countries like Singapore, New Zealand, Germany, Colombia, Thailand, Kazakhstan, Kenya, and others. What were the lessons you learned from this experience?

We are all researching and advocating for improving arts education around the world. But that looks very different from context to context. We did a global survey of expert art educators, trying to better understand how arts education, its benefits and its challenges are conceptualized and understood in different countries.

One of the lessons I’ve learned is that there are many nuanced aspects to how we understand the arts and indeed education differently. That’s one of the joys I’ve experienced working with this international group —the opportunity to gain new perspectives over and over again.

Recently, I have also been organizing international seminars for graduate students working across the globe, where we become aware of the many approaches to arts education and to arts education research.

You’ve spoken about the role of the chair in advancing arts education worldwide. Are there similar initiatives in Canada?

My chair predecessor, Queen’s professor emeritus Larry O'Farrell, established the Canadian Network for Arts & Learning (CNAL) and I work regularly with this network on a number of initiatives.

One of these is a national campaign to increase awareness about the health benefits of engaging in the arts. Another project, funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, aimed to build digital strategies for arts and learning in Canada. The project connected people within the sector to share and raise awareness about digital tools and resources that can support the work of artists and artist educators.

One such resource, that CNAL created, is an interactive tool to map arts education initiatives across Canada. It’s a central registry for the sector: people who are offering arts education activities can put themselves on the map, and people interested in arts education can look for opportunities. The map has already listed over 9000 organizations and professionals.

Protecting a critical resource

In recognition of the UN's World Water Day, Queen's researcher Sarah Jane Payne speaks about the importance of water quality and access in combating a global crisis affecting over two billion people. 

[Photo of Dr. Sarah Jane Payne]
Dr. Sarah Jane Payne (Civil Engineering)

Clean drinking water is a critical component for sustainable development – from poverty reduction to economic growth and environmental sustainability. Currently, according to the United Nations (UN) there is a global water crisis affecting almost 2.2 billion people who lack access to safe water. To raise awareness of the crisis and support the global work advancing Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation the UN identified March 22 as World Water Day.

To learn more about innovations in water system infrastructure, the role of sanitation during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the improvements needed to provide equal access to clean water in Canada, the Gazette spoke with Queen’s researcher Sarah Jane Payne (Civil Engineering). An expert in emerging water contaminants and water quality management, Dr. Payne previously worked in the federal public service holding roles in water, wastewater, and environmental policy and regulation for Environment and Climate Change Canada and Health Canada. At Queen’s, she is Co-Lead of the Queen’s COVID-19 Wastewater Surveillance Initiative and Co-Director of the Drinking Water Quality Group (DWQG), an affiliated research program of the Contaminants of Emerging Concern-Research Excellence Network (CEC-REN).

Could you tell us more about the Drinking Water Quality Group and facilities such as the Drinking Water Distribution Lab (DWDL) at Queen’s and how they support your research?

Queen’s is home to two world-class facilities with labs at Mitchell Hall and the Drinking Water Distribution Lab (DWDL). In fact, DWDL is only one of two full-scale research facilities in the world and the only one in North America. When I started working at Queen’s, I quickly discovered that I had many complementary academic interests with DWDL’s lead Yves Filion (Civil Engineering). We formed the Drinking Water Quality Group as a way for us to envision and explore complex, collaborative, and interdisciplinary research, recruit students, and situate Queen’s at the centre for solving critical issues in the water industry.

Currently, the Group is focused on understanding and predicting drinking water quality deterioration and looking for ways to prevent it, specifically through analyzing utilities data collected for regulatory compliance purposes. The DWDL allows us to conduct research in a controlled environment and look at the causes of drinking water discolouration or the accumulation of contaminants on pipe walls and learn about the optimal ways to remove them. We can also conduct smaller scale experiments in Mitchell Hall that allows us to further isolate the key mechanisms. Combining all of this knowledge together, we plan to develop machine learning tools to help predict high risk areas for water quality deterioration. This type of artificial intelligence (AI) tool could allow utilities to optimize their resources by strategically targeting the right areas for maintenance or replacing problematic pipe materials.

[Photo of Simon van der Plas preparing a wastewater sample for analysis]
Simon van der Plas prepares a wastewater sample for analysis. [Supplied photo] 

What is something people may be surprised to know affects their local water quality and what actions could to be taken to minimize harmful effects?

The question I get asked the most is: do I drink tap water? I do! I am a tap water enthusiast, and I enjoy taste testing tap water in different cities. The challenge with local water quality is that the problems can be very localized and can even be specific to your home. Awareness of what issues you might encounter and knowing where to find resources to help is key.

My two biggest "local" water concerns are for private wells and lead service lines. Private wells can become contaminated and pose risks for users such as gastrointestinal illness. The most important thing owners can do is test their wells routinely for microbial contaminants. In Ontario, this water testing is free and there are several resources and actions owners can take to improve their well water quality if needed.

My other big worry is about lead exposure and its harmful effects for infants and children as a powerful neurotoxin. The largest sources of lead in drinking water come from building plumbing materials, such as the service line connecting the distribution system to your house (allowed until 1975), lead tin solder (allowed until 1986), and brass fittings that could contain up to 8 per cent lead (allowed until 2014). Depending on the age of the home, I advise people to connect with their local water utility to ask whether or not lead service lines are expected in their neighbourhood and to have their water tested if needed. If lead is present, there are several options for eliminating it or using a certified treatment device and flushing your taps every day.

[Post-Doctoral Fellow, Dr. Abdul Rahman Alashraf examines the results of a test for viruses]
Post-Doctoral Fellow Abdul Rahman Alashraf examines the results of a test for viruses. [Supplied Photo]

How did you pivot your wastewater research to confront COVID-19? Your team has been working in partnership with Utilities Kingston, Loyalist Township, the City of Cornwall, and KFL&A Public Health to monitor trends in transmission locally, do you plan to build on your partnerships for future collaborations?

One my undergraduate students asked me if there was a connection between COVID-19 and wastewater. In searching for an answer, I read about some early and important proof-of-concept work out of the Netherlands that also suggested that SARS-CoV-2 wastewater surveillance could be both an early warning tool and non-invasive and inexpensive way to monitor the level of infection in a whole community. There was a lot of initial skepticism that it could be done at all, as detection is almost a needle in a very inhospitable haystack. However, through highly collaborative and open research endeavours provincially, nationally, and globally wastewater-based epidemiology has generated a whirlwind of scientific discovery and insight.

At Queen’s, Stephen Brown (Chemistry) and I lead an amazing team of post-doctoral fellows, technical staff, graduate, undergraduate, and summer students who are working tirelessly in the lab to hone this technique and explore its application possibilities. We have plans to advance wastewater-based epidemiology to monitor other viruses and bacteria as an early warning system for public health decision makers. We are also looking to optimize analysis for other targets and refine the technique as the applications expand.

Our utility and municipal partners are vital to this project and provide sample collection and operational expertise to interpreting sample quality issues. We share the data with our public health unit partners and it is used in their situation awareness and public resources, such as KFL&A Public Health’s COVID-19 in Wastewater dashboard. It is a privilege to do work that is helpful to public health decision makers and an honour to work with the talented people on our team, our partners, as well as our colleagues across Ontario, Canada, and around the world. This project to confront COVID-19 has been the most unexpected, challenging, collaborative, and also the most rewarding work of my career. I’m very excited about our future work together, and the opportunity to protect public health through advancing wastewater science and engineering research.

While Canada is a freshwater-rich country, many here to do not have access to safe and clean water, particularly in Indigenous communities. The federal government has identified water treatment systems and infrastructure as crucial investments with a significant focus on renovating and upgrading existing systems to expand access. What key innovations and developments do you think are needed to retrofit Canada’s ageing water infrastructure for a sustainable future?

For innovations and development, I think of two things. The first is a community-based approach to ensure that the infrastructure is what a community wants, needs, and can operate and maintain. The second is a fulsome definition of sustainability that ensures adequate funding for operation and maintenance, resources for the recruitment, training, and retaining of talent to operate and maintain that infrastructure, and that the infrastructure is robust, efficient, resilient, and climate change ready.

Water is essential to life, and it is a universal need. We need to value it, protect it, celebrate it, and make sure that we can all access it.

What you do every day matters: The power of routines

Routines can be powerful tools to help people build a ‘new normal’ as pandemic restrictions lift. Routines can support creativity, boost health and provide meaningful activities and opportunities.

Close up of an organizer book
As COVID-19 public health measures begin to relax, reflecting on routines and their value is useful when moving toward a ‘new normal.’  (Unsplash/Eric Rothermel)

The word “routine” can bring to mind words like mundane or ordinary. During the pandemic’s disruptions to daily life, routines may have felt boring and restrictive. However, as an occupational therapist and researcher of the impact of activity and participation on mental health, I know that routines can be powerful tools. They can support cognitive function, boost health and provide meaningful activities and social opportunities.

The ConversationEarly in the pandemic, researchers pointed to the value of daily routines to cope with change. As the two-year anniversary of the pandemic coincides with the relaxation of public health measures across the country, reflecting on routines and their value is useful when moving toward a “new normal.”

Routines support cognitive function

First, having a daily routine and regular habits supports cognitive function and may even free people up to be more creative. Research has found that having regular work processes allows workers to spend less cognitive energy on recurring tasks, which can support focus and creativity for more complex tasks.

Think of typical morning routines that existed before the pandemic: helping family members get on their way, taking a usual route to work, grabbing a warm beverage along the way, saying hello to coworkers, flipping on a computer or opening a calendar. Having habits like these can set the stage for a productive work day.

A review of the daily rituals of influential artists found that many artists have well defined work routines which may support their creativity rather than constrain it. Memory research shows that regular routines and habits can support older adults to function better in their home environments.

If taking medications at the same time and putting the keys in their spot is part of a daily routine, less energy will be spent looking for lost objects and worrying about maintaining one’s health, freeing up time for other things people want to do in their day.

Making time for exercise within routines can help meet recommended daily activity levels.
Making time for exercise within routines can help meet recommended daily activity levels.(Unsplash/Dylan Gillis)

Routines promote health

Regular routines can also help people feel like they have control over their daily lives and that they can take positive steps in managing their health. For example, making time for exercise within routines can help meet recommended daily activity levels. This is especially relevant now, since research shows that people who reduced their activity levels during the pandemic could experience enduring health effects.

As people increase activity outside their homes, they might consider taking transit to school and work, returning to organized fitness activities and the gym and opportunities to include movement throughout the day. Other ways that routines can support health include regular meal preparation and getting enough sleep, activities that seem simple but can pay dividends in healthy aging over a lifetime.

Routines provide meaning

Regular routines can also go beyond the streamlining of daily tasks and add some spice to life. Evidence indicates that a health-promoting activity like walking can offer chances to enjoy nature, explore new places and socialize.

Research on the concept of flow, a state of full absorption in the present moment, shows that activities like sports, games, fine arts and music can be fulfilling and reinforcing. Regular participation in meaningful and engaging activities can also contribute positively to mental health.

Small steps to build routines

If you think your daily routines could use a tune up, consider some small steps:

• Use a day-timer or smart phone app to organize your activities and put the things you want to do in your schedule.

• Choose a regular time to wake up and to go to bed and try to stick to it most days of the week.

• Make physical activity manageable with neighbourhood walks or bike rides a few times a week.

• Start a new hobby or re-engage in a past one, like playing sports or games, making arts and crafts, playing an instrument or singing.

• Keep an eye out for meaningful activities that may be popping back up in your community, like a book club at the library or a social walking group.

Routines have the power to help us manage our health and our work, home and community lives. Two years after the pandemic changed everyone’s lives, people now have an opportunity to consider the routines they want to keep and the meaningful things they need in their daily lives to stay productive, happy and healthy.The Conversation


Megan Edgelow, Assistant Professor in 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.

Human-induced salt pollution a major threat to biodiversity in lakes

On World Water Day, we learn how Government guidelines across North America and Europe fail to protect lakes from salt pollution.

Two Queen's students on a boat conducting an experiment.
Queen's student Danielle Greco (R), a Masters of Science student, led one of the experiments with Queen's summer student Brooke Rathie (L).

During the freezing months of winter, de-icing salt is commonly used by households to make their walkways and driveways safer, and by communities to salt their roads. What many of us don’t think about are the ramifications this salt can have on our water systems. Significant damage is being done to freshwater lakes by salt concentrations that are below ranges government regulators have deemed safe and protective of freshwater organisms.

An international study led by Queen’s researcher Shelley Arnott (Biology) and Bill Hintz (Ecology) of the University of Toledo has found that the salinity of freshwater ecosystems caused by road de-icing salts, agriculture fertilizers, mining operations, and climate change is increasing worldwide, and current water quality guidelines are not effective.

The research, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), was conducted at 16 sites in four countries. Dozens of scientists across North America and Europe collaborated on this research, including Queen’s students — Danielle Greco, Brooke Rathie, Alex McClymont, and Haley Richardson.

Too much salt in freshwater is problematic because it triggers a massive loss of zooplankton, a major food source for fish, and an increase in algae. Even lakes that met the lowest chloride thresholds established by governments in Canada, the U.S., and throughout Europe experience the negative effects of salination.

"The loss of zooplankton leading to more algae has the potential to alter lake ecosystems in ways that might change the services lakes provide, namely recreational opportunities, drinking water quality and fisheries," says Dr. Arnott. "More algae in the water could lead to a reduction in water clarity, which could affect organisms living on the bottom of lakes as well."

Two Queen's students conducting an experiment.
Queen's MSc student Alex McClymont, left, and summer student Haley Richardson conducting an experiment.

In Canada, the threshold for chloride concentration is around 120 milligrams of chloride per litre, in the U.S. it is around 230 milligrams of chloride per litre, and in Europe this threshold is generally much higher. It can take less than a teaspoon to pollute five gallons of water to the point that is harmful for many aquatic organisms.

But the study shows that negative impacts occur well below those limits. At 11 of the 16 study sites, sodium chloride concentration thresholds that caused more than a 50 per cent reduction in zooplankton were either at or below the established Canadian government chloride thresholds.

Dr. Arnott and the other researchers say the results indicate a major threat to the biodiversity, water quality and functioning of freshwater ecosystems and there is an urgency for governments to reassess current threshold concentrations.

"Salt pollution occurring from human activities such as the use of road de-icing salts is increasing the salinity of freshwater ecosystems to the point that the guidelines designed to protect fresh waters aren’t doing their job," says Dr. Hintz. "Our study shows the ecological costs of salinization and illustrates the immediate need to reassess and reduce existing sodium chloride thresholds and to set sound guidelines in countries where they do not exist to protect lakes from salt pollution."

The researchers suggest that new thresholds should integrate the susceptibility of ecological communities at the local and regional scale. Government must also strike a careful balance between human use of salt responsible for freshwater salinization with ecological impacts, such as reducing or finding alternatives to the amount of road salt used to melt snow and ice in the winter.

For more information on the study, read the paper in PNAS

Advancing microscopic imaging

New imaging method allows the capture of high resolution and tridimensional images with applications in health care and diagnostics.

 The image illustrates the novel Bijective Illumination Collection Imaging (BICI) concept using metasurfaces.
The image illustrates the novel Bijective Illumination Collection Imaging (BICI) concept using metasurfaces.

Imaging technologies are key to modern medicine and diagnosis at an early stage, potentially improving patient outcomes. Microscopic imaging allows researchers and professionals to look directly into cells, making it possible to visualize structures and processes that were once invisible. However, an important limitation of current technology is that microscopic imaging in high-resolution is limited to bidimensional (2-D) images obtained in microscope slides, while tissue structures are tridimensional (3-D). For decades, scientists have been looking for a way to address this challenge and obtain 3-D microscopic images.

A paper published in Nature Photonics co-authored by Majid Pahlevani (Electrical and Computer Engineering) and collaborators at Harvard University describes a new technique that can enhance state-of-the-art microscopes, allowing an increase in image resolution, while also making 3-D microscopic imaging possible.

One of the main challenges of imaging on a microscopic scale is tackling diffraction – the rapid spread of tightly focused light – as the phenomenon hampers the obtainment of high-resolution images. In the study, the researchers show that a particular disposition of light and a path created by an ultra-thin optical component composed of an array of nanocolumns on a glass surface (see figures A and B) can break the limitations otherwise imposed by diffraction, thus solving the problem.  An optical lens with this arrangement could be built into the next generation of microscopic imaging devices.

 “This method, named bijective illumination collection imaging (BICI), can extend the range of high-resolution imaging by over 12-fold compared to the state-of-the-art imaging techniques,” says Pahlevani, an expert in energy and power electronics and their applications in healthcare. He is a member of the Queen’s Centre for Energy and Power Electronics Research (ePOWER). “Unlike conventional imaging techniques, in BICI, the light which illuminates the target and the light collected from the target are distributed along the depth using the nanostructures, making it possible to preserve high resolution imaging along a large depth into the tissue.”

Microscopic imaging in three dimensions enables numerous biological and clinical applications, like providing insight into the intercellular mechanisms, and enabling cancer cell detection and in vivo (in the body) real-time diagnosis.

Another key benefit of the new method is how fast it is to process. “Computationally intensive techniques result in slow imaging, which is not suitable for in vivo imaging,” explains Dr. Pahlevani. “Organs in live patients are not stationary and move, which give rise to artifacts in imaging. Therefore, in vivo imaging requires fast techniques”. Because the new proposed technique is an optical solution for increasing microscopic imaging resolution, it does not require additional computational capacity. 

The Nature Photonics paper highlights cancer diagnoses as one of the main applications for the new method: “Pathological changes in the early stages of diseases like cancer are often very subtle and can be easily overlooked. In vivo high-resolution imaging maintained in a large depth range has the potential to enable early and accurate detection and diagnosis”. Dr. Pahlevani is confident BICI can be applied to several existing imaging techniques.

When you eat matters: How your eating rhythms impact your mental health

Healthy eating is not just what you eat, but when you eat. Eating rhythms that are in sync with the circadian clock can benefit general well-being and may have a protective effect against mental illness.

Healthy Food displayed on a white table
When it comes to healthy eating it is not just about what you eat, but also when you eat. (Unsplash/Brooke Lark)

Eating is an essential part of human life and it turns out that not only what we eat but when we eat can impact our brains. Irregular eating times have been shown to contribute to poor mental health, including depression and anxiety, as well as to cardio-metabolic diseases and weight gain.

The Conversation

Fortunately, it is possible to leverage our eating rhythms to limit negative mood and increase mental health. As a doctoral student in the field of neuropsychiatry and a psychiatrist studying nutrition and mood disorders, our research focuses on investigating how eating rhythms impact the brain.

Here’s how it all works: The circadian clock system is responsible for aligning our internal processes at optimal times of day based on cues from the environment such as light or food. Humans have evolved this wiring to meet energy needs that change a lot throughout the day and night, creating a rhythmic pattern to our eating habits that follows the schedule of the sun.

Although the main clock manages metabolic function over the day-night cycle, our eating rhythms also impact the main clock. Digestive tissues have their own clocks and show regular oscillations in functioning over the 24-hour cycle. For example, the small intestine and liver vary throughout the day and night in terms of digestive, absorptive and metabolic capacity.

When the main circadian clock in the brain is out of sync with eating rhythms, it impacts the brain’s ability to function fully. Even though the brain is only two per cent of our total body mass, it consumes up to 25 per cent of our energy and is particularly affected by changes in calorie intake. This means that abnormal meal times are bound to have negative health outcomes.

An image of an old Timex alarm clock
When the main circadian clock in the brain is out of sync with eating rhythms, it impacts the brain’s ability to function fully. (Unsplash/Sonja Langford)

Food and mood

Although the underlying mechanisms are still unknown, there is overlap between neural circuits governing eating and mood. Also, digestive hormones exert effects on dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a large role in mood, energy and pleasure. Individuals with depression and bipolar disorder have abnormal dopamine levels. Altered eating rhythms are thought to contribute to the poor maintenance of mood.

Irregular eating may even play a role in the complex underlying causes of mood disorders. For example, individuals with depression or bipolar disorder exhibit disturbed internal rhythms and irregular meal times, which significantly worsen mood symptoms. In addition, shift workers — who tend to have irregular eating schedules — demonstrate increased rates of depression and anxiety when compared to the general population. Despite this evidence, assessing eating rhythms is not currently part of standard clinical care in most psychiatric settings.

Optimizing eating rhythms

So, what can be done to optimize our eating rhythms? One promising method we have encountered in our research is time-restricted eating (TRE), also known as intermittent fasting.

TRE involves restricting the eating window to a certain amount of time during the day, typically four to 12 hours. For example, choosing to eat all meals and snacks in a 10-hour window from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. reflects an overnight fasting period. Evidence suggests that this method optimizes brain function, energy metabolism and the healthy signalling of metabolic hormones.

TRE has already been shown to prevent depressive and anxiety symptoms in animal studies designed to model shift work. The antidepressant effects of TRE have also been shown in humans. Eating on a regular schedule is also beneficial to reduce the risk of health issues such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Circadian rhythms in a 24-hour world

We live in a 24-hour world filled with artificial light and round-the-clock access to food. That makes the effects of disturbed eating rhythms on mental health an important topic for modern life. As more research provides data assessing eating rhythms in individuals with mood disorders, incorporating eating rhythm treatment into clinical care could significantly improve patient quality of life.

For the general population, it is important to increase public knowledge on accessible and affordable ways to maintain healthy eating. This includes paying attention not only to the content of meals but also to eating rhythms. Aligning eating rhythms with the schedule of the sun will have lasting benefits for general well-being and may have a protective effect against mental illness.The Conversation


Elena Koning, PhD Student, Centre for Neuroscience Studies, Queen's University and Elisa Brietzke, Professor, Department of Psychiatry, 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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