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Trust comes when you admit what you don’t know – lessons from child development research

A father talks with his child.
Children figure out who’s trustworthy as they learn about the world. (Unsplash/Sebatian Leon Prado) 

Consider the following situation: Two experts give you advice about whether you should eat or avoid the fat in common cooking oils.

The Conversation LogoOne of them tells you confidently that there are “good” or “bad” fats, so you can eat some oils and not others. The other is more hesitant, saying the science is mixed and it depends on the individual and the situation, so probably just best to avoid them all until more evidence is available, or see your doctor to find out what is best for you.

Whose advice do you follow?

Neither one of these experts is factually incorrect. But the confident source likely has some additional appeal. Research suggests that people are more likely to follow advice delivered with confidence and to reject advice delivered with hesitancy or uncertainty.

During the pandemic, public health officials have seemed to operate on this assumption – that confidence conveys expertise, leadership and authority and is necessary to get people to trust you. But public health recommendations about COVID-19 are complicated by the rapidly changing scientific understanding of the disease and its spread. Each time there’s new information, some of the old knowledge becomes obsolete and is replaced.

Over the course of the pandemic, Pew Research Center polling has found that the percentage of Americans who feel confused and less confident in public health officials’ recommendations because of changing guidelines has grown.

In a landscape of constantly changing science, is communicating with total confidence the best way to win public trust? Maybe not. Our research suggests that, in many cases, people trust those who are willing to say “I don’t know.”

We are psychological scientists who study the emergence, in childhood, of what is termed “epistemic trust” – which is trusting that someone is a knowledgeable and reliable source of information. Infants learn to trust their caregivers for other reasons – attachment bonds are formed based on love and consistent care.

But, from the time children are 3 or 4 years old, they also begin to trust people based on what they claim to know. In other words, from early in life our minds separate the love-and-care kind of trust from the sort of trust you need to get reliable, accurate information that helps you learn about the world. These are the origins of adult trust in experts – and in science.

Observing trust in the lab

The setup of our lab studies with kids is similar to our starting example above: Kids meet people and learn facts from them. One person sounds confident and the other sounds uncertain. The children in our studies are still in preschool, so we use simple “lessons” appropriate to the age group, often involving teaching children new made-up vocabulary words. We’re able to vary things about the “teachers” and see how children respond differently.

For instance, in the lab we find that children’s brain activity and learning are responsive to differences in tone between confidence and uncertainty. If you teach a 4-year-old a new word with confidence, they will learn it in one shot. But if you say “hmm, I’m not sure, I think this is called a …,” something changes.

Electrical activity in the brain shows that children both remember the event and learn the word when someone teaches with confidence. When someone communicates uncertainty, they remember the event but don’t learn the word.

If a speaker says they are unsure, it can actually help a listener separate memory of a specific thing they heard from facts they think must be widely known.

Effects of acknowledging uncertainty

In addition to forming accurate impressions in your memory, communicated uncertainty also helps you learn about cases that are uncertain by their nature. Disease transmission is one of these cases.

Our research shows that even 5-year-old children learn about uncertain data better from someone who expresses that uncertainty outright than someone who is confident that things will always work the same way.

In this study, kids saw cause-and-effect relations – objects turned on a music machine. Some objects (black ones) always made it go, others (yellow ones) never made it go, and still others made it go sometimes. For instance, red objects were 66% effective, and white objects were 33% effective.

One group of kids heard a contrast between red and white objects communicated with too much certainty: “Red ones make it go and white ones do not.” Later, kids in this group were confused when they had to distinguish these uncertain causes from more certain black and yellow ones.

Another group of kids heard the contrast communicated with uncertainty: “Maybe the red ones sometimes make it go, and the white ones sometimes do not.” Kids in this group were not confused. They learned that these objects were effective only sometimes, and they could distinguish them from objects that were always or never effective.

Children become skeptical of adults who are mixed up but confident.
Children become skeptical of adults who are mixed up but confident. (Unsplash/Vivek Kumar)

Overconfidence undermines trust

The studies above show that appropriately communicated uncertainty can influence trust in the short term. But pandemic communication is complicated mainly because no one can predict what information will change in the future. What is better in the long term – admitting what you don’t know, or being confident about information that might change?

[Research into coronavirus and other news from science Subscribe to The Conversation’s new science newsletter.]

In a recent study, we showed that over the long term, when you have a chance of being wrong, too much confidence carries risk. One group of 4-year-olds saw an adult who admitted not knowing the names for common objects: a ball, a book, a cup. Another group saw an adult who claimed to know what the objects were called but got them all wrong – for example, calling a ball “a shoe.”

When the adult admitted ignorance, 4-year-olds were willing to keep learning all sorts of things from them, even more words. But when the adult was confident and inaccurate, she lost all credibility. Even when children knew she could help them find a hidden toy, they wouldn’t trust her to tell them where it was.

Safeguarding trust by saying ‘I don’t know’

The lesson from our research is that speaking with confidence about information that will likely change is a bigger threat to earning trust than expressing uncertainty. When health officials confidently enact a policy at one time, and then confidently enact a different, even contradictory, policy later on, they are acting like the “unreliable informants” in our studies.

Public health communication can have two goals. One is to get people to act fast and follow best practices based on what’s known now. A second is to gain the sustained, long-term trust of the public so that when fast action is needed, people have faith that they are doing the right thing by following guidelines. Rhetoric that is designed to convey certainty in hopes of earning widespread compliance may be counterproductive if it risks mortgaging the long-term trust of the public.

While we recognize the difficulty of communicating in uncertain times, and doing so to an increasingly polarized public, we think it’s important to heed the lessons from the earliest psychology of trust.

The good news is that, based on our research, we believe the human mind doesn’t balk at hearing communicated uncertainty – quite the opposite. Our minds and brains are made to handle the occasional “I think so,” “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know.” In fact, our ability to do this emerges early in child development and is a cornerstone of our ability to learn from others.The Conversation


Tamar Kushnir, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University; David Sobel, Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic & Psychological Sciences, Brown University, and Mark Sabbagh, Professor of 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.

Funding boost for health research

Researchers at Queen’s have received over $2 million in funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to advance programs accessing a series of public health challenges.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) recently announced results for their Fall 2021 Project Grant competition. The Project Grant program aims to identify ideas with great potential to advance basic and applied health research. Queen’s researchers David Reed (Medicine), Mark Ormiston (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences), Chris McGlory (Kinesiology), and Imaan Bayoumi (Family Medicine) received over $2 million in support to advance programs that address public health challenges.

“Congratulations to these outstanding Queen’s researchers who have been funded through the competitive CIHR Project Grants program,” says Nancy Ross, Vice-Principal (Research). “I am excited to watch these projects unfold and realize benefit to Canadians and global citizens by advancing our understanding of human health and development.”

Learn more about the funded projects:

David Reed
Dr. David Reed

Dr. Reed received $918,000 for a five-year program aiming to find new treatments for chronic abdominal pain, such as that experienced by people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other conditions. The precise mechanisms and causes of this pain are still unclear, which leads to lack of effective treatments. Additionally, currently available medications have side effects that limit treatment options. Dr. Reed proposes a close look into gut microbiota – the trillions of bacteria that inhabit our bodies and are crucial to our health – in the search for solutions.

In a previous research, Dr. Reed and collaborators at Queen’s and McMaster University discovered that in some patients with IBS, gut bacteria produce high levels of histamine – a compound that activates pain sensing nerves. Using pre-clinical models, they now plan to elucidate mechanisms of gut pain induced by histamine release. Also, the team will study the prevalence of high-histamine producing bacteria in a large cohort of IBS patients to establish how to effectively identify these cases.

Mark Ormiston
Dr. Mark Ormiston

The molecular processes involved in pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) are the object of study for Dr. Ormiston, Canada Research Chair in Regenerative Cardiovascular Medicine, whose five-year research program received $750,275. In this disease, that targets young females and is sometimes fatal, loss of lung blood vessels leads to increase heart stress. Dr. Ormiston and team have previously shown that immune cells known as Natural Killer (NK) cells are impaired in PAH patients – an impairment that might be driven by a protein named transforming growth factor-b (TGFb).

To confirm TGFb’s role in developing PAH, the team will investigate lung vascular development and the progression of lung vascular diseases in pre-clinical models modified to produce NK cells that are insensitive to TGFb. With this program, Dr. Ormiston expects to further understand the molecular processes by which immune cells can contribute to vessel remodeling in the lung and open new avenues for drug development.

Chris McGlory
Dr. Chris McGlory

Dr. McGlory’s four-year program will focus on trying to understand why people lose muscle during periods of inactivity, such as those experienced by hospital patients when immobile after surgery. Losing muscle in hospital following surgery can trigger diabetes and lead to major negative health outcomes. Dr. McGlory received $535,500 to investigate the causes of muscle loss and possible treatments. 

The team led by Dr. McGlory aims to be the first to simultaneously measure the rates at which muscles are broken down and synthesized to identify the processes responsible for the loss of muscle during hospitalization-induced bedrest. They will also assess how nutritional supplementation with amino acids and omega-3 fatty acids alter this response. The project will unite a multidisciplinary team of international investigators and trainees. 

Imaan Bayoumi
Dr. Imaan Bayoumi

Dr. Bayoumi has been granted $100,000 to develop a one-year research program on poverty and child health. The team will assess the impact of Community Support Worker assistance on parents’ ability to navigate the social service system and accessing income support. Additionally, they will study the effect of this intervention on health care utilization.

The goal of the intervention is to reduce parental stress by increasing family income and, consequently, improving child development. Child poverty affects as many as 20 per cent of Canadian children and, if continued, can have lifelong impacts on health. Dr. Bayoumi hopes  health care providers and policy makers can leverage these research results to make informed decisions about tackling child poverty in Canada.

For more information about the CIHR Project Grants, visit the website.

The Ukraine-Russia standoff is a troubling watershed moment for NATO

If diplomatic efforts cannot avert further conflict between Ukraine and Russia, a dramatic shift in international relations could occur that would have huge consequences for NATO.

A Ukraine Air Force Mig-29 lands at a base near Kyiv.
A Ukrainian Air Force Mig-29 lands at a base near Kyiv. (Unsplash/Artur Voznenko)

The escalating tensions among Russia, Ukraine and its allies represents a monumental challenge for the international community while also creating a political environment that could violently upend the way security is approached.

The very real risk of warfare between the military forces of Russia and Ukraine is the primary focus. But for Canada and its allies, this conflict is not only about Ukrainian sovereignty, but also the structure of NATO and the viability of the rules that govern international activities.

If Russia conducts any activity that harms Ukraine or the Ukrainian government, it represents a very public failure of key NATO members to deter such action.

Furthermore, Russia attacking Ukraine — whether through a traditional military invasion or via cyber attacks or misinformation campaigns — would demonstrate the inadequacy of existing security-related international regulations. By escalating tensions, Russia would also exacerbate existing differences of opinion within NATO.

By threatening Ukraine, Russia has put pressure on NATO to either offer unequivocal support to Ukrainians and risk being pulled into a damaging conflict, or make concessions to the Russians.

NATO’s difficult position

These concessions could include NATO forces withdrawing further from Russia, a commitment not to allow Ukraine into NATO or the formal acknowledgement of Crimea as Russian territory.

This puts NATO in a difficult position. Such concessions would be seen as NATO bowing to Russian pressure, and potentially be perceived as abandoning its members on Russia’s borders.

Conversely, there are differences of opinion within NATO about the most effective and appropriate way of engaging with Russia. This was highlighted by the recent resignation of Germany’s Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach. He stepped down after saying Russian President Vladimir Putin “deserves” respect and that the Crimea Peninsula, former Ukrainian territory that was annexed by Russia in 2014, is “gone” and “will never” be part of Ukraine again.

The latter claim was in direct opposition to the public positions of the German government and its allies, who continue to express the belief that the annexation should be reversed.

Of course, Ukraine is not a NATO member, so there’s no absolute requirement for any other NATO member to come to its defence. Nevertheless, some key NATO members, including Canada, have been vociferous in their opposition to Russian activities.

Should Russia invade Ukraine, it will be very difficult for these NATO members not to respond forcefully. Other NATO allies would also be forced to decide whether they’ll provide support. Failing to do so, even though it may not technically represent an abdication of NATO responsibilities, would signify a considerable breach in the alliance.

The importance of predictability

Furthermore, for NATO members, stability in Europe is heavily based on ensuring that the actions of states in the region are predictable, which is partly achieved through openness and transparency.

In theory, if everyone is open about their activities and benefits — and the risks of their actions are clearly understood — then the likely course of future policy and activity can be predicted. This also makes it easier to prepare if another state’s actions appear to be threatening or aggressive.

If actions are predictable, the ability to act aggressively by surprising another state is reduced, and relationships between states are therefore stabilized.

To a certain extent, this approach is based on being clear about the costs involved in acting aggressively. The publication of details about the material support given to Ukraine by NATO members, including the United States and the United Kingdom, is an example of how NATO has sought to use openness and predictability to create stability and deter Russia from attacking Ukraine.

By highlighting the improvement in Ukrainian military capability, it suggests that a higher number of Russian troops would be killed if they tried to invade. The intention here is not to surprise Russian troops with Ukrainian capability and defeat them in battle, but instead to deter Russia from attacking Ukraine by indicating a predictable increase in potential Russian casualties.

More fundamentally, predictability has stemmed from the agreement of regulations intended to govern behaviour. When such rules are established and followed, the “game” of international security is easier to play. All participants are aware of the rules and understand that adhering to them benefits everyone.

Rules under seige

These rules are now under huge stress. The possibility of a Russian invasion rips apart the basic tenets of international agreements that generally prohibit the use of force.

In addition, Russia may use force that doesn’t meet the threshold of war, such as launching more cyber attacks or, as the U.K. Foreign Office has suggested, leveraging political pressure that results in the installation of a pro-Russian politician as the head of the Ukrainian government.

These tactics suggest Russia and NATO members have a different understanding of the importance of international law, and that the existing rules provide insufficient guidance around the use of what’s known as “force-short-of-war.” Consequently, predictability is undermined, and NATO decision-making becomes much more difficult.

The situation marks an existential crisis for NATO. Low-level Russian action against Ukraine would have limited implications for NATO. However, if NATO cannot deter Russia from taking open military action against Ukraine or there’s broad international failure to respond robustly, faith in the rules and regulations that have underpinned international relations could be terminally undermined.

That would result in a re-evaluation of how to successfully establish security. It’s not likely that introspection would lead to greater international collaboration and more robust rules, but a return to more individualistic security policy shouldn’t be accepted lightly.

This situation is therefore a watershed moment. If diplomatic efforts cannot avert further conflict between Ukraine and Russia — whether it’s traditional warfare or activities that fall below this threshold — a dramatic shift in international relations could occur.

A loss of faith in the ability of existing rules and international organizations to ensure peace and stability could wrench apart NATO and result in costly and jarring reconfigurations of security policy.The Conversation


Thomas Hughes, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Centre for International and Defence Policy, 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.

Black scientists gather to discuss research and leadership

As part of our Black History Month celebrations, Queen’s supported the first national Black Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine/Health conference.

Male researcher in the lab
As part of its commitment to equity and diversity, Queen's is proud to support initiatives that celebrate and connect Black researchers and students in STEMM.

Founded in 2020, the Canadian Black Scientists Network aims to celebrate, make visible, and connect Black researchers and students in the areas of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine/health (STEMM). This year, the network held the first national Black Excellence in STEMM virtual conference (BE-STEMM 2022), from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2. Queen’s – as well as several other top Canadian universities – sponsored the event, which virtually gathered hundreds of participants.

Queen’s was a proud sponsor of BE-STEMM 2022, which engaged Canadians from across the country to focus on action to remove barriers to attracting and retaining Black Canadians in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Medicine & Health (STEMM). 

For more information on BE-STEMM and the Canadian Black Scientists Network, visit the website.

Highlights of the conference included keynotes by leading Black academics and policy makers, research talks and posters, undergrad and high school students’ presentations representing all STEMM areas, and a career fair. The last day focused on practices and programs for promoting inclusion and leadership and encouraging Black Canadians in STEMM. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave some of the closing remarks on the conference and highlighted the importance of such event to change the face of science in Canada and inspire next generations.

Engaging Black Youth in STEM

A number of Queen’s staff, faculty, and students also attended the conference. One of them was Cressana Williams-Massey from Queen’s Engineering. She is the team lead for Black Youth in STEM, a virtual club offered by engineering students and designed for grades 1-8 children in the Kingston, Ontario area.

Cressana Williams-Massey
Cressana Williams-Massey, team lead for Black Youth in STEM at Queen's Engineering

“BE-STEMM 2022 was very significant to me as a Black female professional focused on providing outreach service to Black students,” she says. “Being an immigrant who was born and raised in Jamaica, the open discussions – especially those focused on inclusion and equity, educated me greatly on the social climate experienced by some Black people living in Canada. Understanding the thoughts and feelings of persons in the Black community will help me to build greater ties to effectively serve the K-12 children”.

Williams-Massey was particularly interested in sessions that discussed education and community-centered initiatives, as they presented data that can help in framing her work at Queen’s. 

“A lot of the data points to a lack of Black representation and feelings of isolation and exclusion in the school environment due to differences in race,” she highlights. 

Participating in the conference has further inspired Williams-Massey to develop strategies to engage Black outreach instructors and role models, as well as provide a safe space for students to talk freely with their tutors and other Black-identifying students.

Recognizing Research Excellence

Nomusa Mngoma, an adjunct professor within the School of Rehabilitation Therapy and research scientist within the Department of Medicine, found the program of the conference vast, covering the basic sciences to population health and epidemiology, and the quality of speakers outstanding, with high-caliber presentations and ample opportunity to meet new colleagues. A highlight for Mngoma was the Leadership Summit, which saw attendees engage with and learn from experts in academia, funding agencies, government ministries, and industry. 

Nomusa Mngoma
Nomusa Mngoma, School of Rehabilitation Therapy and Department of Medicine

“I appreciated the opportunity to network with other scientists from across Canada and was able to connect on issues of mutual interest,” she affirms. “The amalgamation of early-career scientists, students, and seasoned scientists presented the attendees with exciting new mentee–mentor exchange opportunities”. 

As part of the conference, Mngoma was the recipient of BE-STEMM 2022 Award for Research Excellence in Epidemiology & Population Health for her work on mental distress and substance use among rural African youth. Her findings indicate that youth excluded from education and employment opportunities experience more emotional distress and consume more alcohol and drugs then their peers – a situation that might contribute to increased health inequalities and poverty levels for this group.

“Rural Africa is rarely represented in global mental health research, yet there are heavy health burdens on these remote communities with often extremely limited health resources,” warns Mngoma. Her research findings have supported advocacy and strategic planning to address mental health challenges in the region through the South African High Commissioner’s office in Ottawa, local government in South Africa, community leaders and volunteer agencies.

“Global health research in rural Africa is like ice-fishing, requires a lot of patience in low-resource settings and difficult terrain,” says Mngoma. “It was an honour to receive the award in recognition of our research and a privilege to tell the stories of these communities with high rates of poverty and mortality.” 

Advancing Canada’s low-carbon transition

Bridging the gaps between science and research in Canada’s policy landscape to determine the next generation of nuclear energy facilities

Hands holding two pieces of a puzzle
The Canadian Science Policy Conference brings together leaders in research, industry, and government. (Unsplash/Vardan Papikyan)

How will innovations in science help Canadians, and the world at large, better face the problems of today and overcome the challenges of tomorrow? These questions were top of mind for the more than 2,000 delegates who participated in the 13th annual Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC). The most recent event, themed Build Forward Better, brought together leaders in research, industry, and government from across the country to discuss and promote the importance of science and innovation in building productive social and economic policy.

For the third year, Queen’s was a proud co-sponsor of the event, carried out in November 2021, and helped to facilitate conversations around science and energy policy, areas of research strength for the university. Warren Mabee, Director of Queen’s School of Policy Studies and Canada Research Chair in Renewable Energy Development, served as moderator for the conference’s panel on the role of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) in Canada’s energy transition, hosting team leads from New Brunswick Power and Natural Resources Canada. 

“Attending the CSPC is particularly special for Queen’s researchers because it allows us to engage directly with both the science and policy communities and help to ensure that decisions around important topics are being made with the latest and most up-to-date knowledge available,” says Dr. Mabee.

Warren Mabee
Dr. Warren Mabee, Director of Queen’s School of Policy Studies and Canada Research Chair in Renewable Energy Development.

For Dr. Mabee and many research experts, SMRs are the next generation of nuclear plants: small, more easily deployed, safer, and potentially able make use of nuclear waste. Many believe SMRs can be key to a transition towards clean energy, particularly within the context of an expanded electricity grid to by energy for transportation, heating/cooling, appliances, and other conventional uses.  Research on the development of SMRs is ongoing, including work conducted by Mark Daymond and Suraj Persaud at the Queen’s Reactor Materials Testing Laboratory

Dr. Mabee led a thought-provoking discussion on the integral role of SMR technology in Canada’s journey towards a net-zero economy. The panelists related their own experiences with the benefits SMRs have brought to clean energy production and considered the best strategies for moving integration policy forward, as well as the added advantage SMRs have in addressing many of the concerns surrounding nuclear power today, including waste management and nuclear proliferation. 

Queen’s is also a proud supporter of “Science Meets Parliament,” an initiative aims to help scientists become familiar with policy making at the political level, and for parliamentarians to explore using scientific evidence in policy making, by providing training and opportunities for engagement. Queen’s researchers and Canada Research Chairs Jacqueline Monaghan (Biology) and Andy Take (Civil Engineering) are past program participants.

“Technology has now advanced to the point that we need to take a new look at nuclear. For a long time, we’ve been focused on the challenges with old-school nuclear design,” says Dr. Mabee. “New SMR technology addresses many of these problems and offers a way forward that needs to be considered in future energy planning.”

Through such dialogue, Dr. Mabee hopes that policymakers walk away with a better understanding of the role that SMRs, and science backed policy in general, play in achieving a healthier planet. 

“Queen’s work on SMRs is just one piece of a larger picture, which is focused on energy transition. We hope that innovative new technologies such as this will carry us further in achieving United National Sustainable Development Goal Seven for clean energy and help us create a more sustainable and prosperous global community,” he says.

For more information on the Canadian Science Policy Conference, visit the website.

Narrowing gender gaps in engineering

On the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Heidi Ploeg, Queen’s Chair for Women in Engineering, discusses strategies to engage and retain female students and researchers in traditionally male-dominated fields.

Heidi Ploeg
Heidi Ploeg is the first Queen’s Chair for Women in Engineering. (Queen's University)

It doesn’t require much investigation: anyone interested in gender imbalance and inequalities in academia worldwide will see gaps when it comes to male versus female participation in some research areas, especially the sciences and engineering. This reality led the United Nations General Assembly to declare Feb. 11 as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Since 2015, the date has been celebrated to raise awareness of gender inequities in science and promote engaging girls and women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

At Queen’s, the Faculty of Engineering has developed several initiatives to tackle this gender imbalance, including the appointment of the first Queen’s Chair for Women in Engineering (C4WiE) in November 2020. During her five-year term, Associate Professor Heidi Ploeg, an expert in biomechanics and design of biomedical devices in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, is hoping to shift the field towards women-friendlier environments for students, faculty, and those moving into the work force.

Data from Engineers Canada indicate that in 2020 only 20.6 per cent of the newly licensed engineers in the country identify as women. In academia, the percentage of female faculty members in engineering is even smaller: 16.6 per cent. This staggering imbalance led Engineers Canada to launch the 30 by 30 initiative, aiming to increase the number of female newly licensed engineers to 30 per cent by 2030. 

Queen’s supports 30 by 30 as an endorsing member and participant. At Queen’s, almost 30 per cent of engineering undergraduate degrees awarded each year are to women – a number comparable to some other top universities in Canada, like the University of Toronto, McGill University, and Polytechnique Montréal. But to achieve this percentage for licensed engineers nationwide and to maintain and even increase it will require a collective effort that supports girls and women throughout their educational and research journeys.  

“The primary goal of the C4WiE is to increase the number of women in engineering and their retention in the field,” says Dr. Ploeg. “The scope of our reach is broad, including K-12, undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty members, and practicing engineers.” 

To promote this extensive culture change, Queen’s partners with other institutions in developing educational and outreach initiatives focused on engaging girls and women in engineering.

Heidi Ploeg and students celebrating International Women in Engineering Day in 2021.
Dr. Heidi Ploeg and students celebrating International Women in Engineering Day in 2021.

Diversity leads to better solutions

Stereotypes, discrimination, and harassment in the workplace and on campuses, and systemic barriers and biases are among the challenges women face in pursuing a career in engineering. Queen’s and the C4WiE help to address these challenges through a strong digital presence – the C4WiE website hosts resources and promotes events and a network of external groups dedicated to increasing the participation of women in engineering. C4WiE also designs online campaigns like Women in Action, created to collect and share pictures of female engineers across Canada, defying the stereotypical image of engineers and providing women a place to see themselves represented (Submit a photo).

Other initiatives promoted by C4WiE initiative include undergraduate research grants to support women-led research labs on campus, C4WiE mini-grants to support female students in engineering, and an annual course on Gender, Engineering and Technology. Last semester, Queen’s Engineering launched Engineering for Everyone, focused on promoting diversity and inclusion in the field, and hired a diversity and inclusion program manager, to provide training for staff and faculty and to support program development promoting participation of girls, 2SLGBTQIA+, Black, and Indigenous students and youth in STEM. 

These efforts benefit women and other representative groups by providing tools and resources to face systemic barriers, but they are also tremendously beneficial for engineering as a field overall. 

“Without diversity, engineers solve the wrong problems with less than optimum solutions,” states Dr. Ploeg. “Engineering will only find the best solutions to the most complex challenges we are facing with a diverse (including gender-balanced) community. We need all perspectives and experiences to solve the multidisciplinary challenges that we are currently facing like climate change and global health.”

C4WiE’s priorities for 2022 include creating a physical space for women in Queen’s Engineering to find and meet with each other, and to fund research examining the experiences of women working in the engineering field. Dr. Ploeg also would like to build connections between women engineers and industry partners to foster women’s participation and leadership in engineering beyond academia. She believes increasing female presence in both academia and industry is key to progress. 

“To excel and succeed at learning or working in an already challenging field shouldn’t have additional challenges of underrepresentation,” argues Dr. Ploeg. “Seeing people who look like you or have similar experiences or perspectives helps to see what your career might look like and directly combats imposter syndrome.”

Engaging girls and women in STEM

Share your passion
To celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we invite all women in science at Queen’s to post pictures of them in action and tag us on Instagram (@queensuniversity) and Twitter (@Queensu). We’d love to share your passion for STEM and celebrate and inspire present and future women in STEM disciplines #QueensuResearch.

Queen’s has several successful, federally funded outreach programs aimed at tackling stereotypes and systemic biases though engaging girls from a young age in engineering and other STEM disciplines: Connections Engineering offers programs for kids from kindergarten to high school, Robogals introduces young women to robotics and engineering, and on campus summer camps like Math Quest and Science Quest have girls-only programs and mentorship opportunities. 

Campus clubs and groups like Queen’s Women in Applied Science and Engineering (Q-WASE), Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), Women in Science Queen’s (WiSQ), Queen’s University Scientista, and Queen's Women in Computing (QWiC)  help interested female students, staff, and faculty to connect to each other and join efforts in their campaigns for inclusion.

Partnership for progress

Combating gender imbalance and inequalities in academia worldwide will not be met by individual groups or universities. It is a long-term process that will require the collective effort of governments, industry stakeholders, and partnering education institutions to ignite a global cultural change. But the efforts at the individual level make a difference at the community and sector level, and beyond. 

“In slightly over a year, we've seen significant steps forward at Queen's, but also in the engineering profession as a whole. In fact, in recent hirings for engineering, 40 per cent of new assistant professors identify as women,” highlights Dr. Ploeg. “By creating inclusive learning- and work-places we give diversity space to thrive and we all benefit. This is a collective effort to change engineering culture, and I'm confident we are on the right track.”

Implementing equity, diversity, and inclusion in research practice

New resources provide Queen’s researchers with practical tools to address systemic inequities on campus and beyond.

The online research training modules aim to develop competencies in equity, diversity, and inclusion.

In August 2020, Queen’s senior leadership committed to confronting discrimination and battling racism and other forms of injustice on campus. Since then, the university has established several initiatives to combat systemic inequities. The development of new online training modules for the research community is part of an effort to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in research.

The modules and affiliated resources are unique to Queen’s and aim to eliminate discrimination in research by increasing awareness and developing practical skills related to the inclusion of EDI throughout the full research cycle: from idea-generation to project outcomes and impact. The initiative, which began spring 2021, was a collaboration between the Vice-Principal of Research (VPR) Portfolio, the Human Rights and Equity Office (HREO), and former Queen’s researcher Leela Viswanathan (Geography and Planning), through her company Viswali Consulting. 

“We wanted to further develop researchers’ competencies in relation to equity, diversity, and inclusion in research. In addition, we are hoping these modules will serve as a tool to assist researchers in their applications for various funding sources,” says Erin Clow, Associate Director in HREO, who worked in collaboration with Viswanathan on the modules.

Resources for Research EDI series
A series of three webinars is planned to support researchers at every stage of their careers to embed EDI in their research practices. Each session is closely tied to one of the online EDI in Research training modules that were developed for the Queen’s research community.
• March 20: Introduction to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Research Design
• April 27: Developing Inclusive Research Teams
• June 8: Embedding EDI in Knowledge Mobilization, Translation, and Data Management

Learn more and register for the synchronous training sessions.

The training is divided in three parts: Module One introduces the topic of EDI in research. Module Two educates researchers on how to implement equity, diversity, and inclusion practices into recruiting and team-building and provides guidance for fostering a sense of belonging. Module Three is designed to assist researchers in developing knowledge mobilization, translation, and data management plans that embed EDI principles. The team believes that, after completing the modules, researchers will have the necessary skills to apply these practices to their own research endeavours.

"The training modules will strengthen scientific communities and contribute to the creation of the innovative and impactful research necessary to respond to local, national and global challenges,” says Dr. Clow. “Most importantly, the effort will help advance equity and inclusion for all within our community.”

The online modules are available through the Human Rights and Equity Office website. In addition, a synchronous component to the learning will be made available through a series of three Resources for Research at Queen’s (R4R@Q) sessions, each tied to a different module (see sidebar for details). 

Researchers can also learn more about how to implement EDI in their research practices by visiting the Wise Practices for Research section of the Vice-Principal Research Portfolio website, which contains an extensive list of resources and contact information to a team of dedicated Research Project Advisors available to provide guidance and feedback. 

Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science

On Feb. 11 Queen's is encouraging the campus community to share their passion for STEM to celebrate and inspire present and future women in STEM disciplines.

[International Day of Women & Girls in Science]

On Feb. 11, Queen’s is recognizing the United Nations’ International Day of Women and Girls in Science by encouraging the campus community to share their passion for STEM and showcase their research by tagging Queen's on Twitter @queensu and Instagram @queensuniversity.

This year marks the seventh anniversary of the international recognition day, which promotes full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls. According to UNESCO’s Science Report, only 33 per cent of researchers globally are women. International Day of Women and Girls in Science is meant to celebrate and inspire present and future women in STEM disciplines.

Showcase your research and follow Queen's University on Twitter and Instagram as we share and highlight some of our researchers and their contributions to groundbreaking STEM research.

“Love Under the Microscope.” Dalila Villalobos, Pathology Researcher. Submitted to the Art of Research.
Art of Research Photo: Love Under the Microscope by Dalila Villalobos, Pathology Researcher
As pathologists in training, we are constantly reminded that both human cellular responses and the most deadly medical conditions can be unexpectedly beautiful under the microscope. We are trained to be detail oriented and to understand disease in all its forms because abnormalities will only present to the eye that knows what to look for. This photo captures a normal prostatic gland with its characteristic double layer and irregular branching. The moment we diagnose a benign condition in a patient that is anxiously awaiting results is always rewarding. But, if, on top of that, we see heart-shape glands, it is inspiration.


Safely managing pain during pregnancy

Queen’s researchers are part of an all-woman team leading a new study confirming concerns over opioid use during pregnancy.

A newborn is swaddled with its feet visible.
A new paper, authored by Queen’s researchers Dr. Susan Brogly (Department of Surgery) and Alexa Bowie (MPH 2021) and female scientists from Canadian and U.S. institutions, analyzes administrative health data from Ontario  to determine the association between opioid pain medications in early pregnancy and congenital abnormalities in infants. (Unsplash/Luna Pimentel) 

A new study published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) shows a small increased risk of congenital abnormalities in infants exposed to opioids in the first trimester of pregnancy.

The paper, authored by Queen’s researchers Dr. Susan Brogly (Department of Surgery) and Alexa Bowie (MPH 2021) and female scientists from Canadian and U.S. institutions, analyzed administrative health data from Ontario on almost 600,000 mother-infant pairs to determine the association between opioid pain medications in early pregnancy and congenital abnormalities in infants. The findings showed that two per cent of fetuses were exposed to prescribed opioid pain medications. These drugs can cross the placenta and have the potential to cause harm.

“This research confirms evidence of a small increased risk of birth defects from opioid analgesic exposure in the first trimester, and that this small increased risk is not due to other risk factors for fetal harm in women who may take these medications,” says Dr. Brogly.

According to the study, of the mother-infant pairs, two per cent of infants were exposed to opioid pain relief medicines such as codeine, oxycodone, hydromorphone, tramadol, morphine and others. The study found an increased risk, though low, of major anomalies with tramadol and morphine exposure, and minor anomalies with exposure to codeine, hydromorphone, and oxycodone. Observed specific congenital anomalies included gastrointestinal neoplasms and tumors, ankyloglossia, and genital anomalies.

This large study adds to earlier evidence from researchers in Sweden and Norway, and a recent study of pregnant U.S. Medicaid beneficiaries, which also suggested a small increased risk of congenital anomalies, an important finding for a pregnant person who may need to take opioids for pain relief.

“The research can benefit women who have pain in pregnancy or have pain and want to conceive to make informed choices regarding pain management. This provides needed data so physicians can counsel patients on the true risks of pain medications,” Dr. Brogly says.

“Pharmacists are well placed to educate expectant mothers; physicians too, though by the time a woman realizes she is pregnant and has a prenatal visit, exposure may have already occurred,” Dr. Brogly adds. “Organizations like the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada and March of Dimes have up-to-date and trustworthy information for women who are pregnant or want to become pregnant.”

Meaningful mentorship

This is the first author publication in CMAJ for Alexa Bowie, a graduate of Queen’s Public Health Sciences. Bowie worked on Dr. Brogly’s NIH-funded study for her practicum placement in summer 2020 and continued with the study team following completion of the practicum.

“Contributing to this important area of research as part of my practicum was an incredibly rewarding experience,” Bowie says. “Dr. Brogly is an extraordinary mentor whose dedication to supporting future researchers empowered me to grow as an epidemiologist.”

The paper, ‘Prescribed opioid analgesics in early pregnancy and the risk of congenital anomalies: a population-based cohort study’, is now available on the CMAJ website.

Leaders in cancer research

To recognize World Cancer Day, Queen’s is highlighting current partnerships and research projects to develop novel treatments, support better outcomes, and advance quality of life for people with cancer globally.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, two in five Canadian adults are expected to develop cancer in their lifetimes. While significant strides have been made to increase survival rates, cancer remains a leading cause of death in Canada and around the world. On World Cancer Day we reflect on some of the recent advances our faculty, staff, and student researchers have made, furthering our understanding of cancer and their ground-breaking efforts to improve treatment, access, and care in our local, national, and global communities. As leaders in interdisciplinary health and wellness, Queen’s researchers are driving progress and innovation in novel therapies, health practice, and health policy.

[Art of Research Photo: Immunofluorescence Stain by Shakeel Virk and Lee Boudreau, CCTG Tissue Bank]
Art of Research Photo: Immunofluorescence Stain by Shakeel Virk and Lee Boudreau, CCTG Tissue Bank

Ground-breaking innovation

New blood test helps with earlier cancer detection and better treatment

Christopher Mueller (Queen’s Cancer Research Institute) has led a team of researchers at Queen’s in developing a new detection, mDETECT, and characterization method that is a more sensitive means of detecting and monitoring the presence of cancer and allowing for real time monitoring of a patient’s response to chemotherapy to optimize treatment.

Trialled and true

The Canadian Cancer Trials Group (CCTG), based at Queen’s University, plays a critical role in the fight against cancer by designing and administering clinical trials in cancer therapy, supportive care, and prevention across Canada. Since its establishment in 1980, CCTG has supported more than 600 phase I-III trials enrolling approximately 100,000 patients from 40 countries on six continents. At any given time, CCTG has 60 to 70 active clinical trials.

Advancing cellular therapy

Annette Hay (Canadian Cancer Trials Group; Medicine) and Jonathan Bramson (McMaster University) have received more than $5 million to develop a national cellular therapy translation research platform. ExCELLirate Canada will develop cell therapies as safe and viable treatment options through identifying biological mechanisms affecting safety and designing cost-effective methods for the harvest, expansion, manipulation, purification, and delivery of the cells.

Predicting cancer spread with natural language processing

Canada Research Chair in Biomedical Computing and Informatics Amber Simpson (Computing; Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) and Farhana Zulkernine (Computing) with radiologist Richard Do of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center are developing technology that will relieve the issues that come from gathering data from CT scans and can predict how cancer will spread in patients using natural language processing.

[Art of Research Photo: Leaving Home by Eric Y Lian, Queen’s University]
Art of Research Photo: Leaving Home by Eric Y Lian, Queen’s University

Advancing health equity

Inuit cancer patients often face difficult decisions without support far from home

In The Conversation Canada, Janet Jull (Rehabilitation Therapy), Malaya Zehr (Rehabilitation Therapy), and partners from the Inuit Medical Interpreter Team and Mamisarvik Healing Centre, Tungasuvvingat Inuit discuss their aims to understand the experiences of Inuit who travel from remote to urban settings for cancer care and the health and social inequities this group faces in accessing healthcare.

World Cancer Day
World Cancer Day is an initiative of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), the largest and oldest international cancer organization dedicated to taking the lead in convening, capacity building and advocacy initiatives that unite the cancer community to reduce the global cancer burden, promote greater equity, and integrate cancer control into the world health and development agenda.

Do randomized cancer trials truly reflect the global burden of cancer?

A study led by Canada Research Chair in Populations Cancer Care Christopher Booth (Oncology; Public Health Sciences) with Bishal Gyawali (Public Health Sciences; Oncology) and Nazik Hammad (Global Health; Oncology) found that controlled trials disproportionately study breast cancer while other cancers, including cervix, gastroesophageal and pancreas, are under-represented even though they account for a substantial proportion of global cancer death.

Why cancer care isn’t ‘one-size-fits-all’ from one country to another

Fabio Ynoe de Moraes (Oncology) was a co-lead author of a policy review in Lancet Oncology that designed a checklist to allow countries to establish a baseline of existing cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment resources and to support strategies to actively encourage access to care for their underserved populations.  

FHS researchers study the impact of COVID-19 on cancer patients

Jacqueline Galica (Nursing) led a study to better understand how older cancer survivors are coping during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants were able to make recommendations on how they believe their care could have been improved and suggest opportunities for innovation moving forward.

Access to essential cancer medicines is unequal globally

Research from Christopher Booth (Oncology; Public Health Sciences) with collaborators at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Lancet Oncology asked oncologists worldwide to list the most important cancer medicines and to describe whether patients could access these medicines in their home country.

Pioneering leadership

International leadership in cancer recognized with 2021 Gairdner Award

Elizabeth Eisenhauer, Professor Emerita (Oncology; Medicine), received the 2021 Canada Gairdner Wightman Award for her dedication to transforming the fields of cancer clinical trials and cancer drug delivery.

Queen’s health researcher receives inaugural Canadian Cancer Society Lifetime Contribution Prize

Joseph Pater, Professor Emeritus (Medicine; Oncology) and inaugural director of the Canadian Cancer Trials Group, received the Canadian Cancer Society Lifetime Contribution Prize for his contributions, vision, and leadership in enhancing the Canadian cancer research landscape to significantly benefit the lives of people with cancer. 


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