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Supporting Rapid Response research

The Vice-Principal (Research) announces the second round of internal funding for projects supporting medical and social coronavirus-related solutions.

A second round of funding for COVID-19-related research has been allocated as part of the Rapid Response competition, announced by the Vice-Principal (Research) in late-March. Thirteen projects that contribute to the development, testing, and implementation of medical or social countermeasures to mitigate the rapid spread of COVID-19 have already been funded through the program. Now, seven more applicants have received funding in a second round of the competition.

The diverse projects cross several fields and disciplines. They range from learning how Indigenous peoples living with chronic health issues are impacted by COVID-19 to studying the psychosocial implications of the pandemic among cancer survivors.  

The successful projects are:

  • Chantelle Capicciotti (Chemistry) – Developing sweet prophylactics: targeting glycans to prevent COVID-19 spread
  • Amrita Roy (Family Medicine) – Indigenous peoples living with chronic health issues during the COVID-19 era – examining experiences in Katarokwi (Kingston, Ontario area)
  • Jacqueline Galica (Nursing) – The psychosocial implications of COVID-19: How are cancer survivors coping?
  • Kristy Timmons (Education) – Using social and behavioural science to help teachers and principals mitigate the negative impacts of COVID-19 in K-12 contexts
  • Elaine Power (Kinesiology & Health Studies) – Leave no one behind: Income security for the 21st century
  • Elijah Bisung (Kinesiology & Health Studies) – Mobilizing local stakeholders to address COVID-19 misinformation and mistrust in Ghana
  • Stephen Vanner (Medicine) – COVID-19 testing of health professional students: Informing testing and public policy for universities and society

For more information on the Rapid Response competition, visit the Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)  website.  

Revolutionizing art conservation at Queen's

A $1 million donation from the Jarislowsky Foundation allows Queen’s to acquire leading-edge technology that will be the only of its kind in Canada.

A $1-million gift from The Jarislowsky Foundation will bring leading-edge technology to Canada and help to preserve some of the country’s most important works of art.  

“The donation will create opportunities for Queen’s students and researchers to better understand the materials and techniques used to create artworks and other cultural objects,” says Patricia Smithen, assistant professor (Paintings Conservation) at Queen’sThe equipment will allow us to start new research programs, establish partnerships with leading art museums and collectors, and attract top students to study at Queen’s.”    

Queen’s is purchasing five pieces of equipment, some of which is highly sought-after technology used by the world’s top art institutes such as the Getty Conservation Institute, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  

These powerful new tools will impact art historians and students in many ways, such as being able to more accurately analyze the type of materials used in works of art. This will lead to better preservation strategies. 

Queen’s will be the only museum or institute in Canada to have Bruker M6 Jetstream, a highly advanced form of X-ray fluorescence (XRF) technology that allows researchers to scan paintings and create an elemental map of the surface. This instrument was recently used to scan Rembrandt’s famous painting, The Night Watch, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, allowing conservators and scientists to identify pigments and reveal the artist’s working process, including changes he made to the composition.  

In addition to the Bruker M6 Jetstream, the other equipment includes: 

  • X-radiography Suite with New Mid-range Source 225 KV, Gantry and Tracer-Fluorescence Spectroscopy Unit 

  • Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR, Portable) 

  • Foster and Freeman VSC 8000 Multispectral Document System 

  • Instron Tensile Tester 

The Jarislowsky Foundation was created by Stephen Jarislowsky, LLD’88, a successful entrepreneur, philanthropist, and avid art collector. 

 

Chronic stress during pandemic can cause strange physical symptoms

The Conversation: If you've been experiencing unusual physical symptoms recently, the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic may be the reason.

Woman in a mask is stressed out.
Chronic stress can lead to inflammation, which can result in physical symptoms as well as mental health symptoms. (Unsplash / Engin Ankyat)

During the current COVID-19 pandemic have you been wondering why you’re getting headaches more often? Or stomach aches? Or feeling itchy or getting pimples? Or why your periods are irregular or more painful than usual? Exciting recent science suggests that the answers may lie in our body’s biological reactions to stress.

Our biological stress response system — the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis — evolved hundreds of millions of years ago to help our vertebrate ancestors quickly mobilize energy to confront imminent, life-or-death threats, such as predator attacks. In the short term, this system is exquisite in its efficiency and crucial to survival.

The ConversationThe problem with our current situation is that it has been going on for months, and the end is not clearly in sight. Chronic stress sends the HPA axis into overdrive, with effects felt throughout the body. These symptoms can even serve as further sources of stress. Understanding why our bodies are reacting in these ways can help us develop strategies to prevent stress from getting under our skin.

The biological stress response

When animals perceive a threat in their environment, the HPA axis stimulates the adrenal glands to release the hormone cortisol. Cortisol, along with adrenaline, work to pump oxygen to the major muscles to enable the animal to fight or escape.

This “fight/flight” response produces physical symptoms such as heart palpitations and chest tightness (the heart pumping oxygen to the major muscles), and stomach butterflies, nausea and tingling (blood leaving the stomach and extremities to get to the major muscles).

The HPA axis also interacts with the immune system to help with the aftermath. Cortisol is a potent anti-inflammatory and binds to large numbers of receptors in the skin to help repair wounds and fight infection.

The HPA axis doesn’t know the difference between the life-or-death threat of a predator attack and modern stressors. So, in the early stages of this crisis, if your stomach did flip-flops, or you felt your heart racing, when reading about surges in COVID-19 cases, your body was doing what it was designed to do even though at that moment you were not in any imminent physical danger.

The problem of chronic stress

A predator attack is time-limited. In contrast, the COVID-19 pandemic has been going on for weeks, and may be compounded by social isolation, job or financial insecurity and care-taking responsibilities. Unfortunately, all the HPA axis knows is that it needs to release stress hormones when we perceive a threat in our environment. So, if we perceive our environment as threatening all the time, then the HPA axis will release these chemicals all the time.

One of the most pronounced effects of long-term cortisol release is glucocorticoid resistance. This is when cells in the immune system become less sensitive to the anti-inflammatory effects of cortisol. As a result, cortisol starts to increase inflammation throughout the body and brain.

So, your itchiness and rashes? All of the cortisol receptors in your skin may no longer be receptive to cortisol’s anti-inflammatory effects and instead, chemicals are released that inflame the skin.

Your headaches or stomach aches? Painful periods? All of these symptoms can also be the result of inflammation in these organ systems caused by chronic HPA axis activation.

Even psychological symptoms, such as feelings of depression or loneliness, have been linked to the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals caused by chronic stress.

A woman jogs in a park with green grass.
Just 20 minutes of moderate exercise reduces inflammation and has strong mood-lifting effects. (Unsplash / Arek Adeoye)

Taking control of your stress response

Much of what is perceived as stressful on a day-to-day level is not specific to contracting the COVID-19 virus, but instead is the result of changes that we have had to make in our lives. A switch to working from home, or not working, has disrupted our sleeping, eating and activity schedules that regulate our internal circadian clock. Staying indoors means lower exercise and activity levels. Many people, especially those living alone, are socially isolated from friends and loved ones.

Disrupted circadian routines, lack of exercise and social isolation have all been strongly linked to dysregulation of the body’s stress and immune systems, and release of pro-inflammatory chemicals in the body and brain.

Fortunately, even small positive changes in these areas can have strong stress-reducing effects. Keeping a regular routine by going to bed, getting up and eating at consistent times each day has been linked to greater overall health by promoting healthy function of the HPA axis and immune system. Even 20 minutes of moderate exercise, which inside could include exercise videos or jogging around at home, regulates the HPA axis, reduces inflammation and has strong mood-lifting effects.

Finally, talking regularly with friends and loved ones, even remotely or at a distance, is one of the best things you can do to protect against the biological and psychological effects of stress. Remember, we’re all in this together!The Conversation

____________________________________________________________________

Kate Harkness, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and Director of the Mood Research Laboratory, Queen's University, Ontario

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

How to help graduating students cope with missed milestones

The Conversation: High school seniors will miss important events due to the pandemic, but offering resources, alternatives, and the confidence that they're going to be fine is what matters.

A lone high school graduate looks out onto an empty yard.
With the response to the COVID-19 limiting large gatherings, such as graduation, young adults who were about to embark on a new chapter in their lives are finding the disruption in normal life events particularly stressful. (Unsplash / Jeremiah Lawrence)

Change is stressful for all of us. It is therefore no surprise to find that, in general, people are finding it difficult to cope with the COVID-19 restrictions. None of us knows exactly how to cope with the fallout from this unprecedented situation.

While adults find this forced confinement difficult, young adults who were about to embark on a new chapter in their lives are finding the disruption in normal life events particularly stressful.

Not only are they missing things such as proms or a graduation ceremony, but they’re also missing other potentially life-altering events: the track and field championship for which they’d worked hard all year just so they could compete; the Royal Conservatory exam to evaluate just how much they’d improved their musical skills; the summer job that would help them earn money and build a resume for future employment.

Developmental milestones

And now, the worst cut of all, in many cases, no in-person fall classes at college or university. This means be no formal initiation into the freshman class of 2020 for students.

It means not having to decide what personal mementos to bring as you leave home or no tearful goodbye with parents. For those who planned to still live at home, it means not carefully packing one’s knapsack for the first day at campus orientation and no bonding with classmates. Now, this next chapter will most likely happen in their current bedroom, virtually.

These developmental milestones help young adults mark their progress as they transition from child to adult, and yet now these important events have all been shelved — at least until the pandemic ends.

In my role as clinical director of the Regional Assessment and Resource Centre at Queen’s University, I hear on a daily basis how the pandemic is affecting the mental health of high school seniors.

Our centre runs an online transition program for students with either learning or mental health disabilities who are going to college or university next fall. We are hearing a lot from these students about the stress that the current closures and social distancing are causing them.

Not what they signed up for

Right now, this disruption has meant not only that they have to change the way they learn in high school, but also that they have to take more personal responsibility for engaging in learning.

This was not what they signed up for, and they find that their teachers are (in general) less adept at managing the online learning environment than they are. These students are learning that it is difficult to change from an in-person to an online learning environment. From some of their parents, we are also hearing that pressuring their children to do their assigned virtual homework is causing friction in their parent-child relationships.

A number of the high school students with whom we work also worry that the change to online learning may mean that they miss out on some of the key foundational knowledge needed to help them succeed. They are, quite rightly, concerned that they won’t have the necessary knowledge and skills to successfully deal with first-year curricula.

A graduating student takes a group photo of her classmates.
Despite traditional graduation ceremonies being cancelled, parents and loved ones can still find ways to celebrate their graduating student. (Unsplash / MD Duran)

What parents and loved ones can do

So, what can parents and significant others in the lives of these young adults do right now to help high school seniors cope?

1. Don’t jump in to fix things: Agree and appreciate that this is a stressful time for them, but don’t jump in and try to fix things. Allow them to have their feelings and allow them to figure out how to cope with those feelings. Ask them: “What would you like me to do to help you right now?” Offer suggestions if they ask. Give the message that you have faith that they’ll find a way to cope.

2. Help youth find positive coping strategies to manage disappointment: In life, we all have to deal with loss and disappointment, and the more we can help young adults learn positive coping skills at these times the better prepared they will be to deal with such negative situations in the future. Learning skills like mindfulness meditation or deep breathing and relaxation can help, as can learning how to create a worry list to contain anxiety and worry.

3. Honour their achievements, even if it is virtually: Help them identify what they wanted most or wish could have happened these past few months. How can they honour what they’ve achieved? Can they or family find ways to celebrate now? Plan ahead for a big party once social distancing is over? Consider arranging a videoconferencing meeting with important members of their social circle and have speeches. Have everyone tell the young adult how proud they are of their achievements and reinforce for them what being part of their lives means to that particular individual.

4. See the current pandemic challenges as an opportunity to build resiliency: Post-secondary counselling centres in North America have seen an increase in student mental health problems partly due to a lack of resiliency because many of these students haven’t previously dealt with disappointment or even minor stressful events. The COVID crisis has the potential to act as a yardstick for students. Once they get through this they’ll feel better able to cope with other future stressful situations.

5. Focus on the positive: Having to learn to manage your own time, learn from online content and set your own schedule — these are all valuable transition skills that students need, whether going from high school to post-secondary education or eventually to a job. There are lots of good resources about how to cope with the demands of online learning or a lack of structure in learning environments, and many library websites have shared this type of content.

6. Limit media consumption: Young adults spend much of their time online and this is a good way to keep in touch; but too much is not good, especially if some of those interactions have the potential to be negative or increase anxiety. Studies have shown a strong link between time spent online and negative mood symptoms.

One of the biggest challenges we hear about from post-secondary students we see at our centre is students with attention problems wondering: How can I limit my use of electronics? This might be the time to investigate installing apps that limit the amount of time you can get online.

Remember, teens and young adults, in general, can learn to become quite resilient if left to figure things out on their own and given positive support. Send the message that you have faith they’ll succeed, not that you’re waiting to rescue them when they fall apart.The Conversation

________________________________________________________

Allyson G. Harrison, Associate Professor of Psychology and Clinical Director, Regional Assessment & Resource Centre, Queen's University

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

Showcasing the Art of Research – photo essay

The Queen’s Art of Research photo contest celebrates its fifth year, with the selection of ten winning images.

It was another record-breaking year for the Art of Research photo contest, with more than 100 faculty, staff, students, and alumni submitting engaging and thought-provoking research images. The 2020 competition is the largest in the contest’s five-year history, with images winning 10 category and special prizes.

The Art of Research image take us behind-the-scenes of the everyday research experience. From images capturing remote fieldwork to invisible particles under the microscope, the Art of Research seeks to spark curiosity and visualize the ground-breaking research happening at Queen’s. The contest strives to represent the diversity and creativity of Queen’s research, with winners representing multiple disciplines and submissions highlighting research happening at all career stages. This year’s winners will be featured in a digital photo gallery showcasing the contest’s winners and top submissions from the past five years on the Research@Queen’s website.

Category: Invisible Discoveries

[Photograph is of a water-swollen hydrogel particle]

Porous Plastic Particle

Submitted by: Ross Jansen-van Vuuren, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Chemistry

Location of Photo: Bruce Hall, SEM Lab, Queen’s University

Description of Photo: The photograph is of a water-swollen hydrogel particle created in our chemistry laboratory, taken with an instrument called a Scanning Electron Microscope, which allows us to zone in and see important details on the surface of the hydrogel. A hydrogel is essentially a plastic material that is able to absorb very large volumes of water (up to 800 times its weight!) – much like a baby diaper, swelling as it does so. From the image, the surface of the hydrogel is seen to possess large, distinctive pores, which help us understand how and why hydrogels absorb so much liquid.

Category: Out in the Field

[Aerial view algal blooms in South Frontenac County]

Nature's van Gogh

Submitted by: Hayden Wainwright, Student (MSc), Biology

Location of Photo: South Frontenac County, Ontario, Canada

Description of Photo: Algal blooms appear as smears of green slime from the ground, but are beautiful pieces of abstract art from an aerial view, painted by wind and sunlight. My research takes me to lakes on the Canadian Shield affected by blooms, where I photograph them with a drone while assistants help me collect water samples. By uncovering when, where, and why they appear, we hope to restore some of Canada’s most beautiful lakes to their pristine states.

Category: Best Description

[Aerial photograph of the Adelabu Market in Ibadan, Nigeria]

Under the Umbrella

Submitted by: Grace Adeniyi-Ogunyankin, Faculty, Gender Studies; Geography and Planning

Location of Photo: Ibadan, Nigeria

Description of Photo: On a very hot day, I went to the Adelabu Market in Ibadan, Nigeria, to meet Sarah. Several phone calls later, we found each other. She brought me inside a nearly abandoned plaza. “Less noisy,” she said. We climbed up to the highest floor. During the interview, she told me her livelihood as a market woman funded her children’s education. Rain or shine, she is at the market every day, under her umbrella. When we finished the interview, I looked down. What a view! As I snapped a photo, I wondered: “What are the stories of the other people under the umbrellas?”

Category: Art in Action

[Diffusion Spectrum Imaging (DSI) depicting diffusion of water throughout the brain]

The Wiring of the Brain

Submitted by: Donald Brien, Staff, Centre for Neuroscience Studies

Location of Photo: Centre for Neuroscience Studies, MRI Facility, Queen’s University

Description of Photo: An example of Diffusion Spectrum Imaging (DSI) from Queen’s new Prisma Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Some of the most beautiful images generated by MRI are created by imaging the diffusion (movement) of water throughout the brain. From this diffusion, we can generate maps of the neuron connections that are responsible for carrying messages from one area of the brain to another. Seen here, they are coded by direction, such that blue tracts move from foot to head, red tracts move from left to right in the head, and green tracts move from the front to the back of the head.  There are 30,000 tracts displayed in this image. By adulthood, the average person has ~160,000 km total length of these tracts.

Category: Community Collaborations

[A group of researchers collaborating in a space with mobile robots]

Researchers at Offroad Robotics

Submitted by: Heshan Fernando, Student (PhD), Mechanical and Materials Engineering

Location of Photo: Jackson Hall, Queen’s University

Description of Photo: A group of multidisciplinary engineering researchers with expertise in mining and construction applications, mechanical and mechatronics systems, as well as electrical and computer engineering collaborate to develop the next generation of field and mobile robots.

Category: People's Choice

[Researchers and community members travelling on snowmobiles]

Learning from the Land

Submitted by: Sarah Flisikowski, Student (MES), School of Environmental Studies

Location of Photo: Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada

Description of Photo: The transmission and documentation of traditional knowledge and skills is of great importance to Inuit, especially considering the continuing social, environmental, and economic changes in the Arctic. I am examining how Inuit traditional knowledge is generated and shared through a case study of an existing project in Ulukhaktok called Nunamin Illihakvia, which means "learning from the land" in Inuinnaqtun. Participants from other Inuvialuit communities were invited to travel to Ulukhaktok in February 2020 to participate in cultural activities that promoted discussion on what a cultural learning program should include. This photo shows our first trip out on Queen's Bay together.

KHGRI Prize

Sponsored by Kingston General Health Research Institute

[Patient care simulation depicting one researcher and one patient]

This is EPIC: Simulation Education with Patient Actors to Improve Care

Submitted by: Monakshi Sawhney, Faculty, School of Nursing

Location of Photo: Education and Research Centre, North York General Hospital, Toronto, Ontario

Description of Photo: Simulation education, using standardized patient actors, is a unique way to provide education in health care settings to practicing clinicians. It is an opportunity to practice assessment skills and critical thinking in a safe environment that mimics the patient care setting. Our team implemented this concept at a hospital in Toronto, with a focus on researching the outcomes of a simulation intervention for nurses who care for patients receiving epidural analgesia for pain management after surgery. This photograph depicts the real-to-life patient care environment that was created for this study.

Graduate Studies Prize

Sponsored by the School of Graduate Studies

[Fish eye lens photograph of Dog Lake]

Shattered Planet

Submitted by: Allen Tian, Student (MSc), Biology

Location of Photo: Milburn Bay, Dog Lake, South Frontenac County, Ontario, Canada

Description of Photo: The impact of human activity on our planet is often difficult to see in the moment, and requires a long-term, overlooking, view. This photo is a drone panorama of my field site on the Rideau Canal System, where I investigate the impact of human activity on aquatic ecosystems, particularly the development of toxic algal blooms. Activities such as fishing, property development and farming have fragmented and altered this ecosystem, and we need a holistic, broader view to piece together how we can protect our delicate, beautiful, world.

Innovation, Knowledge Mobilization, and Entrepreneurship Prize

Sponsored by Partnerships and Innovation

[Photograph of a leg being prepared for dynamic X-ray video]

Propelling Research

Submitted by: Lauren Welte, Student (PhD), Mechanical and Materials Engineering

Location of Photo: Skeletal Observation Laboratory, Queen’s University

Description of Photo: Our feet make contact with the ground millions of times within our lifetime, yet we still do not completely understand how they function. Using dynamic X-ray video, we image foot bones in ways we could only previously imagine.  Recent work has questioned several popular theories about soft tissue function in the arch. Ongoing research aims to understand healthy foot function, to better inform treatments for foot pain. This research has the capacity to propel our understanding of foot function forward.

Health Sciences Prize

Sponsored by the Faculty of Health Sciences

[Microscopic photo of cells within a brain region]

A Glance in the Brain

Submitted by: Natalia de Menezes Lyra e Silva, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Centre for Neuroscience Studies

Location of Photo: Centre for Neuroscience Studies, Queen’s University

Description of Photo: The primate brain is highly specialized, allowing us an incredible range of experiences. This microscopic photo captures cells within a brain region, the hippocampus, involved with learning and memory. Every lived experience that we are able to remember has boosted the formation of new connections in our brains. These connections are affected in diseases that impair memory, such as Alzheimer's disease (AD). Here, we can observe cells involved with the brain inflammatory response. These cells are upregulated in the brains of AD patients. This technique allows us to better understand how our brains work and how they are altered by diseases.

 

To learn more about this year’s winners and explore past winners and top submissions, visit The Art of Research Photo Gallery on the Research@Queen’s website.

Examining COVID-19’s economic impact on Ontario

New modelling tool shows a loss exceeding $40 billion across the province through May.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Queen’s University economists are helping policymakers build a roadmap for economic recovery efforts. The focus is on providing local and provincial leaders with the best available high-frequency economic projections to use alongside health projections when making decisions.  

Through Limestone Analytics, a Kingston-based research and analytics firm, the group of Queen’s researchers has developed a COVID-19 policy analysis tool. Already adapted for Ontario the preliminary  estimates imply that COVID-19 led to a loss in Ontario’s GDP of 9.4 per cent in March, 23.7 per cent in April, and 26 per cent in May compared to what would have been expected. This implies a loss of over $40 billion across the province or $7,500 per household. 

“These are huge numbers, and that is just where we are after May,” said Huw Lloyd-Ellis (Economics). “Losses will accumulate going forward. How big they end up being depends on how quickly the province can relax restrictions on various industries, and how the behavior of firms and consumers change going forward.” 

The team refers to their framework as the STUDIO model, a flexible framework that can be adapted for a wide variety of scenarios. The acronym stands for “Short-Term Under-capacity Dynamic Input-Output” model, reflecting its intended use for month-to-month scenario building during economic disasters. 

“We don’t pretend that we can predict the future in terms of how the disease will spread, or how government policy, and consumer and firm behavior will change in the coming months,” says Christopher Cotton (Economics), the Jarislowsky-Deutsch Chair in Economic & Financial Policy at Queen’s. “The strength of STUDIO is in its flexibility, and its ability to provide economic projections for any number of alternative scenarios that we may throw at it.”  

The model produces an array of projections to show what will happen to the economy in different situations, depending on how the disease spreads, and how governments, consumers and firms respond to it. Understanding how economic outcomes respond to policy choices under alternative scenarios will help governments plan their response to COVID-19 over the coming months.  

Even under a very optimistic scenario, where the economy reopens rapidly and largely recovers by the end of the year, the preliminary estimates are that Ontario will experience a 9.9 per cent loss in its annual GDP, which amounts to over $83 billion in total or almost $15,000 per household. While, as always, these estimates are subject to considerable uncertainty, they are consistent with several other private and public sector forecasts.  

Potential jumps in the transmission of the disease or delays in reopening the economy could easily increase these numbers. The model’s projections under a more pessimistic schedule for reopening the economy shows an average GDP loss exceeding $20,000 per Ontario household.  

The researchers are also extending their analysis to the local level and breaking down the results by industrial sectorFor Kingston and Frontenac County, for example, the projected GDP losses are slightly less than the Ontario average, but certain industries such as those related to travel and healthcare, are taking a big hit. Such insights can help policymakers direct support to the places and the people that need it most. 

The team has made some of their projections available through an interactive dashboard on the Limestone Analytics website 

“The dashboard provides just a taste of what the model can do,” says Bahman Kashi (Economics), President of Limestone Analytics. “We are expanding our analysis across regions, provinces and states in North America, and we are adapting our models for use in developing countries. We are also partnering with several organizations and other groups at Queen’s to build a comprehensive policymaking dashboard that will bring together both economic and health projections in one place for all of Canada.” 

The team has worked closely with members of the Eastern Ontario Leadership Council to understand the data needs of local leaders, and Mitacs to help support graduate student participation on the project. 

Pandemic highlights the need for a surveillance debate beyond ‘privacy’

Privacy regulation can’t keep pace with the supersystems collecting, analyzing and using personal data.

A silhouetted man stands in front of a digital display.
Governments are implementing surveillance technologies to monitor and control the spread of COVID-19. (Unsplash / Chris Yang)

The coronavirus pandemic has stirred up a surveillance storm. Researchers rush to develop new forms of public health monitoring and tracking, but releasing personal data to private companies and governments carries risks to our individual and collective rights. COVID-19 opens the lid on a much-needed debate.

For example, Google and Apple teamed up to offer privacy-preserving contact-tracing help. The scramble for data solutions is well-meaning, but whether they work or not, they generate risks beyond narrowly-defined privacy.

Everyone has extensive digital records — health, education, employment, police contact, consumer behaviour — indeed, on our whole life. Privacy is much more than shielding something we’d rather not share; surveillance also affects our chances and choices in life, often in critical ways.

Early computerization obliged governments to see that regulation was needed as personal data was collected for more and more purposes. At first the data came from credit cards, driver’s licences and social insurance; today it’s constant device-use. But privacy regulation alone can’t keep pace with today’s supersystems for data collection, analysis and use that generate the kind of negative discrimination that demands data justice.

Surveillance and profit

Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is making headlines for its close analysis of how Google achieves its surveillance, why and with what consequences. Zuboff insists that a new mode of economic accumulation has been rapidly emerging ever since internet-based platforms — led by Google — discovered how to monetize the so-called “data exhaust” exuded by everyday online communications: searches, posts, tweets, texts. Beyond the loss of privacy, she sees the destruction of democracy and behavioural modification, citing a former Facebook product manager who says the “fundamental purpose” of data workers is to influence and alter people’s moods and behaviour.

One cannot miss Zuboff’s cri de coeur and its scathing rebuke to the “radical indifference” of these platforms. But what will it take to persuade us that today’s surveillance has become a basic dimension of our societies that threatens more than personal privacy? Surveillance is complicated, arcane and apparently out-of-control but those don’t excuse our complacency. Rather, they’re reasons for digging into some of the main dimensions of surveillance, prying open black boxes and reasserting human agency.

Let’s disturb some common assumptions that surveillance is about video cameras, state intelligence and policing, producing suspects and challenging privacy. Google assuredly does surveillance, which is commonly defined as “any focused, routine, systematic attention to personal details, for the purpose of control, influence or management.”

Two survellance cameras on a white wall.
Personal devices — mainly smartphones — provide a way to constantly track and monitor our movements, habits and consumption patterns. (Unsplash / Pawel Czerwinski)

It’s not just CCTV cameras, it’s also smart devices

Yes, it’s our laptops, phones and tablets. Surveillance is now digital and data-driven.

For too long, the stereotypical icon of surveillance has been the video camera. The French roots of the word surveillance means to “watch over,” which is what cameras do. And these are becoming smarter, when enhanced by facial recognition technology.

Clearview AI, for instance, scrapes billions of images from platforms such as Facebook or Google, selling services to major police departments in the United States and, until recently, Canada.

But today, what deserves to be the stereotypical icon is the smartphone. This, above all, connects the individual with corporations that not only collect but analyze, sort, categorize, trade and use the data we each produce. Without our permission, our data are examined and used by others to influence, manage or govern us. Data analysis enables prediction — and then “nudging” — of specific population groups to buy, behave or vote in hoped-for ways.

It’s not just the state, it’s the market

While the state and its agencies often overreach through intelligence and policing strategies, it is the market and not the state that holds the cards in the surveillance game.

Few noticed in the early 20th century that department stores, like Syndicat St-Henri in Montréal, kept detailed customer records, giving or withholding credit according to their status.

A pivotal moment was 9/11 when high-tech companies, craving customers after the dot-com bust, offered their services to government.

Today, our massively augmented data profiles indicate value to businesses. Those data are valuable to others too, like election consultants.

Surveillance is for sorting

Surveillance and suspects once belonged neatly together — those who were thought to be miscreants were watched. But in this big data era, all personal details are up for grabs.

What French sociologist Jacques Ellul worried about in 1954 has transpired: the police quest for unlimited information makes everyone a suspect. But Ellul never guessed how this could morph into a global network of systems, far beyond policing, in which everyone becomes a target.

But everyone is not targeted in the same way. Surveillance — whether for welfare, commerce or policing — sorts populations into categories for different treatment. This social sorting works in marketing to organize consumers. In China today, social credit systems are used by the government and commerce to monitor and rank citizens’ behaviour and social capital.

This is not only about privacy, it’s also about data justice.

Surveillance is a challenge to digital rights, because it is based on fundamental inequalities and unfair practices. Vulnerable groups discover their disadvantages are deepened.

Privacy laws rightly protect an individual’s right to privacy of movement, home and communication in a democratic society. But we need a radical new direction, prompted by our knowing how data analytics, algorithms, machine learning and artificial intelligence are reshaping our social environment. The analysis and uses of the data have to be addressed, invoking new categories such as digital rights and data justice.

Surveillance challenges

Just scratching the surface of 21st-century surveillance reveals how vastly things have changed. The landscape of surveillance has shifted tectonically from following suspects, watching workers and classifying consumers to monitoring and tracking everyone — now for public health — on an unprecedented scale.

Privacy is undoubtedly a casualty, and so are basic freedoms of democracy, expectations of justice and hopes for social solidarity and public trust. These demand serious attention, not just from policy-makers and politicians, but from computer scientists, software engineers and everyone who uses a device.

The stakes are high, but the future is not foreclosed.The Conversation

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David Lyon, Director, Surveillance Studies Centre, Professor of Sociology, Queen's University.

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

Innovative research advancing understanding of COVID-19

The Southeastern Ontario Academic Medical Organization funds six new projects to help fight the global pandemic.

Modifying existing antiviral drugs for better outcomes and revealing the mechanisms of a mysterious blood clotting syndrome are among six new COVID-19 research projects being pursued by researchers and clinician scientists at Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC), Kingston General Health Research Institute (KGHRI), and Queen’s University. The research is supported by funding totalling $670,000 from the Southeastern Ontario Academic Medical Organization (SEAMO).  

“These researchers are recognized as leaders and innovators in their respective fields, and their work has the potential to significantly advance global understanding of this complex and perplexing disease,” says Dr. Steve Smith, Vice-Dean Research, Faculty of Heath Sciences, Queen’s, Vice President, Health Sciences Research, KHSC, and President & CEO, KGHRI. 

The list of funded projects is below: 

Stephen Archer and Victor Snieckus - Synthesis and preclinical testing of novel small molecule therapies for COVID-19 

Currently no drugs have been proven effective in randomized clinical trials for treating the severe respiratory effects of COVID-19. Drs. Archer (Medicine) and Snieckus (Chemistry) are confronting this challenge on two fronts. Firstly, they will modify existing antiviral drugs to improve their metabolism and efficiency and reduce their toxic side effects. On a second front they have identified that SARS-CoV-2 kills cells and may impair oxygen sensing by damaging mitochondria in lung cells. They will explore a novel mitochondrial pathway to combat the “happy hypoxemia (low oxygen without appropriate shortness of breath), which characterizes COVID-19 pneumonia, and to prevent cell death by protecting mitochondria from SARS-CoV-2. Sussex Research Inc. (Ottawa) is collaborating in the antiviral drug synthetic work and dissemination of the results.   

Paula James and David Lillicrap - Coagulopathy: Understanding and Treating a Novel Entity  

Drs. James (Medicine) and Lillicrap (Pathology and Molecular Medicine), leading researchers in clinical and molecular hemostasis, are studying the links between COVID-19 coagulopathy, an unexplained and potentially fatal blood-clotting syndrome associated with SARS-CoV-2, and von Willebrand Factor (VWF), a blood clotting protein. They are collaborating with researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital (Toronto) and Vermont Medical Center who are studying the effects of the blood thinner heparin on COVID-19, which has been shown in preliminary research to help these patients. The role of VWF in this disorder has not yet been studied, and the KHSC and KGHRI researchers aim to gain better understanding of the mechanisms of VWF in COVID-19 coagulopathy, potentially leading to the development of new treatments.    

David Maslove and Michael Rauh - COVID-19 and the Genetics of Mortality in Critical Care  

Drs. Maslove (Medicine) and Rauh (Pathology and Molecular Medicine) are part of an international genetics study examining why some patients are affected more severely by COVID-19 than others. They will be looking at the genomes of patients admitted to intensive care units across Ontario and then comparing them to those of a healthy control population. Using advanced computing techniques, they will be able to look at hundreds of thousands of subtle genetic variations across the population, to determine which of these are associated with outcomes. Knowing more about these variations will lead to new strategies for fighting the virus.  

Martin Petkovich, Jacob Rullo and Martin tenHove - Coronavirus infection of the ocular mucosa to model infection and systemic immunity 

Drs. ten Hove (Ophthalmology), Rullo (Ophthalmology), and Petkovich (Biomedical & Molecular Sciences) are studying local and systemic immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 infection using a physiological model that will examine how the virus infects the mucosal layer of the eyes. They will also determine the efficacy of administering a vaccination via this route to see if it generates systemic immunity against coronaviruses, and then use these results to study how the disease progresses in vaccinated and non-vaccinated models.    

Robert Siemens and Charles Graham - The Role of BCG-induced innate immune memory in the protection against coronavirus   

Countries that use the vaccine Bacillus Calmette Guerin (BCG) to prevent tuberculosis show lower rates of coronavirus infection than those who do not. Intriguingly, this vaccine has also been used to successfully treat bladder cancer. Drs. Siemens (Urology) and Graham (Biomedical & Molecular Sciences) believe that BCG enhances the body’s innate immune system. Their research aims to understand the immune-system mechanisms that lead to these protective benefits, and whether this vaccine could be used to protect against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.    

Stephen Vanner and Prameet Sheth - The application of metabolomics to enhance detection of COVID-19 and predict disease severity: A proof-of-principle study   

Drs. Vanner (Gastrointestinal Diseases Research Unit) and Sheth (Pathology and Molecular Medicine) will use specialized mass spectrometry to study the metabolites found in nasopharyngeal (upper throat) samples of COVID-19.  Their aim is to identify the unique signature of these tiny molecules, compared to other causes of respiratory infections such as the common cold. This metabolomic signature holds promise as a more sensitive, rapid and accurate identifier and predictor of the severity of the disease than current methods. It will also enable future studies on COVID-19 detection, prediction of disease severity, and virus identification in asymptomatic individuals. 

These projects are examples of research confronting COVID-19 being undertaken within the Kingston and Queen’s community. The Vice-Principal (Research) also recently announced the first round of results for the Rapid Response competitionfund and support research projects that will contribute to the development, testing, and implementation of medical or social countermeasures to mitigate the rapid spread of COVID-19 

Re-imagining the world of theatre

Queen’s professor says when the pandemic has passed, the theatre world will be born anew.

West Side Story actors dance.
The world of theatre has ground to a halt but Queen's University professor Michael Wheeler is confident it will return. (Photo by Tim Fort; Winner in the 2019 Art of Research photo contest)

The theatre world has ground to a halt. Stages are dark and seats are empty. Queen’s University researcher Michael Wheeler is exploring how, in 2020, thinking has shifted from how digital was impacting live performance to how digital can keep the practice of the arts meaningful during a pandemic. 

“Theatres are facing an incredible amount of uncertainty about if and when they can resume regular activities,” says Wheeler (Dan School of Drama and Music). “Major institutions like the Stratford Festival have been forced to lay off much of their staff and it is unclear when they can resume operations. Part of this calculation is due to the uncertainty about the pandemic, and part is concern about when audiences will feel safe enough to return in significant numbers.” 

Wheeler also is questioning whether the artists themselves will recover as the already precarious nature of performer’s life means many will have few savings to rely on and, because of the pandemic, no restaurants or bars to work at in the downtime. 

Despite all the doom and gloom, the Queen’s professor has hope for the future – and that hope rests in the digital world for nowSpiderWebShow.ca is the first and only nationally-driven performing arts website of its kind in Canada. The site features CdnStudio, Canada’s first virtual rehearsal hall. In the wake of COVID-19, CdnStudio was relaunched as a space for artists to rehearse, experiment, and create with collaborators across distance. 

SpiderWebShow is also producing FOLDA (Festival of Live Digital Art) June 10-13 for the third timePreviously held live at The Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, collaborators were able to change and re-focus the works to be delivered online through FOLDA. It is a national festival that includes partnerships with The Theatre Centre (Toronto), The National Arts Centre (Ottawa), Luminato Festival (Toronto) and PUSH Festival (Vancouver.) The work comes to audiences in many forms: audio walks, livestreams, radio broadcasts, Zoom calls, and social media tools.  

While experiencing the theatre and art digitally is the new reality for now, Wheeler, who also works as a director in the theatre, says nothing can replace live theatre. 

“Something a livestream can't provide is running into your friend at the bar, or the buzz of the lobby or even the chance to ride the subway to the theatre so there are social and experiential reasons people go to the theatre that may not be satisfied,” he says. “I also believe the risk of 'live' is part of why audiences engage with this evolving art form. When it is safe to return to the theatre, I do believe it will be more popular than pre-March 2019 as we appreciate what we had anew.” 

All FOLDA events June 10-13 are available to be experienced via folda.ca free of charge. 

Biden, Keystone XL, and a Green New Deal could shake up Canada’s energy industry

The Conversation: Canadian companies depend on the international marketplace, which is demanding cleaner energy products.

A pipeline is seen in the Midwest United States
The Keystone XL oil pipeline would be scrapped once again if Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden wins this year's election in the U.S.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden recently reiterated his desire to stop the Keystone XL oil pipeline project. “I’ve been against Keystone from the beginning. It is tarsands that we don’t need — that in fact is a very, very high pollutant,” he said.

This is just the latest move in a long political game with respect to Keystone XL. In 2015, Vice-President Biden supported President Barack Obama’s decision to block the pipeline. After the 2017 election, President Donald Trump restored the project. If completed, the 1,900-kilometre pipeline would carry crude oil from Alberta to Nebraska, ultimately feeding refineries on the Gulf Coast.

Now Biden says he would shut it down again if he’s elected president in November. Canadians need to know that he is really making three arguments against the project, which may require Canada to re-examine its energy sector strategy.

‘High pollutant’

Biden points to Canada’s oilsands as having “… very, very high pollutant” levels. There is some truth to this perception.

In the United States, the production of conventional oil and its transport to refinery gates produce about 7.1 grams of carbon dioxide equivalents of greenhouse gases for each megajoule of energy (CO2e/MJ). Shale oil compares favourably at 3.5-14 g CO2e/MJ, for production, but these figures do not include upgrading and transport, or refining. Long-term studies of Canadian oilsands surface mining suggest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions range from 8.7 g CO2e/MJ to 15-23 g CO2e/MJ (the latter figures include upgrading).

The transport of the oil product to refineries in the U.S. increases the GHG emissions of Canadian oil to between 16-33 g CO2e/MJ, depending on the distance covered and whether the product is moved through pipelines (smaller footprint) or by rail (large footprint). When taken together, this shows that greenhouse gas emissions of oilsands production, upgrading and transport are at least four times greater than U.S. conventional oil.

Alberta and the oil industry have fought back against these negative perceptions. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers report that GHG emissions per unit of GDP have declined by 20 per cent since 2005, although total emissions from oilsands have more than doubled between 2000 and 2017. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has invested $30 million into a “war room,” echoing past campaigns labelling oil from overseas as “conflict oil.”

The scientific literature has provided Canadian producers with some arguments to support oilsands production. For example, the relatively low GHG emissions of shale oil are counterbalanced by a host of negative impacts on water supply and quality, issues of geological instability and earthquakes, and growing concern about the longevity of shale operations.

Yet the Canadian energy sector is still perceived as a poor environmental performer. Earlier this month, Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund excluded key oilsands producers from its portfolio, and BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, also pulled out of oilsands companies in early 2020. Recent research found oilsands emissions may be up to 30 per cent higher than what the industry reports.

‘We don’t need’ that oil

Biden also suggested that the U.S. doesn’t need Canadian oilsands resources, a reflection of the dramatic shifts in U.S. oil production over the past decade. In 2010, the U.S. produced about five million barrels of oil per day, but it now has the capacity to produce 17.9 million barrels a day.

A big part of this growth has been due to shale production, which grew to about 12.2 million barrels per day in 2019 from just over 0.5 million barrels per day in 2010. Canadian oil, which amounts to about 4.55 million barrels per day, was once critical to U.S. energy security but has become less relevant.

The current COVID-19 situation has further decreased the U.S. need for oil. As 2020 unfolds, investors are predicting oil production drops of up to 2.9 million barrels per day across the U.S. Much of produced oil is being stored, and oil storage capacity is rapidly filling up (or, perhaps not). Regardless, demand for gasoline and other oil products has reached its lowest point since 1971.

What will happen to oil demand as we exit the pandemic and the economy restarts? Some speculate that more and more people will work from home on a semi-permanent basis, giving governments licence to redesign roadways and increase active transit options.

Others warn that car travel may increase, sparking a resurgence in demand for gasoline and other refined oil products, and leading to declines in public transit use.

‘We’re gonna transition … to a clean economy’

Biden’s comments emphasized the need to transition away from fossil fuels, echoing calls for a Green New Deal, championed by key Democrats such as congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The Green New Deal combines a series of goals including 100 per cent renewable energy, along with full access to health care and guaranteed wages. As one of the most senior Democrats to endorse the Green New Deal, Biden could be expected to support this movement should he win the White House.

But the Green New Deal may be a difficult sell in the post-COVID world. While renewable energy generation costs are increasingly cheaper, it is hard to compete against extremely low oil prices, and upgrading the grid to deliver renewable energy may result in higher electricity costs for consumers — something that may not be easy to manage during a major recession.

Very real concerns about energy poverty and inequality must be also be addressed within a Green New Deal — and it will take time to do this right. These concerns and challenges will buy countries like Canada time to adapt their own energy sector to better serve a rapidly changing market south of the border.

Biden’s words should lead Canadians to pause and reflect on the direction that the energy sector is going. Canadian companies depend on the international marketplace, and that marketplace is demanding cleaner energy products.

The U.S. has already become a major oil producer, and it’s left Canadian companies struggling. A Green New Deal will simply serve to accelerate these trends. Without significant change, Canada’s energy sector risks being left behind.The Conversation

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Warren Mabee is the Executive Director of the School of Policy Studies, Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, and Director of the Queen's Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy. He is a professor in the Department of Geography and Planning with a cross-appointment to the School of Environmental Studies.

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

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