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Arts and Science

Building materials may impact Arctic tundra

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

Virginia Walker (Biology) and her research team have revealed how common additives in building materials (nanoparticles) could possibly disrupt populations of microorganisms found in Arctic soils.

These commonly used building materials include paint that’s resistant to mold and mildew, insulating materials, longer lasting concrete and windows that reduce heat loss. The addition of these nanoparticles to the soil can affect seasonal change in fungi and bacteria.

Virginia Walker removes soil samples from the Arctic tundra.

“Through this research we have seen that four different measures of soil analysis point to the same result: the addition of nanosilver interferes with normal seasonal change in the Arctic tundra,” says Dr. Walker.

Dr. Walker travelled to the Tundra Research Station in Daring Lake, Northwest Territories with Queen’s researcher Paul Grogan to collect soil samples for the research. Nanoparticles were then added to the soils in her Queen’s lab and the temperature was altered over a period of three months in order to mimic a change in seasons from winter (-20 C) to summer (15 C) in the Arctic.

The contribution of research and development expertise from the biological instrument company Qubit Systems, located in Kingston, allowed the monitoring of soil respiration during these temperature shifts.

Once the summer conditions were over, the researchers examined the biochemical properties of the organisms, including DNA sequences. What the researchers found was significant.

Bacteria were generally more susceptible than fungi to the engineered nanoparticles, and the population of some beneficial plant-associating bacteria suffered. In contrast, some fungi were quite resistant to

Virgina Walker

nanosilver, including those known for their antioxidant properties. Such information can help the scientific community understand how nanoparticles impact living organisms.

“Having visited the Arctic, I knew the vast, stark beauty of the landscape and it became important to try to protect it,” says Dr. Walker. “We already know that traces of flame retardants have found their way to the Arctic. This research is critical to the Arctic ecosystem.”

Joining Dr. Walker on the research team were Niraj Kumar (Queen’s), Vishal Shah (Dowling College) and Gerry Palmer (Qubit Systems).

These findings were published in the most recent issue of PLOS One.

'Living with joy in a tragic world'

By Rosie Hales, Communications Officer

Julie Salverson has always been attracted to catastrophic events.

This interest in catastrophe, coupled with her passion for music, has led her to pen Shelter – an opera about a nuclear family that goes adrift – which opened this week in Toronto.

“Writer Joseph Campbell says to ‘follow your bliss,’ and while most people go after love or fulfillment, I’m drawn to tragedy and the fault lines in the psyche of a culture, the secrets that fester in families, leak quietly into communities and eventually – sometimes – explode. Such is the story of Shelter – a tale of living with joy in a tragic world,” says Dr. Salverson, an associate professor in the Department of Drama.

Accompanying the opera are free events before each performance that allow the audience to participate in discussions related to topics in Shelter.

“The symposium allows the opera to speak more explicitly and asks people to consider the times we live in by asking questions such as: what’s the role of science, how do we keep our families and our communities safe, how do we become good citizens?” says Dr. Salverson. “It’s also a chance for the audience to become more directly involved in the discussions surrounding the opera.”

Shelter is Dr. Salverson’s first full length opera. In 2002, she entered the Tapestry New Opera’s composer and librettist laboratory where she met composer Juliet Palmer, who was just as interested as Dr. Salverson in the idea of catastrophe.

Dr. Salverson and Ms. Palmer researched atomic bombs intensively and ended up writing Over the Japanese Sea – a 15-minute opera piece for the opening of Tapestry’s new studio theatre that focuses heavily on the effects of an atomic bomb.

“The response to Over the Japanese Sea was very encouraging,” says Dr. Salverson. “Instead of sitting back immobilized by the idea of the bomb, audience members chatted about their connections to the atomic story: a cousin who was an engineer, a neighbour who worked in a physics lab.”

The audience’s engaging reaction to the atomic story was exactly what Dr. Salverson and Ms. Palmer were looking for and they began creating and rehearsing for Shelter.

From punch cards to the cloud, School of Computing marks 45 years

By Mark Kerr, Senior Communications Officer

While technology has evolved dramatically since the School of Computing was founded in 1969, there has been one constant over those 45 years, according to Director Selim Akl.

Queen’s School of Computing professor Parvin Mousavi and PhD candidate Andrew Dickinson evaluate a newly developed system for augmenting ultrasound-guided prostate biopsy.

“We have gone from punch cards during my graduate student days to CD ROMS and USB sticks. Now we are living in the cloud,” he says. “One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the quality of our students. Our undergraduate and graduate students really are scholars and we’re proud of them.”

The School of Computing will celebrate 45 years of excellence in education, research and service by welcoming back alumni and opening the doors to its laboratories this weekend. Even though its golden anniversary is just a few short years away, the school felt it was important to mark the 45th anniversary.

“It’s a critical juncture for us, a time when we expect our enrolment at the undergraduate level to grow,” he says. “The anniversary is a chance to celebrate our accomplishments and the renewal taking place within the school.”

The School of Computing has grown to keep pace with the burgeoning field of computing science. When Dr. Akl arrived at Queen’s more than 30 years ago, there were six professors occupying half a floor in Goodwin Hall. Now, close to 30 professors work on four floors in Goodwin Hall and five different locations on campus.

I challenge anybody to find an aspect of society or life that is not touched by computers. That’s why the field is so exciting.

Selim Akl, Director, Queen's School of Computing

The School of Computing boasts the largest full-time graduate program at Queen’s, with an average of 150 full-time master’s and PhD students pursuing their degrees. “They are driving our research machine with their cutting edge work,” says Dr. Akl.

That research spans a broad range of topics, with many of the school’s 22 laboratories collaborating with departments across Queen’s, as well as other universities and industry partners. Dr. Akl says the nature of computing science encourages the school to work with many different partners.

“I challenge anybody to find an aspect of society or life that is not touched by computers. That’s why the field is so exciting,” he says. “It’s also exciting to do research in a field that’s moving so fast. Our faculty and graduate students are creating new things and they can see the result of their work. They get that instant gratification.”

With the field changing so quickly, Dr. Akl hesitates to predict how the School of Computing will look when it celebrates its 50th anniversary. However, he believes the school will do a lot more groundbreaking work in theoretical computer science, communications, cloud computing and human computer interaction. He also expects Queen’s researchers to remain leaders in the fields of software design, digital game development, knowledge discovery and computer-assisted health care.

There are several events planned for the anniversary including tours of various laboratories that are open to the general public. Visit the School of Computing website to learn more about all of the events.

The 'mane' attraction

Hair Lines opens June 11 at the Rotunda Theatre in Theological Hall at 7:30 pm. The show runs each night until June 13. Tickets are $10 or pay what you can.

By Rosie Hales, Communications Officer

Forty performers will take to the stage in the Rotunda Theatre this week to share their experiences losing, growing, removing or flaunting their hair.

“We’re so glad that we are able to put on a production featuring some of Kingston’s most talented professional and community artists,” says Queen’s drama professor Kim Renders, the artistic co-ordinator of Hair Lines. “We have spoken word performances, movement pieces, and lecture-style talks all connected by music.”

 Kim Renders, artistic co-ordinator of Hair Lines, gives direction to the cast. 

Our manes are the main focus of the latest production for Chipped Off Performance Collective. According to Professor Renders and Chipped Off members and PhD candidates Dan Vena and Robin McDonald, what people do with their hair defines and signifies them.

Each two-minute performance is given by contributors from the Kingston community, many of whom are Queen’s faculty, staff and students. As a specialist in large-scale artist/community theatre collaborations, Renders has thoroughly enjoyed stitching all of the various pieces together.

“Hair Lines is funny, political and poignant,” she says. “I think I can best describe it by comparing it to a quilt: there are lots of different pieces but they are all connected and flow together.”

For Professor Renders, the best part of the process has been seeing many first-time performers get up on stage and share their pieces with the audience.

“This project brings professional Kingston artists of diverse disciplines together with dozens of community members to create a theatre spectacle for anyone who has ever plucked an eyebrow, gone for a Brazilian, combed over, shaved off, braided, lost or cried about their hair,” she says.

This show is Chipped Off’s second original production and opens to coincide with Kingston Pride.

View a gallery of rehearsal photos by Hilbert Buist on Flickr. 

Students soaring with Vanhawks

By Andrew Stokes, Communications Officer

Queen’s student entrepreneurs have created Canada’s most-funded Kickstarter campaign ever. Ali Zahid (Cmp’14) and Niv Yahel (Cmp’14) are working together on a carbon fibre bicycle that connects to a smartphone to provide feedback and directions while you ride. Their funding campaign, which closed on May 31, raised $820,000, meeting their goals more than eight times over.

Along with two partners, Mr. Zahid and Mr. Yahel created Vanhawks, a startup company to produce their new Valour bicycle. Besides tracking route, distance, speed and time, the Valour also has a number of features to improve rider safety. The handlebars vibrate to alert the rider to objects in their blind spots. Sensors on the wheels collect data on potholes and other dangers and offer directions to help the cyclist avoid these hazards.

Mr. Zahid, Chief Operations Officer, and Mr. Yahel, Chief Technology Officer, met one another as frosh leaders at Queen’s in 2010. When the opportunity arose to work with Vanhawks, both put their degrees on hold to pursue their business interests.

“We took a leap of faith with this project and we’ve been extremely lucky to have such supportive backers,” says Mr. Zahid.

Working as a graphics editor at The Queen’s Journal and then as a marketing officer at the Alma Mater Society helped Mr. Zahid prepare for life as an entrepreneur. “Balancing school and extracurricular commitments really cultivated a strong work ethic in me. I learned a lot from those positions and they’ve been a big help in my time with Vanhawks.”

Mr. Yahel was especially thankful to the professors who encouraged him and taught him the skills he’s using now. “A lot of my professors felt more like mentors than instructors. I owe so much to Margaret Lamb and David Dove in the School of Computing. They took extra time to help and support me; they really care about what they’re doing.”

While their first project has been creating a better bike, Mr. Yahel says they have bigger goals. “We think the Valour is the first step in making big changes. Personal urban transportation needs to be safer and better and we want to explore the ways technology can make that happen.”

Leaving Queen’s to follow that vision wasn’t an easy decision though. “I really miss Queen’s,” he says. “I love the place and I’m so glad I went there. It has a strong community that’s uniquely supportive. I don’t think I would have had the same opportunities if I went anywhere else.”

Flags lowered for retired professors

By Communications Staff

Flags on campus are lowered in memory of Professor Emeritus Peter Roeder (Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering) and retired professor William Newcomb (Biology).

Dr. Roeder came to Queen’s in 1962 after completing a PhD at Pennsylvania State University and a postdoctroal fellowship at the New Mexico Institute of Technology. He became an emeritus professor upon his retirement in 1996. He was head of the Department of Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering from 1977-1981. During his career, his major research interest was the equilibrium distribution of elements between chromite, olivine and basaltic melt.

Dr. Newcomb joined Queen's in 1978 as an assistant professor and then was promoted to associate professor in 1984. At the time of his retirement in December 2013, he had served the Department of Biology for almost 35 years. His research focused on understanding the developmental processes that control microspore embryogenesis, an important breeding strategy in agriculture, and also the role of plant hormones and other metabolites in the development of nodules.

Dr. Roeder’s family and friends are invited to a celebration of his life on Thursday, June 12 from 5-7 pm at the University Club (168 Stuart St.). For those wishing, memorial donations to the Canadian Diabetes Association would be appreciated by Dr. Roeder’s family.

Arrangement details for Dr. Newcomb have not been announced. The story will be updated when the details become available.

Flags lowered in memory of Hugh Thorburn

By Communications Staff

Flags on campus are lowered in memory of Hugh Thorburn, a professor emeritus in the Department of Political Studies.

Dr. Thorburn came to Queen’s as an assistant professor of political science in the 1956. He taught at the university for nearly 40 years and served as head of the political studies department. He was president of the Canadian Political Science Association, author of a number of books and editor of Party Politics in Canada.

After serving in the Second World War, he completed his undergraduate education at Victoria College at the University of Toronto. He went on to earn a doctorate degree from Columbia University in 1958. While working on his PhD, he taught at Mount Allison University and the University of Saskatchewan.

Family and friends are invited to a memorial reception at James Reid Reception Centre (1900 John Counter Boulevard, enter through the rear doors) on Saturday, June 7 from 2-4 pm. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Queen’s University Political Studies Scholarship Fund in honour of Hugh Thorburn.

Award-winning professors still learning from students

Clarke Mackey (left) and Robert Morrison are this year's winners of the Frank Knox Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Each year, the Alma Mater Society (AMS) at Queen’s awards two professors for their outstanding commitment to teaching excellence with the highest honour given by students: the Frank Knox Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Named for Frank Knox, an economics professor who taught at Queen’s for 40 years, the award serves as a reminder of the need for a strong commitment and high quality of teaching from professors at Queen’s.

This year’s award recipients, Clarke Mackey (Film and Media) and Robert Morrison (English Language and Literature) sat down with Rosie Hales, Communications Officer, to talk about the award, Queen’s students, and the value of an education in the humanities.

Rosie Hales: How did it feel to win the Frank Knox Teaching Award?

Clarke Mackey: I must say that I was pleasantly surprised because sometimes I worry that it will be hard to connect with my students because of our generational gap. It didn’t matter to me whether I won; it was just great to be nominated. The fact that this award is based on who students believe to be the most dedicated means everything to me and I’m glad that students feel they are getting something meaningful out of our time together.

Robert Morrison: This is my third Frank Knox award but each one has felt just as good as the others. It’s like listening to “Hey Jude.” It’s feels fantastic whether it’s your first time or 50th time listening to it. To be nominated means that I’m still doing my job and I was very happy to know that. The process, from nomination to award, is an avalanche of work for the students, especially when they have so many other commitments. I really applaud Queen’s students - they are wonderful in a whole bunch of ways.

RH: How have you seen Queen’s students change over the years?

CM: In my 25 years at Queen’s, I’ve found the students here to be decent, curious, smart and good to each other and their professors. It’s a really positive working atmosphere.

RM: I have found Queen’s students wonderful from the day I arrived 11 years ago. My admiration for students here is very high; they’re just top notch people.

RH: Do you think students respond differently to the humanities now than when you started?

CM: I think we have to do a little work on explaining to people that it’s enormously helpful to have a humanities education. Humanities give you the chance to think critically, be creative, and communicate effectively in different ways. You gain a sense of ethics and sense of the larger world which makes you a better decision maker and independent worker.

RM: I think that a humanities degree is applicable everywhere. In regards to English literature, I always talk about how John Keats relates to today, because John Keats does relate to today. He struggled with health, relationships, debt, and death – as many people today do. An education in the humanities exposes you to things that are part of yourself that you didn’t know were there.

RH: What do you hope your future at Queen’s brings for you?

CM: Hanging around with 22 year olds and keeping up with them is very stimulating for me and teaches me an enormous amount about the world. I learn a lot from my students. I hope I still have some useful things to tell them so they can learn from me, too.

RM: The first year prof I had at the University of Lethbridge changed my life. I remember him telling me that my job was to go into the classroom and aim to do the same for others. I hope I can do this for Queen’s students.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. This story first appeared in the May edition of the Gazette newspaper.

Physicist sifts through sandy shrapnel

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

Once the site of the Second World War’s bloodiest battles, the beaches of Normandy are now a mecca of sunbathing and swimming. Lurking in the sand, though, is a time capsule of those battles.

Kevin Robbie (Physics) is examining the shrapnel-containing sand on the Normandy beaches by using microscopic imaging to take photographs that are both scientific and artistic. He is working with professional photographer Donald Weber, in a project that combines landscape photography of the beaches with Dr. Robbie’s microscopic photographs of the sand.

Optical microscope image of several pieces of steel shrapnel, showing rust (orange), and salt (white) on the surface.

“Several aspects inspired me to work on this project: the historical importance of the D-Day invasion as a geopolitical event, the artistic juxtaposition of the peaceful appearance of the beaches in the landscape photography with the rough and violent-seeming appearance of the microscopic photographs of the shrapnel grains in the sand,” says Dr. Robbie.

“The shrapnel and sand provides an environmental commentary about the inconspicuous evidence that man-made products of war will remain in these sands for centuries, and the remarkable fact that solidified bubbles of molten iron form nearly-identical spherical particles in the explosions of both artillery shells and meteorites.”

Kevin Robbie

Among the ordinary grains of sand, Dr. Robbie found rounded spheres of iron (called microspherules)   no larger than a period on a printed page. Although these microspherules are sometimes produced from meteorites exploding in the upper atmosphere, they can also occur with bomb and artillery explosions.

The next phase of Dr. Robbie’s research will be a more thorough analysis of the microspherules he observed – quantifying the number of particles per kilogram of sand and distinguishing man-made vs. meteorite origin conclusively.

“In my work, I’m always looking at small things that I don’t see other than through the electron microscope so it’s neat for me to see a piece of history,” says Dr. Robbie. “The remnants of this battle over 60 years ago are still sitting around in the sand.”

The research was published in Canadian Geographic Compass blog.

Caught by a hair

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

Crime fighters could have a new tool at their disposal following promising research by Queen’s professor Diane Beauchemin.

Dr. Beauchemin (Chemistry) and student Lily Huang (MSc’15) have developed a cutting-edge technique to identify human hair. Their test is quicker than DNA analysis techniques currently used by law enforcement. Early sample testing at Queen’s produced a 100 per cent success rate.

Lily Huang crushes up the human hair prior to testing.

“My first paper and foray into forensic chemistry was developing a method of identifying paint that could help solve hit and run cases,” explains Dr. Beauchemin. “Last year, Lily wanted to research hair analysis, so I started working in that area.”

Blood samples are often used to identify gender and ethnicity, but blood can deteriorate quickly and can easily be contaminated. Hair, on the other hand, is very stable. Elements in hair originate from sweat secretions that alter with diet, ethnicity, gender, the environment and working conditions.

Dr. Beauchemin’s process takes 85 seconds to complete and involves grinding up the hair, burning it and then analyzing the vapour that is produced.

“Our analysis process is very robust and can be used universally,” says Ms. Huang. “One of our samples even included dyed hair and the test was 100 per cent accurate. The test was able to distinguish East Asians, Caucasians and South Asians.”

Dr. Beauchemin says she has contacted law enforcement agencies about using the new technology. She is also planning to collect more hair samples and continue her research with a goal of pinpointing where exactly in the world the hair sample is from, to look for more ethnicities and determine specific age.

The research was published in the latest edition of Chemistry World.


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