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Ventilators co-designed by a Canadian team led by Queen’s Nobel Laureate ready to go

Ottawa orders 10,000 ventilators developed by team led by Art McDonald and global collaborators in fight against COVID-19.

MVM Ventilator
An MVM ventilator shown during development.

An international ventilator design team, led in part by Queen’s Nobel Laureate Art McDonald, reached a new milestone today, with the Government of Canada announcing an agreement with global manufacturing firm Vexos to produce 10,000 Mechanical Ventilator Milano (MVM) units that will help assist the country’s efforts to confront COVID-19.

"Throughout this period of crisis, we continue to see Canadian companies across the country making tremendous contributions to fight COVID-19,” says Navdeep Bains, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry. “The story of Dr. Art McDonald, his team, and Vexos is one of true innovation. These new, easy to build ventilators are a great example of Canadian innovation at work and will be a key resource for our hospitals to save lives."

Minister Bains shared news of the order in a tweet yesterday.

The MVM device is an innovative, simple but powerful ventilator designed to address the specific needs of patients severely affected by COVID-19. Through collaboration between Italian, American, and Canadian physicists, engineers, and companies, the device was conceived, developed, and secured FDA authorization in the U.S. inside of six weeks. Health Canada review for the Canadian units will occur soon and delivery of the units is expected to commence in July 2020.

"I have enjoyed working with such a skilled and dedicated team of scientists and engineers, including our Canadian manufacturing partners, in this humanitarian effort,” says Dr. McDonald, who has been leading a Canadian team, including TRIUMF Laboratory, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, SNOLAB, and the McDonald Institute. “Everyone is strongly motivated to make a difference in this difficult situation for Canada and the rest of the world."

The project gained public attention in early April after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau highlighted the project as one of the key examples of how Canadian researchers were working together to provide effective and creative solutions to supply shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic. The teams also caught the attention of major philanthropists from across Canada who stepped up to support the effort’s progress.

Learn more about the project on the Research at Queen’s website.

Graduates’ video shares some good news

Meet the students who reached out to actor John Krasinski and were rewarded with a turn in a viral video. 

Some Good News Queen's graduation
With Spring Convocation postponed due to COVID-19, Queen's students Aimée Carter, Taylor De Sousa, and Stacy Pinto decided to host their own graduation ceremony, which was picked up by Some Good News. (Some Good News / YouTube)

Many of us will agree, this is the time of year when the beauty of the Queen’s Campus is at its peak. Thousands of students and families would normally be able to enjoy the sights and sounds of the university as they attend the convocation ceremonies. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these in-person events have been postponed. But that didn’t stop three friends from finding a creative way to cap off their time at Queen’s. 

The pandemic restrictions meant the university needed to rethink the traditional way it marks the end of the university experience. In mid-March, the Office of the University Registrar announced it is looking at Fall 2020 as a possible timeframe for convocation ceremonies to occur, in the interest of safety for faculty, students and families. 

“Since convocation was rescheduled, my housemates Taylor (De Sousa), Stacy (Pinto), and I decided to make our own celebration to commemorate our time at Queen's and still ‘graduate’ together” says Aimée Carter, a graduating Global Development Studies student. 

The trio gathered items that reminded them of Queen’s and got creative. 

“Our ‘diplomas’ were Golden Words newspapers and we made our caps out of pizza boxes” Carter says. 

But it was the graduation video the women made and submitted to actor John Krasinski’s You Tube series Some Good News that created the most memorable touch to their endeavor. 

“I’m a huge fan of John Krasinski and we all love watching his episodes of Some Good News each week,” says Taylor De Sousa, a graduating Psychology student. “I noticed Krasinski posted on the Some Good News Facebook page asking to see how we were all celebrating our graduation. There were so many comments from other grads like us, so I joined in and submitted our video.”  

Krasinski created the eight-week series as a way to celebrate the triumphs, joys and innovations of regular people. It grew to include celebrity drop-ins, fundraising endeavors and cool stunts.   

“Honestly, I was so shocked and excited when I saw that we were in Some Good News! We had joked about getting featured, but I didn't think it would actually happen” says Carter. 

The friends describe the video as “very uplifting” and say being featured made graduation feel a little more real. The icing on the cake perhaps, was the star power the post received. 

“It was amazing to see people like Oprah, Steven Spielberg, and Malala Yousafzai congratulate everyone in the video and I am so happy to have been a part of it, even if it was just in a little way,” says Carter. 

The graduating students now plan to further their education, with De Sousa returning to Queen’s in the fall to begin her master's studies, and Carter hoping to pursue a master's abroad.   

So far, the 30-minute video, which was posted May 3 has been viewed over 3.4 million times. The Queen’s graduates are featured at the 22:14 mark. 

“Overall the reception has been pretty cool, people keep noticing the Queens flag in the background and sharing the video. It has definitely been a fun and surprising conclusion to our undergrad,” says Carter. 

Queen’s University remains committed to ensuring students have the opportunity to celebrate graduation, just as previous classes of Queen’s graduates have-with friends and family at Convocation. Until that time, Queen’s is on schedule to confer degrees over the coming days and weeks. 

 

Celebrating graduates during COVID-19

Principal, Chancellor, and Rector share special video messages with the class of 2020 to mark important milestone.

 

Student waving Queen's flag.
Lists of conferred graduates will appear on the new Registrar web page over the coming weeks.

As public health officials continue to respond to COVID-19, the class of 2020 is marking their graduation under truly unprecedented circumstances. Since traditional convocation ceremonies have been delayed until safety guidelines permit, Principal and Vice-Chancellor Patrick Deane, Chancellor Jim Leech, and Rector Sam Hiemstra, have shared special video messages of congratulations with graduates to mark this important milestone.

“This has been an amazing academic year, and I’ve thought a lot about the situation of our students bringing their careers to a close in what is an absolutely unprecedented set of circumstances,” says Principal Deane. “The big celebration with the robes, the music, and the applause – that will have to wait. In the meantime, congratulations! You have my deepest admiration, and best wishes for the future.”

The video messages have been shared as part of a new degree conferral and graduation activity webpage, which will also highlight evolving lists of graduates that will be added as they are conferred over the coming days and weeks. With in-person ceremonies postponed for an indeterminant period, many of the faculties are looking to celebrate graduates in a variety of virtual ways, and degrees will be mailed directly to them over the coming weeks. These activities will be highlighted on this page as they become available as well.

“We want to take this moment to congratulate you for completing your studies, and thus, earning your degrees, diplomas and certificates,” says Chancellor Leech. “You should be proud of your accomplishments, and that you are now a full-fledged member of Queen’s alumni.”

Planning is underway to offer in-person celebrations to ensure the university is ready to offer Spring 2020 graduates the experience they deserve, once conditions allow.

“During a traditional ceremony, we would soon gather outside of Ontario Hall, admiring the gardens and feeling the iconic Kingston warm breeze as we take photos and reminisce,” says Rector Hiemstra. “While that may not be happening today, from the bottom of my heart, I want you all to know that you are celebrated and valued.”

Learn more on the degree conferral and graduation activities webpage. Queen’s will update Spring 2020 graduates on planning for in-person ceremonies as pandemic response guidelines continue to evolve.

No stopping the Three Minute Thesis

Alice Santilli, a master's candidate in the School of Computing, is the Queen’s Three Minute Thesis winner with her presentation 'Sniffing out breast cancer.'

Alice Santilli, a master's candidate in the School of Computing, presents during the Queen's 3 Minute Thesis competition. (Supplied image)

Every cancer patient who goes to the hospital for a treatment hopes it will be their last.

Alice Santilli, a masters candidate in the Queen’s School of Computing, wants to turn that hope into more of a reality for breast cancer patients.

“Around 40 percent of women who currently go through breast tumor removal in Canada will leave their surgery with breast cancer cells remaining in their bodies,” says Santilli, likening the process to unsuccessfully weeding a garden.

So, how do you keep the ‘weeds’ out in this case? Her research aims to create an artificial intelligence-based model that will help surgeons tell the difference between skin cells, fat cells, and tumorous cells, which would minimize the likelihood of follow-up surgeries.

Her process involves using a device called a mass spectrometer to analyze the smoke being generated by a surgical tool known as an intelligent knife, or iKnife, during the surgery. The data being fed to the surgeon in real time would ensure the correct cells are removed.    

Santilli’s exciting research and her strong presentation skills have earned her first place in the 2020 edition of the Queen’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition.

Thesis presented in three minutes or less

3MT is an annual event where graduate students condense their research into a brief presentation for judges and a live audience. The judges score the presentations based on their communications style, the comprehensive nature of their presentation, and how engaging their performance was.

“I am glad the School of Graduate Studies team put the work in to allow this event to happen virtually this year so I could still participate,” she says. “I love presenting and enjoyed the opportunity to practice the skill of explaining my research to a non-technical audience.”

As the winner of the Queen’s competition, Santilli receives $1,000 and the opportunity to present Queen’s at the Ontario level competition. While the format for this year’s provincial Three Minute Thesis competition, which was to be held at the University of Windsor, is still unknown, Santilli says, if she gets to present again, she will be making some refinements based on the strong presentations by her peers.

“I actually turned my camera off after my presentation because I thought there was no way I had won,” she says. “There were so many great presentations.”

More winners

Sean Marrs, a PhD candidate in the Department of History, claimed second place and a $500 prize. His presentation focused on the establishment of an 18th-century surveillance state in Paris, France and draws parallels between Big Brother-style monitoring today.

“I learned a great deal in participating in the 3MT competition,” he says. “I learned how to better connect with a wide audience and certainly improved my presentation skills. Most importantly, writing and delivering a 3MT presentation forced me to clarify to myself and others the essential reason purpose of my research.”

Livestream viewers were also able to vote for a People’s Choice presentation, and they selected Arthi Chinna Meyyapapan, a masters candidate studying neuroscience. Meyyapapan’s presentation looked at how manipulating gut bacteria, particularly with personalized medicine approaches, could more effectively treat mood and anxiety disorders.

To watch this year’s presentations, and learn from our graduate student presenters, visit www.queensu.ca/3mt.

Why ‘The Scream’ is going viral again

In these coronavirus times, artist Edvard Munch's iconic image speaks to our anxieties about illness and societal collapse.
‘The Scream,’ by Edvard Munch, hand-coloured lithograph version from 1895. (Munchmuseet)CC BY

Few works of art are as iconic as The Scream, by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863–1944). The combination of an open mouth, eyes wide open and two hands raised to cheeks has become a near-universal signifier of shock and existential fear, helped along by 1990s movie franchises such as Scream and Home Alone. Not to mention the scream emoji.

The ConversationIn these “coronatimes,” The Scream has taken on new significance, summoned once again to represent our anxieties of illness and death, of economic recession and of societal collapse.

Versions of The Scream have proliferated online. There are Screams with face masks or even as face masks. There are Screams anxious about handwashing and face touching, and Screams with eyes drawn in the now recognizable shape of the coronavirus. Screaming figures are fleeing cities and financial institutions. They are hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

Poignant images

Most of these coronavirus Scream images tap into our collective fears and transform them through humour. But there are more poignant images as well. Consider a “social distancing” Scream created by Hrag Vartanian, editor-in-chief of the art site Hyperallergic.

Vartanian digitally altered the image so that only a single lone individual remains in the background.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

#EdvardMunch in the age of social distancing.

A post shared by Hrag Vartanian (@hragv) on

Vartanian said:

“I wanted to create something jarring that reminds us to look at familiar things in new ways, just like we’re doing with our lives in the era of social distancing.”

And then there’s 2020 Plague Expulsion Rite, a photo collage by Shenzhen-based photographer Wu Guoyong. After collaborating with Luo Dawei, who runs the photo platform Fengmian, to curate a series of family portraits of Chinese New Year in quarantine, Wu gathered together 3,500 images of lockdown to create a collective Scream.

2020 Plague Expulsion Rite poses profound questions: if we are all screaming, and if we imagine everyone else screaming, is it possible to feel less alone? And if we are all screaming together, how else might we act collectively in these times?

Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ pastel version, 1895. (Wikimedia), CC BY

‘Quaking with angst’

After numerous sketches and some false starts, Munch completed a first version of The Scream in 1893 while living in Berlin, where his avant-garde circle enthusiastically received it as an embodiment of modern angst bordering on mental illness.

Carefully conceived for maximum emotional effect, Munch intended the work to be a powerful image that would represent an intense emotional experience that he had while walking along a fjord in his native Norway. He also tried to put that experience into words:

“I was walking along the road with two friends — the sun was setting — I felt a wave of sadness — the sky suddenly turned blood-red. I stopped, leaned against the fence tired to death … My friends walked on — stood there quaking with angst — and I felt as though a vast, endless scream passed through nature.”

Munch created three more versions of The Scream, a lithograph and a pastel in 1895, and another painting, probably in 1910.

The Scream has a dramatic history. The 1893 version was stolen and then recovered in 1994. Ten years later, the 1910 version was also stolen and recovered, albeit damaged. In 2012, the pastel version was auctioned for the record sum of nearly US$120 million. Now, as reported by the Guardian, conservators recommend that the 1910 painting practise its own physical distancing to avoid further damage from human breath.

Staring, open-mouthed figures

Throughout his long career, Munch often represented the despair and fear provoked by deadly diseases not yet well understood by modern medicine, including tuberculosis, syphilis and influenza. A staring, open-mouthed figure, often alienated from its body, recurred in those representations.

Before The Scream, Munch produced a drawing in one of his early sketchbooks, probably a self-portrait, and captioned it “Influenca.” A figure doubled, frightened and frightening, looks back at us from a mirror. His eyes are wide open and his tongue is sticking out. Perhaps he is saying “aaahhh” and waiting for a diagnosis.

Munch suffered from lung and bronchial problems throughout his life, possibly related to the tuberculosis that killed his mother and sister when he was a child. In 1919, he was one of the few artists to respond to the worldwide flu pandemic. In a large self-portrait simply titled Spanish Flu, the artist turns his head to the viewer, eyes strangely vacant, and opens his mouth to … what? Speak? Cough? Gasp for breath? Scream?

Munch Self-Portrait
Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu, by Edvard Munch. (National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, The Fine Art Collections)

Rise in cult status

The Scream gained its cult status only after the artist’s death in 1944.

While the full story of its emergence into popular culture remains to be told, key early moments are probably a Time magazine cover from 1961 with the banner “Guilt & Anxiety,” and a 1973 book by Reinhold Heller about Munch’s iconic painting.

In recent years, The Scream has been used to raise awareness of climate change, to critique and protest Brexit as well as the presidency of Donald Trump in the United States.

Anxiety about nuclear proliferation also speaks through The Scream. In 2009, graphic designer Małgorzata Będowska transformed the instantly recognizable nuclear hazard sign into an iconic mashup for the poster Nuclear Emergency. The striking design has since become commonplace at anti-nuclear events.

A common visual language

We might turn to the arts to soothe ourselves in times of crisis and stress. But in those same times, history has shown that art can help us to express or deal with difficult emotions, including those stemming from our experiences of illness.

The internet-enabled global circulation of The Scream is intensifying in an age of political instability and a pandemic enabled by globalization. The increasing virality of The Scream demonstrates the ongoing need for a common visual language to communicate and to cope with what many fear the most: the shared vulnerability of having a body that might become ill, suffer and die.The Conversation

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Allison Morehead, Associate Professor of Art History and in the Graduate Program in Cultural Studies, Queen's University, Ontario

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

 

Exploring new frontiers in research

Queen’s researchers receive support from the New Frontiers in Research Fund.

A total of seven Queen’s research projects are receiving funding from the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) 2019 Exploration competition. (Photo by Bernard Clark / University Communications)

Seven Queen’s research projects have been funded by the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) 2019 Exploration competition, a program that fosters discovery and innovation by encouraging Canadian researchers to explore, take risks, and work with partners across disciplines and borders.

Queen’s will receive $1.7 million of the $46.3 million in funding allocated to support 186 research projects across Canada. The competition provides grants of up to $125,000 a year for two years for teams of two or more researchers.

The 2019 Exploration grants support a wide range of research projects at the university — from developing a micro-scale antibiotic discovery platform to community-led policy engagement on Vancouver’s housing crisis. A full list of funded projects is below:

  • Breakthroughs in robotics and machine learning have the potential to have a significant impact on the way chemical synthesis is performed, and to dramatically accelerate the pace of discovery and optimization. Cathleen Crudden (Chemistry) and collaborators have received $250,000 to apply machine learning-based chemical optimization to the synthesis of metal nanoclusters, which form a key link between molecules and materials.
  • Jeffrey Masuda (Kinesiology and Health Studies) and co-applicants, including Audrey Kobayashi (Geography and Planning), have received $248,960 to generate a creative space for community-led policy engagement in the heart of Vancouver’s housing crisis. Using materials from archival, qualitative, and humanities-based methodologies gathered through four years of SSHRC Insight participatory action research, they will develop a permanent exhibit that will tell the histories of governance, activism, and inhabitance surrounding single room occupancy (SRO) hotels in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
  • The spread of cancer beyond the initial site (metastasis) occurs frequently and is the cause of 90 per cent of cancer-related deaths. P. Andrew Evans (Chemistry) with John Allingham (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) and Andrew Craig (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences), , will leverage $250,000 from the NFRF to develop small molecule inhibitors inspired by marine macrolide natural products, which target the cellular engine that drives cancer metastasis. 
  • Stephen Lougheed (Biology), Yuxiang Wang (Biology) and collaborators are developing new, real-time, community-based environmental DNA protocols for assessing freshwater ecosystem health with $249,363 in support from the NFRF. Their platform will combine eDNA approaches with community capacity building, focusing on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River as test cases.
  • Environmental bacteria are an excellent source of new antibiotics. However, when cultivated in the laboratory, they frequently fail to produce the vast majority of their encoded molecules unless very particular and specific conditions are used. Avena Ross (Chemistry) and Richard Oleschuk (Chemistry) will use $250,000 in support from the NFRF to develop a microfluidics platform to identify new antibiotics from bacteria, enabling them to rapidly identify/prioritize new antibiotic drug leads.
  • Michael Rauh (Pathology and Molecular Medicine) and Susan Crocker (Pathology and Molecular Medicine) have received $240,500 for their work in profiling blood for genomic instability associated with neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease (AD). With their combined expertise, they will demonstrate how changes in cell-free and cell-contained DNA in blood contribute to AD pathophysiology.
  • Amber Simpson (School of Computing and Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) and Sharday Mosurinjohn (School of Religion) have received $250,000 to develop a cancer digital twin from 400,000 medical images that predicts the pattern of cancer spread while considering the bioethical implications raised by the technology. Their project will bring to bear combined expertise in AI, oncology, religion, philosophy, and cultural sociology to analyze AI’s existential risks and rewards.
Discover Research@Queen’s
Did you know that the university recently launched a new central website for Queen’s research? From in-depth features to the latest information on how our researchers are confronting COVID-19, the site is a destination showcasing the impact of Queen’s research. Discover Research@Queen’s.

The NFRF’s 2019 Exploration competition supports research that defies current paradigms, bridges disciplines, or tackles fundamental problems from new perspectives. A key principle of this stream is the recognition that exploring new directions in research carries risk but that these risks are worthwhile, given their potential for significant impact.

“Through the NFRF, researchers at Queen’s are bringing disciplines together in nontraditional ways to explore new research directions in social, cultural, economic, health and technological areas that may benefit Canadians,” says Kimberly Woodhouse, Interim Vice-Principal (Research). “Thank you to the Government of Canada for their support of this work.”

The NFRF is an initiative of the Canada Research Coordinating Committee and is managed as a tri-agency program on behalf of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. For more information, visit the website.

Don’t miss out on research funding opportunities, subscribe to the University Research Services Funding Opportunities listserv.

Impacting student futures

Wendy Powley of the School of Computing receives the Chancellor A. Charles Baillie Teaching Award.
Wendy Powley is the 2020 recipient of the Chancellor A. Charles Baillie Teaching Award, which recognizes undergraduate, graduate or professional teaching that has had an outstanding influence on the quality of student learning at Queen’s University. (Supplied Photo)

Throughout her career Wendy Powley has had a positive impact on students and their education, from teaching a variety of courses, from introduction to programming to computer ethics in computing, to her work toward increasing the number of young women studying and pursuing careers in the technology sector.

As a result, Powley is the 2020 recipient of the Chancellor A. Charles Baillie Teaching Award, which recognizes undergraduate, graduate or professional teaching that has had an outstanding influence on the quality of student learning at Queen’s University.

“The adjudication committee was astonished by what Professor Powley has accomplished. Her dedication is remarkable and extends well beyond what is normally expected of a Continuing Adjunct Professor,” says John Pierce, Vice-Provost (Teaching and Learning). “The student-centered approach to teaching, built-in mentorship methods, and the bridges that have been built to attract more female students to the discipline from high school are all particularly impressive. The teaching strategies employed and developed by Professor Powley offer special opportunities to learners from equity-seeking groups and are sound pedagogical approaches that elevate everyone in the classroom.”

Powley has been a faculty member at the School of Computing for over 20 years, while also teaching courses in the Faculty of Education and Arts and Science Online. She has been a major contributor to the School of Computing’s success, having developed the curriculum for more than 10 distinct courses in three units.

For example, her redesign of CISC 110, an introductory computing course, resulted in a three-fold jump in enrolment, an increase in the participation of women, while 92 per cent of the students enrolled in a second computing course. A grant from the Centre for Teaching and Learning was used to add a mentorship component to CISC 110 in 2019.

“I am honoured to receive this award in recognition for the diversity work that I do. I am pleased that Queen's acknowledges that teaching involves far more than simply conveying subject knowledge,” Powley says. “A large part of what we do – role modeling, inspiring, encouraging, building confidence is all part of the teaching experience and I am pleased to be recognized for this. I am also proud to be the recipient of this award as a continuing adjunct. It is wonderful to be part of an institution that has been proactive and ahead of other universities in providing opportunities and supporting and acknowledging individuals that have become career academics via a non-traditional path.”

Active learning

A hallmark of Powley’s classes is the use of active learning wherever possible. When lecturing, she incorporates demonstrations and illustrations and explanations into nearly every class. When it comes to coding she uses live coding, which can lead to real-life debugging tasks with the entire class involved in finding a solution. This demonstrates the real struggles of coding and normalizes errors. Significant learning in computer science stems from failure, Powley explains, so it is important for students to learn the debugging process and to understand that it is a normal and vital part of the software development process.

“Wendy is an exceptional teacher, a role model for young colleagues and students and a champion of women in computing in Canada and internationally,” says Hossam Hassanein, Director of the School of Computing. “In every task Wendy does, she goes far above and beyond what is expected and does so because of her dedication and love of the School of Computing and Queen’s.”

Women in technology

Away from the classroom, Powley has played a fundamental role in promoting education and career paths in computing and technology for young women. She is the founder of the Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing (CAN-CWiC) – which began as an Ontario-only event at Queen's University in 2010. The 2019 event attracted 750 participants from across the country, bringing together leaders in research, education, and industry, as well as students.

During her career Powley has introduced computing to thousands of students. She has taught introductory programming, databases, operating systems, web development, ethics and curriculum courses for pre-service teachers. She receives excellent evaluations from students who use words such as engaging, excellent, and amazing to describe her classes, while her fellow faculty members often hear from their students how much Powley has influenced their education.

“My motivation comes from the students and the impact that we can have on their lives – from teaching them a new skill, pointing out a career avenue that perhaps they have never considered or helping them to find the confidence that they need to pursue a life-changing dream,” she says. “There is truly nothing like hearing from a student that because they took your course, they have achieved success.” 

More information about the Chancellor A. Charles Baillie Teaching Award, including eligibility requirements, is available on the Centre for Teaching and Learning website.

Disrupting routine thinking

Psychedelics can help reset the brain, shaking it out of old patterns. The coronavirus pandemic could have similar impacts.

An image of a male with a medical mask on.
Leaving predictability and entering into uncertainty is a threshold to transformation. (Fearghal Kelly / Unsplash)

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the widespread disruption of our usual routines. The ambiguity of when it will end, how things will unfold and what will happen in the future has resulted in a collective liminal state, a kind of a waiting area on the threshold of change.

The ConversationCOVID-19 has undermined our usual expectations and assumptions. Evidence from my work on how our brains react to psychedelics tell me the transient anxiety — which occurs when expectations collapse — may yield benefits. To gain the benefits, we must be intentional in the viewing of this era as a transformational opportunity.

I have looked at how medium-to-high doses of psychedelics can help reset the brain, shaking it out of old patterns. I wonder if our current state of uncertainty could have similar impacts on the brain — a metaphorical psychedelic dose — for new insights, values clarification and a collective reset.

The brain is a prediction machine

A recent study shows experiences with psychedelics such as psilocybin (also known as magic mushrooms) can have disruptive impacts on our brains. Neuroimaging of the brain on psychedelics have revealed a state of chaos, or entropy and a loss of synchronization of brain waves.

Entropy is a measure of uncertainty and randomness or disorder. British neuroscientist Karl Friston defines entropy as a measure of uncertainty, the “average surprise.” Low entropy means, on average, that outcomes are relatively predictable.

In Friston’s view, the brain is a prediction machine. We construct the future from the past. We make predictive inferences (conscious and unconscious) to conserve energy and simplify the interpretation of a continuous input of stimuli.

We gain mastery, but at the expense of novelty.

Disrupting the patterns

Poor mental health often revolves around excessive rumination and repetition. Rumination is rigid, repetitive and negative thinking characterized by low entropy.

In 1949, McGill University psychologist Donald Hebb predicted much of what modern neuroscience would go on to prove with neuroimaging technologies. Hebbs’ postulate — that the neurons that fire together, wire together — provides a summary of the way synaptic pathways bond and are reinforced by repetition.

This repetition and rumination robs the mind of flexibility, especially when attached to memories with heightened (positive or negative) emotional resonance. Repetition-habituated brains marinate in a soup of low novelty and lack of surprise, forecasting tomorrow to be much the same as today.

Psychedelics disrupt our repetitive or ruminative ways of thinking and rewire brain communication patterns. The result is often an altered state of consciousness marked by transient confusion, followed by a high probability of novel, meaningful and possibly even mystical experiences.

When the rigid, top-down control of the ego is loosened, the anarchy of the creative unconscious blooms.

Concert goers at a rave
We construct the future from the past. (Unsplash)

How psychedelics can help

Our research group at Queen’s University recently completed a review of existing studies on psilocybin-assisted therapy. From over 2,000 records, we found nine completed clinical trials with a total of 169 participants.

Overall, the trials showed that most subjects safely tolerated these interventions and showed improved mental health. However, some experienced transient distress and post-treatment headaches. The trend suggests positive outcomes in various conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, depression, psychological distress associated with life-threatening cancers and demoralization among long-term AIDS survivors.

In short, although psychedelics can be accompanied by known adverse experiences, trials seem to indicate that psilocybin is relatively safe (with the right supports and in a supportive setting) and has a marked ability to interrupt psychopathologies.

To ensure safety and support, the majority of psilocybin trials used the PSI model (preparation, session, integration) with multiple moderate-to-high-doses sessions happening in the company of trained therapists.

Participants report experiences of transient anxiety, distress and confusion, states of joy, interconnectedness, catharsis, forgiveness and wisdom experiences. In contrast to talk therapy, psychedelic sessions are experiential, meaning that we experience changed ways of both seeing and being in the world.

Being OK with uncertainty

Mystical experiences have been reported both by clinical trial subjects and by recreational psilocybin users. Mysticism can be thought of as an experience of absorption, a dissolution of separateness and a sense of deep connection. Absorption is the opposite of rumination.

Rumination carries you away on an eddy of self-referential and self-containing thoughts, while when experiencing absorption, you leave behind your narrow sense of self, experiencing something greater that is both inside and outside of you.

The psychedelic experience is a classic hero’s journey. The hero leaves the comforts of home, faces disruption and challenges to their previous way of thinking and being, has profound and transformative experiences, and returns a changed person.

Leaving predictability and entering into uncertainty is a threshold to transformation.

When predictions fail, opportunities are born

In one study, psilocybin trial subjects reported feeling more deeply connected, open and relational as a result of their entropic, and often difficult, psychedelic experiences. In another study, they have been found to hold less authoritarian political views and be more in touch with nature.

Participants in collective psychedelic rituals commonly experience feelings of deep bond, kinship and even telepathy with other participants. I believe we may be in a similar moment during COVID-19.

COVID-19 has disrupted the normative habits of society. It has forced the economic machine to pause. It has forced many to reevaluate practices and priorities. In some cases, I believe it is dissolving our normal sense of human separateness (even though we are physically distanced).

Perhaps, like the liminal psychedelic state, the uncertainty in which we find ourselves in this moment will lead to more visions of what can be.

The future does not have to remain in the past.

Those of us with the luxury of space and time have an opportunity to reset, unbind our minds, quit repeating old patterns, experience anew what life can hold and to do better.The Conversation

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Ron Shore, PhD Student and Teaching Fellow, School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, Queen's University.

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

Spotlight on a new virtual music festival

The inaugural Ballytobin Live From the Isabel Online Summer Music Festival will bring live concerts to music lovers in Kingston and around the world.

Ballytobin Live From the Isabel Online Summer Music Festival

With large gatherings banned as part of the efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19, the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts is still looking for ways to bring live concerts to music lovers.  

The result is the creation of an online music festival where Kingston musicians perform live at the Isabel at Queen’s University for a worldwide audience.

The inaugural Ballytobin Live From the Isabel Online Summer Music Festival showcases live performances at the Isabel by fabulous musicians of many different genres, streamed by the Isabel team on its new Isabel Digital Concert Hall from May to August, 2020. The Isabel Digital Concert Hall will be accessible starting May 16.

“There is no doubt that Kingston loves music, and musicians want to make music during this difficult period of isolation. This festival is a musical initiative of tremendous passion and enthusiasm,” says Tricia Baldwin, Director of the Isabel. “The community collaborators have created a wonderful and varied summer program for Kingston’s music lovers and beyond. The irony of social isolation is the increased collaboration and goodwill in the arts. I am grateful to all our partners, the Ballytobin Foundation for making this festival possible, and technical director Aaron Holmberg and arts stage technicians Jesse MacMillan and Noah Sullivan for working tirelessly to bring about a high fidelity live online festival.”

All online concerts are free for all audiences with a voluntary donation requested.

“In these interesting times, we are so pleased to support this innovative arts initiative that ensures that a vast array of live music continues in Kingston and is shared with the community through its new Isabel Digital Concert Hall,” says Joan Tobin, Ballytobin Foundation. “There is such determination in Kingston to ensure that the music does not stop, but rather, continues to flourish in this music-loving city. I congratulate the entire community programming team and all the artists and collaborators who, together, have created a wonderful festival for all to enjoy.”

CONCERT DATES 

  • May 16, 7 pm: Gryphon Trio (Classical). In collaboration with Ottawa Chamberfest and Chamber Music Society of Detroit
  • June 19, 7:30 pm: Frase (hip-hop/ funk / house / soul). In collaboration with the Skeleton Park Arts Festival
  • June 20, 3 pm: Sadaf Amini (Iranian santur). In collaboration with the Skeleton Park Arts Festival
  • June 21, 7:30 pm: Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and her band (Indigenous multi-arts). In collaboration with the Skeleton Park Arts Festival
  • July 8, 7 pm & 8 pm: Palenai Duo (Classical)
  • July 15, 7 pm & 8 pm: Triola (Classical)
  • July 22, 7 pm: Benny Goodman Tribute Band (Jazz)
  • July 22, 8:30 pm: Jive Ass Slippers (Jazz)
  • July 28, 7:30 pm: Faculty Artist Trio (Classical) In collaboration with Queen’s Dan School of Drama and Music
  • July 29, 7 pm: Valery Lloyd-Watts (Classical piano)
  • July 29, 8 pm: Carina Canonico and David Gazaille (Classical). In collaboration with the Kingston Symphony
  • Aug. 5, 7 pm: Emilie Steele & The Deal (Indie Rock)
  • Aug. 5, 8:30 pm: Oakridge Ave. (Indie Rock)
  • Aug. 12, 7 pm & 8 pm: Kingston Cabaret Night – Musiikki Monday Night Band, Selina Chiarelli and the Firebirds (Jazz, Pop & More)
  • Aug. 13, 7 pm: Isabel String Quartet (Classical). In collaboration with Queen’s Dan School of Drama and Music
  • Aug. 19, 7 pm: Limestone Trio (Classical). In collaboration with the Kingston Symphony

 

Helping leaders make public health decisions during COVID-19

Queen’s researcher Dongmei Chen and collaborators receive federal funding to explore how the social dynamics of coronavirus transmission impact decision making.

[Photo of Toronto skyline featuring the CN Tower]
Queen's researcher Dongmei Chen and her collaborators are examining the social dynamics of COVID-19 transmission. They are collaborating with community partners in Toronto to examine the epidemic's impact on the Chinese community in the Greater Toronto Area. (Image: Unsplash/ Richard Kidger)

As governments and public health agencies move to rapidly address the COVID-19 pandemic, they face the challenge of making decisions under considerable time constraints and with uncertainty. Developing evidence-based responses will be a key tool, now and for the future, for leaders to make confident decisions on assessing preventive measures, allocating resources and equipment, identifying high-risk groups, and establishing policies on emergency response.

Social dynamics of virus transmission

[Photo of Dr. Dongmei Chen]
Dr. Dongmei Chen (Geography and Planning)

Queen’s researcher Dongmei Chen (Geography and Planning) is working on a project that will help decision-makers access vital information they need for their public health response to COVID-19 and future infectious disease pandemics. Dr. Chen, along with researchers Lu Wang (nominated PI) and Lixia Yang from Ryerson University, have received support from the Government of Canada’s rapid research funding competition to address COVID-19. The Canadian Institutes for Health Research has awarded their project more than $180,000 to study the social dynamics of virus transmission in a large urban hub to help us better understand the impact of our public health response. 

How the social dynamics of coronavirus transmission impact a community are largely shaped by the relationship between community prevention behaviour and individual activity space.

“The effectiveness of preventive measures depends fundamentally on the public’s willingness to cooperate, which is highly associated with the level of risk a person perceives,” explains Dr. Chen. “Because COVID-19 typically spreads via close contact, it is of critical importance to understand, at an individual level, the characteristics of activity space for individuals during an outbreak or a potential outbreak.”

Collaborating with community partners in Toronto

Their project will also explore the importance of how risk perceptions and the specific measures taken in a community can be tailored to the unique circumstances of a transnational community. Specifically, Dr. Chen and her collaborators will examine the epidemic’s impact on the Chinese community in Toronto.

At the time of the proposal in February, the majority of cases in Canada could be traced to travel from China. As the Greater Toronto Area is home to the largest Chinese diaspora outside of China, Dr. Chen and her collaborators believed that the impact of the outbreak would be large for this community because of their many connections to mainland China and Hong Kong. The team, whose research expertise range from transnational healthcare to health among immigrant populations and spatial modelling, will work with three Chinese community organizations and health centres in Toronto to provide new insights on the cultural dimensions of the epidemic and the implications of pandemics within large global cities.

Future emergency responses

Dr. Chen’s expertise in understanding and modelling the interactions between human activities and their physical environment will be key to analyzing the data collected from the team’s community partnerships. Under Dr. Chen’s leadership, Queen’s LaGISA (Laboratory of Geographic Information and Spatial Analysis) will conduct the project’s spatial analysis, geovisualization and modelling of individual activity spaces before and during the pandemic, and help to interpret their implication in COVID-19 prevention and transmission.

Their project will not only be crucial to the current public health response to COVID-19, it will have long-lasting implications. “Such evidence-based findings can be utilized by public health, locally and internationally, in assessing community preventive measures and enhancing the collective capacity for emergency responses to COVID-19, along with other future infectious diseases,” explains Dr. Chen.

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