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Arts and Science

Preserving the flora

The Fowler Herbarium, a museum of over 140,000 dried plant specimens, is critical for identifying, monitoring, and conserving plant biodiversity in Eastern Ontario.

[A Fowler Herbarium specimen QK18296859 Pale Smartweed, Persicaria labathifolia (Linnaeus) Delarbre]
Specimen QK18296859 Pale Smartweed, Persicaria labathifolia (Linnaeus) Delarbre from the Fowler Herbarium.

Biodiversity refers to the variety of living species on Earth, including animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria. Healthy and biodiverse ecosystems provide biological resources (e.g., food, medicines, construction materials), ecosystem services (e.g., soils formation and protection, purification of water, erosion prevention), and many other economic and social benefits. Experts rely on myriad strategies for studying the biodiversity of a region, country or even continent.

A herbarium is a museum of plant specimens (usually dried), providing a permanent record of new plant species discoveries, past and present distributions, and variation within species. Herbaria are key tools for documenting a region’s history of plant exploration and supplying valuable anatomical, chemical, and ethnobotanical information for years to come.

The Fowler Herbarium, named after Rev. James Fowler (Queen’s second Professor of Natural History, 1880-1907), is located in the Jessie V. Deslauriers Centre for Biology at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS). The collection includes over 140,000 plant specimens from Kingston and surrounding areas, the Canadian Arctic, and Russia. Some specimens date back to the mid-1800s.

[Fowler Herbarium specimen QK18290396 Black Chokeberry, Aronia Melanocarpa (Michaux) Elliott]
Specimen QK18290396 Black Chokeberry, Aronia Melanocarpa (Michaux) Elliott from the Fowler Herbarium.

Herbarium reference collections have been used worldwide for teaching, research, and public outreach purposes. They can help to confirm the identity of unusual or rare plants. Additionally, they have proven useful for comparing species diversity from different areas or habitats. The specimens housed in a herbarium allow assessment of contemporary patterns of plant diversity but also how those patterns may have changed over time. Such information is essential, for example, for describing pre-European settlement landscapes and thus understanding the effects of human activities, such as forest clearing, and climate change on plant communities. Herbaria like the Fowler Herbarium also represent vast repositories of DNA, enabling exploration of new and interesting research questions related to the evolutionary history of species, population genetics, and biotechnology. Herbarium specimens not only include information about the species itself, but also feature ‘metadata’ with the name of the collector, the location (historically with name but more recently with geographic coordinates), and date. This rich cultural component to these databases, helps to illuminate the travels and activities of specific collectors over their entire careers.

[Book Cover: Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium by Helen Humphreys]
Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium

The Fowler Herbarium has been an extensive archival resource for student theses and faculty work. For example, in 2013, then-undergraduate student Angela Boag and supervisor Christopher Eckert (Biology) used herbarium samples to explore the spread and efficacy of biological control agents. Yihan Wu (MSc19) and supervisor Robert Colautti (Biology) analyzed herbarium records to better understand the limits of evolution. 

For scholars and nature lovers alike, herbaria also offer a unique opportunity for time travel – a way to discover what was and explore what can be. Enthralled by this notion, award-winning poet and novelist, Helen Humphreys, spent a year at the archive, treating it like an actual wilderness and uncovering hidden mysteries found in its samples. Her introspections about life, loss, and the importance of finding solace in nature during this time are detailed in her wonderful new book, Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium, released on Sept. 21, 2021.

In coming years, Fowler Herbarium collections will be digitized when QUBS can find funds to do so. The herbarium is always looking to receive new plant specimens.

For more information about the Fowler Herbarium, visit the website.

World-renowned philosopher earns Royal Society of Canada award

Will Kymlicka has been recognized with the Pierre Chauveau medal for outstanding contributions to the humanities.

Will Kymlicka, Queen's professor of philosophy
Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy Will Kymlicka recently received the Royal Society of Canada’s (RSC) Pierre Chauveau Medal for his distinguished contribution to knowledge in the humanities.

Queen’s researcher Will Kymlicka, Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy, has earned the Royal Society of Canada’s (RSC) Pierre Chauveau Medal for his distinguished contribution to knowledge in the humanities.

Dr. Kymlicka is amongst the top three influential political philosophers in the English-speaking world and has helped pioneer two major fields of research: the normative foundations of minority group rights within liberal democracies and the place of animals within political theory.

“Like other Western democracies, Canada is a ‘liberal democracy,’ which means we put a strong focus on the rights of individual citizens,” says Dr. Kymlicka. “The Canadian constitution also recognizes some group rights, but these have often been seen as anomalous, and perhaps even dangerous to liberal values. My work has tried to understand how we can make room in liberal philosophy for the rights of groups, and in particular the rights of minorities.”

Dr. Kymlicka is currently researching we govern the lives of animals in our society. 

“This is not only an urgent moral question on its own terms, but also central to the climate crisis, biodiversity and public health. We’ve established an animal politics research group here at Queen’s, focusing on how to ensure animals are represented in democratic politics,” he says. “I think this will be a central issue for the future of political philosophy, and for the fate of the world as a whole.”

Dr. Kymlicka’s high-caliber work and exceptional accomplishments have been recognized by the Killam Prize, the Premier’s Discovery Award, the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, Fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada and the British Academy, honorary degrees from Belgium and Sweden, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Gold Medal.

“It’s a special honour to receive this medal from the Royal Society, which has played such a central role in both the intellectual and public life of the country, and to join the very distinguished list of previous awardees,” Dr. Kymlicka says. “I’m grateful for the incredible support I’ve received from colleagues here at Queen’s over the years.”

The Pierre Chauveau Medal was established in 1951 to honour the memory of Pierre J.O. Chauveau (1820-1890), FRSC, writer, orator, educator, Canadian statesman and the RSC's second president (1883-1884). He was the first premier of Quebec (1867-1872) and Speaker of the Senate (1874).

For more information, visit the RSC website.

Hot not boring: Mountain building may have looked different a billion years ago

New research by Queen’s professor Chris Spencer explores the earth’s crust, ultra-high temperatures, and mountain building events.

Photo provided by Dr. Chris Spencer of fieldwork in Namibia
A geologist exploring 1-billion-year-old and highly deformed rocks from the Sperrgebiet region of southern Namibia. These rocks experienced significant deformation and extreme metamorphism during a continental collision over a billion years ago. (Photo by Christopher Spencer)

The earth’s crust was unusually thin during the mid-Proterozoic period — about 1.8 to 0.8 billion years ago, before complex life flourished — recent research has unveiled. Some geologists have dubbed the period the “boring billion,” arguing that the thin crust during this time was a sign that no mountain-building events were happening, thus delaying the evolution of life. Chris Spencer (Geology) disagrees, believing this interpretation goes against the geological record.

Dr. Spencer says this explanation is contradicted by the billion-year-old mountain belts found on every continent on the globe, which indicate there was mountain building taking place. In a recently published paper in Geophysical Research Letters, Dr. Spencer provides an alternative explanation for thin continental crust during the mid-Proterozoic period.

“The conundrum is how can you have mountain-forming events like the Himalayas, but have thin crust? What inspired me to write this paper was to try and resolve this question,” Dr. Spencer says. “We posit the reason is that the continental crust was hot, and there’s a lot of geological and geochemical evidence to support that the crust was abnormally hot during this time. When you have hot crust, it means you can’t stack the mountains very high. Because as tectonics tries to stack the mountains higher and higher, the hot crust allows it to flow back to a lower edifice rather than the higher Himalayan-style mountains with very thick crust.”

The geological record supports this theory. Igneous and sedimentary rocks metamorphose under heat and pressure, and depending on how high or low the heat or pressure is, different minerals will form. The geologic record at this time shows that the majority of metamorphic rocks on the planet underwent low pressure and high temperature metamorphism. Dr. Spencer says some of the highest temperatures ever recorded by metamorphic rocks are during this interval of time. Even more telling than the minerals that are present is how deformed these rocks are.

“If increased mantle heat alone was the cause of such high-temperature metamorphism then the rocks wouldn’t necessarily deform. However, the fact that these rocks are folded and contorted, not only do we have evidence for high temperature metamorphism, but also for intense deformation associated with mountain building — through the collision of different continental plates, creating this hot deformation resulting in relatively thin crust,” Dr. Spencer explains.

  • Rocks in China that are approximately 1.9-million years old. (Photo by Chris Spencer)
    Rocks in China that are approximately 1.9-million years old. (Photo by Chris Spencer)
  • Australian rock formation 1.3 billion years old. (Photo by Chris Spencer)
    Australian rock formation 1.3 billion years old. (Photo by Chris Spencer)
  • Finland rock formation 1.8 billion years old. (Photo by Chris Spencer)
    Finland rock formation 1.8 billion years old. (Photo by Chris Spencer)
  • Ghana rock formation 2.1 billion years old. (Photo by Chris Spencer)
    Ghana rock formation 2.1 billion years old. (Photo by Chris Spencer)
  • Labrador rock formation 1.4 billion years old. (Photo by Chris Spencer)
    Labrador rock formation 1.4 billion years old. (Photo by Chris Spencer)
  • Norway rock formation 1.1 billion years old. (Photo by Chris Spencer)
    Norway rock formation 1.1 billion years old. (Photo by Chris Spencer)

Dr. Spencer has spent the last decade travelling the world studying rocks from the mid-Proterozoic era. It was during his travels that he began a blog called Travelling Geologist. Over the years it has turned into a network of geologists and now include the Geology Podcast Network, a YouTube channel, an Instagram account with 57,000 followers, and even a student field scholarship. Dr. Spencer’s passion for geology is one that comes out when he explained how essential mountains are.

The importance of Dr. Spencer’s discovery comes with the knowledge of how vital mountains are for humanity: the majority of our mineral resources are found in mountain systems, and mountains affect the climate and the hydrological cycle.

“As we understand how mountain systems have changed through time, it gives us a window into the evolution of the Earth as a planetary system,” Dr. Spencer says. “This has implications for understanding long-term climate change, and it has implications for understanding our mineral resources through time.”

Four Queen’s researchers elected to the Royal Society of Canada

Researchers ranging in expertise from intercultural psychology to maternal care will be inducted to Canada’s national academy.

Four Queen’s researchers have been elected to the Royal Society of Canada (RSC), one of the highest academic honours for Canadian scholars in arts, humanities, and sciences. Professor emeritus John Berry has received the honour of Fellowship, while professors Heather Castleden, Karen Lawford, and Sari van Anders have been elected to the College of New Scholars, Scientists and Artists. This diverse group has research specialties ranging from Indigenous health policy, cross-cultural psychology, and gender/sex research to community and participatory-based research with Indigenous communities.

The RSC has two distinctions that recognize research excellence and impact. The first is the Fellowship, consisting of more than 2,400 peer-elected scientists, scholars, and artists, which recognizes well established and field-leading researchers. Fellows are selected for their significant contributions to research in the arts and humanities, social sciences, or natural and health sciences, as well as their impact on Canadian public life.

The second distinction is membership to the College of New Scholars, Scientists, and Artists. Those elected must have a minimum of 15 years of experience, post-doctoral or equivalent, in their field. Chosen members have displayed leading artistic, scholarly, or research excellence. The College, currently at over 300 members, aims to foster the emerging generation of intellectual leadership in Canada.

“Congratulations to our newly elected researchers on this considerable career achievement,” says Nancy Ross, Vice-Principal (Research). “A testament to their leadership across a range of fields, this honour recognizes the impact of the interdisciplinary and collaborative research being advanced at Queen’s.”

Learn more about the Queen’s researchers who have been elected to the Royal Society of Canada below.

[Photo of Heather Castleden]
Dr. Heather Castleden (Photo Courtesy: University of Victoria Media Services)

Heather Castleden’s (Geography and Planning) community-engaged and participatory research in relational accountability and settler colonialism has fostered authentic partnerships with Indigenous communities across the country and beyond. As the Canada Research Chair in Reconciling Relations for Health, Environments and Communities (2016-2021), Dr. Castleden focused her work on decolonizing Indigenous environment, health and social justice research. She has recently been appointed the position of Impact Chair in Transformative Governance for Planetary Health at the University of Victoria.

 

 

[Photo of Karen Lawford]
Dr. Karen Lawford

Karen Lawford (Gender Studies) is an Anishinaabe registered Indigenous midwife who has made outstanding contributions to the field, ranging from maternal and child health to policy work for Indigenous Peoples. Dr. Lawford's research aims to centre the leadership of Indigenous women and Two-Spirit health care providers by engaging Indigenous communities as research partners, with a goal to ensure that they will benefit directly from her work. She is the first midwife to be elected to the RSC.

 

 

[Photo of Sari van Anders]
Dr. Sari van Anders

Sari van Anders (Psychology) is acclaimed for her multidisciplinary research in gender/sex, sexual diversity, and social neuroendocrinology. Combining the fields of psychology, gender studies and neuroscience, she has provided new understandings of gender/sex and sexual phenomena, as well as innovative approaches to feminist and queer neuroscience. As the Canada 150 Research Chair in Social Neuroendocrinology, Sexuality and Gender/Sex, Dr. van Anders' research often explores the meeting points of social constructions and norms and biological bodies. She is involved in change efforts and social justice within academia.

 

 

[Photo of John Berry]
Dr. John Berry

John Berry (Psychology) is recognized as one of the founders of cross-cultural and intercultural psychology and has made substantial contributions in these fields. Through his development of an ecocultural framework that conceptualizes the links among habitat, culture, and individual behaviour, Dr. Berry has been able to further investigate cognitive style and multiculturalism, with field studies spanning many regions across the world.

 

 

Queen’s is home to over 90 Fellows and 20 College Members. For more information, visit the Royal Society of Canada website.

Development plans help increase graduate student confidence

A team from the Faculty of Arts and Science, Career Services, Student Academic Success Services, the Centre for Teaching and Learning, and the School of Graduate Studies has completed a pilot program that brings Individual Development Plan (IDP) tools to graduate students.

“Participants in the pilot said the IDP improved their confidence in their employability following graduation, as well as helped to clarify their career options,” says Sharon Regan, Associate Dean (Graduate Students and Global Engagement) and Project Sponsor. “Students reported being motivated to seek out new and different opportunities and they also said they gained some perspective on their own skillsets and better understand what employers want and value.”

Supporting the Faculty of Arts and Science’s Strategic Plan's Initiative No. 50: Explore opportunities for developing Individual Development Plans for graduate students in the Faculty of Arts and Science, the content of the IDP is intended to provide direction, support, and tools to help graduate students:

  • set flexible career goals that align with their values, skills and interests, with awareness of job-market options and realities
  • identify skill strengths and gaps and make plans to build additional learning experiences into their graduate education
  • complete their degree and successfully transition to the next stage of their career.

“The IDP was a very beneficial addition to my coursework – particularly in the case of being a first-year PhD student,” says Spencer Huesken, a PhD student  in Sociology. “The obstacles this year both regarding COVID-19 and the general expectations of the program produced a lot of uncertainty. This was the main strength of the IDP for me – it allowed me to be self-reflective while ‘zooming out’ on my own interests, passions, and how to incorporate them holistically into the scope of my PhD work.”

The pilot program ran within the Faculty of Arts and Science from September 2019 until July 2020. Once completed, the findings of the program were handed off to the School of Graduate Studies to inform an institution-wide roll-out scheduled for Sept. 1, 2021.

“The information gathered during the pilot phase will be used to develop the addition of a graduate IDP as a permanent program and to support the broader Queen’s strategy by providing a scalable model and pilot data,” says Cathy Keates, Director of Career and Experiential Learning.

For more information visit the Individual Development Plan webpage.

Reimagining the perception of a parasport athlete

Queen’s University-led project works to expand opportunities for adaptive sports across Canada

PowerHockey Canada athletes compete in recent tournament. Photo courtesy of PowerHockey Canada
Members of Canada's PowerHockey Team. (Photo Courtesy PowerHockey Canada) 

With the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games now underway, a leading researcher from Queen’s says it is time to reimagine what we think of an athlete, and to create opportunities for athletes of all body types and skill levels.

Amy Latimer-Cheung (Kinesiology and Health Studies) is leading a multi-year research project funded by Mitacs, examining inclusivity in sport. The goal is to build a safe, welcoming, and inclusive environment for Canadian parasport athletes.

“As Canadians, we have an image of what an athlete should look like and how they should move,” says Dr. Latimer-Cheung, who is also the Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity Promotion and Disability. “Often, someone living with a high level of disability doesn’t fit this mold. As a result, opportunities, and spotlight, like the Paralympics pass over them.”

Dr. Latimer-Cheung believes one of the reasons for the lack of inclusivity is there are fewer opportunities for athletes with a high level of disability to participate.

“Many of the sports showcased in the Paralympics, currently, just aren’t suitable for athletes with certain disabilities,” she says.

The research effort will engage seven Mitacs research interns from Queen’s University and Western University in multiple projects over the next two years — and involves interviewing individuals living with disability, including Paralympians themselves, to better identify solutions to create opportunity for participation.

The research team is also partnering with the Canadian Paralympic Committee, Ontario Parasport Collective, PowerHockey Canada and other stakeholders to close the gaps in community-based sport programming for athletes with disability.

“Mitacs-funded research aims to change the landscape,” Dr. Latimer-Cheung says. “We are striving to increase the number of opportunities in diverse communities and the quality of these opportunities for athletes with lived experience of disability.”

One area that is particularly under-represented in Canada is powerchair sport. Jordan Herbison, Mitacs intern and postdoctoral research fellow at Queen’s and McGill University, is working with PowerHockey Canada and community partners to build a more inclusive and high-quality powerchair program in Canada, starting with Ontario. His research, including interviews with and survey of athletes and sport administrators, will form the basis for an inclusive “playbook” aimed at giving community program providers the tools and knowledge they need to create more opportunities for people who use powerchairs, and to ensure a positive experience.

“I believe in the power of sport to positively impact people’s lives and that everyone who wants to, should have the opportunity to experience the benefits of sport,” says Dr. Herbison.

Tokyo Paralympics
The 2020 Paralympic Games are being held Aug. 24-Sept. 5, 2021 and features 128 Canadian athletes.

Another project, led by Mitacs intern and Queen’s  Master’s student Alyssa Grimes, is aiming to develop standardized training that any sport organization can use to attract and retain new volunteers, since many parasport programs rely on volunteers to run.

“We know lack of available volunteers is a major barrier to program access,” Dr. Latimer-Cheung says. “If we can help to create a high-quality volunteer experience, the hope is they will be more engaged and it will ignite a passion to continue to support parasport longer term.”

For information about Mitacs and its programs, visit mitacs.ca/newsroom.

Queen’s community remembers student Rachael Anne Smith

Rachael Anne SmithThe Queen’s community is remembering Rachael Anne Smith, a fourth-year student majoring in chemistry, who died Aug. 1, 2021.

Rachael was loved and adored by her family and those around her, and remembered as an exceptional young woman full of wit and charm, who was always willing to lend a hand. She was at the center of all of her family’s activities and made a lasting impression on everyone she met during her time at Queen’s.

Rachael loved people and expressed this as she worked fervently volunteering her time at the Kingston COVID-19 vaccine clinics knowing that she could help make a difference.

Rachael worked in the Department of Chemistry as a research assistant, and was looking forward to starting her fourth-year studies. One of her hallmarks was her ability to complete any task asked of her with the utmost care and with meticulous attention to detail. Her long-term goal was a career in medicine.

She entered Queen’s on a prestigious Principal’s Scholarship for academic excellence, and was on the Dean’s Honour List in each year of her studies. She was also a recipient of an Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA) through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) after both second and third year and was working in the lab of Richard Oleschuk on an NSERC USRA this summer. The USRA is the most prestigious undergraduate research award in Canada. Rachael was an author on an academic paper, another notable achievement for an undergraduate.

A private family service will be held to honour Rachael. As an expression of support, donations made to The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto (Cardiology Department) would be appreciated by the family.  A family obituary is available online.

Students who feel a need to speak to someone should contact Student Wellness Services, Faith and Spiritual Life, Good2Talk (for 24/7 confidential support, call 1-866-925-5454 or text GOOD2TALKON to 686868) or EmpowerMe (24/7 confidential counselling by phone and online at 1-844-741-6389) or email supportservices@queensu.ca

Making sense of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in Russia: Lessons from the past and present

Coverage of Russian vaccination rollout has focused largely on concerns about ethics of development and inconsistent messaging. But Russian-language research complicates this picture.

 

A person is injected with a COVID-19 vaccine in their arm
In Russia, just 19 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. The issue isn't vaccine supply but a deeply hesitant population. (Unsplash / Mufid Majnan)

In August 2020, Russia became the first country in the world to approve a COVID-19 vaccine. One year later, just 19 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. With such a low vaccination rate, a summer surge in infections has produced the highest death rates since the pandemic began. According to official figures, since mid-July close to 800 people have died each day, and these numbers are almost certainly undercounted.

The Conversation logoWhile other countries have struggled to meet vaccine demand, Russia has faced the opposite problem: an excessive supply, resulting from tepid uptake among a deeply hesitant population.

English-language coverage of the failures of the Russian rollout has focused largely on concerns about safety and ethics protocols in the vaccine development, the prevalence of conspiracy-fuelled vaccine skepticism, inconsistent public health messaging and fear mongering by the media.

Each of these factors plays a part, but Russian-language research (Natalia Mukhina, one of the co-authors, translated the Russian-language research for this article) complicates this picture, highlighting the importance of attending to both the historical roots and contemporary specificities of public health challenges.

From passive subjects to responsibilized consumers

In the former Soviet Union, there was no room for vaccine hesitancy. The national immunization program was massive and mandatory. It was also highly successful, mobilizing domestically produced vaccines to eradicate polio, smallpox, measles and a host of other communicable diseases.

This approach to vaccination started to change in the late 1980s, when the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, launched a series of reforms that would loosen the stranglehold of the authoritarian regime and open a path for the free market.

For the first time in almost seven decades, people were allowed to criticize the Soviet way of life, including the health-care system. Then, during the 1990s, foreign vaccines gradually became available, and new laws required citizens to consent to any medical procedure, including vaccination.

Citizens in what was now post-Soviet Russia went from being passive recipients of state-controlled health-care interventions to responsibilized consumers, who, if they had the necessary resources, could make choices about how to protect their health.

Vaccine skepticism, which was intensifying globally during the 1990s, became one way through which to express resistance to lingering Soviet ideology. But mistrust was rampant across the political spectrum, and vaccine decision making became an arena for the enactment of resistance to the state, even for Russians who believed in vaccines.

Mistrust and marginalization

It is within this context that Russian sociologist Ekaterina Borozdina cautions that public hesitancy about Sputnik, the Russian COVID-19 vaccine, is not “about mistrust in medical science as such.” Rather, hesitation or refusal to get vaccinated emerges in the context of fraught relations between citizens and the state.

In research that predated the pandemic, Borozdina reveals how perceptions of a technocratic, heartless and incompetent government bureaucracy shape the attitudes of Russian parents towards the vaccination of their children.

For educated and economically privileged citizens especially, postponing vaccination, following an alternative schedule, or choosing a particular make of vaccine to be delivered at a particular clinic, are all ways of asserting choice and delineating their independence from the state as they protect what they believe to be the best interests of their children.

Sociologist Anna Temkina further complicates the picture. She says the educated middle classes, a demographic which overlaps significantly with the “activist classes” opposed to the Putin regime, were among the first to get vaccinated, even though they generally try to avoid following government rules and advice. These dissidents make the argument that not everything emerging from the government is bad, and they try to break the link between what they see as a corrupt and oppressive state and effective epidemiological measures.

It may seem surprising that the most enthusiastic consumers of the vaccine are the economically privileged who have the benefit of being able to work from home, but Temkina explains that those who are “indifferent” to vaccines are the couriers or cashiers who worked through the pandemic and “have already overcome COVID-19 or at least the fear of it.”

At the same time, the massive population of migrant workers in Russia who may want protection have largely been denied access — even as Putin offers foreigners the chance to travel to Russia and pay for the vaccine.

Regaining trust

The latest spike in infections has prompted a slight improvement in vaccine uptake, but mistrust is not an easy thing to fix and Russians are once again facing mandatory vaccination as part of an effort to jumpstart the campaign.

This time, the responsibility for enforcement has been offloaded to employers. And employees are finding creative ways to circumvent the new policies. The lengths to which people go to obtain fake vaccination certificates may make for lighthearted news coverage, but wearing a prosthetic limb to a vaccine appointment is an indication of a historical context worth taking seriously if we are to make sense of the challenges ahead.The Conversation

_____________________________________________________________

Samantha King, Professor, Kinesiology and Health Studies, Queen's University and Natalia Mukhina, PhD Student, Kinesiology and Health Studies, Queen's University.

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

The Conversation is seeking new academic contributors. Researchers wishing to write articles should contact Melinda Knox, Associate Director, Research Profile and Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

Tick-Talk with researcher Robert Colautti

The evolutionary biologist discusses ticks, tick-borne diseases, and his part in developing a portable device to test ticks for Lyme disease while in the field.

Deer tick closeup
Closeup of female deer tick underside, showing the barbed, needle-like hypostome (i.e. mouth) and palp (i.e. mouth cover). (Courtesy of Colautti Lab)

In the past two decades, tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease have increased in Canada. Queen’s professor Robert Colautti and a team of researchers are developing a portable device that will get purified DNA/RNA from ticks on site. Instead of waiting for results from a lab, this device can be used in the field to quickly determine if the tick carries pathogens that cause Lyme disease. The Gazette recently spoke to Dr. Colautti about the device and the myLyme project, which brings together a multidisciplinary team of scientists to tackle the problem of tick-borne diseases in Canada.

Research demonstrates that deer ticks are more abundant in Ontario than 10-20 years ago. Can you give us some insight into why this is?

The main tick that transmits Lyme disease is the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) and it has definitely increased in abundance and expanded its range northward into Canada over the last 20 years or so. We also see in Canada a rapid increase in Lyme disease cases over the same timeframe. The ecology of ticks is key to understanding why.

Deer ticks live for two years and require only three blood meals during this time. Many pathogens like Borrelia are not transmitted through the eggs so the number and types of pathogens depend on what the tick is feeding on. Different hosts species (e.g. mice, racoons, deer) are fed on by different life stages and each species can carry different pathogens in their microbiome. Human impacts on climate and habitat can directly impact the survival of ticks but more importantly they impact the host populations, and this can create some complicated dynamics in the number of ticks and the health risks they pose each season.

Lyme disease is caused by a group of bacteria carried by deer ticks called Borrelia burgdorferi, but it’s important to know that there are other emerging diseases in Canada caused by other pathogens carried by deer ticks. These include other bacteria that cause Anaplasmosis and a Lyme-like relapsing fever, as well as a malaria-like parasite that causes Babesiosis, and the Powassan virus, which is a flavivirus related to the viruses that cause Zika, West Nile and dengue.

How should people adapt to this new reality of living with a greater amount of deer ticks?

At an individual level, prevention is a very effective and relatively simple strategy. Deer ticks live in wooded areas in leaves and brush, so whenever I am out in the deep woods, I wear long pants tucked into my socks, which I spray with a strong repellent. A common misconception is that ticks are insects, but they are actually arachnids like spiders, mites and scorpions, so not all insect repellents will be effective against ticks. It’s important to read the label carefully. Ticks tend to grab on to you when you brush against leaves or sticks near the ground and then slowly crawl up your body, so I spray my clothes and shoes from the waist down and this is usually enough to deter them. In conservation areas, I stay on the main trail and avoiding going off into heavier leaf or brush where ticks might be waiting. Pets are another source of ticks, and even though there is a vaccine for dogs, they can still bring ticks into the house. After returning from the deep woods or a day in the field I will shower, wash my clothes, and check for embedded ticks as soon as I get home.

At the public health level, there is also a lot we need to do in terms of monitoring natural populations, educating health practitioners, improving diagnostic tools, and understanding complex symptoms and treatments of tick-borne diseases.

Can you tell us about your work into developing a portable device to test for Lyme disease? How would it work?

The device is still in the development stage. It is being developed with Indumathi Prakash, an intern from Harvard University funded by a scholarship from the Mitacs GlobaLink program. Our device is designed to get DNA and RNA out of ticks and then purify and stabilize the DNA/RNA for analysis.

Usually, we would bring the tick back into the lab, sterilize it, freeze it to -80 C, grind it up in a machine, and then begin a long process of lysing the bacterial cells and purifying the DNA/RNA. Once we have the DNA we can use other tools in the lab to amplify specific genes and then sequence them. From the DNA and RNA sequences we can reconstruct the entire microbiome of the ticks as well as the genes of the tick itself. Analyzing tick genomes and microbiomes lets us probe the ecological factors that affect the spread of ticks and the microbes they are carrying.

The key innovation for this project is that we are trying to do the whole lab extraction process in a small device in the field. Getting purified DNA/RNA from these ticks is the key step that would enable field-based sequencing and rapid tests for specific tick-borne diseases. But this requires another device or two.

If someone finds themselves bitten by a tick, what should they do?

The simple and best answer is to talk to your doctor. If a tick is embedded, then it’s important to try to remove it with tweezers by the head to avoid breaking it open. You can kill it in your freezer and then bring it to the doctor who can request for testing from Public Health Ontario. You can try to assess how long it has been feeding, which is important because the risk of disease increases with feeding time, which can last three to four days for nymphs and seven to 10 days for adults. You might be able to figure out feeding time based on your activity, for example if you just got back from a three-hour hike in the woods then you know it hasn’t been feeding more than three hours. You can also look at the tick. If the body is still flat, then it hasn’t been feeding long. If it is expanded like a tiny balloon, then it may have been feeding for a while and you should see your doctor as soon as possible.

Can you tell us about myLyme project?

The myLyme project is funded by a Wicked Ideas grant from Queen’s and an Exploration grant from the New Frontiers Research Fund. These grants support a new approach to science called “convergence research” or “transdisciplinary research.” Convergence research combines expertise from broadly different areas to tackle difficult problems in a way that can’t be done through more conventional approaches. The myLyme project brings together health scientists, social scientists, and natural scientists to tackle the problem of tick-borne diseases in Canada. We think tick-borne diseases represent a wicked problem because health impacts depend on the complex ecology and genetics of ticks and the microbes they carry, but symptoms also depend on human genetics and behavior, and treatments by healthcare practitioners who vary in their knowledge of this emerging healthcare threat.

Tell us about the myLyme project 2020 survey and the current 2021 survey?

The 2020 survey was developed by Emilie Norris-Roozmon who is co-supervised by Rylan Egan (Health Science) and myself. That survey has ended, and Emilie is currently writing up her Master's thesis based on the results. More than 1,200 anonymous respondents reported being bitten by a tick with symptoms ranging from none to multiple, long-term chronic effects. We were expecting 100 to 200 for this kind of study, so the large number shows us how many people care about this issue. Emilie’s focus is to see how well the self-reported symptoms can predict their reported diagnoses. We are also trying to see whether there is evidence for syndromes or clusters of symptoms that might indicate different diseases in the cohort.

The 2021 survey is the work of Tim Salomons (Psychology) and Nader Ghasemlou (Health Science), who both study chronic pain and cognition. It is open to anyone who self-identifies as suffering from a tick-borne disease — regardless of diagnosis — and it includes a general online survey followed by an optional follow-up survey that uses a smartphone app to help patients track their symptoms over time.

Queen’s researcher awarded NSERC Discovery Grant for breakthrough work in novel organic coatings

Federal funding will help organic chemistry expert Cathleen Crudden accelerate new research and support training that could advance innovation across industrial, healthcare, and technology sectors.

[Photo of Cathleen Crudden]
Dr. Cathleen Crudden, Canada Research Chair in Metal Organic Chemistry

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) has awarded Queen’s researcher Cathleen Crudden (Chemistry) the highest value Discovery Grant in Canada this year. The funding, which totals to $605,000 over five years, will be used to support her research project in the development of organic coatings that bind to metal surfaces. After proving that carbon-to-metal bonds can be significantly more stable than previously thought, Dr. Crudden and her team will work to discover the implications of these linkages by analyzing films 100,000 times thinner than a human hair.

The development of novel organic coatings has potentially wide-ranging applications, as it could help advance innovation and improvements across many sectors — from computer electronics, oil and gas safety, healthcare, automotive, and more.

"What I love about this project is that we are taking something that has been known about organic chemistry for 30 years and applying it to new systems resulting in game-changing approaches to a wide range of problems," says Dr. Crudden, Queen’s professor and Canada Research Chair in Metal Organic Chemistry. "We are currently looking at using organic coatings to protect metal surfaces, which will help mitigate carbon dioxide emissions due to the need to replace metallic infrastructure."

Her fundamental research will not only serve as a baseline for further scientific innovation but could also be used for nano medicines in cancer treatment, for creating better semiconductor chips in electronics, and in the development of automotive materials.

The NSERC grants are awarded to innovative and bold research projects with the potential to create big impacts. The Discovery Grants help fund projects with long-term goals and aim to give researchers flexibility to explore multiple avenues in their field of study.

"These funds will help us pay for things like state-of-the-art analysis of samples we prepare," she says. "The grant enables us to purchase the metals and the organic components that we can't make in the lab." The funding will allow for broader experimentation and deeper analysis of samples.

For Dr. Crudden, receiving this grant also means being able to provide training and support for her immediate collaborators domestically and abroad, as well as her graduate and post-doctoral students, all of whom she credits for tirelessly supporting the work throughout the pandemic. "There's no way our lab could do even a fraction of this work without a great team," Dr. Crudden says.

Given her years of experience in ground-breaking research, Dr. Crudden advises early-career scientists and researchers that pushing boundaries is the best thing you can do, even if it produces negative results, because it always teaches you something new.

"Follow what you are excited about and don’t be afraid to try something risky!" she says. "I often tell my students that if you know how to make molecules, you can do anything."

To learn more about Dr. Crudden and her research project, see the Crudden Research Lab.

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