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Funding new scientific frontiers

New Frontiers in Research Fund fuels Queen’s research in topics ranging from Lyme disease to climate change.

Early-career researchers are the backbone of Canada’s research infrastructure. Recognizing this area of research strength and its potential, the Government of Canada has launched the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) to support early-career researchers as they pursue the next great discovery in their fields.

[Minister Kirsty Duncan]
Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport

Seven Queen’s University projects earned a $1.72 million portion of the $38 million in NFRF funding announced by the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport, earlier this week. The successful Queen’s researchers are: Chantelle Capicciotti (Chemistry) and Mark Ormiston (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences), Robert Colautti (Biology), Samuel Dahan (Law), Lindsay Morcom (Education), Jessica Selinger (Kinesiology and Health Science), Kevin Stamplecoskie (Chemistry), and Laura Thomson (Geography and Planning).

“I am pleased today to celebrate the very first researchers to benefit from the New Frontiers in Research Fund. Our government’s vision is for our researchers to take risks and be innovative,” says Minister Duncan. “We want our scientists and students to have access to state-of-the-art laboratories and equipment, and we want the halls of academia to better reflect the diversity of Canada itself. This new fund will help us achieve that vision.”

Drs. Capicciotti and Ormiston are studying how cancer cells change the sugars that they express on their surface to avoid detection by the immune system. The researchers will work to develop technology to screen hundreds of sugar structures, with the ultimate goal of creating new cancer therapies that function by boosting an individual’s immune response.

As a member of the Canadian Lyme Disease Research Network (CLyDRN) based at Queen’s, Dr. Colautti is leading a diverse and multidisciplinary group of researchers to disrupt the way that tick-borne diseases are identified and managed in Canada. Their approach includes the use of handheld DNA sequencers and cloud computing for rapid detection of known or potential tick-borne pathogens, summarizing this information into a risk assessment framework for medical practitioners, public health officials, and the general populace.

Professor Dahan, in collaboration with Xiaodan Zhu (Electrical and Computer Engineering) and a team of 25 data scientists, Artificial Intelligence researchers, and law students, is working on an open source AI-tribunal for small claims in Ontario. This digital dispute-resolution platform will provide predictive legal services and negotiation support for self-represented plaintiffs. The NFRF funding will help develop the first stage of the product, focusing on severance pay and termination negotiation.

Using the skills of an interdisciplinary team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars and visual and digital media artists, Dr. Morcom and her team will work to create a network of virtual reality spaces across the country. The newly-created spaces will be used to stage cross-cultural, interdisciplinary, and cross-generational encounters.

Dr. Selinger has formed an interdisciplinary team that combines expertise in fundamental human biomechanics, clinical rehabilitative medicine, and applied robotic control. The research has the potential to revolutionize the next generation of rehabilitation strategies by focusing on how people re-learn to walk after a stroke.

Focusing on a new area of research, Dr. Stamplecoskie and partner Guojun Liu (Chemistry), are researching new electrochemical devices, capable of capturing the tremendous amount of energy available in rainfall, waves, and evaporating water. The research is working to create new devices capable to meeting global energy demands.

Dr. Thomson has amassed an interdisciplinary team that will integrate modern glacier research practices and inter-generational perspectives on climate, to improve environmental monitoring in Canada’s high-Arctic. This initiative will provide open-access, real-time climate data for the first time in this part of the Arctic, and provide public access to rare historic data.

All of the Queen’s projects are funded under the Exploration stream of the NFRF program. The second stream is the Transformation stream that provides large-scale support for Canada to build strength and leadership in interdisciplinary and transformative research. The third stream, International, will come online later, according to Minister Duncan.

“Through the NFRF program, early-career researchers at Queen’s are bringing new ideas and methodologies to critical issues from Lyme disease to climate change,” say Kimberly Woodhouse, Interim Vice-Principal (Research). “Importantly, they are increasing the potential impact and application of their work by collaborating across disciplinary boundaries.”

For more information, visit the NFRF website.

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

Queen’s researcher in precision medicine receives international honour

[Parvin Mousavi]
Parvin Mousavi (School of Computing) was presented with the C.C. Gotlieb Computer Award during the IEEE Canada Awards Gala on May 6. (University Communications)

Precision medicine is an emerging approach, which takes into account various factors impacting a person’s overall health status, including genetics, while recognizing that a one-size-fits-all model in diagnoses and treatment no longer applies to the provision of optimal care. Parvin Mousavi’s (School of Computing) research on machine learning focuses on creating better solutions for diagnosing disease, treating patients, and clinical interventions that are patient-specific. The availability of large amounts of data at many resolutions and from many sources, as well as the huge boost in machine learning and deep learning algorithms in the past five years further drive Dr. Mousavi’s goal of making precision medicine a greater reality.

Recently, Dr. Mousavi’s work in this area was recognized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the world’s largest technical professional organization for the advancement of technology. Dr. Mousavi is the recipient of the IEEE’s 2019 Canada C.C. Gotlieb Computer Award, a prize awarded to outstanding Canadian engineers recognized for their important contributions to the field of computer engineering and science.

“I’m very happy and humbled that the IEEE and my colleagues have acknowledged the contributions I’ve made in this field,” says Dr. Mousavi. “I think my research is making computers more accessible and more relevant in disease diagnosis, clinical interventions and surgeries. I am also thrilled that the IEEE has recognized the increasing impact and potential of computing and engineering innovations in bettering our health and the outcomes from medical interventions.”

Dr. Mousavi’s work has added greater depth to detection of disease, and determining appropriate treatments by combining machine learning with multifaceted data from medical images, bio-signals, and genomic markers. The applications of these methodologies help inform earlier and more accurate diagnosis of cancer, early interventions in critical care, and appropriate treatments while enabling patient-specific decision-making. 

Over the years, the field of computing has evolved and become ever more pervasive and complementary to various industries; the medical field is no exception.

“Computing is changing clinical decision making, especially with machine learning,” says Dr. Mousavi. “In today’s world, computer scientists have the opportunity to impact many aspects of our daily lives, augmenting critical, highly complex problem solving requirements such as those in the field of medicine. This is quite different to the role computing has played previously, or portrayed.” 

 Dr. Mousavi’s work has not only changed the nature of diagnosis and treatment of disease, she has also gained recognition as an inspirational woman in technology, as seen in her recent feature in Computer Vision News.

“I would like to see more women in computing win these awards,” says Dr. Mousavi “I hope as we see more women engaged in computing in our younger generations and students, we will also see more recognition for their contributions.”

As the Queen’s School of Computing celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, Dr. Mousavi is greatly supported by her colleagues and students at Queen’s University.

“No one can work in my field in isolation,” says Dr. Mousavi. “It is a field that requires support from a group including undergraduate students, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, staff, other faculty members, colleagues and collaborators. I feel that I could not have achieved any of this without being part of the School and Queen’s, and so well supported.”

Dr. Mousavi was presented with the award during the IEEE Canada Awards Gala on May 6. For more information on the IEEE, visit the website.

Connecting Canada’s brightest researchers

Funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada is helping Queen’s researchers create partnerships to tackle global problems.

New funding for research partnerships from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) is helping Queen’s University researchers preserve the Arctic landscape, make our online communications safer, and improve human health.

Announced by the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sports, the funding from the Strategic Partnerships Grant program is earmarked for 75 projects across the country that will connect Canada’s brightest researchers with industry, government, and other partners to transform fundamental science into tangible benefits for Canadians. Areas of focus include the environment, agriculture, communications technologies, natural resources, and energy.

By partnering with Canadian companies, researchers will also receive the training and experience they need to be labour market-ready.

“Partnerships with government, communities, and industry help to fuel the translation of research and knowledge into applied practice and products with benefits to Canadian and global citizens,” says Kimberly Woodhouse, Interim Vice-Principal (Research).

Three Queen’s researchers have received a total of almost $2 million in funding from the Strategic Partnerships Grant program:

Hossam Hassanein

Hossam Hassanein ($593,000) (Computing) is working on resource management in 5G networks, the next generation mobile network that is anticipated to provide ultra-reliable, high-speed communications infrastructure to connect more than 30 billion devices. Partnering with Ericsson, the carrier of 40 per cent of the world’s mobile traffic, Dr. Hassanein’s interdisciplinary research team will feature three PhD students, four MSc students and two postdoctoral fellows. They will receive training in machine intelligence and analytics for network management, which will prepare them for today’s job market.


Kerry Rowe

Kerry Rowe, Richard Brachman and Fady Abdelaal, ($587,351) (Civil Engineering) are studying the use of geosynthetic liners in the harsh environment of the Arctic. The extraction of mineral resources in the Arctic contributed $56 billion to Canada’s economy in 2015 but little research has been done in regards to protecting surface and groundwater supplies and the Arctic ecosystem from contaminated water emanating from mining operations. Drs. Rowe, Brachman and Abdelaal have formed a partnership between university researchers, engineering consultants, and geosynthetic manufacturers to design geosynthetic liners better suited for the Arctic environment.


Richard Oleschuk

Richard Oleschuk’s ($734,600) (Chemistry) laboratory features new cutting-edge technology that will help researchers better analyze a large array of samples including saliva, urine, and blood. Partnering with SCIEX, who provided the mass spectrometer to the university, Dr. Oleschuk says the new technology allows one to feed samples into the machine by simply touching the probe to the sample. Thousands of droplets will be analyzed within seconds and researchers can determine what’s on the paper. Dr. Oleschuk says the technology could be used to analyze suspicious packages passing through the mail or during surgery to analyze tissue samples.

For more information, visit the NSERC website.

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

Queen’s names first Distinguished University Professors

Recipients recognized for international research and teaching excellence.

2018-19 Distinguished University Professors
2018-19 Distinguished University Professors: (Left to right) Top row: Donald H. Akenson, Stephen Archer, Nicholas Bala. Middle row: Susan P. C. Cole, Cathleen Crudden, John McGarry. Bottom row: Ram Murty, R. Kerry Rowe, Suning Wang.

Queen’s University recently awarded its highest research-related honour to nine faculty members internationally recognized for contributions to their respective fields of study. Each recipient was named a Distinguished University Professor for exhibiting an outstanding and sustained research record, teaching excellence, and significant and lasting contributions to Queen’s, Canada, and the world.

“The work being done here at Queen’s in many different academic disciplines is contributing to our understanding of the world and the overall global body of knowledge in many fields,” says Daniel Woolf, Principal and Vice-Chancellor. “To celebrate this level of world-class excellence in research and teaching, it is my pleasure to designate nine of our most accomplished faculty members as Distinguished University Professors.”

The group of individuals chosen are the first to receive designations under the Distinguished University Professor Program, which was made official by the university’s Senate in 2017-18. Each year, the program’s advisory committee will invite nominations from the campus community, review the submissions, and make recommendations to the principal, who then determines successful nominees.

“Choosing this year’s recipients, from what was an impeccable pool of nominees, was no easy task,” says Principal Woolf. “That said, it served as a wonderful opportunity for me to learn even more about the breadth of work taking place here at Queen’s, and the incredible faculty driving it forward.”

Each recipient will soon add an honorific name to their title, to be selected from a list of Senate approved names. For the first set of designates, this process will take place shortly.

The inaugural group of Distinguished University Professors includes:

  • Donald H. Akenson, Distinguished University Professor, Department of History
  • Stephen Archer, Distinguished University Professor, School of Medicine
  • Nicholas Bala, Distinguished University Professor, Faculty of Law
  • Susan P. C. Cole, Distinguished University Professor, Queen’s Cancer Research Institute
  • Cathleen Crudden, Distinguished University Professor, Department of Chemistry
  • John McGarry, Distinguished University Professor, Department of Political Studies
  • Ram Murty, Distinguished University Professor, Department of Mathematics and Statistics
  • R. Kerry Rowe, Distinguished University Professor, Department of Civil Engineering
  • Suning Wang, Distinguished University Professor, Department of Chemistry

Visit the Principal’s website to learn more about the Distinguished University Professors Program, its advisory committee, and selection of honorific names.

Careers start here

Employment program aimed at attracting Queen’s Arts and Science graduates to accelerate their careers in Kingston grows into second year.

Queen's graduates who participated in the first QCA:K cohort.
Queen's Career Apprenticeship: Kingston pilot participants (from left to right): Maryam Remtulla, Justin Karch, Carmen Song, Kerstin Juby, Peter O'Donnell, and Jacey Carnegie.

A number of local businesses welcomed new graduates into their ranks recently, under the auspices of Queen’s Career Apprenticeship: Kingston (QCA:K) – a unique employment-funded apprenticeship program designed to provide arts and humanities graduates with career acceleration and strengthen the city’s workforce. On the heels of its successful pilot in 2018, the program placed 19 Queen’s Arts and Science graduates with Kingston-based organizations this month, more than doubling the number of students hired last year.

Our businesses had such a positive experience during the program’s pilot that even more local companies have approached us to participate in the second cohort,” says Donna Gillespie, CEO, Kingston Economic Development Corporation, noting that 29 companies signed on hoping to secure a successful 2019 graduate, up from 15 last year. “It is clear that the demand for arts and humanities students is growing, and initiatives like this help to connect the talent coming out of Queen’s University with local businesses.

Participating organizations span a diverse range of sectors, including the property management, retail and sales, consultancy, technology and software development, and more. Notable organizations who hired this year include Limestone Analytics, Providence Care, Kingstonist, The Power Collective, Benefits by Design, and Makeship. Together, the combined salaries of 2019 QCA:K hires amounts to over $720,000 – averaging $38,000 per graduate for the year.

Increased employer interest in the program is not the only upward trend either. The number of student applicants this year increased 96 per cent over last.

“The amount of interest we’ve received from students signals a real appetite for experiential learning opportunities that will lend to a graduate’s long-term career success,” says Barbara Crow, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science. “It also shows us that Queen’s students are open to settling right here in Kingston, should they be presented with competitive and enriching job opportunities.

Graduates placed through QCA:K come from a variety of disciplines, like Political Studies, English Language and Literature, Drama, Global Development Studies, Philosophy, Economics, and more within the arts and humanities.

QCA:K emerged as a joint project between the university’s Faculty of Arts and Science and the Kingston Economic Development Corporation after discussions with Queen’s benefactor Alan Rottenberg, who wanted to fund efforts that would accelerate the careers for talented students with bachelor of arts degrees. With this support, local employers who committed to hiring new graduates for a minimum of a one year, on a full-time basis would be reimbursed for four months of a student’s salary, up to $4,000 per month.  The apprentices, during their first year of their career, benefited from seasoned entrepreneurs and business leaders through the mentorship component of the program. This year, those apprentices that have just completed their apprenticeships will step into the mentorship role and provide guidance to those in the 2019 cohort.

An event was held for the QCA:K participants on Thursday, May 9, that celebrated the 2018 apprentices and employers as well as recognized the incoming apprentice cohort. Representatives from Queen’s, Kingston Economic Development Corporation, and the local business community were present.

Visit the website to learn more about the QCA:K program.

Queen’s economist wins second Donner Prize

Award for book on Indigenous rights makes Thomas J. Courchene the first two-time recipient of top Canadian public policy writing honour.

Left to right: David Dodge, Donner Prize, Jury Chair; Thomas J. Courchene; Deborah Donner, Governor, Donner Canadian Foundation (Photo by: Will Putz)
Left to right: David Dodge, Donner Prize, Jury Chair; Thomas J. Courchene; Deborah Donner, Governor, Donner Canadian Foundation (Photo by: Will Putz)

Two decades after winning the first-ever Donner Prize for best Canadian public policy book, economist and Queen’s Professor Emeritus Thomas J. Courchene has done it again. On May 1, 2019, his latest book Indigenous Nationals, Canadian Citizens: From First Contact to Canada 150 and Beyond was recognized by award jurors as a “masterful work on one of the most important themes of our country’s public policy history” – securing Courchene the top prize and $50,000.

“The Donner Prize serves as a beacon for aspiring writers, so when I won it the first time it was truly an inspiration,” says Dr. Courchene. “In being recognized a second time, I sincerely hope the publicity will allow my book to contribute to a greater, broader understanding of the challenges and policies that affect the lives of Indigenous peoples of Canada.”

The book, published by the Institute of Intergovernmental Relations in the Queen’s School of Policy Studies, examines the historical, legal, and socio-economic evolution of Canadian policy initiatives relating to Indigenous peoples. In doing so, Dr. Courchene puts forth a new policy prescription that seeks to reconcile the goal of recognizing Indigenous rights with that of promoting Canadian economic and resource development. Jurors lauded the book’s compelling case for significant change and its vision for a brighter future.

“My work has long been a blend of economic analysis, political reality, and constitutional perspectives, so I always felt that my public policy research had to, at some point, address issues facing First Peoples,” says Dr. Courchene, who is also a founding member of the School of Policy Studies. “In the final chapter of my book I propose we depart from existing models in which Indigenous Canadians are effectively under the control and stewardship of another political authority, and move to one that would give them provincial powers on their own lands.”

The Donner Prize, awarded annually by the Donner Canadian Foundation, encourages and celebrates excellence in public policy writing by Canadians, and acknowledges the role good public policy plays in the country’s success.

“To win the Donner Prize a second time, two decades after being recognized with their inaugural award, speaks to the rich and enduring quality of Dr. Courchene’s academic work,” says David M.C. Walker, Executive Director of the Queen’s School of Policy Studies. “On behalf of the School of Policy Studies, I want to commend him for crafting a truly impactful book; one that not only embodies the spirit of our school’s mission, but that can also inform and inspire public policy that advances the well-being of Canadians.”

The award results were announced during a gala at The Carlu event space in Toronto. Dr. Courchene was selected over four other finalists, chosen from more than 70 submissions. Chairing the Donner Prize jury was David Dodge, who served as Queen’s University Chancellor from 2008 to 2014.

The interdisciplinary green team

Four leading researchers from Queen’s University have been awarded the NSERC Brockhouse Canada Prize for their work in building a sustainable future.

NSERC Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering
The winners of the 2019 Brockhouse Canada Prize, from left: Michael Cunningham, Pascale Champagne, Philip Jessop, and Warren Mabee.  

Engineering a sustainable future requires input from multiple approaches and perspectives. Four leading Canadian researchers from Queen’s University have been awarded the NSERC Brockhouse Canada Prize for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Engineering for their work in enhancing the value and sustainability of our natural renewable resources though collaboration.  

Given annually to only one research team across Canada, the award supports the late Nobel Laureate Bertram N. Brockhouse’s vision of interdisciplinary teamwork and collaboration as a way to propel scientific discovery in Canadian research. Dr. Brockhouse won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1994. 

“The NSERC Brockhouse is one of the most prestigious and competitive research honours available to Canadian researchers,” says Kimberly Woodhouse, Interim Vice-Principal (Research). “We are proud of our Queen’s recipients, and proud that the university is a space that fosters interdisciplinary collaboration as a means to address critical challenges.” 

Pascale Champagne
Pascale Champagne is the Canada Research Chair in Bioresources Engineering.

The cross-faculty research team consists of Pascale Champagne (Civil Engineering, Chemical Engineering), Michael Cunningham (Chemical Engineering, Chemistry), Philip Jessop (Chemistry) and Warren Mabee (Geography and Planning, School of Policy Studies), each affiliated with the Beaty Water Research Centre and an accomplished scientist in their respective field.  With the funding provided by the NSERC Brockhouse ($250,000), the team will work in unison bringing their unique but complementary expertise to designing solutions to address myriad problems caused by climate change.  

The four team members share a passion for sustainable use of natural resources and the development of green industrial processes. Dr. Champagne is an expert in biofuels and utilization of water resources; Dr. Cunningham is a specialist in green engineering; Dr. Jessop works in the area of green chemistry while Dr. Mabee brings his experience with policy issues and assessing the sustainability of renewable energy and material systems.  

All four researchers are affiliated with the Beaty Water Research Centre. Drs. Champagne, Jessop and Mabee are Canada Research Chairs. Dr. Cunningham was the Ontario Research Chair in Green Chemistry from 2010-2015.

“We pursue research on issues of critical importance to Canadians, including the development of alternate wastewater management strategies and environmentally sustainable approaches, green chemistry and engineering, and renewable energy policy,” says Dr. Champagne, the project’s principal investigator. “We are grateful to NSERC and the Government of Canada, for their ongoing support and understanding that Canadian leadership in complex research areas such as environmental sustainability, and true advances are only possible through collaborations that incorporate knowledge from different disciplines to create innovative and timely solutions.” 

The team has been involved in projects that explore the feasibility of using algal systems for wastewater treatment and biofuel recovery. These integrated systems hinge on devising strategies that facilitate nutrient removal, disinfection and carbon dioxide fixation, enhancing algal growth and oil production, and reducing the environmental (carbon, energy, GHG, water) footprint; and evolving biomass conversion approaches to generate biofuels and bioproducts in an integrated carbon and energy recovery scheme.  

They have also worked extensively on the use of carbon dioxide as an innovative and green “trigger” for stimuli-responsive materials. In addition to being abundant, inexpensive, nontoxic and environmentally benign, it does not accumulate in a system upon repeated cycles. They have explored and invented innovative methods to use carbon dioxide-switchable technology to address practical problems, including recent work on developing carbon dioxide-switchable materials for water treatment technologies. 

For these and other projects, the successful integration and implementation of their research within existing Canadian infrastructure and industry remains a key challenges and can only be achieved through interdisciplinary research.  

“Our research thrives because all four of us realize that we are not as capable individually as we are as a team. For our society to move towards a sustainable future, we need to abandon traditional academic silos and tackle these problems together,” says Dr. Champagne. 

For more information on the award, visit the NSERC website


Dealing with the absurdity of human existence in the face of converging catastrophes


[Human eye]
Human self awareness is an evolutionary outcome, but where has it brought us? (Photo by: Avantgarde Concept/Unsplash)

Homo sapiens means wise human, but the name no longer suits us. As an evolutionary biologist who writes about Darwinian interpretations of human motivations and cultures, I propose that at some point we became what we are today: Homo absurdus, a human that spends its whole life trying to convince itself that its existence is not absurd.

As French philosopher Albert Camus put it: “Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.” Thanks to this entrenched absurdity, the 21st century is riding on a runaway train of converging catastrophes in the Anthropocene.

Discovery of self

Theodosius Dobzhansky. (Wikicommons)
Theodosius Dobzhansky. (Wikicommons)

The critical juncture in the lineage toward Homo absurdus was described by evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky: “A being who knows that he will die arose from ancestors who did not know.” But evolution at some point also built into this human mind a deeply ingrained sentiment — that one has not just a material life (the physical body), but also a distinct and separate mental life (the inner self).

Human self-awareness led to the evolution of cognitive skills that were game-changers for gene transmission success. In our degree of endowment for these skills, our ancestors had the edge over all other hominids.

But the trade-off for this was self-impermanence anxiety — a recurrent fear that, in bringing eventual material death, time inevitably also annihilates all that one has done and all that one has been, and that soon it will be as though one had never existed at all.

Buffering for a troubled mind

However, natural selection also gave our ancestors primal impulses that served to buffer the worry of self-impermanence. These involve two novel and uniquely human fundamental drives: escape from self and extension of self.

Both are reflected in a prescient passage from the great Russian author, Leo Tolstoy:

“For man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.”

Extension of self — “connecting the finite with the infinite” — involves what I call legacy drive: the desire to leave something appreciable behind that will endure beyond mortal existence.

Delusions of symbolic immortality involve three principal domains:

Parenthood: Shaping the minds of offspring to mirror the defining characteristics of one’s own selfhood (i.e. values, beliefs, attitudes, conscience, ego, skills, virtues, etc.);

Accomplishment: Earning recognition, status, or fame through talents or deeds that evoke admiration, trust, respect, or astonishment from others;

Identifying with or belonging to something larger-than-self: Membership or belief in a particular cultural world view, one based, for example, on concepts like patriotism, political ideology or religiosity/spiritualism.

Escape from self

For those less driven to produce a legacy, there is escape from self — Tolstoy’s “not seeing the infinite.” Most commonly, this is achieved through distractions, deployed through what I call leisure drive, an intrinsic disposition to be easily drawn to indulgence in opportunities for enjoyment.

Typically, these involve motivations that hack into the brain’s pleasure modules and have deep evolutionary roots associated with meeting core needs (e.g. survival, social affiliation, mating, endearment, kinship) that rewarded ancestral gene transmission success.

Modern domains of leisure drive are manifested in many cultural norms and products designed to trigger these pleasure modules — like toys, stories, games, aesthetics, social entertainment, consumerism, humour, recreational sex, yoga, meditation, inebriation and psychedelics.

The essential consequence of these distractions lies in arresting the mind firmly in the immediate present, thus temporarily but effectively shielding it from the dread of “the infinite,” wherein the self ceases to be.

For some, placing the mind firmly in the present may be accomplished by simply keeping busy with purposeful toil or mundane routine. As American philosopher Eric Hoffer put it: “A busy life is the nearest thing to a purposeful life.”

Work hard, play hard

The delusions of legacy drive and the distractions of leisure drive both help to mitigate the worry of self-impermanence. Strong selection for these drives thus propelled copies of our ancestors’ genes into future generations.

But self-impermanence anxiety has always lurked stubbornly beneath the surface, repeatedly demanding more and better delusions and distractions. And so, from a long history of striving for an untroubled mind, the effects of natural selection ramped up in momentum, I suggest, like a runaway train.

These drives to work hard and play even harder have fuelled the frenzied and relentless march of progress that we call civilization. With this, our cultural evolution has generated a large menu of available delusions for chasing after legacy, and distractions for chasing after leisure. And this has given us a world of environmental catastrophes that are annihilating other species and their habitats at an unprecedented rate.

Sustained genetic selection for legacy and leisure drives then has generated two dire consequences for humanity: A civilization now moving ever faster toward collapse on a global scale, and an evolved psychology that is now breeding an escalation of human despair — anxiety disorders, depression and suicide.

In other words, the growing demands of these drives (resulting from biological evolution) are starting to exceed the supply rate of available domains (generated by cultural evolution) for satisfying them. It becomes harder and harder, therefore, to meet an ever-increasing need for distractions and delusions, including those needed to buffer the mounting “eco-anxiety” from living in a collapsing civilization.

Living with Homo absurdus

How can we manage our human predicament, now that we are Homo absurdus?

I have suggested that a new model for cultural evolution might come to our rescue involving a kind of biosocial management, based on facilitating and implementing a deeper and more broadly public understanding of, and empathy for, the evolutionary roots of human motivations, especially those associated with our responses to self-impermanence anxiety.

We must learn how to successfully regulate our frenetic drive to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd. And this requires that we at least understand how we came to be so driven.The Conversation


Lonnie Aarssen, is a Professor of Biology at Queen's University, where his teaching, writing and research focus is on ecology and evolution. He has published more than 180 articles in scientific journals, and is founder and editor of the open access journal, Ideas in Ecology and Evolution.

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.

Forget smart cities (for a minute), we need to talk about smart farms

[Combine harvester]
With advances in agriculture technology, our food in Canada increasingly comes from industrial-scale factory farms. (Photo by: Scott Goodwill/Unsplash)

There’s a lot of talk about digital technology and smart cities, but what about smart farms? Many of us still have a romantic view of farmers surveying rolling hills and farm kids cuddling calves, but our food in Canada increasingly comes from industrial-scale factory farms and vast glass and steel forests of greenhouses.

[The Conversation]While the social and environmental consequences of agri-food industrialization are fairly well understood, issues around digital technology are now just emerging. Yet, technology is radically transforming farms and farming. And while different in scale and scope, technology is playing a growing role in small and organic farming systems as well.

In reality then, your friendly local farmer will soon spend as much time managing their digital data as they will their dairy herd. The milking apron is being replaced by the milking app.

The Canadian government is investing heavily in climate-smart and precision agricultural technologies (ag-tech). These combine digital tools such as GPS and sensors with automated machines like smart tractors, drones and robots in an attempt to increase farm profits while reducing pesticide and fertilizer use. GPS mapping of crop yields and soil characteristics help to cut costs and increase profits, so while seeds still grow in soil, satellites are increasingly part of the story. There’s no doubt that ag-tech may be promising for governments, investors and corporations, but the benefits are far less clear for farm owners and workers.

There is little research on the potential social impacts of ag-tech specifically, so a group of researchers at the University of Guelph conducted a study to figure out some of the likely impacts of the technological revolution in agriculture.

While changes in agriculture show promise for increasing productivity and profits and reducing pesticides and pollution, the future of farming is not all rosy.

Corporate control of many agricultural inputs — seeds, feed, fertilizers, machinery — is well documented. Agricultural land is also increasing in cost and farms are getting bigger and bigger. It is likely that digital agriculture will exacerbate these trends. We’re especially interested in what farm work will look like as the digital revolution unfolds.

Much of our vegetables are grown in vast glass and steel forests of greenhouses. (Photo by: Erwan Hesry/Unsplash)

Marginalized workers are set up to lose

While rising costs are always a concern for producers and consumers, we have two main concerns about how the digital revolution is changing farm work in particular.

First, who owns all of the data being produced in precision agriculture? Farm owners and workers produce data that has massive potential for commercial exploitation. However, just who gets to harvest the fruits of this digital data labour is unclear.

Should it flow to those who produce it? Should it be something that we own collectively? Unfortunately, if smart farms are anything like smart cities, then it looks like corporate control of data could tighten.

Second, it’s very likely that ag-tech will lead to an even more sharply divided labour force. So-called “high-skilled” managers trained in data management and analysis will oversee operations, while many ostensibly “lower-skilled” jobs are replaced. Remaining on-the-ground labourers will find themselves in working conditions that are increasingly automated, surveilled and constrained. For instance, in fruit and vegetable greenhouses inputs are increasingly being controlled remotely, but migrant workers still do much of the planting and harvesting by hand. And, they do so under conditions of severe physical and social immobility.

There is a wealth of research documenting the vulnerable position of migrant agricultural workers from coast to coast in Canada and elsewhere.

If we don’t direct it in a humane way, the digital revolution in agriculture is likely to heighten these vulnerabilities.

The agricultural system was built that way

Our food system is built on centuries of Indigenous land theft, dislocation and the suppression of Indigenous foodways while relying heavily on exploitable (Indigenous, migrant and racialized) labour. Across North America, farm workers have long been excluded from basic labour laws, legal status and the right to unionize.

And now, increased productivity often relies on increased exploitation - just ask anyone working in a FoxConn factory. As a result, our current food system is rife with exploitative practices, from production through to distribution, with racialized immigrants bearing the brunt.

Meanwhile, there is evidence that automation tends to negatively impact already marginalized workers.

The digital revolution in agriculture has a double edge. Smart farms bring promise, but automation in agricultural production and distribution will eliminate many jobs.

Our concern is that the suite of jobs that remain will only deepen economic inequities — with more privileged university graduates receiving the bulk of the well-paid work, while further stripping physical labourers of their power and dignity.

There is no magic pill, but our governments do have options. Policy and legislation can shift the path of ag-tech to better support vulnerable farm workers and populations. In doing so, the looming issue of land ownership and repatriation must be addressed in Canada, with Indigenous nations at the head of the table alongside marginalized workers and farmers. Supporting pathways to farming and permanent residency for migrant workers, as well as training for digital skill-building can help to close more immediate gaps.

We need to ready ourselves for how radical transformations in food production and distribution will impact land prices, property rights and working conditions. Our folksy view of farming is due for an update.The Conversation


Sarah Rotz is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geography and Planning at  Queen's University. Mervyn Horgan is a visiting fellow in the Department of Sociology at Yale University and Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Guelph.

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.

Major funding boost for two Queen’s-affiliated research institutions

SNOLAB and Canada’s National Design Network see funding increase of more than $12 million, through the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s Major Sciences Initiatives fund.

Window on a Window to the Universe - An underwater camera mounted in the SNO+ (Sudbury Neutrino Observatory) neutrino detector captures a snapshot image when the 12-metre diameter acrylic sphere is 85 per cent full. (Photo credit: Mark Chen, Physics, Engineering Physics and Astronomy)

Seven of Canada’s leading and internationally renowned research facilities will receive a large funding boost of almost $40 million, through the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s Major Science Initiatives (CFI MSI) fund.  Two of these national facilities, SNOLAB and the Canadian National Design Network, are affiliated with Queen’s and will be granted $12 million from the funds to continue their operations and contributions to leading-edge research.

Queen’s is affiliated with national research facilities that receive support thought the Major Science Initiatives fund:
The Canadian Cancer Trials Group
Canada’s National Design Network

Announced today by the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Sport, the funding is part of an additional $160 million for the CFI MSI included in last year’s federal budget. The new funding will support cutting-edge, collaborative, international research that is helping to power Canada’s scientific productivity and economic competitiveness.

“The Major Science Initiatives fund supports ongoing operations for a select group of national research facilities that serve as hubs for collaboration in research and innovation,” says Daniel Woolf, Principal and Vice-Chancellor. “Through our leadership in these initiatives, such as SNOLAB and Canada’s National Design Network, researchers at Queen’s gain access to leading edge infrastructure – aiding them in addressing some of the most important issues facing society, such as advanced manufacturing, cancer treatment, and probing the deepest mysteries of the universe.”

Of the almost $40 million increase to seven of Canada’s research facilities, over $12 million will support Queen’s-affiliated SNOLAB and Canada’s National Design Network:

SNOLAB will receive almost $7 million in support of the lab’s continued operation. Located 2km below the surface, in the Vale Creighton Mine located near Sudbury, SNOLAB was born out of the Queen’s-led Sudbury Neutrino Observatory – for which Arthur McDonald was named co-recipient of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics and winner of the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. SNOLAB is one of only a handful of underground laboratories worldwide capable of supporting the current and future generations of subatomic and astroparticle physics experiments, including the search for Galactic dark matter and the study of neutrino properties and sources.

The work conducted as part of the SNO collaboration and, subsequently, at SNOLAB has led to groundbreaking results cementing Canada’s, and Queen’s, reputation as world leaders in the field.  Building on this history of success, Queen’s is home to Gilles Gerbier, the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Particle Astrophysics. SNOLAB continues to attract top-flight scientific collaborations, including through the Queen’s-based Arthur B. McDonald Astroparticle Physics Research Institute.

Canada’s National Design Network (CNDN) managed by CMC Microsystems provides researchers with access to products and services for designing, prototyping and testing their ideas. The $5.3 million funding increase will continue to support researchers across the network by providing state-of-the-art commercial design tools, expertise and industrial connections for research and development in advanced smart technologies.

The long-term goal of the CNDN is to foster Canadian leadership in advanced technology manufacturing and establish Canada as a global technology leader. Queen’s works with CMC Microsystems to manage CFI funds granted to Queen’s as part of Canada’s National Design Network.

“The support of the Government of Canada through the CFI is critical to ensuring that these prominent research centres can continue to contribute to leading-edge discovery,” says Kimberly Woodhouse, Interim Vice-Principal (Research). “The enhanced funding ensures consistency of operations of these facilities, allowing our researchers to focus on their important work.”

For more information on the CFI MSI, please visit the website.


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