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Research Feature: Dark Matter Detectives

Three Queen’s astroparticle physicists are leaders in the international hunt for the missing mass of the universe.

[Dark Matter Day Image]
Illustration by Zachary Kenny 

Not all detectives wear trench coats and carry a notepad and magnifying glass to solve mysteries.

Gilles Gerbier is using a helium-filled copper sphere, containing a tiny ball at the centre attached to a rod, to search for an elusive signal from an enigmatic, invisible particle that might rule the universe. 

RESEARCH AT QUEEN’S
Did you know that the university recently launched a new central website for Queen’s research? The new site highlights Queen’s research strengths, research outcomes and impact, leveraging a variety of different storytelling techniques. Visit: queensu.ca/research

Wolfgang Rau is using detectors made of germanium and silicon crystals, cooled close to absolute zero, to detect tiny increases in temperature that may indicate a rare, very weak interaction with this elusive particle, which has yet to be found.

Tony Noble is using the world’s most sophisticated bubble chamber, filled with a superheated, fluorocarbon fluid, to look for a bubble formation pattern that signifies fluorine interacting with this extraordinary particle – one that doesn’t shine like regular matter but is the most abundant form of matter in the universe.

These three Queen’s particle astrophysics researchers are detectives and leaders in the international hunt for dark matter, which makes up about 85 per cent of matter in the universe, although no one knows what dark matter particles look like or their physical properties. Gerbier, Rau and Noble are each directing or playing key roles in large collaborative teams of Canadian and international researchers conducting three competing, but complementary experiments that use different tools to seek, find and ultimately understand the nature of dark matter.

Continue the article on the research website.

Harnessing microbes to treat gut pain

Queen’s University researcher receives funding to help those suffering with pain from inflammatory bowel disease.

The digestion of food is a complex process and millions of different types of bacteria are  one part of the process that help get the job done

That said, there are a number of bacterium present in a healthy bowel that perform the unexpected function of helping suppress gut pain. Queen’s University researcher (Department of Medicine and Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) Alan Lomax is studying how that bacterium could be the secret to suppressing pain for people living with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

To support the five-year project, Dr. Lomax, who is also scientist at Kingston Health Sciences Centre’s Gastrointestinal Diseases Research Unit, has been awarded $790,000 from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to study how the presence of some human gut microbes can help modulate the pain of IBD such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.  Canada has the highest rate of IBD in the world.

The project builds on his group’s discovery that the pain suppressing bacterium is present in healthy bowels.  This bacterium is missing in many patients with IBD, which may remove a brake on the pain that these patients experience. Their research has also shown that other gut microbes from patients with IBD can produce substances that cause pain.

“A number of studies have showed that this pain-relieving bacterium is absent in patients with IBD,” says Dr. Lomax.. “We’ll identify what chemicals those bacteria are producing, and whether those secretions could be used to relieve pain.”

The research team will also use metagenomics analysis to understand how the changes in microbiota in patients with IBD lead to worsening pain. Ultimately the researchers hope to develop a microbe-based treatment for IBD that is a safer and more effective alternative to existing opioid pain medications.

The study is part of a growing body of research that has linked gut microbes to several illnesses including depression, anxiety, diabetes, autism, and even cancer.

“These bacteria have all sorts of influences around the body,” Dr. Lomax says. “The more we understand about how these microbes affect health, the more we can move towards designing new treatments that target these microbes.”

For more information on research at Queen’s, visit the new Queen’s Research website.

Exploring bones and joints in action

Skeletal Observation Lab provides insight into every joint in the human body.

The capabilities of the new equipment is demonstrated during the opening. Photo credit KHSC

Researchers at Queen’s University and Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC) are celebrating the completion of a $2.5 million facility that offers unique, X-ray vision insights into the biomechanics of nearly any joint in the human body.

While advances in orthopedic medicine have improved the mobility of humans worldwide, the precise workings of our skeleton and its joints are still notoriously difficult to understand, particularly when in motion.

The Skeletal Observation Laboratory (SOL), a facility supported by Queen’s and KHSC at the Hotel Dieu (HDH) site, is helping to fill that gap. One of only a few such labs in Canada, it offers leading-edge technologies for capturing, in exquisite detail, how the machinery of our bones and joints work when they’re in dynamic action.

During the opening event, Michael Rainbow, the lab’s lead investigator and assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering at Queen’s, and David Pichora, orthopedic surgeon and president & CEO of Kingston Health Sciences Centre, demonstrated the new, ultra low-dose, load-bearing CAT scanner. Unlike conventional CT machines, which require patients to lie down, with no load on their joints, this scanner can perform 3D scans while the person is standing.

A closer look at the new equipment. Photo credit KHSC

The lab is helping doctors and scientists develop new treatments and preventative strategies tailored to individual bone and joint disorders.

Dr. Rainbow demonstrated how the lab’s powerful imaging equipment – such as high-speed X-ray, and high speed video capable of 1,000 frames per second – helps him explore the complex machinery of foot function during walking and running.

“Better understanding of this complicated network of bones and joints will lead to better designed footwear, prosthetics and orthotics for patients,” he says.

The Skeletal Observation Laboratory is a satellite facility of the Human Mobility Research Centre at KHSC’s Kingston General Hospital site. It is co-located at HDH with the Human Motion Research Lab and the Queen’s Centre for Neurosciences clinical lab, enabling patient-oriented “research from brain to joints.” 

Funders of the Skeletal Observation Lab and its research include the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Queen’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science and Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, The Estate of Donald McGeachy, BSc (Mech Eng) 1940 and University Hospitals Kingston Foundation (UHKF).

Migrant strawberry pickers in Greece face deadly conditions

Migrant workers picking strawberries in Greece live in unhealthy and highly flammable shacks. (Author provided)

Each growing season, from October to May, as many as 12,000 undocumented Bangladeshi migrant men work in the agrarian labour market in Greece.

Although they consider Greece a transit stop to other European countries, most end up staying for years. The migrant farm workers say the farmers reap rich profits but are so far unwilling to provide decent housing for them. Nor can the seasonal workers find local accommodation.

The workers are forced to rent unused farmland and build highly inflammable makeshift shacks called barangas. Baranga is a Bangladeshi colloquial term derived from a Greek word, paranga, which translates as “a shack.” Workers construct the barangas out of salvaged plastic sheets, cardboard and reeds.

Greece is the 10th biggest exporter of strawberries in the world. Strawberry farming is labour-intensive. Once picked, the fruit perishes quickly. This puts a huge demand on the fast-paced yet careful harvest of unblemished strawberries. Migrant workers form the backbone of this farming, and it’s work that locals appear unwilling to do.

‘…we earn huge profits for farmers who treat us worse than animals …’ (Author provided)

I arrived in the village of Nea Manolada, Greece this past summer to research Bangladeshi migrant men working on strawberry farms. Since 2017, I have studied temporary labour migration of South Asian men from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan in Greece.

A group of Bangladeshi strawberry pickers, living there for eight years, took me on an oral history tour. They pointed to refrigerated trucks used to transport strawberries to wider markets and newly constructed, multi-level farmer’s homes. A young migrant in his early 20s said: “Look how they live in comfort – all due to our hard work. What do we get in return? Discarded plastic sheets as our roof.”

A group of 25 Bangladeshi farm workers in Nea Manolada released this statement:

“Sweating our blood in the field, we earn huge profits for farmers who treat us worse than animals. We want people to learn how we live a rough life in barangas.”

Captive labour

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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.

Labour force surveys reveal that more than 50 per cent of agricultural workers in Greece are migrants. Factoring in undocumented migrants, that figure comes closer to 90 per cent. Strawberry farmers fully exploit migrant willingness to do the dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs (known as 3D jobs). They give them long work hours, high targeted outputs and depressed wages.

Migrant labour has enabled farmers to undertake a scale increase, expand their agricultural activity by leasing under-utilized farmlands to make larger farms, modernize farming and market their produce to wider markets.

The majority of Nea Manolada’s 700-strong population is engaged in strawberry cultivation, either as independent producers or as sharecroppers. Almost 95 per cent of strawberries grown in Greece come from this region. Since the mid-1970s, this highly profitable cash crop has replaced the traditional potato crop.

The conditions of work can be described as forced or unfree labour. Withholding of wages is a common practice here and tie the workers to the farmers. In 2013, protests by Bangladeshi workers against delayed wages led to Greek farmers shooting at them. The workers won a landmark human rights case, and Greece was forced to pay more than US$648,000 to 42 of them.

Workers lose everything in frequent fires

Clusters of 10-17 barangas each house a minimum of 200-350 workers. With a rent of US$33-38 per baranga, a farmer stands to earn US$500-550 per month from just one baranga alone during the season.

When this sum is calculated for housing 12,000 workers for seven months, it reveals that staggering profits are made off the backs of this flexible labour force that is paid a less than minimum wage of US$32 per day.

Agreements are informal, with no receipts. There have even been instances where the failure to pay timely rent has resulted in harassment and intimidation from local police.

The migrant workers live in highly flammable shacks. (Author provided)

Barangas offer no running water, electricity or sanitation facilities. These structures are human tragedies waiting to happen. The danger of the inflammable construction material is heightened with cooking done inside in crude partitioned kitchens, with propane gas cylinders, and lighting provided by candles. Because barangas are located on wastelands with no proper road access, firefighters have difficulty accessing them.

In June 2018, a massive fire broke out in a migrant settlement in Nea Manolada. It spread from one baranga to engulf all before help could arrive. More than 340 Bangladeshi workers lost everything they had, including identification papers, passports, work permits, proof of stay and saved wages. In 2019, seven fires, fuelled by strong winds, charred entire sets of barangas in the same region in a matter of minutes.

So far, no one has died. But the men worry about what might happen if a fire breaks out at night, when everyone is sleeping. Blazes in similar migrant housing have resulted in fatalities.

Within Canada, fire outbreaks on dormitories for migrant workers are not uncommon. In August 2019, in St. Catharines, Ont., a blaze devastated a farm and five residential buildings for migrant workers.

Constant threat of deportation

Besides the dangers of fire, barangas present other challenges. They don’t insulate against the elements. In the summer, the temperature inside reaches 50C and in winter, it is below freezing. Thin mattresses and blankets lie on dirt-packed floors covered with a patchwork of cardboard.

Because there’s no electricity, there are no fans or heaters. The men are also unable to charge cell phones, a vital link to their families. As well, dead phones can mean a loss of wages. Each evening, workers wait for the supervisors’ call, asking them to report to work the next day. The only place to charge phones is at ethnic grocery stores or cafes with long queues to do so.

Untreated piped ground water can be used for bathing and washing of clothes but drinking water must be paid for, eating into the meagre monthly wage. Outdoor toilets consist of holes dug in the ground covered with wood slats and plastic sheets wrapped around four poles to provide privacy. “Showers” are open-air platforms. Waste water gathers in pools around the barangas, breeding grounds for mosquitoes and flies.

The negative impact of poor housing on the health of workers has been studied elsewhere The inadequate sanitation, waste-disposal facilities and drainage create ripe conditions for infectious diseases. Frequent diarrhea, fever, asthma and respiratory problems appear widespread.

The workers are deterred from demanding better living conditions because they are undocumented. That means Greek farmers are able to exploit them without fear of reprisals, especially because of the disciplinary practices of border control, and the regime of deportability based on migrant “illegality.”

The ever-present threat of potential deportation scares undocumented migrant workers who then discipline themselves as efficient but invisible workers. Local authorities, aware of their plight, have turned a blind eye to improving migrant housing, leaving the men with little recourse.

As a labourer in his mid-30s who has been working on the farms for seven years said: “Everyone exploits our desperation to earn wages while profiting from our labour.”

_______________________________________________________________________

Reena Kukreja is an Assistant Professor of Global Development Studies at Queen's University.

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

Resources for researchers

[Courtney Matthews]
Courtney Matthews, Head, Open Scholarship Services Queen’s Library, presents during the 2018/2019 R4R@Q series. 

From applying for grants, managing research data, traversing the world of partnership agreements and tech transfer, to understanding how to promote and mobilize your work, the research landscape at Queen’s can be difficult to navigate for scholars at any stage of their careers.

Click image to enlarge.

The Resources for Research at Queen’s (R4R@Q) series is a monthly, brown bag lunchtime series meant to connect Queen’s researchers with the resources and people that can help chart a course for research success.

Now in its second season, the series is led by University Research Services in collaboration with the Library, Office of Partnerships and Innovation, ITS, Office of the Vice-Principal (Research), the Centre for Advanced Computing, and University Relations. The partnership demonstrates the variety of units and departments across campus that have a critical role to play in the research trajectory – from idea inception to commercialization.

“This series connects the research community with the people and resources they can leverage for success in their research careers,” says Kimberly Woodhouse, Interim Vice-Principal (Research). “Subjects include tools for research, but also topical issues such as cybersecurity and advanced computing.”

Beginning Wednesday (Oct. 23), R4R@Q sessions will run monthly until April from 12:30-1:30 pm. Topics for this academic year include data management, building an effective research plan, and media relations. 

RESEARCH AT QUEEN’S
Did you know that the university recently launched a new central website for Queen’s research? The new site highlights Queen’s research strengths, research outcomes and impact, leveraging a variety of different storytelling techniques. Visit: queensu.ca/research

The 2019/2020 series:

The series is open to researchers and the Queen’s research community. For more information on individual sessions or to register, visit the website.

An Inuit approach to cancer care promotes self-determination and reconciliation

Cancer rates are rising among Inuit and critical oncology specialists and treatments are often located in urban centres, thousands of kilometres away from remote communities in Inuit Nunangat. (Alex Hizaka), Author provided

For thousands of years, Inuit have adapted to the changes in their environment, and continue to find new and innovative ways to survive.

But life expectancy among populations in Inuit Nunangat (the traditional territory of Inuit in Canada) is an average of 10 years less than that of the general Canadian population.

Cancer is a leading cause of this disparity. Inuit experience the highest mortality rates from lung cancer in the world, and mortality rates of some other cancers continue to increase disproportionately.

Inuit communities tend to be self-reliant and are renowned for working together for a common goal, which is evident in their self-governance and decision-making activities. They have also endured a long history of cultural insensitivity and negative health-care experiences that span generations

 

Map of Inuit Nunangat (Inuit Regions of Canada)

The ways the Canadian health-care system interacts with Inuit populations plays an important part in this health disparity. And there is an urgent need for Inuit to be able to access and receive appropriate health care.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) report made 94 recommendations in the form of Calls to Action. Seven of these Calls to Action specifically relate to health. They explain the importance of engaging community members, leaders and others who hold important knowledge in the development of health care.

As members of a team of Inuit and academic health-care researchers, we have been working with health-system partners to support Inuit in cancer care. We focus on enhancing opportunities for Inuit to participate in decisions about their cancer care through the shared decision-making model, in a research project we call “Not Deciding Alone.”

We travel thousands of miles for cancer care

Our collective success in addressing the TRC Calls to Action will require health research to focus on addressing the health-care inequities experienced by Inuit, First Nations and Métis populations in ways that take action to promote self-determination.

This is important as current health-care models do not often support Indigenous values, ways of knowing and care practices.

Poor cultural awareness in our mainstream health-care systems discourages Indigenous people from seeking care and engaging with health services. It increases the risk that Indigenous people will encounter racism when seeking care.

There are many documented instances of our health-care system’s failure to provide appropriate health care to Indigenous people, due to unfair assumptions and demeaning and dehumanizing societal stereotypes.

These health system failures discourage people from seeking care, and have resulted in death, as in the case of Brian Sinclair, who died after a 34-hour wait in a Winnipeg hospital emergency room in September 2008.

There can also be significant physical barriers to care for Inuit. Critical health services such as oncology specialists and treatments are often located in urban centres such as Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Montréal and St John’s, thousands of kilometres away from remote communities in Inuit Nunangat. This leaves many Inuit negotiating stressful urban environments, dealing with cultural dislocation and navigating complex health systems without the benefit of community support networks.

 

People must fly out of remote communities for cancer treatment. (Alex Hizaka), Author provided

During our research, an Inuit peer support worker explained what it can be like for those who travel far from their family and community for their care:

“People come with no idea of why, and we are having to bridge two worlds for them. Often patients have no idea why health-care providers tell them to get on a plane, and then they think they are coming for treatment for three days and then it becomes two weeks. It is a tough situation as often people have no money, no support. People need to be able to explain their situation and how it is for them. People need to know that they are not alone.”

Research shows that these geographical challenges significantly impact access to health care and are often exacerbated by language barriers. Together these factors may make people vulnerable to additional harms unrelated to the health conditions for which they seek treatment.

Patients and health-care providers work together

Shared decision-making is an important evidence-informed strategy that holds the potential to promote patient participation in health decisions

In this model, health-care providers and patients work together using evidence-based tools and approaches and arrive at decisions that are based on clinical data and patient preferences — to select diagnostic tests, treatments, management and psycho-social support packages.

Shared decision-making is considered a high standard of care within health systems internationally and it has been found to benefit people who experience disadvantage in health and social systems.

Shared decision-making has also been found to promote culturally safe care, and has the potential to foster greater engagement of Inuit with their health-care providers in decision-making.

The concept of cultural safety was developed to improve the effectiveness and acceptability of health care with Indigenous people. Culturally safe care identifies power imbalances in health-care settings — to uphold self-determination and decolonization in health-care settings for Indigenous people.

The aim of a shared decision-making approach is to engage the patient in decision-making in a respectful and inclusive way, and to build a health-care relationship where patient and provider work together to make the best decision for the patient.

Most importantly, our approach has emphasized ways of partnering that align with the socio-cultural values of research partners and community member participants, both to develop tools and create approaches to foster shared decision-making. The term “shared decision-making” translates in Inuktitut to “Not Deciding Alone” and so that is the name of our project.

The results are outcomes that Inuit are more likely to identify as useful and relevant and that respect and promote Inuit ways, within mainstream health-care systems.

Self-determination through Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit

Our research uses the guiding principles of Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit — a belief system that seeks to serve the common good through collaborative decision-making — as the foundation for a strengths-based approach to promote Inuit self-determination and self-reliance.

Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit principles have been passed down from one generation to the next and are firmly grounded in the act of caring for and respecting others.

There is important learning taking place within academic and health-care systems that involves deepening understandings of what “patient-oriented care” means. We need to learn how to do research in partnership with those who are the ultimate knowledge users in cancer-care systems — patients.

In our work, Inuit partners and community members are leading the development of shared decision-making tools and approaches, building on their strengths and resiliency. Our research and health systems are beneficiaries of these partnerships that hold potential to create health care that is welcoming and inclusive for all.

With guidance and support from Inuit and more broadly, from Indigenous partners, we are learning how to take action on the TRC recommendations, and to make respect and kindness integral to best practice in research and health care.

______________________________________________________________________________

Janet Jull, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy at Queen's University. Inuit Medical Interpreter Team is part of the Ottawa Health Services Network Inc.

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.

Marianne Williamson and the religion of ‘spirituality’

 

Democratic presidential candidate and author Marianne Williamson
Democratic presidential candidate and author Marianne Williamson meets with supporters after a recent speaking engagement. (marianne.com)

Marianne Williamson recently burst onto the political scene as a somewhat unconventional candidate vying for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in the United States.

While she has never garnered more than two per cent in the polls and did not qualify for the third debate — meaning it’s likely her run will come to an end soon — her remarks during the first two Democratic debates, as well as her personality and unconventional campaign parlance, have provoked many media responses.

What distinguishes Williamson from other candidates is her personal and professional background. Prior to her foray into politics, she was an internationally renowned self-help and spiritual author and speaker, known for penning bestsellers like A Return to Love.

A child of the 1960s, Williamson was significantly involved with the New Age and Human Potential movements, even spending time working at Esalen Institute in California, the American “mecca” of alternative spirituality.

Today, she’s known as Oprah Winfrey’s spiritual adviser, and remains an outspoken advocate of mindfulness meditation, yoga and therapy as ways to achieve spiritual and social transformation.

Calling for an awakening

Williamson unapologetically infuses her interest in spirituality into her political campaigning.

On her website she calls for a “a moral and spiritual awakening” in America, speaking to those who are “seeking higher wisdom.” And in her closing statement at the first Democratic debate, she proclaimed that she will harness love to defeat President Donald Trump.

A number of pundits have mocked Williamson. But the more common reaction is puzzlement: many just don’t know what to make of a renowned spiritual and self-help teacher running to lead the Democratic Party.

I believe this is largely because few are familiar with the history of alternative spirituality in North America and its ties to progressive politics.

We have seen a dramatic rise over the last few decades in the number of North Americans who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious.”

Those in this group, while certainly diverse, have deep spiritual interests, often champion something like the existence of a higher power, remain wary of orthodoxy and place a premium on individual autonomy.

It is these people to whom Williamson appeals. And while they might view themselves as seekers who don’t adhere to traditions, there is a longstanding tradition of alternative spirituality in the West.

Metaphysical movements

In Spiritual but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, religious historian Robert Fuller sheds light on the various metaphysical movements that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries in America.

These include Swedenborgism, Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, Mesmerism, Theosophy and New Thought, each of which — despite being relatively unknown to most people — have significantly shaped the “spiritual but not religious” trend.

These movements were certainly theologically different, but nevertheless, like Williamson and her followers, they postulated the existence of unseen forces and championed the importance of both mystical experiences and individual freedom. If channelled appropriately, those forces could purportedly lead to self-empowerment.

The influence of these movements was far from marginal in American society. They often attracted well-known writers, politicians and artists. Ralph Waldo Emerson, often called America’s national poet, was an avowed Transcendentalist, as was Henry Thoreau, committed civil rights activist and author.

Others who belonged to some of these movements include psychologists William James and Carl Jung, philosopher Rudolf Steiner and biologist Alfred Russell Wallace.

The spiritual is political

Historian Leigh Eric Schmidt of Princeton University usefully traces the historical ties between these movements and progressive democratic politics in the U.S. in Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality.

Schmidt observes that many of the leaders and spokespeople of these movements were ahead of their time, both socially and politically.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), an important leader of the 19th century women’s rights movement in the United States, is seen in this 1890 portrait.

For instance, Margaret Fuller, an early Transcendentalist and confessed mystic, was also a staunch advocate for women’s rights in the early 19th century. So was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a women’s suffrage activist who sought to claim the privilege of autonomy for the female sex in The Woman’s Bible , published in 1895.

Walt Whitman, the famous American poet and writer - as well as a “curious inquirer into clairvoyance and Spiritualism” - championed, in cosmopolitan fashion, “the good in all religious systems,” according to Schmidt.

Felix Adler, a Reform Jew and founder of the Society for Ethical Culture, published in 1905 The Essentials of Spirituality, wherein he championed the importance of “doing justice to that inner self” in order to do “justice to others.”

Finally, Ralph Waldo Trine, proponent of New Thought and author of the successful In Tune with the Infinite, depicted God as a spirit of infinite life akin to a “reservoir of superhuman power.”

And though Trine’s doctrines were eventually appropriated by entrepreneurial and materialist ministers such as Norman Vincent Peale in the mid-20th century, Trine himself was a staunch progressive and social reformer. He was also a committed vegetarian, playing an active role in the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Why is Williamson so mind-boggling?

In light of this history, Schmidt concludes:

“The convergence of political progressivism, socioeconomic justice, and mystical interiority was at the heart of the rise of a spiritual left in American culture.”

It’s therefore worth asking why a candidate like Williamson so boggles the modern-day mind.

In part, it has to do with the way alternative spirituality developed over the 20th century. The New Age movement of the 1970s was arguably the most prominent. And while the “New Age” label may today be out of fashion, many ideas that were once championed under its banner remain strikingly popular.

In fact, it’s likely that many who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” subscribe to a set of ideas and engage in a variety of practices that were once central to that counter-cultural movement. And carrying forward a long-standing tradition, these ideas tend to appeal to the left.

Religion, after all, is increasingly associated in the U.S. with social conservatism. In turn, for many progressives, especially millennials, “religion” is no longer considered a viable option.

So for those with spiritual interests, the cosmopolitan and inclusive spirituality of Williamson has an obvious appeal.

Of course, one of the tenets of New Age thought, at least in its most radical form, is that politics is a distraction from what really matters: self-transformation and spiritual enlightenment.

This may be why the image of Williamson as president is so difficult to entertain: we tend to think spirituality and politics just don’t mix.

But that’s at odds with the actual history of spirituality in America. Perhaps those who are “spiritual but not religious” will stop drawing a line separating the spiritual from the political. And if this happens, maybe the thought of a Williamson presidency won’t seem so implausible.

____________________________________________________________________________The Conversation

Galen Watts is a PhD Candidate in the Cultural Studies Graduate Program at 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.

A window into our changing environment

The Queen’s University Biological Station shares more than seven decades of field research.

Research vessel at Queen's University Biological Station
A research vessel at the Queen's University Biological Station

For over 70 years, the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS) has been fertile ground for researchers studying the environment, ecology, and evolutionary biology. Experts in fields as diverse as limnology, ecotoxicology, invasive species biology, conservation biology, remote sensing, and pollination ecology have all come to QUBS from a variety of Ontario universities, and institutions from across Canada and around the globe to study the myriad plant and animal species and the heterogeneous landscape that define the station.

Now, this research has been assembled and made available to anyone in the new searchable QUBS research projects portal. This archive assembles over 1,000 peer-reviewed journal articles that were published between 1952 and 2019, and it will be continually updated as new articles are published. Users can find a rich diversity of topics in the archive, ranging from the ecological impacts of invasive species to caterpillar communication to the causes and consequences of declining animal populations.

The breadth and depth of research featured in this archive can provide insights into the ways that habitats and species in Eastern Ontario have changed since the 1950s in response to shifting environments. This makes the Research Projects online archive an important resource for researchers who are investigating the effects of climate change on Ontario over that timeframe.

Long-term data collected at QUBS can provide pivotal insights into the consequences of environmental changes on local species. For instance, Dr. Frances Bonier, Associate Professor in the Department of Biology, along with MSc student Amelia Cox, Queen’s Professor Emeritus Raleigh Robertson, and collaborators, recently used egg laying and fledgling data that they gathered at QUBS from 1975 to 2017 to evaluate the effects of climate change on a local population of tree swallows. With the launch of this new online archive, this type of research will be more accessible to anyone interested in studying our changing environment.

“For decades QUBS has been fortunate to host incredible researchers from many universities” says QUBS Director Dr. Stephen Lougheed. “This online portal brings all of this amazing research together within a single searchable archive, making it more accessible to professors, students, and the public.”

Situated about 35 km north of Kingston within the Frontenac Arch UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, QUBS encompasses over 3,400 hectares of land and provides access to a wide variety of habitats, including nine small lakes, extensive shoreline on Lake Opinicon and Hart Lake, abandoned farmland, and mature second-growth forest. These habitats feature remarkable biodiversity with a wonderful juxtaposition of northern and southern flora and fauna. For many species there, QUBS also serves an important role in their conservation. 

Researchers have come to QUBS from many institutions, including Tongji University, Carleton University, University of Ottawa, University of Toronto, Virginia Tech, Ithaca College, and Western University. The interactions among researchers and students at QUBS contribute to its reputation as a vibrant and stimulating place to conduct fieldwork.

Beyond hosting researchers, QUBS has provided terrific experiential learning opportunities for generations of students. Every year, many students from the undergraduate to doctoral levels use QUBS for their own research projects. Many students also work as research assistants or in science outreach. The station also welcomes doctoral students from universities across Ontario each July for The Lake Shift, a week-long writing retreat. Earlier this year, it also hosted the 2019 Summer Institute for the Indigenous Mentorship Network of Ontario.

The vital work done by Queen’s researchers at QUBS is a part of the university’s broader commitment to research on the environment and sustainability. Learn more about the discoveries Queen’s researchers are making to help protect our planet on the new Queen’s research website.

Championing new thinking

Nobel Prize Laureate Martin Chalfie met with a group of promising Queen's graduate students to talk success, failure, taking risks, and the future of research.

Nobel Laureate Martin Chalfie at a round table meeting with Queen's University graduate students.
Nobel Laureate Martin Chalfie meets with Queen's University graduate students for a round table discussion on the road to research success.

A group of Queen’s University’s most promising graduate students recently sat down with Nobel Prize Laureate Martin Chalfie, who shared his stories of achievement and failure in hopes of illuminating and inspiring their journeys toward research success.

Over 35 graduate students and post-doctoral researchers took part in an exclusive round table discussion with Dr. Chalfie during a visit to campus by the Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative (NPII) – an international outreach program organized by Nobel Media and biopharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca that strives to connect Nobel Laureates with scientific and student communities at universities and research centres worldwide.

“As researchers, we know that all discovery and progress is built on the push and pull of failure and success,” says Fahim Quadir, Dean of the School of Graduate Studies, who introduced the round table discussion. “Advancement in science and society, and the creation of new knowledge, often begins with a leap in the dark, with the courage to risk failure simply in order to propel ourselves one step closer to the goals our research pursuits seek to advance.”

Students from over a dozen disciplines attended the candid, closed-door discussion, which touched on topics ranging from science communication and public perceptions of science, to mental health and multi-disciplinary approaches to research.

“The round table with Dr. Chalfie was enlightening and inspiring,” says Mandy Turner, a third-year PhD candidate and Vanier Scholar in the Faculty of Health Sciences’ Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences. “Being a graduate student can sometimes feel siloed, so it was comforting to have the opportunity to hear from an accomplished researcher like him, as well as my peers across the university who echoed many of my concerns about the future of science and science careers.”

One of the recurring anxieties expressed by those in attendance centred on a perceived shift in society’s attitude toward the merit of scientific knowledge.

“From time to time, I feel nervous about my pursuit of a career in science, since it seems like hard-earned results and evidence are less and less accepted by the public and policymakers,” says Matthias Hermann, who has just begun his third year as a PhD candidate in Chemistry. “When I expressed my worry to Dr. Chalfie during the round table he reminded us that throughout history there have always been people who deny facts and evidence, which has only served to underline the importance of scientists’ work. I really appreciated this response.”

Many of the round table participants also remarked on Dr. Chalfie’s charisma and candor.

“To have this person who achieved one of the highest honours of a research career be so humble and sincere about his life was very inspiring to me,” says Artur Sass Braga, PhD candidate in the Department of Civil Engineering. “He was so open about his initial failures in academia and shared with us that there is no secret formula or method to becoming a successful researcher. This perspective helps tremendously as it lessens the burden of the expectations graduate students can often feel are placed upon them.”

The round table preceded a sold-out NPII public event at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts featuring Dr. Chalfie in conversation with award-winning journalist and author André Picard, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor Mona Nemer, and Queen’s own Nobel Laureate, Arthur B. McDonald. Both events also coincided with the launch of a new website highlighting Queen’s University’s vast complement of research pursuits and achievements, much of which involves Queen’s graduate researchers.

“The round table gathering was also about recognizing the enormous contributions our graduate students and postdoctoral fellows make to knowledge production; to championing new thinking and to uncovering groundbreaking discoveries,” says Dr. Quadir. “I am proud of our students and post-docs for their relentless efforts to advance new knowledge that serves the greater public good.”

Learn more about the Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative event that took place at Queen’s on September 25, 2019, and view a video recording of our online Facebook Live broadcast of the event.

Inspiring future generations

Queen’s University philosopher Will Kymlicka earns top Canadian honour for the social sciences

Will Kymlicka
Will Kymlicka, Canada Research Chair in Philosophy

Queen’s University researcher Will Kymlicka has earned the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Gold Medal, one of the highest honours for the social sciences in Canada. It is awarded to an individual whose sustained leadership and dedication have inspired students and colleagues alike. We sat down with Dr. Kymlicka to discuss his research and what the honour means to him.


Q: In a nutshell, tell me about your research on multiculturalism and minority rights? How are we viewing these issues differently as a result of your work?

A: Like other Western democracies, Canada is a “liberal democracy,” which means that we put a strong focus on the rights of individual citizens. 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 because they are the ones that need certain kinds of protections. 

When I started my work in the mid-1980s this topic was surprisingly neglected: there was barely any discussion in the literature about how a liberal democracy can recognize group rights. Today, there is a now a flourishing debate, in Canada and internationally, about what is sometimes called “liberal multiculturalism”.

I think this is a particularly important issue for Canada. Indeed, the very survival and success of Canada has depended on recognizing some group rights – for the Québécois, for Indigenous peoples, and for immigrant-origin ethnic groups. I have always thought of Canada as a kind of evolving experiment in how a liberal democracy can deal with issues of group rights, and I’ve tried to identify some of the important lessons we’ve learned over the years.


Q: In your career you’ve received more than 25 honours, fellowships and prizes. You’ve been called one of the world’s most influential philosophers. What does this award from SSHRC mean to you?

A:  It’s a special award, for several reasons. For one thing, it’s a Canadian award, and that means a lot to me. I’ve always wanted the work I do to be useful to my fellow Canadians, to help us better understand our collective experience and our future possibilities. I’d like to think that this award is a reflection of that.

Secondly, this award is interdisciplinary. This also matters a great deal to me. I want to do the kind of philosophy that is intelligible and useful to people in other disciplines as well, whether in political science, law, sociology or the humanities. I think philosophy has a lot to contribute to wider fields of research, but figuring out how to articulate philosophical ideas in a way that is both rigorous and accessible is a challenge. And here too I’d like to think the award is a sign that I’ve reached out beyond narrow disciplinary boundaries.


Q: Tell me about your early career. What started you on this path? What inspired you to look into these research areas?

A: Yes there was a very specific inspiration. I had planned to work on other issues in my graduate work at Oxford, but in 1985 I went to a talk given by Charles Taylor, the great Canadian philosopher (and, as it happens, the first winner of the SSHRC Gold Medal!). Taylor said that Canada’s existence depends on the recognition of group rights, but he also argued that there was no way to reconcile the recognition of group rights with the kind of liberal political philosophy that was dominant in the field. So he basically said we need to choose: do we endorse group rights or do we endorse liberal political philosophy? We can’t have both.

I thought that this was a powerful challenge, and I was taken aback that all the philosophers on the panel essentially agreed with him. Even the liberals on the panel agreed that there is no room for group rights in liberal theory. This didn’t make sense to me. After all, if we think about Canadian society over the past 50 years, it has become much more liberal, yet has also strengthened the protection of group rights, and in my naïve view, the recognition of group rights was part and parcel of this broader liberalization. So I didn’t see the inherent conflict or contradiction. So then and there, I changed my intended research topic, and took up the challenge of exploring how group rights fit into liberal theory.


Q: Your work has been translated into several languages and read around the world. What do you think your research legacy will be?

A: My work is part of a much broader debate about how we understand the liberal-democratic tradition. The liberalization and democratization of society has brought enormous benefits, I believe, but the liberal tradition of philosophy has often been narrowly individualistic. (Taylor calls it “atomistic”). I’m one of several people that are trying to develop a more “social” conception of liberalism, one that highlights how liberal values fit into complex and diverse social realities.


Q: Do you have any advice for young researchers and academics starting their own journey? Do you have any insights that could start them on the path to success?

A: I typically give my graduate students two pieces of advice. The first is to work on issues you care passionately about. Academia can be draining and frustrating, and you need to have a real commitment to an issue in order to get up every day and do the work.

The other piece of advice, particularly for young political philosophers, is that we need to get outside of disciplinary silos. If our work is to be useful, we need to be in conversation with other disciplines. In my work, I’ve drawn extensively on law, political science, history and social psychology. When political philosophers just talk to each other, the conversations quickly become arcane and disconnected from the real-world issues that require philosophical analysis. So that requires intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness.


Q: You have recently moved into a new area of research, on animal rights. Can you say a bit about that?

A: For the past 10 years or so, together with my partner Sue Donaldson, I’ve been working on how to bring “the animal question” into political philosophy. The lives of animals are often minutely governed by humans, but political philosophers have rarely discussed how we distinguish legitimate from illegitimate forms of governing animals, or how we can include animals in our conceptions of democracy or representation or citizenship. Animals are part of the “diverse social realities” I mentioned earlier, but they are invisible in political philosophy. So Sue and I are working to encourage research on how we relate to and govern the lives of animals in our society, including establishing an animal politics research group here at Queen’s. I think this will be a central issue for the future of political philosophy, and indeed for the fate of the world as a whole.

For more information visit the SSHRC website.

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