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Research Prominence

Making strides in reproductive science

By Andrew Stokes, Communications Officer

Taking to the main stage in front of a crowd of nearly 1000 faces, Matthew Rätsep was awash with nerves. Presenting his research to the 47th Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Reproduction, he faced his colleagues and peers in a Michigan conference centre that had previously played host to the likes of Michael Bublé and Beck.

PhD candidate Matthew Rätsep is researching the effects of the pregnancy disorder pre-eclampsia.

His work focused on Placental Growth Factor (PGF), a protein found in the placenta during pregnancy. "Since its discovery in the late 1990s, PGF has been a hot topic in the field of reproductive science," says Mr. Rätsep, a PhD candidate in the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences. "There's a known link between low levels of PGF and pre-eclampsia, but I wanted to find out if this was a consequence or a cause of the pre-eclampsia."

Pre-eclampsia, a disorder characterized by high blood pressure in pregnancy affects around three per cent of pregnancies. It can lead to kidney dysfunction, impaired liver function as well as cognitive impairments in the mother.

From the 600 submissions to the conference, Mr. Rätsep had his work selected as one of the top six. That also earned him a Lalor Foundation Travel Fellowship for the research'™s scientific merit, clarity and the impact of its results. Along with the other top six, he was invited to participate in the Trainee Research Platform Competition, and so he found himself on a wide stage, flanked by two enormous video screens as he presented his findings to the conference-goers. After the deliberation of the judges, Mr. Rätsep was awarded the conference's top prize. He says the prize money from the award will be put to use financing further conferences and research, the next phase of which has already begun.

"œWe began trying to take blood pressure measurements, but that quickly took us in a different direction," Mr. Rätsep says. "œIt appears that some offspring of pre-eclamptic mothers are born with imperfect blood vessel formation in their brain and so we've begun a pilot study of children of pre-eclamptic mothers to substantiate this."

Children born from pre-eclamptic mothers are possibly at risk of cognitive impairment. "The children are still able to lead reasonably healthy lives but they might be at a greater risk for depression," he says. "œMostly they'™ll just need a little more care and attention."

[UPDATE] Mr. Rätsep presented at the International Federation of Placenta Associations (IFPA) in Paris, France early in September 2014. Of the 164 poster presentations by new investigators at the conference, Mr. Rätsep's was singled out as the best presentation based on scientific merit, interpretation, the impact of the results and the clarity of the presentation. As a result, he was presented with the Elsevier Trophoblast Research New Investigator Award and invited to present a plenary lecture at next year's IFPA conference in Brisbane, Australia.

Queen's-led study key to improving the health of young people

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

A recent report shows Canadian youth smoking rates have dropped in the past 20 years, while rates of obesity and cannabis use remain consistently high. The Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) report explores trends in the health of young people over the past two decades.
Study author John Freeman.
 
The HBSC survey has been coordinated every four years since 1989 by the Social Program Evaluation Group (SPEG) of Queen’s University in partnership with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada. The study is supported by the World Health Organization and has 43 participating countries primarily from North America and Europe.  Ã¢Â€ÂœThe success we have achieved in reducing adolescents' smoking rates in Canada shows what we can accomplish with a unified cross-sectoral public health approach,” says John Freeman (Education), director of SPEG.
 
Five key findings came out of the HBSC report:
  • Cigarette smoking is the one public health concern that has shown the greatest improvement for Canadian adolescents over the past 20 years. In 1994, Canadian 13-year-old boys and 15-year-old girls had the highest rates of smoking at least once a week internationally. In the 2010 survey, Canadian boys had the lowest smoking rates internationally and rates for Canadian girls dropped to some of the lowest in the countries surveyed. This approach should be adopted in tackling other health issues.
  • Being overweight or obese is an ongoing concern for Canadian students in Grades 6 to 10. In the 2010 survey, Canada ranked second out of 39 HBSC countries in the prevalence of overweight and obese 15-year-old boys and girls. For 13-year-old boys and girls, Canada ranked third and fourth respectively. These numbers have changed little over time.
  • Canadian adolescents have consistently been among the highest levels of cannabis use internationally. In 2010, Canada ranked first for cannabis use in 15-year-old girls and 15-year-old Canadian boys ranked second. Forty percent of Grade 10 Canadian boys and 37 percent of Canadian girls reported having tried cannabis.
  • The prevalence of reported well-being for Canadian young people has been decreasing since the beginning of the survey cycle. The life satisfaction on the national level, as compared to other countries, has been worsening. With a focus on promotion of positive mental health, researchers expect this to improve in the 2014 survey.
  • Youth voices should continue to be heard on research, policy and programming that affect their health.
“The Government of Canada is pleased to have supported Queen’s University in the development of this important report,” said Gregory Taylor, Canada’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer. “Having accurate information available that helps us understand the changes in the behaviours and attitudes of children and youth is invaluable. This will help to inform policy and program decisions that ultimately promote the health and well-being of Canadian children and youth.”
 
Other Queen’s contributors to the report include Matthew King (SPEG) and Heather Coe (Faculty of Education).

Emerging researchers earn national support

Three doctoral candidates and a researcher recently received Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships while a researcher received a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship. From left: Midori Ogasawara; Oluwatobiloba “Tobi” Moody; Tyler Cluff; and Mike Best. Supplied photos

By Mark Kerr, Senior Communications Officer

Four promising Queen’s researchers recently won national awards.

Doctoral candidates Mike Best, Oluwatobiloba “Tobi” Moody and Midori Ogasawara each received Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships worth $50,000 per year over the next three years. The federal government established the program in 2008 to attract and retain world-class doctoral students and to make Canada world-renowned for excellence in research and higher learning.

The same day the Vanier Scholars were announced, Tyler Cluff learned he was the recipient of a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship, a bursary program that provides funding to the top postdoctoral applicants, both nationally and internationally, who will positively contribute to the country's economic, social and research based growth.

Dr. Cluff will receive $70,000 per year over the next two years, which will allow him to test promising new ideas in movement neuroscience, including how humans use sensory information about their bodies and the world around them to make skilled movements.

“This research will not only help us understand basic aspects of motor control and learning, but may lead to advancements in neurological assessment tools and treatment options for movement impaired individuals,” says Dr. Cluff, who is a member of Dr. Stephen Scott’s Laboratory of Integrative Motor Behaviour (LIMB) in Queen’s Centre for Neuroscience Studies.

As a Vanier Scholar, Mr. Best (Psychology) plans to build on his master’s thesis that found members of the general population have an early neurobiological bias towards the speech of people with schizophrenia that results in reduced attention and processing of what someone with schizophrenia is saying. This bias could be a major factor in understanding why people with schizophrenia are excluded, he says.

“Receiving the Vanier CGS provides me with the freedom and financial support to focus more thoroughly on conducting and disseminating my research,” says Mr. Best, who won this year’s Queen’s 3 Minute Thesis Competition. “Social exclusion can be devastating for people with psychosis. With the support of this award I can continue to expand my work to reduce social exclusion and improve the lives of millions of people living with psychosis.”

Mr. Moody (Law) is analyzing the implementation of the Nagoya Protocol, the legal framework that is intended to ensure the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.

Mr. Moody is examining biopiracy debates as well as ongoing related efforts to protect traditional knowledge in international forums. He argues that a coherent global intellectual property system is critical for the Nagoya Protocol’s effective implementation and, ultimately, for the effective protection of traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources.

“The Vanier Scholarship represents to me a humbling affirmation of the significance and importance of my current research within the context of ongoing international efforts to address the effective protection of the traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources of indigenous peoples and local communities,” says Mr. Moody, a Nigerian by birth who started his PhD in the Faculty of Law in September 2012. “I am elated as the Scholarship will equip me with resources to enable me participate in relevant conferences and will afford me the opportunity to devote maximum time and concentration to the development of quality research in this area.”

Ms. Ogasawara (Sociology) is examining the development of national identification systems in Japan from the colonial times to today. The focus of her PhD will be the origins developed in Manchu-kuo, an area of northeast China occupied by the Japan from the 1920s to 1945, as well as the roles of the national ID systems in relation to the colonization then and neoliberal economy nowadays.

“I am very excited to receive a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship because it enables my research to expand to a geographically wider scope and pursue the historical understanding,” says Ms. Ogasawara. “As an international student who has a domestic responsibility for a young child, there would be no other scholarships that could support me in the same way as the Vanier scholarship does.”


 

 

Ready to rove on Mars

Queen's post-doctoral fellow Brian Lynch operates the Mars Exploration Science Rover at Canadian Space Agency headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Que. Photo courtesy Canadian Space Agency

By Andrew Carroll, Gazette editor

A Queen’s researcher is getting a taste of what it is like to be part of a Mars Rover mission.

Postdoctoral fellow Brian Lynch is the lone Queen’s representative on a team of students, primarily from Western University, taking part in the simulated mission, in partnership with the Canadian Space Agency, replicating as many aspects of a real space exploration mission as possible.

Over a period of two weeks, the team is remotely operating the Mars Exploration Science Rover (MESR) on an analogue (substitute) Martian terrain at the John H. Chapman Space Centre in Saint-Hubert, Que. The aim of the mission is to collect rock and soil samples to be returned to Earth.

The aim of the program, however, is to get hands-on training for students working on planetary exploration.

Dr. Lynch explains that researchers at Western's Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) act as “mission control” and make decisions about what kind of scientific operations will be conducted, including taking images, laser scans and core samples. After confirming with the engineering team if the plans are feasible, operations are then carried out and the results are uploaded for the science team at the end of the day.

This matches how a real Mars mission unfolds as the delay in radio transmission over such a great distance means live control is impossible.

Dr. Lynch himself is heading up the rover team that helps perform operations and acts as a stand-in for particular science instruments that are not currently installed on the rover.

“Working on this Mars analogue mission with the Canadian Space Agency has been a great experience and has helped me develop important skills,” he says. “Space exploration is a passion of mine and I am looking forward to applying this knowledge in future deployments on Earth as well as real missions to the moon, Mars, and other interesting places in our solar system.”

The Mars Rover is a six-wheeled vehicle with a robotic arm equipped with a microscope and mini-corer to drill into rocks, take samples and perform analysis of rocks. It also can produce 3D maps of the terrain.

Back on the ground at Queen’s, Dr. Lynch is part of the Mining Systems Laboratory, headed up by Joshua Marshall. The multidisciplinary lab, based in mining engineering but also associated with mechanical and electrical and computer engineering, focuses on robotic mining and planetary exploration and development technologies.

Called Technologies and Techniques for Earth and Space Exploration the mission is part of a Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program, funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

The ethics of driverless cars

 By Andrew Stokes, Communications Officer

Jason Millar, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Philosophy, spends a lot of time thinking about driverless cars. Though you aren’t likely to be able to buy them for 10 years, he says there are a number of ethical problems that need to be tackled before they go mainstream.

“This isn’t an issue for the next generation, it’s happening right now. Driverless cars are on the road in certain jurisdictions as they’re being prepared for a mass market,” says Millar, whose dissertation focuses on robot ethics and the implications of increasingly autonomous machinery. “These cars promise safety benefits, but I’m interested in what happens to the cars in a difficult situation, one where lives are on the line.”

Illustration by Craig Berry.

To explore this problem he created a thought experiment, called the Tunnel Problem, which attracted hundreds of thousands of readers and commenters online. The Tunnel Problem reworks ethical philosophy’s Trolley Problem.

The setup is this: You are driving in an autonomous car along a narrow road, headed towards a one-lane tunnel when a child errantly runs on to the road and trips. The car cannot brake fast enough to avoid hitting the child and so it must decide whether to swerve off the road, effectively harming you, or remain driving straight, harming the child.

“This is a problem with only bad outcomes that even a human driver cannot easily solve,” says Mr. Millar. “What’s particularly useful about this situation is that it focuses our attention on a design question, as the car will be programmed to respond a certain way — I want to ask who should make the decision about the car’s response.”

After initially posting his article on Robohub.org, the site ran a poll to gauge readers’ responses and rationales as to who should render the judgement.

“A near majority responded that the passenger in the car should have the right to make the decision about whether to swerve or not, and only about 12 per cent suggested it should be up to the car’s designers,” he says. A full third of respondents said it should be left up to lawmakers and legislators to make the call.

“That so many people were willing to trust a life and death situation to politicians and lawmakers really surprised me,” Mr. Millar says. “Many of them said they wanted a standard behaviour so that people would know what to expect in that situation, while others simply wanted someone else to make the decision and take it off their hands.”

The Tunnel Problem is just one of a series of problems that Millar foresees being an issue with driverless cars. “There’s also the problem of who’s culpable when a car crashes. If we maintain current standards of product liability, then the fault will tend to lie with the manufacturer, but we may also shift to a system where we consider the robot at fault,” he says.

It’s a possibility, but Millar says the future of driverless cars is far from certain. “Holding the robot responsible may be less satisfying for those with a mind for punitive justice.”
 

Antidepressants show potential for postoperative pain

Dr. Ian Gilron.

By Rosie Hales, Communications Officer

After a systematic review of clinical trials based on administering antidepressants for acute and chronic postsurgical pain, researchers have concluded that more trials are needed to determine whether these drugs should be prescribed for postsurgical pain on a regular basis.

Dr. Ian Gilron, a professor and director of clinical pain research in the Department of Anesthesiology, and his team of seven researchers reviewed 15 trials to determine whether the use of antidepressants for pain relief post-surgery would work more effectively than painkillers such as opioids, local anesthetics, or acetaminophen. 

Clinical trials are often used to answer questions about the efficacy of the off-label uses of drugs. In the case of antidepressants, their effects on postsurgical pain continue to be an area of research interest.

“For the past 50 years, it’s been observed that antidepressants for other chronic pain conditions relieve pain independently of their effect on depression,” says Dr. Gilron, who also works as an attending anesthesiologist at Kingston General Hospital (KGH). “Even with the best available medicines, there are still many people who experience postoperative pain. Reviewing the use of antidepressants to manage this pain was definitely an opportunity to be seized.”

Pain around a surgical site can interfere with normal activities like walking; it can also prolong recovery from surgery.

After searching through three databases of trials, first author of the paper and fifth year anesthesiology resident Karen Wong sifted through 1,350 records from three different research databases to select the 15 trials for detailed review.

Trials were selected for review based on a patient’s pain at rest and with movement, adverse effects of antidepressants, and other outcomes of using antidepressants for postsurgical pain.

Just over half of the trials examined showed a reduction in pain after use of antidepressants.

“These results are more than a coincidence,” says Dr. Gilron. “We can conclude from this research review that, while it’s premature to formally recommend these drugs be prescribed for pain, more definitive studies on these medications are necessary.”

The research review, “Antidepressant drugs for prevention of acute and chronic postsurgical pain: early evidence and recommended future directions,” took three years to complete and has been published in the September 2014 edition of Anesthesiology.

The review team also included Imelda Galvin and David Goldstein, both Queen’s researchers and attending anesthesiologists at KGH; Rachel Phelan, Queen’s Anesthesiology research facilitator; Eija Kalso from Helsinki University in Finland, and Srinivasa Raja from Johns Hopkins University.

Cutting-edge research rewarded

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

Queen’s University researcher Keith Poole was recently honoured with a lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Society of Microbiologists (CSM) after a 26-year career of peering into petri dishes and analyzing microscopic bacteria. The CSM Murray Award recognizes leading Canadian microbiology researchers for their career contributions and cutting-edge research.

Dr. Poole studies the opportunistic bacterial pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a problem organism that is notoriously antibiotic-resistant. He examines how and why it can make people living with debilitating illnesses such as cystic fibrosis sick. He is also studying how this bacterium becomes antibiotic resistant.

Keith Poole has spent his career studying bacteria.

“It was definitely an interesting process putting together my resume for submission for the Murray Award,” Dr. Poole says. ”"It gave me a chance to look back on my career. It was definitely an exciting moment when I got the phone call saying I was this year’s awardee.”

It was as a third-year undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the 1970s that Dr. Poole discovered his academic calling after taking a microbiology course. After completing his BSc and after working as a technician for a year in a microbiology lab, he undertook a PhD at UBC before heading to Germany as a postdoctoral fellow from 1986 to 1988.

While scouting for a second postdoctoral fellowship back in North America, a faculty position opened up at Queen’s in the then Department of Microbiology and Immunology. After a hastily arranged one-day interview complete with a pizza lunch/dinner – “no time for wining and dining,” he laughs – he returned to Germany to complete his postdoctoral work. Within a day of his return, he was contacted by Queen’s and offered a tenure-track position.

“Working at Queen’s has afforded me the opportunity to indulge my passion for microbiology research and to mentor a host of incredible undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral research trainees,” says Dr. Poole. “It’s been a great ride.”

Dr. Poole is a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and a past recipient of the Queen’s University Prize for Excellence in Research.  His research is funded by Cystic Fibrosis Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research

Fertile discovery

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

Queen’s University researcher Richard Oko and his co-investigators have come up with a promising method of treating male infertility using a synthetic version of the sperm-originated protein known as PAWP.

They found this protein is sufficient and required to initiate the fertilization process.

Dr. Oko’s research promises to diagnose and treat cases of male factor infertility where a patient’s sperm is unable to initiate or induce activation of the egg to form an early embryo.

Richard Oko is working to treat male infertility.

“PAWP is able to induce embryo development in human eggs in a fashion similar to the natural triggering of embryo development by the sperm cell during fertilization,” explains Dr. Oko (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences). “Based on our findings, we envision that physicians will be able to improve their diagnosis and treatment of infertility, a problem that affects 10 to 15 per cent of couples worldwide.”

The results of this study highlight the potential clinical applications of sperm PAWP as a predictor of infertility treatment. Since most human infertility treatments are now done by injecting a single sperm directly into an egg, supplementation of human sperm with PAWP protein may potentially be used to improve the success rate of infertility treatments in the future.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2013 Annual Report on Assisted Reproductive Technologies, only about 37 per cent of treatment cycles lead to successful pregnancy. This low success rate may be due to a variety of factors in the male and female including the inability of sperm cell to initiate fertilization and trigger embryo development upon egg entry.

“The results of our study set the stage for further investigation of PAWP protein as a molecular marker for diagnosis and as a factor for improvement of infertility treatments,” says Dr. Oko.

Dr. Oko worked with his former PhD student Mahmoud Aarabi and Clifford Librach and Hanna Balakier at the CReATe Fertility Centre in Toronto on this latest research, which was published in the FASEB Journal, the world’s most cited biology journal.

More than summer fun in Muskoka for PhD student

By Mark Kerr, Senior Communications Officer

Like many students, Sarah Hasnain has spent her summer on the water. However, this biology PhD candidate has devoted her time to academic rather than leisure pursuits.

[Sarah Hasnain]PhD candidate Sarah Hasnain is conducting research on the response of zooplankton communities in the Muskoka Watershed to the spiny water flea, an invasive species. (Supplied photo) 

Ms. Hasnain’s research on the response of zooplankton communities to the spiny water flea, an invasive species in the Muskoka Watershed, earned her the inaugural Muskoka Summit on the Environment Research Award earlier this summer. The $7,500 award supports a graduate student’s environmental research within Muskoka in fields related to environmental science, resource studies and/or policy.

“I never expected to win, especially since there is a lot of excellent and important environmental research being carried out in this region,” says Ms. Hasnain, who is co-supervised by Shelley Arnott (Biology) and Troy Day (Mathematics and Statistics). “Having my research recognized as being important by not only local scientists, but managers and stakeholders as well, is very humbling.”

The Muskoka Watershed is the most heavily invaded region for the spiny water flea in Canada. Previous research has shown the spiny water flea results in a decline of zooplankton, an integral part of the aquatic food web. Zooplankton consumes algae and, in turn, serves as a food source for fish.

Having my research recognized as being important by not only local scientists, but managers and stakeholders as well, is very humbling.

Sarah Hasnain, PhD candidate (Biology)

Ms. Hasnain is examining how differences in the behaviour of Daphnia species of zooplankton can actually help invaded lakes absorb and recover from the impacts of the spiny water flea. During a field survey last summer of 63 lakes in the Muskoka region, she found the Daphnia zooplankton move lower in the water column to avoid the spiny water flea, a visual predator that needs light to feed. She plans to use these findings to test whether this downward movement can help zooplankton communities survive spiny water flea invasions. Her work could help stakeholders better manage lakes that have been invaded by the spiny water flea.

Two years into her PhD program, Ms. Hasnain is particularly interested in community ecology, which focuses on examining the biological mechanisms that maintain species diversity on Earth. She intends to use the award money to finance her research expenses and living costs for this summer’s field season.

An international invitation

Andrea Craig

By Rosie Hales, Communications Officer

Andrea Craig, a doctoral student in the Department of Economics at Queen’s, has been invited to attend the prestigious Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences in Lindau, Germany.

Nearly 460 young economists from more than 80 countries will be participating in these meetings, along with 19 laureates of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) nominated a number of young Canadian scholars, from which a select group were invited to attend.

“I am very excited to be participating in the Lindau meeting,” says Andrea. “It's an honour to be nominated by SSHRC and I feel very fortunate to have been selected by the Council for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings.”

The meetings provide a chance for Canadian scholars to interact with some of the world’s most accomplished economic minds. It’s also an opportunity for economists from all over the world, of many different generations, to exchange their economic expertise.

“It will be inspiring to attend lectures by Laureates whose research has changed economics. I also hope to connect with other young economists,” says Andrea. “Overall, I think this will be an exciting and motivating experience and I look forward to returning to sharing what I learn in Lindau.”

Dr. Marie-Louise Vierø, Ms. Craig’s supervisor and an associate professor in the Department of Economics, echoes her student’s excitement about being invited to the meeting.

“It is extremely beneficial, inspiring, and interesting to exchange ideas with the very top researchers in economics,” says Dr. Vierø. “Being chosen to attend is a well-deserved acknowledgement of a smart and hardworking student like Andrea.”

The Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences takes place August 19-23. For more information on SSHRC and the Lindau Meeting, follow this link.

 

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