Queen's Gazette | Queen's University

Search form

Research Prominence

Dynamic 'moth'-ematics

Issue 5 of (e)AFFECT is available in PDF format here.
Bill Nelson with a tea tortrix larva.

This story, written by Ian Coutts, has been condensed and edited from its original form, which appeared in Issue 5, Spring 2014 of (e)AFFECT magazine.

Follow the trail Bill Nelson’s research is blazing and you’ll end up in a room in the basement of the BioSciences Complex. There, after donning a lab coat and elasticized booties that slip on over your street shoes, he guides you into a screened-off area filled with boxes created out of hard pink insulation, resting on industrial shelving, each connected by hoses to a noisy cooling system sitting in the corner. Those boxes, each kept at a separate temperature, house Japanese tea tortrix moths at the different stages of their life cycle – egg, larva, pupa and adult.

“What I do, if you want to put a name on it,” Dr. Nelson says, “is physiologically-structured population biology – in my case by bringing together mathematical and experimental biology.”

Simply, explains Dr. Nelson, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology, most traditional ecology focuses on total populations. It looks at predator and prey relationships, the rise and fall of entire populations, but never generally pays much attention to the individual members of the population under study.

Nelson, by contrast, focuses on the individuals, in particular where they are in their life cycle, and how this generates much bigger population changes. Using data gleaned by studying the life stages of individual members of a species in the lab, he creates mathematical models that can be used to provide insights into the behaviour of larger animal populations in the natural environment.

His goal is to understand the “underlying fundamental principles behind population dynamics.”

Nelson’s initial insights into the importance of the individual in these dynamics came from his work on the zooplankton daphnia, commonly known as the water flea. This incredibly common plant-eating microorganism, Dr. Nelson calls them “the cows of the lakes,” is found in abundance in freshwater everywhere. Considered at the population level, and following standard ecological models, the expectation would be that numbers of daphnia in any population should oscillate wildly as their food supply increases and decreases.

“In those systems,” says Dr. Nelson, “you expect crazy cycles. But you never see them.”

Instead, Dr. Nelson found what altered was the length of time juveniles took to become adults. The less food, the longer each member took to reach maturity, which prevented the expected wild cycles.

Dr. Nelson continues to work with daphnia, and has also expanded his research to examine the importance of the life cycle in bean weevils – drawing him away from his initial work as a freshwater biologist to concentrating on terrestrial insects. His goal, always, has been to “push his research,” and take it in new directions.

To read this story in full, please see the most recent issue of (e)AFFECT.

Key element of CPR missing from guidelines

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

Removing the head tilt/chin lift component of rescue breaths from the latest cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) guidelines could be a mistake, according to Queen’s University professor Anthony Ho.

Traditional CPR guidelines for out-of-hospital cardiac arrest by lay bystanders include rescue breaths. These are delivered using a combination of head tilt/chin lift and mouth-to-mouth breathing. Under the new guidelines, these are now omitted.

Anthony Ho says CPR guidelines are missing a key component.

“Wholesale elimination of ventilation from CPR by laypersons for adults with out-of-hospital cardiac arrest may be misguided,” says Dr. Ho (Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine), who is also at Kingston General Hospital.

“It is important to remember that rescue breathing is a two-part intervention: head-tilt-chin-lift and delivery of rescue breaths. Head-tilt-chin-lift, the key to overcoming obstruction in the upper airway in unconscious patients, is not the reason for all the undesirable effects of rescue mouth-to-mouth breathing.”

The new guidelines, issued by the International Liaison Committee on Resuscitation in 2010, recommend CPR using only chest compressions if performed by untrained bystanders. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was removed from the guidelines as it can delay or interrupt chest compressions, too much ventilation could be provided, and bystanders   may be reluctant to perform it.

With a survival rate of only 14 per cent for compression-only CPR, Dr. Ho says there is a lot of room for improvement. Dr. Ho’s commentary was published in the most recent edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

A weighty discovery

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

Humans have developed sophisticated concepts like mass and gravity to explain a wide range of everyday phenomena, but scientists have remarkably little understanding of how such concepts are represented by the brain.

Using advanced neuroimaging techniques, Queen’s University researchers have revealed how the brain stores knowledge about an object’s weight – information critical to our ability to successfully grasp and interact with objects in our environment.

Jason Gallivan (l) and Randy Flanagan discuss their latest research findings.

Jason Gallivan, a Banting postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology, and Randy Flanagan, a professor in the Department of Psychology, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to uncover what regions of the human brain represent an object’s weight prior to lifting that object. They found that knowledge of object weight is stored in ventral visual cortex, a brain region previously thought to only represent those properties of an object that can be directly viewed such as its size, shape, location and texture.

“We are working on various projects to determine how the brain produces actions on the world,” explains Dr. Gallivan about the work he is undertaking at the Centre for Neuroscience Studies at Queen’s. “Simply looking at an object doesn’t provide the brain with information about how much that object weighs. Take for example a suitcase. There is often nothing about its visual appearance that informs you of whether it is packed with clothes or empty. Rather, this is information that must be derived through recent interactions with that object and stored in the brain so as to guide our movements the next time we must lift and interact with that object.”

According to previous research, the ventral visual cortex supports visual processing for perception and object recognition whereas the dorsal visual cortex supports visual processing for the control of action. However, this division of labour had only been tested for visually guided actions like reaching, which are directed towards objects, and not for actions involving the manipulation of objects, which requires access to stored knowledge about object properties.

“Because information about object weight is primarily important for the control of action, we thought that this information might only be stored in motor-related areas of the brain,” says Dr. Gallivan. “Surprisingly, however, we found that this non-visual information was also stored in ventral visual cortex. Presumably this allows for the weight of an object to become easily associated with its visual properties.”

In ongoing research, Drs. Gallivan and Flanagan are using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to temporarily disrupt targeted brain areas in order to assess their contribution to skilled object manipulation. By identifying which areas of the brain control certain motor skills, Drs. Gallivan and Flanagan’s research will be helpful in assessing patients with neurological impairments including stroke.

The work was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). The research was recently published in Current Biology.

The twists and turns of life

This story was written by Judy Wearing and originally appeared in Issue 5, Spring 2014 of (e)AFFECT magazine. To read the full version, visit the (e)AFFECT website.

Chemist Anne Petitjean rhymes off her childhood influences with ease – the work of Louis Pasteur, a desire to be an artist, and a need to answer life’s mysteries from the “bottom up.” She found convergence of these interests in supramolecular chemistry, a field she describes as “molecular sociology … how [molecules] behave together, the way they interact, the way they feel each other, recognize each other, sense each other.”

The field applies to everything from materials science to medicine and environmental studies.

Anne Petitjean (r) assists a student in the lab.

Like Pasteur, Petitjean’s approach to research is “to feel what society needs and be aware of where your chemistry takes you.” One of her favourite targets is DNA, which has the most predictable structure of the large, biologically important molecules. Most DNA molecules at rest in our cells have a double helix shape – with pairs of nucleic acids arranged in a twisting ladder. The arrangement is compact and keeps our genetic material safe, buried inside the helix. But cells are dynamic and when DNA’s information is read, the molecule’s architecture transforms into folds, loops, and other secondary structures.

It is these temporary structures Petitjean finds most interesting for they are “responsible for life.” Her favourite secondary structures are the guanine quadruplexes. Guanine is one of four nucleic acids in DNA, and it forms quartets –squares that lie flat, stacked like pancakes, turning a section of the DNA ladder into a wide staircase. With 23 known structural variations and a number of specific functions, Petitjean is reveling in quadruplex mysteries.

Queen's extends training agreement with Chinese ministry

By Craig Leroux, Senior Communications Officer

Queen’s and the Chinese Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR) renewed their two-decade-long relationship this week with the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU). Under the agreement, Queen’s will continue to provide training to Chinese officials and the MLR and its affiliates will continue to offer an internship program for Queen’s students.

“We are very grateful for this collaboration in land and resource management and we look forward to this fruitful partnership continuing for many more years,” says Alan Harrison, Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic). “This collaboration has provided the opportunity for the MLR and Queen’s to share best practices, policies and processes.”

Queen's in the World

Each year Queen’s organizes a three-week training session for up to 50 MLR officials and mining professionals, aimed at exposing them to land and resource management practices in Canada. The program is jointly offered by the Department of Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering and the Robert M. Buchan Department of Mining. Several Ontario and Canadian government ministries also present to the participants.

“I believe that our partnership will bring about a better future for both countries,” says Zhang Zhi, Director General, Department of Personnel in the MLR. “We really appreciate the support and work…provided by Queen’s University over the years.”

China provides a very good laboratory for our students to see how what they learn here can be applied in another culture.

- Professor Emeritus Hok-Lin Leung

The partnership began in 1995 as an initiative of Hok-Lin Leung, professor emeritus and former director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning, and was formally established through the signing of the first MOU in 1999. The MOU allows two Queen’s Master of Urban and Regional Planning students to work within the MLR in China each year. The agreement also covers a three to six month internship program for a small group of MLR officials to gain experience within a relevant public or private organization in Canada.

“China provides a very good laboratory for our students to see how what they learn here can be applied in another culture,” says Professor Leung. “Invariably when they come back they all have changed their perception about what China really is.”

Queen’s has a number of active partnerships and recruitment activities in China, including the recently established Master of Finance program with Renmin University and a semester abroad program with Fudan University.

Advanced dark matter experiment coming to SNOLAB

By Communications Staff

A major dark matter project is making SNOLAB, located near Sudbury, its new home.

The underground science facility has been chosen to host the Super Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (SuperCDMS), an international, multimillion-dollar dark matter experiment currently based in Minnesota.

  The Super Cryogenic Dark Matter Search is an international, multimillion dollar dark matter experiment currently based in Minnesota with plans to progress the project by building a more sensitive detector at SNOLAB.

The SuperCDMS experiment was selected by U.S. funding agencies as one of its major second-generation dark matter projects, with support going toward expanding the science by building a more sensitive detector at SNOLAB.

Utilizing state-of-the-art cryogenic germanium detectors, the collaboration is searching for dark matter particles, also known as weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs). The discovery of these particles could resolve the dark matter problem, revolutionizing particle physics and cosmology. The use of the underground facility at SNOLAB reduces interference of known background particles.

“SNOLAB is really excited to hear the news that SuperCDMS-SNOLAB has been selected as one of the U.S. second generation direct dark matter search projects, and will be heading to SNOLAB for its next phase of operations,” says Nigel Smith (Physics), director of SNOLAB. “As a leading experiment in the field of dark matter searches, the combination of improved detector technologies and the facilities at SNOLAB will allow SuperCDMS to improve its sensitivity to WIMP dark matter interactions even further, and hopefully detect these elusive particles.”

The facility is operated by the SNOLAB Institute whose member institutions are Queen’s University, Carleton University, Laurentian University, University of Alberta and Université de Montréal. It is located two km below the surface in the Vale Creighton Mine near Sudbury, Ont.


 

Tracking dangerous diseases

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

Researchers at Queen’s University have created and validated computerized algorithms that identify eight common chronic conditions in primary health care. Tyler Williamson (Epidemiology) and his colleagues used information contained in patients’ electronic medical records (EMR) to create definitions of eight diseases.

The information can be used to monitor disease prevalence and incidence, guide policy and potentially improve treatment effectiveness in people suffering from dementia, depression, diabetes, hypertension, osteoarthritis, Parkinsonism, epilepsy and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“Our study has demonstrated that our case definitions are valid and appropriate for use in primary care as well as to inform policy for these diseases,” says Dr. Williamson.

Researchers reviewed 1,920 patient charts from the Canadian Primary Care Sentinel Surveillance Network, Canada’s first national EMR data repository. Dr. Williamson has concluded CPCSSN has developed valid primary care EMR case definitions for identifying patients with these eight common chronic conditions.

These case definitions can be used for a variety of data-driven activities in primary care, including surveillance, routine practice evaluation, feedback and quality improvement, and research.

The research was recently published in the July/August edition of the Annals of Family Medicine.

Controversial Facebook study reviewed by Queen's ethicist

Dr. Udo Schuklenk. Photo by University Communications.

By Rosie Hales, Communications Officer

Writing on behalf of 27 ethicists from across North America, Queen’s philosopher Udo Schuklenk and a team of five co-authors have written a commentary for the journal Nature on a controversial Facebook study.

The study manipulated the news feeds of 310,000 Facebook users to feature more content that was deemed either positive or negative by automated software. The results of this study showed that users who were exposed to less positive content very slightly decreased their own use of positive words and increased their use of negative words.

Dr. Schuklenk’s team believes the study did not violate anyone’s privacy and Facebook’s attempt to improve the user experience is consistent with its relationship with its consumers, despite many users’ concerns that Facebook “purposefully messed with people’s minds.”

“This group of influential bioethicists came together to defend sound and important research against charges by colleagues that something terribly unethical happened when researchers investigated what happens to our mood when the social networking site changes the news it delivers to us in our individual news feeds,” says Dr. Schuklenk, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Queen’s and Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics.

The co-authors concluded that while the experiment was controversial, it was not a breach of ethics or law.

“The study involved no violation of privacy or pursuit of ends inconsistent with Facebook’s relationship with its users. Facebook simply altered its standard practice to detect how emotional content affects users in a way that was not known in advance to increase risk to anyone in the study,” says Dr. Schuklenk. “Permitting Facebook and other companies to mine our data and study our behaviour for personal profit, but penalizing it for making its data available for others to see and to learn from, makes no-one better off.”

Read the full commentary online or view a full list of authors and signatories

A new view of the world

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

New research out of Queen’s University has shed light on how exercise and relaxation activities like yoga can positively impact people with social anxiety disorders.

Adam Heenan, a Ph.D. candidate in the Clinical Psychology, has found that exercise and relaxation activities literally change the way people perceive the world, altering their perception so that they view the environment in a less threatening, less negative way. For people with mood and anxiety disorders, this is an important breakthrough.

An example of a point-light display.

For his research, Mr. Heenan used point-light displays, a depiction of a human that is comprised of a series of dots representing the major joints. Human point-light displays are depth-ambiguous and because of this, an observer looking at the display could see it as either facing towards them or facing away. Researchers have found people who are socially anxious perceive these figures as facing towards them (i.e., the more threatening way) more often.

“We wanted to examine whether people would perceive their environment as less threatening after engaging in physical exercise or after doing a relaxation technique that is similar to the breathing exercises in yoga (called progressive muscle relaxation),” Mr. Heenan explains. “We found that people who either walked or jogged on a treadmill for 10 minutes perceived these ambiguous figures as facing towards them (the observer) less often than those who simply stood on the treadmill. The same was true when people performed progressive muscle relaxation.”

Visit the BioMotion lab website to take the test.

This is important because anxious people display a bias to focus on more threatening things in their environment. In fact, some researchers think that this is how these disorders are perpetuated: People who are anxious focus on anxiety-inducing things and thus become more anxious, in a continuous cycle.

“This is a big development because it helps to explain why exercising and relaxation techniques have been successful in treating mood and anxiety disorders in the past,” says Mr. Heenan, who worked with supervisor Nikolaus Troje (Psychology) on the research.

This new research was published in PLOS one, an international, peer-reviewed publication featuring primary research from all scientific disciplines.

Surgical success story

By Anne Craig, Communications Officer

Once the stuff of science fiction movies, computer assisted surgery is now commonplace in operating theatres around the world. One of the leaders in the field, Queen’s University professor Randy Ellis was recently honoured with Maurice E. Müller Award, a lifetime achievement award from the International Society for Computer Assisted Orthopaedic Surgery.

For the past 19 years, Dr. Ellis (School of Computing, Surgery and Mechanical and Materials Engineering) has dedicated his career to computer assisted surgery and helping surgeons successfully complete difficult surgeries.

Randy Ellis demonstrates how computer assisted surgery works.

“Contributing to society is important,” says Dr. Ellis, who started his career in the field of robotics and now works out of the Queen’s Human Mobility Research Centre, “and this award is recognition from my peers for a successful career.”

In 1994, Dr. Ellis went to Italy to study surgery and a year later he joined forces with Queen’s professor John Rudan (Surgery) to develop software to perform the first computer assisted orthopedic surgery.

“Using computer assisted surgery, surgeons can accurately predict the result of the surgery. The technology also makes a difficult surgery possible, which increases the chances of a successful surgery,” he says.

Dr. Ellis is continuing his research into learning how joints move to create even more accurate computer programs for surgery. Currently, he is focusing on poorly healed fractures and early onset arthritis.

“I am revisiting how the human hip moves,” he explains. “I’m fascinated with the human hip because it’s vastly underappreciated. I want to maximize the potential of the hip and help people suffering from arthritis.”

For information about the award visit the website.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Research Prominence