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Research Prominence

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.

 

Flags lowered in memory of Alec Stewart

Flags on campus are lowered in memory of Alec Stewart, professor emeritus in the Department of Physics.

Dr. Stewart graduated from Dalhousie University and then Cambridge University. He inspired many students and colleagues during his long career as a scientist at Chalk River Laboratories, and as a professor of physics at Dalhousie University, the University of North Carolina, and Queen's University.

He was a pioneer in the scattering of electrons in metals using positrons. His contributions to the scientific community were honoured in 1970 when he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He was again recognized for his achievements and public service in 2001 when he was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada.

All are welcome at a memorial service to be held at the Queen's University Club, (168 Stuart St) at 2:30 pm on Sept. 6, 2014. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Dr. Stewart's memory to a charity of your choice.

Queen's Cancer Research Institute endeavours to improve cancer care

Issue 5 of (e)AFFECT is available in PDF format here.

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

Most cancer patients in Kingston and the surrounding area receive treatment at the Cancer Centre of Southeastern Ontario, a shiny new facility attached to Kingston General Hospital that houses facilities for radiotherapy and chemotherapy, dietary counselling and other cancer support services.

Dr. Andrew Craig

What these patients may not know is that, steps away, is the Queen’s Cancer Research Institute (QCRI), a four-storey building full of physicians and scientists who, on the front lines and behind the scenes, are figuring out how cancer works and improving the quality of cancer care in Canada and around the world.

Queen’s established the QCRI in 2001 as a place where academics, practicing physicians, scientists, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from across the cancer research spectrum could work in close proximity to, and learn from, each other.

The idea was that research creativity and productivity could flourish if those doing it could easily communicate with each other instead of being isolated in silos on different parts of campus. Today, the institute is a hive of activity comprised of three closely linked divisions.

Dr. Chris Booth

The Cancer Biology and Genetics division houses researchers who investigate the biological origins of cancer. Staff in Cancer Clinical Trials manage and participate in national and international trials of cancer drugs and treatments such as radiation and surgery. The Cancer Care and Epidemiology division is concerned with learning more about what causes cancer and identifying strategies to improve the quality of cancer care.

Dr. Penny Bradbury

To learn more about the research that occurs at QCRI, visit (e)AFFECT online to read profiles of three mid-career researchers who are each making important contributions to cancer knowledge in Canada and around the world: Andrew Craig from Cancer Biology and Genetics, Penny Bradbury from the NCIC Clinical Trials Group and Chris Booth from Cancer Care and Epidemiology.

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.

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