On A Tangent Podcast
What happens when you get the science community together for good chatter? Introducing On A Tangent, a podcast by Toronto Metropolitan's Faculty of Science where we discuss all things science and aren’t afraid to go off on a tangent.
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Episode 9: Dr. Bryan Koivisto on Earth Hour and environmental awareness
Every year on the last Saturday of March, millions of people across the world turn off their lights for Earth Hour to raise awareness for the urgency of nature loss and climate change. But is ‘awareness’ enough? In this episode, we ask: Is it too late to change course? Are we headed towards environmental disaster? Whose responsibility is it to help save our planet? Our conversation with Dr. Bryan Koivisto takes an interesting approach as we explore this topic from different perspectives and consider how socio-economics, politics, and social media play a role in the mix. Bryan is an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biology and his research is in Organic-based Renewable Energy. He is also the Graduate Program Director for the Environmental Applied Science and Management Program and he is involved in mentorship in scientific discovery at the university.
What is Earth Hour? 3:10 | The Urgency of Climate Change 9:06 | Environmental Justice and Racialized Communities 11:01 | Can We Turn this Ship Around? 14:15 | Who’s Responsible: Individuals or Corporations? 16:31 | What We Can Do to Help 22:02
Hi there, you're listening to On A Tangent, a podcast hosted by Ryerson's Faculty of Science. I'm your host, Sarah McIntyre. Every year on the last Saturday of March, the world turns off its lights at 8:30 pm for Earth Hour. Earth hour is much more than a day to save energy with an hour of darkness. It's a movement to raise awareness of the urgency of nature loss and climate change on our planet. Today, we have Dr. Brian Koivisto on the show to chat about environmental awareness and what we can do to protect our planet. Brian is an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biology, and his research is in organic-based renewable energy. He is also the graduate program director for the Environmental Applied Science and Management Program, and he is involved in several programs related to mentorship in science discovery at the university.
Welcome to the show, Dr. Koivisto, it's so great to have you here today. How are you doing?
I'm great, thank you, and call me Bryan just so it doesn't get too weird. I'm excited to be on On A Tangent. So I appreciate it.
How does it feel to be a guest on a podcast rather than hosting your own?
It's a lot easier I think. Guests are always an easier thing to do. It puts you on the spot though because you got to have more answers.
Oh yeah, very true. For the audience who doesn't know, what podcast do you host?
So we created a podcast during COVID called Lean In and it's a Ryerson Faculty of Science initiative. RySciMatch is where it came from. So the course that was being offered in March and sort of fell through right when the pandemic hit. And so what I ended up doing, knowing that everybody was all stressed and anxious and concerned, I just made a couple audio recordings for them. To sort of just let you know that you're not alone kind of thing and then everyone's like, Hey, you got a great voice for a podcast you should do a podcast. And so then it grew really from that. And we decided to continue on the same type of content that would be delivered on RySciMatch so you know, interviews of professors and students and alumni and really try to understand it. So yeah, that's that is the podcast, its essence and I've taken a break from it. Mostly has been student-driven recently, which I thought added a lot of flavour. I am going to go back to it though because there's some calls from faculty who want to be interviewed and be a part of it. So yeah.
That's exciting. So when would you say the next episode will be coming out?
So there are still some episodes that because there is a bit of a time gap so right they're in backlog in production so there there there should be one coming a few coming out soon but when I get back into all this when I have more time so it won't be until the summer so probably May is when I will be back. I'll promise not to do one on Earth Hour.
Okay, perfect. We took that one.
Yeah, you got that.
Right. So as we speak on Earth Hour, I wanted to have a little chat on its purpose and the role it plays in environmental awareness. So just a little, I guess, anecdote from when I was little: I remember Earth Hour used to be a really big thing. When I was younger, we were taught about it in school, and I'd come home and tell my parents about it and be like, okay, tonight and 8 pm we're going to turn off all the lights in our house, and we kind of made it a fun night, we lit candles we just sat in the dark. But lately, I've noticed the hype kind of simmering down I don't really think about Earth Hour most years I forget it really exists, but do you participate in Earth Hour?
I still do, yeah. I participate a different way though now. I think it's changed quite a bit. It started in 2007 and it was about like turning the lights off. And just sort of it's so much more now. And I think that's what people maybe don't know about is that it's more of a social movement. I think it was really popular. I don't know how old you are Sarah, but in 2003 the lights went out in Ontario. It was crazy. It was wild.
Yeah, I was 3.
Yeah. You wouldn't remember that. Most of my students don't either. That's why my anecdotes are starting to fail. But in 2003 That was a big deal. Like it really shocked a lot of people I think I'm riding through that momentum of that time period and that into what Earth Hour became. It was very popular in the beginning. But I think it's changed like it's still popular but maybe not the same way as it was back in 2007.
Would you say that you change the practices in how you commemorate Earth Hour?
Yeah, my background is actually, so my research is in photovoltaics. So we that those are like solar cells, like we generate new next-generation ones that's like clean energy, right? But I don't think people realize where their energy goes in their household. So the idea of turning lights off in 2007 in terms of like energy efficiency and saving energy would have made a bigger deal than it would today because in 2007 people were still using like incandescent lights like the ones that if you touch, they get hot, right? Those ones those don't exist like they've been banned in this country for almost all uses. So we now have like LED lights and those don't get hot. They don't use very much energy. Like in houses we get most of our energy or the costs are from heating water, heating your house, and compared to lighting that's virtually like light lighting doesn't have an energetic footprint. So the cooling, heating and like the fridge, and your oven and the water tank and water heater, whatever it is, that's where the big energy is being used. And you can't turn those things off unless you want to give up and have a really thick blanket.
What is the purpose of Earth Hour?
So I think it was always about raising awareness and educating people and just keeping it on everyone's mind. So the environment is not an existential threat, right? Because it isn't external to us. We are responsible for it and we have to maintain it. And to be fair, most of the solutions exist in technology to you know, go carbon-neutral or carbon-free but it's the will of people and political will it really needs to change if we're going to adopt these things and prioritize it. So I think that's the big issue that this is trying to address is just making sure that it's always on at least annually like people are being aware of what's going on with the environment and what we need to do to change.
Do you think this is the most effective way to raise awareness or are there other ways?
Yeah, that's a good question probably for a social scientist. I'd love to see the surveys. What I would love to do to get the data is like, how many people know what Earth Hour is because I bet you that would probably not be a big percentage of the population and then of those people ask them, you know, well, do you celebrate it in some way and I think we're getting into pretty small numbers. But you know, we have lots of wonderful days that are important previously in the month, we're gonna have International Women's Day, right? These things are really important, but it's not just a day that we need to think about it. It has to be at the forefront of everyone's mind and it has to create change. I think when people get into big groups, you know, and they show that they care in terms of marches or movements. That's a good way to tell our politicians it matters and if we're able to do that, I think it's a success.
So speaking of telling our politicians that it matters, is Earth our day to show governments that this is important, or is it to show other individuals?
Both, and I think it's both because, you know, not everyone's going to participate in a march or a movement or a cause. That's just not human nature, right. But politicians need to know that this is something that people care about, they can't forget about that. And the environment, we've got lots of other problems going on in the world that are a bit distracting and coming out of COVID that's obviously one and those issues really start to dominate because they are more urgent, or seemingly more urgent but yeah, the planet is really important too, because what would people be fighting for? But I also think like you said, it's not like politicians are motivated by public opinion. So the public has to be made aware and I think that that's where these kinds of movements matter.
So how urgent is climate change and addressing this because I heard stories of scientists saying we don't have a lot of time. I've been hearing that for years. So how urgent is it and how long do we have?
It makes me very nervous. So this is the thing we can't be thinking in a fearful way because fear will just create anxiety. And anxiety is crippling right. And you can't use strategies like shaming people because we know that doesn't work either. Right? That's also crippling, it's not productive. So I think the message has to be it's urgent, it's urgent. We can do something about it. We can do something about it. But it is really, really getting close to being, and it's not the end of humanity. I'll be quite honest. I think there's going to be lots of humans that will survive even if the planet heats up several degrees. Because it's not gonna heat up the same way everywhere. It's the same thing we always see. We saw it with COVID, it was always the weak and vulnerable who take the brunt of it right. So it's going to be you know, coastal settlements, islands, island nations. People who don't, like this is really important. Environmental Justice is something that, some of us will be fine. And e know that. So does that mean we just let it happen at the stake of other people's demise? And I think that's where we really have to check ourselves and say look, everyone is important so we're going to have to protect those people and that's where I think maybe the rich industrialized nations need to make more of take more leadership in this role, like really progressively and quickly. Because that's going to be our opportunity to help people who always get left behind whenever there's a problem and as the people who are on the margins or marginalized. It's not fair to them. And so that environmental justice topic is really important.
Yeah, I've heard that environmental justice is synonymous with racial justice. Would you agree with us?
It's definitely based on where you live. Right? Because this is a climate-based issue. And yes, those places right now where like, just think of all of them right, like it's if it's in Africa, Sub Saharan Africa will become like the Sahara will grow right and will get bigger, those people will be displaced. Island nations who don't have as much wealth, Australia's gonna be fine, but the other areas are going to be the ones that are going to be impacted, the little nations that don't have the same sort of groupings. I think, you know, there's lots of people in North America and Asia that will be fine, because they live in places that are less or have more resources, but again, even in those places, it's the people who have the resources that will thrive or be okay. I guess it's the people who don't in those areas that will suffer. And, and yes, I think there is a lot of parallels to like racialized communities and what we see but because they tend to also have socio-economic divide also runs along those lines, especially in New World countries. But, but so yes, I think it's gonna be very similar to the same group of people, unfortunately.
Would you say people from areas with the resources able to make an impact, if all these people did something about you know, lived more sustainably, would they be able to help areas that don't have those resources? Or is it a joint effort from everyone across the world?
Yeah, it's gonna be have to be a multi-pronged approach. Right? Because those countries that are developing are underserviced or they need help in terms of technology because they don't have the maybe the economic wealth to buy it for themselves. There are going to be some issues I don't know like I always think to the island countries there where the water is getting really high. I don't know that we could protect them. So I think that's the other big thing that we're going to have to think about is what happens when people need to migrate - mass migration, that's going to be probably the biggest one, right? There'll be mass human migration across the globe in and other countries. And so we need to really think maybe what nationalism looks like it hopefully abandon it, to think about what globalism looks like and how we can like embrace people coming into our regions and support them more effectively. Because that is going to happen for sure. There's gonna be mass migration as a result of climate change. We're already seeing it actually. But there'll be more of it. And it will be more fluid because I think you'll see a lot of people coming and going within their lifetime as opposed to right now when you see mass migration, it usually means you're going from part A and part B and another part of the world and that's where you stop and build your family. That may not happen in the future. You might have to think about how where you go next. And that will be tricky. So we'll really have to think about those kinds of issues moving forward.
It's inevitable that the oceans are rising. Are there things that are able to be mitigated or not mitigated like completely fixed?
I think so. But I think with the bigger issue, so fix completely, I mean, we saw with the ozone layer, right, we made some changes. That was a little bit of an easier problem to solve and the ozone layer healed. Because we knew what was causing it and it was a pretty easy substitution and nobody missed the fact that we weren't using CFCs anymore but so the problem is that the weather it will become more unpredictable but more violent, I guess. And so let's say you we were even able to help those little islands, I'm thinking about so I went to several years ago now seems like a lifetime but COVID, but a reunion in Mauritius right which are off the coast of Africa, in the Indian Ocean. Now those two islands are volcanic and they're pretty big and they have, well Mauritius not so much, but like as the sea level goes up, you can't sandbag these places and keep water out for long, right because there's going to be just one big storm and it's going to flood the place right? The same would be true in the southern states like New Orleans and such. So when it comes to that issue, I think you're gonna see a lot of like I said migration off those islands onto the mainland bigger surface areas where you can move around easier. But yeah, you're never going to get more hurricanes, stronger hurricanes, we're going to get bigger tsunamis. So all of those things, and more frequent. So all of those things need to be sort of just planned for in the whole process. But I do think that if we can get to carbon-neutral, and I mean technology exists to remove carbon from the atmosphere already like you can remove co2, but you know, you're not going to cool down the planet so significantly, that you're gonna start to see the ice caps start to form again, I don't think it is certainly not in a short period of time. So I think that's the kind of issue like all of these changes will take in the terms of the planet to reverse them would be will take a very long time you wouldn't see it I don't think, in someone's lifetime, but you could stop the damage. I think that's what, or the human part of the damage, but that's what we need to do.
What would you say has the biggest impact on the environment, individuals, or corporations?
Definitely, individuals and corporations exist because of individuals. So I think it's very easy to say, oh, let's just blame the corporations but then, okay, so you're going to give up all of those things that corporations do for you? Probably not. Someone told me this once, I'd like to fact-check this if it was somebody from Google who said it but I think it's probably changed it's a 10-year-old anecdote but they once said that just doing a Google search was equivalent to boiling a cup of water for tea. That's how much energy just doing and we do this all the time. Like we don't even think about, you know the impact of our data because that's the other big thing is that we now have so much data is being stored, and it needs to be stored in really cold environments. Otherwise, it heats up, and the cost of keeping it cool is too much. So I think I think we don't realize what we're doing. So I think it would be it starts with us as individuals and taking responsibility. I live in Scarborough, I walk to work and station every day and I see people in my neighbourhood getting dropped off by their parents at the subway station, which is a 15-minute walk or a five-minute drive. Those habits have to change that you're gonna have to give up some of these things because that well, just one person doing that you know, 200 days a year doesn't seem like a lot of energy being used, but it's actually it adds up and those things have those habits have to change.
I had a conversation with a friend yesterday actually about how unsustainable suburbs are. Is that even something we can eliminate or move beyond?
There's some great stuff going on at Ryerson in the Center for Urban and Regional Planning. And I get to see a part of it again, at this school as the graduate program director. And there's so many great ideas but again, it's all about like political will. And that's the will of the people it's all tied together. It is a social problem. It's not so much technology, but because there's great ideas, urbanization, you know, the reason why it was so sort of attractive is because everybody got to go into a central spot. And that means that everyone's sort of share of their footprint is actually reduced, but they're still massive footprints, right, and suburbia and driving and the need to have it, but everybody wants their own little backyard or side yard. So I think that's something we have to change and I think I'd encourage everyone to go to Europe see it because Europe is rebuilt a couple of times or many times over the centuries and they've got really good walkable, livable cities where you don't have to travel very much and then if you save that money on you know cars and everything else, then you can use it for other purposes that make life more enjoyable as well.
Exactly. So it's like a win-win. With COVID many people have been working from home now. Does this help?
Yes, depending on what their other habits are. So they're taking two hot showers a day. That's still going to be a problem. I think you know, commuting regardless whether you're driving, you know, driving is, of course, the heaviest impact. And, you know, subways or at least in Toronto are electrified so you know that that energy still comes from somewhere right but like, that's the other thing too, like electric cars everyone's like oh electric cars, that's gonna sell the problem. It'll only solve the problem if you're generating energy cleanly, right? Like if that energy like so already, if you go to Alberta you'll actually produce more co2 emissions than you would driving because of the way the energy is produced, so that's the other thing we have to really think about is where does the electricity come from that drives all these things? Well, yes, I think you know, working from home, which creates a new life balance that requires less commuting and I think that that wouldn't be a bad idea. Not the mandate, but to give people the option or lower the expectation of coming to the office regularly so that they have more time. And as a quality of life thing again, right? If you're not commuting for two hours a day you can spend your family that has great value. You can talk about the environment, you have time.
Do little things actually help? So you know, a lot of people have been moving to metal straws instead of plastic straws, reusing bags for groceries.
Yeah, those things make a difference. But only on large scale. So if they're, if they're legislated, and I think we have I think the government legislated they're going to ban plastic bags and nonreusable plastics, I think that is a great idea. That's going to help, it's not going to remove it and that's gonna help the environment in different ways, not energy necessarily intensity and what we're using it for but you know, microplastics are starting to see are a big area and we've got some great researchers studying at Ryerson as well. And that's probably going to be something that we'll hear more and more of, because we haven't been very good at recycling plastics over since the 1950s when they were invented. The numbers are quite staggering. So I think removing the use and dependence on plastic, we'll always need it. I don't think there's any question about that. It's great technology to have but removing the wastefulness will be very helpful.
If you had advice on people listening, how can we help?
So I think, I actually have said this to my PhD student Anthony Morgan who does some really cool stuff, on polarized conversations and I said this I think social media will destroy the planet before climate change. Well, I'm not really joking. There's something very unsettling about the way it gets used and the way it gets away, spreads misinformation, and the fact that everyone is in their own little echo chamber on social media. So you get pushed up, people like you get pushed towards you. And so it’s about likes and fitting in and its kind of like high school subculture has made expanded to the entire globe and all generations and it's and that's not high school was not a productive place for anybody if you recall back. So, like, what we need to do, I think is I would encourage everybody to honestly, and truly, look at this problem from different perspectives, and embrace those perspectives. Because it's only when we all can meet and discuss and have a safe place for the conversation, that we can really be honest about what we think the problems are, as opposed to just always digging our heels in and defending our point of view. And so I think that's really important because we're having a conversation, so I'd encourage everybody to say, okay, well try to figure out how much energy you use and where you're using it. And, and if you did, you would see some pretty shocking stuff about maybe what your habits are. Just get that information about yourself and your own lifestyle, and it's not easy for everybody, but maybe we could make an app or something as a calculator for you. So if you take a five-minute shower this is how much energy to use versus a 15-minute shower or if you take a bath that's much more water, like, it'd be interesting. I think we could do it. But if we could help people understand that or if they could just calculate their own carbon footprint. And if everyone would do that, that would be a great place to start. And then and then I would encourage other people to listen to other points of view and if they upset you, that's, that's good because that means you're listening and I think that sometimes we don't want to we don't lose sight of that, but that being upset is okay because we're listening.
Well as we wrap up, is there anything else that you wish or want to mention or we haven't touched on that you think it's important?
Yeah, I think I want everyone to think about everyone else's situation as well. I think we touched on it briefly, but this environmental justice issue is really, really important. And often we lose sight, it doesn't become a problem until it's your problem. But this problem exists already for a lot of people. And it seems so simple. And I think it's something I heard from Rida Bassam, who told me this so I'll give her credit for this. It really changed my life. So the golden rule is, treat people the way you want to be treated. Right every major religion has that rule. It is a stupid rule. At that moment, and that moment, like it seems like semantics everyone's gonna be like what? And I think it really applies to climate change and the planet, and everything else that we've ever done, and the conflicts we've seen throughout the world recently and COVID and everything else in this, it's simple. It sounds like semantics, instead, treat people the way they want to be treated.
If we just do that, I think a lot of things and stressing fracture points, whether it be the planet or anything, really start to make sense, which means we got to go ask them. Ask them what they think, how are they doing, check-in and that takes more time. But I think in the end, you get a much better solution to the problems and really clever ones because you'll start to see coalescence between people and then and then people feel like they're invested. And I think once people feel invested, emotionally or otherwise, then they're going to make a big, big question to see change. So that's what I would encourage. Because that's where I'd like to leave off because I think it's really relevant in this problem too, And I don't want to leave in a sad or depressing note like we talked about some heavy stuff today, but everyone can make a difference. And we can turn the ship around that is and I think that's something everybody should know. As long as we work together. So Sarah, thank you so much for doing this. It was a great topic for On A Tangent and thank you for today.
Great, thank you.
Episode 8: Shadan Ghaffaripour on protecting personal data
Every year on January 28th, Canada and many countries around the world participate in Data Privacy Day. On this day in 1981, the first legally binding international treaty dealing with privacy and data protection was signed. Today, we use the anniversary as an opportunity to bring forward discourse around the value of protecting personal privacy in our digital society. In this episode, Shadan Ghaffaripour, a PhD candidate in computer science, explains what data privacy is, why we should care, and how users and corporations can protect personal data. Shadan currently works in the Information and Computer Security lab under the supervision of Dr. Ali Miri and her research area is in privacy-preserving technologies.
What is data privacy and why should we care? 1:10 | How can users & corporations protect personal data? 7:30
Happy New Year, you're listening to On A Tangent, a podcast hosted by Ryerson's Faculty of Science. I'm your host, Sarah McIntyre. When you sign up for an online service, do you really know what personal data gets collected and how it's being used or shared? On January 28 this year, Canada and many countries around the world take part in Data Privacy Day, a day that brings forward discourse around protecting personal privacy in our digital society. Today, we have a special guest Shadan Ghaffaripour, a PhD candidate in computer science, to share some of her knowledge on what data privacy is, why we should care, and how users and corporations can protect personal data. Shadan currently works in the Information and Computer Security lab under the supervision of Dr. Ali Miri and her research area is in privacy-preserving technologies.
Welcome, Shadan, to the show. How are you doing today?
Thank you so much, Sarah. I'm doing great.
So today's episode is all about data privacy. So what is data privacy?
Data privacy is our right to have control over how our personal identifiable information is collected, used, and disclosed.
I feel like now we're at a point where collecting our data is no secret and I find nowadays people have the mindset I have nothing to hide, so why should I care? So why should we care?
So saying that we have nothing to hide is not a realistic statement. Because first of all, our data has value and it has lots of monetary value. And many of the services that we use on a day-to-day basis. They are still up to 30 companies and as we know they are not necessarily used in our best interest. For example, in targeted advertising, we might be given higher prices. So because they know we are interested in a particular product, we might be given higher prices. And so that's something that we should worry about. Also, it's not just about advertising companies, this data can fall in the wrong hands. For example, our personal data can be sold out in black markets and the dark web. So this is definitely not something that we want to happen. So as you see that there are lots of, there's always potential for identity theft as well. And as you see, there's all sorts of risks associated with freely giving away our data to companies and so we should be very careful. It's not that we have nothing to hide. Our data is so empowering, so we should be very careful with that.
Yeah, they say now that if you are not paying for something you are the product and your data is pretty much what you're using the pay for using a service.
Exactly. That's true. That's actually how many of the services that we’re using for free, this is how they're making money. They're basically collecting our personal data. They are sending out our personal data to third parties. And so basically that's how they're making money.
So are there currently any regulations for what companies can collect or disclose?
Yes, so in general, organizations should limit the amount and type of data that they gather. So they should gather only the type of data and the amount of data that is absolutely necessary. And they should also disclose personal information only for the purposes for which this data was collected. On this, they have the user's consent in explicit form. And also, they only should, the company should keep the personal information for the duration that they're using this data so they shouldn't keep it forever. Whatever purpose this data has been gathered, so whenever they're done, they should delete the personal information.
With these regulations in place, is this enough? Or do companies follow it necessarily?
So different countries have different sets of regulations. For example, in Europe, we have GDPR, which stands for General Data Protection Regulations and the equivalent in Canada is PIPEDA which stands for Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. So these regulations are in place but they are not the same. For example, GDPR is much more comprehensive and demanding and it has much more. It has higher standards, in comparison to the Canadian version. So but still, just because this regulation exists, it doesn't mean that the companies necessarily follow all of these regulations. So I think we all remember what happened with the Facebook data scandal. So it is every day that a data breach happens and these regulations are not necessarily being followed.
So do you think we are heading towards a future where we're giving up our privacy or things will become more regulated?
I believe that this largely depends on governments and giant technology companies and the decisions they make and so honestly, there is not much on our end that we can do so we can practice privacy in our daily lives. But in the end, it depends on these regulations, and whether the governments want to set these regulations and they want to follow it if they want the giant technology companies to follow it. It depends on these factors.
So how do these data breaches happen? For example, the Facebook one?
So the data breach happened because the company that was gathering this private information was actually using an application inside Facebook in order to do so the company was collecting personal information without explicitly mentioning what this information has been collected for. So I don't think that the users were aware after the fact that this information was used for political purposes, so they were not aware of the exact reason for which this data has been collected. So as far as I know, the application, it wasn't explicitly mentioning that this is something that we are going to use for political campaigns. This is a breach of privacy because the users were not aware of that. And there was not enough transparency regarding the use of the data.
So you mentioned earlier, protecting our data. So in terms of protecting our data, is this a responsibility for the user or for the service provider, or both?
I believe it's both of our responsibilities. On our end we should practice privacy and also we should expect the service providers to practice privacy on their end. For example, if you're, for example, storing garbage data on a cloud, we expect the cloud provider to have privacy measures in place. For example, we expect a cloud provider to have at-transit and in-transit encryption for data. But on our end, we should also be careful for example, if the data is very sensitive, for example, we can add another layer of encryption to it before transmitting it to the cloud because at the end of the day, it's a company and if we don't have enough trust in that company, then we should, in our end should also practice privacy.
So you mentioned encryption, what is that?
So with encryption, you mask your data, in order to not make it useful for those who should not have access to that data. So even if they can get access to it, they can really not use it because it's of no use.
Is encryption a good way for companies to protect our data?
Definitely, encryption should be in place. But I've seen different scenarios in which companies do not rely merely on encryption so they use other technologies to add other layers of security.
So what other technologies are these?
For example, in my research area, we use blockchain as an Access Control Manager. So we basically use smart contracts in order to control access to different information, for example, to health information. So smart contracts are actually self-executing codes and whenever certain conditions are met, these codes are executed. And these smart contracts will limit who gets access to what information but also there is another layer, which is encryption. So we don't rely merely on smart contracts and we don't rely merely on encryption. So we have both of these together in order to secure the very sensitive information such as health information.
So for our listeners, in a previous episode, we did talk about blockchain with another guest, but for anyone who missed that episode, what is a quick summary on what is blockchain?
Blockchain, is hash chains blocks of information and this information can be anything and, I can say that this information has a form of transaction. So these are transaction-based information. So these transactions can be a financial transaction, for example, what we have seen in, for example, Bitcoin, but they're not necessarily financial. So for example, a transaction can be a data request can be request for data retrieval. So it could be anything and so the promise of blockchain is because it's by nature it's decentralized. The promise is that instead of giving control to a central authority we are in blockchain the control is given to is decentralized. And so, therefore, it is promising more trust and control over the data that is potentially in blockchain. Another technology that is very common these days, and it's actually applied to blockchain is zero-knowledge proofs. So zero-knowledge proofs are cryptographic tools. And when it's combined with Blockchain, it gives blockchain much more privacy. For example, one of the applications that I can mention is self-sovereign identity, which can be implemented using zero-knowledge proofs and blockchains. And this self-sovereign identity gives users control over their identity. So basically, it allows their identity to be verified without their details being exposed. For example, I as a user, I can prove that I'm above 18 years old, but I don't have to explicitly mention my age. All I need to do is to prove that I'm above 18, so there is no need for me to share my date of birth. So zero-knowledge proof is technology that is nowadays often combined with blockchain and it gives it more privacy because it allows users not to share their personal data in the clear but still be able to prove their identity. Give just enough information to use applications and services without giving all the details and sensitive information.
So just so that I better understand your examples, you mentioned okay, so I want to prove that I'm over 18 without giving my exact date of birth. So how would that work? Exactly? Would you just mention that you're above 18? Or does it ask you for some other information?
So in zero-knowledge proofs, we have two data pieces we have a public portion and we have a secret portion. And the user wants to protect his second portion but still wants to create proofs attesting to the correctness of a statement. And on the other hand, there's an entity that can verify that statement without having access to the secret portion. So using the public portion, it can verify that the user’s statement is a true
Moving on to what users can do to protect our privacy. What are some things you suggest that we do?
So some things that as users determine so one of the things that I can think of is the use of, let's say, two-factor authentication. So whenever this option is possible, it's good. It's a good idea to use it for our online accounts. So as you know, two-factor authentication so the canvas in which you want to authenticate yourself and want to prove that you have access. You can have access to information by using something you know, for example, a password or something, something you have, like a banking card, or something you are, for example, biometric measures, so you have to provide more than one factor in order to get access to the information your request. So one of the suggestions I have is to use multi-factor authentication whenever possible. Another thing that we can use is to be very careful with our social accounts, social media accounts. It's always good practice to not overshare our private lives. And so if we share something on social media, it's better to keep our as private as possible. Another thing that we can do is, if we frequently use public Wi-Fi, it's a good idea to use virtual private networks or VPNs. In order to avoid tracking our activities, we can also switch to browsers that have a more privacy-preserving tools.
What are some examples of browsers that are like that?
So one of the famous, well-known examples are is Brave browser. Brave is a browser that doesn't track your activity. So it doesn't allow websites to track you across different websites. So it gives you more privacy when browsing internet.
Do you have any closing remarks on what the future of data privacy will be or what users should do?
I would only like to suggest to our audience not to take their data privacy lightly, because the consequences can be rather serious. Do your best to protect it when using the web, learn about the best practices because ultimately, that's all we can do. The rest is up to governments whether they set proper privacy regulations and to companies whether they comply with them or not.
Alright, so that's all for today. Thank you so much, Shadan for sharing your expertise on data privacy with us. And listeners. If you haven't set up your multifactor authentication yet, you might want to consider doing so. And you know, take it easy on social media. But yeah, that's all for today. Thank you.
Thank you very much.
Episode 7: Elder Joanne Dallaire and Dean Dave Cramb on Indigenous Allyship
After community members raised concerns surrounding Ryerson’s namesake, the Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win Standing Strong Task Force has come forward with 22 points of action on how the university can acknowledge and address its colonial legacy. The university has accepted all 22 recommendations, including a call to rename the university. In this episode, Task Force Co-Chair, Elder Joanne Dallaire, and Faculty of Science Dean, Dave Cramb, chat about the task force's process and what allyship to the Indigenous community means in academia and in our personal lives. The university invites community members to fill out a survey to share their ideas, opinions and perspectives on a new name. The survey will be open until December 7th 2021.
A Task Force in an Indigenous Format 1:27 | Being an Ally to the Indigenous Community 19:11
Hello, you're listening to On A Tangent, a podcast hosted by Ryerson's Faculty of Science. I'm your host Sarah McIntyre. For years, community members have been raising awareness of the problematic legacy left by Egerton Ryerson. In November 2020, the university put together the Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win Standing Strong Task Force to address these concerns. Recently, the task force has released a report with 22 points of action on how the university can acknowledge and address Ryerson's colonial legacy, including a recommendation for the university's name change. Today, I'm honoured to sit with Dean Dave Cramb and Elder Joanne Dallaire, co chair of the Standing Strong Task Force, to chat about the task force's process and what ally ship to the Indigenous community means in academia and in our personal lives.
Thank you for taking the time to be on the show today, Dave and Joanne, I'm so happy to be part of a space for such important conversations. As we know, Ryerson has agreed to accept all 22 recommendations provided by the Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win Standing Strong Task Force addressing Ryerson colonial legacy. Joanne as the co chair, why is it so important to have the task force to begin with?
Elder Joanne Dallaire 1:27
Well, I think the task force has been a long time in the making, if we look at kind of the you know, the questions being asked around the name and a whole lot of stuff. Concerns facing the Indigenous community at Ryerson in the community as a whole. It was time, it was timely that it be addressed. And it was very important work to be done. And the beauty of it, it was done with an Indigenous format.
What does an Indigenous format look like?
Elder Joanne Dallaire 1:58
So in the culture that we live in, and in the workspace that we have, we have a top down kind of approach, you have the president and then in all the different departments fall under it. In Indigenous country, we are in a circle. With the belief no one above, no one below, no one in front, no one behind. So regardless of age, station or experience, every voice has equal value. And when we are speaking, only one person speaks at a time. And if we were in an actual circle, we'd be holding a feather or a rock. So I instructed people to pick up like, say their mouse, when they were talking virtually. And then when they were done, they could put it down. So there was very much an effort to recognize that. The other thing that was slightly different on this is we listened to a lot of discourse, a lot of people talking about very deep stuff that bothered them. The important thing is that people listen, that it doesn't matter, disagreement is a healthy thing. You know, I don't want 14 people on a task force that agree with me, that's pretty boring. I want people who are going to challenge me and get lots of thought process and lots of different lenses and life experiences to look through.
Dean Dave Cramb 3:17
I've got maybe a thought in this too, because this is bringing up so many, so many of my experiences. You know, I've been fortunate enough to sit in some circles, as well. And the ones that I've sat in like the shoes came off on the carpet. So did you have virtual shoes off?
Elder Joanne Dallaire 3:38
No we didn't. But what we did have is we got together on a Sunday for a lunch. Because we had we would have been breaking bread, so to speak, or having something to eat at every meeting. So we had a special meeting on a Saturday where everybody got together on their own time, everyone brought their lunch. And we had this two plus hour meeting. And we had icebreakers and people talking about things. And it was just the building of relationship. And I think what everyone was really surprised with at the end of that was the level of disclosure because one of the questions was, what is something that somebody doesn't know about you? And the level of disclosure was very heartwarming, because it spoke to the level of trust that people had. And in this council in this task force, because we talked to always, every meeting began with what is said here stays here. This is completely because we need people to be honest, and not hold back. So that's one of the biggest things that came out of that was how that was so effective.
Do you find that this circle of communication resulted in a valuable report with recommendations that you're proud of?
Elder Joanne Dallaire 4:54
Oh, very proud. I couldn't be any prouder, you know of the work that was done on this. With the task force with everyone involved, our research students were just amazing. And the admin was mind blowing. And just everybody worked really hard. And the reason that the report is so successful is we kept talking about it and talking about it and talking about the recommendation, until it became very clear what it was that we were expecting. You know, that's the whole thing about communication and talking, is you get clear, and so there was lots of conversation, say around naming the, the university, lots of very strong emotions there and listening to everyone, and making sure that everyone felt heard, it was very much about making sure that when we did the final report that the reader would clearly understand our intent, and have an idea on how they might be able to implement some of those changes.
Just wondering, what sort of people were on the task force team?
Elder Joanne Dallaire 6:00
We had alumni, we had students, we had student representation, we had faculty members from the university, we had head of the Black Association, we had other people from the Black community represented, we had lawyers, we had, you know, past presidents of the university, we had this very, very diverse right from the students on up to the highest ranking. So people came in with a whole knowledge, because we forget sometimes in our admin, that we're working for the students. And so having student representation was so vital. And the students on the research was amazing. The students did such research that I was sitting there at one of their sharing sessions with my mouth open, I was learning stuff if I didn't know.
Dean Dave Cramb 6:57
So I wanted to, like riff a little bit on because you mention how emotional it was, you know, and sometimes we think, and especially in science, that you're trying to get rid of emotion out of the picture, like to be as objective and like, in quotes, logical as possible. And yet like this, this is such an emotional subject. And it taps into, like spirituality as well, regardless of what your belief system is. And I wondered how, like how the taskforce managed that, because I can imagine a bunch of academics that are trying to not let their emotions come into the mix. And yet, it feels to me like you really have to like that that's not honouring the whole process, if you're trying to eliminate the emotion and the spirituality in it. So that was that challenging at times to let that run free?
Elder Joanne Dallaire 7:51
I think it was, the only challenge was educating people at the beginning. And so, you know, like, I spoke to the four elements of self, mind, body, spirit, emotion. I spoke that how in academia or in business, we are only allowed really or encouraged to only present our mind, body. So our research; what we've done when we've written, you know, stuff that, but our spiritual and emotional self, is really discouraged to come in. And so you don't have a balanced approach on life. If you can't allow yourself to be impacted to the point of feeling sad, when you hear about polluted water, and you know, families having to use that water, then something is wrong. And I think that is one of the things that is kind of if there can be a silver lining, because I believe there's always two sides to a pancake. And so COVID has done several things for us as a community, it's forced us into recognizing our own emotional stuff, you know, because it brought around our issues or concerns that are personal that we could normally push away by busying ourselves or traveling from point A to point B, we had we were forced to deal with stuff to deal with our relationships. And then we were forced then to look at what was really going on. So that's the part of the other side of the pandemic pancake is this social justice awareness. You know, I had provided the teaching when we found out about the first grave in Kamloops, you know, and in my teachings, and this is what I shared. In my teachings. I've been taught that we always listen to the little ones, because the little ones will speak the truth. You know, a kid I'll say you're fat or why are you wearing that? That looks stupid or you talk funny. They'll always tell you the truth. They haven't been silenced by the social norms yet. So you listen when you want the truth. You ask a little one. So these little ones chose this time in the pandemic, to say, okay, the veil is off. Nobody, nobody can pretend that this didn't happen, because there was so much mis-education, that there were certain groups and of the population really didn't believe that residential school happened. And I think it's really hard to think that your government is doing this to a segment of the population. So this has been a very difficult pill for people to swallow. But the little ones rip that off, because every person could relate to a niece and nephew, a brother, a sister, a child, a grandchild, this was what it has always been, it was shown to be a human issue. And so that kind of took people back. And it's now the next thing that's going to be, which is where the 22 recommendations on the task force comes into hand is follow through, not to get burnout worry, you know, because 215 is now 6000 and some odd, you know, recovered children. So that gets daunting. How do you keep having hope? Because you look for the other side of that pancake. That's where your spirituality and your emotional part comes in. You look at these graves, what's the spiritual and emotional impact of this? Well, you know, they chose now. So it's forcing us into the truth. And we have a tendency in our culture, to see what is missing, to see what is not right. And we tend to throw pity at social issues. You have to go through all of that and stand up and just move forward. And okay, now we're going to be more than just words. Now, we're going to go past the oh my god, I can't hear about this anymore. Well, you're just hearing about it, we're living it. So come on, pull up your big boy, big girl panties. And let's keep moving through this. And I think there's a real challenge, to move through that bad stuff and not get overwhelmed. And so what we have to remind ourselves of the capacity of the human spirit, the capacity of the survival of people, for the most part, we're trying to be eliminated. The human spirit, and therefore, once again, comes in the importance of spiritual and emotional connection. You have to be able to feel to really be spiritual. And I'm sorry, I can't see if you turn me on, it's hard to turn me off.
Dean Dave Cramb 12:49
This is classic elder. Patrick Deranger, who I knew back in Alberta, fortship Elder, who’s sadly passed since. The man spent his time in residential school and like, and we had amazing conversations and I would walk into his house with a question, I wouldn't even get to ask the question. He would go on for two hours answering it, like he was inside my head already. You know, maybe it was just the body language here was just so, so obvious. This is what Dave needed to have me explain to him with fantastic stories, you know, and I think this is why I love the bringing traditional ways into science ideas and academia because it feels like we're so fettered in a university environment with being right, right, because you get slammed if you're wrong, like so many bad things happen, you don't get grants, your papers don't get published all the coin of the realm. And so we become so deeply needy of being correct, that we'll fight even when we know we're wrong, because the consequences of being wrong are so heavy. And I think that's part of the challenge with the TRC, like that people have some held beliefs. And as academics, they really don't want to let them go or even explore other possibilities. So I mean, I think that's also a great outcome of this task force that we can get better ways of conversing about these things, and to your point, to like action, actually doing things right because academics can be super hypothetical. And you know, philosophical about things and then never actually get down to doing anything with the knowledge so maybe that's like the entry into ally ship for me is like, for sure listening and being there but then actually doing something.
Elder Joanne Dallaire 14:56
I think that you're, you know, more on the experience than enlightened phase of how to connect with people. I think you know, this is the side effect. And this is why I say I never ask others what I can do myself. Because otherwise we don't understand that we're just parotting or repeating something that we think we should do. But once you offer to people, your total ear, and to listen to everything that they've said, to understand their perspective, then they give that because they now have it. And I think that's what, you know, is so challenging and academia, it's so cutthroat, that there isn't, you know, support on your ideas, because that's not how it works. So it's a system that needs to radically change. But there's so many we're resistant to change, we're resistant to our own change, change is extremely difficult. And we're very resistant to change that's imposed upon us. So if you really want change, you have to get buy in. And sometimes that buy in takes a lot from us to just listen. You know, when it was like, we had people who did not want the name of the university to be changed, they felt that that was the last thing that we were going to lose all the history. And so we had to listen to all of it, and address all of those concerns. And then we could then move to why keeping the name of the university be harmful, well, to others. So once you've been heard, then you're very much more apt to listen to someone else's perspective. And what we had was real division still, on how people felt about the name of the university changing, but we had consensus from all members, that they recognize that keeping the name was going to be harmful to some. So when everybody is heard, then you can find common ground in the common ground as you brought your heart and spiritual self into it, opened up, you know, one of the things that I start my prayer off, please help us, thank us for this day, this opportunity to continue to open our hearts and open our minds to new way of seeing and a new way of being. It starts with the beginning of all my prayers. And my prayers aren't really you know, I hate that word. That's a colonial word. I don't know what you would call it. But, you know, my conversation with my spiritual being is something that is just like a conversation with me with somebody else. It's not something that I put on when I wear this or you know, as soon as I hold the eagle feather, and I’m kind of my eyes roll back. And I'm, all of a sudden, I'm talking differently. It's a way of living. And that's a strange concept. It was a strange concept for me, because believe me, I was completely colonialized. So I always tell people, when they talk about what can they do about reconciliation, is to reconcile yourself with self. I had to realize how colonial I had been raised, how much I had worked in and bought into the colonial construct. I had to really recognize that it was in my language. And where that really came to my awareness was when I watched Downtown Abbey. Because I was raised by an English woman and a German man. And we did tea, and the pinky he was out and all that you know what I was like, and I'm hearing terminology. So we really have to understand how we have had to buy into and work with the system that was offered to us.
So what do you recommend for students and staff and just the community to become the best allies they can be towards the Indigenous community?
Elder Joanne Dallaire 19:25
Well, educate yourself. That's part of the reconciliation. You know, people misunderstand that. I think what reconciliation means for the rest of Canada, to reconcile its history with our history. I think it's important that non Indigenous people understand about treaties. Treaties are contracts between the government and Indigenous people, between companies and Indigenous people. I think it's important for people to understand the history that kind of comes with where Ryerson sits. And the people around I think there's lots of stuff that's already on Ryerson. And in other places that people can do to educate themselves about the Indigenous concerns. Decide, what kind of a help do you want to be? Like, are you the type of person that can pat, you know, you talk to lots of people, so you could share stuff? Are you the type of person that just, you know, really can't make a big commitment or don't want to make a big commitment to something, but you'll do things that that's fine. There's no judgment on any of that. And I don't think people should put really heavy duty expectations on themselves. But I think, you know, there are some basic human rights like, clean water that we should be concerned about. And we should be concerned about, you know, what does that say about us? And, you know, I think various communities need to be concerned and knowledgeable about other communities within
Dave, what ways is the Faculty of Science trying to be an ally to the Indigenous community?
Dean Dave Cramb 21:09
Yeah, in many ways, you know, starting off with the listening, shutting up and listening, I think. Science is colonialism embodied, right, especially the way that it started and like, and it's, you know, it's served knowledge. It's not, it's for sure, not a baby that needs to completely go out with the bathwater, it just needs to wake up a bit. And not think that we are the, you know, the keepers of truth. Because everything is so called evidence based, you know, and so part of science's allyship is getting over itself a little bit, I think that or maybe a lot. And that's, that's part of Joanne's point of like, looking within ourselves to start with, to see what it is that, you know, in some ways that we're afraid of letting go of, in order to open our hearts to different ways of experiencing the universe. You know, and every, every far out story that I've heard from an Indigenous friend has truth in it, you know, the end, that's, for me, that's part of the part of my realization of this as a scientist is that, you know, if it's in oral history, that's going to pass down knowledge, you have to make the stories memorable, right? And so they're going to be a little bit fantastic. They might not be literal. And science is all about the literal. So you know, if the famous story that, that Patrick was telling me about giant beavers, and the prairies, and you know that, and that they created mountains, and they were as big as mountains and things like this, and like, Oh, my God, like, it's 10 years, and I still remember that story. And I remember, I remember that story appearing on CBC that, you know, giant dinosaur bones are found in the prairies, and they're not mountain sized. But like, if you just said, they're a little bit bigger than a man than a human, then the story's not as memorable, as if the beavers were like mountain size. But look at the truth in that. 20,000 years ago, Indigenous and very large beavers roamed the prairies together. And there the history is, like that history, that story is 20,000 years old. Like, I'm sure none of the stuff I publish right now will be thought about in 20,000 years, right? Maybe because I'm not as good a storyteller, or because science doesn't let me. Right, things have to be so stripped down to the so called facts, that again, I think, in some ways, the, the humanity and the soul gets stripped out of these endeavors that everybody does in science, because there is such a big part of it, that is the humans that are doing this. So I think, you know,we can learn from traditional ways of knowing and being by that. And so as an ally, what voice I have just kind of tries to open up people's minds a little bit to that, as well. And we're active in trying to get out into the communities and listen, and like clean water, like as a number one priority, and the Urban Water Research Center, doing great things. A big part of that is not thinking that we have an answer that we can go out and impose upon people on a reserve, right, that we may actually have a really good answer, but we need to get out there and listen first and see what's possible to implement, rather than thinking that we've we've got the answer and here you go, you know, employ it and you know, good luck to you. And I think that's maybe where a lot of the clean water has hit an impasse that governments have just like yeah, use their colonial approach to like, here's the solution. A bunch of white guys, probably white old guys came up with a solution, and we're handing it over to you, you know, and probably with, with a lot of heartfelt, you know, hopes that this is the answer, but never actually listening to the people that need to employ it. For me the ally ship, it's part of my part of my soul now I guess you could say that and therefore, it's a long term thing that, you know, there'll be little milestones along the way that that you can kind of mark that, hopefully, progress is being made. But I think of it as a lifelong endeavor. You know, and possibly even, you know, a seven generation endeavor as well, like, so pass the allyship on to my kids. And then things stick. I think, though, the other thing is that we tend to hope, and as champions and allies, that what we're doing, you know, causes some good. But if, if it's all just about you as a champion, then once you're gone, then the connection goes away, too. So it's, it's really taking your time with it, and that's something else that I've learned in a lifetime of popping in and out of Indigenous friends that, you know, the one of the greatest teachings is that it takes time, for it to be real, and to be patient with ourselves and with each other. That's not always easy to do, either.
So I think we'll wrap up, is there any final messages or final words that any of you would like to say?
Elder Joanne Dallaire 26:35
I want to say thank you, thank you so much for caring about this, for doing this, for being a tremendous ally. And, you know, allowing yourself to experience some of the stuff I'm sure must touch personal chords for you. And I thank you for that, and that, that's bringing your humanity. And that will always be a special thing that you offer. You're the only person that can offer that is your humanity. So thank you for that.
Elder Joanne Dallaire 27:11
And Dave I love you, you know that. Dave and I connected right away. And it didn't take me long to understand why. Because you are a kind of man who naturally is drawn to and have lots of teachers placed in front of you, to make you feel connected to what you believe in a society that really doesn't kind of go along that way in a profession. That doesn't really go along that way. So, you know, that takes a lot of courage.
Dean Dave Cramb 27:40
Yeah, cheers. Hugs right back at you. And I think that you know, it's hardly surprising that the Inuit and, and the Cree and the Blackfoot all observe things that we later saw through science, because we're all at the core, the same humans anyways.
Elder Joanne Dallaire 28:00
Dean Dave Cramb 28:01
So yeah, this has been great. I'd really, I'm honoured to have the chance to sit through this podcast, with both of you. Thanks.
Elder Joanne Dallaire 28:12
Me, too. It's just one other thing. I want to add to that. And please remember that no matter how long you live, you're not going to know everything. So we do need each other. I don't want to know how the plane is built. I don't want to know how to fly it. I don't want to know how the airport works. I don't want to worry about it. I just want to know that there are people out there who are experts on that. So we do need each other and we are going to be pulled to things that are focused in this walk. But we don't have to know everything and we do need each other. Thanks a lot, Sarah.
Thank you. Yeah. And on that note, that's all for today's episode. Thank you so much, Dave and Joanne for taking the time to be part of this important discussion. And on that note, everyone, approach life with empathy and open your heart and ears and just listen. Listen to people.
Episode 6: Dr. Michael Olson on the science of coffee addictions
As the world’s most popular drug, caffeine has been ritualized in daily routines all over the world. In this episode, Dr. Michael Olson chats about the effects of caffeine and its role in society. He also compares Canada’s coffee culture to what he observed while working and living in the UK. Dr. Olson studied Pharmacology in his PhD and is now a cell biologist and professor at Ryerson.
The Science of Caffeine 3:08 | Coffee Culture in Canada vs UK 13:39
Hello, you're listening to On A Tangent, a podcast hosted by Ryerson's Faculty of Science. I'm your host Sarah McIntyre. Mmm... coffee, the world's most popular drug and drink. Odds are you may have a cup of coffee in your hands right now. But how much do you know about the science of caffeine and why it's so addictive? On today's show, I sit down with Dr. Michael Olsen to chat about the pharmacological effects of caffeine, as well as the role coffee culture plays in coffee dependency. Dr. Olson studied pharmacology in his PhD and is now a cell biologist. He is a Canada Research Chair in molecular cell biology and his current research involves working to find out how cancer cells change the way that they control their shape to grow and spread. A disclaimer before we begin, this podcast is for general educational purposes and should not be substituted for medical advice. If you are concerned about a coffee addiction impacting your health, talk to your healthcare provider.
Thank you for your time today, Dr. Olson. It's a pleasure having you on the show.
Dr. Olson 1:16
Thanks for having me on.
So let's start off with, are you much of a coffee drinker yourself?
Dr. Olson 1:21
So I don't drink a huge volume of coffee, but I love it when I drink it. I'm a big coffee fan. And I'm a bit of a coffee nerd. I've got a whole setup at home. I have an electric burr grinder, I have a gooseneck kettle. So I have all the paraphernalia.
Oh wow. What's special about a gooseneck kettle?
Dr. Olson 1:41
So gooseneck kettle is if you're going to make pour-overs. So you know it's got a kettle but it has a long, thin neck. And that allows you to very carefully control the flow of water when you're making pour-over.
Would you say you're dependent on coffee?
Dr. Olson 1:57
No, it's a good question actually. I gave up caffeine, I only drink decaffeinated coffee. And I think the reason for me is, you know, caffeine, as we might discuss more is a drug and has various effects. And one of the effects it can have on people is disrupting their sleep, you know, either making it difficult for them to get to sleep or making them kind of restless while they sleep. And I think that the problems I was having with restlessness were tied to caffeine. And when I cut it out, I found that I did sleep better.
Did you find it was difficult to switch from caffeinated coffee to decaf?
Dr. Olson 2:35
I didn't. And I didn't really suffer from a big problem with headaches or sleep, you know, or drowsiness when I did. I think part of the reason that it was easy to do is that there's a roaster that we go to quite regularly that does a very tasty, decaffeinated coffee. And so I think if you know if it was a step backward in how good it tastes, it would have been harder because it actually tastes really good. It wasn't difficult to switch to decaffeinated coffee, that's the coffee I have at home.
Okay, so let's get into it. So caffeine is a drug. What exactly defines a drug?
Dr. Olson 3:15
That's a good question. Drugs do things because they basically modify something that happens in our cells or in our bodies. And there's a concept in pharmacology that describes how drugs can work and that they act like a lock and key. So they're a key, and they fit into a lock in a protein that they interact with. And drugs fit into this kind of lock and key and then modify how that protein that they've just bound to works. And so some, you know, some drugs that are made by, for example, pharmaceutical companies are very, very highly derived so that they're like a high-security key how they fit into the lock is a very precise fit. So that really only target a very few number of targets. But other drugs are more like skeleton keys to actually affect a large number of different locks. And they'll do a number of things. And caffeine kind of falls into that category, that it doesn't do just one thing, but it actually interacts with a number of different proteins in our cells and causes a number of different things to happen.
So what number of things are these? Could you list some of them?
Dr. Olson 4:36
Well, there's two major ones. So one is that caffeine interacts with receptors for a neurotransmitter called adenosine. And there's a number of related proteins that are called adenosine receptors and adenosine is a natural neurotransmitter it has a number of effects you know, and because caffeine actually competes for adenosine for binding to the DNA receptor, it antagonizes it blocks the ability of the identity that we have in our body to do what it should be doing to those receptors. So it cuts off the signaling by these adenosine receptors. Now it's one of the major things that we've done. Another thing it does is it blocks the functioning of an enzyme called cyclic AMP phosphodiesterase. Cyclic AMP is a small molecule that acts as what's called a second messenger within ourselves. So it's a small molecule that can actually move around within ourselves and find targets to turn on. And so we regulate the levels in cells of this molecule cyclic AMP in different ways we can increase it or we can decrease it in response to different kinds of, you know, external stimulus that our cells may encounter. And so the enzyme phosphodiesterase actually breaks down cyclic AMP. And because caffeine blocks the functioning of the phosphodiesterase, it allows the cyclic AMP levels to rise within ourselves. So there, you know, phosphodiesterase inhibitors are used clinically. So for example, if one has asthma, one of the drugs that people take for asthma hinder inhaler is a phosphodiesterase inhibitor. And so caffeine would do the same sort of thing in helping to promote the relaxation of our lungs. I think most people are kind of aware of the effects of caffeine, you know, it wakes you up in the morning, it makes you more alert, the number of effects that caffeine has are largely quite positive, really, it makes you better able to concentrate on tasks. And that's, that's unrelated to the fact that it's woken you up, these things are separate, but like I said, wakes you up and makes you better able to concentrate. It has anti-pain effects. This is why you know, you'll sometimes see it sold in combination with things like paracetamol acetaminophen, that it actually helps those drugs work better and has its own anti-pain effect. It's been shown that in certain sort of exercise tasks that it helps you perform better, you know, sort of it has a multitude of effects, you'd say you think the side effects that people don't like, are things like sleeplessness, as I said, you know, either not being able to go to sleep or having restless sleep. So people find that it makes their heart feel strange, it may make their heart beat faster, it may make their heart flutter a bit, it can cause increases in blood pressure. And this is variable from person to person. And for some people, you know, those kind of side effects are really, you know, almost undetectable or very minor. And there'll be a small population of people where this is really a problem. And those people tend to not like to drink coffee, because of those adverse effects are so strong, they just kind of avoid coffee, you know, even if they'd like to taste, the fact that it can make their heart rate go strange and feel funny will make them avoid coffee.
Is it possible to grow a tolerance to these feelings?
Dr. Olson 8:09
Yes, definitely. And this is, this is a very typical thing that happens that won't become tolerant. And so you know, you can have the same amount of coffee every day, but you don't get the same effects anymore. And part of tolerance, you know, so you would need more of the caffeine to get the same effect that you would have had earlier when you know, when you first started drinking coffee, for example. And like a drug, I mean, it's like a drug, you can have withdrawal effects, you know, and because when you if you stop drinking coffee, if you go off drinking coffee, you reduce your caffeine, people report how they'll get headaches, they'll find it difficult to wake up in the morning they'll find it difficult to concentrate. And you know, the kind of withdrawal effects is the other side of the coin, to the positive effects that it has when you first take it. And the fact that it has these withdrawal effects, kind of helps to define it as being a drug that has some addictive potential.
Speaking of addiction, what makes up an addiction to coffee, what would be the different factors?
Dr. Olson 9:17
In a broader sense, one gets addicted to things that, for example, are pleasurable, we like things that bring us pleasure. And you know, we kind of seek things that are pleasurable to us. So drinking coffee is pleasurable in that, you know, aside from the drug actions, if we like the taste, the drinking, drinking it in and the taste appealing to us has a positive reinforcing effect. So that could be a mild contributor to its having its addictive properties. Like me, if you're a bit of a coffee nerd, the whole sort of process of making the coffee, coffee kind of feeds into the positive reinforcement. So it's better doing that if you enjoy that than just buying a coffee from a machine, for example. So anything that is a sort of behavioral or behavioral thing that gives you a positive feedback can contribute to the addiction. But more than that, you know, you get pleasure from coffee from the environment, that you drink coffee in. And so if you go to like a really cool coffee shop, and you think this is really nice, you know, it's nicely decorated, it's got nice artwork, the music is good, you know, that will also be positively reinforcing. And if you go for coffee with your friends, you know, again, you know, being with friends is a very strong positive reinforcement. And so if you put together all these behavioral elements, you know, you'd like to taste, you go to a cool coffee shop, you're there with your friends, you know, all of those things are kind of environmental factors that will kind of promote you wanting to repeat that behavior, and it becoming sort of an element in the addiction. And as I said, all of that is independent of the drug effect.
Are there properties in caffeine specifically, that makes it addictive? Why are more people addicted to coffee than they are to tea?
Dr. Olson 11:11
That's a good question. So I lived in the UK for a long time. And tea is still the drink of most people's choice. Tea has less caffeine. So it's probably less of a factor that people get addicted to tea because of that reinforcement from the caffeine, it probably is just much more to do with the sort of environmental and cultural factors. People find tea kind of soothing. And again, it's partly the ritual of making tea, pouring tea, just the fact that we're drinking a warm liquid is also kind of a pleasant thing. You know, not a scalding hot one, obviously, but just drinking warm drinks is also a positive thing. But coffee, you could argue is more addictive, because it does have higher concentrations of caffeine. So, you know, when, you know, the positive reinforcing effects, like I said, that it wakes you up and makes you more alert makes you better able to concentrate, all of those things are stronger, if you've got a higher dose of caffeine, and so you know, that will contribute to its addictive properties. The fact that the withdrawal of any drug like caffeine will cause withdrawal symptoms also means that coffee will be more addictive than tea because of the higher concentration of caffeine, you know, you will more want to avoid those kinds of adverse effects and just keep drinking coffee to make sure you avoid doing that. That can kind of happen when people become tolerant, you know, you don't necessarily derive the same kind of positive beneficial effects that you did when you first started drinking coffee may not wake you up as much, it may not make you as alert. But you do suffer the withdrawal symptoms more. So the next day you want to drink coffee, just to get back to where you were right to get back to the point where you're kind of awake and don't have a headache. You know, and don't feel a bit drowsy. But to get to increasing those things, alertness, the ability to concentrate means like, you know, progressively you have to drink more and more coffee to get to that point. So because of this ever-increasing demand to have caffeine to achieve the same levels of those positive effects, you know, contributes to why it is an addictive drug.
So you did mention you spent some time in the UK. How do you compare Canada's coffee culture with what you've seen in the UK?
Dr. Olson 13:48
Yeah, that's interesting question because, you know, I did my Ph.D. in Toronto, and I was very used to going to different coffee shops, because it's not like now where there's a million, you know, on every block, but there were plenty. You know, and we had our favorite places we'd like to go and you could always get a good coffee. And another thing you could always get a good coffee early in the morning, you know, as you're going to school or to work. Moved to London and this is before there were Starbucks, you know, there was any sort of coffee chains in London, you know, it's like 10 million people. And there were about four places where you could buy coffee. It was really not a coffee place at all. And we really struggled at first finding decent places to get decent coffee. There was one 24 hour Italian coffee shop. That was good. There were a couple of French sort of bakery coffee places and that was about it. And so it was a big shock and um, you know, we kind of struggled because we're used to the idea that you could go to a place, have a good coffee, but like I said, you know, it would be an environment where you just like to be you could hang out there and talk to friends and stuff like that. And that didn't exist. And it's interesting that one of the first kind of small chains that opened in the UK was opened by some scientists who had done their PhDs in Britain, and moved to the US and experienced, you know, the kind of coffee shop chain like Starbucks. And in fact, I think it was not Starbucks, I think was one that was in San Francisco region that was kind of a San Francisco chain. And they really liked it, when they moved back to the UK, they thought "I see a niche here, you know, that we could probably start this kind of thing". And really kind of fill a need that people don't even know they have. And so how they did it, they got some capital together and open up a small chain, I think it was called Coffee Republic. And they got to the point where they had 30, 40 shops. And at that point, Starbucks decided that they want to expand into the UK and they just bought the whole Coffee Republic chain off them. And that was how Starbucks was able to launch fairly quickly by just taking over pre-existing shops. So then, you know, then that came along, you know, Starbucks, there were a few other chains and you know, which was better than nothing. But it's only been in the past five years or so, where you've got the sort of real coffee snob culture, you know, with like roasters who hand roast, single-origin coffees, the way that you know, you have quite a bit of that in Toronto. And that's a more recent thing.
Can you see the coffee culture growing at the same level that Canada has in the UK?
Dr. Olson 16:47
Yeah, it will definitely. I mean, it has happened, it was quite an explosion. It didn't, there wasn't the same kind of coffee, coffee culture. And then when it started, it took off. I lived in Scotland actually. And Edinburgh has a very good coffee culture. And for whatever reason, because there's a good size university there, there may have been why. So it's not true in every British city. But I don't know if that's true in every Canadian city. I know that Toronto and Vancouver definitely have like, really strong coffee cultures.
I mean, I can't imagine Canada without Tim Hortons.
Dr. Olson 17:25
Well, that's true. You know, in fact, the first Tim Hortons that opened in Europe, open in Glasgow, which is where we lived and we were super excited that a Tim Hortons was opening just because although, you know, we could go to fancy coffee shops and get like I said, you know, roasted single origin coffees and stuff, sometimes you just want to have a reliable coffee that you can buy easily, and is inexpensive. And that's we were really excited that the Tim Hortons opened in, in Glasgow, where, you know, of all the cities in Europe that it opened up first, it was the cities that we lived in. So that was that was good.
What a coincidence.
Okay, would you say, drinking coffee necessarily is a good or bad thing?
Dr. Olson 18:21
I think people can take on board, whether they enjoy the effects of caffeine on them, or whether they find them to be overly negative. And most people are, you know, are very happy with the effects of caffeine And particularly a lot of people really have the benefit of having a cup of coffee in the morning waking them up. You know, and a lot of people feel they can't start in the morning, if they don't have a cup of coffee, and that's fine. You know, that's good. If people feel that there are enough side effects that they don't enjoy, then I would say, you know, give decaffeinated coffee a try, because I think there are good, flavourful, pleasurable decaffeinated coffees out there, that it doesn't have to be a negative, like, it's not like you have to give up coffee, you can still have a good tasting cup of coffee without caffeine. But I mean, as I said, as well, there's no reason for anybody to be alarmed about drinking caffeine, because it is a drug, you know, it really is very safe, you know, it really doesn't do anything particularly harmful. It's just there are a few side effects, that may just be a bit make you feel a bit uncomfortable at best. I was reading a paper that was talking about, they did a very, very big clinical study to look at a arrhythmias. So this is when people have, you know, their heartbeats go out of rhythm. And this this can be, arrhythmias, can be a problem because if it goes out of rhythm enough, it can cause you know, your heart to pump blood less, less efficiently. So the study was did caffeine have any negative effect on arrhythmias? And the conclusion was, well, none at all. So even if it can make people feel from time to time that it caused a bit of, you know, heart flutter, it won't interact with a arrhythmias and have any kind of really major adverse cardiovascular effects. So it's really you know, you really don't have to worry about taking caffeine it really is down to whether you like it or not.
That's it for today. Thank you, Dr. Olson, for taking the time to be on the show. And whether you are a coffee drinker or not, I hope our listeners learned something new. See you next time.
Dr. Olson 20:39
Thanks for that.
Episode 5: Rupan Gill and Farhan Mohammed on planning RU Hacks
Hackathon: a hacking marathon where teams aim to develop a functioning software or hardware project by the end of a time constraint. Hackathons are the perfect opportunity for students to build their skills and work as a team before going into the real world. Ryerson’s very own hackathon has set about to do exactly that—host an event for students to build skills, make connections, and have fun while they’re at it. In this episode of On A Tangent, fourth-year students Rupan Gill (Biology) and Farhan Mohammed (Mathematics) share what it's like planning RU Hacks, their motivation to join the team, and what you can expect as an attendee to the annual hackathon. For more information on RU Hacks, visit https://ruhacks.com/, external link.
About RU Hacks 1:59 | Planning RU Hacks 8:39 | Info for Prospective Attendees 13:13
Hello! You're listening to On A Tangent, a podcast hosted by Ryerson's Faculty of Science. I'm your host, Sarah McIntyre. If you are a student looking for an opportunity to challenge yourself in tech or sciences, make new friends and connections, attend workshops, play games, and make lasting memories, look no further than RU Hacks. Today I'm joined by Farhan Mohammed and Rupan Gil, two fourth-year Faculty of Science students involved in planning Ryerson's annual hackathon, RU Hacks. They share what it's like planning the event, their motivation to join the team, and what you can expect as an attendee to an RU Hacks hackathon.
Alright, welcome, Farhan and Rupan, to the show. It's a pleasure having you.
A pleasure to be here.
A pleasure to be here.
So before we start, can we get a short intro from each of you?
My name is Farhan, I'm going into my fourth year of math at Ryerson, I've been on RU Hacks for two years, and have attended the previous iteration of RU Hacks 2 years ago in 2019 and yeah, I go to a lot of hackathons and I'm excited to be here.
Perfect. And Rupan?
Hi, I'm Rupan, I'm in my fourth year in the biology program, I've been with RU Hacks-I'm going into my third year with RU Hacks now. I don't have many experiences with hackathons, but I've mostly been on RU Hacks for operations type work so not as cool as Farhan but it doesn’t matter.
Alright, sounds good. So, when I think of hacking, I think of you know, people breaking into security systems and you know all that, so I'm assuming, RU Hacks is not that. So what is it?
So RU Hacks is a competition where students hack up a project together. By hacking up they aren’t really hacking into systems but they’re rather hacking up a project that solves a problem, or just helps them out or something cool that they could build with their friends, or just teammates from different schools, with they don't know, as a fun two-day event where they build an app and win the prize, and play games and much more.
Yeah, there's like certain goals and stuff you have. We have mini hacks like little challenges and stuff like that. So, what Farhan said essentially is right like you're hacking, not to hack into something but you're hacking something up. You're hacking up a solution to a problem. So usually there are cases, and you can develop something that will solve that problem. And yeah, it's totally a collaborative thing too, it's meant to bring people together to solve problems together.
How long has it been running?
I believe it's been running since 2017. This should be our fifth iteration of RU UX coming up next year, in May.
And what are some examples of projects that people have made, or hacked up?
All sorts of cool things. I remember two years ago somebody made their own version of an Amazon grocery store where you pick up an item and it tells you what it is using a few cameras with equipment in like two days, that's really impressive. Somebody also made a machine learning app where you can scan a pill, and it'll tell you what pill it is and what properties the pill has, and when to take it. There are all sorts of cool things. I feel like there are too many to name them all in one podcast.
Do these projects get developed after RU Hacks or do they just stay in RU Hacks and then that’s it?.
So, the RU Hacks competition is meant for people to build a project during the hackathon and not before or after it, that's part of the rules. They’re supposed to start when the hacking time starts and finish when the hacking time finishes so they have exactly 36 or 48 hours, depending on the event to build that project.
There are also sponsored hacks. Sometimes sponsors who are really interested in seeing what people can do will have their own mini hack or category hack. We had iBoost.
Yeah, iBoost is an incubator that helps startups become big companies. They’re one of our sponsors and their sponsor category was that they'll take one project and incubate it so that it can become a real product,
For the teams do you create your own team or are they assigned or how does that work?
You pick your own team, people usually ask you from groups to sign up with them and then just make a team. If not even just come to the event when it starts and then find someone who doesn't have a team and team up with them and make a project.
Yeah. For online we had a little event, where you can meet people who don't have a team. So like a team-building event, essentially. So there's always a way to find people to work with.
And do contestants need to have specific technical knowledge or coding knowledge or any of that?
No, hackathons are more designed to be for beginners, they aren't meant to bring the best out of people. There’s a lot of workshops during hackathons as well. I remember last year we had 10 to 15 workshops, just teaching about basic concepts that people could use in their hacks. It's really meant for everyone to come together and build something.
Yeah, and that's the thing like a submission isn't necessarily necessary, you can come to the hackathon, and you can like take part in all those workshops and you can really learn something and take something away from it. You don't necessarily have to hack to compete, but it's always a bonus. It is a 36-hour hackathon. And, you know, no one's expected to continuously hack for 36 hours, there's a lot of events that we hold. A lot of events including a bunch of workshops, we have like social events, networking events.
Fireside chats where professionals from the industry came and spoke and everybody asked questions.
Yeah, so like a panel sort of. And all of this stuff is continuously running. When you get the schedule for the hackathon, you're going to see that it's workshop after workshop. You know, like social events are running simultaneously everything's going on. So, it's open to like whenever so whenever you decide to take a break in your project, there's always something for you to do, or there's always some way for you to like, participate in the hackathon itself.
That’s why you don't have time to sleep because you have to go to workshops, do your project, go back to your workshop, and then work on your project.
Oh, okay, while you're working on your project, you can attend these workshops, go to these social events so you're not continuously hacking.
Yeah, it's all optional too, like you don't have to go there. But it's always fun to go to a workshop that might interest you.
There's like industry and career-focused events too we had a resume roast, which is essentially people are free to submit their resumes, personal information is of course redacted. And, you know, someone qualified will go through your resume and present it to others. Of course, no one knows it’s you, but you know you can sort of get your resume fixed, and sort of tailored, in a way that is professional and sort of forward. We also had an industry night. Sponsors will like, present, and they're typically are looking for people who sort of had really pretty solutions to problems and who can like contribute to them and what they're doing, which is really cool.
So it's definitely something to help you with your career, and you know, get a head start.
Yeah, if anything, you'll get some LinkedIn connections.
While I was trying to learn new things, I found that a hackathon was a really good place where I could apply it and compete for a prize instead of randomly making a project for my resume. I could put it to use and get a prize.
At the hackathon do you get prompts or do you just come up with an app on your own?
So, the top three prizes are general, the best application wins, there are no restrictions on that. But for our category hacks, there are specific categories that are criteria that you need to fit, like for example the best finance app or the best health app.
Let's talk about your roles on RU Hacks.
I am VP of Operations for this year, but for the past two years, I've been on the operations team as an operations associate. The most that operations really does is develop logistically what happens during the event. So, if it was in person that would include stuff like vending and, you know, where we're going to hold the event, usually in the ENG building, but since COVID, my first year joining was RU Hacks 2020 and that's when everything had to go online. So it was, it was pretty hectic, but we managed to switch to fully online platforms, we found really cool ways for people to still communicate and get the social aspect of a hackathon, out of it sort of like a digital way. So I guess the focus of operations from like logistics sort of went to more of an experience.
Great. And, Farhan?
Yeah, I'm on the team as VP of Development this year. So for my role, I build the infrastructure that exists at RU Hacks, for hackers to apply, sign up. And just, just the logistics around being able to submit a project and get it judged. Right, so the websites, the discord bots. I’m responsible for all those to make sure that they’re working. I just wanted to go over what Rupan said, I really miss when, when RU Hacks was in person because, you remember how I said RU Hacks is a 36-hour event right?
So, before COVID, it used to happen in the ENG building, and people would sleep there overnight in the classrooms. And yeah, and we'd have really good food served for lunch and dinner.
It’s just fun.
How did you make up for it when you went online? To make up for the amazing in-person experience, but make it online?
So a lot of what we tried to do was try to put emphasis on the fact that we still want to be like a social hackathon like we still want people to talk and communicate because we've at the point of where we were transitioning to developing our hackathon, you know, Zoom had been around, you know, people were already hating breakout rooms, didn't like the way like that we had to do things. We already know that's an issue. People don't feel as inclined to sort of, socialize, or talk or communicate, or whatever when it's behind a screen. I'm sure you've seen like online games or whatever was not one that we played all the time? It was like the drawing game.
Scribble.io! Yeah, just really basic games and stuff. We just randomly post, “Come to this game and play!” Discord has really cool options. Now, we were able to live stream, some games people are able to chat there, the focus was just to sort of transition, in a way that was still meaningful to people in a way that they could still, they could still get the same experience out of it, even though you know it wasn't the same at all.
So why did each of you decide to join the RU Hacks team?
I go to a lot of hackathons. I think I've been to like over 20 in like two years.
I have been to a lot of good and bad hackathons, and I found that RU Hacks was a really good hackathon, and it was from my school so I should probably help others experience what I experienced and then help make RU Hacks better. Since I am a part of Ryerson.
So Rupan, why did you decide to join?
So yeah, I told you I'm in the biology program. I'm also part of the biology course union. So I kind of just me personally I wanted to make a conscious effort to sort of be a part of the scientific community at Ryerson and just a student body in science. And everything that I've been a part of thus far was biology-related or like science-related, it was nothing really outside of my comfort zone and RU Hacks really was. I just finished my first year, and I was like, you know like everyone I talked to is biology like all this that I do is just school that I wanted to do something outside of the box. And I just, I don't even know how I found out that RU Hacks was hiring but they were hiring so I just decided to go, and I really enjoyed it. The interview was fun. One of the main reasons I think that I'm still here after like two years and just because of the people, everyone's great.
Who do you recommend to participate in RU Hacks? What type of students do you recommend this event to?
If you’re even slightly interested in tech I think you should attend because there's a lot of workshops where you can learn and build apps, and you don't have to be good at coding or like an expert in something to build something, you can always find someone else as an expert and piggyback off of their skills.
Yeah, that's true. There are lots of like aspects to making your project, you could be just interested in wanting to participate in something and you could come to RU Hacks. There are so many aspects of being a project that are beyond just the coding. There’s ideation, you can contribute in that in that way, like, coming up with a potential solution, you don't necessarily need to execute it. I don't know I guess students were looking for a challenge, it's something to do after exams, something to put your mind on. It's a great way to meet friends, it’s a great way to meet new people. So I think anyone.
So, how do interested students get involved, what do they need to do?
First of all, they need to apply.
Around January or February, our applications will open up, you need to apply. Make sure to apply as soon as possible because that makes sure that your obligation is seen. Yeah, just save the date when it comes out.
And where do you apply?
On our website ruhacks.com.
And do you have any socials?
We do. So most of the links are posted. I think our Instagram is updated the most often. So, it's @ruhacks, and from there usually, the link is in the bio and when we announce that applications are open you can apply through that link.
And that's all for today, thank you Farhan and Rupan for being on our show today.
Thank you for having us.
Thank you so much.
So for those interested check out RU Hacks on their website at ruhacks.com and on Instagram @ruhacks, and be sure to sign up in January for their next hackathon that's going to be taking place in May 2022. See you next time.
Episode 4: Dr. Saeideh G. Motlagh on Bitcoin basics
By now, you’ve probably heard the hype surrounding Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Investors are profiting off the buzz of a “currency of the future” while corporations and governments are feeling pressure to acknowledge the growing technology. But do you really know what Bitcoin is and how it works? Computer Science alumna and blockchain expert Dr. Saeideh G. Motlagh gives us a crypto crash course with the rundown on Bitcoin and blockchain and what this means for the future of technology and finance.
Bitcoin Basics 02:00 | Blockchain Applications 08:28 | Are Cryptocurrencies the Currency of the Future? 12:40
Hi there, you're listening to On A Tangent, a podcast hosted by Ryerson's Faculty of Science. I'm your host, Sarah McIntyre. If you've been following the news, you may be aware of the cryptocurrency craze that has been steadily growing over the years. Words like “Bitcoin”, “mining” and “blockchain” have been floating around, with many people unsure what they really mean. On today's show, Dr. Saeideh G. Motlagh gives us a crypto crash course and gives us the rundown on Bitcoin and blockchain and what this means for the future of finance. Dr. Motlagh recently earned her PhD in computer science at Ryerson with a focus on blockchain technology. She now teaches blockchain and its application, and privacy and data management courses at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education.
Thank you so much for taking the time to be on our show today. Dr. Motlagh, how are you doing?
Dr. Motlagh 1:04
I'm doing great. It's my pleasure to have me here.
So we're gonna be talking about Bitcoin, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, all that. I'm going to preface this by saying I actually bought a teeny tiny amount of Bitcoin a couple years ago, after hearing my dad talk about it. He just kept talking about it and I was like, what is this? I barely knew what it was or how it worked. But I said, "Sign me up!" and I heard “currency of the future”. So I haven't touched it since, but maybe after this episode, I'll understand what's really sitting in my virtual wallet and how it works.
Dr. Motlagh 1:43
Okay, so I'm glad to hear it. Because now it is growing so fast, especially around a few months ago, Bitcoin had a huge jump.
Let's start with the basics. Bitcoin, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, what are they?
Dr. Motlagh 1:59
Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency that was ever introduced to the world in 2008, or 9 by a guy named Satoshi Nakamoto. It's just a name, a nickname. We don't actually know who it is—is it a real person, is it a real group? It's just a name we know who introduced Bitcoin to the world and actually, blockchain technology was introduced by Bitcoin to the world. So actually, what does it mean? They introduced Bitcoin as a system for transferring the financial transactions, which was based on the blockchain. So Bitcoin is just an application of the blockchain. Both are not the same thing. Right?
Dr. Motlagh 2:41
We introduced an application based on that new technology. Cryptocurrency is just, we can say, digital money, okay. And it's based on the blockchain. Blockchain is a purely distributed peer to peer network of ledgers. So, it helps us actually to manage the data, electronic data or information in the form of the block. And without the need of the third party, third trusted party. This is the advantage that blockchain technology provides for us, because trust issues are everywhere, you know. I want to send you money but I cannot trust it so I go to the bank. The bank here is the middleman or the third trusted party, right. I can send you money through the bank and those transactions show it's proof that I sent you money. So because we have trust issues here, blockchain solves all these problems for us. You know, it's one of, another advantage of it is disintermediation. We say if we use blockchain, we don't need those third, trusted parties.
So in blockchain technology, we use information. For example, in Bitcoin, which is just cryptocurrency, this information is nothing, just those exchange or trading information. I buy you some Bitcoin. This is one transaction. It should be part of the blockchain, it should be on the network. So we're in the Bitcoin or blockchain technology, we get this information, form them in the blocks and with cryptographic and some security algorithms, we secure this information to preserve the integrity of the information and store them on the blockchain. So another main advantage of the blockchain technology is it's immutable. Whatever is stored on the blockchain, no one can change it, it would be there forever. So this is a very big advantage because of that. It's a very safe, I can say, platform to work on if we want to transfer some information or some goods to someone and save or keep the record there.
So what is mining?
Dr. Motlagh 4:58
How does that work?
Dr. Motlagh 4:55
Yeah, good question. Mining is the main process of generating a block in blockchain. In blockchain all the data are stored in a form of the blocks and these blocks are connected to each other, that's why we call it blockchain. It's a chain of blocks actually. Mining process, if I want to explain shortly in Bitcoin, is the process of generating those blocks. It's a very costly and expensive process, especially in Bitcoin because it's a cryptographic process that you should do and you should find a hash string of a specific information in a way that it meets some specific criteria, we call it difficulty. So a hash string is nothing but just a random string of numbers. So we actually have something we call hash functions. You give input and receive an output. The input is the data in the block that you want to hash, it is information that you have, and the output is just a random string, hash string, which must meet some criteria.
Okay. And the only way that you can solve this problem, this hash problem, is just trial and error. You should try multiple times until you get the output which satisfies the criteria that you are looking for. So this process of trial and error, it means sometimes you need to try more than even 10 or 100 millions of different hash strings to find the proper one. So this trial and error process is so costly because it needs very powerful systems. Because why? This is like a contest, right? If I'm trying to find that proper hash string, you're also trying. Anyone who has a stronger system who can try and find this string faster, wins, right? Because of that people are looking for various powerful machines. In the term, in the sense of Bitcoin, we call them A6 machines. They are very costly, but they are specifically designed for finding this specific hash string for you. And because those machines are so powerful and costly and they use a lot of electricity power, AC power. That's why we say the mining process is so expensive and costly.
Is there an unlimited amount of, for example, Bitcoin? So if you could just mine forever, could you just keep finding Bitcoin?
In terms of Bitcoin, if we talk specifically about Bitcoin, Bitcoin has a limited number. We have a cap for Bitcoin and it's 21 million. And so far over 18 million Bitcoin has been found so far.
Yeah, we expect that in maybe two or three years, we'll go to that limitation. It doesn't mean it cannot exist according to the way that we find those hash strings, those cryptographic algorithms, it's feasible that we have many more Bitcoin, more than 21 million. However, the guy Nakamoto Satoshi, when he introduced Bitcoin, in the white paper of the Bitcoin, he mentioned that we want to have only 21 million. And his logic behind that is that Bitcoin is something like a gem. So if we want to make it valuable as gems, we should have just a limited number of that, not infinity. But in other things, you must have heard about Etherium and other cryptocurrency. Ethereum, there is no limitation for that. And now so far, we have over 100 million Ethereum mined so far.
So are cryptocurrencies the only application of blockchain technology?
Dr. Motlagh 8:25
Definitely not. It was the first. It was the first application we introduced the blockchain by Bitcoin to the world by cryptocurrency. But after that, you know in the computer world we call the blockchain a second revolutionary thing that happens to the world after the Internet. So because of that, when we saw that it has a huge potential to change everything in any industry, now, we actually adapted the blockchain to many different industries. One of the industries that have a huge investment on the blockchain are supply chain industries. So if I want to explain a little bit what is the supply chain, the simplest example is Walmart. We all know about Walmart. Walmart currently is working with IBM to transfer their supply chain to the blockchain. And in supply chain we want to track their record of the things from the source to destination. In the case of Walmart, it's about the food. It's all the foods because most of the food you know, especially vegetables or fruits, they are important to Canada, right. So we want to know from the source that this vegetable is produced from the farm until a different middleman in between that they buy and sell and get this fruit until we receive it in Canada in Walmart. How many people, how many different stores this food went through. And why is this important for us? Again, if I want to give you an example. Sometimes we see we received some notification that this specific food or food, for example cabbage is contaminated, you should return it to the store. So why does this happen? Because we are not sure which in this cabbage, exactly where it came from because of that they record all the cabbage. And it's a huge loss for the store. But if we can record the whole journey of that cabbage from the source until it arrived to Canada, so we can track it properly that this specific package was contaminated, it should be returned. And moreover, it helps us to avoid to happen such a thing in future, right, because we know maybe this source is not trustworthy enough, we should maybe not bring from this source anymore.
So this is a supply chain that I'm saying they are hugely invested on the blockchain. This is just one industry. There are more industries as well, if I just want to name it, and don't explain too much. In eNotary, in the voting system, definitely security. If you want to provide security, it solves a lot of problems for privacy. It's even in the archive industry, we use blockchain in the music for recording the copyright things. We use blockchain and now there actually now for each of these is industries, I can name an example out there which is currently working based on the blockchain, yeah.
Is one of the concerns of blockchain the transparency of it?
Dr. Motlagh 11:18
See, after the blockchain comes up and we see it has a huge potential, different versions or varieties of blockchain pops up after that. The first blockchain was introduced by Bitcoin, we call it the public permissionless blockchain. After that now we have private blockchain, we have permission blockchain, different versions. In the public permission blockchain, yes, we have transparency. So in Bitcoin for example, you have some Bitcoins. Yeah. If someone knows how to work with Bitcoin, they can track your Bitcoin, how many people have traded this specific Bitcoin and now you have it. Yes, there is transparency there.
Is there a benefit to this transparency?
Dr. Motlagh 11:59
Definitely. Yes. We say that if you want to prove the ownership for some things, we can just track the history of the transaction, the chain of this transaction to get to who owns this cryptocurrency. Actually we say the current person is the real owner and if you want to just double check everything if the person is a real owner, we just need to track the history of the transaction and it's useful for proving the ownership.
So going back to the little tiny bit of Bitcoin I bought, was this a waste? Or am I one step ahead for a cryptocurrency future?
Dr. Motlagh 12:41
You know, that's because now it is a huge topic in cryptocurrencies and blockchain. You know, everyone asks me "Oh, what do you think about it?" I say although I know what's exactly happening behind the scenes, I never traded cryptocurrency. I don't own any cryptocurrency, not Bitcoin or Dogecoin or Litecoin nothing, you know. Because the financial part of it, it's something that goes more towards the people who do trade in those kinds of things, right. In my opinion, as I know about the technology, definitely cryptocurrencies are the future money okay. Because now it's so hyped and you have cryptocurrency, you want to buy something for that, so governments have to regulate it. Okay, give you this opportunity to use that money for your extra trading. Now we have the concept of NFT. NFT again is something based on the blockchain, now you can buy and sell NFT. It's so huge and it goes everywhere with this blockchain and cryptocurrency. So because of that, definitely it's the future money. However, about the pricing things you know, it fluctuates a lot like other tradings based on the news, you know, Bitcoin gets so high and last month just it was a hype about the tech guy, Elon Musk, he said something. He just did a sign of the Bitcoin in his Twitter account and public tweet and everything fluctuates a lot. So because of these pricing things, it's not in my specialty. I can’t say how it's gonna rise continuously or not, but definitely we will have cryptocurrencies in the future. It's our future money.
So say we did have cryptocurrency as our future currency. What would be the pros and cons to this?
Dr. Motlagh 14:30
Pros, and cons... Pros definitely is that one thing is those third parties. Okay. We can now directly exchange cryptocurrency or buy something we do not need banks for that. In my opinion, another thing is it can save some costs for us because we are getting rid of the traditional money, right bills, coins, those kinds of things if we can use this digital money everywhere, right? This is another pro for that. The third thing is the security of that, right. And no one can tamper with it so it’s secure we can trust it easily. This is again a major advantage of it. Regarding the cons, I'm just wondering how all people want to adopt this concept, you know. Although it's not a con, I think it takes time a little bit because it's not yet convenient for everyone to work with this concept. And until all the industries adopt it, it takes a little time. But overall I see more pros than cons in cryptocurrency.
So what are the environmental implications of this?
Dr. Motlagh 15:56
As I explained, because the process of mining bitcoins is very expensive, it uses a lot of AC power, electrical power. So definitely when we need more electrical power it means we are using more natural resources to generate those power right. Because of that we say yes, mining more Bitcoin, specifically, because not other, all cryptocurrencies are so expensive to generate. Bitcoin, in this sense, is very expensive to generate. And because we need a lot of electrical power for that, because of that we say yeah, its not written for our environment.
Is there a way to work around this issue?
Dr. Motlagh 16:37
With Bitcoin I can say no, because we're almost at the end of Bitcoin, you know, more than 18 million has been generated so far. And we cannot, now we cannot change the way that blocks are mined, I said, based on those hash strings, those kinds of things. Now, we cannot change the way that we are mining the new blocks, right? It must be like that, and I'm saying this process because it's just based on trial and error is so expensive. As of now for Bitcoin. Unfortunately, no, we cannot do anything to make it less expensive for us. Also for other cryptocurrencies, I'm saying most of them now are not costly because they are using different cryptographic algorithms, they are not working like Bitcoin, they are not mined like Bitcoin. I tell you that for example, by average every 10 minutes one block in Bitcoin or one bitcoin is mined, okay? Because this process is so costly, time consuming. However, for Etherium every 10 to 22 seconds, one Etherium is mined. It shows the process of generating Etherium is much easier, you know, this is the difference. Because of that, I'm saying, yeah, not all cryptocurrencies are expensive, and actually people are paying attention to that. If some new cryptocurrency wants to pop up, I believe differently, people keep it in mind.
Is it possible for the entire financial system to move to the blockchain?
Dr. Motlagh 17:59
Okay, good question. Definitely. It's possible in the future, definitely. But all the time when we talk about the financial system, the one thing that comes into my mind is banks, and somehow we can say that blockchain technology is a competitor with banks, you know. I'm not sure how they want to regulate that acceptance of this technology, you know, but definitely, I see a huge potential in blockchain and people now actually are interested in blockchain. However, we should see how it will go and I believe it really depends on how governments are going to regulate this.
So do you recommend people get involved with cryptocurrencies right now?
Dr. Motlagh 18:46
In the sense that they educate themselves, I highly recommend everyone to educate yourself about either cryptocurrency or blockchain technology because it's the future technology. I'm telling you, it's the second big thing after the internet that happens to us in the technology world. So definitely. Yeah, I highly recommend everyone to educate themselves into just you know, what is the concept of cryptocurrency or blockchain technology. However, in terms of if they want to invest in it or not, it's not in my specialty. I don't want to recommend anything to anyone.
That's fair. Does one need computer science knowledge to be involved in cryptocurrency?
Dr. Motlagh 19:28
Actually I can say no, I, you know, currently I'm teaching a blockchain course: blockchain and its application in the Ryerson G. Raymond Chang School. And our main goal is, I designed this course myself, and I'm teaching it now for two semesters. And my main goal in this course was to design a course for people who do not have a computer science background and actually all of my students are not from computer science. Some of them are lawyers. Some of them are psychologists, business people, and who want to learn about the blockchain and cryptocurrencies. And I designed a course in a way that I'm explaining all concepts that they need to know like, definitely they need to know a little bit about the cryptographic hash strings if they want to know how it exactly works. However, I'm explaining to them in a simple language that they learn what's happening without having a computer science background. I just have a recommendation for everyone that really invests to get to know blockchain technology, I believe one day in the very near future they will need to know about the blockchain and cryptocurrencies.
All right, great. Thank you, Dr. Motlagh, for sharing your expertise with us on the show today.
Dr. Motlagh 20:44
It was my pleasure. Thank you.
And I hope all our listeners now have a better understanding of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, because it is the technology of the future. And on that note, take care and until next time, thank you.
Dr. Motlagh 20:58
Thank you for having me.
Dr. Motlagh 21:00
Episode 3: Dr. Emily Agard on COVID-19 vaccine science
Getting vaccinated is the first step to normalcy as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. While many people are more than eager to get vaxxed, others may feel hesitant due to misinformation, agendas, and conspiracies floating around. In this episode, Dr. Emily Agard, director of SciXchange at Ryerson, explains the science behind vaccines and busts COVID-19 vaccine misconceptions. Dr. Agard has her PhD in Immunology from the University of Toronto and now teaches immunology and advanced immunology at Ryerson.
How do Vaccines Work? 03:26 | Vaccines & Variants 10:06 | Busting COVID-19 Vaccine Misconceptions 13:04
Hi there, you're listening to On A Tangent, a podcast hosted by Ryerson Faculty of Science. I'm your host, Sarah McIntyre. As you all know and perhaps have been painfully keeping track of the days, it's been a little over a year since the COVID 19 pandemic started. With wave after wave and lockdown after lockdown it seemed like there was no end in sight. But as vaccine rollouts have begun throughout the country, we're starting to see a glimmer of hope to some normalcy, a light at the end of the tunnel. On today's episode we have Dr. Emily Agard, Director of SciXchange to teach us about the importance of vaccines and address concerns or hesitations people may have prior to getting jabbed. Dr. Agard has her PhD in immunology from the University of Toronto, and now teaches immunology and advanced Immunology at Ryerson. A disclaimer: this podcast is for informational and educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have.
Alright, welcome to the show Dr. Agard, how are you?
Dr. Agard 1:12
I'm great and very happy to be here, thanks for having me.
Awesome. We're so happy to have you. I must say I am absolutely loving the summer weather outside and I'm spending every possible moment outside. What are you looking forward to when quarantine ends?
Dr. Agard 1:26
I'd say, just being able to eat at a restaurant outside. Right now, we have two dogs so we do go out five times a day so I am going outside, but one of them is a puppy. So, from 7am to 11pm we are pretty much going outside, but it'll be nice to just socialize and not have to worry. I already feel better now that I have my first dose of my vaccine so just hoping for normalcy. I really also can't wait for in person teaching. I know that's not going to necessarily happen in the fall, but I can't wait. Some things have been great so being able to participate in certain things virtually has improved our SciXchange science outreach access for different people so that's been advantageous and some of those things I think we'll keep so hasn't been all bad.
There are definitely silver linings to the pandemic.
But speaking of going back to normal. That brings us to the topic of vaccines which is the first step to normalcy. So, with the provinces relying on a majority percentage of the population to be vaccinated before opening up, just tell us a little bit about the science of vaccines and how they work.
Okay, first of all I'd like to mention where I'm coming from, just so that people can be aware of my expertise I do not want to claim to know things that I do not know so I have a PhD in immunology that I got from U of T back in 2004, and I teach immunology, but I'm not directly involved in vaccine development so my knowledge of Coronavirus and COVID-19 comes from my reading, but I make sure that I'm keeping up with the academic literature the direct sources of the research and it's actually nice to see some of my former classmates involved in this, so that's kind of fun. So I'm not relying on news media, particularly because I find that a bit hard to navigate there's misinformation disinformation agendas so my knowledge is based on solid science but I just want to make it clear that I'm not actually part of vaccine development. So I think what's very important in this whole conversation about vaccines is for people to understand how they work, because I read a lot of, you know, sites where people are just spreading all sorts of misinformation, and you see comments like, why don't we just train our immune system to fight the infection. And really that's exactly what a vaccine does so it's clear that many people just don't have an understanding of how vaccines work and that's contributing to the vaccine hesitancy. So really, what does a vaccine do? It primes our immune system to counter the infection or the toxin or whatever is the threat, so it doesn't prevent the infection, or it doesn't block exposure, it just gets the system ready in case you're exposed in fact, we get vaccinated with the assumption that we might be exposed to the infectious agent, otherwise we wouldn't need to be vaccinated. So it primes our immune system to deal with the infectious agent or the pathogen. If we encounter it. So the goal is to safely induce an immune response, and that will lead to protection against infection or disease upon later exposure to the pathogen. So, whenever I say pathogen I'm referring to something like the virus. So basically sets the system up for combat and since we're talking combat there are two sides to that, there is the pathogen itself, and then there's the immune system. So to be able to develop a good vaccine, you need to know a little bit about the pathogen. So we learn a lot about that from the virologist, and we need to know that the immune system so that's where the immunologists just come in. So we have to understand both of them if we want to develop a good vaccine.
Dr. Agard 5:06
So starting with the pathogen, a pathogen has an antigen or has multiple antigens and this is a word that's becoming mainstream. It's a very important word to understand. The antigen is what the immune system has to recognize. So it's a particular feature, usually a protein that the immune system, first of all has to be able to see. So cells of the immune system has to be able to see them in our system and can recognize them as something distinct so it could be something on the surface of the cell or the virus. It could be something that's released as a toxin so some bacteria work that way some of the pathogenic bacteria work that way they release toxins. So the immune cells respond to this particular antigen, so we say then that the antigen is immunogenic. So when I use the word antigen I mean that it is immunogenic, something that will get an immune response going. So the vaccine contains these antigens, so either isolated directly or synthesized. Modern vaccines nowadays are synthesizing the antigens. So this leads to two very important features of a great vaccine: efficacy and safety. So efficacy, the vaccine should be a good representation of the pathogen, because we're relying on memory here. So, we need to prime the immune system and prepare for future combat. Safety, the vaccine should not harm the recipient like the real pathogen does, and it should be able to deliver it without harm so should be able to deliver it safely to the system. So, the recent vaccine, particularly the ones that we are using to fight the Coronavirus are focusing on a particular component of the virus and it's the spike protein of the virus. And even when you see cartoon depictions of Coronavirus you see it as a sphere with spikes.
Spiky little guy.
Dr. Agard 7:02
That spike protein is key. That's considered the antigen, of the Coronavirus and this the immune system targets the pathogen so that antigen, that's going to be immunogenic has to be something that the immune system can see, in the case of the spike yes the immune system can see it, because the Coronavirus has all these spike proteins on the surface, but ideally it has to be an important part of the pathogen, something that the pathogen relies on, especially in the cases of viruses that can mutate. So, if the virus is going to mutate, it can't afford to mutate too much, a component that it relies on and in the case of Coronavirus, which is officially SARS-COV 2. It relies on this spike protein to attach to our cells and gain entry into our cells. Without that spike protein Coronavirus can't infect our cells, and they bind to a particular receptor on our cells called ACE-2. So we want our vaccine to contain that antigen that the immune system can see, respond to, and ideally its antigen that we can rely on as something that the virus, in this case, will always need. So that's a pathogen side of this, now we look at the immune system side of things, the immune system has to mount a response we call this active immunization so the immune system does the work. It could be naturally by being infected with a virus, or it can be through medical intervention like the vaccine, as opposed to passive immunization such as mother to child and breast milk. So we want active immunization and why I stress active immunization is this is the beauty of vaccine development, because it makes your immune system do the work. And because your immune system does the work, it has memory of that work. So later on it can handle the actual infection. So vaccines rely on the concept of memory, there are memory T cells and their memory B cells and these memory B cells keep on making the antibodies. And those are a big part of the memory. So, to be protected, memory depends on the quality of the response amount of antibodies induced by the B cells and the incubation time of the infection so the longer the incubation time, the more the system has a chance to rely on these memory cells. This is why often we need booster shots after that primary vaccination to hike up the antibody levels to make sure that we remain at a protected level. So that's in a nutshell how vaccines work in general.
There has been talk about the Delta variant of the virus all over the news. So what is a variant, and how does this happen?
Dr. Agard 9:55
So variants happen when the viruses change their nucleic acids. So their nucleic acids, whether it be DNA or RNA are basically the blueprint for the proteins that they make, just like we use DNA as our blueprint. Now, the mutations happen randomly, and some of them might make the virus more contagious, they might make the virus infect differently so they'll, they can cause changes to how the virus functions. Now it doesn't necessarily make the virus worse, it could make the virus less bad. But the mutations that tend to stick are the ones that give the viruses more power. Now when it comes to the vaccines. What our vaccines are doing and more modern ones are even better at this, they are really focusing on parts of the virus that the virus cannot afford to mutate too much. So, if they were to mutate, they would lose their effectiveness. So that wouldn't be an advantageous mutation for those viruses, the variants that are out there are the ones that are having mutations that help them. But our vaccines are targeting the areas that they can't afford to mutate.
What role do vaccines play in preventing mutations or the spread of variants?
Dr. Agard 11:20
So the vaccine wouldn't prevent a mutation. So whether or not the virus mutates, is intrinsic so it's part of what the virus does itself so the vaccine is not going to go in there and prevent the virus from mutating. That's not what the vaccine does. The vaccine is about introducing our body to the antigen that's on the pathogen, and then mounting a response against that antigen so that if we see it again, we can act on it.
Do vaccines work the same against the mutations or would another vaccine or booster be required?
Dr. Agard 11:56
So, the point of the booster is to as the name suggests, give a lift to the immune response so if you're having one of those two, you are getting the same formulation you are seeing the same antigen, but it's reminding your system of what it saw the first time. So when you mount that first response it peaks, and then, it diminishes. So it wanes that response wanes, and then when you get the second dose, your immune system will peak again but it's not starting at the baseline that it started before it starts with the memory that it had so that's why that second response is stronger and then it lasts longer.
Moving on to the next topic, or segment. So, obviously with the internet, there is so much talk going on about the vaccine, so many myths, misconceptions, all that there's an ongoing joke that the vaccine is some 5g chip or tracking device. I don't even know where that came from. Can you bust that one?
Dr. Agard 13:01
I can't speak to the science of 5g technology, I can't imagine in all the decades that I've been studying immunology how there would be a connection, but that one really baffles me.
One thing people have been saying is that it was too rushed, to rush to trust. What do you have to say about that?
Dr. Agard 13:21
That's when I hear the most and that's the one that I can understand the most, because it was quick. And when people see quick, they assume rushed. But quick was because of the tremendous amount of brain power that went into, that is currently going into vaccine development. I don't think there has been anything with more labs and minds working together. We had academics, government, industry, working together on this vaccine, not only were many labs working on it but there was collaboration. So the normal process during development of all of these things is that you do your experiments, usually in silo with your group you might collaborate with one or two other institutions. You submit your findings to a journal, wait a few months, it comes out you might present at a conference, it's months before research, information is disseminated. But in the case of this vaccine development you had lots of labs, talking to each other, sharing preprints on social media, platforms on various different preprint servers. So there was a lot of collaboration and sharing. So the work was consolidated and intense. So, quick, does not mean rushed, more work has been put into these vaccines than anything, than any other vaccines that are out there. Also, one of the things with vaccines because we're talking about priming the immune system to do something. Side effects manifest early. It's not like a drug that you have to take daily for the rest of your life or daily for a long period of time, and you have to worry about accumulated effects. Pretty much the amount of time that has passed between the people who are in the early stage clinical trials and now, has been sufficient to really properly assess the efficacy. That said, the way science works, you still need to monitor and that's why clinical trials don't end once the product goes to market, a big part of clinical trials is to keep monitoring and checking what's going on, checking what type of people might be contraindicated, so vaccine not suitable for. So, a lot of attention. So in short, a lot of attention, a lot of collaboration, a lot of work has been put into these vaccines there probably, more, more careful thought and work has been put into these than other vaccinations. The only thing we don't have is time, because that's just the way it is. We don't have that time to see, you know, years down the road we don't know how long the immunity will be, the protection will be but so far so good. This is not an infection or disease that's likely to be eradicated. Very few of our infectious diseases that we have happy and eradicated we've learned to live with them. What this vaccine is important for is dealing with this Coronavirus that we have now, and helping to reduce the spread, so that we can go on living with it just being one of the infections out there, like the flu. The flu is still a serious virus, it's out there, we get the flu shots, some people get sick, some people die of the flu, unfortunately, but it hasn't stifled our whole life. So that's what we're looking at here.
So in a couple years, will we just look at the Coronavirus as just the flu. And so some people might get it seasonally, and we'll go about our normal lives?
Dr. Agard 17:13
Ask me again in a couple of years. I really don't like to be comparing the two and saying it's just like the flu, because the viruses are quite different, so I don't want to go down that rabbit hole of saying oh it's just the flu, but vaccine is the way to start getting us to something that at least resembles normalcy.
I have heard a lot about people comparing like, oh, Pfizer is better. Oh Moderna's better. Does it really matter?
Dr. Agard 17:42
Also one tagline is the best vaccine is the one you can get. They are a little bit, Pfizer and Moderna are quite, quite similar. They're both mRNA vaccines and they deliver the code to the spike protein and they're packaged in these lipid nanoparticles so these little tiny tiny tiny lipid structures, and they get into our system that way and our body, or our immune cells used mRNA code to make this spike protein, as opposed to AstraZeneca, and the Johnson and Johnson that use viral vectors so they package, again the code for the spike protein but inside, a viral vector. So, a package. An adenovirus that contains the code and then the cell uses it that way. In terms of efficacy reports, Pfizer and Moderna have been shown to be 90 to 95% efficient as opposed to AstraZeneca, being 70% efficient. But when I see numbers like that I always have to ask what do they mean by efficient are they comparing the same thing, etc. So it's hard to compare numbers when you don't know what the different components are into the stats. So that's why I mean it's, it's good to look at numbers and stats, but you also need to understand what's contributing, what's the numerator, what's the denominator, are you comparing the same things. So that's something you have to be mindful of when you're looking at these. That's why I don't really go so much by media reports because they kind of try to use punchlines or, or the key take homes but then you don't have the details as to what's going into those numbers which is why I like to go to the primary literature. There are some issues with vaccine hesitancy that I probably should bring up and there are some groups who have been poorly treated in the past, particularly people of color. There have been really bad, experimental cases so one of them. Maybe you've heard of it as the Tuskegee syphilis study where black men were lied to and told that they were being treated for syphilis and that wasn't the case and many of them died and this was something that went on for 40 years, the CDC was involved with it. So a lot of the concerns aren't all conspiracy theories, there is history where, you know, a lot of groups were used and abused by the medical system. There are a lot of other issues, some apply more in the states like cost and access that we don't have to worry about here as much in Canada, but they are legitimate issues. And then there was a report in The New York Times that say about 10% of the people are just watchful, they're not saying no to the vaccine, they're just kind of waiting to see what happens and that's sort of a natural human response okay it's new. Maybe I'm doing fine right now. Let me just keep my social distancing and go about my business, but it is nice to see that in Canada, according to a CDC survey, compared to November where the percentage of people wanting to get the vaccine was more around 60%, now that has come up to about 80%. And I think two things, eight people seeing people around them, getting them without adverse side effects, and also education and I think education is key, letting people understand what the vaccine is about actually didn't like the approach of. Look who's getting the vaccine, so you can too! The Queen's getting vaccinated so it's safe for you or, you know Biden's getting vaccinated, so it's safe for you. I don't think that's necessarily the approach, I think we need, as scientists, to answer people's questions. The conspiracy theorists, we might never be able to reach them and I don't think they want to be reached, but a lot of people have valid questions and we just need to be prepared to answer them, and admit to what we don't know so we're still learning, we're still observing we're still tweaking things, and we have to just monitor how everything goes.
So, what is your advice to people who are still hesitant about getting the vaccine?
Dr. Agard 21:53
Find people you trust, to ask questions to people in the scientific community, talk to your doctor. A lot of people's opinion is skewed by all the misinformation and disinformation and if they had the correct information, then they wouldn't be so vaccine hesitant. So when I talk to people, my goal isn't oh I'm trying to convert you into a pro vaccine person. I want you to understand what's going on with the vaccine and then I believe that you will be comfortable with it. There are good sources out there that explain. I love the Journal Nature Reviews Immunology, it's targeted to immunologists, and not all of the articles are open access. There is a subscription to that, they do have some articles that are free to access and geared to a broader audience and that's where they really break down the science.
Great, thank you so much Dr. Agard for taking the time to be on our show. And on that note, everyone get educated and stay safe, and enjoy your summer, okay.
Dr. Agard 22:56
Okay, thank you very much.
Episode 2: Dr. Eric Da Silva on alcohol science for the holidays
How is good quality alcohol produced? Why do you get sleepy after a big meal? What is the science between pairing alcohol with foods? With a passion for distilling and a research focus on separation science and analytical chemistry, Dr. Eric Da Silva of the Department of Physics talks about the science of alcohol in time for the holiday season. Disclaimer: The information in today’s episode is strictly for educational purposes. When consuming alcohol, it is important to drink responsibly and in moderation.
About Dr. Da Silva’s Distillery 02:03 | Alcohol Production Process 3:14 | Why Big Meals Make You Sleepy 13:35 | Pairing Foods and Drinks 18:58
Hi there, you're listening to On A Tangent, a podcast hosted by Ryerson's Faculty of Science. I'm your host, Sarah McIntyre. Holiday season is well underway and you know what that means, online Christmas gift shopping, colorful light displays, and of course, lots of food and drinks. Today, Dr. Eric Da Silva from the Department of Physics will teach us about alcohol science that you may find useful in time for the holiday season. Dr Da Silva's academic research focuses on separation science and analytical chemistry, and he spends his days studying and executing novel methods of making things pure and knowing exactly what's in the beaker. He's also the owner of Heads and Tails Distilleries. Before we begin, a disclaimer on today's subject matter, the information and today's episode is strictly for educational purposes when consuming alcohol, it is important to drink responsibly and in moderation, alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse is very real, and should not be overlooked and should be treated if it ever becomes a problem.
All right, so thank you so much for joining the show today Dr Da Silva, how's it going?
Dr. Da Silva 1:21
it's going great, you know this COVID pandemic, it's a little hard working from home but otherwise everything is going fantastic.
Are you ready for the holidays?
Dr. Da Silva 1:31
Yeah, I believe that I am going to be a little different with the lockdown and not being able to see family as usual but other than that I have all my Christmas shopping done so that's a big, big plus.
Yeah, great. I know since the lockdown a lot of people in Toronto were panicking to get their Christmas gift shopping plans done with but one thing that is still open are grocery stores and liquor stores which may be a good gifting option for the adults in their life. So let's talk a little bit about gifting alcohol and just alcohol science in general. You own a distillery, correct?
Dr. Da Silva 2:08
So tell us a bit about it.
Dr. Da Silva 2:11
Well, our distillery was opened several years ago and I've always had a big family connection to the production of alcohol and whatnot. So our distillery at the moment is just ramping up in order to start selling to the public, spirits and whatnot, but we've mostly been focusing on producing very high quality ethanol as a solvent for various applications in the cannabis industry and other industries that require very high purity, ethanol. So we're just now going through the process of getting our licenses to start selling to the public.
Interesting. What do you produce?
Dr. Da Silva 2:48
So we produce very high purity rectified ethanol. And we also produce spirits, such as vodkas, moonshines, whiskeys, gins and we also work to produce very high quality liqueurs as well.
Great, so talk me through the process of creating one of the alcohols or one of the spirits.
Dr. Da Silva 3:14
Well, alcohol production, whether it's for its spirit or just producing alcohol as a solvent, generally requires that we ferment a fermentable. So the first process is selecting the starting material that we're going to be using to produce the alcohol, and that also defines, to a large degree, what the ultimate spirit will be defined as. So, usually that can be anything from plain sugar to sugar byproducts such as molasses. We can use grains such as corn, wheat, malted barley, rye, even, etc. And we start by taking that raw ingredient and converting it into a fermentable sugar that can be used by yeast cells to ultimately produce the ethanol. So the first step is to select that grain or fermentable product, and to ferment it. So to ferment it, we also need to go through the process of selecting the yeast strain that we're going to be using which greatly influences the quality of the ethanol. And we also have to select what method of distillation we're going to be using, and ultimately filtration if necessary at the end. So the first step is selecting that starting material, and we use everything from plain sugar, all the way through to using grains such as wheat mixed with barley, as well as mixtures of corn and other grains, and we go through a process of mashing it to convert all of the all of the starches that are in those grains to sugar. And we then ferment it with the yeast. So that's the first step, the big challenging step for us is how do we make it as pure as possible, and good quality right. We're an artisanal distillery, we're not a massive distillery so that is a very time consuming step and it really mixes the art and the science aspect of this together. It takes a lot of experience, it takes a lot of trial and error. And ultimately, that's the process of distilling it's a mixture of the scientific separation science but also the ability to know what you're looking for, as a final product, and how to ultimately get it out of distill.
So you mentioned pure. Does pure equal better quality, like the purer it is the better it is?
Dr. Da Silva 5:40
Well a lot of people have this notion that you simply add yeast to some sort of a sugar solution, and all you get out of it in the end is pure alcohol mixed in with water, and effectively that distillation is just removing that alcohol component from the water really. It's a lot more complicated than that. When you start to introduce a yeast to a solution that contains sugars, the yeast will use that sugar as an energy source and it will start to grow, multiply and metabolize that sugar. And one of the main byproducts that it produces while it's doing that is ethanol, but it's not only ethanol. There are a whole other set of compounds that it can produce, and this will depend on the various conditions such as the temperature at which is fermenting the pH of the solution, what nutrients are available is it very nutrient dense ferment or is it a very nutrient lacking type of environment is a stress inducing environment or not. So we ferment that solution and produce the ethanol, but we also produce a compound known as congeners. And congeners, there's a whole variety of them. One of the common ones that you know we hear about with moonshine causing people to go blind, which is a myth that's out there is methanol. You'll also have some acetone, some aldehydes you'll have some acetal aldehydes esters being produced. This is what gives beer, a lot of its qualities that you like some of that banana bread quality comes from some of these compounds that you can get in very good quality beers. You'll also produce a lot of fusel alcohol. So alcohols that are more than two carbons in length. So, as two carbons. So, a lot of butanol isopropanol alcohol, you name it and it can be produced by these yeast cells. So the art of distilling is to take that solution that contains the ethanol that you want, but being able to separate out those compounds, Because they're not very pleasant. In fact, methanol is actually toxic. So you need to be very careful in getting those out. You also need to be very careful in what nutrients you use, things like urea that were traditionally used as a nitrogen source can also produce a lot of carcinogens when it reacts with ethanol and the heat. So these are all things that you have to account for the to your answer and what's good quality spirits right. That is a very big topic, it will depend on who you ask. You will see a lot of master distillers who fight to the death on this. Some people would say that, you know that for a vodka for example, that you want to get to the purest, most neutral of ethanol and to mix it with with water and that's effectively your vodka and but the other side of this is that you sort of want some of those congeners in your final product, to give it a flavor characteristic, right, you want to know what the starting material was. So, ultimately, that's a big question. I mean, so yes, it's a very tedious process to get very high purity neutral ethanol, but then you lose all of the flavor and characteristics of the drink. So really the art is to be able to produce good quality ethanol with enough of these containers that you know what you're drinking. Other spirits, such as whiskies and tequilas and brandies have a lot of these congeners that remain inside of the drink and that's what gives it its distinctive characteristic. They're so distinctive that from a forensic toxicology point of view, you can likely tell what someone has had to drink through a blood sample, because of the relative proportions of these so I mean that is a characteristic of the drink you're drinking is the, these congeners so rums for example have been this will give you this distinct profile, brandies definitely, whiskeys. Even wines, the tannins would be considered a congener as well. So, I mean, what's good quality ethanol? It really depends on who you ask, but in my opinion, it's one that's been very carefully distilled, not scrubbed by filtration, and it's something that has character to it. So yeah.
When you're looking for a good quality alcohol does cheaper mean lower quality and more expensive mean higher quality?
Dr. Da Silva 10:16
One of the, I think aspects of a distillery that would surprise a lot of people is that there are some distilleries out there that don't distill at all. In fact for vodkas, and this is where, again, some master distillers would get very angry, and start fighting for. It's not uncommon to have these distilleries in quotations just purchase off ethanol. And they will just filter the heck out of it. They'll use activated charcoal and they'll just filter it and filter it. That is a cheaper way of producing vodka and generally you'll get a very neutral, if not a harsher type of vodka. So one of the ways to sort of circumvent that is by adding a smoothing agent so a cheaper vodka would generally, not all of them but probably a lot of them contain things like cholesterol and some sugars to sort of smooth out that burning sensation that we get. That is not as time consuming, of a task as distilling multiple times so very high quality spirits, generally are distilled many times in order to ensure that smoothness and that quality, that takes a lot more time, that takes a lot more effort. And generally, is more expensive. It also reflects, like what the starting material is so some of the higher end vodkas, at least from a marketing perspective will claim that they're made from things like grapes and other, you know, more expensive starting materials than something like corn, or potatoes or whatever beets, whatever it may be. So, price point does not necessarily mean better quality, it really depends really on personal taste. If anything, but it there's so many factors that go into that, what material was used to actually ferment the alcohol and ultimately how it was distilled and how it was filtered if at all. A lot of them are gimmicky as well I found, I mean, again, like I said a lot of distilleries do not even produce their own ethanol and one of the selling points that you will see is this whole idea of multiple filtrations and going through filtering over gold or filtering over you know these exotic crystals or whatever it may be. And in my opinion I think a lot of people in the industry his opinion is that more with gimmicks than anything else, I mean at the end of the day what makes it very high quality vodka is the attention to detail and that separation process that's done during distillation, so expensive does not necessarily mean better quality. You really just have to buy what you feel you like and those are characteristics that you have to look out for. You want something that's been really distilled out very lightly filtered, or do you want something that is just made from an exotic material and something that you just want on your shelf, it really depends.
Going on to the next topic. Whenever we have big meals, everyone seems to be sleepy afterwards. Is it the food coma, is the turkey to blame, is the alcohol to blame, what is it?
Dr. Da Silva 13:27
That's a very interesting question and it's something that, believe it or not, I've been asked a lot. I think we all go through that, where you know Thanksgiving and Christmas, especially in our western culture, have really been associated with a big turkey-based meal and, generally, people get tired after that meal so the question is, why, why do people get tired after, after these big meals. And, I mean, that's a bit of a multi pronged question there so it's a break it up alcohol. First, yes, it doesn't make you sleepy. But there's a lot to say about that, when it comes to the alcohol consumption and sleep quality, and it's something that I think a lot of people ignore or are unaware of. So alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. So it will cause sleepiness, simply by virtue of being a CNS depressant but that is only the first phase of what alcohol does to us when we're talking about sleep. Shortly after that a few hours after your last drink. You actually release Epinephrine, and your heart rate increases and usually this causes people to wake up in the middle of the night. It's not uncommon for people who have had a night of binge drinking to feel those heart palpitations, and in very severe cases even go to the hospital for that but during the holidays, someone who is having something to drink with their meals, etc., in the shorter term yes it will probably cause some sleepiness, or it can be. Turkey on the other hand is, I think it's a myth at least. The literature out there points to that, I mean, one of the reasons that whole myth is sort of out there is that we need to discuss and think about how we actually fall and remain asleep, we produce a hormone called melatonin and it's something that a lot of us have heard about a lot of people may even be taking it as a supplement to help with sleep, but our pineal gland will release melatonin, depending on the amount of light that effectively we're seeing so if it starts to get dark. We will start to release melatonin and that is what signals our body to start the process of going to sleep, and staying asleep. And that is what gives us our restful night's sleep is fall asleep, our body is now in that sleep phase and in the mornings when there is now light reverse happens we know that it's time to wake up, it's our sleep wake cycle that we have that is regulated by melatonin. Now the reason it's important to know a little bit about melatonin is that the whole concept around the turkey is that there is a lot of tryptophan in turkey, and that is the precursor to a neurotransmitter known as serotonin, which is then, which is what is modified in the pineal gland for melatonin. So tryptophan is effectively the precursor to melatonin. So the idea is if you're eating a lot of turkey, you're getting a lot of tryptophan in your system. Therefore, you're going to go, you're going to produce more melatonin and get sleepy. But the reality is that if you really look at the amino acid composition of Turkey versus other meats, it's pretty much the same, so they're like turkey itself is not really the explanation there as far as I'm concerned, and that's what the literature sort of points at is that it's not really the turkey, that's causing the problem in terms of sleepiness. The idea is that, you know, when you really look at what's happening around a holiday meal. Often, there's a lot of overeating happening in general, right and there's a lot of carbohydrates, heavy foods that are being consumed. So from my understanding anyways I could be wrong here, but the literature sort of suggests that it's really the higher intake of carbohydrates that are causing the sleepiness through various mechanisms and it's not really that dirty, but in any case, I mean it's really just a holiday meal type of thing people have heavier meals, people will argue a lot, probably just get tired. And then of course you have people who do drink are probably consuming some level of alcohol and there will be potentially some sleepiness, but that whole myth around turkey, in particular, I'm not totally convinced that it's the turkey itself. So I think it's a myth anyways.
Got it. And also, when you have those big meals everyone's cooking all day in the kitchen, you got to be tired from that too.
Dr. Da Silva 18:21
It's an energy issue there, I mean it's just a longer, bigger day.
So, one of the things I've seen trending on social media is things like charcuterie boards and like pairing little snacks with drinks.
Dr. Da Silva 18:40
You know when I think about pairings. There's some very big ones that pop into my mind. And one, the first one, is pairing wines with food. Wine is the bigger one, wines and beer just from the point of view that you're generally going to be consuming something that's lower alcohol throughout the course of a meal or course versus, you know spirits or cocktails or something along those lines, not necessarily always true but that's I think the general sort of mentality about these parents it usually revolves around wines beers, etc. So one of the, we were talking about those congeners at the beginning, and one of the things to think about when we're talking about wines is the tannin content. So tannins in wines give a very distinct mouthfeel. In fact, you know, for anyone who does not drink I mean eating an under ripe banana for example gives you that very waxy, almost dry feeling in your mouth. That's what you can get with very high tannic drinks. So that is one of the components to consider when pairing wines and food. Now, when we're talking about pairings it's important to note that you know when we're looking at an experience of eating that we're not only discussing taste I mean taste is only one sort of part of that. The other of course being texture of the food, mouthfeel of the food, and our smell, I mean if you remove the sense of smell, I mean our taste is just not there anymore it's not certainly not the same. So, a lot of this goes into pairing is, you know, it's all, it's a matter of how the pairing influences the mouthfeel the texture of the mouth, as well as it enhances and complements the taste and complements of the aromas that we're experiencing in our mouth and these cavities. So going back to the tannins, I mean this is one that I feel is a big one, it comes down to when you're sort of delineating between what would be a very high fat, and greasy meal, versus what it is not. So you can imagine that something that is very greasy like a burger or something along those lines will make your mouth a little slimy or greasy. So how you counterbalance that? Well, one way and it's something that I think is pretty common is to use a very tannic wine something that has a lot of tannins in it sort of counterbalances that greasiness simply by giving your mouth that rougher tannic feeling that you would normally get so very bold tannic wines for example would likely go well with very greasy foods. So when you're dealing with meat cold cuts or burgers or very heavy meat dishes, or whatever it is, usually you would probably want to go with a very bold red wine that's tannic in nature. On the contrary, right when you're dealing with things that are very, you know, very salty for example like seafood that usually are counterbalanced well with very nice light white wines, or with that, you know, crisper lighter flavor or even things like champagne, Proseccos, etc. Usually complement that saltiness that you would have from seafood, something like oysters or whatever it is. So that's one of the aspects. It's not everything but it's there but it's important to note that, you know our perception of foods really comes down not only to taste but to that mouthfeel as well. It's not uncommon to talk to someone who doesn't like a certain food, and, and hearing that exact same comments, a common one being mushrooms right where people enjoy the taste of mushrooms but can't handle that texture in their mouth. So it's, that's one of the reasons why that pairing works: you end up having that greasiness cut by that tannic nature of the wine. Another thing to consider, this is one that there's a bit of argument on I guess again it's a personal preference but has to do with pairing alcoholic drinks with very spicy foods. That is one that care should be taken into account, because not everyone likes spice so what you want to ensure that whatever you're pairing with that spicy food is not overly enhancing the spice, either. Otherwise, it can be a very unpleasant experience for someone who is eating. So what makes a food spicy? So capsaicin is the component in chilis that makes it very spicy, and it doesn't like water, it's a very hydrophobic molecule. So one of the things to consider is how a drinker sort of pairing with a very spicy food is going to interact with the compound that's creating the pain and creating that spicy feeling in the mouth and I just call it the taste of pain when you're starting to deal with, with spicy foods is triggering triggering the mouth to sense pain as an irritant. Alcohol is also an irritant but alcohol can dissolve out that compound that is creating the spicy sensation in the mouth, so there's a bit of, you know, discussion out there on this, you know, if you start to have a very low alcoholic content beverage with spicy food. Then effectively , it's just really water that's in that solution. So it really is just going to spread that pain around, it's not going to do anything to dissolve it out of your mouth and into your tummy. So there is discussions out there that you know higher content higher alcohol content wines and drinks are better with spicy foods, whereas if you're going to have a drink that's very low, that's tending towards the end of water, then it's just going to enhance that spiciness, in your mouth and I'm sure everyone has experienced this, if you're eating very spicy chicken wings for example you go for a glass of water. It's not the same as if you're going to go for a glass of milk, or something along those lines that will dissolve that out and calm that sensation in your mouth. Another school of thought on this is that the alcohol is in fact an irritant and can also start to enhance that reaction in your mouth, you should actually be serving lower alcohol content wines, etc., with spicy foods. I have not really done any empirical studies on this or anything, but those are the sort of two considerations to think about with that type of food, and pairing is whether you're going to go with high alcohol content wines or other beverages. It is interesting because if you really think about it, you know, what a classic out there is chicken wings with beer and beer is actually very low content alcohol, it's 5% range but yet, it seems to be people happy and extinguishes the pain so I guess it's out there for whatever works for people. Yeah. Yeah, so those are the two main ones that I consider when looking at pairings. Another is like is like, as well for a lot of these pairings with things that are very robust in flavor go with very robust foods. That's about all I can say really about pairings.
Thank you so much for coming on our show and teaching us about alcohol science.
Dr. Da Silva 26:09
No problem, it was a pleasure to be here.
And we hope all our listeners stay safe and we wish everyone a merry Christmas, happy holidays and a happy New Year.
Episode 1: Dr. Anthony Bonato on being a gay mathematician
In our first episode, Dr. Anthony Bonato of the Department of Mathematics reveals what he’s got in store for the LGBTQ+ Math Day on November 18th, 2020. He shares his experience as a gay man in the field of mathematics and the importance of creating an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ mathematicians. This event is open to LGBTQ+ community members in the math field, their allies, and anyone else who is interested. For more information about this free virtual event and how to register, visit: https://math.ryerson.ca/~abonato/LGBTQ/#.
About LGBTQ+ Math Day 00:45 | Dr. Bonato's Journey 09:05 | Being an Ally 13:55 | LGBTQ+ Role Models 17:15 | Event Details 21:06
You're listening to the very first episode of On A Tangent, a podcast hosted by Ryerson's Faculty of Science. I'm your host, Sarah McIntyre. On today's show we have a very special guest. Meet Dr. Anthony Bonato, a professor in the Department of Mathematics at Ryerson. He's a gay man and his research is on complex networks and graph theory. He's with me virtually today to talk about his experience as an openly gay mathematician. He's one of the co-chairs for the LGBTQ+ Math Day, hosted by the Fields Institute taking place on November 18th.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today Dr. Bonato, how are you doing?
Dr. Bonato 1:57
I'm doing great, I'm doing great, really happy to be here.
Awesome. So you are the co-chair of the LGBTQ+ Math Day which is taking place on November 18. Tell us a bit about it.
Dr. Bonato 2:11
So, the event started talking with one of my colleagues here at Ryerson Michelle Delcourt, and we were talking about an event, talking about Equity Diversity Inclusion events across campus and more generally in the community. And I realized there never been quite like this in Canada, there have been a few events like this elsewhere. So one in the UK, I believe, and one in the US, and actually I gave a talk last fall at something called LGBTQ+ Stem, which is a couple day conference and I was one of the math speakers there. But I realized there was nothing like this for mathematicians, speaking to members of the LGBTQ plus community so Michelle started talking and we thought of the idea, and then I pulled in Lisa Jeffrey, who's a friend of mine, she's a professor at University of Toronto. And we applied for Fields Institute funding and funding for the Faculty Science and we got it and I guess the rest is history.
Awesome. So, this event is aimed at mathematicians specifically?
Dr. Bonato 3:10
I would say yes, although we definitely would encourage anyone who's interested in math, even if you're not a mathematician like you're a math student or someone in science or engineering and of course we know mathematics is used in a variety of disciplines, or even if you're just, you're not in STEM at all, and you're just curious and you're interested in the event. We encourage you to come. It's a free registration, and like I said there are talks, and the panel, so you can engage in it for sure.
So why is an event like this important for mathematicians and the LGBTQ community and their allies, and other people as well?
Dr. Bonato 3:44
I think the other people as well is what's the most important thing, one of the, one of the important things. We really want to be inclusive. I mean is an event that which is going to showcase LGBTQ+ mathematicians of faculty and students and postdocs but we want to appeal to everybody and even if you're an ally, and you want to come along and learn more with the community you can do that. And as to why you know why it's important, representation here is really critical. I think back to my own experiences. When I was a graduate student, all the way through to becoming a tenure track professor to the present day. I didn't really have great role models. I didn't really have any role models for most of my career. So having people who you know are also identify as LGBTQ+ that you can interact with, talk with, network with. I think that can have a potentially really profound impact on people, just to, you know, lessen the sense of isolation, a lot of people do feel, especially in the mathematical sciences.
Great, so, this event is, I guess, the first of its kind. What makes it so unique?
Dr. Bonato 4:48
Well, we've never done anything quite like this in Canada. Like I mentioned, there have been events like this in the UK. So there was something called LGBT+ Steminar, right in the UK, and there is an event LG and TBQ run in the US. But those were the first one was more stem. The second one is aimed at mathematicians, there's the LGBTQ plus STEM conference now which seems to be an annual event it happened last year where I spoke and then again this October. But there really are not many events that are of this nature. The Canadian Math Society ran a lunch, inviting people who are LGBTQ+, and their allies to come and have a chat, and it was a great discussion. But there hasn't been really like conferences or workshops like this in Canada, I think there are more, you'll hear more about them in the future in the very near future. Of course the pandemic has created a little bit of a wrinkle, maybe not so much a little, a big wrinkle in all this. But actually, I'll say one thing about that, just segwaying with the pandemic. You know we were originally going to be in July, and we moved to November, we were going to be in person in July, but potentially we have a much greater reach now. So, as of about last week we have over 200 registered participants, so I'm super excited about that and we probably will get more. I mean just the contrast that we had though you know maybe 40 in person allow people to actually you know come to Toronto come to Fields Institute and so on. And now they can just join in by zoom.
That's amazing. So why do you think it has only taken until now for an event like this to happen?
Dr. Bonato 6:29
You know, now is the point of power, right. It's the, it's, it just takes people to do it. And, you know, there could be some sort of reason as to timing like fate or whatever else. Just, you know, articulating the idea to other people, my friends, and thinking about planning it, applying for it and doing it. I think definitely the time is right to do this, I mean it is 2020, and we have had great strides with LGBTQ+ equality and rights in this country and there's still a lot more work to do, especially on the trans and non binary fronts, but elsewhere in the world, things are not that way. So you know, Canada can be a bit of a shining beacon here, and we hope that others will like use this as a, I guess. An example. What I'm really hoping is that people will attend, hear about it, and then be inspired themselves to do their own conferences and create their own events
is just like builds momentum, I guess.
Dr. Bonato 7:32
Absolutely, like a little spark and then it sets everything else on fire so, you know, we'll see what happens but definitely there has been, like when I started this work, EDI work a little more intentionally in my career, a couple years back there really were not many events, but since then I've spoke on a number of panels. You know my blog and writing on this topic has been well received and there are a number of other people in Canada and elsewhere who were doing this, and it's really important work it is work, but it is very important work to do.
So at the event, what sort of topics are the speakers going to be talking about?
Dr. Bonato 8:09
So we're asking people to present a snapshot of their research and also talk, if they're comfortable with a little bit of their journey and experiences as an LGBTQ+ academic, with the pandemic and with Zoom, what I found. I don't know what your experiences, is that hour long talks are a bit long. It's a little harder for me to pay attention really, I think my students probably feel the same way, while I'm doing remote teaching. So you know we've limited to half an hour so that does restrict down the time that people have. But we're going to see a mix of things. So for example, Emily Real, who's a professor at Johns Hopkins, she's going to talk about her very cutting edge research on something called infinite dimensional category theory, which has won awards for its really exciting pure mathematical work. And if you look at what Ron Buchmeier from Occidental College he's going to talk about his her opening speaker, he's going to talk about his applied mathematical research but also filter that through his experience as an openly gay black man in the LGBTQ+ mathematical community in the US, so we'll have lots of opportunities for kind of math discussions but also discussions about people's careers. And also I think for me identity is so critically important. Too often, LGBTQ most people put other things in front of their LGBTQ+ identity, you know saying like I'm a mathematician and a gay man, I'd like people to start thinking more like in my case, I'm a gay man, who's a mathematician, that's a critical piece of my identity. And we have to own that. And so we're gonna see a mix of things. And also just plug in at the end we have this panel which I referenced earlier, and we have Robin Gaudreau from University of Toronto, and Brian Katz, as a professor in the US, they're going to join the panel and Imogen Coe from our Faculty of Science is going to moderate it and we'll have an opportunity for feedback from people to ask questions and they'll talk about their experiences with guided questions and so on.
That's amazing. Okay, so speaking of, I guess, journeys, your own journey. Are you comfortable with speaking about your own?
Dr. Bonato 10:14
Well yes, very much so, yeah, yeah, no I'm highly comfortable talking about it maybe people want me to stop talking about. I've been very open, actually some people say I'm one of the more open positions but for me that sort of plays into that narrative, you know, it's so if you feel safe to do it. It's really important to be open to talk about these things, that's how change happens. So my journey, I grew up in rural Ontario, in Niagara, and felt pretty isolated, like I guess a lot of people from small towns do who are LGBTQ+ and underrepresented groups. And then in university again I didn't really see a lot of people who, who were like me, I knew one gay professor, and just a very small collection of gay students and peers, and even into the professoriat. So I became a professor in 1998, when I was out East in Mount Allison and then I went back to Ontario to Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University as a tenure track professor. I was open people knew I was gay, but it was something that basically was kinda like a Don't Ask Don't Tell at that time, 20 years ago. 20 years ago may not seem like a long time ago but it was very different. There was a social media, gay marriage was illegal in the country. And then I was very happy to come to Toronto I had a long distance relationship two body problem, they call it, where my, my now husband live in Toronto and I was living in Waterloo and then the job came up at Ryerson I jumped at that so I could live in Toronto I was commuting back and forth.
Dr. Bonato 11:52
Yeah it was doable, and I had an understanding department chair and Dean who allowed me to come in just a few times a week. And I know there are people with two body problems which are much worse like people I know someone who was in the Atlantic provinces who was going back and forth to Toronto. So, yeah, I get the Zoom now, it doesn't matter but certainly in person it's a challenge. But you know, my experiences in Waterloo I mean I'll tell one brief story. So gay marriage was very much up for debate at a time, at the federal level and also provincial level. And I remember calling my MPP in Waterloo, Kitchener-Waterloo at the time, and expressing my, you know, supportive of gay marriage, gay and lesbian marriage, and I got, I it was it was recording, so I just left my comment, and I got a message back I was away and I came home and messages said that there were 100 calls that day. To the Kitchener-Waterloo MPP about this, and I was the only person voicing support.
Oh my god.
Dr. Bonato 12:50
Yes, that, that really, you know, we live in our bubble, we have our friends or colleagues or allies, but you know that at that time was such a big deal for me. I'm not saying that was the reason I moved to Toronto, but I've always felt Toronto was an extremely open and welcoming place for people of all different backgrounds and experiences. That's been my experience largely. I've experienced discrimination here like I'm sure many other people have. But, Toronto has been really a place where I blossomed. And I think I've found my voice as a gay mathematician and activist.
That's great. So did you find any challenges like specifically in the math community or science community like is there a stigma towards gay people?
Dr. Bonato 13:37
As you would imagine that it's gotten much better. But there, there's still, there's not as much outright discrimination, although there, there still are examples of this. But what I find is there's this overwhelming silence. You know and silence, is, is not good. I think it's really, there's an opportunity here for allies who are the majority, I heard recently there was some discussion from a staff person from NSERC. They said that about 4 to 5% of applicants they're doing some statistics for the Canada Research share applicants, about 4 to 5%, identify as LGBTQ+. So that's, that's not zero, right, that's low I mean not we're talking like 95% If we can count that stat in the Math Community in the STEM community are not, do not identify as LGBTQ, they didn't disclose or identify. So we're kind of we exist in some sense at the mercy of the majority. Right. I mean this is, you know, gay marriage is something that could go away tomorrow, if you know if politicians voted away, right, so our rights very much our rights and freedoms are very much dependent on others as a minority. And so yeah, we really look to other, you know, our allies, we have to organize amongst ourselves, but we will look to our allies, or for support and direction here.
So what do you call for allies to do what, what would be the best thing for allies to support the community.
Dr. Bonato 15:09
That's a fantastic question. It's a question that I asked myself a lot, because I think it's not a completely answered question. I think, you know, one thing I think you can do is to say you're an ally, that's incredibly powerful. You know, for mathematicians maybe in their signature in their emails to put their pronouns. You know, you may be cis-gendered, but, but doing that, it kind of reinforces the normality of doing that for people who are, you know, gender fluid or trans, you know, saying you're an ally, speaking up. You know it's one of those things. There have been a number of examples of situations in the math community where great people just stayed silent on issues. There was a recent sort of controversy in the math community where there was a very, very open letter, open discussion about diversity statements and hiring, and a very prominent mathematician said, I wont to get into the specifics, very prominent mathematician said they're a bad idea, and compared it to like McCarthyism, in the states in the 50s, and it created this whole cascading back and forth. People who were in favour of that comment, or people who were not. And what people forget is that we're talking about people. You know, diversity representation, you know, I learned from Imogen Coe, I believe, learned from Denise O'Neil Green's statement that diversity is a fact, inclusion is a choice. And obviously want to hire the best people, we're looking for excellence, but having a more diverse representation of people we hire at universities is so critically important. Most mathematicians kind of look, frankly, like me. Right? White, middle-aged guy.
Dr. Bonato 16:49
Yes, right, and that's, that's just the reality there's like under 20% of mathematicians in Canada are women, for example, right. And we need to change that we may need to make our profession, look more like Canada, look more like the rest of the world, and also to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ so, so back to your question about what you know how to be an ally, don't be quiet. You have a voice, use it. Also, you know, sort of complementing that is to listen. I've had people say to me like well you know things are better now everything is great and it's like they are better, it's true, the work is far from done and there's so much more work to do in this space.
Yeah, and even like recently on social media, I've seen a lot of people have been pushing to use pronouns in your bios for like all your accounts and stuff and I started doing that because it's just showing that you are an ally you show your support and it's, it's not a hard, it's not hard to put your pronouns in your bio.
Dr. Bonato 17:46
Absolutely. As I said some cisgender people think well why bother, but you know, it does help you feel a little more like it helps trans and non binary people if you're more included so things like that. Small things like that are so important like land acknowledgments with, for example, the Indigenous community things like how they help.
Did you have any role models growing up?
Dr. Bonato 18:08
Yeah, I have to say, I had none. I had mathematical role models, people in the history of math and my professors and looked up to, but I had no LGBTQ+ role models. And I guess I turned out okay. I've had a successful career, but I wonder, you know, if I had had those role models, what, how things would have been different, there's certainly for me a lot of stumbling around, you know, even now trying to build these communities, you know, having a small part of building community. I didn't have any and so I think that's incredibly important now. I talked to a lot of students and postdocs who, you know, ask me questions like for example I'm trans, and should I put that in my application for my PhD? Because they feel, I think understandably, that maybe if they just apply, blind, and go to a department or faculty university where they're, they're not going to be supported, that it could be a real disaster for them right. But at the same time they feel nervous like if I self-identify are people going to look, look at me differently, and those kinds of questions like I don't claim to know the answer to that, I have my own opinions but, you know, being able to talk to others about those kind of things. That's a very specific question that could really guide someone in their early career, having a large group of people having role models that can be really helpful.
Right. Um, so I guess I did a little bit of looking or research and I found Out Magazine publishes a list of like top influential LGBTQ+ people, and I looked through the list and, like, one or two at most were from stem, and they were like, CEO of a tech company or something like it was pushing it there, but, um, I know ASAP science are two gay men, and that's, that's a good representation in the science community are there anyone else?
Dr. Bonato 20:09
There is an organization in the US called Spectra and several Spectra of board members, or speakers in the day, but I have to say math is probably behind some of the other sciences. It's hard to I don't want to try and do comparisons. I've heard people say like in engineering for example there's not a lot of representation. I know physics. I was a panelist in a physics conference on EDI and I think physics is a little ahead of the curve as maybe biology and chemistry, but again, I have no real information about this. In mathematics really it's just sort of the beginning, the conversation is beginning and as you say, with Out Magazine, and other representation of STEM, LGBTQ+ people in STEM, there's, I don't know, in our culture in North America anyway, there can be a little bit of a thread of anti-intellectualism that happens, and I've certainly experienced that, and colleagues I know have as well. And, you know, for whatever reason, you know, a musician or someone sports who they make 70 million or something, contract, I mean they're put on pedestals and you know they're, it's wonderful. I can't do what they do. But at the same time I think we really need to focus on our thought leaders, not just in math, but in STEM and also not just in STEM but in in a whole academic intellectual pursuit, I mean there's there's so many brilliant minds out there who are LGBTQ+, you know, working in academia working in industry, as you mentioned some tech CEOs, I think probably we need to do a better job overall in our society, and sort of, you know, uplifting those people and you know, talking about their experiences.
I'll just plug the conference. So, I really would love everyone to attend, like I said it's free, it's November 18, which coincides with LGBT STEM Day, which is a global initiative. It starts around 12:45, our own Dean of Science David Cramb is going to be giving opening remarks, and then we have our speakers, I'll be talking too. And we'll have a panel, they'll definitely be opportunities for people to ask questions and to network. So just go on my website or google LGBTQ+ Math Day you can find the website quite easily and register on the Fields website. It's free and easy, and we hope to see everybody there.
Great, and I wish you best, best of luck at the event and thank you so much for taking the time to share your story today.
Dr. Bonato 22:35
That's great, Thank you so much.