There were no biology departments 50 years ago

What better way to reflect on the changes in education and research over the past 50 years, wrote University Affairs in a story Oct. 5, than to look at a single department – especially in the sciences – and what better place to do it than a university that opened its doors 50 years ago?

In most, perhaps all, universities of the time, there was no department of biology. There was a botany department. There was a zoology department. There might be, rarely, a department of genetics that had been established when scientists discovered that genes somehow governed heredity. And these departments met in only a perfunctory way, if at all.

“Keep in mind that the package ‘biology’ comes to us as organisms – we see birds, we see plants, we see animals,” says Ken Davey, professor emeritus in York’s Department of Biology in the Faculty of Science & Engineering and one of Canada’s foremost entomologists. “And for many, many years, that’s the way the science was organized in universities.”

The spanking new York University, with a handful of students and only three scientists on its fledgling faculty, would be the first in Canada to dispense with the old divisions and have, simply, a Department of Biology. That was partly out of necessity – there was no way a new school could obtain the resources to staff two or three separate departments – and it was partly a matter of philosophy, according to Ron Pearlman, University Professor emeritus, one of the earlier members of the department.

The philosophical point – echoed across the University and not just in the sciences – was that knowledge should be integrated. In the early years, first- and second-year students didn’t take a chemistry course or a physics course, Pearlman says. Instead they took courses that tried very hard to paint a broad picture of science.

The idea of York University was born in the late 1950s. It opened its doors in 1960 in a borrowed building on the University of Toronto campus and moved to U of T’s Glendon campus the following year. By the time Pearlman arrived – recruited in 1968 by his former teacher Harold Schiff, the first dean of science at York – the biology department and its eight members were ensconced on the barely developed Keele Street campus. “It was raw, tiny, out of the way,” Pearlman recalls.

But that very newness, he says, was one of the attractive features of the school for a young scientist. “There were no precedents,” he remembers. “No one said, ‘We didn’t do this 50 years ago, so you can’t do it today.’” The integrated department was one of those new things, and it put brash young York at the forefront of Canadian biological science.

Under Davey’s leadership, York added researchers interested in the population level of biology. Brock Fenton – known to many Canadians as a popular and entertaining expert on bats – was the marquee hire in 1986 and went on to chair the department for six years.

The facility attracted some of the big names in Canadian biological science. Lap-Chee Tsui, one of the discoverers of the gene defect involved in cystic fibrosis, came to Keele Street to do some of his work. Tak Mak, who found the T-cell receptor, one of the keys to the human immune system, did some of his research at York. The resulting cross-fertilization helped cement York’s reputation as a centre of biological excellence.

York is attracting a plethora of students, and the department’s 40 faculty members make it a “relatively large department by national standards,” says Imogen Coe, the current chair.

History professor helps Canadianize the Thanksgiving story

We hear plenty of American stories about Thanksgiving. The Mayflower, pilgrims and turkeys are all stuff of legend that, because of media saturation, have become part of our holiday imagery, wrote Frank Rupnik in The Sault Star Oct. 9.

However, Canadians also have some worthy Thanksgiving-related stories. In the days of the pioneers, surviving the tough Canadian winter was reason enough to give thanks.

According to former York University PhD history candidate Peter Stevens (MA ’99), Thanksgiving in Canada can be traced back to Ontario in the mid-1880s.

Protestant church leaders decided to borrow the American tradition of Thanksgiving but they wished to turn Thanksgiving into a nationalistic, religious event, which excluded Catholics, the poor and many minority groups.

In his brief online article about Canadian Thanksgiving, Stevens dismisses the myth that Canadian Thanksgiving had its origins with French Canadians.

Does the Maple Leaf need to be there?

That Canada has a stake in the Great Game has been acknowledged for years by government officials and parliamentarians, wrote the Pacific Free Press Oct. 7 in a story about Canada’s interest in Afghanistan’s oil resources. Rob Sobhani, president of Caspian Energy Consuting, adds that Canadian leadership on the question of the TAPI pipeline could help “depoliticize” the involvement of foreign companies in a way that the US or UK cannot.

But Todd Gordon, political science course director in York University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies and the author of a forthcoming book on Canadian foreign policy, argues differently.

“Wherever Canadian companies go, especially in the natural resources sector, they leave a trail of human rights and ecological disasters behind them,” Gordon says. “It’s not a case of a few exceptions to an otherwise benign Canadian capital. It’s systemic. Like their counterparts from other nations, Canadian companies are driven by one thing: the pursuit of profit.”

York’s ABEL network helps Ottawa students and teachers connect

Students and teachers at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) have some powerful new learning resources to take advantage of as they begin the new school year, wrote the West Carleton EMC Oct. 9 in a story about several new technologies now available to them.

Schools also use the Ontario Research and Innovation Nework (ORION) for professional development opportunities. ORION recently teamed up with Advanced Broadband Enabled Learning (ABEL) at York University to present the ORION-ABEL Webcasts, a series of training Webcasts for teachers to learn about specific teaching and learning technologies and how to incorporate them into the classroom.

Legalized prostitution doesn’t work

Prostitution is a risky business, wrote columnist Susan Martinuk in the Calgary Herald Oct. 9. That’s why our society discourages girls from making it a career choice and encourages prostitutes to pursue an alternate line of work.

But rather than working to get women out of this dangerous business, an idealistic law professor and his students from York’s Osgoode Hall Law School have decided to help prostitutes by joining forces with three women (a dominatrix, a former sex trade worker and a working prostitute) and pushing for the full legalization of prostitution in Canada.

Under our current laws, it’s illegal to run a bawdy house, communicate for the purposes of prostitution and live off the avails of prostitution. The Osgoode elites believe this amounts to a legal failure to uphold a prostitute’s right to liberty and security.

Right and left on the money

Well, as the left-winger here, I agree that the “collective value system” that dominates American life “has gone off the rails”, said David McNally, political science professor in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, in a film review of Capitalism: A Love Story  for the National Post Oct. 9. But before we start turning warm and fuzzy and declaring our agreement, let’s cut to the chase. Michael Moore is doing more than denouncing the obscenity of pilots living below the poverty line. He is insisting that poverty, homelessness and disregard for the lives of working people are inherent in a system driven by the maximization of corporate profits. This is the strength of the film. More than just expose injustice, it insists there is a social-economic system at fault: capitalism.

There is a nostalgic element to Moore’s film but what gives the film its edge isn’t his waxing nostalgic; it’s his condemnation of a system that rewards those in power for eliminating jobs, slashing wages and busting unions in order to boost the corporate bottom line, said McNally. Sure, he admires the New Deal reforms of the 1930s and ’40s that put some limits on such behaviour. But capitalists bristled at them – and have spent the last quarter century destroying them, with predictable results. While Moore might like to turn the clock back, what is most compelling about the film is his dawning recognition that capitalism actually rewards those with power for inflicting hardship on the majority of people.

New GO Bus service helps York teacher cut out a drive

“It’s great news,” said transit proponent Paul Langan in a story about improved Go Transit bus service in his neighbourhood, in a story in the Waterloo Region Record Oct. 9. “It’s going to give people options. But we have to move forward now to a complete solution.”

From a personal point of view, Langan called GO Bus service a “godsend” when his wife Debra was commuting to York University where she was a research associate in the Centre for the Support of Teaching. She used to drive to Aberfoyle, and pick up the bus there.