Critical disability studies student has overcome many obstacles

Looking at York graduate student Melissa Vassallo across the table, it is hard to believe this attractive young woman, with lively eyes and warm smile, was so damaged in a car collision eight years ago, her heart stopped three times, wrote The Oakville Beaver Sept. 3.

A seatbelt saved her, but the internal damage caused by the restraint was extreme. The hospital recorded 82 injuries caused by the impact; as well as a fractured spine, a number of her internal organs were bruised and damaged, her lungs had collapsed, her heart was so traumatized it was shutting down, more than 50 bones were broken, both knees were fractured and both ankles broken and all were later fused, she had to have an aortic stent and her intestines were so severely damaged, two-thirds of her digestive tract had to be removed.

It was a long hard battle getting to where she is today and Vassallo is far from finished. She has had to endure more than 50 operations and there are more to come. For years her life has revolved in and around hospitals.

It was through her [work with a number of charity associations] that she started to develop the idea of making it a mission to be an advocate for the disabled.

“The goal is to remove barriers for disabilities across Canada. I want to bring accessibility to people with disabilities,” said Vassallo. “Whatever barriers impede that person from interacting in society, whether it is mental or physical, for it is often a combination where people don’t always understand the programs and equipment available to meet their needs.”

She is now 30, and admits there are still some holes in her personal life. But since she has made it her goal to do what she can to try to make life easier for people with disabilities, she is working towards a master’s degree in critical disability studies in York’s Faculty of Graduate Studies, to help her do that. Above all, she hopes to challenge stereotypes about the disabled and feels she can be a good example of a person living with a disability, a person who is happy, has a lot of friends and is very productive.

“It is really important that no matter what the situation is, we try to do as well as possible. We all have bad days. But anything is possible if you put your mind to it. If you have a bad day, the next day is a new day.”

The case of the vanishing taxonomists

The science of describing and naming species – of saying what they are – is called taxonomy, wrote The Globe and Mail Sept. 4 in a story about the declining number of “master taxonomists” and an increasing reliance on molecular DNA by younger researchers.

Known internationally as the “taxonomic impediment”, this problem is a rising issue among those struggling to understand biodiversity.

The morphological taxonomist, engrossed in a single group and identifying its members by visual inspection, is increasingly an emeritus professor or someone near retirement. Younger scientists are drawn to molecular taxonomy, where powerful new techniques in the study of DNA have revealed interspecies connections never before suspected.

“The risks associated with loss of traditional knowledge also will apply directly to the molecular approaches,” says Laurence Packer, a York University bee expert, “as identifications based on the latter ultimately entirely rely upon accuracy in the former.”

Just this week, one of Packer’s students – Jason Gibbs (PhD ’10) – published his discovery of a new bee species. He had plucked the specimen from a flower in downtown Toronto, examined it by microscope, checked the DNA, and “Eureka!”

  • Apparently, the downtown core is a hub of biological diversity, wrote the National Post Sept. 4. Yes, there are more than just pigeons and bedbugs. York University researcher Jason Gibbs (PhD ’10) discovered a new species of bee in downtown Toronto, which he has named Lasioglossum ephialtum.

Gibbs has identified 19 new species of sweat bees across Canada. The bees are named for their attraction to perspiration (sounds scary) and can be tough to identify. But Gibbs says it’s important to do so, “because if we don’t know what bees we have, we can’t know what bees we’re losing.”

Orphan’s desire to learn pays off

Among the thousands of students about to start university, few will have fought as hard or as long for the privilege as Matthew Nguyen, wrote the Toronto Star Sept. 4.

Time and time again his quest for an education has been thwarted.

First it was by the relatives he was sent to live with in Canada at age 10, after he was orphaned when his mother died in France. His uncle kept him out of school, so he ran away at 16, settled into a youth shelter, and presented himself at William Burgess Elementary School asking if he could begin Grade 6.

Now 22, Nguyen finally begins classes Sept. 13. He’s enrolled at York University’s Glendon College, where he will study French. “I’m really excited,” Nguyen says. “I’m happy I’m finally there and where I really want to be.”

Universities teaching new students to brush up on social media skills

Universities across the country are offering workshops, seminars and tip sheets on social media etiquette to new students, warning them of the potential consequences of posting every drunken moment online, wrote The Canadian Press Sept. 4.

The career centre at York University offers a workshop to students wanting to learn how to use social media to find jobs, which includes a component on how to present oneself professionally online.

York students play at the Brantford international Jazz Festival

Opposite Zoe Blair on the Youth Stage will be guitarist Miles Finlayson, a student at York University who has been lucky enough to study guitar with York music instructors Brian Katz and Lorne Lofsky, and work under fellow instructors in the Faculty of Fine Arts Mike Murley, Mark Eisenman and Jim Vivian, wrote the Brantford Expositor Sept. 4 in a story about the Brantford International Jazz Festival, which runs Sept. 18 & 19. His quartet includes Aaron Carter on bass, Jon Foster on drums, and his father Jim Finlayson on the piano.

Ninety minutes later the Youth Stage will feature another York University student, singer Brijana Blackmore. She is a graduate of the Etobicoke School of the Arts and is currently exploring the music of Brazil.

Grad author did first-person research in Indonesia for his novel

To help someone, one needs more than good intentions. Knowledge helps, wrote the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal Sept. 4 in a review of Chris Benjamin’s debut novel, Drive-By Saviours.

While taking a master in environmental studies at Toronto’s York University, Benjamin (MES ’01) went to Indonesia, just after Suharto, through the school’s exchange program.

He visited fishing villages and learned of the real fear parents had about losing their kids to the educational system, which he describes as similar to the residential schools in Canada. They disrupted local, natural community and family practices: “This is children at a young age helping their parents do what they do. This is how it works. It’s not a sweatshop by any means.”

York listed among institutes on the cutting-edge of environmental studies

Environmental institutes across Canada offer students a chance to delve into new research in their field, wrote the Alternatives Journal Sept. 1 in a story that included York’s Institute for Research & Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS). Although some undergraduate research opportunities are not always easily accessible, many institutes can point inquiring students in the right research direction.

IRIS offers junior research fellowships to both graduate and undergraduate students. It is heavily involved in student-led campus-sustainability initiatives, offers a public speaker series and provides information about external work placements in the environmental field.

Standing on guard (short-term) for Canada

While other summer students may toil in retail or restaurant jobs, Jag Rai serves on the front lines of national defence, screening passengers during Canada’s busiest travel season, wrote the Toronto Star Sept. 6 in a story about students hired across Canada by the Canada Border Services Agency during summer.

All are trained to try to detect illegal migrants, drug smugglers and terrorists, as well as the ordinary traveller attempting to sneak in, say, a banned chunk of cheese.

Rai, 21, a criminology major at York University, said it is not always easy to deal with tired and irritable passengers, who face an inspection after a 12-hour flight. “Once you explain the legislation and your role, they are fine with it,” he said.

On air

  • Comments by Bruce Ryder, a professor in York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, about the case of a Manitoba judge whose husband posted nude photos of her on the Internet were featured in a phone-in session on Toronto’s AM640 Radio, Sept. 3.
  • Susan Dimock, professor of moral philosophy in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, spoke about moral certainty on CBC Radio’s “Ideas” program, Sept. 6.
  • First-year students at York spoke about Frosh Week on CBC Radio Toronto Sept. 6.