York U 3MT winner headed for provincial finals

Benjamin Voloh
Benjamin Voloh

Benjamin Voloh, a PhD student in biology, will represent York University at the provincial Three Minute Thesis (3MT) finals at Wilfrid Laurier University on April 14.

3MT is a research communications competition for graduate students. Developed in Australia by the University of Queensland in 2008, 3MT challenges students to explain their research to a non-specialist in just three minutes.

The 20 competitors in the provincial competition are all winners of local competitions hosted by every university in Ontario. Livestreaming of the event will begin at 10am via: livestream.com/cigionline/events/5142325.

The top three presenters, in addition to a participant’s choice award, will receive cash prizes as well as a chance to compete nationally in Canada’s 3MT competition hosted by the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS) later this spring.

Voloh placed first in York’s regional competition for his talk “A spotlight in the brain: brain waves underlying the control of attention” which is based on his research on how the brain controls and switches attention in a dynamic and flexible way. In addition to being awarded a $1,000 cash prize, he was also awarded the People’s Choice Award – a $250 prize – as voted by his peers.

Voloh works in the Attentional Circuits Control Lab under Professor Thilo Womelsdorf.

“Attention is like a spotlight; it illuminates the things that are important to us, and overlooks the things that aren’t,” said Voloh. “The problem is that our spotlight can be turned towards the wrong things.

“This is a major problem in many different kinds of mental disorders – for example, in people suffering from depression, the spotlight is turned inwards towards negative thoughts and emotions, and so ‘overlooks’ positive thoughts.”

His research targets brain waves in the anterior cingulate cortex, to engage or disengage the attention spotlight at will in order to induce waves when an individual is focusing on something positive, or scramble the waves to prevent focus on something negative.

York University's 3MT finalists with the judges and Faculty of Graduate Studies deans
York University’s 3MT finalists with the judges and Faculty of Graduate Studies deans

Nada Elassal, a master’s student in computer science, placed second for her talk “Counting the Crowds” based on her work in the Human & Computer Vision Lab in the Centre for Vision Research. She was awarded a $500 prize.

“Crowd counting is vital for crowd safety in public places,” she notes. “Getting instant counts of people in sport stadiums, train stations and shopping malls is key to ensure that maximum capacity regulations are met. Furthermore, the size of a crowd attending political events, such as demonstrations, has major political implications.”

Elassal is building a computer algorithm for automated crowd counting, which works by finding motion regions in images and analyzing the shape and size of different clusters of individuals.

“In the end, my research is exploring whether we can ultimately build a machine that is capable of not only understanding one person, but understanding what happens when many people come together,” she said.

Amrit Dhillon, a master’s student in sociology, placed third for her talk “Lighten up: Skin Lightening and Canadian South Asian Women” based on her research examining the practice of skin lightening among this population. She was awarded a $250 prize.

“Skin lightening is a popular beauty practice taken up mostly by women of colour,” she said. It involves the use of products, treatments and procedures to lighten, whiten and brighten skin tone.

“I examine this issue through the lens of shadeism – discrimination based on skin tone,” she explained. “Shadeism has far-reaching implications among visible minority groups, particularly the South Asian community. This practice links into many transnational networks of beauty ideals, gender norms and ethnicity. My work contributes to a growing body of research that examines the implications of not only racial discrimination, but also discrimination based on skin tone.”