Cinema studies professor practises what he preaches

Professor Djigo featured image for YFile story

By Elaine Smith

Assistant Professor Moussa Djigo believes that if he is going to teach production, he should understand the DNA of filmmaking.

Although Djigo has a scholarly book in the works, this assistant professor of film production in the School of Arts, Media, Performance & Design is focusing most of his creative energies on making his own films.

“My research is doing what I teach,” he says.

Djigo has written, directed and produced two feature-length fiction films to date: Obamas (2015) and Rosalie (2018). They have won 20 awards on the film festival circuit between them, screened at venues worldwide and aired on TFO (a Canadian French language educational television channel).

Moussa Djigo

“I usually take about three years to complete a feature film from the time we begin shooting,” he notes.

Obamas, written shortly after Djigo moved to Montreal from France, is his response to a debate taking place about Quebec cinema at the time about whether films actually reflected life in Montreal. He addressed the primacy of race in judging people by creating two main characters who are each played by three actors of different backgrounds and ethnic groups.

“It’s a philosophical take on identity,” says Djigo. “It shows how people stick to rigid ideas that aren’t so true; we tend to just repeat what we have been told about ourselves without questioning the validity of it.

“People [in the film] may be judged based on how they appear on the outside, even though their character is the same. It could be anyone meeting anyone. Faces don’t tell anything about territory any more. We are a country made predominantly of immigrants and the idea about where you are from becomes more and more complicated.”

Rosalie takes a poke at the romantic comedy genre by doing an autopsy of a failed relationship instead of promising a successful one.

“Usually, in a romantic comedy, the woman gets a man, has kids and lives happily ever after,” Djigo says. “You create something that doesn’t exist in real life to make people dream. In Rosalie, the dream is a thing of the past while the present is a nightmare.

“In an era where personal freedom is conquered, many seem not to be happy in their love life; freedom doesn’t seem to solve things for us. Maybe love has a lifespan if you disregard the old rules. How depressing.”

Djigo has a third film in the works, one that he hopes to have ready in the spring for the upcoming festival season. It’s his most personal film yet, a meditation on fatherhood that is a tribute to his own father who passed away last year. Djigo and friend and colleague York AMPD Assistant Professor of film, Manfred Becker, who acted as his cinematographer, made a trip this summer to the village in Senegal where he grew up and shot the film on site.

“It’s about every father who wants to be there for his children,” Djigo says. “I wanted to take my art back to the village where I grew up, and it was very nice to involve people there.”

The film features a couple of actors with theatre experience, but most of the participants are non-professional locals (farmers, fishermen or shepherds), including his mother.

“I think I’ll do that again,” Djigo says. “Untrained actors don’t overthink their performances; they have nothing at stake. They are just there to have fun.

“The sky is the limit if you create trust with your cast and, as director, establish a family-like relationship. It’s the vibe I try to create. I tell them: ‘Go ahead and look extremely silly if you want’; it takes away the pressure. If they’re not thinking about you judging them and they know they’re allowed to fail, then they succeed.

“It will probably be my best film yet. But that’s what I say after every shoot.”

The engine behind human gut microbiome analysis and data science

3d rendered medical illustration of the microbiome of the small intestine

By Elaine Smith

As his career unfolds, biostatistician Kevin McGregor is becoming very familiar with the human gut microbiome. His work is particularly relevant given the human biome is a community of microorganisms that inhabit our bodies and appears to be linked to numerous health concerns, both physical and mental.

McGregor, an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in the Faculty of Science, is a biostatistician who joined York University in 2021 after finishing his PhD at McGill University. He is part of the team involved in creating and teaching in the department’s new data science program, which makes its debut in 2023, but he is also involved in developing statistical models and associated software packages for understanding the makeup of the gut microbiome.

“My training is very quantitative, so I’m involved on the mathematical/statistical side,” says McGregor. “The microbiologists collect all the data and it’s my job to come up with the statistical methods to analyze it.”

Kevin McGregor
Kevin McGregor

He might be involved in looking into one species of microorganism if it’s abundant and considered relevant to a particular disease, such as Crohn’s disease, or he might be exploring the interaction between various types of microbes in the overall network.

“Microorganisms don’t live independently; they may be symbiotic or competing for resources,” says McGregor. “We’re looking for correlations related to metabolic interactions. I usually develop a methodology for analysis and the accompanying software. The first step is more theoretical; then, I create a software package so the microbiologists can plug in the data and get answers.”

Most of the studies compare the genetic sequencing for the microbiomes of hundreds of individuals. Researchers are looking at the counts of various species of microorganisms that are present to see if the patterns align with specific diseases or biomarkers.

One of the challenges of analyzing microbiome data is that numerous zeroes appear to indicate that certain organisms have no presence in an individual’s microbiome. Sometimes, these are false negatives; the stool sample that was used to sequence the individual’s gut microbiome simply didn’t include a specific microbe.

“They are statistically difficult to deal with,” McGregor says. “It requires that I develop a statistical method that can look at the network patterns but get around this challenge.”

The programs that McGregor devises must determine what the probability is that any zero truly indicates the absence of that microbe. One of the methods he employs to weed out the false negatives is the zero-inflated logistic normal multinomial model.

Next comes the software development that allows him to “fit” the model: input real data and get an output. Genetic sequencing of the microbiome provides “tons of data,” says McGregor, and the models are complicated. The associated software can take “hours and hours to run” on a computer, so he looks for shortcuts, such as the variational Bayes method, a statistical tool that is computationally efficient. McGregor is currently supervising a postdoctoral fellow, Ismaïla Ba, PhD, who is working on this model.

McGregor says he loves the problem-solving aspect of his work, devising new models or improving existing ones. He also likes the real-world applications that his work makes possible and enjoys the opportunity to collaborate with researchers in a broad range of fields. He recently joined forces with Joseph De Souza, an assistant professor of systems neuroscience, to apply for grants that will allow them to examine microbiome data related to Parkinson’s disease. He’s also involved with the Integrated Microbiome Platforms for Advancing Causation Testing and Translation (IMPACTT) team, which is a multi-disciplinary microbiome research core across Canadian universities.

“My dream is to be viewed as having a positive impact on microbiome research, developing models and giving sound advice to researchers in the field,” McGregor says. “I’d also like to come up with statistically innovative techniques in this area and be recognized by the statistics community.”

McGregor’s career is young; look for its impact to grow exponentially.

Black scholars form new interdisciplinary research cluster

image shows a graphic featuring social networks

By Elaine Smith

A group of professors affiliated in various ways with York University’s African Studies Program join forces to create a unique, interdisciplinary research cluster focusing on adaptive knowledge, response, recovery and resilience in transnational Black communities.

The research cluster focuses on the nexus between structural injustices and Black communities’ adaptive knowledge systems and resources for mitigating, responding to and recovering from epidemics.

The Overcoming Epidemics: Transnational Black Communities’ Response, Recovery and Resilience cluster was born in response to a call from the vice-president, research and innovation to accelerate interdisciplinary research with a focus on United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) around key institutional strategic initiatives.

Mohamed Sesay
Mohamed Sesay

“We built on our existing relationships to develop a team to harness our expertise and research interests to look at inequity concerns in disease outbreaks among Black communities,” says Mohamed Sesay, assistant professor and co-ordinator of the African Studies Program in the Department of Social Science in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS). “We were interested in connecting health questions to structural and social justice questions.

“We’re not just interested in outbreaks among Black communities, but in knowledge systems. We want to develop an intersectional, feminist and decolonial framework to interact with communities’ responses to epidemics and the barriers they face.”

While the call for funding may have given the group the impetus to formalize the project idea, the members all have an interest in creating an interdisciplinary consortium. In addition to Sesay, the interdisciplinary team of researchers includes LA&PS Professors Sylvia Bawa, Mary Goitom, Uwafiokun Idemudia and Nathanael Ojong, Glendon Professor Gertrude Mianda, Faculty of Science Professor Jude Kong, Lassonde Professor Solomon Boakye-Yiadom, Faculty of Health Professor Oghenowede Eyawo and Faculty of Education Professor Oyemolade Osibodu. The group is currently working in partnership with the Black Creek Community Health Centre in Toronto and leveraging ongoing collaborations to consolidate/establish research partnerships around Africa.

“Our partners appreciate that we are Black scholars researching pressing issues of inequality and epidemics that affect us as Black people,” says Sesay.

Sylvia Bawa
Sylvia Bawa

“All members of the cluster are aligned in our interests to conduct research differently and in ways that move away from orthodox extractive practices,” says Bawa, an associate professor of sociology.

“We want to be sure the knowledge we create has practical policy implications, but you can’t study epidemics in isolation without considering historical events and the current climate. We plan to create knowledge in a decentralized way, collaborating with communities so that we serve them without exploiting them.”

Jude Kong
Jude Kong

Adds Kong, an assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and director of ACADIC, “We want the communities to tell us what the problems are. We are tools for them to use to solve these problems. It is research being done from the grass roots up and we want to see the learning that takes place.”

Western PhD candidate Alice Sedziafa, the co-ordinator of the cluster, says that epidemics are the common starting point for their research, but they want to see what other issues each community faces, such as the gender-based violence and to create evidence-based solutions.

Oghenowede Eyawo
Oghenowede Eyawo

Notes Eyawo, an assistant professor of global health epidemiology, “We will be centering the voice of the communities in knowledge and solutions production, which is quite unique. In the past researchers have come to communities and acted as experts. We will co-create the research questions and generate knowledge together with the community.”

In addition to the initial cluster funding, they are currently preparing Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Partnership Development and Engage grants applications and have applied for the second round of cluster funding with an eye toward a three-year cycle of research activities.

Welcome to the inaugural issue of ‘ASPIRE’

Header banner for ASPIRE

“ASPIRE” is a special edition of YFile publishing on select Fridays during the academic year. It showcases research and innovation at York University. “ASPIRE” offers compelling and accessible stories about the world-leading and policy-relevant work of changemakers in all Faculties and professional schools across York and encompasses both discovery and applied research. “ASPIRE” replaces the previous special issue “Brainstorm.”

In this issue

Research supports development of inclusive technologies to enhance quality of living
York design Professor Shital Desai combines her expertise in robotics with product design to create innovative solutions that are both inclusive and inspired.

COVID-19: Social networks helped spread fear among investors
Schulich Professor Ming Dong, whose research specializes in examining in behavioural and social finance, worked with two former PhD students to research the role that social networks played in emotional decision making among mutual fund managers in five hot spot cities in the United States.

York startup provides real-time medical expertise in Ukraine
A YSpace venture is using their innovative telehealth technology to pair Canadian health care expertise to local doctors in Ukraine.

Biologist finds hope for critically endangered species
Marc Dupuis-Desormeaux, a Glendon biology course director, is working to save the pancake tortoise that is native to some areas of Africa and assessing what it will take to develop a community-based conservancy plan.

Book offers exploration of sugar, power and politics
Glendon associate professor of history Gillian A. McGillivray delves into Latin America’s past through the lens of sugar. The result is her book Blazing Cane: Sugar Communities, Class, and State Formation in Cuba, 1868-1959.

COVID-19: Social networks helped spread fear among investors

image shows a graphic featuring social networks

By Elaine Smith

A York professor specializing in behavioural and social finance worked with two former PhD students to research the role that social networks played in emotional decision making among mutual fund managers in five hot spot cities in the United States.

Stuck in lockdown during the spring of 2020, York finance professor Ming Dong and two of his PhD students began to suffer from the lack of in-person social support and wondered if everyone else was also relying on Facebook to get together.

Dong, an associate professor of finance at the Schulich School of Business, specializes in behavioural and social finance, a cutting-edge area of finance research. He and his former PhD students, Shiu-Yik Au, now teaching at the University of Manitoba, and Joseph Zhou, now teaching at Ontario Tech University, realized that the COVID-19 outbreak, as devastating as it was to daily life, could be a natural experiment to explore social finance. They hypothesized that the behaviour of institutional investors (i.e., mutual fund managers) would be influenced by fears about COVID-19 which might lead them to sell stocks as the market dropped in response to the WHO announcement.

Ming Dong
Ming Dong

“In behavioural finance, we believe that emotions affect trading and investing decisions,” says Dong, “so we decided to look at mutual fund managers, who are professional investors, to see if their behaviour reflected pandemic fears. We discovered that even they are influenced by fear.”

The trio based their study in the U.S., in part because of the variation across states in response to the pandemic, and made three hypotheses: (1) fund managers in cities defined as hotspots based on the number of cases would be more affected by fear and divest themselves of more holdings than those in less-affected locales; (2) social media contact between hot spots and other locales would lead fund managers in those locales to divest themselves of more holdings than those in places where there was weak social media contact with hot spots; and (3) the most skilled managers should be less affected by panic.

Using case numbers, the researchers identified five hot spots in the U.S.: Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City and Seattle. They then turned to Facebook data that showed social media connections between the hot spots and other cities to identify those cities with high social media traffic and those without. They measured fear among mutual fund managers in each of these cities by the volume of their buy and sell decisions in March 2020 after the WHO announcement and measured skill using past returns.

Dong and his students found that the data confirmed their hypotheses. In the hot spots, fund managers sold off more total stocks in March 2020 than did managers in the other cities across the country. In addition, they discovered something interesting: in the cities with strong social media ties to the hot spots – such as Miami, home to many NYC snowbirds – fund managers were even more fearful than their NYC hot spot counterparts and sold off more stocks, while those in cities with minimal social media connections to hot spots sold off fewer stocks than either the hot spot fund managers or those in connected cities. They also found that skilled managers were much steadier, avoiding fire sales and coming out of the initial crisis virtually unscathed.

In other words, notes Dong, “If colleagues or investors in NYC tell me on Facebook or Twitter about all the fear that is rampant there, as a Miami fund manager, I will be influenced and more likely to sell – even more likely than my colleague in NYC, the hot spot.

“Our study provides confirmation that emotion matters in trading,” Dong says. “Classical finance assumes investments are rational, but behavioural finance proves that the opposite is true, even for professional investors. They are also human beings and influenced by emotion.”

But, “if you’re skilled, you tend to make better decisions,” Dong says.

All of this information, he adds, should be useful to investors in choosing a fund manager; to fund managers as a reminder to make rational decisions based on a stock’s fundamental value; and to policy-makers as they attempt to steer the economy through a crisis.

York startup provides real-time medical expertise in Ukraine

Flag of Ukraine

A YSpace venture is using its innovative telehealth technology to pair Canadian health care expertise to local doctors in Ukraine.

When the Ukraine conflict made headlines throughout the world, ROSe Telehealth, a scale-up company based in British Columbia that provides critical health expertise to general physicians in remote and rural locations, acted quickly. ROSe Telehealth worked to provide instant access to specialized health care and support to health-care workers on the front lines of the Ukraine with help from YSpace at York University.

Dr. Don Burke, MD, an intensivist, infectious disease specialist and one of the cofounders of ROSe Telehealth, went to Ukraine to provide humanitarian support. ROSe Telehealth, which has seen an increase in reliance from patients due to the COVID-19 pandemic, bridges the gap between virtual consultation and in-person aid with critical care. It is an all-in-one, single-click service that connects local doctors with specialized medical expertise in real-time.

It is a service direly needed in Ukraine, where doctors are limited in the type of specialized care they can provide and have tenuous connections with the outside world. “ROSe Telehealth has so much to offer others. York University and YSpace have accelerated our potential to address crises, and the positive effect will be felt globally,” said Burke.

Neil Cesario, information systems manager at ROSe, noted that ROSe’s design was developed to accommodate lower bandwidth connections, while still providing important tools for physicians and specialists to collaborate, an important consideration in Ukraine given concerns around cybersecurity and unreliability of the internet.

Despite solutions to protect user privacy, there are many precautions to be taken when communicating in Ukraine. “When I first entered Ukraine, I was asked by a cyber security expert there (from the U.S.) to remove Zoom from all my devices for two reasons: cyber security risk, and bandwidth issues,” said Burke.

With internet and wireless network control, Burke relied on the Wi-Fi he was provided within Ukraine, which is often slow and unreliable. However, ROSe’s platform is designed to support low bandwidth adaptation, scaling video and audio quality with bandwidth capacity.

“ROSe was welcomed, as it functioned well in a low bandwidth setting, and it did not pose the same security or privacy concerns,” Burke added. “It also showed us that the ROSe platform could be used anywhere, and in any scenario. It is incredible how, knowing that you have immediate backup from specialists, the ‘fear factor’ is considerably lowered. You are then able to perform your tasks with greater confidence and ability.”

In addition to providing a sophisticated communications platform, ROSe revolutionizes communication by including live transcriptions, writing tools, and sharing images of ultrasounds. Cesario says: “Zoom or Skype [are] just business tools. ROSe telehealth is actually a health tool.”

With the crisis in Ukraine, ROSe Telehealth has come fully prepared to bridge the gap between physician aid and specialist intervention.

David Kwok
David Kwok

David Kwok, associate director of entrepreneurship at YSpace, was approached by Cesario and his team when they first started to tackle this issue of reliability and accessibility for critical care. Cesario believed that YSpace could provide access to the network necessary for ROSe to build its team of specialists and directors.

As York University’s innovation hub for startups and entrepreneurs, YSpace is home to innovative changemakers who are driving positive change in their local and global communities. York’s enduring commitment to innovation and research is bringing extraordinary solutions to complex worldwide health challenges.

Cesario notes the importance of YSpace in building up ROSe telehealth as a startup: “It takes a village, YSpace provided that village, that community. Galen Udell, program advisor at YSpace, has been excellent in guiding us. Without his mentorship we would just be another startup.”

“YSpace is proud to be supporting ventures like ROSe Telehealth that drives a direct impact into the communities, serving people not just across Canada but helping the global community as their technology scales. ROSe has engaged with YSpace actively over the past year to capitalize on the mentorship and curated venture support, designed to help bring the founders’ mission of bridging healthcare access into fruition,” says Kwok.

The tools and expertise which ROSe Telehealth provides to physicians will continue to be important long after the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ukraine-Russia conflict, and other humanitarian crises. With the rising demand in telehealth services, this industry may become deeply embedded in the future of health care.

Biologist finds hope for critically endangered species

Pancake tortoise

By Elaine Smith

Marc Dupuis-Desormeaux, a York biology course director, is working to save the pancake tortoise that is native to some areas of Africa and assessing what it will take to develop a community-based conservancy plan.

Marc Dupuis-Desormeaux in Lewa, Kenya
Marc Dupuis-Desormeaux in Lewa, Kenya

York biologist Marc Dupuis-Desormeaux is off to Kenya in October on a search for critically endangered pancake tortoises, an unusual creature that took a circuitous route to capturing his attention. But, then, nothing about Dupuis-Desormeaux’s path to studying turtles – including tortoises, who belong to the turtle family – has been ordinary.

Until about 20 years ago, Dupuis-Desormeaux was successfully working as an investment banker, but didn’t find it satisfying. He returned to York University to study wildlife conservation and environmental studies and earned his PhD, taking a particular interest in how fencing changed the behaviour of animals. He began studying prey trails and safe passage at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. When the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) sought someone to design fences and underground passageways for its population of snakes, turtles and frogs, Dupuis-Desormeaux realized that he had the requisite skills and could be of assistance.

“Of course, I had to learn more about turtles,” he says.

Although Dupuis-Desormeaux’s primary research focused on predators in Kenya, at home in Canada, he became the TRCA’s turtle consultant. In 2019, the two interests merged.

“I was at a turtle conference taking a break and talking to a well-known turtle researcher,” Dupuis-Desormeaux said. “I told him that I did work in Kenya and he told me about the plight of the pancake tortoise. The terrain he described sounded like the area where I usually work, so I began asking around.”

Pancake tortoises are small reptiles, growing to only about 17.8 centimetres and weighing no more than 400 grams. They are native to Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, but habitat destruction and poaching have taken a toll, and female tortoises generally lay only one egg annually, so increasing the population is challenging. The tortoises live in crevices in rock outcroppings call kopje. Given that such terrain abounds at Lewa, Dupuis-Desormeaux was hopeful that more of the population had escaped plunder.

A pancake tortoise in its natural habitat
A pancake tortoise in its natural habitat

His questions about pancake tortoises didn’t ring a bell with the Kenyan wildlife guides he knew, but an area lodge owner sent him a photo of something that looked like the small reptile. Immediately, working from Canada, Dupuis-Desormeaux organized his Kenyan colleagues to conduct a three-day survey to confirm the presence of the rare tortoises at Lewa; they found seven. Intrigued, he assembled a team to search the area for more evidence of the tortoises, but the pandemic struck and the trip didn’t take place.

Marc Dupuis-Desormeaux holds two pancake tortoises

In 2021, Dupuis-Desormeaux returned himself and worked with Kenyan wildlife experts to search the conservancy property; the group found 59 of the small creatures. He found more on a subsequent trip, also locating 40 of the reptiles at two smaller conservancies during single day surveys. Now, he’s returning to these smaller properties to determine how large their populations are.

Finding and counting these “critters” is work done on foot, given the rocky, hilly terrain. He and his colleagues systematically work their way up the hills, peering into cracks in the rock to look for pancake tortoises. It can be challenging, since the reptiles may share their space with lizards and snakes.

“I don’t want to come face-to-face with any spitting cobras,” Dupuis-Desormeaux said with a laugh, but noted, “This is very exciting; we discovered undocumented populations. Because rhinoceroses are protected at Lewa, there are armed guards to prevent poaching, which gives us a chance.

“The goal of this work is to end up with a community conservation plan, since the communities in the area share the land with their wildlife.”

Saving a species from extinction? It’s a conservationist’s dream, one that may soon become a reality for Dupuis-Desormeaux.

Book offers exploration of sugar, power and politics

Sugar cane fields in Cuba

By Elaine Smith

Glendon associate professor of history Gillian A. McGillivray delves into Latin America’s past through the lens of sugar. The result is her book Blazing Cane: Sugar Communities, Class, and State Formation in Cuba, 1868-1959.

Gillian McGillivray became fascinated by Latin American culture in high school after reading a novel by Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian writer. After earning her master’s in Latin American studies and PhD in history at Georgetown University, McGillivray, an associate professor of history at Glendon, began delving into Latin America’s past through the lens of sugar.

Her first book, Blazing Cane: Sugar Communities, Class, and State Formation in Cuba, 1868-1959 (Duke, 2009), considered the origins of the industry, slavery and colonialism and discussed how and why sugar workers contributed to the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959. Now, McGillivray has turned her gaze toward Brazil and the insights to be gleaned about politics and culture through sugar. She hopes to publish Sugar and Power in Brazil in 2023.

Cover of Blazing Cane
Cover of Blazing Cane

“I did my postdoctoral studies on the sugar zones in Mexico and Brazil and realized that Brazil was so complex that I needed to focus on it as its own project,” McGillivray says. “It was a challenge to move from studying Spanish-speaking Latin America to Portuguese-speaking Latin America.”

Her current research seeks to answer two larger questions: why São Paulo became one of the most successful economic zones in Latin America and how politicians and elites – not just in São Paulo, but throughout Brazil – kept the rural masses from organizing a successful revolutionary movement to combat the nation’s extreme socio-economic inequalities.

“Sugarcane, which planters have cultivated on different scales in pretty much every state of Brazil, has played a central role in the nation’s past and present,” says McGillivray. “Using sugar as a prism into Brazilian society, I argue that the Brazilian state’s support for industry and agriculture allowed elites in all of Brazil’s sugar zones to divide, co-opt, and coerce the vast number of residents who lived in the countryside.”

To prove this, she explores the changing relationships of three social classes – sugar workers, cane farmers, and refiner-industrialists – in three regions of Brazil – Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and the Northeast – from the end of slavery and empire in the 1880s to the beginning of dictatorship in the 1960s. McGillivray aims to explain how “policy-makers, landowners and industrialists managed to keep the millions of rural residents engaged in sugar production from becoming revolutionary actors capable of altering the political economy in their favor, in contrast to their counterparts in other places like Cuba and Mexico.”

McGillivray is participating in two additional projects alongside Sugar and Power. She is serving as a co-editor of the Entangled Histories of Brazil and the United States, a volume of academic essays by Brazilian and North American scholars that is slated for publication in January 2023.

“It grew out of a symposium in Brazil and we are happy to be publishing in both languages,” she says. “It’s important to share ideas across borders and that often involves translation. It’s nice to be based at Glendon, because we have a reputation for languages.”

Her second project involves a chapter comparing Cuba and Brazil for an edited volume based on the June 2023 “Plantation Knowledge” workshop at Cologne’s “Global South Centre.” Fifteen scholars from Europe and the Americas workshopped papers ranging from a geographer’s reflections on “the Plantationocene” to tea plantations in India, coconuts in the Philippines and cocoa in Africa.

What’s next on McGillivray’s agenda? After her book about Brazilian sugar, she’d like to collaborate on a public history project bringing together stories of sugar production and consumption in the American hemisphere with other historians and digital humanities specialists.

Research supports development of inclusive technologies to enhance quality of living

Robotic hand reaches for human hand

By Elaine Smith

York design Professor Shital Desai combines her expertise in robotics with product design to create innovative solutions that are both inclusive and inspired.

Shital Desai combines her industry experience in robotics engineering and interactive product design to develop solutions and interventions for the aging population.

Desai, an assistant professor of interaction design in York University’s School of the Arts, Management, Performance and Design (AMPD), in the Department of Design, is the principal investigator for AMPD’s Social and Technological Systems Lab (SaTS). The lab’s research projects focus on addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (Un SDGs) 3 and 4, pertaining to good health and well-being and quality education.

Shital Desai

“I specifically try to come up with design solutions after understanding the systemic challenges people face,” says Desai. “If you just design services and technology for people without understanding their needs and abilities, most of them, including able-bodied people, find them difficult to use.”

She uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) as an example; people often find the prompts and instructions from the GPS insufficient and difficult, some ending up using more than one GPS at the same time.

“Older adults can and want to use modern technologies, contrary to the belief that the aging related disabilities prevent them from using them. The technologies are just not properly designed by the designers and developers.” says Desai.

She is also a strong proponent of inclusive design, but says we need appropriate methods to generate systemic outcomes.

“My research and design process is participatory in nature – people and system centred. We need to involve all the stakeholders in the design process right from the start.”

People, especially marginalized groups, usually are not comfortable expressing negative experiences, so conventional research methods could fail to generate effective solutions.

“A lot of my research involves people co-designing interventions. I become a facilitator and the stakeholders become the designers. It changes the power balance between the research and the stakeholders (users).”

She and her research team are exploring technologies that can prompt people with dementia to complete an activity as they do their everyday tasks.

“We want the prompts to happen only when they are needed; the technology must be able to sense when someone has lost track of an activity and be able to prompt them in the way they understand, whether that is audibly or visually,” Desai says. “People also do everyday activities in a very personal way; they may have a special tea cup they use, for example, so how do we incorporate personalization into design? To do so, we are now studying the rituals and habituation in people with dementia.

“Our primary objective is to allow people to age in place and delay the transition to long-term care. We want older adults to have a good quality of life (QoL) but what does that mean for the aging population? We don’t know that yet because the QoL criteria have been developed by clinicians and health-care practitioners.”

Global health issues are also part of the SaTS research agenda. Desai and her team are collaborating with York global health researchers to understand governance and policy issues pertaining to wild life markets.

“My lab will be running a co-design workshop with policy-makers to identify services and policy interventions to tackle systemic barriers that people associated with the wild markets face,” says Desai. “We want to create a journey map for the stakeholders and understand their challenges in their journey so that we can come up with appropriate design ideas. We want to see where changes in human behaviour and policy are required. Now and in the future?

Whether Desai and her team are focusing on issues at home or abroad, people and systems are central to the design process.