Lassonde’s digital technologies WIL program succeeding

student reading textbook while working

By Elaine Smith

The Lassonde School of Engineering’s new, paid work-integrated learning (WIL) program, the first in Canada, celebrated the successful launch of its first cohort – co-pioneers of a future where students can advance their studies along with their careers.

Eamon Ryan
Eamon Ryan

In fall 2023, Eamon Ryan was one of the 17 students fortunate enough to be part of the first WIL cohort when he began working full time for BMO while taking a full course load in the Integrated Program in Digital Technologies at Lassonde. After four years of full-time work and studies, he will graduate with a bachelor of applied science in digital technologies, specializing in either cybersecurity, data analysis or software development. After earning a salary for four years, he should also have minimal debt and a resume filled with workplace accomplishments.

“The director of the program calls us pioneers,” said Ryan. “This program is pretty much everything I ever wanted when it comes to academics and work.”

Consistent with the popular maxim, it took a village to get this visionary program off the ground – not surprising, perhaps, since one of the themes of Lassonde’s Strategic Academic Plan is Building Success Through Partnerships. This WIL program grew out of Dean Jane Goodyer’s vision and encompasses partners in the corporate community, York University administration as well as  Lassonde’s faculty and staff – especially those who will be teaching at the new Markham Campus and the Lassonde Educational Innovation Studio.

The program is just as new to employers as it is to the University.

“The employers’ comfort zone in Canada is with co-op terms and internships,” said Marily Molina, Lassonde’s business development manager. “They think of students as temporary; they are generally considered students first, employees second. We had to make this fit with student recruitment standards in Canada by offering employers the opportunity to hire students on a 12-month work term, which can be renewed on an annual basis. This gives employers the advantages of keeping the student in the same role or rotating them to other teams or departments based on business needs; saving them time in recruitment efforts and getting a higher return on investment in loyalty and retention.”

For faculty, the goal is to ensure that the students learn everything they would from a standard honours computer science program while balancing their work and personal commitments.

Kostas Kontogiannis

“It led us to countless hours of meetings with our colleagues at the Lassonde Education Innovation Studio,” said Professor Kostas Kontogiannis, director of the new program. “They advised us on pedagogical theories that suited this program and we combined that with our expertise to deliver the best possible result.

“These are completely new courses, because we have to keep pace with the workplace. We restructured the course sequence, their nature and how they fit together.”

The program runs year-round, with students adhering to their employer’s work calendar, although there is an 80/20 per cent split in their time, divided between work and blocks of time spent on campus. They are also allotted a half-day each week to work on course content.

The campus time is scheduled in blocks; after a three-week on-campus orientation, the students work in person with faculty for a week every month or two. While they are working, the students are also required to attend online lectures and complete assignments.

Luckily, they move through the program as a cohort, so they have support from their classmates as they study. They also each have a workplace mentor to ease their path in the working world as they adjust to being full-time employees.

“We’re building a culture where the students aren’t in competition with each other; instead, they are supporting each other within a true learning community,” said Jenny Peach-Squibb, a professional skills coach at Lassonde.

“We laid a solid foundation for them during their orientation block and they also went through employer orientation. In December, we heard from the employers that the time spent in onboarding really pays off.”

Peach-Squibb considers all the students in the program exceptional. They were first required to gain admission to Lassonde’s Digital Technologies program, before securing a job with one of the potential employers.

 “I have always been a hands-on learner, so the program appealed to me,” said Ryan, who is enjoying the entire experience: the workplace, his studies and his financial independence. The program’s salaries align with the average salary for co-op students in computer science and engineering, generally $23 to $27 per hour.

“At work, my manager walked me through everything and left to let me try things myself,” said Ryan. “I’m not being micro-managed and I learn better doing the work independently, but I’m not left without supports. And, before, I was financially reliant on my parents, but now I have financial independence; I’m sharing an apartment with my brother.

“The courses created for the program are great and showcase our learning. They use standards-based grading, so it’s all about learning and mastering concepts.”

Larry Zhang
Larry Zhang

Larry Yueli Zhang, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering and one of the nine faculty members involved in the program, calls it “an additive process.”

“Students have a set of standards to meet, and they condition their actions to meet those targets,” he said. “It gives us a much more refined picture of student progress and better data on student performance.”

Added Kontogiannis, “As they are compiling a portfolio of their work, some of it can be put toward achieving these standards and meeting learning objectives.”

If Ryan’s supervisor is a good barometer, it’s not only the students and faculty who are pleased with the way this groundbreaking program is unfolding.

“Eamon happens to be a young man who is exceeding our expectations,” said Sajal Kumar, a database security architect at BMO. “At this young age, he has demonstrated a lot of maturity, drive, interest and professionalism. In fact, I usually have to give him fewer instructions than the others in the group.

“He is still every bit as impressive as he was on day one. If he continues to keep himself so motivated, he will do very well in life.”

Molina will be connecting with both the students and the employers twice a term to get a better understanding of how the program is unfolding. The goal is to grow the program in the coming years.

“For employers, the program provides access to new talent pipelines and addresses workplace labour shortages,” said Molina. “By removing cost barriers, the Digital Technologies program is designed to increase access to education for a wider spectrum of students. It’s a win-win situation.”

World Health Organization extends Global Strategy Lab collaboration

heart and stethoscope

A World Health Organization Collaborating Centre (WHOCC) at York University’s Global Strategy Lab (GSL) – specializing in the global governance of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) – had its impact recognized with a four-year extension, and expansion, of its mandate by WHO.

Antimicrobial resistance occurs when bacteria, viruses and other microbes – and the infections they cause – stop responding to the medicines designed to treat them. AMR has a profound impact on global health and development – especially in low- and middle-income countries. It contributes to an estimated five million deaths annually and rolls back progress on many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), including SDG 3 (Good Health & Wellbeing), SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) and SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth).

GSL has emerged as a leader in addressing pressing global and public health challenges. In the area of AMR, GSL aims to use policy research to support evidence-informed decision-making by the world’s governments and public health institutions to ensure sustainable antimicrobial use.

Susan Rogers Van Katwyk
Susan Rogers Van Katwyk

As a result, in 2019, GSL was designated the WHOCC on Global Governance of Antimicrobial Resistance. “Collaborating centres have a concentration of expertise that WHO recognizes as valuable to achieving their mandate,” explains Susan Rogers Van Katwyk, who is co-director of the WHOCC at GSL along with Steven Hoffman.

In the past four years, the WHOCC at GSL has played a critical role in supporting the WHO’s work on AMR policy and governance, resulting in its renewal for another four years. “It’s exciting to know that the WHO values our support and the work that we’ve been doing with them for the last few years,” says Rogers Van Katwyk.

While the WHOCC at York will continue its mandate of supporting evidence-informed AMR decision-making, its new mandate will include a greater focus on equity as it relates to policy and the governance of AMR. “A focus on equity is something that the Global Strategy Lab is committed to and we’re glad to have it spelled out in our mandate for the renewal term,” says Rogers Van Katwyk.

Among the additions the redesignation has brought to the WHOCC at GSL, Rogers Van Katwyk is especially excited about the greater emphasis on a “One Health” approach, which recognizes that human health, animal health and the environment are interconnected. “Most of our research at the Global Strategy Lab already includes that perspective. It’s where a lot of health research, especially around infectious diseases, is headed,” she says.

Following its redesignation, Rogers Van Katwyk believes the WHOCC ­at GSL has the potential to make a profound impact on the future of global health and sustainability. “We recently undertook a mapping exercise of how AMR impacts the United Nations SDGs. There’s almost none of them that aren’t impacted,” she says. “If we don’t address AMR, we’re not going to achieve the SDG on health and most of the other SDGs.”

Rogers Van Katwyk and her team are ready to support better AMR policymaking and governance for a healthier and more equitable future.

Connected Minds researcher explores AI’s future at top conference

AI robot looking at crystal ball

Thousands of artificial intelligence (AI) researchers from around the world have gathered in Vancouver this week for one of the largest international academic conferences on AI and machine learning.

Laleh Seyyed-Kalantari
Laleh Seyyed-Kalantari

Among the attendees of the 38th annual Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) Conference on Artificial Intelligence is York University’s Laleh Seyyed-Kalantari, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and a member of Connected Minds: Neural and Machine Systems for a Healthy, Just Society – a $318.4-million, York-led program focused on socially responsible technologies, funded in part by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund.

Seyyed-Kalantari will bring her leading research expertise in responsible AI to the conference, while also helping to run a Connected Minds- and VISTA-sponsored workshop on responsible language models (ReLM 2024), alongside researchers from the internationally recognized Vector Institute, a Connected Minds partner.

In the Q-and-A below, she talks about the workshop and the state of AI research.

Q: Why a workshop on responsible language models?   

A: The use of generative AI models, like ChatGPT, is increasingly becoming more and more common in our everyday lives. In fact, recent studies show that generative AI (GPT-4) can be programmed to pass the U.S. medical examination or pass the bar exam to become a lawyer. This has encouraged the idea that generative AI models can replace humans, but the reality is that this is not true, and we are far away from that point.

For my research and that of my Connected Minds colleagues, the question is not if generative AI models can be used for good – they can – but a more important and pressing question to ask inside and outside of this workshop is whether these AI models generate reliable and responsible things. Despite our rapidly evolving technological world, the answer is still no. Our workshop aims to get at the right kinds of questions both academia and industry should consider now and in the future.

Q: What makes a language model responsible?

A: Responsible language models can be evaluated with the following factors in mind: fairness, robustness, accountability, security, transparency and privacy. AI models need to be tested and evaluated for whether they are fair to all its human users. For example, AI models use data that may not include ethnic minority populations, and programmers run the risk of amplifying existing racial biases. Robustness involves assessing the generated material and its accuracy. Does it generate the right or consistent solution? Is it robust to adversarial attacks? Accountability involves decisions about regulation and legislation. Who oversees ensuring the model is fair? Security means how to protect a model from malicious attacks. Transparency and privacy refer to the use and permissibility of people’s private data, including medical information. These six factors set up a framework for a broad discussion on various issues related to responsible AI and machine learning in the context of language models.

Q: What are you most looking forward to by attending the conference and running this workshop?

A: The trip to Vancouver offers an opportunity for a significant exchange of ideas and collaborative brainstorming among a diverse group of communities, bringing academia and industry together. It’s a rare chance to gather with influential figures in the field of generative AI, all in one space. It allows us to discuss the issues, to learn from one another, and to shape future research questions and collaboration surrounding large language models. I’m grateful to Connected Minds and VISTA [Vision: Science to Applications] for helping to advance my work and for making this event possible.

York entrepreneurs recognized by award, prime minister

BEA Demo Day image BANNER

York University alumni Yemi Ifegbuyi (BA ’10) and Zainab Williams (BA ’07) are among the top three Black entrepreneurs named the winners of a startup pitch competition hosted by the Black Entrepreneurship Alliance (BEA) founded by the Black Creek Community Health Centre in partnership with York University’s YSpace.

The competition, the inaugural BEA Investment Bootcamp Demo Day, is the final assignment of a four-month program run in partnership with YSpace for early-stage and capital-ready, Black-led startups.

The Investment Bootcamp program is aimed at supporting Black-led tech startups with training, mentorship and fundraising insights to secure early capital. With a community-driven approach, the program offers curated content and resources to support entrepreneurs through educational workshops, one-on-one coaching and peer founder circles, which provides a safe and open space for founders to connect and receive support.

The nine startup finalists in the BEA Investment Bootcamp program
The nine startup finalists in the BEA Investment Bootcamp program.

Applicants to the competition were narrowed down from the 17 Black entrepreneurs who participated in the program to nine finalists who pitched their businesses to a live audience at an event on Feb. 1 celebrating Black excellence.

The Demo Day event, which also marked the start of Black History Month, was attended by a number of government officials, including Filomena Tassi, the minister responsible for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. Judy Sgro, member of Parliament for Humber River – Black Creek, was also in attendance and was impressed by the entrepreneurs. “Witnessing the dedication and leadership of these young entrepreneurs has not only inspired me, but it reaffirms my belief in the incredible potential of our community’s future leaders,” she says.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with first place winner Yemi Ifegbuyi
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who met finalists at a special event before the awards were announced, with first-place winner Yemi Ifegbuyi.

First-place winner Ifegbuyi will receive $5,000 toward his business, Cozii Technologies, an artificial intelligence-driven property management platform tailored to multi-unit landlords. Ifegbuyi immigrated from Nigeria about 15 years ago and received his degree in international development and urban studies at York as well as a master’s degree in entrepreneurship and innovation. As a founder known for his entrepreneurial drive, Ifegbuyi is excited for the future as his business continues to grow.

“This fund will be channelled into our sales and marketing endeavours, with the goal of reaching and serving more small- and medium-scale rental property owners and managers,” he says. “It’s not just a cash prize. It’s an investment in Cozii Technologies’ vision to revolutionize the way we approach property management.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with second place winner Zainab Williams
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with second-place winner Zainab Williams.

Second-place winner Williams, the founder of Fundevolve Inc., a pioneering platform dedicated to empowering women in their financial journey, will receive $3,000 to further her company. Williams developed her passion for business while studying business administration and management at York. Born out of an investment gone wrong, Williams became an independent financial planner and was determined to empower individuals to make the right financial decisions. Her business is quickly building momentum as she works to further develop the web-based platform and equip women with the tools to take control of their financials.

“We plan to use the prize winnings for testing before launching our platform,” says Williams. “This investment in security ensures not only our project’s safety but also our users’ trust.”

Both Ifegbuyi and Williams cite the boot camp’s collaborative spirit as a contributor to their startup’s success. “Participating in the program has been a transformative journey,” says Ifegbuyi. “The unwavering support and mentorship we received are catalysts for long-term growth.”

Special guest Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also attended a private event – where York President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton was also present – held before the awards to meet the finalists and learn more about their businesses.

“Meeting Justin Trudeau was a great honour and opportunity,” says Ifegbuyi. “It symbolized the recognition of our hard work and the federal government commitment to supporting the Black entrepreneurial community. It’s a reminder that our efforts are making an impact, and it inspires us to continue pushing boundaries and striving for excellence in everything we do.”

Both BEA and YSpace offer several innovative programs and events for entrepreneurs at all stages, including curated programming dedicated to under-represented groups like Black entrepreneurs and women founders.

To learn more about this partnership, visit BEA’s website at YSpace.

Connected Minds: one year later

connected minds banner

Since Connected Minds: Neural and Machine Systems for a Healthy, Just Society launched in spring 2023, the $318.4-million project has already achieved several milestones pushing forward the project – and York University – as a leader in socially responsible emerging technology.

It’s been nearly a year since President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton and Vice-President Research and Innovation Amir Asif announced that Connected Minds had received $105.7 million from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF), the “largest single federal grant ever awarded to York.”

The cutting-edge program aims to bring together experts across eight York Faculties and three Queen’s Faculties to examine the ways in which technology is transforming society – dubbed the “techno-social collective” – and will work to balance both the potential risks and benefits for humanity. Some of the program’s proposed projects include explorations into a more inclusive metaverse, virtual reality and community organizing, neurotechnologies for healthy aging, Indigenous data sovereignty and how human brain function changes when people interact with artificial intelligence (AI) versus each other.

Doug Crawford
Doug Crawford

Since the funding announcements in early 2023, Connected Minds – the biggest York-led research project in the University’s history – has been busy. “As founding scientific director, it’s incredibly gratifying see the progress we have made this first year, thanks to the very hard work of our leadership team, dedicated staff and the support of our board of directors,” says Doug Crawford, who is also a Distinguished Research Professor and Canada Research Chair in visuomotor neuroscience.

In addition to seed grants and PhD awards given out, over the past 12 months, Connected Minds has expanded its roster of experts by onboarding 14 research-enhanced hires across York University and institutional partner Queen’s University. The new additions are part of the program’s efforts to attract and retain the best talent, as well as a fulfillment of its commitment to add 35 strategic faculty hires, research Chairs or equivalent levels of support to its interdisciplinary research ecosystem. The new Connected Minds members will benefit from support that includes $100,000 in startup research funding, salary top-up and/or teaching release, and a research allowance of $25,000 per year.

Connected Minds’ progress was also successfully commended by the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat – which administers the Canada First Research Excellence Fund – during a site visit showcasing the various research units affiliated with the program, and the progress its made.

To further demonstrate the program’s – and York University’s – leadership in socially responsible technology, Connected Minds has also been organizing events, like the Introductory Meeting on Law and Neuroscience in Canada, which united experts from Canada and the United States for in-depth discussions on socially responsible research at the intersection of law and neuroscience at the renowned Monk School of Global Affairs in Toronto.

Giuseppina (Pina) D'Agostino
Giuseppina (Pina) D’Agostino

Connect Minds will also shortly host an event marking the culmination of its inaugural year: the Connected Minds Annual Research Retreat on Feb. 22 and 23. The retreat will unite members across diverse disciplines – including arts, science, health, law and more – to collectively shape the future of socially responsible technology. The goal is to help provide networking opportunities for members to get to know each other better and form the teams that will apply to grants and achieve the program’s long-term goals. It aims to do so through information sessions, active participation in shaping Connected Minds’ Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) action plan, and connect with our research-enhanced hires, who will be delivering big-idea talks during the retreat.

The retreat will also mark another notable milestone: a transition in leadership. Crawford will be succeeded by Professor Pina D’Agostino, founder and former director of IP Osgoode and co-director of the Centre for Artificial Intelligence & Society, where her expertise is frequently sought by government bodies to address the evolving intersection of AI and the law. Now, it will be applied to leading Connected Minds into what will promise to be another year of accomplishments.

“I am thrilled to be taking the program to the next level by building on the strong foundation we now have and engaging with all of our incredible partners and communities to work towards our goals of a healthy and just society,” says D’Agostino, looking ahead to how Connected Minds will continue to thrive and make contributions to interdisciplinary research.

Public matters: York partners on project advocating for public education systems

classroom with desks and chairs BANNER

York University has joined together with five other organizations to create the Public Education Exchange (PEX), an initiative to investigate the future of public education by making research more available, providing policymakers with valuable insights and engaging the public.

Sometimes organizations are formed from a single source of inspiration – an idea, a spark, a challenge, a singular moment or movement. PEX’s inception was not triggered by a single event, but a recent shift in public education.

Private actors – whether parents, religious institutions, businesses or other non-governmental organizations – have become increasingly involved in public education systems. In tandem, there has been the emergence of new policies and practices in public schools that risk undermining public education and exacerbating inequalities.

Sue Winton
Sue Winton

With this shift, information and dialogue is needed, but hasn’t always been available. PEX was created to help provide that.

“The decision to pursue the PEX came from the challenges I faced accessing research on education privatization across Canada and concerns about the possibility for accelerated privatization during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Sue Winton, the PEX project director, York Research Chair in Policy Analysis for Democracy and a professor in the Faculty of Education.

PEX is a collaboration between the University of Windsor, the University of Manitoba, the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation and the Canadian Centre For Policy Alternatives. The joint effort secured funding from a Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council Partnership Development Grant in the spring of 2023 to pursue its mission of connecting researchers, advocates, policymakers, and the public to foster dialogue and knowledge exchange. “It’s about making information accessible to everyone and creating spaces for meaningful conversations,” Winton asserts.

education-privatization-illustration
An infographic featured on the PEX website.

The initiative is still in its early stages, with plans to build a network of collaborators, researchers and advocates across the country, but it has already made notable progress. For instance, the project’s website serves as the online hub for the network and features information and resources. However, Winton envisions the PEX as more than just a website; it will be a dynamic network of individuals engaging through online webinars, in-person meetings and community-based dialogues.

Through these offerings, Winton explains, PEX will look to advocate for a robust public education system that prioritizes collective benefits over individual gains. “We believe in highlighting the successes and potentials of public education while pointing out the potential damage caused by privatization policies,” she says. “The focus is on fostering a system that embodies equity, reflects democratic values and prioritizes the collective well-being of society.

“I truly believe that by coming together and sharing our insights, we can shape a future where public education remains a cornerstone of our democratic society,” she adds.

York conference to advance AI for a healthy, just society

connected minds banner

On Thursday, March 7 from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., York University’s Connected Minds: Neural and Machine Systems for a Healthy, Just Society, the Centre for AI & Society (CAIS) and the IP Innovation Clinic will host the latest iteration of the Bracing for Impact conference series, which will focus on the rapid advancements and implications of artificial intelligence (AI).

AI is changing the world rapidly and as it does, it is important to have conversations not just about how to develop and use AI, but what the most responsible ways to do so are.

This year’s Bracing for Impact conference – titled Shaping the AI Challenge for a Healthy, Just Society – looks to advance socially conscious AI by exploring what implications the technology’s advancement may have for improving society. The conference will focus on the rapid advancements and implications of AI, with the spotlight on the technology’s intersection with health, neurotechnology, intellectual property, regulation, data governance, the arts and more. This one-day conference will bring together a multidisciplinary audience to discuss how AI can help shape a healthy and just society.

Giuseppina (Pina) D'Agostino
Giuseppina (Pina) D’Agostino

“In 2017 when we first launched Bracing for Impact, AI was still somewhat far-reaching,” explains Giuseppina (Pina) D’Agostino, vice-director of Connected Minds, founder and director of the IP Innovation Clinic and co-director of CAIS. “AI is now here and many of us are still in a brace position, attempting to understand how this technology is intermingling with our daily lives with all of its benefits and challenges. Our conference brings together diverse voices essential to explore these critical issues for the benefit of a healthy and just society for all.”

The conference will bring together Canadian and international academics as well as legal, policy, and technology practitioners to speak to ways of shaping AI and its uses for social betterment.

The event is being held at OneEleven on 325 Front Street West in Toronto and is sponsored by Microsoft Canada. Student and professional rates are offered and include food and refreshments.

Register via the Eventbrite page. For any questions about the conference, email connectedmindsinfo@yorku.ca.

York research looks to improve air quality prediction

York Jack Pine tower in Boreal forest banner

Mark Gordon, a professor in the Earth & Space Science & Engineering Department at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering, has dedicated the past five years to forest fieldwork to help create better air quality models that detect the detrimental impact pollutants may have on the environment.

Mark Gordon
Mark Gordon

In the summer of 2023, Toronto was briefly covered in a thick blanket of smoke due to pollution from wildfires in Quebec – causing the bustling city to have some of the worst air quality in the world. During that time, air quality models served as a crucial tool, helping people understand potentially harmful atmospheric conditions and adopt safety measures in the face of potential risks.

The experience served as a demonstration of how important air quality models – which some may have been unaware of until now – can be.

“Air quality models work in the same way weather models do,” says Gordon. “Just like a weather model can tell you when it is going to rain, these models allow us to understand air quality and inform necessary action.” Beyond this, air quality models are used to help control air pollution and monitor the impact of pollutants on natural ecosystems like grasslands and forests.

Gordon’s work looks to further the significance of air quality models by improving their accuracy to reflect real atmospheric conditions as closely as possible. “Getting air quality models right is crucial,” says Gordon. “Accurate models can help predict many things, like how pollutants from a newly implemented industrial site might impact nearby communities.”

To achieve this, physical and chemical properties and processes of various pollutants in the atmosphere need to be first measured and analyzed. Then, mathematical and numerical techniques are used to simulate the collected data and create or improve air quality models.

In a recently concluded project funded by Environment and Climate Change Canada, Gordon has looked to do just that.

He and his graduate students Kaiti (Timothy) Jiang, Xuanyi Zhang and Dane Blanchard measured pollutant emissions – emphasizing those with greatest impact on climate, vegetation and natural ecosystems – from the Athabasca oil sands region in northern Alberta to examine how pollutants interact with the nearby boreal forest. Measurements were also compared with values used in existing air quality models to validate their accuracy.

From left to right: Kaiti (Timothy) Jiang (MSc 2018), Xuanyi Zhang (MSc 2020) and Gordon standing in front of the York Athabasca Jack Pine tower.
From left to right: Kaiti (Timothy) Jiang, Xuanyi Zhang and Gordon standing in front of the York Athabasca Jack Pine tower.

A 100-foot retractable tower, the York Athabasca Jack Pine tower, was erected in the boreal forest, equipped with tools to measure the concentration of the pollutants and used to examine their activity as well as their physical and chemical properties. In particular, the team looked to investigate how fast the surrounding forest takes the pollutants out of the air.

After five years of fieldwork in a remote forest, countless hours of research and a few encounters with bears, Gordon and his research team published three unique papers, each focused on one of the three distinct and harmful pollutants: aerosols, sulfur dioxide and ozone.

The trilogy of investigations resulted in insights that can help improve the accuracy of existing air quality models and support further studies. The goal is that in others drawing on Gordon and his team’s information and air quality model algorithms, inaccuracies of current air quality models can be corrected to reflect real-world conditions and establish more precise models.

Professors receive CIHR grants to advance dementia research

caregiver supporting elderly person banner

Two York University professors from the Faculty of Health – Lora Appel and Matthias Hoben – have received Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) grants to further their contributions to the study of individuals with dementia and their caregivers.

There’s still much about dementia – and dementia care – that remains unexplored, but Appel and Hoben are looking to change that thanks to projects that have received CIHR funding.

Lora Appel
Lora Appel

Appel’s $308,952 grant will be put toward the first study to explore how virtual reality (VR) experiences can be used to benefit both people living with dementia (PWD) and their caregivers.

With an increased interest in the therapeutic use of VR with older adults, some studies have suggested there is potential for the technology to manage behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia and promote quality of life.

For PWDs, VR can potentially reduce apathy, depression and agitation; for caregivers, as those they care for are occupied, it can be used to provide more breaks from the high levels of burden they often navigate.

Appel’s project, titled “VR&R: Providing Respite to Caregivers by Managing Behavioural and Psychological Symptoms in People with Dementia Using Immersive VR-Therapy,” is one of 13 that received a collective $8.7 million from the CIHR Operating Grant: Mechanisms in Brain Aging and Dementia – Factors and Mechanisms that Impact Cognitive Health in Aging.

The project will now pursue a six-week trial, where PWDs will be given the chance to experience immersive VR stimulations as frequently as they choose. Caregivers will then be able to engage in a desired activity at this time, remaining close by to assist only if needed. In the process, Appel’s project seeks to understand how caregivers benefit from the breaks VR gives them, especially as caregivers often describe respite as an internal experience where they can recuperate without removing themselves from a situation.

Matthias Hoben
Matthias Hoben

Hoben, the other grant recipient, received $100,000 in funding for a study of existing literature on adult day programs – part-day supervised activities for dependent adults. Adult day programs aim to maintain or improve older adults’ health, well-being, social, physical and cognitive functioning, and independence, while also providing caregivers a break or opportunity to continue working a paid job.

Because, to date, studies on the outcomes of day programs are inconclusive, Hoben’s project will look at developing program theories that explain how and why these settings lead to positive, negative, or no effects on individuals with dementia and their caregivers.

Titled “Adult Day Programs and Their effects on individuals with Dementia and their Caregivers (ADAPT-DemCare): Developing program theories on the how and why,” the project – one among 16 that received a collective $1.5 million – has been funded by the CIHR Operating Grant called Brain Health and Cognitive Impairment in Aging (BHCIA): Knowledge Synthesis and Mobilization Grants.

Its goal is to provide greater insights and theories into adult day programs with the hope that any resulting theories will be tested and further refined in future studies, and become essential in guiding future research and improvement of day programs.

Both Appel and Hoben are members of the York University Centre for Aging Research & Education (YU-CARE), which looks to support and promote the work of researchers and graduate trainees who study changes, challenges and policies to support aging at individual, organizational and societal levels.

Osgoode student lawyers save family from deportation

Statue of justice

With only 11 hours to spare, two student lawyers from Osgoode Hall Law School’s Community & Legal Aid Services Program (CLASP) saved the parents of a York University student from family breakup and deportation to Colombia, where they faced potential danger or even death.

When second-year student Brandon Jeffrey Jang and third-year student Emma Sandri learned on Dec. 18 that the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) had ordered the parents of a fellow student to be deported on a Colombia-bound plane on Jan. 18, they worked tirelessly over the winter break to prepare about 1,000 pages of legal submissions to stop it – on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Osgoode students Brandon Jeffrey Jang (left) and Emma Sandri (right).
Osgoode students Brandon Jeffrey Jang (left) and Emma Sandri (right).

The student’s father became a target of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the early 1990s when he was a candidate for the country’s Liberal Party, actively working to prevent youth from joining the paramilitary organization. After several threats and acts of physical violence, the family fled to the United States. They returned to Colombia seven years later, but remained in danger and fled again, eventually making their way to Canada in 2009. With the Colombian peace process currently faltering and FARC still a viable force, the family believes their safety could still be threatened if they return to their home country.

The couple’s adult son is a student in York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science and their daughter is set to graduate from Queen’s University and plans to study medicine. The son and daughter, who already have permanent residency status in Canada, faced being separated from their parents as well as possible academic repercussions if the deportation had gone ahead as scheduled.

The CLASP team’s request to save this family from deportation was initially denied by the CBSA, so they filed two supporting applications with the Federal Court, under the supervision of CLASP review counsel Subodh Bharati. On Jan. 17, just one day before the scheduled deportation, they appeared in person before a Federal Court judge in Toronto to make their case for the family – and they succeeded.

The parents – who have become actively involved in their Toronto community, volunteering during the pandemic, for example, to deliver food to house-bound, immune-compromised residents – expressed their gratitude to the CLASP team in an emotional email.

“Thank you very much for all the effort that you put in our case,” the mother wrote. “I don’t have enough words to express what I feel right now and to say thank you. You are the best lawyers that Toronto has.”

Their joy was shared by Jang and Sandri.

“We were just so happy,” said Jang about hearing news of the successful stay application. “We’ve built a close connection with the family and we’ve all worked extremely hard on this case.”

Jang said the experience has confirmed his desire to pursue a career in immigration law – and this summer he will work for Toronto immigration law firm Green and Spiegel LLP.

Sandri said preparing hundreds of pages of court applications in a month was a tremendous challenge, but learning that the family can stay in Canada as a result of their efforts was a huge relief and incredibly rewarding.

“It was difficult, in terms of wanting to put out our best work in such a limited time span,” she explained, “and we really felt the pressure of the fact that these people’s lives were possibly at stake.”

As they waited for the court decision, she added, “we both couldn’t sleep because we were thinking about what’s going to happen to this family and we were really stressing about that.”

In the wake of the court decision, Bharati said, the parents can now obtain work permits while they wait for the Federal Court to hear judicial reviews of previous decisions that rejected their applications for permanent residency status.

With the students’ time at CLASP nearing an end, Jang and Sandri expressed special appreciation for Bharati’s guidance and trust.

“All of our experiences at the clinic leading up to this case prepared us for the uphill battle we confronted when fighting for this family,” said Jang. “The result was a total team effort on everybody’s part and it was all worth it.”