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.”

New seminar series to advance homelessness prevention

The York University Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) has launched a monthly expert panel series aiming to host engaging community discussions to advance homelessness prevention initiatives in Canada and abroad.

In recent years there has been a fundamental shift in the homelessness sector. Organizations and individuals have often been reactive to the homelessness crisis, but it has become increasingly clear that there needs to be greater focus on prevention – finding ways to eliminate homelessness altogether.

The new COH series, called Prevention Matters!, looks to further advance this approach by helping address the challenge of what prevention means and looks like. What systemic changes can reduce the likelihood that someone will become homeless? What intervention strategies can support those at high risk of homelessness or who have recently become homeless? What can ensure people who have experienced homelessness – and who are now housed – do not experience homelessness again?

The launch of this series was announced this week in a webinar hosted by Faculty of Education Professor Stephen Gaetz, who is also president and chief executive officer of COH, where he discussed “Prevention 101” by unpacking his report, “A New Direction: A Framework for Homelessness Prevention.”

Moving forward, the series will run on the last Wednesday of the month, from February to June and September to November. Expert researchers and practitioners in the sector will gather to highlight innovative and successful multi-sector prevention initiatives in Canada and beyond. Discussions will run for 60 to 70 minutes and aim to bring attendees a format different from typical webinars by making audience participation central. In an effort to create the open conversation required to explore homelessness prevention, attendees are encouraged to participate in a Q-and-A where they can engage in an open dialogue and help define each session’s discussion.

For those who can’t attend live, all sessions will be recorded and uploaded afterwards to the Homeless Hub’s YouTube channel.

Bestselling author to share publishing secrets at upcoming event

Pile of books

If you’ve ever fantasized about becoming a published author, or are simply curious about how the book industry works, you won’t want to miss this upcoming event. On Wednesday, Jan. 31, York University’s Writing Department and Creative Writing program are hosting a talk and Q-and-A session with Cody Caetano, a literary agent and award-winning Indigenous author whose bestselling debut memoir, Half-Bads in White Regalia (Penguin Random House Canada, 2022), won the 2023 Indigenous Voices Award for Published Prose in English.

Cody Caetano
Cody Caetano

Caetano, who is of Anishinaabe and Portuguese descent and is an off-reserve member of Pinaymootang First Nation, holds a master of arts in creative writing from the University of Toronto, where he wrote his memoir under the mentorship of Indigenous Canadian writer and academic Lee Maracle.

The highly successful memoir that resulted, Half-Bads in White Regalia, was longlisted for the 2023 Toronto Book Award, the 2023 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour and Canada Reads 2023. It was also named one of the best books of the year by the Globe and Mail and CBC Books.

To make his career trajectory even more impressive, Caetano was writing his bestselling debut memoir while working his way up the corporate ranks in the publishing industry, from his entry-level role as contracts administrator to his current job as a literary agent at the CookeMcDermid agency.

At this in-person event, the author and agent will speak about how to break into the book publishing industry and the challenges and rewards of being an author while also working a day job. After his talk and Q-and-A, he will read from his forthcoming novel and sign copies of his memoir.

The event will take place in the Harry Crowe Room, 109 Atkinson Building, from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Registration is not required and all York University community members are welcome to attend.

Professor receives inaugural funding to make Ontario energy greener

green hand holding green leaf

Hany Farag, an associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering, is among the first to receive funds from a new initiative to revamp Ontario’s energy system.

Hany Farag
Hany Farag

Green hydrogen has the potential to be a world-changing form of energy. It’s a sustainable, renewable and versatile energy carrier that can be used to support many industry sectors without releasing greenhouse gases. Among the most promising options for producing green hydrogen is electrolysis, which can split water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity from a renewable energy source.

There is a significant challenge, however: the production, storage and transport of this resource is highly complex and costly.

The government of Ontario feels it’s a challenge worth taking on. It has created the Hydrogen Innovation Fund, a brand-new funding initiative administered by the Independent Electricity System Operator, which over the next three years will help invest more than $15 million to help integrate hydrogen into Ontario’s clean electricity system.

Farag is among the first group of researchers to successfully attain this funding. In collaboration with Alectra Utilities, Bruce County, York University Facilities Services and other industry partners, Farag will investigate ways to implement Green Hydrogen Plants (GHPs) across Ontario. “There is currently no infrastructure that can support the integration of electricity and hydrogen,” says Farag. “We want to facilitate the innovation of green hydrogen, and this project will help optimize the design of GHPs and their integration into Ontario’s power systems.”

By providing research-backed information and planning tools to support GHP implementation, Farag’s work will help inform action that contributes to Ontario’s target of net-zero carbon emissions by the year 2050.

“Electricity is the core sector we focus on in this work, but these tools will eventually help decarbonize other industries as well,” he says.

New lecture series to spotlight York’s research leadership

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York University’s Organized Research Units (ORU) are launching the Big Thinking Lecture Series, which will feature researchers, artists and activists taking up some of the world’s most pressing issues and ideas in their fields, from water research and aging to digital literacy and more.

As a leader in research and innovative thinking, York has a lot to show in the ways its faculty and students are helping right the future with big ideas. The new lecture series, which will consist of various talks and artistic events held throughout the calendar year, will see expert York speakers present research and creative works that span their respective fields, which include muscle health, Indigenous knowledges and languages, youth and aging, Canadian studies, technoscience and society, feminist activism, and Jewish social and political thought.

John Tsotsos
John Tsotsos

“This bold new series will showcase the depth and breadth of research excellence generated by York’s Organized Research Units and their commitment to fostering critical thought and dialogue on today’s global challenges,” said Amir Asif, vice-president research and innovation. “The Big Thinking Lecture Series builds on York’s proud tradition of interdisciplinary scholarship and participatory research. I applaud the ORU directors for bringing this series forward.”

The inaugural lecture of the series, titled “Vision Beyond a Glance,” is presented by the Centre for Vision Research and will feature John Tsotsos, a Distinguished Research Professor in the Lassonde School of Engineering. He will explore the meaning of vision and explain how we effortlessly perform visual tasks many times a day. The in-person event will take place on Jan. 26 from 2 to 3:30 p.m. in 519 Kaneff Tower.

For more details about the inaugural event and the series itself, visit yorku.ca/research/bigthinking.

Osgoode’s Sikh law students create first-of-its-kind national network

Group of Indian friends at the park

Members of the fledgling Osgoode Sikh Students Association (OSSA) – the first group of its kind in Canada – are playing a key role in bringing Sikh law students together. Not just at Osgoode Hall Law School, but across the country.

The rigours and demands of law school can be a challenge under the best of circumstances, but even more so without support. “The feeling of community in law school can make or break a student’s experience,” says Dalraj Singh Gill, co-president of the OSSA, which was launched in the summer of 2022 and aims to improve its members’ law school experience.

Tripat Kaur Sandhu (left) and Dalraj Singh Gill (right), co-presidents of the Osgoode Sikh Students Association, receiving the Osgoode Student Club Award for Community Building.

Third-year Osgoode student and OSSA co-president Tripat Kaur Sandhu and Osgoode graduate Karen Kaur Randhawa, a co-founder of the group, established the group with the hope that the initiative would benefit not only Sikh students at the law school, but the wider Osgoode community, the legal profession at large and Sikh law students across Canada.

Gill – a 2025 candidate in the Juris Doctor/Master of Business Administration program at Osgoode and Shulich – said one way the organization is looking to accomplish that is by helping Sikh students to remain rooted in the central principles of the Sikh faith, including the pursuit of justice and standing against oppression – ideals that are also relevant to the practice of law. 

Members also hope OSSA, through events and activities, can help improve understanding of the Sikh community at Osgoode and provide a platform to advocate for Sikh issues and other racialized and minority communities at the school.

“Our goal, among others,” said Gill, “is to tackle systemic barriers which prevent Sikh students and persons of colour from accessing the legal profession.”

Since establishing OSSA, the co-founders have actively reached out to Sikh law students across Canada, encouraging and supporting their efforts to launch chapters at their own universities. And their outreach has proven successful, with many Sikh Students Association (SSA) chapters popping up across the country throughout 2023 – at the University of Ottawa in January, at Toronto Metropolitan University in February, at the University of Windsor in May, at Thompson Rivers University in the summer and at Queens University in the fall. This year, an SSA chapter is being eyed at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.

Last year, the Osgoode Legal & Literary Society recognized OSSA’s impactful work with its annual Student Club Award for Community Building.

“We are also hoping to get in touch with B.C. law schools,” said Gill, “and then later expand across to law schools in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and at Dalhousie in Nova Scotia.”

Gill added that although the SSA chapters are not affiliated with the Canadian Association of Sikh Lawyers, his group’s goal is to create a Canada-wide network and community that will extend to alumni groups and established legal professionals. A longer-term goal is to eventually host a national conference involving all SSA chapters.

A heartfelt recognition: professor awarded for cardiac research

hand holding felt heart

Faculty of Health Professor Sherry Grace received the 2022 KITE Innovation and Impact Award from the University Health Network’s KITE Research Institute for the global impact of her work in the field of cardiac rehabilitation.

Sherry Grace
Sherry Grace

The Innovation and Impact Award, bestowed by the KITE Research Institute, is dedicated to rehabilitation science and counts as one of the principal research enterprises of the University Health Network (UHN), Canada’s top medical research hospital. The award is bestowed on two scientists – one senior, one not – whose research contributions have had a major impact, whether to policies, standards, best practice guidelines, regulations, dissemination of resources to the research community, intellectual property or commercialization, or collaborations with non-academic partners.

For Grace, the award served as a recognition of how, over a more than 25-year career – 19 of them at York – she has become recognized as a global authority on cardiac rehabilitation (CR) and has been credited for an ability to transform research into solutions that help reduce mortality and disability among heart patients.

Grace has published more than 320 research papers and has been cited almost 20,000 times, placing her among the top two to three per cent most-cited researchers globally across all fields of study.

Her work has also sought to promote accessible cardiovascular rehabilitation by supporting the growth of CR programs in resource-limited settings, looking to overcome barriers to cardiac rehab participation by increasing program capacity, as well as ensuring patients are better referred and engaged.

In doing so, both her past work and the work that is yet to come has created a catalogue of impactful accomplishment that helped earn her the Innovation and Impact Award.

Celebrating 2023: revisit York’s top 10 moments

best of yu, diverse group of students at bench

York University celebrated transformative moments in 2023, with each one contributing to its drive to make positive change. From groundbreaking research milestones to community-driven initiatives, the University selected its top 10 moments that uphold York’s mission and values.

As a multi-campus University, York’s Faculties, divisions, units, faculty members, staff, and students take pride in their successes and deserve to be recognized. Faculty and students at York ignited new horizons in research, unravelling mysteries and pioneering solutions that shaped our world. Staff dedication paved avenues of inclusivity and support, fostering an environment where every voice resonates. The York community collaborated with external partners to become a driving force, channelling boundless energy into initiatives that reverberated locally and globally.

These monumental milestones weren’t just moments; they were movements. They reshaped narratives, empowered communities and redefined what it means to drive change.

These top 10 moments encapsulated the spirit of unity and teamwork, embodying diverse talents and visions and putting them into action. They stand as testaments to York’s commitment to excellence and its unwavering resolve to shape a brighter future together.

See the Best of YU for 2023.

York researcher traverses tick-infested terrain to beat back insect apocalypse 

PhD student Hadil Elsayed in the field. Photo: Briann Dorin

By Corey Allen, senior manager, research communications 

Academic research is often perceived to involve a lot of books and library visits, but Hadil Elsayed’s PhD work studying insects at York University has involved choppy boat rides, off-road all-terrain vehicle (ATV) adventures and one particularly nasty trek through a swamp.  

Hadil Elsayed headshot
Hadil Elsayed

“I joke that my PhD defence will include a graph that shows the number of cuts and bruises I’ve had to endure for my research,” says the budding entomologist, who is in the fourth year of her PhD in the Department of Biology.  

Jokes aside, Elsayed’s research into the effects of climate change on insects is no laughing matter. In fact, her work is adding to an increasing number of studies that reveal insects are disappearing. It’s a troubling phenomenon dubbed “the insect apocalypse.”  

Current scientific evidence suggests insects across various species and regions are in global decline and are decreasing in terms of population, biomass and diversity. This has serious consequences for the health of our ecosystems, as insects are crucial for pest control, soil quality and pollination, or plant reproduction. Insects travel between different plants, helping them grow by leaving behind pollen grains. These plants can then be harvested as an energy source for humans and other living organisms, including birds that depend on insects for food.

Hadil Elsayed collects a sample from one of her malaise traps. Photo: Briann Dorin
Hadil Elsayed on a boat. Photo: Briann Dorin
Hadil Elsayed on a boat. Photo: Briann Dorin

“Many of these decline studies are coming out of Europe, so my research explores to what extent we are seeing this same trend here in Canada,” says Elsayed, whose work is supervised by leading conservation scientist Sheila Colla, an associate professor in the Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change. “As far as I know, research into biodiversity loss within protected areas at this level has not yet taken place in this country or in North America.” 

Elsayed’s research spans 13 sites, primarily in the Long Point Biosphere Reserve three hours southwest from Toronto, off the shores of Lake Erie. It’s an ecologically significant area, made up of several distinct natural habitats including woodlands, marshes, beaches, meadows and sand dunes, among others. Protected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization, the area is home to a wide range of plants and animals, including many aquatic birds and species at risk.   

To collect all the insect specimens for study, Elsayed used malaise traps, tent-like structures that are set up in the direction of the wind to catch insects flying upwards into jars of ethanol. Elsayed collected hundreds of samples biweekly, or sometimes weekly, in the summery months of May through August.  

Setting up all the traps in the right places and monitoring them means Elsayed often had to brave the wilderness and all its elements, including tick-infested terrain.   

“I would have to stop every two minutes to pick ticks off me or shoo away all the mosquitoes,” she says. “I complained a lot while I was out there, but it’ll be worth it if it means I can help protect biodiversity and make a meaningful contribution to the field of entomology.”

An example of one of Elsayed’s malaise traps.
An example of one of Elsayed’s malaise traps.

With help from a guide from the Long Point Bird Observatory, Elsayed travelled to some sites that are only accessible by going off-trail – by ATV, by boat or by bushwhacking. The demanding task of collecting samples also entailed a month-long stint living alone in a cabin, where the only visitors Elsayed entertained were some rather unwelcome cockroaches.  

Back at the lab, Elsayed processes her samples and sorts, weighs and analyzes hundreds of insects. Her research specifically focuses on the insects that live in protected areas, like Long Point, which should be safer from environmental stressors than insects found in urban ecosystems or cities – in theory.  

But some of Elsayed’s early findings show these protected areas are also suffering, experiencing a decline of up to 200 grams in biomass. This translates to a loss of hundreds of thousands of insects. These findings are possible because Elsayed can compare data collected from the same sites in the early 1990s by the Canadian Wildlife Service against the data she has gathered 30 years later.  

“Preliminary results indicate that climate change is a factor in insect decline, even in protected areas, and various climate stressors are behind their disappearance,” explains Elsayed. “For one group of insects, the main driver for their decline appears to be a decrease in rainfall. For another, it’s linked to an increase in temperature.”  

Recently, Elsayed presented parts of her work at an annual conference held by the Entomological Society of America, with over 3,600 attendees. She was awarded first place in the Student Competition for the President’s Prize, recognizing her efforts to advance climate change research. 

With her strenuous field work completed, Elsayed is currently working on writing her dissertation, with a projected PhD completion date in early 2025.  

Her work is funded by York University, the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Entomological Society of Canada.