Biology professor’s eDNA discovery earns top spot at Gizmodo Science Fair
DNA, Hospital, Laboratory, Speedometer,
Assistant Professor Elizabeth Clare, in York University’s Faculty of Science, recently demonstrated the possibility of assessing the range of animal species inhabiting a given locale using environmental DNA sampled from the air – a breakthrough that placed her among Gizmodo Science Fair 2023 winners.
The research paper from Clare’s team, “Measuring biodiversity from DNA in the air,” represents a significant leap forward in the applicability of environmental DNA (eDNA) sampling for two reasons – first of which is that, prior to the team’s demonstration, eDNA had only been reliably collected from water and soil samples, not taken from the air.
The second reason is that while Clare and her team conducted research at Hamerton Zoo Park in the U.K., another team – led by Kristine Bohmann from the Globe Institute at the University of Copenhagen – independently conducted similar tests at the Copenhagen Zoo. The matching results of both studies were then published in the same journal, Current Biology, a coincidence that both teams agree reinforce their findings.
Clare’s study initially began in a lab when her team successfully identified naked mole rat DNA captured in an air sample taken from their tunnel. From that proof-of-concept, the team then scaled up the experiment. Once at the zoo, the team used sensitive filters attached to vacuum pumps to collect more than 70 air samples from different locations around the park, both in and outside of the animal enclosures.
“When we analyzed the collected samples, we were able to identify DNA from 25 different species of animals, such as tigers, lemurs and dingoes, 17 of which were known zoo species. We were even able to collect eDNA from animals that were hundreds of metres away from where we were testing without a significant drop in the concentration, and even from outside sealed buildings. The animals were inside, but their DNA was escaping,” says Clare.
By demonstrating that non-invasive sampling could reveal the extent of the biodiversity in a specified habitat, Clare and her team hope that their research will provide the foundation for new testing protocols that enhance global conservation efforts.
For its recognition at this year’s Gizmodo Science Fair, Clare’s research project now resides in a league of landmark academic achievements which includes: a new, environmentally-friendly centrifugal launch system for satellites; the image processors used to render photos from the data collected by the James Webb Space Telescope; an experimental vaccine for treating and preventing the spread of breast cancer; among many others.
For more details on the research conducted by Clare’s team, visit the York University Faculty of Science.
From streams to stars: York’s Nuit Blanche exhibit lights up Keele Campus
The Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) and York University presented Streams~Nuit Blanche, an evening of campus-wide exhibitions, art installations and events as part of the celebrated Nuit Blanche 2022 arts festival.
The event featured 34 artists and showcased 19 projects located around the central core of the Keele Campus beginning 7 p.m. on Oct. 1 and ending 7 a.m. on Oct. 2.
A collective of York University organizations and faculty presented this multi-experiential program. The title Streams~ identifies shared commonalities between this concatenation of projects that translate and show us how elements in nature are contained and controlled; planted and extracted; forged and processed; displaced and discarded.
For more information on participants, curators and their contributions to the program, see this YFile story. Scroll through the gallery below to see photos from the event.
Acknowledgements Streams~ Nuit Blanche 2022 at York University was coordinated by the Art Gallery of York University led by Clara Halpern, assistant curator, and Jenifer Papararo, director/ curator with support from Mallory Silver, events and communications coordinator and Shawna Teper, assistant director, government and community relations at York University.
Archive/Counter-Archive projects curated by Janine Marchessault and produced by Asad Raza. Sensorium: Centre for Digital Arts and Technology program is curated by Joel Ong.
Welcome to YFile’s New Faces feature issue
Welcome to YFile’s New Faces Feature Issue 2022. In this special issue, YFile introduces new faculty members joining the York University community and highlights those with new appointments.
In this issue, YFile welcomes new faculty members in the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design; the Faculty of Education; the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change; the Faculty of Health; the Lassonde School of Engineering; the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies; Osgoode Hall Law School; and the Faculty of Science.
Lee Ann Fuji was associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto (Mississauga) and a member of the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. After her passing in 2018, this book award was established to recognize the best book published in the previous two calendar years that significantly advances issues of diversity in the discipline, whether through topical focus or authorship. This is the second year for the award.
Sesay’s book explores how the positive effects of rule of law norms and institutions are often assumed in the fields of global governance and international development, with empirical work focusing more on the challenges of using law to engineer social change abroad. Questioning this assumption, the book contends that purportedly “good” rule of law standards do not always deliver benign benefits but rather often have negative consequences that harm the very local constituents which rule of law promoters promise to help.
In particular, the book argues that rule of law promotion in post-colonial societies reinforces socioeconomic and political inequality which disproportionately favors dominant actors who have the wealth, education, and influence to navigate the state legal system. In addition to an historical account of legal development in settler-colonial environments, this argument is also drawn from a comparative study which focuses on the U.K.-supported justice sector development programs in Sierra Leone and the U.S.-funded rule of law projects in Liberia.
The International Studies Association stated in a press release: “This year’s winner, Mohamed Sesay’s book Domination through Law: The Internationalization of Legal Norms in Postcolonial Africa (Rowman & Littlefield 2021), exemplifies Lee Ann’s call for reflexivity and diversity in the discipline.”
The release also notes that “Sesay uses a postcolonial analysis to argue that modern rule of law perpetuates forms of domination in post-conflict African states. He calls into question neoliberal characterizations of modern law – including the idea that it’s contemporary, distinct from a colonial past, and carried out as a neutral project – to argue that the reconstruction of post conflict societies through rule of law processes and peacebuilding as state-building efforts conducted by Euro-American parties continues the colonization project through three empirical spheres of legal internationalization (local economies, local politics of rule of law reforms, and communal rules and norms).”
Sesay is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies’ Department of Social Science. He is also the coordinator of the African Studies (AFST) Program at York.
Mentorship program for Black students in Faculty of Health
Looking for a mentorship program that is geared towards the Black undergraduate student experience in the Faculty of Health? The Black Students Mentorship Program (BSMP) offers Black students mentorship opportunities, resources for academic, personal and professional development, and a safe and supportive community.
The student-led group works to target the academic barriers faced by Black students in the Faculty of Health, the BSMP works to remediate the lack of Black graduate students and professionals in health and STEMM-related fields. BSMP offers an opportunity for the Black undergraduate student community to overcome the systemic barriers and succeed in academic and career prospects with appropriate guidance.
BSMP is funded by the Agents of Change program which is affiliated with Calumet and Stong Colleges and supports projects that address social determinants of health and are actively participating in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The BSMP has been identified as working to address social determinants of health such as income, education and working conditions, social safety networks, gender, social exclusion, and race; and aims to achieve UN SDG 3 (good health and well-being), UN SDG 4 (quality education) and UN SDG 10 (reduced inequality).
Since the program’s start in January, BSMP has hosted events such as orientation night; an educational health panel with leaders from Sunnybrook Hospital, CAMH and more; a workshop on preparing for graduate school; and mentorship opportunities. To mark Black History Month, BSMP participated in the Mental Health Talk and Black Student Experience panel discussion hosted by the York United Black Students’ Alliance (YUBSA) and presented at a conference held by the Canadian Black Scientist Network presenting Black professional and students interested in the STEMM fields.
The program has established connections with community partners, including Women’s Health in Women’s Hand, Sunnybrook Hospital, and Generation Chosen. These partnerships will foster positive change and promote success by normalizing and understanding the Black experience in academia.
To learn more about BSMP, visit Instagram at @bsmp.yorku or contact the team at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about the next recruitment cycle to become a mentee or mentor.
Lights! Camera! Schulich prof a featured expert in Hollywood documentary
Schulich School of Business Professor Moshe Milevsky plays a key role in the largest retirement documentary in the history of film.
“It’s gratifying that my research work and expertise in this area was recognized beyond the narrow confines of academia and the ivory tower,” said Milevsky. “As a Canadian, appearing in a U.S.-based movie production is an added coup.”
Producer Doug Orchard said Milevsky’s testimony was critical to the film’s success. Milevsky served as an expert witness to the legislature of Florida 20 years ago as it transitioned its Defined Benefits Plan to a Defined Contribution Plan, and the film documents his role in influencing the retirement choices presented to Florida state employees. Actors in the film portray a storyline based on true events in which Milevsky participated.
This is the largest retirement documentary film rated by the MPA (Motion Picture Association) in the history of film and includes top academic minds in the field of retirement planning. Other experts in the documentary include Nobel Prize-winning economists from MIT and Stanford, as well as economists from Wharton and other well-known universities, members of the U.S. Congress, distinguished government leaders who serve or served as Trustees of the U.S. Social Security System, the Pension Guarantee Association, the U.S. Comptroller General, and pension fund managers.
“Hopefully this will increase enrollment in my technical courses on retirement income planning, which normally doesn’t attract the attention of 23-year-olds,” said Milevsky. “I can now add an IMDB (Internet Movie Database) entry to my CV, which I’m sure will do wonders on my next SSHRC/NSERC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council/Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) application.”
York U in the news: air pollution, B.C. storms and more
York staff member Frankie Billingsley realizes Olympic dream and becomes TikTok sensation
In summer 2021, Frankie Billingsley, associate registrar and director, student records and scheduling at York University, realized a lifelong dream when she travelled to Tokyo to be an umpire for women’s softball at the Olympic Games – a journey that began five years earlier.
In 2016, Billingsley was invited by Canada’s umpire in chief to try out for an umpire spot for the 2020 Olympic Games, which was followed by a comprehensive four-year evaluation process.
“A lot of people don’t realize that, similar to athletes, the officials go through the same rigorous process to get to the Olympics,” she says. She and other officials were evaluated at two world championships, the Pan-American Games and several international tournaments; in early 2020, she learned she was one of 13 officials selected.
“I started to cry,” Billingsley says of the phone call from the national director of umpires, which was followed by an email from the World Baseball/Softball Confederation, letting her know she was selected to umpire at the Olympic Games. “It was something that I had always dreamed of. Anyone that’s involved in sports, the best thing you can ever do is represent your country at the Olympics, and even though I always wanted to do that, I never thought it would come to fruition – and then when it actually did, I was just so overwhelmed with emotion. I think my husband even cried, so it was a pretty special moment.”
However, as the COVID-19 pandemic moved across the globe and the 2020 Olympic Games were postponed, Billingsley would wait another year to realize her dream. During that time, however, she moved from Alberta to Ontario, and began her role at York, which she says was a silver lining.
A dream come true
In July 2021, Billingsley arrived in Tokyo for a 12-day stay during which she officiated seven women’s softball games. She recalls seeing the softball diamond and Olympic rings for the first time, saying, “I just remember getting out of the bus and walking to the diamond, and my breath was just taken away when I saw the stadium, and seeing the Olympic rings and the Tokyo 2020 logo.
“The stadium and the field of play was so beautiful, it was just a moment – and just walking on the diamond, walking on the grass, knowing the Olympic players were going to be playing on that very field was just so special. All the work you put into achieving something, and it’s right there at your fingertips, is just such a neat feeling.”
Being at the Olympic Games during a global pandemic without spectators was a different experience, she says, but it didn’t diminish the event’s magnitude. “Even though there were no spectators at the sports, every time I went onto the diamond and I saw those Olympic rings, I assure you the specialness of the opportunity wasn’t lost,” she says. “And the intensity of the games was still incredibly powerful. You could tell Olympic medals were on the line from the moment of the first pitch. It was incredible.”
Billingsley adds she was proud to be part of the all-women’s crew assigned to the final game, describing it as emotional and special.
On day two of the Olympic Games, Billingsley unwittingly became a TikTok star when she experienced an injury behind the plate. She was hit by a foul tip, causing a concussion. Fortunately, she was able to continue officiating through the Olympics, but she admits that she still experiences headaches resulting from the injury.
“I never in a million years would have thought that I would go all the way to Tokyo to participate in the Olympics Games and sustain a concussion for the first time in my life and have someone make a TikTok video out of it,” she laughs. “The TikTok video was such a great way to take a situation and spin it into something super positive. I felt very grateful that even though I sustained the injury, I was able to finish that game, and also to continue officiating and that injury didn’t sideline me.”
Billingsley’s Olympic experience was the culmination of a lifetime of involvement in sport, with softball experience since age 13, and 21 years of experience with umping and additional experience coaching. “It’s such a unique team sport because you’re all vying for the same thing and trying to achieve the same goals, but at the same time, when you’re fielding a ball or when you’re up to bat, you’re completely on your own – so I’ve always been drawn to the fact that it’s a team sport that you share with eight other players on the field and the other players on the bench, but when you’re in the game on offence or defence, you’re on your own,” she says.
Billingsley is now turning her attention to the next generation of umpires, and giving back to the sport of softball. “I want to continue instructing, evaluating, mentoring, supervising championships, giving back to that next generation of officials – one of which will hopefully be the next representative for Canada at the Olympic Games.”
She says she is grateful for the opportunity to share her story with her York University colleagues. “I’ve only been at York for a little over a year, but the campus community has been so welcoming and embracing to me, I’m just grateful to be able to share my experience.”
She says her advice to York University students and anyone wanting to pursue a dream is simple: “Be true to who you are, work hard, dream big and anything is possible.”
Students engage in land-based learning to understand health
Joce TwoCrows from SweetGrass Roots Collective teaching at the The Black Creek Community Farm
Teachings set in nature, among the maple trees of Black Creek Community Farm, offered students at York University a new perspective on health.
A unique experiential learning opportunity for York students in the Faculty of Health’s School of Health Policy and Management (SHPM) offered first-hand teachings about what determinants shape health and how the land relates to health.
The land-based learning for two SHPM classes – HLST1011 Health on the Front Lines and HLST3012 Social Determinants of Indigenous Peoples’ Health, taught by assistant professors Jessica Vorstermans and Sean Hillier – was delivered in partnership with Sweet Grass Roots Collective at the Black Creek Community Farm (Sweet Grass Roots Collective stewards land at the farm).
About 30 students from two classes met in person at the farm, where they received teachings from Jennifer LaFontaine of Sweet Grass Roots Collective, an Indigenous collective that does land- and place-based education, earthwork, arts and storytelling, and stewards a Three-Sisters Medicine garden at the farm. The teachings took place among the maple trees, and students were given the opportunity to taste sweetwater (which is used in ceremony), braid sweetgrass and bundle sage.
“Having learners on the land, and able to connect with the land, takes the theoretical and philosophical discussions from the classroom of knowledge and how knowledge systems are validated and challenges long-held Western notions,” says Hillier. “By taking part in on-the-land learning, learners come to a deeper meaning of Indigenous Peoples and traditional knowledge.”
Land-based learning presents a different opportunity for students, explains Vorstermans, because it asks participants to be present in a different way – being present to the land, to the plants, to the trees, to the wind, to the sun. During this particular experience, LaFontaine asked the group to think about Indigenous Peoples’ access to land for ceremony, as the group stood below maple trees and shared sweetwater.
“This kind of learning was different, while standing under the trees that provide the sweetwater,” says Vorstermans. “It also asks students to think about ways their learning has been colonized, asks them to think about ways learning can look different, ask different things and prompt different responses. It asks them to think about ways their own learning from land shapes their health, their wellness and what this relationship has looked like over time and space.”
She hopes students will come away from the experience with a deeper knowledge of how health care looks different based on social locations, and how colonization has shaped the system of care, knowledge and wellness.
“As a white woman scholar, I have to navigate this space with care and reciprocity. I am responding to calls from students to decolonize their learning and am guided by the Indigenous Framework for York University: A Guide to Action,” says Vorstermans. “I work to make space in my classroom, curriculum and syllabus to engage with Indigenous world views and ontologies, led by Indigenous scholars and teachers. This is my responsibility, as I have been given the task of educating current and future health professionals; it would be irresponsible not to.”
Those who could not come to the in-person learning engaged through a video that premiered on the Faculty of Health’s YouTube channel.
For York University student Ravenne Rivera, starting her first year for the second time has had its advantages.
The undergraduate student, enrolled in the Faculty of Health’s Kinesiology and Health Science program, had embarked on her post-secondary journey in the fall of 2020, but her studies were deferred when she encountered challenges with OSAP funding for the winter term. She worked with the University to sort it out, and her enrolment was deferred to fall of 2021.
For Rivera, this meant pursing her first year of studies a second time – but it also allowed her to re-enter York’s First Year for Free Contest, which offers students a chance to win free tuition.
“It was just pure shock,” she said about learning she had won. “It was amazing and it was something I didn’t ever expect.”
The win, she said, gives her financial security and will allow her to focus on her post-secondary studies and her dream of one day working in the medical field. It also boosts her motivation to succeed.
“It definitely motivates me a little bit more. I was already motivated for first year … but knowing that the tuition is free, it is a bit of a relief,” she said, adding that she can put all of her focus on doing well in school. “It means a lot to me, it means a lot to my future.”
Studying at university has been a dream of Rivera’s since she was a young girl. It was a path, she said, she always knew she wanted. Intent on studying kinesiology and with dreams of eventually becoming a surgeon, she said York University was her top choice for post-secondary studies.
“I knew York has a really good kinesiology program – I’ve been reading about it since Grade 9, and it’s always ranked as one of the top programs – so my mind was already set [on York] from the beginning,” she said.
As for her experience at York so far, she said it’s been very positive.
“It’s a gateway to new opportunities and new lessons learned,” she said.