Grad student research recognized with thesis, dissertation prizes

a man holding a trophy

York University’s Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) has awarded six graduands with 2024 Thesis and Dissertation Prizes for their outstanding contributions to the local and global community. The prizes, valued at $2,000 for doctoral dissertations and $1,000 for master’s theses, are given out every spring to honour theses defended in the previous calendar year. The award-winning work among the early-career scholars ranged from high-risk data collection to an award-winning film.

Doctoral Dissertation Prizes

Alison Humphrey (PhD, cinema and media studies) for “The Shadowpox Storyworld as Citizen Science Fiction: Building Co-Immunity through Participatory Mixed-Reality Storytelling”

Alison Humphrey
Alison Humphrey

Humphrey’s dissertation involves a mixed-reality storyworld – a fully immersive, interactive storytelling experience – co-created with young people on three continents, imagining immunization through a superhero metaphor.

The research-creation dissertation recounts the design and testing of three experiments in a single science fiction storyworld, titled “Shadowpox.” Humphrey’s first experiment was a full-body video game exhibited at the UNAIDS 70th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, and at Galleri KiT in Trondheim, Norway. The second was a networked narrative – a story created by a network of interconnected authors – which was workshopped and presented at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and with the Debajehmujig Storytellers, a multidisciplinary arts organization in Wiikwemkoong Unceded Reserve in northern Ontario. The third component, an online video game necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, was available worldwide, and was included in the United Nations COVID-19 Response Creative Content Hub in 2020.

The examining committee praised the project and described it as “careful theory-building through sound methodological praxis” and “a new standard for research-creation dissertations in Canada.”

Inbar Peled (PhD, law) for “Professionalizing Discrimination:  Legal Actors and the Struggle Against Racialized Policing in Multicultural Societies”

Inbar Peled
Inbar Peled

Through her project, Peled examines the role of lawyers in perpetuating racialized police violence in multicultural societies. While much of the work on racialized police killing and police violence focuses on the police themselves, the role of lawyers in enabling these incidents is often ignored. To unpack the ways lawyers and judges support, resist and confront racism in their practices, Peled interviewed prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges in Israel. Her groundbreaking work argues that the solution to the problem of racialized policing will have to include transformation within the legal profession.

Her defense committee unanimously commended the work, saying, “the real genius of Peled’s project is that it merges theories of identity (self and others) with professionalized role competence. This combination demonstrates not just that lawyers are – like all people – influenced by race and racism in their decision making but also that legal norms and rules also play a role in the failure to address racialized police violence.”

Jennifer Porat (PhD, biology) for “RNA methyltransferases Influence Noncoding RNA Biogenesis and Function Through Catalytic-Independent Activities”

Jennifer Porat
Jennifer Porat

Porat’s innovative study encompasses various aspects of ribonucleic acid (RNA) biology – a molecule essential for most biological functions – while focusing on the lesser-studied functions of a set of eukaryotic RNA modification enzymes. The dissertation provides evidence supporting the multifaceted nature of these enzymes and underscores their importance in many fundamental biological processes. The pinnacle recognition of Porat’s scholarly excellence is exemplified by her recent Scaringe Award that acknowledges outstanding achievement of young scientists engaged in RNA research presented by the RNA Society, an international scientific society with more than 1,800 members dedicated to fostering research and education in the field of RNA science.

The examination committee Chair, Professor Emanuel Rosonina, stated that Porat’s work “fundamentally changes how we think about RNA-modifying enzymes.” He continued, “It is not common that a student forges new ground and concepts like this. Hers is among the most impressive PhD theses and defenses that I have seen at York and beyond.”

Master’s Thesis Prizes

Pooya Badkoobeh (master’s, film) for “Based on a True Story”

Pooya Badkoobeh
Pooya Badkoobeh

Badkoobeh’s thesis film, Inn, is a 20-minute minimalist short film set in Tehran, Iran, inspired by the real-life story of an old couple who planned to commit suicide together. The film’s central theme revolves around the core meaning of life in the face of planned and seemingly certain death. Employing minimalist storytelling and a hybrid of fiction and documentary style, the film uses long takes and distant camera placements for a distinctive effect. The script features very little dialogue and long silences, illustrating the characters’ inner lives and allowing the viewer to fill in their background. The same year of his defense, Badkoobeh’s thesis film was named North America’s Best Film by CILECT, the International Association of Film & Television Schools.

“His film embraces the core value of what it means to be human in the cinematic form,” shared Manfred Becker, Pooya’s supervisor. “It is an exceptionally sensitive and disciplined work of art, executed in a minimalist style, which matches the complexity of its subject matter.”

Nina Garrett (master’s, biology) for “Measuring neotropical bat diversity using airborne eDNA”

Nina Garrett
Nina Garrett

Garrett’s thesis develops the novel technique of capturing airborne environmental DNA (eDNA) for the detection of tropical bat species. Garrett successfully demonstrates that airborne eDNA can accurately characterize a mixed-species community with varying abundances and that the type of sampler does not impact DNA concentration or read count. This study was extremely high-risk science because no one had ever attempted this type of work under field conditions with wild animals. At the time she started, there were only three published scientific works in existence demonstrating that airborne eDNA collection was even possible and all had been conducted under extremely controlled and artificial conditions (i.e. in a zoo).

Garrett’s two data chapters were published in PeerJ and Environmental DNA journals. Additionally, she has been acknowledged for her advanced academic and research leadership, having received prestigious awards for her master’s studies, including the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada’s master’s graduate scholarship and recognitions for her research presentations at provincial and national conferences.

Haider Shoaib (master’s, electrical engineering and computer science) for “Performance Modeling and Optimization of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles With Reliable Wireless Connectivity”

Haider Shoaib
Haider Shoaib

Shoaib’s cutting-edge project tackles vehicular network connectivity challenges, which are expected to be of increasing concern with the rise of electric vehicles. The project explores the fundamental question of how to maximize vehicle traffic flow while maintaining a minimum network connectivity requirement. Specifically, Shoaib’s thesis develops innovative network performance models for 5G- and 6G-enabled vehicle communications that consider critical parameters such as traffic flow, wireless channel impediments and network density.

This type of optimization has not been considered to date in either the telecommunications or transportation domains, and it includes several important constraints to ensure quality of service and to avoid collisions.

Additional prize

In addition to the above Thesis and Dissertation Prizes, FGS nominated Humphrey and Porat for a dissertation prize presented by the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies (CAGS). The CAGS-ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award recognizes Canadian doctoral dissertations that make significant and original contributions to their academic field. Winners receive a $1,500 cash prize, a certificate of recognition and an invitation to attend the Annual CAGS Conference.

For more information about the prizes and how they are awarded, visit the Faculty of Graduate Studies website.

Benjamin Berger wins Faculty of Graduate Studies’ Teaching Award

gold and red stars

The 2023-24 Faculty of Graduate Studies’ (FGS) Teaching Award recipient is Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Benjamin Berger, who teaches in the graduate programs in law and socio-legal studies and has been recognized for his unwavering support for students and commitment to his local graduate community.

Benjamin Berger
Benjamin Berger

The Faculty Teaching Award is bestowed annually to a member of the Faculty of Graduate Studies who has displayed sustained excellence, commitment and enthusiasm to the multifaceted work of teaching at the graduate level at York University. The award recognizes teaching and supervisory excellence and considers scholarly, professional and teaching development, along with initiative involving graduate program and curriculum development. The nominator may be any member of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, including regular or adjunct faculty, graduate students or staff.

“Dr. Berger’s record of supervision is notable not simply due to the large number of students successfully supported through to degree completion under his guidance but for the quality and care to which those relationships were cultivated,” said Alice MacLachlan, vice-provost and dean of graduate studies, when she presented the award to Berger at the Faculty Council meeting on April 4. “Former graduate students spoke admirably on the generosity of time Dr. Berger provided to them, and the capacity by which feedback and direction was delivered in an understanding but supportive manner.”

Also in attendance was Lisa Philipps, provost and vice-president academic, who equally praised Berger: “It is so great to see you here today, Benjamin, and I would like to express my sincere gratitude for all that you have done to support the personal and intellectual growth of your graduate students here at York.”

A researcher in the areas of law and religion, criminal and constitutional law and theory as well as the law of evidence, Berger shares his expertise through lectures, class readings and one-on-one support developing students’ thesis and dissertation projects. His graduate students underscored his ability to carefully design his courses, balancing attentive learning, active discussion and expert guest speakers.

The nomination letters spoke widely of Berger’s commitment to his students. One such example was shared by an international student who began their studies in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic: “Prof. Berger took active steps to ease my adjustment into my new life, including putting me in touch with other graduate students that could offer support and advice, checking in regularly to gauge my emotional experience of the transition, and offering resources to support the practical cost of settling into the graduate program.”

Berger’s commitment to his local graduate community was also a key factor. He dedicates his time to support both the research and professional development focuses of Osgoode Hall Law School through academic leadership for master of laws specializations, colloquium organization, and contributions to workshops for students applying to major scholarships and awards.

Throughout his career, Berger has received other teaching accolades, including the Terry J. Wuester Teaching Award twice and the First Year Class Teaching Award, all while at the University of Victoria Law School. Additionally, he received the Osgoode Hall Law School Teaching Award in 2013.

“Graduate supervision and teaching are among the great joys of my career,” said Berger in his award acceptance speech. “This award reflects that joy and the inspiration that I have drawn from two sets of relationships: with my own supervisors, who patiently, caringly shaped my approach to scholarly inquiry; and with my brilliant, sincere and committed students, in whose growth and insights I continually delight.”

For more information, visit the Faculty of Graduate Studies’ Teaching Award website.

York to host, lead graduate supervision conference

Glendon graduate students on laptops

One of the foundational relationships of the graduate student experience is the one between student and supervisor. As part of its 60th anniversary celebrations, York University’s Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) is hosting an online graduate supervision conference geared specifically toward supervisors.

Held in partnership with Memorial University of Newfoundland, the conference – called Collaborative, Constructive, Considerate: Fostering Dialogue on Best Practices in Graduate Supervision in Canada – will be held virtually on Friday, May 31 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The conference will bring together graduate supervisors from universities across Canada, with the aim to lead and foster dialogue about best practices in supervisory pedagogy.

Cheryl van Daalen-Smith
Cheryl van Daalen-Smith

“We need to continue talking about principles and best practices,” says Cheryl van Daalen-Smith, conference Chair and associate dean, academic of FGS

The conference is intended to fill a need for schools of graduate studies, which understand that more conversations have to happen about supervision.

“There’s an assumption that one learns to be a supervisor by being supervised themselves,” she says, “when there’s so much more to it.”

A cornerstone of the academic environment, graduate education and the graduate supervisory experience play a pivotal role in shaping students’ academic and professional journeys. This relationship has a profound effect on the quality of research produced, development of academic skills and overall academic experience.

The conference will include a keynote address delivered by Bruce Shore, author of The Graduate Advisor Handbook: A Student-Centred Approach, titled “Connections to Quagmires: Setting Up for Successful Supervision.” A second keynote speech, by Supervising Conflict author Heather McGhee Peggs, will offer practical advice to help faculty manage the most common grad school concerns.

Experts in the pragmatics of supervision, mediating conflict and the requisite principles guiding Ontario universities will participate in a panel discussion to follow, examining the Principles for Graduate Supervision at Ontario Universities, which were developed last year by the Ontario Council on Graduate Studies.

A closing discussion moderated by van Daalen-Smith will end the day, with a focus on the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies Working Group Initiative and its mission to establish a set of national graduate supervision principles.

“We need to celebrate great supervision and foster discussions that identify exactly what it is that makes this pivotal educative role in graduate studies so influential,” says van Daalen-Smith.

The conference is free to attend, and registration is now open via the online form. For more information, visit the event web page.

Research explores use of artificial shrubs for animal protection

Lizard beside a shrub in the desert

Mario Zuliani, a York University researcher and teaching assistant in the Faculty of Science, is making inroads in the field of ecology with his novel study on the association between imitation plants and animal species.  

Expected to complete his PhD at York in August, Zuliani has already made significant contributions to ecological science, including a recently published paper in Restoration Ecology titled “The Relative Effects of Artificial Shrubs on Animal Community Assembly.” 

Zuliani’s environmental research took root during his master’s program in biology at York, where from 2018 to 2020 he focused on ecological conservation and restoration, particularly through studying the relationship between shrubs and animal species. Building on this earlier work, Zuliani’s latest study digs deeper into the facilitative interactions between shrub and animal species, exploring how structures that mimic shrubs might be utilized by animal species in the wild.  

Explaining the motivation behind his research, Zuliani highlights the importance of shrub species in arid ecosystems such as those found in Southern California. These shrubs play a crucial role in providing shelter, food and protection for a diverse range of animal species, mitigating the harsh conditions of the desert environment.  

Fake shrubs serve much of the same purpose, Zuliani and his team have found, providing compelling evidence that artificial shrub structures can replicate the benefits of natural shrubs, attracting similar animal communities and providing essential resources for survival. 

“From our study, we found that artificial shrubs can produce the same benefits that natural shrubs produce. They reduce the temperature under their canopy and even have the same animal species associating around them,” Zuliani says. “We also found that animals prefer being closer to either artificial shrubs or natural shrubs, rather than in areas where there are no shrubs. This is important because it shows that these artificial structures will be used as a resource by animals.” 

The implications of Zuliani’s research are far-reaching, offering valuable insights for conservation and restoration efforts in disturbed ecosystems.  

“One of the biggest actions I am hoping to come about from these findings is the use of artificial shrubs as a short-term solution to promote animal communities in areas where natural shrubs have been disturbed, or in areas where there are endangered animal species,” he says. “Finding that these dry-land animal species utilize these artificial shrubs suggests that they can be used, at least for a short time, while natural shrubs are able to grow in size and provide the same benefits.” 

By demonstrating the effectiveness of artificial shrubs as a temporary solution to promote animal communities, Zuliani also hopes to pave the way for sustainable initiatives that support endangered species and mitigate the impacts of habitat loss and climate change.  

“Utilizing artificial shrubs – and by extension artificial structures – could have positive impacts on sustainability initiatives, as they can all be used temporarily while disrupted ecosystems recover,” Zuliani says. “As well, using these types of structures, even for just a short period of time, would relieve stress that animals experience when they have lost habitats or when their environment has become increasingly harsh from global climate extremes.” 

York graduate students explore motherhood

child holding onto mother's skirt

In the midst of ongoing debates surrounding reproductive rights, five York University graduate students had work published in the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative that looks to re-evaluate conventional notions of motherhood beyond essentialist and biological frameworks.

The students’ essays have been published in the Winter/Spring 2024 issue of the journal, which was founded and edited by Andrea O’Reilly, a professor in the School of Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies at York. The biannual, peer-reviewed scholarly journal is dedicated to advancing the discourse on motherhood from a global and interdisciplinary standpoint, offering a diverse array of scholarly insights into the multifaceted concept of motherhood.

Andrea O'Reilly
Andrea O’Reilly

“The defining mission of the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative,” O’Reilly writes in her introductory notes, “is to promote and disseminate the best current scholarship on motherhood, and to ensure that this scholarship considers motherhood both in an international context and from a multitude of perspectives, including differences of class, race, sexuality, age, ethnicity, ability, and nationality, and from across a diversity of disciplines.”

With ongoing support from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada, the journal continues to serve as an important platform for advancing an understanding of motherhood.

The five essays – among a total of 11 in this issue – written by York graduate students build on that tradition.

Thea Jones, a PhD student in the Graduate Program in Gender, Feminist & Women’s Studies, critically examines the impact of breastfeeding mandates on breastless parents who have undergone mastectomies in her essay. Jones challenges normative motherhood discourses and highlights the exclusion of non-conforming parenting bodies from mainstream narratives.

In her essay, Ame Khin May-Kyawt, a PhD candidate in the Graduate Program in Social & Political Thought, explores the experiences of socially displaced refugee women/mothers from Southeast Asia to Canada. Through an intersectional lens, May-Kyawt sheds light on how these women navigate their gender norms and identities while fulfilling multiple roles.

Katrina Millan, another PhD student, presents a compelling analysis of post-apocalyptic narratives in her article “Only Mom Can Save the World.” Millan advocates for a queer futurism that challenges heteronormative mandates and offers alternative visions of human futurity.

Winter/Spring 2024 Issue of Journal of the Motherhood Initiative
Winter/Spring 2024 Issue of the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative

Tina Powell, a PhD student in Gender, Feminist & Women’s Studies, addresses the marginalization of mothers in feminist scholarship and economics. Powell calls for an intersectional approach to understanding motherhood, one that acknowledges and addresses the unique challenges faced by mothers in contemporary society.

Sofia Ahmed, a PhD student specializing in feminist and gender studies, delves into the complexities of Muslim motherhood. Ahmed invites readers to explore the myths, challenges and spiritual insights of motherhood through the lens of Islam, celebrating the empowerment and resilience of Muslim mothers in navigating societal constructs.

The students’ contributions not only aim to enrich the scholarly discourse on motherhood, but also underscore the journal’s commitment to fostering inclusivity and representation within motherhood studies, a comparatively new field of academic study that O’Reilly, who has authored and edited more than 20 books devoted to motherhood, has spearheaded.

“I think that good scholarship of motherhood matters,” O’Reilly once told an interviewer. “But for me it matters more when we can use that scholarship in a way to effect societal cultural change.”

New graduate fellowship rewards exceptional scholars, community service

Audience Applauding Speaker At Business Conference

York University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies has announced a new fellowship for students in its graduate business programs, honouring the memory of a beloved colleague.

Kenneth McBey
Kenneth McBey

The late Professor Kenneth McBey, who passed away in June 2022, was an admired instructor and mentor during his many years at York University. He was a passionate teacher in the graduate programs for Human Resource Management, Disaster & Emergency Management and Public Policy & Law, and a founding member of both the School of Human Resource Management and the Disaster & Emergency Management Program. In addition to his academic accolades, McBey served his communities in many different capacities. He was involved in a number of community and voluntary associations throughout his life, and was a commissioned officer in the Canadian Army Reserve.

Last year, to honour her late husband’s generous nature and legacy of service, Betty-Anne McBey established the Dr. Kenneth McBey Graduate Fellowship in Management. It is awarded to an incoming or continuing master’s- or doctoral-level graduate student who demonstrates outstanding voluntary service to Canada and the community. 

“One of Ken’s great pleasures was working with his York students,” said Betty-Anne. “I used to overhear him teaching during the pandemic, integrating into his lessons everything from the World War II Halifax Harbour explosion to the Shackleton Antarctica expedition. He was very proud to have been a founding member of the Disaster & Emergency Management (DEM) Program, and advocated for DEM to have a PhD program, which I understand may now be in the works.”

The first recipient of the $4,000 McBey Fellowship, in 2023, was Grace Megumi Baba-Hoang, a student in the Master of Human Resource Management Program. In receiving the fellowship, she reflected on the nature of her own investments of time and effort in the community: “In serving, I never thought I’d be rewarded in this way,” she said. “But the fact that my service represented something that you felt should be awarded and celebrated is very humbling and special.”

The fellowship will be awarded annually, on a rotating basis, to a student in one of the following graduate programs: Human Resources Management, Disaster & Emergency Management, and Public Policy Administration & Law.

This year, the McBey Fellowship will be awarded to a student in the Master of Disaster & Emergency Management Program.

“Professor McBey was a wonderful colleague with a strong commitment to York and to the broader community,” said Marie-Hélène Budworth, director of the School of Human Resource Management. “He will be deeply missed by his colleagues in the School of Human Resource Management.”

For more information on the award, and how to apply, visit the Faculty of Graduate Studies website.

Faculty of Science students, profs awarded for excellence

At the Faculty of Science’s annual honours and awards ceremony, several faculty and students received awards – including an inaugural one – recognizing their contributions in teaching and educational leadership.

The ceremony is organized every year to celebrate students, instructors and researchers who received awards and scholarships between September 2022 and August 2023 – as well as giving the Faculty a chance to bestow a few awards of its own.

This year, around 400 postdoctoral fellows and undergraduate and graduate science students were recognized by being given a chance to come up to the event’s stage at the Second Student Centre, on York’s Keele Campus, to be congratulated and applauded by their peers, supporters and mentors.

The event’s masters of ceremonies were Associate Dean of Students Michael Scheid and Associate Dean of Research and Partnerships Vivian Saridakis, who also announced the recipients of the Faculty of Science Excellence in Educational Leadership Awards – an inaugural award category – as well as the Excellence in Teaching Awards and Excellence in Research Awards.

The recipients of these awards were:

Excellence in Educational Leadership Award, Faculty category
Associate Professor Amenda Chow, Department of Mathematics & Statistics; and Chair and Associate Professor Vera Pavri, Department of Science, Technology & Society.

Excellence in Educational Leadership Award, Graduate Student category
PhD students Laura Keane and Yohana Solomon, Department of Mathematics & Statistics.

Excellence in Teaching Award, Junior Tenure Stream Faculty category
Assistant Professor Stephanie Domenikos, Department of Science, Technology & Society.

Excellence in Teaching Award, Contract Faculty category
Sessional Assistant Professor Charlotte de Araujo, Department of Biology.

Richard Jarrell Award of Excellence for Teaching Assistants
Recent MSc graduate Amanvir Virdi, Department of Biology.

Early Career Research Award
Associate Professor Elizabeth Clare, Department of Biology.

Established Research Award
Professor Randy Lewis, Department of Physics & Astronomy.

Excellence in Graduate Mentorship Award
Associate Professor Iain Moyles, Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

For more details about the awards and a full list of recipients, view the ceremony program booklet.

Niarchos scholarship brings students from Greece to York U

skyline of Greek town

By Elaine Smith

Students from Greece have an opportunity to study or conduct research at York University through a scholarship supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), an international philanthropic organization that honours the late shipping magnate.

Alexandros Balasis
Alexandros Balasis

In fact, Alexandros Balasis, a PhD student in history at York University, can trace his connection to York back to that scholarship. In 2018, when he was a fourth-year history student at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki in northern Greece, one of his professors told him about the Niarchos Foundation scholarships that provided an exchange to York.

He applied, was invited for an interview and was accepted in November 2018 for admittance in January 2019. York International, the office that handles exchanges, assisted him with orientation, registration and other logistics. Balasis arrived on Jan. 2, 2019, in time for York International’s orientation for international students, and from there, he was off and running.

“I saw a university system that I really liked,” Balasis said. “I got hooked from the very beginning.”

A photo of Sakis Gekas
Sakis Gekas

At York, he met Sakis Gekas, an associate professor who holds the Hellenic Heritage Foundation Chair of Modern Greek History, and they met every few weeks to discuss various aspects of modern Greek history.

“The scholarship gave me an opportunity to clarify my goals,” Balasis said.

He decided to pursue a master’s degree in history with Gekas, a degree that he obtained remotely during the pandemic. Gekas urged him to continue on to a PhD program and he has done so, studying Greek migration to Canada after the Second World War.

“The foundation changed the course of my life,” he said. “My experiences, both in Toronto and later with their Istorima project in Greece, gave me the opportunity to understand how much I like history. It made me decide to keep open to opportunities and take advantage of them.”

Grigorios Iliopoulos
Grigorios Iliopoulos

A Stavros Niarchos Foundation scholarship has also impacted Grigorios Iliopoulos‘s PhD studies, bringing his topic to life. Iliopoulos, a third-year PhD student in the American Literature & Culture Department at Aristotle University, is working on a thesis about contemporary literature that talks about the city of Toronto. However, until recently, he had never visited the city that is at the heart of his research.

“This was the perfect program for me,” Iliopoulos said. “I worked on material referring to Toronto, but this was my first chance to see the place.”

Iliopoulos’s work centres on literature depicting urban spaces. He chose Toronto because it is one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in North America and he has focused on novels and collections of short stories by authors of non-French or -British background, those less represented in the past.

“When I got to Toronto, I walked the streets and got a much better idea of how the city and the residents worked,” he said. “I got a sense of scale that is much different than in Europe and it felt like there was a huge difference in how we perceive space. I acquired a different understanding of the perspective of the authors I’ve studied, including David Bezmozgis and Dionne Brand.

“I was also able to access a wealth of library material that wasn’t available in Greece, so this opportunity will have a huge impact on my dissertation.”

Gekas, who serves as a liaison with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, is eager to see more students in Greece take advantage of the opportunity to study at York. The foundation provides funding for three or four undergraduates and one graduate student each year, and he would like to exploit York’s partnership with the University of Crete and connect with the University of Athens to provide broad national coverage in Greece.

Faculty members who collaborate with colleagues in Greece and want to promote this opportunity are encouraged to contact Gekas or Ashley Laracy, associate director of global learning at York International.

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.  

De-escalating robocops? York study imagines future of crisis response 

Robotic hand reaches for human hand

By Corey Allen, senior manager, research communications

Picture this: a 911 operator in your city receives a call from a person in mental distress and needs to send help.  

They could dispatch the police or an integrated unit of both police and mental health professionals. But instead, the operator sends a robot.  

This scenario may sound like science fiction, but it’s the kind of futuristic thinking that has researchers at York University considering all angles when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI) and crisis response.   

Building more empathetic bots through interdisciplinary research  
Kathryn Pierce
Kathryn Pierce

In a paper published in Applied Sciences earlier this year, psychology PhD candidate Kathryn Pierce and her co-authors explore the potential role robots could play in crisis de-escalation, as well as the capabilities engineers would need to program them to be effective.    

The visionary paper is part of a larger project at the Lassonde School of Engineering that involves early-stage research to design and test robots to assist in security and police force tasks. The York engineers asked the psychology researchers to provide their social scientific lens to their forward-thinking work on humanizing machines.  

“De-escalation is not a well-researched topic and very little literature exists about what de-escalation really looks like moment by moment,” says Pierce, who is supervised by Dr. Debra Pepler, a renowned psychologist and Distinguished Research Professor in the Faculty of Health. “This makes it difficult to determine what kinds of behavioural changes are necessary in both responders and the person in crisis to lead to a more positive outcome.”   

No hard and fast rules for de-escalation, for both humans and robots  

With limited academic understanding of what really happens in human-to-human interactions during a crisis response, let alone robot-to-human, training a robot to calm a person down poses an incredibly tall task.  

Despite the challenge, Pierce and her co-authors were able to develop a preliminary model outlining the functions a robot should theoretically be able to perform for effective de-escalation. These functions are made up of verbal and non-verbal communication strategies that engineers would need to be mindful of when building a robot for such a task.    

Some of these strategies include a robot’s gaze – the way a machine and human look at one another – the speed in which they approach (slow and predictable), and the sound and tone of their voice (empathetic and warm).  

But, as the researchers point out, ultimately, robots cannot be “programmed in a fixed, algorithmic, rule-based manner” because there are no fixed rules for how people calm each other.   

“Even if there were algorithms governing human-to-human de-escalation, whether those would translate into an effective robot-to-human de-escalation is an empirical question,” they write.  

It is also difficult to determine whether people will react to robots emulating human behaviour the same way they would if it was an actual person. 

Advances in AI could add new layer of complication to the future of crisis response  

In recent years, the use and discussion of non-police crisis response services have garnered growing attention in various cities across North America, and elsewhere in the world.  

Advocates for replacing traditional law enforcement with social workers, nurses or mental health workers – or at least the integration of these professionals with police units – argue that this leads to better outcomes.  

Research published earlier this year showed that police responding to people in mental distress use less force if accompanied by a health-care provider. Another study found that community responses were more effective for crime prevention and cost savings.  

Introducing robots into the mix would add to the complexity of crisis response services design and reforms. And it could lead to a whole host of issues for engineers, social scientists and governments to grapple with in the future. 

The here and now 

For the time being, Pierce and her co-authors see a machine’s greatest potential in video recording. Robots would accompany human responders on calls to film the interaction. The footage could then be reviewed for responders to reflect on what went well and what to improve upon.  

Researchers could also use this data to train robots to de-escalate situations more like their human counterparts.    

Another use for AI surveillance the researchers theorize could be to have robots trained to identify individuals in public who are exhibiting warning signs of agitation, allowing for police or mental health professionals to intervene before a crisis point is ever reached.  

While a world in which a 911 operator dispatches an autonomous robot to a crisis call may be too hard to conceive, Pierce and her co-authors do see a more immediate, realistic line of inquiry for this emerging area of research.  

“I think what’s most practical would be to have engineers direct their focus on how robots can ultimately assist in de-escalation, rather than aiming for them to act independently,” says Pierce. “It’s a testament to the power and sophistication of the human mind that our emotions are hard to replicate. What our paper ultimately shows, or reaffirms, is that modern machines are still no match for human intricacies.”  

Background  

The paper, “Considerations for Developing Robot-Assisted Crisis De-Escalation Practice,” was co-authored by Pierce and Pepler, along with Michael Jenkin, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the Lassonde School of Engineering, and Stephanie Craig, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Guelph.  

The work was funded by the Canadian Innovation for Defence Excellence & Security Innovation Networks.