Grads innovate skincare with cutting-edge technology


Anna Kotova and Ksenia Timonina, former York University PhD students, converge science and cosmetics in their venture Agenek – a gene diagnostic skincare company that leverages emerging technology in innovative ways.

The root of Agenek – which offers personalized skincare reports and recommendations – began after Kotova and Timonina’s graduate studies in the Department of Biology at York.

A focus on molecular biology and genetics laid the foundation for their venture, as their shared expertise and passion for understanding genetic mechanisms naturally led them to explore innovative applications in skincare technology. 

Notably, they recognized the potential of transcriptomic analysis, which looks at ribonucleic acid (RNA), which has structural similarities to DNA.

“While the DNA testing market may be saturated, we are pioneering the use of RNA biology to develop a direct-to-consumer skin test for personalized skincare,” explains Kotova.

Their company’s groundbreaking transcriptomic analysis dives deep into the RNA molecules within facial skin cells, offering dynamic insights into skin health. It differs from DNA-based tests, providing a comprehensive view of the skin’s current condition and guiding personalized recommendations based on gene expression profiles. The methodology is unique to the beauty industry, placing Agenek at the forefront of personalized skincare solutions, Kotova says.

The process begins with a testing kit ordered from Agenek’s website, which includes a microneedle patch applied to the skin for 10 minutes. The sample is then sent to the company’s Kitchener, Ont., laboratory, while users provide additional insights via a digital questionnaire. Then, Agenek delivers a personalized report outlining unique skin needs and customized product recommendations. 

Through the analysis of gene expression profiles, Agenek identifies specific “problem genes” and provides targeted recommendations for existing skin-care products, empowering individuals to make informed decisions about their skincare routines.

Supported by YSpace ELLA Women Accelerator, Lab2Market, MaRS and other agencies, Agenek benefits from a robust network offering essential resources and guidance to Kotova and Timonina to scale their innovative skincare venture.

A future goal is to advance skincare science while offering individuals enhanced skincare options, potentially improving their quality of life.

“We hope to empower individuals to better understand their skin’s unique needs and make informed decisions about skincare products and treatments,” Kotova says. “By providing comprehensive insights into gene expression profiles and offering tailored recommendations, we seek to improve overall skin health and confidence.”

Food Services signs pledges to improve food sustainability on campus

Assorted fruit healthy food BANNER

Continuing York University’s efforts to become one of Canada’s leading campuses for food sustainability practices, York’s Food Services program YU Eats has partnered with the Humane Society International and Health Canada, signing two pledges to create a healthy food environment and offer more plant-forward options to the community.

One of the commitments YU Eats has signed is the Food Guide-Friendly Pledge, a voluntary initiative that encourages publicly funded institutions to create healthier food environments. This initiative is overseen by Health Canada, the federal government department responsible for national health policy. The other commitment is the Forward Food Pledge, driven by animal protection organization Human Society International and designed to increase the availability of plant-based options in the food service industry.

In signing both pledges, YU Eats is looking to not only prioritize the health and well-being of students and staff but actively work to reduce the environmental impact of food production and promote a sustainable food system.

“Through our collaboration with the Humane Society International and Health Canada, we’re prioritizing sustainability while emphasizing healthier menu options,” says Tom Watt, director of Food Services. “These pledges underscore our commitment to fostering a more environmentally conscious and health-oriented campus.”

Among the changes that will be made to dining hall and catering menus will be an increase in vegetables, fruits, whole grain options and plant-based proteins.

“Increasing the intake of plant-based food represents the most significant individual action toward reducing one’s impact on the planet,” says Dahlia Abou El Hassan, York’s registered dietitian. “Plant-based foods are inclusive and suitable for various dietary needs, including religious and cultural requirements. Research consistently shows the benefits of a plant-based diet, including a reduced risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes.”

By enhancing the food environment at YU Eats dining locations, York University demonstrates its commitment to community health and well-being. These initiatives align with the York University Academic Plan 2020-2025 and the University’s overarching mission to advance the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Student-led group tackles Indigenous food sovereignty

Learning Spirit Alliance workshop group photo

After personally experiencing food insecurity, and witnessing its effects first-hand, a group of York University Faculty of Health students decided to do something about it.

The Learning Spirit Alliance is an Indigenous student-led group, open to all York students, committed to educating the community about food sovereignty and helping to prevent poverty and food insecurity on campus. Led by current students Leo Manning and Rainingbird Daniels, and former student Shanice Perrot, the initiative was established as a result of discussions with Indigenous students about access to food – particularly healthy and traditional food, and especially for students who had moved away from home.

“Members of our leadership team have personally experienced the effects of food insecurity and lack of food access throughout their time in post-secondary education,” explains Daniels. “There are many Indigenous students facing the increasingly high cost of housing both on and off campus; required meal plans at institutions and/or inflation of food costs; transportation costs associated with travelling home; and a lack of sufficient funding while completing post-secondary education.”

Launched last year with funding from a national organization called Indigenous Youth Roots, the Learning Spirit Alliance held three Food is Medicine workshops this semester, where both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students were welcomed at Skennen’kó:wa Gamig – the gathering space for York’s Indigenous community – and taught how to make traditional Indigenous foods such as elk stew, bannock, three sisters salad and various soups. Each participant was also given an honorarium towards groceries.

According to Daniels, the feedback received from the community has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The different dishes we learned to make gave me the knowledge to make affordable and healthy meals while in residence and away from my traditional territory,” said workshop participant and York student Doreen Scow.

“The workshop helped me feel more culturally involved and connected,” said another participant, student Miigwan Mainville. “This initiative allows us to share stories and laughter with others while sharing cultural food; food is truly medicine.”  

In addition to the workshops, the Alliance held weekly free lunch events for the community, to help bring more traditional and nutritious meals to students in need.

With no plans currently in place for the next academic year, the group’s leadership is using its resources to apply for more grants in hopes that they can continue to host events and workshops on culturally relevant food and food sovereignty, giving Indigenous students the tools they need to cook at home at a low cost.

“We are striving to make a difference in ways that strengthen community and provide relief,” said Manning.

To learn more about this initiative and its future events, follow the Learning Spirit Alliance on Instagram or email

Innovators look to commercialize research with York fellowship

Concept of idea and innovation with paper ball

By Diana Senwasane

Four aspiring researchers have completed York University’s Commercialization Fellowship program, advancing their potential to bring to market innovations driven by the latest in emerging technologies.  

The Commercialization Fellowship program is aimed at preparing and supporting postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows in understanding the process of transforming academic research into a product or service.  

Funded by the Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, the program started in 2021, providing a group of annual fellows education on intellectual property (IP) and commercialization, exposure to industry and community partners, experiential learning opportunities, and a $7,500 stipend to use towards creating a proof of concept, testing their prototype and completing validation studies. 

“Research commercialization can lead to real-world solutions, turning York community’s great ideas into products and services that provide both social and economic benefits,” said Suraj Shah, associate director of commercialization and industry partnerships. 

Aspire spoke with this year’s fellows about the program and their products. 

Hamed Esmaeili, mechanical engineering 
Project title: An accelerated strategy to characterize mechanical properties of materials 

Hamed Esmaeili
Hamed Esmaeili

A PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Esmaeili’s research leverages the power of machine learning to create new software that could have widespread application in the automotive manufacturing and construction industries. 

His software innovation streamlines the way in which materials’ mechanical properties are characterized, eliminating the need for extensive physical testing.  

“For designers and engineers, this software offers a way to prototype new parts or evaluate existing materials without ever having to set foot inside a lab,” said Esmaeili.  

This could prove useful in many industries such as infrastructure – when it comes to designing and testing structures, like buildings and bridges, to ensure they can withstand forces and automotive manufacturing – where components of a car, like the doors or brakes, consistently operate under various load conditions.  

Esmaeili’s software allows users to input specific parameters – such as material composition, environmental conditions and processing factors – resulting in a comprehensive prediction of a material’s behaviour when subjected to external loads. 

While the project, under the supervision of Reza Rizvi, an associate professor at the Lassonde School of Engineering, is still under development, the implications are vast. Being able to predict how materials will respond in different environments – without the need to physically test each variation – can dramatically accelerate innovation, reduce costs and promote sustainability in manufactured components, making this an advancement in the manufacturing industry with far-reaching impact.  

Esmaeili said the Commercialization Fellowship has helped him utilize code development software and allowed him to conduct validation experiments in the laboratory to ensure the software effectively predicts material behaviour. 

He has completed the back-end code of his software and is currently working on developing the front end for the desktop version in the coming months. 

Lauren Turner, kinesiology and health science
Project title: Digital Decision Support for Exercise and Type 1 Diabetes 

Lauren Turner
Lauren Turner

A PhD candidate in the School of Kinesiology & Health Science, Turner’s doctoral research has resulted in the creation of a decision support platform designed to transform how individuals with Type 1 diabetes approach exercise.  

Addressing the fine balance between maintaining glucose levels and staying active, the platform allows users to input data about their current glucose levels and planned physical activities. Based on an extensive database of research and insights, it provides personalized recommendations on carbohydrate intake to maintain safe glucose levels during exercise.  

“Anyone with Type 1 diabetes can use it,” said Turner. “We’re also hoping that it can be a clinic tool to help individuals, especially those newly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, understand how their needs may differ depending on their different types of activity and their current blood glucose levels.” 

While exercising has numerous health benefits for individuals living with Type 1 diabetes, it can also make blood glucose management difficult and, in extreme cases, lead to potentially severe consequences, such as low blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia), which could result in dizziness, confusion, seizures or even death.  

The platform, led under the supervision of Michael Riddell, a professor in York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science, Faculty of Health, directly addresses and alleviates these risks, offering a layer of protection and confidence to those affected. And unlike traditional insulin pumps, which may only adjust glucose targets and/or insulin delivery, this platform offers actionable advice for its users.  

Turner credits the fellowship with helping her to advance the project and said the monthly check-in meetings, advice on how to bring her idea to market, and hearing about events and opportunities were highlights of the program. 

Turner and her team have been working closely with a web developer to develop the platform and they hope to launch it shortly.  

Parham Mohammadi, electrical engineering and computer science 
Project title: PowerSync: Intelligent V2G Charging with TinyML Analytics 

Parham Mohammadi
Parham Mohammadi

A PhD student in the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, Mohammadi’s project hones in on tiny machine learning (TinyML) to infuse electric vehicle (EV) chargers with unprecedented levels of intelligence and autonomy, giving them the ability to make decisions without relying on a centralized control system. 

TinyML uses artificial intelligence algorithms within the EV charger to independently manage and adapt its operations – ensuring grid stability, predictive maintenance, fault analysis and more. It aims to not only streamline operations but significantly mitigate the potential for system-level power issues as the number of EVs and chargers continue to enter the market. 

The project, supervised by Afshin Rezaei-Zare, an associate professor at the Lassonde School of Engineering, reflects a broader shift toward a smarter, more efficient way of managing energy resources, especially as we pivot to renewable and clean energy solutions. Through the integration of TinyML technologies, EV chargers can seamlessly synchronize with the energy grid, efficiently distributing power without overwhelming the system. 

“For the everyday consumer and the environmentally conscious, this project is a pivotal step toward sustainable electric vehicle adoption,” said Mohammadi. “By integrating smart, autonomous chargers into the energy grid, we’re looking at a smoother, more reliable transition to green mobility solutions across the globe.” 

Mohammadi said the Commercialization Fellowship provided him with critical information for commercialization, IP management and connections with lawyers through the IP Innovation Clinic.  

He is currently in the process of developing a prototype, which is anticipated to be completed mid-summer. 

Siamak Derakhshan, electrical engineering and computer science 
Project title: Fully Soft-switched AC/DC Bi-directional Converters with High Power Factor and Minimal Low-Frequency Voltage Ripple 

Siamak Derakhshan
Siamak Derakhshan

A third-year PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, Derakhshan’s research aims to revolutionize on-board EV chargers. Deviating from traditional unidirectional charging methods, which function only to charge, Derakhshan has created a bidirectional converter, allowing the charger to not just power a car but also harness its battery power.  

The innovation unlocks tremendous possibilities – from lighting up homes during blackouts or emergencies to contributing power back to the grid during peak demand. 

Under the supervision of John Lam, an associate professor in the Lassonde School of Engineering, Derakhshan’s converter enhances existing on-board EV chargers in the market by making modifications such as reducing the size of the traditionally bulky capacitor by 20 times, which improves the lifespan of the on-board charger, its efficiency and reduces the potential for thermal issues such as overheating. 

“What we are trying to do is to improve the reliability, efficiency and power density of these converters,” he said. “We are designing better and more robust control systems to better support the power grid.”

Derakhshan says the fellowship’s workshops helped him understand the importance of IP and patenting his idea. He also found value in being able to connect with industry and showcase his work to industry partners. 

Derakhshan has designed the prototype for his converter and has successfully tested it for charging. He is currently working on the next phase to test the bidirectional component. 

Prof exemplifies York excellence in global health research through worldwide partnerships

Africa map on a globe

By Corey Allen, senior manager, research communications

As a world leader in global health research, York University is fully committed to international collaborations across multiple sectors with academic, government, industry and community partners. Among those highlighting the impact of these partnerships is Professor Godfred Boateng. 

Forging strong relationships beyond geographical boundaries enables the York community to conduct meaningful work that defines the University’s approach to research and innovation: interdisciplinary, collaborative and equitable.  

Among those leading the way in this is Boateng, a quantitative sociologist and epidemiologist who was recently appointed Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Global Health and Humanitarianism

Godfred Boateng

One of Boateng’s latest research projects is related to his CRC appointment, which aims to measure and quantify different forms of resource insecurity, including food, water, energy and housing, as well as to advance our understanding of the overall health effects of environmental contaminants, both in the Global South and in Canada. This work exemplifies, he said, the importance of having international partners and collaboration.  

“Partnerships are key and without them, global health research isn’t possible,” he said. “York University’s partnerships in the Global South greatly expand the scope of my research and allow me to reach populations and communities that would not be accessible otherwise.”  

Boateng’s project looks to collect physiological, ecological, and demographic data from informal settlements in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.  

Using high-cost field equipment, the researchers will assess the quality of the air and water samples (stored, drinking and groundwater) found in and around the settlements.  

The data will be used to validate scales, like the Household Water Insecurity Experiences Scale, co-developed by Boateng for use by public health practitioners, non-governmental organizations, government officials, and development agencies to monitor and assess progress on targets set out in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals around achieving equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water, as well as adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene. 

This is particularly important in sub-Saharan Africa, where flooding due to climate change is a considerable health risk and bacterial infections like dysentery and waterborne illnesses like cholera are widespread.  

The scales would help researchers and health-care professionals to assign a score to the environmental contaminants found in settlement households, which enables them to determine if water, for example, is safe for consumption without the need for further testing.  

For local governments, this would streamline water, air, and housing quality assessments and provide valuable information to inform health-care policy and decision-making.  

“Our project will also produce the necessary data for comparative studies, so that this evidence can be used in other contexts, including in some Indigenous communities in Canada that face similar resource insecurity challenges,” said Boateng.  

Boateng and his former professor, Dr. Fidelia Ohemeng, during the York delegation’s visit to Ghana. Ohemeng taught Boateng during his undergraduate studies at the University of Ghana
Boateng and his former professor, Fidelia Ohemeng, during the York delegation’s visit to Ghana.

The project is slated to start this summer with 300 households in Accra, Ghana, alongside Boateng’s partners from his alma mater, the University of Ghana, and the University of Cape Coast, before moving onto research sites in Nigeria, Kenya and Malawi, and subsequently to Colombia and Mexico.  

Last month, Boateng was also part of a York delegation that visited Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya. The Africa trip helped the University engage with prospective students and explore partnership opportunities with local universities and research institutions.  

For Boateng, studying global health helps bridge the inequality divide.   

“It’s important to identify the sources of health disparities and the structural determinants of health, so that proper interventions can be put in place,” he said.  

“Global health research, when applied, can not only enhance the quality of life for the world’s most vulnerable populations – women, children and seniors – but it also has life-saving potential for people worldwide. It’s teamwork at its best.”  

Learn more about York University’s Global Engagement Strategy.

Dahdaleh Institute accepting global health research grant applications

growing seed in hand

Now in its fifth year, the Critical Social Science Perspectives in Global Health (CPGH) research program looks to continue to provide seed grants to support research that meets the three themes of the Dahdaleh Institute: planetary health; global health and humanitarianism; and global health foresighting.

Every year, the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research provides four seed grants, each valued at up to C$7,000, to initiate novel and innovative ideas that take a critical social science approach to global health research.

In past years, funded projects have advanced research to improve safe water optimization in the Canadian North, study Black anxiety among families with children in and out of the criminal justice system, harness social media data to aid infectious disease outbreak surveillance and more.

The grant is tied to the annual CPGH Workshop, which will take place this year on Tuesday, April 30 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET. All are welcome to attend this hybrid workshop.

The grant application deadline is Tuesday, May 14 at 11:59 p.m. Learn more about the application details and eligibility requirements.

President’s ambassadors combat food insecurity


Each year members of the President’s Ambassador Program are tasked with completing a legacy project that aligns with the President’s Pillars and/or University priorities. This year’s focus was on food insecurity faced by students and the community.

The president’s Ambassador Program is for current York University undergraduate and graduate students with unique perspectives who seeking opportunities to represent the University and share their experiences with fellow students, staff, faculty and alumni.

Every year, they have the opportunity to pursue a project that will positively impact the University beyond their tenure. “The Ambassador Program provides an excellent platform for ambassadors to disseminate, exhibit, and implement ideas inspired by their peers,” says Ijade Maxwell Rodrigues, chief of Government and Community Relations & Protocol, who oversees the program. “This initiative frequently catalyzes sustained efforts from campus partners, yielding tangible benefits for the York community.”

President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton with the current cohort of President's ambassador
President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda Lenton with the current cohort of president’s ambassador

The current cohort decided to combat food insecurity among the student population on York U’s campuses and beyond by promoting access to existing services, resources, and other initiatives. After meeting with the Food Services department to pitch and brainstorm ideas, they settled on a plan that mimics the department’s Teaching Kitchen model.

Teaching Kitchen is a cooking class for students that combines nutrition education, mindfulness, culinary instruction using healthful whole ingredients while also addressing food insecurity. A certified chef leads students on the method and technical skills of cooking while a registered dietitian enriches the experience by teaching students students about the nutritional facts of the recipe and offering ingredient alternatives for those with restrictions and intolerances with the aim of improving wellness through food.

President's ambassadors learning cooking

The ambassadors sought to develop a food workshop that would allow students with limited funds to create a nutrient-dense, healthy, budget-conscious yet delicious dish. Working with Executive Chef Frederic Pouch and registered dietitian Dahlia Abou El Hassan, the ambassadors were able to create a French-style salad with ingredients commonly found at York Federation of Students’ food support centre, which is available to all students at York University. Abou El Hassan believes this initiative helps address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being. “It helps increase food literacy and empower students to make nutritious and affordable recipes in a hands-on environment,” she says.

The ambassadors hosted two successful workshops on April 3, where students engaged in hands-on activities such as chopping, mixing, and tasting their own culinary creations. Those unable to secure a workshop seat were provided with valuable tips, tricks, and resources. Additionally, curious bystanders had the opportunity to enjoy complimentary samples.

Tom Watt, director of Food & Vending Services, expressed gratitude for the collaboration: “We are truly honored that the President’s Ambassadors Program chose to partner with us, recognizing the many excellent campus initiatives available. This partnership underscores the significant work Dahlia and our team are doing, and we are thrilled by the community’s positive response and the ongoing value of the Teaching Kitchen program.” 

The President’s Ambassador program is currently accepting applications for 2024-25. The deadline to apply is May 6.

Learn more about the President’s Ambassadors Program and Teaching Kitchen.

Eco Arts Festival to showcase students’ environmental art

artistic crafts earth hands heart BANNER

A banana fish is set to be one of the hits of the 2024 Eco Arts Festival, an annual explosion of artistic talent organized by the students in the Environmental Arts and Justice (EAJ) program in York University’s Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change (EUC), which marks its 30th anniversary this year.

The Eco Arts Festival is an environmental initiative where art is a catalyst for ecological change and a way to highlight the intersection of art and the environment in the EAJ program. It takes over the lobby and two exhibit spaces – Zig-Zag and Crossroads – in the Health, Nursing & Environmental Studies Building, displaying visual arts and offering performances and readings.  

EUC_The Great Banana Fish migration cover 1

The banana fish, an organically shaped yellow creature, is the star of visual artist and an EUC master’s degree student Michael Bradley’s illustrated book, The Great Banana Fish Migration, a tale that he’ll be reading aloud at the festival later this year.  

This mythical creature fits well with this year’s theme, Beast Friends Forever, a title conceived by festival co-ordinator and EUC doctoral student Giuliana Racco and inspired by Professor Andil Gosine’s research into animal-human interactions and species loss. Gosine is an artist and curator who is the EAJ program co-ordinator. 

“Arts are a place for the students to contend with their anxiety about what is happening in the world, and to think about how we might respond to the crisis we face,” Gosine says. 

Many of the student-artists displaying their work in the festival were enrolled in one or both of Gosine’s two EUC summer courses: Environmental Arts Workshop (for undergraduates) and Cultural Production: Image (for graduate students). These three-week intensive courses are akin to “an arts residency,” says Gosine, who brings artists to class and encourages the students to take their research and passion for environmental issues and translate them in a way that challenges them to explore their creative instincts.  

A similar fourth-year course in the undergraduate EAJ program, Arts in Action, brings together both undergraduate and graduate students to realize the project they have been dreaming up.  

“Fourth-year undergrads and first-year master’s students use the course to deeply explore their interests, with dedicated attention to each of their projects,” Gosine explains. “It’s a rare opportunity to move from research on an environmental concern to exhibition of an artwork that might stimulate conversation and action.”  

As for the undergraduate EAJ program, Gosine considers it unique; he accepted a teaching position at York to be part of it. 

“It’s rare to have such a confluence of learning styles,” he says. “We are allowed to have an interdisciplinary approach. Here, you can be both an artist and a social scientist.”

Chrocheted Chickens

Among the art that festival attendees will see are Tess Thompson-van Dam’s crocheted chicken sculptures harking back to Victorian times when the elites brought chickens to tea parties; drawings by Andrew Carenza that reinterpret horses pictured in historical European paintings through a contemporary, Queer lens; work on historical and contemporary ideas of Eden; and the travelling banana fish. Bradley’s reading of The Great Banana Fish Migration and an Eco Arts collaborative workshop offer participatory opportunities. 

Bradley, an Ottawa Valley native, had a thriving art practice in Taiwan but returned to Canada for master’s studies. He has been drawing banana fish daily since 2018 and creating stories about them. The current book talks about the fish’s journey to find its place in the world and how that might always be changing. 

“I’m not commenting on the politics of migration in a direct way, but when people migrate they have a confused sense of place. I hope people can relate,” he says. “There are a lot of ways that art and environmental science can intersect,” Bradley adds. “I’m not a politician or a policymaker, but artists, creators and curators are part of the cultural community, so if the environment requires a cultural shift, artists are the best people to usher in this change.” 

Bradley’s work, and the Eco Arts Festival, will have that on full display.  

York research examines complexities of sight

eye wide

Andrew Eckford and Gene Cheung, associate professors in the Electrical Engineering & Computer Science Department at the Lassonde School of Engineering, are developing a tool that can interpret the activity of cells involved in visual processes, enhancing our understanding of this complex biological system.

Whether we are admiring a beautiful landscape or watching an action-packed movie, our visual system is hard at work performing intricate biological functions that allow us to process and respond to visual information.

Andrew Eckford
Andrew Eckford

Understanding the intricacies of the visual system is key to advancing research in biology, biomedicine and computer vision. Moreover, this understanding can aid in developing strategies to address visual impairments in humans.

Eckford and Cheung’s research is focused on nerve tissue behind the eye known as the retina. The retina is responsible for receiving images and sending them to the brain for processing using ganglion cells.

Many researchers have hypothesized that each ganglion cell type is responsible for computing specific features in a visual scene. For example, some cells may focus on information about the texture of an object, while others may process movement in a particular direction.

“From a big-picture perspective, we are trying to gain a better understanding of the visual system and how the eye processes information,” says Eckford. “We developed a tool that can analyze a data set of ganglion cell activity and identify relationships and patterns to predict exactly what they are looking at.”

Gene Cheung
Gene Cheung

Eckford and Cheung, and their graduate student Yasaman Parhizkar, proposed a graph-based tool that uses mathematical operations to discover patterns within a data set and make useful predictions about trends among the data points.

The proposed tool was tested using visual data gathered from a novel experiment led by University of Chicago Professor Stephanie Palmer. During the experiment, a film about an aquatic environment was projected onto the retinas of salamanders. The scenes resembled their natural habitat – imagine cool waters, sea plants and the occasional swimming fish.

As the film played, data concerning the salamanders’ ganglion cell activity was collected. The graph-based tool was used to identify and interpret trends within the data set and link these patterns to specific visual features in the film.

“It’s really cool to be able to take a data set of cell activity and see if we can predict exactly what the eye is looking at,” says Eckford.

Not only did the tool exhibit the capacity to interpret patterns within the data set and make useful predictions, but it also surpassed the abilities of comparable algorithms.

“Our tool addressed many of the problems that other algorithms have,” says Parhizkar. “Ours is much more interpretable and less data hungry.”

The applications of this unique tool can also be extended far beyond the field of biology, to industries such as agriculture, for making predictions about crop yield. 

Learn more about this work in Eckford, Cheung (who is also a member of Conencted Minds) and Parhizkar’s recent publication.

Professor’s book explores health inequality in Canada

Health sign made of wood on a natural desk

A new third edition of the book About Canada: Health and Illness, written by York University health policy and management Professor Dennis Raphael, explores social determinants of well-being in Canada and provides updated information connecting health and illness to the worsening levels of inequality throughout the country.

Dennis Raphael
Dennis Raphael

In About Canada, Raphael – an expert in covering health inequality – argues that the inequitable distribution of the social determinants of health is structured by Canada’s political economy, including public policy decisions.

According to Raphael, and his book, while some common wisdom might dictate that our lifestyles – exercise, food choices and more – affect our health, the truth is altogether different. Instead, he says, it is how income and wealth, housing, education and adequate food are distributed, as well as employment status and working conditions, that determine whether we stay healthy or become ill. Furthermore, who gets to be healthy is too often a reflection of social inequalities that are associated with class, gender and race in Canadian society.

The new edition of About Canada points toward how – based on tent cities becoming more common, food bank use hitting record high levels and more – ongoing health inequalities have only escalated since the first edition of his book was released in 2010.

“The social determinants of health situation in Canada has become so problematic as to constitute a polycrisis whereby growing food and housing insecurity, income and wealth inequality, precarious and low-paid work, social exclusion and declining quality of public policy threaten Canadians’  futures,” says Raphael. “The declining Canadian scene not only compelled a documentation of this situation but also formulating a vision of dramatic reform or even transformation of our profit-driven economic system.”

In addition to updated information throughout the book that better reflects the current moment, a new chapter also considers the social determinants of who got sick and died from COVID-19, and how the pandemic makes a clear case for restructuring work and living conditions through public policy that more equitably distributes economic resources.

Raphael’s goal is for the latest edition of the book is to provide important context for readers. “Hopefully, the new edition will provide Canadians with a means of understanding the Canadian polycrisis and means of moving beyond it,” he says.

The third edition of the book will be published on May 2 and is available to purchase through Fernwood Publishing.