Faculty, instructors, administrators encouraged to complete Maclean’s survey for university rankings

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Eligible York University community members are invited to fill out a reputational survey as part of the Maclean’s University Rankings.  

The Canadian news magazine’s annual rankings are considered to be one of the most influential sources for prospective university students when choosing their school.   

The annual reputational survey is part of the Maclean’s ranking methodology, which aims to gather the opinions of university faculty, senior administration and businesspeople from across Canada.   

The reputational survey is now available for York faculty, instructors and senior administrators. It takes about 10 minutes to complete.  

The Maclean’s reputational survey for faculty (English version) is available at: surveymonkey.com/r/MacleansAcademicSurvey202402

The French-language version of the reputational survey is available at: fr.surveymonkey.com/r/MacleansSondageEnseignant202402

“The Maclean’s University Ranking is an important part of the decision-making journey for prospective students. These rankings build strong awareness about York’s academic and research accomplishments among higher education institutions throughout Canada and around the world, attracting students, future leaders, faculty, and staff to join and partner with our academic community,” said Marcia Annisette, vice-provost academic.  

“All faculty colleagues, instructors and senior administrators are eligible to complete the reputational survey to highlight York’s academic excellence and global leadership. Together, we can continue to be a driving force for positive change.” 

Any eligible faculty, instructors or senior administration members who encounter issues while completing the survey are encouraged to contact the Office of Institutional Planning & Analysis at oipa@yorku.ca for guidance.  

From a research perspective, York University has much to be proud of:  

  • A new Global Research Excellence Seed Fund was launched to strengthen the University’s research partnerships worldwide and enable faculty members to forge deeper global connections across communities, academia and industry. 
  • York’s Connected Minds: Neural and Machine Systems of a Healthy, Just Society is the largest research program in the University’s history ($318.4 million), engaging researchers from across the Faculties and disciplines. It has delivered several seed grants and PhD awards, expanded its roster of experts, and increased visibility and participation at several research events since the 2023 launch. 
  • York’s externally sponsored research income exceeded $100 million for the fifth consecutive year, with a record level of funding at $121 million in 2022-23, and over the past decade the University has doubled its research revenue.  
  • York received $1.5 million in funding from the Ontario Vehicle Innovation Network (OVIN) to support small- and medium-sized enterprises and startups in developing and testing innovative automotive technologies, including electric vehicles and smart mobility solutions.  

“From advancing socially responsible artificial intelligence to improving emergency disaster management to pioneering innovative sustainability initiatives, York is a leader in research excellence,” said Amir Asif, vice-president research and innovation. “Completing the survey helps us draw the next generation of changemakers to York.” 

Other points of institutional pride that highlight excellence happening at York include:  

  • The University demonstrated continued momentum in several prestigious rankings, including placing in the top 40 institutions globally in last year’s Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, climbing more than 100 spots in the QS World University Rankings and placing in the top 100 globally in three subjects – education, English and philosophy – in the 2024 QS Subject Rankings.  
  • York has committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2040, a decade sooner than its previous commitment. 
  • York successfully hosted the 2023 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences under the theme Reckonings and Re-Imaginings, welcoming 10,300+ global scholars to our campuses at the largest free-trade event in Canadian history. 
  • In its first year as the academic lead of the UNITAR Global Water Academy, the academy launched a new website, and will offer a flagship course on sustainable water management practices, along with courses on water security – some of which will be taught by York’s leading water experts. 
  • The recent Ontario budget included a historic announcement to fund a new school of medicine at York to educate the next generation of talented primary care physicians, addressing critical health-care gaps in the province.  
  • Department of Psychology Professor Debra Pepler was one of four York faculty members to be elected by the Royal Society of Canada as part of the Class of 2023; and Professor Janine Marchessault was named a recipient of the 2023 Killam Prize, honouring her work in community-based and public art exhibitions that look to amplify marginalized voices.  
  • In 2023-24, the School of Continuing Studies launched three new programs that were the first of their kind in Canada – the Certificate in Customer Success Management, and post-graduate certificates in cloud operations and offensive cybersecurity. 

York researchers advancing global health, sustainability and Indigenous scholarship

Welcome to the April issue of Aspire, a special issue of YFile highlighting research and innovation at York University.

Aspire is produced by the Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation in partnership with the Communications & Public Affairs Division.

Renowned for its high-profile, research-intensive environment, York University fosters a community of forward-thinking scholars and changemakers dedicated to creating positive, global change.

In this issue:

Prof exemplifies York excellence in global health research through worldwide partnerships
Professor Godfred Boateng is one of many York professors exemplifying the University’s commitments to international collaborations to right the future.

York-led research team invents sustainable de-icing solution
Professor Alidad Amirfazli, along with researchers at Jiangsu University of Technology in China, have led an initiative to create more sustainable ways to de-ice vehicles and more. 

Researchers receive grants to advance Indigenous scholarship
Six Indigenous scholars at York have received seed funding to pursue research that explores – among other things – language revitalization, land restoration and more.

Innovators look to commercialize research with York fellowship
Four York researchers are set to commercialize innovations that will help advance sustainability in electronic vehicles, infrastructure and more.

Researchers receive grants to advance Indigenous scholarship

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Six Indigenous scholars at York University have been awarded a combined $204,298 in new funding from the latest round of Indigenous Research Seed Fund Grants to explore language revitalization, Indigenous-led land restoration, decolonizing physical education curriculum and more.

The York Indigenous Seed Fund was established in 2021 by the Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation in collaboration with the Office of the Vice-President Equity, People & Culture, the Centre for Indigenous Knowledges & Languages (CIKL) and the Indigenous Council, an internal committee at York that works to improve access, input and opportunities for Indigenous peoples in higher education. The fund aims to build on the University’s ongoing commitment to support Indigenous early career researchers, their knowledge creation and the Indigenous communities they are working with.

“York University is wholly invested in advancing Indigenous research excellence, recognizing the critical importance Indigenous perspectives have in the pursuit of new knowledge and learning capable of creating positive change,” said Amir Asif, vice-president research and innovation. “The seed fund grants contribute to an emerging area of research expertise at York focused on Indigenous futurities, which emphasizes scholarship that can directly benefit Indigenous communities and imagines a brighter future for nations, communities and individuals.”

Recipients of these grants, supported through CIKL and the Office of the Associate Vice-President Indigenous Initiatives, include:

  • Rebecca Beaulne-Stuebing, assistant professor, Faculty of Education
    “Gekinoomaadijig Mashkiki Gitigaaning Endazhi-Baakwaanaatigikaag: Restoring Urban Land Relations through Indigenous Leadership, Towards Establishing a Land Education Collaboratory”
  • Kiera Brant-Birioukov, assistant professor, Faculty of Education
    “Research Support to Conduct Literature Review for 2024 SSHRC Insight Application”
  • Ashley Day, assistant professor, School of Kinesiology & Health Science
    “Wiisokotaatiwin – Gathering to Discuss & Re-Imagine Health & Physical Education”
  • Jeremy Green, assistant professor, Department of Humanities, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies
    “Tehontenhnhonterontáhkwa ‘That by which they are connected’ – Co-creating supportive learning environments for second language learner teachers of Kanien’kéha ‘Mohawk’, an indigenous language”
  • John Hupfield, assistant professor, Faculty of Education
    “The miikaans: movement lab”

“These projects cultivate positive relationships between university-based researchers and Indigenous communities,” said Susan Dion, associate vice-president Indigenous initiatives, who served as co-chair of the committee that reviewed the applications alongside Sean Hillier, interim director of CIKL.

“The institutional commitment to supporting these scholars through the Indigenous seed grant will have impacts beyond their own work and will reverberate throughout the Indigenous communities and peoples they engage with, as well as the wider York community,” said Hillier, as institutional grants for early career researchers provide not only support for foundational and pilot projects but often lead to larger grant proposals.

“The seed fund program is not only about supporting these specific researchers and research programs; it represents a longer-term and wider-ranging commitment to creating conditions in which Indigenous students, colleagues and communities can thrive at York,” said Laina Y. Bay-Cheng, interim vice-president equity, people and culture.

York’s University Academic Plan 2020-2025 affirmed its commitment to the Indigenous Framework and identified six priorities for action for building a better future, including stronger relationships with Indigenous communities. 

Additionally, York’s Strategic Research Plan 2023-2028 (SRP) identifies Indigenous futurities as an opportunity to help research make a positive impact on Indigenous communities and advance social, cultural, artistic, legal, policy, economic and justice areas that holistically shape Indigenous experience.

The Indigenous Research Seed Fund supports the goals of York’s Academic Plan and SRP. The pilot round of the fund awarded a total of $204,298 to 10 scholars in May 2022.

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.

York-led research team invents sustainable de-icing solution

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By Diana Senwasane

York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering Professor Alidad Amirfazli, along with a team of Jiangsu University of Technology (JSUT) researchers in China, have created a sustainable solution for de-icing with applications on planes, ships, infrastructure and more. 

From aircraft to ship decks to cars to power lines and much more, ice can pose extreme danger. The unsafe and risky conditions ice creates has led a York University researcher to investigate new ways of effectively preventing ice accumulation.  Amirfazli and the JSUT researchers are in the early stages of what they believe will be both an innovative – and sustainable – de-icing solution.  

Prussian Blue
Prussian blue

In a paper published earlier this year, the researchers detail their invention of a coating that combines superhydrophobic properties, which repels water, with Prussian blue, a compound made of complex inorganic salt typically used in paint, to effectively prevent and remove ice from surfaces.  

“The developed coating harvests energy from sunlight to warm the surface,” said Amirfazli. “Its repellency properties reduce the chance of water staying on the surface and freezing, essentially ceasing icing.”   

Amirfazli said the unique addition of Prussian blue to the coating is more cost effective, avoids cracking and improves durability. 

The innovative solution is born out of a long-standing research collaboration between Amirfazli and his former postdoctoral student Professor Wen Li, now based at Jiangsu. The duo worked on several projects, including a previous paper on de-icing where they combined a superhydrophobic coating heated with electricity.   

Amirfazli has spent years studying various coating strategies for de-icing, but it wasn’t until this international research partnership that this solution emerged.   

Prussian blue is able to harness the energy of sunlight, effectively replacing the electric component and the use of wires, which was previously proposed as a de-icing solution.   

Under Amirfazli’s supervision, the JSUT research team will continue to test their coating solution for de-icing, which could have widespread application in multiple sectors, like aviation, energy systems, construction, infrastructure and more.  

“This solution can reduce icing of surfaces that cause hazardous conditions such as steps and walkways, reducing the probability of slipping, or mitigating the icing on wind turbines, which can reduce power production in winter months,”  said Amirfazli.  

Alidad Amirfazli along with a team of Jiangsu University of Technology researchers
Alidad Amirfazli (second from the right) with a team of Jiangsu University of Technology researchers.

While the coating is a long way from being in market, this is a significant step for the team of researchers.   

“Throughout my career I have benefited from collaborations and knowledge sharing with many colleagues from around the world,” said Amirfazli. “Knowledge has no boundaries, creating an inherent strength for human ingenuity. This project is a perfect example of that.”

York receives $300K boost for research commercialization

Concept of idea and innovation with paper ball

York University’s Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation (VPRI) and the IP Innovation Clinic have received a second instalment – the first was received in 2023 – of $300,000 from the government of Ontario to advance its commercialization services, particularly for research and innovation related to artificial intelligence, automotive and medical technology.

The funding, announced on April 8 by Jill Dunlop, minister of colleges and universities, is from Intellectual Property Ontario (IPON), a provincial agency that provides IP support for Ontario businesses and researchers.

This marks the second year in a row the initiative has received $300,000 from the government as it works towards increasing patent filings, outreach and consultation.

“IPON’s continued and valued investment in York helps advance the University’s commitment to helping our researchers realize the full potential of their innovative work and amplify their community impact,” said Amir Asif, vice-president research and innovation. “Strengthening commercialization efforts at York and supporting entrepreneurs in the province through education and training create positive change for the people of Ontario and the province.”

The funding will enable the collaborating units to continue to provide a suite of intellectual property and commercialization services to researchers and their partners, with the goal of taking more of the University community’s great ideas from the lab to market. 

“Together with countless law students and our industry partners, we have saved over $2 million in legal fees to resource-scarce innovators seeking to commercialize their IP and grow Canadian companies. We look forward to fostering the success of many more,” said Pina D’Agostino, associate professor at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School and the founder of the IP Innovation Clinic. “We are grateful to Minister Dunlop and Intellectual Property Ontario for supporting the IP Innovation Clinic for a second year.”

D’Agostino continued: “Ultimately, this is also a big win for our students who can continue to get access to first-rate experiential learning to make them job-ready while helping those who do not have access to legal resources.”

York was one of 10 universities with an existing program to receive the renewed funding, totalling $1.7 million. IPON also announced a new investment of $2.9 million to help commercialize research at 10 institutions across Canada.

“This funding will help institutions across the province more effectively translate research into commercializable innovations, while ensuring the IP at their foundation is appropriately developed and protected,” said IPON CEO Dan Herman.

“Through the province’s support of IPON, our government is ensuring the social and economic benefits of publicly funded research stay in our province, so that Ontarians and the Ontario economy benefit from these new discoveries and innovations,” said Dunlop.

For the full announcement, visit the IPON website.

From climate change to crisis response, York researchers explore 21st-century challenges

Header banner for ASPIRE

Welcome to the December issue of Aspire, a special issue of YFile highlighting research and innovation at York University.

Aspire is produced by the Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation in partnership with the Communications & Public Affairs Division.

Renowned for its high-profile, research-intensive environment, York University fosters a community of forward-thinking scholars and changemakers dedicated to creating positive, global change.

In this issue:

York researcher traverses tick-infested terrain to beat back insect apocalypse
Off-road adventures, tick-infested terrain, and a rustic and isolated cabin were all part of the process for one graduate student advancing research on how climate change affects insects.

De-escalating robocops? York study imagines future of crisis response
Researchers at York University are using futuristic thinking to explore ways that artificial intelligence and robots could enhance mental health care and crisis response.

Voice-activated sexism: exploring consequences of gendered technology
Gendered technology, such as women’s voices as default settings for devices such as Siri or Alexa, influences how women tech experts are treated, show two York PhD candidates. 

York U sociologist travels to COP28 to research Indigenous climate leadership
Asssitant Professor Angele Alook is advancing the understanding of Indigenous methods to mitigate climate change.

York announces new funds to promote Black scholarship
York University has launched three new funding initiatives in support of Black researchers and their scholarly pursuits.

York alumni-founded startup breathes new air into industry
Two York alumni are helping to make the air we breathe cleaner through an innovative startup that’s quickly gaining national attention.

Intellectual property services at York give startups innovation edge
Read how a partnership between York’s Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation and IP Innovation Clinic is helping inventors and entrepreneurs succeed and grow.

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.”  


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.