The university’s scholars are collaborating with partners in every region of the globe to answer questions that challenge us all
Scholars today don’t work alone. Every year, U of T faculty and students fan out across the globe to investigate new ideas and challenge existing ones, working with colleagues in more than a hundred countries, from Boston to Tokyo, São Paulo to Mumbai. And every year, the university welcomes students and faculty from around the world at each of its three campuses.
While it’s impossible to capture the scope of U of T’s international collaborations in a few pages, the eight stories that follow hint at their flavour. They show how U of T scholars, selected from every campus and a variety of faculties, are using their creativity and expertise to assess the impact of a warming Arctic, for example, or help build the world’s largest radio telescope or improve mental health among young people in low-income countries. There are more than 8,000 of these projects happening at the University of Toronto right now. Together, their impact is truly boundless.
Africa and the Middle East
Lights, Camera, Africa!
Julie MacArthur screens African films in Canada as a way of fostering a conversation about the challenges facing the continent
African countries release thousands of feature-length films a year. Nigeria alone has the second-largest film industry in the world, after India and ahead of the United States.
But almost none of these films ever get shown in North America, and that’s a shame, says Julie MacArthur, a history professor at U of T Mississauga. She notes that younger African filmmakers are creating personal, visually daring and intellectually engaged films that cast new light on topics such as identity and belonging, gender rights, sexuality, violence and social justice.
“So many of the images and narratives we receive about Africa come from a Western gaze, and they often reflect a very particular, and limited, viewpoint,” says MacArthur. “African filmmakers not only offer a different perspective, but provide a lens into the richly diverse experiences and stories from across the continent.”
In her academic work, MacArthur examines film as a principal means by which Africans compose, edit and consolidate their histories, and engage with contemporary issues and challenges facing the African continent. Recently awarded a federal research grant for a project focusing on what she calls the “new wave” of young African filmmakers, MacArthur is using the film medium to foster dialogue across cultures and regional boundaries. Through screenings, festivals, workshops, conferences and publications, she is exposing academic and mainstream Canadian audiences to African cinema and bringing young African directors to Canada to discuss issues raised in their films.
Grey Matter, for example, directed by Kivu Ruhorahoza, provides a powerful and poetic portrait of the Rwandan genocide without ever addressing the atrocity by name. Grey Matter, released in 2011, was the first feature film made by a Rwandan living in Rwanda. In a departure from other films depicting the genocide, Ruhorahoza wanted to portray the massacre and its aftermath in philosophical, psychological and personal dimensions, emphasizing the interior lives and shared traumas of those affected on all sides.
It is “a story of individuals and not heroism,” Ruhorahoza says of his film. “I did not want to make a war film… I wanted to focus on individuals to tell a story that is really big.”
Watch the trailer for Grey Matter
MacArthur first became involved in promoting African films as a graduate student in England. Since then, she has run film festivals and curated special exhibits across East Africa, Europe and in Canada, where she has programmed African short films for the Toronto International Film Festival. “Exposing global audiences to this new wave of filmmaking challenges how African cinema, and indeed Africa itself, is conceived,” says MacArthur. “It opens up new possibilities for public and academic engagement with the pressing social, political and historical questions facing the continent.” – Alice Taylor
During the Arab Spring in 2011, social media use in some countries soared as citizens turned to Twitter and YouTube to spread news of protests. But governments also attempted to block Internet use, and in Egypt, for a time, the web was almost entirely inaccessible.
The Munk School of Global Affairs wants to ensure that people in the region and beyond can continue to share information about their governments online, and is expanding its successful program of “digital democracy” launched two years ago in Iran to other parts of the Middle East.
Shortly after Canada severed formal diplomatic relations with Tehran in September 2012, the Munk School reached out to Iranians directly. It developed and deployed powerful technology to help people get around government-instituted firewalls. It also built online tools to help citizens monitor their government’s performance. One such tool, the Rouhani Meter, compares the current president’s promises to his actions. The site is available in both English and Farsi and relies on visitors to submit evidence to show whether a promise has been kept.
In a country where the government routinely censors social media and, according to some reports, up to half of the 500 most popular sites on the web, the experiment had great appeal. All told, the Munk School’s various tools and platforms have attracted 4.5 million unique users.
Now armed with a $9-million grant from the federal government, the Munk School is using the lessons learned in Iran to create Digital Public Squares in other parts of the Middle East, notably northern Iraq and eastern Syria. The goal, says Janice Stein, project director, is to give people the tools they need to hold their own governments to account.
In Iran, this has meant providing access to information and forums for dialogue and dissent. It’s similar to the BBC Overseas Service during the Second World War when people tuned in at great risk – except that the current platforms are far more interactive. “People contribute knowledge, data, evidence, opinions,” says Stein, the Munk School’s former director. “We simply enable that conversation to take place.”
“The challenge,” she says, “is to find exactly the right tools that people will respond to and feel comfortable with.” Each country is different, and the Munk School will be working with academics, NGOs, civil society leaders and ordinary people to create systems appropriate to each local culture. The school wants to reach as many people as possible. “The greater the engagement, the more we know we’re asking appropriate questions,” says Stein.
For people in the target countries, online participation is not without its risks. In Iran, for example, bloggers and even Facebook page administrators have been arrested. But the Munk School wants to ensure the benefits to users outweigh the risks. It has promised to destroy the IP addresses of all participants and hopes to teach people the best ways to increase anonymity and security online.
Not only is free speech inherently valuable, says Stein, it has tangible benefits. Whether it’s public health or economic growth, she says, “Open societies do better on every measure of welfare.” – Brent Ledger
Asia and Australia
When you’re building a telescope, size matters – and an ambitious new radio astronomy project known as the Square Kilometre Array is all about size. The vast multinational project, now under construction on two continents, is due to begin scanning the sky in 2018.
The array will consist of thousands of individual antennas, located in southern Africa and western Australia. When used in unison, the antennas will simulate a giant telescope with a collecting area of one square kilometre – offering 50 times the sensitivity of any previous radio instrument.
Bryan Gaensler, director of the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at U of T, is part of an international team that will use the Square Kilometre Array to study the origins of magnetism in the universe – at this stage, a complete mystery. Understanding the workings of magnetism on a cosmic scale will help us understand other crucial questions in cosmology and astrophysics, Gaensler says, from star formation to the creation of the complex organic molecules required for life.
The telescope array is also poised to shed light on dark matter and dark energy, to probe the universe’s large-scale structure, and to test Einstein’s theory of gravity near black holes. It could spot planetary systems around other stars, and detect the chemical signatures of life beyond earth. And if ET happens to phone home – or happens to phone anyone in our direction, using radio waves – it could potentially spot that, too.
Learn more about the Square Kilometre Array
Eleven countries are participating in the billion-dollar project. Canada is taking part through the National Research Council in partnership with a half-dozen universities, including U of T – a key partner whose researchers are already working on prototype telescopes that will demonstrate technology vital to the array.
“Right from the beginning, it was realized that it had to be an international project,” says Gaensler, who is also the chair of the array’s Canadian Advisory Council. “There’s been this wonderful spirit of co-operation and collaboration from around the world.”
Once it’s running, the array is going to generate enormous amounts of data, spewing out more zeroes and ones each second than the entire Internet generates today. There’s no way to store that much data, so scientists – including Gaensler – will be developing artificial intelligence algorithms that can process the numbers in real time – throwing away most of the data, and just keeping the “interesting” bits. “The computational problem is insane,” he says. – Dan Falk
When Prof. Ka Tat Tsang first brought the idea of social work to China almost 20 years ago, it was a tough sell. The Cultural Revolution had occurred only a few decades earlier and the economic reforms of the 1980s were only just taking off. Social work was literally a foreign concept. Today, however, there is an established infrastructure of texts, teachers and institutions – thanks in part to U of T.
“We have definitely made a significant contribution to the creation of the first generation of Chinese social work scholars and educators,” says Tsang, a professor in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and director of the China Project, a two-pronged effort aimed at both communities in China and Chinese communities in Canada.
As a result of China’s one-child policy, introduced in 1979, there are a lot of older people who now depend on relatively few working adults for support – and many young people caring for aging parents. “They need effective strategies to deal with their elderly service,” says Tsang. The one-child policy has also made it tougher for many Chinese to form long-term relationships, as there are fewer young people in the “dating pool.” One of U of T’s social work graduates now runs workshops in Shanghai about how to meet and date people.
Tsang visits China at least twice a year and works with leading institutions, including the universities of Peking and Tsinghua in Beijing. Increasingly, he also works closely with front-line service providers such as NGOs and health-care systems. Recently he visited an orphanage in the Muslim autonomous region of Ningxia, where he emphasized the importance in children’s development of acquiring skills and life strategies. In 2008, he organized a team of mental health professionals to help victims of the massive earthquake in Sichuan Province. He’s also worked – through the Canadian consulate – with labour activists in south China, to help with training, leadership and community development.
Much of Tsang’s effort involves disseminating the principles of his own system of therapeutic change. Called Strategies & Skills Learning & Development, it emphasizes people’s ability to change through skills acquisition, and it has been used to meet a variety of social challenges, from urbanization to aging, in both China and Canada. Tsang notes that the Chinese population in Canada is better served than other immigrant communities, but not as well as the mainstream. Together with other academics, he’s now looking at the experience of mainland Chinese immigrants to Canada. – Brent Ledger
South and Central America
When young people experience anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts, they often aren’t sure where to go for help. Many don’t even ask. So Arun Ravindran, a professor in U of T’s psychiatry department, came up with a novel but straightforward idea: take information about mental health to them by embedding it into the high school curriculum.
Ravindran is testing the approach right now in a research project with colleagues from the National Autonomous University in Nicaragua – the country with Central America’s highest suicide rates.
“We wanted to see whether we can improve the wellness of high school and university students through prevention,” says Dr. Ravindran, who is also a senior scientist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
Most cases of depression or anxiety begin in the late teenage or early adult years. To reach this group, Ravindran and his research team first translated relevant materials and adapted them for the local culture. Then they trained teachers in Leon, Nicaragua, on how to use the materials to inform students about mental health, mental illness and stigma, and how to improve wellness through lifestyle. The researchers supplemented these in-class sessions with an online platform, designed to appeal to youth. Teachers were also trained to identify students with mental health needs and refer them to local clinicians.
One of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere, Nicaragua’s recent history includes a complex mix of street violence, civil war and natural disasters. The country shows elevated rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and family turmoil, with youth aged 15 to 24 the most likely age group to suffer from psychiatric illness and addictions.
Ravindran says the program’s results – measured through student focus groups and questionnaires completed both by students who took part and those who did not – have been encouraging. Program participants show improved understanding of mental health, visits to clinics have increased, and students and teachers are both enthusiastic. Administrators now want to expand the program to other parts of Nicaragua.
“Using the schools to reach students before they require treatment is not only better for their well-being, but it’s also cost-effective,” says Ravindran. “Our hope is to expand the program to countries in the region with similar problems, such as El Salvador and Guatemala.” He adds that the program could also be adapted for use in Canada, where mental health is generally not part of the high school curriculum. – Claire Morris
Luis Eduardo Abratti always wanted an opportunity to study abroad. But for the life sciences student from southern Brazil, cost was prohibitive. “Unfortunately my parents were unable to afford this kind of investment,” he says.
That changed in 2011 when the Brazilian government launched Ciência sem Fronteiras (Science Without Borders), a program to send more than 100,000 Brazilian students overseas to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
U of T has received the lion’s share of Canadian placements, hosting more than 500 students to date. For Abratti, the program provided an opportunity to take advanced genetics courses and work in a cell and systems biology lab far more sophisticated than any he’d seen. “The laboratories at U of T are simply mind-blowing,” he says.
When he returns to Brazil, Abratti will be able to work with researchers there to develop similar state-of-the-art facilities. “There are benefits beyond international exposure and experience,” says Miranda Cheng, director of U of T’s Office for International Experience. “Students can share their knowledge and prepare for leadership roles.”
U of T also stands to gain from nurturing its relationship with a country whose academic workforce has grown significantly in recent years. U of T researchers from medicine, nursing, engineering and forestry have organized joint conferences and co-authored papers with their Brazilian counterparts, resulting in innovative research and discovery for both countries. Science Without Borders adds another dimension to this mutually beneficial relationship.
Engineering student Mateus Lemes de Aguiar, for example, spent part of the program prototyping a bricklaying robot designed to improve the efficiency of masonry construction and to decrease the risk of accidents. De Aguiar worked under the supervision of Prof. Kamran Behdinan, of mechanical and industrial engineering, to develop the technology.
Upon returning to Brazil, many of the students introduce their home professors to the profs they met at U of T for potential future collaborations. They also spread the word about Canada and U of T as a destination for Brazil’s brightest students. As Cheng says, “In a short time, U of T has developed a large pool of ambassadors who will help deepen our connections to Brazil.” – Anjali Baichwal
North America and Europe
By the end of this century, the average world temperature is expected to increase between one and four degrees, with widespread effects on rainfall, sea levels and animal habitats. But in the Arctic, where the effects of climate change are most intense, the rise in temperature could be twice as much.
Understanding how Arctic warming will affect the people, animals, plant and marine life and economic activity in Canada’s North are important to the country’s future, says Kent Moore, an atmospheric physicist at U of T Mississauga who is participating in a longterm, international study of the marine ecosystem along the Beaufort Sea, from Alaska to the Mackenzie delta.
The study will add to our knowledge of everything from the extent of sea ice in the region to how fish stocks will change to which areas could become targets for oil and gas exploration to the impact on the indigenous people who call this part of the country home.
Moore, who has worked in the Arctic for more than 20 years, says his research has already found that thinning sea ice and changes in wind patterns are causing an important change in the marine food chain: phytoplankton is blooming two to three weeks earlier. Many animals time their annual migration to the Arctic for when food is plentiful, and have not adapted to the earlier bloom. “Animals’ behaviour can evolve over a long time, but these climate changes are happening in the space of a decade rather than hundreds of years,” says Moore. “Animals can’t change their behaviour that quickly.”
The data Moore is gathering will also help fill in gaps in our current climate models. When sea ice is smooth, for example (as thinner ice often is), wind speed tends to be faster, but the exact relationship between the two is poorly understood. The models also don’t properly take into account differences over a small area. Patches of open water within sea ice can have a significant impact on the local climate, says Moore. “Until we get all these things right, we won’t get an accurate read on how the climate is changing.”
A warmer Arctic is expected to have important effects on human activity in the region, as the Northwest Passage becomes navigable during the summer, and resource extraction becomes more feasible. Information gained from the study will help government, industry and communities make decisions about resource management, economic development and environmental protection.
Moore says the study – which involves Canadian, American and European researchers and government agencies – will also use a novel technology to gather atmospheric data: remotely piloted drones. “The drones have the capability of a large research aircraft, and they’re easier to deploy,” he says, allowing the researchers to gather information on a more regular basis than they would be able to with piloted aircraft. – Scott Anderson
For many people around the world, food plays a central role in culture. What we eat and how we prepare it helps define who we are. For many, it’s also a means to earn a living. In Canada, new immigrants often open – or work in – restaurants that serve food from their homeland.
In 2012, several UTSC faculty members, with academic partners in New York, Singapore, Delhi, Hong Kong and Sydney, launched an international collaboration called “City Food: Lessons from People on the Move,” with the goal of examining the cultural, economic and nutritional significance of food in cities. They hope to apply insights from the project locally in Toronto.
“Food is an economic and cultural driver of communities, especially in diverse ones such as Toronto, and in the diverse neighbourhoods near UTSC,” says history professor Daniel Bender, a participant in City Food. Drawing directly on the insights of this project, Bender and several UTSC colleagues have created courses in which students conduct food-related research in Scarborough neighbourhoods. The faculty members have also formed a hub at UTSC for food studies called the Culinaria Research Centre.
The group has a particular interest in street vending and is hoping to draw on the experiences of City Food’s partner cities to gain more insight into the debate over food trucks in Toronto. The conversation in Toronto has devolved to being about “quirky meals for downtown hipsters,” says Bender, when it should be a broader discussion about culture, entrepreneurship and how food is regulated in the city. “The crucial conversation around food trucks in Toronto is one that finds a way for ordinary people to start new businesses with very little capital,” he says.
Street food, a form of low-capital entrepreneurship, plays a crucial role in local economies worldwide. In Toronto, embracing street food in this way could provide both economic benefits and a deeper understanding of Toronto’s myriad diverse cultures. “By thinking of street food in new ways and understanding how it is integrated in other parts of the world,” says Bender, “we can turn the process of eating into a very powerful way to build cross-cultural relationships while encouraging entrepreneurship opportunities within our diverse community.” – Anjali Baichwal