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U of T’s World Wide Web: Online Exclusives

Read four stories that don't appear in our print issue about students and scholars who are working with colleagues around the world

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.

The four stories that follow complement the eight that appeared in U of T Magazine‘s Spring 2015 print issue. There are more than 8,000 of these projects happening at the University of Toronto right now. Together, their impact is truly boundless.

Asia and Australia

Keeping Speech Free in India
Law students work with writers and journalists in Delhi and Mumbai to ease India’s limits on freedom of expression

Photo: Reuters Pictures
Photo: Reuters Pictures

India has long been seen as a regional leader in human rights protection. But free speech is under attack in the world’s largest democracy. Newspapers have recounted numerous attempts by state and private interests to intimidate and censor writers and academics, and a recent UNESCO report named India among the 10 most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist.

The situation has prompted the Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program to team up with PEN Canada and PEN International to study media freedom in India. (The two organizations have joined forces before to study free speech in Honduras and Mexico.) Last year, a pair of law students spent two weeks in Delhi and Mumbai, working alongside PEN representatives, speaking to lawyers and judges about challenges to free speech, and to writers and publishers affected by government censorship.

Although India’s constitution guarantees the right to free speech, a complex web of laws provide at least seven criminal laws and numerous regulatory offences that allow censorship of speech, says Renu Mandhane, executive director of the faculty’s International Human Rights Program. Speech in India can be censored, for example, on the grounds that some people find it offensive.

As part of the program, the students spent several months reviewing relevant Indian and international case law, and then learned through their visit how the issues play out on the ground. “The whole point of the project for students is to get beyond the case law research,” says Mandhane.

In May, PEN and the human rights program will jointly release a fact-finding report on India’s limits on freedom of expression – entirely researched and written by students – that will suggest repealing and amending existing laws. The report will also make recommendations to stem police and judicial corruption, and to build solidarity among writers, journalists and bloggers.

”This has been a defining experience for our students,” says Mandhane, “who are involved in every step of the project.” Amy Tang, a third-year law student who travelled to India last year, said she gained hands-on experience and skills that she will be able to apply to law – or to any profession. “It’s had such an incredible influence on my life and the lawyer I want to be.” – Alice Taylor

Africa and the Middle East

Saving Christianity’s Early History
Research on centuries-old inscriptions in Iraq will ensure valuable religious history is not lost to ISIS

Saving Christianity
Photo: Amir Harrak /

Physical records of the 1,800-year-old Christian community in Iraq, threatened with destruction by sectarian war, will live on to be studied by scholars, thanks to work by a U of T professor.

More than a decade ago, Amir Harrak, of the department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, spent four summers in Iraq taking photos of inscriptions in Syriac. A dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ, Syriac is also traditionally used in the literature and ritual of Iraqi Christians. Christianity in Iraq dates to at least the second century AD, and some of the inscriptions – pieces of text and art engraved in churches, monasteries and other monuments – are at least 1,300 years old.

Thanks to Harrak, U of T now has the world’s largest collection of photos of Syriac inscriptions from Iraq. His photos have been published by France’s Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, a learned society devoted to the humanities, and last year, the Canadian Centre for Epigraphic Documents, located on the U of T campus, began putting the entire collection on its website, allowing scholars around the world to study them with a few clicks of the mouse.

Harrak’s work may have saved many of these inscriptions from being forever lost to history. Since sweeping into northern Iraq last summer, Islamic State fighters have reportedly engaged in “cultural cleansing,” converting churches and monasteries into prisons, burning manuscripts and destroying religious sites – even shrines to Muslim saints. The group is also said to have stolen religious artifacts to fund its operations. Because of the scarcity of information coming from Islamic-State-occupied Iraq, Harrak says he can only guess about the current state of the inscriptions.

Many of the inscriptions record historical events in the region, such as invasions and epidemics. More importantly, Harrak says, the inscriptions tell us about the history of a branch of Christianity that is not only among the oldest, but also among the closest to Christ and the apostles – both linguistically and culturally. As Christianity spread westward across the Roman Empire, it came to be expressed in terms that would make it understandable to educated people, often borrowing ideas from Greek philosophy. But the Christianity that spread eastward to Mesopotamia, Harrak says, in some ways remained closer to its origins: in Iraqi Christianity, ideas are communicated much as they were in the gospels – in the form of parables and images rather than abstract theological systems.

For example, to explain how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit can all be one God, Christians in the late Roman Empire came to describe them using the term “consubstantial” – of the same substance – from the Greek homoousios. In Iraqi Christianity, Harrak says, their relationship was often explained by comparing these three to the sun’s heat, fire and light.

Some of these ideas are preserved only in the inscriptions, set as they are – quite literally – in stone.

“There are some religious concepts that survived inscribed on stones whereas they are lost in manuscripts,” Harrak says. – Tali Folkins

South and Central America

Fighting Electoral Fraud
U of T researchers discover two conditions that allow vote-buying to flourish in Brazil


In Canada and many other established democracies, people vote freely for the candidates they prefer. There’s no risk of losing your job, being denied health care, or seeing family members threatened with violence for choosing the “wrong” person. And you don’t stand to win any special favours for voting for the “right” person.

But in countries that have only recently become democracies, politicians may seek to influence voters in exactly these ways. Candidates may offer individual voters money or goods in exchange for their support. And, as U of T researchers have found, certain kinds of voters are more susceptible to these electoral “bribes” than others.

Gustavo Bobonis, a U of T economics professor and Canada Research Chair in the Political Economy of Development, and Marco Gonzalez-Navarro, an economics prof at U of T Scarborough, have been studying “vote-buying” in 40 communities in northern Brazil in an effort to learn more about how the process flourishes.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that vote-buying tends to diminish when living standards improve. The U of T team tested this theory by partnering with an NGO that was installing water cisterns for some of the disadvantaged households in the communities being studied. Access to a private source of fresh water provides huge health benefits when the alternative is a polluted river.

After a municipal election, the team conducted interviews with the households that received the new cisterns. “What we found is that they were much less likely to sell their vote after the cistern was installed than before,” says Bobonis.

This suggests that national policies or other measures to improve well-being and socio-economic status would reduce vote-buying in new democracies.

The researchers also found that an individual’s social preferences strongly influence their susceptibility to vote-buying. People who believe in reciprocity – the idea that “if I do something good for you, you should do something good for me,” are much more likely to sell their vote than those who don’t. “A person’s view of how they should interact with others can determine whether they want to engage in this type of relationship with politicians,” says Prof. Bobonis.

In small, close-knit communities, especially, local politicians are able to target voters who believe in reciprocity because most people have grown up together and know each other. – Claire Morris

North America and Beyond

A Secret World Beneath the Earth
Hydrogen-rich waters trapped kilometres below much of the planet’s crust may support extreme forms of life

Photo by G. Borgonie
Photo by G. Borgonie.

There may be much more hydrogen-rich water trapped in rock fractures kilometres beneath Earth’s surface than previously thought, according to an international study led by U of T’s Barbara Sherwood Lollar.

This is important because the chemistry of these ancient waters, common in the oldest rocks on Earth, is similar to that found near deep-sea vents, which can support microbial life. And this has implications for where life may exist elsewhere in the universe.

The study included data from 19 different mine sites in Canada, South Africa and Scandinavia that were explored by Sherwood Lollar, a geoscientist at U of T’s department of Earth sciences, and by colleagues at U of T and Oxford and Princeton universities.

The scientists also studied how two chemical reactions combine to produce substantial quantities of hydrogen, doubling estimates of global production from these processes, which had previously been based only on hydrogen coming out of the ocean floor. “This represents a quantum change in our understanding of the total volume of Earth’s crust that may be habitable,” says Sherwood Lollar.

Since these oldest rocks make up more than 70 per cent of the surface of Earth’s crust, Sherwood Lollar likens these terrains to “a sleeping giant – a huge area that has now been discovered to be a source of possible energy for life.”

Quantifying global hydrogen production is crucial to understanding the amount of the Earth’s biomass that lies below the surface. Many deep ecosystems contain chemolithotrophic – so-called “rock-eating” – organisms that consume hydrogen.

Because major sections of Mars – like much of Earth’s crust – consists of billions-of-years-old rocks with hydrogen-producing potential, this finding has ramifications for astrobiology. “If the ancient rocks of Earth are producing this much hydrogen, it may be that similar processes are taking place on Mars,” says Sherwood Lollar. – Kim Luke

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