With Black History Month coming to a close, the Book Awards Committee has been reflecting on the lack of diversity in science writing. There’s no denying that the majority of science books have been written by white men. While their contributions to our understanding of science are important, we wanted to broaden the conversation by seeking out the perspectives of underrepresented groups, such as BIPOC and neurodivergent writers. The five authors listed below bring a wealth of expertise and personal experience to their subjects, which include Indigenous Knowledge, materials science, human behaviour, unconscious bias, and beta decay. These books manage to strike a difficult balance between narrative-driven storytelling and research, resulting in science writing that’s compelling and informative. It is our hope that the book recommendations will help encourage the SWCC community to continue reading and amplifying diverse voices in science communication year-round.
Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us about Love, Life and Relationships - Written by Camilla Pang (Viking Press, 2020)
Have you ever considered that thermodynamics and enthalpy may explain why a messy room sometimes stays messy despite our best intentions to keep everything tidy? Or that anxiety and fear could be thought of as light passing through a prism, which can be refracted and scattered into more manageable wavelengths? These incredible connections, along with some hand-drawn illustrations, are part of Camilla Pang’s Explaining Humans, which won the Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2020. As a scientist who is on the autism spectrum, Pang wrote the book as a manual for herself, but it’s frank details will help readers learn about navigating life with neurodiversity. With insightful and enthusiastic prose, the book describes interesting ways of seeing and understanding the world.
Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias - Written by Pragya Agarwal (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020)
Written by Pragya Agarwal, a behavioral and data scientist, Sway is a timely read that highlights implicit and explicit biases against black and ethnic minorities, as well as women and queer individuals. Having faced racial and gender bias as an Indian woman, Agarwal combines her personal experiences with scientific studies, using clear language to explain information to readers. The last chapter offers hope of working through our biases by taking more time to make decisions and recognizing when biases may arise in order to dismantle them. Sway is a well-researched book that will help readers identify and evaluate unconscious bias in their own lives.
Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom - Written by Teresa Robeson, Illustrated by Rebecca Huang (Sterling Children’s Books, 2019)
Most people would consider Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking to be among the most influential physicists of the 20th century, but there’s another name that deserves to be added to the list: Chien-Shiung Wu. Born in China at a time when girls often received a sub-par education to boys, Wu defied the odds by studying physics at the National Central University in Nanjing. She later immigrated to the United States, where she became an expert on beta decay. During her career, Wu helped other researchers design experiments that earned three Nobel Prizes, but her contributions were overlooked and she never received a nomination. In Queen of Physics, Teresa Robeson and Rebecca Huang use poignant text and illustrations to capture Wu’s story for young readers, never shying away from the discrimination that she faced as an Asian woman in a male-dominated field.
Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World - Written by Tyson Yunkaporta (HarperCollins, 2020)
“Our knowledge endures because everybody carries a part of it, no matter how fragmentary. If you want to see the pattern of creation, you talk to everybody and listen carefully,” Tyson Yunkaporta writes in Sand Talk, a book that will challenge the way you think about science and the world. An Aboriginal scholar and artist, Yukaporta uses oral culture exchanges, symbols, and songlines to guide readers through a range of topics that clearly demonstrate the enduring relevance of Indigenous Knowledge, while stressing the importance of community and connection. His skillful narration is humorous and insightful, making it easy to see why the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper named Sand Talk one of the best science book of 2020.
The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another - Written by Ainissa Ramirez (The MIT Press, 2020)
Ainissa Ramirez was close to giving up on her dream of becoming a scientist when a professor at Brown University made a remark in class that she never forgot: “The reason why we don’t fall through the floor, the reason why my sweater is blue, and the reason why the lights work is because of the way atoms interact with each other.” So began a lifelong fascination with materials science, which combines physics, engineering, and chemistry to study the properties of solid materials. Ramirez, an award-winning scientist, has captured the intrigue of this interdisciplinary field in The Alchemy of Us, making topics like quartz clocks, steel rails, and glass labware come alive for readers. With a keen eye for perspectives that have been overlooked by history, her book is guaranteed to enlighten and entertain.
By: The Book Awards Committee
While COVID-19 ravages the world, scientists are still trying to unravel the unique mysteries of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, and why it so deadly to so many. Among those seeking answers are U.S. scientists from the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore, Marylandwho published a study in the journal Blood.https://ashpublications.org/blood/article/136/18/2080/463611/Direct-activation-of-the-alternative-complement
From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists knew that the spike-like proteins on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 latched on to cells targeted for infection. Recent research shows the spikes grab a substance called “heparan sulfate,” a large, complex sugar molecule found on the surface of cells in the lungs, blood vessels and smooth muscle that make up most organs. After binding with the cell, SARS-CoV-2 uses another cell-surface component, the protein known as “angiotensin-converting enzyme 2” (ACE2), to break into the cell.
The havoc begins here.
When SARS-CoV-2 ties up heparan sulfate it prevents another substance - factor H - from doing its job of regulating chemical signals that both trigger inflammation and keep the immune system from harming healthy cells. Without factor H protection, cells in the lungs, heart, kidneys, and other organs, can be destroyed by the very defense mechanism nature intended -the immune system.
JHU researchers discovered that “factor D,” a protein in the immune system, enables SARS-CoV-2 to turn the immune system against itself and damage healthy cells. When factor H is functionally dismantled by factor D, the immune system attacks healthy cells, as autoimmune diseases do.
The immune system’s response to chemicals released by killed cells could be responsible for the serious organ damage and organ failures in severe cases of COVID-19.
"Previous research has suggested that along with tying up heparan sulfate, SARS-CoV-2 activates a cascading series of biological reactions -- what we call the “alternative pathway of complement” – or APC, that can lead to inflammation and cell destruction of healthy organs if misdirected by the immune system," explained study senior author Robert Brodsky, M.D., director of the hematology division at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "The goal of our study was to discover how the virus activates this pathway and find a way to inhibit it before the damage happens."
According to Brodsky, the APC is one of three chain reaction processes involved in splitting and combining of more than 20 different proteins -- known as “complement proteins” -- that usually get activated when bacteria or viruses invade the body. The end-product of this complement cascade is a structure called the “membrane attack complex” (MAC).
To discover exactly how the virus activates the APC cascade and blocks factor H from connecting with the sugar, the researchers used normal human blood serum and three subunits of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to disable the complement regulation by which factor H keeps immune response under control.
"When we added a small molecule that inhibits the function of factor D, the APC wasn't activated by the SARS2 virus spike proteins," explained Brodsky.
He uses an automobile metaphor to explain Factor D and Factor H co-activity.
"If the brakes are disabled, the gas pedal can be floored without restraint, likely leading to a crash," he explained. "The viral spike proteins disable the biological brakes (factor H) enabling the gas pedal (factor D) to accelerate the immune system and cause cell, tissue and organ devastation. Inhibit factor D and the brakes can be re-applied and the immune system reset."
The good news is that there are already drugs in development that can block factor D’s nefarious work. Although still in testing, it appears that one such drug - ravulizumab - blocks the complement attack triggered by the spike proteins.
To be clear, these drugs are not vaccines aimed at halting the community spread of the virus. Rather, they are aimed at helping to prevent the worst organ damage in those who acquire COVID-19.
By: Randolph Fillmore
Randolph Fillmore is a science and medical writer and an adjunct professor of anthropology and mass communications at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida, USA. He is the director of Florida Science Communications (www.sciencewriter.ink , a member of the National Association of Science Writers in the U.S. since 1994, and has recently joined the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada.
Source: Getty Images
Whether it be from supermarkets, restaurants or our own kitchens, people throw away a lot of food. Or rather, they feed it to animals.
In many countries Canada, close to 40 per cent of total food loss comes from these later stages of the supply chain1. While cycling food waste towards animal feed may seem like a noble approach to handling this challenge, the question remains: is food waste safe for animals?
Food waste materials are defined differently, depending on where they come from within the supply chain2. The term “food loss” refers to waste generated during food processing and manufacturing (many of these items are safely diverted to animal feed in the form of by-products). The term “food waste” refers to items discarded at retail or consumer levels. These carry a higher risk for harbouring contaminants and disease.
Feeding uncooked food waste to animals not only puts their health at risk, but also the entire food chain – especially if that food waste is contaminated with meat products. In 2009, 25 to 35 per cent of the global pork supply was wiped-out from African swine fever – a highly transmissible viral disease that has been linked with feeding food waste to pigs 3. In 2001, more than six million lambs, pigs and cattle died during the European foot-and-mouth disease epidemic which was linked to the feeding of uncooked food waste to animals.4. Other diseases like vesicular exanthema (a swine disease similar to foot-and-mouth), trichinosis (caused by parasitic roundworms in pigs), and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, a.k.a. “mad cow” disease) have also had devastating effects on livestock industries. All been linked to improper feeding of food waste products
Raw food waste can also harbour infectious organisms worrisome to public health, even if the food waste is plant-based. The risk of plant-based food waste being contaminated with Salmonella, for example, may depend on the type of plants it came from. A study published in Frontiers of Microbiology found that certain vegetable plants tend to be colonized by Salmonella more than others5. So, even if raw food waste is free of meat contaminants that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe for our animals.
Heavy metals and toxins are another risk factor to be considered before feeding food waste to livestock. A survey of European household and restaurant waste found that the levels of lead, cadmium and dioxins exceeded allowable limits for livestock feed6. These compounds accumulate in the food chain and can negatively impact human and animal health.
From animal feed, to animal welfare, to public health, all stages of the food supply chain are connected. That’s why many countries have implemented strict regulations around the use of food waste as animal feed. And while the practice of feeding food waste to our animals has decreased, it has not been eliminated. A survey from the United Kingdom estimated that 24 per cent of small producers continue to feed uncooked household food waste to their livestock3.
In Canada, feeding raw household or donated food waste to a producer’s own animals is allowed. It is the exception to the rules, as long as it isn’t contaminated with meat and the resulting animal products to anyone else7. These exceptions are confusing and send conflicting messages about the safety of the practice and raise concerns throughout the food industry.
This article first appeared in The Western Producer
By: Janna Moats
Janna Moats is a Professional Agrologist and science writer based in Saskatoon. She obtained her Master of Science degree in Animal Science from the University of Saskatchewan and has worked across various sectors of the agriculture and agri-food industry. Connect with her on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jannamoats
The vast Milne Ice Shelf broke up this summer. Animals found living within its ice cavity (red box), are shown on the right. Photo credits: Left: Joseph Mascaro, Planet Labs Inc. Right: Water and Ice Laboratory, Carleton University.
Step up protections for the Last Ice Area in the whole Arctic, before it’s too late, scientists warn! As giant ice shelves collapse amid global warming in the Arctic, experts call for more protection for the "Last Ice Area" (LIA). The vast communities of plants and animals living there could be lost, they warn, before we even get to understand them!
Using tools which included video taken by a robot submarine, a Canadian research team recently discovered an amazing array of plants and animals, living in the heart of Milne, the very ice shelf which broke apart just this summer north of Ellesmere Island (above), losing almost half of its mass.
Dr. Derek Mueller, Professor of Geography and Environment Science at Ottawa's Carleton University, is a team member who's worked in the area for decades. In an email to PinP, he provides more detail.
"There are really neat microbial mats (communities of micro-organisms including cyanobacteria, green algae, diatoms, heterotrophic bacteria, and viruses) that live on the surface of the ice shelves. Similar microbial mats can be found in ponds on the bottom of shallow lakes... Inside the sea ice and clinging to its underside are communities of algae and lots of kinds of phytoplankton in the ocean as well."
Small animals from marine waters under the sea ice in Tuvaijuittuq, a Marine Protected Area in the region. Photo credit: P. Coupel and P. Tremblay, Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
So what might the world lose if these organisms disappear with the ice?
"This Last Ice Area will hopefully serve as a refuge for ice-dependent species," Dr. Mueller explains, "both on land and in the marine environment. We know relatively little about these organisms - how they are adapted to their surroundings, how unique they are (or perhaps how similar they are to their cousins in analogous environments in the Antarctic) and many more questions! We won't get to ask these questions if global temperatures rise unabated and this ice melts away."
The images above come from just a tiny part of the vastness Mueller refers to, called the "Last Ice Area." And, in the face of a rapidly-warming Arctic, events involving the break-up of sea ice are all too common there.
What's left of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf in the Last Ice Area after breaking apart in 2011. Credit: CEN, Laval University.
Here's how Dr. Mueller describes the LIA.
"'The Last Ice Area' means the region in the Arctic Ocean where sea ice is most likely to survive in a warming world."
It sprawls for up to 25 hundred kilometres along the coastlines of northern Canada and Greenland and well out to sea. It's there that the thickest sea-ice in the entire Arctic can be found. Because of its importance as a home for ice-dependant marine life and its cultural significance to the Inuit people living there, they and the World Wildlife Fund have long promoted it as worthy of conservation. (Local Inuit elders call it “Similijuaq - place of the big ice.”)
Dr. Mueller and a colleague, Dr. Warwick Vincent of Laval University in Quebec City, are now sounding the latest alarm bells over why additional measures are needed to protect the area from increased human activity.
While Dr. Mueller remains optimistic for the future, he suggests, further steps need to be taken to expand those existing, protected areas.
"The good news is, we do still have a window to make a difference. We can augment the existing conservation areas - the marine one, Tuvaijuittuq MPA and the terrestrial one - Quttinirpaaq National Park, with more optimal coverage of the LIA - from Greenland in the east to the NWT in the west and perhaps there could be more protection by expanding across the coastal region reaching both inland and offshore."
The Government of Canada announced the creation of Tuvaijuittuq Marine Protected Area a year ago, aimed at protecting a large part of the LIA.
It's not just marine life that will be vulnerable to melting ice. So, too will terrestrial (land) animals such as the Peary caribou, known to migrate across the sea ice. Photo by Paul Gierszewski - Nunavut.
"This would recognize the important interconnection between the terrestrial and marine environments. With vulnerable ice-dependent ecosystems protected from human activity, this will guarantee the removal of multiple environmental stressors.
The big stressor is, of course, climate change. But, if we can make good on our Paris commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally, then the chances of the LIA remaining, increase dramatically."
The team's findings were published recently in Science Magazine.
By: Larry Powell
Larry Powell is an eco-journalist living in Shoal Lake, Manitoba, Canada. He belongs to The Science Writers & Communicators of Canada, The American Association for the Advancement of Science and The Canadian Association of Journalists.
This summer, he joined an international team of writers, telling animal “tails” in the online journal, “Focusing on Wildlife - Celebrating the Biodiversity of Planet Earth.” I publish the blog, PlanetInPeril (PinP), where science gets respect!
The grey nurse shark ( Carcharias taurus), a coastal species on the ICU's Red List as critically endangered. A public domain photo by Richard Ling.
Here's how sharks are "finned."
After hauling them aboard their vessels, the fishermen cut off their fins, then toss them back into the ocean. Still alive, they sink to the bottom where they're either eaten by other predators or die of suffocation.
About 100 million sharks are believed to be taken by fishers each year, most of them for their fins alone.
It's an industry estimated to be worth US$400 million a year.
The blue shark (Prionaceglauca). Photo by Mark Conlin/NMFS.
If one were to believe official trade records over the past twenty years, most fins traded on world markets have come from more abundant "pelagic" species (ones which live in the open ocean) like the blue shark (above).
The leopard shark (Stegostoma fasciatum). An ADV photo by Jeffrey N. Jeffords.
Using advanced techniques in barcoding and genetic tracing, scientists are now painting a different picture. By analyzing more than five thousand fins from markets on three continents, they still found a lot had come for those "pelagic" populations.
But they also found "an additional 40 'range-restricted' coastal species" which did not show up in previous records. These populations live closer to shore and do not range as widely as those in the open oceans. With local jurisdictions providing little protection for them, their populations now face "dramatic declines" and are "typically less abundant."
However, even the more common deep-sea species have been falling victim to "chronic exploitation" by fishers who are "collapsing" their populations, too.
New DNA tracking techniques are revealing a greater number of threatened and coastal sharks from stockpiles of intact shark and processed fins (pictured). Image credit: Paul Hilton.
So, if we want to conserve sharks and curb the "unsustainable global trade in shark fins," conclude the researchers, "stronger local controls of coastal fishing are urgently needed."
Their study was published this summer in the proceedings of The Royal Society.
But this is hardly the first cautionary tale pointing to the plight of Earth's marine life in general and sharks, in particular. Another research paper published in 2017 warns, they face "possibly the largest crisis of their 420 million year history. Many populations are overfished to the point where global catch peaked in 2003, and a quarter of species have an elevated risk of extinction."
Hi, I’m Larry Powell, an eco-journalist living in Shoal Lake, Manitoba, Canada.
I belong to The Science Writers & Communicators of Canada, The American Association for the Advancement of Science and The Canadian Association of Journalists.
I’m authorized to receive embargoed material through the Science Media Centre of Canada, the Royal Society, NatureResearch and the World Health Organization.
This allows me to “get a jump” on important stories by fleshing them out with fact-checks and interviews, in advance. This often arms me with “hot-off-the-press” stories the moment the embargo is lifted.
This summer, I joined an international team of writers, telling animal “tails” in the online journal, “Focusing on Wildlife - Celebrating the Biodiversity of Planet Earth.”
I publish the blog, PlanetInPeril (PinP), where science gets respect! You can email me at: PlanetWatch1@yahoo.ca.
Rock Lake (Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario) in the fall. Image © James Wheeler via Gallery.World (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 license).
Fall is a beautiful season, filled with golden hope and burgundy possibilities. The green colour of leaves changes to a colourful mix of yellow, orange, and red. Have you ever wondered why? If you have (and even if you have not but are wondering now), let’s take a look at the science behind the fall foliage.
Leaves develop over spring and summer, and in the fall, they start to age. But there are complex processes behind this. They include changes in the pigments that give them colour. The green leaf pigment chlorophyll breaks down, while carotenoids (yellow) are retained, and anthocyanins (red) are produced.
In the fall, nutrients and other components that support leaf health are withdrawn. This process leaves yellow carotenoids behind, causing the bright yellow and golden appearance seen in many fall leaves. However, we often see yellow leaves with scattered green patterns. These patterns are caused by fungi infections. Fungi produce a plant hormone, cytokinin, that inhibits the aging process and causes some of the green chlorophyll to remain.
The red colour palette of fall leaves is produced right before the leaves fall to the ground. The red pigments are thought to protect plants from photooxidative damage (that is, damage from sunlight), support nutrient redistribution, and defend against aphids.
But what happens to the green leaf pigment, chlorophyll? Prior to 1991, we did not know. A breakthrough came that year from Austria when Bernard Kräutler from the University of Innsbruck identified the first compound that is a result of the chlorophyll breakdown. In fact, over the next twenty-six years, Kräutler and other scientists identified about 20 more compounds, many of which were found to exhibit different colours. These findings helped explain some of the shades of yellow, pink, and red seen in leaves.
Albert Camus once said: “Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower.” Whether these fall flowers have carotenoids, compounds of chlorophyll breakdown, or anthocyanins, I will still spend my weekend raking the leaves.
By: Olena Shynkaruk
Olena Shynkaruk, Ph.D., is a freelance science writer and editor with a love for languages. She is a Ukrainian Canadian who has studied, worked, and presented internationally. Her experience as a science communicator includes grant writing, manuscript editing, copywriting, and working as a contributing writer for Lab Manager magazine. Feel free to connect with Olena on LinkedIn or email her at email@example.com.
The genetic controls that govern creation of the placenta (left) are similar to those that go awry to touch off cancer. Illustration: Almas Khan, created in BioRender.com
Cancer is a devastating disease marked by defective cells that multiply out of control and go on to invade our bodies. But what if I told you the processes that make cancer so dangerous are normal features of an organ necessary for us in the beginning of our life?
That organ exists for a short time and is usually discarded after we are born. It barely registers in people’s minds beyond that of potentially consuming it for so-called health benefits. Even science has long ignored this multifunctional organ which plays a role in the development of each and every one of us.
That organ is the placenta.
The placenta starts to form when cells from the growing fetus quickly invade and remodel the mother’s surrounding tissue, including reworking blood vessels to aid the growing fetus. This is similar to how a tumour starts to form and triggers blood vessel development to feed its growth.
While the placenta is forming, its cells work hard to inhibit parts of the immune system so the growing fetus isn’t rejected by the body. Various ‘immune evasion’ strategies used by the placenta are also used by cancer cells to prevent growing tumours from being destroyed by killer T-cells. One of these is to recruit regulatory T-cells (T-regs) near the tumour site to suppress killer T-cells that would otherwise destroy the cancer cells.
The placenta has also been found to recruit nearby T-regs to evade the immune system.
The image below shows the similarities between a solid tumour and a placenta at a structural level with blood vessel remodelling and immune modulatory level.
Credits(Constanzo et al. 2017)
Similarities don’t stop at development but occur even at a genetic level. Many tumour suppressor genes (TSGs) which code for important proteins that work to prevent out-of-control cell division in cancer are usually turned off when the placenta is being formed.
Not only that, but chemical markers known as methyl groups, which regulate genes and usually turn them off (but not always), occur in much lower numbers in cancer cells and those that form the placenta. In fact, many studies have found genes expressed in lung cancer, breast cancer, and various other forms of cancer to be similar ‘placenta-specific’ genes.
So, what does this all mean?
Several studies show that cancer rates are higher in placental mammals, that is, those such as cats, cattle, humans and many others that grow a placenta as part of their reproductive process. There is a similarity of genetic control in both in the placenta and in various cancers these mammals get.
An emerging hypothesis states that genes and molecular pathways which allow for placenta formation may somehow become reactivated later in life in cancer.
The placenta provides a rich paradigm to study so-called aberrant processes in a normal context of complex regulation, even with fast growth. It provides some compelling clues as to why things can go so wrong later on.
By: Almas Khan
Almas Khan a MSc student in the University of British Columbia’s(UBC) Bioinformatics program. She is studying epigenetic of the placenta and its relation to birth outcomes. She also received her BSc in Microbiology and Immunology at UBC. Outside of the lab, she likes baking, tea, yoga, and reading investigative journalism pieces and fantasy novels
Compassionate psychelics: easing anxiety and depression in the dying
This article discusses topics relating to end-of-life depression and anxiety. If you require mental health support, please see the resources at the bottom of this article.
In August 2020, four terminally ill patients were granted permission to use psychedelic therapy in Canada. They were given psilocybin, the hallucinogenic component of what are popularly called “magic mushrooms,” to help ease their anxieties and depression at end-of-life.
End-of-life care involves helping someone remain comfortable at the end one’s life. Physicians will use palliative practices, that is, those aimed at alleviating things like pain and shortness of breath and providing support through death for patients with life-threatening conditions. Palliative care doctors use this kind of treatment when a condition is deemed unfixable.
Dr. James Downar is a researcher and head of the division of palliative care at the University of Ottawa.
“There are times when you can’t actually fix the problem—but you may be able to reduce the effect it has on a person,” he says.
Most will remember psychedelics as a relic of the 1960s. They are often associated with this decades’ many counter-culture movements, particularly among hippies, musicians and cultists alike.
When taken in high doses, psychedelics have strong effects on a person’s perception of the world. Users might experience hallucinations and confused senses, tasting colors and smelling sounds. On the flip side, people might also experience what is known as a “bad trip.” This can manifest as an intense fear or paranoia.
These substances can also induce rich, spiritual-like experiences, which is a big part of why they got so popular in the 60s. Early users would often report feelings of connectedness, love, and compassion for others—feelings that would remain long after the hallucinations disappeared.
Researchers are still trying to understand exactly how psychedelics work. But there is a surprising number of studies that suggest they might be able to help treat mental health. Some experts hope to leverage these spiritual side-effects to help people overcome conditions such as depression and anxiety.
This is what makes the drugs so appealing for palliative care.
“Our interest in palliative care is relieving suffering,” Downar says. “What is becoming increasingly apparent is that suffering can occur on many different levels.”
One of those levels is known as “existential suffering.”
“One of the most concerning things about disease is its ability to rob you of doing the things that you enjoy,” Downar explains. “These can be things like work, art, hobbies—all things that give people joy and meaning in life.”
When a person thinks they will never again experience meaningful activities, they can fall into a deep depression. This is the core of existential suffering, he says.
Downar explains that psychedelic therapy can help people come to terms with their distress, reduce their existential suffering, and help them find meaning at the end of life.
This interest in psychedelics as a therapeutic tool may be surprising, but it is not new. Use of the drugs has a long and surprising history in Canada. So, why did it take so long for them to pick up steam in the medical community?
Psilocybe cyanescens Wakef mushrooms, commonly called “Wavy Caps,” are one of the many species of mushrooms that contain psilocybin. Source: Vancouver Mycological Society.
The story of psychedelic therapy in Canada is almost as “trippy” as the drugs themselves, stretching from rural Canada to Los Angeles, threading through the lives of a Swiss scientist, a British war veteran, and a prolific science fiction author.
This is not an exhaustive history of psychedelics in Canada. But below is an outline of some of the surprising connections that surround these powerful substances. So, let’s take a trip, shall we?
This story begins with the arrival of Dr. Humphry Osmond. Osmond was a British World War II veteran who after the war worked on the psychiatric unit at St. George’s Hospital in London, England. There, he developed an academic interest in mind-altering drugs and substances.
Osmond and two colleagues began experiments with mescaline, the psychoactive component of peyote cactus. After two years of study, they found that this chemical would induce symptoms similar to those observed in people with schizophrenia.
Osmond’s use of chemicals ran counter to traditional therapeutic approaches. His colleagues were keener on psychoanalysis—the process of treatment and diagnosis through open conversation between therapist and patient.
As a result, Osmond moved to Weyburn, Saskatchewan in October 1951 and took over as clinical director of the now-defunct Weyburn Mental Hospital.
At the time, this hospital had a reputation as one of the worst asylums in North America, explains Erika Dyck, a medical historian at the University of Saskatchewan. But Osmond felt that here he would have more freedom to continue his explorations with mind-altering substances. He was right.
The 1950s was a period of great change for Saskatchewan. Tommy Douglas, premier of the province at the time, advanced what was considered a radically progressive agenda, one that ultimately laid the groundwork for universal healthcare in Saskatchewan and in Canada.
Douglas’ progressive attitude towards healthcare made the province an attractive place for health researchers.
“People were coming to witness this experiment unfolding,” explains Dyck. “It became a trading zone for ideas that were infused with a political vision for the future, for what kinds of things we can expect for our healthcare system.”
This is the context in which Osmond would begin his experiments with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).
LSD is a synthetic hallucinogen accidentally invented by Albert Hoffman in Switzerland long before Osmond arrived in Canada. Hoffman consumed a small quantity of the drug while synthesizing it, leading to mild symptoms, including dizziness and restlessness. Once he identified LSD as the source of his symptoms, he took a remarkable next step – self-experimentation. Hoffman went on his first trip.
He was anxious and afraid at first, as his hallucinations were understandably unexpected. Eventually, his anxieties went away and he was left to enjoy a kaleidoscope of colors dancing before him. He later wrote on how the experience was a net positive.
Years later, Osmond spent his time trying to understand how and why LSD had such a powerful effect. He hypothesized that it could be used therapeutically in the Weyburn Mental Hospital.
One of Osmond’s patients stated that while under the influence of LSD he learned to address his life problems with new-found conviction. This, in turn, helped him find a more positive outlook on life and forge better relationships with himself and others. These feelings continued long after the immediate effects of LSD disappeared.
Parallel to these experiments, Osmond also learned about another potential use for LSD in end-of-life care.
Osmond became good friends with the famous science fiction author Aldous Huxley, who lived in Los Angeles—far from the winds of Saskatchewan – but they bonded through regular letters which document Osmond and Huxley’s evolving perspective on psychedelics. Together, they explored the spiritual nature of the substances, and Huxley introduced Osmond to the potential power of psychedelics for end-of-life care.
Huxley told Osmond about the profound experience he shared with his wife Maria, who was suffering from cancer. As her health deteriorated, she was spending more time unconscious. But Huxley and Maria both had an affinity for psychedelic drugs. Together, they had spent a lot of time learning from the Indigenous communities in the United States who often used psychedelic substances in healing rituals to help overcome anxiety at end-of-life.
“This was a way to help release the mortal bonds of life,” Dyck explains.
On Maria’s deathbed, she and Huxley consumed psychedelics together. Huxley later described to Osmond how the psychedelic substances helped both him and Maria find peace in these final hours. The experience was so profound, Huxley requested the same treatment as he was dying, and finally died of throat cancer on November 22, 1963.
Psychedelic research largely halted after the 1960s. The “hippie” movement came and went, and the substances were seared in the public consciousness as dangerous, addictive, and unpredictable. This era left behind a lasting stigma that continues to make some palliative care physicians reluctant to embrace the drugs, Downar explains.
Medical historian and Canada Research Chair Erika Dyck. Photo: University of Saskatchewan
Some elements of psychedelic therapy also do not fit the model of healthcare that Canada has adopted, Dyck says.
Many psychedelic-trained psychiatrists would be necessary to help people use the substances safely and to maximize the chance of positive outcomes. This makes it difficult to widely adopt the therapy, especially since there are many other medications that can help treat depression or anxiety—many of which require much less professional supervision.
Downar says that “micro-dosing,” a method of consumption involves taking small amounts of the psychedelic substance, might be a way to mitigate this. Small doses can stimulate the brain but not enough to induce strong hallucinations, allowing psychedelics to be used with less direct supervision. More research needs to be done before this can made a reality.
In some ways, palliative care is the perfect place to explore psychedelic therapy, as end-of-life can be a time for finding deep meaning and reflection. Palliative therapies must concern themselves as much with the spiritual as with the physiological elements of dying, Downar says.
Can psychedelics be transformative for carrying out palliative care? That remains unclear, but Downar says it is worth exploring if it can reduce end-of-life suffering.
If you need resources or assistance surrounding mental illnesses, please visit the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s websiteto learn more. You can also find palliative care resources on the Canadian Hospice and Palliative Care Association website.
This article is based on research conducted by Erika Dyck, PhD. Learn more about her work.
By: Eric Dicaire
Eric Dicaire is a communicator and thinker based out of Ottawa, Canada. He currently holds a Master’s degree in Communication from the University of Ottawa, and is the communications coordinator for the Bruyère Research Institute. He enjoys examining how people think about and interact with media, and how these interactions influence public discourse in Canada. He aspires to be a life-long learner, looking for new ways to challenge his own biases and exploring new concepts and ideas.
Winning the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada People’s Choice Award for Science Online is a significant achievement. Winning the award a second time confirms that Let’s Talk Science has the formula for enduring quality.
But where did their scicomm journey begin? Vanessa Nelson, Vice-President of External Relations at Let’s Talk Science recounts the organisation’s humble inception and shares their plans for their future.
Nearly 30 years ago, President and Founder Bonnie Schmidt recognized that elementary school educators were receptive to support for teaching science and technology and making it engaging for their students. She saw that teachers struggled with garnering and keeping children’s interest in the sciences.
“It can be challenging to engage children and youth in science,” Nelson says. “It requires a little bit more connection and understanding to engage kids. They need to understand and see relevance.”
According to Nelson, Schmidt started working directly in classrooms, volunteering with educators and finding ways to “show kids how exciting STEM could be.”
Since 1991, Let’s Talk Science has grown from two or three volunteers like Schmidt to more than 70 people located across the country. The team now collaborates with more than 50 colleges and universities across Canada. The charitable organization relies on funding from governments, corporations, foundations and individuals to provide resources and programming at no charge.
Their focus? Creating interest in science that lasts so kids stay in the subjects longer … and develop the skills that they need to thrive and succeed.
A key activity for Let’s Talk Science is promoting careers in science.
“Be it from a hairdresser right up to a laboratory researcher: all of those [careers] require some sort of STEM skills and critical thinking,” Nelson says.
Volunteers go into classrooms (now virtually) and, in addition to delivering hands-on and curriculum aligned STEM activities, take the time to tell students about their studies or their working life, how they got there, and what their next steps might be. To further support career exploration, the Let’s Talk Science website has a dedicated career section for children and teachers that showcases unique current and future careers in science.
“If a kid doesn’t know that a job exists, how are they going to think to go into that field?” Nelson says.
“I think every parent and teacher should be exposing kids around them to a range of career resources to give them an idea of what's out there, where a STEM education can take you."
Let’s Talk Science is largely supported by its base of 3,500 volunteers.
COVID-19 and a new game plan
COVID-19 has changed the organization’s traditional outreach approach and their typical audience focus. They have transitioned to virtual outreach and online involvement in classrooms, and geared resources towards families.
In some cases, this means adapting content that fits a less formal learning environment.
“We’re here to provide support and learning and engagement for education, no matter where it's taking place,” Nelson says.
In the last nine months, the organization has developed an even greater appreciation of the value of STEM learning for innovation and finding solutions to complex human problems.
“COVID made STEM learning more relevant than ever,” Nelson says. “Every solution or approach to responding to the pandemic, be it medical, engineering, or design, comes through a STEM lens.”
“Not every kid needs to be a scientist, but every kid needs to be able to think critically,” Vanessa Nelson says.
Encouraging a generation of critical thinkers
STEM and critical thinking go hand in hand, and Let’s Talk Science fosters these skills in all of their resources.
“How do you make sure that you have the understanding and the learning (children) need to make decisions and to think critically about topics? Our goal has never been to influence decision-making, but rather provide the scientific literacy that kids need.”
The need for children to learn how to make sound scientific decisions and learn how problem-solve and innovate today and in the future is more important than ever as misinformation online surges.
“Not every kid needs to be a scientist, but every kid needs to be able to think critically,” Nelson says.
Let’s Talk Science aims to arm students with the skills they need to make decisions about climate change, viruses, and other real-world problems. It does not exist to advocate for a particular cause or to take a stance.
Instead of focusing on vaccine denial, they talk about how vaccines are developed and how they work so that youth can understand.
“Then, kids don't need an advocacy position being taken,” Nelson says. “Provided with sound science learning, youth are well equipped to make sound decisions for themselves.”
Building on this approach, in the coming years the organization will increase its focus on climate - not just climate change. What is climate and how does it work? What is its influence on our lives? How is it impacted by our actions?
Let’s Talk Science has an ongoing project that allows classrooms to collect data to monitor the environment in the classroom. This allows the classes to monitor carbon dioxide and oxygen levels, humidity, and temperature and see how their actions affect these variables.
“What happens if you open a window? Do CO2 levels go down? This helps students understand the impact of their behaviours.”
The Let’s Talk Science team believes it is critical to translate science and research using concepts that children relate to.
“I think there’s a really strong need to make science learning accessible,” Nelson says. “It can become very technical.”
“A chemical formula may not mean a heck of a lot to a kid,” Nelson says. “But if you show them that it's how their Kool-Aid gets made … that's relevancy.”
By: Adenieke Lewis-Gibbs
Adenieke Lewis-Gibbs is a recent journalism and French graduate from Carleton University. She spends her free time reading or getting outside. Her favourite subjects to learn and write about are conservation, sustainability, and trees. Born and raised in Toronto, Adenieke recently packed up and moved to Paris, France to teach English for the school year.
New research shows, two closely-related species of wild cats in Ontario, Canada, may face starkly different futures. Is this "survival of the fittest?
Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis)
Bobcat (Lynx rufus). Photos by US Fish & Wildlife Service.
To the untrained eye, the two species might pass as overgrown house cats. They're actually "felids" or mammals belonging to felidae, a family of wild cats.
Both live side by side, north of Lake Huron (see map).
Researchers at the University of Trent in Peterborough, Ontario, looked at bobcat and lynx numbers, movements and behaviour over three winters.
Their findings seem to show the bobcat holding an edge over the lynx in the struggle to survive, if not thrive in their rapidly-changing world.
The scientists are unable to give hard numbers. But, "harvest records" which document the numbers taken by trappers, offer an insight.
The lead author, Robby Marrotte, tells PinP, "We've noticed that the number of lynx harvested on traplines has decreased compared to 1960-80, while bobcat harvest has increased."
(Ironically, while trapping has been known to diminish populations of fur-bearing animals, harvest records can also act as a sort of census - the more of a given species trapped, the higher their populations are likely to be.)
But there's more than just numbers at play here. Bobcats have also managed to expand their Ontario range northward, into territory previously occupied by the lynx.
And, while no regional breakdown is given, an earlier, large study on ungulates and predators in 2004, found the range of the lynx, continent-wide, had shrunk by a staggering 40% from its historical range.
So why is this "world of the wildcat" unfolding as it is?
The lynx is a "specialist," more dependent on the unbroken or homogenous cover of the boreal forest. It's therefore more vulnerable to human intrusion such as land clearing.
The bobcat, on the other hand, is a "generalist" who can better cope with a more open habitat and young, deciduous forests which often evolve after activities such as logging and road-building.
So it is the bobcat, not the lynx, which is likely to be found in areas affected most by a human footprint.
And then, there's the matter of diet. The lynx feeds almost exclusively on the snowshoe hare and is vulnerable when hare populations crash. The bobcat on the other hand, preys on a variety of species, so has more to choose from.
The lynx has much larger feet, giving it a distinct advantage over the bobcat while hunting in deep snow. But deep-snow terrains are shrinking as manmade "global heating" does its work. This could remove yet another advantage from the lynx as time goes on.
The two species do interbreed, but rarely. (The researchers never observed their footprints coming anywhere close to one another along snowmobile trails they used in their studies.)
But, if bobcat numbers do increase, along with interbreeding, it's speculated this, too could contribute to the lynx's undoing. It could lead to gene dominance by the bobcat and even extinction for the lynx.
However, researcher Marrotte believes, talk of extinction is premature.
"I wouldn’t say extinction or extirpation just yet. Right now, all it takes is a few good winters and denser snowshoe hare populations and the bobcat will move out and the lynx will eventually move back in. In the next decade, there might be more snow on the northern shores of Lake Huron, because moisture level will increase. This could temporarily benefit the lynx, but eventually this snow will just start melting earlier and the bobcat will be able to move in again."
So, ultimately, it all comes down to this.
"The story of the bobcat and the lynx is one of the loss of a unique, boreal specialist due to anthropogenic change," concludes the study, "and eventual replacement by an adaptable generalist."
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