Scitech  Snapshots of science

Languages, video games, and green chem

There’s a lot of research going on at McGill  – some of it is cool in a “that’s what they had on that episode of Star-Trek” way. Other projects are logical expansions of their respective fields; still others are new looks at old ideas that yield novel results. I followed up with a handful of professors after they spoke at the winter edition of  Soup and Science – a public event where professors give short talks and then eat lunch with students. Here’s a few projects that really stood out for me:

Parlez-vous francais? Second languages are good for our brains.


Debra Titone, associate professor of Psychology, is studying bilingual language processing, in both neural (anatomical) and cognitive (mental) contexts. She also studies bilingual formulaic (also known as idiomatic) processing – that is, how our brains handle manners of speech and sayings across multiple languages, as well as how language breaks down as a result of neurological impairments. Idioms are a big part of what makes language diverse and useful. Understanding them is an important part of knowing a language. I mean, wouldn’t it be annoying if people sunk down in their seat every time you asked them to lower their voice?

But Titone’s real interest lies in understanding the benefits of bilingualism, of which there appear to be many – including forestalling the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.  Her work is unique in her field because she compares bilingual individuals to each other in terms of their different language abilities, instead of bilingual individuals to monolingual controls.  In this way, she attempts to understand the mechanisms of bilingualism by comparing apples to apples; that is, finding and learning from the similarities and differences between bilinguals. She believes this work will shed light on neuroplasticity and the mechanism by which experience can “change the fabric of the brain”. She says the next big thing in her field is the overturning of the old linguistic notion that language is innate and is simply “turned on” by experience, and replacing it with a model wherein language is something shaped and dependent on experience and usage. And all this because some people can say “fries” or “frites” – another example of how interesting science lies at the heart of most everyday experiences.


The holy grail: green chemistry

C.J Li works on improving and innovating green chemistry, a branch of chemistry that aims to improve efficiency, decrease waste, and reduce the ecological footprint of chemical processes. Since virtually all consumer products are or contain something that is the result of industrial chemical processes, Li believes that making chemistry greener and less wasteful can have a positive impact on our use of resources and energy, strengthen the economy, and help save the environment – the kind of stuff we usually only dare to believe when we read science fiction. But this is a reality: Li has already designed a more efficient process by which the precursors of biodegradable plastics can be made from CO2 and alkene in water. The amount of CO2 we’ve pumped into the atmosphere is so large that converting to CO2 into chemical products will not affect the atmospheric CO2 levels much, however, converting waste CO2 into biodegradable plastics and chemicals, all using efficient and environmentally friendly green chemistry, will definitely help to conserve our resources and reduce waste – one of the necessary goals of chemistry in this century.

A man who studies video games for a living

Clark Verbrugge from the School of Computer Science has two foci in his research: compiler optimization for concurrency, and computer game analysis. He studies videogame narratives, trying to figure out how to make sure the game can handle player actions and that it can react accordingly (anyone who has played the delightful but bug-ridden Fallout: New Vegas will know how annoying it is when this doesn’t happen). His lab currently looks at games like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (which is now officially homework for those who haven’t played it), trying to see how they can make it so that no player actions can result in a broken game (for example, to avoid situations where, if a player neglects to pick up an item, he doesn’t get irreversibly stuck later on). Videogames apparently have a lot to teach us about good programming – and, honestly, it’s such a cool project it requires no further justification. Verbrugge also studies compiler optimization and concurrent programming; that is, making it easier to get multiple programs to run together at the same time on multiple processors. He says that writing concurrent programs is hard, and there is often a trade-off between being efficient and getting correct results – for example, when you have music playing and you are typing your term paper at the same time on your dual or quad core computer, your computer actually accomplishes this rather inefficiently. To solve this, he is working on language design, trying to create a situation where some or most of the work is done for the programmer to ensure that both efficiency and accuracy are maximized. In the future, he sees the current trend of ever-shrinking devices continuing, allowing more and more distributed processing – a tool that has already proven useful. Now here’s my logic: if we have more processing power, and those processors can run well concurrently, then they will start working like a human brain- which is essentially the world’s best multicore parallel processor- and then, well, let’s just say the next time your computer says “Hello World”, it just might mean it.


An old staple gets a new lease on life.


John White from the department of physiology is studying Vitamin D. Now, vitamins in general and vitamin D in particular are seemingly ubiquitous fixtures in our society, with drug store shelves stocked with them and orange drinks named after them, so one might be led to believe that there isn’t anything all that new or exciting to be known about vitamins. One would be wrong. Vitamin D – long thought to be nothing more than a calcium homeostasis regulator, albeit an important one – might play a huge role in the immune response, especially in the immune response to tuberculosis infection. Vitamin D deficiency is thought to be widespread and has been correlated with susceptibility to TB infection. There is not yet enough evidence to definitively say that Vitamin D could help fight TB – though when asked if he had a hunch as to whether or not Vitamin D combats TB infection, White said, unflinchingly, “the answer is yes.” He also said that he hopes to see more research into the effects of Vitamin D on the immune system, and said that other often overlooked ‘everyday’ vitamins and hormones might have other exciting functions that we have yet to discover.

Fixing a (biological) house with rotten foundations.

Elaine Davis – a researcher in the faculties of medicine and anatomy and cell biology- has a lab that studies an extracellular matrix protein called elastin, which is involved in tissue stretch and recoil. Specifically, she studies mutations in elastin and elastin-related diseases, with the goal of understanding the basis of connective tissue diseases. In the long run, she hopes this work will lead to the development of therapies that could stop disease early in life. But it won’t be easy: elastin is a building block of the extracellular matrix (conceptually, the ‘webbing’ cells are suspended in). Davis likened elastin diseases to rotten foundations and curing those diseases to ripping out a house’s foundation without bringing the whole thing down.

She thinks the next big thing in her field will be personalized medicine; she sees a future where doctors can prescribe treatments based on the patient’s genetic makeup and other unique factors – for example, not all breast cancers are the same, and different anti-cancer drugs work for different people. She exhibits classic scientific optimism: “It sounds far fetched, but so do a lot of things before they get going.”


No witticism needed: he raised a fish to walk on land and wants to take you to the north pole. Seriously.

Hans Larsson of the Redpath Museum has a question for you: do you want to spend a six week semester in the arctic? Because he can take you. Students with the right pre-reqs can join Larsson on this expedition, taking three classes in the field and staying at a northern mining camp. The courses are currently geared towards the more physical and earth sciences, but there are plan to include a bio course as well.

If that isn’t enough, Larsson’s lab studies macro-evolution, specifically the dinosaur-to-bird transition; he is especially interested in understanding the role of developmental patterns in species-to-species transitions. In order to study this kind of development he is studying the anatomical changes undergone by the mudskipper, a fish that can walk on land using its flippers as legs, when it is moved from an aqueous to a land-based habitat. He wants to understand exactly how these drastic changes can come about, and what role the development of the organism can play in these changes. He says that what he hopes to see in the future is a complete integration between physical laws and ecology.