Scitech | Under the microscope

A close look at personal experiences in science

A different kind of summer camp

When it comes to the issue of global food security, it’s difficult to see how adolescent summer camps could be relevant. Yet this is where Zachary Goldberg, a U2 student studying Agricultural Production, found a small-scale solution to the issue, at a Jewish summer camp in rural New York state, called Eden Village Camp.  Nestled between all the arts and crafts and recess of a typical outdoor summer camp was an Agriculture and Herbalism class. This was a hands-on course that taught campers not only the caretaking of plants, but also instilled in the children the importance and impact that the agricultural system has upon economy and world health. The ideal of a self-sustaining permaculture is essentially put into practice at this camp.

“Sustainability is not an ideal, an education, but lifestyle,” Goldberg explained over a cup of coffee with The Daily.  “Campers don’t [just] learn, but live sustainably. We accentuate action rather than just explain.” The most-cited example was the base rules of the camp: there can be no discussion of anything superficial, steadfast optimism is mandatory, and of course, ultimate respect towards counselors is expected.

Younger and more enthusiastic counselors like Goldberg are integral in the attempt to interest antsy teens in this unorthodox topic. A different teaching style is required; Goldberg stressed that presentation must be tremendously straightforward.

In essence, Eden does not promote education of fundamentals behind a utopian ideal, but aspires to be a micro-utopia itself.  All food is hand planted, picked, processed on-site, indicative of the self-perpetuating closed system.  “You are no longer the consumer, you are the producer, and the master of your own self so long as you respect the boundaries of others,” said Goldberg. He himself was surprised at the ease with which campers accepted what is typically considered to be a drastic lifestyle adjustment. “There was always an overarching sense of wonder and unity…the kids [appreciated] the complexity and responsibility of taking care of a living organism, whether it be due to their own naiveté or natural curiosity.”  While the effectiveness of this model of sustainability on a macro scale is still questionable, there is an undeniable sense of comfort that comes from knowing that it is viable for a small community to maintain a secure food source. With his campers as living proof of success, Goldberg’s work demonstrates how educating students empowers them to use science as a means of addressing tomorrow’s issues.

—Alexander Chang


Underfunded and overlooked 

“So, McGill isn’t willing to spend $30,000 to fix a microscope that costs $300,000?”

He was dumbfounded. I was dumbfounded. We were all dumbfounded.

The thought of discarding an almost (yet not quite) functioning microscope because McGill refused to pay one tenth of its price to repair it, seemed strange – almost ridiculous. If one of the bases of an institution for higher education is research, why was McGill neglecting it?

“I’m sure McGill is willing; it’s just not able.”

It was an interesting moment to witness firsthand. Things were put into perspective considering that I knew that, on my way home, I was going to stumble upon hundreds of angry, loud, red square-wearing protestors.

It was the first time I’d heard reasoning for the lack of funds that was not based on the premise that the McGill administration is full of filthy capitalist pigs.

Spending part of my summer in a lab at McGill with the student protest as a prominent backdrop was a thought-provoking experience, to say the least. On one side were students who could not afford to come back to McGill with tuition increases; on the other, there was an institution (supposedly the 17th best in the world, and the best in Canada) that couldn’t afford to fix a microscope. I didn’t know who to feel more empathy for. And while the financial difficulties that would be caused by the tuition hike made headlines, the equally real financial problems within McGill research are often overlooked.

A postdoctoral student from Harvard University who was working on a project in the lab told me how not having enough funds was an alien concept. “At Harvard, if you need equipment, they’ll get you the most expensive one on the market. It might not be the one you need, but it’s Harvard, and because it can, it will.”

And, as if things weren’t bad enough, a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who I met at TEDxMontreal, actually laughed at me when I boasted that I worked with the only electron microscope at McGill. “McGill has only one electron microscope? I don’t even know how many MIT has…”

McGill has prestige as one of the best universities in the world because of the tremendous research that has been conducted here, and because of the great minds that this school produced. But if we were to put things into perspective, all of this is subject to change. The very essence of a university, in my opinion, is the research it supports, the research that is done under its name. If funds at McGill are too minimal to sustain research projects, the setbacks could be catastrophic. Researchers are less likely to be interested in coming to a university where their opportunities are uncertain. And, with less respectable research or fewer findings due to diminishing opportunities, private institutions will be increasingly unlikely to fund McGill. Once funding falls even more through this unforgivingly repetitive pattern, McGill will lose valued professors, who will be given opportunities elsewhere – at places where microscopes are functioning, where microscopes are repairable.

You may say that I am painting a far too dramatic picture, but given the ubiquity of the idea that McGill is experiencing major financial difficulties, and the fact that I have witnessed its manifestation myself, it has a basis in reality. And so I leave you with something to consider when you’re buying your next obnoxious ‘Harvard: America’s McGill’ t-shirt: if things continue the way they are, where is research at McGill headed? Where – really – where, is McGill headed?

—S. Azam Mahmood


Learned Lessons

After a slew of summer research jobs, research courses, and an undergraduate thesis, I’ve learned a lot about how to get involved in research as an undergraduate. This is what I wish I had known when I was starting out.


Get started early.

Gaining experience – any experience – is key. The first time I applied for a research job, I had to contact more than twenty professors before I found someone willing to hire me, whereas the second time it only took two. As you gain experience and begin to understand research culture, it becomes easier to navigate the application process. Start talking to professors early, take a research course for credit, or if you have the time, offer to volunteer as an assistant. You can do these things even if you are just starting your research career.


Learn and develop skills.

Basic knowledge of Matlab programming really helped me when I was applying for my first research job. If you are familiar with a programming language, a statistical software package, a computer-assisted design (CAD) software, or have some experience with electronics or metal work, or have any technical skill at all, you are already well on your way. If not, you can easily learn the basics in an introductory level course. These are all tools that I have picked up to varying degrees during my research experiences, and they open lots of doors.

At the undergraduate level, I have found that the emphasis during the job application process is primarily on skills, while grades are more important for grant and scholarship applications. In the different research groups I’ve worked in, no one would have a clue about what my GPA was or which classes I had taken, but most would be aware of which programming languages I knew and which microscopes I could use. To develop my “toolbox” of skills, whenever I work in a lab I do the training for as many of the instruments and techniques that I find interesting as possible. These training sessions are usually not “advertised” – you have to take the initiative and ask to take part.


Keep an open mind and optimistic attitude.

Research is not always glamorous. You will almost surely have to slog through a lot of hard work before you see any interesting results. Attend guest lectures and seminars as often you can, even if you can’t understand all the details – even a glimpse of the latest work being done will keep you motivated and inspired.


Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Though they may be very intimidating at first, most professors, post-doctorates, graduate students and senior undergraduates are genuinely nice people, and are usually willing to help younger students, really. There is a treasure trove of information and advice out there, so don’t hesitate to take advantage of it.

—Hussain Sangji