How my toddler son helps scientists with their experiments

My son, Rigel, is only two years old, but he’s already helping scientists make new discoveries. It’s not because he’s a genius – he isn’t. Like many kids his age, he’s illiterate and not fully toilet-trained. Obviously, he’s not conceiving and running any grand experiments himself, but he volunteers to be experimented on instead. Yes, you could call him a guinea pig. At his latest gig, the role involves playing a hiding game on the second floor of a century-old house in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood.

Rigel stands behind a curtain and watches as research assistant Bianca Bondi hides a plush, green toy alligator in a box at the University of Toronto’s Language and Learning Lab. Heather Gallant, the lab manager, invites Rigel to leave the quiet, windowless lab and hang out in the sunny office next door. Minutes later, Bianca joins us.

In order to test Rigel’s memory, Heather Gallant teaches him some other games involving toys and cards. (Emily Chung/CBC) “I put the alligator in the drawer,” she tells Rigel. “I put the alligator in the drawer.”

Everyone returns to the lab. “Where’s the alligator?” Gallant asks Rigel. He walks past the box, over to the drawer, and pulls it open. Triumphantly, he yanks the alligator out. The goal of the experiment is to find out how common it is for children Rigel’s age to be able to use information from other people to find things out about an object that they can’t see. The researchers are interested in finding out how much that depends on factors such as age and short-term memory.

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Perfectionism bigger suicide risk factor than thought

Perfectionism is a bigger risk factor for suicide than previously thought, says York University psychology Professor Gordon Flett, who is calling for closer attention to be paid to its potential destructiveness.

In addition, he says clinical guidelines should include perfectionism as a separate factor for suicide risk assessment and intervention.

Gordon Flett

Gordon Flett

“There is an urgent need for looking at perfectionism with a person-centred approach as an individual and societal risk factor when formulating clinical guidelines for suicide risk assessment and intervention, as well as public health approaches to suicide prevention,” says Flett.

More than one million people worldwide, including over 40,000 North Americans commit suicide on an annual basis, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2012 estimation.

In a research article, Flett and his co-authors Professor Paul Hewitt of the University of British Columbia and Professor Marnin Heisel of Western University note that physicians, lawyers and architects, whose occupations emphasize precision, and also those in leadership roles, are at higher risk for perfectionism-related suicide. And they cite recent cases of prominent perfectionists who died by suicide.

Their article, “The Destructiveness of Perfectionism Revisited: Implications for the Assessment of Suicide Risk and the Prevention of Suicide,” published this week in the American Psychological Association journal, Review of General Psychology, highlights several concerns, including how suicidal thoughts can be linked to external pressures to be perfect.

The authors document how being exposed to relentless demands to be perfect, a concept they refer to as socially prescribed perfectionism, is linked consistently with hopelessness and suicide. Other key themes discussed are: how perfectionistic self-presentation and self-concealment can lead to suicides that occur without warning; and how perfectionists often come up with thorough and precise suicide plans.

“We summarize data showing consistent links between perfectionism and hopelessness and discuss the need for an individualized approach that recognizes the heightened risk for perfectionists,” Flett says, adding, “They also tend to experience hopelessness, psychological pain, life stress, over-generaliation and a form of emotional perfectionism that restricts the willingness to disclose suicidal urges and intentions.”

The article also discusses why it is essential to proactively design preventive programs tailored to key personality features, with specific components to enhance resilience and reduce levels of risk among perfectionists who hide behind a mask of apparent invulnerability.

Three professors named to RSC’s College of New Scholars, Artists & Scientists

The Royal Society of Canada has named three York University professors as inaugural members of The College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists.

Alidad Amirfazli

Alidad Amirfazli

Alidad Amirfazli, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Lassonde School of Engineering; Sarah Flicker, professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies; and Shayna Rosenbaum, professor in the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health, have been named inaugural new members for a seven-year appointment.  In total, the Royal Society of Canada has named 91 members of The College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists. The presentation for this first cohort will take place on Friday, Nov. 21, at Fairmont Le Château Frontenac in Quebec City.

“On behalf of the York University community, I would like to offer our sincere congratulations to three of our faculty members, Alidad Amirfazli, Shayna Rosenbaum and Sarah Flicker, on this important recognition and achievement,” said Robert Haché, York’ University vice-president research and innovation. “These exceptional scholars have made significant contributions to research in their respective disciplines.”

The College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists is Canada’s first national system of multidisciplinary recognition for the emerging generation of Canadian intellectual leadership.  The college is mandated “to gather scholars, artists and scientists at a highly productive stage of their careers into a single collegium where new advances in understanding will emerge from the interaction of diverse intellectual, cultural and social perspectives.”

Amirfazli’s current research pertains to surface engineering and understanding droplet surface interactions to develop platform technologies for diverse areas of applications, for example, water management in fuel cells, anti-icing systems for wind turbine/aircraft printing technology, application of pesticides and spray cooling. His extensive international collaborations include research in Italy, Germany, Belgium, and Spain. He has been the Canada Research Chair in Surface Engineering, earning the rare distinction of having twice received the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s Discovery Accelerator Supplements Grant. His past distinctions include appointment as a Killam Annual Professor and Martha Cook Piper Research Prize.

Sarah Flicker

Sarah Flicker

Flicker’s research focus is in the area of community development, public health, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and adolescence. Her program of research focuses on teen HIV prevention and support. She is a Canadian leader in promoting community-based participatory research methodologies. Flicker is active on a variety of research teams that focus on adolescent sexual health with youth in Canada and South Africa.  Her past distinctions include receiving a Scholar Award from the Ontario HIV Treatment Network, the Synapse Mentorship Award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Community Based Research Award of Merit from the Centre for Urban Health Initiatives.

Shayna Rosenbaum

Shayna Rosenbaum

In addition to her work at York University, Rosenbaum is an associate scientist at the Rotman Research Institute, Baycrest. Her research examines how different forms of memory are represented in the brain and how they contribute to other functions from decision making to social interaction. Combining the patient-lesion method with neuroimaging, she has made important discoveries in specifying the function of the hippocampal memory system. She has harnessed this knowledge to develop strategies to help healthy adult and clinical populations overcome memory loss and optimize learning in the workplace. Her research has been recognized by a CIHR New Investigator Award, Sloan Fellowship (USA), and early career awards, most recently from the Canadian Association for Neuroscience (CAN) and the Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour, and Cognitive Science (CSBBCS).

For more information, visit the Royal Society of Canada website.

York U neuroscientists decode brain maps to discover how we take aim

Serena Williams won her third consecutive US Open tennis title a few days ago, thanks to obvious reasons like physical strength and endurance. But how much did her brain and its egocentric and allocentric functions help the American tennis star retain the cup?

Quite significantly, say York University neuroscience researchers. Their recent study shows that different regions of the brain help to visually locate objects relative to one’s own body (self-centred or egocentric) and those relative to external visual landmarks (world-centred or allocentric).

A subject completes testing in York's fMRI

A subject completes testing in York’s fMRI

“The current study shows how the brain encodes allocentric and egocentric space in different ways during activities that involve manual aiming,” explains Distinguished Research Professor Doug Crawford of the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health. “Take tennis for example. Allocentric brain areas could help aim the ball toward the opponent’s weak side of play, whereas the egocentric areas would make sure your muscles return the serve in the right direction.”

The study finding will help health-care providers to develop therapeutic treatments for patients with brain damage in these two areas, according to the neuroscientists at York’s Centre for Vision Research.

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