3 Minutes to Change the World

From left: Kartik Sameer Madiraju, Lysanne Rivard, Feng Qi, Marie Senecal-Tremblay, Saoussan Askar, Laura-Isobel McCall, Alexandra Fletcher, Sebastien Boridy, Dianah Msipa, and Janelle Marie Baker

When I first heard of the event hosted by McGill called “3 minutes to change the world”, I thought it was a snazzy title for a speed-talk event. While it was indeed centered upon three-minute presentations by students from seven different faculties at McGill, changing the world was not the exaggeration I had presumed it to be. This year’s event hosted 10 fantastic speakers who are undertaking massive, world-changing endeavors in their respective fields of research. From seeking answers to cure disease to finding cleaner, greener solutions, this group at once made me proud to be a McGillian and astounded by the calibre of research undertaken by young professionals.  (more…)

Ethical Food Montreal: an exploration in sourcing humane food in the Belle Province

from: http://www.fermemorgan.com/?page_id=138

What’s for dinner has never been a more confusing topic. The food we eat nowadays is hardly food at all. Once harvested, it is processed and preserved with such ferocity that it is now more accurate to call what we ingest “food-like-products” than food. This has not gone unnoticed. There has been a recent outpouring of information, particularly in the form of books and documentaries, to uncover the practises of the food industry. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Inc., Fresh, the Future of Food, Fast Food Nation, and Vegucated (to name a few) all arrive at the same conclusion – we have become irrevocably detached from food. A short meander to the grocery store tells us nothing about our food – where it came from, how it was preserved, or how fresh it is – and this is especially concerning when the lives of food animals are involved.

Indeed, to cope with the ever-increasing demands of consumers (i.e. us), the food industry has resorted to treating food animals as food units. They are used, processed and discarded with minimal regard for their suffering, let alone their dignity. They are treated so because it is the only way that the industry might cost-effectively sate our lust for meat, dairy, and eggs. Allowing animals the conditions and treatment that would be considered humane is not feasible when the most recent statistic for meat consumption among Americans is 276lbs per person per year (see Economist article). (more…)

Getting Ready to Teach

An undergraduate education does not prepare you for the rigours of graduate school. In undergrad, we learn through rote memorization of concepts and materials. We regularly (if not always) accept things presented to us as true. We study frantically the night before exams, then nap, and forget. An undergraduate degree, especially at large universities, is an exercise in passively absorbing the largest quantity of information with the least energetic investment. But then we enter the world of graduate studies, and we are expected to question, to create, and to analyse – higher order cognitive skills that are not strongly emphasised in a typical undergraduate upbringing. Not only are we expected to think differently, but to get out of our seats and perform. In this respect, graduate school is the opposite of undergrad, being heavily based on learning by trial and error, rather than by sitting through lectures. This transition from passively learning theoretical principles to experimentally applying them is akin to the transition from student to teacher. Most programs require graduate students to hold at least one teaching assistantship during their degree. And most graduates will choose to do this early on, so that they can focus on uninterrupted research later. That means that within the span of a few short months, we are expected to move from the mentality of being a student to being a teacher. (more…)

Post-doc testimonials on getting a tenure-track job

When I came to do my PhD at McGill, I had no idea what the job market looked like on the other side. I was doing my PhD because it was fun, a unique opportunity to experience biology and answer questions to things that fascinated me. But as I’ve progressed in my degree, I’ve obviously had to become more serious about prospects of what to do after I finish up. The whisperings I have heard about the job market, as it relates to biologists landing tenure-track positions at research universities, is bleak. I have watched several super-star PhDs struggle and fail to find positions. Frankly, it scares me. So I thought I could help out the future generation of graduate students by giving them some information on how the struggle to find a tenure track position could be, and I have done this by asking for help from five fantastic post-docs, all of whom are currently searching for positions. Below are their testimonials, given from their very personal point of view. Keep in mind that this blog is not meant to scare you! My PhD so far has been a wonderful experience, as it has been for countless others. This post should just enlighten you on the current situation in a few fields. Also keep in mind that these post-docs are presenting their opinions, which are based on their own experiences, and may not reflect the situation in other disciplines.


The Beauty of Despair


Lived on one’s back,

In the long hours of repose,

Life is a practical nightmare –

Hideous asleep or awake.


Shoulders and loins

Ache– -!

Ache, and the mattress,

Run into boulders and hummocks,

Glows like a kiln, while the bedclothes –

Tumbling, importunate, daft –

Ramble and roll, and the gas,

Screwed to its lowermost,

An inevitable atom of light,

Haunts, and a stertorous sleeper

Snores me to hate and despair.

(2 verses removed for the sake of brevity)

Sleep comes at last –

Sleep full of dreams and misgivings –

Broken with brutal and sordid

Voices and sounds that impose on me,

Ere I can wake to it,

The unnatural, intolerable day.


The Kibale Health and Conservation Centre

The health clinic - nurse Lucy (right), and her patients (left)

This summer, I again had the fortune of travelling to Kibale National Park, Uganda. The site where I, and everyone else in my lab, conducts their field research. But this year was different. This year, I was exposed to the everyday lives of the local villagers, where hardships, struggle, and death were commonplace in their existence.

A ten minute walk up the red-earth road from my house in the national park was a health clinic, called the Kibale Health and Conservation Centre. It was founded by my supervisor and his wife, also a professor in Biology, in an attempt to cater to the needs of the local population. Nearly two decades of working in Kibale had exposed them to the number of horrors faced by Ugandan villagers, predominantly among them the needless deaths, usually of children, caused by curable illnesses. Only a handful of villagers possess bicycles, even fewer have motorcycles. So when infants became gravely ill, transporting them to the closest hospital, 25km away, was a virtual impossibility. In an effort to help, the Kibale health centre was erected, furnished with basic medical equipment, and staffed by two young, sprightly nurses. (more…)

Midnight Kitchen

Just a quick note about a gem that few grad students seem to know about: Midnight Kitchen. Midnight kitchen is a university sponsored program that provides FREE, vegan food at lunch to all students. You just have to show up, and eat. The food is good, although sometimes in need of a bit of salt. But you will get a salad, some sort of soup/stew-y main, a side, and a dessert. You can make donations if you have the change, but it is not required. They start serving at noon, they go until about 1pm. The location varies based on climate; if it’s nice out, they’ll be in the courtyard beside the Redpath Museum. If it’s not so nice, they will either be on the top floor or the basement of SSMU. Make sure to bring a tupperware and utensil!

Bon appetit!

Ignorance is bliss, but that doesn’t change anything

For anyone who has ever seen the YouTube video of Christian the lion or read the story of Alex the parrot, there is no question that animals of all sorts display an unequivocal range of emotions. They dream, they love, they hurt, and they shake with terror when frightened. Yet we continue to set ourselves apart from them, to see ourselves as different or special. But dolphins have sex for pleasure. New calladonian crows use tools. Meerkats and hymenopteran insects are arguably more altruistic than we are. Unharmed rats empathise with the pain inflicted on fellow rats. Elephant mothers will stay with their dead infant for days, sometimes even weeks, after the herd has left them. And chimpanzees are capable of partaking in such prolonged, violent interactions with neighbouring troops that one can only call it warfare. Surely, even a lowly fly thinks itself special or different from every other creature it encounters. So are we really that unique, or is it simply a matter of perspective? (more…)

The Dreaded QE

Oh the qualifying exam. Probably the most feared hurdle of a Ph.D’s career (besides the defense, of course), and the single-most likely cause of such symptoms as acute bladder evacuation,  sweaty-forehead induced blindness, and manic dreams that may or may not involve octopus-clown hybrids chasing you. 

I just passed mine on May 10. I can’t say that it wasn’t difficult, but I will say that it required marginal alterations to my lifestyle (read as: redefining “food” as “cinnamon toast crunch” or “cheeseburger”, and considering “studying” as “cardio”). This was also the first time that I needed to get up and walk around solely for fear of developing bed sores. The impending exam also allowed me to explore my own fashion trends, which I have dubbed “unshowered bed-head” and “last-week’s laundry surprise”. I also feel I expressed myself artistically through rather symmetrical-looking predator-prey interaction formulas and primate phylogenies that I scrolled on my walls in magic marker. They’re purple. Soap has no effect on them. Don’t tell my roomate.

It also brought about some interesting theoretical questions, such as, “how much tryptophan do I need to inject into these muffins to make all my committee members fall asleep?” and “can you click through a powerpoint slide fast enough to pass subliminal messages?”

So really, despite the hardships that QEs are known to impart on students, I learned far more than just the subject of my thesis. And plus, if you have excellent labmates like I do, you’ll get cake when you’re all finished! I didn’t recognize what my cake was at first, other than that it was neither cinnamon toast crunch nor a cheeseburger, but soon enough, you’ll re-adjust to your happy, pre-QE existance once again.

-Ria Ghai, PhD Candidate

Ria’s “Things That Keep Me Sane”: Restaurant Edition

Alright folks, no frills, no spills. Let’s cut straight to the chase:

My Favorite Restaurants and Cafes:

  LEMEAC (1045 rue Laurier Ouest; http://www.restaurantlemeac.com/fr-CA/Menus.aspx?CatID=13) – This is an excellent “special occasion” place, but it’s pretty fancy so don’t show up in jeans! It’s not really affordable on the grad student budget UNLESS you come after 10pm, in which case you can get an appetizer and main course with all the fanciness for $24.

  L’ATELIER (5308 Boul St. Laurent) – Save your pennies, kids! This place is pricey, but so, so worth it. There are lots of places that I have been to that serve really great, fresh, original food, but L’atelier gets my vote because it’s small and intimiate, and the service is good. I have tried several things off the menu and haven’t been dissapointed once, but the pig cheek (I know, right?!) is spectacular, and so is the chocolate cake. (more…)


Last year when I was in Africa, I spent a night at a cosy little resort close to my field station. While there were clearly amenities missing, this was my idea of paradise. The lodge was built atop a crater lake, with a breathtaking view of the hills in the distance, then the plummeting landscape of the basin beneath. The food was fantastic but simple, and there was no electricity, so it ran by candlelight at night. It was owned by a British couple. I will never forget the image of this couple, silhoutted against the beautiful landscape by the glow of candelight, stargazing through their telescope, laughing together, and having a glass of wine. I later asked the man how one comes to acquire such a seemingly perfect existence. His reply: “Never give up on your dream life, Ria. They do exist, if you try hard enough to find them”.

Such a simple statement, said with conviction. Yet this concept seems to be one that humanity unanimously struggles with. Perfection….happiness…..is it that we don’t really know what they are, or we just don’t know how to attain them? How many people do you know go to work every morning loving what they do? How many have given up on their dreams for a steady paycheque and a life of creature comforts? 

I came to McGill following a deep-rooted passion for animals. My PhD has caused an uncomfortable distance with my family, broken ties with the best of friends, pushed me to the brink of my sanity, and made me wonder, on more than one occasion, if I actually know anything about ANYTHING at all. But I still have my passion, I can see my dream life. I’m heading closer towards it, not further away. That I haven’t settled for anything less will make this journey worthwhile. And for now, that is enough.

My rescue dog rescued me

There’s nothing quite so peaceful as watching my dog Ray snore in my arms.

Before I started graduate school, I worked at a humane society in Edmonton. I had been working there several months when I met Ray. Except at the time, his name was “Demon dog”, because he was totally blind from cataracts and therefore had white eyes that made him look possessed. Imagine Storm from X-men when she does her freaky weather thing.

Aaanyways, the first time I met him, he was trapped at the back of his kennel while the rest was being cleaned. He was obviously frightened and disoriented, so I decided I would take him into the back yard until they were done washing. I didn’t want to pick him up because his eyes scared me, and I had been bitten too many times by unfamiliar dogs to trust this weird, anomalous creature infront of me. But after trying to leash him and making things worse, I had to pick him up. He grabbed on to my arms with his little white paws, leaned his head against my chest, and snuggled in. I fell in love. (more…)

My PhD, the Epic Failure

I’d like to think that all grad students stumble at some point or another in their career. I’d like to think that making mistakes and correcting them are all part of the process of science. And I’d like to think that this happens to make us better scientists. But mostly, I know I’d like to think these things because my PhD just totally kicked my ass. (more…)


At the beginning of November, I attended the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) conference in Toronto. Ironically, while the entire conference centered around the future of grad studies in Canada, there were a mere handful of graduate students in attendance to speak of, mostly a result of the rather uncomfortable strike going on right outside the meeting location’s doors. I did learn a lot during this conference (and shmoozed with a lot of Deans and NSERC granting agents, thank you!), but there was one bright, shining hour that made the whole session really worthwhile. And that was a lecture by Jorge Cham. Jorge is the mastermind behind the comic strip “Piled Higher and Deeper”, available at PhDComics.com. If you haven’t visited this site and are thinking about grad school…you need to. (more…)

Scar-Butt the Baboon

 So no one tells you when you start field research the plethora of horrors that are awaiting to hamper, or completely usurp, your productivity. Below I will tell two of my favorite incidents that occurred this past summer while I was conducting my field research in Uganda. I hope this will give you, my awesome cyber-audience, a taste of the trials and tribulations that being a grad student is all about.

Incident 1: The elephants. When people think of elephants in their mind’s eye, it is usually as an intelligent, gentle, and altogether harmless creature. Well, they’re not. In the region I work, the elephants raid crops for food and are therefore attacked quite viciously by the villagers, whose entire lives depend on their land. The resulting relationship between humans and elephants has digressed to one of war: when one sees the other, all bets are off. (more…)

A tumultuous move to Montreal

October, 2008. I am in Edmonton, finishing up my BSc at the U of Alberta. I apply for an NSERC, thinking there is NO WAY I will ever get it. I’m still rattled about not having any idea on how to become what I want to be, but maybe going to grad school is as good a starting point as any. Right? Right???

October 2008 – January, 2009. I apply to professors. Each time, I read countless papers, think of a unique questions I would like to address as their graduate student, draft a beautiful letter, send it off. I’m full of expectations. But no reply. No reply. NO REPLY NO REPLY. I apply throughout Canada and the Eastern US. No fishies biting. I feel hopeless, listless, and depressed. 38 beautiful, perfectly formulated letters later, I give up. (more…)

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