Back to Senegal with Barack Obama

Dakar 2011 – They really liked Obama. A LOT.

I have less than a month left in Montreal!

In mid-July I’m heading to Western Canada to visit family, and then back to West Africa to start implementing my fellowship project over the next year. As the realization that this is actually happening REALLY SOON has crept up on me, I’ve been pondering what to expect this time around. I’ll have the big advantage of a head start on the language and culture that I didn’t get last time, as well as some good connections. But I somehow think things will be different on a larger scale too.

It’s an exciting time to be in Senegal. They have their first new leader in over a decade in Macky Sall, who won the last election with a push from young activists, who led a series of stirring pro-democracy movements. The Senegalese economy maintains a steady upwards trend, rewarding the country’s political stability with rapid growth. Yesterday Barack Obama kicked off his tour of the continent with a much-publicized symbolic visit to Dakar. (more…)

Graduate opportunities: Strike while the iron is hot!

Hello Grad Life,

I have been terribly negligent on here lately! Despite my best intentions, I’ve been too busy lately to sit down and type something out. The craziness surrounding the end of my M.Sc. has been augmented by a few things which all ultimately stem from trying to get the most possible out of the grad school experience.

One of the great things about being a grad student is the wealth of opportunities you can access that are exclusive to post-bachelor students. This week I’ll be heading up to Quebec city to take advantage of this province’s unique language opportunities to present at a conference in French. I’m a bilingual Anglophone, so being able to give an oral presentation at ACFAS is an exciting and welcome challenge.


Getting on ice with the MOC

This weekend I scaled a 40-meter wall of ice with 8 knives attached to each foot and an ice axe in each hand, got smashed in the face by a brick of ice in -20C weather, and loved every second of it.

Climbers! Photo: Dana Dragomir

I was one of 22 wonderful participants to go on the McGill Outdoor Club’s intro to ice climbing trip. For McGill students who are at all outdoorsly inclined (I don’t care if that’s not a word – I just added it to spellcheck so bam!), the MOC is seriously worth looking into.

The club (whose website is here) is one of Canada’s oldest and most respected student-run outdoors groups, and they host events almost every weekend ranging from hiking, camping and canoeing to rock climbing and basically any other outdoors pursuit you can imagine.

On this trip, known affectionately as ‘ice-school’ by the veteran MOC members, a small group of students have their first crack at a sport that basically involves attaching lethal weapons to every limb and chipping your way up a frozen waterfall.

On Friday night we headed to the MOC house in Prevost, Quebec. Although it’s only 45 minutes away from downtown Montreal, the clubhouse has all the makings of a classic naturephile’s getaway: a big fireplace, loads of bunk beds, and proximity to lakes, hiking, snowshoeing and skiing trails, and of course, icy cliffs. (more…)

I now live in the lab

An actual piece of lab equipment I once used

If (and this is a very likely if) your experiment involves lab work in any way, you can look forward to the joys of using lab equipment.

Laboratory science is not like working in a wood shop; you usually don’t have the option to just sand off a little more to cover up your blunders. Lab experiments should be done to a ridiculously high standard. Everything is calibrated, tared, titrated, compensated for… and then re-checked.
As the differences you are looking for are often so slim, the tiniest bias in one way or the other can efface results, or worse, give you false ones.
Standard operating procedures are the holy scriptures of lab land. These documents provide a step-by-step explanation of a rigorous, standard way of doing many types of experiments. Because they are ‘standard’, many other researchers will use them as well. Sharing methodologies is not just a short-cut from developing your own; it means that your results will all be comparable later on as you used the same procedure. (more…)

A feast for the senses

Tired of apples and oranges? Why not take a moment to whet your appetite for

The Fruit Hunters

some nipplefruit, cherimoya, kura-kura durian, jujube fruit or miracle berries?

The RIDM, Montreal’s international documentary film festival, wraps up this weekend. Making its world premiere at this festival was director Yung Chang’s ‘The Fruit Hunters’. Here the young director who vaulted onto the scene with ‘Up the Yangtze’ turns his gaze (and macro lens) towards the wondrous diversity of the world’s edible fruits. This week I had a chance to go down to Cinema Excentris to catch an early screening.

The movie follows several individuals, including Hollywood actor Bill Pullman, who dedicate themselves to the collection, tasting and growing of exotic fruits. These tasting trips range from Florida to Hawaii to Borneo’s jungles in the search for new gustatory sensations.

The passion of the characters illustrates the very special connection that people have with fruit, especially when they grow and care for the plants themselves. The Florida rare fruit council’s meetings and Indonesian market scenes cannot help but draw you in, preying on your curiosity at the astounding variety in comparison to our local options. Picture the look on a child’s face when trying a new fruit for the first time. The amazing thing is that the identical look overcomes even the most jaded adult when they sample the flesh of a novel berry or melon. The number of fruits that have penetrated our common marketplace is a fraction of a percentage of what’s out there awaiting the adventurous taster.

The only real problem in watching the protagonists taste peanut butter fruit,ice cream beans, spicy bilimbis, rare mangos and giant jackfruits is that no words can truly describe the flavour of a fruit to one who hasn’t experienced it. You’re left desperately wanting to try all the ripe and juicy subject matter.

However, the upcoming theatrical premiere can solve that problem for you. For the upcoming Montreal launch, the ticket will include access to a tasting table of exotic fruits. The film will be playing at Cinema Excentris as of November 23rd, and will also be screened at the Forum theatre.

McGill’s Iranians: dancing at the crossroads

Last month Canada expelled all Iranian diplomats and closed the embassy, leaving some of Canada’s 150 000 Iranians wondering where they stand. According to an email from the International Students Society, there are 262 Iranian students registered at McGill, many of which were at the Shatner building last week for a party put on by MISA, the McGill Iranian Students’ Association. I was at the party and decided to write about it to bring attention to an underrepresented facet of Canada’s relationship with the Iranian nation.

Shatner Building. Credit: McGill website

It may seem odd that I was at this semester’s Iranian back to school party, since I’m not Iranian, but attendance is open to all and my Iranian friends eventually talked me into going.


Yet more fieldwork!

Ah, the joys of field research. Driving out under a blue sky through the rolling hills of the Eastern townships, it’s hard to think of a better way to spend a work day.

Genetics at work! Two cultivars distinguish themselves in my experiment at the LODS agronomy center.

It’s the many days like this I’ve spent over the last two years that make me feel lucky to be in field research. Although agricultural fieldwork is often the subject of spirited complaints, I don’t think I could survive without it. (more…)

Science freedom: a British proposal

Elsevier parody poster. From

A crack may finally be appearing in one of the most serious remaining barriers to equality in the developed world.

Although much has lately been made of the divisions in our societies resulting from inequalities in wealth and social status, we largely ignore perhaps the most serious of all divisions: fundamental access to our knowledge about the world and its inhabitants.

The CBC reported today that the British government has announced it will make all government-funded research available for free by 2014, a move that is being speculatively seen as prefacing a similar EU-wide initiative. (more…)

Summer is coming…

Hello all,

In honour and anticipation of the warming temperatures I would like to share with you one of my favorite summer places in Montreal.

Learn a language, teach the world

Homepage for

Did you know that there’s a way to learn a new language while simultaneously benefiting the world by increasing global access to knowledge? Well there is, dear reader, and you need only read on to join the revolution.

About a year ago I came to a very interesting conclusion: those speaking the English language have easy access to more knowledge than any other group in the world. Why is this? Because of Wikipedia.

The biggest small election

(As some of you may know, I have been involved in past and ongoing work in West Africa. I have been paying devout attention to the current Senegalese elections and finally decided to coalesce my thoughts into an article, which follows.)


A young man sends text messages from a Dakar streetcorner. Photo credit: Erik Delaquis

On February 26th millions of Senegalese headed to the polls for the first time since 2007. The results of their first-round voting are forcing a heated runoff election between the incumbent, Abdoulaye Wade, and opposition leader Macky Sall later this March. A bastion of democracy with its parliamentary system and fixed term lengths, the former French colony is an EU darling. At least, for the moment. As riots erupt and the two-horse electoral runoff reaches fever pitch, the future of one of West Africa’s success stories faces a major fork in the road. (more…)

Do something; do everything

For some reason, one of the most enriching things in life seems to be collecting new experiences. Doing something novel somehow just feels significant; like you’re making progress of some sort. Whenever I think about ancient humans leaving the fertile crescent, or crossing the Bering land bridge, racing to the poles, or dying a dried-up husk in the Sahara while searching in vain for the source of the Niger river, I can’t help but picture this feeling of driving curiosity to be a big player. (more…)

A city for people from elsewhere

I was talking with a friend the other day who was worried about her accent. Being from a middle-eastern country, she was concerned that people might not take her seriously, or might secretly mock her voice. I think Montreal has to be the last place in Canada to worry about that. (more…)

Everybody needs energy


Note: my graduate research is focused on switchgrass, so conflict of interest alert!

I’ve been musing a lot about energy lately, so I finally decided to muse it all into a word file and this is what happened:


Left to right: an early steam engine, oil platform, nuclear plant, the future. Sources: Wikimedia commons

Energy could be the biggest issue in the world today. Its tentacles creep into nearly every sphere of public policy. In the era of climate change obsession, the sources of the energy we use to build and power our societies are under increasing scrutiny. The question is, how can we imagine meeting the planet’s insatiable demand without stifling ourselves in the process?



TEDxMcGill reinvents your reality

This weekend marked this year’s TEDxMcGill event. For those of you not in the know, I’m going to immediately do you a huge favour and link you on over to the TEDtalks website so you can get a taste for what the concept is all about. The acronym stands for Technology Education and Design, although the breadth and scope of the presentations in the globally loved conference series extends into every topic imaginable.

I volunteered on the speakers’ team; a position involving looking after the needs of one of the guests of honour and making sure setup, organization and basic logistics went smoothly. The theme of this year’s event was ‘redefining reality,’ which as near as I can figure is simply carte blanche to talk about whatever awesome stuff you want.

Jurassic station

The eye...

Last Wednesday I ran through the late afternoon downpour towards the McGill metro station, a minor river coursing down each sidestreet. I was thinking about what I’d make for dinner when I got back to my apartment,  and the idea of running into one of the most deadly creatures that ever walked the planet was the last thing on my mind. (more…)

McGill talks food security

The village chief of Taiba, The Gambia with his field, village, and son in the background.

Since my bio is up on the site, I’ll skip the introductions and just launch straight into my first post!

Last week I was sponsored by my department (plant science) to attend McGill’s 4th annual Global Food Security Conference. The event took place over a two-day period, with panels on natural resources, trade and international markets, Food price volatility, and several other intriguing topics which you can see here.

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