Adventures in neuroplasticity

I’m in rural Michigan visiting friends at the moment taking some time away from Toronto. I have been thinking about the very act of thinking, and the roundabout architecture and life events it seems to spur. We fall victims to our own repeated thought patterns and cling onto the comfort they provide, however illusory. I have been thinking about how to change these habits. I have been thinking about neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the phenomenon by which neural pathways and synapses can change over time as a response to physiological or environmental or habitual shifts. In the past, it was thought that brain structure was unalterable past a certain age, and there wasn’t much that could be done to teach the proverbial old dog some new tricks.

As I have mentioned before, since I got laid off, I have been having quite an emotionally and otherwise taxing time. This would not be apparent to most people who encounter me on two counts. I am a generally calm person, and the limbic side of me is seldom seen, even by those closest to me. In addition, due to the combination of a certain kind of education (or indoctrination?), as well as natural temperament, I find it immensely awkward to most acquaintances and friends to my random brain noise. Nonetheless, the turmoil that has been brewing inside consumed a lot of brain cycles, and I am hoping the processing of these shifts in environment and behaviour would lead to fruitful neuroplastic changes.

As someone, who has arguably been trying to force herself into another’s mould professionally for at least a year, but likely more, I feel like someone who has come out of a dysfunctional relationship. That is not to say, that I was treated poorly in any of my work environments. If anything, I found coworkers to be a pleasant addition to my work who cared for me beyond my contributions and actually took interest in me as a person. However, as things would later show, the work environments simply did not provide a good long-term fit for me. I have however come to the place where I can be grateful for what they did provide me besides the monetary compensation: a push to think differently about the trajectory of life.

Outside of work, I have sought out, somewhat restlessly, the kind of intellectual company that can answer these questions. My closest friends have been a great resource and ally for my at times awkward and fumbling attempts at pathfinding, but from them too, I have learned about people, dynamics and power in all our social relationships and how they could develop either symbiotically and/or exploitatively, and I continue to do so.

Obviously, all this has caused me to draw inwards significantly, but come September, when I go back to school again, I wish to return with new energy and foresight. And many changes in my brain architecture.

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A visit to the Koffler Scientific Reserve

Yesterday, I returned from a short trip to the Koffler Scientific Reserve (KSR). KSR is a research-facility owned and operated by the University of Toronto. I have been fortuitous enough to have had a few opportunities for visits here and be very shortly involved in the ongoing research. In 2011, I briefly volunteered at the lab of Prof. Art Weis, who aims to study adaptive mechanisms in response to climate change and assortative mating in plants. The lab atmosphere has attracted well-rounded people who also have a talent for communicating concepts and applications to lay audiences. I especially benefitted from it, since my background is largely in the applied physical sciences, but through my casual involvement in the lab research, I have become somewhat conversant in some areas of ecology and evolutionary biology!

As I attempt to break into the world of science communications, opportunities to interact (even socially and informally!) with researchers in their own habitat (pun somewhat intended) is a great way to get into their headspace and culture. In the past, and even in the present, far too many examples of science communication is replete with the obvious notion that the communicator him- or herself knows minimally about the culture of science. This is why I have such big love for the emerging fields of tech anthropology and digital humanities. We need these intersectional places to make sense of our increasingly complex world. The burgeoning science communication community can benefit from the ongoing academic research on the scientific humanities to better frame their work for the public at large, with greater consistency and coherency in light of context.

Finally, I have realized, my efforts to simply reach out to my researcher friends and running an interview series on them, is perhaps not enough. Beyond the scope of the series, it would be advantageous to expose myself to different researcher communities and their unique idiosyncrasies. So if anyone wants to show me around their lab/place of research and talk to me about what they do, shoot me an email to thylacinereports@gmail.com!

Researcher profiles for laypeople

I have an idea for this blog which would involve interviewing my researcher friends, and anyone in general whose research I find fascinating, as an ongoing series. In the past, I’ve found informational interviews to be a great source of knowledge and feel for particular fields and professions, because they can convey so many intangibles about the people and environments fostered in specific fields, it’s a great tool for prospective researchers who are hoping to scope out the right environment for them. The researchers themselves would also have the benefit of their research getting some publicity with a broader audience!

If you are a researcher, or know someone who is that may be interested in this, please email me at thylacinereports@gmail.com, so we can facilitate an interview, and get this ball rolling!

A Purple Rainbow at Toronto Pride

This piece was originally published in the Engineering in the News section of the website of the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering at the University of Toronto. Thanks to Terry Lavender for all the help with editing! 

U of T Engineering purple was prominent among the rainbow of colours on display at the 33rd annual Toronto Pride parade on June 30, as Engineering students, faculty, staff and supporters – including the Lady Godiva Memorial Bnad (sic) – proudly marched behind their float.

The U of T Engineering student organization, LGBTQ and Allies in Science & Engineering (LGBTQase), joined forces with the Blue and Gold Committee (the Engineering Society’s spirit committee) to create the float. LGBTQase also worked with the University of Toronto’s Sexual and Gender Diversity Office (SGDO) to organize campus-wide celebrations in the days leading up to the annual parade.

The Blue and Gold Committee continued the engineering tradition of encouraging people to dye themselves purple before the march, while LGBTQase organized tie-dying of t-shirts in rainbow colours at its two ‘Tie-Dye ’till you Drop’ events.

The float, which represented Finn and Lady Rainicorn, characters from the popular animated TV show Adventure Time, was a communal effort. The idea for the float was brainstormed and voted on by LGBTQase and Blue and Gold Committee members in various executive meetings. Both organizations then invited the engineering and U of T community at large to participate in the building of the float.

“The SGDO, Blue and Gold Committee, Lady Godiva Memorial Bnad, faculty members in Engineering, countless students and individuals just wanting to get involved all deserve a gigantic thank you for their efforts, as do the members and executive team at LGBTQase and Blue and Gold who planned and attended our events,” said LGBTQase Co-president Teresa Hulinska. “Perhaps most importantly, we could not have done half of what we did without the incredible financial support from the Alumni Association. This was definitely a community effort and everyone’s vision and contribution made this pride phenomenal.”

Founded in September 2011, this is LGBTQase’s second year participating in Pride festivities. It hopes to increase its participation in Pride events as well as other U of T and city events throughout the year, Hulinska said.

LGBTQase enjoys support from other campus student groups and continues to collaborate with them to increase the presence of engineering and science communities in the LGBTQ scene and vice versa. “There are so many ways to spread love, acceptance, awareness and representation of LGBTTIQQ2SAA people and issues, and Pride is a time to do all of these things in a very celebratory, positive and highly visual way,” Hulinska said. “Most of all, this is really a chance to allow people who want to be a part of this to participate, and we should make sure we are extending this opportunity to as many people as possible.”

Venturing into the world of medical humanities

I have always maintained a strong interest in the history and philosophy of science. I don’t know whether that was largely a subset of my interest in trivia, but in the last couple of years, the field has been quite compelling to me as a possible future route. My background in the humanities at the university level is not extensive. I took a course in philosophy of physics in my 4th year, which is among the top learning experiences at university, but I continued to have doubts about whether this was something I’d want to pursue exclusively in an academic setting.

I am attracted to the idea of thinking about science and technology as a crucial part of humanity’s heritage. So far, the artifacts that the public at large concerns itself with is the art, literature and architecture of the past, but it is easy for most to lose sight of the science, technology and the associated politics that influenced all of that. Any narrative or analytical approach that looks into it is of value to me.

A while ago, a Twitter friend, Erene Stergiopoulos, invited me to her weekly reading group on the history and philosophy of psychiatry. I have little exposure to specifically the fields of psychology and psychiatry. The little I know involves the history and theories behind medicalization and pathologization of bodies and sexualities, which I have acquired through the women and gender studies grapevine. Nonetheless, venturing out into the world of medical humanities have been exciting.

A part of me, the one which expects to real-world, somewhat tangible results from discussions of science, is seeking to understand how study of past medical attitudes and practices can help health care providers and consumers alike today benefit from improved systems, and whether this is something that should be the aim of medical humanities at all. Some people such as Dr. Sayantani Dasgupta, from the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University, see that storytelling and understanding the role of stories in medicine is essential to providing quality medical care, but I wonder, how as an academic field, history and philosophy of science can enable practitioners to engender the body of knowledge they produce.

Again, these are completely new fields to me. As an engineer, I may need a slight paradigm shift to appreciate the value of medical humanities beyond how they are immediately helpful to the practice of medicine. For me, just getting into fields vastly different from anything I have formally studies is very enjoyable to me.

A storm

Toronto was hit by a big storm last night. 

It was, despite the major overhauls in city infrastructure, a welcome change from the general way I perceive it.

People are probably struggling to get to work and keep their homes and amenities safe and functional. Some people may even be injured or hurt, and I hope they are being taken care of.

That’s alright, we need our environments shaken up a bit once in a while. May be this will help me see Toronto in new light.

I am currently hiding out in my friend’s apartment at Bay and College on the 26th floor. It’s been a while since I have had this view. Waves of calmness continue to wash over me.

Strangely to me, it feels like a forest fire has devoured through various arteries of Toronto, or perhaps a glacier has retreated from atop it. Either way, a certain cleansing has occurred. 

I have limited access to media at the moment, but I will see what else this storm and subsequent flood inspires in me and Toronto.

The Tipping Point

On the day of my last post, in the afternoon, I was permanently laid off from my engineering job. A disappointing thought to begin with, but I suppose I needed such a dramatic change to reshape my life.

It seemed that my apparent dissatisfaction with the corporate world was not enough for me to take further steps to make efforts to alter the direction of my life. I got complacent with having a certain routine and a way of life and a fixed amount of income received regularly. I had to be shut out of it, in a way, but still be assured resources to keep me alive in the liminal period between now and the next calling.

In the meantime, I started looking to the only other place I know for comfort and direction – academia. I started researching programs I am interested in, which left me further confused than before. I joined a reading group that discussed papers on history and philosophy of science, a field I seem to enjoy viscerally, but I don’t yet know if it is something I want to commit to.

Finally, I met with Dr. Jennifer Polk, who writes From PhD to Life. I thought she would be better able to guide my so-called quarter life crisis with her insights from within academia. I think I needed to talk to someone like her, because the attitudes that are held and perpetuated within academic cultures can become entrapping, without individuals even realizing how it is hurting them and curbing their growth. In the past, I had focused more on what interested me about specific academic fields, than what kind of a work environment I sought. This is precisely what got me into the mess of engineering in the first place. I love science and technology, and being able to understand nature and use it for our benefits, but through my experiences, I realized that most engineering jobs will only allow me to superficially understand the broader context in which I am working in. Furthermore, combined with my involvement in feminist and queer activism on campus, I was disappointed with how disconnected I felt with humanity at large. I had done a bit of lab research too, and didn’t like the idea of having to spend 12-hour shifts observing experiments for the better part of my life. And yet, I was still drawn to the idea of diving headfirst into academia, again! Jenn pointed  out that to get to where I want to in terms of my career, it wasn’t necessary that I would have to return to school, and that I probably need a better understanding of my own strengths and what I traits I should utilize to feel more fulfilled. She directed me to some resources, notable among them the Authentic Happiness project run by Dr. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania. While doing this assessment, I realized while my intellectual strengths may lie in certain areas, however broad, it was essential to align them with my emotional and instinctual drives as well – something I seemed to have neglected, while being absorbed in the supposedly hyper-rational world I had committed myself to. When people talk about careers, they concern themselves more with the pragmatic and unfairly little with the psychological and spiritual well-being of people. Both deserve attention, even for people like me who are stereotypically the furthest thing that can be from anything ‘spiritual’.

I am currently in the process of internalizing a lot of scary and conflicting things I have learned in the past, rather tempestuous month, but for whatever reason, I also haven’t felt the same kind of inner peace and tranquility in probably years. While my ‘career’ seems to have fallen apart before my eyes, it reached me to a tipping point; it triggered a journey that can possibly get my closer to my vocation. Honestly, I feel blessed and empowered.