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Education What today's researchers are working on to make tomorrow a better place

A scientist holds up a test tube.

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Canada's postsecondary institutions make up one of the largest research-conducting sectors in the country. Research activities on Canadian campuses are valued at more than $10-billion a year, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, and cover a wide field of disciplines and subjects. Here we present five researchers - faculty members and graduate students - who are making a name for themselves in new and emerging research fields.

Joe Baker, York University

As a marathon runner and a former competitive triathlete, Joe Baker can personally attest to the benefits of exercise and competitive sport in his life. In his research he is trying to decipher what benefits these activities bring to older people.

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"We're finding that a lot of things that we used to attribute to getting older like decreases in cognitive functioning, depression and increased substance abuse are really more a symptom of disuse rather than aging," says Dr. Baker, a professor of kinesiology and health science at York University and a member of York's Alliance in Graceful Aging, a multidisciplinary research team.

Dr. Baker looks to competitive sports and Masters athletes - older competitive athletes - for clues to discover how older people can maintain their physical and cognitive abilities as they age. Older elite athletes have a lot to teach the general population about what's possible by maintaining a high level of physical activity throughout their lives, he says.

He also examines how society's negative stereotypes about aging influence people's behaviours as they grow older. "We are very much a culture that values youth and devalues the older person," he says.

His findings so far suggest people's expectations about aging play a significant role in their declining physical and cognitive abilities. "We're just starting to get a handle on how big an influence these negative social stereotypes are on overall health," he says.

The next challenge will be to find a way to counteract these negative stereotypes. "How do we deconstruct someone's aging expectations," he asks. "It's not going to be an easy solve but the potential payoff is pretty great."

Jennifer Vriend, Dalhousie University

Most parents know from experience that a sleepless night tends to make kids cranky the next day. But what are the long-term consequences of sleeplessness in children?

Jennifer Vriend, a PhD student in clinical psychology at Dalhousie University, aims to find out. In her lab, Ms. Vriend is studying the effects of moderate sleep restriction on children between the ages of 8 and 12.

To test her theories, she randomly assigns kids to one of two groups. Children in the first group are asked to go to bed an hour earlier than their usual bedtime for four days and those in the second group an hour later. At the end of the week she administers a battery of tests to measure their memory skills, learning processes, moods and behaviours. In the subsequent week the children are placed in the alternate group and then retested.

The study is in its early phase so Ms. Vriend has no hard data yet. She predicts her study will show that even minimal amounts of sleep restriction can have long-term consequences. One area of her research will focus on how sleep restriction affects children's executive attention, or their ability to multitask. "I expect that will be one area most affected by sleep restriction," she says.

"I also expect some deterioration in memory," she adds. "Just based on personal and anecdotal experience I expect that children [with restricted sleep]will have more negative emotions."

Ms. Vriend became interested in studying the effects of sleep restriction as an undergraduate student at Queen's University where she played varsity hockey. Trying to balance the time demands of hockey and her academic studies left her sleep deprived, she says. And now, as the mother of a young child, she finds her sleep once again being disrupted.

She hopes her findings will help promote the importance of healthy sleep habits in children and adults alike. "As a society we are concerned about exercise and about our diet but we aren't really concerned about restricting our sleep," she says. Previous studies, which have largely involved adults, have shown that even minimal amounts of sleep restriction tend to have long-lasting effects.

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John Aycock, University of Calgary

Computer users are well acquainted by now with the dangers posed by the dubious e-mails infiltrating their inboxes asking for banking information and passwords.

John Aycock, a computer science professor at the University of Calgary, is looking ahead to the next potential threat from computer hackers. "Essentially what I work on is proactive computer security," explains Dr. Aycock, an expert on computer security and a member of U of C's new Institute for Security, Privacy and Information Assurance. "I'm interested in stopping computer threats before they even start. The problem is figuring out what these new threats might be."

Dr. Aycock and his research partners are looking beyond common phishing scams. "We ask ourselves what could bad guys do if they had a million infected computers that give them access to tonnes and tonnes of information and lots and lots of computer power. What would they do with it?"

One of the current threats to computer users, Dr. Aycock explains, is what's referred to as botnets, or networks of infected computers created by a criminal hacker or groups of hackers who then use them to attack other computers to steal personal bank account information or to conduct corporate or government espionage.

"Again, what we are looking at is what will they do next with them," he explains. "In other words, we look at where the bad guys are now, what their capabilities are and the areas they haven't yet exploited. For instance, we could be seeing much more convincing spam than we are currently seeing if they were to leverage the stuff they are sitting on right now and they could be making lots, lots more money." The next step is figuring out how authorities can prevent these attacks from occurring in the first place and how computer users can protect themselves against potential threats. It's a constantly evolving game of cat and mouse. "As our defences get better the adversaries improve and it just goes back and forth," he says.

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"These are people who are well motivated by money and who are getting increasingly clever," Dr. Aycock adds. "It's a lot easier to steal people's money sitting in the comfort of your own home as opposed to going out and beating people up."

Matthew White, Memorial University

Matthew White's goal may seem a bit dubious at first: he wants to help girls become better gamers.

Mr. White, a PhD student in Memorial University's faculty of education, is investigating why so few girls play video games and what can be done to reverse this trend. Much of their disinterest, he believes, stems from the social stigma that comes with playing video games, much like playing with dolls has for boys.

As a result, a generation of young girls has missed out on the educational benefits of playing video games, he says. That's right, benefits. Mr. White says previous studies have shown that video games that involve role play can help boost non-linear thinking abilities in children. And, he argues, the gender imbalance spills over into the computer industry where men still outnumber women. "These are things we can hope to alleviate if the remediation works," he says.

Of course he's heard the complaints about video games' destructive effects many times. But, he says, modern games that involve role play present players with complex moral and ethical problems to solve, and aren't all blood and guts. "It's not the brainless vegetative activity we previously thought it was," he says. His previous research and that of other researchers has revealed that kids who play role-playing games show higher levels of self-efficacy and confidence than those who don't.

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The important thing, he adds, is that parents limit the amount of time kids spend playing video games, much as they would television, so that it doesn't become an obsessive habit and that they follow ratings suggestions.

But, at 23 years old, and one of the youngest PhD students in the country, he can forgive the skeptics. After all, he doesn't have any children of his own and his knowledge comes from the academic literature and research lab. So maybe his findings should be taken with a grain of salt, he says with a laugh. "But I think there's certainly a place for video games in children's lives."

Abimbola Abiola, Olds College

Wetlands play an important role in storing and purifying water supplies but they have been disappearing at a rapid rate as a result of agricultural and urban expansion, and climate change. "Our intention is to reverse the trend," says Abimbola Abiola, chair of the Olds College School of Innovation.

"Currently wetlands are being drained," he explains. "We are at the point where we have to go to engineered wetlands."

Come spring, under the direction of Dr. Abiola, the Alberta-based college will start construction on an engineered wetlands area.

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The $4.5-million Treatment Wetlands project will involve constructing a network of 20 interconnected ponds on a 12-hectare site on the Olds College campus.

Once completed, the wetland, one of the first of its kind in Canada, will double as a natural water treatment facility to purify the college's storm and wastewater and as a living laboratory.

The site will be used to research how wetlands can treat contaminants in municipal wastewater, water from public swimming pools high in chlorine and salt, and industrial wastewater generated by the oil and gas sector, coal-bed methane facilities, and other industries, explains Dr. Abiola, who is also an instructor in land resource management at the college.

The project will also help improve the management of the province's naturally occurring wetlands.

And, if successful, it could also help Alberta meet its future water needs, he adds.

Olds College is working on the project with provincial and municipal governments, land development companies and other partners.

The college will test a variety of plant species to see which ones are best suited to treat contaminants. And the site will also serve to demonstrate how to make an area drought proof, he adds.

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