RESEARCH AND INNOVATION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO
SPRING 2011 · VOL.13, NO.1
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The challenge of staying in school
Proyecto Latino enables students to address a tough problem by Paul Fraumeni

 

IBM's Don Aldridge, left, and U of T's Clinton Groth. Photo by John Hryniuk

When a study by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) was published in 2008, the findings took everyone by surprise.

Test scores for Latin American students were consistently among the lowest across core school subjects, as well as on standardized literacy tests.

Not only that, but close to 40 per cent of Latin American students were dropping out of school and not earning their high school diplomas. The average dropout rate among all TDSB students: below 18 per cent.

Obviously, something was wrong. But what, exactly, was it?

Discussion began among TDSB officials, the Toronto Latino community and researchers at the Centre for Urban Schooling at U of T's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).

"What became clear to us was that we didn't know why this was happening," says OISE professor Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández. "There was no basic research on Latin American immigrants in Canada. This is in contrast to the United States, where, because of significant Latin American migration, there is a wealth of research. But in Canada, Latino immigration didn't really begin in great numbers until the 1970s and '80s. So, although the research from the U.S. was helpful, we had to start from scratch."

With colleagues from OISE and the TDSB's equity office, Gaztambide-Fernández designed a research program that would come to be called Proyecto Latino and would concentrate on learning about the challenges faced by Latin American students. "Adults always have a lot of ideas about why students drop out, but they rarely ask the students why they do or don't stay in school. We felt we could get closer to the root problems if we focused on getting the students' stories and opinions."

About 60 students with varying levels of academic achievement took part in the study, expressing their opinions through focus groups, individual interviews and a survey. All students self-identified with and felt a personal connection to the nations of Latin America. (The interviewees included Canadian-born students, some of whom identified with more than one country.)

Students pointed to a number of factors as leading to the high dropout rate, such as the need for easier access to ESL programs and incidences of stereotyping where Latino students are thought of as poor and lazy.

"One of the factors most often cited was the need to work to help their families, which interrupts their ability to stay in school," says Cristina Guerrero, an OISE PhD student member of the research team and herself a TDSB high school teacher. "And they often felt an adult could make a negative or positive difference. Some adults and teachers speak to them in detri-mental ways, but many students were inspired to stay in school because of teachers who were supportive. We learned a lot from these positive interactions."

Students suggested a variety of ways to help the TDSB address the barriers identified in the report. Ideas included more courses in Latin American history and culture to help debunk stereotypes; funding of a peer-to-peer support program; more Spanish-speaking instructors, ESL instructors and guidance counselors and smaller class sizes.

The OISE researchers began a follow-up pilot program in February where students will receive a course credit for conducting further research. "They are going to identify the problems they feel are most relevant," says Guerrero. "Then they'll engage in research projects where they can do something about the problems they are encountering. We will help them, but this is their project. They learn to form partnerships, such as working with the school board. Maybe they'll even be able to affect educational policy. The point is to get them involved in solving this problem."

"This study gives us further insights into the issues affecting achievement of Spanish-speaking students," says Lloyd McKell, senior advisor to the TDSB's director of education. "We will use this research in our plans to close the achievement gap for Spanish-speaking students in our schools."

Gaztambide-Fernández feels a more robust and thorough system of creating opportunities for all immigrant students will enable Canada's reputation for multiculturalism to thrive.

"Multiculturalism is official policy in Canada, but the potential of it hasn't been fully realized. We can really start to capitalize on that potential by opening up opportunities for immigrants through the schools. That is where new Canadians can engage in the production of a culture of diversity that might eventually permeate Toronto and Canada. Then the possibilities of multiculturalism can start playing out."

 


 

Sprinkling health
Stanley Zlotkin, the H.J. Heinz Company and UNICEF team up to combat childhood vitamin deficiency

 

Myrna Simpson. Photo by John Hryniuk

What does ketchup have in common with cutting-edge research on childhood anemia and vitamin deficiency?

A lot, it turns out, thanks to the innovative research partnership of Professor Stanley Zlotkin of Pediatrics and Nutritional Sciences and the H.J. Heinz Company.

In 1996, UNICEF challenged the pediatric nutrition community to come up with a solution to the global dilemma of childhood anemia and vitamin deficiencies. Children in many developing countries around the world may not be starving, but they aren't getting the nutrients they need to thrive. The World Health Organization ranks the control of vitamin and mineral deficiencies as the number two global health priority, second only to HIV/AIDS.

Efforts to combat childhood micronutrient malnutrition have had very limited success. Supplements in syrups and drops are unpopular because they are difficult to measure, have a metallic taste and stain teeth and clothes.

"It's a huge problem," says Zlotkin. "But I love the idea of problem solving and I love to be able to see the research that I take on have a very practical application."

Sitting in his office at the Hospital for Sick Children, where he is a Senior Scientist, Zlotkin came up with a "one-page concept" for a tasteless and odourless micro-nutrient powder called Sprinkles that could be packaged in single-serving sachets like sugar packets and added to almost any food.

He put his theory into action by rolling up his sleeves in the hospital's kitchen. He test-produced the powdered mixture at night after the cook and his crew had gone home.

Getting the H.J. Heinz Company on board as a research funder and partner for the production of sachets was, he says, serendipity.

"They were looking for a project to support. This fit their needs well and it fit my needs because Heinz makes things — like ketchup and vinegar — and puts them in sachets. They were willing to help with the technical component and their foundation was willing to support the research."

With the production of Sprinkles taken care of, Zlotkin still had to demonstrate that Sprinkles was a good thing. With support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, he began the first research study in Ghana in 1999. More than a dozen other studies followed and the Sprinkles program — which became the Sprinkles Global Health Initiative — was implemented on a large scale in 2001 in Mongolia, where Sprinkles resulted in significant reductions in anemia (38 per cent) and vitamin D deficiency (28 per cent) over four years.

In 2006, Zlotkin was awarded a prestigious CIHR Health Research Award for Knowledge Translation.

Today, hundreds of millions of Sprinkles single-serving sachets of micronutrients have been supplied to children around the world and UNICEF is currently working with approx-imately two dozen countries to initiate or scale up the use of Sprinkles.

To broaden Sprinkles' reach, Zlotkin and Heinz have put technical specifications in the public domain outside of Canada and the United States so manufacturers can produce it without paying royalties.

Zlotkin admits he had "no idea of what was going to happen" when he took up the challenge 14 years ago.

"I remember thinking early on, drawing a map and thinking, 'OK, if I do this and this and this, what's going to happen over the next six or seven years? Well, if it all falls into place, then UNICEF will take it on and make it part of their programming so that we can reach millions of children.' I did have that vision. It just took longer than I expected."

Source: Canadian Institutes of Health Research, "Solving Malnutrition a Single Serving at a Time: Knowledge Translation That Helps Children," CIHR Annual Report 2009 2010 Knowledge to Action: CIHR-Supported Health Research at Work for Canada and Canadians, 2010. A modified version of this story reproduced with the permission of the Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2011.

 


 

Mining ideas
Creating a culture of commercialization in Africa by Jenny Hall

 

Peggy Baker and Darryl Gwynne.

There are only two ways a country can become rich, says Peter Singer, professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto and Director of the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health at the University Health Network and U of T.

"Either it has natural resources it can exploit in a non-corrupt manner or it commercializes the ideas of its citizens. There are only two choices: mine natural resources or mine ideas."

Singer is part of a group that has been working in partnership with African leaders to help overcome longstanding barriers to the mining of ideas. The U of T group includes Abdallah Daar, professor in the Departments of Public Health Sciences and Surgery and Senior Scientist and Director of Ethics and Commercialization at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre, and a team of graduate students including Ken Simiyu and Sara Al-Bader (who passed away in a car accident in November 2010).

At the invitation of science and technology ministers in several African nations including Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda, the group worked in partnership with scientists, entrepreneurs and government officials to figure out why ideas for health products aren't making it to the people who need them.

And there are ideas — lots of ideas. The researchers say that African academia is a hotbed of ingenious local solutions to local problems. "Most of these ideas," says Simiyu, "are not high-tech Silicon Valley types of ideas. They are innovative ideas that could bring products to people in a way that is affordable, convenient and takes into account the context in which people are living."

Consider the example of medical waste. Because of mass immunization programs deployed by the Word Health Organization, rural areas are now facing the problem of what to do with syringes. Aside from being dangerous because they're sharp, they carry blood-borne pathogens. Simiyu recounts the story of a medical waste incinerator developed at a university the research team visited.

"It uses its own medical waste as fuel so it doesn't require electricity. It is small and portable and can be used in rural areas. The cost of conventional incinerators is high — this one is affordable. It could go a long way toward solving the problem of medical waste."

But the product was never manufactured. Other examples abound: promising drugs that haven't been marketed, devices and diagnostic tests that languish in labs.

The researchers found several barriers preventing the development of ideas: lack of intellectual property laws, gaps in infrastructure that prevent testing of products or drugs, lack of private capital.

"One of the most shocking things we found was that there is not a single dollar of investable life sciences venture capital in sub-Saharan Africa in the countries we studied," says Singer. "That means if you're a bright, energetic young person with a terrific idea for a treatment or a diagnostic test, you might as well take that idea and throw it in the trash bin."

But the biggest problem, they say, is that scientists and entrepreneurs don't talk to each other. "Most fundamentally, the issue is culture," says Singer. Simiyu agrees, saying that a scientist he met said, "My work is to publish my ideas, someone else will commercialize them." On the other side of the divide, investors have tended to favour projects where there is an immediate financial return.

The group will continue to work with governments to figure out ways to bridge this divide and take down other barriers to commercialization.

"This could make a huge difference in the health of people in Africa," says Singer. Right now, he says, many poor countries — in Africa and elsewhere — are the recipient of products, drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and devices discovered and developed in rich countries and then shipped in, often on the basis of charity.

"What one needs for sustainability," he says, "is Africans solving their own problems. They should be taking their great ideas, turning them into products, creating companies, creating jobs and solving health problems. That's a vision of the future that is achievable and maybe that's the most important finding of our study."

 


 

Goodbye to coal
Heather MacLean and OPG go for global impact by Jennifer Hsu

 

It's true what they say about first impressions.

Heather MacLean, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering, made a lasting impression on Ontario Power Generation (OPG) while working on a project that simply required data from the organization. MacLean had no idea her initial interaction with OPG would turn into two fruitful partnerships.

"I was actually working on a research idea with one of my PhD students, Yimin Zhang, that examined the potential of co-firing biomass and coal in Ontario's coal generating stations," says MacLean. "We just contacted OPG for some data regarding coal." The resulting paper was published in the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association.

Rob Lyng, sustainable development director of environmental policies and programs at OPG, read the paper and was impressed by MacLean's work. He contacted her and after several discussions enlisted her to investigate the benefits and feasibility of using wood pellets as an alternative to coal in energy production.

MacLean and her team accepted the challenge and discovered that using 100 per cent wood pellets instead of coal reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 92 per cent. The findings were based on the assumption of carbon neutrality — that is, that zero CO2 is released from the combustion of biomass. Since biomass is a renewable resource, it is often assumed in carbon accounting studies that it will re-grow within a relevant time period , therefore sequestering the CO2 in its stock.

OPG now has MacLean investigating the benefits of agricultural waste as an alternative to coal and wood pellets.

Because Ontario plans to ban the use of coal in energy production by 2014, OPG has already retrofitted its 230-megawatt Atikokan plant to start burning 100 per cent wood pellets — which is cheaper than some other options, including solar energy. In addition, the use of wood pellets could create hundreds, even thousands, of jobs in Ontario where work is needed, including in several aboriginal communities. These are jobs that wouldn't exist in Ontario if coal continues to be burned, since supply of the fossil fuel comes from outside the province.

"The partnership with OPG has been truly beneficial," says MacLean. "Believe it or not, similar studies have yet to be conducted anywhere in the world. The information derived from these two research projects is expected to have a global impact."

Heather MacLean. Photo by John Hryniuk

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EDGE · SPRING 2011 · VOL.13, NO.1