Past Issues

For over 30 years, Keren Rice, a professor of Linguistics, has been researching Athapaskan languages, in particular Dene, a group of languages spoken in the Northwest Territories. Her pioneering work in documenting these oral languages and developing language preservation strategies with Dene communities has brought her numerous successes, including the Canada Research Chair in Linguistics and Aboriginal Studies.

But Rice emphasizes that academic recognition is not the driving force behind her career. "My mother was a social worker, and I think her passion has passed on to me," says Rice. "I love doing the academic work, but I also have a need to do something that might make a difference in this world."

And she has. Rice has made important strides in the fight against language loss - an ever-present threat for many of Canada's First Nations communities.

"There's an awareness today that languages are not being transmitted in the same way they once were," explains Rice. "When language is lost, other things are lost - cultural material, stories and histories. These are often not told in English."

Rice became immersed in Athapaskan languages while completing her doctoral studies at U of T. In 1973, she set out for the Dene community of Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., where she helped document the language and develop training programs for Native teachers. Her work in revitalizing the Dene languages, particularly Slavey, has resulted in dictionaries, teaching materials, books and articles on grammar.

Today she sees her research in action. "The recording of languages and the grammar books and dictionaries we did are helping to keep the languages spoken."

Her efforts to preserve and revitalize Indigenous culture do not end with her linguistic pursuits. She sits on the 22-member council for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and tied in closely with her research is her work as director of U of T's Aboriginal Studies Program - an interdisciplinary initiative that examines the language, culture and history of First Nations people. Rice, one of the original architects of the program, helped nurture the curriculum from its humble two-course start over a decade ago to its status as a major program today.

The program has proven successful on many fronts including getting Aboriginal students, who are under-represented in Canadian universities, engaged in scholarship. And many graduates of the program are returning to their communities. For Rice, helping the next generations to make a difference is the ultimate reward. "Seeing members of the communities go back to implement positive change - in the end, that's what matters most."

-Maria Saros Leung

Greg Evans spends his days tracking smog - one particle at a time.

A professor of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry, Evans is director of a new U of T research group devoted to fighting airborne pollution - the Southern Ontario Centre for Atmospheric Aerosol Research (SOCAAR).

Over the next five to 10 years, Evans and other SOCAAR researchers will investigate the origins of certain types of particles in smog and how these particles transform in the environment. The results will help in understanding the health impact of particles and in the development of more effective pollution regulations.

"What we are doing is trying to determine where the particles are coming from, both in terms of geography and sources - whether it's cars, diesel trucks, or industrial plants. And we're trying to find out what causes the number of particles in the air to fluctuate so much," says Evans.

"SOCAAR will also try to figure out whether the particles we are breathing are different from the ones we were breathing a couple of hours ago, or the ones we'll be breathing tomorrow."

It is not where Evans expected to be. Back in high school, playing bass and keyboards in a band had more appeal than chemistry. His father, Don, was a philosophy professor at U of T, but Evans was interested in the other family tradition - music. He quit university to record an album and it was only when the band's fortunes later faltered that he returned to chemical engineering at U of T.

Two summers of research work, looking at the environmental impact of coal and occupational exposure of steel workers, and he was hooked.

The instrument that most defines Evans now is a Laser Ablation Mass Spectrometer (LAMS). Graduate student Phillip Tan proposed the project in the 1990s, but it took years to build and a tough six months in 2000 to get it to work (a period the department chairman referred to as the "Silence of the LAMS," Evans recalls).

The LAMS has redeemed itself since then with some spectacular detective work, in one case tracking particles that came to College Street in Toronto from a sandstorm in the Sahara - after a detour to Mexico.

It did this by producing chemical 'fingerprints' of the composition of particles in air drawn from College Street. The LAMS accelerates the particles in the air, almost to the speed of a bullet, and uses a high-powered laser to break the particles into fragments. A mass spectrometer is used to record the chemical composition - or fingerprint.

A $3-million award to SOCAAR from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Ontario Innovation Trust and other partners will enable researchers to take the next major step with a unique combination of technology, says Evans.

In addition to using the LAMS to look at individual particles, SOCAAR will have a portable LAMS to measure particles in many locations across southern Ontario.

Chemistry professor John Abbott will study the chemical transformation of particles and Frances Silverman, of the Department of Medicine, will look at the health effects.

"At the moment, the health impact is regulated strictly in terms of total mass of particles," says Evans. "If we can find out which ones may be having more serious health effects, we can try to regulate those."

-Janice Walls

University of Toronto Office of the Vice-President, Research and Associate Provost