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Episode 4: Dr. Saeideh G. Motlagh on Bitcoin basics
By now, you’ve probably heard the hype surrounding Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Investors are profiting off the buzz of a “currency of the future” while corporations and governments are feeling pressure to acknowledge the growing technology. But do you really know what Bitcoin is and how it works? Computer Science alumna and blockchain expert Dr. Saeideh G. Motlagh gives us a crypto crash course with the rundown on Bitcoin and blockchain and what this means for the future of technology and finance.
Bitcoin Basics 02:00 | Blockchain Applications 08:28 | Are Cryptocurrencies the Currency of the Future? 12:40
Hi there, you're listening to On A Tangent, a podcast hosted by Ryerson's Faculty of Science. I'm your host, Sarah McIntyre. If you've been following the news, you may be aware of the cryptocurrency craze that has been steadily growing over the years. Words like “Bitcoin”, “mining” and “blockchain” have been floating around, with many people unsure what they really mean. On today's show, Dr. Saeideh G. Motlagh gives us a crypto crash course and gives us the rundown on Bitcoin and blockchain and what this means for the future of finance. Dr. Motlagh recently earned her PhD in computer science at Ryerson with a focus on blockchain technology. She now teaches blockchain and its application, and privacy and data management courses at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education.
Thank you so much for taking the time to be on our show today. Dr. Motlagh, how are you doing?
Dr. Motlagh 1:04
I'm doing great. It's my pleasure to have me here.
So we're gonna be talking about Bitcoin, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, all that. I'm going to preface this by saying I actually bought a teeny tiny amount of Bitcoin a couple years ago, after hearing my dad talk about it. He just kept talking about it and I was like, what is this? I barely knew what it was or how it worked. But I said, "Sign me up!" and I heard “currency of the future”. So I haven't touched it since, but maybe after this episode, I'll understand what's really sitting in my virtual wallet and how it works.
Dr. Motlagh 1:43
Okay, so I'm glad to hear it. Because now it is growing so fast, especially around a few months ago, Bitcoin had a huge jump.
Let's start with the basics. Bitcoin, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, what are they?
Dr. Motlagh 1:59
Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency that was ever introduced to the world in 2008, or 9 by a guy named Satoshi Nakamoto. It's just a name, a nickname. We don't actually know who it is—is it a real person, is it a real group? It's just a name we know who introduced Bitcoin to the world and actually, blockchain technology was introduced by Bitcoin to the world. So actually, what does it mean? They introduced Bitcoin as a system for transferring the financial transactions, which was based on the blockchain. So Bitcoin is just an application of the blockchain. Both are not the same thing. Right?
Dr. Motlagh 2:41
We introduced an application based on that new technology. Cryptocurrency is just, we can say, digital money, okay. And it's based on the blockchain. Blockchain is a purely distributed peer to peer network of ledgers. So, it helps us actually to manage the data, electronic data or information in the form of the block. And without the need of the third party, third trusted party. This is the advantage that blockchain technology provides for us, because trust issues are everywhere, you know. I want to send you money but I cannot trust it so I go to the bank. The bank here is the middleman or the third trusted party, right. I can send you money through the bank and those transactions show it's proof that I sent you money. So because we have trust issues here, blockchain solves all these problems for us. You know, it's one of, another advantage of it is disintermediation. We say if we use blockchain, we don't need those third, trusted parties.
So in blockchain technology, we use information. For example, in Bitcoin, which is just cryptocurrency, this information is nothing, just those exchange or trading information. I buy you some Bitcoin. This is one transaction. It should be part of the blockchain, it should be on the network. So we're in the Bitcoin or blockchain technology, we get this information, form them in the blocks and with cryptographic and some security algorithms, we secure this information to preserve the integrity of the information and store them on the blockchain. So another main advantage of the blockchain technology is it's immutable. Whatever is stored on the blockchain, no one can change it, it would be there forever. So this is a very big advantage because of that. It's a very safe, I can say, platform to work on if we want to transfer some information or some goods to someone and save or keep the record there.
So what is mining?
Dr. Motlagh 4:58
How does that work?
Dr. Motlagh 4:55
Yeah, good question. Mining is the main process of generating a block in blockchain. In blockchain all the data are stored in a form of the blocks and these blocks are connected to each other, that's why we call it blockchain. It's a chain of blocks actually. Mining process, if I want to explain shortly in Bitcoin, is the process of generating those blocks. It's a very costly and expensive process, especially in Bitcoin because it's a cryptographic process that you should do and you should find a hash string of a specific information in a way that it meets some specific criteria, we call it difficulty. So a hash string is nothing but just a random string of numbers. So we actually have something we call hash functions. You give input and receive an output. The input is the data in the block that you want to hash, it is information that you have, and the output is just a random string, hash string, which must meet some criteria.
Okay. And the only way that you can solve this problem, this hash problem, is just trial and error. You should try multiple times until you get the output which satisfies the criteria that you are looking for. So this process of trial and error, it means sometimes you need to try more than even 10 or 100 millions of different hash strings to find the proper one. So this trial and error process is so costly because it needs very powerful systems. Because why? This is like a contest, right? If I'm trying to find that proper hash string, you're also trying. Anyone who has a stronger system who can try and find this string faster, wins, right? Because of that people are looking for various powerful machines. In the term, in the sense of Bitcoin, we call them A6 machines. They are very costly, but they are specifically designed for finding this specific hash string for you. And because those machines are so powerful and costly and they use a lot of electricity power, AC power. That's why we say the mining process is so expensive and costly.
Is there an unlimited amount of, for example, Bitcoin? So if you could just mine forever, could you just keep finding Bitcoin?
In terms of Bitcoin, if we talk specifically about Bitcoin, Bitcoin has a limited number. We have a cap for Bitcoin and it's 21 million. And so far over 18 million Bitcoin has been found so far.
Yeah, we expect that in maybe two or three years, we'll go to that limitation. It doesn't mean it cannot exist according to the way that we find those hash strings, those cryptographic algorithms, it's feasible that we have many more Bitcoin, more than 21 million. However, the guy Nakamoto Satoshi, when he introduced Bitcoin, in the white paper of the Bitcoin, he mentioned that we want to have only 21 million. And his logic behind that is that Bitcoin is something like a gem. So if we want to make it valuable as gems, we should have just a limited number of that, not infinity. But in other things, you must have heard about Etherium and other cryptocurrency. Ethereum, there is no limitation for that. And now so far, we have over 100 million Ethereum mined so far.
So are cryptocurrencies the only application of blockchain technology?
Dr. Motlagh 8:25
Definitely not. It was the first. It was the first application we introduced the blockchain by Bitcoin to the world by cryptocurrency. But after that, you know in the computer world we call the blockchain a second revolutionary thing that happens to the world after the Internet. So because of that, when we saw that it has a huge potential to change everything in any industry, now, we actually adapted the blockchain to many different industries. One of the industries that have a huge investment on the blockchain are supply chain industries. So if I want to explain a little bit what is the supply chain, the simplest example is Walmart. We all know about Walmart. Walmart currently is working with IBM to transfer their supply chain to the blockchain. And in supply chain we want to track their record of the things from the source to destination. In the case of Walmart, it's about the food. It's all the foods because most of the food you know, especially vegetables or fruits, they are important to Canada, right. So we want to know from the source that this vegetable is produced from the farm until a different middleman in between that they buy and sell and get this fruit until we receive it in Canada in Walmart. How many people, how many different stores this food went through. And why is this important for us? Again, if I want to give you an example. Sometimes we see we received some notification that this specific food or food, for example cabbage is contaminated, you should return it to the store. So why does this happen? Because we are not sure which in this cabbage, exactly where it came from because of that they record all the cabbage. And it's a huge loss for the store. But if we can record the whole journey of that cabbage from the source until it arrived to Canada, so we can track it properly that this specific package was contaminated, it should be returned. And moreover, it helps us to avoid to happen such a thing in future, right, because we know maybe this source is not trustworthy enough, we should maybe not bring from this source anymore.
So this is a supply chain that I'm saying they are hugely invested on the blockchain. This is just one industry. There are more industries as well, if I just want to name it, and don't explain too much. In eNotary, in the voting system, definitely security. If you want to provide security, it solves a lot of problems for privacy. It's even in the archive industry, we use blockchain in the music for recording the copyright things. We use blockchain and now there actually now for each of these is industries, I can name an example out there which is currently working based on the blockchain, yeah.
Is one of the concerns of blockchain the transparency of it?
Dr. Motlagh 11:18
See, after the blockchain comes up and we see it has a huge potential, different versions or varieties of blockchain pops up after that. The first blockchain was introduced by Bitcoin, we call it the public permissionless blockchain. After that now we have private blockchain, we have permission blockchain, different versions. In the public permission blockchain, yes, we have transparency. So in Bitcoin for example, you have some Bitcoins. Yeah. If someone knows how to work with Bitcoin, they can track your Bitcoin, how many people have traded this specific Bitcoin and now you have it. Yes, there is transparency there.
Is there a benefit to this transparency?
Dr. Motlagh 11:59
Definitely. Yes. We say that if you want to prove the ownership for some things, we can just track the history of the transaction, the chain of this transaction to get to who owns this cryptocurrency. Actually we say the current person is the real owner and if you want to just double check everything if the person is a real owner, we just need to track the history of the transaction and it's useful for proving the ownership.
So going back to the little tiny bit of Bitcoin I bought, was this a waste? Or am I one step ahead for a cryptocurrency future?
Dr. Motlagh 12:41
You know, that's because now it is a huge topic in cryptocurrencies and blockchain. You know, everyone asks me "Oh, what do you think about it?" I say although I know what's exactly happening behind the scenes, I never traded cryptocurrency. I don't own any cryptocurrency, not Bitcoin or Dogecoin or Litecoin nothing, you know. Because the financial part of it, it's something that goes more towards the people who do trade in those kinds of things, right. In my opinion, as I know about the technology, definitely cryptocurrencies are the future money okay. Because now it's so hyped and you have cryptocurrency, you want to buy something for that, so governments have to regulate it. Okay, give you this opportunity to use that money for your extra trading. Now we have the concept of NFT. NFT again is something based on the blockchain, now you can buy and sell NFT. It's so huge and it goes everywhere with this blockchain and cryptocurrency. So because of that, definitely it's the future money. However, about the pricing things you know, it fluctuates a lot like other tradings based on the news, you know, Bitcoin gets so high and last month just it was a hype about the tech guy, Elon Musk, he said something. He just did a sign of the Bitcoin in his Twitter account and public tweet and everything fluctuates a lot. So because of these pricing things, it's not in my specialty. I can’t say how it's gonna rise continuously or not, but definitely we will have cryptocurrencies in the future. It's our future money.
So say we did have cryptocurrency as our future currency. What would be the pros and cons to this?
Dr. Motlagh 14:30
Pros, and cons... Pros definitely is that one thing is those third parties. Okay. We can now directly exchange cryptocurrency or buy something we do not need banks for that. In my opinion, another thing is it can save some costs for us because we are getting rid of the traditional money, right bills, coins, those kinds of things if we can use this digital money everywhere, right? This is another pro for that. The third thing is the security of that, right. And no one can tamper with it so it’s secure we can trust it easily. This is again a major advantage of it. Regarding the cons, I'm just wondering how all people want to adopt this concept, you know. Although it's not a con, I think it takes time a little bit because it's not yet convenient for everyone to work with this concept. And until all the industries adopt it, it takes a little time. But overall I see more pros than cons in cryptocurrency.
So what are the environmental implications of this?
Dr. Motlagh 15:56
As I explained, because the process of mining bitcoins is very expensive, it uses a lot of AC power, electrical power. So definitely when we need more electrical power it means we are using more natural resources to generate those power right. Because of that we say yes, mining more Bitcoin, specifically, because not other, all cryptocurrencies are so expensive to generate. Bitcoin, in this sense, is very expensive to generate. And because we need a lot of electrical power for that, because of that we say yeah, its not written for our environment.
Is there a way to work around this issue?
Dr. Motlagh 16:37
With Bitcoin I can say no, because we're almost at the end of Bitcoin, you know, more than 18 million has been generated so far. And we cannot, now we cannot change the way that blocks are mined, I said, based on those hash strings, those kinds of things. Now, we cannot change the way that we are mining the new blocks, right? It must be like that, and I'm saying this process because it's just based on trial and error is so expensive. As of now for Bitcoin. Unfortunately, no, we cannot do anything to make it less expensive for us. Also for other cryptocurrencies, I'm saying most of them now are not costly because they are using different cryptographic algorithms, they are not working like Bitcoin, they are not mined like Bitcoin. I tell you that for example, by average every 10 minutes one block in Bitcoin or one bitcoin is mined, okay? Because this process is so costly, time consuming. However, for Etherium every 10 to 22 seconds, one Etherium is mined. It shows the process of generating Etherium is much easier, you know, this is the difference. Because of that, I'm saying, yeah, not all cryptocurrencies are expensive, and actually people are paying attention to that. If some new cryptocurrency wants to pop up, I believe differently, people keep it in mind.
Is it possible for the entire financial system to move to the blockchain?
Dr. Motlagh 17:59
Okay, good question. Definitely. It's possible in the future, definitely. But all the time when we talk about the financial system, the one thing that comes into my mind is banks, and somehow we can say that blockchain technology is a competitor with banks, you know. I'm not sure how they want to regulate that acceptance of this technology, you know, but definitely, I see a huge potential in blockchain and people now actually are interested in blockchain. However, we should see how it will go and I believe it really depends on how governments are going to regulate this.
So do you recommend people get involved with cryptocurrencies right now?
Dr. Motlagh 18:46
In the sense that they educate themselves, I highly recommend everyone to educate yourself about either cryptocurrency or blockchain technology because it's the future technology. I'm telling you, it's the second big thing after the internet that happens to us in the technology world. So definitely. Yeah, I highly recommend everyone to educate themselves into just you know, what is the concept of cryptocurrency or blockchain technology. However, in terms of if they want to invest in it or not, it's not in my specialty. I don't want to recommend anything to anyone.
That's fair. Does one need computer science knowledge to be involved in cryptocurrency?
Dr. Motlagh 19:28
Actually I can say no, I, you know, currently I'm teaching a blockchain course: blockchain and its application in the Ryerson G. Raymond Chang School. And our main goal is, I designed this course myself, and I'm teaching it now for two semesters. And my main goal in this course was to design a course for people who do not have a computer science background and actually all of my students are not from computer science. Some of them are lawyers. Some of them are psychologists, business people, and who want to learn about the blockchain and cryptocurrencies. And I designed a course in a way that I'm explaining all concepts that they need to know like, definitely they need to know a little bit about the cryptographic hash strings if they want to know how it exactly works. However, I'm explaining to them in a simple language that they learn what's happening without having a computer science background. I just have a recommendation for everyone that really invests to get to know blockchain technology, I believe one day in the very near future they will need to know about the blockchain and cryptocurrencies.
All right, great. Thank you, Dr. Motlagh, for sharing your expertise with us on the show today.
Dr. Motlagh 20:44
It was my pleasure. Thank you.
And I hope all our listeners now have a better understanding of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, because it is the technology of the future. And on that note, take care and until next time, thank you.
Dr. Motlagh 20:58
Thank you for having me.
Dr. Motlagh 21:00
Episode 3: Dr. Emily Agard on COVID-19 vaccine science
Getting vaccinated is the first step to normalcy as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. While many people are more than eager to get vaxxed, others may feel hesitant due to misinformation, agendas, and conspiracies floating around. In this episode, Dr. Emily Agard, director of SciXchange at Ryerson, explains the science behind vaccines and busts COVID-19 vaccine misconceptions. Dr. Agard has her PhD in Immunology from the University of Toronto and now teaches immunology and advanced immunology at Ryerson.
How do Vaccines Work? 03:26 | Vaccines & Variants 10:06 | Busting COVID-19 Vaccine Misconceptions 13:04
Hi there, you're listening to On A Tangent, a podcast hosted by Ryerson Faculty of Science. I'm your host, Sarah McIntyre. As you all know and perhaps have been painfully keeping track of the days, it's been a little over a year since the COVID 19 pandemic started. With wave after wave and lockdown after lockdown it seemed like there was no end in sight. But as vaccine rollouts have begun throughout the country, we're starting to see a glimmer of hope to some normalcy, a light at the end of the tunnel. On today's episode we have Dr. Emily Agard, Director of SciXchange to teach us about the importance of vaccines and address concerns or hesitations people may have prior to getting jabbed. Dr. Agard has her PhD in immunology from the University of Toronto, and now teaches immunology and advanced Immunology at Ryerson. A disclaimer: this podcast is for informational and educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have.
Alright, welcome to the show Dr. Agard, how are you?
Dr. Agard 1:12
I'm great and very happy to be here, thanks for having me.
Awesome. We're so happy to have you. I must say I am absolutely loving the summer weather outside and I'm spending every possible moment outside. What are you looking forward to when quarantine ends?
Dr. Agard 1:26
I'd say, just being able to eat at a restaurant outside. Right now, we have two dogs so we do go out five times a day so I am going outside, but one of them's a puppy. So, from 7am to 11pm we are pretty much going outside, but it'll be nice to just socialize and not have to worry. I already feel better now that I have my first dose of my vaccine so just hoping for normalcy. I really also can't wait for in person teaching. I know that's not going to necessarily happen in the fall, but I can't wait. Some things have been great so being able to participate in certain things virtually has improved our SciXchange science outreach access for different people so that's been advantageous and some of those things I think we'll keep so hasn't been all bad.
There are definitely silver linings to the pandemic.
But speaking of going back to normal. That brings us to the topic of vaccines which is the first step to normalcy. So, with the provinces relying on a majority percentage of the population to be vaccinated before opening up, just tell us a little bit about the science of vaccines and how they work.
Okay, first of all I'd like to mention where I'm coming from, just so that people can be aware of my expertise I do not want to claim to know things that I do not know so I have a PhD in immunology that I got from U of T back in 2004, and I teach immunology, but I'm not directly involved in vaccine development so my knowledge of Coronavirus and COVID-19 comes from my reading, but I make sure that I'm keeping up with the academic literature the direct sources of the research and it's actually nice to see some of my former classmates involved in this, so that's kind of fun. So I'm not relying on news media, particularly because I find that a bit hard to navigate there's misinformation disinformation agendas so my knowledge is based on solid science but I just want to make it clear that I'm not actually part of vaccine development. So I think what's very important in this whole conversation about vaccines is for people to understand how they work, because I read a lot of, you know, sites where people are just spreading all sorts of misinformation, and you see comments like, why don't we just train our immune system to fight the infection. And really that's exactly what a vaccine does so it's clear that many people just don't have an understanding of how vaccines work and that's contributing to the vaccine hesitancy. So really, what does a vaccine do? It primes our immune system to counter the infection or the toxin or whatever is the threat, so it doesn't prevent the infection, or it doesn't block exposure, it just gets the system ready in case you're exposed in fact, we get vaccinated with the assumption that we might be exposed to the infectious agent, otherwise we wouldn't need to be vaccinated. So it primes our immune system to deal with the infectious agent or the pathogen. If we encounter it. So the goal is to safely induce an immune response, and that will lead to protection against infection or disease upon later exposure to the pathogen. So, whenever I say pathogen I'm referring to something like the virus. So basically sets the system up for combat and since we're talking combat there are two sides to that, there is the pathogen itself, and then there's the immune system. So to be able to develop a good vaccine, you need to know a little bit about the pathogen. So we learn a lot about that from the virologist, and we need to know that the immune system so that's where the immunologists just come in. So we have to understand both of them if we want to develop a good vaccine.
Dr. Agard 5:06
So starting with the pathogen, a pathogen has an antigen or has multiple antigens and this is a word that's becoming mainstream. It's a very important word to understand. The antigen is what the immune system has to recognize. So it's a particular feature, usually a protein that the immune system, first of all has to be able to see. So cells of the immune system has to be able to see them in our system and can recognize them as something distinct so it could be something on the surface of the cell or the virus. It could be something that's released as a toxin so some bacteria work that way some of the pathogenic bacteria work that way they release toxins. So the immune cells respond to this particular antigen, so we say then that the antigen is immunogenic. So when I use the word antigen I mean that it is immunogenic, something that will get an immune response going. So the vaccine contains these antigens, so either isolated directly or synthesized. Modern vaccines nowadays are synthesizing the antigens. So this leads to two very important features of a great vaccine: efficacy and safety. So efficacy, the vaccine should be a good representation of the pathogen, because we're relying on memory here. So, we need to prime the immune system and prepare for future combat. Safety, the vaccine should not harm the recipient like the real pathogen does, and it should be able to deliver it without harm so should be able to deliver it safely to the system. So, the recent vaccine, particularly the ones that we are using to fight the Coronavirus are focusing on a particular component of the virus and it's the spike protein of the virus. And even when you see cartoon depictions of Coronavirus you see it as a sphere with spikes.
Spiky little guy.
Dr. Agard 7:02
That spike protein is key. That's considered the antigen, of the Coronavirus and this the immune system targets the pathogen so that antigen, that's going to be immunogenic has to be something that the immune system can see, in the case of the spike yes the immune system can see it, because the Coronavirus has all these spike proteins on the surface, but ideally it has to be an important part of the pathogen, something that the pathogen relies on, especially in the cases of viruses that can mutate. So, if the virus is going to mutate, it can't afford to mutate too much, a component that it relies on and in the case of Coronavirus, which is officially SARS-COV 2. It relies on this spike protein to attach to our cells and gain entry into our cells. Without that spike protein Coronavirus can't infect our cells, and they bind to a particular receptor on our cells called ACE-2. So we want our vaccine to contain that antigen that the immune system can see, respond to, and ideally its antigen that we can rely on as something that the virus, in this case, will always need. So that's a pathogen side of this, now we look at the immune system side of things, the immune system has to mount a response we call this active immunization so the immune system does the work. It could be naturally by being infected with a virus, or it can be through medical intervention like the vaccine, as opposed to passive immunization such as mother to child and breast milk. So we want active immunization and why I stress active immunization is this is the beauty of vaccine development, because it makes your immune system do the work. And because your immune system does the work, it has memory of that work. So later on it can handle the actual infection. So vaccines rely on the concept of memory, there are memory T cells and their memory B cells and these memory B cells keep on making the antibodies. And those are a big part of the memory. So, to be protected, memory depends on the quality of the response amount of antibodies induced by the B cells and the incubation time of the infection so the longer the incubation time, the more the system has a chance to rely on these memory cells. This is why often we need booster shots after that primary vaccination to hike up the antibody levels to make sure that we remain at a protected level. So that's in a nutshell how vaccines work in general.
There has been talk about the Delta variant of the virus all over the news. So what is a variant, and how does this happen?
Dr. Agard 9:55
So variants happen when the viruses change their nucleic acids. So their nucleic acids, whether it be DNA or RNA are basically the blueprint for the proteins that they make, just like we use DNA as our blueprint. Now, the mutations happen randomly, and some of them might make the virus more contagious, they might make the virus infect differently so they'll, they can cause changes to how the virus functions. Now it doesn't necessarily make the virus worse, it could make the virus less bad. But the mutations that tend to stick are the ones that give the viruses more power. Now when it comes to the vaccines. What our vaccines are doing and more modern ones are even better at this, they are really focusing on parts of the virus that the virus cannot afford to mutate too much. So, if they were to mutate, they would lose their effectiveness. So that wouldn't be an advantageous mutation for those viruses, the variants that are out there are the ones that are having mutations that help them. But our vaccines are targeting the areas that they can't afford to mutate.
What role do vaccines play in preventing mutations or the spread of variants?
Dr. Agard 11:20
So the vaccine wouldn't prevent a mutation. So whether or not the virus mutates, is intrinsic so it's part of what the virus does itself so the vaccine is not going to go in there and prevent the virus from mutating. That's not what the vaccine does. The vaccine is about introducing our body to the antigen that's on the pathogen, and then mounting a response against that antigen so that if we see it again, we can act on it.
Do vaccines work the same against the mutations or would another vaccine or booster be required?
Dr. Agard 11:56
So, the point of the booster is to as the name suggests, give a lift to the immune response so if you're having one of those two, you are getting the same formulation you are seeing the same antigen, but it's reminding your system of what it saw the first time. So when you mount that first response it peaks, and then, it diminishes. So it wanes that response wanes, and then when you get the second dose, your immune system will peak again but it's not starting at the baseline that it started before it starts with the memory that it had so that's why that second response is stronger and then it lasts longer.
Moving on to the next topic, or segment. So, obviously with the internet, there is so much talk going on about the vaccine, so many myths, misconceptions, all that there's an ongoing joke that the vaccine is some 5g chip or tracking device. I don't even know where that came from. Can you bust that one?
Dr. Agard 13:01
I can't speak to the science of 5g technology, I can't imagine in all the decades that I've been studying immunology how there would be a connection, but that one really baffles me.
One thing people have been saying is that it was too rushed, to rush to trust. What do you have to say about that?
Dr. Agard 13:21
That's when I hear the most and that's the one that I can understand the most, because it was quick. And when people see quick, they assume rushed. But quick was because of the tremendous amount of brain power that went into, that is currently going into vaccine development. I don't think there has been anything with more labs and minds working together. We had academics, government, industry, working together on this vaccine, not only were many labs working on it but there was collaboration. So the normal process during development of all of these things is that you do your experiments, usually in silo with your group you might collaborate with one or two other institutions. You submit your findings to a journal, wait a few months, it comes out you might present at a conference, it's months before research, information is disseminated. But in the case of this vaccine development you had lots of labs, talking to each other, sharing preprints on social media, platforms on various different preprint servers. So there was a lot of collaboration and sharing. So the work was consolidated and intense. So, quick, does not mean rushed, more work has been put into these vaccines than anything, than any other vaccines that are out there. Also, one of the things with vaccines because we're talking about priming the immune system to do something. Side effects manifest early. It's not like a drug that you have to take daily for the rest of your life or daily for a long period of time, and you have to worry about accumulated effects. Pretty much the amount of time that has passed between the people who are in the early stage clinical trials and now, has been sufficient to really properly assess the efficacy. That said, the way science works, you still need to monitor and that's why clinical trials don't end once the product goes to market, a big part of clinical trials is to keep monitoring and checking what's going on, checking what type of people might be contraindicated, so vaccine not suitable for. So, a lot of attention. So in short, a lot of attention, a lot of collaboration, a lot of work has been put into these vaccines there probably, more, more careful thought and work has been put into these than other vaccinations. The only thing we don't have is time, because that's just the way it is. We don't have that time to see, you know, years down the road we don't know how long the immunity will be, the protection will be but so far so good. This is not an infection or disease that's likely to be eradicated. Very few of our infectious diseases that we have happy and eradicated we've learned to live with them. What this vaccine is important for is dealing with this Coronavirus that we have now, and helping to reduce the spread, so that we can go on living with it just being one of the infections out there, like the flu. The flu is still a serious virus, it's out there, we get the flu shots, some people get sick, some people die of the flu, unfortunately, but it hasn't stifled our whole life. So that's what we're looking at here.
So in a couple years, will we just look at the Coronavirus as just the flu. And so some people might get it seasonally, and we'll go about our normal lives?
Dr. Agard 17:13
Ask me again in a couple of years. I really don't like to be comparing the two and saying it's just like the flu, because the viruses are quite different, so I don't want to go down that rabbit hole of saying oh it's just the flu, but vaccine is the way to start getting us to something that at least resembles normalcy.
I have heard a lot about people comparing like, oh, Pfizer is better. Oh Moderna's better. Does it really matter?
Dr. Agard 17:42
Also one tagline is the best vaccine is the one you can get. They are a little bit, Pfizer and Moderna are quite, quite similar. They're both mRNA vaccines and they deliver the code to the spike protein and they're packaged in these lipid nanoparticles so these little tiny tiny tiny lipid structures, and they get into our system that way and our body, or our immune cells used mRNA code to make this spike protein, as opposed to AstraZeneca, and the Johnson and Johnson that use viral vectors so they package, again the code for the spike protein but inside, a viral vector. So, a package. An adenovirus that contains the code and then the cell uses it that way. In terms of efficacy reports, Pfizer and Moderna have been shown to be 90 to 95% efficient as opposed to AstraZeneca, being 70% efficient. But when I see numbers like that I always have to ask what do they mean by efficient are they comparing the same thing, etc. So it's hard to compare numbers when you don't know what the different components are into the stats. So that's why I mean it's, it's good to look at numbers and stats, but you also need to understand what's contributing, what's the numerator, what's the denominator, are you comparing the same things. So that's something you have to be mindful of when you're looking at these. That's why I don't really go so much by media reports because they kind of try to use punchlines or, or the key take homes but then you don't have the details as to what's going into those numbers which is why I like to go to the primary literature. There are some issues with vaccine hesitancy that I probably should bring up and there are some groups who have been poorly treated in the past, particularly people of color. There have been really bad, experimental cases so one of them. Maybe you've heard of it as the Tuskegee syphilis study where black men were lied to and told that they were being treated for syphilis and that wasn't the case and many of them died and this was something that went on for 40 years, the CDC was involved with it. So a lot of the concerns aren't all conspiracy theories, there is history where, you know, a lot of groups were used and abused by the medical system. There are a lot of other issues, some apply more in the states like cost and access that we don't have to worry about here as much in Canada, but they are legitimate issues. And then there was a report in The New York Times that say about 10% of the people are just watchful, they're not saying no to the vaccine, they're just kind of waiting to see what happens and that's sort of a natural human response okay it's new. Maybe I'm doing fine right now. Let me just keep my social distancing and go about my business, but it is nice to see that in Canada, according to a CDC survey, compared to November where the percentage of people wanting to get the vaccine was more around 60%, now that has come up to about 80%. And I think two things, eight people seeing people around them, getting them without adverse side effects, and also education and I think education is key, letting people understand what the vaccine is about actually didn't like the approach of. Look who's getting the vaccine, so you can too! The Queen's getting vaccinated so it's safe for you or, you know Biden's getting vaccinated, so it's safe for you. I don't think that's necessarily the approach, I think we need, as scientists, to answer people's questions. The conspiracy theorists, we might never be able to reach them and I don't think they want to be reached, but a lot of people have valid questions and we just need to be prepared to answer them, and admit to what we don't know so we're still learning, we're still observing we're still tweaking things, and we have to just monitor how everything goes.
So, what is your advice to people who are still hesitant about getting the vaccine?
Dr. Agard 21:53
Find people you trust, to ask questions to people in the scientific community, talk to your doctor. A lot of people's opinion is skewed by all the misinformation and disinformation and if they had the correct information, then they wouldn't be so vaccine hesitant. So when I talk to people, my goal isn't oh I'm trying to convert you into a pro vaccine person. I want you to understand what's going on with the vaccine and then I believe that you will be comfortable with it. There are good sources out there that explain. I love the Journal Nature Reviews Immunology, it's targeted to immunologists, and not all of the articles are open access. There is a subscription to that, they do have some articles that are free to access and geared to a broader audience and that's where they really break down the science.
Great, thank you so much Dr. Agard for taking the time to be on our show. And on that note, everyone get educated and stay safe, and enjoy your summer, okay.
Dr. Agard 22:56
Okay, thank you very much.
Episode 2: Dr. Eric Da Silva on alcohol science for the holidays
How is good quality alcohol produced? Why do you get sleepy after a big meal? What is the science between pairing alcohol with foods? With a passion for distilling and a research focus on separation science and analytical chemistry, Dr. Eric Da Silva of the Department of Physics talks about the science of alcohol in time for the holiday season. Disclaimer: The information in today’s episode is strictly for educational purposes. When consuming alcohol, it is important to drink responsibly and in moderation.
About Dr. Da Silva’s Distillery 02:03 | Alcohol Production Process 3:14 | Why Big Meals Make You Sleepy 13:35 | Pairing Foods and Drinks 18:58
Hi there, you're listening to On A Tangent, a podcast hosted by Ryerson's Faculty of Science. I'm your host, Sarah McIntyre. Holiday season is well underway and you know what that means, online Christmas gift shopping, colorful light displays, and of course, lots of food and drinks. Today, Dr. Eric Da Silva from the Department of Physics will teach us about alcohol science that you may find useful in time for the holiday season. Dr Da Silva's academic research focuses on separation science and analytical chemistry, and he spends his days studying and executing novel methods of making things pure and knowing exactly what's in the beaker. He's also the owner of Heads and Tails Distilleries. Before we begin, a disclaimer on today's subject matter, the information and today's episode is strictly for educational purposes when consuming alcohol, it is important to drink responsibly and in moderation, alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse is very real, and should not be overlooked and should be treated if it ever becomes a problem.
All right, so thank you so much for joining the show today Dr Da Silva, how's it going?
Dr. Da Silva 1:21
it's going great, you know this COVID pandemic, it's a little hard working from home but otherwise everything is going fantastic.
Are you ready for the holidays?
Dr. Da Silva 1:31
Yeah, I believe that I am going to be a little different with the lockdown and not being able to see family as usual but other than that I have all my Christmas shopping done so that's a big, big plus.
Yeah, great. I know since the lockdown a lot of people in Toronto were panicking to get their Christmas gift shopping plans done with but one thing that is still open are grocery stores and liquor stores which may be a good gifting option for the adults in their life. So let's talk a little bit about gifting alcohol and just alcohol science in general. You own a distillery, correct?
Dr. Da Silva 2:08
So tell us a bit about it.
Dr. Da Silva 2:11
Well, our distillery was opened several years ago and I've always had a big family connection to the production of alcohol and whatnot. So our distillery at the moment is just ramping up in order to start selling to the public, spirits and whatnot, but we've mostly been focusing on producing very high quality ethanol as a solvent for various applications in the cannabis industry and other industries that require very high purity, ethanol. So we're just now going through the process of getting our licenses to start selling to the public.
Interesting. What do you produce?
Dr. Da Silva 2:48
So we produce very high purity rectified ethanol. And we also produce spirits, such as vodkas, moonshines, whiskeys, gins and we also work to produce very high quality liqueurs as well.
Great, so talk me through the process of creating one of the alcohols or one of the spirits.
Dr. Da Silva 3:14
Well, alcohol production, whether it's for its spirit or just producing alcohol as a solvent, generally requires that we ferment a fermentable. So the first process is selecting the starting material that we're going to be using to produce the alcohol, and that also defines, to a large degree, what the ultimate spirit will be defined as. So, usually that can be anything from plain sugar to sugar byproducts such as molasses. We can use grains such as corn, wheat, malted barley, rye, even, etc. And we start by taking that raw ingredient and converting it into a fermentable sugar that can be used by yeast cells to ultimately produce the ethanol. So the first step is to select that grain or fermentable product, and to ferment it. So to ferment it, we also need to go through the process of selecting the yeast strain that we're going to be using which greatly influences the quality of the ethanol. And we also have to select what method of distillation we're going to be using, and ultimately filtration if necessary at the end. So the first step is selecting that starting material, and we use everything from plain sugar, all the way through to using grains such as wheat mixed with barley, as well as mixtures of corn and other grains, and we go through a process of mashing it to convert all of the all of the starches that are in those grains to sugar. And we then ferment it with the yeast. So that's the first step, the big challenging step for us is how do we make it as pure as possible, and good quality right. We're an artisanal distillery, we're not a massive distillery so that is a very time consuming step and it really mixes the art and the science aspect of this together. It takes a lot of experience, it takes a lot of trial and error. And ultimately, that's the process of distilling it's a mixture of the scientific separation science but also the ability to know what you're looking for, as a final product, and how to ultimately get it out of distill.
So you mentioned pure. Does pure equal better quality, like the purer it is the better it is?
Dr. Da Silva 5:40
Well a lot of people have this notion that you simply add yeast to some sort of a sugar solution, and all you get out of it in the end is pure alcohol mixed in with water, and effectively that distillation is just removing that alcohol component from the water really. It's a lot more complicated than that. When you start to introduce a yeast to a solution that contains sugars, the yeast will use that sugar as an energy source and it will start to grow, multiply and metabolize that sugar. And one of the main byproducts that it produces while it's doing that is ethanol, but it's not only ethanol. There are a whole other set of compounds that it can produce, and this will depend on the various conditions such as the temperature at which is fermenting the pH of the solution, what nutrients are available is it very nutrient dense ferment or is it a very nutrient lacking type of environment is a stress inducing environment or not. So we ferment that solution and produce the ethanol, but we also produce a compound known as congeners. And congeners, there's a whole variety of them. One of the common ones that you know we hear about with moonshine causing people to go blind, which is a myth that's out there is methanol. You'll also have some acetone, some aldehydes you'll have some acetal aldehydes esters being produced. This is what gives beer, a lot of its qualities that you like some of that banana bread quality comes from some of these compounds that you can get in very good quality beers. You'll also produce a lot of fusel alcohol. So alcohols that are more than two carbons in length. So, as two carbons. So, a lot of butanol isopropanol alcohol, you name it and it can be produced by these yeast cells. So the art of distilling is to take that solution that contains the ethanol that you want, but being able to separate out those compounds, Because they're not very pleasant. In fact, methanol is actually toxic. So you need to be very careful in getting those out. You also need to be very careful in what nutrients you use, things like urea that were traditionally used as a nitrogen source can also produce a lot of carcinogens when it reacts with ethanol and the heat. So these are all things that you have to account for the to your answer and what's good quality spirits right. That is a very big topic, it will depend on who you ask. You will see a lot of master distillers who fight to the death on this. Some people would say that, you know that for a vodka for example, that you want to get to the purest, most neutral of ethanol and to mix it with with water and that's effectively your vodka and but the other side of this is that you sort of want some of those congeners in your final product, to give it a flavor characteristic, right, you want to know what the starting material was. So, ultimately, that's a big question. I mean, so yes, it's a very tedious process to get very high purity neutral ethanol, but then you lose all of the flavor and characteristics of the drink. So really the art is to be able to produce good quality ethanol with enough of these containers that you know what you're drinking. Other spirits, such as whiskies and tequilas and brandies have a lot of these congeners that remain inside of the drink and that's what gives it its distinctive characteristic. They're so distinctive that from a forensic toxicology point of view, you can likely tell what someone has had to drink through a blood sample, because of the relative proportions of these so I mean that is a characteristic of the drink you're drinking is the, these congeners so rums for example have been this will give you this distinct profile, brandies definitely, whiskeys. Even wines, the tannins would be considered a congener as well. So, I mean, what's good quality ethanol? It really depends on who you ask, but in my opinion, it's one that's been very carefully distilled, not scrubbed by filtration, and it's something that has character to it. So yeah.
When you're looking for a good quality alcohol does cheaper mean lower quality and more expensive mean higher quality?
Dr. Da Silva 10:16
One of the, I think aspects of a distillery that would surprise a lot of people is that there are some distilleries out there that don't distill at all. In fact for vodkas, and this is where, again, some master distillers would get very angry, and start fighting for. It's not uncommon to have these distilleries in quotations just purchase off ethanol. And they will just filter the heck out of it. They'll use activated charcoal and they'll just filter it and filter it. That is a cheaper way of producing vodka and generally you'll get a very neutral, if not a harsher type of vodka. So one of the ways to sort of circumvent that is by adding a smoothing agent so a cheaper vodka would generally, not all of them but probably a lot of them contain things like cholesterol and some sugars to sort of smooth out that burning sensation that we get. That is not as time consuming, of a task as distilling multiple times so very high quality spirits, generally are distilled many times in order to ensure that smoothness and that quality, that takes a lot more time, that takes a lot more effort. And generally, is more expensive. It also reflects, like what the starting material is so some of the higher end vodkas, at least from a marketing perspective will claim that they're made from things like grapes and other, you know, more expensive starting materials than something like corn, or potatoes or whatever beets, whatever it may be. So, price point does not necessarily mean better quality, it really depends really on personal taste. If anything, but it there's so many factors that go into that, what material was used to actually ferment the alcohol and ultimately how it was distilled and how it was filtered if at all. A lot of them are gimmicky as well I found, I mean, again, like I said a lot of distilleries do not even produce their own ethanol and one of the selling points that you will see is this whole idea of multiple filtrations and going through filtering over gold or filtering over you know these exotic crystals or whatever it may be. And in my opinion I think a lot of people in the industry his opinion is that more with gimmicks than anything else, I mean at the end of the day what makes it very high quality vodka is the attention to detail and that separation process that's done during distillation, so expensive does not necessarily mean better quality. You really just have to buy what you feel you like and those are characteristics that you have to look out for. You want something that's been really distilled out very lightly filtered, or do you want something that is just made from an exotic material and something that you just want on your shelf, it really depends.
Going on to the next topic. Whenever we have big meals, everyone seems to be sleepy afterwards. Is it the food coma, is the turkey to blame, is the alcohol to blame, what is it?
Dr. Da Silva 13:27
That's a very interesting question and it's something that, believe it or not, I've been asked a lot. I think we all go through that, where you know Thanksgiving and Christmas, especially in our western culture, have really been associated with a big turkey-based meal and, generally, people get tired after that meal so the question is, why, why do people get tired after, after these big meals. And, I mean, that's a bit of a multi pronged question there so it's a break it up alcohol. First, yes, it doesn't make you sleepy. But there's a lot to say about that, when it comes to the alcohol consumption and sleep quality, and it's something that I think a lot of people ignore or are unaware of. So alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. So it will cause sleepiness, simply by virtue of being a CNS depressant but that is only the first phase of what alcohol does to us when we're talking about sleep. Shortly after that a few hours after your last drink. You actually release Epinephrine, and your heart rate increases and usually this causes people to wake up in the middle of the night. It's not uncommon for people who have had a night of binge drinking to feel those heart palpitations, and in very severe cases even go to the hospital for that but during the holidays, someone who is having something to drink with their meals, etc, in the shorter term yes it will probably cause some sleepiness, or it can be. Turkey on the other hand is, I think it's a myth at least. The literature out there points to that, I mean, one of the reasons that whole myth is sort of out there is that we need to discuss and think about how we actually fall and remain asleep, we produce a hormone called melatonin and it's something that a lot of us have heard about a lot of people may even be taking it as a supplement to help with sleep, but our pineal gland will release melatonin, depending on the amount of light that effectively we're seeing so if it starts to get dark. We will start to release melatonin and that is what signals our body to start the process of going to sleep, and staying asleep. And that is what gives us our restful night's sleep is fall asleep, our body is now in that sleep phase and in the mornings when there is now light reverse happens we know that it's time to wake up, it's our sleep wake cycle that we have that is regulated by melatonin. Now the reason it's important to know a little bit about melatonin is that the whole concept around the turkey is that there is a lot of tryptophan in turkey, and that is the precursor to a neurotransmitter known as serotonin, which is then, which is what is modified in the pineal gland for melatonin. So tryptophan is effectively the precursor to melatonin. So the idea is if you're eating a lot of turkey, you're getting a lot of tryptophan in your system. Therefore, you're going to go, you're going to produce more melatonin and get sleepy. But the reality is that if you really look at the amino acid composition of Turkey versus other meats, it's pretty much the same, so they're like turkey itself is not really the explanation there as far as I'm concerned, and that's what the literature sort of points at is that it's not really the turkey, that's causing the problem in terms of sleepiness. The idea is that, you know, when you really look at what's happening around a holiday meal. Often, there's a lot of overeating happening in general, right and there's a lot of carbohydrates, heavy foods that are being consumed. So from my understanding anyways I could be wrong here, but the literature sort of suggests that it's really the higher intake of carbohydrates that are causing the sleepiness through various mechanisms and it's not really that dirty, but in any case, I mean it's really just a holiday meal type of thing people have heavier meals, people will argue a lot, probably just get tired. And then of course you have people who do drink are probably consuming some level of alcohol and there will be potentially some sleepiness, but that whole myth around turkey, in particular, I'm not totally convinced that it's the turkey itself. So I think it's a myth anyways.
Got it. And also, when you have those big meals everyone's cooking all day in the kitchen, you got to be tired from that too.
Dr. Da Silva 18:21
It's an energy issue there, I mean it's just a longer, bigger day.
So, one of the things I've seen trending on social media is things like charcuterie boards and like pairing little snacks with drinks.
Dr. Da Silva 18:40
You know when I think about pairings. There's some very big ones that pop into my mind. And one, the first one, is pairing wines with food. Wine is the bigger one, wines and beer just from the point of view that you're generally going to be consuming something that's lower alcohol throughout the course of a meal or course versus, you know spirits or cocktails or something along those lines, not necessarily always true but that's I think the general sort of mentality about these parents it usually revolves around wines beers, etc. So one of the, we were talking about those congeners at the beginning, and one of the things to think about when we're talking about wines is the tannin content. So tannins in wines give a very distinct mouthfeel. In fact, you know, for anyone who does not drink I mean eating an under ripe banana for example gives you that very waxy, almost dry feeling in your mouth. That's what you can get with very high tannic drinks. So that is one of the components to consider when pairing wines and food. Now, when we're talking about pairings it's important to note that you know when we're looking at an experience of eating that we're not only discussing taste I mean taste is only one sort of part of that. The other of course being texture of the food, mouthfeel of the food, and our smell, I mean if you remove the sense of smell, I mean our taste is just not there anymore it's not certainly not the same. So, a lot of this goes into pairing is, you know, it's all, it's a matter of how the pairing influences the mouthfeel the texture of the mouth, as well as it enhances and complements the taste and complements of the aromas that we're experiencing in our mouth and these cavities. So going back to the tannins, I mean this is one that I feel is a big one, it comes down to when you're sort of delineating between what would be a very high fat, and greasy meal, versus what it is not. So you can imagine that something that is very greasy like a burger or something along those lines will make your mouth a little slimy or greasy. So how you counterbalance that? Well, one way and it's something that I think is pretty common is to use a very tannic wine something that has a lot of tannins in it sort of counterbalances that greasiness simply by giving your mouth that rougher tannic feeling that you would normally get so very bold tannic wines for example would likely go well with very greasy foods. So when you're dealing with meat cold cuts or burgers or very heavy meat dishes, or whatever it is, usually you would probably want to go with a very bold red wine that's tannic in nature. On the contrary, right when you're dealing with things that are very, you know, very salty for example like seafood that usually are counterbalanced well with very nice light white wines, or with that, you know, crisper lighter flavor or even things like champagne, Proseccos, etc. Usually complement that saltiness that you would have from seafood, something like oysters or whatever it is. So that's one of the aspects. It's not everything but it's there but it's important to note that, you know our perception of foods really comes down not only to taste but to that mouthfeel as well. It's not uncommon to talk to someone who doesn't like a certain food, and, and hearing that exact same comments, a common one being mushrooms right where people enjoy the taste of mushrooms but can't handle that texture in their mouth. So it's, that's one of the reasons why that pairing works: you end up having that greasiness cut by that tannic nature of the wine. Another thing to consider, this is one that there's a bit of argument on I guess again it's a personal preference but has to do with pairing alcoholic drinks with very spicy foods. That is one that care should be taken into account, because not everyone likes spice so what you want to ensure that whatever you're pairing with that spicy food is not overly enhancing the spice, either. Otherwise, it can be a very unpleasant experience for someone who is eating. So what makes a food spicy? So capsaicin is the component in chilis that makes it very spicy, and it doesn't like water, it's a very hydrophobic molecule. So one of the things to consider is how a drinker sort of pairing with a very spicy food is going to interact with the compound that's creating the pain and creating that spicy feeling in the mouth and I just call it the taste of pain when you're starting to deal with, with spicy foods is triggering triggering the mouth to sense pain as an irritant. Alcohol is also an irritant but alcohol can dissolve out that compound that is creating the spicy sensation in the mouth, so there's a bit of, you know, discussion out there on this, you know, if you start to have a very low alcoholic content beverage with spicy food. Then effectively , it's just really water that's in that solution. So it really is just going to spread that pain around, it's not going to do anything to dissolve it out of your mouth and into your tummy. So there is discussions out there that you know higher content higher alcohol content wines and drinks are better with spicy foods, whereas if you're going to have a drink that's very low, that's tending towards the end of water, then it's just going to enhance that spiciness, in your mouth and I'm sure everyone has experienced this, if you're eating very spicy chicken wings for example you go for a glass of water. It's not the same as if you're going to go for a glass of milk, or something along those lines that will dissolve that out and calm that sensation in your mouth. Another school of thought on this is that the alcohol is in fact an irritant and can also start to enhance that reaction in your mouth, you should actually be serving lower alcohol content wines, etc, with spicy foods. I have not really done any empirical studies on this or anything, but those are the sort of two considerations to think about with that type of food, and pairing is whether you're going to go with high alcohol content wines or other beverages. It is interesting because if you really think about it, you know, what a classic out there is chicken wings with beer and beer is actually very low content alcohol, it's 5% range but yet, it seems to be people happy and extinguishes the pain so I guess it's out there for whatever works for people. Yeah. Yeah, so those are the two main ones that I consider when looking at pairings. Another is like is like, as well for a lot of these pairings with things that are very robust in flavor go with very robust foods. That's about all I can say really about pairings.
Thank you so much for coming on our show and teaching us about alcohol science.
Dr. Da Silva 26:09
No problem, it was a pleasure to be here.
And we hope all our listeners stay safe and we wish everyone a merry Christmas, happy holidays and a happy New Year.
Episode 1: Dr. Anthony Bonato on being a gay mathematician
In our first episode, Dr. Anthony Bonato of the Department of Mathematics reveals what he’s got in store for the LGBTQ+ Math Day on November 18th, 2020. He shares his experience as a gay man in the field of mathematics and the importance of creating an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ mathematicians. This event is open to LGBTQ+ community members in the math field, their allies, and anyone else who is interested. For more information about this free virtual event and how to register, visit: https://math.ryerson.ca/~abonato/LGBTQ/#.
About LGBTQ+ Math Day 00:45 | Dr. Bonato's Journey 09:05 | Being an Ally 13:55 | LGBTQ+ Role Models 17:15 | Event Details 21:06
You're listening to the very first episode of On A Tangent, a podcast hosted by Ryerson's Faculty of Science. I'm your host, Sarah McIntyre. On today's show we have a very special guest. Meet Dr. Anthony Bonato, a professor in the Department of Mathematics at Ryerson. He's a gay man and his research is on complex networks and graph theory. He's with me virtually today to talk about his experience as an openly gay mathematician. He's one of the co-chairs for the LGBTQ+ Math Day, hosted by the Fields Institute taking place on November 18th.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today Dr. Bonato, how are you doing?
Dr. Bonato 1:57
I'm doing great, I'm doing great, really happy to be here.
Awesome. So you are the co-chair of the LGBTQ+ Math Day which is taking place on November 18. Tell us a bit about it.
Dr. Bonato 2:11
So, the event started talking with one of my colleagues here at Ryerson Michelle Delcourt, and we were talking about an event, talking about Equity Diversity Inclusion events across campus and more generally in the community. And I realized there never been quite like this in Canada, there have been a few events like this elsewhere. So one in the UK, I believe, and one in the US, and actually I gave a talk last fall at something called LGBTQ+ Stem, which is a couple day conference and I was one of the math speakers there. But I realized there was nothing like this for mathematicians, speaking to members of the LGBTQ plus community so Michelle started talking and we thought of the idea, and then I pulled in Lisa Jeffrey, who's a friend of mine, she's a professor at University of Toronto. And we applied for Fields Institute funding and funding for the Faculty Science and we got it and I guess the rest is history.
Awesome. So, this event is aimed at mathematicians specifically?
Dr. Bonato 3:10
I would say yes, although we definitely would encourage anyone who's interested in math, even if you're not a mathematician like you're a math student or someone in science or engineering and of course we know mathematics is used in a variety of disciplines, or even if you're just, you're not in STEM at all, and you're just curious and you're interested in the event. We encourage you to come. It's a free registration, and like I said there are talks, and the panel, so you can engage in it for sure.
So why is an event like this important for mathematicians and the LGBTQ community and their allies, and other people as well?
Dr. Bonato 3:44
I think the other people as well is what's the most important thing, one of the, one of the important things. We really want to be inclusive. I mean is an event that which is going to showcase LGBTQ+ mathematicians of faculty and students and postdocs but we want to appeal to everybody and even if you're an ally, and you want to come along and learn more with the community you can do that. And as to why you know why it's important, representation here is really critical. I think back to my own experiences. When I was a graduate student, all the way through to becoming a tenure track professor to the present day. I didn't really have great role models. I didn't really have any role models for most of my career. So having people who you know are also identify as LGBTQ+ that you can interact with, talk with, network with. I think that can have a potentially really profound impact on people, just to, you know, lessen the sense of isolation, a lot of people do feel, especially in the mathematical sciences.
Great, so, this event is, I guess, the first of its kind. What makes it so unique?
Dr. Bonato 4:48
Well, we've never done anything quite like this in Canada. Like I mentioned, there have been events like this in the UK. So there was something called LGBT+ Steminar, right in the UK, and there is an event LG and TBQ run in the US. But those were the first one was more stem. The second one is aimed at mathematicians, there's the LGBTQ plus STEM conference now which seems to be an annual event it happened last year where I spoke and then again this October. But there really are not many events that are of this nature. The Canadian Math Society ran a lunch, inviting people who are LGBTQ+, and their allies to come and have a chat, and it was a great discussion. But there hasn't been really like conferences or workshops like this in Canada, I think there are more, you'll hear more about them in the future in the very near future. Of course the pandemic has created a little bit of a wrinkle, maybe not so much a little, a big wrinkle in all this. But actually, I'll say one thing about that, just segwaying with the pandemic. You know we were originally going to be in July, and we moved to November, we were going to be in person in July, but potentially we have a much greater reach now. So, as of about last week we have over 200 registered participants, so I'm super excited about that and we probably will get more. I mean just the contrast that we had though you know maybe 40 in person allow people to actually you know come to Toronto come to Fields Institute and so on. And now they can just join in by zoom.
That's amazing. So why do you think it has only taken until now for an event like this to happen?
Dr. Bonato 6:29
You know, now is the point of power, right. It's the, it's, it just takes people to do it. And, you know, there could be some sort of reason as to timing like fate or whatever else. Just, you know, articulating the idea to other people, my friends, and thinking about planning it, applying for it and doing it. I think definitely the time is right to do this, I mean it is 2020, and we have had great strides with LGBTQ+ equality and rights in this country and there's still a lot more work to do, especially on the trans and non binary fronts, but elsewhere in the world, things are not that way. So you know, Canada can be a bit of a shining beacon here, and we hope that others will like use this as a, I guess. An example. What I'm really hoping is that people will attend, hear about it, and then be inspired themselves to do their own conferences and create their own events
is just like builds momentum, I guess.
Dr. Bonato 7:32
Absolutely, like a little spark and then it sets everything else on fire so, you know, we'll see what happens but definitely there has been, like when I started this work, EDI work a little more intentionally in my career, a couple years back there really were not many events, but since then I've spoke on a number of panels. You know my blog and writing on this topic has been well received and there are a number of other people in Canada and elsewhere who were doing this, and it's really important work it is work, but it is very important work to do.
So at the event, what sort of topics are the speakers going to be talking about?
Dr. Bonato 8:09
So we're asking people to present a snapshot of their research and also talk, if they're comfortable with a little bit of their journey and experiences as an LGBTQ+ academic, with the pandemic and with Zoom, what I found. I don't know what your experiences, is that hour long talks are a bit long. It's a little harder for me to pay attention really, I think my students probably feel the same way, while I'm doing remote teaching. So you know we've limited to half an hour so that does restrict down the time that people have. But we're going to see a mix of things. So for example, Emily Real, who's a professor at Johns Hopkins, she's going to talk about her very cutting edge research on something called infinite dimensional category theory, which has won awards for its really exciting pure mathematical work. And if you look at what Ron Buchmeier from Occidental College he's going to talk about his her opening speaker, he's going to talk about his applied mathematical research but also filter that through his experience as an openly gay black man in the LGBTQ+ mathematical community in the US, so we'll have lots of opportunities for kind of math discussions but also discussions about people's careers. And also I think for me identity is so critically important. Too often, LGBTQ most people put other things in front of their LGBTQ+ identity, you know saying like I'm a mathematician and a gay man, I'd like people to start thinking more like in my case, I'm a gay man, who's a mathematician, that's a critical piece of my identity. And we have to own that. And so we're gonna see a mix of things. And also just plug in at the end we have this panel which I referenced earlier, and we have Robin Gaudreau from University of Toronto, and Brian Katz, as a professor in the US, they're going to join the panel and Imogen Coe from our Faculty of Science is going to moderate it and we'll have an opportunity for feedback from people to ask questions and they'll talk about their experiences with guided questions and so on.
That's amazing. Okay, so speaking of, I guess, journeys, your own journey. Are you comfortable with speaking about your own?
Dr. Bonato 10:14
Well yes, very much so, yeah, yeah, no I'm highly comfortable talking about it maybe people want me to stop talking about. I've been very open, actually some people say I'm one of the more open positions but for me that sort of plays into that narrative, you know, it's so if you feel safe to do it. It's really important to be open to talk about these things, that's how change happens. So my journey, I grew up in rural Ontario, in Niagara, and felt pretty isolated, like I guess a lot of people from small towns do who are LGBTQ+ and underrepresented groups. And then in university again I didn't really see a lot of people who, who were like me, I knew one gay professor, and just a very small collection of gay students and peers, and even into the professoriat. So I became a professor in 1998, when I was out East in Mount Allison and then I went back to Ontario to Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University as a tenure track professor. I was open people knew I was gay, but it was something that basically was kinda like a Don't Ask Don't Tell at that time, 20 years ago. 20 years ago may not seem like a long time ago but it was very different. There was a social media, gay marriage was illegal in the country. And then I was very happy to come to Toronto I had a long distance relationship two body problem, they call it, where my, my now husband live in Toronto and I was living in Waterloo and then the job came up at Ryerson I jumped at that so I could live in Toronto I was commuting back and forth.
Dr. Bonato 11:52
Yeah it was doable, and I had an understanding department chair and Dean who allowed me to come in just a few times a week. And I know there are people with two body problems which are much worse like people I know someone who was in the Atlantic provinces who was going back and forth to Toronto. So, yeah, I get the Zoom now, it doesn't matter but certainly in person it's a challenge. But you know, my experiences in Waterloo I mean I'll tell one brief story. So gay marriage was very much up for debate at a time, at the federal level and also provincial level. And I remember calling my MPP in Waterloo, Kitchener-Waterloo at the time, and expressing my, you know, supportive of gay marriage, gay and lesbian marriage, and I got, I it was it was recording, so I just left my comment, and I got a message back I was away and I came home and messages said that there were 100 calls that day. To the Kitchener-Waterloo MPP about this, and I was the only person voicing support.
Oh my god.
Dr. Bonato 12:50
Yes, that, that really, you know, we live in our bubble, we have our friends or colleagues or allies, but you know that at that time was such a big deal for me. I'm not saying that was the reason I moved to Toronto, but I've always felt Toronto was an extremely open and welcoming place for people of all different backgrounds and experiences. That's been my experience largely. I've experienced discrimination here like I'm sure many other people have. But, Toronto has been really a place where I blossomed. And I think I've found my voice as a gay mathematician and activist.
That's great. So did you find any challenges like specifically in the math community or science community like is there a stigma towards gay people?
Dr. Bonato 13:37
As you would imagine that it's gotten much better. But there, there's still, there's not as much outright discrimination, although there, there still are examples of this. But what I find is there's this overwhelming silence. You know and silence, is, is not good. I think it's really, there's an opportunity here for allies who are the majority, I heard recently there was some discussion from a staff person from NSERC. They said that about 4 to 5% of applicants they're doing some statistics for the Canada Research share applicants, about 4 to 5%, identify as LGBTQ+. So that's, that's not zero, right, that's low I mean not we're talking like 95% If we can count that stat in the Math Community in the STEM community are not, do not identify as LGBTQ, they didn't disclose or identify. So we're kind of we exist in some sense at the mercy of the majority. Right. I mean this is, you know, gay marriage is something that could go away tomorrow, if you know if politicians voted away, right, so our rights very much our rights and freedoms are very much dependent on others as a minority. And so yeah, we really look to other, you know, our allies, we have to organize amongst ourselves, but we will look to our allies, or for support and direction here.
So what do you call for allies to do what, what would be the best thing for allies to support the community.
Dr. Bonato 15:09
That's a fantastic question. It's a question that I asked myself a lot, because I think it's not a completely answered question. I think, you know, one thing I think you can do is to say you're an ally, that's incredibly powerful. You know, for mathematicians maybe in their signature in their emails to put their pronouns. You know, you may be cisgendered, but, but doing that, it kind of reinforces the normality of doing that for people who are, you know, gender fluid or trans, you know, saying you're an ally, speaking up. You know it's one of those things. There have been a number of examples of situations in the math community where great people just stayed silent on issues. There was a recent sort of controversy in the math community where there was a very, very open letter, open discussion about diversity statements and hiring, and a very prominent mathematician said, I wont to get into the specifics, very prominent mathematician said they're a bad idea, and compared it to like McCarthyism, in the states in the 50s, and it created this whole cascading back and forth. People who were in favour of that comment, or people who were not. And what people forget is that we're talking about people. You know, diversity representation, you know, I learned from Imogen Coe, I believe, learned from Denise O'Neil Green's statement that diversity is a fact, inclusion is a choice. And obviously want to hire the best people, we're looking for excellence, but having a more diverse representation of people we hire at universities is so critically important. Most mathematicians kind of look, frankly, like me. Right? White, middle-aged guy.
Dr. Bonato 16:49
Yes, right, and that's, that's just the reality there's like under 20% of mathematicians in Canada are women, for example, right. And we need to change that we may need to make our profession, look more like Canada, look more like the rest of the world, and also to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ so, so back to your question about what you know how to be an ally, don't be quiet. You have a voice, use it. Also, you know, sort of complementing that is to listen. I've had people say to me like well you know things are better now everything is great and it's like they are better, it's true, the work is far from done and there's so much more work to do in this space.
Yeah, and even like recently on social media, I've seen a lot of people have been pushing to use pronouns in your bios for like all your accounts and stuff and I started doing that because it's just showing that you are an ally you show your support and it's, it's not a hard, it's not hard to put your pronouns in your bio.
Dr. Bonato 17:46
Absolutely. As I said some cisgender people think well why bother, but you know, it does help you feel a little more like it helps trans and non binary people if you're more included so things like that. Small things like that are so important like land acknowledgments with, for example, the Indigenous community things like how they help.
Did you have any role models growing up?
Dr. Bonato 18:08
Yeah, I have to say, I had none. I had mathematical role models, people in the history of math and my professors and looked up to, but I had no LGBTQ+ role models. And I guess I turned out okay. I've had a successful career, but I wonder, you know, if I had had those role models, what, how things would have been different, there's certainly for me a lot of stumbling around, you know, even now trying to build these communities, you know, having a small part of building community. I didn't have any and so I think that's incredibly important now. I talked to a lot of students and postdocs who, you know, ask me questions like for example I'm trans, and should I put that in my application for my PhD? Because they feel, I think understandably, that maybe if they just apply, blind, and go to a department or faculty university where they're, they're not going to be supported, that it could be a real disaster for them right. But at the same time they feel nervous like if I self-identify are people going to look, look at me differently, and those kinds of questions like I don't claim to know the answer to that, I have my own opinions but, you know, being able to talk to others about those kind of things. That's a very specific question that could really guide someone in their early career, having a large group of people having role models that can be really helpful.
Right. Um, so I guess I did a little bit of looking or research and I found Out Magazine publishes a list of like top influential LGBTQ+ people, and I looked through the list and, like, one or two at most were from stem, and they were like, CEO of a tech company or something like it was pushing it there, but, um, I know ASAP science are two gay men, and that's, that's a good representation in the science community are there anyone else?
Dr. Bonato 20:09
There is an organization in the US called Spectra and several Spectra of board members, or speakers in the day, but I have to say math is probably behind some of the other sciences. It's hard to I don't want to try and do comparisons. I've heard people say like in engineering for example there's not a lot of representation. I know physics. I was a panelist in a physics conference on EDI and I think physics is a little ahead of the curve as maybe biology and chemistry, but again, I have no real information about this. In mathematics really it's just sort of the beginning, the conversation is beginning and as you say, with Out Magazine, and other representation of STEM, LGBTQ+ people in STEM, there's, I don't know, in our culture in North America anyway, there can be a little bit of a thread of anti-intellectualism that happens, and I've certainly experienced that, and colleagues I know have as well. And, you know, for whatever reason, you know, a musician or someone sports who they make 70 million or something, contract, I mean they're put on pedestals and you know they're, it's wonderful. I can't do what they do. But at the same time I think we really need to focus on our thought leaders, not just in math, but in STEM and also not just in STEM but in in a whole academic intellectual pursuit, I mean there's there's so many brilliant minds out there who are LGBTQ+, you know, working in academia working in industry, as you mentioned some tech CEOs, I think probably we need to do a better job overall in our society, and sort of, you know, uplifting those people and you know, talking about their experiences.
I'll just plug the conference. So, I really would love everyone to attend, like I said it's free, it's November 18, which coincides with LGBT STEM Day, which is a global initiative. It starts around 12:45, our own Dean of Science David Cramb is going to be giving opening remarks, and then we have our speakers, I'll be talking too. And we'll have a panel, they'll definitely be opportunities for people to ask questions and to network. So just go on my website or google LGBTQ+ Math Day you can find the website quite easily and register on the Fields website. It's free and easy, and we hope to see everybody there.
Great, and I wish you best, best of luck at the event and thank you so much for taking the time to share your story today.
Dr. Bonato 22:35
That's great, Thank you so much.