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Computer Science department lends a hand to high school students

Nelani Skantharajah and Tierra Williams received a gold medal at the Metro Science Fair on April 6th, for their project on cell phone radiation. Well done!

“We learn by doing” – Faciendo Discimus*

Nelani Skantharajah and Tierra Williams had a perfect topic for their school science fair. It was simple, their peers were intrigued, and it touches 90% of the world’s population. But they lacked the key instrument. Unfazed, they approached Ryerson University…


two female adolescents stand in front of research poster

Tierra Williams and Nelani Skantharaj stand by their research.

The two girls from Danforth Collegiate in Toronto wanted to study the levels of radiation emitted by cell phones. They had read conflicting reports about the dangers of cell phone use, and knew that some held concerns about the impact on children. The incidence of brain tumours in people under 20 has risen in Canada recently, in a timeframe roughly corresponding to the rise of mobile technology. Furthermore, the brains of growing children are likely more vulnerable to radiation. To date, the evidence of an irrefutable link is thin; but Skantharajah and Williams wanted to get some facts and raise awareness.

“The idea just took hold,” Williams said. “We all use our phones,” Skantharajah explained, and the word “use” is telling. The phone is a collective tool. Indispensable.  

Both girls are in grade 11. Like thousands of students in the GTA they had entered their project with the hope of being chosen to advance to the big Toronto Science Fair in April. (Each school can send 10 projects.) Skantharajah and Williams were keen, so it was hard to accept when their idea got derailed by lack of funds.

“It was frustrating,” Skantharajah admitted. “We saw that it was going to take a high-quality meter—better than the one we had—to detect and measure units at that level.” The cost was out of their reach.

So they approached universities in Ontario asking to borrow the meter they needed. Ryerson was the only one to reply “Yes.”

Imogen Coe, dean of the Faculty of Science, put Skantharajah in touch with the Department of Computer Science. As it turned out, the department did not own the kind of meter the girls needed. So the chair, Alireza Sadeghian, promptly bought one—a Tenmars TM-196 3-Axis RF Field Strength Meter—and loaned it to the students, with a plan to use it later for undergraduate teaching. Typically, such a meter (at a cost of $350) is used by researchers to measure the signal strength of mobile and wireless devices.

radiation meter in hands of female

Meter in hand, a new problem emerged. All the testing was to happen at school with their friends’ (and their own) cell phones—representing four different models, from Galaxy Nexus to Blackberry Curve 9320—but it was hard to find any space free of radiation interference. “We tried to turn everything off in the classroom, but there were too many devices,” Williams explained. “It was better in the hallway.” The real eye-opener came at home, where radiation levels were higher still. As it says in the girls’ report, “we are surrounded by radiation.”

Fortunately, most of us are exposed to levels that are below the danger line (though Skantharajah and Williams point out that standards vary between countries; some parent groups in Ontario have voiced concern over WiFi in schools). One characteristic of cell phones, however, is proximity to our brains. Skantharajah and Williams note that while it’s unlikely that cell phones contribute “a significant amount of radiation” to our total exposure, “the fact that the device is held so close to our bodies may have serious effects.” They cite a study (2012) that shows an increase in brain glucose metabolism in the “region closest to the [cell phone] antenna”—though the study does not speculate on clinical significance.

Skantharajah and Williams put their results on display at the Danforth Collegiate science and technology fair in March. They also brought the Ryerson meter. “Everyone wanted us to test their phones!” Skantharajah said. Students had clustered around their table. Were they sobered by the results? “It got us all thinking,” said Williams. “We definitely feel more cautious. But people won’t stop using their phones,” she added. “They might text more, though,” Skantharajah offered. You don’t hold a phone as close to your body when you text.


bar graph showing results from cell phone test

A sample of the data in Skantharajah's and Williams's report.

Highlights of Project Results

  • older phone models emit more radiation
  • radiation is highest when you call out; lower (but still present) when your phone is idle.
  • radiation emission is highest near the antenna.
  • by holding your cell phone even a few centimetres away from your face, you can reduce the amount of radiation.
  • metal cases (a faraday cage, and copper) reduced some of the radiation.
  • denim offers no protection!

young girl speaks on cell phone, brick wall in background

Health Canada recommends that parents limit cell phone use by children, just in case.

Their project was a big hit: with nine other groups from Danforth Collegiate, they will present their results at the city-wide fair on April 6th. They are the only girls, among six of these groups, to represent grade 11.

Is this ratio of girls to boys significant?  Skantharajah and Williams are in the MaST program at Danforth—a program that allows high school students to focus on math, science and technology. Its lead teacher, Roberta Tevlin, is finding effective ways to correct the balance.

The challenge—of opening science to more girls—may have prompted Dean Coe to consider Skantharajah’s email request. Yet Ryerson has a history of outreach. The girls’ physics teacher, Deryk Jackson, praised Ryerson for its role in the community—from general science outreach to its support for a teacher review of the current TDSB science curriculum.


For Skantharajah and Williams, a single gesture made a difference: “We want to thank Ryerson!”

And Ryerson is cheering them on.


*“We learn by doing” is the motto of Danforth Collegiate—home to MaST.

Further links:

Girls in Science: A No-Brainer? (a continuation of this story)

Danforth Collegiate MaST Program

Toronto Science Fair


Written by Megan O'Connor



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