Highlighting Ryerson research: Six faculty members and their accomplishments

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By Kayla Zhu

Oftentimes, scientific research and its potential can be uninteresting or disconnected from the larger community. It’s often hard to visualize concepts and scientific jargon can be a barrier for some to grasp what a researcher does or a paper discusses. Research conducted at Ryerson isn’t immune to this. It’s important, however, that some light is shed, in a consumer-friendly way to the research happening on campus.

What many people don’t know is that Ryerson professors are constantly working in the background on large and impactful research, with their teachings in the classroom acting as more of a side hustle to the projects they work on year-round.

Recently, six Ryerson faculty members were recognized for the 2020 Scholarly, Research and Creative Activity (SRC) awards.

The Eyeopener spoke to each of the award recipients to highlight their work.

Michael Arts on the study of food chains

Through his research, Michael Arts of the department of chemistry and biology discovered how fatty acids can be used for diagnostic purposes, which helps scientists understand the flow of carbon through food chains. 

Sources of fatty acids include fruits, vegetable oils, seeds, nuts, animal fats and fish oils. 

According to Arts, fatty acids can be used as an indicator of who eats out of the food web—for example, when spiders eat a fly, for example. It can also detect changes in the food web due to factors such as climate change and contaminants.  

“It turns out that the old adage ‘you are what you eat,’ well, it’s really true,” said Arts. “When we eat a diet rich in saturated fatty acids, that affects our bodies and our bodies reflect that diet.”

Arts researches aquatic and terrestrial food webs using fatty acids as biochemical markers. He sees fatty acids, which are one of the three major macromolecules of life, as a form of “common currency” in the science world. 

“I can walk into a lab that does plant research and find common interests with people or I can walk into a fishery lab and find common interests,” said Arts.

Arts says that fatty acids are “critical” for visual health and acuity, brain health and growth and cardiovascular health. 

“They really are essential. Until we can make them very efficient in our bodies, we do need to get them from our diet,” said Arts.

Michael Arts was recognized for the Sarwan Sahota Ryerson Distinguished Scholar Award for making “an outstanding contribution to knowledge or artistic creativity in their area(s) of expertise while employed at Ryerson.”

Sara Edge on equitable environmental studies

Sara Edge of the department of geography & environmental studies won the Social Innovation and Action SRC award. Edge said winning the award was like “wind in her sails,” especially as an early career researcher who was recently tenured.

When faculty are hired, they undergo a five-year probationary period which is where Edge says they “really have to prove themselves” by obtaining funding and getting published.

Edge says her research is community-focused and involves getting the information back to the public through creative ways, such as art spaces or public knowledge-sharing events or panels. Her research areas also focus on environment and health with an emphasis on equity. 

“As we redevelop our cities and invest in more sustainable futures and healthier environments, I’m really interested in who actually gets to benefit from those changes, who actually has access to a lot of these environmental investments that we’re making and who is being excluded and negatively impacted as a result,” said Edge.

Edge’s role as a community researcher is referred to as a “boundary spanner.” She says this role involves finding common ground amongst diverse stakeholders and identifying underlying assumptions so that people can communicate better across different disciplines and worldviews.

“Not all institutions are very good at that. Sometimes they keep that knowledge within the ivory tower and it’s only academics that get to hear the results of these findings,” said Edge. 

“It’s really great to be recognized and to have Ryerson also recognize the importance of social innovation and community knowledge mobilization.”

Sara Edge has been awarded the Social Innovation and Action SRC Award for a completed rigorous research project, typically with community partners, focused on advancing innovation in social goals or action.

Xiao-Ping Zhang on artificial intelligence (AI) processing

From the department of electrical, computer and biomedical engineering, Xiao-Ping Zhang specializes in research around signal and information processing, machine learning, AI theory and application. His work in the development of AI tools has contributed significantly to the financial technology industry.

Zhang took his sabbatical at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business from 2006 to 2008 to research and develop information processing tools to analyze the digital information in the financial market.

His signal and information processing research also includes multimedia content processing—processing what is posted to social media sites. His research looks at new techniques and theories that address research problems in video, image, audio content analysis application, such as fact-checking videos or images by using signal processing, statistical modelling and AI methods.

Xiao-Ping Zhang was recognized for the Sarwan Sahota Ryerson Distinguished Scholar Award for making “an outstanding contribution to knowledge or artistic creativity in their area(s) of expertise while employed at Ryerson.”

Frank Russo on the speech and aging

Frank Russo of the department of psychology is the director of the Science of Music Auditory Research and Technology (SMART) Lab, a research station where scientists perform studies on different music and it’s effects on brain activity. His role involves frequent liaising with different parties—from students to individuals in the nonprofit and private sectors—often on an international level. His lab frequently welcomes international students and faculty visitors. 

SMART Lab hopes to advance understanding of how speech is processed in the ageing brain, particularly in people with hearing loss. 

Russo and his team are continuing to advance the Singwell project, an international group of researchers that are looking at the benefits of singing for supporting conversation in people with communication disorders.

“[communication disorders are] everything from Parkinson’s to aphasia to hearing loss,” Russo said.

Russo’s lab is also very active in knowledge translation, which involves not only publishing for other researchers, but interfacing with community groups and societies that support people. This involves hosting public talks and publishing papers that are meant for practitioners or people living with disorders.

“These kinds of documents end up having an impact on people like general practitioners, physicians, gerontologists and people that work in long term care,” said Russo. “That’s very important for me that they see some of the results of the work that we’re up to.”

Frank Russo has been awarded the Collaborative SRC Award for his collaborative work in the SMART Lab which investigates the neurological bases of speech, music and hearing.

Elsayed Elbeshbishy on wastewater

Elsayed Elbeshbishy of the department of civil engineering and his research team are trying to change the way people think about waste and wastewater. 

“People think that the wastewater and all the waste, in general, is a contaminant or something that we need to get rid of,” said Elbeshbishy. “Recently, we are thinking about it differently. It’s a source of different materials that we can recover a lot of things from.”

Elbeshbishy uses two main processes in his research: anaerobic digestion and dark fermentation. Anaerobic digestion converts the waste into methane gas and upgrades solid waste into fertilizer. Dark fermentation is a variation of anaerobic digestion that can produce hydrogen gas, volatile fatty acids or alcohol using the waste.

He says recovered gases like methane and hydrogen can be used for “many applications” such as heat, electricity and conversion to renewable natural gas.

“We believe that renewable energy is part of the solution to our climate change challenge. And our part, with the biological conversion of waste to energy, should play a significant role,” said Elbeshbishy.

Elbeshbishy references a report from the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association suggesting that biomethane could make up 30 per cent of the UK’s 2030 carbon budget and deliver a 6 per cent reduction in total UK greenhouse gas emissions.

Elbeshbishy’s goal is to have a research centre focused on converting biosolids into bioenergy. “I think we have high potential to be leaders on that part, converting wastes to bioenergy and resource recovery in general,” he said.

Elsayed Elbeshbishy has been awarded the Early SRC Career Excellence Award, which is presented to researchers within their first five years who have made an “outstanding contribution” to develop independent research programs.

Patrice Dutil on Canadian history and politics

Patrice Dutil, a professor in the department of politics & public administration, has been recognized for his contributions to the sharing of Canadian scholarly activity in the fields of history and politics. 

One of his most prominent projects is his podcast, Witness to Yesterday, which is co-created with RTA students at the Allan Slaight Radio Institute. Dutil started Witness to Yesterday after noticing a lack of podcasts highlighting Canadian scholars. In the podcast, Dutil sits down with Canadian scholars and authors to discuss particular events, trends and personalities through a historical lens.

“We’re all extremely busy. This is a way for me to share the knowledge that has been generated and to mobilize and get more people aware of what scholars are writing about Canada,” said Dutil. “My project is very nationalistic. I care about Canada, I care about the evolution of Canada.”

Dutil also founded the Literary Review of Canada in 1991 to create a platform for Canadian writers and scholars to critically review books and text.

He hopes to bridge the gap between academics and the students and the public through new forms of knowledge dissemination—like his podcast.

“I’m utterly convinced that if scholars are going to survive as a profession, they have to make the public aware of what they do,” said Dutil.

Dutil believes that Ryerson’s innovative approach to research has a lot to offer to the Canadian academic community. “I think that with things like the podcast shows that there is a spirit of innovation at Ryerson,” said Dutil. “And my small my own small way, I hope to demonstrate that.”

Patrice Dutil has been awarded the Knowledge Mobilization and Engagement Award, which is presented to one or more researchers who have demonstrated outstanding effort in communicating research beyond the University and made a significant impact in shaping evidence-based policy and practice. 

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