The second Smarti Gras event was held on August 16 at the Instructional Building. This summer research celebration was a chance for student researchers to demonstrate their research projects through either presentations or posters. There were research projects from various programs, including biology, chemistry, psychology, and ICCIT.

The Medium spoke to a few researchers to find out more about their projects and what is next for them.

Project: “Commenting on Online Gossip Blogs: Emotional Valance and Use of Internet Memes”

The rapid progression of the entertainment industry, fueled largely by a blazing advancement in technology, has allowed for the production of a multilayered entertainment experience. Today, an average consumer can enjoy special effects, orchestrated soundtracks, a thoughtful screenplay, and more. However, in spite of all these electronic masterpieces, it is interesting to note that the same value can also be found in the simplest of “art” forms, namely the “meme.”

Memes have become a pillar in the world of entertainment. They are enjoyed over various platforms of social media, and popularized to the point of holding significant commercial value, as the board game “What do You Meme?” is currently gaining traction. Fortune Magazine described last year that in August 2016, according to Google Trends, which tracks how often people search for particular terms, search entries for “memes” surpassed those for “Jesus”.

But is there more to memes than meets the eye? Maham Zain, a fourth year Psychology student at the University of Toronto St. George campus, definitely thinks so. This past summer, Zain had the opportunity to work in the digital well being lab as a part of UTM’s summer research program. The Digital Well-Being Lab, led by Dr. Anna Lomanowska, focuses on studying online behaviour and interactions with digital devices to investigate how digital technologies can be used to promote well-being.

Currently active areas of research at the Digital Well-Being lab include the study of virtual intimacy and virtual social touch, the expression and perception of empathy online, and online self-care. Alongside her colleagues, Zain aimed to delve deeper into the meaning of the meme, or the MEMEing, if you will. The term ‘meme’ was originally coined by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene, where he described them as units of culture. Zain and her colleagues worked to fine tune this definition and apply it to reality. Together, they looked at the different features that make up a meme, classifying any image with impact text and strong displays of emotion as having “meme features.”

Zain also studied online gossip blogs such as Jezebel, drawing a connection between the tone of the articles and the presence of memes in the comments section. In order to determine the emotional tone of the article, they used a linguistic analysis software called LIWC. The group was able to establish that articles with comments containing memes tend to have a higher overall positivity score. This allows the group to conclude that memes have in fact become a medium for people to express their emotions, which can further have effects on whether articles are well received.

When asked about her experience this summer, Zain describes her time as “extremely enjoyable” and she implores all UofT students to get involved and take advantage of research opportunities. She mentions the importance of narrowing down one’s research interests, noting that it “is useful to think about the courses you have enjoyed and why” and the associated importance of networking and getting to know your professors. She elaborates how starting small, with low-commitment volunteer positions can be beneficial. Zain also believes her experience “helped [her] work on [her] skills as an undergraduate researcher.”

Placebo Analgesia and Associated Changes in Neuronal Activity

Over the summer, Areej Fatima, a fourth-year student pursuing a double major in biology for health sciences and psychology, along with her colleagues at the PAIN lab, continued investigations on the activation and spread of neuronal activity in CD-1 mice. Preliminary results suggest the implication of an activated endogenous opioid receptor system as being one of the contributing factors underlying the placebo effect.

The word “placebo” comes from the Latin word place’bo’, meaning “I shall please,” but has a literal definition of a substance or treatment with no active therapeutic effect. In medical research, randomized interventions can assign a placebo—a treatment made to resemble an active medication or therapy—to a treatment group because it is believed that patient expectations about the effectiveness of a drug can influence results.

Placebo analgesia refers to the phenomenon of experiencing pain reduction after the use of a placebo.

Fatima mentions how her interest in pain psychology and neurophysiology was piqued after attending lectures for the PSY391, Psychology of Pain. Then, Fatima began discussions with the PAIN lab Principal Investigator and PSY391 course instructor professor Loren Martin. “I mentioned I was interested through the course and asked to meet him in his office hours to ask him more about his research,” says Fatima. She then began working in the lab as a volunteer, continuing in the summer as a Research Opportunity Program student.

“When I started I wasn’t too familiar with mice,” says Fatima, “but now I know the mouse brain atlas and frequently used techniques for slicing brains.”  Fatima mentions how initial days in a lab can be challenging, especially when faced with complex and delicate laboratory equipment, and so she says how “I was here pretty much right after my exams ended for the winter semester, trying to familiarize myself with how the lab works.”

Fatima will continue work on placebo analgesia in the PAIN lab throughout the year, in the form of an undergraduate thesis project. She describes how her initial thesis work beginning in the fall will include what is referred to as hot plate testing. A hot plate test can measure pain responses to high level-pain after learned cues. “We condition mice with morphine or saline and block receptors to see if the same effect is seen or if the same structures are activated – basically if the same neuronal activity is seen,” says Fatima.

Although she mentions how her experience has been worthwhile and rewarding, Fatima discusses the importance of taking the time to understand your research interests. “I love learning about brain physiology and I enjoy what I do in the lab, but research is time intensive and requires patience,” she says. Fatima describes further how “you have to get used to being in the lab and waiting on your experiments for a greater part of the day, but I hope to continue graduate studies in a similar area, so it has been very good training for me.”

Project: The Genomic Landscape of Polymorphic Transposable Elements in Chlamydomonoas Reinhardtii

Shanza Ayub a third-year double major in biology and math, pursued a ROP (BIO299Y) over the summer in Professor Rob Ness’s lab (an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at UTM.) The Ness lab combines experimental evolution and genomics to investigate how the generation of variation at the molecular level interacts with genetic drift and natural selection. This is to determine patterns of biological diversity. Ayub’s project focused on the genomic landscape of polymorphic transposable elements in chlamydomonoas reinhardtii, which studies the movement of transposable elements, also known as “the jumping gene,” throughout the genome.

When Ayub was searching for possible graduate studies, she wanted to combine her interest in math and biology, which lead her to find bioinformatics.

Her project aimed to describe  genome evolution and the spontaneous mutations in a single celled alga called chlamydomonas. This alga, Ayub mentions, is used because it’s easy to culture, and has a small genome which can be used to study the eukaryotic genome.

Transposable elements are sections of DNA that move or “jump” from one genome to another and makes up 50% of the human genome. In early studies, TE was considered “junk DNA” but after further research, scientists found that TE plays a role in gene expression and helps to create different types of cells, depending on the sequence they move in to. Also known as a transposon, TEs switching positions throughout the genome can cause mutations.

Rob Ness’s Lab also focuses on the mutation and recombination  seen with TEs using chlamydomonas reinhardtii. The lab wants to see how new mutations affect the alga’s fitness, take whole genome sequences, and combine those results with experimental data to learn how they function and predict fitness levels of future mutations. The Ness lab also looks at recombination rate variation by combining experimental recombinant lines with genome sequencing. The group further aims to understand how recombination variation depends upon the individual and which genome characteristics predict the recombination rate on a small scale.

Ayub worked on how TEs move throughout the genome, and where they accumulate. She, along with her colleagues, looked at the distribution of TEs, identifying where they are in the genome.

Ayub’s work primarily consisted of gene mapping which required her to learn Python in the first month of the research program. Ayub mentions how the project will continue into the year, since obtaining substantial results can take time. “TE variants have to be found and mapped which can take 9 to 12 hours per variant,” says Ayub, “but in the end results can be quite rewarding.”  She goes on further to say, “I had a lot of fun working in Professor Ness’ Lab and it helped me explore my interest in cell biology and participate in research that can help us understand how genomic evolution and gene expression is affected in an environment with mutations and movement.”

Ayub presented her research at the summer research celebration on August 16, 2017.

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