University of Calgary

Generation R

BY BRUCE WEIR
PHOTOGRAGHY BY EWAN NICHOLSON

willekes Master’s student Carolyn Willekes uses her “bareback laboratory” to research ancient cavalry, while Taylor Hayward is perfecting a tiny device that will help soldiers detect chemical weapons. These student researchers are part of a new generation of U of C students who are learning through research. They’re building their own knowledge and generating ideas that may one day change the world.

THE SIGNS that the ancient Greeks and Romans are close to Carolyn Willekes’ heart are abundant. First there is the convincing way she pivots in her chair when demonstrating how archers mounted on horseback fired their arrows. Then there’s the fact that she gets a little breathless—as though her words were galloping ahead of her—when talking about Alexander the Great’s use of his cavalry. If you still need convincing, all you have to do is look a little closer to her heart because Willekes wears a necklace adorned with a copy of an Alexander coin and a small talisman used by modern Greeks to ward off the evil eye. This combination of the ancient and contemporary is also found in her approach to research. Willekes defended her master’s thesis last August and started on her PhD a month later. Although a master’s thesis called The Greek Warhorse: Its Breeding, Training and Military Role wouldn’t seem to offer a lot of scope for primary research, Willekes devised a simple way of testing her theories: She just gets on a horse with her bow and arrow (or sword or spear) and goes for a ride.

Willekes, 25, has been around horses ever since her parents gave her riding lessons for her 10th birthday. This practical knowledge was key to devising her research question. “I thought what if I took my knowledge from training horses and knowing what horses are actually like and tried to figure out how you actually put them on a battlefield?” she says. “Because if you know anything about horses it seems like the worst idea in the world. These things are afraid of everything and they’ll run away from anything.”

Along with fellow students Ryan Jones, who has a talent for making weapons, and Alison Mercer, whose parents own horses, Willekes has created a kind of bareback laboratory. In her master’s thesis, she writes about her findings regarding the sarissa, a long spear used by the Macedonian cavalry, which scholars generally believed to be about 4.5-metres-long. But Willekes was suspicious of that claim “If you have a small pony and no saddle or stirrups, how is that going to work?” she asks. “We made one that was 3.5- metres-long, and it wobbles like spaghetti when you ride.” She concluded that the sarissa could have been no more than 2.5 metres long. According to Waldemar Heckel, her thesis supervisor, Willekes’s research has larger implications. “Carolyn’s work shows that new methods can be applied,” he says, “and also that what is generally dismissed as ‘reenactment’ can be a very serious business—indeed an essential pursuit.”

WILLEKES’S WORK also demonstrates how student research can be an essential pursuit, one that makes real contributions to knowledge in a variety of fields. (Her work also shows how learning can flow from student to professor because, although he is a little afraid of horses, Heckel promised he would learn to ride if Willekes stayed at the U of C for her PhD. He intends to honour his pledge.)

Even when the research does not lead to anything as dramatic as overturning a previously held belief, the work has dramatic benefits for the students who undertake it. “New ideas, if they are to have any value, must be based on a fresh study of the evidence available,” Heckel says. “Students need to have access to the same materials in order to understand and evaluate a scholar’s conclusions.” In other words, research inculcates a solid approach to studies in diverse fields. What’s more, it is just as important to the undergraduate as it is to the grad student, to the aspiring academic as to those for whom the thought of starting a PhD immediately after completing a master’s produces either tears or laughter.

haywardTAYLOR HAYWARD is definitely not in this last camp. After finishing his undergraduate degree in chemistry, he started his master’s and soon decided to switch to the fast track and work towards his PhD. His enthusiasm just deepened as his studies advanced. “In undergrad, you’re handed a procedure manual and told, “Okay, do this,’ he says. “Whereas with my research there is an ultimate goal and you just take baby steps to get there.” The fact that Hayward has found something that he loves to do is a good thing because, as he says, this sort of work is going to occupy him “for a few years until I get my PhD—plus the rest of my life.”

Hayward, 24, is working on a portable nano-scale device that can detect minute amounts of sulfur and phosphorous, substances commonly found in chemical weapons, among other places. His “baby steps” involve trying to perfect the device, which uses a tiny flame that changes colour in the presence of these elements. Some of Hayward’s modifications have made the device much more sensitive; it is now capable of detecting quantities of sulfur and phosphorous in the parts-per-million range. One current focus of his work is determining what other substances the device might be able to detect. “Maybe we can find selectivities among different types of compound— acids, alcohols, an aromatic group— that really hasn’t been done before with one detector,” he says. “The possibilities become enormous.”

Those enormous possibilities are also linked to the small size of Hayward’s device—ultimately it will be housed in a portable detector about the size of a credit card. The flame, which is the heart of the device, is “counter-current,” meaning that the hydrogen and oxygen fuelling the combustion are supplied from above and below, giving the flame stability even at very low flow rates of those gases. This improves the portability of the device because it means that an operator does not have to lug large canisters of hydrogen and oxygen into the field.

This portability is a great improvement over the current way of testing. Hayward says that now in order to detect chemical weapons, a soldier will take an air sample that is sent to a lab for analysis. With a portable device, according to Hayward, “you can kind of bring the lab to the sample.”

nealeSTACIA NEALE’S research is also about bringing the lab to the sample, but in many ways she is the lab. She conducted the research for her master’s thesis— a kind of how-to guide to visual sociology—at a residential school for boys in Tegucigalpa, Honduras run by that country’s Episcopalian Diocese.

Neale’s master’s studies have not been entirely smooth. The death of Bill Zwerman, her initial supervisor, was devastating and left her asking herself, “What do I do now?” Part of the answer came when Liza McCoy, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, approached her and told her about a field known as visual sociology. “Basically, it’s using your camera, as opposed to traditional field notes, to collect data,” Neale says. “The technical detail you can get with a camera in an instant replaces hours and hours of field notes.”

After talking with McCoy, Neale began cramming, reading everything she could find about the discipline as well as works on the history of photography. But no matter how much she read about methodologies and research questions, Neale remained frustrated at the lack of practical information in the articles. “I wanted to know what happened when you went out into the field,” she says. “Where’s the how-to aspect? What happens when you drop your camera in the middle of Paraguay? What do you do?”

Neale began to see a means of answering these questions when she first visited the school, El Hogar De Amor Y Esperanza, last Christmas. (She went for a week along with her mother whose church in Calgary works with the school.) Upon her return, she talked things over with McCoy and decided that her thesis would be to undertake a project as a means of evaluating various methodologies in the field of visual sociology.

Beyond combining her love of photography and travel, the idea appealed to Neale for another important reason. “What I’d done is set myself up with a foolproof project,” she says, “because even if it went completely pear-shaped, it’s still part of my research.”

She volunteered at the school for a month last May, during which time she also ran her project, which consisted of documenting life in the school and giving the students the chance to do the same.

Working with a group of 85 boys presented some logistical challenges for Neale. “I would literally get mobbed every morning when I left my apartment,” she says. That apartment was above the classrooms; the boys, eager to get started with the cameras, would wake Neale at 6 o’clock each morning by shaking mangos off the trees onto the corrugated metal roof of the building.

Beyond figuring out how to handle 85 excited boys, Neale began to learn things about herself, namely that “I can be so smart and so stupid all at the same time.” Many of the boys would return with pictures of their friends, and Neale would chastise them for not taking pictures of the things that were important to them. “Then all of a sudden it was, like, hello—these people are all they have. They’re everything to them.”

On the last night of her stay, Neale gave a PowerPoint presentation about her project for the teachers and boys. It was a chance to continue her project— she took pictures of the boys while they watched the presentation—and give a little something back. Beyond a little entertainment, Neale left the school the PowerPoint presentation and copies of all her photos for use in fundraising materials or however the staff sees fit.

fownesTHE DESIRE to leave something useful behind also motivated Laurie Fownes, although her research was conducted closer to home. Fownes, a student in the Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Community Health Sciences, completed her master’s degree last spring. Her thesis was based on a study she conducted into the sexual health activities of service industry workers in the Alberta Rockies, including the communities of Banff, Canmore, and Lake Louise.

The study was a qualitative inquiry, meaning that Fownes was interested in exploring broad themes through in-depth interviews with 11 subjects.

Her research was motivated in part by the six years she worked at AIDS Calgary after completing her undergraduate degree in social work at the U of C. Her professional duties brought Fownes into contact with AIDS organizations in the Rockies, and she was well aware of their needs. “They kept saying there was a need to find out what the sexual risk activities were among young workers who were coming out to support the tourist industry,” she says.

Her study was designed to understand the risks these workers are taking and what factors are influencing these behaviours. For Fownes, it was a scientific evaluation of the area’s “reputation as being the sexually transmitted infection capital of Canada.”

Far from being all negative, her interviews led to some encouraging findings. “I was able to show that, over time as people started to develop community support, social support networks, better jobs, a better sense of themselves, the risks diminish,” she says. Fownes also found that while one-night stands are still happening, there is a “growing trend of serial monogamy, where young people are having multiple monogamous relationships over time.”

This might sound like healthier behaviour, but Fownes cautions that serial monogamy does have risks for its participants. “They may be taking less precaution in their sexual relationships,” she says, “if they’re entering into monogamous relationships without knowing their partner’s sexual history.”

Fownes worked with organizations like AIDS Bow Valley and the Banff Service Industry Network to find study subjects, and she shared her findings with both organizations. One finding of interest was that young workers are not accessing the services that are in place. By giving these organizations some insight into that problem, Fownes was able to satisfy a key, personal part of her research—the desire to make a contribution to the situation she studied.

FOR HIS PHD IN chemistry, Taylor Hayward is developing a portable device—a tiny flame that changes colour in the presence of various chemical elements—to detect minute amounts of such substances as sulfur and phosphorous. Eventually the gadget will be the size of a credit card and have the potential to inform soldiers of exposure to chemical weapons more quickly and efficiently.

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Research or pleasure?

The fact that travel can be one of the perks of research is not lost on any of these students. Taylor Hayward has given presentations about his nano-scale detector at conferences in Las Vegas (a fact he relates with real excitement in his voice) and Winnipeg (which he says with notably less enthusiasm). Naturally, these conferences were about more than getting out of town for a while. “Vegas was really neat because I actually met a lot of people whose papers I had read,” Hayward says. “There was kind of a little bit of celebrity there—celebrity for nerds, anyway.”

Stacia Neale, whose research took her to Tegucigalpa, confesses to having a serious travel bug and wants to pursue a career as an international humanitarian aid worker. She recalls a moment on her trip to Honduras when she took a bit of a break and travelled to an island to do some snorkelling. As she watched a whale shark glide past she thought, “I get to do all this, and they give me a master’s—it kills me.”

Like Neale, Ashley Jensen has a fondness for travel. Judging from the presentation about their trip to Ethiopia, this trait seems to be shared by the four other students who accompanied her. Besides discussing their findings and possible future projects, the students talked about the trip itself. Here, experiences like meeting new friends, trying to develop a taste for Ethiopian food (it seems injera, the flatbread that is a staple of Ethiopian cuisine, is much stronger-tasting in its native land than in our Ethiopian restaurants), and feeding raw meat to wild hyenas figured prominently.

For her PhD research into Asian cavalries, Carolyn Willekes wants to get a taste of what life was like for the nomadic horse archers whom Alexander the Great pressed into service in his army. Because these nomads probably originated in Mongolia or Kazakhstan, she plans to do a little travelling herself. “Basically you just show up at the market and buy a couple of Mongolian horses for $100 and just ride,” she says in her matter-of-fact way. “You can camp anywhere you want, you just plop your tent down.”

Willekes adds that travel—she has been to Greece numerous times and will be going to Italy next spring—has helped some of her friends understand her attraction to her field. “That’s why you study ancient history,” she says. “That’s what I tell people when they ask.”

Of course, this is not vacation travel, there’s also work to be done. But if the old expression “travel broadens the mind” is accurate, then travel combined with research must lead to some very broad minds indeed.

FOR THE students in the Bachelor of Health Sciences Program, making a contribution is at the heart of their research. Last June, a group of five students went to Ethiopia to assess the challenges of introducing a meningitis surveillance program. The undergraduates— from each of the program’s three streams: Biomedicine, Bioinformatics, and Health & Society—were also charged with the task of identifying projects and studies that other BHSc students could work on in Ethiopia in the future.

Ashley Jensen, who is doing a combined degree in Health & Society and political science, says the research trip was eye-opening. “We found a lot of diversity in Ethiopia,” she says. “There were places with a lot of capacity, but other places had none. There were places with water shortages—places where the best hotel in town only had water for four hours a day.”

By interviewing professionals at a variety of hospitals, clinics and the University of Addis Ababa, the team identified some broad areas where students could focus their work. “What’s needed is more information sharing and training in the use and maintenance of lab equipment,” Jensen says.

The students were in Ethiopia for two weeks, but Jensen says that was enough time to realize that the challenges facing the country and its health professionals are not limited to material needs or a lack of training. In one interview, they learned that there was a kind of unspoken competition between the major research institute in the country, the Armauer Hansen Research Institute, and government laboratories. This meant that information was not being shared between people who should be working together to solve problems.

At the AHRI, the students also learned that the government had recently taken over operations and, among other things, had cut wages. This affects the ability to monitor disease because many of the workers will look for other employment, possibly in other fields or in other countries. These sorts of human factors have immense and complicated impacts. For Jensen and her colleagues, the results of the trip are clearer. “There is no way we could understand any of this from here, no matter how many books we read,” she says.

Jensen’s declaration serves as a neat summation of the philosophy behind the three-year-old BHSc Program, which will produce its first graduates next spring. “The level of contact with research is unparalleled for the students,” says Benedikt Hallgrimsson, associate dean of undergraduate science education. With every student obligated to write an honours thesis, research is a focal point of the BHSc Program and, by Hallgrimsson’s estimate, accounts for about two-fifths of a student’s time.

Tony Schryvers, director of Biomedical Sciences, says that because students take courses in all three of the program’s streams they get a “broader perspective of research as an overall enterprise. Biomedical students understand social impacts of policy; Health & Society students understand clinical issues.”

Going to Ethiopia gave the students that opportunity to add practical experience to their formal education, and that is the ultimate purpose of student research. The experience may come in Ethiopia, Honduras or Greece; it can come closer to home in Banff or in a chemistry lab on campus. The location doesn’t matter; even the actual discoveries are secondary to the greater purpose of research—applying one’s learning in the pursuit of further knowledge. It’s a lesson that all these students have taken to heart.