Generating knowledge with a purpose

“This is my personal opinion, and I feel it very strongly,” says Dr. Dan Hurnik, Industry Chair for Swine Research at the Atlantic Veterinary College at UPEI. “We have a responsibility as researchers to create knowledge. I think that knowledge should first help the people and industry of this region.”

The pork industry on Prince Edward Island has suffered in the last few years for a number of reasons. Canada’s dollar has increased in value, making our pork more expensive for international trade. Cost of production is higher in the Maritimes than in other parts of the country, mostly due to the high price of shipping both feed and pork. The global recession also hit at a time when unfounded fears about swine flu made consumers avoid pork.

“The last pork-processing facility on PEI closed about two years ago,” adds Hurnik. “These are tough days for pork farmers.”

Tough days, but the industry goes on. While export of pork products as food has all but vanished, the Island’s export of breeding stock has increased. Much of that can be attributed to research done at AVC.

“We’ve developed a monitoring system for the health status of Island pigs,” says Hurnik. “It began more than ten years ago when we performed an Island-wide survey of the herd. We found we could make a number of claims that make us stand out, including the fact that we’re free of a couple of diseases that affect pigs in the rest of the country. And, as an Island, we can create guidelines to keep it that way.”

Many of the Island’s sales of breeding stock go to Russia, where Hurnik says the industry is hungry for the strong genetic lines our pigs can boast.

“Russia used to supply most of its own pork from its own farms,” explains Hurnik. “When communism fell, imports of meat products to Russia skyrocketed. In the last few years, the country has become much more concerned about its long-term food security, and has imposed tariffs on imports. To rebuild the domestic herd, the Russians need genetically strong breeding stock.”

Hurnik explains this new market of breeding stock will never replace what was lost in PEI’s meat production. But, he says, building up this side of the industry can only help meat production.

“You go to your local supermarket today, and meat is pretty generic. You don’t know where it comes from. You don’t know how it was raised,” says Hurnik. “Well, some people care about that information now. I don’t think we’re too far from a time when people demand locally grown meat. Especially if you can show some sort of health benefit about the pork itself.”

For this reason, says Hurnik, he is hopeful about the future of the pork industry on the Island. 

Plastic Man defends his honour

We don’t trust plastics. Indeed, the word itself has become a metaphor for anything cheap, disposable, or inauthentic. Dr. Michael Shaver has decided to change your mind. If all goes according to plan, he may even dispel a few misconceptions you have about chemists, too.

Shaver, an assistant professor of Chemistry at UPEI, is the featured researcher at the next Research on Tap on Tuesday, March 9, at 7 p.m. in Mavor’s Bar in the Confederation Centre of the Arts. His title: Good Plastics: why chemists have a bad name and what we’re doing about it.

“There are some bad plastics out there,” admits Shaver. “But we tend to assume the negative when we think of plastics, and ignore the positive. Plastics can be considered to be good for the environment.”

Shaver points to plastic’s strength and relatively light weight. If we were to discard plastic as a building material, we’d have to replace it with other materials, such as metal, wood, and brick—comparatively heavy objects that require more energy to move around.

“The car is the perfect example of good plastic,” says Shaver. “The simplest reason why cars today have better mileage than cars of the past isn’t due to some great leap forward in the technology behind the internal-combustion engine. It’s that the cars are lighter. They’re lighter, because they’re made of plastic.”

Shaver says the next step is to choose better plastics: ones that are better for us, and the environment. His lab is developing biodegradable, plant-based polymers to replace conventional plastics. One of the many challenges is that no one plastic is appropriate for every usage.

“You wouldn’t use the same plastic in a biodegradable compost bag as you would in, say, a deck chair,” says Shaver. “Unless you want the chair to fall apart in six months.”

Being able to create plastic with a built-in expiry date also increases its value in health-care settings. If the polymer can be infused with a drug, a single dose could be set to release small amounts over a set period of time. It’s one of many possible applications for Shaver’s “green” plastic.

Shaver’s second challenge at Research on Tap is to defend the honour of his chosen profession.

“Chemists take their name from ‘alchemy,’ so we’re partially to blame,” says Shaver. “People consider chemistry to be a mysterious black art. But we’re working to change that image.”

For more details on Shaver’s Research on Tap, visit this site

Photo credit

We need to talk (about the history of marriage counselling)

“We’re talking about a profession that didn’t exist before the 20th century,” says Dr. Ian Dowbiggin, in an office overstuffed with books in the History Department in UPEI’s Main Building. “Before 1900, if you wanted advice about your marriage, you talked to your friends, your priest, or your family. More likely, you didn’t talk to anyone about it.”

Dowbiggin is researching the history and rise of marriage counselling: an unheard-of profession in 1900 which became accepted as mainstream by the 1960s.

“It’s a remarkable story, really,” says Dowbiggin. “And a great example of the rise of something called ‘the therapeutic sensibility’: the increasing reliance on professional expertise to get through life.”

Dowbiggin’s research focuses on Emily Mudd, an early pioneer in family and marriage counselling. She was also heavily involved in the 1920s with the birth-control movement.

Emily MuddEmily Mudd

“And that’s not surprising,” explains Dowbiggin. “Many of Mudd’s fellow pioneers came out of the birth-control movement. In counselling men and women about birth control, they were finding common problems in marriages. No one seemed to know much about effective birth-control methods, which led to unwanted pregnancies, and even conjugal disharmony, if you will.”

Mudd and her husband opened a birth-control clinic in the late 1920s. By 1933, she had opened North America’s first marriage counselling clinic.

“The field grew quickly from there. By 1942, there was a national organization for marriage counsellors. By the 1960s, even early detractors of the movement, such as the Roman Catholic Church, were sending their priests for training in marriage counselling.”

Dowbiggin's research on this subject has taken him to Harvard, which houses Mudd’s collection of papers. He’s also dug deeper into the story of marriage counselling by visiting the archives of the universities of Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Michigan, and Minnesota.

Dowbiggin is the author of several books about the history of psychiatry and psychology, most recently “A Merciful End: The Euthanasia Movement in Modern America”, published by Oxford University Press. 

(Photo credits)

Revenge, forgiveness, and a female to male ratio of 7:1

 The ORD hosted another successful Research on Tap this week at Mavor's in the Confederation Centre of the Arts. More than 50 people packed the bar for a lively discussion about revenge and forgiveness.

Dr. Stacey MacKinnon, Assistant Professor of Social Psychology, led the discussion, in which she prodded the crowd to come up with a definition of forgiveness: a much more difficult task than most thought. Some believe it's a single act that happens after much soul-searching and acceptance, while others see it as a process that only starts with "I forgive you" – at which point the forgiver tries to live up to the words. People also discussed whether forgiveness is the same for an individual as it is for a large group, such as descendants of mass atrocities.
Be sure to check back to learn more about March's Research on Tap, featuring Dr. Michael Shaver, Assistant Professor of Chemistry. His discussion will be called "Good Plastics: why chemists have a bad name, and what we're doing to change it."
And the 7:1 ratio? No joke. Most of the males in attendance were dates and spouses. We'll see if we can draw more men next month with the lure of science.