Campus Innovator The IdeasXChange Campus Innovator is a forward-thinking, proactive individual who has kickstarted their own sustainable initiative on the UBC Vancouver campus. Their involvement surrounds the core values of a sustainable, innovative and interdisciplinary mindset, which they are eager to share with the rest of the UBC student body. If you would like to nominate yourself as a Campus Innovator, or would like to interview another Campus Innovator you know, please send your pitch to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Interview by Priscilla Ng) Recently, IdeasXChange had the opportunity to talk to Mohammad Asadi Lari, a third-year Honours Physiology student who is involved primarily in research and youth engagement. His passion in facilitating an innovative, sustainable, and paradigm-shifting discussion in STEM research and data education prompted him to be involved in various organizations in research and scholarly publishing that are well-known within Canada and beyond.
Please describe yourself and your passion in 3 words! Two of these words can actually be integrated into one word – ‘social’ and ‘innovation’. I like the social aspect and the innovation aspect of the fields that I am engaged in. I first learned about this term at the National Youth Leadership and Innovation Summit in Toronto. Before that, I was never engaged with people who were involved in start-ups, but this was a buzzword that kept coming up during the conference. I would also want to choose the word ‘compassion’ too, because I care about the people who I work with. Compassion is required in social innovation and the work that I do in that area. I think that my own growth is intertwined with the growth of my peers – they grow, I grow, and I hope that when I grow, I am able to share it with others, so that they also grow as individuals. That’s actually why I think ‘compassion’ is the most important word out of the three.
You had mentioned your interest in educational innovation and working with UBC students to cultivate young leaders. What inspired you to be a part of STEM Fellowship, and what would you like UBC students to be able to take away from getting involved with the organization? STEM Fellowship started when Dr. Sacha Noukhovich, a highly seasoned teacher from Toronto, invited me to work with two students currently at UCalgary and UofT on a new organization. It kick-started in April 2015, and from that point onwards, it became my most important involvement! My immediate social circle was in UBC, so we had recruited a lot of people here initially, which was followed by establishing our first club here in March 2016, and expanding our presence into a total of twelve campuses (and counting!). Our primary focus is on data science and scholarly communication, but we want students to see these as tools where they could both get engaged with STEM leadership, innovation and research, as well as getting to share their work. There is a lot of good work out there by students, but they are unaware of how they can share them, and this is not just limited to writing. We are also working closely with a company called Digital Science, probably one of the largest innovation companies in the scholarly publishing field, and they push for a number of tools used for analyzing research around the world. In doing this, we are also aiming to connect major non-profit organizations and companies in the scholarly publishing field to campuses all across Canada, and this is where our scholarly communication, ‘Editing 101’ and peer review workshops come in. We hope to create an international network, that is brought together by the collective action of local clusters of STEM Fellows, and given the strong presence we have in UBC, we hope to see this campus as a leading element of the broader project!
The Big Data Challenge and the STEM Fellowship Journal seem to be two of the major projects at work by the organization (along with many others). Please tell us more about what lies behind this year’s theme, ‘Using impact data to understand and predict the future directions of science’, why Data Science is important, and some of the challenges faced in pushing for this initiative. The Big Data Challenge in Toronto is an initiative where we provide data sets to students, and they will use a total of 3 months using the tools and options to analyze data in order to come up with their own projects. Eight projects will be selected to enter the finale in Toronto, and our ultimate goal is to make this initiative nation-wide. We are also, of course, looking to bring this into UBC. Our Big Data events are currently sponsored by IBM-Big Data University, Microsoft, SAS and SciNet (Canada’s largest super computer centre). What was interesting about this year is that our students were working on open-access data and the data from the city of Toronto last year, and this year, students are working with Alternative Metrics (AltMetrics). They ended up becoming our sponsors for the Big Data Challenge, and the source of research data that our students to work with. A lot of very interesting projects emerged from this collaboration which were extremely impressive for high school students, and we will be publishing three of them in our next issue. Over the past year, I also had the opportunity to talk to a number of indigenous student leaders, and they were interested in the idea of the Big Data Challenge because they saw potential in working with data that were relevant to their respective communities, especially the environmental issues regarding the construction of the pipeline. I think STEM is very empowering; giving students the tools they need to solidify their projects, as well as mentorship with data and coming up with trends, and finding things that they would be able to share. Our ultimate goal is to be a platform that would give students tools to do things themselves, which is why we want to bring data education online. This will also become an important component of our STEMpowerment initiative.
As the Managing Director at the STEM Fellowship and the co-director of the STEM Fellowship Journal Editorial Board, what is your definition of a successful research project, and what are some of your tips for students who are interested in research and learning more about getting their work published? The STEM Fellowship Journal is actually the only Canadian science publishing journal that is dedicated only to publishing high school and undergraduate work. The idea is that we want to be a national platform journal to show student research, and promote interdisciplinary research. We are arranging the publication of research with institutions across Canada, such as the undergraduate engineering research in the University of Toronto, inter-disciplinary research from McGill University, the top project from the Science One program at UBC, and the Sanofi Biogenius Challenge. These institutions work with students and research fairs, and are able to produce high-quality student research from a mix of different fields, disciplines, and year groups. Recently, we have also been able to secure with two major granting agencies, NSERC and CIHR, to promote SFJ and allow for a select number of publications coming from publicly funded research by undergraduate students. We also published works from our High School Scholarly Writing challenge, where students had submitted their IB extended essays, for example, and had gotten feedback on it. Four of them were chosen and could publish their work in the journal. We are also getting in touch with the Harvard Undergraduate Research Society, and the Stanford Undergraduate Research Society, to publish their research work and expand the network as well – it’s a win-win situation. The journal is our flagship scholarly aspect, but what I see happening in the long-term are the workshops, so students can have access to tools to write, to share, and to see themselves as capable to be writing more. The tools are not limited to STEM, as they are as applicable to humanity as they are to science, so we would want to get the interdisciplinary feature as solid as possible.
We are interested in knowing more about your involvement in the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (CCUNESCO)! What are some of the action plans in progress for bringing a more sustainable and internationally connected future for the Canadian and global youth? What are some of the way in which the youth can become more engaged? UNESCO’s Education Week had focused on education for sustainable development, and global citizenship education. My involvement in the CCUNESCO Youth Advisory Group (YAG) stems from my will to promote more novel educational philosophies, to change paradigms in education, and make them wider so students can avoid perceiving the world in a narrow way. A big part of what we are aiming to do is to connect students from different countries, and because of my personal connections, we did publish some works by students from Iran. These students from Central Iran were working on projects that were quite basic, but they were incredibly impressive for those students, as they were in grade nine and I had doubted that they had written the work themselves! But after talking to them, I was convinced that it was their work indeed. A lot of these initiatives are catered towards North America and Western Europe, but the world is so much bigger, and I see a lot of arrogance sometimes that a shifting in education paradigms can help us break. We are currently seeing interest from university students from outside North America, including Iran, Russia and South Africa!
What are some of the biggest challenges and setbacks in establishing Gene Researching for A Week, and how did you go about tackling it? Were your larger visions in starting this initiative carried through to your current endeavours in STEM Fellowship? The Gene Researching for A Week was established twelve years ago, and it helped me a lot with the initiatives and project that I am working on in STEM Fellowship today. The reason that this project has been so successful is because we have been getting applications from throughout Canada. 40-50 high school students are paired up with a supervisor during the spring break, and these students get to shadow their supervisors in their labs for a week, full time, to observe and also to get involved one way or another. Even though the organization that was originally running the Gene Research for A Week project was dissolved, the project still carried on under CIHR’s leadership because it was so effective and executed in high-quality. For me, I would love to see STEM Fellowship’s STEMpowerment program getting the amount of recognition that Gene Research for A Week did, gaining that representation and being able to garner people’s interest from all over Canada, so we can further this paradigm and be a part in changing people’s lives.
Tell us about an inspiring figure who you have always looked up to. How and why did they inspire you? It’s cliché – but my mom! I have to persist on naming her, and actually also my grandmothers, because they have incredible impact on my life. They have inspired me in different ways, by being resilient and patient, while strengthening my resolve to try harder and harder. I share with my grandmothers the details of the work that I am involved in, and they give me advice…the whole compassion aspect has its roots in these discussions, and from listening to my elders.
Lastly, are there any major plans for 2017 and beyond that you’d like us to look out for? For STEM Fellowship, there are a lot of things that we would like to see happen. Our biggest strive at the moment is to establish a strong membership base, and actually have STEM fellows. We do not have a membership program as of now, so that is something for us to look into, and it would be geared both to high school students and university students on different aspects. Our ongoing goal is centered on expansion, but aside from this, I am exploring the global health ecosystem in the hope of starting a health startup with one of my close friends from the physiology program, Geoffrey Ching. We are at a very baseline phase, but the process is very exciting!
Learn more about STEM Fellowship at: www.stemfellowship.org.
(Interview by Phebe Ferrer) On Friday, February 17, I sat down with Zamina Mithani, President of the IC-Kindness Foundation, to talk about her work on social sustainability. IC-Kindness has recently been involved in the SLC as well as the UBC Sustainability Fair, where its social approach to sustainability was highlighted by the fair’s organizers. It has also done projects towards helping Syrian refugees and residents in the DTES. Zamina and I talk about these and more in the interview below. P: So to start off, tell me a little bit about yourself, what you do, what you’re passionate about… Z: My name is Zamina Mithani, and I’m the President of the IC-Kindness Foundation – the Interfaith Collaboration for Kindness Foundation. I’m also the President of the Thaqalayn Muslim Association. Both of those things really embody two values which are important to me, and that’s identity and diversity. So identity – being authentic to yourself, understanding what your values are, and then leading from that. My background is in Science and Master of Management, so I really enjoy business, but I also enjoy business with a purpose, and business with social responsibility attached to it, which I think is where sustainability fits in really nicely, and where the themes of the main two clubs I’m working with right now fit in, in terms of diversity. Embracing different ways of thinking, embracing the whole idea of social sustainability and empowering communities, but also embracing the idea that it comes from within, and it comes from having a good sense of who you are, your values and what’s important to you, and then building from that. So those are the two main things that I’m doing on campus! P: Sounds great! So focusing on IC-Kindness, tell me a bit more about it. What does the name mean, why did you set it up, what work does the organization do, and what do you hope it will accomplish. Z: Sure! So the IC-Kindness Foundation is kind of a punny name. It stands for “I see kindness,” but also Interfaith Collaboration for Kindness, and that’s exactly what our mandate is. It’s to bring together and unite youth of different backgrounds, different races, religions and cultures towards a common goal of social responsibility and doing good. We really have a triangle approach to how we try and do things in the organization. It starts off with being kind to yourself, and so that includes mental health, random acts of kindness, embracing that within yourself, then being kind to others, obviously again, through having wonderful conversations, doing events like how we did for the Syrian refugees. We had a big fundraiser for them and we actually volunteered with an organization that helped give out food to those families. We have done work with the DTES in the past as well. And then the environment – the Earth and being kind to the Earth, but the environment can also mean society, and raising awareness about global issues and how we can be kinder. P: Cool! You also mentioned before to me in another conversation that part of your passions and the organization’s mandate is towards social sustainability, and I was wondering what work IC-Kindness is doing towards that, or what maybe you personally are doing towards that? Z: Yeah! So IC-Kindness is still pretty new, so it’s an area we’re still exploring, and it’s still something we’re working towards. We did have a booth at the UBC Sustainability Fair this year which was really awesome. We really got to talk about the whole idea that sustainability and the culture of sustainability. Often we just link it to the environment – recycling, being clean and being green – and those are all very important and absolutely necessary for our efforts to lobby governments and mitigate climate change, as well as work towards adaptation, mitigation, and public awareness. But in that whole idea of sustainability also comes people’s attitudes towards it and towards their environment, not just being something that they can take for granted, which is sometimes what we do here, but part in parcel of how you live your life, and you live your life with kindness and respect of the Earth around you. I think different cultures, and also in terms of IC-Kindness and the spirit of the organization being interfaith and intercultural; different cultures have beautiful variations of how they are sustainable. You look at India, you look at China, you look at the Philippines, you look everywhere – you see different ideas of what the Earth means to different people. It’s about embracing that and allowing that to guide how people form and engage their communities, in acts that protect our environment with the spirit that you’re also doing it for each other. I think that’s so important, because we need strong communities who are respectful and kind, and have that sense of empathy and aren’t divisive. Division is contrary to the goals of sustainability, if we want to be united in our effort towards global change, environmental sustainability, and social sustainability. Social sustainability is really connected to environmental sustainability, but it can also exist by itself, because I feel like it’s about having sustainable communities. I think that social sustainability is such a cool term, it’s like adopting this mindset where whatever you do comes back from a set of values, and our societies are governed always by values. Social sustainability is then having those values be enduring, having those values be a driving force for continual progression for a community. Take UBC as a small example, with our values of being together when horrible things happen, like what happened in Quebec, and then coming together and doing protest and other activities – that all comes from a sense of value, and that value contributes to the drive of social sustainability, and how as people we’re ultimately affected by everything, be it to other people, ourselves, or be it to the environment. It’s a pretty broad concept and I think IC-Kindness is a very small, small part in that whole movement, but what I hope to do is just empower people to embrace whatever they feel they can impact and whatever their passions are in that sort of web in how we can make sustainable communities. This would be different for different people, but I think that’s what makes it such a cool concept. P: I was going to ask you how you would define social sustainability, and you kind of allude to the fact that it’s a very broad concept, though not in a bad sort of way. Z: I think that it’s something that’s still very new, and I’m still learning about how different people define it too, but it’s generally part of a whole idea that protecting our world is a systemic thing. You can’t just look at one aspect of sustainability and say like, c’est la vie and that’s it and call it a year, but it’s a movement of people getting together, the environment and different factors. It’s a whole systemic approach to knowing that everything is a system – something you do affects somebody else. P: So IC-Kindness is focused on the value of kindness – what role do you think kindness plays towards social sustainability, and towards sustainability in general? Z: I think kindness has a huge role to play in sustainability, because I think part of the movement that drives consumerism, and drives this extra spending and waste, is this movement that we’re not fulfilled with our lives, and we’re not fulfilled with what we have. But we have this obligation to look after the environment around us, and that comes from adopting a mindset of kindness. The problem is, when you ask how kindness fits in with social sustainability and sustainability in general, is that it’s a very feel good term – it’s very ‘kumbaya’. Of course, the two fit together because you have to be kind to the Earth, but I think the challenge is defining what that really means. Being kind to the Earth is a series of actions that need to come after that. One needs to prove that kindness is within their mindset, and sometimes it sounds so big to be kind to the Earth and adopt this mindset, that it seems almost unattainable. I think part of our challenge is how to take these big ideas and break them down into things that we can do on a daily basis. We talk about these issues a lot, like sustainability, what kindness is, what it means to be a good person…but how do you actually achieve this? For example, when you see a homeless person and you don’t look at them, or you don’t smile at them, is that you being kind? That’s not a question I can answer – that’s something you have to constantly strive for within yourself, like what decisions you make and how these impact the world around you. P: I was also wondering since IC-Kindness is an interfaith organization, what role do interfaith organizations like IC-Kindness play towards sustainability, in that specific aspect of collaborating with other faiths and religions? Z: Yeah! I also talked about this at the SLC workshop that I did – right now, diversity is very important in people’s lives, be it sexual diversity, race diversity, even ableism, so the ability of people, that kind of diversity as well, but we don’t often talk about faith-based diversity. It’s always a question to me of why that is, and I feel like the reason behind it is when you talk about faith and religion, it taps into ideology, and it’s difficult to discuss how to be kind and how to collaborate within that. Whenever you believe something, and you get together with someone who thinks something different, you’re always going to have that subliminal bias that what you think is slightly better. That’s really going to prevent you from having actual collaboration, because you’ll likely think ‘oh that’s really cool, but my thing is slightly better.’ So I think that the challenge and the beauty of interfaith, and how this comes back to the whole idea of sustainability, is that it’s about understanding each other’s identities and ideologies, in a way that’s beyond appearance, how people act, but what they really think and how their minds work. I think that once you can collaborate on an ideological basis, you can collaborate on any term. That’s a bit of a generalization, but I think it’s very possible, because once you break through the ideological barrier, you really open yourself up to a lot more of an acceptance based mindset than you would otherwise. That’s what I think is important with sustainability as well, like if we want to have a greener planet, if we want to work towards food security, empowering communities, working with Aboriginal communities, then we need to understand how they think, and understand their ideology. We can’t go into scenarios thinking we’re better, and I think that’s what interfaith really teaches you, is how you can look at someone who believes different things, and understand that and learn to see the beauty in it. I feel like once we learn to do that, we’ll learn how to see the beauty in how everybody looks at the environment, and then learn about how we can change it. P: That’s beautiful. So in terms of IC-Kindness’ goals, in cultivating collaborations between different religions, making connections between different people, and looking at sustainability through a social, community-based lens- what has the organization done in achieving those goals? Z: I think the prime example was our fundraiser that we did for Syrian refugee families, in that we really just wanted to humanize their struggles. One of our biggest values is tangible humanitarianism. I know that sounds vague, but basically what it means is like, good things that you can do, and know that you’re doing it. So instead of buying a donut for a dollar and not knowing where your money is going, it’s about actually giving the food to a Syrian refugee family, and having that human interaction with them, which I think is so valuable. When we did this for these families, people on our team, who have never been to the Middle East, or Syria, didn’t really know anybody from there. They thought it was a super cool experience because they got a glimpse into another way of thinking, and into the real people behind such a horrible humanitarian crisis. I think that when we see something bad happen, like floods and political migration crises, you think of the people and you see them on Facebook, but we’re so passive in how we like posts, share posts, without really thinking or acting upon that after. So I think that that’s really important, and for IC-Kindness, we’re still a young organization and still growing. We’re doing a lot of different things and still working towards that goal. But that’s my vision for it, to eventually create this beautiful culture of tangible humanitarianism, to humanize the people within the issues we see around us. This again goes back to social sustainability, because we are social beings, and we stop being social beings once we start dehumanizing each other, like believing stereotypes and dogmas about other religions. I think that the mentality we should have is a unified mentality – that we all are human, and that we all should try our best to be kind to each other. Special thanks to Zamina Mithani! Find IC-Kindness at their website, as well as on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
In Western countries, it has become commonplace or even trendy to consume so-called “superfoods” that developing countries produce and export. They sit on shelves in nearly every grocery store and their health benefits are well known to consumers. In particular, Western demand for grains such as quinoa and teff have exploded in recent years. But why? Superfoods are food products that are relatively high in nutrients. What drives Western demand for them? If you live in a developed country, it’s likely you’re well versed in, or at least conscious of the superfood conversation. They tend to be popular with vegans and vegetarians, lifestyle choices that have become more prevalent in Western culture, as superfoods are nutritious alternatives for meat products. As we become more preoccupied with making healthy food decisions, foods deemed “superfoods” are front and center. But there’s more to the equation than just demand – somebody has to meet those demands, and this responsibility falls upon the superfoods’ countries of origin.
Background on quinoa and teff and its impacts on countries of origin
Quinoa and teff are highly nutritious, gluten-free grains. Quinoa traditionally grows in Peru and Bolivia and is low fat, high in protein, and full of amino acids. Teff, which has 50% more protein, five times more fiber and 25 times more calcium than brown rice, hails from the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea. With these stats, it’s no wonder that health-conscious Westerners covet them – consuming foods with these nutrient levels likely impacts our own health in positive ways (which is why demand is so high), but the impacts of our consumption on producing countries is another story altogether. While consuming superfoods like quinoa and teff may have positive health effects for Westerners, we can’t say the same for the health of the countries that produce them. In fact, the “Columbusing” of superfoods, or the “discovery” of these crops in developing countries, tends to benefit global consumers more than producers.
Quinoa industry damaging Bolivian development
Increased global demand – how much people desire a good as a whole – for quinoa spurred Bolivia to export higher volumes of the grain. While this increases Bolivia’s revenue and incomes of local farmers, it also causes the domestic price of quinoa to soar. In other words, while individual living standards of farmers have improved, it has become more difficult for the general population to afford quinoa, a staple in their diets. In 2011, a kilogram of quinoa cost $4.85 USD in contrast to $1 for the same weight of rice. The problems don’t stop there. In attempting to meet global demand, Bolivia faces pressure to allocate more land for quinoa production. If it follows through, Bolivia will in effect transform its agricultural portfolio into a monocrop of only quinoa. Without diverse agricultural production, Bolivia will become subject to volatile food prices and limited food security. If the price of quinoa plummets, its agriculture industry won’t bring in revenue; if it only produces one crop, Bolivia risks pest or disease infestation that can wipe out its only source of food, potentially resulting in famine.
Ethiopia’s teff dilemma
In recent years, Westerners have lauded teff for its nutritional value, so much so that the Ethiopian government decided to lift its ban on teff export with tight controls in place. Previously, there was a complete ban on raw teff export, with only processed teff in the form of injera allowed to leave the country. While this prevented the re-entry of teff into the Ethiopian market at inflated prices, the government and manufacturers were involved in the economic process, leaving farmers with little of their deserved revenue. Lifting the ban means Ethiopia needs to control price fluctuations. It hopes to do so by licensing commercial farms to produce teff for export to avoid flooding the market and bringing teff prices down. According to CEO of Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency Khalid Bomba, licensed producers will supply exports first, and then extend to small-scale farmers who comprise most of Ethiopia’s working population. The Ethiopian government’s hopes to meet both domestic and global demand will be tricky business. If it wants to engage in export, Ethiopia should first satisfy its own population’s demand. This involves increasing production levels by introducing modern farming techniques. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of agricultural research on teff production, so Ethiopia must first figure out which modern farming techniques are best suited to teff. Another issue is other countries have successfully planted teff crops. In the United States, 25 states produce the superfood. Al Jazeera reports that because of such successful transplantation, Ethiopia is losing out on its staple crop. Perhaps the best way for Ethiopia to combat this loss is to capitalize on the fact that the quality and taste of foreign-produced teff can’t hold a flame to its own. If it manages to brand Ethiopian teff as a premium product, Ethiopia may be able to overtake its competitors.
Consequences of superfoods on health in developing countries
Let’s now consider the impact of Western demand for quinoa and teff on the health of Bolivian and Ethiopian populations. When goods become too expensive, consumers substitute their consumption of that good with cheaper alternatives. In Bolivia, people substitute less nutritious rice and noodles for quinoa. In Ethiopia, teff farmers are selling the bulk of their harvests instead of eating it to take advantage of high global prices. The consequence of these actions is rising malnutrition, especially in rural communities. In both Bolivia and Ethiopia, consuming more quinoa and teff can alleviate malnutrition, but this task competes with Western cravings.
What can we do?
This paints a fairly bleak picture of guilt. Evidently, Western eating habits are directly related to economic conditions and poverty levels in developing countries. How can we reconcile our health-conscious love for quinoa, teff and other superfoods with the adverse affects it creates for countries that produce them? One way is to practice ethical consumerism. Movements like Fairtrade aim to ensure local farmers receive fair payment for their work; purchasing Fairtrade products means more of your money goes to the producer rather than distributors or manufacturers. But this only solves half of the equation – how can we ensure that our consumption of superfoods doesn’t come with the price of malnourished communities who can’t afford the same product? This is a question of social and economic policy. We have seen how Ethiopia is taking measures to ensure domestic prices (the current price for teff in the economy) of teff don’t skyrocket. To see lower domestic quinoa prices, Bolivia may restrict exports or increase production (both of which will bolster domestic supply and push down price) or introduce some kind of policy that balances its exports with domestic concerns. It’s unlikely that Western demands for superfoods will cease or even plateau any time soon. Indeed, such demand can produce incentives for more people or countries to become involved in superfood industries and drive more efficient production. Taking this into consideration, the key lies in how, rather than what, we consume, and the ways in which we can all improve our consumer behaviour.