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Public face

Concordia’s Public Scholars program showcases the value that the university’s doctoral students bring to the greater world
April 30, 2018

How can PhD students promote their research to audiences outside of academia in new and compelling ways?

For the past year, Concordia’s first cohort of Public Scholars have taken this question to heart through a series of op-eds and blog entries designed to promote their cutting-edge work. Their writings have appeared in multiple publications, including the Montreal Gazette, La Presse and The Torontoist, and they have also remained active on social media sites such as Twitter.

Public Scholars

They also presented their research at the Public Scholars Thinking Out Loud (TOL) event at Concordia in March 2018.

Fuelled by the same passion to share their knowledge, 10PhD candidates were recently selected as the 2018 Public Scholars. They too will aim to bridge the gap between academic research and the general public.

We introduce you to the work of five of the 10 Public Scholars from 2017.

The revolutionary and transformative power of film

Desirée de Jesus For her graduate research, Desirée de Jesus examines films about girls who are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, or who have experienced poverty

Concordia researcher Desirée de Jesus, PhD 17, had many women heroes growing up. “The first person who comes to mind is my grandmother,” says de Jesus. “She didn’t have the opportunity to continue her education past the elementary school level. But she loved learning and reading and introduced me to the library when I was very young.”

Today, de Jesus is the recipient of various scholarships — notably the Bourse d’études Hydro-Québec de l’Université Concordia and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellowship. She is one of the 10 PhD candidates in Concordia’s first cohort of Public Scholars.

In March, she discussed her doctoral research at a Concordia’s TOL event featuring the 10 Public Scholars. “I talked about why it is essential we have more diverse and inclusive representation on screen and behind-the-scenes in film,” de Jesus explains. “It’s important for people to see themselves reflected in cinema and for us to see the possibilities of what we can become.”

De Jesus’s research focuses on films about girls who are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, or who have experienced poverty. One of things she noticed since the start of the 21st century is that there are an exceptional number of films about girls in crisis — for example, Thirteen (2003), Hounddog (2007) and Winter’s Bone (2010). “My research shows that in films where they are depicted as at-risk, they are not shown just as victims but increasingly as taking charge of their own stories,” De Jesus says.

In January 2017, De Jesus designed and taught an undergraduate film course in the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema called Girlhood in Contemporary Cinema. She also started a series of video essays about the films she has been researching. “One of the more interesting classes dealt with sexuality and expressions of girls’ sexuality — conversations about how girls must be experienced but also virgins,” she says. “Students said the course changed the way they view film and themselves.”

De Jesus credits Concordia for not only giving her an opportunity to teach a course, but also for selecting her as the only Faculty of Fine Arts PhD candidate in the Public Scholars program. “The grants and awards have eased the burden and allowed me to fully focus on my research. To have Concordia stand behind my research and invest in me has been wonderful.”

Ultimately, de Jesus hopes her research will have a wider societal impact, much like the work of her inspiration — celebrated American filmmaker Ava Marie DuVernay. At the 2015 Oscars, DuVernay became the first Black female director to have her film, Selma, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Two years later, she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for her film 13th.

“DuVernay makes diversity and inclusion a conversation that involves everybody, and I find that really inspiring,” says de Jesus. “My work takes an inclusive approach too.” As her Public Scholars year winds down, she adds, “This is a very exciting time for me. All these avenues have opened up and I will have to make some very important decisions in the coming days and weeks ahead.”

—Richard Burnett, BA 88

The battle over HIV criminalization now that a diagnosis is no longer a death sentence

Alexander McClelland Alexander McClelland’s graduate research includes interviewing people living with HIV charged with and convicted of aggravated sexual assault.

In the 1980s, when thousands of gay men were dying from AIDS-related illnesses, homophobia and hysteria were flamed by newspaper headlines around the world that dubbed AIDS the “gay plague.”

Over the decades, activists battled the myth that HIV is a disease that only affects gay men, and the numbers would bear them out. More than 35 million people — gay and straight — have died of AIDS worldwide since the 1980s.

However, many people today still believe contracting HIV/AIDS is a death sentence, despite medical advances that have made it a manageable chronic disease that cannot be transmitted if someone has an undetectable viral load. In Canada, failure to disclose one’s HIV status to a sexual partner is prosecuted as aggravated sexual assault. Since 1989, about 180 Canadians have been prosecuted for exposure and nondisclosure.

Concordia researcher Alexander McClelland, PhD 17, one of the highachieving students in the Public Scholars program, aims to change that. “For the last few years I have been interviewing people living with HIV who have been charged with aggravated sexual assault, registered as sex offenders and incarcerated for long periods of time,” McClelland says. “Many Canadians think these people deserve the negative punishment they get, and I want us to challenge and reconsider that.”

According to McClelland, Canada is a “hotspot” for criminalizing people living with HIV. “We are a world leader, up there with the United States and Russia,” he says. “Many global experts around the world — including at the United Nations — are calling on countries to change this approach.”

McClelland adds that in the majority of cases in Canada, HIV is not transmitted. Still, just the act of non-disclosure constitutes a sexual offense. “People think others are trying to maliciously spread HIV when none of that is actually happening,” McClelland explains. “These people are not perpetrators — they are being victimized by the law.”

In his doctoral research, McClelland discovered that some of the 16 people he interviewed were violently assaulted by prison guards and inmates while they were in jail. After they were released from prison, many were unable to secure jobs or housing because their names were in the media, even when charges were dropped.

McClelland points out that HIV criminalization can also have adverse and unforeseen consequences. “It’s preventing people from getting tested for HIV and talking with their doctors,” he says. “In other words, Canada’s criminal justice system is impeding public health and also damaging people’s lives. I want to publish my research as a book to further effect change and continue talking about this issue at conferences.”

McClelland salutes Concordia for supporting research that other institutions might not take on. He notes that the university has been very supportive of his research, especially since it is important to protect his interviewees and not get his work subpoenaed by the courts. As a member of the LGBTQ community, McClelland has long been attuned to the issue of HIV criminalization. However, just as HIV/AIDS was never a “gay plague,” HIV criminalization also affects heterosexual people.

“Most of the cases in Canada involve straight sex — it disproportionately impacts Black straight men and the majority of the people I interviewed were straight men and women,” he says. “But I come to my work through the radical slant that is rooted in my queerness.”

—Richard Burnett, BA 88

A passion for sustainable accounting

Leanne Keddie Leanne Keddie is a PhD candidate in business administration at the John Molson School of Business. She holds an undergraduate degree in business from Mount Allison University in New Brunswick and an MBA from McMaster University in Ontario.

As a chartered professional accountant and PhD candidate in business administration at the John Molson School of Business, Leanne Keddie would like investors of all kinds to know it’s OK to expect to come out ahead on their investments — and yet to remind companies to be socially responsible.

“We’re all shareholders, and that’s one thing that people forget,” explains Keddie, one of Concordia’s Public Scholars. “If you have a mutual fund, a pension plan, savings or investments of some sort, you’re invested in what these companies are doing — and you have a voice.”

Her PhD research follows that route. “I investigate why companies use sustainability goals in executive compensation packages and what impact these incentives have on a firm’s sustainability performance,” she says. Keddie focuses on sustainability incentives; that is, whether companies’ leaders are implementing the sustainability policies because they truly want to make a difference or if it’s just another way for them to keep earning their bonuses.

“Executives are at the top of the food chain,” she says. “They drive the rest of the company and set the tone, and I think it’s potentially a good thing if these goals affect a company’s behaviour and make it more environmentally responsible. That’s what I’m hoping to find out with my research.” The mother of four young children seems to have boundless energy when she talks about a field that traditionally has a more subdued public image. “I really love my work,” she says. “I feel that what we’re doing can have a positive impact.”

Public scholars program raves

Keddie has nothing but glowing reviews about the Public Scholars program. “The experience has been phenomenal,” she says. “We received training on writing op-eds and blogs, we’re holding public talks, and all through the process we’re being given the opportunity and training to communicate our message more clearly and explain it in a way that hopefully makes other people excited about what we’re doing. The program and the training itself have been invaluable, not only for my PhD, but going forward in my career.”

Her enthusiasm extends past the program. “My experience at Concordia has been incredible,” Keddie says. “The amount of support I’ve received from my supervisors, my committee members, colleagues and other faculty, it really, truly has been mind-blowing. They want you to succeed, and they’re so giving of their time and their energy.”

This past March, Keddie joined nine other Public Scholars at the program’s Truth & Consequences talk. In five minutes, she elaborated on her thesis, explaining what truth she was seeking and what consequences her research could have.

“I tried to put into fairly straightforward terms what I’m examining and what that means for all of us,” Keddie says. “The misconception people often have is that shareholders only want to make money. Well, sure I want to make money. I need to save for retirement. But I don’t want to do that at the expense of the air that I breathe or the water I’m drinking. I want companies to be responsible. They need to be profitable, but we need to also make sure companies are taking society and the environment into account when they’re making their business decisions. It’s in their own self-interest to do so.”

—Toula Drimonis, BA 93

This won't hurt a bit

Rocco Portaro Rocco Portaro’s research focuses on developing a needle-free injection system of drug delivery.

Growing up in Montreal’s east end, Rocco Portaro, BEng 11, MASc 13, says he was always drawn to the sciences. Yet he didn’t realize how close his relationship with Concordia would become when he first enrolled at the university in 2007.

Unlike most scholars, who tend to change schools when pursuing one of their postgraduate degrees, Portaro stayed at Concordia after completing his undergraduate and graduate degrees in mechanical engineering. He is now looking to complete his PhD by the end of the summer.

“If it wasn’t broken, why fix it?” Portaro says of his academic path. He notes that the facilities he was using, the research he was pursuing and the supervisor he was studying under — Hoi Dick Ng, professor of mechanical, industrial and aerospace engineering — were all first-rate, so he didn’t feel the need to look elsewhere to complete his studies.

Portaro’s research centres on fluid dynamics and manufacturing, with a focus on biomedical engineering. In particular, he is developing a needle-free injection system of drug delivery — think of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy’s tools in Star Trek, with the “psssht” sound and painfree expressions on patients’ faces.

Needle-free injection basically involves compressing liquid into a tiny jet and expelling it through a minuscule orifice at extremely high speed. Typically, the orifice is 50 to 150 microns in diameter — a micron is a millionth of a metre — and the liquid is travelling at 200 metres per second. Portaro says injecting one millilitre of fluid takes about five milliseconds.

The upside of needle-free injections are safety, savings — no more paying for one-use needles or their disposal — and allaying patients’ fear of needles. He hopes to eventually work with larger volumes and inject livestock like cattle or poultry.

As if his research wasn’t keeping him busy enough, Portaro also founded an engineering firm that specializes in industrial automation and taught a class on numerical methods for engineers at Concordia in 2017. He hopes to one day join the faculty, with one foot in academia and the other in industry.

The world beyond the lab

As a member of the first cohort of Concordia’s Public Scholars, Portaro says he’s been exposed to life and research far removed from his own. “We’re able to see what else is going on in the university, and that makes you value fields that you wouldn’t have thought of appreciating in the past,” he says. “It’s always nice to meet new, hard-working people. They’re all extremely dynamic individuals.”

At the Public Scholars event in March, Portaro discussed his research in needle- free technology and the benefits it offers, while touching on the ways engineers can benefit medicine.

He describes his experience as a Public Scholar as educational, demanding and exhilarating. “There’s been no one to base this off of,” he says. “But I feel pretty special in that I get to be part of the first group, so we get to set the trend for everyone else to come.”

—Patrick Lejtenyi, GrDip 99

Stories matter

Lisa Ndejuru Lisa Ndejuru’s research weaves together oral history, community-engaged theatre and applied human sciences.

“Everybody has a story,” says Lisa Ndejuru. “Sharing our personal narratives with others, and learning to ‘play’ with them can be a powerful way to move forward in the aftermath of trauma, loss and displacement.”

Ndejuru’s own story has been fertile ground for exploration. Born in Rwanda to a family who then spent 10 years in Germany to escape anti-Tutsi organized violence, she has called Montreal home ever since arriving in Canada in the early 1980s. Her life changed in 1990 when she visited relatives living under grim refugee-camp conditions in neighbouring Uganda. That was just a few months before the outbreak of the three-and a- half-year-long Rwandan civil war, followed by the 100-day genocide perpetrated against the Tutsis in 1994.

Soon after, Ndejuru realized she had to find a way to address the heartacheand confusion familiar to generations of Rwandans in Africa and abroad. She abandoned a career in advertising, retrained as a licensed psychotherapist and then was drawn to community activism and dialogue, particularly via arts-based storytelling, creative play and improvisational theatre.

In 2005 she was invited to become a volunteer community researcher with Montreal Life Stories, a landmark community- university oral history research project based at Concordia’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. That project ran until 2012, recording the memories of hundreds of Montrealers who survived war, genocide, other human rights abuses and displacement.

“I discovered the incredible power of personal narratives, especially when those stories are amplified and focused through simple arts-based techniques drawn from theatre, creative writing and relational art,” she says, “Generative ‘play’ with stories of colonization, violence and loss can often do what can’t be done through conventional psychotherapy and other medicalized or professionalized approaches.”

In 2011, Ndejuru enrolled in Concordia’s individualized PhD program and immersed herself in advanced studies, building on her Montreal Life Stories activities.

Ndejuru has observed a widespread reluctance to discuss traumatic histories of organized violence for fear of retraumatizing survivors and transmitting pain to successive generations. “I grew up with silences,” she says. “There were many things we simply didn’t talk about in my family and community. But my research among several post-genocide communities, together with my personal trajectory as a young adult, show the value of doing the opposite — of not remaining silent about past horrors.”

The world before birth

Today her preoccupation is with combatting the very real legacy of unintentional intergenerational transmission of trauma. “My work is about creating safe spaces and appropriate techniques for families and communities to explore the ways in which we’ve already been shaped by our own difficult stories,” she explains.

Ndejuru hopes to join the growing number of Rwandan-Canadian exiles participating in Rwanda’s development, and is helping to build Concordia- Rwanda links.

“Echoing the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Canadian scholar Karen Meyer writes that ‘as human beings we belong to the world before birth,” she says. “My elders called it kuba, kubaho, kubana—and this is the very foundation of ancient Rwandan philosophy. The lovely, rich image of ‘kuba’ passed on to me by my father is that of a fire, a vitality, something we must feed and care for.”

And, as she discussed at the March 2018 Public Scholars event, Ndejuru expects her future to be about keeping that fire alive.

—Patrick Lejtenyi, GrDip 99

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