A Child of the Blockada

By Lada Semakova



The Blockada, more famously known as The Siege of Leningrad or Operation Barbarossa, began in September 1941 and finished some 900 days later in January 1944. The Blockada was meant to destroy Russia’s major commercial center by eliminating its population through starvation and bombing. Today the Blockada is regarded as one of the lengthiest and most devastating sieges in history. The siege resulted in the death of one million soldiers. Three million were wounded or sick. Over one million civilian deaths occurred during the siege and after evacuations. The city was not able to return to its original population as per before the Blockada until the 1960s.


The square screen appears in the Skype window and with a familiar trill the video starts. I’m so glad he picked up. Now, as though the thousands of miles between Toronto, Canada and St. Petersburg, Russia have vanished, he sits in front of me.

He hasn’t changed much. Perhaps he cut his hair. It’s as white as ever. His skin glows. His cheeks burn pink. His lips curl into a luminous smile. The wrinkles beside his eyes crinkle in the thin golden frames of his glasses. This man has not aged in my eyes since I was a child. My dedushka, Vladimir Mihailovich Semakov, observes me with a soft gaze through the screen of my MacBook. I grin.

Behind my dedushka I see the familiar interior of my grandparents’ apartment. I see the gold-framed painting of peonies hung at the center of the wall and the oak armoire positioned in the corner and the same old yellow couch in the middle of the living room that I played on when I was six. The desk lamp lights Dedushka’s face. Everything behind him drowns in the blue hue of the television.

I grasp my pen. I bite down on the side of my cheek and furrow my brow, eager to ask Dedushka about his childhood. But a part of me is scared of what he’ll tell me.

Well you can’t expect much from me. I’m sure you, too, in a couple of years won’t remember what happened to you as a toddler. In 1941, I was only three years old, living in St. Petersburg. During the Soviet times it was called Leningrad.

A lot of the details are blurry and many of them were brought back to my memory through stories that others told me. But what I can swear my life on is that at the time nobody expected Germany to invade. Everyone discussed the possibility, but every clear thinking adult was sure that for Germany to fight two wars at once would be complete suicide.

Actually, now that I think of it, there is a trivial memory that I do recall. It was early September in 1941 that my mom and I were riding on the streetcar passing by Ligovka Street. That day, my mom dressed me in my favourite Russian navy outfit. The white and dark blue stripes of my matroska ran horizontally over my chest. A bezkozirka hat rested atop my head, the red star with the hammer and sickle embroidered in the center. That hat was my pride and joy.

That day, I heard the wail of the air raid siren for the first time. A flood of people stampeded in the streets. We evacuated the streetcar in search of cover. Feet pounded the cobblestones. Sirens blared from black square gramophones that towered over the city on the sides of buildings and ten-foot wooden posts. My mom’s hand clutched mine. My eyes, wide with confusion, searched for the source of the furor. The bezkozirka skimmed the top of my head as it flew off. I yanked back to grab it, but with a violent pull my mother’s hand jerked me forward, leaving the hat trampled under the feet of thousands of civilians clamoring for the bomb shelters. Oh did I ever miss that hat!

But that was just the start. Soon the German and Finnish troops encircled Leningrad from both sides. All commerce ceased. Imports and exports halted. The Germans worked strategically and studied the locations of all factories and produce storages in the city. They blew them up.

Air raids happened daily. At first people took essential supplies and documentation with them before descending into the bomb shelters. But in a matter of weeks the city’s produce supplies began to diminish and the famine set in.

Hunger only got worse with the onset of the Russian winter. Soon some people couldn’t go down to the bomb shelters, their bodies too feeble for the physical demand of climbing down a flight of stairs.

If you talk to more people who lived through the Blockada, they’d tell you that they could get past the cold and poverty and the daily death that they witnessed around them, but one thing was omnipresent: starvation. Oh darling, you could never forget the feeling of starvation.

German bombs did not take away the most lives during the Blockada, malnourishment did. Skeletons roamed the city. People would collapse walking on the streets and they would die in stairwell landings and in alleyways and they would freeze on the sides of roads as others walked by without a single look. The body trucks eventually picked up the dead and carried off piles of corpses in their trunks. These people ceased to have names. They wouldn’t even have graves.

Six months into the Blockada, by a stroke of luck, Mom, Grandma and I escaped on a train headed for the Arkhangelsk province where we spent two years. Dad stayed in the city and fought.

We lived for Dad’s letters. We prayed they would never stop coming.

In 1944 I turned six and my family reunited in the rubble of Leningrad. We returned to my childhood home on Dostoyevsky Street to find that everything in the apartment had been burned as firewood: books, toys, appliances, furniture. The only thing left standing were the two metal bed frames at the center of the room.

The siege ended that year. For the first time, Stalin allowed fireworks outside of Moscow. People rejoiced. Hope was restored. Leningrad tried to go back to normal. But the Blockada left a big and ugly scar on the city.

Leningrad was ruined. People used food coupons from the end of the war to 1947. Every family had lost someone. Some people had lost everyone: children lost parents, sisters lost brothers and wives lost husbands. Over two million soldiers perished in the war. Millions of innocent civilians disappeared into icy graves.

We were lucky. My father shattered his tibia. He wore special footwear that elevated one of his feet 15 centimeters from the ground so that he could walk. But he was alive.

Everyone tried not to think of the siege for to remember the horrors of the Blockada was to relive it again, and to relive it again was to die inside.

Oh darling, you don’t know how lucky you are to be alive and fed, to be warm and clothed, to be safe and free. You are blessed to have more thoughts in your mind than just the thought of how you will survive to see another morning. If you take anything away from this, let it be that no matter how weak the flesh may be, let your spirit be strong. Let your spirit have hope. It is with hope in our hearts that we survived. Let it guide you to a place that will bring you peace.


“Beyond Horror: They Ate Cats, Sawdust, Wallpaper Paste…even Their
Own Babies. Leningrad’s Agony as the Nazis Tried to Starve It into
Submission.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 02 Sept. 2011.
Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
Hickman, Kennedy. “Siege of Leningrad- World War 2- Eastern Front”.
About.com. n.p. 4 Oct. 2009. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Siege of Leningrad (Soviet
History)”. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.
Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
“Siege of Leningrad Begins.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d.
Web. 16 Feb. 2014.
Vladimir and Irina. 29 June 1941. Semakova Family Archives. St. Petersburg,
Russia. Photograph.

Is it the Wine or is it the Music?

By Marian Shinuda


As the famous Danish author and poet, Hans Christian Andersen, once said, “Where words fail, music speaks.” Throughout history, the power of music has been debated among intellectuals and musicians alike, with many concluding that music can greatly influence the way we view our world. In movies, music evokes emotion out of viewers, and in marketing, retail chains often play catchy tunes to encourage shoppers to stay longer. Evidence suggests that music may have a great impact on the way that people perceive their surroundings, including their experiences selecting wine.

In 1999, Adrian North and his team of researchers from the University of Leicester in England published their findings on the influence of background music in relation to buying behaviour in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The researchers set up a display in the alcoholic beverages section of a UK supermarket for a two-week period. The display carried four French wines and four German wines priced reasonably for the average shopper. Researchers matched the wines of both countries for price and sweetness. The supermarket played French folk music and German folk music on alternate days. The researchers also alternated the French and German wines from the right side of the display to the left side. Researchers asked those who selected a bottle of wine from the display to fill out a four part questionnaire about their choice.

First, the questionnaire asked consumers for the reason behind their selection of wine. The second question asked consumers to rate, on a scale of zero to ten, how often they typically favoured French wines (zero) or German wines (ten). The third part asked consumers to rate (from zero – not at all, to ten – a lot) the extent of the music’s ability to make the consumer think of the countries the wines came from.

Finally, consumers stated “yes” or “no” to whether or not the music influenced their decision of which wine to purchase.

The researchers underwent the study to test the hypothesis that background music causes consumers to recall information relevant to available items for purchase. The results of the questionnaire showed that the French music made consumers think of France, and the German music made consumers think of Germany. French wine sold more often when French music played and German wine sold more often when German music played, as expected. Researchers studied the respondents’ ratings of usual preference for German or French wines and found that most respondents lacked a predisposition for either type.

Researchers believe that the results show an undeniable influence of cultural music on wine purchases of the same culture. North argues that music influences a consumer’s choice most when they enter the store uncertain of which product to buy, or when they are only somewhat involved in the purchasing decision. Researchers emphasize that although most respondents seemed unaware of the effect of music on their wine selection, whether or not people consciously allow music to affect their choice of purchases should be studied further.

To continue his research on music and its influence on consumers, North conducted another study at Heriot Watt University, published in the British Journal of Psychology in 2012 detailing the effect of music on wines’ taste.

North chose four pieces of music before undergoing the study. He asked five students under the age of 25 to listen to the music and match each song with descriptions he provided; “zingy and refreshing”, “powerful and heavy”, “subtle and refined”, and “mellow and soft”. The students all responded identically: Carmina Burana by Orff matched “powerful and heavy”, Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker for “subtle and refined”, Just Can’t Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague for “zingy and refreshing” and Slow Breakdown by Michael Brook matched “mellow and soft”.

North recruited 250 students under the age of 25 on a university campus. He split the students into ten conditions, 25 students per condition. Five of these conditions involved drinking white wine and listening to one of the four pieces of music chosen, or no music at all. The other five conditions involved the same auditory stimuli but with red wine instead of white wine. Participants drank the wine in one of five rooms, each with a different auditory condition.

Subjects then rated the wine’s taste on a scale of zero (“wine definitely does not have this characteristic”) to ten (“wine definitely has this characteristic”) for four different rating scales; ‘powerful and heavy’, ‘subtle and refined’, ‘zingy and refreshing’ and ‘mellow and soft’. Participants also rated their liking for the wine on a scale of zero to ten, zero being “not at all” and ten being “very much.” Participants also rated the music played using this scale.

Finally, participants selected one of the four categories they felt best described the music played during the experiment. North found that participants perceived the taste of the wine in relation to the connotations of the music played. Participants often judged the wine as “powerful and heavy” when the piece associated with the “powerful and heavy” category played versus every other piece. Participants judged the wine under one of the four categories more often when the music associated with that same category played while they drank. North believes that the results of the study demonstrate music’s ability to influence the perception of taste. Overall, both of North’s studies prove that music can influence our perceptions. This influence goes further than our wine choice or taste preferences. Music influences the brain’s awareness of our surroundings in ways that we may not initially recognize or understand.


North, A.C., Hargreaves D.J. & McKendrick, J. (1999). The influence of in-store music on wine selection. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 271-276. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.84.2.271
North, A.C. (2012). The effect of background music on the taste of wine. British Journal of Psychology, 103, 293-301. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.2011.02072.x
Andersen, H.C. (n.d.). “Hans Christian Andersen Quotes.” Goodreads. Retrieved Feb. 23, 2014.

Butter Maker

By Heather From


“What happened next?” I ask. “What did the German soldiers do to you? How long did they stay?”

“Slow down, little one. I will tell ya, but I think we need some tea.” Beppe, my grandmother, stands up from the carved, creaking wooden chair at the kitchen table. She moves towards the small kitchen of her and Pake’s, my grandfather’s, mobile home, which feels more and more like a house with each year that she and Pake live there. I hear the clock in the den wind up, and a wooden bird pops its head out from the top gable to sing four loud coo-coos. Small doors open and welcome the bird back inside its little home. I smile to myself. Four o’clock, a typical teatime for Dutch families.

I turn it face down and run my hand down the length of the wooden dining room table to reach another pen from my purple mesh pencil case. I stretch my sore arms and shoulders, grasp the pen and place it on the stack of lined papers that sit in front me.Several of them are torn and full of scribbles.

I rub my eyes and push my brown hair back from my face. The two of us have been sitting at Beppe’s kitchen table since ten o’clock this morning, talking about her life during World War II. Even though I read her story a few days before, I still have questions about her life in the Netherlands before she came to Canada. I look to the page of interview questions I’ve written an effort to keep the conversation on track. They were quickly pushed aside as Beppe told story after story about the German soldiers who stayed in her home.

The kettle whistles from on top of the gas stove. Beppe fills two cups with Red Rose tea and places them on the yellow and white-checkered tablecloth. She turns back towards the kitchen counter and returns with a plate of Oranjekoek, a spiced cake with a pink icing drizzle. I sneak a bite from a piece on the plate. Beppe turns to check that the gas stove is off, catching me.

“Agh, Heather!” She scolds, her Dutch accent thicker than usual. She swats my hand away from the plate.

I laugh and pop another piece of the warm cake into my mouth and brush the crumbs from my cheeks. She tries to send me one of her stern looks, but her eyes, surrounded by laugh lines, seem harmless.. The sweetness of the cake dissolves on my tongue. My cheeks cramp up. I swallow the pink icing.

“Do you miss it?” I mumble. Crumbs threaten to fall from my mouth, which I know will not impress Beppe.

“Do I miss what?”

“Life in the Netherlands, relatives, everything.”

“I miss how simple things were before the war,” she responds. “But… we did not go through the worst of the war. We had a lot of good times… The German soldiers weren’t as bad as people thought. We had to be afraid of some of them because they were not scared to kill people like us, but the ones that stayed with my family were just beautiful and oh just such, such dears.” Beppe sneaks a bite of cake for herself.

“I think we need some butter.”

I nod and push myself up from the table. I wander over to the counter lined with small porcelain figurines of ladies with stylish hats and flowing dresses. Delft Blue tiles adorn the wall above the countertop, depicting scenes of boats and windmills.

My thoughts wander to an image taken of Amsterdam by Kryn Taconis in 1945. German soldiers march through the streets with gas masks. Dutch citizens’ stand on the curb and watch as they pass. I know that Beppe remembers everything that happened in the war, but high school history class told a different story.

I sigh, grasp the old glass butter dish, and shuffle back to the table in the warm, knitted slippers that Beppe handed to me when I first walked into the house this morning.

“Beppe, what games did you play with the German soldiers? You wrote in your story that you became friends and played with them.” I set the open butter dish on the table.

“We played hide and seek,” she responds matter-of-factly.

“What? Oh… I mean… pardon?”

“It’s true. All of the children in the neighborhood came out to play with us. We hid in trees, the Brussels sprout fields; anywhere we could. At eight o’clock every night we had to go inside. They would turn off the lights in the streets so that the Americans…and the Canadians would not be able to bomb the Germans.” She giggles and tries to take another sip of tea.

“What? What is it?” I ask, laughing.

“One time… I was… visiting a friend in another town… and the lights went off… while I was walking home…It was so dark, I couldn’t see him… and I… and I…I walked between his legs!” She holds her stomach and laughs. A few tears trickle down her suntanned, wrinkled cheeks.

I stare at her in disbelief.

“You walked through a German soldier’s legs?” I exclaim nervously. “Really?”
Beppe looks at me, and laughs even harder than before.

“No… No…” She sputters, “I walked through a Dutch man’s legs. He shouldn’t have been outside either! He was so surprised that I just stepped right through them.”
I sigh in relief.

“What else happened?” I ask. “What were the German soldiers like when they were in your home?”

Beppe looks at me. “I will tell you about home. The German soldiers were fine but my mother had to work hard for them. She washed their clothes with the soap that they had stolen from France, because we didn’t have any… She would do her own washing first, and then do the soldier’s after. She forced the men to take all of their laundry off of the lines outside the house themselves. Every Saturday my one dress would get washed so I had a clean dress for church on Sunday. She would also mend their socks.”

“How did living on a farm affect how you lived during the war?” I ask. I fill my knife with the soft, pale yellow butter, and coat the side of one of the squares of cake.

Beppe pauses and looks at me. I smile in her direction. I lick a few bits of the square from my top lip.

“What? It’s good!” I brush crumbs from my face onto the tablecloth.

She smiles.

“We had milk from our cows that we gave to everyone in the neighborhood and the German soldiers. We also had stables that the Germans used to keep their horses in for their wagons…But my mother, Nellie, who your mother is named after, hid our harnesses in the well so that the Germans wouldn’t steal them. But that happened later on in the war when no one had money. We also had hydro when the Germans lived with us, so my mama would walk down to the, the…” Beppe struggles to pronounce the word. “th..th..threshing floor of the house, which was under the main floor.” She pauses and continues.

“My mother, Nellie, had an electronic butter maker down there, which the Germans knew about. She would sit and make butter for hours and then bring some up to use in food. That was only until the supplies of food in Rotterdam ran out, and then we all ate tulip bulbs. That was the hardest part of the war.”

Beppe takes a small section of the soft butter and spreads it thinly on a square. She bites off a small piece, and chews.

“But Beppe, didn’t they care that you were hiding two boys in the fields? Why didn’t they take them away to the concentration camps like they did north of you?”

Beppe fiddles with the side of the tablecloth. I hear the screen door at the front of the house open, and the sound of shuffling feet.

“Oh! Oh! I have to get dinner on. Pake’s home. Put those papers away and peel some potatoes for me.”

I sigh, pile the messy stack of papers into my binder and shove them into my backpack.

“I will tell you all about that some other time.”


Historical Events for Year 1945. HistoryOrb.com, 2000-2013.Web.24 Feb. 2013
“Holland in World War II.” ARTstor. ARTstor Inc., 2012. Web. 11 Feb. 2013.
“SDFK.” World War II in Colour. ServInt, n.d. Web. 11 March 2013.
Tuinhof, Cora. Personal Interview. 15 Jan. 2013.

Ayahuasca: A Psychedelic Brew

By Dylan Smart


In the city of Manaus, in the Amazon of Northern Brazil, an ancient tradition brings religious shamans together through a psychoactive herbal tea called ayahuasca (I-ah-woss-kah). Ayahuasca consumption orchestrates a psychedelic state comparable to hallucinogens like LSD. Centuries have seen ayahuasca used in religious ceremony to strengthen spiritual ties and heal addiction.

Ritualistic ayahuasca use sparked the interest of American scientist Dennis McKenna and his team of researchers in the early 1990’s. McKenna, an Enthopharmocologist, specializes in studying drug use across cultures. The team traveled to Manaus to study a group of 15 experienced ayahuasca users. Founded in Brazil in the early 1950’s, the ayahuasca users were part of a church called The União do Vegetal (UDV) – “the Union of the Plants”. UDV members consume ayahuasca a minimum of two times per month and up to several times per week.

Ingredients in Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca contains two simple ingredients both native to the Brazilian Amazon: a shrub called psychotria viridis and a vine called banisteriopsis caapi. The psychoactive ingredient dimethyltryptamine (DMT) – the most potent psychedelic drug discovered – rests within the ancient tea of ayahuasca. The psychotria viridis shrub contains large amounts of DMT. But DMT remains orally inactive because an enzyme in the liver called monoamine oxidase degrades DMT’s simple molecules before they leach into the blood stream. The banisteriopsis caapi vine, however, contains a monoamine oxidase inhibitor. This inhibitor gives DMT passage through the liver where it merges into the circulatory system and flows to the brain. A psychedelic state ensues. How the ancient shamans knew how combine these two ingredients remains unknown.

Amazonian Shamans combine the banisteriopsis caapi vine with the psychotria viridis plant in a tea to produce psychedelic effects.

Scientific journals harbour little research on this oral delivery system which produces a different psychedelic experience than conventional DMT use. James Kent, an American writer, articulates the difference between smoking DMT and drinking ayahuasca in a documentary by Mitch Schultz called DMT: the Spirit Molecule.

Smoking DMT is sort of like the drive-by shooting of psychedelics. You’re in one place, BANG! You’re in another place and then BANG! You’re back down, so it doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for that narrative of “who am I? What am I doing here? Why am I in this space? What am I learning?” It’s almost like there’s too much information to process in that few minute span to integrate once you drop back down. Orally active ayahuasca tends to pick you up and gently carry you into the space and hug you, embrace you, clean you and show you all sorts of mystical visions and then it very gently brings you back down like you are floating on a feather back to the ground.

The ritualistic history behind ayahuasca compelled McKenna and his team to study this spiritual tool and bring some quantified data back to North America.McKenna compared an experimental group of 15 experienced ayahuasca users to a control group that never consumed ayahuasca. McKenna matched the two groups on criteria such as age, gender, substance abuse history and diet. After the experimental group returned from their four hour long ayahuasca experience, McKenna and his administration evaluated both groups using standardized tests.

McKenna’s Study: The Results

McKenna found that the experienced ayahuasca users scored significantly higher on psychological tests evaluating multiple facets of cognition. These tests included the UCLA Auditory Verbal Learning Test where subjects recall a lists of nouns, and the Tridimensional Personality Questionnaire which measures three aspects of personality: novelty seeking, harm avoidance and reward dependence.

McKenna and his researchers noticed something else. Of the 15 experiences ayahuasca users, 11 reported suffering from psychological distress in the form of anxiety disorders and alcohol abuse before joining the UDV. The subjects claimed that their involvement in the União do Vegetal, and ritualistic ayahuasca consumption that accompanies it, put their psychological disorders into complete remission.


McKenna, D.J., Callaway, J.C., Brito, G.S., Oberlaender, G., Saide, O.L., Labigalini, E., Tacla, C., Miranda, C.T., Strassman, R.J., Boone, K.B. (1996). Human psychopharmacology of hoasca, a plant hallucinogen used in ritual context in Brazil. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders, 184, 86-94. http://simplelink.library.utoronto.ca/url.cfm/418521
Strassman, R. J., Qualls, C., R., Uhlenhuth, E., H., Kellner, R. (1994).
Dose-response study of N,N-Dimethyltryptamine in Humans. Archives of General Psychiatry, 51, 98-108. doi: doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1994.03950020009001.
Schultz, M. (Director). (2010). DMT: The Spirit Molecule [Documentary]. United States: Spectral Alchemy.

Host Parasite Interactions: Cricket Suicide

By Stephanie Kolodij


In the summer of 2000, a group of scientists stood around a private pool in the south of France. Amid the drinking and socializing, Dr. F. Thomas from the Centre d’Etude sur le Polymorphisme des Micro-Organismes noticed something odd. Crickets from the neighbouring forest hopped across the concrete patio and into the pool. Once there, the crickets promptly drowned. Thin, white worms more than three times the length of the crickets wriggled free of the water-logged corpses.

Dr. Thomas decided to investigate.

The Worm

The scientists fished the dead crickets from the pool along with their apparent parasite. They determined that the infestation occurred because of a Nematomorpha, a large group (or taxon) of worm species commonly known as horsehair worms.

The adults of this taxon live freely in bodies of water. They mate in large, tight clusters of worms. This can only occur in their natural aquatic environment. However, the juvenile horsehair worms must first parasitize insects such as crickets in order to grow to their adult stage.

How Do They Get There?

The insect host, a cricket in this case, gains the parasite by consuming the microscopic larvae of a horsehair worm. The worm then grows until it takes up the majority of the body cavity of the host. The parasite invades every part of the cricket, except for the head and legs. Once the worm has grown to full size, it can exit the cricket and move on to the reproductive stage of its life cycle.

The worm needs water, and the forest dwelling cricket cannot swim. Thomas and colleagues thought this conflict could account for the strange behaviour seen at the pool in France. They created an experiment to determine whether or not the horsehair worm manipulated its insect host to leap to its death.

Field Cricket with Horsehair WormThe horsehair worm grows until it takes up the entire body cavity of the host insect.
Source: University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Soni Cochran, 2011.

The Field Observations

Over the summers of 2000 and 2001, Thomas conducted field observations of the crickets from the forest adjacent to the private pool. They sat and watched crickets arriving in the area. If the crickets jumped to their watery graves, the scientists collected both the empty cricket shell and the horsehair worm that emerged.

During those summers, the researchers observed several crickets jumping into the pool and releasing parasites. Two strange behaviours emerged. First, when the worm left the host body, some of the crickets lived. Five individuals managed to escape the pool after depositing the infection, despite the evisceration caused by the parasite. Second, 100% of the 10 crickets the researchers rescued from the pool immediately jumped back in. Does this behaviour only occur in infected crickets?

The Field Experiment

Also in 2000, Thomas took a more experimental approach. He wanted to look at the difference in behaviour between the infected and uninfected crickets. Scientists collected crickets from both the edge of the pool and the forest interior. The researchers kept the crickets overnight in the laboratory as a geographical control. Thomas placed the collected subjects two metres from the edge of a pool. He watched their behaviour for 15 minutes. The researchers then preserved and dissected each insect to determine their infection status.

Thomas and colleagues found a difference in horsehair infection rates between the crickets collected at the edge of the pool and the crickets collected from the forest. Of the forest crickets, 15% had a horsehair parasite. Of the pool-edge crickets, 95% had a horsehair parasite.

The scientists reorganized the crickets into two groups based on whether or not they possessed a parasite. Another difference emerged once the researchers placed the crickets near the pool. Only 13% of the uninfected crickets entered the water. Forty-nine percent of the infected subjects entered the water within 15 minutes.

The Lab Experiment

Thomas and colleagues also wanted to see if the crickets responded to the presence of water as the inciting factor. They set up a Y-shaped arena with one humid arm, culminating in a water trough. The other arm, a dry control, ended in an empty trough. The scientists left both infected and uninfected cricket subjects at the base of the Y then allowed them free reign of the arena for 30 minutes. The researchers documented which trough each cricket ended up in. They also recorded which arm of the arena the crickets chose, if the subjects did not reach either trough.

The Y-arena test showed no difference between the infected and uninfected crickets for preference of humid over dry conditions. The behaviours differed when the subjects reached the end of either branch.

Every cricket that reached the end of the dry arm, regardless of infection status, entered the dry trough within minutes. Once the crickets encountered water in the humid arm, all of the infected crickets leapt in immediately. Only 1 in 12 of the uninfected crickets jumped into the water trough.

The researchers indicate that the presence of water has no effect on the crickets until they physically encounter it.

What Does This Mean?

Thomas and colleagues suggest that the parasite manipulation system occurs, but not in a sophisticated way. Given that crickets have terrestrial (i.e., dry, earthy) habitats, natural selection acts on the horsehair worms that can manipulate the host to water.

The insects do not seem to have any sense of travelling to water. The researchers speculate that in nature, the behavioural modification would present erratically. The cricket leaves its normal habitat, but not in any particular direction. The scientists go on to say that the forest near the field site has a large number of small streams criss-crossing through. The wandering of the sick cricket would likely land it in water before long.

The study proves the behavioural difference between infected and uninfected crickets. The scientists found that the uninfected crickets displayed great reluctance to enter any kind of water while the infected crickets dove in without hesitation. They do not know whether this behaviour relates to an attraction to water, or simply ignorance on the part of the infected host to the dangers of water.

The researchers conclude that an alteration takes place in the infected crickets, regardless of the sophistication or inciting factor.

The horsehair worm parasite manipulates the infected cricket host into “suicide” by drowning, in order to complete its own life cycle.


Cochran, S. [Photograph of a field cricket and a horsehair worm]. (2011). Retrieved from http://lancaster.unl.edu/pest/resources/horsehairworm.shtml.Gwynne, Darryl. “Manipulation of Host Phenotypes by Parasites” BIO406. University of Toronto, Mississauga Campus. Mississauga, Ontario. 27 September 2012. Lecture.Ogg, B. (2011). Horsehair worms. Retrieved October/23, 2012, from http://lancaster.unl.edu.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/pest/resources/horsehairworm.shtml
Gwynne, Darryl. “Manipulation of Host Phenotypes by Parasites” BIO406. University of Toronto, Mississauga Campus. Mississauga, Ontario. 27 September 2012. Lecture.
Thomas, F., Schmidt-Rhaesa, A., Martin, G., Manu, C., Durand, P., & Renaud, F. (2002). Do hairworms (nematomorpha) manipulate the water seeking behaviour of their terrestrial hosts? Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 15(3), 356-361. doi: 10.1046/j.1420-9101.2002.00410.x

Brad Thompson

By Michelle Duklas


“I think you have to be a little bit crazy, honestly, to do start-up companies in our area,” says Brad Thompson, CEO and President of Oncolytics Biotech. Oncolytics conducts research to find a cure for cancer.

In 1998, when Patrick Lee, Matt Coffey and Jim Strong approached Brad Thompson about starting a biotech company in Alberta, Thompson agreed to the business venture. Thompson, a well-known and respected researcher and previous employee of the Alberta Research Council, knew the instability and unpredictability of biotech companies. At the time, he acted as the CEO of Synsorb Biotech, a company producing a drug to lessen the effects of E. coli.

“The time commitment and risk profile is really off the scale,” says Thompson, “so you have to have some sort of hook to get you interested in doing this.”

In the early 1990s, Brad Thompson went to his doctor with a complaint: he believed a mole on his thigh appeared cancerous. His doctor looked at it, and the next morning, a surgeon called him and scheduled him for surgery. The surgeon cut out a three-inch diameter of skin from his thigh, in order to ensure that the melanoma wouldn’t spread.

For Thompson, there was a hook. He had been diagnosed with melanoma.

When asked about whether he gets paranoid about moles now, Thompson said, “I’m covered in moles. If I got paranoid about moles, I’d never get any sleep. There was something about that one. It didn’t really look different, honestly. I don’t know why. It was at a very early stage. The specialist said he’d never seen a melanoma that early. I was very lucky because, if it was six months later, I probably wouldn’t be here talking.”

His mother, Doreen, died of lung cancer. “Seeing my mom waste away the way she did was hard and, if you can do something about it, it would be a good feeling. If [our product] does what we hope it does, millions of people will benefit from it and that would be a very, very good feeling.”

Patrick Lee, the brains behind the technology, knew he wanted Thompson to run the company. “He has the contacts; he made the connections we needed. I simply couldn’t have done what he has [done].”

Thompson, an Edmonton native, credits the great community in Alberta for the success of Oncolytics. “Alberta is a great place to raise money. Since July 1999, the companies I’ve been involved in have had $80 million invested; $60 million of that came from Alberta. The finance community in Alberta is receptive to new ideas.”

Oncolytics Biotech is currently working on finishing Stage III trials on their main product, Reolysin. Trials should be completed later this year.

“It’s exciting,” said Thompson, about the prospect of the trial completion. “ I mean this is what we did all of that work for and put up with all we put up with – to get to the stage where you actually get to show that it definitively works or not. It’s kinda neat – it’s one of those industries where medical need and that whole feel-good factor of coming out with something that presumably will help a lot of people – I mean if this product works the way it looks like it’s working in early clinical studies, we could be treating literally hundreds of thousands to low millions of patients every year.”

Clinical trials require a lot of funding from shareholders. Thompson says that he takes his role very seriously and that there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with taking people’s money. “Your shareholders are the most important people in your life,” says Thompson. “So you treat them with respect.”

Most of all, Thompson values the excitement of his job. He used to be the CEO of Synsorb Biotech, a company that produced products to treat E. coli contamination. “When I left Synsorb,” he said, “I came here for $1 a month salary. That can be a little touchy at home. Your family looks at you like you’re nuts or something.”

Despite the risk, Thompson knows that there’s the potential to strike gold in this business, and find the cure for cancer. The potential for failure remains likely. “I honestly can’t imagine a job that’s more fun,” he admits. “If you’re an adrenaline junkie, this is the business for you.”


Alazraki, Melly (2010, June 2). “Harmless Virus Could be Answer to Cancer.” Retrieved March 31 2012 from http://www.dailyfinance.com/2010/02/06/this-virus-could-be-the-answer-to-cancer/
Infoport (2000). Dogged Belief. Retrieved March 3, 2012, from http://www.infoport.ca/techrev/bins/content_page.asp?cid=9160-9175-9396&lang=
Konotopetz, Gyle (2000, November 15). “Cancer fight is personal for Oncolytics Boss.” Retrieved March 31 2012 from http://www.businessedge.ca/archives/article.cfm/cancer-fight-is-personal-for-oncolytics-boss-4676
Oncolytics Biotech (2012). Board of Directors. Retrieved March 12 2012, from http://www.oncolyticsbiotech.com/board-of-directorsWeiss, Sam and Rancourt, Derrick (2000). “The Ride of their Lives.” Retrieved March 12 2012, from http://www.aihealthsolutions.ca/publications/newsletter/Fall00/fall00/inside/ride.f eat.htm

Syngnathid Sex Roles

By Jessica Cruz


The male seahorse spots a female. He gracefully swims to her as she awaits her future egg bearer. The pair circles one another rhythmically.
The mating dance begins.

The seahorses rub torsos, intertwine their tails, and change colour. The female plants a string of eggs into the male’s brood; a pouch on the male’s posterior.

Male pregnancy suggests a sex role reversal in syngnathids, a fish family of seahorses and pipefish. The males nurse the eggs in their pouches, which seal after mating.

Does this mean that females compete for male attention? Does it depend on the species of syngnathid? Dr. Amanda Vincent, a Marine Biologist and Conservationist at Cambridge University, explains that different syngnathidae species vary in dominant gender. In her study, “Pipefishes and Seahorses: Are they all Sex Role Reversed?” published in 1992, Vincent and her team studied mating patterns and sex roles in different syngnathid species. Their work reviewed previous studies and experiments on polygamous and monogamous relationships in this unique species of seahorses.

Reproductive ecology of Nerophis ophideon and Syngnathus
typhle pipefishes (Category 1)

Vincent and her team discovered that in the two species from Sweden, females acted as the dominant sex. Larger females caused less egg production by males. While neither sex dominated the population, a female “produced eggs for about two males within the timespan of one male pregnancy.” Either way, both sexes remain polygamous:

  1. Syngnathus typhle seahorses were simultaneously polygamous, spreading their eggs amongst different partners.
  2. Nerophis ophideon seahorses were sequentially polygamous, giving their entire egg batch to one male.

Females are larger, more colourful, and grow skin folds during mating. These features allow males a greater selection in their mates.

Reproductive ecology of Hippocamus Seahorses and
Corythochtyhs Pipefishes

Why are some syngnathid populations more male-dominant? The second category proposes that seahorses and corythoichthys pipefishes form monogamous relationships. The most distinct feature of these syngnathids is the pouch, which implies a possible sex role reversal. Lab experiments conducted by Cambridge University show that:

  1. Males become more aggressive when another male is present upon pursuing a female.
  2. Males show unique behaviours such as snapping and wrestling during the whole period of courtship.

The male seahorses also demonstrated unique qualities, such as snapping with their snouts and wrestling. Females remained neutral.

Importance of daily greetings in maintaining seahorse pair bonds

Monogamous male and female seahorses equally regulate mating. Females wait until after the pregnancy to mate again, even if other males court her. The mating processes happen through “daily greetings” of a “seahorse dance.” The mating occurs in the morning, lasting around six minutes, and the seahorses tend to change colour throughout. The male gives birth on an evening roughly six months later. The pair mates again the following morning for nine consecutive hours. This is essential to the maintenance of seahorse pair bonds.

In her study, Amanda Vincent sought to determine whether females mate more often with an “ex-seahorse” partner or with a seahorse who greets her often. The seahorses were kept in a tank at 28 degrees Celsius, mimicking natural conditions. The female was placed with a short-term mating partner, then a regularly greeted seahorse. Vincent and her team determined that regular greetings with male and female partners reinforce pair bonds in monogamous relationships.


All male syngnathid species give birth to offspring, but the dominant role in the mate selection process varies. Category 1 pipefishes showed a “higher production rate” in the larger females. Category 2 showed more males without partners.


Vincent, Amanda et al. (1994). A role for daily greeting in maintaining seahorse pair bonds. Animal Behaviour 49, p. 258-260.
Vincent, Amanda et al. (1992). Pipefishes and seahorses: are they all sex role reversed? Trends Ecol. Evol.7, p. 237-241.

Worth It

By Fatima Altaf


On December 16th, 1971, Bangladesh was born from the ashes of war and arose like a fiery phoenix, but this optimistic nationalism did not last long. Awami League, the new ruling party of Bangladesh, clashed with the Mukti Bahini, the Bengali guerilla fighters. The Mukti Bahini protested that politicians from Awami League did not contribute to Bangladesh’s fight but lived in luxury in Calcutta, India.

Two years later in 1974, Bangladesh suffered a famine, decimating the population further killing as many as 1.5 million people.

I stare at the picture in the browser on my computer. This must have been humiliating for Pakistan, I think. A.K.K Niazi, Pakistan’s army general, hunches over a white marble desk and signs a large document. A frown scars his face. Jagjit Singh, the Joint Commander of India and Bangladesh’s forces, clutches the paper and watches from under his green turban. On top of his turban, a medal protrudes like a diamond-encrusted jewel. Indian army men clamber around the desk and stare with anticipation.

I conducted an interview with Abdul Wahab Sumsud Zaman, the father of my Bengali friend Anika from high school. Mr. Zaman partook in the 1971 Pakistani Civil War as a member of the Mukti Bahini.

“I was 14 when the war broke out. My father was a wealthy politician and involved with the Awami League. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of Bangladesh, often came to our house. In March 1971, Rahman was arrested by the Pakistani government and taken to West Pakistan. My father escaped to India and I joined the Mukti Bahini in East Pakistan.”

“I became an informer for the Mukti Bahini, passing on vital information by spying on the Pakistani army’s movements in Dhaka and sending it to the guerilla soldiers who fought from the jungles. I knew things like how many army tanks were roaming the street or how many Pakistani soldiers were in the neighborhood. I knew of Mukti Bahini soldiers who carried handmade bombs in plastic bags on their backs and swam across channels in Dhaka to deliver them to the Mukti Bahini fighters.”

“I did get caught a few times by Pakistani soldiers in the street but, since I knew how to speak Urdu, I could get out of any situation. I would tell them ‘I am not Bengali’ and though they would try to force me to confess, my Urdu was good. That saved me I think…”

“I still have nightmares after seeing so many dead bodies in the streets. We slept in the day and stayed awake at night because the Pakistani army could raid our house at any moment. It was horrific. The Pakistani army killed so many innocent people. They raped women. They killed Bengali intellectuals — so many of our doctors, professors, and students. What breaks my heart is that it was Pakistani Muslims killing Bengali Muslims. ”

“Though not all Pakistanis were bad, especially the ones I grew up with. Since we were from a high-class family, we lived in an affluent Dhaka neighborhood with big bungalows and with many Pakistanis. Our Pakistani neighbors gave us tips on how to the Pakistani army harming our family. We had to tell the Pakistani soldiers that my father knew some of the leading Pakistani officers and to always speak in Urdu. Our Pakistani friends never ratted us out to the Pakistani soldiers. For that, I was grateful.”

“Life was difficult but became even more so after the war ended. We had our independence but the famine of 1974 set in and thousands of people died. The international community did not raise any awareness to help us, and sent very little aid. Nowadays, you have aid organizations that reach disaster areas in less than 24 hours, but in 1974 it was unorganized. It was one difficulty after another for the people of Bangladesh, but Bengalis are tough and resilient.”


The Liberation war ended with the defeat of Pakistan and General Niazi’s signature on the instrument of surrender. Yet problems continued in the new nation of Bangladesh. A destructive famine decimated the population. Power struggles erupted between the nationalist party and freedom fighters.

The birth of a new nation did not mean an instantaneous shift towards freedom, rights, and equality. But for many Bengalis, despite the struggle upon struggle,  they finally found a place to call their own.



“Lt-Gen. AAK Niazi, seated and signing surrender documents at the end of the Bangladesh War.” 17 Dec. 1971. IndiaToday.in. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.
Quddus, Munir, and Charles Becker. “Speculative Price Bubbles in the Rice Market and the 1974 Bangladesh Famine.” Journal of Economic Development 25.2 (2000): 157.
Zaman, Abdul Wahab Sumsud. Personal Interview. 22 Mar. 2013.

Methane Deposits in Antarctica

By Christopher Desousa


University of Bristol glaciologist Jemma Wadham and her colleagues presented evidence in a 2012 article in Nature that a large deposit of atmospheric methane may linger beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet. The 2012 Nature article suggests that if the ice sheet melts, methane may seep into the atmosphere and inflate global temperatures.

Thirty-five million years ago, Earth experienced a rapid shift in climate. Large ice sheets formed in Antarctica for the first time. Ice accumulated over millions of years and buried vegetation and forests. Antarctica now holds carbon-rich material suitable for methane production under its ice sheets.

The Antarctic Ice Sheet (AIS), the largest ice sheet on Earth, covers 98% of Antarctica. The AIS divides into the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) and the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS).

Wadham and her colleagues calculate that 50% of the WAIS and 25% of the EAIS covers an Antarctic Sedimentary Basin. Sedimentary basins accumulate a plethora of sediments such as boulders, pebbles, silt, sand and organic matter over long periods of time. The Antarctic Sedimentary Basin holds twenty-one billion metric tones of organic carbon compounds.

Sedimentary basins situated beneath the AIS hold organic carbon accessible to methanogenesis. Methanogenesis generates methane from methanogens. Methanogens are microorganisms that live in oxygen-deprived conditions. Methanogens decompose carbon-rich organic materials and generate methane as a by-product of their metabolism (release of energy).

Wadham used methane hydrate samples to simulate the accumulation of methane in Antarctic Sedimentary Basins. Methane hydrate forms when methane gas gets trapped inside a body of water and freezes into ice. Methane hydrate forms under ice in high pressure and low temperature conditions.

Scientists sawed 0.03 cubic meter blocks of methane hydrate off the edges of an Antarctic glacier. Methane hydrate fills with sediments picked up by glaciers as they float across ocean waters. They identified organic carbon and methane-generating microorganisms living in the sediments after melting the ice blocks.

Wadham conducted further testing on the Antarctic sediment inside methane hydrate samples. She and her team incubated methane hydrate melts in an oxygen-deprived environment for two years. After two years, the scientists documented high rates of methanogenesis. The study calculates an estimate of 400 billion tones of methane beneath the AIS.

The AIS represents a large reservoir of methane hydrate.During episodes of ice sheet retreat — the melting of ice sheets — methane hydrates may deteriorate and release methane gas into the atmosphere.

“Our study highlights the need for continued scientific exploration of remote sub-ice environments in Antarctica,” a glaciologist at the Univeristy of California, Slawek Tulaczyk said, “because they may have far greater impact on Earth’s climate system than we have appreciated in the past.”

Methane Gas in Antarctica

This feedback loop illustrates how the melting of
methane hydrate causes continuous atmospheric heating.
Source: Andrew Melo, 2012.

“Our study highlights the need for continued scientific exploration of remote sub-ice environments in Antarctica,” a glaciologist at the Univeristy of California, Slawek Tulaczyk said, “because they may have far greater impact on Earth’s climate system than we have appreciated in the past.”



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