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Leading International Climate Scientist Dr. Ian Burton

8 Nov

Lunch with Mary 057

Date of lunch:
Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The company:
Dr. Ian Burton’s resume is incredible and beyond impressive! He is a professor emeritus with the University of Toronto’s Adaptation and Research Section at the Centre for the Environment and was formerly a senior policy advisor with Environment Canada. Currently, he is a consultant to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), World Bank, European development assistance agencies, Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the list goes on. He also received a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report. So I lunched with a Nobel Prize winner, no big deal. The report was honoured that year along with Al Gore’s work on climate change. Incase you are curious as to why it was a Peace Prize, it is because according to the IPCC there is a real danger that “climate changes may also increase the danger of war and conflict, because they will place already scarce natural resources, not least drinking water, under greater pressure and put large population groups to flight from drought, flooding, and other extreme weather conditions”.

The food:
We ate at Kalendar on College St. at Euclid. I was trying to find a quiet spot for lunch but it’s not always easy. Kalendar was quite nice for a lunch conversation with no loud music. However, as the lunch crowd grew it did get a bit noisy. Dr. Burton had the orange and ginger carrot soup and a Kalendar salad. I had a single scroll 5 – a Kalendar specialty. We both seemed to enjoy our meals as we completely cleaned our plates. We both drank water and each had a coffee after our meal. Total bill was $37 with tax.

The lunch lesson:
Basically every moment of this lunch was so incredibly interesting. But Dr. Burton was able to really show the immense impact of climate change when he spoke of his work with the government of Bangladesh. The water levels are rising in the Bay of Bengal due to melting ice caps and Bangladesh is slowly going underwater. Unlike the Netherlands where levies and containment walls are doing the trick, Bangladesh is at a far greater risk. The sea around the country is much more susceptible to extreme typhoons. The rivers that run through Bangladesh swell at a much greater rate during monsoons. Basically the water will rise and there’s no stopping it. Already, salt water is seeping into the ground. Dr. Burton told me there are rice fields that have now been converted to shrimp farms. Dr. Burton is working with the government as they develop industries and training that will help citizens move north to cities that are on higher ground. Climate change is happening and people are being affected today.

The lunch:
Dr. Burton and I had to meet this week as he is about to leave for a three week trip to several environmental conferences. He first has meetings in Kampala, Uganda where the IPCC is to adopt a report on climate change and disasters for which Dr. Burton is a Lead Author. He then heads to Cape Town, South Africa where he is helping scientists there have their research published. He then will head to 17th annual United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) in Durban, South Africa. The COP meets annually to assess the progress in dealing with climate change. It was at this conference in Japan in 1997 that the Kyoto Protocol was created. The ultimate objective of the Convention is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.

In 1997, Canada committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. With 2012 fast approaching, Canada’s greenhouse gas output is now, according to Dr. Burton, somewhere around 30 per cent higher than in 1990. Now many climate scientists will say that these targets were not well understood at the time of ratification and were perhaps never realistic.

Dr. Burton believes that although there are climate skeptics now, they will come around and the necessary change to reduce greenhouse emissions will happen – likely in something like 50 years. The problem with this scenario, according to Dr. Burton, is that many irreversible impacts of climate change will have already occurred. He told me about scientists in the UK who track different types of plants, insects and animals. Already they are seeing butterflies in northern areas where they were previously unable to survive. Although butterflies floating around doesn’t seem that bad, foreign species can have devastating effects on an ecosystem. In places like the Arctic, roads and buildings are built on permafrost. As that permafrost melts, all of this infrastructure is being destroyed. This impacts industry, jobs, the economy and more. Although it might seem expensive to reduce carbon emissions now, it will be more expensive in the long run.

In the past 100 years or so, the average global temperature has gone up by one degree. Dr. Burton was able to simply explain this to me. One degree might not seem like a lot. But do you know what the average temperature was during the ice age? Only five degrees cooler than today and four degrees cooler than 100 years ago. So each degree has an enormous impact.

I wouldn’t classify myself as a die-hard environmentalist, but listening to the impact of climate change in places like Bangladesh and the Arctic is quite frightening. I hear politicians doubting the validity of human’s impact on climate change. It is depressing when the evidence is quite clear. Hopefully with people like Dr. Burton on the case, we can work to find implementable solutions for both developing and developed nations.

As the COP approaches, you will notice more discussion of Kyoto and emission targets in the news. I will be trying my best to pay close attention as this is something that is really going to affect everyone – all over the world.

Physiotherapist, Professor and Global Rescue Worker Mike Landry

9 Jul

Lunch with Mary 054 Date of lunch:
Friday, July 8, 2011

The company:
Mike Landry is a physiotherapist, professor at University of Toronto (soon to be chair at Duke University) and a 15 year veteran of global rescue missions. I was listening to my fave, CBC Dispatches, and heard a story by Mike Landry about his original mission to Haiti shortly after the devastating earthquake in January 2010. He spoke about the work he did to help those with spinal cord injuries as a result of the earthquake and subsequent recovery effort. He then went back several months later to check on the progress of his patients and what he discovered led him to ask some very difficult questions about the responsibility of aid. When does it start? When does it end? I found the story very thought provoking and wanted to hear from Mike himself. In one of my fastest arranged lunches in history – I listened to the podcast on Sunday, Googled Mike Landry and emailed him on Monday and we had lunch on Friday. It was a fascinating conversation.

The food:
Mike and I ate at Café La Gaffe on Baldwin Street. I have never been on Baldwin Street on a beautiful afternoon and the patios were bustling. It’s one of those great hidden spots in Toronto. I had the Mediterranean vegetable pizza with salad and Mike had the risotto special with salad. We both drank water. The portions were huge, which I always appreciate. I did find the pizza a bit difficult to cut through but it was still great, tons of feta cheese! Total bill was $34 with tax.

The lunch lesson:
Mike talked to me about the type of person that is able to go on these global aid missions and was very clear that it is not for everyone. The images he sees are not something that he can forget and he said that every aid worker must have some amount of post-traumatic stress disorder. He says he can’t even fully discuss what he sees and does with all people because it is too difficult for them to hear. What really got to me was that Mike and his colleagues choose to put themselves in these positions. But what about those that live there and have no choice but to see the devastation day in and day out? It’s hard to imagine what that must be like and that thought has really stuck with me since our lunch.

The lunch:
Ever since I was young, I had an understanding that there were people in other parts of the world that had far less than I did and, like many other in my shoes, had this drive to do something to help. But the problem is, what do you do and how can you help? Mike Landry first felt this feeling when he watched Live Aid as a child and the drive did not go away. For over 15 years, he has been going to areas all over the world and helping out.

I asked him if he was ever scared and he told me he never was until recently, when he had children. When he first saw the images coming back from Haiti after the earthquake, he decided he couldn’t go this time. His daughter was very young and he didn’t want to put himself at risk. Mike told me he was able to hold himself from going for a week and then he just had to go. Once he knew he was going, he was in Haiti within a couple of days.

In Haiti, Mike helped those that were suffering from spinal cord injuries. He said many of these people had pulled themselves, with very serious injuries, out of the rubble on their own. Others had fallen while working to help rescue others and clear rubble. Not that many years ago, these people never would have survived – these injuries would have meant certain death. But Mike and the rest of the team in Haiti were able to help them. Many of those they saved are now able to have some level of mobility.

A few months after the earthquake, Mike returned to Haiti to check back in on his patients and help them return home. To this day, rubble still covers the streets of Haiti and it is shocking to see. For someone with mobility issues, it is very difficult to get around.

He brought one woman, who is paralyzed, to her home that was so difficult to access that they could not even bring her to her home on her wheelchair and instead had to carry her to her home on a stretcher. Once home, Mike wondered whether she’d ever be able to leave. And these are the questions that now haunt Mike and many other aid workers. They saved these lives but now what? How can the massive global aid dollars respond appropriately to help these survivors and communities? I, of course, do not have the answers but I think it’s something that needs to be addressed. The funding is there but it’s far more complicated than simply spending money.

Mike is about to embark on a new adventure at Duke University and will teach physiotherapy students who will continue the work that Mike does now. With advances in medicine, there is the opportunity to save so many more lives than before. It is my hope that long term aid will be part of the solution and will address quality of life. With someone as committed as Mike championing this cause, I believe we’re on the right track.

*NOTE: Mike is working on a documentary about his work and the people he has helped in Haiti and I will link to it once the site is live. Stay tuned for an update.

Paleontologist and ROM Curator David Evans… and DINOSAURS!

5 Mar

Lunch with Mary 050

Date of lunch:
Friday, March 4, 2011

The company:
David Evans is the associate curator in vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). So basically he has the job that every single eight year old would die for. He oversees dinosaur research at the ROM, travels the globe looking for dinosaur bones – from the Arctic to Africa to Alberta – and meets with researchers at the world’s best museums. He is about to leave for a five week trip to Northern Sudan to search for dinosaur remains. So I was really glad we could find time for this lunch before he left. Oh and he took me on a behind-the-scenes tour of the dinosaur collection at the ROM and it was THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE!!!

The food:
We ate at Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner – a café on the 3rd floor of the Gardiner Museum. It’s a great space. While we were there, a couple was getting a tour for their upcoming wedding. I can see how this venue would be awesome for special events. I had the layered vegetarian sandwich, David had the meatloaf sandwich and we split fries. The food was light and tasty and very fresh. We both drank water. Total bill was $27 with tax.

The lunch lesson:
So it turns out that Dr. Alan Grant was right. Birds are dinosaurs. David explained to me that birds share much of the same genetic make-up as dinosaurs and in fact (I am likely not explaining this in the correct scientific terms) have the ability to have tails, hands and teeth but those features have been turned off within their genomes. Then he gave me a great lesson. Picture a chicken. Now take away its feathers, put a tail on it, put teeth in its mouth and add little hands to the ends of its arms. It would totally look like a little dinosaur. Amazing. Dinochicken.

The lunch:
I usually don’t publicly talk about my upcoming lunches or tell others who I am taking out just incase it falls through. But with this lunch, I could not shut up about it. I had a countdown on Twitter. I pretty much told everyone that would listen – to the point that I think people were getting sick of me. And the lunch did not disappoint. We’ll get to the actual behind-the-scenes tour in a bit.

David talked to me about how he actually finds dinosaur bones. He said it’s not all about digging like you see on TV, it’s really about walking. For his upcoming trip, he is traveling with a German group of dino-trackers and they will be walking in the desert in Northern Sudan and just looking at the ground, at mountain sides and everywhere around them for fragments of dinosaur bones sticking out. Isn’t that insane? After 75 million years, there could still be a dinosaur bone sticking out of the ground. Anyway, they will see a tiny fragment and examine it and what may be around it. Then, if further exploration is needed, the team will arrange to do the exploration with the heavy equipment on another trip.

I did talk to David about how every kid goes through their dinosaur phase where they are just fascinated by everything to do with dinosaurs. I think it’s so awesome that he continued that interest and now works with dinosaur bones every day. He says he knew he wanted to do this for as long as he can remember. He also said that dinosaurs are a great introduction for kids to science. Even if they don’t end up pursuing a career in paleontology, it’s great that they’re interested in and loving science.

I also had to ask David what killed the dinosaurs. He said it is a matter of fierce debate within the scientific community. He did say that it seems that an asteroid did hit the Earth and this took out many of the dinosaurs. However, he doesn’t believe this was the only factor and says it was a combination of things and didn’t just happen in one big bang.

Never in a million years did I think when I started this blog that I would get to do something as cool as taking David out to lunch and holding 75 million year old dinosaur remains. I haven’t been to see the dinosaur exhibit since I was a kid and I really did feel like a kid again. It was such an amazing day and a big thanks to David for giving me so much of his time.

My exclusive tour behind-the-scenes of the ROM’s dinosaur collection:
The tour started with David taking me into the room that people don’t get to see. It houses over a million dinosaur bones and fragments.

IMG_2778 This room is the coolest room that has ever existed… EVER! Here are a few pics of what I saw:


Me holding a 75 million year old dinosaur horn – Look how excited I am!


David holding part of the neck bone of a dinosaur



A part of a dinosaur skull. This particular dinosaur used his head as a battering ram – look how thick it is!



Some duck-billed dinosaur skulls – David’s area of expertise



Wouldn’t want to bump into this guy in a dark alley – Roaarrrrr!



Coolest pic of all – a Tyrannosaurus Rex tooth! Look at that thing! And its edge is serrated like a steak knife.



Another dino tooth!



Dinosaur toe!



Part of a raptor’s skull. David let me know that they were A LOT smaller than they were portrayed in Jurassic Park. Raptors were only 2-3 feet high, who knew?

Seismologist Dr. Qinya Liu

21 Jan

Lunch with Mary 028

Date of lunch:
Thursday, January 21, 2010

The company:
Dr. Qinya Liu is a professor of seismology and earthquake sciences at the University of Toronto. She is originally from China but did her PhD at Cal Tech and her post-doc in San Diego. After the devastation in Haiti, I was hoping to learn a little more about how and why earthquakes happen, what we can do to prepare and whether we will ever be able to predict them. Qinya is incredibly friendly and very good at explaining pretty complicated science in easy language for me to understand. It was a fascinating lunch.

The food:
We ate at Midi Bistro on McCaul Street in the Baldwin Village area of restaurants. I have never been there before but I will definitely be back. I had the Farmer Salad, which was kind of cheating in the “salad” area because it had bacon in it and was covered in cheese. Qinya had the salmon quiche with a side salad and fries. We both drank water. My salad was so so tasty. I want to eat one again right now. Total bill was $23 with tax.

The lunch lesson:
Qinya explained a lot to me about tectonic plates and how it is the fault lines between these plates that are the most dangerous. She explained two pretty interesting things about areas where these plates meet. One that we all know well is the San Andreas fault, which runs through California and it is where the North American Plate meets the Pacific Plate. With these two plates constantly pushing against each other, the Earth is shifting at an average of 4cm a year. This means that in 10 million years, San Francisco will be at the same longitude as Los Angeles. The second area is the Himalayas. This is where the Indian Plate meets the Eurasia Plate. These mountains are caused by these two plates hitting each other and the mountains continue to get higher. Who knew?

The lunch:
The devastating 7.0 earthquake in Haiti was caused by one of these major faults. The Caribbean region is actually quite dangerous for earthquakes as the Caribbean Plate meets the North American Plate. The most simple way to explain these quakes, as Qinya patiently and graciously explained to me, is that these plates are constantly pushing against each other and it is not two smooth surfaces rubbing together. Eventually there is a shift.

For smaller, in the area of 5.0 earthquakes, that I remember feeling in Ottawa growing up, Qinya says those are from smaller fault lines likely caused by old tectonic activities that cover the entire surface of the Earth. Although these quakes happen, they are less likely to cause the destruction that we are seeing on our TVs a lot these days.

In terms of predicting future quakes, Qinya told me that it depends on how you define “predict”. It is still impossible to predict exactly when an earthquake will hit. But there is science and research that can determine areas that are likely to get hit and an approximate timeframe when it is bound to happen. These predictions would be something like “an earthquake of X magnitude is likely to hit Y in the next Z years”. Although knowing this does not help people to be outdoors in the exact moment that a quake hits, it does help to know these possibilities.

Qinya explained that in places such as Vancouver that sit between three plates: the North American Plate, the Juan de Fuca Plate and the Pacific Plate, because people know an earthquake can happen, certain building codes are in place to make the area safer.

Qinya said that the best way to be prepared in the long term for an earthquake is to build safe buildings, bridges and infrastructure and, in the short term, is to know what to do when an earthquake hits, such as hiding under a table or in a doorway. But there is still so much that is unpredictable, such as where the epicenter of the quake falls and how far below the surface of the earth it occurs. The closer to the epicenter and the closer to the surface – the stronger it is.

I might not be able to explain this part exactly as Qinya explained to me, but the Earth is all connected and these movements and shifts travel throughout the Earth. So last week when Haiti shook, with the proper and sensitive equipment, that quake was felt here, and across the globe. This is a big part of what Qinya researches and the applications that come from this.

It was really interesting to speak with Qinya and learn so much about something I really knew little about. She has a really great way of explaining things and I want to learn even more.

Although our conversation was very much based in science and fact, it’s hard to even find the words for what this “science” is capable of doing. I just want to end off with a quick link to two very worthy organizations – Doctors without Borders and the Canadian Red Cross – both accepting donations to help Haiti, no matter how small, and both doing very important work on the ground.

Doctors without Borders and CAMH Psychiatrist Dr. Steven Cohen

10 Dec

Lunch with Mary 027

Date of lunch:
Thursday, December 10, 2009

The company:
Dr. Steven Cohen is a psychiatrist at CAMH (the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) in Toronto. He has also worked with Doctors without Borders in both Chad and Sudan. He recently, as in last week, returned from Ethiopia where he was working with TAAPP. My friend Sham works with him at CAMH and when she found out that I wanted to take out someone who has worked with Doctors without Borders, she helped me to get in touch with Steven.

The food:
We ate at Swan Restaurant on Queen West near Ossington. I have been to this place once before a few years ago and was pretty disappointed but was much more pleased this time. The food was great! I had the clubhouse with avocado inside – a golden sandwich ingredient. The one thing that was weird was that the sandwich did not come with a side, unless you count two cucumber slices and two olives as a side. I could have used some mixed greens, just saying. Steven had the hot plate special which seemed to be a salad with Portobello mushroom and goat’s cheese, yum! We both drank water and Steven had a coffee. The total bill was $28 with tax.

The lunch lesson:
I think the lesson from today’s lunch wasn’t exactly something specific but more that it is really refreshing to speak to someone who has dedicated their lives to helping others and who is pretty selfless. I get very upset about the way women are treated in many countries around the world but I still don’t go out and change things on the ground like Steven does. It’s very admirable and makes me want to commit to trying harder to make a difference.

The lunch:
I was very excited for this lunch. I am a long time donor to Doctors without Borders, it’s one of my favourite charities and I think they do amazing work. But the work that Steven does in Toronto is pretty fascinating as well. He is currently a Fellow in the University of Toronto Forensic Psychiatry Fellowship.

What this means is that he works with people with mental illnesses that are in the criminal system, like Dr. Elizabeth Olivet from Law & Order (incase you can’t place that reference, neither could Steven but I’m pretty sure it’s similar). Yesterday, he spent the day at Penetangishene Prison, checking out the facility and meeting with prisoners.

Before moving to Toronto and very soon after graduating Steven applied to Doctors without Borders and was soon off to Chad for 6 months. Steven was the Mental Health Officer for the Farchana Project, providing services on the eastern border of Chad. You should definitely check out his blog from his time there. Shortly after returning, he went to Sudan for two months working in the refugee camps.

In his work with TAAPP (a collaboration between the University of Toronto and Addis Ababa University Departments of Psychiatry), he went to the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, to train doctors there to be psychiatrists in order to help people with mental illnesses that are currently not getting the care they need. The goal of TAAPP is to “produce a workable, effective model for accelerating the creation of medical specialists in Ethiopia”.

A WHO study from 2006 quoted on the TAAPP website found that “while the African continent bears 24% of the global burden of disease it has only 3% of the world’s health workforce and less than 1% of the world’s financial resources for health.” This emphasizes why organizations like Doctors without Borders are so necessary but also shows that the training work that Steven did that is pushing Ethiopia towards becoming self-sustainable when it comes to mental health care is an important long term goal.

I have seen in the news that foreign aid workers have been targeted by kidnappers in Sudan. I asked Steven if he was scared and he said that he knew it was a risk but he was okay. He then asked me if I have ever considered doing this type of international work. First I said that I wasn’t a doctor. He then explained to me that there are other jobs with Doctors without Borders that deal with the logistics. Then I told him I was too chicken. I am not proud of it but I honestly think I am too afraid to travel to places where foreign aid workers are the target of kidnappings. That is why I have so much admiration for the people that do it.

Steven told me that his mom didn’t talk to him for three days after he told her he was going to Sudan just after returning safely from Chad. My mom would do the same I am sure.

It was a great lunch. As soon as I left, I realized that I barely scratched the surface of all that I wanted to learn. But I am grateful for the conversation we had and I look forward to hearing about where Steven goes next.

Director of the Ontario Cancer Institute Dr. Benjamin Neel

10 Sep

Lunch with Mary 022

Date of lunch:
Thursday, September 10, 2009

The company:
Dr. Benjamin Neel is the director of the Ontario Cancer Institute, at the University Health Network and Princess Margaret Hospital. He has been in this post for about 3 years, coming from Boston where he had been working for over twenty years. Specifically, Dr. Neel is the senior scientist in the Division of Stem Cell and Developmental Biology, studying stem signaling, looking for a cure for all types of cancer. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had cancer affect a person that they love so I really was interested in speaking with someone on the front lines. I checked out the Princess Margaret Hospital online and requested a lunch with Dr. Neel through the site. This lunch has been about three months in the making – as Dr. Neel is extremely busy – so I was really glad to finally sit down and chat.

The food:
We ate at Mercatto at College and Elizabeth. It’s a nice place, great patio. I had a wild mushroom pappardelle and Dr. Neel had the daily soup (it was mushroom) and a tomato crostini. We both drank water. My meal was delicious. My one complaint about this place is that the ceiling is really high and with a busy lunch crowd, it was very loud and difficult to hear and have a conversation. But all in all, I will definitely be back, this time on the patio. The bill was $34 with tax.

The lunch lesson:
It was great for me to hear that a big part of Dr. Neel’s life is collaborating with other researchers around the world. In the next few weeks, he is going to Switzerland and Germany. He says people think it’s super competitive between researchers but really, there is strong collaboration. He said there are things he can do that they can’t do in Switzerland and vice versa. So they work together and learn from each other. Of course, there is a level of competition, which is a good thing because it often forces people to do better – but I was glad to hear that researchers around the world are not all working in isolation. The more minds we have together on a problem, the faster, I think, a solution will come to be.

The lunch:
Before I begin to write about this lunch, I have to admit up front that I know nothing about medical research. I mean I read the paper and listen to news about new treatments but I don’t know a lot about the findings along the way, which as Dr. Neel pointed out, is usually how these things work. So this was a huge learning experience for me.

Dr. Neel talked about how there is a real misconception in the public that research is about big breakthroughs in the lab. What it’s really about is building upon findings over the course of years and even decades. Something that was discovered in the eighties, built upon in the nineties could then be built on again this year and provide a new clue or treatment. If we do go back a few decades, Dr. Neel pointed out, huge steps have been made. Cancers such as childhood leukemia used to be nearly universally fatal and today are nearly universally curable. But it’s other cancers where progress has been slower such as breast, lung and brain. It is these cancers that perhaps in 10-15 years we will see more advances.

When I get stressed out, I often say to myself “I’m not saving lives here” just to put my stress level in perspective, calm down a bit and in the end be more efficient. But as Dr. Neel was explaining his extremely hectic schedule, I couldn’t help but think that him saying that might not work as well.

Dr. Neel also pointed something out to me that I never knew. He said that, for example, a breast tumor that is 1 cm in diameter is one billion cells. So if the growth is slow and they start from a single cell, the tumor can be growing for ten years before it is even noticed. I don’t know if this information is practical for me in any way considering I worry about everything (I may have said in the middle of our lunch “so I could have it right now”), but I just never had known that before.

I left this lunch thinking how admirable it is that there are people in the world that dedicate their entire lives to discovering a cure for something like cancer that causes so much pain in so many lives. It was really nice meeting Dr. Neel and learning a bit about the research being done at Princess Margaret. I hope that one day Dr. Neel’s job is obsolete but in the meantime, I am glad we have people like him and his colleagues in the labs trying to get us there.