Research in Action - Building a better, stronger home

Originally posted in the Chronicle Journal on July 4, 2024


Growing up in rural Alberta, Tristen Brown saw first-hand the difficulties faced by Indigenous communities when it comes to affordable and well-maintained homes. It's these wretched images of substandard houses, unhealthy overcrowding, and the need for major repairs that underpin the work being done at Lakehead University as part of a wider effort to find innovative solutions for habitats that can better withstand Canada's unforgiving climate.

“Driving by these communities you see the siding of the house completely torn off, big holes in walls, windows blocked off and covered with wood,” says Brown, a member of the Sturgeon Lake Cree First Nation who lived in Edson, Alberta, in the vicinity of a half-dozen First Nation communities. “Then there's no proper ventilation, moisture starts occurring. Then you have mould growing, which deteriorates the structure. Then when these families have a house, the grandparents move in and you start to have three or four generations of a family in a two- or three-bedroom house. You have 10 or 12 family members living in a single house and the body heat from all those people starts moistening the whole house inside. That's when mould starts occurring again.”

Brown is part of a group under the direction of Dr. Ahmed Elshaer, developing modular housing for Indigenous communities that have to deal with extreme weather as well as transportation and other difficulties.

“When it comes to housing, we are trying to build them to be resilient enough for the conditions where they are located,” says Elshaer, an associate professor in Lakehead's department of Civil Engineering. “Typically, Indigenous communities are located in northern regions where they experience substantially higher wind loads and higher or severe cold climate. This would require special planning and design when we are developing housing solutions.”

Damaging windstorms occur in Toronto, for example, every 50 years; in northern communities it's every three years. And with global warming, it's only getting worse. The issue is even more pressing for remote communities, which are distant from major cities, lack access to skilled trades, and face a short building season.

“The remoteness of these communities is a major issue,” says Brown. “When you're trying to find something affordable it becomes extremely difficult because you have to transport all these goods and services up to those communities.”

“We need to find a solution,” Elshaer adds, “that can be easily transported, easily assembled, lightweight, and resilient to those severe cold climates.”

The answer lies in modular housing -- putting structures together outside, transporting them to their destination disassembled and then joining them up on-site.

“I describe it as 'Ikea-like' buildings,” Elshaer says. “You have a building in a box and you assemble it using some bolt connections. It doesn't require a lot of knowledge to put them together, or even heavy machinery. It just needs simple lifting tools.”

This project started in the fall of 2021 and is supported by a five-year grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Partners include Lakehead, Coastal Steel and other collaborators.

Elshaer's team at the Structural and Wind Engineering Research Laboratory (SWERL), which includes undergraduates, graduate assistants and post-doctoral fellows, is concentrating on different elements of modular housing, specifically on special connections and to boost thermal insulation.

Along with Brown, the researchers include:

  • Magdy Alanani: a post-doctoral fellow, focusing on structural optimization for the modular houses;

  • Mostafa Elhadary: a PhD student, working on developing innovative connections for hollow structural sections to withstand flexural moments;

  • Amir Ali: a PhD student, creating innovative thermal insulating materials using waste paper pulp and aerogel; and

  • Raghdah Al-Chalabi: a PhD student, studying wind pressure distributions.

Wind impact and distribution testing has taken place at Toronto Metropolitan University. RWDI, a multi-national engineering firm specializing in wind evaluation, is also on board.

“They are helping us, providing historical wind and climate data for different areas of northern regions,” Elshaer says.

His team has already developed an easy-to-assemble beam, column and bolt connection. He hopes to have a full-scale prototype, measuring 2.5 x 3.5 x 6 metres, available for testing in the next year. The units, made of timber with steel connections, would be pieced together to complete a home.

“The house would not be just formed of one of these modular units. They are made of a number of them,” Elshaer says. “The key is we can easily assemble all of these units together.”

Brown was originally attracted to engineering while working as a labourer for a landscape company. After obtaining a diploma from Lethbridge College, he transferred to Lakehead. His master's studies was on wind behaviour for tall structures. For this project, he's looking at weather station reliability for these far-flung communities.

“The wind can become unpredictable in certain regions,” he says. “Usually when you design for a structure you want it to withstand cold climates and wind, so you design for a 1-in-100-year return period or a 1-in-250-year return period. So when you only have 10 years of data you have to forecast and add a reliability factor to this wind data. That's my goal: to understand how vulnerable the wind data is, and then should it be justified further when designing these buildings.”

Brown, who is in the PhD program, recently received a prestigious national prize. The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship comes with $150,000 in support of his doctoral studies.

“I'm very pleased to have been awarded this,” says Brown, the first Civil Engineering student at Lakehead to do so. “It's exciting and an honour to have this title.”

Brown first came in contact with Elshaer as an undergraduate researcher and worked with him while finishing his master's degree.

“When Dr. Elshaer asked if I wanted to continue into my PhD and work on the topic related to my own culture, I was more than pleased to accept,” he says. “It never entered my mind that I could put my own imprint on my culture and that I could make a difference by conducting research in this field. It made me very happy to know that I could make a difference.”

Lakehead University civil engineering Dr. Ahmed Elshaer (centre back row) is joined by members of his team at the Structural and Wind Engineering Research Laboratory (SWERL). From left: Magdy Alanani, a post-doctoral fellow; Mostafa Elhadary, Amir Ali, Tristen Brown and Raghdah Al-Chalabi, all PhD candidates Lakehead University civil engineering Dr. Ahmed   Elshaer (centre back row) is joined by members of his   team at the Structural and Wind Engineering   Research Laboratory (SWERL). From left: Magdy   Alanani, a post-doctoral fellow; Mostafa Elhadary,   Amir Ali, Tristen Brown and Raghdah Al-Chalabi, all   PhD candidates 




Research in Action highlights the work of Lakehead University in various fields of research.

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 A. Elshaer

Research Matters: 'Game-changer' in molecular imaging within sight

Use of xenon gas in MRI scans offers earlier and more precise detection of cancers and brain disease

Published on Tuesday, April 23, 2024


A technique being refined by researchers in Thunder Bay that provides razor sharp images of the lungs and blood flow images of the brain could revolutionize the future of personalized medicine, leading to earlier and more precise detection of different types of cancers and brain-related diseases.

The approach, referred to as hyperpolarized (HP) xenon-129 molecular imaging, promises more detail and sensitivity than other imaging techniques and does it instantaneously.

“It's potentially a very powerful technique,” says Dr. Mitchell Albert, a Lakehead University professor in chemistry and Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute (TBRHRI) research chair in molecular imaging and advanced diagnostics.

Albert's primary research is in the use of xenon in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology. As a graduate student in the 1990s, he co-invented a technique to boost the MRI signal using HP xenon gas, for which he received several awards, including a U.S. Presidential Award from Bill Clinton. He then spent 15 years at Harvard Medical School, improving the use of HP xenon as a diagnostic tool to detect small airway diseases such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), asthma, and cystic fibrosis. In 2011 he came to Thunder Bay, where he continues to work on these innovative imaging technologies.

This specific area of research – the imaging of blood flow in tissue, a process called “perfusion” – involves a patient inhaling xenon, a colourless, odourless gas used as a contrast agent for the imaging of soft tissues. The xenon is specially prepared in a polarizer to boost the MRI signal and is dispensed in a bag. With the subject holding their breath, the MRI monitors how the xenon dissolves and moves through blood vessels. This technique was used to examine patients who suffered from “long COVID”, with symptoms ranging from breathlessness to “brain fog,” including headaches and dizziness. Utilizing xenon MRI, researchers were able to determine that not enough oxygen was getting into the red blood cells and, from there, to other organs.

“The job of the lungs is to deliver oxygen to the body, so people that had COVID had an impairment of that process,” Albert explains. “That means they have a deficiency of getting oxygen into the bloodstream. That's why they have poor ventilation. That's why they were breathless. That's why they had fatigue – their muscles, their cells weren't getting enough oxygen. So we were able to get clues using our technique to help solve the mystery.”

At the same time, Albert and his team at TBRHRI started doing brain imaging, since that's the organ with the highest blood flow. Focusing on people with Alzheimer's disease, xenon imaging revealed that these patients had lower cerebral blood flow, as well as indicating atrophy or shrinkage of the grey matter. As a result, Albert's team has proposed a biomarker that could monitor these types of diseases.

“We were able to make perfusion images of the brain, which is very important in all sorts of diseases of the brain, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, stroke and brain tumours,” Albert says.

A member of Albert's research team, Dr. Yurii Shepelytskyi, has helped conceptualize a xenon biosensor for molecular imaging. A native of Ukraine, Shepelytskyi studied applied physics at the national university in Kyiv, with a focus on microwave electrodynamics. While still in Kyiv, Shepelytskyi attended a lecture by Dr. Alla Reznik, a Thunder Bay-based researcher developing technology to spot early-stage breast cancer. This intrigued him to check out the research taking place in the city.

“I looked up the research conducted by Dr. Albert’s group, and its novelty and tremendous potential impact piqued my interest immediately,” he says.

Shepelytskyi moved to Thunder Bay and three years ago, obtained a PhD in chemistry and material sciences. He continued his research as a post-doctoral fellow and was recently appointed an adjunct professor in Chemistry. His work has involved programming the clinical MRI scanner, developing a mathematical model for xenon perfusion imaging, performing image reconstruction, data analysis and statistical analysis of the acquired data. Currently, he continues developing and optimizing the performance of novel contrast agents for molecular MRI imaging as well as developing passive frequency-selective inserts for MRI that can substantially improve the quality and resolution of the acquired images.

“Hyperpolarized xenon-129 MRI paves the way for modern MRI into the realms of functional and molecular imaging,” Shepelytskyi says, explaining that identifying a specific type of cancer non-invasively reduces the amount of false-positive diagnoses and cuts down on the need for biopsies.

“This gives hyperpolarized xenon-129 MRI a unique opportunity to become a potential pillar for future personalized medicine and early-stage disease detection. Future development in this field can revolutionize modern health care and diagnostics,” he says.

In simple terms, the technique increases the xenon signal by several factors of magnitude. And by directing xenon in and out of the centre of large molecules, called “supermodular cages,” they could offer more detailed images of metabolic processes as they're occurring.

“At the molecular imaging level the technique is so sensitive that we can see very, very small tumours and early-stage metastases wherever they go in the body,” Albert states. “This xenon molecular imaging has the sensitivity of positron emission tomography or PET. PET is very sensitive but PET doesn't have the good spatial resolution or localization. We're doing it with MRI, which has excellent spatial resolution and anatomical localization. It only takes a fraction of a second to make the images, meaning we can catch things developing in real time.

“So it offers the best of both worlds: it has very, very high sensitivity and at the same time high spatial resolution. It's also fast. All these elements are very important.”

Much of this work has been supported by grants from, among others, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Ontario Research Foundation, the Ministry of Health, and Mitacs. This molecular imaging technology is still at the experimental stage and is now in pre-clinical testing, Albert says, adding that his team is also collaborating with specialists in respirology and neurology for testing on patients with different ailments.

“It's a game-changer for imaging lung function and brain function, absolutely, and has the potential to revolutionize molecular imaging.”

Research Matters highlights the important work of researchers at Lakehead University.

Photo (below): Dr. Mitchell Albert has been working on a medical imaging technique that uses xenon in MRIs. Here, Albert, right, is shown in front of an MRI scanner with Dr. Yurii Shepelytskyi. Photo submitted by Julio Heleno Gomes.

Dr. Mitchell Albert has been working on a medical imaging technique that uses xenon in MRIs. Here, Albert, right, is shown in front of an MRI scanner with Dr. Yurii Shepelytskyi

Research in Action: Exploring the stigma faced by injured workers

Published in The Chronicle Journal on Tuesday, February 13, 2024.


How does the workers’ compensation board treat injured workers? What do injured workers  experience when seeking medical care? What challenges do they face when returning to the workplace?

These are some of the topics that will be addressed in a new study by Lakehead University researchers and the Canadian Injured Workers Alliance. They will try to understand the shame and obstacles injured workers face in various aspects of their journey.

“We want to understand what’s currently known about structural stigma,” explains Dr. Amanda Maranzan. “We're thinking about 'structural stigma' in terms of system inequities -- the unfair policies and procedures that exist within these larger systems that can cause harm to injured workers and perpetuate harm.”

Maranzan, an associate professor and director of clinical programs in Lakehead's department of psychology, is leading the project. With $25,000 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and additional funding support from the Enhancing the Prevention of Injury and Disability at Work (EPID@Work) research institute, she will oversee a systematic review of the literature and host stakeholder engagement. An advisory team of eight people representing injured workers, health-care providers, employers and partners in the disability field has met to fine-tune the project's objectives.

“The advisory team really lets us centre the needs and experiences of injured workers in the project, essentially making sure the project design and the research question and implementation is relevant to their needs,” Maranzan says.

Dr. Amanda Maranzan, left, an associate professor in Lakehead's department of psychology, is leading a project examining the stigma experienced by injured workers. Pictured alongside her is graduate student Lauren Reynolds.

The next phase is a systematic literature review by research assistant Lauren Reynolds. A master's student in clinical psychology, Reynolds will read existing papers, conduct quality appraisals and extract relevant data.

“The work is ongoing,” she says. “But so far it’s clear that stigma is an under-recognized factor in the literature written about injured workers, despite the prevalence of the stigma experiences being described.”

Having contributed to other projects involving mental health and stigma, Reynolds was drawn to this effort after meeting and hearing about people who've been injured on the job and the social disgrace they may have lived through.

“This particular research will benefit the community at large by shedding light on the nature of injured worker stigma and its impact,” Reynolds says. “We hope this will support longer-term changes in thinking and behaviour that will improve how injured workers are perceived, treated and supported.”

With a framework in place, Maranzan expects the systematic review will present the advisory team with critical information, such as how structural inequalities exist in employment practices as well as workers’ compensation and the health-care field.

“What we would like the advisory team to do is give us feedback on the relevance of it, we'd like to understand what are some of the gaps in the literature, what is missing based on what we've found, and identify what the next steps are, in terms of research and awareness building to address injured workers stigma,” Maranzan says.

The Canadian Injured Workers Alliance is a co-investigator in this endeavour, bringing the perspective of injured workers to the table and providing input to drive the project forward. Indeed, the advisory team is actively involved in setting the project's goals and will play a role in sharing the information with their constituents.

“It's a unique opportunity to centre the knowledge and experience that community partners have in the research process,” Maranzan says.. “The benefit is that the information we gain from this project is directly relevant because the people who are going to be using the information have been involved in the project all along.”

Research in Action highlights the work of Lakehead University in various fields of research.

Screenshot of the article as it was published in The Chronicle Journal

Research in Action: Towards healthy, equitable and sustainable food systems

Originally published in The Chronicle Journal on Wednesday, April 3, 2024


An examination of the food systems in Thunder Bay and area has shone a light on the challenges as well as the opportunities of developing a healthy and equitable food system. While the Thunder Bay + Area Community Food System Report Card provided a snapshot of the situation over the last few years, the project's lead researcher sees it as another step in an effort to increase awareness and attract broader public interest on an issue that hits so close to home.

Dr. Charles Levkoe

“I think of the report as within the Thunder Bay region's food systems,” says Dr. Charles Levkoe, an associate professor in Lakehead University's department of health sciences. “It's a pretty central document and I hope in a year or two it will be as relevant as it is today.”

an ongoing project that is not done and finished. It's consistently in motion, informing a lot of the work that is happening 

An analysis on the region's food systems first came out in 2015. Levkoe was able to partner with the Thunder Bay + Area Food Strategy (TBAFS) for a follow-up thanks to a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and local donations. The resulting 79-page report was unveiled in 2023, tracking changes across seven major “pillars” or categories, including food access; forest and freshwater foods; infrastructure; and urban agriculture. (The report is available online at

“It provides a means to monitor trends and changing realities in our food system,” explains TBAFS co-ordinator Sarah Siska. “This data empowers us, as a community, to collectively determine actionable change, strengths we can build on, and areas for improvement. Highlighting successful regional initiatives shows us what is possible, setting an example for those interested in nurturing positive social, ecological and economic change in our food systems and beyond.”

Siska originally joined the project as a student. Her duties included copy editing, draft reviewing and helping with promotion through social media and community presentations. She received a master of Environmental Studies degree last summer. Having worked with TBAFS as an intern in 2022-23, she moved into the co-ordinator position in September.

The inaugural report card from 2015 was the foundation for this latest effort, bringing community members and organizations together to discuss the food system in Thunder Bay and surrounding municipalities, what it looks like and the challenges it faces. Along with drawing on data from various government sources, Levkoe and his partners also knocked on doors to gather basic information, for example, how many community gardens are out there.

Maliheh GhorbankhaniMaliheh Ghorbankhani was also involved in the project. As a master's student, she helped update the qualitative and quantitative data. And as part of her thesis research, she delved into the report's outcomes and interviewed both the participants and the users of the report card.

One of the most important conclusions she drew from this work is the role played by different organizations and the diverse perspectives they bring to the table.

“This inclusivity is crucial not only for comprehensively understanding different elements of a food system but also for fostering networks and advocating for more extensive transformations,” Ghorbankhani says.

With a degree in agriculture from Tehran University in Iran, Ghorbankhani's interest in agroecology and sustainable food systems brought her to Thunder Bay for further study.

“I was inspired to work on the Canadian food system, and the report card is a great resource for learning about what is happening in Northern food systems,” says Ghorbankhani, who graduated in January with a master's degree in forestry.

Along with a broad-based look at the food systems in the region, the online report card also features videos of different projects.

“That was something people really wanted to see -- not just the numbers or how much food insecurity is there in Thunder Bay,” says Levkoe, who is also the Canada Research Chair in Equitable and Sustainable Food Systems and director of the Sustainable Food Systems Lab at Lakehead University. “They wanted to see stories of organizations and groups that are actually trying to address some of this stuff.

“Part of what the report card does is show these things are connected. We can't look at them in isolation.”

The report card is meant to be interactive, allowing users to engage with different elements, whether statistics or stories.

“If people have questions, if they want to understand what's going on, the report card is meant to be a one-stop shop to be able to share,” Levkoe says. “The goal is to actually do something about it, not just say 'Oh, look, Thunder Bay has a very high food insecurity rate.' It's to actually use those numbers to do something. Which is why it's an ongoing project, not one-and-done. We want to keep updating it, learning how people are responding to the information, and try to make it even better.”

Levkoe hopes the TBAFS will release a report card every five years and that other cities will undertake a similar initiative.

Research in Action highlights the work of Lakehead University in various fields of research.


Photo of article published in The Chronicle Journal

Big Ideas: Leisa Desmoulins talks Anishinaabe teachings

Leisa Desmoulins

While we go about our daily lives, researchers at Lakehead University's Orillia campus are busy exploring ways to improve our communities. Big Ideas with Lakehead University Orillia gives you a glimpse inside their innovative work. Keep reading to learn more.

Meet Leisa Desmoulins.

Tell us about yourself:
I’ve been with Lakehead since 2009; initially at the Thunder Bay campus but moved to Simcoe County in 2019. My passion lies in community-based research. I started as a consultant and community-based researcher and have worked on projects with the Urban Aboriginal Task Force, Thunder Bay Police Services, and the Thunder Bay Indian Friendship Centre among many. I am a member of Biigtigong Nishnaabeg First Nation through marriage.

Read the full Q&A with Dr. Leisa Desmoulins at

Big Ideas with Lakehead University Orillia is a partnership with Metroland Media.

Big Ideas: Waleed Ejaz talks the Internet of Things

Waleed Ejaz

While we go about our daily lives, researchers at Lakehead University's Orillia campus are busy exploring ways to improve our communities. Big Ideas with Lakehead University Orillia gives you a glimpse inside their innovative work. Keep reading to learn more.

Read the full Q&A with Dr. Waleed Ejaz at

Big Ideas with Lakehead University Orillia is a partnership with Metroland Media.

Big Ideas: Farhan Ghaffar on improving banked blood storage systems

Farhan Ghaffar stands in the anechoic chamber at Georgian College

While we go about our daily lives, researchers at Lakehead University's Orillia campus are busy exploring ways to improve our communities. Big Ideas with Lakehead University Orillia gives you a glimpse inside their innovative work. Keep reading to learn more.

Meet Farhan Ghaffar.

He's an assistant professor in Lakehead University's department of electrical engineering in the faculty of engineering.

Tell us about yourself.

I joined the electrical engineering department in August 2019 as a member of the Lakehead-Georgian Partnership (LUGC) program working out of the Barrie campus of Georgian College. My area of research is radio frequency (RF) circuits, antennas and system design with wide ranging applications: biomedical systems, autonomous vehicles, smart wireless technologies, space and satellite communications.

How did you come to be interested in researching blood bag sterilization systems?

Before joining Lakehead, I was working as a post-doctoral fellow at Ontario Tech University, where I was introduced to this problem during my collaboration with Best Medical Canada Inc. As a researcher working in RF technology solutions, I’m always eager to find areas where industries are looking for better and improved solutions. Furthermore, I’ve worked on a few biomedical and wearable-related projects before. This problem was in an area I knew and an area where I could apply my research.

Tell us a bit about this research project and about the process you’re going through.

Currently, blood bags are stored in sterilization chambers until they’re used for transfusions in various medical treatments. To keep these products sterilized, they need to be irradiated with gamma- or X-rays to prevent transfusion-associated graft versus host disease (TA-GvHD) and other infections. Medical staff rely on colour sensitive tags to determine the minimum level of radiation received by the product. However, there is no way for them to tell the maximum level of radiation received by the stored products. We wanted to come up with a technique that clearly counts the exact levels of radiation received by these blood bags. Our solution consists of a complete radio frequency identification (RFID)-based tag for blood bags and other related products. The tag includes an electronic radiation sensor, a digital memory, an RF energy harvester, and an RF transceiver with an integrated flexible antenna. Some of these modules have been designed, fabricated and characterized for their performance. Others are currently being investigated to move toward an eventual demonstration of complete RFID tag. We have already published two journal papers and have been granted a U.S. patent on this technology. Another patent is currently under review.

Your team developed a system to minimize the number of disposed blood bags. Can you tell us why this was an important advancement.

The current method for storing blood bags/products is quite inefficient and results in significant waste. I feel this is quite astonishing considering these products are stored for saving human lives. This means that wasting any part of these products greatly minimizes the efficiency of health-care professionals and medical facilities. We want to save every inch of these products and every last drop of blood, so it can be used to save human lives.

What’s the most interesting/surprising/unusual thing you uncovered?

That medical facilities and hospitals can rely so much on electronic and wireless solutions is the best thing that I have come across. I always had some idea that our advanced electronic systems could find applications in biomedical system and solutions. However, working on one such technology hands-on was quite intriguing, to say the least.

How will your research impact (potentially impact) the lives of folks in Simcoe County, Ontario, and Canada?

Since the technology is being developed with a Canadian industry partner, Best Medical Canada Inc., our team expects its practical implementation to happen in Canada before anywhere else. As an engineer, it would be a dream come true to see one of my own work/inventions being applied in health-care facilities in Canada and helping to improve lives in our county, province and country.

How are Lakehead students contributing to this research project?

Although most of the work on this project has been completed, my current graduate students are working on advancing various components of this technology. So, we can say the seeds of my research were born by the blood sterilization system. For example, flexible RF antenna designs are being explored by my students. Similarly, my students are working on advancing reconfigurable components for biomedical technologies, etc.The project was funded through a National Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) grant and was done in collaboration with Best Medical Canada (BMC).

Big Ideas with Lakehead University Orillia is a partnership with Metroland Media. This article was originally published on on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024. 

Research In Action: Deep focus: Lac Seul youth get tools to tell their own stories


After nearly a decade working with a remote First Nation on different projects, Martha Dowsley's most recent effort was something much simpler: put video cameras in the hands of young people and give them the freedom to tell stories close to their hearts.

The result is a series of short videos crafted by three budding videographers from Lac Seul First Nation, exploring issues that are meaningful to them, their family and the greater community.

Martha Dowsley“They took the project on very personal topics instead of just reporting on research other people had done,” says Dowsley, an associate professor in anthropology, and the department of geography and the environment at Lakehead University. “The original thought was that they would want to make a video about one of the research projects the community was already involved in. But they decided to take a more personal direction, looking at history and culture, which was very interesting.”

The initiative, part of a national dialogue on Indigenous research capacity and reconciliation, brings traditional storytelling into the 21st century by giving young people the tools to explore their own stories. With $50,000 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the First Nation itself, Dowsley and her team staged workshops on Lac Seul territory during the winter of 2018-19. Along with Dowsley and colleagues Lana Ray and Frederico Oliveira, undergraduate students who had experience in filmmaking offered instruction on operating digital cameras and the use of editing software.

One of those mentors was Gavin Shields. He had studied in the Confederation College film production program and served as a jack-of-all-trades, providing technical assistance and interacting with youth.

“It was a pretty wild project,” Shields recalls. “There are so many pieces of melancholy, but the big takeaway for me was taking this work outside of academic institutions.”

He had participated in a field school at Lac Seul in 2017, a two-week program where students developed archaeological skills and interviewed elders. One of those had a profound impact on Shields. He made a lasting connection with spiritual elder Juliette Blackhawk and is now helping one of the students launch a podcast.

“Maintaining relationships outside of the project was life-enriching, for the young people and for myself,” says Shields, who was the final editor on the compilation and has since graduated with a Master in education degree.

The videos, entitled “When the Snow Blankets the Earth It Is Time to Tell Stories”, feature the efforts of Byron Mekanak, D'Arcy Gray and Yzerman Quill. Mekanak's 9-minute segment seeks the origin of a group photo taken in the 1920s; while Quill's theme of Lost Wisdom reflects on the past, personal pain, isolation and the challenges his generation face.

Lac-Seul-Byron Mekanak

Gray, a high school student who turned the lens on the life stories and teachings of her grandmother and other elders, found it a rewarding experience. “I've learned a lot about film, about Lac Seul – more than I've ever known,” she says in her video, noting it has put her on the path not only to learning about the past but also understanding her own physical and spiritual self.

Another element of “Snow Blankets” is in memory of Blackhawk. An advocate for Indigenous knowledge and sharing the traditional way of life with young people and the broader public, Blackhawk passed in February 2020.

The videos, which belong to Lac Seul and are not yet available to the public, provide a perspective that Dowsley incorporates in her classroom work.

“It talks about things like decolonization in research and shows that people who have been traditionally marginalized in research, like First Nations, can gain a voice in research and can participate in it and then produce research outputs themselves,” she explains. “It's part of the conversation on reconciliation and how research should be carried out with Indigenous groups.”

While the three films were made in 2018-19 the funding lasted until this spring due to delays related to COVID. Dowsley hosted another workshop and continues to work with those videographers on other projects, with the assistance of Lac Seul filmmaker Rachel Garrick and Metis filmmaker Nadine Arpin.

“It was an honour to work with Lakehead University to give a voice to aspiring filmmakers,” says Garrick. “It provided the students with an opportunity to get hands-on experience creating a film, from the idea stage to the final editing stage. Our community is blessed to have participated in this worthwhile project and thank Lakehead University for their partnership to make this happen.”

Dowsley, whose academic interests include cultural geography and natural resources management, is a familiar face at the three Lac Seul settlements, being involved in different collaborations over the past eight years. Her latest will focus on Northern wild rice, an edible grain that grew in abundance along the shore. A hydroelectric dam constructed in the 1930s resulted in widespread flooding, wiping out 2,000 acres of the crop. There will first be a discussion to determine how to conduct activities for this undertaking, including, for example, spending time on the land and the water.

“These types of projects, where you're partnering with a community, are really important in terms of moving our relationships forward,” Dowsley says. “It's conducting research in a good way and making it culturally appropriate and relevant to people in Northwestern Ontario -- both on the First Nations where we do our work, but also more generally because it answers questions that people are interested in and have direct applicability to their lives.”

Research Matters highlights the important work of researchers at Lakehead University.



1: Martha Dowsley has led various research projects in and around Lac Seul First Nation.

2: Byron Mekanak sets up a camera as part of a digital storytelling project involving youth from Lac Seul First Nation.

Submitted photo

 TBT News Watch



Research Matters: Another step in precision medicine

Posted on TBNewsWatch September 30, 2023


A Thunder Bay-based company and researchers at Lakehead University are refining technology they developed to spot early-stage breast cancer that may be used to scan other parts of the body. The device now being customized to provide diagnostic images of other organs is a significant advance in cancer screening, says the principal investigator.

“Basically it's the same underlying technology but it's the next step in the technology we use for detection of breast cancer,” says Dr. Alla Reznik. “It's next-generation technology. It's not just re-configuring because it represents the next evolutionary step.”

Reznik is a professor and the Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in the Physics of Radiation Medical Imaging. Since joining Lakehead in 2008 she has continued her interest in radiation medical imaging technologies and, through the spin-off company Radialis Inc., has created a device to diagnose cancer in women with dense breast tissue where X-ray mammography is not sufficient. With a grant of $740,000 from the Canadian Institute for Health Research, Reznik and her team at Lakehead are upgrading the technology to seek different cancers, including prostate.

“At this stage our technology is customized for imaging in multiple organs, not only the breast,” Reznik says.

“This is an ongoing project, what we call 'translational' research, to turn an initial invention of a novel medical imaging technology to innovation. In order to achieve impactful research outcomes we need to navigate the whole journey, of research and development, then find clinical partners to prove the effectiveness of the technology, and then commercialization.”

Alla Reznik, Brandon Baldassi, left, and master's student Anirudh Shahi.

The goal of this research is to come up with a versatile tool that can target different organs for imaging at high sensitivity and spatial resolution, explains graduate student Anirudh Shahi. Now in the second year of his master's program, Shahi was attracted to the endeavour because it allows him to apply his physics background to tackle real-world problems in health care. He also appreciates the opportunity to expand his skill-set, working in disciplines ranging from fundamental physics to imaging software. He's specifically involved in fusing data acquired from different angles around objects to improve the quality of the images generated.

“Such a tool can enable both accurate diagnosis and treatment monitoring of cancer patients in our community in the future,” says Shahi, who was born in India and grew up in Thunder Bay. “On a day-to-day basis, students from the community also benefit since they are given the opportunity to take part in a collaborative learning environment, lead research projects, and collaborate with industry.”

For Brandon Baldassi, there are unique challenges associated with applied physics in medicine.

“The idea of optimizing a complex physical system to address challenges in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer was very compelling,” he says of what drew him to this field.

Baldassi, a Thunder Bay native, studied medical physics at McMaster University. When he participated in Reznik's lab as a summer student in 2016, he decided to pursue his master's degree at Lakehead. After graduating this spring he joined Radialis as systems R & D lead and has found this project into organ-targeted positron emission tomography (PET) to be both more challenging and more rewarding than he initially expected.

“This research has the potential for significant clinical impact,” Baldassi states. “The commercialization of this technology offers great opportunity for student interns, new graduates, and local industry to flourish within the medical technology space.”

Reznik's career in radiation medical imaging research centres on personalized or precision medicine – delivering the right treatment to the right patient at the right time. Personalized treatment needs to be supported with personalized diagnosis, she says. For imaging the breast, her technology addresses the crucial need for personalized diagnostic for women with radiologically dense breast tissue for whom conventional x-ray mammography is ineffective.

“Our organ-targeted technology offers much higher sensitivity so we can reduce the dose of radio pharmaceuticals,” Reznik says, adding that scan time goes from a typical 40 minutes to as little as five minutes. “So the device is more efficient, scanning time is shorter. What does this mean for hospitals? You can scan more patients, which means everything becomes much more cost-efficient.”

The Positron Emission Mammography (PEM) detector designed for breast cancer is a plug-in device the size of a shopping cart, meant to be compact enough to take to under-serviced communities. That technology has already undergone a series of clinical trials, and a second round was expected to take place in September.

Reznik says the market price for their device is $500,000, compared to $3-million for a whole-body PET scanner.

“So everything becomes much more efficient and we can see better, more accurate, more precise images - using lower amounts of radio pharmaceuticals and a lower-cost device,” she says.

Research Matters highlights the important work of researchers at Lakehead University. 

Photo - Group shot of 3 researchers:

Dr. Alla Reznik, centre, has been working on a medical imaging device that can be used to detect cancer in different parts of the body. She is pictured with Brandon Baldassi, left, and master's student Anirudh Shahi.

Julio Heleno Gomes photo


Research in Action: Law reforms needed to end violence

Posted in the Chronicle Journal July 20, 2023


Extensive research in eastern Canada examining gaps in how Indigenous Peoples are served by government institutions has found that violent interactions with police has made many fearful of reaching out for any kind of assistance. In the wake of fatal encounters, which often occur in non-criminal matters, questions are being asked about why this is happening and how it might be changed.

Research led by Lakehead University's Law school has determined that same concerns exist in Thunder Bay and that commonly proposed solutions have not worked.

 “The problem is everywhere and it needs an everywhere solution,” says Jula Hughes, dean of the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law. “The national scope of the problemLakehead University professor Jula Hughes, Dean of the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law, is seen with assistant professor Robin Whitehead, centre, and second-year law student Ella Carr. makes us think that law reform may be a component of fixing it.”

 The study, titled “Killed For Our Own Good? Ending Police Violence Against Indigenous People in Need of Assistance,” included researchers from across Canada. The goal was to bring together academics and community members to address the abuses the Indigenous population suffer when they come into contact with police.

 Robin Whitehead“It's a serious issue, even here in Thunder Bay, in terms of the experiences people have in this country with police and the higher level of violence that they experience relative to the general population,” says Robin Whitehead, an assistant professor in the Law faculty and the study's co-investigator with Hughes. “There's not a lot of easy solutions to this problem, but what we're trying to do in our work is look at some of the ways that the legal structures themselves contribute to that and the ways they could help to remedy the issue essentially.”

 The study – funded by a grant of $49,670 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, among other sponsors – culminated with an online workshop on July 7, 2022. Participants engaged in panel discussions, talking circles and a plenary session.

 Hughes, who joined Lakehead in 2019 from New Brunswick, noted that issues she had explored in Quebec and the Maritimes were mirrored elsewhere. Scholars involved in the project have noted that in regards to accountability -- whether civilian oversight of police, coroner's inquests or special commissions – many recommendations were made but they were not consistently implemented. For example: better police training, more cultural competency, and the use of multi-disciplinary response teams to provide mental health assistance for people in distress.

 The research into whether these mechanisms are beneficial is not encouraging.

 “Firstly, governments tend not to implement these ideas,” Hughes says. “And to the extent they are implemented, they don't seem to result in transformational change. They might make some difference, but they're not really changing the big picture. What we tried so far hasn't worked.”

 A key question is: should police even attend some calls, such as a mental health crisis? Often, officers just arriving on the scene escalates the situation because of deep-seated distrust and simply because of police firearms they bring to the situation.

 “Many of these altercations arise when people arm themselves with opportunistic weapons – they pick up a kitchen knife or something like that – in response to the presence of a police weapon,” Hughes says.

 She notes that many police interactions involving use of force are dealing with victims of crime or providing frontline assistance, such as conducting wellness checks. In some cases, the outcomes are worse than when police are dealing with actual law-breakers.

 “The criminal being chased down the street has a better chance of survival than somebody who is a mental health call,” Hughes says.

 Whitehead, whose doctoral research was on police use of force against persons with mental health disabilities, says Indigenous people are over-represented in police-involved deaths across all jurisdictions. The problem is there are hundreds of police forces in Canada, each with their own reporting methods on police violence or injuries in police custody, so detailed and reliable data is hard to come by.

 “No one right now can answer the question: how many people die in police-involved interactions each year?” Whitehead says. “The government doesn't know the answer. The statistics that are published federally are inaccurate.”

 If the different agencies tracking this information don't release it voluntarily, the other recourse is a Freedom of Information request, which is costly and time-consuming. That is why scholars are pushing for national data collection on police interactions.

 “Having good information about this gives us the tools necessary to actually improve the situation,” Whitehead says.

 Second-year law student Ella Carr assisted in community outreach for the conferenceElla Carr participants. The Peterborough, Ont.-native has an undergraduate degree from Laurentian University and came to Thunder Bay to focus on Indigenous law and small-town practice.

 “I was drawn to justice for Indigenous peoples for many reasons,” Carr explains. “There aren't enough voices advocating to solve injustices towards Indigenous Peoples from police. I wanted to put my foot in the door to learn what and how to research while helping my community.

 “Being able to recognize and act on Indigenous legal issues is pertinent to being a competent lawyer in small Northern towns.”

 The report that emerged from the workshop is another step in ongoing research into police interactions with Indigenous communities. For Hughes, two issues warrant further inquiry:

in Thunder Bay, analyzing the effectiveness of mental health crisis response teams; and, the weapons policy of police services from a disability law perspective

 “One of the things that's really striking in the way officers assess risk is not really informed by how people with mental health issues present,” Hughes says. “Often, people are seen to be dangerous when they really present very little risk. That's a matter of figuring out how you can describe behaviours in a way that then changes how the risk analysis is done.”

Research in Action highlights the work of Lakehead University in various fields of research.

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Photo 1 - Lakehead University professor Jula Hughes, Dean of the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law, is seen with assistant professor Robin Whitehead, centre, and second-year law student Ella Carr.

Photo 2 - Robin Whitehead is an assistant professor at the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law.

Photo 3 - Ella Carr is a student in the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law.

Julio Heleno Gomes photos