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UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 9 | Sep. 7, 2005

New Faces at UBC

Matilde Bombardini

UBC economics professor Matilde Bombardini shows that she’s willing to go the extra distance for her field even it means watching 257 episodes of an Italian game show called Affari Tuoi, or “Your Business.”

Bombardini focuses on international trade policy, particularly how industrial sectors lobby government. However, she says the television show gave her a perfect chance to study how people respond to risk.

“Research on risk aversion has wide application to both micro and macroeconomics, says Bombardini, who recently completed her PhD in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

”It can measure the cost of business cycles. It can quantify
the loss for consumers and workers due to the uncertainty faced during booms and recessions,” adds Bombardini.

A native of Bologna, Italy, Bombardini says the game show’s
premise is simple.

“The hosts give participants one of 20 boxes. Each contain cash amounts that vary from one cent to 500,000 Euros ($749,000 Cdn).”

She says players then must decide whether to keep their own box, trade it for another box, or accept the host’s offer of a definite sum of money.

“To mount that kind of controlled study would be expensive. But here it all was on the television show. I can analyze different samples based on gender or age groups.”

Neil Cashman

Neurology Prof. Neil Cashman, a Canadian leader in neurodegenerative diseases, was recruited to UBC from Toronto this spring to establish a program of research into protein misfolding diseases such as amyotrophic lateral
sclerosis (ALS). He will direct the new Vancouver Coastal Health ALS Centre, which is focused on research and treatment of the disease.

ALS is a progressive neuromuscular disease that eventually paralyzes limbs and muscles of speech, swallowing and respiration. There are about 2,500 Canadians living with ALS, for which there is no cure and only limited treatment.

“We’ll also be looking for new drug and immunological therapies to defeat these devastating diseases,” says Cashman, who is Canada Research Chair in Neurodegeneration and Protein Misfolding Diseases.

Protein misfolding also plays a role in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and it is implicated in prion (infectious protein) diseases such as mad cow disease and similar human illnesses, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD).

Symptoms of CJD include anxiety, depression, withdrawal and behavioural changes. The disease progresses to include motor difficulties, involuntary movements and mental deterioration. Patients may live for only about one year after onset of

Proteins, the fundamental component of living cells, are made up of long chains of amino acids which loop or fold about each other in a specific three-dimensional structure. Misfolded proteins can cause disease in surrounding cells.

Cashman’s research labs at the Brain Research Centre at UBC Hospital and at UBC’s Life Sciences Institute are the first labs west of Ontario dedicated to
investigating misfolding diseases.

Liane Gabora

Liane Gabora is introducing courses on the psychology of creativity and evolutionary psychology at UBC Okanagan this year. Her research focuses on the evolution of culture and its underlying cognitive mechanisms - it’s part theoretical, part experimental, and part computer modeling.

Gabora, who has a PhD in cognitive science, moved north this summer from the University of California, Berkeley, to join UBC Okanagan’s new Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences.

“UBC Okanagan combines the benefits of a large, established
university with the buzz and fertility of a cozy hideaway think tank, which amounts to an unprecedented opportunity for
cutting-edge interdisciplinary collaboration,” Gabora says.

“I am fascinated by the creativity of the human mind, by how adept we are at taking something and putting our own spin on it to suit our own needs,” she notes. “Other species occasionally invent something new, but they do not cumulatively build on each other’s inventions. They may have culture, but it doesn’t evolve.”

In exploring this, Gabora turns to several fields, including psychology, biology, anthropology and mathematics.

“To figure out when, where, and why we become so creative requires some digging (literally as well as metaphorically) from different fields. An interdisciplinary approach enables you to bring tools and perspectives from different disciplines to bear on your question of interest,” Gabora says.

“As an example, some - though not all - ideas developed to describe the evolution of biological species also apply to the evolution of cultural ideas and artifacts.”

Gabora places high value on collaborating with other researchers, and working with students. “Trading secrets is one thing that helps academics avoid getting stuck in a rut. Another is teaching. Students see things with a fresh eye; they keep professors on their toes.”

Gabora is also working on a book titled Thought Tapestries: Origin and Evolution of the Creative Mind.

Handel Wright

How do youth in Canada and the United States navigate issues of race, culture and national identity?

Handel Wright, a new UBC education professor, says incidents like the London bombings in July have made this question and others about race and cultural identity even more pressing.

“I believe similar questions related to multiculturalism and social cohesion are likely to be revived both here and in the
United States,” says Wright.

Originally from Sierra Leone, Wright completed his M.A. in English at the University of Windsor, an M. Ed. at Queen’s University and a Ph.D in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. For the past 10 years, Wright taught at the University of Tennessee where helped to create North America’s first named cultural studies of education program.

As Canada Research Chair, Wright is establishing the Centre for Culture, Identity and Education at UBC. The centre will focus on cultural studies and multiculturalism, forging international, national and community links.

Wright’s own research looks at complex new youth identities and compares multiculturalism in Canada with that of the U.S.

Focusing on mixed-raced, multilingual, immigrant, culturally hybrid, or multiethnic youth, Wright will compare how high school students in Vancouver and Seattle see themselves in relation to their peers, communities and countries.

Troy Visser

After a year and a half teaching at the University of Melbourne in Australia, visual perception researcher Troy Visser has joined the faculty of UBC Okanagan’s Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences as assistant professor of psychology.

“My research interests are in perception and our ability to perceive sequences of objects in the world - if you are driving, for example, you look at a series of signs, cars, and pedestrians,” he says. “Looking at something, though, is not the same as being aware of what’s going on. I’m interested in what we’re aware of and when.”

He explains that after focusing attention on one thing - say, a car on the road ahead - the human brain may take half a second before it can shift its attention to something else, such as a ball bouncing onto the road. It’s a bit like blinking your eyes, attention-wise. Visser points out that in a moving car you travel quite a distance in that half-second interval, so understanding more about this “attentional blink” is quite important.

The goal, says Visser, is to take things learned in the lab to places where attention is very important. “If I can make the driving environment a little safer, that’s great,” he says. Air traffic controllers, too, could benefit from visual perception research.

Visser, who earned his PhD in psychology from UBC, looks
forward to teaching at UBC Okanagan. His wife, Jeneva Ohan, is a clinical psychology researcher and will also join the UBC Okanagan faculty in January.

“One of the reasons we chose to come here is because we knew the quality of research and teaching that goes on here,” says Visser.

“We have the opportunity to get in on the ground floor in an environment that’s student- and research-focused, dynamic and interdisciplinary - in addition to being in one of the most beautiful parts of the world we could imagine.”

David Gillen

UBC Sauder School of Business students intent on understanding the complex arena of transportation operations and logistics are finding an excellent resource in professor David Gillen. An internationally acclaimed expert, Gillen is the director for Sauder’s Centre for Transportation Studies.

“Given the rising fuel costs and tighter security measures, clear policies and practice of transportation studies and supply management are more necessary than ever,” says Gillen.

Gillen adds the federal government must play a stronger role in defining those polices. “It is imperative that we have a national transportation policy that is going to facilitate Canada’s access to world markets.”

The federal government also needs to be much more involved in urban transportation issues, says Gillen, pointing to “Canada’s commitment under Kyoto and the demographics that will shift more retirees to urban areas.”

Gillen has published more than 100 books, technical reports and journal papers in various areas of transportation economics and Canadian and U.S. transportation politics.

He has acted as a consultant for the governments of Canada, the United States, Germany, the UK, Ireland, Thailand and Ghana, as well as airlines, airports and private sector companies.

Gillen holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Toronto. He held prior teaching appointments at the University of Alberta, Queens University, University of California, Berkeley and Wilfrid Laurier University.

Colleen Varcoe

A research-rich environment is what drew Colleen Varcoe to UBC’s School of Nursing.

A UBC alumna, Varcoe joined the faculty in April, after working at the University of Victoria for eight years.

“UBC’s nursing school is a Canadian leader in research and I wanted to be part of that,” says Varcoe. “I also wanted the chance to work with students in the school’s excellent graduate programs.”

Her research includes investigations of aboriginal health, violence against women, and health-care economics.
“Coming to UBC has allowed me to connect with experienced researchers. It was the research environment I was looking for,” says Varcoe.

She has joined a research team, headed by Nursing Prof. Joan Bottorff, (leaving to become dean of the Faculty of Health and Social Development at UBC Okanagan) that is looking at tobacco control among pregnant women and mothers of the Gitksan First Nation in northwestern B.C.

She is also involved in two collaborative projects. Working with researchers in the Faculty of Medicine and Education, she is studying rural aboriginal maternal care. In addition, Varcoe and a team of investigators from universities across Canada are examining the effects of violence on women, including both health effects and the economic impact of leaving an abusive partner.

Passionate about promoting ethical practice, Varcoe has taught an undergraduate course in nursing ethics. She will teach a
graduate course in health policy this fall.

To balance her busy professional life, Varcoe likes to feel the wind beneath her wings. An avid paraglider, she and her partner run a paragliding school from their recreational property in the Fraser Valley.

“The sense of freedom is amazing - it helps me keep my perspective.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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