Winter 2016

Answers Wanted

Whether it’s working with people to tackle complex problems or connecting people with similar interests, universities are intricately involved in communities near and far

University professors have long been depicted as lofty eccentrics in tweed suits, isolated from the real world by ivy-covered stone walls.

It’s true that universities are home to curious scholars and “blue sky” research, but much of what the University of Alberta does is grounded in solving real-world problems. It involves working with — and learning from — people who are striving to make their communities better.

“A lot of people on campus got into research because they want to contribute to the world. It’s often hard to do if you’re working in an academic setting only,” says Jeff Bisanz, a University of Alberta psychology professor. “The community supports the university, and the university is part of the broader community. It’s important that the university not just exist and house expertise — it also has to continue to find ways to co-ordinate and collaborate with community.”

Imagine if someone sat above your desk watching you work and then wrote a report about your job without talking to you, explains Maria Mayan, ’90 BSc(HEc), ’96 PhD, an assistant director of the Community-University Partnership in the U of A’s Faculty of Extension. It would be an incomplete picture.

To solve complex health and social issues, Mayan believes, researchers have to work with communities to get the whole picture. “A researcher can’t solve problems by separating themselves from the community where the issues are. You have to work with the people who live the issues.”

One of Mayan’s projects studies the high rate of tuberculosis among Indigenous Canadians. In 2011, the rate of active TB reported for Canadian-born Indigenous peoples was 34 times higher than for the Canadian-born non-Indigenous population — this despite the fact that effective treatment has been available since 1953.

“There shouldn’t be TB; we licked this long ago,” she says. “So we need community input and Indigenous knowledge to figure out why there are such high rates of transmission. We listen to community members, learn the culture and work with them to tell the story.”

The work of U of A researchers, scholars and alumni extends far beyond campus borders, whether it’s helping understand the impact of technology on children or working with rural communities to find ways to stay vibrant. In the following pages, we share with you a few of these stories and how they are making a difference in the day-to-day lives of average Canadians.

Of course, research isn’t the only way the university connects outside its campuses — alumni reflect their U of A experience and values in their own communities. Through their roles in industry, volunteerism and interest-based groups, alumni harness their knowledge and apply it for the good of their families and neighbours.

Through teaching, research and alumni, universities share ideas, resources and expertise. They help create more robust communities where people feel cared about and supported. When we all come together to find the answers to society’s questions, we make life better.


 

CAN SMALL TOWNS SURVIVE?

In the past 100 years, Alberta’s rural population has changed drastically. In 1901, 75 per cent of Albertans lived in rural areas; in 2011, it was 17 per cent.

The impact has been immense. And the changes are ongoing, says Lars Hallstrom, director of the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities at Augustana Campus. Small family farms continue to be replaced by large-scale farm businesses. Young people are moving to cities for school and jobs, while retirees are moving to rural areas, causing rural communities to age faster. Changes in the commodity-based economy can create short-term fluctuations in population: when oil prices collapse, for example, a lot of unemployed people move back to their small towns. Figuring out how rural communities can adapt and thrive is the motivation behind Sustainability 101, a program for rural leaders at Augustana.

“Adaptation is synonymous with sustainability. Our job as researchers, and a university, is to help communities become more adaptive,” says John Parkins, ’97 MSc, ’04 PhD, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology. Parkins teaches one of five Sustainability 101 workshops. Each daylong workshop explores an aspect of rural sustainability: governance, economic, social, environmental and cultural.

The workshops bring people together to discuss the obstacles facing rural communities, businesses and residents. Participants talk about how they can continue to thrive in the face of challenges like depopulation, fewer jobs and the instability of resource-based economies.

That dialogue among community members is invaluable, says Peter Vana, general manager of Development Services in Parkland County, adding he sees his community differently now that he has completed the program. “The courses helped me better understand how the pillars of sustainability work together in a rural context,” he says, referring to the five workshops.

He looks forward to applying his ideas and insights to the Parkland County sustainability plan, which is being revamped. “We particularly want to integrate cultural sustainability by recognizing the culture in our community and building on it,” he says. The plan is to create tours and geocaching quests to highlight the county’s history and culture, which at the same time will promote tourism, recreation, environmental stewardship and economic development.

Vana is happy to see Sustainability 101 opening up conversations about the possibilities for rural areas. “It’s a unique course. I can’t think of any other place that really talks about it from a rural point of view.”

Rural Alberta: Getting Smaller and Aging Faster

Rural Retirement
19 per cent of rural residents are 60 and older, compared with 15.5 per cent in metropolitan areas. And people are still retiring to rural areas.

More Seniors
Westlock, Alta., was among the top 10 towns in Canada in 2006 with the highest proportion of people 65 and older, at 27.1 per cent.

Family Farms
75 per cent of Alberta farms are now operating as large-scale businesses.

Aging Workforce
More than one out of five people in the rural labour force are between 55 and 64. This can create a large gap in available employees when workers retire.

Sources: Statistics Canada, Conference Board of Canada, Demographic Planning Commission.


 

WHERE CAN WE GO IF WE CAN'T AFFORD DENTAL CARE?

After Monica Baker lost her job as a veterinary medical assistant, one of her molars started to ache. The constant shooting pain in her jaw was debilitating but she had no dental benefits and couldn’t afford dental work.

A friend suggested she look into dental programs run by the U of A, and she found the Student Health Initiative for the Needs of Edmonton, or SHINE. The clinic, run out of the Boyle McCauley Health Centre in downtown Edmonton, offers free basic services such as fillings and extractions to low-income patients of all ages. It’s staffed and managed primarily by U of A dental and dental hygiene student volunteers working under experienced dentists from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, also volunteers.

Some of the children who attend the clinic have never seen a dentist, and don’t know how to brush or floss their teeth. Volunteers take the opportunity to teach the basics of oral hygiene. For older patients, access to basic dental care can prevent later problems such as painful and dangerous oral infections or diseased teeth that have to be extracted.

Students benefit, too, by getting hands-on experience in performing procedures and running a dental practice, as well as gaining a better understanding of the challenges facing low-income patients.


 

IS THERE A WAY TO GET UNUSED FOOD TO HUNGRY FAMILIES?

“I didn’t eat for three days one time.”

Unable to hold back tears, Salina* covers her face with a flowing pink shawl. Silence follows her words. She isn’t talking about life in her home country of Eritrea. She’s talking about her life as a refugee in Canada.

Salina is a widow who found sanctuary in Edmonton in 2006 after fleeing with her daughter from conflict in Eritrea. Since being laid off from a job as a housekeeper, Salina has been looking for work and living on government financial assistance. She uses nine-kilogram bags of barley flour to make breads and porridge and, by the third week of most months, has no money left for food.

A one-year pilot project called the Grocery Run is working to address the dire needs of refugees like Salina, who are trapped in chronic poverty, by collecting good food that would otherwise be thrown out and delivering it to refugee families. The Grocery Run grew out of research by two U of A professors and was initiated by the Community-University Partnership for the Study of Children, Youth and Families (CUP) in the Faculty of Extension.

Launched in the summer of 2016, the Grocery Run is the definition of a grassroots initiative. Food that would otherwise be thrown away because it’s blemished or the packaging is damaged is donated by local restaurants, hotels, retail outlets and producers. Grocery Run volunteers pick up and distribute the food as quickly as possible to families that can’t even scrape together something to eat for that day’s meals.

Today, Salina has joined two other Grocery Run participants and fellow refugees at Edmonton’s Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative, a CUP ally on the project and the program’s home base. The women sit close together, looking uncertain. Mirkuz, a single mother who arrived from Ethiopia three years ago, is quiet and has a guarded expression. Badata, who is originally from Ethiopia but arrived from a refugee camp in Kenya four months ago, nurses her toddler on her lap as her other young daughter cuddles at her side.

Acting as translator is Dinke Gamtessa, who works with the women and other refugees at the co-operative. She is translator, caregiver and adviser to the refugees. Above all, she is a supportive role model. Gamtessa was a Crown prosecutor in her native Ethiopia before she moved to Canada as a refugee in 2011. After working through financial, cultural and emotional challenges to make a new life for herself and her daughter, she started her job as a “cultural broker” with the co-operative and has her own apartment.

“I don’t want these women to go through what I went through,” Gamtessa says. “I do everything I can to help them. I wish this program had been around when I came to Canada.”

“Dinke, she is like a mom to us,” says Salina, her voice cracking from emotion. “She is family. She helps us so much. Before I met her my face was not good, but now my face is better.” She pats her cheeks to show they are healthier.

Despite the stress of not always having enough food, Salina is happy to be in Canada. “My dream is to stay here and work,” she says. “My country is Canada now and there is peace. We can sleep here safely.”

During its first six weeks, the Grocery Run helped feed more than 80 families who would otherwise have gone hungry. While some clients are able to use Edmonton’s food bank, which provides crucial support, there are often times when the food runs out before they can get their next hamper: their children are hungry and they have to scramble to find food.

“There is so much treading water that families have no time or energy to find sustainable solutions until they find poverty solutions,” says Yvonne Chiu, a founding member and executive director of the Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative.

Sandra Ngo, ’12 BSc(Nutr/Food), ’16 MSc, community resource co-ordinator with CUP, helps manage the Grocery Run. She works with volunteers and the cultural brokers, who are a vital link to the families. Logistics include tracking down donations and arranging pickup, finding culturally appropriate food that the families know how to cook, and rounding up delivery drivers. It’s one of many CUP programs that help families create an environment where they can not only survive but also thrive. It’s also part of a larger research program in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences called Enrich, funded by Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions.

The Grocery Run emerged from a 2014-15 U of A study that looked at the effects of economic and cultural barriers on maternal health. Conducted by Maria Mayan, ’90 BSc(HEc), ’96 PhD, assistant director of CUP and a professor in the Faculty of Extension, and Rhonda Bell, a professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science, the study revealed that healthy eating wasn’t an option when many pregnant and postpartum women weren’t able to get even their basic food needs met. Mayan took what she learned about poverty and health and applied it to her knowledge of food rescue.

“Most people don’t know the depth of poverty in our community, especially for children. This research helps tell the story of poverty and find solutions that honour the dignity and strength of the people we help,” says Chiu. “We need this research to facilitate change.”

Mayan hopes that at the end of the 12-month pilot project, the Grocery Run program will get the nod of approval to continue.

“We have to consider this a human rights issue to be able to eat,” she says. “A lot of these families are in emergency situations and need food right now.”

*The names of Salina, Mirkuz and Badata have been changed.

HARVESTING HOPE

A healthy crop of kale donated by Lady Flower Gardens will provide much-needed nutrients to hungry refugees in Edmonton. Garden manager Kelly Mills (left) and community resource co-ordinator Sandra Ngo harvest kale for the Grocery Run, a food salvage pilot program led by the U of A’s Community-University Partnership.


 

ARE SCREENS REALLY BAD FOR YOUR KIDS?

Children are immersed in technology as never before, and we don’t know much about the impact.

Jason Daniels, ’00 BA(Hons), ’07 PhD, is working to change that. He is part of Growing Up Digital Alberta, a project that tracks the time children spend on screens and their behaviour in an effort to understand the physical, mental and social effects of digital technology. Daniels, associate director of research support services in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension, is working with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and Harvard University to analyze survey responses from 2,200 Alberta teachers and principals.

Interim results show 71 per cent of teachers find educational technology enhances learning. Two-thirds report high levels of distraction in the classroom as well as increased social and emotional challenges in the past three to five years. The next step, says Daniels, is to survey parents to find out how children and adults are using technology at home.

“We don’t have all the answers yet, but as we collect data we have to get the information into the hands of people who can use it,” says Daniels. “One of my personal goals is to create something for parents and teachers that takes all of this research and data and unpacks it in a way that is accessible to people.”


 

WHO MAKES SURE RAILWAYS ARE SAFE?

Like people, railways in Canada endure cold temperatures, snow, ice and cycles of freeze and thaw.

That can be tough on railcars and the 48,000 kilometres of track that move freight and people across the country. Researchers in the Canadian Rail Research Lab at the U of A are helping make the nation’s rail transportation safer and more efficient. Led by Derek Martin in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the research focuses on reducing ground hazards, analyzing risks and helping ensure the safe transport of people and goods nationally and internationally.

Public safety is a priority in the Faculty of Engineering. By 2017-18, every U of A engineering grad will have taken at least one course through the David and Joan Lynch School of Engineering Safety and Risk Management. Starting in 2017, the school will further its reach by offering engineering professionals courses toward an engineering safety and risk management certificate.


 

HOW CAN WE PROTECT AGING PARENTS?

Three out of five Canadians with dementia wander away from their homes. If not found within 24 hours, half will suffer serious injury or die.

It’s a growing problem: 564,000 Canadians are living with dementia — and that number is expected to grow to 937,000 within 15 years, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

A U of A study found that GPS locators helped keep track of people with dementia in case they wandered, bringing peace of mind to caregivers. The Locator Device Project, led by Lili Liu, chair of the U of A’s Department of Occupational Therapy, allowed caregivers in Calgary and Grande Prairie to monitor in real time the whereabouts of home-care clients with dementia. Devices — which can be worn around the neck, as a watch or in a shoe — show a person’s location on Google Maps and can send text messages or emails to caregivers if the person leaves a designated safe zone. Liu is now working on an online resource to help consumers compare locator devices and their suitability for different situations.


 

HOW CAN INDIGENOUS CULTURE BE PRESERVED?

First Nations girls, some of whom have had little or no contact with their language, are learning traditional Cree knowledge at a U of A summer program.

The Young Indigenous Women’s Circle of Leadership immerses girls 10 to 16 years old in a language and culture they may not otherwise have had access to, given the destructive legacy of residential schools. Guided by teachers from Cree communities, the girls learn traditional protocol, dances and prayers, experience traditional arts, talk with elders, attend sweat ceremonies, and pick wild sweetgrass and sage.

“A lot of the work we’re doing is simply trying to give these girls access to that information that has been disconnected for well over 100 years,” says Rochelle Starr, ’12MEd, program co-ordinator, who is from Little Pine Cree Nation. Starr hopes to expand the program, founded in 2008 by U of A elementary education professor Heather Blair, to involve more girls and to create a parallel opportunity for boys. Local Indo-Canadian, Muslim and Jewish communities have been working with the program to fundraise and to raise awareness of Indigenous realities within their own communities.


 

WHERE DO YOU FIT IN?

Find your niche in the U of A community. It reaches far and wide and covers almost any interest.

So, how do you prefer to connect with your world?