Research around town


As the host of a handful of strongly research-oriented universities, Montreal can boast a collaborative culture of scientific progress. Each year, students from all over the world flock to its institutions to partake in the quest for knowledge, guided by world-renowned researchers who work on game-changing projects outside their lecture halls. While the city’s rich, 375-year epic takes the spotlight this summer, it’s also important to turn to the future and peek at what the buzzing brains of Montreal’s brightest have been working on. Here are a few projects that caught our attention lately.

Our ship of Theseus

Over its billions of years of existence, a range of transformative processes have changed the physical and chemical composition of our planet. This raises a very interesting question: has all of Earth transformed since then, leaving no trace of the primordial debris that came together to form this planet so long ago? Hanika Rizo, from the Département des Sciences de la Terre et de l’Atmosphère at Université du Québec à Montréal, analyzed geological samples of volcanic origin from the Baffin Bay, near the southwest coast of Greenland. It was determined that the tungsten isotopic composition of the samples was in ratios that would be expected from deposits formed during the first 50 million years of the Earth’s existence. Using this and other volcanic flood basalt samples, it was established that portions of the mantle deep within our planet have conserved their original compositional variation from the Hadean eon, the planet’s first geological period. It appears that this ship of Theseus has not been completely replaced…

Sleep and cognition

The science of sleep is complex- many have lost sleep of their own while attempting to understand it better. REM sleep, which owes its name to the rapid eye movements that characterize it, is at the center of sleep research because of its potential role in the preservation of mental and physical health. By using optogenetics, a technique that uses light to control living tissue to limit the frequency of theta brain waves and limit REM sleep in mice, researchers came together from McGill University’s departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry to confirm that REM sleep was important for the maintenance of object-recognition memory and contextual fear memory. This highlights the importance of REM sleep for memory consolidation and reminds us that the best way to prepare for an exam is to get a sleep well the night before.

A dying light

The Sun, like most other stars, will end its long, bright life as a degenerate stellar core remnant, also known as a white dwarf. Its energy output will diminish very slowly, taking longer than the current estimated age of the Universe. Yet, observations of star WD 1145+017 taken through the Kepler Space Telescope showed huge dips in the brightness of the star over short time scales. An international team of scientists, which included Université de Montréal’s Patrick Dufour, investigated and subsequently determined the root cause of the unusual dimming: the disintegrating mass of one or several planets that once surrounded the star.  The massive collection of remaining debris from leftover planetesimals is the first such phenomenon recorded, and blocks as much as 40 percent of the star’s brightness in asymmetric profiles, showing a long cometary tail. The planets’ cosmic death will play out over the next thousands of years, and might be a preview of what might someday happen to our own Earth.

Nano-size, macro-results

The notion of nanorobots designed to enter the bloodstream to selectively deliver drugs has long fascinated science-fiction aficionados and researchers alike. Designing such machines is far-fetched still, as it would require technical components that are smaller than the width of a human hair. Yet, a team from École Polytechnique de Montréal’s Laboratoire de nanorobotique might have found a nanosized delivery agent that can help target specific tumour sites in cancer patients. The magnetotactic bacteria Magnetococcus marinus were magnetically guided to penetrate oxygen-poor regions of tumours in mice with their cargo: certain drug-loaded, artificially-produced vesicles attached to each bacterial cell. This bacteria naturally tends to swim along local magnetic field lines and oxygen concentration gradients, making it a perfect candidate for the job. Swarms of  bacteria like Magnetococcus marinus could potentially be employed to deliver drugs to where they are needed, and keep us healthy in the not too distant future.


Children growing up in multicultural cities like Montreal are often exposed to more than one language during their childhood, increasing their chances of becoming bilingual early in life. Most young children are taught an essentialist line of reasoning, in which traditionally conceived ideas are instilled in accordance with the larger culture around them. However. Krista Byers-Heinlein and Bianca Garcia from the Department of Psychology at Concordia University found that sequential bilingual children, exposed to a new language after age 3, were more likely than other children to believe that human and animal characteristics can be shaped by what one learns over time, rather than what one is born into. Bilingualism in the preschool years is thus likely to change a child’s essentialist biases and make the child more likely to be accepting of diversity, potentially leading to many social and developmental advantages. Être bilingue, c’est gagnant!