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Combatting Eco-Anxiety: Interactive Video Game Helps Youth Cope with Climate Change Fear

Climate change has transformed from a distant concern to an urgent global crisis – drastically impacting ecosystems and human lives alike. Dominating conversations and news headlines, a recent study revealed that 78 per cent of Canadians aged 16 to 25 report adverse effects on their mental health due to climate change, as it causes widespread fear and sadness, particularly among youth.

Recognizing the need for a positive approach, Carleton University psychology professor Stefania Maggi has created an action-adventure video game designed to reduce eco-anxiety and motivate climate action.

A woman in a brown sweater holds a book in a library.
Carleton University psychology professor Stefania Maggi (Brenna Mackay)

“Every day, we have a reminder in the news that exposes us to shock,” Maggi says.

“It causes anxiety that if not addressed adequately, impacts our mental health and also our ability to be part of the solution to climate change.”

Eco-Anxiety and Grief Among Youth

Eco-anxiety is a relatively new school of thought that explores the deep emotional strain individuals face amid the escalating threats of climate change. The continuous onslaught of distressing news, coupled with a heightened awareness of impending ecological challenges, fosters a pervasive sense of helplessness and grief over the potential loss of a sustainable future.

“We grieve the future we may not be able to have because of climate change,” Maggi explains.

“But it’s important to feel this way. It’s not an imaginary problem, and the first thing we need to do is accept the problem as being real.”

Despite its unpleasant effects on people’s well-being, anxiety does have an evolutionary purpose. It acts as a mechanism to signal threats and prompt protective responses. The problem with climate change is that we can’t eliminate that threat immediately or on our own.

Youth are disproportionately affected by eco-anxiety because they have the longest lives ahead of them, and planning for their futures is muddied by a one-sided narrative of a world in distress due to climate change. This one-sided portrayal risks paralyzing them with fear and impeding their ability to envision alternative outcomes. To address this, Maggi says we need a shift towards solution-oriented communication, emphasizing the importance of presenting diverse future scenarios.

“By providing youth with the tools to envision positive outcomes and fostering a sense of agency, we can empower them to develop skills and solutions, mitigating the paralyzing effects of eco-anxiety and inspiring meaningful action in the face of climate change,” Maggi explains.

“Fear is a good motivator, but it needs to be followed up with something else.”

Mochi 4 the Planet

Maggi launched Mochi 4ThePlanet in 2022 as a movement to help re-frame the way we think about climate change. The project is made up of a mixed-methods research branch – which collects data on eco-anxiety and the effects on youth; a social media presence – which aims to mobilize knowledge and elevate spirits and conversations around climate change; and the video game – built to help youth navigate their emotions around climate change in a non-threatening way.

The video game, Kibou – The Guiding Light, is set in a tech-dominated city where relationships take a back seat. The protagonist faces a turning point during a blackout that severs ties with their friend, prompting them to explore the impact of climate change. Players navigate through mechanics, puzzles, and quests to discover emotions, interacting with characters who share insights about the planet.

A woman sitting at a table with her back turned. A video game can be seen on the screens in front of her.
(Brenna Mackay)

The game follows Mochi4ThePlanet’s five tenets – Mindful, Optimistic, Compassionate, Healing, and Innovations – spelling Mochi. A reference to the Japanese rice cake crafted from moldable dough, Maggi says the project’s name is a symbol of adaptation and change.

“Kibou’s ultimate goal is to educate players about climate-related emotions, fostering understanding, normalization and the development of tools for expressing and coping with these emotions, emphasizing the importance of finding meaning and purpose in the face of adversity,” says Maggi.

Kibou is developed by an international team of young professionals. As a research-based youth-centered movement, Mochi4ThePlanet is partnered with organizations in Italy, India and Canada. In addition to the video game, the initiative has also published a children’s book within the game’s world – written by Maggi and McKenna Corvello, a master’s student in Carleton’s psychology program.

Maggi plans for Kibou to complete and the first instalment of a fully playable version by fall of 2024. She is also developing a Kibou-themed virtual reality educational program for the Carleton community and general public.

“My hope for Mochi4ThePlanet is to not only address eco-anxiety but to build a collective that is bound by shared meaning, motivation, and support.”

A hand holding up a children's book with an illustration and text visible.
(Brenna Mackay)

Beyond the Magic of Mushrooms: Using Psychedelic Derivatives to Treat Depression

Depression is one of the most significant challenges of our time, with over 280 million people suffering worldwide.

Despite the demand, antidepressants only have a 60 percent effectiveness rate, and it can take months on daily medication for patients to begin feeling better – a difficult wait for those already struggling with low mood or suicidal thoughts.

Carleton University neuroscientist Argel Aguilar-Valles is part of an international push to explore the therapeutic potential of a provocative subcategory of drugs: psychedelics.

“Psychedelics appear to reverse some of the damage that chronic stress causes, which enables the brain to be more resilient and better respond to the challenges we face in our lives,” says Aguilar-Valles.

A man with glasses wearing a lab coat.
Carleton University neuroscientist Argel Aguilar-Valles (Photo: Brenna Mackay)

In a recent study conducted in collaboration with the University of California at San Diego and the Medical College of Wisconsin, Aguilar-Valles found that 2-Bromo-LSD, a non-hallucinogenic derivative of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) developed by Vancouver-based pharmaceutical company BetterLife Pharma, could be a game-changing treatment option for depression and anxiety.

“The most widely prescribed type of antidepressant medication right now are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, but it can be a trial-and-error process to see whether they work on a particular person,” says the Carleton researcher, noting that SSRIs can also cause unpleasant side effects like insomnia, stomach troubles and loss of sex drive.

“It’s virtually impossible to know who will be resistant, so people often spend years taking pills with minimal to no improvement.”

In contrast, early findings suggest that 2-Bromo-LSD could have fast-acting, long-term effects when it comes to treating mood disorders.

How Psychedelics Could Help Repair the Brain

The exact biological causes of depression remain unclear, but scientists do know that chronic stress can cause significant damage to the brain’s neurons, dulling our responses and reducing cognitive function.

“Neurons look a bit like trees,” Aguilar-Valles explains. “A depressed brain atrophied by chronic stress looks like a tree during winter, while a non-depressed brain is a healthy summer tree.”

He and other researchers found that psychedelics, a category drug which includes LSD and psilocybin (i.e. “magic mushrooms”), can help the brain repair some of that atrophy and “regrow its leaves.”

Unlike SSRIs, which trigger serotonin surges in our brain’s receptors, psychedelics are unique in that they bind directly to the receptors themselves. This causes profound changes in consciousness and encourages neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain’s neural network to rewire itself.

Various types of chemicals
Photo: Brenna Mackay

“Psychedelics are fascinating substances. They target and affect many different receptors in the brain in ways we don’t fully understand yet,” says Aguilar-Valles.

In 2021, while conducting research into using ketamine to treat major depression, Aguilar-Valles was contacted by BetterLife Pharma to test out the potential of 2-Bromo-LSD.

Synthesized in 1940 by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann at the same time as regular LSD, the drug initially drew less attention compared to its flashier, hallucination-inducing sibling.

Today, the lack of “trip” is a major selling point for researchers as they explore whether 2-Bromo-LSD could work as an antidepressant, harnessing the power of its unique neurological profile without the inconveniences of sensory impairment.

A Renewed Research Path

Initial findings from Aguilar-Valles’s lab in Carleton’s Department of Neuroscience suggest that the effects of 2-Bromo-LSD on the brain are immediate and impressively long-lasting. Instead of daily medication, a patient might only need a single dose every few months.

The drug is also showing potential as a treatment option for substance abuse disorders.

“LSD hits lots of different receptors, including dopamine receptors and the dopaminergic system itself,” explains Vern Lewis, a Carleton post-doctoral fellow working on the project. “Dopamine triggers feelings of reward and pleasure, so if this drug is hitting that system, it could be very useful at treating addiction.”

Notably, psychedelics themselves are not, at a chemical level, addictive substances.

“You’re not going to experience withdrawal or form a dependence on psychedelics. It’s like riding a motorcycle – you might really enjoy the experience, but you’re not going to suffer from withdrawal if you can’t go out for a ride,” says Lewis.

Two scientists working in a labratory.
Aguilar-Valles and his team at work in the lab. (Photo: Brenna Mackay)

Labeling all recreationally used drugs as addictive and harmful is, in part, why research on psychedelics has remained stalled for decades.

“Decisions were made based on stigma and political opinions instead of science,” says Aguilar-Valles. “Canada used to be one of the leading countries for psychedelic research in the 70s, and there were clinical trials back then showing great promise for treating alcohol and tobacco use disorders. Then psychedelics were banned, access was restricted, and the research died down.”

Today, as scientists pick up where they left off and exploratory studies into psychedelics resume, Carleton’s Aguilar-Valles is advocating for cautious optimism.

“There’s a desperate need for help when it comes to depression, but we can’t rush the scientific process,” he reflects.

“It’s important to remember that more research and education is needed around what these drugs do and how they might one day be used for clinical purposes.”


More Health and Wellness

Seabirds and Oil Spills: Using DNA to Track Health Impacts

As global temperatures rise and sea ice melts, shipping routes are opening in the Arctic. This increase in vessel traffic has introduced a serious risk to wildlife in the area – the potential of a devastating accidental oil spill.

Seabirds, such as the black guillemot and the thick-billed murre, are at particular risk during these incidents as compounds from the oil disrupt the delicate waterproofing of their feathers that protect them from the icy waters of their home. The birds’ attempts to clean themselves can then introduce contaminants into their digestive tracts, creating further risks to human health if these birds are harvested for food by local communities.

While environmental officers could measure the loss of animal life due to oiling in the aftermath of a spill, a gap existed in their ability to track the health outcomes for wildlife that managed to survive these catastrophic changes to their environment.

Two scientists posing next to lab equipment.
Yasmeen Zahaby and Prof. Jennifer Provencher

At Carleton University, scientists have bridged this gap by creating a new tool to monitor the impacts of oil spills on wildlife in this expansive polar region. Using genetic code to monitor the impacts of oil spills on surviving seabirds, former master’s student Yasmeen Zahaby developed a tool called a ToxChip which measures the health impacts of seabirds at a DNA level.

It’s Genetic: Mapping DNA to Measure Contaminant Impacts

“A lot of these birds seemed healthy on the outside, but we wanted to understand how oil spills, or any kind of contaminant, impact them on a sub-lethal level,” says Zahaby.

Contaminants can lead to a myriad of health problems in seabirds.

“Some genes are important for immune function, some are important for balancing calcium in the body or balancing hormones,” explains Zahaby.

“All of these biological pathways can be impacted by oil spills and contaminants.”

Genetic technology has evolved in leaps and bounds in recent years, such that mapping a seabird’s genome and subsequently tracking health impacts is now possible.

“There were people thinking about this problem for a long time, but they didn’t have the tools to do it,” says Jennifer Provencher, adjunct professor in Carleton’s Department of Biology, who supervised Zahaby’s work.

To detect the impact of contaminants on the seabirds, Zahaby first had to build their genetic profile, as limited information existed for some of these species.

“We don’t know as much about their genes, so I had to make an educated guess as to what their genetic sequence would be,” says Zahaby.

“I looked at species that have already been documented and found the regions of the gene that they shared.”

Once the genes of healthy animals were sequenced, Zahaby examined the samples of surviving seabirds that had been impacted by a 3,000-litre oil spill. Investigating the condition of the genes using the ToxChip and comparing it to contaminants found in liver samples illuminated the impacts of the spill on the seabirds.

“Things outside of the body, like contaminants, can change gene expression,” says Zahaby. “We can measure with the ToxChip if the gene is turned on or off – and by how much.”

In the aftermath of a spill, a surviving seabird’s genes responsible for processing contaminants may be upregulated – indicating that their ability to digest and metabolize contaminants is being impacted, which could lead to negative health outcomes for the animal.

A hand holds a tray of samples over a piece of equipment used for analysis.
Samples prepared for testing in the ToxChip Lab

Research Informs the Way Forward on Shipping Routes

The ToxChip technology holds promise not only as a tool for routine monitoring of the health of animal populations, but also for informing policy. In the case of Arctic seabirds, the data gathered can help governments make decisions that address and balance economic concerns and shipping demands with the health of local wildlife.

To develop the ToxChip, Carleton worked in partnership with the Nunatsiavut government. As seabirds are a food source for communities in the area, government staff collected samples during the harvest season that were later used by Zahaby to decode the animals’ genes.

Findings from her research were then shared with government officials, who held public meetings with community members to share the data.

“Once the ship passes through, most people think that there’s no impact, but our work is trying to think more broadly about what the impacts of vessel traffic could be,” says Provencher.

“What we’re hoping to do with tools like this is to provide – specifically in the Arctic – ongoing baseline information that we can examine as we ramp up shipping.

“We are actively using this data to talk to the people making shipping corridors and protected areas to minimize impacts from vessels on wildlife.”

A colony of Guillemot birds take flight (Photo: Reyd Smith)


More Technology for Good

Digital Wellness: How Social Media Influencers Affect Mental Health

Social media influencers are a powerful marketing tool, playing a pivotal role in shaping consumer preferences and driving brand engagement. With over 60 million influencers worldwide, the global value for social media marketing has reached over 28 billion CAD, tripling its value since 2019.

While social media influencers undoubtedly yield economic advantages, they can also lead followers to develop emotional and cognitive difficulties.

A young woman wearing glasses leans against a table counter while posing for a photo.
Carleton University researcher Samira Farivar

Carleton University researcher, Samira Farivar, is among the first to shed light on the adverse effects of social media influencing on followers’ mental health. Rooted in attachment theory, her groundbreaking findings offer valuable insights to guide influencers in fostering healthier relationships with followers, while simultaneously benefiting marketing goals.

“Promoting a healthier following is beneficial to influencers’ bottom line,” says Farivar, an assistant professor in Carleton’s Sprott School of Business.

“While initially, it might appear better to encourage excessive engagement, research indicates that over time, such addictive patterns negatively impact both people and business.”

Unhealthy Attachments with Social Media Influencers

In a 2022 study, Farivar conducted an online survey of 500 Instagram users to evaluate their attachments with influencers. She discovered that followers often develop parasocial, or one-sided relationships, with influencers – a type of relationship that is key to social media influencers’ success.

“Despite the follower extending emotional energy, interest and time, the influencer remains unaware of their identity,” explains Farivar.

A mobile phone with social media apps displayed on the screen.

This type of bonding can instigate many mental health problems as followers compare their lives to those of the influencers. Farivar’s report also revealed that these parasocial relationships cause addictive behaviours when using social media – such as the inability to stop checking their phone.

“This type of behaviour is what we call problematic engagement,” says Farivar.

In addition to proving that social media influencing can lead to problematic behaviours, Farivar wanted to uncover whether followers perceive their engagement as an issue. In a follow-up study published earlier this year, she discovered that social media users who claimed that they have complete control over their behaviour and could stop at any time, were actually showing the most signs of problematic engagement.

“People who are getting constant excitement from social media tend to ignore the potential harm,” explains Farivar. “Understanding this perception of threat is important. You can’t action a problem you don’t even know exists.”

Reducing Social Media Use

Another study about the potential harm of social media points to screen time as a key factor. Recent research conducted by Carleton psychologists Chris Davis and Helen Thai found that regular social media use can contribute to feelings of anxiety, depression and lower self-esteem in vulnerable youth and that reducing screentime can drastically reduce these effects.

A man and a woman pose for a photo while standing in a classroom.
Carleton University psychologists Chris Davis and Helen Thai

Davis and Thai, alongside their partners at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), conducted a study with Carleton undergraduate students aged 17 to 25, who were already experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Half of the participants kept their time on social media as normal while the other half were instructed to reduce it to 60 minutes a day. They tracked it via a screen-time tracker on their phones.

“After just 28 days, people reported fewer symptoms of depression, decreased levels of anxiety, and improved body esteem,” says Davis, a researcher in Carleton’s Department of Psychology. “The idea is that if you can do this for three weeks, perhaps it can become a habit.”

Reducing screen time, although it may sound simple, is not always easy. This is where features embedded in our technology can help.

“We can use technological functions, like our built-in screen time trackers on our smartphones, to our advantage,” explains Thai, who graduated from Carleton’s business (2017) and psychology (2021) programs.

“If we want to limit our social media, especially when it feels almost habitual and addictive, adding those extra barriers might help – and it comes at no financial cost.”

Farivar is looking in this direction as well. She is working on developing warning messages for social media apps that will alert users when their behaviour crosses over into potentially problematic – such as using an app for too long, continuously clicking on the same account or excessive scrolling.

A mobile screen displaying a user's screen time.

The Role of Influencers

While self-regulation is important, Farivar believes that influencers and businesses have an important role to play to help mitigate feelings of comparison and envy among followers.

“Influencers can promote authenticity by showcasing the less glamorous aspects of their lives, sharing messages of self-care, body positivity,” Farivar says.

Further, Farivar says that collaborations between influencers and mental health professionals can be fostered to create educational content and resources that promote mental well-being. These collaborations can empower followers to prioritize their mental health and make informed choices in their media consumption.

“My hope is that by bringing awareness to these issues, it will instigate action and eventually lead to positive change.”

If you or someone you know are struggling with mental health, there are resources available to you. If you are part of the Carleton University community, support is also available through wellness.carleton.ca.


More Health and Wellness

Applying Traditional War Theory to Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity is one of the biggest threats affecting the global economy. Identified by the World Economic Forum as one of the top ten global risks both currently and in the future, it is estimated to cost an annual $10.5 trillion by 2025.With the rising risk and cost of protecting personal data, governments, policy makers and researchers are pooling their resources to build a more robust cybersecurity strategy.

Alex Wilner, a researcher at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and director of the Infrastructure Protection and International Security program, is part of this collaborative effort. Wilner is a leading expert in deterrence theory – a traditional wartime theory that refers to the practice of how to deter attacks – and is expanding its scholarship to apply to cyberspace.

A black and white headshot of a professionally dressed man wearing glasses.
Carleton University researcher Alex Wilner

“Deterrence is about keeping you safe from attack by convincing an adversary not to attack you in the first place,” Wilner says.

“We’re looking at how to do that in the complicated and vast world of cyberspace.”

Cybersecurity & Cyber Deterrence

Deterrence theory is technically very simple – a defender needs to convince an aggressor that either the costs of attacking are too high, or the benefits of doing so are too low. This concept dates back to the Cold War when the United States and the Soviet Union deterred invasions through threats of nuclear retaliation.

Since then and with the growth of the internet, security threats have expanded to cyberspace. In response, Wilner is modernizing traditional deterrence theory to make it applicable to cyber threats. With his team of 10 Carleton graduate students, Wilner has compiled data on the types of cyber incidents that are happening in Canada and abroad to better understand who is conducting these attacks and how to deter them.

“When you download and use a new app, engage with digital commerce, or register for certain provincial or federal services, your information is at risk of capture,” Wilner explains.

The cyber attacks Canadians face vary from malware, which leads to unauthorized access and theft of sensitive data; spyware, which collects and sends information to a third party; phishing, which gain access to personal or business information through fraudulent emails; and ransomware, which locks users from accessing their data, forcing them to pay a ransom to regain control.

A person using a laptop with a warning message displayed on the screen.
Tippapatt / iStock

“The vast majority of cyber attacks are not stemming from a central government or military trying to penetrate your computer, and steal data for intelligence purposes,” says Wilner. “Rather, it’s a criminal syndicate stealing your data in order to sell it.”

Influencing Cyber Policy

With a better understanding of emerging cybersecurity threats, Wilner is working with the Department of National Defence, Global Affairs Canada, and others, to develop Canada’s cyber deterrence posture. The posture will define unacceptable behaviour in cyberspace and outline what retaliation can be taken as a result of engaging in that behaviour.

“We’ve done this in the physical world. We know that certain behaviours – like using chemical weapons, political assassinations, and torture – cross a red line. But where is that line drawn for cybersecurity?” Wilner asks.

“If we can create a better understanding of how we will respond to various forms of cyber aggression, then we can diminish even the most severe types of cyber attack.”

Group of soldiers or spies in dark room with large monitors and advanced satellite communication technology.
Evgeniy Shkolenko / iStock

Part of the solution may entail building a version of an extended deterrence relationship between the Canadian government and everyone else. Governments and militaries have the ability to retaliate to cyber aggression using both cyber and physical means. But no provincial or municipal government, private or non-profit actor, or individual can do the same. It’s not lawful, nor do they have the means. In extended deterrence, the central government deters malicious activity on behalf of others.

Looking Ahead: Artificial Intelligence

With the recent rise in the use of artificial intelligence (AI), the Carleton researcher is looking at ways in which AI may facilitate deterrence by speeding up how we collect, assess and act on intelligence.

“What is concerning many experts in the field is the pairing of AI with weapons and robotics, effectively providing faster-than-life responses to traditional aggression. If that future emerges, it won’t only influence the ethics of warfare, but will fundamentally alter how we think about and apply deterrence to international affairs,” Wilner warns.

Wilner first became interested in deterrence theory after al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack and went on to emerge as a leading figure in the field of terrorism deterrence. Now he is hoping his timely work on cyber deterrence will help address cybersecurity issues that plague Canadians every day.

An over the shoulder view of a hoodie wearing computer user typing in front of a keyboard, in front of several computer monitors.
Evgeniy Alyoshin / iStock

“Right now, online attackers feel untouchable. We need them to know that if they come for us, whether it be our infrastructure, our businesses, or our people – that we have the means, the right, and the will to retaliate as required.”

Supporting Indigenous Economic Development

There are around 500 Indigenous economic development corporations across Canada. Together, they manage hundreds of millions of dollars in businesses and investments and are responsible for tens of thousands of jobs, giving these “EcDevs” the potential to bring about positive economic change not only in Indigenous communities but also the country as whole.When they make decisions about which opportunities or community-owned companies to get involved with, Indigenous EcDevs consider both monetary return on investment and broader outcomes, such as sustainability, employment and health and wellness, a holistic perspective rooted in Indigenous ways of knowing and being.

These decisions are based on geographical, economic and cultural factors — what makes sense for one community might not make sense for another — as well as the specific pros and cons of each venture.

Accordingly, the investment decisions made by Indigenous EcDev managers are “vastly more complicated” than the choices facing the mangers of publicly traded corporations,” says Carleton University finance researcher D’Arcy O’Farrell, a PhD student at the Sprott School of Business.

Conventional economic tools and theories, he adds, don’t provide much support.

A man with glasses in a light blue buttoned up shirt poses for the camera in front of a large plant.
Carleton University finance researcher and Sprott School of Business PhD student, D’Arcy O’Farrell (Brenna Mackay)

Despite this challenge, it’s incumbent on academics to respond to the Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in any way they can, according to Rick Colbourne, Carleton’s Associate Dean, Equity and Inclusive Communities and an Indigenous leadership and management researcher at Sprott who is O’Farrell’s co-supervisor.

This includes conducting research that explores Indigenous investment decision-making and making the results of this research available to members of the non-Indigenous business community to help foster understanding and partnership.

And it’s one of the reasons that Sprott, as part of a multi-year strategy led by a national non-profit called Indigenous Works and its Luminary initiative, is actively engaging in “economic reconciliation.” Indigenous EcDevs play a strong role in Canada’s economy, and Carleton recognizes the need to support their work.

More Than Conventional ROI

Existing investment theory holds that the only objective of investors is to make money, says O’Farrell. That assumption is a necessary simplification for a complicated problem, and it works quite well when the investor is, say, an individual saving for retirement.

But it’s not a good model for Indigenous EcDevs, whose managers invest for multiple objectives, exponentially increasingly the complexity of any analysis.

A woman looks at financial charts on both her mobile device and her laptop.
(Vanessa Nunes / iStock)

Another complication is the assumption that once an investment is made, the decision is locked in forever. This works fine, again, for a retirement portfolio.

“But when you’re investing in a business that you will actively manage,” O’Farrell says, “your initial outlay is only the beginning. Every day after that, there are decisions to be made which will impact the final outcome.”

All of these variables mean that, short of a powerful computer and precise mathematical model, Indigenous EcDev managers need to exercise a lot of judgement when making investment decisions. And that any insights gleaned from this process should be shared as part of the long journey toward reconciliation.

Increased Collaboration With Business Schools

Sprott was the first of dozens of university faculties to sign Indigenous Works’ Luminary charter, an effort to advance Indigenous innovation and grow economic well-being through increased collaboration among Indigenous businesses, communities and post-secondary institutions — in particular Canadian business schools, an academic discipline that has not historically been involved in Indigenous issues

“We’re looking for more long-term relationships and benefits coming out of research that resonates with Indigenous community needs, values and perspectives,” says Colbourne.

“Indigenous-led research can contribute to community socio-economic health and well-being by facilitating sovereignty, self-governance and self-determination. Business school research in Canada must be co-created and co-generated with Indigenous communities and EcDev corporations. It cannot be extractive — it has to be collaborative.”

A pair of hands holding a brochure with construction related images
(Brenna Mackay)

Because this is a new direction for business schools, there are tremendous opportunities to explore, says Indigenous Works President and CEO Kelly Lendsay, who is also the founder and CEO of Luminary.

There’s a need for baseline information on Indigenous EcDevs and specific sectoral research in areas like agri-business, climate change and renewable energy systems.

Lendsay mentions the seaweed industry as an example. It’s a roughly $10 billion USD annual market in Asia, but Canada also has vast amounts of this sustainable food source on all three of our coastlines. With the right approach, Indigenous EcDevs in Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific communities could establish harvesting and export operations, providing local employment and enhancing food security in addition to bringing in revenue and building an Indigenous seaweed industry in Canada.

“Luminary’s research and innovation agenda can help Indigenous EcDevs develop new opportunities and make more informed business investments built on a foundation of solid research and innovation insights,” says Lendsay. “Indigenous EcDevs invest back into their communities, people, infrastructure and jobs.

“It’s nation building and it’s good for Canada and the world.”

By working together, Indigenous EcDevs and business schools both benefit, supporting the goals of the former and encouraging real-world impact for the latter. And by sharing the stories of successful EcDevs, the work of Sprott students like O’Farrell is demonstrating the possibilities and potential of Luminary — and could help inspire and support the next generation of Indigenous economic leaders.

An over the shoulder view of a laptop screen displaying a map.
(Brenna Mackay)

Personalized Treatment for Mental Illness

Mental illness is a medical puzzle.People with conditions such as major depressive disorder comprise diverse populations. Some individuals have trouble sleeping and don’t feel like eating, while others sleep and eat more than usual. Yet the clinical response, whether pharmacological or rooted in counselling, often follows a standardized approach.

Moreover, the root causes of mental illnesses vary tremendously, from biological factors like body chemistry to the social determinants of health (economic status, culture and so forth) as well as the lasting impacts of early-life trauma.

Teasing apart these variables to effectively treat a patient is a significant challenge. But by taking a “biopsychosocial approach,” incorporating biological, psychological and social inquiry, Carleton University neuroscience researcher Robyn McQuaid is working toward the development of more personalized approaches to mental illness.

“Our lives — including the stressors we encounter — impact our biology, and our biology impacts our lives,” says McQuaid, whose department investigates health issues from the cellular to community level.

“It’s a circle, so we need to take a comprehensive approach. This can be tricky, but it’s important if we want to create more individualized treatments.”

Three scientists wearing lab coats pose for a group photo inside a labratory.
Carleton University neuroscience researcher Robyn McQuaid (centre) with PhD students Dana Jarkas and Ayeila Daneshmend

McQuaid, who is also a scientist at The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research in Ottawa, collaborating on studies at the hospital, believes that we need to move beyond a one-size-fits-all mindset.

“We’re taking a trans-diagnostic approach, which means we’re looking across diagnoses at people with a wide range of symptoms, stressful experiences and neurobiological profiles,” she explains, noting that symptoms such as disturbed mood, sleep and cognition often cut across anxiety, depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“This is a growing area of precision medicine. It’s about moving beyond the confines of a diagnosis to focus on the individual in front of you.”

Understanding the Biology of Depression

Despite the fact that researchers have been studying depression for decades, we still don’t really understand all of the biological processes involved, which undermines effective treatments.

McQuaid’s research is best understood by zeroing in on a recent study she led that started with more than 500 Carleton students filling out questionnaires about their psychological health — a large and relevant sample, considering that about one-third of university-age Canadians are diagnosed with mental illnesses.

The students were asked about the specific anxiety or depression symptoms they were feeling. They were also asked about stressful early-life experiences.

A scientist uses a high-powered siringe to fill small plastic capsules.

Then blood samples were collected, allowing the research team to look for inflammatory proteins in the blood — an immune system indicator of conditions like depression — and measure cortisol levels, a hormonal indicator of stress.

The results revealed six distinct “clusters,” from people who are happy and healthy to those with pronounced anxiety and depression.

“Some individuals predominantly showed anhedonia symptoms, or the inability to feel pleasure, while others had a predominantly physical form of depression, called neurovegetative depression,” says McQuaid.

“These people in particular reported a lot of increased sleep and appetite, and we could differentiate this group from others through their elevated inflammatory profiles.”

Biomarkers like inflammation could be one key to a tailored treatment response in the future, especially if they can be mapped onto specific clinical clusters of patients.

Researchers have known for a long time that individuals with depression can present elevated inflammation, but confirming precisely who does with a quick blood test could, down the road, lead a doctor to prescribe an anti-inflammatory medication for some patients alongside other treatments.

Next Steps for Treating Mental Illness

Findings from the Carleton student study are now published, and McQuaid is currently examining how early-life trauma fits into this story. Early-life adversity can get under the skin and have long-term consequences on mental health. This is important because individuals with early-life trauma respond more poorly to available treatments for depression.

Collected blood samples are loaded into high-tech lab equipment.

Her graduate students are also currently doing an experiment to explore how the immune systems of people with various symptom profiles respond to challenges. Individuals face a lab stressor — a public speaking test — that elicits a biological and emotional response which can be seen in the activity of their white blood cells.

“These types of experiments give us a better sense of how specific people deal and cope with stress,” says McQuaid.

“They also give us insight into biological factors that can be used to identify risk for a disease, or to predict how somebody will respond to treatment.

“When you have a physical illness, you go to the doctor’s office and they collect biological data, and they can say your cholesterol is high and you may be at risk for heart disease. This is not the reality for mental illness, but in the future, it could be. That’s our goal.”

Fighting Asthma and Lung Disease

About 10 per cent of Canadians suffer from asthma, the most common chronic disease among children and one of the leading causes of hospitalization. Yet we don’t really know why asthma makes it so difficult to breathe, so current treatments only address its symptoms and are not a long-term solution or cure.To better understand asthma and other lung diseases and work toward more effective remedies, Carleton University Systems and Computer Engineering researcher Leila Mostaço-Guidolin is combining a pair of cutting-edge technologies.

Mostaço-Guidolin and her colleagues in the Carleton-led TEAM (Tissue Engineering & Applied Materials) Hub are using advanced microscopy imaging techniques and 3D bioprinting to develop functional models of the human airway.

These models, and the intricate process of creating them, will allow researchers to see the mechanisms of asthma and other respiratory conditions at a cellular and molecular levels and, ultimately, to test potential interventions.

A woman wearing a labcoat poses for a photo while standing next to lab equipment.
Carleton University Systems and Computer Engineering researcher Leila Mostaço-Guidolin

From Tissue Sample to Accurate Model

To replicate the human airway as accurately as possible, Mostaço-Guidolin starts with a lung tissue sample obtained from an organ donor or biopsy, which is looked at under an ultra high-resolution microscope.

The highly detailed images generated are analyzed to determine which cells are present, how they’re arranged and what the structure of the tissue looks like, and then a 3D bioprinter is used to “reverse engineer” this structure on an airway-like tube.

The printer uses a gelatin mix that contains collagen and proteins that occur naturally in human airways, giving the model real-world physical and chemical properties. And to further refine this process, the model itself can be microscopically imaged — “a feedback loop,” explains Mostaço-Guidolin, “so we can see how closely the structure we made resembles the real tissue and whether the cells are behaving as they should.”

Currently, Mostaço-Guidolin and her collaborators have a bioprinted hollow tube, with cells and proteins to give it structure, and are optimizing it so air can be perfused into the tube.

“We are trying to mimic the breathing process,” she says. “The ultimate goal is to have a structure similar to human airways and lung tissues — to have them surviving and interacting with one another in this artificial environment. Then we’ll be able to biochemically track what happens when the triggers of diseases like asthma make cells behave in a certain way.

“If you want to try to assess how a new drug might impact those cells,” she adds, “you can add this drug in the model, let the cells interact for a while, track changes within the tissue and see whether the drug is promising. This is an oversimplification of the whole process, but that’s one of the great applications of these in vitro models.”

A high powered microscope sitting on a SmartTable.
A high-powered Zeiss microscope sits on a SmartTable UT2 by Newport

Which Comes First: Fibrosis or Inflammation?

Not only is asthma a debilitating condition in need of attention, its basic mechanisms are similar to those of a range of diseases involving organs other than the lungs.

People with asthma have a hard time breathing because scar tissue narrows their airways. Scar tissue is related to the excess accumulation of collagen, which leads to what is called fibrosis. Fibrosis is related to inflammation, and according to Mostaço-Guidolin, trying to figure out whether inflammation triggers more fibrosis or vice vera is a chicken-and-egg situation.

“Bioprinted 3D models could be deployed to better understand the role of fibrosis in various cancers, cardiovascular diseases and other conditions,” she says. “The same mechanism affects different tissues and different organs throughout the body and we don’t know why this happens.

“To develop medicines, we need to know how we can interrupt this pathological behavior. Do we focus on the inflammation side of things, for example, or do we focus on repairing the scar tissue production?”

A scientist adding a sample to a high-powered microscope.

One of the benefits of the TEAM Hub approach it that the group brings together a cross-section of areas: researchers in biology, physics, health science and engineering are collaborating closely.

“Science has shifted a lot in the past few years,” says Mostaço-Guidolin.

“High-resolution imaging is creating new avenues for people working at the intersection of engineering, biochemistry and pharmacology domains. Now that we can connect with so many people and have access to so much information, we can tackle so many problems in a more targeted and meaningful way.”

Reducing Renewable Energy Uncertainty

Two of the most important technologies for mitigating global warming, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are wind and solar power.Both are crucial if we are to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and significantly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.

Thankfully, technological advances over the past couple decades have made wind and solar installations much more effective. During some peak hours, for example, Portugal generates almost all of its electricity from renewables; in Canada, wind and solar power have been the cheapest forms of energy to produce (in dollars per kilowatt-hour) since 2014.

Moreover, in the United States, the Biden administration’s multi-billion-dollar Inflation Reduction Act includes “tax incentives aimed at increasing the manufacturing of wind turbines [and] solar panels,” reports the CBC — a financial “carrot,” rather than the “stick”-like carbon tax, that is expected to put pressure on Canada and other countries around the world to “offer similar subsidies toward green energy or risk losing out on valuable investment dollars.”

Yet the inconsistency and unpredictability of renewable energy supply, because of natural variances in sun and wind dynamics, limits investment in the sector and makes electrical grid managers reluctant to commit. If a municipality is responsible for ensuring that thousands of homes have power, they must be sure the energy is there when it’s needed.

Which is why Carleton University Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering professor Kristen Schell is using geospatial data, mathematical models and deep learning to develop more accurate forecasts about the availability of renewables such as wind and solar.

A woman poses for a photo at the bottom of a staircase.
Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering professor Kristen Schell

Her work, as co-director of Carleton’s Alternative Pathways for the Energy Transition (APEX) research group, aims to make the essential shift to renewables happen faster, allowing wind and solar energy to play a bigger role in the fight against climate change.

“We’re trying to make their power output more predictable, so they can be relied upon,” says Schell.

“Eventually, one day, if we get the models good enough, they could replace coal and nuclear as our baseload source of power.”

Making More Accurate Projections

Forecasting the behaviour of natural forces and phenomena is always a challenge. Just ask the people who are responsible for telling you what the weather will be like next week.

But because Schell knows that the “intermittency” of wind and solar is unavoidable, more accurate projections are key to their widespread adoption.

To make her wind models, she incorporates a long list of inputs: topographical maps showing the location of wind farms as well as the arrangement of turbines within those farms; the historical output from these farms; and weather information such as wind speed, temperature and air pressure. She combines large datasets of statistics with physics principles, such as the fluid flow of air, and then feeds everything into deep learning algorithms — which can calculate the power that individual wind installations will generate — to come up with the best possible predictions.

An over the shoulder view of a woman using an elaborate computer setup.

Solar energy forecasting relies upon a similar process and similar equations, since “the main uncertainty with solar is related to the movement of clouds,” explains Schell.

“When you have a lot of cloud cover, or other precipitation factors, like snow covered solar arrays, that impacts the electricity being produced.”

By approaching renewable energy models from multiple angles, “we’re hoping to develop better forecasting,” she says, “that reduce the error to almost zero.”

Fine-Tuning the Models with Market Data

Most of Schell’s research is based in Ontario and Alberta — the provinces with most wind farms, and the two jurisdictions within Canada in which the electricity systems operate as markets. This setup allows Schell to use market data from the two provinces and compare the actual production of wind farms with what they were forecast to produce, helping her further fine-tune the models.

Late last year, she also started a national, five-year, $1.763-million project to explore how emerging carbon dioxide emission reduction and capture technologies can be powered by renewable energy, regardless of its variable supply.

“We want to find out what operational effects wind and solar power will have on these technologies,” she says, “and then where we should put these solutions within Canada.”

Beyond the predictability and generating capacity of renewables, the need for transmission lines is also an important consideration. Economic and policy experts know that wind and solar electricity can only be scaled up if there’s a way to move it from sources to the market, another area in which financial incentives are important.

A chart use to explain process used to reduce renewable energy uncertainty

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity for leadership from Canada,” says Schell, noting how much public money was marshalled — and how quickly — to protect people from COVID-19.

“It will be hard to change the fundamentals of our energy system, but we could be one of countries that shows what’s possible, and the up-front capital investment will follow.”

The Natural Path to Happiness

It’s now been three years since COVID-19 entered our collective consciousness. While the physical health implications of the pandemic received wide attention, the global experience also exacerbated an already acute mental health crisis.Combine that with social media overload and increasing concern about climate change and you have a recipe ripe for depression and existential dread.

And while there’s no simple antidote to any of these issues, one research lab at Carleton University is turning the scientific spotlight on the benefits nature can provide to our well-being.

Carleton psychology professor John Zelenski is an internationally renowned expert on the links between nature and happiness. As director of the CU Happiness Laboratory, he has found that one of the most powerful pathways to well-being is spending time immersed in the natural world.

Zelenski — who’s interested in individual differences in happiness and how personality manifests itself “in the moment” as emotional, behavioural and cognitive processes — says gleaning insights into happiness leads to advantages beyond the individual.

A man in a plaid shirt stands among trees with his thumbs in his pockets.
Carleton psychology professor John Zelenski (Melanie Mathieu)

“Happiness is something that everybody values,” he explains.

“Simply put, we would prefer to be happy rather than not. The goal of studying happiness is to derive benefit for people generally, so we can pursue our best lives.”

Zelenski says that while happiness can mean different things to different people, at its core it involves more pleasant than unpleasant moments in life and a general feeling of satisfaction. Measuring happiness — while not simple — involves subjects self-reporting their sense of well-being.

“We try to design surveys and scales that have good statistical outcomes,” explains Zelenski. “There’s a lot of research we can trust about how we ask questions and in what order, relating to emotions and life satisfaction. And we have sneaky tools as well, such as looking at facial expressions.

“Ultimately though, it is subjective. If you were to tell me you felt happy or unhappy and a blood test said otherwise, I would still believe you.”

Boosting Happiness: Accessible Benefits of Nature

One of the more accessible options for boosting happiness is engaging with nature, according to Zelenski. Nature can provide a sense of balance, and connecting with it in meaningful ways is associated with an increase in environmentally responsible behaviour.

“There’s good evidence that spending time physically in nature and being mindful about it has positive results,” says Zelenski.

“It’s something that’s embedded in us and seems to go back to our evolutionary history, meaning that because we came from natural settings, we still thrive in them. Living by nature and physically being in it produces good emotions and a desire to preserve it.”

And for those who might be intimidated by the thought of getting into nature — or worried about the risks of disassociating from it — Zelenski says it needn’t be overwhelming. People have different opinions on what counts as nature, but the key is to make engaging with it work for you.

“Experiencing nature doesn’t have to be a hike in the remote wilderness,” says Zelenski, who says he has found his own pockets of nature near his urban home. “Just choosing to walk outside rather than through underground tunnels, or even consciously noticing a bird in the backyard or a plant in the middle of the city can produce positive feelings.”

In fact, Zelenski says that even watching a two-minute video about nature can elicit a substantial boost in terms of positivity.

Zelenski also uses something called “affective forecasting” in his happiness research, which uses predictions of how we’ll feel about future emotional events. He’s found that when it comes to experiencing nature, the projected payoff is even better than individuals may first believe.

“Most people know that being in nature will have positive benefits, but it turns out to make a much bigger difference to our perceived well-being than we initially thought.”

Indeed, much of studying happiness is about this shift in perspective, says Zelenski.

“We often think of addressing our mental health as fixing what’s wrong or curing depression. But focussing on happiness is not actually about neutralizing anything. It’s about recognizing the various benefits that are available to us, such as those that come along with exposure to nature.

“Changing people deep down is hard. But being open to small experiences and realizing how they can accumulate to positively influence our mood and well-being is the news people can use.”

Zelenski, an internationally renowned expert on the links between nature and happiness, examines a leaf in the palm of his hand.

Photography by Melanie Mathieu

Growing Food Year-Round

Access to nutritious and affordable food is a Canada-wide challenge that disproportionately affects rural and remote communities. While 12.7 per cent of Canadians have insufficient access to food, in Nunavut that number jumps to a startling 57 per cent. This is largely because transporting meat, dairy and produce to isolated areas is difficult, and the food that can make the trip has a drastically reduced shelf-life as well as an increased sticker price to make up for the cost of getting it there.It is now more important than ever for communities to have access to locally grown food, but if they regularly experience cold weather, lack of sun or short and unpredictable growing seasons the challenge becomes all the more daunting.

Alida Burke, a graduate of Carleton University’s Master of Accounting program may have the answer. Burke is co-founder of Growcer Inc., a company that has developed an economically sustainable solution for addressing year-round food access through modular hydroponic farms.

“Everyone deserves to have fresh, healthy, and affordable food,” says the Carleton grad, who launched Growcer in 2016.

A woman in a lab coat smiles for the camera with rows of vegetation visible in the background.
Alida Burke, Growcer Inc. co-founder and Carleton University graduate (Brenna Mackay)

The company manufactures indoor farms made out of 40-foot-long modular structures resembling shipping containers. They are built to withstand temperatures up to 40 C and down to -40 C, along with harsh weather conditions like snow, ice and rain. Growcer’s farm modules are equipped to grow more than 140 types of produce such as lettuce, spinach, and kale.

Breaking Down Barriers to Food Access

Burke’s inspiration for Growcer came after a trip to Iqaluit in 2015 where she saw firsthand the challenges that remote, specifically Indigenous, communities are facing. Fast forward to 2019, Burke and her business partner successfully pitched their idea on Dragon’s Den, a Canadian reality television show. Since its launch, Growcer has expanded to serve farmers, communities, retailers and non-profit organizations all over Canada. In 2021, one of their farms was installed at Ayás Méńmen Child and Family Services to help bring healthy, locally grown food to the Squamish Nation.

“Creating a sustainable healthy source of produce and increasing food sovereignty has long been a goal for the Squamish Nation, and Growcer is another piece of the puzzle,” said Kelley McReynolds, director of Ayás Méńmen Child and Family Services, in a Growcer story.

Growcer’s modular farms provide the perfect atmosphere for food to be grown indoors, all year around. Each system features rows of shelves, stacked vertically, where dozens of plants are grown. The plants sit in a shallow pond of water mixed with specific nutrients to help them thrive – a technique referred to as deep water culture hydroponic farming. This allows the plants to grow without the use of soil. The shelves are lit by LED lights, removing the need for natural light. The system also includes a high-quality HVAC system to circulate fresh air and minimize outdoor contaminants.

A hand wearing a blue glove holds a thermometer up to a plant.
Indoor farming conditions are monitored to ensure an ideal atmosphere for plant growth (Brenna Mackay)

“In just one of our 400 square foot container farms, we can have over 787 plants harvested weekly,” explains Burke.

“This paired with not having to rely on Canada’s outdoor growing season makes for a truly remarkable output.”

One farm which was recently installed in Muskoka, Ontario, is on pace to grow 8,500 pounds of produce in the next year. Another partner in Vaughan, Ontario, is growing in a wheelchair accessible farm, the first of its kind in Canada. To accommodate people with mobility devices, the farm includes wider door widths, lower table heights, power-operated doors, a space for wheelchairs to turnaround and other small improvements to make growing locally accessible.

“It’s extremely important to us that our farms are tailored to work for every kind of person in every kind of place,” Burke says.

People, Planet and Profit

This people-centered line of thinking is at the heart of Burke’s business model which she approaches through a triple bottom line. This means her focus is split between people, planet and profit. She believes in tackling food sovereignty in an environmentally friendly way. As such, Growcer not only reduces the fuel burned from transporting food, but their farms use less land and water than conventional agriculture.

“Helping people and the planet through business shouldn’t be seen as just a nice bonus. It should be a best practise of all companies,” says Burke.

In addition to manufacturing farms, Growcer has extended its reach into education, offering a number of courses and workshops on hydroponics. Their farms are also being put to use at elementary schools, colleges and university campuses across the country. Some institutions use them to teach students about hydroponic farming, while others are growing food for their cafeteria or converting their farms into a local food pantry.

A indoor modular farm resembeling a shipping container.
A Growcer indoor modular farm

For Burke, seeing her business come full circle is what inspires her the most.

“It’s amazing to see how our hard work has helped Indigenous, rural and remote communities achieve their food sovereignty goals,” Burke says.

“I’m so grateful to be part of this important work we’re doing here at Growcer.”

Keeping Older Adults Safe on the Road

As people age, natural declines in physical and cognitive function affect our ability to process information and make decisions.This has an impact on everyday activities such as driving. For many mature adults, driving is important because it allows them to run errands, attend events and visit with family or friends. It’s a way to engage with the world and buoy one’s mental health, especially for residents of rural or remote areas where public transit is not available.

Moreover, while modern vehicles increasingly contain autonomous or semi-autonomous driving features that are designed to prevent accidents, this technology can be challenging for older people to adopt.

Carleton cognitive science and psychology professor Chris Herdman, director of the Advanced Cognitive Engineering (ACE) Laboratory on the ground floor of the university’s Visualization and Simulation Building, is developing a unique approach to assess the abilities of older drivers.

Using driving simulators and on-road studies at Ottawa’s Area X.O test track, as well as terabytes of data that today’s cars record, Herdman and his team are gaining a better understanding of how cognitive changes affect driver performance as people age.

A man in a suit with his hands folded over each othter poses for a photo.
Advanced Cognitive Engineering (ACE) Laboratory director Chris Herdman

These findings will ultimately inform the development of fair and accurate measures that older adults, their families and health practitioners can use to determine when a driver should be reassessed and how technology can help keep them safe on the road, supporting their continued independence.

“We all know how hard it is for an elderly driver to have their licence taken away,” says Herdman, who has received funding from the National Research Council Canada’s Aging In Place Challenge program and Canadian Institutes of Health Research for this project after completing related studies in collaboration with Transport Canada.

“It is often very difficult for a person to self-reflect on their own driving abilities. It is equally challenging for a family member to judge whether an elderly relative is having difficulty driving. However, there are new ways to gather information about drivers that can tell us when they’re experiencing difficulties and how their abilities are changing. We want to make sure we can provide relevant and timely feedback to elderly drivers and to their families.”

Reacting to Surprises on the Road

Herdman’s team uses driving simulators to study driving performance, including how people react to challenging or surprising conditions, like a ball rolling across a road or a railway crossing signal suddenly starting to flash.

Test participants have their hands on a steering wheel and look at a simulated streetscape either on wraparound monitors or through a virtual reality headset. The simulator can determine when the driver notices an event and how quickly they take action, while also monitoring their heartrate and tracking eye movements.

Similar experiments are conducted in an instrumented car on the 16-km roadway network at Area X.O.

A from the back view of a person using a driving simulator, with two hands on the wheel.
A driving simulator to study driving performance

Meanwhile, many modern cars also have sensors that collect data when they’re on the move, such as how frequently the lane departure warning mechanism is engaged or how rapidly people accelerate. Shared in accordance with strict ethical standards — and aggregated to protect the privacy of drivers — this information can also be used to help assess and understand behaviour change.

“We can gather this vast array of data from a vehicle and use machine learning to classify drivers into different levels of performance,” explains Herdman.

“This can be shared with an individual’s driver safety team, and if there’s a decline in somebody’s abilities, it could be time for an assessment.”

The Role of Driver Safety Teams

Driver safety teams are a key part of Herdman’s three-year SENSE-MD project. Comprised of the elderly driver, their family and a health practitioner, the team will receive timely and relevant information to help decide whether they are still able to drive safely.

Understanding how seniors engage with autonomous or semi-autonomous driving technologies is another prong of this project. These features could help drivers, but also could confuse them, and people need to be ready to instantly take full control of a vehicle when required.

“As cars are built with more and more of these technologies,” Herdman says, “they need to be designed in a way that ensures all drivers use them safely.”

Herdman’s research group is truly interdisciplinary. It includes faculty and students who are focused on human factors along with others from engineering. They collaborate with aging-in-place advocacy organizations as well as government and industry associations to ensure that their findings enhance community health.

A person looking at the monitors of a driving simulator.

After all, we know that people’s cognitive abilities decline as they age, but these changes are not uniform. A 90-year-old can be just as sharp as a 30-year-old, so gaining an in-depth understanding of individual behavioural change is the key to improved safety and informed policy decisions.