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WIDEN talks kick off with 'On Flow'

UTSC researchers talked about the flow of Internet memes, the flow of the Earth’s mantle, and the flow of scholarly information at the first WIDEN UTSC talk, “On Flow.”

The WIDEN (Workshops for Inter-Disciplinary Exchange & Novelty) events bring together speakers from different academic disciplines to discuss their results. It’s part of a larger effort founded at the St. George campus, with chapters at Ryerson, York, Massey College, and Toronto-wide.

“We feel as the university becomes more and more siloed into different disciplines, it becomes a proactive effort we have to make to know what other people are doing,” says Barry Freeman, assistant professor in theatre and performance studies, who co-founded the series last year with Alen Hadzovic, lecturer in chemistry. “It really fits into the ethos of UTSC in particular, which has a long history of interdisciplinary collaboration.”

Iz Dat Fooood?

Ian Dennis Miller, a graduate student in psychology, examined how Internet “memes” go viral. Although the “Gangnam Style” video and the Internet-fueled Arab Spring have little else in common, both can be viewed as self-replicating “cultural units.”

To get insight into how memes work, Miller created the “Memelab.” He had UTSC undergraduates come in and create memes from words and images – for instance, a fat cat accompanied by the caption “Oh Mah Gawd Iz Dat Fooood?”

Then he asked creators to share the memes with friends. By tracking how often they were downloaded, he could see how memes went viral, and create a simulation that models how memes proliferate on a larger scale. He hopes to improve the simulation and use it to further study how memes work.

“Can pictures of kittens help explain political revolutions?” he asked. “Yeah, I think actually with simulation we really can bridge these.”

Lava Lamps

Keeley O’Farrell, a graduate student in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences, talked about her work modeling the flow of the Earth’s mantle, the part of the Earth between the crust and the solid core, which extends down about 2,900 km.

Convection causes the mantle to flow over time, which drives the slow movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates. Working with her advisor Julian Lowman, associate professor of physics and astrophysics, O’Farrell has used the Canadian SciNet High Performance Computing consortia to run detailed simulations of the movement of the mantle.

The simulations look a bit like the movements of a lava lamp, as portions of the mantle rise slowly to the surface, cool, and sink. The work promises to give us better understanding of how the inside of our planet behaves.

Open access

Leslie Chan, senior lecturer in international studies, talked about the flow of scholarly information. He says that despite the rise of the Internet, scholarly journals are often too expensive for researchers in developing countries to afford them.

One solution is the development of open access journals, such as the Public Library of Science, which make their content available to anyone for free over the Internet, recovering their costs through charges to authors.

Chan himself is a founder of of Bioline International, a collaborative platform for open access distribution of research journals from close to twenty developing countries.

For instance, one African crop scientist researching traditional African crops was turned down by a major international journal because the referees considered the plants she was writing about to be weeds. She later published in an open access journal devoted to African crops.

Despite the disparity of subjects discussed, the researcher agreed they faced many of the same issues, especially in figuring out effective ways to visualize the information they work with.

The next WIDEN session will be called “On Maps.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough