All posts by Drew Smith

Professor Drew Smith is an expert in human motion analysis with nearly 40 years of experience, which includes research and teaching roles in both universities and hospitals. He has worked with, and mentored, colleagues in podiatry, OT, and PT previously as well as having worked with bioengineers, orthopaedic surgeons, physiatrists, nurses, and other disciplines throughout the world.

The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate

In the anno horribilis that is 2020, anyone who says that they haven’t even once questioned their mortality is either lying or is living on the Greek island of Santorini, one of the few places, at least in Europe, without COVID-19. Approaching the midpoint of my seventh decade, I wouldn’t be entirely truthful if I said I haven’t wondered how much longer can I continue to dodge the COVID bullet. It’s a truly frightening prospect, particularly when one considers just how random the effects of this virus are.

Similar to the annual flu season, people with compromised health conditions that are susceptible are clearly at higher risk. However, unlike the flu, the very youngest seem to be much safer. And, now that more testing is happening, it seems that the apparent immunity of people between 20 and 60 may have been a false flag and they are succumbing to the virus. The tragedy of actor Nick Cordero is mind-boggling. He was literally feeling a little under the weather and within a short period of time had lost his leg, was in a coma, and finally succumbed to the disease. One cannot but pause and consider the fragility of life.

We all know that tomorrow is not guaranteed to anyone; in fact, the rest of today may be in question. I can think of a few events in my life where I truly believe I had a brush with death. The more I sense the threats posed by the COVID pandemic, the more I reflect on how these past events could have made my concerns moot.

The first time was almost certainly the closest and without the actions of person unknown to me, I wouldn’t be here today writing this blog. I was about 12 years old. I was born and raised in Newmarket, Ontario and my siblings and I often went to Willow Beach on Lake Simcoe, about 35km from our home. I went with my two sisters. I loved the water but I was a very poor swimmer. I could never get the breathing right and so I tended to do a sort of mix of doggie paddle and breaststroke but where you never put your face in the water. I generally stayed where I could touch the bottom.

Back then, there was a large inflated rubber float – when I say large, at least 8-10 people could sit on this. No one seemed to be in charge of it. I think it just floated around the lake. On this day, it had started off to the left on the west side of the lake and was slowly drifting to the east. I really want to hop on, and luckily, I managed to get to it without having to swim too far beyond the last place I could touch bottom. There were already some people, mostly teenagers, sitting on it. I clambored on and sat facing the shore, feeling rather proud of my self and special because everyone on the beach could see us. The float drifted along to the east and, imperceivable to me, away from the shoreline.

The reason why I was not aware of the direction of the float was that my attention was drawn to some teenaged girls on the float, and one very pretty girl in particular. They were probably about 15 or 16 years old. I was trying to be Mr Cool and act like I wasn’t eavesdropping on their conversation or trying to get a good look at her. After a while, most of the other kids on the float had one by one jumped in the water and headed for shore. Soon, it was just me and the girls and I became aware that not only were we quite a bit further to the east but had drifted twice as far away from the shore as when I climbed aboard. I realised that getting back would be a challenge for me, so, reluctantly, I eased myself over the edge of the float and tried to calmly breaststroke/paddle myself back to where my sisters were waiting for me.

As I swam, I kept reaching down with my feet to see if I could touch bottom. I was getting tired but soldiered on. Just as a little panic began to set in, I felt the calming, reassurance of the sandy lake bottom, and I was able to stand, catch my breath, and rest my aching muscles. Walking towards the shore, I felt the bottom sharply drop and I was back into deeper water. Ready or not, I reestablished by hybrid swimming stroke, hoping that the next sandbar was not too far. But, I wasn’t fully recovered from my last effort and found myself in even more trouble than before. My panic level quickly went from concern to worry and on to ‘holy sh*t’ very quickly. My arms and legs were like lead and I felt myself getting lower and lower into the water. I’d draw on a burst of energy to get my nose and mouth above the water for a quick draw of air before being pulled back under, I was no longer doing anything resembling a swimming stroke. When I went under this time, I knew that I would not have the strength to come back up. In that moment, I did not form the thought that I am going to die, but, upon reflection, I was drowning, alone and unnoticed.

Suddenly, I felt someone grab me. To this day, I cannot remember exactly how or where; probably under my arms or maybe around my waist. Nevertheless, I was being pulled up and forward. Coughing and sputtering, my lungs filled with air and hope returned to me. Next thing I knew, I was standing on a sandbar and could finally see who my saviour was: the pretty teenaged girl from the float. Her two friends were standing to the side of her. “Are you OK?”, she asked me. “Yeah, sure, thanks”, I said, feeling a bit embarrassed realizing that the sandbar we were standing on was probably only a couple meters from where I was floundering. Off they went; I never asked her name or ever saw her again. When I got back to the shore and walked back to where my two sisters were, I never said a word to them.

Fast forward about 7 years or so, and I am in the final year of my undergraduate studies at McMaster University in Hamilton. I was in a Physical Education program and it was 1975. The drinking age in Ontario had bounced around a bit in the 1970s. For the longest time, it was 21 but in 1971, when I was 16, it was lowered to 18. I looked like I was at least 18, so drinking in bars was no problem for me, especially in the days of ID without photos. But, since I didn’t have much money, mostly I went with my brothers who often footed the bill. By 1979, the underage drinking problem was clear and the government raised the age by just one year, to 19.

But, in 1975, the issue for us wasn’t underage drinking but driving under the influence (DUI). I didn’t have a car, so this didn’t affect me directly, but already three classmates had lost their licences. On this particular night, probably a Thursday because that’s when the Phys Ed kids went out to the pub on campus, we had been having a great night. Lots of pitchers of cheap beer, shouting at each other over the booming music, and trying to be noticed by the girls in the pub. There were probably seven or eight of us when the pub closed. I remember getting into the front seat of a car but where we were headed, I can’t remember. Probably to get something to eat but we were heading towards downtown Hamilton, so it wasn’t to the local Harvey’s or Mother’s Pizza in Westdale.

Hamilton has two main roads that are one way, Main Street that heads towards downtown and King Street heading from downtown westward to McMaster. We were on Main Street, music blasting, at least two separate conversations going at the same time. The driver, a friend whose name I can no longer recall, and who would be spending the rest of the night in the police station, was driving faster and faster, trying to catch all the green lights. It became a contest with us egging him on. “Go, go, go”, we shout as one by one the streets sped by. I remember thinking that he might just get all the way downtown without stopping. As we approached our 4th or 5th light, I think it may have been Queen Street, the light changed to amber. At the speed we were travelling, our driver had to make a split-second decision to either speed up to clear the intersection or screech to a halt. I can’t recall if he momentarily considered stopping or not, but into the intersection we went, still high on the rush of what we were doing.

They say that when you are in a life-threatening situation, time slows down and your life flashes before you. Just as I didn’t quite realize that I was drowning in that lake, I did not have time to evaluate the threat of the next couple of seconds. But, very briefly, time did seem to slow down. I saw the light go from green to amber to red. To my left, beyond our driver, I saw the blur in my peripheral vision of the other car moving along Queen Street and entering the intersection at speed. And then, nothing.

When I say, ‘nothing’ I mean, in what to me was a continuous flow of time, in the very next instant, I was in my seat in the front of the car but the car had stopped moving. It was sitting on the front lawn of the house at the corner of Main and Queen. I felt no pain or anything and, when I got out of the car, I saw a police car and an ambulance. Suddenly, I was no longer drunk. Clearly, there had been an accident here but it had still not registered with me that the car I had been in was involved. I had heard nothing, felt nothing, but I had definitely lost more than five minutes of my life. I cannot recall if our car was badly damaged or not. I stood with the other guys who were in the back seat (were there two or three, I can’t recall). We were talking about what just happened and I didn’t mention to them that I couldn’t recall anything. I had no injury, no bumps on my head or anything. Did I faint? I just don’t know. The driver was being arrested and someone from the other car was being taken away in the ambulance. We asked the cops if we should go to the police station with our friend and they said not to bother. He was being charged and would not be going anywhere until he was bailed out. I lived not too far away and so I just walked home. I have never been able to piece together what happened and how we all survived.

In the early 1980s, I was a graduate student at the University of Windsor in Southwestern Ontario. Windsor has the distinction for Canadians as being one of the few places where we travel north to enter the continental USA since Detroit is actually north of Windsor – remember that for some trivia contest. We often went to Detroit in spite of its less than desirable reputation for safety. In the biomechanics lab, we used 16mm film and it was just cheaper and quicker to have the film developed in Detroit. I bought my very first pair of contact lenses from an OPSM optical store there. Also, if you wanted great Greek or Mexican food, you’d go to Greek Town or Mexican Village, respectively. My graduate supervisor turned me on to a fantastic square Detroit-style pizza in a neighbourhood that you likely wouldn’t go to after dark. But, it was amazing!

I lived near the tunnel to the USA that exited at the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit. From this point, the major roads of Detroit peeled off like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Sometimes, for something to do, I’d take a drive out Jefferson Avenue, which runs northeast from the tunnel exit. A few kilometers out is Grosse Point, a pretty ritzy neighbourhood and good for a “sticky beak”, as some say in Australia (it’s rhyming slang for “peek”).

On this particular day, it was bright and sunny, a warm but not hot day. The road was three lanes wide and as I approached a light just turning red, I was in the middle lane, with two cars ahead of me. It has always been my habit to regularly check my rearview mirror, even when I am stopped at a light. As I looked up, I noticed a taxi approaching the light in my lane. Taxis in the 1980s were big sedans with V8 engines. It was pretty clear that it was moving pretty quickly so I kept my eyes on my mirror. “This guy’s not slowing down,” I thought to myself. It became quite apparent that there was no way the driver could stop without hitting me. I had a split-second to decide what to do.

Fortunately, the lane to my left only had one car in it, so there was room for me to shift over. Within a second or so of me leaving my lane, the taxi, which had still not applied its brakes, slammed into the car that was in front of the spot I had just left. That car then smashed into the front car, pushing it into the T-intersection. Luckily, no cars were moving through the intersection otherwise a three-car accident could have been much worse. There is no doubt that, had I remained where I was in my small, Japanese compact car, I would have resembled an accordion. My injuries would have been devastating, I believe.

The taxi driver wasn’t injured and she immediately got out of her car. She was extremely agitated and possibly in shock from the accident. I stuck around to check on her and stayed to give my account to the police when they arrived. The taxi driver had been robbed somewhere back on Jefferson and the thief took off on a bicycle, according to the driver. She said she was trying to catch him but he must have gone through the intersection while the light was red. She only had her eyes on him as she roared towards the intersection. I can’t recall seeing anyone on a bicycle but my attention was focused on what I saw heading my way in my mirror, so the cyclist could have easily escaped my attention. I felt very bad for the taxi driver. The last thing I remember was her sitting on the curb, her head in her hands, and a Detroit cop putting his hand on her shoulder.

Of course, there may have been other times when fate just missed me. In high school, I remember being chased by someone onto a busy street in Newmarket where a driver had to lay on the horn and screech to a stop to avoid hitting me. Or, the time in Nadi, Fiji, my very first time being anywhere in the world where people drive on the left-hand side of the road, when, looking the wrong way, I stepped off the curb and almost stepped into oblivion: a taxi driver missing me by a couple of centimetres.

People like to think that ‘things happen for a reason’ and might look at my brushes with death as proof that I am supposed to be sitting in my kitchen right now, working from home during a global pandemic, and typing these words. Or, that I was meant to meet my wife and together we had to have our four children to fulfill some sort of destiny.

Truthfully, I am quite sure that there is no evidence of any of that. I am here because of luck and random interactions of a million things, even the flutter of a butterfly’s wings halfway around the world, perhaps. I try to plan for my future as best I can but I know, to paraphrase the old saying, “We plan, God laughs”. I happily accept each day that I am given and hope I can extend my time here by at least one more day each night as I drift off to sleep.

Going Forward, Looking Back

I was watching a very entertaining television hosted by Padma Lakshmi on Hulu called, “Taste the Nation” today. It’s the kind of show we really love since, as globetrotting folks, it gives us a chance to experience in a small way other places and cultures we have not, as yet, had the good fortune to experience. And, we love food and food culture.

One of the things Padma spoke of during the episode on Indian food was the difficulty she has in getting her daughter to really appreciate her Indian food and culture. I can certainly sympathize with this notion with respect to our four children. Not only was our eldest born outside Canada, but they all spent their childhood years outside Canada. So, the connection that I have to my roots was difficult to pass on to them. I knew they would come back to Canada so this did not concern me overly. They would be immersed in Canadian culture. Today, three live in Toronto and our youngest is in Montréal.

What actually concerned me more was that our kids would not be close to their Chinese language and culture. My education in Chinese cooking, language, and culture started almost immediately after I met the beautiful, young Chinese lady who is now my wife and the mother of our children. I took Chinese language lessons, listened to cassettes, and eavesdropped on conversations in Cantonese. I bought Chinese cookbooks and watched Asian cooking shows. My wife is a second-generation Chinese-Canadian and her own understanding of her language and culture was already diluted by her immersion into Canadian culture. When our first child was a baby, I encouraged my wife to speak her dialect with our daughter. Even I tried to add my limited knowledge to the mix. As a result, our daughter only knew ‘milk’ as “nei nei”, loved singing along to tapes in the car of the music of a popular Taiwanese singer, and would arrive at her grandparent’s home each weekday, calling out to them in a mix of English and Toisan dialect, “Gung Gung, Pwa Pwa, Shuet Mai here!”, meaning “Grandfather, Grandmother, Snow Beauty (her Chinese name) here!” It was both touching and gratifying to hear her do this.

As our family grew, it became impossible to keep up with our quasi-bilingual education and English quickly took over. But, our children grew up eating Chinese food cooked, ironically, by a white man whose roots in Canada go back at least six generations to Acadia and New France. Their comfort foods include chow mein, various stir-fried dishes, Chinese hot pot, gwun chow ngow haw, char siu, and yum cha. They also loved the Thai curries and Japanese dishes I learned to cook.

We lived in Hong Kong twice which I thought would reinforce Chinese culture for our kids. The first time was when the age ranges were 1 to 8 years and we stayed for 3 years. ly was good but the kids were a bit too young ly influence them. The 3 older ones were in English International schools so it wasn’t a true immersive experience. When we left, I thought that was the end of the best chance for our kids to be authentic Chinese. But, after living in the U.K. and New Zealand, we went back to Hong Kong almost 10 years after we left, staying for nearly 7 years. Our eldest was finishing high school and going on to university in, first, New Zealand and then Toronto, so this time Hong Kong for her was a place to visit and shop. But, for the other three children, Hong Kong became an essential part of the development of their individual, unique personalities and memories. Many of the important ’firsts’ in their rites of passage from childhood to adulthood occurred during these years. None of them managed to become bilingual but they do understand some. What was the most gratifying to me is that today they identify as Chinese. They are proud of both their Canadian and Chinese heritage. And, given the family histories of our culturally diverse family, I guess this has to be considered a success.

Reflection Inception: Reflecting on Reflection

The thing about being overly self-conscious, as I have been all my life, is that it makes one truly reflective. I may make it seem that I can deliver remarks ‘off the cuff’ or unscripted but, in truth, if I know I’m being called upon to speak, I spend an inordinate amount of energy on planning what to say. In fact, I am probably a life-long runner partially because it gives me uninterrupted time to think, to plan, to review, to reflect.

Self-reflection is something I would highly recommend for everyone. It may not come easily but, with practice, it can become automatic. The benefits are obvious but the downside is it plays havoc with one’s self-confidence, especially when the reflection reveals one’s flaws and shortcomings.

In hindsight, though, the depth of my self-reflections has been rather shallow and my focus has tended to be quite self-serving. I realize that I was not always motivated to be reflective necessarily to improve myself or even to contribute to the greater good of my part of society at large. Rather, my central focus has often been to avoid being embarrassed or the focus of ridicule. To me, the worst thing that could happen would be to be laughed at when I was not trying to be funny. It is probably why I have always tried to be the source of humour to avoid being the target.

The events of 2020 thus far have caused many of us to reflect on several very crucial issues including our mortality in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic and our privilege, or lack thereof, in the case of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor by police. In early March, when the stay home order came from the Governor of California, I noticed that I was feeling the physiological symptoms of anxiety that I had encountered a few times before in my life at times of high stress. At the time, I was not aware of anything that could have been the source. Upon reflection, I have concluded that it was the news of the pandemic and that I was in one of the target groups since I am in my mid-sixties. I learned long ago that, for me, dealing with emotional stress is best countered with physical stress: I made of point of running every other day. This has always been very therapeutic for me and it seems to have worked. I practice social distancing, staying home except for my runs and a bi-weekly grocery shopping outings.

But no amount of physical activity can possibly counteract the devastatingly stressful effects of the deaths of Floyd, Arbery, and Taylor on me. They are the latest in an uncountable number of African Americans who have suffered humiliation, indignities, physical violence, and even death for no reason but they were black over the past 400 years. As a scientist, I know that the entire concept of ‘race’ is based on the worst sort of pseudoscience. And, although race has no basis in genetic science, it does exist in a far more influential realm: public perception. Governments have institutionalized race with people regularly asked to declare their race, which we do without giving it another thought. I have done it in the past but, from now on, I refuse to participate in any overt act that perpetuates the myth of race.

Like many white people, I believed that I was not a racist. After all, I married someone who is of Chinese descent: surely that was proof, wasn’t it? But being overtly racist is just one part of race relations. A person who expresses overt and unequivocal racist behaviour is just the tip of the iceberg thanks to how racism is baked into almost every aspect of life. Racism is something we learn growing up and is part of many of our institutions and laws, and the policies and procedures of our industries. At least the blatantly white supremacist makes it very clear where they stand and people of colour know what to expect. But, it’s the smarmy, sometimes passive-aggressive, behaviour of white people who skirt along the boundary of racism who are a more insidious threat to people of colour. With a nod and a wink, or the roll of the eyes, white people can communicate their racist thoughts to other whites when dealing with a black or brown person. The meaning is usually clear.

As a result of the events of May and June 2020, I have been reflecting, deeply, on the privilege afforded me by the fact I was born with white skin. I admit that I have no understanding of what it must be like to be a person of colour. But, I can say that, by listening more closely and openly to those affected by white privilege and racism, my understanding of privilege has become more sharply focussed. In the not so distant past, I would have rejected, at least in part, the notion that I was especially privileged. My family wasn’t rich by any means. There were eight of us, including my grandmother, and both my parents had to work. Yes, I was extremely ‘lucky’ in my life to have been able to go to good schools and get not one, but four university degrees. I was ‘lucky’ to have been hired at some excellent universities, including the University of Toronto, the University of Auckland, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and the University of Brighton. But, I know now that I had serious advantages over others: I am white and a male and a native English-speaker who comes from a country that has a complicated history with race and language. I grew up in a predominantly white community of Newmarket, Ontario which once belonged to the Anishinabek Nation, although we never gave a thought to those original owners of our land. People of colour were rarely seen and mostly worked in some sort of service industry, e.g., nurses and restaurant workers. My parents and my church taught me to be kind and treat people as I wanted to be treated. But, I knew nothing about people who looked different from me. More importantly, I did nothing to try to understand what their lives were like.

To black and brown people I know or encounter, I want to say that I am listening to you in ways that I have never listened before. I will no longer say that I do not see colour when I see you: I will celebrate all that you are – your uniqueness and the ways your culture enhances the overall culture of our entire society. I promise to call out racism wherever I encounter it – I will not passively sit back and ignore it when I see or hear it. I will not be afraid to talk about issues of race and racism with my family and other white people, even if it makes them uncomfortable. I will address my own biases, conscious or unconscious. I pledge to do better and to encourage everyone I meet to do the same.

The Beginning

Everything has a beginning.  Even the universe apparently.  According to the Big Bang Theory, the entire universe began as a singularity – a perfectly ordered, infinitely small entity that suddenly, and inexplicably, exploded in what is known as the ‘big bang’.  It was the start of everything since even time did not exist before this.  And it has all gone to shit ever since, at least from the perspective of order anyway. The universe, over the past nearly 14 billion years, has been changing, evolving, from order to chaos.  At some point in the future, probably 4.5 billion years from now, our local star – the sun – will expand as a red giant, engulfing the inner planets, including our home, burning everything to a crisp before collapsing in on itself, and becoming a white dwarf.  This will happen to most of the stars, except the large ones, which will become supernovae.  Ultimately, maybe a trillion years from now or more, all the stars of the universe will eventually die – at some point in time the light from the final star will dim and go out, and our universe will be a vast, cold place, devoid of all life, all energy.  Time will once again cease to exist since there will be no way to measure it.

The metric expansion of space. The inflationar...
The metric expansion of space. The inflationary epoch is the expansion of the metric tensor at left. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And what about humans?  Will we have left any mark whatsoever on the universe?  We’d like to think that we would, but frankly, that is highly unlikely.  So, what can we make of all this.  I guess it really comes down to one of two things: either we can be overwhelmed by the utter insignificance of our existence in the here and now and give up; or we can look inward to find the meaning of our existence.  Our lives should be about maximizing our potential.  Whatever we do, we should do it with purpose, with ‘gusto’.  Why not?  We have nothing to lose.  It may be cliché, but living each day/moment like it’s your last may not be such a bad way to live.  Best case scenario: we actually improve ourselves and can view our short time in this existence with a sense of pride and accomplishment.  We may even have been a beacon to our fellow humans, serving as an example of the best of humanity.  Worse case scenario: we’ve wasted our time and energy while our tiny planet, on the outer arm of an average galaxy, one of billions of galaxies, has continued its insignificant journey during a tiny blip in the life of our universe.

There’s science and then there’s science

Not that long ago, I would have described myself as a ‘climate change agnostic’.    I say agnostic because, quite frankly, I honestly didn’t know what I believed.  I certainly do not have the academic background to objectively critique the scientific evidence and I remember too well the “Y2K Bug” scare of 15-years ago; about how airplanes would drop out to the sky on 01/01/2000, trains would grind to a halt and our civilisation as we know it would fall apart.  Everyone was convinced that the threat was truly real, scientists included.

Screenshot of Windows 2000 Server
Screenshot of Windows 2000 Server (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s face it, it’s the times that science, i.e., scientists, got it wrong that are always remembered.  We take for granted the millions of times they got it right.  So, when the conversation about climate change went from a whisper to a dull roar, and the science was not being clearly articulated, people became confused.  I mean, how can anyone predict climate change several years or decades down the line when the weather next week is a crap shoot?

Al Roker at the 81st Academy Awards
Al Roker at the 81st Academy Awards (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve done a lot of reading and now am certain of two truths:  1) our climate is changing more rapidly than anytime in our recorded history and probably at anytime in the 4.5 billion year history of this planet; and 2) I have no doubt whatsoever that humans are the cause; specifically our burning of fossil fuels.  But, if you had any smidgen of doubt of these two facts, you should watch the episode of “Cosmos a Spacetime Odyssey ” that aired on Sunday, June 1, 2014.  Neil Degrasse Tyson presented the main evidence, and debunked other alternate anti-climate change arguments, in a clear and easily-understood presentation.  And, he showed how ‘climate’ differs from ‘weather’, explaining how the former is completely predictable while the latter is virtually unpredictable.

Neil deGrasse Tyson 12
Neil deGrasse Tyson 12 (Photo credit: Greyhawk68)

So, if climate change is not only real and happening now as you read this, why is it that out of all the possible scientific facts that we currently know that could be the subject of trumped-up controversies, e.g., is gravity real or does the earth suck?, why have the climate change deniers chosen to focus on this scientific fact?  The simple answer is: nobody makes any money from denying gravity exists, or from creationism, or most other wacky, new age ideas.  But a relatively small, but powerful, group of people make a boatload of money from extracting fossil fuels from the earth and selling these to a public who is convinced there is no other way to fuel our energy extravagant lives.  This in spite of the fact that we are bathed in the obvious alternative up to 15-hours a day: sunlight.  We’ve known we can replace fossil fuels with solar energy for over 100 years, yet the efforts to move forward have been small and piecemeal.   The sun also drives the wind and that is another benefit of solar energy.  Both solar and wind energy are *free* and there is literally an endless supply, at least as far as humans are concerned.  There is no doubt they will outlast our species but if we do not make significant changes in how we source the energy we need, we won’t be around nearly as long as we think.

Global mean surface temperature difference fro...
Global mean surface temperature difference from the average for 1880–2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Allow me to present myself!

Regardless of what comprises an academic’s workload, there is never a shortage of opportunities to stand in front of a group of people and pontificate on subjects near and dear to the speaker’s heart.  Didactic lecturing is one such example, but, unless this is a particularly prestigious and high-profile lecture (or possibly part of a job interview), this sort of activity seldom causes most academics to even break a sweat.

Dr. Charles Chamberlain gives keynote address ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Presenting a research paper, delivering a keynote address, now these are things that can strike terror into the hearts of even the most seasoned educators and researchers.  I can think of two particular events in my past that have probably helped to form the presenter I have become.

The first event occurred in the initial month of my PhD studies at the University of Waterloo.   I had completed my Master’s degree at the University of Windsor just three or four months prior to this and had had an abstract from my thesis accepted for presentation at the Canadian Society for Biomechanics annual conference in Kingston, ON.  I had my slides made up before I left Windsor, this being back in the days before PowerPoint when presenters had physical slides and used carousel projectors.  I also had dutifully used index cards to carefully map out my 12-min of fame – one card per slide.  In the quiet of my home, the talk went perfectly, ending precisely at the 12-min mark, leaving 3-min for questions.  And, I had a couple extra cards to handle any tough questions.  I was ready!

My talk was the first one after the morning coffee break, but I was too nervous to consider holding a coffee cup, so I stood to the side, re-visiting my index cards.  I went into the lecture room early, to make sure all was ready for my talk, when the first of two ‘hiccups’ happened.  As it turned out, the moderator for my session was a well-known author and researcher, and one of two researchers’ work that I was criticizing in my presentation – in fact, part of the rationale for my study was the fact that she had got it wrong in one of her previously published papers.  Now, this was unexpected!

The second ‘hiccup’ was that I discovered through this talk that it is one thing to sit quietly in your home rehearsing a 12-min, 10-slide presentation all alone; and it is an entirely different thing to give the same talk in a room of strangers, i.e., well-informed strangers, including someone to whom you had planned on giving some stern criticism.

Bill Gates enthralling the audience with his t...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, off I went.  Blah, blah, blah.  Click.  Blah, blah, blah. Click.  And so on.  Finally, I finished with a “And I’d be happy to answer any questions”, followed by polite, if muted, applause.  Then complete silence.  To her credit, the moderator asked a fairly easy question, ignoring completely the negative things I had just said about her research.  After giving my answer, she said the words that still echo in my head:  “Well, since we still have 10-minutes until the next speaker, I imagine there is still some coffee left out in the hallway if anyone would like to have some.  Please be back here at 11:15.”

All my planning, all my rehearsing, and it came down to this:  a 12-min talk delivered in 4-minutes by an obvious amateur.   Needless to say, I took advantage of the opportunity to get some coffee, only I did not return to this room, opting for whatever was happening in the other lecture room.  The rest of the conference was a complete blur – no, less than a blur – it’s a blank place in my memory.  I don’t even remember how I got back to Waterloo.  Not my finest hour.

And it has affected my preparation for every single lecture or talk I have given ever since in that I never rehearse.  Of course, as I create my slides, I am thinking about what I will say for each slide, but once I have the number of slides I deem necessary (about 1 slide per 2-min of the talk plus a title and any references and/or acknowledgements), I never attempt any practice versions.   When I attended my first international conference in Sweden in the second last year of my PhD, and my fellow PhD students heard I wouldn’t be rehearsing, I suspect they all came to watch, not out of solidarity or to give support, but to watch me fall flat on my face.  They would leave disappointed, as I gave a flawless talk that ended precisely on time.  And, this time, I was asked several good questions that I handled expertly.

Audience during my Wikimania talk
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second event that I remember that has affected my approach to presentations occurred in between the two talks I mentioned previously.  The University of Waterloo hosted an international conference (in fact, the same society as the one to later happen in Sweden), and we graduate students here only too happy to be pressed into service as session aides, assisting the moderators with timing the talks, helping speakers with the lapel microphones, and so forth.  I worked a few sessions and was thrilled to be close to researchers that I had only read about or whose work we had studied.  Being at the front of the auditorium, so close to the speakers, I could not help but notice just how nervous many of these people seemed to be.  I could see hands shaking, sweat on the brow of some, and even witnessed first hand how a seemingly simple thing as a laser pointer absolutely confused people who probably had IQs in the stratosphere.  And, I remember thinking to myself, if someone like Professor Emeritus Joe Schmo can get this nervous, who am I to worry about any little gaffs or mistakes that I might make?

So, you may ask, do I get nervous now, some 30-years later, when I give talks?  Darn right I do?  Do I still refuse to rehearse?  Yup, guilty as charged.  So what’s my secret?  Well, one thing I DON’T do is imagine my audience naked (shudder)!  I just remind myself that what I have to say is important, perhaps only to me, but important nevertheless.  And even if most of them are there because the next speaker is going to be really interesting, I know that once I get past the first sentence or two, everything will calm down inside my head, my heart will stop beating so hard, I’ll find two or three faces in the audience who seem to be listening to me, and I will tell them my story.

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How relevant is my research?

Suzzallo Library, one of the great libraries o...
Suzzallo Library,  Seattle, Washington, USA (Photo credit: Wonderlane)

In 2006, it was estimated by Bjork et al. that there were about 1.35 million papers published in a little over 23,000 peer-reviewed journals.    Given historical growth rates of about 2.5% per annum, we can surmise that this year, 2014, there will be just over 1.6 million papers published via peer review.

This raises several very interesting (and potentially disturbing) questions:

  • What is the quality of such a large number of papers being published (that’s one paper submitted every 20 s, assuming all manuscripts are published)?
  • How well are peer reviewers able to adequately review these submissions?
  • And perhaps most importantly, how can I be heard above the ‘din’ of other researchers trying to be heard?

Photo credit: Paul Appleton)

Of course, there will not be 1.6 million articles published in your discipline in 2014, so the chances of you being heard are considerably better.  But perhaps the larger question this raises is this: just how relevant are my research questions?

The answer to this may include several different considerations.  First, to what extent are your efforts in research self-motivated, i.e., are you primarily driven by your thirst for knowledge? Or, will your contract, or bid for tenure, be ultimately affected by the quantity, and quality of course, of this year’s research output?

Second, assuming that your motivations are intrinsically noble and not self-serving, you have to determine how ‘important’ are your research questions, i.e., has someone else already answered some (all) of them?  Are they, in reality, self-evident?  Back in the 1960s, when sports biomechanics research was well and truly in its infancy, it was possible to publish research on running that concluded that one’s running speed was a function of both increasing stride length and increasing stride frequency – hardly earth-shaking by today’s standards (the equivalent of the academic ‘duh’).

Concert Crowd (Osheaga 2009) - 30000 waiting f...
(Photo credit: Anirudh Koul)

Finally, while there will be probably several hundred thousand researchers publishing their findings in 2014, I believe that many of these publications will be, at best, one paper in perhaps a series of two or three papers within the same theme, with many being the only paper from the lead author in that particular topic area.   One of the best ways to truly have an impact and stand a little above the crowd in whatever discipline you may be in is to develop a program of research, rather than just a series of research projects loosely falling under a theme.  For me personally, although my current position, like most of my previous ones, places expectations on me that I will participate, encourage, support, etc. research across a wide range of topics and disciplines, I have been developing a theme to my research.  This program began, to a certain back in my doctorate at the University of Waterloo, under the late Professor David Winter, where I started learning about gait and gait analysis.  It was enhanced, in the mid-1990s, again under the influence of Prof. Winter, with explorations into balance and posture.  Today, I would describe my research program as a study of the mechanisms and effects on the sensory-motor coordination of the human dynamic stability system during movement where the human can be modelled as an inverted pendulum.  This system can be tested under a wide range of conditions, including sit-to-stand, quiet standing, walking, running, stair-climbing, and similar activities.  Admittedly, this is quite a broad theme, but it does have well-defined boundaries.  It has wide implications for inter- and multi-disciplinary collaborations, and findings would be of interest to multiple journals.

Balancing Rocks
Balancing Rocks (Photo credit: Viewminder)

Ultimately, I suppose, the answer to my question, how relevant is my research?, is not something I can answer.  Any answer I give will be at best biased and at worst self-deprecating.  Time will tell whether I will be remembered for anything I may have published or presented.  But, I know that when I leave academia, I will be able to look back and take pride in what I have done in research.  And, maybe that is all any of us can hope for!

Bo-Christer Björk, Annikki Roos, Mari Lauri.  2008.  Global annual volume of peer-reviewed scholarly articles and the share available via different Open Access options.

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Researcher, Administrator, Teacher … or What?

Blogs are typically quite personal things and since this blog is about me, it seems appropriate to address the question that most, if not all, academics face: what exactly am I in the academic world?  A quite common model for an academic will include three main duties – in fact, I remember quite early in my career someone likening their careers to a three-legged stool – the legs being ‘research’, ‘teaching’, and ‘service’.  In fact, this may have been somewhat prophetic since a three-legged stool is rather unstable and standing on one can leave one in quite a precarious position.

In some cases, the roles of an academic are quite prescribed: e.g., 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service.  Others may let one decide the precise breakdown, with minimums in each category.  Regardless, there are some significant implications with however the breakdown is decided from several perspectives, including human resource management, employee retention and morale on the management side, to career advancement, promotion, and tenure on the employee side.

We like to think that the 40:40:20 model is a good approximation of what an academic does because is does not seem to burden one with too much work not related to what universities are supposed to do primarily, i.e., generate new knowledge and train/educate subsequent generations – at 20%, service/admin work is about one day per week.  And, it gives at least lip service to the idea that research and teaching are seen as being equally important to the university, even if that is seldom true when promotions and sometimes tenure are awarded.

In some places in the world, and my experiences in Asia clearly suggest this is one place, (although, no doubt, there are others) one cannot help but wonder if the concepts of ‘equal workload’ and ‘identical workload’ are not seen as being exactly the same things.  In the context of an academic’s workload, this can be seen in the way directors and heads of department try to make sure that everyone has about the same teaching loads and that the expectations for service/admin and research are also about equal.  This would be fine if the training, talents, and ambitions of academics were also more or less identical.  And here is the rub: not all academics are interested in teaching and research in the same way.  Like any skill that is both innate and learned, teaching and research are skills that are not distributed equally in all academics.  We have all had experiences with academics from all parts of the excellent-to-poor spectrum when it comes to either teaching or research.

Outside of category 1 research institutions, most academics have to juggle relatively heavy loads that include teaching, research, and service.  Add to the mix of being in a tenure track, and the pressure to achieve much in a fairly short time means academics have to ‘hit the ground running’, even though very few graduate programs include any sort of career management training.  Those for whom teaching is a real joy – time-consuming but very rewarding –  making time for research tends to be a real challenge.  Students love them and reward them with high feedback scores.  Others catch the research ‘bug’ during their doctorates and love the challenge of trying to answer the next question.  They power through their teaching time, perhaps investing just enough time in preparing lectures to get by, chomping at the bit to get back into the lab or into the field collecting data.

The question raised is: why shouldn’t an academic choose their ‘speciality’ between research and teaching?  If academia was a private company, you can bet a smart CEO would exploit the talents of his or her staff in such as way as to ensure maximum output.  ‘Equal workload’ should allow for some academics to be more heavily involved in one of the two main legs of the stool, research or teaching, while contributing to the overall mission of the institution.  Those who love to teach and feel ‘forced’ into getting involved in research to satisfy departmental requirements would be able to invest more time in what they love if most of the research requirement was removed.  Similarly, a productive researcher, who begrudgingly spends time lecturing – often not particularly well – would be even more productive in research if most of his or her teaching duties were reassigned to those who love to teach.  In the end, each of the legs of the academic stool would be stronger, more stable, and academics would find fewer reasons to look for greener pastures, ensuring good morale and stability in academic departments.