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U of T scholar giving ‘voice’ to marginalized communities among 30 researchers sharing $7.3 million in federal funding

To reach marginalized communities, Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed and his team go out into the field and talk to people to understand their cultures, practices, history and politics – “only then you can design an application that can help them,” he said

The cacophony of voices on social media may be deafening but to U of T researcher Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed, the voices of the silent, the marginalized and the fearful are worthy of new platforms designed to meet their needs.

The assistant professor in computer science is one of 30 scholars who are sharing $7.3 million in federal funding announced Wednesday through the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund.

The money will fund new state-of-the-art equipment, new collaborations and research space.

For Christina Starmans, assistant professor of psychology (pictured left), this means getting a new lab up and running where children and families can meet with her research team as she probes how we come to understand the “self.”

“The University of Toronto congratulates our researchers – many of them recent recruits to our campuses,” said Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president of research and innovation.

“The continuing support from the Government of Canada and the Canada Foundation for Innovation enables us to attract and retain top global scholars like today’s recipients and push towards breakthroughs across an incredible breadth and depth of research areas.”

Originally from Bangladesh, Ahmed arrived at U of T last September, bringing with him his Computing for Voice research project, which fuses computer science and ethnography together to create new technology that enables marginalized people to share their experiences and opinions.

For example, “there are millions of refugees around the world now who keep silent online out of fear,” he said. “Millions of factory workers do not talk about the oppression they experience because they fear they might lose their job.

“In many countries, people cannot freely criticize government decisions. That’s why the data we get over digital platforms are mostly shaped by the powerful entities in our society.”

To reach these communities, he and his team go out into the field and talk to people to understanding their cultures, practices, history and politics – “only then you can design an application that can help them,” said Ahmed.

This has led to the creation of a mobile phone app called Protibadi that enabled women in Bangladesh to combat sexual harassment anonymously. He’s also working with graduate student Dina Sabie on new software tailored for Syrian refugees in Ontario.

Working with Tovi Grossman, who will join U of T's computer science department as an assistant professor this summer, Ahmed will use the federal funding to buy new equipment for a Collaborative Mobile Interaction Workshop that will reduce the need for on-the-ground interactions for people involved in complex projects like building a house.

Instead, drones, robots and humans will work together, requiring a new collaborative way of communicating that is based on the same principles of voice – the technical means of expressing thoughts and listening. 

In addition to Ahmed, other U of T researchers receiving funding through the John R. Evans Leaders Fund are:

  • Syed Ishtiaque Ahmed of the department of computer science for “Collaborative mobile interaction workshop.”
  • Faezeh Azhari of the department of mechanical and industrial engineering for “Materials characterization system for developing and testing self-sensing cementitious composites.”
  • Robert Chen of the department of medicine and the University Health Network for “Enabling biomarker identification and treatment optimization for prevalent neurological disorders.”
  • Kim Connelly of the department of medicine and St. Michael’s Hospital for “Cell therapy for organ repair, restore, regenerate and support (COR3S).”
  • Laura Corbit of the department of psychology for “Neural control of reward seeking and behavioural control.”
  • Shelley Craig of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work for “Facilitating the resilience of sexual and gender minority youth: An infrastructure to leverage research and technology.”
  • Christine Démoré of the department of medical biophysics and the Sunnybrook Research Institute for “Microultrasound for diagnosis and image-guided intervention.”
  • Barbara Fallon of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work for “Tracking trajectories for vulnerable children: Using data to understand outcomes.”
  • Jason Fish of the department of laboratory medicine & pathobiology and the University Health Network for “Novel mechanisms of heart failure: Discovery to translation.”
  • Cynthia Guidos of the department of immunology and SickKids for “High dimensional single cell immuno-analytic platforms for deciphering immune complexity in health and disease.”
  • Christina Guzzo of the department of biological sciences, U of T Scarborough for “A viral pathogenesis laboratory for the study of HIV disease and host immunity.”
  • Baohua Liu of the department of biology, U of T Mississauga for “Synaptic, cellular and circuit mechanisms underlying the cortical control of the optokinetic reflex.”
  • Sonya MacParland of the departments of laboratory medicine & pathobiology and Immunology, as well as the University Health Network for “Improving outcomes for organ transplantation: A live imaging platform to target immunologic and fibrotic events.”
  • Massieh Moayedi of the Faculty of Dentistry for “The Centre for Multimodal Sensorimotor and Pain Research.”
  • Monika Molnar of the department of speech-language pathology for “Neural and physiological correlates of bilingual development across the life span.”
  • Faiyaz Notta of the department of medical biophysics and the University Health Network for “Cellular and molecular mechanisms underpinning the initiation, progression and metastasis of pancreatic cancer.”
  • Meaghan O’Reilly of the department of medical biophysics and the Sunnybrook Research Institute for “Ultrasound technology for image-guided interventions in the spine.”
  • Hui Peng of the department of chemistry for “Infrastructure for the unbiased identification of environmental chemicals and their protein targets.”
  • Vincent Piguet of the department of medicine and Women's College Research Institute for “Skin immune cells and pathogens facility (SPF).”
  • Steven Prescott of the department of physiology and SickKids for “Imaging and electrophysiology equipment for multi-neuron stimulation and recording.”
  • R. Scott Prosser of the department chemical and physical sciences, U of T Mississauga for “Infrastructure for advanced structure and spectroscopic studies of G-protein-coupled receptors.”
  • Aaron Reinke of the department of molecular genetics for “Infrastructure for the study of microsporidia and the co-evolution of host-pathogen interactions.”
  • Ho-Sung Rhee of the department of biology, U of T Mississauga for “High-resolution mapping of functional genomic elements in spinal motor neurons.”
  • Njal Rollinson of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology for “Integration of long-term data and experimental manipulation to study life-history evolution under rapid climate warming.”
  • Shoshanna Saxe of the department of civil and mineral engineering for “Improving sustainability of urban infrastructure systems.”
  • John Sievenpiper of the department of nutritional sciences for “Knowledge syntheses and clinical trials of important food sources of sugars and cardiometabolic health.”
  • Christina Starmans of the department of psychology for “Development of reasoning about the self.”
  • Hannes Luc Röst Steiner of the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research for “High resolution mass spectrometry for longitudinal personalized metabolomics profiling.”
  • Michael Taylor of the department of laboratory medicine & pathobiology and SickKids for “Oxygen is poison – how incorrect modelling of the human microenvironment has impeded paediatric research.”
  • Subodh Verma of the department of surgery and St. Michael’s Hospital for “The CardioLink Research Platform: Innovations in cardiovascular surgery & cardiometabolic care.”