Weirdest research at SFU


Built on top of a mountain blanketed in fog, SFU was destined to have a mysterious, at times almost eerie, feel. Flash forward 50 years: SFU has become a leading Canadian research university. Hidden somewhere within the concrete expanse of SFU lays many research labs — each with their own story.

You may pass them on your way to a class, or while lost in the Shrum Science Centre, but for the majority of students here (in particular undergraduates), that’s the extent of our relationship with these labs.

These shrouds of intrigue have stories to tell. Here are some of the most eccentric research projects SFU has ever seen.

Fall for science

The slapstick comedy staple: a guy walking down the street and slipping on a banana peel still earns laughs to this day. However, if this were to happen in Dr. Stephen Robinovitch’s Injury Prevention and Mobility Lab, your fall would be a bunch of data points for the lab to analyze in the name of science — specifically to reduce fall-related injuries in seniors.

Even though most falls are “benign events,” Robinovitch explained that “falls are among [the] top 10 cause[s] of death in seniors. About 25 percent of hip fracture patients will die within one year, and 50 percent will have a major decline in independence, often moving from their community-based homes to long-term care.”

So along with Fabio Feldman (then a PhD student in his lab), he set out to study footage captured from cameras of common areas in long-term care facilities — the places where seniors would frequently fall.

After analyzing about 1,700 falls experienced by over 500 seniors, they were able to analyze the most common types of “imbalance events” that caused the falls.

Surprisingly, slips are rarely the cause of falls. Instead “incorrect shifting of body weight” and “loss of external support” were found to be the major causes. Though, even if there is no resultant injury, falls can result in “loss of confidence, fear of falling, and restriction of physical activity.”

But in this case, what they found isn’t as interesting as how they found it. For this and other studies, the researchers built the “Slipitron 2000”: a large “perturbation platform” that literally makes you fall.

Unsuspecting volunteers are fitted with reflective markers on their joints, and movements are recorded by a 3-D motion capture system. The volunteers then stand on a plastic rug which is on top of a flat cushy surface and, without notice, the rug is pulled off.

The data captured is fed into mathematical models to measure muscle activation, and other physics-related things that are far beyond my understanding.

After examining the videos, the researchers were wondering if there was indeed a way to teach people to fall. In other words, an ideal way to fall. Their answer: judo.

Judo practitioners train in the ukemi falling technique, where they don’t block a fall by stretching out their hands; instead, they fall sideways, slam their arm down, and roll it off. The judo experts performed as well as the average Joe on the Slipitron, suggesting that “hardwired responses may override training.”

Currently, the researchers are trying to analyze the benefit to seniors of exercise programs that focus on “training balance recovery and safe landing strategies.”

Paranormal activity: The research dimension

Some of us will always want to believe — and Dr. Paul Kingsbury’s research certainly adds fuel to the fire of any X-Files fanatics or Alien believers out there. He’s out there tracking and profiling UFOs, ghosts, and Bigfoot hunters.

As a cultural geographer, he has previously been to the Fusion Festival in Surrey to look at Bollywood music, Navroz celebrations in West Van to study the role of food, and has examined the role of TVs and cafés in Portuguese and Italian communities during the World Cup, to name a few. But nothing compares to his research into the supernatural seekers.

“The paranormal, in many parts of the world, has gone mainstream,” Kingsbury said, highlighting the influx of paranormal content in movies and in television.

The project doesn’t aim to prove or disprove the paranormal claims, but instead looks at “attending to their cultural aspects.”

Now two years into a four-year project, Kingsbury has gone on seven excursions with paranormal investigators across the Lower Mainland, as well as two UFO conferences, as part of his research. Unlike popular belief, UFO conferences (at least structurally) are increasingly mimicking regular academic conferences, where the attendees are a mix of lifelong devotees and novices.

As Kingsbury explained, “One of the reasons why people get into ghost investigations or ufology is that they themselves have experienced a paranormal activity that they can’t explain, and they want to interact with other like-minded people who wouldn’t judge them as crazy.” The investigators are mostly middle-class, average income individuals working in banal jobs, who like to try and explain the unexplainable each weekend.

The investigators do take the assistance of technology to aid them, such as voice recorders, electro-magnetic frequency machines, and the “spirit box.” These are used to scan different frequencies they claim can capture voices from the “other side.” The teams themselves are a paradox: while some use equipment to get to a basic scientific explanation and debunk the haunted feeling, the mediums try to “feel any presence or residual energies.” As Kingsbury said, “the typical paranormal investigator is a skeptic; they want to disprove the ghosts.”

When asked about a particularly spooky expedition, he recounted when he went to the Vancouver Police Museum. It was about 2:30 in the morning, in a room used to drain bodies before they went to the morgue. It was a spirit box session, during which he felt there was a sustained communication with a paranormal entity, from the way the paranormal investigator was interacting with the “obscure voice-like phenomenon.”

Oliver Keane, one of Kingsbury’s PhD students, is overseeing the cryptozoology aspect of the project, by analyzing sasquatch investigations. Cryptozoology looks at both folklore and fossils to study creatures whose existence is as yet unsubstantiated or questioned heavily. However, according to Kingsbury, this is no pseudoscience. As Keane mentioned, pieces of evidence have been examined relating to the sasquatch, the most prominent being footage captured by Patterson and Gimlin in Bluff Creek, CA, in 1967, showing what appears to be a “female sasquatch.”

According to Keane’s research, there have been striking similarities between the depictions of the sasquatch in First Nations stories and what investigators have imagined it to be through their findings.

Creepy, crawly research on campus

Saywell Hall, to me, is nothing but a long flight of stairs, followed by a longer walk to the bus loop. But did you know that under that corridor in a corner of that building lies an RCMP-protected research lab?

I sat down with Dr. Gail Anderson, a professor of forensic entomology and co-director of the Centre for Forensic Research at SFU, to enquire about how she studies insect-infected corpses to help law enforcement solve homicides.

When Anderson finished her PhD in pest management at SFU in the late ‘80s, she wasn’t set on what she wanted to do, though she “always wanted to do something applied.” In a quintessential moment of a mentor guiding their protégé, her biological sciences professor Dr. John Borden suggested she use her knowledge to aid police in a local homicide case.

Soon after that, she became the first full-time forensic entomologist in Canada.

Many of us would have dissected a rat, or an organ of some other animal in high school — likely with shaking hands and (hopefully) a calm stomach. Anderson, meanwhile, has conducted multiple studies using pig carcasses, which apparently make for an acceptable replacement for humans.

The process: leave the carcass on the ground, or bury them under ground — maybe submerge them in lakes — essentially observing how insects colonize carcasses in different environments.

Given the ostensibly odd methodology of solving crime, she recalled that law enforcement was quite welcoming of her, and she would often get calls from cops to come inspect a body. The trust has built up over time. As she put it, “once they saw it in action, once I had a case, and I could come up with results that could help the case, then they started to appreciate it more.”

Repeatedly collecting samples and examining them is a task very few may be able to do regularly, but Anderson has been able to do important research without flinching.

“Every one of them is different,” she said, when asked if any case stands out to her. “The ones that stand out are the ones that I testified in,” she added. In one of the more infamous cases, her work helped convict Robert Pickton, a serial killer who was charged with the killings of more than two dozen Vancouver women.

Anderson said that interest in forensic entomology is growing rapidly. Who knows where we will be with this kind of science in a few years.