Focus on Five: Researcher Profiles

Focus on Five: Researcher Profiles


David Ditor, Laura Cousens, Angus Somerville, Ron Thomson, Andrew McDonald  
 

In every nook and cranny of Brock University are researchers blazing trails, enabling the wider community to move forward with new information, insights, and innovations. Here, we bring you five such individuals who are making a difference in the world around us.

 


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David Ditor, researcher, Department of Kinesiology

There’s a group of about 20 people from the Niagara community paralyzed by spinal cord injury who are able to get vigorous exercise on unique, state-of-the-art equipment in researcher David Ditor’s laboratory.

The Functional Electrical Stimulations (FES) ambulation-training machine (RT600) is the only one of its kind in Canada. People who have lost the use of their legs through spinal cord injury are fitted with a harness and hoisted onto the machine. Electrical impulses then stimulate the muscles of their legs to the point where they’re able to perform an elliptical motion.

There’s also the RT300 machine – one of a small handful across the country – in which electrodes are attached to the legs, arms, or both. The electrical impulses allow people to cycle with their legs and/or arms, even if their limbs are totally paralyzed.

“Also, we’ve got various pieces of weight-training equipment that can be used directly from one’s wheelchair; there is no need to transfer onto any other type of equipment,” he explains. “We have upper body and lower body weight-training equipment, we have a body weight support treadmill; we have various pieces of wheelchair-accessible and aerobic equipment for cardiovascular fitness.”

Most of those using the equipment are, or have been, involved in Ditor’s research, which focuses on secondary health complications – such as cardio-vascular dysfunction and immune dysfunction – following spinal cord injury. He also studies the effects of exercise on preventing or reversing these health issues.

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Laura Cousens, sport management researcher, Department of Sport Management

Sport management researcher Laura Cousens saw first-hand how much of a burden hosting community sports events is, even for the most seasoned volunteer Moms and Dads.

Arrangements such as registering children in sports events, monitoring and conveying event information to hundreds of people and assisting out-of-towners with logistics can be overwhelming for already-busy parents.

“I’m very community minded,” says Cousens. “Access to sport is a huge driver for me.” To that end, Cousens, fellow scholars and an industry partner created Sport on the Go, a free mobile application that not only profiles information for specific sports events, but provides comprehensive destination information and even GPS mapping to get families there.

“Easing the burden on volunteers, enhancing the travel experience of athletes and spectators, linking sport event experiences to social media and providing continuous communication before, during and after the sport event – this is Sport on the Go,” says Cousens.

Sport on the Go is currently being piloted in the Niagara Region. Cousens says a database has already been developed for Ontario, with the team expecting to expand to other locations across Canada by next year.

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Angus Somerville, Medievalist and Norse expert, Department of English Language & Literature

Abbot Nicholas of Thvera was very impressed by the women he met in Siena, Italy. The 13th century monk stopped there on his way to Jerusalem, a pilgrimage that took about a year from his native Iceland to the Holy City and back again.

Norse expert Angus Somerville is getting to know Abbot Nicholas very well. He and colleague Andrew McDonald are in the process of writing a book based on the abbot’s diary, which Somerville translated. The diary contains many vivid descriptions of buildings, landmarks and other aspects of the 13th century world, as well as allusions to Norse ancient legends.

Somerville is one of only a few scholars in Canada fluent in Norse, the ancestral form of the Scandinavian languages. In addition to his work on the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, Somerville’s research focuses on Norse literature, old Norse fiction sagas and Norse poetry, which he calls “quite unlike anything else in medieval or modern European literature.”

Somerville, who has just retired from teaching Norse, says he understands why there’s been a recent fascination with Tolkien and the Norsemen. “ To be a Viking was to undertake an endeavour that looks on the surface of it really quite impossible: you decide to go across the North Sea or the Atlantic in an open boat, rowing your heart out, sailing your heart out, in the hope that you will land somewhere,” he says. “At the simplest level, the Norse sagas are rattling good adventure stories.”

An upcoming project on Somerville’s research agenda is to co-write – with colleague Andrew McDonald – a case study of a land transfer document from the 1240s that was found in Brock University’s archives. The case study is part of a series meant to introduce history students to the use of original documents. The series will be published by University of Toronto Press, the publisher of McDonald’s and Somerville’s earlier books on the Viking Age.

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Ron Thomson, linguist, Department of Applied Linguistics

For someone learning English for the first time, the difference between the pronunciations of “hit” and “heat” may be very subtle and for some, almost undistinguishable.

In conventional language programs, students typically learn to distinguish sounds from the voice of one teacher. Bring in another voice saying the same pair of words, and most learners will get the pairings wrong, because they are unfamiliar with the new voice.

Also, a learner’s ability to retain sequences of sounds in short-term memory – called “phonological working memory” – will determine how fluent they will become in a subsequent language.

Linguist Ron Thomson has uncovered these and many other findings during the course of his research. To assist people learning another language, Thomson created the English Accent Coach website, which implements a number of strategies – such as using up to 30 different voices – crafted from his research that enable greater processing and storage in short-term memory.

Thomson reports that over 3000 users have registered for the free site, resulting in approximately 70-80 visits per day to access the site’s speech training tools. The top user currently hails from Mexico. “That person has done this religiously for about six months almost every day and is now at native-like performance,” says Thomson. He is in the process of adding a new game interface with coloured buttons – in the spirit of the game Simon produced by the Hasbro toy company – to greater assist learners.

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Andrew McDonald, historian, Department of History

When historian Andrew McDonald and his colleague Angus Somerville attended a conference on medieval research in Kalamazoo earlier this year, they got a very pleasant surprise: the recently released companion publication to the book they co-authored earlier – The Viking Age: A Reader – was the talk of the town.

The companion publication provides background and context for the translated texts in the Reader. “The past catches the imagination of the students,” says McDonald, noting the rising popularity of movies such as Thor and authors such as Tolkien.

"People have made the claim that the Vikings have created the first global economy with these trade routes that span the Viking world; they've been described as the first capitalists because of the commercial aspect of their ventures; they've been described as early medieval terrorists who terrorized the European population," explains McDonald.

For many years McDonald's research program [for years] revolved around the western and northern parts of Scotland in the period between 1000 and 1300, a region that was heavily influenced by the Scandinavians.

He has now moved his focus to the Isle of Man, a self-governing British Crown dependency located in the Irish Sea between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland. McDonald is currently writing a book on the history of the island’s Norse sea kings between 1000 and 1300, in addition to co-writing, with Somerville, a case study of a medieval land transfer and a book on the diary of 13th century Icelandic monk Abbot Nicholas of Thvera.