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Dance of the electrons: U of A scientist hits sweet spot between physics and swing

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Swing dancing. Songwriting. And theoretical condensed matter physics.

It’s a unique person who can master all three, but a University of Alberta PhD student has done all that and taken it one step further by making a rollicking music video about his academic pursuits — and winning an international competition for his efforts.

Pramodh Senarath Yapa is the winner of the 2018 Dance Your PhD contest, which challenges scientists around the world to explain their research through a jargon-free medium: dance.

The prize is $1,000 and “immortal geek fame.”

Pramodh Senarath Yapa is now a University of Alberta PhD student and winner of the 2018 Dance Your PhD contest. (LinkedIn/Pramodh Senarath Yapa)

Yapa’s video features his friends twirling, swinging and touch-stepping their way through an explanation of his graduate research, called “Non-Local Electrodynamics of Superconducting Wires: Implications for Flux Noise and Inductance.”

The swing-dance version of that work is easier for most people to understand — and that’s exactly what Yapa was hoping for.

“Physics, in general, is known for being very esoteric and not very accessible for a lot of people. So this is an attempt to make it accessible,” he said in a recent interview with CBC’s Radio Active.

‘Social lives of electrons’

Yapa started swing dancing five years ago and immediately fell in love with it. When he moved to Victoria to pursue graduate studies, he threw himself into the swing dance scene.

“I got a large portion of the physics graduate students to come with me to swing dancing, so there’s a healthy intersection between the swing dancing community and the physics graduate community,” said Yapa.

So when the time came last year to create an entry for the famed dancing/science competition, he had a solid base of friends who could help. 

Yapa describes his video, filmed in Victoria where he earned his master’s degree, as a “three act, mini-musical.”

“I envisioned it as talking about the social lives of electrons,” he said. “The electrons starts out in a normal metal, at normal temperatures….We say these electrons are non-interacting. They don’t talk to each other. Electrons ignore each other and are very unsociable.”

The electrons — represented by dancers wearing saddle oxfords, poodle skirts, vests and suspenders — shuffle up the dance floor by themselves.

In the second act, the metal is cooled. 

“The electrons become very unhappy about being alone. They want to find a partner, some companionship for the cold times,” he said.

That’s when the electrons join up into something called Cooper pairs.

The dancers join together, moving to lyrics like, “If we peek/the Coopers are cheek-to-cheek.”

In the final act, Yapa gets his dancers to demonstrate what happens when the Cooper pairs meet the impurities of the materials they’re moving in. All of a sudden, a group of black-leather-clad thugs move onto the dance floor. 

“The Cooper pairs come dancing near these impurities and they’re like these crotchety old people yelling and shaking their fists at these young dancers,” Yapa explained.

Yapa’s entry to the annual contest swept past 49 other contestants to earn him the win. The competition is sponsored by Science magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“I’ve always wanted to explain my love of physics and science to people. So I see this as a way to build more connection with the local community and I look forward to building on this.”

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More groups join in support of women in STEM program at Carleton

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OTTAWA — Major companies and government partners are lending their support to Carleton University’s newly established Women in Engineering and Information Technology Program.

The list of supporters includes Mississauga-based construction company EllisDon.

The latest to announce their support for the program also include BlackBerry QNX, CIRA (Canadian Internet Registration Authority), Ericsson, Nokia, Solace, Trend Micro, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, CGI, Gastops, Leonardo DRS, Lockheed Martin Canada, Amdocs and Ross.

The program is officially set to launch this September.

It is being led by Carleton’s Faculty of Engineering and Design with the goal of establishing meaningful partnerships in support of women in STEM.  

The program will host events for women students to build relationships with industry and government partners, create mentorship opportunities, as well as establish a special fund to support allies at Carleton in meeting equity, diversity and inclusion goals.

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VR tech to revolutionize commercial driver training

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Serious Labs seems to have found a way from tragedy to triumph? The Edmonton-based firm designs and manufactures virtual reality simulators to standardize training programs for operators of heavy equipment such as aerial lifts, cranes, forklifts, and commercial trucks. These simulators enable operators to acquire and practice operational skills for the job safety and efficiency in a risk-free virtual environment so they can work more safely and efficiently.

The 2018 Humboldt bus catastrophe sent shock waves across the industry. The tragedy highlighted the need for standardized commercial driver training and testing. It also contributed to the acceleration of the federal government implementing a Mandatory Entry-Level Training (MELT) program for Class 1 & 2 drivers currently being adopted across Canada. MELT is a much more rigorous standard that promotes safety and in-depth practice for new drivers.

Enter Serious Labs. By proposing to harness the power of virtual reality (VR), Serious Labs has earned considerable funding to develop a VR commercial truck driving simulator.

The Government of Alberta has awarded $1 million, and Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) is contributing an additional $2 million for the simulator development. Commercial deployment is estimated to begin in 2024, with the simulator to be made available across Canada and the United States, and with the Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) helping to provide simulator tests to certify that driver trainees have attained the appropriate standard. West Tech Report recently took the opportunity to chat with Serious Labs CEO, Jim Colvin, about the environmental and labour benefits of VR Driver Training, as well as the unique way that Colvin went from angel investor to CEO of the company.

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Next-Gen Tech Company Pops on New Cover Detection Test

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While the world comes out of the initial stages of the pandemic, COVID-19 will be continue to be a threat for some time to come. Companies, such as Zen Graphene, are working on ways to detect the virus and its variants and are on the forefronts of technology.

Nanotechnology firm ZEN Graphene Solutions Ltd. (TSX-Venture:ZEN) (OTCPK:ZENYF), is working to develop technology to help detect the COVID-19 virus and its variants. The firm signed an exclusive agreement with McMaster University to be the global commercializing partner for a newly developed aptamer-based, SARS-CoV-2 rapid detection technology.

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