Music Workshop with Kristopher Magnuson

Tuesday Nov 29th The Dragon Academy will be welcoming Kristopher Magnuson to lead a music workshop. 

Kristopher Magnuson is a composer from Cleveland, Ohio. In addition to his works for the Cleveland Contemporary Players Series and Cleveland Composers Recording Institute, he has completed works for the Genkin Philharmonic at SUNY Buffalo, guitarist Rob MacDonald, and multiple works for the Cleveland Ingenuity Festival. Since beginning flamenco guitar studies with Ricardo Marlow, one of the most prominent American-born flamenco guitarist of his generation, Spanish idioms have become a frequent focal point in his works. Mr. Magnuson’s “Palos for String Quartet,” based on flamenco song forms, was the 2014 winner of the University of Toronto String Quartet Composition Competition, and received its world premiere with the Cecilia Quartet at the 2015 University of Toronto New Music Festival. Mr. Magnuson holds a Master of Music degree from Cleveland State University, where he studied with Andrew Rindfleisch and Greg D’Alessio, and was the recipient of the Bain Murray Award for Excellence in Composition. He was recently commissioned to compose a work for the Eastman BroadBand chamber ensemble at the 2016 Soundscape Festival in Maccagno, Italy. He is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music where he studies with Gary Kulesha, Christos Hatzis, and Norbert Palej, and will serve as Composer in Residence of the University of Toronto Guitar Ensemble in 2016-17.



On May 13, 2014, Dragons attended the last of this year’s Research Science Roundtables at The Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Bio-molecular Research, led by Dr. Fritz Roth. Dr. Roth, whose son Jasper is a Dragon, is working with yeast cells in learning to “read” gene function. Our expertise in determining the basic DNA blueprint across species has grown exponentially, but the function of many genes remains mysterious. Dr. Roth’s team is developing technology and methodology to identify gene functions and pathways of expression, and their relation to human disease.

Why yeast? It turns out that about 30% of the genes which cause disease in humans are also present in common baker’s yeast. Yeast reproduces itself quickly, is easy to culture, inexpensive, and you can treat it cruelly without arousing the ire of animal rights activists. And yeast has the additional interesting characteristic of being able to move fluidly between haploid and diploid forms, and can live in the haploid form.

What does that mean? All our cells are diploid–they contain two copies of each chromosome. A haploid state contains only one copy of the chromosomes. Because yeast can live as a haploid, and copy itself in that state, there is the potential to manipulate the genetic material in a single cell, and both reproduce it and encourage it to “mate” with another haploid cell, creating a diploid with both strands of genetic coding. Still with me? Dr. Roth used the analogy of of the cell as a car, with each gene as a plan for a part in the car. Basically, he and his researchers are figuring out the function of each gene by ordering up cells with a part missing.

There’s an additional attractive quality in this research. In order to create markers, identifying the manipulated yeast cells, Dr. Roth and his researchers have inserted the gene that produces fluorescence in jellyfish into their yeast cells. They use this fluorescent brightness to sort their cells, which get brighter as more genetic information is deleted. So yes, they glow in the dark (leading to some hilarious speculation about glow-in-the-dark bread). This turns out to be so useful for cellular research, that Dr. Roth and his colleagues are now exporting their fluorescent strains to other laboratories.

Dragons really want to know why people choose a career in science. Marinella Gebbia, who oversaw our yeast-mating exercise, wanted to do work that was not only of theoretical interest but could make a difference in our lives. Atina Cote, Dr. Roth’s assistant, said it was seeing the film “Outbreak” when she was a kid that inspired her with a vision of discovering ways to prevent and to cure disease. Her work in Dr. Roth’s lab allows her to be on the cutting edge of discovery of what we can do with all our new genetic information. Dr. Roth’s father is also a bio-molecular research scientist. So, as an adolescent, he felt some resistance to becoming a chip off the old block. But then he noticed that the research team was always having a good time together, and it looked to him like a wonderful way to work. (Of course, as an adult, it has occurred to him that he only saw his father with his research team at parties and retreats. But he affirmed that working together so collaboratively is one of the great pleasures of his field.)

The Scientists in Action program has been hugely exciting for me in so many ways. It really is important for our students to get out of the classroom, and away from standard student lab experiences. Reading about research doesn’t hold a candle to experiencing the real work of practicing scientists in action. The opportunity to work with leading innovators gives them a sense of emerging fields, and they can begin imagining their own careers in science. The concrete work of research grounds the scientific fact and theory they are studying, makes it real, relevant and memorable. The scientists we have worked with are admirably generous, intellectually impressive, and approachable.

I can’t thank the Donnelly Centre and our other supervising researchers enough for giving us this opportunity. Our own Vanessa Alsop, who leads our intermediate science program at Dragon, has provided both the inspiration and the tireless legwork to make Scientists in Action a reality. I can’t wait to start again next year!


On April 15, Dragons attended our fifth Scientists in Action research roundtable at The Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research at the University of Toronto. Professor Amy Caudy gave us a remarkably lucid and accessible presentation of why she and her colleagues are working with yeast cells to explore when and under what conditions a gene wants to express itself. Building on the central dogma of molecular biology (“DNA makes RNA makes protein”), Professor Caudy is particularly interested in the interaction between genetic and biochemical processes. Through our collaboration with the cutting edge researchers at Donnelly, we Dragons have all become quite familiar with the way in which Francis Crick characterized the flow of genetic information within a biological system.

But what was so arresting about Professor Caudy’s work is more than the insight she is gaining into the way the genotype (what’s coded in the genome) is expressed in the phenotype (the observable traits) because of functional needs. Though some of those were quite remarkable. Yeast, for example, produces ethanol (that’s how we get beer and wine) because, while the yeast can tolerate the alcoholic environment, many bacteria cannot. Yeast creates an environment deadly to its competitors, you see. And there’s more, it seems to be using scents as a form of signaling, helping other yeast anticipate the environment. But, for this non-scientist at least, the greatest surprise was the concept that “what you learn in your courses is only part of the truth.” We are so often taught science as a body of fact—learn the formulae, memorise the periodic table. But science is changing all the time. New knowledge modifies old certainties, new technologies offer incredible tools for discovery and analysis.

“The awesome thing about science work is that everything gets better and more sensitive.” Using mass spectrometry, creating a variety of environments for her yeasts, it becomes possible to disrupt and guage genetic expression, which has incredible potential for altering adverse genetic conditions in human beings as well as petri dishes. In the twenty years since genome sequencing became a possibility, what we can do has been revolutionized. “I can imagine a gene and order it,” Professor Caudy said.

We asked her about being a woman in science, particularly in a “hard” science, with such reliance on complex calculation and machinery. Amy Caudy grew up on a farm, where tasks were not gender-stereotyped. Everyone pitched in to do what was required, whether sewing or repairing heavy equipment. She has found some gender resistance in computational biology, but her students are gender balanced now (not true when she was training), and the graduate students working in her lab are mostly women. The face of science is really changing. “Take life and ask questions,” she said. No wonder we Dragons were inspired.


Professor Aaron Wheeler, whose research focuses on creating “labs on a chip”, led our fourth in a year-long series of Donnelly Centre roundtables with Dragons from grades 7 through 12, their science teachers and principal. Has anyone heard of digital micro-fluidics? Dr. Wheeler and his colleagues are making exciting breakthroughs with miniaturized (I mean, the size of a credit card) devices to conduct accurate, controlled microchemical reactions, applicable across a wide range of investigations from chemical synthesis to tissue engineering. Dr. Wheeler and his research assistant gave us a lucid overview of a promising new field.

Remember those primitive computers from the 1950s? The ones that took up whole floors? Chemical analysis laboratories too require lots of space to house complex and bulky equipment. The tools are far more sophisticated, but the look and size of labs has remained much the same for a century or more. Creating these miniaturized electronic devices, which are compatible with modern analytical technology, greatly increases efficiency, reducing lab costs and environmental waste. And the digital microfluidics offer new, faster, more accurate and more environmentally responsible approaches to problems in chemistry, biology and medicine.

Dr. Wheeler and Darius shared with us their own paths into science in action. “Science is the only job where you’re really trying to learn something entirely new,” Dr. Wheeler said. A natural curiosity, a wish to contribute something new and valuable to human knowledge and capability, a geeky love of technology, a collaborative temperament led to advanced studies in chemistry, biology and bio-technology. “I work with creative, oddball graduate students who are willing to do crazy things in order to learn something original.” Their enthusiasm for their cutting-edge work, and the collegial atmosphere of the Donnelly Centre, were contagious.

And if Dragons needed any convincing about the innate fascination of scientific research, our experiences in the DMF lab would have converted them. Dr. Wheeler’s assistants demonstrated the process. Tiny discrete droplets are pipetted onto the surface of the lab on a chip (a rather artistic array of electrodes). Using a combination of digital imaging and simulation, Dragons manipulated the droplets. More fun than a video game, and actually useful! It was hard to pull them away, and let the scientists go back to work.

Dragon is so lucky to be welcomed by the eminent researchers of the Donnelly Centre, and offered entree to their labs. We thank Dragon science teacher Vanessa Alsop for her vision and hard work in inaugurating this privilege. We were proud when Dr. Wheeler told us we had some great questions. “I only wish my undergraduate seminars were as lively.”

You’ll want to visit their impressive website. (

Telling a Complicated Truth

Dragon Media Arts students were privileged to participate in a roundtable discussion with documentary filmmaker Alison Armstrong, and view a clip from her current documentary in progress, “The Guy with the Knife,” which explores the complex ethical and social issues that surfaced around a high profile murder in Houston, Texas, in 1991.
Dragons engaged passionately in every aspect of Ms. Armstrong’s work, from the philosophical implications to the technical details of the filmmaker’s art, and the documentarian’s challenge to remain truthful and objective. We were touched by her testimony about her Dragon experience. She wrote,
“Your students are  remarkable people. I am completely serious when I say that they asked the best questions I have ever heard after a film screening – and that was just a promo! They kept me on my toes. Usually the questions are completely predictable – but none of those were. Most of all they asked what I call “first principle” questions. Clearly they have been made to feel comfortable with their curiosity and perceptions of the world – even among those who are shy. Whatever you are doing just please keep doing it!”
We are pleased to invite the general public to Ms. Armstrong’s presentation of her work in progress as part of our “Breathing Fire” reading series. Come to 35 Prince Arthur at 7 pm on Thursday, February 20th to meet this award-winning filmmaker, and engage in Dragon discussion.
Alison’s documentary, “Love Interrupted”, aired on CBC’s the Doc Zone n 2009. As a television producer for CBC NEWS SUNDAY, she produced news features and short documentaries and was a frontline journalist reporting on the crisis inside Zimbabwe. As a regular contributor of radio documentaries to CBC’s, The Current, she has been nominated for several international awards. “Shumba Means Lion” was nominated for a TriCoast Award, and the CBC nominated “A Texas Tragedy” for a New York City Radio Award. Most recently she has been working on stories from Kenya. Alison began her career as a health and environment reporter in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories and wrote one of the first investigative reports on suicide rates among Inuit teenagers. Her articles have appeared in many magazines and newspapers. Her book, The Child and the Machine: Why Computers Put Our Children’s Education at Risk, was published in six countries and won the ForeWord Magazine Award. A former director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, she served on a fact-finding mission and wrote an analysis of the media in the report, “Zimbabwe Under Siege,” published by Amnesty International.

Scientists In Action-Roundtable 3

Dragons attended our third in a year-long series of roundtables with research scientists at the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research at the University of Toronto.  Dr. Henry Krause began by enlightening us on what is often called the central dogma of biology: that the function of RNA is to relay genetic code from the nucleus of a cell to cytoplasm.  They were teaching us something like this even when I was in grade 12 Biology (in 1968!).  Watson and Crick, after all, won the Nobel Prize in 1962.  But it turns out it is not so simple.  Nor, as current biology texts suggest, are proteins localized after translation.  It turns out that the placement of RNA is critical for the correct process and results.  This was the genesis of Dr. Krause’s and his colleagues’ fascinating research.


If you are a trifle befuddled, be assured we no longer are.  With clarity and wit, Dr. Krause shared with us an intellectual framework and methodology that have proven incredibly fruitful in understanding both the sub-cellular trafficking of RNA and the identification of matches for “orphaned” nuclear receptors.  Their “pure” research (on the functioning of RNA) enabled applied research in screening for drugs that will effectively and accurately identify and target the right nuclear receptors, which are involved in most diseases.


In the process, Dragons learned about important issues in research funding and methodology.  No surprise in the current political and economic climate to learn that government funding has sharply declined, and that the grant applications which attract funding are rarely for pure research.  Applied research is easier for the general public to understand—it seems as if direct medical relevance is more useful.   (Counterintuitive perhaps, but true: basic, not applied, research produces all major breakthroughs.)  The waters are further muddied because industry, by far the largest source for research funding, has an obvious, and enormous, stake is discovering new drugs.


The usual methods of this research rely on trying out various compounds in a cell culture.  The problem is that there is an average cost of $800 million, an average timeline of 15 years, and a whopping failure rate of 98% to come up with a drug that works.  Why?  The “four horsemen of the apocalypse” for this kind of research are 1) toxicity (works on the disease, but damages everything else too), 2) bioavailability (hard to absorb for an ordinary human), 3) metabolism (your liver will probably destroy it) and 4) individual variance (each of us different and in unpredictable ways).


What works better?  Start with whole animals.  Which brings us to the whole animals used by Dr. Krause and his colleagues: fruit flies and zebra fish. Here we noted  a strange synchronicity with our recent trip to TIFF for the David Cronenberg: Evolution exhibit.  Yes, the “science of Cronenberg’s “The Fly” was improbable, but get this.  Fruit flies share 75% of the human genome!  So by cleverly inducing fluorescence to the targeted areas, researchers can isolate and see what works, and what doesn’t, in creatures that have many similarities to us.  This also made for an “ooh” factor when peering through their microscopes.


On December 10, Dragon students from grades 7 through 12, their science teachers, and their principal were welcomed at the Donnelly Centre at the University of Toronto for the second of a year-long series of roundtables with practising research scientists.

Dr. Peter Roy, who also works with our favourite worm, c. elegans, directs his genetic research at medical application, using c. elegans to test for chemical compounds which could be used to fight dangerous worms, nematodes. Nematodes cause serious health problems in human beings who live in non-North American and Western European countries. They also infect domestic livestock, pigs, sheep and cattle. One of the more intriguing issues his talk brought forward is the dominance of research, through research funding, of commercial interests. Big pharmaceutical companies, seeking to expand their impressive profits, largely invest in research on drugs which can be marketed to North Americans and Western Europeans. The independence offered by academic research allows scientists like Dr. Roy and his colleagues to identify problems which are not targeted by commercial interests, and to make important contributions to social justice.

These conflicts of interest between pure science, social justice and the profit motive are of great interest to Dragon students. We had a long discussion in assembly following our visit to Dr. Roy’s lab about overseeing commercially driven research, about the role of “big pharma” in the very expensive business of genetic and drug research.

Dr. Roy also illuminated for us the way in which chemistry dominates biology, giving us an elegant overview of the role of chemistry in our physical sensation, connecting the macro and the micro. He is a remarkable teacher–the concepts he introduced in such detail were accessible even to me (and I haven’t studied science in forty years). And true to the experiential methods of progressive education, Dr. Roy took us into the heart of his laboratory, introducing us to his graduate students, demonstrating techniques, and letting us peer through high-powered microscopes at the truly beautiful spectacle of c. elegans, genetically modified for fluorescence, sparkling and glowing as they wriggled.

Dragon’s own Vanessa Alsop, whose baby this program is, should be very proud of opening a window for her students to see not only what motivates scientific research, and how it is actually done, but what fun scientists have.

Changes for New Hope Visits Dragon

Jim Killon, founder and director of the micro-charity Changes for New Hope, came to Dragon on Friday, November 1, to share with us his work with schoolchildren in Peru.  Jim and his associates are making a big difference to the tiny town of Huaraz, high in the Andes.  By helping parents and children with projects from children’s art exhibits in the regional museum to the proper use of toothbrushes and toothpaste, Changes for New Hope is making a real difference in the lives of children who face challenges in every area of their lives, from access to drinking water to access to education.  The Dickson family (new to Dragon this year) visited him on site in 2010, and were so impressed with his commitment and energy, that they have been supporting him ever since.  Dragons brought gifts of children’s vitamins (very expensive and often unavailable in rural Perus) to help Jim and his team combat malnutrition.  We look forward to corresponding with the children of Huaraz, and to continuing to help Jim and his team make a big difference through small changes.

To read more about Changes for New Hope, visit their website

The Dragon At Kandalore

Finding a camp that’s the right fit has many of the same challenges as finding the school that fits. Dragons are thinkers, they want to understand why they’re being asked to do something. They’re smart, they can handle it. They’re creative, they want room for that creativity in everything they do. They’re individualists, they want to explore their capabilities. And they’re collaborative, they want to engage together on any project. Our second year of team-building at Camp Kandalore confirmed that it’s the right place for us. The staff at Kandalore are sensitive, knowledgeable, comfortable with being questioned, flexible and responsive. They adapted their planned activities to fit the kids. And the staff—we were shocked to discover that most teachers step back from the activities, and let the counselors run the show. Dragon staff participated in every activity, dangling from high ropes, combing the woods, shooting arrows, madly paddling canoes, singing and presenting skits around the campfire. And our kids were wonderful—working together so that everyone could have the best possible experience, throwing themselves at challenges, and delighting us all with their songs, skits and high spirits.


Dragon’s Principal, Dr. Meg Fox, in her usual position…

Dragons care intensely about the environment, and so do the staff at Kandalore. It’s the most beautiful time of year, the fall colours, the clear sky, the sparkling lake, and as we explored the lovely campgrounds, we learned a lot about stewardship, about the complex ecology of Northern Ontario, about geography and respect for the world we have been given. We bonded with each other, learned new respect for each other’s spirit and abilities, and with this iconic landscape.

Kandalore also strikes the right balance between roughing it and being pampered. The kitchen staff prepared delicious, healthy meals, accommodated our various dietary restrictions, and appreciated our helpfulness. The cabins are comfortable, the activities varied and inclusive, and it’s all so well-run and well looked after.

We were so proud of how well our kids worked together as teams, across all ages, how they supported and applauded each other, collaborated to solve problems, gave it their all. We’re all looking forward to our third annual camping trip, and there’s talk about a senior trip for winter camping. Just imagine those lovely woods with a blanket of soft white snow…