Vanessa Sasson: Peaceful pugilist

Vanessa Sasson deeply admires -- and tries to emulate -- the pacifist ideals of the Tibetan Buddhists she met in Nepal two years ago. So why the heck does she spend so much time in a boxing ring punching people?

Sasson, a graduate student in the Faculty of Religious Studies, doesn't see it as a contradiction.

"There is a real meditative aspect to boxing," Sasson says. "It's like Buddhism in that you learn to be very focused. It's when you lose your concentration that you get hurt. That's when I wind up with a black eye."

Having her life changed by Tibetan Buddhists wasn't on Sasson's to-do list when she completed her bachelor's degree at McGill in 1995. Through a contact, Sasson lined up a job in Japan. En route, she decided to make a stop-over in Nepal. Originally intending to stay for three weeks, she spent a year travelling the country, savouring its gorgeous mountain landscapes and bearing witness to its dreadful poverty.

While in Nepal, she encountered Tibetan exiles, who discussed their Buddhist approach to living, as well as the way their people have suffered at the hands of the Chinese who annexed Tibet in 1950.

As a result of the time she spent with the Tibetans, she decided to come back to McGill to further her studies. Her thesis involves comparing Jewish death rituals with the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In particular, Sasson is fascinated by the ways in which Jews and Tibetans have responded to the horror of their respective genocidal experiences -- the Nazi Holocaust and the mass executions carried out in Tibet by the Chinese invaders.

"The Tibetans are very strict about avoiding anger and about being non-violent. Anger only perpetuates violence in their view. The people I met endured torture and forced sterilization, but they were at peace, they weren't bitter -- I could see in their eyes just how sincere they were about it.

"When Jews look back, it's with a great deal of anger. There is also a deep pride in their identity and a fierce determination that the Holocaust will never happen again."

She is pursuing her graduate work with two supervisors -- Jewish studies authority Barry Levy and Buddhism expert Richard Hayes. "I think the two traditions can learn from one another," she says.

A longtime fitness buff, Sasson works at the Snowdon YM-YWHA as a personal trainer. One day she caught sight of a boxer working on his technique with his coach.

"I thought boxing was just violent craziness, but there was an intriguing calmness to what they were doing." Noticing her interest, the coach asked if she would like to try the sport herself. Initially reluctant, she eventually decided to give it a shot. She says the first time she showed up at the all-male boxing gym to begin her training, she was terrified, but was pleasantly surprised by the support she's received from the boxers who frequent the place.

"It's not a macho environment at all. They've been wonderful. They even built a shower for me.

"I think there are different types of aggressiveness," Sasson speculates. "If somebody is angry, if he's looking to hurt someone, I stay away from him -- in the boxing ring or anywhere else. But there is an aggressive energy that we all have -- it's part of being human. This is a way to channel that. There are people who try to always keep a lid on that part of themselves. Then one day when they're driving, another car cuts them off and they go totally crazy."

Daniel McCabe

I don't have much sympathy with people who claim that the Olympic traffic made them a half-hour late. It's the Olympics, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I mean, get a life! Leave early!

Richard Pound, vice-president of the International Olympic Committee and chair of McGill's Board of Governors, speaking to The Gazette. Pound is currently in Nagano, Japan, attending the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Unholy reporting

When religious studies professor Arvind Sharma picks up a newspaper, what he reads sometimes makes him wince. The way the media often portrays different religions has troubled Sharma for years.

It isn't that Sharma believes that religions are above criticism -- he thinks that informed debate is a good thing. It's just that the media often gets its facts plain wrong when it tackles religious stories and the resulting misrepresentation has far-ranging consequences.

People do believe what they read, says Sharma, and religious misrepresentations "acquire the status of facts."

To help address the situation, Sharma, editor of a book on world religions, and Annette Yoshiko Reed, a recent McGill graduate now studying at Harvard Divinity School, have created the Terra Ferma project to keep an eye out for media blunders. The Terra Ferma team scans the media and documents the errors it comes across. Examples of religious misrepresentations are posted on the Terra Ferma web site.

So far, Terra Ferma has fingered The New York Times, the BBC, The Globe and Mail and The Gazette. "One BBC report from Thailand described a money blessing ceremony as a Buddhist 'superstition.' Can you imagine a comparable Christian or Jewish ceremony being described as a superstition?

"In a truly multicultural society, it's vital that we try to understand one another," says Sharma. "In that context, getting the facts right is more than good journalistic practice. It's ennobling."

Sharma invites anyone who comes across an example of biased or mistaken reportage of a religion to contact Terra Ferma, either via the group's website or through the Faculty of Religious Studies.

They're picking the companies - it's not the companies picking the students any more.

Catherine Gerols, director of McGill's Internship Year in Engineering and Science program, in an interview with The Gazette. Because firms are hard-pressed to find employees with the high-tech skills they require, Gerols believes students are in the driver's seat when selecting jobs and internships.

The year's best science

Where were the most exciting science projects in the province carried out in 1997? If you believe the current issue of Québec Science, almost half of them took place at McGill. In the magazine's annual roundup of the year's best science discoveries, four of the 10 selected were led by McGill researchers.

Making the cut were psychology professor Laura Ann Pettito and neuropsychology professor Robert Zatorre's findings on the nature of language acquisition, physiology professor Leon Glass and PhD candidate Kevin Hall's unique work involving mathematics and cardiology, and pediatrics professor Dr. Constantin Polychronakos's research into diabetes.

Also singled out by Québec Science was Dr. Josephine Nalbantoglu from McGill's Montreal Neurological Institute, for her role in developing transgenic mice that experience many of the same physical and behavioural changes as humans afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. Anatomy professor Dr. Yves Clermont and urology professor Dr. Claude Gagnon were cited as part of a fifth study involving a component of spermatozoa that seems to play a crucial role in fertilizing eggs -- at least in mice. The magazine includes an article on McGill epidemiology and biostatistics professor Dr. Lucien Abenhaim, Radio-Canada's scientist of the year.

Look up a special feature called Scanlines on the University Relations Office web site to link to the Québec Science articles on these researchers. Some of them have been profiled in the Reporter and a search by name will call up the stories.