Christopher Cross: Fire and ice

It looked like a case of: when the cat's away, the mice will play. But the mice, as it turned out, continued to play even when McGill's fire prevention officer returned from vacation last month. No respect?! Not quite. More a question of risky work on a high-risk building, says Christopher Cross, back from a week of hiking in New Mexico and Colorado.

That work, of course, was reroofing the Arthur Currie Gym, something that has involved two minor fires and one more important one -- not to mention two evacuations. Cross is reluctant to put too much blame on the roofing company, saying that hot asphalt roofing on top of a structure that is, in part, made of wood is inherently dangerous.

Cross is in a position to know. He's been a part-time firefighter since age 18 and an inspector since age 21. Knowing the design, construction, vocation, population and fire safety of each of McGill's (including the Macdonald Campus's) 241 buildings is part of the workload he took on three years ago as the University's first fire prevention officer.

It wasn't a job he'd seen himself doing when he began studying microbiology at the University. Biotechnology was his interest, student politics his sideline, and part-time bartending and fire consulting at Macdonald his sources of revenue. But when opportunity came knocking, Cross leapt.

"I hadn't planned on this as a career," says Cross, "but it interested me because it was new; it gave me something to develop." Cross has what his boss, Environmental Safety Office manager Wayne Wood, laughingly calls "genetically acquired" skills. Cross's father was chief of the Otterburn Park Fire Department and young Christopher passed many a happy hour playing in the firetrucks and ringing the fabled firebell. Cross, who keeps his dad's hardhat close at hand in his office, jokes that he was "conceived after a fire practice."

One of the skills necessary in this multifaceted job is to know what to do when. Wood, Cross's on-call stand-in every other weekend, is impressed by his colleague's ability to "manage many things simultaneously.

"He's spread very, very thin but he's never lost it," notes Wood. Some of Cross's tasks include negotiating with the city of Montreal on the subject of the University's lack of "code compliance." Given the age of McGill's buildings, most aren't up to today's fire safety code and Cross is in constant touch with the city, informing inspectors of the changing status of the buildings. He also looks into all fires and acts as the liaison person with the Montreal fire department which fights and investigates the University's 10 to 20 major annual fires, the bulk of which are caused by laboratory fires and construction mishaps.

A priority for Cross is standardizing and networking all alarm systems on campus. At present, most alarms register at the security office, but they don't state where in a building the fire is, nor give its nature. New systems can do just that and McGill should have one in two year's time. Cross has a vested interest in the new system. Being on 24-hour call, he comes in after hours from La Salle an average of once every two weeks, sometimes because there's a fire and sometimes because there's a problem with the alarm system that he can't solve over the phone with the security dispatcher.

There are 10 false alarms for every genuine one, notes Cross, explaining that in older alarm systems, it may take nothing more than dirt to trigger the siren. Of course, during the "high period," September, student pranks and partying set off their fair share of true and false alarms.

The multitude of demands on knowledge, physical stamina and patience with bureaucracy are great in this job, but Cross maintains that it is his training as a competitive figure skater, as much as his firefighting experience, that helps him handle the pressure. From ages five to 20, Cross trained up to 40 hours per week on his blades, competing at the junior national level and quitting couples ice dancing only when there wasn't the right match of partner. While he found it hard leaving skating, he is grateful for the ability to focus on one task at a time that the sport gave him.

Now, when Cross needs to take a break, it's more likely hiking boots or an Aikido jacket he'll don than ice skates, though occasionally he may be caught at the Molson Winter Stadium, doing a double flip or two.

Bronwyn Chester

War on the web

McGill's Rare Books and Special Collections Division has arguably one of the country's most complete collections of Canadian posters from both world wars. But, until last month, students and scholars wanting to research a particular aspect of the historical documents had to wade through the entire 150-poster collection -- time-consuming for the researcher and hard on the documents, the earliest of which date from 1914.

Thanks to the division's print curator Gary Tynski, who proposed photographing the collection and making available a printed finding aid, and to digital collections librarian David McKnight, who proposed scanning the photographs and creating a web site, it is now possible to see the poster and have its index number ahead of time. What's more, the print document and web site both provide an essay on Canadian war posters and an artist index.

"We tried to make the web site as informative as possible so that students would know, for instance, what a victory bond was," says Tynski, adding that students are usually interested in a particular theme such as the nature of propaganda or the portrayal of women or French Canadians in the work. He credits the Canadian Library Association for administering a grant that provided $5,000 to hire Jennifer Wile, a student in the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, to write the documentation.

The web site is permanent and more posters will be added as they are collected. It is also linked with the Department of National Defence's war poster web site.

Bold and pointed, these posters used stark images and punchy slogans to convince Canadians to join the armed forces, buy war bonds or keep their lips zipped about sensitive information. While most of the posters in the division's collection are of a serious and, in retrospect, tragic tone, there is a little comic relief under the title of Canada Food Board. Castigating Canadian egg producers for not turning out sufficient eggs to fulfil Britain's shortages, the poster reads: "Very little eggs for such a big bird. Canada must do better." The site is at

There will not be one giant step to a cure. That is not the nature of the disease and that is not the nature of science.

Dr. Gerald Batist, director of the McGill Centre for Translational Research in Cancer, talking to The Globe and Mail. Batist doubts that there will ever be a single cure for all kinds of cancer. Rather, scientists will solve the puzzle one piece at a time.

What a rush!

Imagine trying to plough your way through a surly bunch of 250-pound brutes who have but one goal -- to stop you any way they can. Now picture yourself doing it time and time again, until you've managed to advance well over 2,000 yards -- sometimes with a behemoth or two firmly grasping your torso.

That's what running back Shawn Linden has done during his playing career with the McGill Redmen football squad and he's done it for more yards than anyone else in the 126-year history of the team.

Linden broke Mike Soles's all-time rushing record during last Saturday's 26 16 victory over Laval. "It's a great honour," says the six-foot, 220-pound biochemistry student. "But it's a team record in a way. I've played with some great offensive linesmen over the years." Offensive linesmen -- big fellows themselves -- do their best to ensure that running backs don't get stomped by the other side.

Last year it didn't look as if Linden would ever play for McGill again, never mind about setting a rushing record. In the fourth game, he seriously tore ligaments in his knee -- one ripped right off the bone. He missed the rest of the season and many believed his football career was over.

Linden, a second-team All-Canadian in 1996, acknowledges that he isn't the same player today as he was before his injury. "I'm not as fast as I was and I wasn't that fast to begin with." His performance has always had more to do with tenacity than speed.

He may not be 100 per cent, but Linden has still scored half of the Redmen's 10 touchdowns this season and he's one of the leading rushers in his conference.

This is his final year with the Redmen. If a CFL team approaches him to follow in Soles's footsteps and become a professional player, he won't say no. But he has a different challenge on his mind for the moment. "I'm trying out research," says Linden. "If I like it as much as I hope I will, I might do a PhD." Anybody making jokes about nerdy scientists around this particular biochemist had better be wearing a helmet.

Over 100,000 puffs, a smoker's body learns that one puff equals a small nicotine high. Even if they use nicotine gum or the patch, even if they manage to quit, they've learned over the years that puff equals pleasure. That's hard to shake.

Pharmacology and therapeutics professor Paul Clarke, speaking to The Montreal Mirror about the nature of cigarette addiction. Clarke's research looks into techniques for taking the joyful buzz out of smoking, making the habit easier to kick.