Folio December 13, 2002
Volume 40 Number 7 Edmonton, Canada December 13, 2002

Psych prof 'pied' for charity

Christmas brings out the best on campus

by Richard Cairney
Folio Staff
Justin Standing and his sons Darien, 5, and Damon, 7, attended the Students. Union Christmas Party last week.
Justin Standing and his sons Darien, 5, and Damon, 7,
attended the Students. Union Christmas Party last week.

The Christmas season can often be a little unpredictable, but this year things threatened to get downright out of hand. With the holidays approaching, university students invited elementary students for a day of fun and games in the midst of final exams. And a psychology professor took a pie in the face to raise funds for the food bank and demonstrate how the limbic system works.

Dr. Connie Varnhagen has a gentle, warm, infectious laugh. Ask her to tell you about getting a pie in the face and you're sure to hear that laugh, and a pretty good story.

It goes something like this: As part of an effort by the University of Alberta's Department of Psychology to raise funds this Christmas, a bounty of sorts was put on the heads of 10 psychology professors. The students who raised the most money would win the privilege of "pieing" their prof during class. Varnhagen's students came out on top, raising $250, a sum Varnhagen matched. All totaled, the psychology department donated approximately $2,000 to CBC's annual Christmas fundraiser.

All that was left was the hit. Days dragged on until Varnhagen made her final appearance before her first-year psychology students, working the event into her talk about the limbic system.

"I was talking to them about how emotion serves to arouse us to action, and there was this emotional stimulus off to my left which was Peter Hurd, my colleague, standing there with a chocolate banana cream pie," she said.

"So I told the class how my limbic system was appraising whether this was a fight or flight situation, and how my cerebral cortex was doing a cognitive appraisal and that, while this really was a flight situation, I had to be there to accept the pie on the face and that my brain stem was causing my heart to race, my voice to get really high and my hands to shake.

"It was interesting that it fit in with the last lesson - they are paying for the class, right? And now they will never forget what role the limbic system plays in emotion, because they got me."

A few days later, five-year-old Darien Standing's limbic system was working overtime as he joined about 350 kindergarten and elementary school students in the Students' Union's eighth annual Inner City Kids Christmas Party.

"I told Santa I was a good boy," said Standing, a kindergarten student from St. Patrick's School.

Darien's father Justin, whose older son Damon was also at the party, was impressed by the event. "The kids have been having a great time," he said. "You should have seen them on the bus on the way here - they were a bit hyper, that's for sure."

U of A student volunteers were pretty excited, too.

"One little girl told us Santa doesn't come to her house because they don't have a chimney," one of the volunteers said, tears welling up in her eyes. "So we're thinking about getting a gift for her from Santa and bringing it to her school."

"Those are exactly the kinds of kids we're trying to reach," said Mariel Dagot, the SU's student activities co-ordinator.

Those children had the second floor of the Students' Union Building buzzing with energy for most of the day. "We had them making antlers and reindeer safety pins and singing carols - and eating pizza," said Kail Ross, the SU's vice-president (student life).

Alberta's Lieutenant Governor, Lois Hole, was also on hand, giving each child a hug as they wound along the line-up towards Santa.

"We told the kids she's the Queen's friend, and they were pretty excited," one student said. Another called the former U of A chancellor "a hugging machine."

"Lois has been amazing," added Ross. "She just revels in this sort of thing. And Santa's been great too."