Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Student Perspective: Passion in Science Communication

All of my classmates will tell you that I am a geneticist first. Then they’ll tell you about my obsession with my cat, Garfield. For context, my background is in Cancer Research. I have an Honours B.Sc. in Molecular Biology and Genetics from McMaster University and an M.Sc. in Pathology and Molecular Medicine from Queen’s University. Science Communication was not something I ever saw myself doing. I just assumed I would follow the classic academic trajectory of an undergraduate degree, followed by a Masters and then a Ph.D. As much as I loved the research I was doing, I did not love the environment in which I was doing it and it was time for a change. So, I came to Laurentian, ready to free myself from the discipline I had been confined to for 6 years and learn more about the other scientific disciplines. But before I knew it, I was back in my genetics bubble. I am currently a volunteer in the special exhibit at Science North, Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code. My final Audiences class seminar will be all about CRISPR technologies. I recently went to a Science CafĂ© about the ethical issues surrounding genetic testing. My research project will be about public perceptions of molecular biology research. And to top it all off, I’m looking at doing my internship at Genome Canada.

My question is, therefore, do you need to work outside of your passion to be a good science communicator? Or is it okay to stay inside your specialized field? When you look at the class of
2018, you’ll see people with a wide variety of interests. We have an avid chemist, a student with a passion for herpetology, another with a passion for whales, and several who are inspired by social change. That’s just to name a few. For some people, the passion is the content itself such as graphic design or social media. And a pattern is starting to emerge where students are choosing to present on their passions for class projects. Is it necessary to branch out from our passions to learn science communication? From my perspective, as long as we have the fundamental communication skills and understanding needed to talk to our audience, the content itself doesn’t matter. If you have the skills to bust myths about genetic testing, then you can also bust myths about climate change. If you can assess the learning framework behind a video about whales, then you can also assess exhibits at science centers. The great thing about this program, is that the foundation it gives you is universal. We can take whatever we learn in our classes and apply it to what we love. In Learning Theories class, we’ve been taught that the way in which you learn comes from your past experiences. If we can frame what we learn from the perspective of past experiences with our passions, won’t we therefore take more away from it?

So, I have to apologize to my classmates because you’ll probably hear a lot more about genetics before the year is over. But know that I am putting passion into each one of my projects because of it. And I know I’ll see the same from all of you. 

- Catherine Crawford-Brown

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Student Perspective: Applying to Science Communication

Hey everyone, thanks for checking out our blog!  My name is Leah Hodgson, and I'm a part of this year's cohort of Science Communication students.  My class will be the first to experience the new Master's degree program curriculum, and I couldn't be more excited. 

We're about halfway through the first semester, and so far it has been a thrilling whirlwind of new information and experiences.  But before we get into that, I thought I would talk a little bit about the process of choosing and being accepted into this program.  
Receiving a tarantula from Shahana.

It can be daunting trying to decide what to pursue after undergrad, and perhaps you are feeling like I was after my first degree - trying to decide if science communication is the right path.  Near the end of my undergraduate studies in biology, I was stumped for what to do next.  I had grown to love ecology and environmental science and health studies, and yet, I had no idea which field was supposed to be my "say yes to the dress" moment.  I was convinced that it needed to be some sort of prestigious professional program (think medicine, law, pharmacy, etc.).  After all, I wanted to be able to get a job in my small hometown when I graduated.  So, I put my bets on pharmacy.  I pulled up all of the applications, asked professors for reference letters, and got myself a job at a local pharmacy.  But throughout the application process, I always had a nagging in the back of my mind.  A year earlier, I had overheard an acquaintance talking about a "science communication program" in Sudbury.  I have that in quotations because I had never heard of such a thing.  Communicating science???  Sounds like fun, but what if there aren't jobs?  What does a science communicator even do?  I'll be honest, I didn't have the answers to those questions when I pulled up the application, and I didn't do as much research into it as I probably should have.  I told myself it was going to be a "backup plan", because the real goal was to get into pharmacy school.  But the truth was that I wasn't happy with my pharmacy plans.  I wasn't convinced that I would be committed to four years of pharmacy school when I had basically just pulled the program from a hat.  

So I put as much effort as I could into my Science Communication application.  I kept telling my family and friends that I was holding out for pharmacy, but I was secretly hoping that I would get into this mysterious Science Communication program just so that I wouldn't have to go to pharmacy school.  As luck would have it, I didn't even get an interview to my top pharmacy school.  At this point, I mentally put all of my eggs into the "SciComm" basket.  I still wasn't 100% sure what it was, but I wanted more than anything to get in.  The day I received my acceptance email, I cried.  I went running into the next room to show my mom, and I called all of my closest family and friends with the happy news.  One of my best friends bought me a bottle of wine and sent me a "congratulations" message on every social media platform I have, because she knew as well as I did that this was truly what I had wanted all along. 
Our group @ Dynamic Earth.

Maybe you won't have a story quite as dramatic as mine, but I assure you that if you have even the slightest interest in communicating science, this program is the one for you.  We're only 8 weeks into the program, and it has already surpassed my expectations in so many ways.  Science communication, though very different from my studies in biology, is still a science itself.  Everything we learn is rooted in scientific study that has been tested, peer-reviewed, and published.  We learn about how people learn, how to craft quality discussion, and how to approach hot science topics with polarized audiences.  We hear from successful guest speakers, attend conferences, and go on cool and insightful field trips.  The other students accepted into this program come from all kinds of different backgrounds, and they're such incredible people that I'm learning just as much from them as I am from the program itself.  I'm no longer worried about whether or not I'll get a job, because the opportunities in science communication are truly endless.  Science centers and museums, government, media, and industry are all options for us at this point.  Above all, I'm really just excited to take all of the tools I'm learning and use them to foster discovery and a shared understanding of science in my own community.       

I hope this has been insightful!  Throughout the year we will be updating this blog so that you can get a better idea of what we do here in Sudbury in the Science Communication program.  In the meantime, make sure to check out our website and social media pages (linked at the top of this page) for more information, and don't hesitate to contact us with any questions you may have!   

Happy October :)

- Leah

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Chance for Dialogue

A Dominican monk, an evolutionary biologist and a young earth creationist walk into a room. No, this isn’t the set up to a joke; it’s the three people that walked into the conference hall ahead of me as I went to my morning session at the Perceptions: Science and Religious Communities conference.
The conference was hosted by the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) branch of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The goal of the conference was not to reach consensus on any topic in particular, but instead to explore venues where religious and scientific communities could engage in discussion.

As a science communication student, I found my morning and afternoon sessions very insightful. The panellists discussed different methods and strategies for encouraging conversation between scientific and religious communities, but I found that their suggestions might also be used in a variety of situations where there are tensions between scientific communities and other groups. However, one thing that was striking from a communication standpoint is that the scientists were not stellar communicators. Many of them fell into their classroom or conference lecture habits, which aren’t particularly engaging for the general public.

Don’t get me wrong: there were some good communicators from the science crowd (even one or two great ones), but few came close to the pastors and reverends. If there is one thing that religion can teach to science, it is how to reach a wide public audience in terms they understand.

When a reverend or pastor took the microphone they never started by looking at notes. Instead they scanned the audience, getting to know the crowd in those fractions of a second. They never used power point slides. Instead they painted images with words. Often they spoke with a storytelling style: beginning, middle, end. Short asides of personal experiences made things relatable. They also knew they couldn’t cover everything, so they didn’t. By being focused and on point they were easy to follow. At the end, a simple acknowledgement that there was more left unsaid – something for a future discussion – left their talks open, but not wanting.

If I may be so bold, I’d suggest that pastors and scientists grab a coffee now and again. Scientists could pick up a few tips on public lectures, while pastors would get a chance to pick the brains of experts on some diverse and amazing topics.

This idea, of getting to know a person or a group that you are dialoguing with, was a point on which all parties at the conference agreed. Too often we are stuck in our little communities with no meaningful contact with others outside these spheres. This leads to misconceptions, stereotypes and wild assumptions that just don’t hold true. People talking at each other, rather than to each other, is something of which both sides of the science and religion discussion are guilty.

One parable told in the closing remarks stuck with me: Standing on the plains, I saw a monster on the horizon. As it approached, I saw it was an animal. As it drew even closer, I saw it was a human. When we were face to face, it was my brother.

It sums up a lot of strategies that came out of the conference on how to start a meaningful discussion: to take risks and get up close to try and understand a different point of view, to be willing to listen, to break bread. This way you spend your time talking with a friend, not yelling at a fictitious monster on the horizon.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Student Perspective: Reconciling science and faith

The following post was written jointly by Jenny Kliever and Kevin Mogk, both current SCOM students. Laurentian University hosts many guest speakers throughout the year, and Jenny and Kevin were eager to share their thoughts on a particularly interesting public lecture held in late 2014.

Jenny: Science communication is a relatively new field, as science fields go, and until a fateful Google search brought the Laurentian Science Communication program before my eyes a year ago, I was unaware of its existence. Within five minutes of reading the website, I knew that this program was for me. 

Kevin: Much like Jenny, I was unaware of science communication as a topic of study, even though my job entailed delivering science programs to school groups and the public in my hometown’s science gallery. When I discovered the Laurentian program, what drew me in was the opportunity to sharpen my skills and bridge the gap between my lack of science training and my theatrical background.

J: So here Kevin and I are, science communication students, marrying the exciting fields of science and society on a daily basis – what a dream! Though it is hard to pick just one favourite aspect of the program, something that stands out is the freedom to explore my own ideas within the courses. For example, I come from a physics background and have had the chance to explore communication within physics as much or as little as I like.  

K: Not only do we get to explore personal interests through the program, but the range of experiences of our classmates, teachers and guest lecturers also brings a wealth of perspectives on science communications and the issues it faces. Even between Jenny and I, we have had opportunities to explore how faith and science are often seen in opposition. So when we had a chance to attend an optional lecture by Dr. Denis Lamoureux about one of the more prevalent issues facing science communication, we couldn’t help but take in his lecture on “Beyond the ‘Evolution’ vs. ‘Creation’ Debate”.

J: Although SCOM students are always encouraged to attend the many events outside of class, Kevin and I didn’t need to be told twice about Dr. Lamoureux’s lecture. We showed up early, pens in hand, front row and centre, minds and ears open. This is a topic I, as a scientist, find extremely interesting. The talk focused on breaking the traditional view that science and faith are a dichotomy; that is, one can only identify with one or with the other and either believe in evolution or creation.

K: However, Dr. Lamoureux brought to light a spectrum of views ranging from fundamental to atheistic and everything in between to highlight that there are not just two camps to choose from. He also pointed out that it is not uncommon to find people of faith who are in step with science, and scientists who also practice their faith. It was a refreshing look at the issue and made me wonder if there wasn’t a research question hidden somewhere in this long-held oppositional view.

J: For the SCOM program’s major research project, we are now both exploring research topics that touch on science and faith. We would like to dig into this topic deeper and may even get the chance to spread the idea of this spectrum within the scientific and faith communities a little bit.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Student Perspective: Elizabeth Knowles

I’ve been home in Montreal for a couple weeks now, but the semester wasn’t actually over until I sent in my final two projects. We didn’t have any exams, but that didn’t mean that there wasn’t lots of end of term work to do.

When I was looking into the Science Communication program last year, I contacted a few people who I knew had completed the graduate diploma to try to get a sense of the program. I’ve made a few choices in the last couple of years that have left me less than happy a lot of the time so I wanted to make sure the program was for me. One of the people I contacted exclaimed that the program isn’t just great, but that its greatness is something to climb a mountain and yell to the whole world about. I took that (and a few other things) as good signs and jumped right in. I have never looked back since.

To start with, the people are amazing! Our two program directors are supportive and always around (or if they aren’t, they answer emails within minutes). They listen to any concerns we have and encourage us to engage in coursework and community activities that push our limits but that are within our reach. Our other two profs provide interesting dimensions to the program as well. It sometimes surprises me how many different ways you can look at the same topic and still learn something new.

Since everyone in the class has a different background and we all come with different school and work experience, we learn a lot from each other as well. An 11-person class is the perfect place for discussion – as are a swing dance class, sushi, brunch, next to a telescope watching a solar eclipse, Science North and everywhere else we congregate. One of my classmates likes to say that despite trying to meet and befriend people outside of our program, she keeps coming back to us.

It’s not easy to summarize an entire semester worth of classes in a single blog post but I’m going to try.

Principles of Science Communication (commonly referred to as Rhetoric) was a class that we only had for half the semester, but twice as often as the rest of our classes. It was the grad student version of an English class where we talked all about how people go about convincing people of their views on different topics. We each brought in many “artifacts” or examples of science communication so the class was focused around our interests. Topics included climate change, Ebola, cancer, vaccinations, climate change, nanotechnology, climate change and space exploration (did I mention climate change?).

In Design Theory, we looked at the many steps of the design process and finished the semester off by designing an entire exhibit about the relationships between the Sun, Moon and Earth. Working as a whole class and with a short deadline was challenging, but it was extremely neat to see what we could do when we all worked together and challenged ourselves. It also felt like something real as opposed to just essay writing. Partway through the semester we also got to create a science artifact by changing the format of some other piece. Katie and I worked from a boring article to create our own movie about Curiosity on Mars.

Our Audiences and Issues class jumped around many topics from fish to climate change (there it is again) and from misinformation to science in the North. We learned how to make a communication map and are working on briefing notes, communication plans and presentations to come after Christmas. I worked with four other people to create a communication plan for the use of social media in promoting the program (Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and YouTube, and do whatever you do on Instagram and Pinterest [Coming January 2015! –Ed.]!)

We had our Learning Theory class at Science North so we frequently used the exhibits there as our lab to study how people learn in free-choice environments. Many of us looked at computer games (Yay Zoombinis!) for our midterm project, which was really interesting because you don’t always think of that being one of the places where learning occurs. For our final project we got to create our own Science Communication piece and analyze it for its learning potential.

Our Research Methods course replaces the Rhetoric one half-way through the semester and it’s just the beginning of our year-long research project. We’ve all come up with our topics, questions and preliminary literature review but there’s still a long way to go.

After Christmas we’re splitting up the class because we got to choose two out of three courses (Mass Media, Live Presentations and Exhibit Design). I chose the last two, which might surprise some people who know how shy I am, but I figure there’s no point in taking the classes if I’m not pushing myself. We still have one class all together – Science Communication Practices – which sounds like it is going to be an extension to Audiences and Issues. From what I can tell, it seems like next semester is going to be even more hands on and I’m really looking forward to taking even greater advantage of our partnership with Science North.

As well as courses we’ve had almost weekly guest visits from people like Tim Lougheed, John Miller, David Lickely and many others. We’ve also gone on fieldtrips around the area looking at the Sudbury crater, Dynamic Earth and way, way down to SNOLab.

As well as all of that, each of us has a GRA (Graduate Research Assistantship) we’ve been working on and I was lucky enough to get one where I’m looking at visitors interacting with exhibits at Science North and determining their learning potential.

As for Sudbury itself, it’s taken some getting used to, but it isn’t as cold as I expected – yet. I’m living with two other people from the program and all of us get together almost every day. Most of our classes are in a lakeside building with heated floors, so really I can’t complain too much!

This may seem like a long blog post, but when I say that I’m studying Science Communication most people just assume that I mean science journalism, so I wanted to demonstrate that it is so much more – I wanted to scream it from the top of a mountain!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Internship Spotlight: Anik Brazeau

I recently watched the comedy The Internship. It's the movie where Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson reunite, this time crashing at the Google Headquarters rather than weddings. While I can't necessarily promise you that same level of entertainment in this post (I am no Vince Vaughn), I will share my internship experience in about two hours less time.

Four months ago, near the end of April, driving a van filled to the brim with stuff, I left Sudbury and the still frozen Lake Ramsey behind, en route to Ottawa. The five-hour drive gave me some time to reflect. As I cruised down Hwy 17, I thought of how much we'd learned this year, the skills we'd developed and the amazing connections we'd made. It hit me, then, that I was leaving the comforts of the SciComm bubble and that I'd be taking my toolbox with me to a whole new setting in the real world.

The following day, I started at NSERC (that is the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada). Nervous and excited, I definitely felt outside of my comfort zone at first, but being welcomed by the External Relations and Communications team (ERC) put me at ease. I spent the first few days becoming more acquainted with what NSERC does, soon realizing that its role extends beyond funding science and engineering research. NSERC also supports science promotion organizations, it connects businesses with academic researchers, it celebrates top scientists and showcases the far-reaching impacts of their work, it promotes careers for women in the field and it engages with the community at live events and online. These many facets ensure that there are always several projects on the go, and, in this fast-paced multi-task environment, I discovered the importance of being as proactive as possible. 

I am extremely fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to contribute to a variety of different projects; from drafting speaking notes and developing communications plans, to writing plain language research summaries and orchestrating expert alerts, to attending meetings and being involved in staff consultations, it’s always busy and it's always interesting in ERC. I’ve really enjoyed being immersed in the communications world this summer, and I’ve learned a lot since my first day (I feel like I may have finally mastered the plethora of acronyms that make up the lingo). Through this experience, I have also gained new insights in areas with which I was less familiar, such as public affairs, branding and strategic communications, and I've seen my communications skills benefit greatly. It’s been a great final chapter to round out the past year in Science Communication and working in this capacity, with a highly proficient team of communication experts around me, has only reinforced my enthusiasm for well-crafted communication and given me greater confidence in this field.

- Anik Brazeau, SciComm '14

Friday, August 29, 2014

Internship Spotlight: Derek Chung

The Rush Is Worth the Price I Pay

When I think of journalism, I picture hectic chaos in the newsroom as new stories appear out of thin air like condensation on a cool glass of beer.  With science journalism, the environment is still the same – the only difference being every story is a fascinating publication that you want to cover.  The whole ‘fast paced, lots of action with endless amounts of news’ aspect ensures that it’s never a dull place at Science Fare Media, Canada’s first digital science news organization.  As an associate producer intern, I was involved in every aspect of science journalism from selecting my stories from the various daily embargoed listings to setting up interviews with scientists all over the world to finally writing up the story in a fun way that would engage readers.

Here at Science Fare Media, our goal is to always focus on one question: what’s cool about this story?  By figuring out the cool factor first, everything else seemingly falls into place by itself and before you know it, you’ve created this factual story that’s perfect for taking to the water cooler to impress all your friends.  The best part?  The connection you share when you begin to get excited about the research and the co-author you’re interviewing is equally as excited about their study – it’s an exhilarating sensation and it reminds you why you fell in love with science to begin with.  The role of being a science journalist also provides an added bonus: sometimes you get lucky enough to interview the scientists that you idolize because their bit of expertise on the matter is just what you need to help put your story together.

Based in the heart of downtown Toronto, I often felt as though I was competing with the streets below me in a race to see who can be the busiest that day.  The work may be tough and certainly demanding, especially when life throws curveballs at you, but thriving in an environment such as this is astronomically rewarding – not just as a scientist, not just as a science communicator, but as an individual thirsty for the knowledge of this world.

-Derek Chung, SciComm ‘14