Thursday, December 31, 2009

Listing of Careers and Jobs in Science Communication

I came across a brilliant blog post that listed various organizations where science communicators could find a career or job. The list is compiled by Jo Brodie on the blog Stuff that occurs to me.

Although many people have careers in science communication in North America, they are not necessarily thought of as science jobs. They are thought of as communication positions. However the term science communicator is slowly being incorporated into employment listings.

The listing is mainly based on vacancies and organizations in London, where I assume the author is from. Nonetheless, it gives a great idea of the types of organizations which could potentially hire you. As Jo Brodie notes, the listing is heavily weighted towards biology / medicine, but it is still a fairly comprehensive list. I think I'll have to start compiling a list for Canada.....

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Poetic Science

All through my undergraduate degree there seemed to be a rivalry between arts and science students. Science, (from the point of view of science students) was concrete, logical and important for understanding the world around us. Arts, seemed sort of airy-fairy to us. Analyzing literature or studying music just didn't seem to match up to our science labs and assignments.

My arts student friends also seemed to distance themselves from science. They used to say they couldn't do (or did not want to do) science since they were terrible at math. I'm making generalizations here and there are plenty of students who excel in science and arts. However, I've seen lots of students who fall into the arts and science divide.

I suspect it because of how science and arts are taught in school. They are separate... which is unfortunate. It was not too long ago where naturalists brought artists with them to draw their specimens for them.Even in an age where everything is digitally recorded, first year students at my former university were still required to learn how to do biological drawings.

I see the divide as a real shame because people who are steeped in fine arts like music, poetry, dance, and visual arts are able to express themselves in different ways. Scientists are often stuck expressing themselves only in scientific papers. Research papers are important but they do not help much with the public engagement of science.

Expressing science through arts has the ability to reach a wide range of audiences, making it accessible and understandable. Mark Winston, a presenter at the Science and Technology Awareness Network Conference, is a  biologist and science communicator. His most recent project involves ecologists and dancers exploring behavioural ecology through the medium of dance. The Somatic Scientific shows are a partnership between Simon Fraser University and the Link Dance Foundation. Imagine dancers acting out symbiotic interactions in coral reefs. The shows have received a lot of great feedback from the public.

It is okay to be into arts and science and more parallels should be drawn in schools. We would all benefit from a better appreciation of both. In the age of social media, having and arts background would help greatly.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite poems. It is by Walter Garstang, a marine larval biologist who pioneered a lot of research in the field. A collection of his poems on larval evolution and biology was published posthumously. Take a look at the poem, he presents some pretty heavy science and biology but in an understandable and entertaining way.

From "Larval Forms, and Other Zoological Verses",
Walter Garstang, 1958

Oikopleura, Jelly-builder
Oikopleura, masquerading as larval Ascidian,
Spins a jelly-bubble-house about its meridian:
His tail, doubled under, creates a good draught,
that drives water forward and sucks it in aft.

A filter in front collects all the fine particles
Micro-flagellates and similar articles
Which pour in a stream through a jelly-built tunnel
Into its mouth and its mucillage funnel.

The funnel begins with his endostyle gland,
which flicks mucus up to his circular band:
the stream through his mouth trails it out into threads,
and the whole is rotated as fast as it spreads.

In effect this rotator's a neat centrifuge
that let's out the water and let's in the ooze:
The water is sucked outwards by paired water wheels,
the residue serves him with plentiful meals.

Now although Oikopleura sits by himself
In the midst of his house on a jelly-built shelf,
He's firmly attached in front by his snout,
and never lets go till his house wears out.

But his body behind is completely free
and bathed by the water that comes from the sea
Through two lattice windows let into the walls,
Which limit the size of incoming hauls.

Into this water-space the effluents flow
That start from the spiracles' outward throw:
And lest water-pressure the bubble should burst,
a tubular valve in front blows first.

What shall we say of this marvellous creature
Who breaks all the rules by his composite nature?
he puzzle increases the more it's observed
How far from the track of his fellows he's swerved.

When his jelly-house starts as a lump on his back,
His tail is the finger that stretches it slack:
He probes with its tip between body and test
And loosens the parts which too closely are pressed.

Then, after windows and and traps are all ready,
The tail pops inside, and with motions more steady,
sets the pump working, the water streams in,
The jelly house swells, and the fishings begin.

We believe we can satisfy any scrutator
That anatomy, house, and pharyngeal rotator
Are pure Doliolid in all their relations,
With highly original specialisations.

His tail is the problem and also the base,
For nothing will work if this you erase:
It seems that, from lack of metamorphosis,
He's larva and adult in half and half doses.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Surfing for Science

In Surfing for Science we explore articles and videos on the web about science communication.
  • Is social media a fad? More likely, Social media is a Revolution. This video by Socialnomics details some facts on social media that are hard to ignore. See how social media stacks up to other types of media and how important it is to the present and future generations. Social media a fad? I think not. 
  • Michael McRae, a science educator from Australia discusses how science communication and education relate in the blog post Science Communication and education - Micahel McRae from PodBlack Cat. He gives some tips and pointers for teaching science in school and how to be an effective science communicator.
  • Are protests a good way of getting your message across? Framing science discusses how Protests in Copenhagen are unlikely to be an effective communication strategy. Although protests are organized by passionate people, their message is often unclear. The campaigns tend to appeal to like-minded protestors, however does the message appeal to the general public? How the protests are covered in the news can also hurt the message they are trying to communicate.
  • How important is blogging to science communication? It is another way of engaging the public in science and it is gaining more attention each day. Blogging provides a way for scientists to directly communicate with the interested public. Michael White from Adaptive Complexity talks about Why You should Blog and how it complements professional journalism.

Monday, December 14, 2009

How I forgot to send it in.

We put a lot of emphasis on narratives in science communication, so I'd like to share a story with you. Every week we have assigned readings for our "Theories and Principles of Science Communications" class. The class covers rhetorical analysis of science communication. We send in discussion questions before class and find a communication artefact (article, video, poster, etc.) that demonstrates the topic we’re discussing. Our last day of class, my classmate James, forgot. This is his e-mail to our professor, Dr. Philippa Spoel.

From: James Baxter-Gilbert
To: Philippa Spoel
Subject: How I forgot to send it in.

Sorry I did not send you my questions from the reading for Monday. I would like to tell you the story of the explanation why and how it happened.

How I forgot to send it in... a tale by James Baxter Gilbert

Our story begins with a plucky young science communication student named James. There was something unique about James, he had the uncanny ability to lose all track of time (both during the course of a day, the day of the week, and occasionally what year it is). This ability to become temporally lost has hindered James on many occasions, but it also becomes very handy when camping or doing tedious tasks. It may be linked to his aversion to wearing a watch, but no one knows for sure.

One Sunday James was preparing for a communication trip to the Far North, to attempt to establish ties with the Eabametoong Aboriginal community. James had complied a mental list of things to do, such as pack, prepare for the meetings, get a good night’s sleep, and, of course, do his rhetoric readings and send them in, as well a myriad of other things.

Sadly James' internet had been down for the past week, and he was relying on the Science North’s connection to receive his emails. So he knew he had to head in to complete all of the tasks on his list.

Throughout the course of the day James was checking thing out his list.... and then it struck. James had lost his sense of time once again and suddenly it was night. He was worried he would over sleep and miss Dr. Dave in the morning and in doing so... his flight! He rushed to bed forgetting to check his list, and forgetting to send in his questions for his rhetoric class.

Luckily he did not over sleep, and made the flight north. While sitting at breakfast the next day James' mind began to review the work he needed to do when he got home from the trip. Seeing a geologist working on her laptop he thought to himself, "I mustn't forget to send in the question for the rhetoric reading for Monday's class". And then it hit him... today was Monday... he had miss sending it in, his computer was 600km away, and he had no Internet or cell phone coverage to let anyone know. Sadly there was nothing he could do until Wednesday when he returns to Sudbury and Science North.
And here I am.    

The end.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Latest articles from the Science Communication class

Classes are over, but we're still working away at our projects. As Sarah mentioned, we have two papers due Monday and we just finished a week of various presentations.We have our extracurricular projects too! We always try to "walk the talk" as Dr. Dave always says. So here are some of the latest articles written by us for local newspapers.

Jenn McCallum wrote the article, "Vitamin C, colds and health" for the Sudbury Star (Dec 5, 2009). It gives the history and clears up the issues about fighting colds with Vitamin C. My (Justin So) article on "Confronting the challenge of Aboriginal Diabetes" was published in The Northern Life (Dec 2, 2009). It talks about the issues surrounding aboriginal diabetes and the local cafe scientifique on it.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Twas the night before... the last day of classes.

Well, with a snow storm in Sudbury, semester one is coming to a close!  It has been quite the experience!  The last month has been really busy for all of us!  We have spent hours working on presentations for various classes (such as our Audiences and Issues class, where we had to present any science topic to a chosen audience) and preparing for final papers and assignments.  Now that classes are done for the semester, we have less than a week to finish up our two final papers before enjoying a relaxing holiday season!
All I can say is how lucky we are to have such a supportive bunch!  With all of the work to get done in this program, it can be overwhelming at times!  Being able to go out and enjoy the activities going on in and around Sudbury (between paper-writing and presentation-preparing sessions, of course!) has been one of our main stress relievers this semester!
Every year at Science North, there is the Festival of Lights, where the parking lot at Science North gets set up with beautiful displays of Christmas lights!  Parking lot entrance is by donation only and raises money for local charities.  Some of us spent an evening there walking around in the snow enjoying the lights!  The night we went, we donated towards the Ten Rainbows Foundation.  Check out the Science North media release  for more information about the Festival of Lights.

Julie, Holly, Sarah and Merissa at the Festival of Lights

This year, we also had a great time at Chantal’s annual Christmas party!  (For those who don’t know, Chantal is one of the Co-Directors of the Science Communication Program.  She is in charge of a lot and also teaches us a few classes!)  Although there was not much snow on the ground last night (and just so you all know, there is PLENTY of snow today), everyone had a great time outdoors sliding, and had an extremely relaxing and fun evening! 

SciComm Students having fun in the snow at Chantal's...

We all want to extend very warm thanks to Chantal and her family for hosting us!  We had a great time and really appreciate how much you and all of the other Science Communication staff really make us feel like family!

I wish all my fellow Science Communicators a happy holiday and very good luck on finishing up those two papers!  We are (almost) half way there – We will soon have our G.Dips (I put that in there for you, Myles)! 
Also, for fun, here is a remake of “The Night Before Christmas” by Clement C. Moore – but this time, it’s SciComm style!  I had some help from Julie and Holly! Also, please note that the reason I went into Science Communication is because my forte is in science – and not poetry.  Enjoy!


'Twas the night before the last day of class, when all through Chantal’s house
The SciComm students were tired, but not quiet like mouse...s
The Secret Santa gifts were put under the tree with care,
In hopes that we would be able to open them there;
Chantal’s kiddies were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of Julie’s shortbread cookies danced in their heads;
And the SciComm students who had gotten dressed and said some puns,
Had just run outside for some fantastic sliding fun,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I ran down to the lake to see what was the matter.
Mylene’s sliding was fast – she flew like a flash,
Into the tree she had a big crash!
The moon was out but there wasn’t much snow
Kevin and James ran into rocks and objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But more SciComm students, and all of their sliding gear,

With her expertise, so lively and quick,
Out came Chantal with all of her sliding tricks!
As soon as she spoke, quiet we became
And she whistled, and shouted, and called us by name;
“Now, Justin! now, James! now, Merissa and Mylene!
On, Kevin! on Steph! on, Myles and Jenn!
Slide to the bottom of the hill! On the way down, don’t hit the wall!
(Then) It’s cold outside so let’s go inside, that is all!" 

Not quite as fast as the speed of light,
We went inside – it was quite a sight,

So up to the living room we all quickly flew,
With our rosy red cheeks, and Iara’s crutches too.
And then, I hear, beginning in the other room
The “Happy Birthday” song – Holly’s 23rd Birthday I assume.
As Sarah busted out the camera, and got ready to picture take,
In came Justin with a homemade red velvet cake.
Holly blew out her candles with all the strength that it took,
And I hoped that her cake would taste as delicious as it looked.

With all of our plans right on track,
Our gifts, one by one, we began to unpack.
To each person, the gifts Justin did carry!
As we opened the gifts we all were so merry!
Despite these events, the excitement was getting a little low,
After a day full of science presentations, we were tired, you know!
Some girls wound down doing dishes in the kitchen,
Despite Chantal’s orders not to do them.

We also grabbed some extra cookies to fill up our bellies,
And drank our hot chocolate and apple drink that were wonderful-smelling.
The guys and Merissa went out for some air,
While Iara sat on the couch, her sore knee and upcoming papers her only cares;
A look at Holly and the drop of her head,
“I think she’s falling asleep by the fire,” I said;
She must have been dreaming of quarks or quirks,
And we knew we should head home so tomorrow we could do homework,

Getting all bundled up to drive home in the cold,
We were told to check our emails to see how Wednesday’s class would unfold;
We were thankful for Chantal and family’s hospitality,
Because we had a fantastic time – honestly.
I don’t think I heard it (but I know everything thought it) as we drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night."

Have a safe and happy holiday!

Science Communication Class Christmas Photo 2009
-    Sarah

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Communicating Forensic Science and the CSI Effect

Our guest lecturer this past week for our Thursday forum was Dr. Scott Fairgrieve, Associate professor of Forensic science at Laurentian and Forensic Anthropologist for the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario. He talked to us about the importance of science communication in his field.

I never really thought of science communication in law or forensic science, but it makes sense. Every time Dr. Fairgrieve is explaining evidence in court, it is science communication. It is especially tough because you are communicating to a jury who come with a lot of preconceptions.

Dr. Fairgrieve called this the "CSI effect". Thanks to shows like CSI, NCIS, Bones etc, forensic science has become sexy and entertaining. In the real world, however, cases are not wrapped up in 1 hr time slots. He mentioned one incident where his report took an entire year after the case began. Processing DNA so quickly is also a bit of an exaggeration. (I'm not picking on the science of CSI, I know it is a show... but it still bugs me when they do not balance the centrifuge.)

He anecdotally mentioned that juries seem to place a lot more emphasis on forensic evidence because of CSI. At the same time, he needs to dispel TV forensic myths so that they have an understanding of the science. It is skill that needs to be developed in all forensic scientists that have to present evidence. In the forensic program, his students go through a "moot court" where they practice being expert witnesses.

Various personnel of the law need to understand the forensic science, from the police officers initially approaching a crime scene to the lawyers and judges in court. Imagine trying to defend or prosecute a person if you didn't understand the forensic evidence or how it was obtained!

To help promote understanding of his field, he was involved with developing a forensic science DVD for law personnel and forensic science students called "Forensic field techniques for human remains: An introduction".

Lastly, Dr. Fairgrieve has to work with the media. Since he works mainly on homicide cases, the media often contact him for comments. Although he is not allowed to discuss current cases, he sees these as opportunities to dispel misconceptions. It is a skill to deal with media who are trying to extract details out of you on current cases. After all, they are just trying to do their job. 

It was really interesting hearing about Dr. Fairgrieve's experiences, and it just goes to show that science communication is truly everywhere.

If you are interested in the forensic sciences program at Laurentian, visit their website. They also have forensic science podcasts and a promotional video posted that were developed by Dr. Fairgrieve and previous SciComm students.

- Justin

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Careers in science communication?

One of the first questions I had when researching this program was "What kind of job or career can I get with this program?". It is a hard question to answer quickly. It is like asking what careers can you get in Biology? Which field? Zoology? Microbiology? Marine biology? Entomology? You could be a research scientist, a professor, a lab technician, an environmental officer, a policy maker, an aquaculture technician, a zoo keeper, a field biologist... and the list goes on.

Science communication is even harder to describe because it encompasses and connects with so many different fields. Think about it. In what jobs/careers would you communicate science? The most obvious answer would be working in a science centre/zoo/aquarium. You could design exhibits, educational programs, marketing plans, communication plans. If you are interested in podcasts or radio, think about Bob MacDonald at Quirks and Quarks. For television, you could have a career at Discovery Channel on one of their many science programs.

I've mentioned the more sensational ones, but lots of governmental and non-governmental organizations need science communicators to write science policy or distill the information for ministers or the public.Off the top of my head, organizations like Project Seahorse, World Wildlife Fund, or Ontario Power Generation. One of our past graduates did her internship at Pollution Probe in Toronto and is now their project manager.

In the movie Angels and Demons (Dan Brown) there is science fiction regarding using material from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to make a bomb. The organizations and scientists with the LHC created a website to distinguish fact from fiction. Without good science communicators, there could be a lot more fear and misunderstanding about the entire project.

So... why not just get these jobs with the education you have? Say... a Bachelors or Masters (or even Doctorate) in science. You absolutely could, but it would be a bit harder. Just because you have one or more degree in science doesn't mean that you can communicate well (Think about your most boring university professor..everyone has one). Also, all the practical and transferable skills you learned during your university career are not necessarily apparent to employers.

After completing a program in science communication it will be quite apparent on you CV, not to mention that you'll have a portfolio showing potential employers what you can do. In North America we are the only comprehensive program in science communication. Because we are unique and because this is a rapidly growing field it makes your CV/resume stand out.

Before I applied to the program, I emailed lots of alumni to see where they ended up. Many of them had jobs in the field soon after graduation. One alumna commented that she was getting interviews and job offers for positions that normally went to people with Phds. Her Science Communication diploma really distinguished her from other candidates.

This program is so worthwhile and the career options are huge. You readers must think I'm biased since I'm always "selling" the program. I'm in the program so I am biased. It is just that I see so many potential opportunities with this diploma that I find it hard to contain my enthusiasm.

- Justin

Monday, November 30, 2009

On why I like Arthropods

In science... or in any job/career for that matter, it is important to work in a field that you enjoy. You never know when a particular field will pique your interest!

I didn’t always like arthropods. In fact, as a child, I was pretty afraid of them. At the sight of a spider, I would get my dad to come into the room and kill it for me. Even as a teenager, the idea of creepy multi-legged creatures would make my skin crawl. It wasn’t until university that I began to change my mind about arthropods.

Left: Jenn holding a giant millipede and a giant hissing cockroach.

You may be wondering, what are arthropods? Well, they can be one of very many things. They can be arachnids, such as the little house spiders that terrified me as a little girl. They can be millipedes or centipedes, those speedy little many legged, multi-segmented creatures. They can also be crustaceans, like lobsters, crabs and shrimp, which may end up on our dinner plates. But my favourite type of arthropods is the insects, such as the hard-working honeybees, and beautiful butterflies.

The transition from fear of arthropods to liking them didn’t occur quickly. It started with a second-year university class on the ‘Biology of Plant Pests’. That was my fist introduction into insect life, and I learned mostly about insects that we call pests: the highly adaptive Colorado potato beetle, the invasive gypsy moth, and the destructive cotton bollworm. Although the course generally put a negative spin about insects, it did enlighten me about insect life stages, and I gained a new understanding about this category of creatures.

In my fourth year of university, I had the opportunity to take another course about insects. It was called ‘Behaviour of Insects’, and the prof was always full of energy and enthusiasm in his teaching. This course really introduced me to the cool things about insects: cannibalism, mating rituals, and the roles of insects in the environment.

There is a famous quotation from biophilosopher Dr. Jonas Salk: "If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on earth would end.” My professor for ‘Behaviour of Insects’ really hit that point home, in teaching the class all about the roles of insects for decomposing waste matter, pollinating flowers and crops, and producing useful materials such as silk and honey.

Shortly after taking my fourth year insects course, I worked as a research assistant for an entomologist. She entrusted me with the job of feeding, watering, and cleaning her ‘pets’. These consisted of giant African millipedes, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and Indian walking sticks. At this point, I was only comfortable handling the walking sticks, because they look (and are) absolutely harmless: they look just like sticks. More importantly, they don’t feel like much: a gentle tickle as their feet move across your palm. That summer, I only ever summoned up the courage to hold the walking sticks, but it was a start.

Right: A Giant millipede in Jenn's hand.

Now, however, I am working at Science North in the Nature Exchange. This is the epicentre for touchable arthropods at Science North. Among the arthropods, there is the massive, harmless atlas beetle, giant African snails, and my two nemeses from the summer of 2008: Madagascar hissing cockroaches and giant millipedes (these ones happen to be from Malaysia, though). By interacting with my fellow Nature Exchange staff, who are wonderful people, and by taking out arthropods for visitors to see, I have gained the courage to pick up and hold all of the above creatures.

I think I can now declare myself fully initiated into the world of arthropods. The two methods that worked for me to get to this stage were: education and exposure. My advice to you would be, that if you would like to become more comfortable with arthropods, you must do two things. First, you must learn more about them, and secondly, you must force yourself to go see them. Perhaps you will summon up the courage to touch their exoskeleton. Maybe one day, you’ll even feel ready to hold an arthropod.

- Jenn McCallum, B.Sc.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Science and Technology Awareness Network Conference and Networking tips

Alright people... it has been a couple weeks since I got back from the Science and Technology Awareness Network Conference in Ottawa. I would have posted sooner, but we're a really busy bunch in the SciComm program. Our weeks are packed with lectures, work, guest lectures and pet projects. I'm not complaining mind you. It is just context for why I haven't posted on STAN...

I left Sudbury at midnight and took the seven hour Greyhound bus to Ottawa. I slept surprisingly well. I bused/walked downtown to get to the Marriott Hotel where the conference was being held. It was November 10, the day before Remembrance Day. Ottawa had a particularly Canadian feel to it that day. Everyone on the street had a red poppy in their jacket and a Tim Hortons cup in their hand.

At the hotel, I quickly ducked into a bathroom and changed/cleaned myself up for the conference. I may have slept well, but seven hour bus rides don't exactly make you presentable. At the conference, I happened to sit at a table with Let's Talk Science (LTS) and Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) representatives. I'm trained as a fisheries/marine biologist and I'm a LTS alumna so I knew I was in good company.

The 6th annual conference was aimed at "building an innovation culture" and "understanding issues that influence youth choices". All the talks were great, but the one that stuck out for me was by Bill Buxton. (You can find his talk on the STAN website). It was the first talk and a keynote address. Bill Buxton is a principal researcher for Microsoft. He is also Canadian, a former professor at U of T and a musician!

His biggest complaint was that Canada is losing its culture of innovation and creativity. When Bill was a student, he worked with computers at the National Research Council (NRC) to compose music. He and his colleagues at the NRC had an idea for a computerized drum. This involved having a computer be able to distinguish various touches on a panel. Sound familiar? That same technology is now used world wide in  cellphones, computers, PDAs, Cameras etc. Canada is credited for pioneering this technology, but it was commercialized by companies in the US who saw the potential for it.

Nowadays, a lot of research grants go towards applied technology research. Canada is funding things that will be useful... supposedly. In our current research culture, we never would have produced touch pad technology. The first point of Bill's drum example (one of many during the presentation) was that you never know where innovations may come from. We need a playground for researchers that allows them to pursue ideas.

Bill had a great analogy for our culture today. Hockey. We have an amazing hockey culture in Canada today. The system however is built so that all Canadians can enjoy and play hockey. There are local leagues and minor leagues, recreational hockey and professional hockey. The hockey culture in Canada provides resources and cultivates talent. However.. the point of hockey is NOT to produce the next Gretzky. Sometimes that talent comes along however and the resources are in place to help them be great.

Can you see where this analogy is going? In Canada, our research and technology culture is the opposite. We only want to fund the Gretzkys. To create a science culture in Canada we need to integrate everyone! That means making science accessible and appreciated by the general public. It means engaging students in school in science. It means we need to get back to basic science to play around and explore! It means celebrating our achievements in science! All these things are important and are unfortunately lacking in Canada.

Scientists are concerned. We need a shift in culture to change this around. It is why STAN held that conference and why science communicators are needed.

There were many other talks that day, but like I said, Bill's keynote address had the most impact on me. I'll hopefully post more on these talks in the upcoming weeks.

Now that you've let me rant, I'll give you some practical tips for networking at a conference.
  • Have business cards. I can't stress this enough. It is always good to have a business card to hand out to people. You never know if there is a potential employer or good contact in the room. Not sure what to put on your business card? Name, address, degrees, title (it says graduate student on mine), contact information. Follow this link for some tips on making a card.
  • Do your research. It is impossible to meet everyone at a conference. An old labmate of mine attended a conference with over 2000 people. Look at the agenda and pick out a few people you want to meet. It will make those networking breaks a lot easier. You may also find someone you know who can introduce you to people.
  • Introduce yourself. Saying "Hi my name is..." can be difficult if you are not used to walking up to strangers and introducing yourself. It is vital for meeting people though and it takes practice. If you are are having trouble, start small. Introduce yourself to other students.
Hope these tips help and I hope you are thinking a little bit more about science awareness in Canada.

- Justin

Monday, November 23, 2009

Information Session Reminder!

Hi All,

Just a reminder that we are having an information session about the Science Communication Program tomorrow (Tuesday, November 24th)from noon until 1 p.m. in the Library Instruction Room (just inside the front doors of the Library). Students and faculty will be there to talk about the Science Communication program and to answer questions.

If you are passionate about communicating science, or even just a little curious, come to the information session. Find out first hand from our students why they chose this rapidly growing field.

If you are not able to attend but still want to know about the program, feel free to contact program directors Dave Pearson (dpearson AT or Chantal Barriault (barriault AT (Just replace the " AT " with @)


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Social Media, a world of new opportunities (aka Portfolio Building 4)

Lisa Lambert, research associate with the Council of Canadian Academies and former SciCommie did a two hour whirlwind lecture on social media with us. It would be impossible to fit all the information mentioned, so I'll stick with the highlights and some "words from the wise" on getting started in social media.

Social media, what is it? It's digital and computerized information that we are exposed to everyday and it is still a vastly untapped field. This includes blogs, websites, CDs, youtube videos, twitter, facebook... and these are just the popular ones.

This generation is being exposed to vast amounts of information, unlike any other generation before us. Not only can a user search out content on the internet, but they can take it and personalize it, then post it back on the internet. User generated content is huge, just look at anything on Youtube. Here is a nice science related one call the Large Hadron Rap.

Scientists, communicators and big business are really starting to tap into the field of social media.Scientific America has 60-second science. Check out this one on Dark Matter:

There are a ton more videos out there, not to mention podcasts, slideshows and more. So what's the point? New social media (if done right) can reach a lot of people and simply take off. If we as scientists and science communicators want to engage the public in science, these are some powerful tools to do so. These tools are gaining attention and were recently noted in Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's "The Intersection" blog.

Projects in social media are also a great way to build up your portfolio for the program and future employers. I realize that I have been gearing the portfolio building posts towards getting in this program, but it is a great thing to show employers too. Show them what you can do!

So... on to some tips of the trade to help you get your feet wet in social media:
  1. Have a specific goal. Social media is a vast field and you really need to narrow what you want to do, and the skills you need to learn to put it together. Floundering around will only exhaust yourself. Pick a medium, the subject goal, and run with it.
  2. Be part of the audience. As I mentioned in the science writing post, it is important to be part of the audience and learn which strategies are good and which are bad. There are some great examples of social media out there and some not so great ones. This leads me to the next tip...
  3. Trust your instincts. If you see something really funny or interesting, chances are someone else will find it funny and interesting. Chris Mah from the Smithsonian has a great blog on echinoderms called the "Echinoblog"
  4. Invest in good equipment. I'm not suggesting that everyone goes out and buys a $3000 video camera and microphone, but investing in good equipment will go a long way. Nothing turns off viewers more than really bad sound and video quality. You can do a lot with a computer microphone for less than $50. You can create your own talkshow or podcast for free online at BlogTalkRadio. Many decent flip cameras are quite affordable right now. Christmas is also coming up....
  5. Don't cross-script. This tip is more for videos and slideshows. Do not narrate or talk about something, while the picture is on something else. This will only confuse your viewers. I'm sure there are learning and psychology research papers on conflicting signals and how it is bad for learning. However, cross-scripting is just plain annoying...
  6. Have a good story. Story telling as has been mentioned many times in our program is a great way for getting knowledge across. More importantly it is interesting! The 60-second science videos are a great example of this.
  7. BE CREATIVE!!!!! This point can't be emphasized enough. This is a newish field with huge opportunities. The only thing you are limited by is your creativity and imagination.
You are bound to make mistakes, but the field is still new. It is a forgiving time in social media. You will be constantly learning because the technology is always changing and new programs are always coming out. (I learned how to embed videos into a blog today... yay for me!).

This post is a glimmer of our amazing class on social media last week. It shows one of the amazing things you can do after the program. Lisa is also a great example of how far you can take the skills you learn in the program.

I'll leave you with one last video (a favorite of mine). It is by a company by Bio-rad which makes PCR machines... PCR (polymerase chain reaction) is used amplify DNA for sequencing.

- Justin

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Northern Ontario School of Medicine

Continuing on the topic of aboriginal outreach, we visited the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) at the Laurentian campus this week. At the Cafe Scientifique, I was amazed to hear an aboriginal woman talk about how her aboriginal and "western" doctors communicated and collaborated to provide the best plan for her.

This kind of cooperation and understanding is what the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) is all about. We were lucky to hear from members of NOSM; Ian Peltier, Interim Director; Frances Mandamin, Program Coordinator; and Sam Senecal, Regional Aboriginal Community Coordinator.

The medical school sends their students every year to aboriginal communities so that they get a better understanding of the communities and how to collaborate with them. First year med students do a four week placement in an aboriginal community. Second year students do two four-week in remote and rural communities and third year students spend an entire year in a host community.

Students do a reflective project where they compare their thoughts and preconceptions of aboriginal communities before and after visiting. This type of program is unlike any other program in the world. It gives students first hand experience in Northern communities and it breaks down barriers between students and members of aboriginal communities.

Sam was really proud of the program and the students. He said that he knew they were doing something right when students were calling the community placements "life changing".

The medical students also run a science camp for aboriginal youth during the summer. The youth take part in forensic and medical science activities. It is another way of engaging aboriginal youth and showing them the opportunities available for them to pursue.

Programs that engage aboriginal communities take time, patience, trust and a whole lot of work. You have to take the time to build a working relationship with communities. NOSM is doing a great job and should be a model to follow for other provinces.

For more information on the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, visit their website.

- Justin

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cafe Scientifique

A few weeks ago, we attended a Thursday forum regarding science outreach to aboriginal communities in the far north. This month, there was a cafe scientifique along the same topic.

Last week some of us attended a cafe scientifique hosted by the Canadian Diabetes association. It was on "Confronting the challenges of Aboriginal diabetes" and took place at the Librarie du Nouveau Ontario.

Cafe scientifiques are places where the public can come, have a cup of coffee and explore topics in science and technology. The cafes take place in cafes, bars, restaurants, or any informal setting. There are usually 2-3 'experts' in the area to provide information and discuss the topic, but the direction of the discussions are entirely citizen driven. Cafe scientifiques are very popular in europe and especially in UK where they began.

Our moderator for the evening was Dr. Darrell Manitowabi, Native Studies professor at Laurentian University. His PhD research was conducted on the holistic effects (employment, community and infastructure impacts) of Casino Rama on the Rama Mnjikaning First Nation near Orillia.

The two speakers were Dr. Marion Maar, Northern Ontario School of Medicine, and Dr. Dawn Martin-Hill, Indigenous Studies professor at McMaster University. Dr. Maar's research is in aboriginal community health and research ethics in aboriginal communities. Dr. Martin-Hill's long list of research interests include indigenous knowledge & environmental conservation, Indigenous women, spirituality, colonialism’s impact on Indigenous people & medicine, and the contemporary practice of Indigenous traditionalism.

These highly qualified speakers started the discussion with a 10 minute "talk" to introduce the topic. Diabetes is a major issue for aboriginal communities. The occurrence of diabetes is three times higher in aboriginal communities than the national average. Children are being increasingly diagnosed with old-age onset diabetes (Type II diabetes). If left untreated, diabetes leads to heart, kidney, and eye problems. Diabetes-related nerve damage in the limbs can lead to gangrene and amputation.

Diet and exercise can help individuals manage diabetes. However, the psycho-social impacts of forced assimilation through residential schools, as well as poverty, have resulted in poor diets in aboriginals. Often food needs to be flown into far north communities and as I learned yesterday sometimes there is a pecking order. Youth are left to eat what hasn't already been picked by the adults, medical professionals and other higher ups in the community. What they are left with is junk food, which exacerbates the problem of diabetes.

Some aboriginal mothers admitted possibly over-feeding their children, so that they do not experience starvation as the parents once did.

Dr. Martin-Hill suggested that the solution lied in returning to traditional foods which met with nods of agreement around the room. It is not an easy task however as one man lamented about government imposed restrictions that made it challenging for him to hunt for moose, a traditional aboriginal prey. In addition it would be unsafe to eat large amounts of local fish due to toxic mercury build up in fish.

Aboriginal women told the stories of family members who had suffered or died from diabetes. The women explained that since diabetes is so common in their communities, people simply expect to get diabetes, at some point during their lives. This attitude may also come from the mistaken western idea that aboriginals are genetically prone to get diabetes. A few individuals are currently managing the disease well, through support groups and by integrating aboriginal and western medicines.

The health care professionals in attendance seemed grateful for the open dialogue. They thought that doctors and nurses who work with aboriginals required more training in order to improve their practice. The open dialogue that started that night will hopefully continue between the aboriginal communities and the health care professionals.

Café scientifiques are all about engagement. The objective behind them is collaboration; such that both scientific and public views are heard. Hopefully we will have more cafe scientifiques in Sudbury in the future.

- Justin

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

SciComm Program Information Session

Attention all 3rd and 4th year students!

The Science Communication Graduate Diploma is ten month program that gives students the theory, skills and experience to build a career in science. Laurentian is the only university in North America with this multidisciplinary graduate program.

There’ll be an information session about the program on Tuesday, November 24th, from noon until 1 p.m. in the Library Instruction Room (just inside the front doors of the Library). Students and faculty will be there to talk about the Science Communication program and to answer questions.

Our graduates are working in diverse careers in the Council of Canadian Academies, Royal Tyrrell Dinosaur Museum in Alberta, the SNO Lab, environmental consulting companies, the provincial and federal governments, medical writing firms, and teaching science in the U.K.

If you are passionate about communicating science, or even just a little curious, come to the information session. Find out first hand from our students why they chose this rapidly growing field.

If you can’t be there on Tuesday, November 24th, just send me an e-mail and we can arrange a time to meet with me and some of this year’s students.

All the best for the last weeks of the semester.

David Pearson
Co-Director, Graduate Program in Science Communication.
dpearson AT

Friday, November 13, 2009

Portfolio Building 3: Science writing

There are many chances to 'walk the talk' as Dr. Dave calls it, or 'practice what you preach'. This past weekend, Kevin wrote an article for the Sudbury Star (the local paper) on the science of Star Trek. Expect more articles from Kevin and the rest of the class on a variety of science topics.

Although our program is not specifically geared towards science journalism, there are plenty of ways for us to practice science writing. It may be through writing science reviews to doing special projects in our GRA. This blog is another way to practice our science communication.

When trying to build your portfolio consider writing for your University or local newpaper. There are also lots of online kids science magazines that take submissions from people like Curiocity, Yes Mag, or more formal sites like

Lastly, if you want to be a good writer, you should be a good reader. By reading science blogs, magazines and books you can get a feel for the elements of good science writing. Reading all sorts of other topics may also help you relate your science topic to everyday life.

For great examples of science essays, look up books by David Suzuki or Stephen Jay Gould. There is also a wonderful series called 'The Best American Science Writing'. I'm reading the latest 2009 book and they have some really great pieces of science writing. You can also check out the Canadian Science Writers Association for more information on the topic.

So keep reading and and writing and I'll keep you up to date on our latest publications.

- Justin

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Portfolio Building 2: Live Programming - Sciensational Sssnakes!!

Live programming is a great way to build up your portfolio and practice science communication. There are a ton of different programs across Canada that you can volunteer or work with. In this post, our snake guy James Baxter-Gilbert talks about his experiences in live programming with live animals.

In the town of Orillia Ontario there is a house that is home to well over 200 scaly critters, and a crew of people that care for them as well as the world’s perception of them. This house is the Sciensation Sssnales!! headquarters and it is soon to be the location of Scales Nature Park. The company is owned and operated by Jeff Hathaway and Jenny Peirce, their goal, to better public understanding of reptiles, particularly snakes. Initially part time, it became Jenny’s full-time occupation late in 1996, and Jeff’s in 2001. On average they talk to 25,000 people every year about the amazing reptiles of Canada and try to customize the shows to the animals indigenous to the area they are presenting in.

James working with Sciensational Sssnakes!! in Alberta. He's holding a Black Rat snake.

I had the pleasure of working with Scisensational Sssnakes!! for two consecutive summers and it is hard to find a better crash course in public engagement and science communication, particularly on a topic that many people feel strongly against. Personally I love snakes, well all reptiles really, but I certainly have a soft spot for snakes. Many people though do not share my, and Sciensational Sssnakes!! views, of these fantastic creatures. So it became their mission statement to better understanding and feelings toward snakes and reptiles in general by conducting public outreach in the form of shows.

James at the  at the Rogers Centre (Toronto, ON) for a pregame show.

The typical show has two parts, and consists of five native species of snake, two native species of turtle and two exotic species of snake. This combination allow for the presenter to discuss the importance of conservation of several species and raise awareness regarding native fauna and which species make good pets (corn snakes) and which snakes do not (native species and large snakes like Burmese pythons and Boa constrictors). Each species is allotted a short segment (couple of minutes) so tell the public some interesting facts about the species and reptiles in general.

It becomes important to engage the public often throughout this part of the show to keep their attention. This can be accomplished several ways, one is to have multiple people working the individual segments of the show, this allow for the lecture style portion of the show to remain fresh and dynamic. Another technique is to have questions for the public built into the show, relying on a back and forth with the public (sometimes with leading questions), effectively holding their attention as well.

The second portion of the show involves actually allowing the public to hold, touch, and even wear some of the animals used in the show. This is likely the riskiest part of the show, not for the public but for the snakes. It is important to monitor the snake’s behavior the entire time to make sure the animal is not getting too stressed. Certain species are better at hands on engagement with the public and having people that know the snakes  is a good way to read the animals behavior to ensure that all is going well during a show. Many staff even live at the Sci-Snake HQ, taking care of the animals.

They mostly working within Ontario, but in the past few years, in cooperation with Laurentian University, the “Reptiles at Risk on the Road” project has taken Sci-Snake staff across Canada, shows from coast to coast, spreading the good word about Canada reptiles. This was likely my favorite experience with this job. We got a van and trailer and drove across the country just talking to people about what we where passionate about, snakes and other reptiles. Moving from town to town, meeting new people every day, we learned more about the rest of Canada, while we teach the rest of Canada about what we know.

Sometimes during a show, especially if you are having an off day, it seems like the crowd just isn’t getting it, or more likely you are not putting it out there properly. But afterward when the odd keener finds you, and thanks you for coming and tells you that they really learned a lot, it is just an amazing feeling. The feeling that there is a chance that you just triggered the spark, one that someone once triggered in you a long time ago, to learn more, maybe one day study reptiles. That is by far the best feeling, only bettered by days that you are in the groove. The show goes perfectly and public engagement was at an all time high, these are rock star days, when everything you have said about biology, conservation, and ecology was readily taken up by a knowledge hungry audience and the impact is seen instantly when the live handling begins.

While I working with this amazing company, and all it even more amazing people, I was able to realize how much I enjoyed public outreach education, as well as how much work there still is to do for reptiles and the vast need for conservation and understand of the limited reptiles we have in Canada. It is really rewarding to see people’s fears and misunderstand melt away just after hearing you talk only talk for a few minutes and then go as far as to hold, pet and maybe wear what they were so recently terrified of.

- James

Monday, November 9, 2009

Science and Technology Awareness Network Conference Nov 9-10

The 6th annual Science and Technology Awareness Network (STAN) is taking place in Ottawa on November 9-10. The network comprises of over 240 public and private sector institutions and one of its many goals is to promote public awareness of science and technology.

Their meeting will have a number of interesting talks ranging from video games and education, technology and culture, to engaging youth through IT.

I will be at the Tuesday session, so expect a post when I get back! I'm really excited to go and meet everyone there. For more information on the conference, follow this link.

- Justin

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Science Communication Program Information Session

We will be hosting an information session next week on the Science Communication program. Current students will be on hand to dole out information on their experiences. For more information, email jx_so AT or keep watching this blog.

The Science-illiterate Public, or the Public-illiterate Scientists?

Dr. Peter Venkman: Alice, I'm going to ask you a couple of standard questions, okay? Have you or any of your family been diagnosed schizophrenic? Mentally incompetant?
Librarian Alice: My uncle thought he was Saint Jerome.
Dr. Peter Venkman: I'd call that a big yes. Uh, are you habitually using drugs? Stimulants? Alcohol?
Librarian Alice: No.
Dr. Peter Venkman: No, no. Just asking. Are you, Alice, menstruating right now?
Library Administrator: What's has that got to do with it?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Back off, man. I'm a scientist.
- Scene from Ghostbusters (1984)

So one of the best movies of all time, Ghostbusters, was on TV yesterday. The conversation between the library administrator and Peter really mirrors the sterotypical relationship between the public and scientists. The public are lay people who don't understand the complexities of science and the scientists are all knowing people who do not have to answer to the intellectual unequals.

Not that there isn't a grain of truth to this. I'm sure there are many scientists and public people feel this way. Some scientists feel like they only belong in the lab and want nothing to do with the public. At the same time, many people do not understand why various types of research are being conducted. I'm reminded of Sarah Palin's comment about American tax dollars going to waste on fruit fly research during the election. To me, the comment is ridiculous, but only because I know that fruit flies are an important organism for studying genetics and genetic disorders in humans. I'm sure that the comment made perfect sense to many people in America and Canada.

This communication gap between scientists and the public was termed the 'deficit' model in the 1980's by social scientists studying science communication. Essentially the model states that public opposition to modern science and technology is because the lack adequate knowledge about it. Scientists can fix this gap by providing lots of information and knowledge to the public. Thus the public, armed with this scientific knowledge, will embrace modern science and technology with open arms and the world will enter a golden age of prosperity.

Yeah... not quite. First of all, a more informed citizen will not necessarily embrace science if he/she has more knowledge. A more informed citizen with a better understanding of nanotechnology or genetically modified organisms may be more strongly against it.

Secondly this idea was noted in the 1980's. It was emphasized again in 1998 with Gregory and Miller's book "Science in Public: Communicatin, Culture and Credibility" and about a decade later in 2009 with Mooney and Kirshenbaum's book "Unscientific America: How scientific illiteracy threatens our future."On a side note, I highly recommend these books for gaining a better understanding of the science communication issues today.

We have made great strides in framing the relationship between scientists and the public and in the field of science communication, however there is still a huge gap. This same topic was highlighted by the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference in Toronto.

This conference was well attended by scientists, engineers, policymakers, governmental officials, students, science writers and commuicators and more. The mission was to build a good science policy network. The conference was organized because there was a concern among the Canadian science circle about the lack of science information reaching policy makers. Chantal Barriault, one of our professors, attended the conference and made waves about citizen conferences and effectively engaging the public in science.

What was shocking to me was an informal internet poll on The Mark News which partnered with the conference to produce a "Science Policy in Canada" topics page. The question was: “Can the public be effectively consulted on the direction of science?”. Up till last week 60-70% said "no". At the time of this post, 55% said "no".

How can we effectively engage the public in science, when scientists don't believe it is possible? This is a huge challenge for a science communicator. To close this gap we need buy in from both sides... it will never happen if both sides don't think it will work.

After all, I don't want to be writing a book on the gap between the public and science another decade from now....

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Science Communication in the Far North

We recently had the chance to hear a presentation by Andy Fyon, Nadine Trodel, and Lori Churchill of the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry (MNDMF), regarding communication methods for remote northern communities. The practices were initiated by, and are an established practice, of MNDMF’s Ontario Geological Survey. A major focus of the presentation was on building a relationship with Aboriginal communities as a foundation for communicating about science, especially geology, to help raise a community’s awareness and understanding about the application of geoscience and the options available to a community regarding socio-economic development related to mineral development.  Historically communication with these communities has not always been the best and it is important for us plucky young science communicators to understand the ins and outs of joint learning and effective science communication techniques geared towards remote First Nation communities.

The traditional lecture and learn approach does not always apply in cultures used to sharing knowledge through the whole community. It is important to understand that we must not approach these communities with the point of view that “I have something to say, and you should listen”, but rather “we both know something and together we can learn more”. Essentially this is what this terrific trio does; they fly in to remote communities, to build relationships with them. All along the way sharing knowledge of geoscience and mineral development and learning more about the people, the culture and the land where these communities exist. This is done with the intent of raising awareness and understanding about each other and about options available to the community so that all parties involved not only can operate in harmony but really gain from the relationship itself.

This method of knowledge sharing and mutual respect is one that for the purpose of the MNDMF is often associated with Aboriginal communities, but can certainly be applied to any public engagement in the field of science communication.

- James Baxter-Gilbert, B.Sc.

James will be working with Dave Pearson and Andy Fyon for his Graduate Research Assistantship on science outreach in Northern communities. We look forward to hearing how it goes.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Dr. Swine Flu Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Shot

Communication regarding the H1N1 has been a hot topic across the country and an interesting case study for class. Myles' personal experiences during reading week echos the sentiments across the country and demonstrates the influence of media.

To begin, I hate needles. I was that 5 year old that you saw 4 nurses running towards because I struck another trying to avoid a meningitis vaccine (true story). I’ve had enough dental work done without Novocain to tenderly know the feel of that drill and not really squirm or squint when it starts to screech. Having a shot is almost as bad as flying for me and I’ve considered cross-country on a train or overseas on cruises (they still do both at a fairly comparable price as well).

So when I first started hearing about the H1N1 vaccine, I was a doubter. I found every reason not to get it. “It’s just a milder flu”, “Young people don’t need it”, “It’s just a way to brainwash people” were some of my favorite phrases for the last 2 months. It just seemed like another thing that the news had overblown and used to fill their hour reports on slow days. And all this before I saw the “Land of Panic” I call Nova Scotia.

Last Saturday, I traveled to Nova Scotia, and it seemed I entered a George Orwell novel. Signs were all over the airport and hand sanitizer stations seemed like a new part of the landscape. As soon as I started driving home, my parents questioned me; "Did you get the vaccine? "When are you going to get the vaccine?" "Why aren't you getting the vaccine now?" And so on.

Everyone was asking, there were clinics being overwhelmed by people trying to get the shot, turning people away at the door, something was arriving in the mail daily telling the horrors of Swine Flu. Yet I maintained that I was not getting a mercury-laden serum than no one knew if it really worked. Then Wednesday rolled around and 3 events occurred that really changed my thinking in a major way.

First I saw a story of a healthy 13-year-old boy from Ontario that passed away from the virus. He had been playing hockey all weekend at a tournament in Mississauga and felt sick. He went to a walk-in clinic on Saturday when he started vomiting but doctors sent him home, advising bed rest and Tylenol and Gravol. Monday morning he had died, never suffering from any disease or condition that aggravated his condition.

The second factor in my conversion was my talk with a good friend’s mom, Lorraine, a nurse. She may have known how to push the right buttons, but what she said really makes sense. She confirmed my beliefs that as a strong young male I may not have the risk of serious heath issues that an infant or an older person does.
However, as a socially responsible person, by getting the vaccine, I decrease my chance of being a host.

This means that I would prevent passing it along to that baby or my grandpa or the whole Sci-comm class and Science North as a whole. That’s one less way that it’s going to keep spreading.  I would be lowering the community’s odds of having another person have an untimely illness resulting in a lengthy hospital visit or worse. I’m not a hero in any way by doing this but I’d like to think that it does count as a good deed.

I happened to meet someone I look up to on Saturday at the Halifax airport, Jack Layton. We got around to talking about what I study, and the fact that when we first started chatting I was writing this. The idea that not being sick is a social responsibility as it breaks the chain of infection resonated with him… If he happens to say this the next few days, remember where you read it first.

The third, most important and real close to home event occurred the following morning. My brother, in St. John’s, got swine flu. Yes, a 19-year-old male, with at least some of my genes got sick and could barely get out of bed. Calls sounded like the brochures to a tee. First he was sore all over, and had been tired for a few days. That afternoon, a cough came on and he could barely breathe. The next say his throat was sore along with a headache. I’ve had the “old thyme” flu before but it sounds like this one really sucks, and at this point he’s still sick.

It’s not just hard on him. He’s had to be quarantined into his residence room, no one getting in or out, no way, no how. If he wants anything staff comes every two hours to drop off food or Advil and just check on him. My mom (and dad though he wont admit it) is a worrier, she wanted to fly down, she calls him at least 6 times a day and she arranged with the only people she happens to know it St. John’s to get him food and Gatorade.

In the end, there is just too much on the table not to get vaccinated. I don’t think that I can avoid H1N1 forever, I don’t want to be the reason people get sick, and I don’t want Kelly Carter on a plane to Sudbury in the middle of the night just to make sure her little boy is okay.  It’s up to everyone to make that decision, but I flew back to Sudbury for the same reason I‘m going to a clinic ASAP, sometimes there’s a lot more sensible reasons to do what you hate rather than avoid it.

- Myles Carter

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Portfolio Building 1: Let's Talk Science

There are lots of ways to get involved in science communication and if you are interested in applying to the SciComm program, you'll need a portfolio. Your portfolio may include anything related to science communication including live programing, live programming design, posters, articles, displays and more. In this first of many portfolio building posts, we'll talk about the university based Let's Talk Science program and how it can give some great experience in this field.

Let's Talk Science (LTS) is an award winning, national program that engages youth in science. The program is run by a small staff and a ton of volunteers (over 2000 to date) and they have partnership programs in most universities across Canada.

Volunteers in the partnership program engage youth, from small kids to high school students in science, engineering and technology activities. The university student volunteers team up with local teachers and go into classrooms to do fun activities, usually related to the teacher's science curriculum. It is a ton of fun for the volunteer and the audience. Depending on your time commitment, you may design your own activity or use ready made kits from your local LTS office. In addition you get experience in communicating science to a variety of levels.

There are many levels of participation in this program. Let's Talk Science has a huge network and has forged a great relationship with local schools. The program sends out volunteers to help judge science fairs, set up science challenge days (All Science Challenge) or conduct on campus activities for visiting schools. If you are interested in science writing, Let's Talk Science has a teen science e-magazine called Cram Science.

I am a alumni from the Memorial University of Newfoundland's LTS program and I was heavily involved in the biology section of "Lab Extravaganza". During "Lab Extravaganza" schools would visit various science departments and labs, and do activities related to research of the university. Fellow graduate student Paul Regular (PhD candidate, sea bird ecology) and I loved looking at research projects and designing an activities out of them.

Let's Talk Science, we're really enthusiastic about science. (Paul Regular, PhD Candidate in seabird ecology, Memorial University)

A particular favorite activity of mine (and also one of my submitted portfolio items) was on Whiskered Auklets to demonstrate sensory adaptations. These birds have feathers that stick out on their heads like whiskers and they live in crevices and burrows. They use the "whiskers" to help navigate in the dark crevices. We built model bird heads out of styrofoam balls and attached whipper snipper cable to half of them for "whiskers". A long cardboard box with open ends was used as a burrow. Students had to close their eyes and try to navigate through the burrow without hitting the bird's head against the sides using whiskered and non-whiskered models. Whiskered models were much easier to get through than non-whiskered models. We would discuss their results and talk about other animals with different sensory parts. For those interested in bird ecology, here is the reference:

Seneviratine, S. and Jones, I.L. 2008. Mechanosensory function for facial ornamentation in the whiskered auklet, a crevice-dwelling seabird. Behavioural Ecology. Published online March 7, 2008. doi:10.1093

Whiskered Auklets

This is an example of how you can take research and transform it into something youth can understand. At the end of the day, that is what science communication is about, transforming science so that a diversity of people can understand and learn about it.

Let's Talk Science is a top notch program and I encourage anyone in science to participate in their activities. They have many more activities than what I've talked about here, so check out their website. It is great for adding to your resume, building your portfolio and it is just plain rewarding.

To find a LTS office near you, visit their website,

- Justin

Monday, October 26, 2009

Speaking whale and public speaking

Are you a little nervous about presenting in front of audiences?  That’s ok, some of us are too!

Once again, spending a morning off in class was just what we were hoping for!  Franco Mariotti, a staff scientist at Science North with over 25 years of science communication experience, engaged us all in a wonderful presentation about presentation skills.  This year, like most years, all of the students in the SciComm program have different backgrounds – we’ve got a teacher, an actress, and other presenters, along with other students who have little or no experience talking in front of groups.  Franco’s presentation about whales was a great opportunity for all of us to be reminded of presentation strategies we may have used in the past, as well as to learn new presentation skills.  

Merissa, after the presentation, taking a look at some of Franco’s props (whale baleen)!

Here are some tips to consider while doing any presentation of your own!
  • Begin with clear objectives.  Make sure you know what you are going to present and try not to be all over the place with information!  An audience likes knowing what you are going to discuss and will be less distracted since they won’t be thinking, ‘I wonder what he will say next...’ 
  • Make it interesting!  Do your research and learn about what you’re presenting.  If you find it interesting, chances are the audience will also find it interesting!  Also, the more prepared you are, the more comfortable you will be with the topic.
  • Use some objects and visuals if possible.  In Franco’s presentation, he brought along a poster with whale photos, as well as real and model teeth, small whale models, and krill (Krill look like little shrimp – yes, like in Finding Nemo!  Remember how the huge whale opens his mouth and Nemo gets eaten along with a whole bunch of krill?)
  • When using objects, consider bringing along a “magic box”.  Bringing and hiding your objects in a box so that the audience can’t see them before you want them to can add suspense!  It will also be less distracting to the audience since they won’t be wondering what your objects are before you are ready to discuss them. 
  • Final tip about visuals – don’t pass around any objects during the presentation!  This is distracting to both the presenter and the audience.  Consider letting the audience know that they can come up and look at the objects at the end of the presentation. 
  • Try using relatable information.  For example, an audience may have a hard time imagining big a whale is.  Like Franco did, you may consider saying, “Imagine everyone in this room was 200 pounds.  That would be a total of about 2000 pounds.  This is the same as the smallest mass of a whale! (And point to the diagram...)”
  • Be aware of your pace.  You shouldn’t be talking too fast or too slow. 
  • Adapt your presentation to your audience!  We have been learning in our Audiences and Issues class about the importance of knowing your audience!  You want to try and draw from the prior knowledge of your audience.  Consider how you would present something to an audience who knows a lot about your presentation topic and how you would present to an audience who knows very little about your topic. 
  • Eye contact is important – however, keep in mind that too much eye contact can make your audience members feel a little uncomfortable.
  • Using hand gestures and body movement can show the audience that you’re open.  Try to stay within the “box” – your stomach and chest area.  Too much body movement or pacing can be extremely distracting. 
  • Don’t talk in a monotone voice!  Voice moderation and tones are important to show the audience that you are interested and interesting!  They will be more likely to pay attention if you make it sound fun. 
  • You may choose to make your presentation interactive.  If you have a small group, you may want to ask a couple questions to get a feel for your audience and get them involved.  This should be limited to 2-3 questions per presentation.  Also, don’t forget that there is often time for questions at the end of a presentation!
  • Finally, “expose yourself!”  Don’t be shy to show who you are!  You may choose to include personal facts or anecdotes.  This would be more useful in public talks.  (‘Scientific talks’ are often more about facts and don’t allow the opportunity to express emotions.)  Just like I learned during my Bachelor of Education year, your audience needs to know that you are human!  You are more relatable and the audience becomes more interested.

Check out Stephanie-Lynn after Franco’s presentation!

And now, just like us, you are all prepared to do your own wonderful presentations!  Good luck!

-    Sarah

Also, here is an interesting fact that we just couldn’t leave out! We also learned in Franco’s presentation about whales that we may have been a little misinformed in the movies – when baleen whales (the ones without actual ‘teeth’) take in all of the water and krill, they only want the krill.  All of that water would be way too much for their stomachs to handle!  How do they get rid of the water?  Not through the blowholes like they show in the movies.  The blowholes are used to breathe, not release water.  The extra water is actually released out of the mouth!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Free to Learn Science

We met Dr. John Falk last week. He is one of the authors of one of our textbooks, "Learning from Museums". His main area of research is free-choice learning in science education, particularly in museums. He and rhetoritian Dr. Carolyn Miller were visiting as part of a review by the Ontario Council of Graduate School.

It is too bad that they were only visiting for a short time. A guest lecture from them would have been great. One of our professors, Chantal Barriault, is a big fan of Dr. Falk's work.

Free-choice learning is an interesting concept that I never really thought about. We generally learn from three main sources; school, work and free-choice learning. The last one, is often overlooked. Free-choice learning is essentially learning "what we want, but also where we want, when we want and with whom we want" (Falk 2002). This includes learning from books, magazines, television, museums, science centres, word of mouth and more.

Dr. Falk's studies in the United States indicate that people learn a lot of science from free-choice sources compared to school or work. For example, people look up medical information online if a family member of friend has been diagnosed with an illness. People watch Mythbusters and Discovery Channel and get all sorts of information. The first point is that people can learn a lot of information when they want to, and they can learn a difficult topic like science. I'm sure that everyone can come up with an example in their own lives. I, like many kids, had spent a lot of my youth learning about dinosaurs. 

SciComm Class with John Falk. Top row (left to right): Julie Fisowich, Kevin McAvoy, James Baxter-Gilbert, John Falk, Myles Carter, Steph Lynn-Russell, Merissa Scarlett, Iara Dos Santos. Bottom row (left to right): Justin So, Jenn McCallum, Sarah Bouchard, Holly Baker, Mylene Lenzi.

People learn  personally interesting science topics from free-choice sources moreso than from formal education. Does this mean that school isn't important? Are governments misguided in funding schools to increase science literacy?

Not really. I would argue that it is good to have a standard set of school science topics to appeal to a variety of students. However, the studies show that free-choice learning is just as important as formal schooling and should not be overlooked.

If organizations and governments really want to engage people in science there should be an increase in newspaper science articles and stories (which are in decline) or in science TV programming. People want to learn science, given the right source. For me, I think I'll go watch another episode of Jurassic Fight Club... Ciao.

- Justin

Falk JH (2002) The contribution of free-choice learning to public understanding of Science. Interciencia. 27(2):62-65

Friday, October 16, 2009

"Sprucing" up Laurentian Campus

Dr. Beckett talking to our class about planting white spruce.
How would you offset your carbon footprint? What exactly IS your carbon footprint? The term refers to the "total set of greenhouse gas emissions caused directly or indirectly by an individual, group, organization, product, etc." The folks at Laurentian University (LU) have calculated that 4000 trees need to be planted annually to offset their carbon footprint. This past week, our SciComm class planted about 10% of those trees (400 trees) under the direction of LU biologist, Peter Beckett.

The small white spurice saplings we were planting were actually grown in one of Sudbury's mines as part of INCO's own regreening efforts. The idea of using old mines to grow saplings, sprouted out of a previous project by Dr. Beckett and a colleague to grow cucumbers and other vegetables in mines.

The site of the future SciComm forest.

Merissa and Sarah lovingly planting a sapling.

White spruce is a shade tolerant, native species, perfect for growing among the birch trees. They are also a climax species of the region. Alright, quick biology lesson... say for example you completely bulldoze an area leaving only soil. The area goes through a process called "succession" where a series of plant types will colonize the area. The first to take over the area would be quick growing and spreading grasses and weeds from the surrounding environment. As they grow, die and decompose, the plants are continually adding nutrients to the soil, making way for other plant species. You may get blueberry bushes and other shrubs in next, followed by deciduous trees like birch. Eventually conifers like white spruce would take over the region. With each succession of plants, they push out the other plant types till you reach the climax species.

You just can't keep James from looking for snakes... even at 5'C. He's holding a garter snake.

Though there were a few young and mature coniferous trees around, we helped the succession process along by planting our white spruce. We are expecting to get a survival rate of around 70% (fingers crossed). So expect to see our beautiful SciComm white spruce forest on the Laurentian campus in about 10 years...

To learn more about how you can minimize your carbon footprint visit

- Justin