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