Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Chance for Dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Student Perspective: Reconciling science and faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Student Perspective: Elizabeth Knowles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Internship Spotlight: Anik Brazeau

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

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

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

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

- Anik Brazeau, SciComm '14

Friday, August 29, 2014

Internship Spotlight: Derek Chung

The Rush Is Worth the Price I Pay

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

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

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

-Derek Chung, SciComm ‘14

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Internship Spotlight: Michelle Di Cintio

Alternative Experience

I thought about writing this blog while lying in the hammock in the boardroom. A bit unconventional for an office, but Alternatives Journal is a bit of an unconventional workplace. As the oldest Canadian environmental magazine, the purpose of the magazine is to provide accurate environmental news stories covering political, societal and technological issues - and solutions. Their goal is to "deliver reliable, future focused environmental journalism, support environmental education in Canada, and help build the Canadian environmental movement." Across the street from city hall in Kitchener, the office sits on the second floor of a building that used to be a bank - the journal's archive is housed in the steel vault in the office. It's a small operation, with less than 10 people occupying the office. They are supported by volunteers, interns, and freelancers. 
Alternatives is generous when it comes to their interns. As the editorial intern, I performed a variety of tasks that took into account my Science Communication degree. Fact-checking  is rigorous for all stories - is the information coming from reputable source, is the science being accurately depicted, are the author's conclusions viable based on the information presented? It can be challenging, but it's never dull. I wrote short pieces for print, and blog pieces for their website. I interviewed environmentalists, reviewed books and films, and went to events to report on the proceedings. The experience was well rounded not just in terms of my responsibilities, but in the way I got to experience all of the different aspects that go into publishing a journal.
I think the most rewarding aspect at Alternatives Journal was that it allowed me to watch science communication in action, and to participate in that action. Science communication isn't about collecting and reeling off facts, it's about inspiring action, and providing necessary information in order to make informed action. At Alternatives Journal, keeping people informed and aware of environmental news is just one part of creating an effective environmental movement. I am grateful to have been a part of their movement for a time, and hope to use what I learnt to the best of my ability.

-Michelle Di Cintio, SciComm '14

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Ten Things I Learned During My Trip to SNOLAB

By Maxine Myre
1. Why are they 2 km underground, anyways?
Getting to SNOLAB is a whole process.  The first step in reaching the lab is getting geared up with mining clothes and descending 2070m (or just over 2 km) underground in a mine shaft. The 2 km of rock above the SNOLAB facilities protects the sensitive detection system from cosmic rays.

2. An entirely new appreciation for the term 'clean-freak'.
SNOLAB is a Class2000 clean lab.  This means that only 2000 particles of dust and other materials are permitted in a 1-meter cubic space.  If we compare this to the 35 million particles per cubic meter found in everyday environments, that's clean.  But remember, workers have walked 1.8 km in a mine drift before arriving at the lab doors!  Workers must fully shower and change clothing before entering the lab.  Now that the workers are clean, there's all the equipment!  Every single piece of equipment brought in is cleaned before installation.  This even includes the many nuts and bolts on the machines.

3. SNOLAB has its own sewage system facility underground.

SNOLAB has something special that is unique to underground facilities but rarely mentioned: flushing toilets.  This is possible due to their small underground sewage treatment facility, which can support up to 100 people.  How does it work?  Aerobic bacteria are responsible for breaking down waste products.

4. There is still so much to discover about the Universe.
Experiments conducted at SNOLAB are attempting to answer some of the most fundamental questions remaining in physics - from the development and fate of the Universe to the workings of the smallest sub-atomic particles.  It turns out that there is more that we don't know than we do know!  In fact, what we know as matter only makes up about 5% of what exists!

5. Dark matter is different than dark energy.
For non-physicits, it is difficult to distinguish between similar sounding terms like dark matter and dark energy.  Without going into too many details, dark matter is different than dark energy.

6. Multiple Instruments are trying to detect the same thing.
Physicists are pretty sure they know how much dark matter there is, but do not know what it is.  In the quest for dark matter, multiple experiments are seeking the successful detection of dark matter.  Each of these experiments is located in a separate cavity connected by hallways.

7. International collaborations are key to success.
SNOLAB functions as a collaboration between five Canadian Universities - namely, Carleton University, Laurentian University, Queen's University, University of Alberta, and Université de Montréal.  In addition to being a national research facility, international partnerships play an important role in conducting each experiment.

8. Scientists at SNOLAB are accessible and willing to share their enthusiasm.
Unlike the physicists portrayed in shows like The Big Bang Theory, the scientists and other workers at SNOLAB are friendly and engaging.  While concepts such as astroparticle physics, the search for dark matter, and neutrinos can often seem too complicated to understand, SNOLAB scientists always make an effort in explaining their research to anyone who will listen.

9. Exciting projects are coming to SNOLAB.
SNOLAB operations began in 1990 and show no signs of slowing down.  Along with their current projects on neutrinos and dark matter, their scope of research is expanding to geology, mining, and even biology by exploring deep sub-surface life.

10. SNOLAB is an internationally known facility.
I'm proud to know that such cutting-edge science is ongoing in Sudbury.  Thanks to SNOLAB, Canada remains a key player in the search for answers to the big questions of the Universe.

- Maxine Myre, SciComm '14