One of my favourite things about social media is discovering opportunities and information that I may not have come across otherwise. Earlier this week I saw a tweet from the Canadian Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa calling for individuals interested in taking part of the Curiosity on Stage series. This series invites people working and researching in a diverse scientific disciplines to share what inspired them, how they came to be in their position and any challenges they overcame along the way, as well as to discuss their work and its relevance.
I thought this sounded right up my alley and quickly reached out. And it is looking like a road trip to Ottawa will be happening in the new year! When I am not working on Conference2Classroom related projects, I am working towards my PhD in the Department of Geography and Planning at Queen's University. My graduate research project uses light detection and ranging (lidar) remote sensing data to made a spatially explicit three dimensional model of a forest, which is then used to detect and predict the occurrence of preferred songbird habitat. I'll get into my graduate work more in some future post. But I wanted to provide a bit of context in this post because I am someone who is actively doing science - not just someone talking about science and facilitating activities through Conference2Classroom! I am passionate about the work I do and am very excited the opportunity to share it as part of the Curiosity on Stage series.
In the interim, I am off to give another talk at the Emerging Research Seminar this afternoon!
Last night I gave a talk to the Kingston GoGeomatics group about SciComm. I have been involved with this group for a number of years now and was happy to be this month's featured speaker. The talk went well, the crowd was engaged, at the end they asked thoughtful questions and made meaningful comments that led to a great discussion. And those are the measures of a talk that went well for me!
I started hearing more and more about SciComm a couple years ago when the inaugural March for Science was held in Washington DC, and in solidarity across the world. There seemed to be a real concern in the US about the role of science moving forward given the political climate with Trump being elected president, and I am uncertain whether there have been significant changes in this regard. This politically motivated activism is not unfamiliar and in Canada under Harper government research scientists were muzzled and protests ensued, though not at quite the same scale or level of participation or public knowledge.
At the same time, people had seemed to start distrusting science more and more. And I got the impression that people perceived disconnect between science and society. The amalgamation of factors gave many scientists a voice that they may not have used before or under different circumstances. Simply speaking - choosing what to say, to who, how and when - can be an activist act in this context. One of the most important possible outcomes of SciComm is to raise awareness, the intent and effect of which may be to education or inspire, but it may also be more related to advocacy or activism.
Often the part of science that seems to get communicated is the result. But I think we should work towards the goal of translating the entire scientific process to the public.
When I created Conference2Classroom I was optimistic and hopeful that the idea would be well received by its intended users - experts attending conferences and host classrooms to match them with - and from the broader community. It's been a rewarding (albeit very short!) journey so far as people have gotten involved and registered, or gotten in touch with thoughtful feedback and questions. In this process it has very quickly become apparent is that this initiative will grow, and as it grows it will become necessary to legitimize it as a legal business structure.
This morning I spoke with some legal help to better understand the differences between a not-for-profit organization and a charity. This was the first of what will surely be a few discussions before I move forward with the best option for Conference2Classroom to grow and develop in the future.
This week saw the first activity we have enabled, there are many more we are working on facilitating, and new registrations coming in everyday. For our first activity we deliberately sought a classroom that was near to the conference our participating expert was attending. That said, the underlying idea of Conference2Classroom is to mobilize experts to share their knowledge and inspire the next generation. The next generation is a large and important group of people.
Many of the people are in classrooms in urban areas near where conferences are typically held, and many that we strive to reach are in remote, rural and indigenous communities that may not typically have the same access. We hope to reach these classrooms too and facilitate activities in these places. And that means we will need to mobilize future participating experts to these communities. But moving people takes money. And before too long we will be seeking funding through sponsors and donors to enable us to do this. Operating as a grassroots initiative will not be enough to achieve our goals. And today we took the first steps in becoming a legitimate legal organization.
A mere few weeks after launching Conference2Classroom and the very first event we have facilitated is already coming up!
This week Susan Willis Chan from the University of Guelph is attending the Entomological Society of Canada/America Joint Meeting in Vancouver, BC. And tomorrow Susan will be visiting a Erin Stacey's grade 11 biology class at King George Secondary School to talk about the effects of pesticides on a native ground-nesting bee. If Vancouver wasn't quite so far away, or were I an entomologist, I'd be joining in on this fun! As it is not and as I am not, I got to know Susan and her research a bit better in advance tomorrow's event.
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Susan Willis Chan and I am a pollination biologist-bee ecologist-bee conservationist. I spend my time in three ways: (1) Doing original scientific research in the area of native solitary bee biology, crop pollination, and eco-toxicology as it relates to the ground-nesting solitary bee, Peponapis pruinosa (aka the hoary squash bee); (2) Working with farmers to create and maintain effective pollinator habitat on their farms that can integrate well with their farming systems; (3) Educating farmers, woodlot owners, gardeners, university students, and anyone else who will listen (or read) about native bees (not honey bees).
How did you get here?
I have been interested in plants and in farming most of my life. I became interested in honey bees as an undergraduate student at McGill University in 1982 where I was mentored in the biological and practical aspects of beekeeping by the late Dr. Vernon Vickery. I intended to study honey bees at the graduate level but was introduced to the specialist pollinator of Cucurbita crops, the hoary squash bee, by Dr. Peter Kevan at the University of Guelph. I quickly fell in love with the hoary squash bee and I pursued an M.Sc. under Peter, studying the relationship between the hoary squash bee and the crops upon which it depends (pumpkins, zucchini, squash). Many years later, I got an urgent phone call from a stranger who works for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture who wanted to discuss hoary squash bee biology and the possible risks to this species from exposure to neonicotinoid insecticide residues in nectar, pollen, and soil of pumpkin/squash crops. This began my present doctoral studies adventure under Dr. Nigel Raine at the University of Guelph, which seeks to answer the questions that were posed to me in that phone call.
What are you working on now?
I am presently working on several projects: (1) Determining the risk to hoary squash bees of exposure to insecticide residues in agricultural soils; (2) Determining the effects on hoary squash bees of exposure to soils in which there are neonicotinoid insecticide residues; (3) Determining which bee species are visiting pumpkin and squash crops in Ontario and exploring the relationships among them; (4) Evaluating possible pests and diseases affecting the hoary squash bee; (5) and of course, writing a dissertation, making presentations at scientific conferences, publishing my work in peer-reviewed journals, and writing more accessible info-sheets for farmers on the above topics.
Why is your work important?
My work is important because most of the bees in Ontario are in fact ground-nesting solitary bees. These bees are important as pollinators wild plants and to crop plants such as pumpkins as squash, but also including fruit crops such as raspberries, strawberries, apples, pears, cherries, peaches, oil crops such as canola and sunflowers, and forage crops such as alfalfa and clovers. If present agricultural practices such as applying neonicotinoid insecticides directly into soil are putting ground-nesting bees at risk, then those practices are putting pollination services at risk. For this reason, it is important that we understand the risk and that we take action to reduce it to an acceptable level. More generally, my work is important because it adds to the scientific knowledge base that we already have. My work has depended enormously on the previous work of other scientists, even if that work didn't seem all that exciting when they were doing it.
What advice would you give to a budding entomologist?
Entomologists get to study the most diverse and interesting creatures, many of which are largely unstudied. I study a single bee species and yet my questions are endless. My best advice to a budding entomologist is to observe insects in their natural habitat--spend time with them, pay attention to details, pay attention to interactions among insects and between insects and plants or other taxa. Think deeply about what you observe. Ask yourself questions and read the work of other scientists whenever you can. Science is our best way forward to safeguard the integrity of the biosphere upon which we all depend. It is the best way I know to ask meaningful questions and get meaningful answers.
Three weeks. That's all it took.
Three weeks ago I did a thing, as opposed to doing nothing and not acting on my idea, and I built this site. Two weeks ago I started building a database of all science, technology, engineering and maths graduate programs at universities in Ontario. I'll be expanding from coast to coast to cover all of Canada, but I started with where I am from. About a week ago I started emailing those graduate program's coordinators, administrators, directors, receptionists, or using whatever contact information I could find online requesting that information about the Conference2Classroom initiative be forwarded on and inviting graduate students to register.
A few days ago we had a registration from a participant in the Entomological Society of Canada/America Joint Meeting in Vancouver. This conference is next week. Very quickly I identified schools near the conference and reached out to them inviting them to register their classroom with us. The next day we had found a classroom to match our entomology expert with.
Three weeks. That's all it took from acting on my idea to create Conference2Classroom to confirming our inaugural activity.
And now I have proof of concept! I have gone from hoping and thinking that this initiative would be well received and work, to knowing it has been welcomed and that it can work. And now I am even more motivated to make it work, and to make sure it is awesome.
This week we have started reaching out to graduate programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. So far we have emailed Brock, Carleton, Lakehead, Laurentian, McMaster, Trent, Windsor and Wilfred Laurier universities to encourage graduate students to register with us. And we have seen our first registrations roll in!
Graduate students are a great target audience to start. Attending conferences is an important aspect of their development as a researcher and an integral part in their academic trajectory. You get to share your work with your research community, learn about other research being done, speak with people in your discipline, and there are often opportunities for feedback and mentorship. A significant portion of participants in many conferences are graduate students. Not to mention participating in conferences is important to their grant applications, but so too are community outreach activities. We hope to leverage all of this and look forward to getting graduate students involved with us and in classrooms across Canada.
While we have not yet begun our email campaign on the classroom side of things, our social media presence has benefited us and we have seen our first registrations on that side of things too.
It is nice to see Conference2Classroom get some traction so early on. We've a long way to go, but it is encouraging to see how receptive people have been.