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Covering a year of COVID-19

A letter from the science editor
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For Volume 141 science writers, covering COVID-19 has been a high stakes job. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY
For Volume 141 science writers, covering COVID-19 has been a high stakes job. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

This is a strange time to be a science communicator. I’m hardly the first to say this. 

You can do a quick Google search and find many articles in which professional journalists outline the stresses their job has put on them in the last 15 months: the glut of research they’ve had to sift through, the difficulty of tracing a clear narrative through the shifting tides of scientific consensus, and the higher stakes they feel to make sure that public opinion on the safety of masks, physical distancing, and vaccines can save lives in the short term. 

It feels like there’s a new responsibility to communicate scientific expertise in an accessible and engaging way. As Science Editor, I’ve felt this responsibility over the past year. And I’m so proud of how our small team of writers has done their part to add to the conversation. 

We’ve covered COVID-19 from all angles: from the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to the safety of U of T’s fall 2020 reopening plans. We’ve answered your questions on the safety of vaccines and called for more attention about who is most affected by the pandemic. As always, it’s been the most marginalized people in our society who have borne the most hardship.

We’ve tried to inform our student community as timely and responsibly as we can during a public health crisis. Alongside the rest of the Varsity team, we’ve tried to highlight how our community is responding and what our students are experiencing. In a strange year when we all worked from home, our writers, designers, and editors all persevered to produce a diverse and high-quality range of COVID-19 coverage. I couldn’t ask for a better team.

And we aren’t the only ones doing so. Across all three campuses, U of T’s scientific expertise is flowing out toward the public, aiming to inform, warn, and educate. 

U of T science communicators — from research teams like the COVID-19 Canada Open Data Working Group and the Infectious Disease Working Group to student organizations like The Strand newspaper at Victoria College — are doing exceptional work. Professors, podcasters, and students have given enormous amounts of time and energy to this work. 

There are far too many individuals to name them all, but if you know someone who is trying to communicate vital information about the pandemic, please acknowledge and appreciate their efforts. It’s always very appreciated.

Science beyond COVID-19

Of course, COVID-19 hasn’t been the only noteworthy subject the science section has covered this year. We’ve published dozens of articles and tens of thousands of words on every subject from astronomy to anatomy. I can’t give you an exhaustive list, but I can try for a representative sample.

Most recently, first-time writer Elisha Kelman did a deep dive into the ethics of U of T’s strategic partnership with Huawei for research

In March, Christina Lam recapped the long history that took insulin from a U of T lab and made it a life-saving drug. 

Zaky Hassan wrote powerfully about what it means to be a Black student in a lab for our Black History Month issue. 

We’ve looked at the case for drug decriminalization, the best ways to learn to code, and the impacts of meditation on your brain.

And, of course, I have to mention Pigeonholes, The Varsity’s first inter-sectional column in which writers from the arts and science sections swapped places to write about topics unfamiliar to them.

One of my goals with the science section this year has been to showcase the diversity of science writing. I really hope you’ve found that in our pages this year.

And on a personal note

There have been many surprises for me this year as I stepped into the role, but perhaps the most welcome was how reading all of your articles has reconnected me to science. I entered university with a sure goal to study theoretical physics, but I quickly found myself in an environment that felt over-competitive and unsupportive. I think all STEM students at U of T know what I’m talking about. 

For me, watching my peers excel where I struggled created deep insecurities about my place in this institution, and I slowly withdrew from friend circles that had formed around shared math and physics courses. I avoided the Physics Student Union room. I took fewer and fewer STEM classes and focused on my philosophy major instead. I was even too anxious to watch the science YouTube videos that helped me settle on physics as a major.

Now, I see that everyone probably felt the same way. But, at the time, all I could see was other people’s successes; all I could fixate on was what they were saying about how well they understood this or that problem set — behaviour that I now understand was just posturing.

Reading all of your articles helped me remember why I was so passionate about science in the first place. It’s been a personal delight working with you all this year — you’ve taught me so much.

I couldn’t have gotten to the finish line without the support of my colleagues and my fantastic associate editors, Aanya Bahl and Valeria Khudiakova. But I’m particularly grateful to you, as readers and writers, for making this time worthwhile.

Cheers.

— Tahmeed Shafiq

Science Editor, Volume CXLI