How U of T medical students have worked to improve equity in health care

Symposium challenges “non-inclusive narratives” in medicine

How U of T medical students have worked to improve equity in health care

How can health care education, research, and clinical services be more equitable and welcoming to professionals from a diverse range of backgrounds? The Equity in Health Research, Education and Services Learner-Led Symposium on March 11 sought to answer these questions.

The Office of Inclusion and Diversity at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine hosted the symposium in a video conference format.

The motivation for the conference

The symposium was the brainchild of U of T medical students Chantal Phillips, Imaan Javeed, and Stevan Cho. Shannon Giannitsopoulou, Program Coordinator at the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, worked alongside members of the Learner Equity Action & Discussion Committee Symposium Working Group and organized the symposium.

Phillips, Javeed, and Cho had participated in equity, inclusion, and diversity research, but found it difficult to learn more about their colleagues’ work in equity.

“Recognizing the missed chance for collaboration and support, we recognized the need to start an event… where learners can share their works,” wrote Cho to The Varsity.

According to Phillips, the symposium aimed to showcase the equity work of medical students, as well as provide them with an opportunity to get to know each other. Additionally, the symposium offered an opportunity to amplify the voices of the students who were concerned about equity, noted Giannitsopoulou.

“It’s really important to me that we are able to change non-inclusive narratives that are so prevalent in not only Medicine but many other fields,” reflected Javeed, “such that everyone is able to picture themselves as being successful and welcome in Medicine.”

Medical professionals should be able to do this “without changing anything about who they are, their core values and principles, or being asked to put aside their rich life history and personal background just to blend in,” Javeed continued.

Stop moving the target: redefining the meaning of equity

The keynote speaker for the night was LLana James, a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Medicine’s Rehabilitation Sciences Institute. Her work focuses on the relationships between artificial intelligence, public health, and medicine.

What equity should be, according to James, is “moving the ball down the court,” as she noted in the symposium.

However, James described that it is difficult to achieve equity when the target is always moving. She explained this as “a tactic of colonization.”

“[People in power] change the definition, change the rules, change the finish line,” she said. “Because as long as it’s changing, you can’t actually cross it.”

“[Equity] should be about confronting the legal frameworks; it should be about moving the legal frameworks to where they belong,” she continued. “Where we’re looking and working within Indigenous constitutional frameworks” — in other words, respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Changing the medical school curriculum

Nikisha Khare, a second-year medical student, and Alexandra Florescu and Helena Kita, both second-year MD-PhD students, delivered a presentation titled “Advocating for pre-clerkship medical school curriculum change through an anti-oppressive approach.”

Khare, Florescu, and Kita developed a report with three key recommendations: to develop a curriculum that draws from critical social perspectives; to critically examine how historical events have informed social inequities; and to diversify patient panels.

Patient panels are often composed of white people from a high socioeconomic status. Medical experts tend to view patients in this demographic as “good patients” with “good relationships with their physicians,” according to their presentation.

They noted that the narrow scope can reinforce bias, and represents a missed opportunity for medical students to be more empathetic toward patients who experience less privilege in the medical system.

Evaluating the diversity mentorship program

Javeed looked into the Diversity Mentorship Program, which is facilitated through the Faculty of Medicine’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity.

The Diversity Mentorship Program matches medical students from marginalized groups with mentors who “are able to support and assist them in their education and professional growth and development,” according to their website.

The program’s objectives are to “empower excellence,” “[strengthen the] community,” and “[foster] identity development,” according to their presentation.

The program was evaluated through surveys and focus groups. They found that the program was successful, as “a large proportion of [participants] felt that they had a productive relationship,” Javeed continued. “Mentees felt that it was a rewarding addition to their medical education, and mentors found it both personally and professionally rewarding.”

Furthermore, when pairings had more than three meetings, there was a “greater achievement of the results.”

‘Bee-washing’ as greenwashing: how outwardly bee-friendly companies actually hurt bees

U of T PhD candidate Charlotte de Keyzer’s blog explores how honey bees may harm native bees

‘Bee-washing’ as greenwashing: how outwardly bee-friendly companies actually hurt bees

The topic of pollinator conservation has generated a lot of buzz in recent years. Concerns have risen about the possible impacts of global declines in pollinator species on crop production, 75 per cent of which requires some form of pollination.

Ecologists — including those affiliated with the United Nations — have also warned of the disruptive effects that the declines of these vital species may have on ecosystems and biodiversity.

‘Bee-washing’ refers to a form of greenwashing in which bee-related marketing is used to promote certain products and services, or improve companies’ public images.

Companies participating in bee-washing can spread misinformation about ways on how to save pollinators. In a response to these claims, Charlotte de Keyzer, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, maintains a blog to educate readers about this topic.

What are pollinators?

Pollinators constitute over 20,000 bee species and numerous animal and insect species. Of these, the Western honey bee is perhaps the most widely recognized, and as such, has become a poster child for companies to promote ‘bee-friendly’ products and campaigns.

Despite their popularity, honey bees from farms can cause damage to native bees, as they can outcompete them for resources, such as pollen and nectar, and introduce diseases.

The stressors that wild bees face also differ from those experienced by honey bees. For example, habitat-wise, about 75 per cent of wild and solitary bees in Canada live on the ground, and the remaining 25 per cent make their nests in cavities. Common bee-washing initiatives that install honey bee hives on rooftops, in parks, or urban areas do not help wild bees, and may even be harmful.

Disease transmission and competition between honey bees and wild bees can be particularly problematic in urban areas with limited flowering resources.

As honey bees crop up on cereal boxes and social media campaigns, the issues affecting many species of wild bees are neglected, and may even be exacerbated by these marketing tactics and the misinformation that they spread.

The impact of bee-washing

Bee-washing is a term coined by researchers at York University that appeals to consumers’ desire to help bees. However, it is rife with misinformation about the threats that bees face and the solutions that will actually benefit bees.

De Keyzer’s blog aims to educate readers about bee-washing and provide resources on the topic for educators doing bee outreach.

In an interview with The Varsity, de Keyzer remarked that public misconceptions about bees often stem from a lack of awareness about their diversity. For instance, Toronto alone is home to over 350 species of bees — approximately one species for each day of the year.

Bee-washing companies that focus their campaigns on honey bees often overlook this diversity of species. While these companies only focus on honey bees, there is in fact a plethora of bee species in the wild that have many different traits and behaviours, as showcased by de Keyzer on her website.

The scale of bee-washing is still unknown. To combat this, de Keyzer has been discussing ways to quantify bee-washing with Dr. Olivier Boiral, a professor at Laval University. A systematic method to evaluate the prevalence of this practice in various industries is yet to be developed, but from what de Keyzer has seen, examples of bee-washing can be found across many industries.

Examples of bee-washing

Cheerios is a well-known company that practices bee-washing. For several years, the cereal’s bee mascot, Buzz, was removed from the product’s packaging as a nod to the disappearance of bees, and as part of their #BringBacktheBees campaign. Beth Skwarecki, Senior Health Editor at Life Hacker, wrote an article which criticized the campaign for giving out wildflower seed packets that could contain species invasive to North America.

In response, Cheerios maintained that the seeds did not contain invasive species, which a horticulturist confirmed to CBC News. Skwarecki issued a correction, but wrote a follow-up piece where Dr. Kathryn Turner, an ecologist, confirmed that the seed packets still contained non-native species, which could harm native plant species by out-competing them for resources.

Bee-washing is not limited to agricultural and food-related industries. Shopping centres in the GTA, such as Hillcrest Mall and Yorkdale, have installed honey bee hives on rooftops.

Rooftop beehives may provide educational value, according to Blake Retter, Toronto Director of bee-keeping supplier Alvéole, in an interview with TVO. Nevertheless, as research has shown, the honey bees from rooftops could harm the wild bee population, in the same ways as honey bees from farms.

How to help wild bees

Given the problematic practices of common bee-washing campaigns, what are some better ways for corporations to help save wild bees?

Some companies’ industries involve land use and wild bee habitat destruction for development, resource extraction, agriculture, or other purposes. In these cases de Keyzer contended that the idea that bee-washing campaigns, such as taking care of honey bees, can compensate for other environmentally damaging actions of a company is flawed.

Instead, de Keyzer suggested scaling back on the amount of habitat destruction, or helping to restore habitats in other areas.

For companies not directly involved with land use or habitats, money used on honey bee centred campaigns would be put to better use if donated to conservation groups for local wild bee habitats.

However, the solution to bee decline does not necessarily lie with corporations. With the bee-washing blog, de Keyzer aims to raise awareness about bee-washing and to prevent well-meaning consumers from being misled by such campaigns.

There are many ways for people to help bees, with no purchases required.

For instance, adopting less disruptive gardening practices — such as mulching less — helps restore wild bee habitats, especially for bees living underground.

If planting new plants, choose native species that can act as hosts for wild bees. Many wild bees have evolved to be specialized for specific native plants as hosts, so growing species targeted toward the wild bee species in your area can be particularly beneficial.

The citizen science project Bumble Bee Watch is another way to get involved by reporting bee sightings to help with efforts in bee tracking and conservation.

The City of Toronto also provides an annual grant, PollinateTO, which awards community pollinator gardens with up to $5,000.

“By connecting people to the diversity of bees surrounding them,” explained de Keyzer, “I’m hoping that they get those positive feelings of those good intentions without having to buy something or potentially do something negative to the environment, like introduce more honey bees, where they are not needed.”

Women in STEM: Kirti Saxena

U of T engineering student on injuries, challenges, and balancing coursework with wrestling

Women in STEM: Kirti Saxena

Kirti Saxena is a second-year undergraduate student in mechanical engineering, an area where she is able to combine design, mathematics, and science. Outside of academics, Saxena wrestles — a sport she took up at age nine, after her father competed in the sport at the 1980 Olympics.

While she first started as a way to keep fit, her involvement in the sport became more serious by the time she was in grade nine, when she placed first in her category nationwide. She has also represented Team Canada in several international championships.

The importance of focus

Having to balance school and wrestling has given her the ability to focus. “Be it wrestling or school, whatever environment I am in, I am able to give it my all in that moment,” wrote Saxena to The Varsity.

People have questioned her as to why she has decided on studying such a time-consuming discipline while pursuing wrestling. Her answer is that she “[wants] to be able to use [her] academic gift to create things that will make positive change.”

She noted that U of T’s engineering student body has been “an inviting and welcoming community and made the transition smooth.”

On balancing her engineering coursework with wrestling, she wrote: “I have a strict schedule, strict meal plan, and a loving support team that all help me balance everything,” which has helped her persevere through many challenges.

“It all takes a whole team,” she wrote. “This team includes my family, strength and training coaches, my personal coach (aka my dad), physio and massage therapists, psychologist, nutritionist and accommodating professors.”

Challenges on and off the mat

Saxena writes that recovering from an injury was a big challenge for her. “Mentally and physically it’s a hard process and it is something that I am still going through.”

“Being a [woman] in sport is definitely challenging. Being a woman of colour in sport is even more challenging,” she reflected.

She notes that it is difficult to be in what has traditionally been viewed as a male sport. “Being a strong girl intimidates people, a lot of people picture girls to be a certain way and most don’t expect them to be fighters. Growing up I dealt with a lot of people saying that ‘wrestling is not good for a girl.’ ”

The importance of speaking up

Saxena cites her sister, who is also one of her coaches, as her mentor. “She has shown me how to be a strong [woman] and always tells me to fight for what I believe is right,” she wrote. “Without her influence I feel like I would not be as confident in voicing my opinion.”

Her advice for women in STEM is to not be afraid “to voice your thoughts.”

“A lot of people want you to stay quiet. Especially because they cannot handle the thought of a woman knowing more. Let them know you got a voice for a reason.”

What to do if you get burned

U of T researchers publish paper on identifying, treating, preventing burn injuries

What to do if you get burned

Do you recall a time when you were young, maybe around 10 years old, and you wanted to see how hot the stove was, so you touched it? Or the first time you tried to straighten your hair for the school dance and accidentally burned your ear?

We’ve all been there. However, we often downplay the importance of these injuries. Many of us think that proper treatment involves massaging the burn a few times, while others run cold water over the burn for less than 30 seconds and continue with their day.

What you may not realize is that burns are one of the most commonly ignored injuries, with the most severe consequences to our health.

“An estimated 180,000 deaths every year are caused by burns — the vast majority occur in low- and middle- income countries,” according to the World Health Organization.

A University of Toronto-affiliated review summarized the different types of burns and relevant treatment methods.

What do we know about burns?

Burn injuries can be caused by radiation, heat, cold, friction, and electrical or chemical sources, with the most common source being heat. These injuries lead to instantaneous tissue destruction, accompanied by metabolic changes, immune and inflammatory responses, and distributive shock throughout the body.

The impact of the shock can often be overlooked, which can potentially cause multiple organ failures and even death. The assumption is that, once the burn is healed, the injury is resolved. However, burns can lead to long-term changes in quality of life and mental health.

Let’s break down the four degrees of burn injuries categorized by severity, which is defined by the size and depth of the wound.

A first-degree burn is a superficial burn with temporary pain, and some redness. It does not penetrate below the uppermost layer of the skin, called the epidermis.

Second-degree burns are broken down into two categories. The first type is a superficial partial-thickness burn which requires wound care and dressing; they can be quite painful, but do not require any type of surgery. The second is a deep partial-thickness burn. Interestingly, this type of burn is less painful than the superficial partial-thickness burn due to its destruction of the pain receptors. This type of burn will most likely require surgery. Both of these types of burns will scar; however, a superficial partial-thickness burn can heal with a minor scar or maybe even no scar in some cases.

A third-degree burn is a full thickness burn that penetrates the entire dermis, or skin, destroys pain receptors, and has a strong likelihood of becoming infected if not treated quickly. This type of burn is less painful than a second-degree burn due to the destruction of the receptors. In most cases, treatment for it requires surgery unless the impacted area is very small.

Finally, a fourth-degree burn is a type of burn that we do not hear about often. It goes past the dermis and affects the underlying muscle or bone. This deep burn can lead to loss of the burned part due to lack of blood flow and excessive damage of the sensory and pain receptors. The flesh can become black due to the burn.

What can you do in the event of a burn?

The first step in cases of burns is to determine the cause of the burn in order to remove the person from the source, as long as it is safe for you to do so, according to the co-authors. If the source is electrical, ensure the source of the burn is off and no longer active. If chemical, you need to contact your local poison control centre to receive further steps to mitigate your risk.

You then need to flush the site of the injury with cold water to prevent further destruction of the skin. Do not use ice, according to the co-authors, as it can cause further damage to the flesh due to frostbite. Avoid applying home remedies such as toothpaste, lemon, butter, or hydrogen peroxide ointments, which the co-authors note can further worsen tissue damage.

It is always important to contact emergency services in the event of a burn that feels uncontrolled, or greater than a first-degree burn.

Further education on burns

There are many measures that can be taken to mitigate the risk of a burn injury. A large part of burn safety involves education.

Dr. Mark Jeschke, the lead author and a physician at U of T’s Institute of Medical Science, explained to The Varsity that education on proper treatment is important, as trauma and burns “really [affect] lives for a long time.”

Methods of prevention include teaching burn safety, which involves advising people to use smoke alarms, have an escape plan from a house, and never leaving a stove unattended, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Prevention methods also include testing bath water for temperature before entering and anchoring ovens and stoves to walls to prevent tipping.

Visualizing how control methods could slow the exponential spread of COVID-19

U of T model highlights how better interventions can “flatten the curve” of new coronavirus’ infectivity

Visualizing how control methods could slow the exponential spread of COVID-19

COVID-19 has quickly spread around the world, impacting patients in over 140 different countries. There are over 162,000 confirmed cases, and more than 6,000 deaths as of March 14. Meanwhile, Canada has a total of 252 reported cases with one death.

As COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, public health officials have stressed the need for nations to implement controls to contain the virus in order to slow the growth of new cases before hospital systems are overwhelmed.

Effective control relies on improving our understanding of the virus, in terms of its origin, number of cases per country, and transmission potential.

Dr. Ashleigh Tuite and Dr. David Fisman, both faculty members at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, have developed an interactive model, explained in a letter to the Annals of Internal Medicine, that visualizes the impact of effective containment.

Understanding COVID-19’s growth model

Tuite and Fisman’s model depicts how COVID-19 could spread in scenarios with and without effective methods for containment. Before diving into the findings of the model, it is important to understand its components and how they relate to each other.

The key factor that determines the infectivity of COVID-19 is called the basic reproduction number. This is the number of people that a patient with COVID-19 will successfully infect, in the absence of effective control efforts, according to the model.

The effective reproduction number is the predicted number of people that same patient will infect with effective control efforts such as quarantines put in place.

The co-authors have developed their model based on several previously published research papers on COVID-19’s infectivity, according to the notes of their model.

Model demonstrates importance of isolation

By modeling the spread of COVID-19, Tuite and Fisman wrote that it  can “provide helpful insights into the growth of the 2019-nCoV epidemic that are not directly observable in publicly reported data.”

The model gives a visual representation of the concept of “flattening the curve” of COVID-19’s spread. The current growth of COVID-19 is exponential, which creates an upward curve on the graph.

Flattening the curve means reducing the rate of COVID-19’s growth, which would avoid a high number of COVID-19 patients from overwhelming health care systems at once. You can see the curve being flattened by adjusting the interactive model’s slider, reducing the effective reproduction number due to better control methods.

Control methods at U of T have included the cancellation of all undergraduate and research-stream graduate classes.

However, like many models, there are potential limitations to its accuracy. As Tuite and Fisman noted, mild COVID-19 infections may be underrepresented, as they may go unreported.

Tuite and Fisman also largely based the model on China’s epidemic. As the World Health Organization has now declared it a pandemic, the co-authors note that different countries may have different COVID-19 infection rates based on their different control methods.

From daphnia to duckweed: a spotlight on EEB Quarterly

A magazine for graduate students to practice science writing, build community

From daphnia to duckweed: a spotlight on <i>EEB Quarterly</i>

Do you ever wonder what daphnia feed on? Or how scientists catch bats in High Park? Do you wonder how to prepare for fieldwork in the Amazon? Or want to nerd out about the scientific shortcomings of Jurassic Park? If so, you may want to check out EEB Quarterly.

Created by graduate students at the University of Toronto’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology (EEB), this magazine features articles on everything from how to survive life as a graduate student, to haikus about someone’s favourite organisms to study.

PhD student Sean Anderson launched the magazine in 2018 with the intention of helping graduate students improve their non-technical science writing. Whereas science students are typically trained to write dense, jargon-infused texts, EEB Quarterly is about writing science in a way that is engaging and understandable to read.

“I admire science writing. I basically just wanted to practice it, and I figured other students would, too. And that was sort of the initial inspiration for the whole thing,” said Anderson, EEB Quarterly’s editor-in-chief, to The Varsity

The magazine has been a hit with EEB graduate students and faculty. Currently, 12 people sit on the editorial board, and dozens more have contributed their writing, art, and photography.

Brought alive with verve and humour, EEB Quarterly tells the funny and riveting stories behind science. Expect photo essays about fieldwork adventures and misadventures, in-depth profiles on study species like daphnia and duckweed, and the odd poem about nature.

Some notable pieces include Christopher Reid’s guide to doing fieldwork in the tropics and Cylita Guy’s fieldwork story of netting bats in High Park. As a bonus, beautiful student photography and artwork pepper the pages of the publication.

EEB Quarterly accepts submissions from all graduate students, and works hard to ensure that it is not competitive. Graduate students face enough competition and rejection in academia, and the magazine’s team does not intend to add to it. Instead, the EEB Quarterly seeks to celebrate the achievements and personalities of students in a friendly environment.

The magazine has evolved into more than just a place to strengthen writing skills, though. By sharing news and celebrating student achievements, the EEB Quarterly also helps foster a sense of community in the department — especially for a department whose members are scattered across U of T’s three campuses.

The process of creating the magazine is highly collaborative. “It does make you feel like you’re part of this community. Everyone’s kind of in this together,” said Anderson. “A lot of work goes into it by a lot of people. And it wouldn’t be possible at all without people volunteering time. No one actually has a lot of time for this, but they volunteer anyway.”

The magazine is not exclusively for EEB graduate students — in fact, it can also serve as a great resource for undergraduate students. The magazine is rich in fun research stories — surely a refreshing break from the dense textbooks that litter our desk. In addition, the magazine offers glimpses into the lives of graduate students, which is insightful to those considering a career in academia.

The editors publish the magazine biannually. The next issue is planned for release this spring.

Mindfest

An annual mental health fair, Mindfest raises awareness and battles stigma by encouraging discussions about mental illness. This year’s event focuses on mental health for students and young people. Speakers will include mental health experts, peer mentors, and individuals with lived experience. Workshops will offer attendees opportunities to engage in self-care activities such as yoga and guided meditation. Our exhibitor fair gives attendees an opportunity to explore the support and advocacy organizations that exist on and off campus.

Free event, no registration is necessary.

A free pizza lunch will be provided for attendees.

Location:

Hart House

7 Hart House Cir

Date and Time:

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

9:30 AM – 4:30 PM

Website:

www.mindfest.ca

Uniting Toronto science communicators: U of T alumni, students attend first-ever SciCommTO conference

Over 120 attendees come together to share knowledge and passion for the field

Uniting Toronto science communicators:  U of T alumni, students attend first-ever SciCommTO conference

Science communicators from across the GTA gathered in Toronto from February 21–22 at the first ever SciCommTO science communication conference. There, attendees gathered to discuss, argue, challenge, and debate both the state of science communication and its future direction.

The event showcased Toronto’s science communication (scicomm) network, and featured journalists, podcasters, artists, and other content creators, many of whom have ties to the University of Toronto. Highlights included panel sessions made up of various U of T alumni, workshops, and structured networking events.

What is science communication?

At its simplest, science communication is the transfer of knowledge from scientists to various stakeholders, ranging from politicians to elementary school students. Scicomm is incredibly important for translating technical science into easily understandable concepts and facts.

Effective scicomm curbs the spread of misinformation, helps people understand the value of science in society, and allows them to make informed decisions on things like health, technology, and environmental issues.

The goal of the SciCommTO conference was to unite the scicomm community within the GTA to promote an “informative and thought-provoking time, and leave full of new ideas.”

Jayden Blackwood, who has studied neuroscience at U of T and is a co-host of the Medicine in Motion podcast, was among the conference attendees. He and his team entered scicomm because the “gap between academia and practical application was not something [they] felt had been sufficiently filled,” he wrote to The Varsity.

In other words, “The research and clinical expertise we encountered were not made relatable to those outside life sciences.”

“The idea of starting a podcast was done as an outreach initiative, serving as a bridge between professional input on various health topics, and the questions/views held by everyday people wanting to learn more,” he wrote.

HAYLEY MCKAY/THE VARSITY

The importance of effective dialogue with the public

Conference attendees could join one of three breakout sessions that occurred simultaneously on the first day, all with the theme of both understanding and challenging the means by which we communicate science.

Anthony Morgan, founder of Science Everywhere, explained that “trying to address misinformation by providing the public with well-sourced, accurate information seems like a losing battle.”

Morgan believes that this should not be the only strategy. Rather, “Our goal as science communicators ought to be to foster the kinds of cultural values that really help reinforce good critical thinking,” he continued. “A really good strategy… is [to] talk to people who see things differently than you… If we collectively do that, then we will reduce the amount of misinformation that spreads because we’re always wondering… how will someone who sees things differently interpret this?”

Succeeding in scicomm

Following the breakout sessions, participants reconvened for a panel on succeeding in scicomm. A significant highlight of the speakers’ advice was to leverage your skills into paid roles and negotiate compensation for work assignments before accepting them. Another highlight was to consider discussing long-term career plans with an employer, asking: “What can you do for me?”  This can enable you to work with the employer to alter the responsibilities of the job to help with your long-term career plans, which can motivate you to do a better job with your work.

Dr. Samantha Yammine, popularly known as “Science Sam,”  suggested that you should “make the negotiation about more than money.” She passed on the advice of the three Ps: passion, prestige, and payment.

“You should be getting two out of those three for anything that you agree to,” she said.

Additionally, the nature of your career could be drastically different depending on your choices. Many science communicators are freelancers who work on a contractual basis rather than in traditional full-time positions. While this provides flexibility, the panelists noted that the ebb and flow of employment opportunities and the difficulty of landing enough assignments to pay a living wage are barriers to consider.

Celia Du, a freelance science communicator and filmmaker, spoke to The Varsity about her transition into freelance scicomm. “I did not see myself as a freelancer,” she said, reflecting on the start of her career. “I was applying to jobs… and I did a lot of cold-call emailing, reaching out to a lot of organizations.”

The organizations that responded to her offered volunteer opportunities. She chose to volunteer for two of them, and leveraged those experiences to build her network — a process she highlights as a turning point in her career.

“But then, once people see you and hear your perspective, see what you’ve done for scicomm, they start to want you to do more for them.” This led Du to work for a multitude of organizations, such as the Royal Canadian Institute of Science and the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Toronto Centre.

HAYLEY MCKAY/THE VARSITY

Practical tips for writing headlines and asking questions

Jon Farrow from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research led workshops on the second day, focusing on the essential arts of writing headlines and asking questions.

He shared insights and tips on how to draw in a reader: the first step is to do your research by knowing your audience, and engaging them from the get-go. Farrow suggests using language to create intrigue. Evocative words and puns can go a long way — so long as the puns aren’t too niche! Another useful tip noted the power of listicles: many people like to organize and compartmentalize information into lists, so headlines mentioning listicles are especially engaging.

In a workshop on improving interviewing skills, Farrow and his co-leader Cynthia MacDonald, a career science writer, went through basic tips that any interviewer should remember. A key tip is to do your research; you should come prepared with questions, according to Farrow and MacDonald. The questions don’t have to be complex — in fact, they shouldn’t be.

The best interviewers ask straightforward questions that elicit thoughtful responses, rather than brief responses of yes or no. You can also refer to what Farrow and MacDonald call the GROSS questions if you find yourself unprepared for a last-minute interview: goals, reasons, obstacles, solutions, and starts.

Leveraging creative storytelling for scicomm

University of Toronto alumni Dr. Cylita Guy and Dr. Krishana Sankar kicked off another workshop by going through some background and theories of creative storytelling, beginning with the simple question: why tell stories? Storytelling is fundamental to human experience — we have been telling stories to disseminate information for millennia.

The use of metaphors, which are commonplace in storytelling, can engage an audience much more quickly than straight facts and figures, because they tap into our senses and emotions, they noted. When a story is relatable or evocative, it can persuade listeners to take action, which is exactly what science communicators want their audience to do.

So how do you incorporate storytelling into science communication? Like before, you need to know your audience. This is important so you can tailor your narrative, use references your audience is likely to understand, and make sure you avoid any jargon that wouldn’t be common knowledge, according to Guy and Sankar.

Next, you must create your narrative, they continued. This involves creating characters and settings, which are the people and places involved in the scientific topic you are exploring. You also need to set a tone for your story, they noted. It is important to have a central theme in mind — the main takeaway or lesson of your narrative — before you begin.

Some other tips they shared for incorporating storytelling into scicomm included using graphic imagery to help set the tone. They also recommended talking about failure. While it might seem counterintuitive, it humanizes the subject.

Many scientific narratives don’t have a nice conclusion that can be wrapped up in a bow, they added, so leaving a story open-ended is absolutely fine.

The future of scicomm

People interested in scicomm as a career often face challenges breaking into the field. A common challenge faced by science communicators, explained Sankar, is finding validation and recognition for your work. Sankar wants more people to recognize that scicomm is “a necessary skill — it’s valuable.”

To help educate people on the importance of scicomm, Sankar would like to see “universities… such as the University of Toronto actually having courses for students [to] develop [their] science communication skills.” Science communicators, especially those who are graduate students, face challenges pursuing their work because “people, especially academics… do not see the value of their students going out and learning these skills.”

“Instead they think this is taking away time from their research, but it’s actually complementary,” she said. Guy adamantly agreed, reflecting, “I had to fight tooth and nail to justify what I was doing.”

The issue of pay was also discussed at length during the conference. Relating it to the issue of validation and acknowledgement, Sankar observed, “A lot of organizations do not want to pay, because I think there was a precedent set that [scicomm work] was being done on a voluntary basis.”

In an effort to open people’s minds, Guy believes that unapologetically sharing your work in scicomm is key. She advocated for normalizing scicomm as a career field, and responding to skeptics with the attitude of, “I don’t care what you think!”

“[Scicomm is] valuable — we should talk about it like we talk about our science.”