Science graduate students hone communication skills at inaugural ComSciConCAN conference

U of T students, faculty represented at Canada’s first national science communication conference for graduate students

Science graduate students hone communication skills at inaugural ComSciConCAN conference

Science communicators from universities across Canada sharpened their skills at ComSciConCAN, the country’s first national science communication conference for graduate students, held from July 18 to 20 at McMaster University. 

The two-and-a-half-day event drew inspiration from the US-based ComSciCon workshop series on science communication, which was first held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2013.

ComSciCon has since expanded to include flagship workshops across the US, but ComSciConCAN marks the first time the conference has been hosted in a different country.

The inaugural Canadian conference featured four panel discussions, six hands-on workshops, and over 25 experts from a diverse range of science communication careers.

In attendance were 50 graduate students from 26 different institutions across Canada, who were selected out of a pool of over 400 applicants from a wide array of scientific backgrounds.

Conference trains students with skills in science communication

To Dr. Maria Drout, a member of the ComSciConCAN organizing committee and professor at U of T’s Dunlap Institute, the conference’s main goal was to give graduate students the tools they need to succeed in any science communication endeavour they choose to pursue.

“The idea is to empower graduate students to be leaders in whatever field they choose, and to be able to effectively communicate in those ways,” Drout said to The Varsity.

“No matter what field you’re in, your effectiveness comes down to not only how good you are at the technical aspects, but [also] how well you can share your findings.”

To this end, the workshops and panels held throughout the conference focused on training graduate students with the skills they need to succeed in all forms of science communication — from working in media and journalism to effecting change through science policy and activism.

In the “Media Interview Skills” workshop, for example, science communicator and Daily Planet television series co-host Dr. Dan Riskin taught students how to effectively talk about science “outside their wheelhouse” of expertise.

The students participated in mock media interviews and learned how to craft key talking points to use in the face of even the most unexpected of interview questions.

They also had the chance to present their research in one-minute ‘pop talks’ that were meant to be engaging and accessible to a non-expert audience. Audience members could hold up cards labelled as either “JARGON” or “AWESOME” to keep the talks on track and jargon-free.

Another activity was the Write-A-Thon, during which attendees were divided into peer editing groups and assigned an expert reviewer to help craft a publication-ready science communication piece. 

Many of the pieces written at previous renditions of the conference have since gone on to be published in major media outlets.

The importance of representation in science media

In addition to gaining hands-on experience, a running theme throughout the conference was the importance of representation — both in scientific fields as well as in science communication endeavours.

In the “Communicating with Diverse Audiences” panel discussion, Professor Hilding Neilson, from U of T’s Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, spoke about acknowledging and listening to unique audience perspectives. Neilson works on blending Indigenous knowledge into the U of T astronomy curriculum, and he shared his experiences by incorporating those knowledge pools into astronomy.

Dr. Carrie Bourassa, the scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Indigenous People’s Health, also spoke about the importance of prioritizing Indigenous sources of knowledge. Bourassa was a speaker in the panel discussion on “Communicating through Policy & Activism,” and currently leads the advancement of a national health research agenda aimed at improving and promoting the health of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples in Canada.

“[The conference] made people think on a number of occasions,” Drout said. “Not just learn immediate skills, but actually think about how to position themselves and their research in the context of society in Canada.”

Drout also told The Varsity that she was really pleased with how the conference went, and feels excited about ComSciConCAN’s potential going forward.

“This was just the launching-off point. The hope is for it to continue to grow, because clearly there is a huge appetite, and many students who’d like to participate,” she said.

“Within Canada, we’re now hoping to launch many more workshops in the next few years — both continue to do these nationwide conferences, but also do local versions in many cities across the country.”

Casual setting, critical thinking

BookLab podcast explores ideas from modern physics to genetic testing

Casual setting, critical thinking

By listening to BookLab, a podcast by science journalists Amanda Gefter and Dan Falk, I better understood what makes science writing engaging and how to think critically about what I read, even if the authors are experts in their field.

BookLab describes itself as a series “that puts science books under the microscope.” Though Gefter and Falk specialize in physics reporting, they don’t shy away from exploring topics from a diverse range of fields.

Their discussions include books on how medicine may drastically change due to technology, unexpected implications of modern physics, issues with genetic testing, and much more.

Gefter and Falk integrate their experiences as science journalists into their discussions, exploring how certain sections of a book relate to recent discoveries they’ve reported on, and how their personal experiences can serve as examples of a key concept.

They bring in their experiences as longform writers, exploring how writers successfully distil complex ideas into accessible forms, and how poetic language can be distinctively used to capture an idea into words.

Each episode starts off by introducing the broad theme explored by a book under review. Gefter and Falk then provide a brief overlay of the writing, discuss particular parts of the book that stood out to them, and observations about the writings and arguments of the authors.

The episodes conclude with a brief segment called “What’s on your nightstand?”, in which each journalist describes a science book they’ve been reading recently, and what they liked about it.

It’s rare to find a podcast hosted by science journalists in a casual setting, as opposed to researchers or journalists in a professional setting. BookLab fits that niche and is engaging for scientists and science enthusiasts alike.

My secret life as a ghostwriter

Authorship for a bargain

My secret life as a ghostwriter

Every so often Instagram has a new hashtag, a trend that suddenly transforms into an international movement, or maybe it’s the other way around. Who knows?

From influencers, who receive tens of thousands of likes for a picture of breadcrumbs, to those whose followers barely number in the three digits, all post some visual content pertinent to the trend. One of the latest trends is the #10yearchallenge, and it really is quite self-explanatory: post two pictures of yourself in the same frame or post, one taken recently and the other from 10 years ago.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this challenge, but as I go through old albums and scroll through past photos with people who I am barely in touch with anymore, I am seized by a lasting feeling of disenchantment.

Ten years ago, I would have sworn on my mother’s life that I’d never sell my authorship cheap.

Ten years later, I’m a ghostwriter penning personal statements for suckers too rich and vain to get into college by themselves, and I have been selling my writing for a bargain.

It takes precisely 10 years for me to navigate from point A to point Z, and I don’t see a chance in the next 10 years for me to alleviate my predicament. I am as hopeless now as I was hopeful 10 years before, and I’m slowly but steadily coming to terms with my utter disappointment.

Coming to terms with my disappointment is really just me accepting that there has never been a day where I was near point A. So while I may not have climbed many rungs on the ladder to my American dream, a few steps back from X to Z is a lot less of a bummer than the skydive we take as we gear toward 30 and are still just as miserable.

Not many of us can afford the disappointment to begin with. And if we’re being real, I didn’t become a bestseller. True. But I’m still writing. I don’t get to sign my name under the title. Also true. But at least I get paid per word.

So, if you know anyone who still believes in the myth of the college degree, send them my way. I just lit my last joint and turned the grocery money I made off my last client into a puff of smoke.

An “appropriation prize” is an insult to Indigenous writers

What happened with Write magazine should prompt media outlets to prioritize Indigenous peoples in their coverage

An “appropriation prize” is an insult to Indigenous writers

The spring issue of Write, a literary magazine published by the Writer’s Union of Canada, was supposed to celebrate works by Indigenous writers. However, as is often the case when Indigenous writing is published, a media firestorm quickly redirected the public’s attention elsewhere.

Editor-in-Chief Hal Niedzviecki came under fire for his editorial in the magazine, where he wrote that he does not believe in cultural appropriation and that “anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.” Consequently, Indigenous writers featured in the magazine expressed their deep disappointment that such a piece was featured in an issue intended to celebrate their communities’ works. Niedzviecki has since apologized and resigned from his post, calling his lack of foresight “tone-deaf.”

The negative attention Niedzviecki received then prompted some of the biggest names in Canada to jump to his defence. Prominent editors and writers at the largest media organizations in Canada eagerly voiced their support for the hypothetical “appropriation prize” that Niedzviecki suggested be awarded to authors who write about peoples with whom they have nothing in common. A pot of money jokingly pledged to the cause even emerged on Twitter.

The Niedzviecki case and the subsequent media support in his favour are telling reminders that there is sore disregard for Indigenous perspectives in Canadian media, and that the industry must make more room for Indigenous peoples to tell their own stories.

Niedzviecki apparently intended to argue that Indigenous peoples, continually suffering the effects of cultural genocide, are rediscovering their voice by writing narratives outside their own cultures. Statements in his piece seem to align with this position: Niedzviecki mentions the importance of finding the “right measures of respect, learning, and true telling,” and that “if we steal stories or phone in a bunch of stereotypes, readers will know.”

Yet opening a magazine issue devoted to Indigenous writing with the line “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation” penned by its Editor-in-Chief hardly approaches the bounds of appropriate editorial decision-making.

Clarification is in order, because Niedzviecki seems to imply that protecting writers from cultural appropriation presents an obstacle to creativity within the Canadian literary community by limiting the scope of what one can write about. However, appropriation is not ‘writing what you don’t know’ — it’s taking the customs of another culture and denying their origins, profiting off them as if they were your own.

We also cannot ignore the topicality with which cultural appropriation is frequently approached in popular discussion; however nearsighted Niedzviecki was, framing his piece in terms of appropriation was unmistakably meant to stir the pot.

Niedzviecki ought to have known better. The fact that he did not is unsurprising.

In a piece for Global News, Anishinaabe artist Aylan Couchie writes of “a persistent notion that continuing to exploit Indigenous people is an inherent right.” Gimmicky replicas of traditional artefacts and tasteless Halloween costumes demonstrate the world continuing to distort Indigenous culture for profit and entertainment. And this instance is hardly the first time Indigenous perspectives have taken a back seat to provocative writing by powerful people.

[pullquote-default]An Indigenous Elder once told Anishinaabe journalist Duncan McCue that the only way an Indigenous person would be featured on the news is if they were “one of the 4Ds: drumming, dancing, drunk, or dead.”[/pullquote-default]

The Canadian media has time and time again been complicit in this process. An Indigenous Elder once told Anishinaabe journalist Duncan McCue that the only way an Indigenous person would be featured on the news is if they were “one of the 4Ds: drumming, dancing, drunk, or dead.” When Indigenous people do make headlines, writers often play on stereotypes about criminality and alcoholism, never mind that scholars have repeatedly confirmed the connection between social issues within Indigenous communities and Canada’s colonial past.

The role of culture in this process cannot be understated. For First Nations people, preserving culture can be virtually analogous with preserving Indigenous knowledge, identity, and self-determination. Social and cultural dislocation has in fact been cited as one of the causes of higher rates of self-harm and suicide among Indigenous peoples compared to the non-Indigenous population.

The media, in turn, has a vital role to play in shaping public opinion and choosing what stories are told. Wilful blindness to the potential consequences of what is published, in a context where too few Canadians know enough about our country’s colonial history, can be toxic to Indigenous communities.

Editorials like Niedzviecki’s are important to take seriously because of their potential reach. A Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) project on Ontarian media coverage of Indigenous issues revealed that editorials and opinion columns made up a substantial portion of the heightened negative coverage that occurred in response to ‘Idle No More’ protests. McCue believes that senior opinion writers in city newsrooms are influential in setting the tone when Indigenous communities are covered.

It consequently becomes difficult to stomach the idea of an “appropriation prize,” to turn a blind eye to white and well-paid media executives placing bids on what is essentially a continuation of Canada’s colonial legacy. Calling out the Canadian media on its lack of diversity is hardly an overreaction, yet few in the industry seem willing to confront the problem head-on.

Only two extensive surveys on diversity in Canadian newspapers have ever been conducted. The most recent one, in 2006, found that minorities were vastly underrepresented in newsrooms at all levels of circulation. Smaller-scale studies have since confirmed these findings, yet news outlets have not budged. In 2016, CANADALAND attempted to collect data about diversity in Canadian newspapers and was met with radio silence; with only three papers willing to contribute, the prospect of publishing systematic data was deemed a lost cause.

[pullquote-features]It is Indigenous writers who are in optimal positions to tell deeply authentic and compassionate stories about marginalization and resistance.[/pullquote-features]

Indigenous narratives in particular continue to be sorely underrepresented in Canadian media. JHR surveyed over two million stories across 171 Canadian publications from 2010–2013, finding that Indigenous stories made up a cumulative average of only 0.28 per cent.

Part of the reason for this, it appears, is that many journalists do not attempt to seek out Indigenous sources to contribute to their stories. Others, not understanding Indigenous issues, avoid the topic entirely. In turn, media executives in charge of daily news agendas hesitate to cover Indigenous issues due to a reluctance to raise the “same old stories.” That would be well and good if enough were being done to try and change the status quo — which hasn’t happened since the first European ship landed on Canadian soil.

The Canadian Journalism Project’s J-Source has also investigated this issue. Of the 125 columnists they surveyed in 2016, only 5 regional columnists were Indigenous, and there were no Indigenous columnists at the national level.  This is compared to 50 regional and 14 national columnists who identified under no equity criteria — none of whom were Indigenous people, visible minorities, women, LGBTQ persons, or persons with a disability.

Supporting Indigenous writing — as Write tried and Niedzviecki dismally failed to do — is one step toward progress. Indigenous communities have much to contribute to the Canadian media landscape, and given their lived experiences, it is Indigenous writers who are in optimal positions to tell deeply authentic and compassionate stories about marginalization and resistance.

This is not to say that white columnists can’t write about colonialism, and certainly not that Indigenous writers should be pigeonholed into doing so. But considering the scarcity of Indigenous perspectives in the mainstream media and the pressing need to cover communities’ stories in a timely and respectful manner, newspapers should try harder to make room.

Fortunately, some have got the right idea. JHR has launched a mentorship program for Indigenous journalists in Northern Ontario, as well as a scholarship and internship program to help interested Indigenous students break into the field. In 2015, the Canadian Association of Journalists awarded the Don McGillivray Award, a prestigious journalistic honour, to McCue and the rest of his team at the CBC for their coverage of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Simultaneously, progress on media diversity is painfully slow, and the appropriation prize debacle is a notable setback. Respecting Indigenous narratives, publishing Indigenous authors, and collaborating with Indigenous organizations should be top priorities, both in the broader media community and locally at The VarsityMedia outlets must make concrete commitments if they seriously intend to confront this issue. Unfortunately, it is not clear that all of them do.