Archive | November, 2013

Chasing Ice (aka Do What You Want with Your Grad Degree)

27 Nov

Last weekend there was a free screening of James Balog‘s film “Chasing Ice” here in Vancouver, organized by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement and the Environmental Youth Alliance. I only just read about James’ project in National Geographic’s 125th Year Special Photo Issue last week (lucky!), so this movie immediately went into the Saturday night spot in my calendar.

The movie focuses on the Extreme Ice Survey project that James started. The idea is to document the changing glacier landscape using time-lapse photographs. While the idea seems simple enough, the execution is hardly the case. Just imagine carrying all the camera gears, some of which you have to build yourself because they don’t exist yet (not built for extreme weathers or long duration without care), climbing hours in -40C weather, and checking regularly to make sure the cameras are taking photos instead of being knocked down by falling rocks or having their wires chewed up by wolves. They also lost the first few months because of malfunction timers, so they ended up making a few extra trips in order to replace all the timers. This is not to mention James had several knee surgeries done in order to complete the project.

Yup, that’s what they did.

But the results were astounding. While you might not understand statistics or mathematical models, one thing you can clearly learn from his photos is that our climate is changing, the glaciers are disappearing, and at once we can really grasp what climate change means. All that ice must be going somewhere? And that is a consequence we can envision.

Through nearly a million time-lapse photographs, we now have indisputable, gut-wrenching proof that ancient glaciers are disappearing…The photographs show glaciers breaking apart and melting faster than we had imagined.

– James Balog, National Geographic

Interestingly, James actually has a background in research, with a graduate degree in geography and geomorphology. He admitted in the movie that he was not so keen on the numbers and statistics associated with research work. However, it appears that he developed photography skills while he was working on his master’s degree, and eventually found passion in documenting humans’ interaction with the natural world. To me, it is clear that his research background supplemented him tremendously in his photography work as well as the Extreme Ice Project, making his photography a work of art and science.

In fact, his story is familiar one for me. When I was working on my PhD, I found myself drawn to chatting with and writing to people about science instead of my *actual* research work. In fact, it was during this time that I got better with writing grant applications, editing people’s work, and planning outreach events. It took a while for me to make up my mind not to stay in research, by which time I was already half way into an expedited PhD program and finished my comprehensive exam. I then did something unthinkable (my boyfriend at the time went “you did WHAT?”). I called my supervisor and transferred myself out of the PhD program to complete with a master’s instead.

Do I ever regret it? Maybe a tiny bit, once in a while, when many of my friends from graduate school are now being called Doctors. But that regret goes away oh so quickly because I love my job so much, and I know that for some friends, I have the dream job that they want. I could not imagine what would have happened if I didn’t take that step to do something about it.

My point is – regardless of whether you are working on your master’s degree or your PhD, your life is really, well, your life. While there are many talks about the lack of academic positions for the number of graduate students we are training, or whether going to grad school is worth the time and the money, perhaps ask these questions instead: Do I really need a PhD to do this? Do I really want an academic career? Can the skills I develop during grad school help me do something I love? And, don’t doubt the value of what others might consider “lost years” if you don’t end up with an academic career. James got really good with photography, and I had plenty of opportunities to work on my writing and event planning, all during graduate school. In fact, now that I think about it, there is so much flexibility in graduate school that it probably is the best chance to spare some time and  do something you love.

I remember talking to my mom about the decision to get out of PhD in one of those sleepless nights, and my mom said,

“Theresa, life is too short, so do what you want.”

I guess that is why James Balog was chasing ice, and I am now writing/talking science. That’s why we don’t let our degrees define what we want our lives to be.

On the topic of making your life an adventure, check out Terry McGlynn’s great post On creating your own path through life. And, regardless what your attitude toward climate change is, I highly recommend that you check out Chasing Ice. For the story, for the striking imagery, and for potentially the last evidence of our glacier that might disappear in our life time.


#CSPC2013 Science Blogging in Canada (Storify)

25 Nov

A few months ago, we started talking about the need for a science blogging session during the Canadian Science Policy Conference 2013 in our Google+ community – Science Communications Canada. It was exciting that the idea grew into a session for the conference, with the launch of the Canadian science blogging network Science Borealis. While I was unable to attend the session in person, I managed to follow the conversation on twitter. Here is my attempt to capture the conversation via Storify. If anything is out of context or doesn’t make sense, please do not hesitate to let me know.

#CSPC2013 Science Blogging in Canada – Storify

More than a Photographer: Inspirations for Science

20 Nov

I spent much of my last Friday evening reading the National Geographic’s 125 year special photo issue.


Photography has a special place in my heart for many reasons. My grandpa used to own a camera shop, and I grew up playing with manual SLR cameras with my mom. I am also a rather nostalgic person – just ask the random typewriter I bought because my dad used to own one and I grew to like the “ta-ta-ta” noise. Interestingly, I have often been in the position of archiving – even now, my job involves archiving some of my department’s documents and photos.

While my photography skill probably falls short, and I really don’t have the time or finance to support a photography hobby, photographs can connect me on a level that words or moving pictures sometimes can’t.

The photo issue has several great stories – from conservation, glacier, to mixed-race identities. The one that hit me the most was the story about Congo. The situation in Congo is not new. While the country is rich mostly because of metal mines – gold, tantalum, tin, tungsten, and more (check your cell phone – some of the metal components probably came from Congo), it has been in much tension and conflict. Many mines are owned by warlords; they enslave people to harvest the metals in poor conditions, and then use the money to finance weapons in order to maintain control over the slaves. Despite some major electronic companies putting pressures on the government to do something about it, and the recent defeat of M23 is definitely good news, but there is still a long way to go. I cannot include the National Geographic photos here, but I have embedded below the Flickr album from the Enough project.

The reality is that such situation did not arise in one day. Often times there are complicated historical and geographical reasons. Geographically, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the 11th largest country in the world. Culturally, it suffered from colonization, insurrections, invasion, and so on.  It is when it comes to international issues such as these that I feel extremely helpless – Me, a professional women with a job and a voice, yet there is not much I can do about it. Once in a while, a celebrity will come on TV to raise some awareness, and this is in the limelight for a few days, and then people forget about it…over and over again.

Something else I realized was how National Geographic photographers consider themselves as having dual responsibilities. On one hand, they take photos for commercial reasons. On the other hand, many of them strive to bring awareness to the issues that they care about.

Photographers use their cameras as tools of exploration, passports to inner sanctums, instruments for change.  – National Geographic

I fall in love with almost every person I photograph. I want to hear each story. I want to get close. This is personal for me. – Stephanie Sinclair

That’s the idea behind the Photo Ark: getting the public to look these creatures in the eye, then care enough to save them while there’s still time. My goal is to photograph as many of the world’s captive species as I can before time runs out. – Joel Sartore

My pictures are about making people realize we’ve got to protect those who can’t speak for themselves. –Michael “Nick” Nichols

This reminds me that scientists often have duel responsibilities too. On one hand, we are hired – either by academic institutions, by the government, or by the industry – to conduct experiments and run activities that technically should advance the agenda of the organization. On the other hand, many of us feel that we have a responsibility to the society, especially those of us who really love our jobs.

Just like photography is more than simply capturing the moment, sometimes science is really more than just experiments and lab reports. Our science is our cameras and the results are our photographs. There is so much at stake here – our health, our environment, our future.

When Our Toys Tell Kids Who They Should Be – on Gender Stereotypes and Gender-segregated Toys

15 Nov

I passed by these sticker books in Chapters some time in the summer, and the idea of them upset me. Check out the product description and photos of these sticker books (close the pop-up and scroll down).


If I had a child

I would rip these covers off

So that boys could write poetry, learn about fashion, and try out acting on stage

And girls could play with insects, go camping, and make their robots

And then I would tell my child

“You can play with anything you want

Because Mommy loves you no matter what”

(okay, perhaps I would also rip out the pages on fairies…)

It seems that I am not the only one uncomfortable with the gender stereotype that boys should play with insects and go camping, and girls should write poetry and act on stage. Check out this blog posts: This isn’t just any children’s sticker book…this is a sexist M&S sticker book by Meg Pickard.

Furthermore, it seems that “gender-segregated toys” sell much better. Lego Friends, meant to target girls, turned out to be one of the biggest success for the company.  Listen/Read Girls’ Legos Are A Hit, But Why Do Girls Need Special Legos? by NPR. And note that Kinder Surprise is also going for it. I, for one, was personally offended by the following commercial:

(“For showing off”?? And, not that I don’t enjoy dressing up – I actually do read fashion magazines – but is that a girl only thing? What if I want to build robots? Which I certainly did when I was little.)

Read Melissa Carr’s post Why New Pink Kinder Surprise Pisses Me Off, and also the post Why do parents buy into gender segregated toys? by Reel Girl.

And that is why while I know that something like Goldieblox, engineering toys for girls, would be popular, and that a swarm of parents would go for it, something doesn’t sit right with me. In one of the workshops that I was involved in running, girls had so much fun playing with circuit boards and wires and lasers (they were building a laser detector) – none of the parts were coloured pink and made with ribbons. They were the exact same electronic parts that we used for workshops with boys. Read Spydergrrl’s post Why I Won’t Be Buying Gender-Segregating Toys Like Goldieblox and Lego Friends. (Updated Nov 18, 2013) And definitely read about Jamie Davis Smith’s personal experience in Getting Over Goldie Blox.

I should mention that I grew up loving both Lego bricks and Barbie dolls. My parents never told me to play with one or the other.

And my Lego bricks were not in pink.

Science vs. Politics in Canada Update: Link Roundup

14 Nov

I was originally planning to include the links here in my next general link roundup, but considering that the Canadian Science Policy Conference will be coming up in a week in Toronto, these links sorta deserve a specific post. I previously wrote about Science vs. Politics in march – I therefore consider this a follow-up post.

1. The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), “the largest union in Canada representing scientists and professionals employed at the federal and some provincial and territorial levels of government”,  recently commissioned a survey of 4,000 Canadian government scientists. They found that:

  • 90% of the federal scientists do not feel like they can speak freely about their work.
  • 37% reported that they were prevented from answering questions from the public and media in the last 5 years
  • 24% were directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons
  • 50% were aware of actual cases where the health and safety of Canadians or environmental sustainability has been compromised because of political interference with their scientific work

Check out the full reports on their page: Most Federal Scientists Feel They Can’t Speak Out, Even If Public Health and Safety at Risk, Says New Survey.

This story was covered by CBC (Muzzling of federal scientists widespread, survey suggests), and Nature (7 days – Trend Watch).

2. Sarah Boon (a great science communication colleague) organized a series of blog posts on Canadian science policies. John Dupuis has organized all the posts (so far, 10 of them) on his blog Confessions of A Science Librarian. Topics in the blog series range from the muzzling of government scientists, the experimental lake area, science and politics, and open data.

3. A few UBC students put together a great podcast – Silencing the Scientists, via the Terry Project. Excellent work, by the way, especially since this came from students – hope to see more from them.

Has Harper politicized federal science? Since 2006, the Canadian government has laid off scientists while expanding its communication staff. On this episode of The Terry Project on CiTR, Gordon and Sam speak with scientists, journalists and activists about the state of science and spin in 2013.

Graphic Design by Talal Al Salem/Terry Project

Graphic Design by Talal Al Salem/Terry Project

4. This came out a while ago, but I thought that it is worth sharing here again. Tom Spears, a reporter with the Ottawa Citizen, was working on a story for which he was hoping to talk to scientists from the National Research Council Canada (NRC) and NASA of the United States. Here is an infographic on what he went through: Comparing Science Communication in Canada and the USA. It has been pointed out to me in the past that this might not be a fair comparison (NRC and NASA might have different priorities when it comes to outreach), but the difference is astounding.

5. Simon Fraser University graduate student David Peddie recently wrote to Georgia Straight (a local Vancouver Community newspaper with a large circulation). In Evidence-based dissent and Canada’s war on science, he talk about the response from former chief economic analyst for Statistics Canada, Philip Cross, regarding the “war on science.”

He argues that government scientists have no right to complain of muzzling… Cross looks at the situation like a good business manager—employees exist to serve their employer; should they feel the need to give an opinion (however knowledgeable) that the public relations department deems damaging to the employer’s mission, they’re welcome to post it anonymously in a blog or resign…Cross’s outlook is the root of the whole problem. Acceptable business practice is not acceptable government practice. Democracy is not the act of electing a representative corporate body to power to execute its agenda. A corporation is free to pursue its objectives as it pleases within the confines of the law but a government has a responsibility to be accountable and transparent to its electorate. The public is not a body to be manipulated and appeased by a public relations department; they are the raison d’être of the government. Open channels of honest communication should be made available to encourage an informed, engaged, and critical public.

6. CBC Radio Program The Current recently covered the story about the War on Science. Anna Maria Tremonti, the host of the program, also interviewed Tim Powers, Vice-Chair of Summa Strategies and Conservative commentator. Tim Powers’ stand that “there is no war on science” triggered a strong response from brain research scientists from the Dalhousie University: the Decreasing Funding of Scientific Research Funding in Canada.

Have you come across a few that I should have included? Let me know by commenting below.

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