Sunday, October 31, 2010

What do we do with all that science?

One of the great things about being a grad student in a lab or research group is the dialogue you have with other grad students. Ingrid (one of the original planktoneers), has been away at Lakehead University this semester planning her PhD project and taking an environmental ethics course. She has provided some initial insights here. I enjoyed reading this post and thought I'd write a response or perhaps more of a continuation.

I think that another aspect that we have to consider in science is really how we do it and what we do with it once it has been done. I agree with Ingrid that we need to think carefully about what we are studying and why, because ultimately our science is going to have to stand for itself in the world and it is true that breaking down natural systems into measurable units may indeed detract from their instrinsic value.

However, I too feel that scientists have a role to play in environmental decision making and I think part of that lies not only with the ecology and the thinking behind it but also in the methods and application. The world is complicated. There are a lot of problems. We can discuss that forever and not get closer to solutions (we could probably also debate the meaning of the word "solution" for an infinite amount of time as well...), but there comes a point in time where we make a decision to study a problem and maybe even make recommendations. Regardless about where you stand on the second point, I think many of us can agree that all science has an impact. By impact I don't necessarily mean the impact that we want our research to have (ex. curing cancer, protecting an endangered species etc etc). I mean, obviously that is an end goal, but along the way our research will have other impacts: social, economic, environmental...impacts that we haven't even thought of.

I have been fortunate enough to work in the north for my MSc. I think the system I work on (aquatic rock pools) is important and that the problem I am interested in is equally applicable. But I also know that for every small bit of research I do, for every spreadsheet I have compiled and for every p-value I have gained through R there has been a train or plane that I took to Churchill and some soft tundra that I have repetitively compressed with my truck. This is why I think it is important for scientists to think more broadly about their research and ask important questions, not just research questions, but questions about how they are going to do research with the least amount of negative impact possible, and how they will ensure that their research reaches the audience it needs to after the fact (or during).

Alas, not sure if I have a picture that goes with this posting...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Let's Talk Science

There are many opinions on the role of scientists in education and outreach programs. This is a discussion that happens routinely in my lab, and the Cottenie lab website has postings that cover several topics of science and education. I think that these discussions are important to have and I have certainly changed the way I view science education over the last few years because of them. But sometimes, we have to abandon the discussion (or put it on hold for a while) and just get out there and do something.

Marina and I recently started volunteering with the program Let's Talk Science. This organization runs may different education and outreach activities and is unique in that it is powered almost solely by graduate students! Filled with ideas of things we would like to do with LTS, we realized that we needed a small project to start with. Enter Karl's oldest son's first grade science class! Next week, we will be facilitating a workshop for four grade 1/2 french immersion classes (don't worry we are permitted to talk in english- we double checked!) at a local Guelph public school.

Our theme is "The Wonderful Word of Microbes" or all things small, and one of our main focuses is on bacteria and viruses, both good, bad and just plain germy. In preparation we have been testing some interactive activities, mostly involving UV lamps and we are looking forward to the real deal next week.

So whether you believe promoting science education is important, or think interactive learning is the way to go, stay tuned for an update how our session with the students goes!

Planktoneer's write too? Well. We'll see about that.

My first experience in the Cottenie lab started 2nd semester of 3rd year when I worked on a semester long research project using data collected in Churchill that previous summer (2007). While I finished that research project course what seems like ages ago...I should have known that just as nothing in ecology is cut and dry, neither is the process of academia.

Academia, now there is a word that I don't slip into casual conversation everyday (well actually I probably use it far too often...something I'm sure my housemates could attest too). Now according to Wikapedia, "Academia" refers to "the community of students and scholars engaged in higher education and research." Well I've always known that there was a lot of that going on on the 2nd floor of the science complex, and beyond...but Monday I officially entered the world of academia...well at least I sent in my membership application, i.e. I submitted my first manuscript.

So now I am waiting to find out if I will get to undergo the initiation ritual of the peer review process, or if my membership card will get "lost" in the mail...

Stay tuned for updates and perhaps a summary of the manuscript, so that students I have been working with for the last few years no longer have to ask, "so what do you do again?".