Spreading the word about science

Grad students share their passion for science with a broader public – whether through a podcast or over a pint in a pub.

Across the University, McGill graduate students are busy exploring some of the most complex scientific questions the universe has to offer. A growing number of them, though, aren’t content with having those discussions restricted to their lecture halls or labs. They are sharing their passion for science with a broader public – whether through a podcast or over a pint in a pub.

Take Rackeb Tesfaye, MSc’17, for instance. The doctoral student in neuroscience founded Broad Science, a podcast driven by a desire to increase the representation of marginalized communities in science by providing them a platform to share their stories and lived experiences.

Broad Science has its roots in 2015 when Tesfaye (then doing a master’s in psychiatry) and a friend in her program began discussing the underrepresentation of women and visible minorities in science media. When Tesfaye began volunteering for CKUT, McGill’s community radio station, it provided her with the inspiration and production skills necessary to make her vision a reality.

The Broad Science team has partnered with Confabulation, a storytelling collective, for some successful live events at the Phi Centre that focused on first-hand accounts of unusual or creative experiences with science. The podcast has dealt with issues ranging from the use of direct-to-consumer DNA tests to the prevalence of sexual harassment in academia.

“We know that in society, we have constructed a stereotype of who is capable or allowed to participate in science,” Tesfaye explains. She mentions studies in which children, when asked to draw a scientist, default to Caucasian men in white coats, holding test tubes in a lab.

Tesfaye recognizes the importance of early exposure to science to combat long-held societal perceptions. The Broad Science team hosts science communication workshops where young people can learn about less traditional careers in STEM, pick up some radio production skills, and conduct interviews with actual scientists.

“The hope is that we can alert communities of low socioeconomic backgrounds, with diverse backgrounds, to the fact that there are people with all different backgrounds in science. And we have to start talking about them.”

Lisa Dang, BSc’16, a doctoral student in physics, is involved in a few science outreach initiatives at McGill. Since 2016, she’s helped organize the McGill Physics Hackathon, an event that aims to provide physics students with hands-on programming experience.

“Most physics students won’t necessarily want to go to a hackathon, because they feel they’re competing against people who are much better at coding than them,” says Dang. “We wanted to provide a space that would allow them to gain that confidence.”

Dang has also been an active board member of AstroMcGill, the public outreach arm of the McGill Space Institute. The group has been working to educate the public about what’s going on in the sky above them since its debut a few years ago. One of the organization’s most popular initiatives is its Public Astro Nights, during which members of the McGill community and the general public are invited to attend lectures by experts (often from McGill) in the field of astrophysics.

Accessibility is a priority for Dang and the team of fellow graduate students and volunteers who organize the events; the talks are free of charge, and the subject matter is presented in a straightforward, easily digestible manner. Speakers typically stick around to chat: “Over the years, a lot of people have begun to stay after, to talk with the speaker and have a bit of a deeper understanding of the talk,” she says.

Weather permitting, the lectures are followed by a trip outside to put AstroMcGill’s telescopes to use and catch a glimpse of the night sky.

Down on the ground, doctoral student Marianne Falardeau-Côté’s research in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences has its focus on the Arctic Ocean and the way in which changes to its marine ecosystems impact the people that depend upon them. For the past five years, her work has brought her into close contact with the community of Cambridge Bay in Nunavut, where the majority of the population is Inuit.

Through surveys, community focus groups, and interviews, Falardeau-Côté combines qualitative and quantitative approaches to better understand how the marine ecosystem is changing, how it may affect coastal communities now and into the future, and how to act upon these changes.

“I'm really trying to understand the main community concerns about the marine ecosystem changing, asking people all the different benefits they think they get from the marine ecosystem.”

Through her work, Falardeau-Côté learned how the relationships of Inuit to the ocean and the land are so closely intertwined with their culture and identity. She has led participatory activities where she invited Inuit community members to explore how to be actively involved in maintaining healthy marine ecosystems, culture and well-being in the future. To that end, she has also led science camps and workshops with youth, both in Nunavut and Quebec, to try and kick start an early interest in the natural world.

“With the younger ones, I always finish with the more interactive parts, and encourage them to think about what they can do for the future.”

She recently made Hivunikhavut - Our Future, a short film about her team’s work, that is available on YouTube. An enthusiastic proponent of science (she worked as a science journalist for the student newspaper during her undergraduate studies at Université Laval), Falardeau-Côté is frequently interviewed by the media about her work. She was recently selected by Québec Science for a special podcast series about women who work in science and technology.

As the director of the Canadian chapter of Pint of Science, Alexandra Gellé, a doctoral student in chemistry, is also committed to promoting the importance of university-based research.

Pint of Science was born in the U.K. in 2012 in an effort to bring the public together with researchers in a non-intimidating way. The organization’s work comes together in the form of its annual festival, a three-day, global event in which attendees gather in pubs, bars and cafés to listen to researchers in diverse fields, from astronomy to zoology, discuss their work in an open, accessible environment.

Montreal is just one of nearly 300 cities worldwide that takes part in the festival. Gellé’s own involvement in the group began when she was on a student exchange at the University of Wollongong, in Australia. When she was given the opportunity to take on more responsibility upon her return to Montreal, she says, “I just jumped at the chance, because I loved the idea. I was just in awe of what they were doing.”

Now, as the head of Canadian operations, Gellé has helped to nearly double the organization’s reach across the country, with cities from Nanaimo to St. John’s participating, and 300 individual speakers involved. Quebec will play a big role in Pint of Science this year, with events planned for Chicoutimi, Montréal, Québec City, Sherbrooke and Trois-Rivières. Pint of Science will take place from May 20 to May 22.

Gellé and the rest of the Pint of Science team are not alone in noticing a marked increase in community participation in science. If there’s a commonality to all of these diverse outreach initiatives, it’s that people in both local and international spheres seem eager to learn about science.

This embrace of science education is evidenced by the growth of AstroMcGill: Dang says that attendance of their Public Astro Nights has risen from 10 regular guests to hundreds in the short time it’s been active. Tesfaye has been pleasantly surprised about the reception of Broad Science’s mission, both near and far: “Although Montreal is our hub, there are people in India, Japan and Australia listening to our podcast. That, to me, is mind-blowing.”

The science outreach efforts of Tesfaye, Dang, Falardeau-Côté and Gellé were all recently recognized during this year’s Principal’s Prizes for Public Engagement through Media. You can find out about some of McGill science outreach offerings here.