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  • 30 Sep 2015 4:43 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)


    Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Kókay Szabolcs

    Eight months pregnant and stressed-out was how I found myself roughly two years ago, sitting in front of the computer screen. I was on the Air Canada website, attempting to book a flight from Vancouver to Winnipeg so I could visit family six weeks after my daughter’s due date. But I was terrified to click on “Book Flight.”

    Everyone knows that airplane cabins are festering clouds of germs, right? There’s science to back that up: one study of microbes inside airplanes found that circulating cabin air contained an abundance of opportunistic pathogenic inhabitants of the human respiratory tract and oral cavity. So if I brought a newborn with a still-developing immune system on board, would I be putting her life in danger? She wouldn’t even have had her first vaccinations yet. What kind of monster would I be for taking her on this flight?

    At the time, my knowledge about the infant immune system was based mainly on what my health care practitioners had told me--which was practically nothing. I had even asked a nurse about airplane flights, specifically, and she said she didn’t know whether or not it was a good idea. That probably accounted for why I couldn’t bring myself to click the button that committed me to the flight.

    What I failed to realize at the time was how much the recent research on the human microbiome—the bacteria that live on and inside us--was relevant to the issue. It just required putting together a few scientific pieces.

    When a baby is born, she is more-or-less a microbial blank slate. Recent research calls into question the age-old assumption that babies are completely bacteria-free in the womb, but it’s clear that the main bacterial exposure comes during and after birth.) So the act of coming into the world is of great importance to a baby’s health, because the moment she hits the birth canal, she is exposed to a diverse set of bacteria that colonize her tiny -- Tender makes me think of food  -- body.

    The baby’s immune system is indeed immature at that point, leaving her vulnerable to infections. In fact, a new study actually found evidence of immunosuppression in newborns, which is probably because the baby needs to remain “vulnerable to,” or open to, good bacteria taking up residence. It seems excessive inflammation caused by a sensitive immune system would do more harm than good at that point.

    The microbes that colonize a newborn’s body in the first weeks basically are her immune system. When the right kinds of good bacteria are present, pathogens have more difficulty getting a foothold.

    So what gives a newborn a healthy collection of microbes that provide immunity? Studies consistently find that infants who have been delivered vaginally, rather than by cesarean section, have microbiomes that contain a greater number of species. Ditto for those who were breastfed--they got a bunch of good bacteria packed into every meal (though certain probiotics can easily substitute). Gestational age at birth also seems to matter, as the colonization happens differently in a preterm baby’s gut -- Are there other ways these bacteria could be acquired? I don't think we necessarily need to guilt mothers who delivered via c-section or who can't/don't want to breastfeed --. Other bacteria, both good and bad, come from the baby’s environment--the people and surfaces that she touches.

    The science seemed to say that as long as baby’s good bacteria are thriving, the chances of her getting a terrible bacterial infection on an airplane flight should be quite low. Great news.

    But on the other hand, there’s still a problem. Despite the gargantuan importance of the microbiome early in life--with some calling it the “forgotten organ” of the human body and arguing that the effects of early microbial colonization last a lifetime--why are health practitioners not prepared for questions about it? My (anecdotal) survey of friends who’ve recently had babies uncovered not a single report of a care provider who had brought up the topic. It’s a huge oversight, given the volume of research on the topic over the past two years or so. Doctors, nurses, and midwives need to get up-to-date on this, and quickly. Especially because a few good ideas are bouncing around that may help save some newborns from serious infections. In my case, giving me all the facts might just have saved me from unnecessary anxiety.

    The end of the story is this: I took the flight, and the baby was fine. In fact, we took 18 flights the first year, and all of them were fine. The risk of taking a baby on an airplane, or anywhere that’s microbially unfamiliar, can be mitigated by ensuring good colonization in those early weeks.

    Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the risk of dirty looks from fellow passengers when your baby cries. Good luck with that, parents.

    Kristina Campbell, a.k.a. “The Intestinal Gardener”intestinalgardener.blogspot.ca



  • 08 Sep 2015 1:44 PM | Janice Benthin (Administrator)

    2014 Herb Lampert Science in Society Emerging Journalist Award:

    Floating Away: The Science of Sensory Deprivation Therapy, by Shelly Xuelai Fan , Discover Magazine, 4 April 2014.

    Sensory deprivation was considered the ultimate psychological torture device. Now it is rapidly becoming North America's new drug-of-choice. Across the continent ""float houses"" are increasing in popularity, offering eager psychonauts a chance to explore this unique state of mind. Those running the business are quick to list the health benefits of frequent ""floats"", which range from the believable – relaxation, heightened senses – to the seemingly nonsensical. Are these proclaimed benefits backed up by science or are they simply new-age hogwash? Floating Away delves into the science of sensory deprivation therapy by interviewing the field’s pioneering researcher at the University of British Columbia, and offers a critical look at the past and future of this fringe research area.

    Shelly Xuelai Fan is a PhD student in Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, where she studies protein degradation in neurodegenerative diseases. She is a science writer with an insatiable obsession with the brain, and her work has appeared in Discover, Scientific American MIND, UBC Medical Journal and other publications.

    2014 Science in Society Journalism Award:

    The Allergy Fix by Bruce Mohun and Helen Slinger, Dreamfilm Productions. The Allergy Fix aired CBC-TV's The Nature of Things, 27 February 2014.

    A documentary that explores the science behind the surge in childhood food allergies over the last twenty years.  More than three times as many children have food allergies now than twenty years ago, and one out of every three children is now allergic to something, be it food, animals, or plants.   

    Director/writer Bruce Mohun is a Vancouver-based science journalist and television director who has produced, directed, hosted and written hundreds of hours of TV for broadcasters including CBC, Discovery, and Knowledge. His past documentaries for CBC-TV’s The Nature of Things have won multiple awards including both the Gold and Silver World Medals at the New York Festivals. Bruce has been honoured with both the Science Council of British Columbia's Eve Savory Award for Science Communication, and the Canadian Federation of Biological Societies’ J. Gordin Kaplan Award for Science Communication. 

    Helen Slinger is a master storyteller who began her career as a newspaper and then television reporter. After a lengthy left turn into news management, she left mainstream media to pursue her passion for documentary. Since then she has directed, written and produced many documentaries, including more than ten made in collaboration with Dreamfilm."

    Honourable Mentions:

    Blinded By Scientific Gobbledygookseries, by Tom Spears, The Ottawa Citizen.

    Undoing Forever, by Britt Wray, CBC Radio One IDEAS.

    2014 Science in Society Communication Award:

    The Giant Walk Through the Brain, by Trevor Day, Jay Ingram and Christian Jacob.

    In 1972, neuroscientist Joseph Bogen suggested building a giant 60-story high science museum of the human brain. This giant walkthrough brain would educate and engage students and the public by taking them on guided tours inside, making it possible to visualize anatomical relationships among structures surrounding them. Although this architectural project remains an intriguing idea, the cost makes it unlikely an actual walk through brain will ever be built. However, modern computer technology and advances in computational human anatomy models provide another avenue for exploring a three-dimensional virtual human brain. Our team has developed “The Giant Walk through the Brain”, an innovative, engaging, narrative-driven public science communication performance which takes a live audience on a larger-than-life virtual tour of the human brain. “The Giant Walk Through Brain” is a live theatrical performance, including engaging, story-driven narration, dramatic 3-D computer animations and original live music.

    Dr. Trevor Day is a neurobiologist and Associate Professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. He is music director and leader of the five-piece band “The Free Radicals”. They have written original music to accompany the narration and guided 3-D tour of the brain during the live performance. Dr. Christian Jacob is a Professor and director of the University of Calgary’s LINDSAY Virtual Human Project and the leader of the animation team. They have developed custom-made, scientifically accurate 3-D models and animations in the form of interactive fly-throughs to support the scientific and narrative content of the performance. Science broadcaster Jay Ingram wrote the narration and acts as tour guide for The Giant Walk Through Brain performance. He is a member of the Order of Canada with 30 years of broadcasting experience with CBC Radio and Discovery Channel, author of 13 books and co-founder of Calgary’s Art, Science and Engineering festival Beakerhead.

    2014 Science in Society Children’s Book Award:

    The Fly by Elise Gravel, Penguin Random House.

    The first in a series of humorous books about “disgusting creatures”, The Fly is a look at the common housefly. It covers such topics as the hair on the fly's body (requires a lot of shaving), its ability to walk on the ceiling (it's pretty cool, but it's hard to play soccer up there), and its really disgusting food tastes (garbage juice soup followed by dirty diaper with rotten tomato sauce, for example).

    Elise Gravel is an award-winning author and illustrator from Québec. She is winner of the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Illustration in French, and is well known in Québec for her original, wacky picture books. Having completed her studies in graphic design, Elise found herself quickly swept up into the glamorous world of illustration. Her old design habits drive her to work a little text here and there into her drawings and she loves to handle the design of her assignments from start to finish. She is inspired by social causes and likes projects that can handle a good dose of eccentricity.


    2014 Science in Society General Book Award competition:

    Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive by Mark L. Winston, Harvard University Press.

    Being among bees is a full-body experience, Mark Winston writes—from the low hum of tens of thousands of insects and the pungent smell of honey and beeswax, to the sight of workers flying back and forth between flowers and the hive. The experience of an apiary slows our sense of time, heightens our awareness, and inspires awe. Bee Time presents Winston’s reflections on three decades spent studying these creatures, and on the lessons they can teach about how humans might better interact with one another and the natural world. Like us, honeybees represent a pinnacle of animal sociality. How they submerge individual needs into the colony collective provides a lens through which to ponder human societies. Winston explains how bees process information, structure work, and communicate, and examines how corporate boardrooms are using bee societies as a model to improve collaboration. He investigates how bees have altered our understanding of agricultural ecosystems and how urban planners are looking to bees in designing more nature-friendly cities. The relationship between bees and people has not always been benign. Bee populations are diminishing due to human impact, and we cannot afford to ignore what the demise of bees tells us about our own tenuous affiliation with nature. Toxic interactions between pesticides and bee diseases have been particularly harmful, foreshadowing similar effects of pesticides on human health. There is much to learn from bees in how they respond to these challenges. In sustaining their societies, bees teach us ways to sustain our own.

    Mark L. Winston has had a distinguished career researching, teaching, writing and commenting on bees and agriculture, environmental issues, and science policy. He was a founding faculty member of the Banff Centre’s Science Communication programme, and consults widely on utilizing dialogue to develop leadership and communication skills, focus on strategic planning, inspire organisational change, and thoughtfully engage public audiences with controversial issues. Winston’s work has appeared in numerous books, commentary columns for The Vancouver Sun, The New York Times, The Sciences, Orion magazine and frequently on CBC Radio and Television and National Public Radio. He currently is a Fellow in Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, and a Professor of Biological Sciences.

    For further information, please contact the CSWA at 1-800-796-8595 or office@sciencewriters.ca.

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