Photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash
I toss the overpriced ground beef into my basket, my latex gloves making an uncomfortable squeak as the plastic-wrapped package leaves my hands. I'm still unsure which pill is harder to swallow. Is it the point I am wearing more personal protective equipment to do my grocery shopping than I had as a research assistant in grad school? Or that this pack of hamburger costs an hour's wage?
With meat packaging plants in Alberta and BC scrambling to reopen after staff testing positive for COVID-19, this disruption to the beef and poultry supply chain is beginning to show at local supermarkets.
This isn't the first time the meat supply has been disrupted by a disease. Between 2014 and 2015, United States poultry producers had to slaughter more than 50 million chickens and turkeys because of the HPAI avian flu threat. The cull affected poultry farms across 15 states, threatening farmers' livelihoods, driving up the price of poultry, and ultimately resulting in more than 30 countries banning American poultry. The Canadian meat market isn’t immune to these challenges either. Alberta faced similar issues with the rise of mad cow disease in the mid-2000s.
So, whether it’s due to staffing issues, or zoonotic (animal born) diseases, how do we prevent supply chain disruptions in the agriculture-meat industry?
Future Fields, an Edmonton-based biotech company, proposes what seems like a near-impossible solution - to remove animals from the equation entirely. Founded by a group of socioeconomically motivated friends, the firm specializes in producing cell growth media. The growth media acts as the main nutrient or ‘food’ source for the cell and in turn, will be used by cellular agriculture companies to develop products such as lab-grown meat.
Such innovations could help ameliorate supply chain issues seen in traditional agriculture. It could also free up grain for human consumption by increasing the amount of arable land for crop growth and redirecting grain supplies from animal feed.
So how is lab-grown meat produced? Matthew Anderson-Baron, co-founder and chief scientific officer for the company, admits even he finds it a bit "sci-fi."
Anderson-Baron completed his PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Alberta, where he also recently finished a post-doc focused on culturing stem cells to grow into tissues such as cartilage.
"Cell agriculture can encompass any animal-derived product including milk or leather,” he says. “Meat is just the holy grail everyone is after."
The process begins by taking a small biopsy of animal tissue. In the case of meat, this means taking a sample from the kind muscle the desired cut of meat comes from. From here, scientists isolate stem cells from the tissue and put them in specialized media (provided by Future Fields), which contains signaling factors that tell them how to develop and grow.
“Depending on the signaling factors we give the stem cell population, we can create a variety of cell types from that single biopsy,” Anderson-Baron says.
Anderson-Baron admits this isn't the full equation. Some types of meat are more natural to replicate than others.
"The most straightforward product is probably ground beef," he says, "Things like steak get a bit more complicated as the cells need to be grown on a 3D-scaffold."
“Replicating the authentic taste of meat requires growing more than just muscle cells.” Anderson-Baron explained.
These muscle cells must be co-cultured with other tissues such as fat that add to the flavour of meat. Essentially, the process demands creation of a local neighbourhood of various cell types that can survive together until the finished product is fully grown. Here is where the media produced by Future Fields become essential. Companies don’t have to tweak this recipe and scale it up for production, as this has already been done.
New technology like cell-cultured meat is definitively disruptive to the current way of doing things. Still, Anderson-Baron says there are some key advantages.
"For one, we are controlling what the end product looks like at the cellular level,” he says. “So we can reduce things like the amount trans fats in the final product, actually making it healthier than organic meat."
Since lab meat is produced in sterile lab environments, it reduces risk of diseases between animals held in close living quarters. This could protect not only animal health but forestall emergence of viruses like COVID-19, which traces back to a live animal market.
The goal at Future Fields is not to replace traditional meat entirely. However, in a letter to the Lancet Planetary Health journal, a group of more than 50 scientists are calling for the world to hit our “meat peak,” by 2030 as part of climate change initiatives. They stress it is important to recognize traditional animal agriculture will no longer be able to meet global protein demands. These are on the rise as well, driven by a combination of sustained global population growth and a rise of the middle class in developing nations.
Right now, the concept of lab-grown meat remains fairly abstract, particularly since many people are concerned about consuming what is considered natural. Despite this, Anderson-Baron is optimistic.
"Once people can see it and it becomes more normalized, people will care about it!” he says. “But consumers care about a lot of things, cost, taste, appearance, and we can make all those factors identical to conventional meat."
By: Miranda Stahn
A prairie girl at heart, Miranda completed both her Bachelor's and Master's of Science at the University of Alberta. Her thesis research focused on classifying new bacterial viruses for a unique class of bacteria known as Methanotrophs - named for their ability to survive off of unusual carbon compounds such as methane.
Outside of her studies, Miranda has always been passionate about science communications and outreach. Since undergrad, she has been involved in several outreach initiatives run through well-known programs such as the Telus World of Science Edmonton (TWOSE), the University of Alberta's DiscoverE, WISEST (Women in Scholarship Engineering Science and Technology), and Science Slam Canada.
Miranda is committed to making science accessible to everyone and firmly believes that effective and entertaining science writing is key to helping the public disseminate truth from fiction.
For more details, please check out her LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/miranda-stahn-93229483/
“Two physicians during the COVID-19 pandemic bridged by artificial intelligence” This cover has been designed using resources from Freepik.com and DrawKit.io
As COVID-19 cases rise globally, one must wonder what would help ease its burden within our society. A solution is artificial intelligence. Here’s why.
Artificial intelligence involves using machines to mimic human learning and thinking. It is a diverse area and many applications can be implemented for specific tasks. For instance, we can use AI to teach machines to recognize specific patterns.
Why would this be useful? During the current pandemic, doctors are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cases to be analyzed. Symptoms are similar to other illnesses and cases keep piling high. Artificial intelligence can enable faster data analysis, ready to be interpreted by doctors, in effect acting as a ‘force multiplier’ in this battle against the virus.
Why aren't we doing this already? Currently, AI has been used to accurately predict the molecular structure of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19). This breakthrough shortens the time required to find a vaccine.
Though applications like this have been implemented, it remains a challenge to harness AI to analyze the number of COVID-19 cases that reach a hospital daily. In addition, not all countries have the necessary technology and expertise. Some are more technologically advanced, while others are still progressing.
Finding a way to introduce AI globally remains unresolved since each country’s response differs by their individual health systems and relative wealth. Though measures being taken by individual countries may be enough to get through the current crisis, we should look at ways to cooperate to combat future pandemics effectively. AI could be part of the solution.
Right now, healthcare workers are on the frontline battling COVID 19. There are simply too many patients assigned to a doctor or a nurse. This is where AI can take its place, helping healthcare workers speed up the process of treatment.
AI would not take the lead. Rather, it would augment the efforts of healthcare professionals to improve efficiency. Imagine: an emergency room flooded with coronavirus cases. Staff are overwhelmed, doing multiple tasks, some urgent, some routine such as checking vitals or taking temperature. A COVID-19-specialized AI takes this data, analyzes it, and immediately delivers the results to the doctor, who uses it to inform a recommended treatment.
On the public health front, imagine how AI-driven analysis could support much faster COVID testing, accurately reporting cases and providing the information needed to effectively implement solutions to flatten the curve.
Harnessing AI could also reduce burnout for healthcare workers. With less tedious tasks to complete, more time could be allocated in taking a breather, both physically and mentally. Doctors have the highest rate of mental illness than any other profession. About 40 doctors per 100,000 die from suicide, a rate double that of the general population. The rates are even worse during this pandemic. With physicians getting less sleep and losing more patients, their mental health succumbs to feelings of hopelessness. While reducing workloads isn’t a panacea, relieving some stress with AI is a start.
The reality is we could have been more prepared for COVID-19. We have a lot of resources to implement the next step towards technological advancement, but we don’t have the structure to make it feasible globally. Our healthcare professionals are suffering and we need better ways to support them. It is time to think about how to better implement AI to better support healthcare workers globally.
By: Roxaneh Zaminpeyma
Roxaneh is a McGill graduate who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Anatomy and Cell Biology with a minor in Social Studies of Medicine. She is an aspiring clinician-scientist who is passionate about immunology, neurodegenerative research, patient advocacy, humane caregiving as well as medical history and technology. Her goal is to translate scientific content into words and images that can be understanding to all her readers.
An empty residential street as Torontonians practice social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Natalie Workewych
COVID-19 conjures the spectre of the 1918-19 Spanish flu and the power of knowledge.
Not since the Black Death of the 14th century had humanity been so ravaged, but with the Spanish flu we at least knew we were being assaulted by a microscopic enemy, not “miasmas” or “bad air.”
Just as understanding of disease and healthcare better equipped us to handle the Spanish flu, today’s knowledge makes us more prepared to combat our current pandemic.
As with past diseases, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is an indiscriminate aggressor. It infects populations with ease, with severity largely determined by age and health status.
Today, backed by fortune only technological progress can bestow, scientists could quickly identify and understand the novel virus was spreading, and spreading rapidly, throughout the world. Knowing that COVID-19 is caused by a member of the coronavirus family of viruses, scientists and medical professionals could get to work developing screening tests, trying to identify therapies, and hurriedly moving toward a vaccine.
Modern medical understanding has been our foremost ally in the struggle against disease, but it’s an ally whose help has come only with time and incremental discoveries.
The first victims of the Black Death could not have understood their illness was being caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. They only knew what they could see: a rapid progression of blackened boils on the skin, the fever, the aches, the pains, and an almost certain descent into death.
Many of those first affected by the Spanish Flu during its first wave in the spring of 1918 suffered only mildly, leading many experts to believe the illness too mild to be an influenza. With the second wave in the fall of 1918 came the shock of ominous numbers of deaths within hours of initial symptoms. The world took notice.
Though those who suffered through pandemics of the past could only wish to look to a more medically advanced society, we can look back and benefit from history’s lessons.
We don’t need to wait to know where a disease comes from or to fully understand it to protect ourselves. Strategies of social distancing and self-isolation mitigate the spread of disease have been long employed and remain the most effective for reducing transmission.
Even imperfect understanding led to practices to limit the spread of plague during the Black Death. Though paramount to trade, ships arriving in Venetian ports were forced to sit at anchor for quaranta giorni - 40 days - before crews could disembark and conduct business. It is from this practice that we derive the word quarantine.
During the Spanish flu pandemic, people were implored not to shake hands, to avoid interaction with others and to stay indoors. Public spaces such as libraries and schools were widely shut down. In New York City, travel on public transit was staggered to limit person-to-person contact.
While modern medical treatments and vaccines have saved an untold number of lives, history shows the value of social distancing and isolation of those already sick in reducing disease transmission.
SARS-CoV-2 has upended the normalcy of our lives, is overwhelming healthcare systems, and risks devastation to the world’s economies.
Though we face a new pandemic, we are uniquely equipped with the lessons of history and what modern medicine can provide.
There is redemption in what we know.
By: Natalie Workewych
Natalie is a PhD Student studying Pharmacology at the University of Toronto. Her academic background includes an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and Pharmacology. She hopes to encourage ideas through writing, and bring thoughts on science to anyone the least bit curious.
I’m doing neck mobilizations, a technique used to improve joint mobility and reduce pain. Today, I’m doing them by myself, sort of.
I lean my neck toward my left shoulder, stretch out my arms to the right and increase the tension of the towel wrapped around my neck. The opposing forces create an intense but comfortable stretch in my right neck muscles. I straighten my neck but keep the towel taut, then repeat the cycle 10 times.
Claire Harris gives a patient acupuncture to relieve muscle tension. The adjustment to virtual physiotherapy does not allow for this type of treatment. Photo: Jacky Chow
Typically when my neck is sore, I have the experienced hands of my physiotherapist, Claire Harris, working out the knots. In a sense, I still do.
Harris explains via virtual (or video) physiotherapy, how this exercise will improve my neck range of motion and calm my nervous system. She then moves on to showing me exercises to strengthen my upper back. At the same time, I’m quizzing her.
My virtual physio sessions have been the norm since March 27, the day the Alberta provincial government announced closure of clinics to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“The method by which we had to provide care needed to change in a very short period,” Harris says. “There are disadvantages. We’re not able to palpate structures with our hands and we lose some of the therapeutic interaction. But there are also positives: research strongly supports emphasizing active treatment, which empowers the patient.”
Some patients may even find unexpected benefits from virtual treatment. Harris says a patient who once only requested manual therapy has had to adapt to a more exercise-based treatment.
“She has taken more ownership of her recovery with guidance from myself,” Harris says. “She’s doing very well. She’s gone from minimal physical activity to exercising every day.”
Harris says the recent adjustment of peoples’ daily routines, as well as the mental stress of COVID-19, has had a significant impact on the chronic pain population.
“People who are now working from home may have suboptimal desk setups, or they’re working from the kitchen table, or maybe they’re spending a lot more time picking up after children, which can cause flare-ups.”
She explains stress alone acts as a mechanism that increases output of the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response. This makes nerve endings and areas of the brain more sensitive, causing pain, or the perception of pain, to increase.
Continuing to provide people with management strategies, especially for those in more severe pain, gives people an alternative to seeking emergency services. In a time when a visit to the emergency room not only means potential exposure to COVID-19, but undue stress on an already overworked healthcare system, these virtual treatments are especially valuable.
“I think initially patients are skeptical about doing an online treatment, but once they do a session, most of them are quite open to it,” Harris says.
She asks me to repeat the movements she used to assess me at the beginning of our appointment. I bring my ear toward my left shoulder with considerably more ease. It seems my range of motion has improved.
“The intent of physiotherapy is to try and customize exercises specific to the patient. We’re not a moot point just because we can’t touch you.”
By: Kate F. Mackenzie
Kate F. Mackenzie is a journalism student from Calgary with a degree in Kinesiology.
While scientists around the world work toward a COVID-19 vaccine, convalescent plasma therapy may offer hope to those stricken with the disease.
With a vaccine against COVID-19 still many months away, scientists are looking to the blood of those who have recovered from the disease to develop a treatment. Evocative of vampiric imagery as it may be, this strategy is rooted in a medical treatment proven to be effective over a century of use.
The approach is to transfuse convalescent plasma, or antibody-rich plasma of recovered patients, into COVID-19 patients with active infections. The hope is these antibodies can help those patients to fight off the disease.
Detection of a virus kickstarts an individual’s immune system, stimulating it to fight infection. Antibodies to a virus are produced as part of this response, each functioning like a targeted, virus-eating Pac-Man, helping to reduce disease progression. When it works well, those suffering from mild COVID-19 can heal without any special medical intervention, save for over-the-counter medication such as acetaminophen for fever.
For patients battling more severe infections, such as those in respiratory distress requiring oxygen or ventilator support, the immunity boost afforded by convalescent plasma transfusion could mean the difference between death and survival.
Introducing the antibodies of recovered patients to those severely ill would be like giving them the temporary use of an additional, borrowed immune system - a supplemental defence to aid their own. With fewer viral particles present to continue wreaking havoc, symptoms would be reduced and the patient put on a quicker road to an otherwise uncertain recovery.
While there is no guarantee that convalescent plasma therapy will be successful for treating COVID-19, it has worked in the past to treat the Spanish flu and, more recently, SARS and Ebola.
Clinical studies of convalescent plasma therapy for COVID-19 are currently underway around the globe. A recent study out of China, the first global epicentre of the disease, reported a reduction in viral load, or the amount of viral particles in a patients’ systems, after treatment. The result was the recovery of five critically ill patients, giving scientists reason beyond mere hope to continue to pursue this therapeutic strategy for COVID-19.
Still, other aspects affecting the success of plasma therapy remain undetermined. The ideal range of days after a patient’s recovery during which to collect blood, as well as the dose, timing, and tolerability of treatment have yet to be fully teased out by scientists.
Another consideration is the quantity of convalescent plasma available for use as a treatment, and how it would be distributed. Should convalescent plasma therapy prove effective for COVID-19, supply of donated plasma would be limited, as only those infected and recovered could be donors. One recovered individual can provide enough plasma for two to four transfusion doses, with current dosing recommendations set at one per patient.
Therapy would be considered first for those severely ill with COVID-19 and suffering the kinds of symptoms that could prove fatal. Only once the most critically afflicted have been served could treatment be extended to prevent those more mildly sick from declining further into illness. Ultimately, the treatment could be offered to the elderly, immunocompromised and otherwise at-risk members of the public to boost immunity before a vaccine becomes available.
With every passing day, newly reported infections and deaths remind us that the search for a therapy that can be administered now is of critical importance. An alarming number of people remain infected, and many more will fall ill before the pandemic begins to abate.
The few recoveries attributed to convalescent plasma therapy remind us that wherein lies promise, lies hope. Despite the tragic loss of thousands that have died from this disease, there are many thousands more who have recovered. The antibodies they carry within them offer strength to aid global recovery.
Reinstating the normalcy we once knew is out of the question until we can all be armed with the protection that a vaccine affords. While we wait, those of us who have recovered may offer ourselves, in this time of crisis, to help in our shared cause.
Whether famous or obscure, Earth's wild creatures cannot escape the hand of man.
Just months ago, billions of animals, including iconic kangaroos and loveable koalas, perished in Australia's calamitous bushfires, scientifically found to have been worsened by manmade climate change. Now, researchers say, one of the Amazon's least-known species could be all but gone, too in scant decades. Its habitat is being slashed and burned to make way for agriculture.
The elusive short-eared dog (Atelocynus microtis). This rare photo was captured on a camera-trap, deep in the Amazon rainforest. Photocredit: Guido Ayala and Rob Wallace.
Most of us know there are wild dogs living in remote places of the world. Australia's dingo probably leaps to mind first.
But did you also know that a cousin of the dingo (above) has been roaming quietly through vast areas of Amazon rainforests, in Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil for a long time?
Atelocynus microtis - the "short-eared" dog is the only canid, or mammal of the dog family, native to the Amazon.
Arguably, it's been the least-studied of any wild dog on the planet - until now.
Using the largest data base ever compiled on the species, scientists are now able to better understand the predicament it faces in its rapidly-changing home.
In the words of a research paper published this week in The Royal Society of Open Science, "Forest loss and fragmentation pose a serious threat to the species in a short time frame."
Within three generations, (six years is considered a generation to a short-ear), anywhere from 30% to 60% of its habitat will likely be lost or seriously degraded. That's because plans by local governments for large-scale agriculture, cattle-ranching and infrastructure expansion, remain in the works.
In 2011, Brazil drastically relaxed laws protecting its forests. Private landowners no longer had to protect as much as they once did. Illegal loggers were granted amnesty. By 2013, after a decade of decline, deforestation rates began to climb.
Last year, the President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, fired a top scientist last year for revealing that that country's deforestation rates were increasing rapidly under his watch.
And, since last summer, Science magazine describes losses of Amazonian rainforest in Bolivia alone, as “staggring.” Much of it was due to intentional burning to clear land for crops and livestock.
It is against this grim backdrop that these new research findings have been published.
While short-eared dogs are expected to do better in areas that are protected, as many as 40% of them live in the "Arc of Deforesation," a part of Brazil where tree cover is disappearing the fastest.
Vast areas are expected to transition from forests to savannahs, or grassland eco-systems, not nearly as favourable for the carnivorous animals.
But habitat loss isn't the only threat. The dogs are catching diseases from domesticated dogs and becoming road kill after being run over on roadways.
The researchers suggest, therefore, the short-eared dog be "bumped up" the list of endangered species to a status that better reflects the danger it faces.
Then there's this chilling footnote. One out of every four mammals in the Amazon, will be losing much of their habitat, too.
Until man somehow finds a deeper appreciation and respect for our fellow creatures, these tragedies will only deepen.
By: Larry Powell
I’m an eco-journalist living in Shoal Lake, Manitoba. I’m a member of the SWCC and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I’m authorized to receive embargoed material through the Science Media Centre of Canada, the Royal Society, NatureResearch and the World Health Organization. This allows me to “get a jump” on important stories by fleshing them out with fact-checks and interviews, in advance. Often, this arms me with a “hot-off-the-press” story that’s ready to go, the moment the embargo is lifted.
I publish the blog, www.PlanetInPeril.ca (PinP), “the perfect antidote for fake news.”
Darryl Falzarano at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization - International Vaccine Centre (VIDO InterVac) at the University of Saskatchewan. Photo: Debra Marshall
If the current pandemic has taught us anything, it is to bring into stark relief just whose work is essential.
Around the world, people are coming out to yards and balconies to applaud health care workers. People have new appreciation for oft-ignored sanitation workers and grocery store clerks.
While we cheer on those who keep the wheels of society turning, let’s also spare a thought and some words of thanks for another overlooked, essential group: scientists.
Some years ago, while working at the University of Saskatchewan, I wrote a brief profile on a new faculty member, a young researcher named Darryl Falzarano. His chosen subject was an obscure (to me) disease called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS.
Why, I wondered, was he mucking about with something that, while serious, wasn’t terribly contagious and affected populations on the other side of the world? Plus, the animal reservoir for the MERS virus was the camel – a species not often seen on the Canadian Prairies.
He explained that MERS was a coronavirus, a close relative of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). SARS I knew: the epidemic had been in the news around the world. People had died; people were afraid.
MERS and SARS are zoonotic diseases, that is, they originated in animals. These diseases constitute the majority of emerging threats to human health. Know more about MERS, Falzarano said, and we know more about zoonotic coronaviruses.
I eventually left the university and lost track of Falzarano until early this March. There was an announcement that VIDO InterVac at the University of Saskatchewan was getting a sudden multi-million-dollar funding infusion from the Canadian government. A new coronavirus had gone pandemic: SARS CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. Once again, people are dying. People are afraid.
VIDO InterVac, one of the top vaccine development organizations in the country, is tasked with developing a vaccine against the threat. Falzarano leads the team.
As any emergency preparedness professional knows, when a crisis hits, there is no time to plan. The plan must be in place, the people trained, the facilities ready.
Most scientists labour in obscurity, making incremental discoveries and publishing them in journals that are largely read only by their peers. But when a crisis comes, when their expertise is needed, they are ready.
What drives scientists to do what they do? Joy of discovery? Insatiable curiousity? Desire to help society? I suspect the reasons are as varied as the people. Of one thing I am certain: scientists don’t get into it for the money. I remember being shocked to learn that a new assistant professor was being paid slightly less than me, a mere research communications officer. This, for someone who had spent at least eight to 10 years completing undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral education and training.
Their job was and is much harder than mine. Academic researchers must design and run their research programs, apply for and secure grants, hire and supervise graduate students, write up their research for professional journals, teach classes, and serve on university committees. To get it all done, their work schedule can be brutally long.
And every once in a while, scientists’ expertise becomes critical to the welfare of us all. Suddenly, money is no object. But no amount of funding can conjure a PhD in virology and a decade of hard-won knowledge and expertise out of thin air.
When the call comes, scientists must be ready, and they are. For this, we thank them.
By: Michael Robin
In both the telling and the hearing, stories begin with people.
My passion is taking complex science transforming it into stories that engage and excite. As a strategist, I ask questions. Who are we talking to? Where are they and where do they get their information? What do they believe?
Over more than 30 years, my work appeared in weekly and national publications, broadcast and online media. For more than a decade at the University of Saskatchewan, I worked to identify and shine a light on the innovative minds and discoveries at one of Canada’s top research universities.
We live in challenging times, where innovation and knowledge are often met with rejection and disbelief. This has consequences for issues critical to our species and our environment, from vaccines and genetic engineering to energy and climate change. I believe science writers and communicators have a vital role to play.
Reposted from CIC News
Chantal Barriault pictured at RCIScience. Photo credit: Ki-Youn Kim.
As the ranks of the world’s professional journalists have been decimated over the past few decades, so too has their ability to report the work of science to an audience that extends beyond the scientific community itself. If you are part of that audience, you may not have noticed, because there appears to be more news about science than ever. Now the source is a new cadre of science communicators who are employed not by traditional media organizations but instead by bodies such as research institutes and universities. Yet while the burgeoning field dubbed “scicomm” continues to grow, key questions are beginning to emerge about its lack of diversity and the implications that could have for the way science is being presented to the public.
Such questions echoed through the themes of SciCommTO, a two-day conference organized by the Royal Canadian Institute for Science, a venerable body with roots that go back to the mid-19th century and some of the earliest scientific work being done in this land. About 120 participants attended this event last month at Ryerson University, where they explored a variety of topics such as how to interview researchers and frame an engaging narrative.
While much of this content amounted to a kind of vocational training, the exchanges occasionally turned contentious, as happened during a session about the professionalization of scicomm. These interactions spawned discussions offline and online that continued for several days and revealed some key challenges to be confronted.
Perhaps chief among those challenges is the fact scicomm has become a trend, a hashtag, and a community, all thanks to some savvy scientists on social media. At the same time, science communication qualifies as an academically respected social science discipline with its own research standards and evidence-based best practices.
That is why the conference, organized in collaboration with Ryerson’s own scicomm initiative SciXChange, was so valuable. It provided a space to learn and discuss evidence-based science communication, an area that currently offers few formal training opportunities in Canada. Laurentian University is the only school in Canada, and one of just a handful around the world, that offers a recognized post-secondary program in science communication.
Conference delegates, many of whom were women completing or finished their PhDs, shared that their peers outside of the science communication community saw science communication as something to “fall back on” if their academic career in science did not work out. Others, who indicated they already felt excluded from their chosen scientific work, portrayed the science communication community as a “safe space” where they belonged. And there were working scientists who suggested they were there because science communication was something impactful and fun to do in addition to their research.
There was also a small group of delegates with science communication degrees at the conference who were building careers. They voiced a concern about not being recognized as credible professionals in the field because science communication was being viewed as hobby or lacking legitimacy due to its social science nature. Additionally, one of the biggest challenges this group faces is having their work and expertise constantly undervalued because a lot of science communication hobbyists do work for free.
These perspectives were reinforced during a panel discussion, called “Canada vs. The World”, where Dominic McDonald, Head of Education at the Royal Institution in the UK, said that the vast majority of the science communicators in the UK were white, middle-class women with PhDs. In Canada, Dr. Chantal Barriault, the Program Director of the Science Communication program at Laurentian University, confirmed that the field is a monoculture reflecting this trend, putting the number of such women at 75%.
While these observations might be regarded as just one more example of how poorly the scientific community welcomes and supports women, this lack of diversity in science communication may become an even bigger concern. When the topic of professionalizing the field of science communication was brought up by Barriault, it was met with mixed responses. Her argument was that this would provide legitimacy for the work to be taken seriously and provide opportunities for anyone interested to have more training opportunities. She likened the process to the history of nursing, which was not initially regarded as a real career involving specialized skills and training, nor even compensated. It did not take on its modern value in as an esteemed part of the healthcare system until the field was professionalized.
The same problem applies to scicomm, where many practitioners do not acknowledge the evidence-based strategies that are essential to communicating and debunking myths about contentious issues, such as vaccines, climate change, and viral outbreaks. When these methods are not used, it can worsen a situation by isolating the audience or propagating misinformation.
Nevertheless, some opposed remain wary of professionalizing as a form of gatekeeping. Many scientists voiced the concerns on Twitter that if science communication is professionalized, it would be no different from how science had excluded them. Yet professionalizing science communication does not mean that scientists cannot continue sharing their research on social media or giving public lectures. In fact, professionalizing science communication would provide more resources and training opportunities for everyone interested. It would also reward both scientists and professional science communicators for their passion and work.
Currently, science communication will only continue to grow in Canada, as it should, seeing how it bridges sciences and society. To meet this demand, professionalizing the field means that it would lead to more training and projects that bring value for both scientists who want to continue doing science communication as a hobby and for those who are paving the way for a career as a professional science communicator.
By: Ki-Youn Kim
Ki-Youn Kim is a science communicator based in Ottawa with a passion for life sciences and misinformation research. She completed her Master’s in Science Communication at Laurentian University and holds two bachelor’s degrees in Neuroscience (Carleton) and Biology (Queen’s). Currently, she works at the Chemical Institute of Canada while pursing side projects. Every Sunday, she shares science communication tips on Twitter (@kiyoun_k) under the hashtag #SciCommSunday.
The Carleton University Centre nearly devoid of students due to COVID-19 concerns with the flags of the world hanging overhead. Photo by Matthew Guida.
Over the last few months, the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been regularly keeping up-to-date on the latest strain of coronavirus – SARS-CoV-2. The disease it causes, known as COVID-19, has spread around the globe infecting people in countries all over the world including China, Italy, the United States, and Canada.
Coronaviruses exist in both animals and humans. They are called zoonotic when they transmit between animals and humans. This family of viruses is responsible for causing a variety of diseases including cases of the common cold, as well as more severe ones like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). In 2002-03, the SARS coronavirus transitioned into a large-scale epidemic infecting people in more than two dozen countries, resulting in more than 8,000 cases and nearly 800 deaths. By comparison, COVID-19 has now been reported in more than 100 countries.
COVID-19 spreads from person to person but can also be transmitted from contacts with contaminated surfaces or objects. Those most at risk include those with weakened immune systems, chronic medical conditions, and the elderly. Symptoms include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. According to a recent study by researchers from the University of Texas in Austin, the new coronavirus spreads so quickly that people who have the virus can spread it before showing symptoms.
COVID-19 is causing severe social, political, as well as economic repercussions for people all over the world.
COVID-19 was first reported in December 2019 and was traced to Wuhan, China and the source is believed to be a seafood wholesale market that sold both live and slaughtered livestock.
By Dec. 31, 2019, 27 infections were reported in Wuhan forcing the Chinese government to respond. At the time, they reported cases involving a viral outbreak of pneumonia – as the exact nature of the virus was still unknown – to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Within the first two weeks of January, health officials had ruled out the presence of known coronaviruses such as SARS or MERS. Instead, Chinese researchers identified a new strain of coronavirus which would become known as SARS-CoV-2. There was speculation about the source of the outbreak. An article in the Journal of Medical Virology presents evidence that SARS-CoV-2 – or 2019-nCoV as it is referred to in the study – is a genetic combination of coronaviruses found in bats and another of unknown origin, but which likely resided in snakes, before it was transmitted to humans.
Within the next few weeks, the first death of the outbreak of the new COVID-19 disease was reported. It had already begun to spread outside of Wuhan. On Jan. 30 2020, the WHO officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak as an international public health emergency.
By February 9, the death toll in China had reached 811, exceeding the number of people who died during the SARS epidemic between 2002-2003.
More countries reported their first confirmed COVID-19 cases. This number continued to rise along with the death toll. The severity of the situation had reached a point where several countries were beginning to close down their borders.
Within the first two weeks of March, COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic by the WHO. Canada was also one of many new countries to report their first confirmed cases and as of March 20 had nearly 850 confirmed cases – most of which are located in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, and Quebec.
Europe was also confirmed as being an epicentre of the pandemic with Italy being considered the worst hit by the pandemic, followed by Spain which declared a state of emergency on March 13. According to the most recent WHO report, as of March 19, the number of confirmed cases worldwide exceeds 200,000 and the global death toll has surpassed 8,700 deaths.
To make matters worse, concerns for COVID-19 have also led to the cancellation of several public events and businesses around the world. This includes colleges and universities which have moved to close down their campuses and are moving classes online.
Cities around the world that are normally filled with people have had their streets practically emptied as people confine themselves in their homes. As the situation develops, it is important for people to remain calm, ensure they follow proper hygiene guidelines, and avoid public places and large gatherings, especially if they believe they are sick. The Canadian government is posting the latest guidelines and statistics online, updated daily.
Al Jazeera (Mar. 12 2020). “Timeline: How the new coronavirus spread.” https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/01/timeline-china-coronavirus-spread-200126061554884.html
Anne Gulland & Sarah Newey (Mar. 13 2020). “What is coronavirus, how did it start and could the outbreak grow bigger?” Telegraph https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/13/what-coronavirus-start-grow-covid-19-peak/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Summary.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/summary.html
Mandy Zuo et al. (Dec. 31 2019). “Hong Kong takes emergency measures as mystery ‘pneumonia’ infects dozens in China’s Wuhan city.” South China Morning Post https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3044050/mystery-illness-hits-chinas-wuhan-city-nearly-30-hospitalised
Peng, Zhou et al. (Apr. 4 2018). “Fatal swine acute diarrhoea syndrome caused by an HKU2-related coronavirus of bat origin.” Nature https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0010-9
The Lancet (Jan. 29 2020). “2019 novel coronavirus is genetically different to human SARS and should be considered a new human-infecting coronavirus.” Eurekalert. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-01/tl-pss012920.php
The Lancet. (Jan. 31 2020). “Modelling study estimates spread of 2019 novel coronavirus.” Eurekalert. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-01/tl-tlm013120.php
By: Matthew Guida
As a native Montrealer, I graduated from Concordia University with a BA in Anthropology and a minor in Film Studies. I am currently studying for my master’s degree in Journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa.
My interest in journalism began while attending Concordia. I was a frequent contributor to the university’s independent newspaper, The Concordian. I further honed my skills and experience by working as a List Writer for the entertainment news website Screen Rant.
Since I started attending Carleton University, I have strived to further improve my skills as a journalist in not only print, but also in the fields of data, investigative and broadcast journalism. In the past year, I have also developed a growing appreciation for radio journalism and podcasts.
My current interests lie in studying the future of the journalism industry, writing and researching pop culture and social media trends, as well as furthering my career in the field of journalism.
Social distancing has caused a reduction in commuters on Toronto’s TTC. Photo credit: Natalie Workewych
As I made my way home today, I watched a woman on the subway platform reprimand another for wearing a surgical mask. “Shame on you,” she said. “There are people who need those. Shame on you.”
As the mask-wearing woman stumbled away from her aggressor, I couldn’t help but reflect on where we – the global “we” – are right now. Yes, surgical masks are in short supply, and our frontline healthcare workers are those in need. Wearing a mask as prevention against a virus that is not airborne simply serves as a flimsy barrier to keep your hand from reaching two of the three avenues of infection – the mouth and nose – and the general public can remain healthy without them.
But now is also not the time to bare our teeth. The present COVID-19 pandemic is a fight – that of microbe against the people. Shame on us, then, to turn it into people against the people.
As humanity, we are a collective. We have a responsibly to one another to remain a collective through support, through public health education, and imperatively, through access to resources for all.
On my same trip home, I heard a man tell his friend how in the grocery store a woman took all of the baby formula available and would not share with another costumer, even when begged.
We’ve fashioned our world into one with near unlimited resources, and near unlimited access to them. What we are now seeing is movement toward survival of those with means. And this reality rears its ugliest head when we act selfishly.
While we must practice social separation for the sake of our collective health, we must remember not to separate ourselves from the tenets that unite a prosperous humanity – those of promoting the common good, and the betterment of the world through help, especially when times are grim.
What happens when our crisis invades those of lesser means, of poorer healthcare? If we cannot act with a moral conscience now, then when? Faced with fear, this global pandemic has turned many of us inward. But now is the time where we must act ever more outward.
The only way to heal our population is with a collective push toward the good of one another, sibling and stranger alike. As more continue to fall ill world-wide, and as over-saturated healthcare systems are forced to prioritize the treatment of one over another, we must lend ourselves to collaborative support, so that the work of the front line is not in vain.
From simply staying home if we feel ill to washing our hands for the sake of us all, there is no act too small. But in not doing what we can, however little, we neglect our neighbour. And in using aggression, in refusing to share, we fail.
These are dire times, but we can all play a role in our healing. There is only one humanity. If we let one another fall, we all fall.
By: Natalie Workewych
P.O. Box 75 Station A