Log in

Science Writers &

Communicators of Canada

Log in


Do you want to write for the SWCC Blog? If so, please review the following guidelines and then send your ideas to Someone will be back in touch with you!

The SWCC Blog Editor is Cristina Sanza. Cristina is a Digital Journalism Instructor and Writing Coach in the Department of Journalism at Concordia University in Montreal. There, she also organizes the Projected Futures international science journalism graduate summer school and edits the department's digital magazine. Formerly an SWCC board director, she currently serves as the blog editor and a member of the digital media committee. Outside of work and volunteering, Cristina loves resistance training, developing high-protein recipes, and tending to her garden.

<< First  < Prev   1   2   3   4   5   ...   Next >  Last >> 
  • 17 Jul 2023 3:54 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    With 47 sensors including weather stations, soil sensors, crop cameras, and insect monitoring stations across Innovation Farms Powered by AgExpert, EMILI and its partners are able to provide vital insights to increase sustainability and on-farm productivity. Photo courtesy of EMILI.

    When people think about science and technology, many don’t think about the cereal they are eating for breakfast or the canola oil that is a staple in their cupboard. Yet, science and technology is a driving force behind the sustainability of our food systems.

    This is something that EMILI, a Manitoba-based non-profit committed to growing a sustainable and economically resilient digital agriculture industry, sees first-hand every day. 

    Take a short twenty minute drive northwest of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and you'll find EMILI's Innovation Farms Powered by AgExpert. At first glance, it looks like an unassuming plot of land similar to thousands of family farms that dot the prairies. However, it is the largest broad-acre smart farm in Canada, with 5,500 fully-sensored acres. The farm works with innovators across industry and academia to develop deep viable solutions to the diverse agronomic and technological constraints and opportunities farmers face, such as irregular weather due to climate change and limited broadband in rural areas.

    This space is unique in Canada in that it operates on a commercial farm to demonstrate the productivity and sustainability of commercialized technologies, test and validate new technologies to bring them from pre-commercial to market, and increase understanding of and access to digital agriculture tools. 

    N49 Genetics, a Manitoba-based plant breeding company, is working with EMILI on Innovation Farms to develop precision planting equipment to improve the resilience and yield of Manitoba-grown crops. The precision planter will enable them to identify and advance soybean lines with early season vigor and improved stress tolerance traits for select growing regions of Manitoba. 

    It is also designed to maintain the depth control, row spacing and singulation capabilities of a commercial vacuum planter while handling as few as 50-100 seeds, and further evaluating the growth and performance of individual seedlings using image-based techniques.

    Combining specialized planting equipment with digital image analysis, EMILI and N49 Genetics are working toward developing soybean varieties with improved stress tolerance for Western Canada’s unique environment. Photo by Kevin Baron.

    “We are proud to work with companies like N49 Genetics to test and validate new technologies to ensure they work in a prairie context,” said EMILI Managing Director Jacqueline Keena. “This is foundational work that will increase the economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture in the prairies.” 

    Empowering small to medium-sized enterprises such as N49 is an important way EMILI advances digital agriculture and strengthens our economy. 

    “The projects we are undertaking represent a big investment in the future of digital agriculture in Canada to expand technology and education initiatives across the agri-food industry,” said Keena. “This will accelerate innovative technologies and provide people with the skills and training required for a sustainable and economically resilient digital agriculture industry for generations to come.”

    In addition to working with EMILI on Innovation Farms, N49 Genetics received support from EMILI’s Emergence Grant. Over the past two years, EMILI has funded over $220,000 to increase the scale of digital agriculture innovation in Manitoba and across the prairies. 

    “These early-stage organizations, many of them women-led, share a passion for innovation and a desire to increase the economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture in the prairies,” said Keena. 

    The Emergence Grant allows entrepreneurs who are still in the early stages of developing their business to acquire the resources they need to increase productivity and bring their idea to a larger market. With labour shortages, supply chain issues, weather patterns and war impacting food supplies, investing in early-stage Canadian ag-tech startups is a vital way to accelerate Canada’s growth as a leader in digital agriculture. 

    Cody Ray and Holly Anderson, founders of NeoNutes Market, a vertical urban garden in Brandon, Manitoba that specializes in microgreens and aquaponics, said that without the support of EMILI’s Emergence Grant, they might have missed the opportunity to partner with Futurpreneur to purchase the modular grow pod and related technologies needed to provide year-round lettuce to their micro-green customers.

    Ray and Anderson hope that as their business expands, they will be able to acquire more grow pods and the chance to develop a pilot program to provide fresh greens in Northern Indigenous communities. For now, they are excited for the opportunity to acquire the agricultural technology they need to provide food outlets and foodies with a steady supply of nutrient-rich leafy greens, as well as the chance to connect practicum students from Assiniboine Community College with urban farming.

    Ray points to weather events such as the 2020 fires in California that impacted lettuce supplies across the US and Canada when saying that thinking of his children’s future motivates him to innovate. 

    “If there is one thing that inspired me the most it is an Indigenous elder that said we do not inherit this earth from our ancestors, we are simply borrowing it from our children,” he said.

    This post is sponsored by EMILI Canada.

  • 24 Apr 2023 4:19 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    New research reveals the hunting secrets of the Manitoban bird

    The Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa). Photo by Drsarahgrace, public domain.

    A new study in Manitoba provides some insights into how the “Great Gray Owl,” a common site over the plains and in the forests of the eastern Canadian prairies, overcomes many obstacles to find its prey. 

    PHOTO 1: The prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster). Photo by Soebe, public domain.

    The bird is able to "punch" through as much as 50cm (or 20 inches) of hard, crusty snow—enough to hold the average person’s weight—to catch a vole hiding beneath—a small rodent that often serves as a meal for the winged predator. 

    But the snow presents the owl with other problems way before the “moment of capture,” too. Not only does snow hide its prey from sight, forcing the bird to rely only on its hearing, it weakens any sound the vole is making. It even "bends" or refracts the sound, creating an “acoustic mirage,” or false impression of its location (above). The denser the snow, the more pronounced are both the attenuation and refraction. 

    The owl soars towards its prey from its perch, then hovers  as directly over it until it reaches a “listening  position” of least refraction and weaken - defeating that "acoustic mirage" in the process. Then, it plummets straight  down on its target, forming a “plunge-hole” in the snow.   

    The owl is superbly adapted for this. While it has no ear tufts, it has the largest “facial disc” of any owl. That's  where its ring of feathers filters and amplifies sound at its ears. This also allows it to pick up low-frequency sound, the kind that transmits best through snow. And its wing feathers are formed in such a way as to allow it to fly and  hover more quietly than just about any bird, anywhere. 

    With a wing span of well over a metre, It’s the largest owl  in North America. It can be found across the province of Manitoba year-round.  

    And, since Manitobans “adopted” the “Great Gray” in  1987, it’s been its official provincial bird, too. 

    A three-member team, two from the US, along with James  Duncan from “Discover Owls” in Balmoral, Manitoba, used loudspeakers and special cameras in their research. 

    The above images were extracted, with thanks, from the team's official study, published in the proceedings of The Royal Society.

    By:  Larry Powell 

    Larry is a veteran, award-winning “eco-journalist” living in Shoal Lake, Manitoba. He belongs to The Science Writers & Communicators of Canada, The Canadian Association of Journalists and is a past member of The American Association for the Advancement of Science. He specializes in stories about agriculture, the environment and the Earth Sciences.

    Follow Larry's Blog: and Twitter: @LarryPo54406341
  • 18 Apr 2023 10:21 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Orca Rescue! dives into the only successful orca reunion in history

    Donna Sandstrom is a lifelong writer, former software developer, and longtime fan of orcas. In 2002, she was a community organizer in the effort to return an orphaned orca named Springer to her pod. This experience led her to develop The Whale Trail, a series of sites to watch whales from the pacific shores. Sandstrom is a Brooklyn, New York native who moved to Seattle, Washington about 40 years ago.

    Orca Rescue! is Sandstrom’s first book, which was illustrated by Sig Burwash. Currently residing in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Burwash’s artistic practice includes watercolor, collage, illustration, and comics. Their work is both imaginative and linked to their life experiences, many of which involve nature. They have participated in residencies in Canada, the United States, and Europe.

    We chatted with Sandstorm and Burwash about the writing and illustration process for Orca Rescue! The answers have been edited for length and clarity.

    Can you tell us a little bit about what Orca Rescue is all about?

    DS: Orca Rescue details the true story of the only successful orca reunion in history. It’s about how a young orphaned orca, Springer, was discovered near Seattle—lost, alone and 300 miles away from home. Six months later, she was rescued and returned to her pod on the north end of Vancouver Island. Today, Springer is thriving with two calves of her own. The book tells the story as-it-happened, from my perspective as a community organizer on the project.

    What in particular inspired the writing of this children’s book?

    DS: I’ve wanted to tell this story since the day Springer went home. I knew I had witnessed and been part of something extraordinary—from the way people worked together, to the way the orcas responded. This story had never been told by someone who was part of it, so I wanted to share what really happened as we lived it. I wrote it for young readers in hopes it would inspire curiosity, compassion, and connection to the natural world.

    Why do you think it’s important for children to learn about this rescue mission?

    DS: This is an all-too-rare example of a community coming together to help a wild animal, and it worked! Not many people will have the chance to rescue an orca, but the lessons we learned can be put to good use to solve other problems today. 

    The book incorporates narrative storytelling with factual information about life sciences, so there is a clear educational component. What do you hope children (and parents) will take away from this book?

    DS: First, I hope that readers will have a new and deeper understanding of orcas and our history with them. I hope it builds awareness about their significance to First Nations, and the roles that we all can play in protecting animals and their environment. There are so many facets to the story—from biology and research to problem-solving and art. I’d encourage families and classes to read the book together to see what curiosities are sparked. This is a true story of hope about one of the world’s most fascinating creatures. Above all, I hope everyone walks away feeling inspired, empowered, and at least a little in love with orcas, especially Springer!

    Tell us about the illustration process. How did you come to collaborate with Sig?

    DS: My publisher suggested Sig, and I am so glad they did. This was the first book for both of us, and a learning curve for sure. Because this is nonfiction, we had to find the right balance between accuracy—the way things really looked—and imagination, letting the charm and energy of the drawings shine through. I am over the moon with how the illustrations turned out.

    What was the biggest challenge you faced when writing this book? What about the illustrations?

    DS: The hardest part for me was having to leave out the names of so many people, and refer to them generically, for example, “researcher” instead. For this age level, we had to limit the number of named characters. Everyone is listed later on but I wish we could have included them all in the text. There were so many heroes in this story.

    SB: The specifics and nuances of orca anatomy was a big learning curve—from the fin shape, to Springers’ unique saddle patch, etcetera. It’s the first time I’ve illustrated something non-fiction, which left less room for the creative liberties I’m used to taking with fiction illustration. It required a lot of attention to detail. I learned a lot about orcas in the process.

    What key advice would you give to aspiring children’s book writers and illustrators?

    DS: Never give up! I’ve been writing since I was a child, and this is my first book. Also, read what you write out loud. It’s the best way to find out what’s working, and what needs to change or come out. And finally, share the draft with a few trusted friends or subject matter experts, especially if it is nonfiction. Another set of eyes always helps!

    SB: Look at a lot of illustration and art and read lots of illustrated books. Narrow in on what you like about specific illustrators’ work, new and old, from their use of colour, texture, expressions, to their sparseness or their detail. What makes you feel something? Learn what you enjoy and what your strengths are. Find illustrators you like and see what their career trajectory has been. I look at artists CV’s to see where they started off and where they’ve gone with their career, where they’ve studied, and who they’ve worked for.

    By Cristina Sanza

    Author bio:  Cristina Sanza is a Digital Journalism Instructor and Writing Coach in the Department of Journalism at Concordia University in Montreal. She also coordinates the Concordia Science Journalism Project team and the Projected Futures international science journalism graduate summer school. At the SWCC, she serves as the blog editor and digital media committee volunteer. 

    Social media: @cristina_sanza

  • 19 Oct 2022 8:06 AM | Anonymous member

    Beyond Banting tells the stories of diabetes research from a non-academic viewpoint

    Krista Lamb is an author, audio storyteller and communications connaisseur. She hosts and produces numerous podcasts, including  Diabetes Canada Podcast, From Beta Cells to Bicycles and the Actions on Diabetes Podcast. While she is fascinated by diabetes research, she dabbles in the communication of many science and health topics into a variety of mediums. 

    Her recently published book Beyond Banting: From insulin to islet transplants, decoding Canada’s diabetes research superstars was the winner of the SWCC 2021 General Public Book Award. The book dives deep into exciting innovations in diabetes research in Canada throughout history and the people behind them. Its release coincided with the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin. 

    We chatted with Lamb about the writing process for Beyond Banting.

    Can you tell us a little bit about what Beyond Banting is all about?

    In 2017, I started interviewing diabetes researchers for the Diabetes Canada Podcast and was fascinated by the stories I heard. There is such a vibrant research community in Canada and I wanted to share that in a larger way. With the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin taking place in 2021, it felt like the perfect time to celebrate how much has happened in this field since Frederick Banting’s seminal discovery.

    What in particular inspired you to write this book?

    I am lucky to have a career where I am surrounded by scientists who are doing exceptional and often very interesting research. The work they do inspires me every day and I hoped to inspire others in that same way. In particular, I wanted young scientists or those considering a career in science to see the value their work has and the impact it can have on the lives of those living with a chronic disease like diabetes.

    Where does your passion for diabetes research and treatment stem from?

    While I don’t live with diabetes, so many of the people I care about do. Both of my grandmothers had type 2 diabetes, and I have many friends and colleagues with type 1 diabetes. It is an often-misunderstood condition and one that has many facets. Seeing the range of diabetes research being done—from looking at barriers and inequities in type 2 diabetes to islet transplants in type 1 diabetes—it felt like there were a million pieces in the puzzle and the process of putting it together was an intriguing one. 

    What was the biggest challenge you faced when writing this book?

    Time! I was working against a deadline that was fixed in stone, as I wanted to have the book out for the 100th anniversary. I was also leaving a full-time role in science communications to start my own company, and then the pandemic hit. It definitely felt at times like I was pushing a boulder up a mountain, but I wanted to tell these stories and that kept me motivated to complete this project.

    What was it like interviewing different leading experts and researchers on the topic? 

    I was lucky that the research community was open to this project and that I was able to get considerable time with people who are extremely busy. While I feel confident writing about this type of research, there is an intimidation factor when you are interviewing the person responsible for GLP-1agonists being available around the world or who pioneered in-human islet transplants. While everyone was understanding that I am a journalist and not a scientist, you still want to bring your A-game in these situations. 

    Were there any interviews in particular that changed the course of the book writing process?

    Along the way, lots changed. In some cases, I went in thinking I would write about one facet of a research project and decided to go in a completely different direction after doing some interviews. There are interviews I did where as much as I wanted to include them, they just didn’t fit in the end. One of the best (and in some ways worst) parts of this process was when I would speak to someone and learn about an entirely different project and suddenly I needed to know more. I think that led to some amazing parts of the book, but sometimes it felt like the process could go on forever if I followed every thread.

    What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

    It was important to me that this book wasn’t just an overview of significant findings from Canadian diabetes research over the last 100 years. That book would be interesting, but I don’t know that future generations of scientists would see themselves in it. I wanted to write about a wide range of people doing incredible things and tell their stories in a way that inspires others to learn more. We have so much to be proud of in terms of our research community in this country. I hope people walk away from the book feeling that.

    What key advice would you give to an aspiring writer, particularly someone interested in tackling a scientific or research-oriented topic?

    Science can seem complex and overwhelming when you are coming at it as a writer and not a scientist. I learned very quickly that I needed to ask questions that made it clear I didn’t have the academic training of the other people in the room—but that this was OK, and welcomed. I see my role now as asking on behalf of the non-scientists who can benefit from this knowledge. People doing science want their stories told and if you can do it in a way that is both accurate and understandable, everyone benefits.

    By: Cristina Sanza

    Cristina Sanza is a Digital Journalism Instructor and Writing Coach in the Department of Journalism at Concordia University in Montreal. She also coordinates the Concordia Science Journalism Project team and the Projected Futures international science journalism graduate summer school. At the SWCC, she serves as the blog editor and digital media committee volunteer. 

  • 05 Sep 2022 5:46 AM | Anonymous member

    Free photos of Pencils

    When life gives you COVID...

    How science educators can incorporate the pandemic experience as a learning tool

    Stephen Strauss

    I think it is fair to say that when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, most people are now in a fervently out, out damn coronavirus! period of their lives. We all want an absolute end to the changes that the deadly/scary/bad virus forced upon us; we want to live our lives as we did before.

    While entirely understandable, I have come to think that there is a counter banish COVID stance science communicators might, and maybe should, adopt. I have slightly jokingly taken to calling it: “Let’s make ‘covid-ade’ out of COVID.”

    I say this because one of the unintended consequences of the virus is that children – particularly teenagers – have been exposed to how science works when scientists are trying to understand and deal with something which never existed before. All kids personally – I think that should probably be personally – have seen the contradictions between trying to understand the nature of a virus, prevent its spread and still live a stressless life statistically and objectively. 

    Accordingly, they have also lived through the reality that there often seems to be no absolute answers to the contradictions which are generated when trying to understand some new thing scientifically. I think that should probably be written no absolute answers.

    So, what you have is a new pedagogical reality.

    For the first time, you can imagine a high school class in which teenagers might be given a science course where they are being taught about statistics, probability, uncertainties and the arcane rest and might – sorry to speak so much in italics but that should probably be a might – really want to learn what is being taught. That is, statistics will cease to feel like a mathematical punishment, a pedagogical bench on which many students feel they are being mentally whipped by teachers armed with numbers.

    Instead of telling students that these are things experts think are important for you to know, you use class time to explain COVID issues that were and likely are still confusing to students. 

    In this framework, COVID moves from being just a scary virus to what you might call a branded kind of teaching. 

    Imagine a scenario where teachers don’t instruct from the top down but rather begin by asking students personal questions. Questions like: what can your COVID experience teach you about how science works? What would you have liked to have been better explained to you? And maybe most significantly, did you feel a relationship to the COVID statistics and how you, your family, and your friends felt they should lead their lives?

    Some more specific examples of topics that might be presented are:

    1. How does science determine where a new disease comes from and how it is spread? Statistically, how do scientists know it was found in a Chinese market and didn’t escape from a lab? How does where it comes from change how people deal with it? Did you care?
    2. How do you know which preventative strategy to adopt? Specifically, and statistically, why did hand-washing become an afterthought? When and why did masking become a necessity? And what does that change tell you about absolute scientific certainty? And if you didn’t always wear a mask, why not?
    3. When and why did it become clear that some drug treatments were effective, and others weren’t? Again, was that understanding absolute or relative? And if the latter, what does that again tell you about scientific certainty in general? Did any of you try any strange treatments? Did you check on their statistical effectiveness beforehand?
    4. What is the relationship between vaccinations’ preventative effects and what doesn’t work or does other things? Included in this are side effects and people becoming sick with things like heart conditions and Bell’s palsy. But also, what does it mean if people get infected again? What do both tell you about people being nervous about being vaccinated in the first place? How does one integrate a statistic – a relative number – into the absolute non-number that is everyone’s life? Do you think that with this confusion there should be a certain amount of if not respect, then of understanding for anti-vaxxers? 
    5. How can science tell politicians when to stop things like self-isolation and masking or when to start them all over again? How much statistical verification is enough proof? What’s the fair relationship between collective economic loss and better personal health?

    There are more potential topics, but the general principle is, as I said at the top, a simulacra of the life-giving-you-lemons-and you-making-lemonade paradigm. In this case, life gave everyone COVID fears but maybe schools can turn that negative into an educationally positive “covid-ade.” 

    I introduce the concept to SWCC members because curriculum development is not something I have any experience in, but nonetheless it seems to me to be a perfect place for science communicators to lend their skills to science educators. What is obvious about the proposal is that it has to be done quite quickly because in a few years it will be quite literally passé in young people’s life experiences.

    Accordingly, I conclude by (without any italics) reiterating my thesis: Someone or one’s of you should swiftly turn high school students’ sour lemon COVID experience into a positive, if not truly sweet educational “covid-ade”.

    Author bio: Stephen Strauss is a long time science writer, originally at The Globe and Mail but afterwards in many other places. His journalistic motto are the terse words of German writer Karl Kraus: "Say what is."

  • 08 Aug 2022 9:05 AM | Anonymous member

    Sublime Banff awoke the literary me

    A board member’s experience at this year’s Literary Journalism residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity

    Jay Whetter

    Here is a sample of my usual journalistic style, made extra boring for the purpose of demonstration:

    Jim Olver, director of customer services for the Banff Centre, took Jay Whetter on a canoe trip down the Bow River. Olver gave Whetter paddling tips for fast water, and pointed out a few geological features along the way.

    This straight style may satisfy  “just the facts, please” readers, whereas literary journalism, which takes more time to write and read, rewards the reader with scenes and sensations. Here is an example:

    Jim Olver meets every last person enrolled at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. I say “every last person” because “most” doesn’t capture the scope of his welcoming. Nobody forgets meeting Jim. He’s a tall guy who wears an Indiana Jones hat and blue blazer, and greets you with a big smile and slight southern Ontario drawl. 

    Olver, the director of customer services, joined the Banff Centre 40 years ago. When Olver took me and the other attendees of the Literary Journalism program on an introductory tour of the campus, he had a lot to go through: restaurants, the pool and fitness room, climbing wall, artists’ studios, backstage at theatres, our base at Vinci Hall. He ran out of time to mention that he is an expert river canoer and a geologist.

    I found out about Jim the canoer and Jim the geologist from one of our three mentors in the Literary Journalism program. I had this knowledge in my back pocket when Olver walked up to me a few days later to ask how things were going. I was under the morning sun in a Muskoka chair reading Michael Harris’s All We Want, listening to the cheeps of Columbian ground squirrels, and looking at a mountain. Multitasking—Banff style. I got up and said, “Hey, I hear you’re an expert canoer.” We talked, he slowly and me quickly, about canoeing, and it led to a surprise email at 5:30 a.m. the next morning with the subject: “Canoeing today?” Jim Olver, river canoeing specialist, invited me to canoe with him. I replied two hours later, hoping I wasn’t too late (I wasn’t), and we arranged to meet at his house at 11:30. 

    And…scene. I took up a lot of space there, and I didn’t even get to the parts about canoeing and geology. But with those two literary paragraphs, you know more about Jim and the origins of my canoe experience. As a friend described, “Literary Journalism sounds like novel writing,” which is appropriate. Many literary journalism articles evolve into non-fiction books.

    The sublime beauty of the Rocky Mountains puts our wants in perspective, inspiring us to do good work for ourselves and for the Earth. Photo by Jay Whetter.

    Literary Journalism was my reason to be at the Banff Centre. It wasn’t canoeing or geology. The residency program gives people an escape from their everyday lives to “explore new ideas in journalismand experimentation in writing,” as the website says. Applications require a three-page article pitch, a resume and a small portfolio of work. If selected, applicants have to arrive with a draft article researched and written so their time at Banff can focus on the intense crafting of a 3,000- to 5,000-word masterpiece.

    I applied to the Literary Journalism program after seeing a notice on the SWCC website. Michael Harris, of All We Want and a mentor in the program, encouraged me to encourage you—Canadian science writers—to apply next year. “We’d love to get more science article pitches,” he said. The program is open to any topic, not just science. Mine was about Indigenous farming.

    My two weeks at the Banff Centre in July were basically a crash-course in Masters-level literary style, as my mentor Carol Shaben said. Carol was ruthless in a loving way. I told her I hadn’t had an editor in over 20 years, and she made up for lost time. 

    She challenged me to describe people, how they talked and what they wore. She asked me to dig into the messages beyond the words. She wanted my writing to show what I saw, to express emotion, and to pulse with poetry. All the while she demanded a message in the work and a purpose to every word. Why should people care?, she often asked. As you might expect, the draft I arrived with on July 3 was completely transformed by July 16. On my last day in Banff, I told the centre’s Director of Literary Arts that “every word of my article had changed, except for a couple of ‘the’s’.” It was a good thing. 

    While in Banff, I also had time to get to know the other participants. We ate together, had campfires, hiked Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain, had a few drinks, and talked about all kinds of stuff. I also had time alone to sit in a red Muskoka chair and read. 

    In All We Want, Harris argues that unnecessary ad-driven consumption will not scratch our itch for fulfillment. Retail therapy just fills the world with stuff we don’t need and leaves us looking for the next fix. Harris lists three alternatives for true fulfillment: craft, care and the sublime. I got all three in my two weeks at Banff. I worked on my craft as a writer. I enjoyed the care of Carol, Michael and Charlotte Gill (chair of the program) and my seven new writer friends—five from Canada, two from New York City. As for sublime—extreme natural beauty that puts all other “wants” in perspective—I got that in spades at Banff, and it crescendoed in a red canoe on the Bow River with Jim Olver. 

    Jim dresses differently for canoeing. He wore maroon light-weight pants, a mint green long-sleeved shirt, canoeing shoes—waterproof, high tops with a lot of laces—and a Tilley hat. Then, for bling, he clipped two red hankies to his hat to protect his ears and neck from the sun. It was the Jim-Bow version of a fascinator. By contrast, I looked amateur, with Adidas shoes, jeans, raincoat and Winnipeg Jets cap.

    I canoe a few times a year on lakes around Kenora, Ontario, but the fast flowing rain-swollen Bow of July 2022 is a different beast. We forward-ferried on an upstream angle, then Jim leaned into a turn and from there we let the current carry us. Jim steered us down the middle of the river while I took photos. I had my phone in a knotted baggie to keep it dry and each time I put it back, he suggested I take it out to capture another sublime moment. While I tied and untied baggie knots, Jim answered my questions about the Rockies. 

    Jim the geologist graduated from the University of Toronto in 1974 and worked for Cominco for the first part of his working life, traveling most of Canada looking for potential mining sites. Here are a few details I gathered from him:

    • The Rocky Mountains are made primarily of limestone and clastic sediments. Limestones accumulated at about two centimetres per thousand years; clastic sediments about two metres per thousand years.

    • The mountains were once the bed of the Pacific Ocean, and sediments seen from the Banff Centre campus date from up to 500 million years ago.

    • The Rocky Mountains began uplifting about 125 million years ago when two tectonic plates collided, pushing the sediments skyward. That is why the layers are now at angles.

    Banff National Park, with its Rocky Mountain high, is a Canadian gem. So is the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. I encourage anyone with a good idea for a science article—or any article—to apply for the Literary Journalism residency. Sign up for the Centre’s newsletter for programming and application deadlines. Successful applicants get tuition, on-site accommodation, and on-site meals paid for. And most importantly, all that sublime beauty and expert mentorship do wonders for the writing skills. 

    Learn more about the Literary Journalism Residency, and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. For questions about the residency, contact Jay at

    Author Bio: Jay Whetter is an agriculture journalist and editor of Canola Digest magazine. He is on the board of the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada, and a member of the Canadian Farm Writers Federation.
    Social media: @kenorajay

  • 15 Jul 2022 8:13 AM | Anonymous member

     Left: Lotus leaf, Right: Lotus leaf inspired water repellent material, Source: Biomimicry Institute

    Mother nature knows it all

    Copying nature, called biomimicry, can lead to more sustainable solutions

    Dr. Neeraja Priyanka Annam

    Author bio: Dr. Neeraja Priyanka Annam is a molecular biologist by training and a nature enthusiast at heart. Science communication is her passion. She is looking to transition into scientific writing at a professional level.

    In the depths of the ocean lurks a creature with no shadow. Its power to creep upon its unsuspecting prey without casting a shadow during its night hunt is something every military force in the world desires.

    No, I’m not talking about an alien. It's the bobtail squid

    Scientists are interested in hundreds of such creatures with unique abilities. Their goal is to replicate their behaviour or skills to develop new technology. This act of imitating other species and natural phenomena is called biomimicry. It is an approach to solving human-made problems by emulating nature.

    But why copy nature? 

    Mother nature has had billions of years of practice in developing an energy-efficient and sustainable planet. As Janine Benyus wrote in her book: Biomimicry, Innovation inspired by nature, “Life creates conditions conducive to life.” Hundreds of creatures carry out their roles without disturbing the delicate ecosystem they are part of. What else can be a better source of inspiration than the nature around us? 

    Biomimicry aims to rekindle the human-nature connection. It recognizes nature as the master genius, and we show our reverence through emulation. It’s a design approach encompassing three elements: emulate, ethos, and reconnect.

    There are three aspects of nature that can be emulated: forms, processes, and systems. 

    Natural forms have evolved to be the most efficient for their function. Take, for example, hummingbirds. They have long slender beaks to feed from flowers, compared to ducks, which have flat beaks suited to feed in the water. Different hummingbird species have also evolved to develop beaks of varying lengths, depending on the flower species they feed from. 

    By comparison, natural processes encompass the physical, biological and chemical aspects of life processes and are the most energy-efficient. In genomics, translation—the processing of information from a genome into a protein—was found to be 100,000 times more efficient than a computer

    Natural systems include neurological and ecological systems like the nutrient cycle. Also known as ecological recycling, it’s a circular system. Matter and energy from the physical environment are consumed by living organisms, to be recycled back into the environment to produce matter.

    Emulation of form

    One of the earliest examples of form biomimicry is the development of velcro. 

    In 1941, George de Mestral noticed burrs (dried ball-like things with hooks) from plants sticking onto him and his dog. This inspired him to invent velcro. This is an example of simple form emulation. 

    A more complex example is the aerodynamic design of the Japanese bullet train. Before the biomimetic approach, the train created a sound shock wave called tunnel boom upon entering tunnels. This was caused by the huge displacement of air by the train. The problem was solved after the nose of the train was streamlined mimicking the kingfisher bird. The kingfisher’s streamlined beak helps it dive into the water without making a splash when catching a fish. 

    Some other examples of form emulation are wind turbines inspired by the humpback whales, antimicrobial films mimicking sharkskin, and self-cleaning paint mimicking the lotus leaf.

    Mimicking processes

    An interesting example of process biomimicry is waste-shrinking toilets. These toilets use a special membrane that helps 95 per cent of the water from the waste evaporate quickly without using any energy source. It mimics a process called evapotranspiration, where water evaporates from a leaf’s surface. 

    Another fascinating example is the dynamic structures built by fire ants. To survive flooding, fire ants come together, linking their bodies to form a raft that keeps them afloat on the water. This dynamic structure has the exact amount of porosity and density that would prevent sinking. Scientists are studying this system to develop self-healing materials—smart materials such as metals or ceramics—that when damaged, can repair themselves.

    Like ants, termites exist in huge colonies. Termite mounds are an example of one of the most elaborate ventilation systems. Their mound structure keeps them cool even in the hottest places on earth. They achieve this feat by creating air pockets in the mound to allow heat convection. This inspired engineers in Zimbabwe to build a shopping center using a similar principle. This idea has resulted in a building with 10 per cent less  air conditioning energy usage.

    Copying systems

    In nature, everything is reused and all systems in the ecology are interconnected. The industrial town of  Kalundborg, Denmark, has modeled itself on the principle of industrial symbiosis. It is a group of nine industries that reuse each other's waste, material, and energy, forming a closed loop. Over the past six decades, this approach has saved tonnes of material, water, and reduced waste generation.

    Is biomimicry the perfect solution to the problems of modern-day civilization? Some think the ideology is too utopian to be practical. Pitching biomimicry to industries involves addressing corporate capitalism, which is an oxymoron. Nature is not profit-driven. Despite this, several applications of biomimicry have allowed us to exist in harmony with nature.


  • 12 Jul 2022 6:30 PM | Anonymous member

    Free Women Standing beside Corkboard Stock Photo

    Patients as Research Partners

    While researchers have the knowledge to develop studies or experiments, patients can contribute expertise through their lived experiences, adding value to science. 

    Bryn Robinson, PhD

    Think back to when you were in school, sitting in a science class or lab. Do you remember how you were taught to find topics to explore and study further?

    In science courses, we’re typically instructed to find ideas for research projects by observing the world around us. We’re told to read previous studies to see what has (or has not) been done. We’re taught to ask questions: Why did this happen? Can we find a solution for this problem?Perhaps other researchers missed a piece of the puzzle that you have the ability to now study. Maybe you have a different way of collecting the data to evaluate the hypothesis being tested. 

    But if your interest is in changing healthcare policy or practice, how do we know that we are asking the right questions? There is one missing piece of the research process that we didn’t discuss in the classroom, but it can provide us with rich information. 

    We can ask the patients what they think is important. 

    What is Patient-Oriented Research?

    To improve healthcare and the research done within the system, you need to have patients, family members or caregivers affected by the system as part of your research team. Patient-oriented research is a buzzword that has gained considerable interest globally, although countries vary in their specific definition of what “patient-oriented” means. In Canada, the federal government defines it as “engaging patients, their caregivers, and families as partners in the research process.” Instead of having a patient join a research study as a participant—where they might fill out questionnaires, take a new medicine, or give samples of their blood for study—the patient is meaningfully collaborating with you. 

    In other words, rather than being a passive participant in the study, they’re an active team member.  

    What Does Patient Engagement Look Like in Practice? 

    Patient partners can provide oversight on a project, set priorities for which research question should first be studied, develop questions to ask in the study, or even conduct part of the research and write it up. For example, you can ask patient partners whether or not the data make sense, given their experience living with a disease.

    For those interested in improving science communication, patient partners can provide great advice on where, when and how to communicate information. While study results are typically shared in journal articles or at conferences, you may find that patients also prefer infographics, blog posts, or video clips on social media. It also gives you the opportunity to influence what is shared about your work directly with the people it impacts—all while flexing some creative muscles and learning new communication skills, too. 

    The extent of what you ask patient partners to do really depends on the project and its resources. You can ask partners to join a larger committee to oversee your research, or you can ask for help on a specific project. Your only limit is you and your partner’s time and your willingness to invite new people into the research space. 

    To begin engaging patients in your research, the first step is bringing potential partners on board as early as you can, so they can help shape the study as soon as possible. Each province and territory has a Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research (SPOR) SUPPORT unit that provides researcher consultations, tools and templates for you to use to begin planning. For example, the BC SUPPORT Unit created a “menu” for research teams that provides considerations for the research process. 

    And if you’re a patient, family member or caregiver interested in getting involved in a research study, to help you start a conversation about patient engagement, the Saskatchewan SPOR SUPPORT Unit created an onboarding guide for patient-oriented research teams. It begins with a series of questions to ask as a starting point in building a meaningful collaboration.

    Whose Priorities are Driving Research?

    When we do research in healthcare, it can be passionate and immersive. We hear stories that impact us and potentially disrupt what we know and thought we knew about healthcare and society. But, even as immersed as we can all be in our work, we do go home at the end of the day to likely a different experience. Our reality changes for a while, until we put our researcher and clinician hats back on. 

    Because of that, it can never be the same as living with an illness 24 hours per day, seven days per week. 

    There is so much we can do to begin telling different stories in addition to the ones that we already can and do tell through our clinical and research work. It means having patients join us as partners in the development. It means conducting and sharing health research, so that we all benefit from research that is more aligned to patients’ priorities, as much as research already aligns with the priorities of other researchers and policy-makers.

    It's the difference between research “on” versus research “with.”


    [1] Canadian Institutes for Health. Strategy for patient-oriented research. 2022. CIHR: Ottawa.

    [2] Canadian Institutes for Health. Patient engagement. 2022. CIHR: Ottawa.

    [3] Bird M, Ouellette C, Whitmore C, et al. Preparing for patient partnership: A scoping review of patient partner engagement and evaluation in research. Health Expect. 2020;23(3):523-539. doi:10.1111/hex.13040

    [4] Kent A. Evidence-informed practices and strategies for patient-oriented research (POR): A ‘menu’ for research teams. 2019. BC SUPPORT Unit: Vancouver.

    [5] Saskatchewan SPOR SUPPORT Unit. Onboarding guide for patient-oriented teams. 2019. SCPOR: Saskatoon.

    Author Bio

    Bryn works in research engagement for a provincial health authority and has a PhD in experimental psychology. When not supporting clinicians, staff, and partners in their health research, she enjoys exploring and photographing the wilderness of New Brunswick.

    Social media: @brynphd
  • 23 Jun 2022 12:05 PM | Anonymous member

    Our 2022 Summer Reading List

    The Book Awards Committee’s top picks for the season

    By Amanda Leslie and Maazah Ali

    The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator

    Written by Timothy C. Winegard (Penguin Random House Canada, 2020)

    For Canadians, the arrival of summer is synonymous with barbeques, hiking, and beaches. 

    But warmer temperatures also bring an influx of mosquitos. Most people are familiar with these seasonal pests, which are capable of drinking three times their own body weight in blood. Scientists estimate that mosquito-borne viruses, such as malaria, yellow fever, and dengue, are responsible for more than one million deaths each year. This issue takes centre stage in Timothy C. Winegard’s wide-ranging exploration of the world’s deadliest predator. Stories about Alexander the Great, Genghis Kahn, and George Washington prove that mosquitos have left their mark on mankind. A fascinating book, The Mosquito made the list of finalists for the RBC Taylor Prize in 2020, but make sure that you have a can of bug spray on hand before reading.  

    I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life

    Written by Ed Yong (HarperCollins, 2018)

    Ed Yong has a favourite bacterium: wolbachia. It’s a parasitic microbe that can block the dengue virus from replicating in insects, effectively stopping the spread of disease before it can be passed onto humans. More fascinating examples of microscopic organisms can be found in Yong’s book, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, which earned high praise in the New York Times Book Review. This intriguing journey into the microcosmic world starts with Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of the microscope in the 17th Century, before clearing up present-day misconceptions about the relationship between people and germs. Neither benign nor malevolent, microbes work in a perfectly tuned symphony that the author, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, brings to life through careful research and storytelling. This informative book will take readers into a whole new world of microscopic life.  

    Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work 

    Written by Kat Arney (Bloomsbury USA, 2017) 

    The unusual title of Kat Arney’s book was inspired by the fact that many of Ernest Hemingway’s cats had an extra toe, but it’s her detailed account of the genetic mechanism behind this physical anomaly that launches the audience into an engaging exploration of how genes work. Drawing on interviews with leading experts, the author, who was shortlisted for a Medical Journalists’ Association (MJA) Award in 2016, dives into topics like RNAi and epigenetics using clear and easy-to-understand language, while weaving a narrative that will appeal to scientists and non-scientists alike. Herding Hemingway’s Cats is a skillfully crafted book that reveals the complex, messy, and fascinating story of the evolving field of genetics. There’s no doubt that it’ll leave readers with a greater appreciation for the role that genes play in our everyday lives. 

    Fighting for Space: Two pilots and Their Historic Battle for Female Spaceflight

    By Amy Shira Teitel (Grand Central Publishing, 2021)

    Recounting the lives of two trailblazing pilots, Jackie Cochran and Jerri Cobb, Amy Shira Teitel’s book sheds new light on women in the Space Race, giving voice to a perspective that has often been overlooked by science. Her extensive research and vivid scenes will take readers on a journey that is both heartbreaking and thrilling: from the cockpit of a Beech D17W to an Ecuadorian jail; a laboratory testing site in Albuquerque, New Mexico to a courtroom showdown in Washington, D.C. Notable figures like Amelia Earhart and Lydon B. Johnson make interesting appearances, but it’s Jackie and Jerri’s struggle to gain acceptance in a male-dominated field that drives the plot forward. Fighting for Space is a must-read for anyone who wants to learn more about the historic contributions of women in STEM. 

  • 26 May 2022 10:41 AM | Anonymous member

    Keeping Hot Water Hot

    How do they do it? 

    Nicole Imeson

    Have you ever stayed at a hotel and turned the shower on to find only cold water? Or perhaps you live in an  complex and have experienced several leaks on your piping systems? 

    Potable hot and cold water is piped to all of the plumbing fixtures in a building to provide water for tasks like hand washing, cooking, showering, or laundry. When the plumbing fixtures are not in use, the hot water slowly cools down, becoming cold water. This means you have to run the water for several minutes for it to get hot again. 

    Not only is this time consuming, but it’s also a waste of water, often leading to higher utility bills and an increased impact on water scarcity. However, by installing a recirculation system, you can ensure the hot water is ready when you need it. 

    A potable hot water recirculation system includes a small pump and additional piping to provide continuous flow through the hot water system, even when no fixtures are in use. The system circulates the warm water back to the central plant to be reheated and redelivered to the plumbing fixtures on a continuous basis, preventing the water from getting cold. But even hot water recirculation systems are not free from problems. 

    There are two common issues that plague these systems, and both are related to flow. When the water flow is too low, or the recirculation pump is too small, the hot water at the plumbing fixtures furthest from the hot water plant may not circulate back to the central plant to be reheated. This means that water becomes cold until the fixture is used, wasting time and water.

    Conversely, when the water flow is too high, or the recirculation pump is too large, there is potential for increased wear and premature failure of the hot water piping system. The potable water system is an open system - meaning that water comes in from the municipal service and flows out through fixture drains.  It doesn’t recirculate the same water around and around like you would in a hydronic heating system, which circulates heated water in a closed loop to heat various spaces in a building without introducing new water to the system. Instead, in a potable water system, air bubbles are introduced into the system from the municipal service. These air bubbles, when traveling at a high velocity, start to erode the inside of copper pipes and create a phenomenon called ‘pitting’. Over time, this pitting will create pinhole leaks in the pipe and wreak havoc on your building finishes, such as drywall or lighting.

    While these issues appear to oppose each other and present different symptoms, the solution to either issue is the same: system balancing. System balancing is the addition of flow control devices, commonly called balance valves, to limit the water in a system to a specific, predetermined flow rate. By installing balance valves throughout the potable hot water recirculation system, you can ensure that water flows equally at each fixture, and you have hot water when you need it, without the risk of premature piping wear. 

    If you think you need a recirculation system in your building or home, speak to a professional to review your specific system and determine the piping distribution and sizing, pump size and system flow rates.

    Author bio: Nicole Imeson is a mechanical engineer in Calgary, Alberta. She has spent her career overseeing the construction of plumbing, HVAC and fire protection systems in various facilities across Western Canada. In her spare time, Nicole hosts a podcast about engineering failures called Failurology.
    Social media: TW: @failurology LI: @FailurologyPodcast
<< First  < Prev   1   2   3   4   5   ...   Next >  Last >> 


P.O. Box 75 Station A

Toronto, ON

M5W 1A2

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software