Log in

Science Writers &

Communicators of Canada

Log in


Do you want to write for the SWCC Blog? SWCC blog posts are coordinated by Cristina Sanza. For more information, or to get involved, please contact us at

About Cristina: Cristina Sanza 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.

  • 09 Apr 2022 8:56 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Mosquito, Insect, Skin, Mosquito Bite, Soak Up, Pest

    Mosquitoes rise up with warmer temperatures

    How climate change is creating an environment for mosquitoes to multiply in Canada

    Rebecca Dang

    April 7 marks the annual World Health Day. The campaign’s 2022 slogan is “our planet, our health” emphasizing that combating climate change and protecting the planet is vital to our health. 

    Climate change has many impacts, both direct and indirect, on our health. One indirect impact is through a small insect that can either leave you with a small itchy bump or a life-threatening disease. 

    Many animals, insects and plant species are on the endangered species list as rising temperatures have resulted in habitat loss. But for mosquitoes, climate change is creating a productive environment for them to thrive. Climate change provides mosquitoes with a longer breeding season, shortens the life-cycle reproduction rate and increases the replication process of the pathogens they carry inside them. 

    Prolonged mosquito season  

    In the last two decades, mosquito-related diseases have increased by 10 per cent in Canada. The increased temperature and humidity are the main drivers that contribute to higher mosquito numbers. There has been a steady temperature increase in the past 70 years, leading to at least a 1.5 °C increase during all seasons. In Canada, mosquitoes are present starting in May until early September. Warmer temperatures could mean the potential for prolonged mosquito seasons is on the horizon.

    Mosquito development changes 

    Temperature can influence mosquito physiology and life cycle. The life cycle of a mosquito begins as an egg, which hatches when exposed to water. While still in the wet environment, within two days, the egg becomes a larva, then the larva skin splits and the pupa develops. The pupa is an immature transition phase where it does not feed on blood but can move in the water. Only once it develops into an adult, the mosquito becomes an active flying insect that can feed on blood. Depending on the mosquito species and environmental conditions, the average life cycle of a mosquito from egg to adult can range between six to ten days

    The larvae and pupae stages are a critical time for survival. The typical temperature range for survival is from 16°C to 38°C. It has been documented that as temperature increases, the immature stages of development decrease and the adult stage comes quicker. For example, the Aedes aegypti speciestakes about 40 days to grow from egg to adult at 15°C, but only takes 7.2 days at 35°C

    As adults, some mosquito species fly better at certain temperatures, between 15 to 32°C, which helps them to find food and reproduce. Temperature directly influences when the mosquitoes have the first blood after growing out of the pupae stage. Mosquitoes living in a higher temperature environment have their first blood meal within 48 hours and will begin to lay eggs sooner. 

    Virus inside benefit

    The insatiable itch and tingling sensation on an area of your skin is the least of your worries after being bitten by a mosquito. Some mosquito species are deadly and can spread life-threatening diseases including West Nile, Zika or Lyme disease. Mosquitoes can pick up vector-borne diseases when injecting the proboscis, or mouthpart that pierces the skin and sucks the blood of infected victims. The viruses that are contained within their bodies can replicate as the mosquitoes’ numbers increase. 

    Virus copies increase with temperature as well, and transmission of the viruses also increases with increased viral copies. Foreign mosquito diseases may emerge over time as climate change can lead to the geographic expansion of these viruses across the globe. The migration of humans, animals or changes to the physical environment due to climate change will expand the landscape of viruses. 

    Our Planet, Our Health

    The reality is that humans live on the same planet that mosquitoes do. As the climate change crisis worsens, the mosquito population will steadily rise. They will continue to feed on humans and wildlife. With every bite, there is a chance of spreading some life-threatening diseases.

    The change in the mosquito ecosystem is one example of how climate change is negatively impacting human health. Changes to the earth and its creatures will reveal how deeply human and ecological health are interconnected.

    Author Bio

    Rebecca is an interdisciplinary researcher and science communicator. She has a diverse research background ranging from pedagogy, medical education and cardiology.

    Currently, she is a research assistant in the Department of Medicine at McMaster University. In her spare time, she enjoys writing blogs and creating digital content.

  • 30 Mar 2022 10:49 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Hands, Globe, Earth, Protection, Planet, World, GlobalThe Glasgow Climate Conference Part I: Good COP, bad COP

    The 26th UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP26) was billed as our last best hope to avoid dangerous climate change. In Part I of this two-part blog, we see how the actual outcome surprised few but disappointed just about everyone.

    Andrew Park

    If last November’s COP26 meeting were a human being, it’d be an unreliable boyfriend. Unreliable boyfriends make big promises by the dozen. They’ll fix that hole in the back yard deck, they’ll pay their half of the rent on time, they’ll quit their addiction to unhealthy carbonated beverages. Years later, the deck’s unrepaired, the rent’s overdue, and the recycling bin is full of soda cans. 

    Unreliable boyfriends swear they’ll do better. “This time will be different,” he says, but in your heart, you know it won’t be. Similar behaviours were on display at COP26, the latest iteration of the United Nation’s annual “conferences of the parties,” whose goal is to reach international agreements on mitigating climate change . And while unreliable boyfriends make only one person miserable, the failure of successive COPs to produce climate-saving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions threatens future misery for humanity.

    With so much at stake, then, where did COP26 go wrong, and were there any positive outcomes to the biggest COP ever? 

    Good COP

    To grasp the positive outcomes of COP26, we have to understand that it was not one negotiation, but many. The official negotiations were aimed at recalculating each country’s nationally determined contribution (NDC) towards driving down carbon emissions and reaching consensus on future actions. Off to the side, however, negotiators engaged in a lot of horse trading over emissions targets for specific sectors. We saw sectoral agreements to end deforestation and land degradation by 2030, to reduce methane (CH4) emissions by 30 per cent below 2020 levels, and to accelerate transitions from coal to “clean power” and zero-emissions cars and vans.

    Updated NDCs and sectoral initiatives move the world incrementally closer to the Paris Agreement target of restraining global warming to less than 2oC degrees (and preferably only 1.5oC) above pre-industrial levels. According to Climate Action Tracker (CAT), full implementation of NDCs and pledges from Glasgow could reduce 21st Century warming an additional 0.6oC above what countries agreed to in Paris (see Figure 1). An optimistic scenario in which countries followed through on “net-zero” pledges might gain a further 0.2–0.7oC to actually put 1.5oC within reach—however remotely.

    Net-zero targets lie far in the future for most countries, and our 2030 pledges leave an emissions gap of around 17–20 GtCO2e between the world and the 1.5oC target. A Gigatonne is one billion metric tons, and GtCO2e stands for gigatonnes of CO2 equivalents. The “equivalents” refers to the fact that greenhouse gasses with different heat trapping potentials have been converted into a common basis relative to CO2

    This wide emissions gap might be closed further if China and the USA were to follow through on their COP26 promise to share technology and push for greater ambition around the 1.5-degree goal. The two great powers account for over 40 per cent of global emissions, and if their agreement can survive geo-political wrangling over other issues, its future impacts on emissions will be considerable. Green member of parliament Elizabeth May, a veteran of many COP meetings, said in a later webinar post-COP 26 that she believes the agreement will stick because “China cannot afford to lose the third pole,” namely the Himalayan glaciers that are the source of Asia’s great rivers, including the Yellow and the Yangtse. 

    Figure 1. The Climate Action Tracker Thermometer reports the range of possibilities for mitigating global warming. Image courtesy of Climate Analytics and the New Climate Institute.A picture containing timeline Description automatically generated

    Bad COP

    Although the good COP raised some cautious hopes for future climate action, the runup to COP26 was burdened with levels of pre-conference hype that were almost guaranteed to deliver disappointment. When your meeting is billed as “the last best hope to fight climate change,” there’s really no place to go but down. 

    Consider that climate negotiators from 190-plus countries were tasked with two conflicting goals. First, civil society, scientists, and even their political masters expected them to reach an agreement that kept the 1.5-degree target alive. But those same negotiators were also tasked with representing their countries’ narrow economic and political interests. The almost inevitable result was the tepid Glasgow Climate Pact, whose language was filled with lukewarm injunctions inviting, requesting, and urging countries to fulfill commitments, submit plans, or “consider” increased ambitions.

    As with agreements achieved at Paris and other COPs, negotiators haggled over every word of the pact. In typical COP fashion, the final agreement was crafted at the last minute, multilateral huddles around breakout tables in the negotiations hall. All this word haggling eventually delivered language that most countries could live with. 

    “Live with” is a far cry from “happy about,” and a final disappointment arrived after the language of the pact had already been agreed. Before the pact could be formally adopted, US representative John Kerry got together with coal-dependent China, India, and South Africa in one last huddle to change a key phrase of the agreement. Indian environment minister Bhupender Yadav took the floor to announce that “…phase-out of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” would become “…phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.”

    Mexican climate envoy Camila Isabel Zepeda Lizama expressed what many felt when she said, “We believe we have been sidelined in a non-transparent and non-inclusive process. At the stocktake, we already compromised to what we perceived was an agreement by parties, even if we were unhappy with the text. But now we learn that there are even further changes that we were not been made aware.” 

    There were other disappointments at COP26. A number of countries, including Australia, The Russian Federation, Brazil, and Indonesia failed to increase their NDCs in line with the Paris Agreement. Others, including Canada, promised marginally increased NDCs. And the Paris Agreement promise that developed countries would deliver USD100 billion in mitigation and adaptation financing to the developing world remains unfulfilled. 

    At the end of the day, though, it’s those two little words, “phase-down” that will be the enduring legacy of “bad-COP26.”

    This is part one in a blog series on COP26. Stay tuned for part two on April 13, 2022. 

  • 23 Mar 2022 1:27 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Cover image:

    Failure is Integral to Engineering

    By examining failures, we can prevent them from happening again.

    Nicole Imeson

    The Titanic was believed to be an unsinkable ship. It was made of 25mm thick steel plates fastened together with rivets. The steel was thought to be impenetrable.

    RMS Titanic,_2nd_of_April_1912.jpg

    (google - creative commons licences)

    But what the ship’s engineers didn’t know at the time was that under low temperatures and high impact loading, combined with the high sulphur content of the steel, the plates would become brittle. So much so, that when the ship struck an iceberg on its way across the Atlantic, they ripped open like a tin can. 

    Engineering failures like the Titanic are embarrassing and costly, but they are integral to the profession. Henry Petronski, an American engineer specialising in failure analysis once said “Failure is central to engineering. Every single calculation that an engineer makes is a failure calculation. Successful engineering is all about understanding how things break and fail.” 

    When an engineer begins their design, they often start with a series of assumptions based on the intended usage, applicable codes and past experience. These assumptions could be how much weight a bridge could support, how much water the occupants in a building intend to use, or the size of a product. 

    As the design takes shape and more information becomes available, the assumptions are replaced with calculated data. At several stages throughout this process, engineers run extensive tests on their designs to see how and where they might fail. Then they strengthen the failed portion and re-test it again, over and over, until the design no longer fails. 

    Engineering as a profession has only been regulated in Canada for around 125 years. Nowadays, engineers have several tools at their disposal to test their designs before they are put into production. There are decades of data on construction materials, climate and how humans interact with design. Engineers also have computer simulated models that can be used to test designs under both normal and extreme conditions, before they are constructed. 

    But this wasn’t always the case. Early engineers saw a lot of advancements with respect to available materials, manufacturing processes and how people use infrastructure. These advancements were exciting and necessary, but also provided several unknowns about how the new materials and designs would react under changing conditions.

    Several of the codes, standards and governing bodies that we have today are borne out of engineering failures. After the Titanic sank, for example, the SOLAS (Safety Of Life At Sea) treaty was formed in 1914 to address all aspects of ship design, construction and navigation at sea. 

    The Quebec Bridge collapsed during construction on August 29, 1907 due to underestimated design capacity and a lack of engineering oversight during construction. A segment of the replacement bridge also collapsed on September 11, 1916 due to a material flaw in one of the temporary supports used to transport and hoist the segment. 

    Quebec Bridge Collapse 

    (google - creative commons licences)

    The aftermath of these collapses saw the creation of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in 1914—which publishes transportation standards and policies throughout the United States—and the American Institute for Steel Construction in 1921—which develops specifications and design guides for structural steel construction. Both of these standards were created as a means to fund research that was too difficult and expensive for manufacturer’s to do themselves, and are still in use today. 

    Fire safety standards have also been created as a result of engineering failures. A scrap bin in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire on March 25, 1911 and the fire spread quickly throughout the factory. It was located on the upper three floors of a 10-storey building in New York City. Due to crowded floors, locked doors, and inadequate exiting—both via stairwell and fire escape—nearly 150 workers died. 

    Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire 

    (google - creative commons licences)

    This disastrous fire led the National Fire Protection Association to publish their first safety bulletin outlining the importance of evacuation drills in public spaces. Today, the National Fire Protection Association has over 300 codes and standards, ranging from fire prevention to extinguishing, intending to minimise the possibility and effects of fire on occupants and infrastructure. 

    More recently, we saw the devastating collapse of Champlain Towers in Surfside Florida in 2021 which is still under investigation. This failure caused building owners and operators around the world to take a good hard look at their infrastructure and prioritise the critical repairs they had been putting off. 

    Champlain Towers in Surfside Florida 

    (google - creative commons licences)

    Engineers design to the best of their ability, using all of the tools at their disposal.  Sometimes, failures slip through the cracks—whether due to changing materials, innovative designs, unforeseen site conditions or even a lack of peer review. But only by learning from the engineers and failures that have already occurred can we prevent them from happening again. It’s unclear how much of the Titanic’s design issues were negligence or just unknowns at the time, but it has made a lasting impression on the development and oversight of ships worldwide.

    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:
    Twitter: @failurology

    LinkedIn: @FailurologyPodcast
  • 24 Jun 2021 9:35 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)


    As the world attempts to recover from COVID-19, we need a proactive, integrated approach to prevent future pandemics. Photo by Slava on Unsplash

    Prior to COVID-19, “One Health” seemed an elusive concept except in the circles of infectious disease professionals. Today, it is more relevant than ever to the global population, but what exactly is it?

    At its core, “One Health” links animal health to human health from the perspective of zoonotic diseases. It describes the complex relationships that occur among factors that influence human health, animal health and their ecosystems. 

    To fully grasp the importance of the concept, it is necessary to understand where new diseases come from.

    Zoonotic diseases are those transmitted from animals to humans. It is estimated that as many as six out of 10 human infectious illnesses originate from animals. Humans can also infect animals: reverse zoonosis.

    Emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) can be caused by recently evolved pathogens that have been introduced for the first time into the human population, the most familiar and current example being SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19. EIDs may also extend to previously occurring infectious diseases that are gaining momentum once again by having an expanded geographical range, impact or even a higher occurrence. As many as 75 per cent of human EIDs are zoonotic and are generally associated with wildlife.

    With so many variables involved, it’s clear that an integrated health approach is needed, drawing on expertise from numerous disciplines.

    In a recent publication in One Health in 2021, Canadian experts recommended three possible areas: zoonoses and chronic diseases; social determinants of zoonoses; and the effectiveness of the health system in their prevention and control. 

    So how do zoonotic diseases become established in humans in the first place?

    The answer lies in the complex interactions among humans, animals, evolving pathogens and their environment. 

    Globalization, a marvel of the modern world, offers greater access to trade, travel and migration – and a higher risk of pathogen exposure. Activities such as illegal animal trade and “bush meat” consumption can result in human exposure to exotic wildlife pathogens.

    Human-induced climatic changes that lead to a rise in global temperatures can also increase risk of exposure to exotic pathogens by affecting animal migration. These changes can influence emergence of vector and water-borne diseases. Deforestation and wildlife habitat encroachment provide more opportunities for contact among humans and animals.   

    Other factors that favour the emergence of new diseases include destructive agricultural practices, global conflict connected to population displacements and insufficient public health infrastructure.

    By their nature, RNA viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 can mutate very quickly, giving rise to the appearance of new strains. For example, variants have arisen in the months since the beginning of the pandemic that appear to spread more easily and affect younger people. 

    Another issue is antimicrobial and antibiotic misuse which has also been implicated in EID emergence.

    Long gone are the days of operating in medical knowledge silos. It is glaring that a more concerted, transdisciplinary approach to global health has become necessary. This means efficiently sharing critical information quickly. We need to get better at pathogen surveillance in both animals and humans. 


    By: Shirene Singh

    Currently, I am a Medical Writer with over 5 years of experience as a university educator and an infectious disease researcher, with a focus on vaccinology and viral immunology. A lifelong goal of mine has been to contribute to knowledge translation by leveraging my scientific and medical background. My passion for writing includes global health concepts, immunology and strategies for infectious disease control. 

    LinkedIn Profile:

  • 21 May 2021 3:30 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    A picture containing fungus, tree, outdoor, flower Description automatically generated

    Cladonia stellaris, the “Star-tipped Reindeer Lichen,” was selected by Canadians to be a national lichen species in a vote held in 2020. (Photo credit: Anders Wahl. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons.)

    While Canadians might first choose the moose or the beaver to represent Canada, we need not look further than the ground on which we tread to find a worthy candidate offered by nature. 

    Because Canadians have the reputation for being good, kind-hearted people, it is only fitting that Canada is highly populated by lichens, little-known composite organisms that spread their goodwill and exist because of the mutually beneficial relationships they provide.

    There could not be a better symbol on our soil because lichens benefit the environment, feed wildlife, aid in monitoring pollution, and exist - first and foremost - as an example of mutual aid. 

    Last year, when Canadians were given the chance to select a national lichen, of the seven species options provided by lichenologists, voters chose the “Star-tipped Reindeer Lichen” (Cladonia stellaris). Found throughout Canada, it resembles cauliflower in appearance.

    The lichen organism is neither moss nor plant, although it has been misrepresented as being both. No, the lichen is a species all its own and there are approximately 15,000 kinds of lichen worldwide, including 2,500 that call Canada home.

    A lichen (pronounced ‘liken’) is formed when a fungus combines with an alga or cyanobacterium. Together they create a symbiotic relationship - one beneficial to both organisms. 

    In true symbiotic fashion, the lichen thrives because its composite fungus and alga serve to support one another. Fungi lack chlorophyll, so they can’t photosynthesize, leaving them unable to obtain energy, and thus a source of nourishment, from the sun. Conversely, algae and cyanobacteria can photosynthesize, allowing the fungi associated with them to have a constant food source in addition to food lichens obtained from the air, minerals, and rainfall. In return, fungi provide their partner algae or cyanobacteria with a safe environment in which to thrive as well as provide important protection from ultraviolet (UV) light.

    Growing ubiquitously and happily in environments from dry deserts to artic tundra,lichens are resilient. They are found on mountaintops and on the branches of spruce and fir trees. Lichens cover boulders, the tree trunks of elms and maples, and coastal rocks. They even grow on residential driveways. Lichens come in many shapes and sizes and from moss to branch-like in appearance. Because of their inherent symbiosis, they also take on the various colours of the algae or cyanobacteria with which they are partnered and can be anywhere from grey to brightly coloured.

    As for their usefulness to others, lichens make up the greater part of the winter diet of caribou because lichens can survive in colder climates where other food sources are not available. They also provide shelter and camouflage for smaller animals. Once more, the sponge-like nature of lichens allows them to absorb pollutants, making them good indicators of pollution and, through lichen biomonitoring, pollutants extracted from lichen can provide us with a picture of atmospheric pollutant levels and inform us about population and environmental pollutant risk.

    Even after they die, the likable lichens continue to help other species survive. While most organisms can’t make direct use of nitrogen from the atmosphere, lichens can. When lichens die and decay, they fix nitrogen in the soil, making it available for use by surrounding plants. Lichens are also among the first organisms to colonize barren surfaces, preparing sites for later plant growth by trapping moisture and windblown organic debris and then contributing to organic deposits even when they die and decay.

    With a new-found understanding of their ubiquity, anyone learning of lichens might try to be more cautious of where they step while walking a trail or even around their own yard. However, lichens also (surprisingly) can benefit from being trampled upon and being carried off, “hitch-hiking” to new places where they can reproduce, spread and continue to be useful. 


    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.

  • 16 Mar 2021 8:24 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    With Black History Month coming to a close, the Book Awards Committee has been reflecting on the lack of diversity in science writing. There’s no denying that the majority of science books have been written by white men. While their contributions to our understanding of science are important, we wanted to broaden the conversation by seeking out the perspectives of underrepresented groups, such as BIPOC and neurodivergent writers. The five authors listed below bring a wealth of expertise and personal experience to their subjects, which include Indigenous Knowledge, materials science, human behaviour, unconscious bias, and beta decay. These books manage to strike a difficult balance between narrative-driven storytelling and research, resulting in science writing that’s compelling and informative. It is our hope that the book recommendations will help encourage the SWCC community to continue reading and amplifying diverse voices in science communication year-round.

    Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us about Love, Life and Relationships - Written by Camilla Pang (Viking Press, 2020)

    Have you ever considered that thermodynamics and enthalpy may explain why a messy room sometimes stays messy despite our best intentions to keep everything tidy? Or that anxiety and fear could be thought of as light passing through a prism, which can be refracted and scattered into more manageable wavelengths? These incredible connections, along with some hand-drawn illustrations, are part of Camilla Pang’s Explaining Humans, which won the Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2020. As a scientist who is on the autism spectrum, Pang wrote the book as a manual for herself, but it’s frank details will help readers learn about navigating life with neurodiversity. With insightful and enthusiastic prose, the book describes interesting ways of seeing and understanding the world.

    Sway: Unravelling Unconscious BiasWritten by Pragya Agarwal (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020)

    Written by Pragya Agarwal, a behavioral and data scientist, Sway is a timely read that highlights implicit and explicit biases against black and ethnic minorities, as well as women and queer individuals. Having faced racial and gender bias as an Indian woman, Agarwal combines her personal experiences with scientific studies, using clear language to explain information to readers. The last chapter offers hope of working through our biases by taking more time to make decisions and recognizing when biases may arise in order to dismantle them. Sway is a well-researched book that will help readers identify and evaluate unconscious bias in their own lives.

    Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom - Written by Teresa Robeson, Illustrated by Rebecca Huang (Sterling Children’s Books, 2019)

    Most people would consider Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking to be among the most influential physicists of the 20th century, but there’s another name that deserves to be added to the list: Chien-Shiung Wu. Born in China at a time when girls often received a sub-par education to boys, Wu defied the odds by studying physics at the National Central University in Nanjing. She later immigrated to the United States, where she became an expert on beta decay. During her career, Wu helped other researchers design experiments that earned three Nobel Prizes, but her contributions were overlooked and she never received a nomination. In Queen of Physics, Teresa Robeson and Rebecca Huang use poignant text and illustrations to capture Wu’s story for young readers, never shying away from the discrimination that she faced as an Asian woman in a male-dominated field.

    Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the WorldWritten by Tyson Yunkaporta (HarperCollins, 2020)

    “Our knowledge endures because everybody carries a part of it, no matter how fragmentary. If you want to see the pattern of creation, you talk to everybody and listen carefully,” Tyson Yunkaporta writes in Sand Talk, a book that will challenge the way you think about science and the world. An Aboriginal scholar and artist, Yukaporta uses oral culture exchanges, symbols, and songlines to guide readers through a range of topics that clearly demonstrate the enduring relevance of Indigenous Knowledge, while stressing the importance of community and connection. His skillful narration is humorous and insightful, making it easy to see why the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper named Sand Talk one of the best science book of 2020. 

    The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One AnotherWritten by Ainissa Ramirez (The MIT Press, 2020)

    Ainissa Ramirez was close to giving up on her dream of becoming a scientist when a professor at Brown University made a remark in class that she never forgot: “The reason why we don’t fall through the floor, the reason why my sweater is blue, and the reason why the lights work is because of the way atoms interact with each other.” So began a lifelong fascination with materials science, which combines physics, engineering, and chemistry to study the properties of solid materials. Ramirez, an award-winning scientist, has captured the intrigue of this interdisciplinary field in The Alchemy of Us, making topics like quartz clocks, steel rails, and glass labware come alive for readers. With a keen eye for perspectives that have been overlooked by history, her book is guaranteed to enlighten and entertain.

    By: The Book Awards Committee

  • 02 Mar 2021 8:41 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    While COVID-19 ravages the world, scientists are still trying to unravel the unique mysteries of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, and why it so deadly to so many. Among those seeking answers are U.S. scientists from the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore, Marylandwho published a study in the journal Blood. 

    From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists knew that the spike-like proteins on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 latched on to cells targeted for infection. Recent research shows the spikes grab a substance called “heparan sulfate,” a large, complex sugar molecule found on the surface of cells in the lungs, blood vessels and smooth muscle that make up most organs. After binding with the cell, SARS-CoV-2 uses another cell-surface component, the protein known as “angiotensin-converting enzyme 2” (ACE2), to break into the cell. 

    The havoc begins here.

    When SARS-CoV-2 ties up heparan sulfate it prevents another substance - factor H - from doing its job of regulating chemical signals that both trigger inflammation and keep the immune system from harming healthy cells. Without factor H protection, cells in the lungs, heart, kidneys, and other organs, can be destroyed by the very defense mechanism nature intended -the immune system.

    JHU researchers discovered that “factor D,” a protein in the immune system, enables SARS-CoV-2 to turn the immune system against itself and damage healthy cells.  When factor H is functionally dismantled by factor D, the immune system attacks healthy cells, as autoimmune diseases do. 

    The immune system’s response to chemicals released by killed cells could be responsible for the serious organ damage and organ failures in severe cases of COVID-19.

    "Previous research has suggested that along with tying up heparan sulfate, SARS-CoV-2 activates a cascading series of biological reactions -- what we call the “alternative pathway of complement” – or APC, that can lead to inflammation and cell destruction of healthy organs if misdirected by the immune system," explained study senior author Robert Brodsky, M.D., director of the hematology division at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "The goal of our study was to discover how the virus activates this pathway and find a way to inhibit it before the damage happens."

    According to Brodsky, the APC is one of three chain reaction processes involved in splitting and combining of more than 20 different proteins -- known as “complement proteins” -- that usually get activated when bacteria or viruses invade the body. The end-product of this complement cascade is a structure called the “membrane attack complex” (MAC). 

    To discover exactly how the virus activates the APC cascade and blocks factor H from connecting with the sugar, the researchers used normal human blood serum and three subunits of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to disable the complement regulation by which factor H keeps immune response under control. 

    "When we added a small molecule that inhibits the function of factor D, the APC wasn't activated by the SARS2 virus spike proteins," explained Brodsky. 

    He uses an automobile metaphor to explain Factor D and Factor H co-activity. 

    "If the brakes are disabled, the gas pedal can be floored without restraint, likely leading to a crash," he explained. "The viral spike proteins disable the biological brakes (factor H) enabling the gas pedal (factor D) to accelerate the immune system and cause cell, tissue and organ devastation. Inhibit factor D and the brakes can be re-applied and the immune system reset."

    The good news is that there are already drugs in development that can block factor D’s nefarious work. Although still in testing, it appears that one such drug - ravulizumab - blocks the complement attack triggered by the spike proteins.

    To be clear, these drugs are not vaccines aimed at halting the community spread of the virus. Rather, they are aimed at helping to prevent the worst organ damage in those who acquire COVID-19.

    By: Randolph Fillmore

    Randolph Fillmore is a science and medical writer and an adjunct professor of anthropology and mass communications at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida, USA. He is the director of Florida Science Communications ( , a member of the National Association of Science Writers in the U.S. since 1994, and has recently joined the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada.

  • 25 Feb 2021 7:58 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Source: Getty Images

    Whether it be from supermarkets, restaurants or our own kitchens, people throw away a lot of food. Or rather, they feed it to animals. 

    In many countries Canada, close to 40 per cent of total food loss comes from these later stages of the supply chain1. While cycling food waste towards animal feed may seem like a noble approach to handling this challenge, the question remains: is food waste safe for animals?

    Food waste materials are defined differently, depending on where they come from within the supply chain2. The term “food loss” refers to waste generated during food processing and manufacturing (many of these items are safely diverted to animal feed in the form of by-products). The term “food waste” refers to items discarded at retail or consumer levels. These carry a higher risk for harbouring contaminants and disease. 

    Feeding uncooked food waste to animals not only puts their health at risk, but also the entire food chain – especially if that food waste is contaminated with meat products. In 2009, 25 to 35 per cent of the global pork supply was wiped-out from African swine fever – a highly transmissible viral disease that has been linked with feeding food waste to pigs 3.  In 2001, more than six million lambs, pigs and cattle died during the European foot-and-mouth disease epidemic which was linked to the feeding of uncooked food waste to animals.4.  Other diseases like vesicular exanthema (a swine disease similar to foot-and-mouth), trichinosis (caused by parasitic roundworms in pigs), and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, a.k.a. “mad cow” disease) have also had devastating effects on livestock industries. All been linked to improper feeding of food waste products

    Raw food waste can also harbour infectious organisms worrisome to public health, even if the food waste is plant-based. The risk of plant-based food waste being contaminated with Salmonella, for example, may depend on the type of plants it came from. A study published in Frontiers of Microbiology found that certain vegetable plants tend to be colonized by Salmonella more than others5.  So, even if raw food waste is free of meat contaminants that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe for our animals. 

    Heavy metals and toxins are another risk factor to be considered before feeding food waste to livestock.  A survey of European household and restaurant waste found that the levels of lead, cadmium and dioxins exceeded allowable limits for livestock feed6. These compounds accumulate in the food chain and can negatively impact human and animal health.  

    From animal feed, to animal welfare, to public health, all stages of the food supply chain are connected. That’s why many countries have implemented strict regulations around the use of food waste as animal feed. And while the practice of feeding food waste to our animals has decreased, it has not been eliminated.  A survey from the United Kingdom estimated that 24 per cent of small producers continue to feed uncooked household food waste to their livestock3.

    In Canada, feeding raw household or donated food waste to a producer’s own animals is allowed. It is the exception to the rules, as long as it isn’t contaminated with meat and the resulting animal products to anyone else7.  These exceptions are confusing and send conflicting messages about the safety of the practice and raise concerns throughout the food industry.

    This article first appeared in The Western Producer


    • Gustavsson, J., Cederberg, C., Sonesson, U., van Otterdijk, R., & Meybeck, A. (2011). Global Food Losses and Food Waste: Extent. Causes and Prevention, 29.
    • FAO, I. (2016). WFP. The State of Food Insecurity in the World: Meeting the 2015 international hunger targets: taking stock of uneven progress. 2015.
    • Gu, H.; Daly, T.  (2019). China has Shown ‘Shortcomings’ in Bid to Contain African Swine Fever. Retrieved from
    • UK House of Commons Report. (2002). The 2001 Outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease; UK House of Commons Report. Retrieved from
    • Jechalke, S., Schierstaedt, J., Becker, M., Flemer, B., Grosch, R., Smalla, K., & Schikora, A. (2019). Salmonella establishment in agricultural soil and colonization of crop plants depend on soil type and plant species. Frontiers in microbiology, 10, 967.
    • García, A.J., Esteban, M.B., Márquez, M.C., Ramos, P. (2005). Biodegradable municipal solid waste: characterization and potential use as animal feedstuffs. Waste Manag. 25, 780–787. 
    • CFIA. (2019). Recycled Food Products. In Regulatory Guidance: Feed Registration Procedures and Labelling Standards. Retrieved from 
    • Gillespie A, Grove-White D, Williams H (2015). Should cattle veterinarians be concerned about disease risk from smallholder and pet pigs? In: Presented at the Middle European Buiatric Congress10th ECBHM Symposium, Maribor, Slovenia.

    By: Janna Moats

    Janna Moats is a Professional Agrologist and science writer based in Saskatoon. She obtained her Master of Science degree in Animal Science from the University of Saskatchewan and has worked across various sectors of the agriculture and agri-food industry. Connect with her on LinkedIn: 

  • 28 Jan 2021 10:30 AM | Anonymous

    The grey nurse shark ( Carcharias taurus), a coastal species on the ICU's Red List as critically endangered. A public domain photo by Richard Ling. 

    Here's how sharks are "finned."

    After hauling them aboard their vessels, the fishermen cut off their fins, then toss them back into the ocean. Still alive, they sink to the bottom where they're either eaten by other predators or die of suffocation. 

    About 100 million sharks are believed to be taken by fishers each year, most of them for their fins alone. 

    It's an industry estimated to be worth US$400 million a year. 

    The blue shark (Prionaceglauca). Photo by Mark Conlin/NMFS.

    If one were to believe official trade records over the past twenty years, most fins traded on world markets have come from more abundant "pelagic" species (ones which live in the open ocean) like the blue shark (above). 

    The leopard shark (Stegostoma fasciatum). An ADV photo by Jeffrey N. Jeffords. 

    Using advanced techniques in barcoding and genetic tracing, scientists are now painting a different picture. By analyzing more than five thousand fins from markets on three continents, they still found a lot had come for those "pelagic" populations. 

    But they also found "an additional 40 'range-restricted' coastal species" which did not show up in previous records. These populations live closer to shore and do not range as widely as those in the open oceans. With local jurisdictions providing little protection for them, their populations now face "dramatic declines" and are "typically less abundant."  

    However, even the more common deep-sea species have been falling victim to "chronic exploitation" by fishers who are "collapsing" their populations, too. 

    New DNA tracking techniques are revealing a greater number of threatened and coastal sharks from stockpiles of intact shark and processed fins (pictured). Image credit: Paul Hilton.

    So, if we want to conserve sharks and curb the "unsustainable global trade in shark fins," conclude the researchers, "stronger local controls of coastal fishing are urgently needed."

    Their study was published this summer in the proceedings of The Royal Society.

    But this is hardly the first cautionary tale pointing to the plight of Earth's marine life in general and sharks, in particular. Another research paper published in 2017 warns, they face "possibly the largest crisis of their 420 million year history. Many populations are overfished to the point where global catch peaked in 2003, and a quarter of species have an elevated risk of extinction."


    By: Larry Powell

    Hi, I’m Larry Powell, an eco-journalist living in Shoal Lake, Manitoba, Canada.

    I belong to The Science Writers & Communicators of Canada, The American Association for the Advancement of Science and The Canadian Association of Journalists. 

    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. This often arms me with “hot-off-the-press” stories the moment the embargo is lifted.

    This summer, I joined an international team of writers, telling animal “tails” in the online journal, “Focusing on Wildlife - Celebrating the Biodiversity of Planet Earth.”

    I publish the blog, PlanetInPeril (PinP), where science gets respect! You can email me at:

  • 21 Jan 2021 10:30 AM | Anonymous

    Rock Lake (Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario) in the fall. Image © James Wheeler via Gallery.World (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 license).

    Fall is a beautiful season, filled with golden hope and burgundy possibilities. The green colour of leaves changes to a colourful mix of yellow, orange, and red. Have you ever wondered why? If you have (and even if you have not but are wondering now), let’s take a look at the science behind the fall foliage. 

    Leaves develop over spring and summer, and in the fall, they start to age. But there are complex processes behind this. They include changes in the pigments that give them colour. The green leaf pigment chlorophyll breaks down, while carotenoids (yellow) are retained, and anthocyanins (red) are produced. 

    In the fall, nutrients and other components that support leaf health are withdrawn. This process leaves yellow carotenoids behind, causing the bright yellow and golden appearance seen in many fall leaves. However, we often see yellow leaves with scattered green patterns. These patterns are caused by fungi infections. Fungi produce a plant hormone, cytokinin, that inhibits the aging process and causes some of the green chlorophyll to remain. 

    The red colour palette of fall leaves is produced right before the leaves fall to the ground. The red pigments are thought to protect plants from photooxidative damage (that is, damage from sunlight), support nutrient redistribution, and defend against aphids. 

    But what happens to the green leaf pigment, chlorophyll? Prior to 1991, we did not know. A breakthrough came that year from Austria when Bernard Kräutler from the University of Innsbruck identified the first compound that is a result of the chlorophyll breakdown. In fact, over the next twenty-six years, Kräutler and other scientists identified about 20 more compounds, many of which were found to exhibit different colours. These findings helped explain some of the shades of yellow, pink, and red seen in leaves. 

    Albert Camus once said: “Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower.” Whether these fall flowers have carotenoids, compounds of chlorophyll breakdown, or anthocyanins, I will still spend my weekend raking the leaves. 

    By: Olena Shynkaruk

    Olena Shynkaruk, Ph.D., is a freelance science writer and editor with a love for languages. She is a Ukrainian Canadian who has studied, worked, and presented internationally. Her experience as a science communicator includes grant writing, manuscript editing, copywriting, and working as a contributing writer for Lab Manager magazine. Feel free to connect with Olena on LinkedIn or email her at


P.O. Box 75 Station A

Toronto, ON

M5W 1A2

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software