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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.

  • 11 May 2022 6:01 AM | Anonymous

    COVID-19 fuels the growing opioid crisis in Canada 

    From opioid over-prescription to policies and supply restrictions, several factors lead to the opioid crisis to explode, while limited access to safe drugs contributes to the increase in recent opioid-related deaths. 

    Rebecca Dang

    Gordon Casey was a lawyer who helped build companies for the online gaming industries. But in 2016, he and his family packed up their belongings and moved to Vancouver. 

    Vancouver was a hotspot for social entrepreneurship and provided a unique space where healthcare issues and technology intersected, says Casey, CEO ofBrave Coop, a company founded to prevent overdose deaths. 2016 was the same year that British Columbia declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. 

    “When we got to Vancouver, the overdose crisis was very much in our faces. I started asking people from every sector about how I could improve the outcomes,” says Casey. 

    Between January 2016 to September 2021,26,690 Canadians died due to an overdose. According to the Apparent Opioid and Stimulants Toxicity Deaths by Public Health Agency of Canada, the hardest hit provinces were British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta. Young Canadians between 20 to 49 years old suffered the most from accidental overdoses. 

    The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the opioid crisis. There was a95 per cent increase in opioid related deaths in the first year of the pandemic compared to the previous year. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention sawsimilar overdose deathstrends in the United States as well. 

    The pandemic forced safe injection sites across Canada to be shut down. The drug supply was disrupted, which made it more difficult for users to access drugs safely. 

    “The COVID-19 public health messaging—to isolate yourself is hypothetical for opioid users because consumption alone is dangerous,” says Casey. Fatality statistics indicate that it is the opioid users that are the ones at the most risk with injection site shutdowns and isolation, explains Casey. 

    But, how did the opioid problem grow into a massive crisis in Canada to begin with?

    Over-prescribing opioids, the mismanagement of policies, drug restrictions, and structural issues caused the problem to explode into a crisis, said Tara Gomes, a scientist at the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network ata keynote event in 2017

    From Opioid Problem to Crisis

    The opioid crisis stemmed from overprescribing drugs and policies that restricted usage. Purdue Pharma created OxyContin and advertised it as a pill that helped ease the pain for patients—anything from backaches to cancer.

    Some doctors said they increased opioid usage for Canadian patients as a pain treatment. Some patients became addicted to the drug and required higher doses each time, eventually leading to an overdose, explained Dr. Brittany Dennis, an internal medicine resident at McMaster University in her2020 Soapbox Science recording

    “Some clinicians get patients in and out quickly so that they can bill a lot of money. They do not offer the proper services that patients need,” she said.

    To stop the spread of opioid addiction, Canada restricted drug use and dosage. People had to turn to other sources to find the drug supply. Trafficking of unregulated drugs fuelled the crisis and created a negative stigma for the person who uses drugs. 

    “[Canada] created a cohort of people with an opioid use disorder due to overprescribing and introducing policies that tried to promote more appropriate prescribing. [Canada is] now pushing [users] into the illicit market that is inherently less safe,” explained Gomes during the keynote. 

    Fighting the Opioid Crisis

    As Canadians continue to prioritize the COVID-19 pandemic over the last 25 months, Casey stated that other public health crises have been swept under the rug and forgotten. 

    “It is a bit frustrating for me because [I] saw how amazingly the government and the people of the country can mobilize themselves to fight a public health crisis. While there has been an emergency for the opioid crisis for five years now and it has not changed,” says Casey. 

    To help fight against overdose during the pandemic, Brave Coop launched a codesigned app called BeSafe. The app connects the person who uses drugs with a community member allowing for safe consumption anywhere with one tap on a phone. 

    The person who uses drugs to create a plan for how they want to be taken care of when they become unresponsive. The plan is shared with a volunteer community member when the user becomes unresponsive or no longer active on the app.

    “There is no point designing programs that work for the public healthcare system, Big Pharma, or community organizations. It needs to be designed for people who use drugs,” says Casey. 

    Mobilizing people to act quickly against a public health crisis requires unity. “[The opioid crisis] is a big societal issue. If we want to eliminate addiction, then we need advocacy, funding to go behind it, give people the drug to help with their addiction, counselling, and more,” said Dennis in her recording. 

    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.


  • 26 Apr 2022 5:00 AM | Anonymous

    Climate Change, Global Warming, Grass, Drought, Climate

    The Glasgow Climate Conference Part II: Dirty COP, COP-out.

    Countries and lobbyists attempted to sway the outcome of the Glasgow Climate Conference (COP26), leading some to question the continued relevance of the COP process.

    Andrew Park

    Dirty COP

    Last November’s COP26—a conference dedicated to reducing carbon emissions—actually spewed out 102,500 tonnes of greenhouse gasses, 60 per cent of them from air travel. The UK has a plan to offset those emissions, largely through the somewhat dubious medium of carbon offsets.

    But aviation fuel isn’t the dirtiest aspect of COP26. There were 503 lobbyists and consultants representing over 100 fossil-fuel companies and fossil-fuel-connected trade associations. If lobbyists were a national delegation to COP26, they would have been the biggest delegation there, outnumbering Indigenous delegates by a factor of two. 

    What were all these lobbyists doing at COP26? A charitable interpretation of their presence would be that they want to have skin in the renewable energy game, framing themselves as “part of the solution” to climate change by pitching their role in generating renewable energy. A less charitable interpretation is that they are thinking about all the fossil fuel reserves that will become stranded assets should the world decide to take its Paris commitments seriously. This calculus was on display at a Russian-hosted energy transition forum, where representatives of both BP and the Russian oil and gas company Gazprom Neft pitched themselves as pivoting towards renewables, but not abandoning fossil fuels  altogether.  Sergey Vakulenko, head of strategy and innovations at Gazprom Neft, reinforced the point that his company would remain primarily devoted to oil and gas for at least a decade. He also warned forum participants about how much the clean energy transition would end up costing consumers

    The technocratic self-interest of fossil-fuel lobbyists isn’t even the dirtiest aspect of COP26. That prize goes to a leaked trove of emails which showed oil, coal and beef-dependent countries striving to weaken recommendations from IPCC Working Group III’s climate mitigation report in advance of COP26. The 30,000 communications screened by Greenpeace’s “Unearthed” investigative journalism unit included injunctions to water down calls for immediate emissions cuts (Saudi Arabia and the  Organization of Petroleum Producing Countries, OPEC), denial of the need to close coal-fired power stations (Australia and India), and the attempted deletion of language about the importance of plant-based diets (Argentina and Brazil). 

    By seeking to interfere with the IPCC’s science-based recommendations, these countries have demonstrated just how far they are willing to go to delay meaningful climate action. Their overall strategy is “talk and drill,” as exemplified in Saudi Arabia’s and OPEC’s request to delete language on transforming energy systems: “The use of ‘transformation’ should be avoided as it has policy implications by requiring immediate policy actions.” 

    Of course, it was precisely the immediacy of policy actions that was at stake in COP26. It’s therefore hardly surprising that countries trying to dilute the IPPC’s mitigation language were also among those who successfully watered down the text of the Glasgow Climate Pact. The Glasgow Climate Pact is a compendium of COP 26 commitments, including  promised actions to keep the Paris 1.5 target within reach, a commitment to reduce dependence on coal, and promises around climate financing for developing nations.

    Which brings us to the issue of the continued relevance of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) itself.

    Analysis: COP-out

    Negotiators at COP26 were supposed to produce a revolutionary agreement to “keep one-point five alive.” Instead, they delivered incrementalism, and while the goal of restricting  global warming to 1.5 degrees or less is theoretically alive, any reasonable diagnosis would conclude that it’s in a vegetative state. 

    If the last year of extreme fire, heat, and flood taught us anything, it is that the time for incrementalism is long past. Since the 1.5-degree target was first broached at COP21 in Paris, the carbon budget available to meet that target has continued to shrink in tandem with growing greenhouse-gas emissions and atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

    Given that realpolitik, not science, is the ultimate determinant of COP negotiations, some have asked whether the whole process needed to be abandoned or seriously reformed. Since their inception, COPs have been fuelled by drama and acrimony, and all too often, the quest to find common ground masked an unseemly scrabble for comparative advantage. In this respect, for all that it delivered some real progress, COP26 turned out to be little  different from the 25 other COP meetings that preceded it..

    Green member of parliament Elizabeth May believes that the COPs can deliver real climate progress: “There is no other process,” she said in a recent webinar, “and a UN process is preferable to any other process I can imagine.” 

    To figure out the flaws in the COP process, May says she believes we need to look to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which succeeded in banning ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Unlike the Glasgow Climate Pact or the Paris Agreement, however, the Montreal Protocol had legal teeth. Trade sanctions could be invoked against countries who continued using or making CFCs. Since the expiry of the Kyoto Protocol, carbon reductions agreed to at COPs have been seen as voluntary and are therefore open to being ignored.

    Getting those legal teeth into a climate agreement could be an uphill battle. Recent research led by Isak Stoddard and Kevin Anderson points to realpolitik, muscle-flexing by countries and fossil-fuel interests, voluntarism, academic enablers, and leadership failures as chronic impediments to climate progress over the 29 years of the UNFCCC. These factors constitute external pressures pushing against the adoption of strong climate targets at the COPs, but they are also embedded in the UNFCCC process itself. 

    At the end of COP26, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres acknowledged these contrary pressures: “They [the approved texts] take some important steps, but unfortunately the collective political will was not enough to overcome some deep contradictions… We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe. It is time to go into emergency mode, or our chance of reaching net zero will itself be zero.”

    As COP26 recedes in the rearview mirror, the international community is kicking the carbon mitigation can down the road towards COP27 in Egypt. As a matter of urgency, negotiators and diplomats will have to find ways to close the Paris Agreement emissions gap during the intervening year. COP26 was supposed to deliver on this promise. Only time will tell if countries will “go into emergency mode” to deliver on those promises at COP27.

    Author Bio

    Andrew Park is professor of Forest Ecology at University of Winnipeg with wide-ranging research and teaching interests. Although much of his recent research has focused on adaptation of forests to climate change, he also has interests in  environmental economics and sustainability, environmental philosophy, and more recently, the psychology of environmental and climate anxiety.

    Social media: @Andrew_D_Park
  • 24 Apr 2022 1:39 AM | Anonymous

    Member Profile: Jess Silver

    Let’s flex for accessible fitness for all 

    Cristina Sanza

    Jess Silver’s fitness journey began at birth. 

    “Fitness has never been separated from who I am,” says the SWCC member, fitness professional, advocate and author.

    Having been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and sustaining a brain injury at birth, her motor and physical abilities were impaired. Physical therapy and rehabilitation sessions were routine for her early in life. It wasn’t until she stepped into a gym about a decade ago, that she discovered her true physical capabilities.

    “Fitness went from something I had to do as part of my life, to being something I absolutely fell in love with doing,” she says. Movement had a positive impact on both her physical and mental health.

    After years of working alongside her trainer, Dan, who was able to gradually adapt exercises, today Silver can proudly complete 20 strict pull ups, a 135 pound seated row, and sandbag squats. 

    “Whenever I didn’t have the confidence or didn’t feel capable, Dan would always tell me, ‘we’re going to find a way to do it.’ He didn’t have a fear of working with me and that made me trust him more. He lit the fire under me,” Silver says, nearly tearing up. 

    Jess Silver holds a barbell in preparation for a snatch.

    For the approximately two in 1,000 Canadians who are diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Silver’s physical achievements might seem completely unfathomable. But Silver says movement should be for everyone, and it all comes down to making adaptive fitness more available and known in the industry. This is in large part why she decided to spread awareness about cerebral palsy and the promotion of fitness and sport through Flex for Access.

    The awareness initiative launched in 2015 as a social media campaign under the hashtag #FlexforAccess. Participants were encouraged to post online flexing their biceps, or engaging in some physical activity using the hashtag.

    “It stemmed from an aha moment, or you could say a moment of frustration, around the limited awareness and understanding of cerebral palsy,” Silver says. “It’s a lot more than being a person in a chair.” 

    The first campaign garnered support worldwide from athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike. In 2017, Silver decided to register Flex for Access as a non-profit organization. Since then, it has raised more than $20,000 towards facilitating accessible training sessions and implementing adaptive equipment in gyms.

    “By allowing these individuals to be active, we give people the understanding that these people can go to the gym,” she says. In the future, Silver says she hopes to see more academic programs and coaches teaching and learning about adaptive fitness and how to develop programming for a-neurotypical clients. She is already engaging on this front, by working with kinesiology departments to educate on adaptive fitness methods.

    For National Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day on March 25, Flex for Access hosted a CB Power Hour–a campaign where participants were asked to wear green while completing a workout centered around pushing and pulling movements. In their post caption, they were to describe a personal experience of adversity and how it has shaped them. 

    Silver, who is no stranger to adversity, decided to tell her own story through a memoir she published in 2020. Titled Run: An Uncharted Direction, it details her journey through sports and fitness as key to her life and personal growth. It also takes readers through her childhood experiences, academic trials and her questions and contemplations about daily life.

    A journey in itself, the memoir took Silver just over seven years on and off to write, but the feeling of it finally being published was indescribable. 

    “I had shivers and could not express what I was feeling,” says Silver, who holds a bachelor's in English Literature and a Master’s in Creative Writing. “Writing has always been a way for me to make sense of this complex life.”

    She also studied Medical Writing and Editing at the University of Chicago, which opened her to the world of science communication–a solid bridging of her interests in health and fitness, and writing.

    “It got me thinking about how we could change the way info is disseminated about different conditions,” she says. She began researching science communication opportunities in Canada, and ways to connect with like-minded professionals. In late 2021, she hopped onto the SWCC’s Digital Media Committee as a volunteer.

    And now, as an adaptive fitness trainer herself, she’s helping others change their lives through movement the same way hers was.

    To learn more about Flex for Access or for adaptive fitness consulting, visit or email Jess at

    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 a board director, the blog editor and digital media committee volunteer. 

    Social media: @cristina_sanza (Twitter)

    SWCC member Jess Silver says physical activity should be accessible to everyone. Through #FlexforAccess, she spreads awareness about cerebral palsy and adaptive fitness. Learn more about her journey in #fitness and #scicomm on her LinkedIn

  • 09 Apr 2022 8:56 AM | Anonymous

    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

    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

    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.

    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. 

    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. 

    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. 

    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.


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