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.

  • 26 Oct 2020 7:45 AM | Anonymous

    The front face of the Thwaites Glacier extends 18 – 23 metres above sea level. Photo: Carolyn Beeler/The World.

    Stretching over an expanse of Antarctica almost the size of Great Britain is a vast sheet of ice called the Thwaites, aptly nicknamed the Doomsday Glacier.

    As the earth warms at an accelerating rate, triggered by the heat-trapping effects of greenhouse gases, the Thwaites Glacier is set to trigger a massive rise in global sea levels. Once it melts away, it threatens to submerge coastal cities and even large parts of countries. 

    Antarctica, holding about 90 per cent of the ice on the planet, is central to the future rise of sea levels. Formed as centuries of snowfall compacted into ice, its ice sheet can be as much as two kilometres thick. As the ice builds up, it is pushed outward to the edges of the continent as glaciers.

    Antarctica’s Eastern ice sheet sits on high ground mainly above sea level, while its Western counterpart sits atop land that is mostly below sea level. It is here where ice is most compromised by warming waters, and it is here that the Thwaites Glacier rests. 

    This warm seawater originates in the North Atlantic and flows deep beneath a layer of colder water toward the South Atlantic. Shifting wind patterns due to a warming Pacific Ocean allow this warm, deep circumpolar water to well up over Antarctica’s continental shelf, encroaching on the icy continent. 

    The anatomy of the Thwaites Glacier itself reveals clues as to how quickly and how much of it will melt when faced with a warming climate. 

    While glaciers originate on land, the portion that tapers as it extends toward the sea sits on top of the water. This is a glacier’s ice shelf and it acts to buttress its main body.

    As oceans and the atmosphere warm, these icy ramparts weaken, leading to increased melting and calving where the ice face crumbles away as icebergs. Crumbling ice shelves can no longer support the ice behind them, and glaciers become preconditioned for further disintegration. To make things worse, declining snowfall means glaciers can’t replenish themselves. 

    The Thwaites Glacier, falling victim to its own location and structure, already contributes four per cent to rising global sea levels as its ice flows into the Amundsen Sea - a huge figure for a single glacier. Owing to a collapsing ice shelf, glacial “earthquakes” have been detected on its surface for the first time. 

    Usually the ice that breaks off of glaciers is thinner and just drifts away, but the ice at the edge of the Thwaites is thick. With warm water melting it from underneath, icebergs taller than they are wide are released, capsizing and colliding with the front edge of the glacier as they turn. 

    While this glacial disintegration is visible and dramatic, what lies below the water’s surface betrays another cause for concern. 

    The land beneath the Thwaites Glacier, the bedrock, slopes downward. The point at which the glacier meets the bedrock is called the grounding line, and as the ice of the glacier’s underside melts, the grounding line shifts back. Over time, more of the glacier sits directly above water instead of being attached to land, promoting accelerated melting from beneath. 

    What’s more is that cavities have now been detected below the glacier just ahead of its grounding line, further endangering its hold on the ground, allowing for warm water to impose deeper on the underside. Warm water has recently been measured for the first time at the grounding line. The temperature and high turbulence of this water allows it to more efficiently melt the base. One cavity in particular clocks in at two thirds the size of Manhattan.

    That isn’t all. Glacial ice, built of fallen snow, is fresh water, making it light relative to salty seawater. As glaciers melt, the light, fresh water flows upwards towards the glacier and heavier, warmer sea water is drawn up behind it. When sea water is cold this process occurs slowly, melting just a few dozen centimeters of the glacier a year, an amount easily balanced by new ice created by falling slow. Warm sea water, on the other hand, can increase melting rates a hundred-fold. 

    Should the Thwaites Glacier collapse, sea levels could rise by half a meter, but the harm doesn’t end there. Since the glacier stretches into the centre of Antarctica’s western edge, its crumbling could destabilize the rest of the western ice sheet, kicking off a multi-glacier collapse and resulting in more than three metres of sea level rise over the next few centuries. That’s enough to submerge parts of London, Vancouver, and New York City.

    Scientists still debate how imminent Thwaites’ full collapse is. While it is predicted it will take centuries, some believe the process has already begun. What scientists do know for certain is that once it gives way, there is no stopping it. Collapse, once begun, is inevitable. 

    Human action to curb greenhouse gases will alone determine how much ice is lost and how quickly. If we squander the opportunity to be proactive, the planet’s coasts as we know them, together with some of the world’s greatest cities, are inevitably imperiled. 


    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.

  • 20 Oct 2020 4:05 PM | Anonymous

    Social distancing restrictions have eased and we’re once again enjoying meals at restaurants. It’s an old favourite leisure activity, with a twist: before sitting down, we scribble down our names and phone numbers.

    If COVID-19 was present while we ate, a public health officer will call, warning us of possible exposure and requesting we take appropriate precautions. It’s called contact tracing and it’s fundamental to controlling the pandemic. But what else might our personal information be used for?

    Many of us are only now learning about contact tracing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not a new concept and is regularly used to reduce the spread of other communicable diseases such as measles and hepatitis through having people self-isolate to break the chain of transmission.

    Though valuable, manual contact tracing has its drawbacks. Reaching contacts by phone is slow, and a person might unknowingly spread the disease to others by the time they are contacted. If you’re trying to reach one or two people, this isn’t a problem. Increase that tenfold, and things get complicated.

    Plus, human memory is hardly foolproof. People may simply not remember who they were in contact with or simply cannot provide contact information of strangers in line at the bank or those with whom they shared a subway car. People may also deliberately give false names and numbers to preserve their anonymity.

    The problem: public good versus personal privacy? The solution, say experts, may lie in palms of our 21st century hands: the cellphone.

    The basic idea is quite simple: we download an app and as we go about our day, cellphones in hand, they communicate to other app-equipped cellphones in range. When someone tests positive for COVID-19, a notification is sent to everyone whose cellphones came into close proximity with the newly infected person. Abiding by pandemic protocol, those who have been notified self-isolate and are tested, indicating if positive themselves, and the process repeats.

    With this swifter and broader system of cascading notifications, tracing cellphones stands out as the perfect fix.

    While that might just be true in respect to reducing the spread of infection, it only holds until a key concept is introduced into the framework: individual privacy. It’s a concept that giving up personal information, though benefitting the health of society, may put at risk.

    This is no small stumbling block. Effective contact tracing using cellphones must carefully balance both the individual’s right to privacy and the interest of public health.

    Canada’s Privacy Act protects personal information, including what can be collected and how it is to be used. With contract tracing, any information that is unnecessary, such as exact user locations, should not be collected. Otherwise, in the wrong hands, apps built without privacy in mind could quickly degenerate into a surveillance tool.

    Most countries have adopted some level of anonymization to keep user identities private, but another obstacle to privacy lies in where collected data is stored. Within what’s called a centralized architecture, data is uploaded to a server that is controlled by the government health authority. Within a decentralized architecture, data is stored only on user phones.

    Centralized systems, like those used by China and South Korea, are more extensive in the data they collect, including a user’s GPS location history. These apps amount to true contact tracing systems, favouring public health response over privacy.

    The most commonly pursued solution has been a decentralized system where GPS location is not recorded or stored. Instead, cellphone proximity learned by Bluetooth determines who needs to be notified of potential exposure. Known instead as exposure notification systems they, in contrast to true contact tracing apps, put more emphasis to privacy.

    Canada’s exposure notification app, COVID Alert, is rooted in user choice. Whether to partake in exposure notification and whether to share COVID-19 status with the app are entirely up to the user.

    A voluntary app, however, comes with its own self-imposed restriction to public health. To be effective, greater than 60 per cent of the population has to fully participate. These rates have proven to be decidedly difficult to reach, as evidenced by Singapore’s TraceTogether app clocking in at only 37 per cent participation at the time of writing. Australia’s COVIDsafe sits at 22 per cent.

    Some governments have heeded past warnings, speaking to their belief that voluntary systems are not enough.

    In 2015, South Korea experienced an outbreak of the coronavirus-caused Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, ultimately leading to the highest number of deaths of any country outside of the Middle East.

    Cautiously looking to an inevitable future of epidemics, South Korea modified its law so that the government could collect personal data and security footage only during epidemics. Today, the movements of people who test positive for COVID-19 are traced and made public so that others can avoid paths of infection. Anyone can see where someone who has tested positive has been, down to the hour.

    With little consideration for privacy protection, western democracies quickly squirm at the seeming injustice.

    While we may be concerned about privacy in principle, we regularly give up private information for a small reward, a privacy paradox. We instinctively tell Google Maps where we are so it can help get us to our destination but take issue with being notified of exposure to a disease, where the stakes are much higher. 

    Early on epidemiologists knew eradicating COVID-19 would not be possible, but that its containment very well could be. Contact tracing allows for chains of disease transmission to be severed. The caveat is there is a price to pay, and whether that price be privacy or public health is a decision for every individual government.

    The choice, when given, to participate? Well, that one’s all ours.


    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.

  • 09 Oct 2020 3:52 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    This article originally appeared on the blog of the ScholCommLab, an interdisciplinary team of researchers based in Vancouver and Ottawa interested in all aspects of scholarly communication.


    How did modern science communication begin? How has it evolved from one country to the next? What social, political, and economic forces inspired those changes? 

    Published this week by ANU Press, Communicating Science: A Global Perspective explores all of these questions and more. The impressive volume is a collaboration between seven editors and more than 100 authors, including the ScholCommLab’s own Michelle Riedlinger (Queensland University of Technology) and Germana Barata (Universidade Estadual de Campinas). Featuring stories from 39 countries, it charts the development of modern science communication across the world, from Uganda to Singapore, Pakistan to Estonia. 

    In celebration of the book’s launch, the ScholCommLab spoke with Michelle and Germana about what Communicating Science can tell us about the past, present, and future of science communication.  

    You’re both co-authors (with Alexandre Schiele) of the Canadian chapter. Tell me about the mapping research you did at the ScholCommLab and how it relates to the book. 

    Michelle Riedlinger: I was a member of the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada and I was helping to organize some local SWCC events in British Columbia. One of the other event organizers was a member of the SWCC Board and she talked about the recent name change of the organization from the Canadian Science Writers Association to the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada. She said that the organization was seeing changes in membership, and also seeing that science communication was exploding online. We got together with the SWCC President at the time, Tim Lougheed, and decided, with Germana—who was already focused on mapping work and was a visiting scholar in the ScholCommLab at the time—that it might be a good idea to map online science communication in Canada. 

    Where do we see science communication online? Who’s doing it, how are they doing it, and what are their values? These initial questions sparked what would become a three-year-long project exploring online science communicators in Canada—and eventually this helped us write the Canadian chapter. We’d already been looking at science communication in Canada, so it was a nice easy step to then think: Alright, this is where we are. Now, where did we come from?

    Michelle Riedlinger at the SWCC 2018 Annual ConferenceMichelle Riedlinger (second from left) with participants at SWCC’s 2018 conference.

    Germana Barata: The project was a great opportunity to use altmetrics—social media metrics or the social attention to scientific content on online platforms—as a tool to track self-identified science communicators on Twitter. We located science papers shared by Twitter users geolocated in Canada who used keywords related to science communication on their mini-bios, in either English or French. It is interesting that a mere translation of keywords wasn’t enough to find science communicators in French and English, so we had to define specific keywords for each group and the keywords related to different concepts of science communication. Although limited, the method appeared to work well to locate active science communicators on social media. 

    What did the project teach you about Canada’s science communication landscape? 

    GB: The mapping project showed us that there is an enriching community of science communicators using social media to communicate science to society—most of whom are self-taught and do not earn a living with science communication but believe that is it important to reach broader audiences. The majority were engaged women, which was a positive result. I was also impressed with the quality and variety of strategies that everyone is practising, with a strong presence of environmental and health issues, as well as science and art approaches. 

    “social media is a place where originality, culture, and regionality stands out and where everyone may find a niche for their communication efforts.”

    Germana Barata

    My home, Brazil, is a huge country with intense, creative activities in science communication. My work in Canada made me realize that social media is a place where originality, culture, and regionality stands out and where everyone may find a niche for their communication efforts. It made me look to my country with more optimism. 

    Science communicators at the SWCC 2018 conference round tableDiscussing science communication and social media at the 2018 SWCC Annual Conference. Left to right: Samantha Yammine, Theresa Liao, Germana Barata, Alexandre Schiele, Kurtis Baute, Amy Kingdon and Tim Lougheed.

    Tell me more about the Canadian chapter. What makes our science communication story unique?

    MR: Canada’s really interesting to write about. It’s an unusual country in terms of being bilingual, with the US as its closest neighbor and also having colonial influences. A lot of Canadian science communication activities and processes have been influenced by what is happening in the US, but with a distinct Canadian flavor. For example, the SWCC came out of a branch of the US: The National Association of Science Writers (NASW). That US group started in 1934 and is still going strong today. Canadians could be members of the NASW, but in the late 60s they decided that they wanted to have their own association. In fact, it is SWCC’s 50th anniversary this year. Like NASW, SWCC maintains a focus on advocating for quality science writing but they also recognize that a huge range of professionals communicate about science and also need a professional networking organization. In other countries, professional science communication groups have always included press officers and science outreach professionals—they didn’t start exclusively as science journalism associations.  

    You mentioned Canada’s bilingualism. How has that influenced its science communication story?

    MR: Quebec has a substantial section of its own in our chapter because they have their own science communication story to tell. We didn’t see a lot of overlap of cultural institutions. We see Canada’s two cultures distinctly in the history of its science communication. English-speaking Canada definitely has colonial UK influences: ideas around science participation and dialogic communication. But in French Canada, to be a cultural citizen means being cultured in science—so a lot of Canada science communication “firsts” happened in Quebec. The first radio program focused on science, the first Masters and PhD graduates in science communication, and the first national conference on science communication all happened there. Canada’s National Science Week also started in Quebec. So, over the years, we see this strong connection between science and culture, or science and society, heavily supported by the Quebec government. I think that is a really interesting difference. 

    Left to right: Amy Kingdon, Tim Lougheed, Germana Barata, Samantha Yammine, Kurtis Baute, and Michelle Riedlinger. Pictured at the 2018 Science Writers and Communicators Annual Conference

    How has Canada’s science communication landscape evolved over time? 

    GB: Science communication used to be dominated by men—by scientists, at first, but increasingly by science journalists. Fortunately, the internet and social media have opened windows of opportunity to a more varied, multidisciplinary, and multimedia community that has dropped the need for mediators to bridge science and society. Fighting denialism and fake news have shown us that we need a growing active community of science communicators and that to empower them we should be able to provide them with more training, funds, and visibility. They are doing an amazing job.

    “Fighting denialism and fake news have shown us that we need a growing active community of science communicators and that to empower them we should be able to provide them with more training, funds, and visibility.”

    Germana Barata

    Michelle, you were also an editor for the book itself. Did that process reveal a lot of similarities in terms of how science communication stories developed in different countries?

    MR: As an editor, I was excited to read about science communication happening in the other countries and how diverse it was—but also to get a sense of where there was cohesiveness. One common thread was government support and funding. This has always been a driver of science communication. For example, after World War II we saw a big push for science by governments in many countries. And science communication has followed this government or national investment in science and technology in many instances.

    I was also interested in the political, cultural, economic forces in different countries and what those forces meant in terms of driving science communication. In places like the Netherlands, for example, the idea of a collective social system really shaped how science communication developed. Ideas around participatory science communication have been imported from the Netherlands to the UK and then carried on into many other countries.

    It’s a strange time for science, and for science communication. Does the book offer a sense of where science communication might be headed next?

    MR: I hear people in the science communication community talk about how science communication has “failed” us or that science communication is in “crisis.” But what’s really lovely about reading this book is seeing that science communication is always innovating. There have been crises throughout our modern history, but science communication is always changing, bringing in new people and skills, and responding to the social, political, and economic circumstances that we’re in. There’s no endpoint.

    Another thing that this project confirmed for me was the importance of online science communication for the field. A lot of people are doing online work with very few resources, and I think one of the things that governments, professional associations, and research organizations can do is to better support them. If we’re keen to celebrate good science communication in the field, then we need to look at what people in the community value—and it’s happening online.

    “There have been crises throughout our modern history, but science communication is always changing, bringing in new people and skills, and responding to the social, political, and economic circumstances that we’re in. There’s no endpoint.”

    Michelle Riedlinger

    What are some takeaways you hope the book leaves readers with?

    GB: I’m happy that this important book is open access, so that it may impact the science communication community worldwide. With access to all chapters, we can be inspired by different practices but also value the particularities of every nation. Science communication efforts can involve different motivations, publics, and actions according to the scenario, culture, and policy it is exposed to. It is an important publication for students and practitioners of science communication—a resource to help communicators identify with our huge, international community as well as better understand the influences of our practice.

    Researchers in New Zealand discuss the mauri of Te Kete Poutama within Waitaha Ariki Kore, ancestral house of Tohia o te Rangi marae, Kawerau. Left to right: Colleen Skerrett-White, Tomairangi Fox and Dan Hikuroa, November 2011. Photo courtesy of Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, via ANU Press

    MR: I don’t think this is the kind of book that readers will read from cover to cover. I think they will dip in and out of it. But I’d like to think that readers will leave this book thinking about what they might do within their own sphere of influence to support innovative science communication. I’m thinking about governance, government and commercial support, and community action. I think this book also highlights science communication’s roles in benefiting communities, because science communication isn’t an end in itself. It does work for our communities and societies. For me, the stories of collective action in this book are something to celebrate. I’d say they might inspire a way forward.

    Another thing I love in this book is the focus on the interaction between scientific knowledge and Indigenous knowledge in many nations. The New Zealand chapter is a wonderful example, with stories about Maori science and what researchers are learning through it. But there are big challenges too. For example, the South African chapter describes the challenges associated with creating a scientifically literate society while juggling government priorities, Indigenous knowledge systems, and modern science. I think a focus on diversity, of values and peoples, will only increase for science communication. This is one of the things that came out of the mapping work: many young science communicators working online are advocating for a more diverse science and technology community, and this includes a more diverse science communication field. I think that’s a wonderful direction for our community.

    Communicating Science: A Global Perspective (2020) is available for purchase or free download from ANU Press. Celebrate its digital launch on September 15 (1-2 PM London UK time).

    By: Alice Fleerackers

  • 01 Oct 2020 4:44 PM | Anonymous

    A flying beetle’s-eye-view of some low-growing Canada anemone (Anemone canadensis).

    As summer heats up, daisies add their splash of white and yellow to chicory’s bright blue blooms to break up the monotone green of road verges across Ontario.

    Of course, daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and chicory (Cichorium intybus) are late comers to the party, well behind Taraxacum officinale – dandelions.  Among the first wildflowers of the spring, they dot fields with bright yellow and frustrate lawn lovers across the country.

    While these plants are a perennial frustration to gardening humans, a field of weeds is an all-you-can-eat buffet to pollinators like bees and nectar-sipping butterflies.

    Beetles, bees and butterflies are under threat from human factors such as habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change. Monarch butterflies, who primarily eat milkweed, have seen their population shrink 90 per cent in recent years.

    Wildflowers are native plants that grow happily on undisturbed and herbicide-free land like road verges – the strips of land between roads and sidewalks. Research shows  these small grassy patches might be a haven for declining pollinator populations. 

    The Indian paintbrush’s (Castilleja miniata) scarlet petals can make a masterpiece of any dull roadside.

    Roadsides are often lush and lively due to the extra water they enjoy from rain runoff. Unfortunately, cities often meet these vivacious displays with vigorous cutting and regular chemical treatments for both aesthetics and safety (overgrown roadsides can reduce drivers’ visibility).

    Can there be equilibrium between urban and ecological demands? 


    In a technical guide for enhancing, managing and restoring roadsides for pollinators, Pollinator Partnership Canada details how to design a pollinator-friendly roadside.

    Municipalities can actively seed roadsides with native flowers. Or, they can choose to restore the verges to mimic natural prairie grasslands, an ecosystem in which local pollinators naturally thrive.

    Pollinators need flowering plants throughout the spring and summer season. This allows them to nest, feed and breed.  

    According to the Wildlife Trust, cutting too early can be harmful. “Many wildflowers will not have a chance to flower or set seed and habitats and destroyed in the process.” 

    Overgrowth can be harmful, too. Competitive plants squeeze out the essential flowering ones. The Wildlife Trust recommends delaying cutting until August and the Pollinator Partnerships suggest even waiting until the fall.

    Small changes like slowing mowing speed and cutting higher can support healthy roadsides, too.

    Although it is a invasive species in Canada, the purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is an excellent food source for the hungry Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris rapae).

    In a 1992 British study, ecologists’ liveliest test road verges attracted 23 of the 34 butterfly species that inhabit Britain’s best nature reserves. This means that despite their proximity to fast-moving cars, the roadsides were an attractive habitat for the pollinators.

    Daises (Leucanthemum vulgare) and bird vetch (Vicia cracca) are wildflowers native to Eurasia. They’ve since spread to grassy patches and roadsides around the world. 

    Usually, road verges are uniform: They’re covered in a deep layer of soil, treated with fertilizers, and seeded with alien grasses. The pollinator-friendly verge, according to the study, has a range of plants, irregular topography and occasional, late-summer cuttings.

    Pesticides can also be a key factor in pollinator health. A direct impact of herbicides is a drop in available pollen and nectar. 

    Removing flowering species will reduce food for pollinators according to Pollinator Partnerships. They recommend keeping herbicides and insecticides as a last resort, such as when a stubborn invasive plant is damaging or out-competing native ones.

    The Goldenrod soldier beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) is a productive pollinator that you might mistake for a wasp. Can you spot all four on this sowthistle (Sonchus arvensis)?

    Insecticides can also be poisonous for non-target bugs. They can persist in soil for years, trickling to parts of land, such as roadsides, that never needed treatment. 

    Well-managed roadsides designed with healthy ecology in mind support native plants, host local wildlife and boost pollination throughout the spring and summer.

    With hundreds of thousands of kilometres of roads and roadsides, seemingly minor verges can be a vibrant ecosystem for local plants and pollinators. 

    Let’s all share the road: buses, bikes, bees, and butterflies.


    By: Adenieke Lewis-Gibbs

    Adenieke Lewis-Gibbs is a Journalism and French double major at Carleton University. Her pastimes include reading, painting and enjoying the outdoors - real jungles and concrete jungles alike. She is a repeat sustainability and circular economy writer and a both a big fan and a big sceptic of recycling. She is just as excited move back home to Toronto after school as she is to travel the world.

  • 24 Sep 2020 4:05 PM | Anonymous

    A new blood test promises to help detect Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia.  Photo by Amornthep Srina from

    A new blood test in development by researchers in the United States, Sweden, and Canada promises to give physicians an inexpensive, comfortable, and more precise tool to help them diagnose the leading form of dementia: Alzheimer’s disease.

    As the population ages, it is no surprise that Alzheimer’s is the most prevalent neurodegenerative disease worldwide, afflicting more than 44 million people. With an increased number of cases and limited treatments, it would be beneficial to detect Alzheimer’s early for a better prognosis.

    Currently, Alzheimer’s is detected through visible symptoms such as frequent forgetfulness, poor decision making, mood changes, and losing track of time. Once referred to a neurologist, a patient suspected of having Alzheimer’s may endure painful spinal infusions, uncomfortable and claustrophobic MRI and PET chambers, and various other invasive tests.

    Thoroughly going through all the requirements for a proper Alzheimer's diagnosis takes time. It almost seems surreal that a simple blood test could diagnose a disease with such a reputation for a lengthy and difficult process of diagnosis.

    Not only would it be better to detect Alzheimer’s for better control of the disease, but it would also allow for a less invasive and timely procedure than to what is currently being offered. 

    Tau is a key indicator of Alzheimer’s disease and therefore this blood test. Here’s why.  

    Tau is a phosphorylated protein. This in itself is normal; phosphorylation is a chemical change that is involved in cell growth, cell signalling, and apoptosis (that is, telling a cell to die when it has reached the end of its normal life cycle). Specifically, it is when a phosphoryl group (composed of one phosphorus and three oxygen atoms) is added to proteins that contain the  amino acids threonine, tyrosine and serine.

    When phosphorylation goes awry for the Tau protein, it aggregates into clumps known as neurofibrillary tangles. These tangles are the primary indicator for Alzheimer's disease. It is thought that the onset of disease begins when Tau is phosphorylated at certain Alzheimer’s-prone sites. 

    For their blood test,  the researchers measure the concentration of ptau181, a version of Tau that is phosphorylated at a specific site (181) on the protein

    Using this measurement, they were able to see the difference in protein levels between the blood of healthy individuals and that of people with Alzheimer's. This test is being compared with  PET scans and spinal fluids to ensure the results were in fact positive and accurate

    While the results are promising the blood test is still in development and likely years from release.  

    If it does make the grade, this test will be of great value in primary care settings. Individuals with a family history of Alzheimer’s could easily request the test to get an indication of early cognitive impairment. 

    This test could also provide a simpler and more accessible way for known Alzheimer’s patients to follow the progression and prognosis of the disease

    To be sure, there are still many trials that need to take place to ensure safety and accuracy of this test, but knowing that future and current generations may have better tools to control and prolong their quality of life is science worth celebrating.


    By: Roxaneh (Roxana) Zaminpeyma     


    Roxana is a McGill graduate who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Anatomy and Cell Biology with a minor in Social Studies of Medicine. She is currently a candidate for a Masters in Experimental Surgery at McGill. She is an aspiring clinician-scientist who is passionate about immunology, neurodegenerative research, patient advocacy, humane caregiving as well as medical history and technology. Her goal is to translate scientific content into words and images that can bring understanding to all her readers.

  • 17 Sep 2020 4:43 PM | Anonymous

    Technology has been helpful in keeping people connected in long-term care. But is this enough to offset the trauma caused by the pandemic? Photo: Georg Arthur Pflueger,

    Long-term care is one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic. This much is revealed by the high death toll in long-term care homes, the lack of proper action from many of these places, and—as was the case west of Montreal—the literal abandonment of long-term care residents.

    Amid the chaos is a second tragedy that few have talked about so far: residents’ mental health. As Canada re-opens, this issue should not be left behind.

    For a long time, it has been an open secret that loneliness, social isolation, depression, and anxiety are common among older adults in long-term care homes. In 2010, for example, 44 per cent of older adults living in long-term care had a diagnosis or reported symptoms of depression, according to a report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information. 

    The reality is, if you are in long-term care, you may be more at risk of psychological distress. And there are some driving factors that can put certain older adults more at risk than others. 

    One such factor is disability. Many people are admitted to long-term care when they are physically or mentally unable to take care of themselves. This loss of independence, depending on their ability to cope, can lead to depression.

    Another is change in environment. When a person transitions to long-term care, they might be stressed or anxious about what the future holds for them. This isn’t helped by the fact that many long-term care homes resemble hospitals more than actual homes—which can lead to further feelings of alienation and discomfort among residents. 

    And yet another factor, and perhaps the most tragic, is the notion of grief at the loss of loved ones. Grief is already enough to put a person’s mental health at risk. But combined with disability and living in an unfamiliar environment, it can further set the stage for anxiety and depression.

    In May of this year, long-term care residents made up 81 per cent of all COVID-19 related deaths. It’s therefore not hard to imagine that rates of depression and anxiety would increase among the survivors. 

    Surviving residents bore witness to the death of their friends and neighbors, all while coping with their own feelings of isolation and uncertainty related to the virus. Going forward we might expect residents to be consumed by a whole new level of grief and trauma.

    On the bright side, there are many things we have done to stay connected to residents during the pandemic. Children have organized letter-writing campaigns, volunteers are teaching residents to do video calls, families visit and have played music outside of residents’ windows.

    These efforts are good, but they should only be a start. There remains a dire need to address the mental health of long-term care residents, especially as the trauma of the pandemic sets in.

    As Canada re-opens, long-term care must stay on the agenda. And mental health needs to be part of the conversation. 

    A good place to start is to give experts in geriatric psychology a platform to bring forward recommendations and have a serious discussion about the mental health of residents in long-term care.

    Another would be to take a serious look at how we structure our long-term care services and evaluate whether we are truly meeting residents’ emotional needs. 

    We have all been shocked by the pandemic, some more than others. 

    In long-term care, we’re learning that it is one thing to survive, but it is another to actually feel alive.

    By: Eric Dicaire

    Eric Dicaire is a communicator and thinker based out of Ottawa, Canada. He currently holds a Master’s degree in Communication from the University of Ottawa, and is the communications coordinator for the Bruyère Research Institute. He enjoys examining how people think about and interact with media, and how these interactions influence public discourse in Canada. He aspires to be a life-long learner, looking for new ways to challenge his own biases and exploring new concepts and ideas.

  • 10 Sep 2020 4:43 PM | Anonymous

    Photo by Vicious Bits, Creative Commons.

    Recent research by a team of Canadian biologists, supports critics who've long argued that wolves are being sacrificed unnecessarily in efforts to save iconic mountain caribou in British Columbia and Alberta from possible extinction. Since the 80s, authorities in the two provinces have been conducting "culls" which have probably killed thousands of wolves since. 

    Culls involve either shooting the animals from helicopters, poisoning them or, in at least one case - an eight-year campaign of sterilization.

    Mountain caribou (Rangifer tarandus), one of Canada's most iconic species. A Creative Commons photo.

    Yet caribou populations all over Canada, continue to plummet. Thanks to declines in all sub-species, they're now classified, nationwide as either threatened or endangered. 

    Some of the steepest reductions have occurred in mountainous regions in the two westernmost provinces. A few years ago, they were declared extinct south of the border, in the contiguous US.

    Now, a team of experts from western Canada, is taking aim at a study published last year. It supports culling and the penning of pregnant caribou as ways to slow or stop their slide toward extinction. Such findings have been used by governments to justify their "predator control" policies.

    Yet this newest evidence states flatly, there's simply no "statistical support" for such a position.

    While wolves may account for more than half of caribou predation in other places, "Deep-Snow Mountain caribou" are far less likely to be killed by wolves than by other predators. Yet their numbers have crashed an alarming 45% in recent decades, possibly the steepest decline of any caribou ecotype in the world. (These herds live in southeastern BC, where, as their name implies, winter snows can pile up to three meters deep.)

    "Wolves do not comprise the primary source of mortality for Deep-Snow Mountain caribou," the report finds, "constituting only 5–10% of verified cases of mortality - in fourth place after cougars, bears and wolverines." The authors point out, therefore, that it is wrong to apply a "one-size fits all" approach when it comes to wolf culls.

    Besides, cullings ignore a long-accepted reality. It is loss of habitat due to human activity such as logging, which is the main driver of population decline.

    "Despite warnings that industrial resource extraction, primarily forestry, was detrimental to maintaining viable caribou populations, habitat modification, fragmentation and associated road-building increased over subsequent decades."

    Since the "Deep-Snow" herds depend on lichen that grows on old growth trees, above the snow-line for food, their world is therefore especially "incompatible with large-scale clearcut forestry."

    "Logging," reads the study, also "leads to increased predator densities and greater access to caribou via clearcuts, roads, snow compacted by snowmobiles, and the loss of forested refuges. Snowmobile and heliskiing harassment are pervasive across the range of Deep-Snow Mountain caribou (ECCC 2018) and impose potential harm during winter and spring calving. Snowmobile harassment has been acknowledged as an increasingly important factor in Deep-Snow Mountain caribou winter ecology."

    The study’s lead author, biologist Lee Harding, believes the importance of wooded habitat to caribou survival, cannot be overstated.

    ”Forests provide caribou with refuge from wolves and separation from other prey animals, including elk, moose, and deer. Without them, caribou must constantly be on the move to find food, exposing them on all sides. Predators are just one of the hazards."

    The need for conserving caribou populations, warn the authors, "is now urgent and carries large economic, ecological, cultural and social implications.

    By: Larry Powell

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

    I’m pleased to announce, I’ve just joined an international team of writers, telling “animal tails” (all true) on the online website, “Focusing on Wildlife – Celebrating the Biodiversity of Planet Earth”(FOW).

    Please read my FOW stories here.

    I’m also a member of the Science Writers & Communicators of Canada and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

    I’m authorized to receive embargoed material through the Science Media Centre of Canada, the Royal Society, NatureResearch and the World Health Organization. This can allow me to “get a jump” on important Earth Science stories by fleshing them out with fact-checks and interviews, in advance. This can arm me with a “hot-off-the-press” story – sometimes stranger than fiction - the moment the embargo is lifted.

    I publish the blog, (PinP), the perfect antidote for fake news! 

    And you can email me at:
  • 03 Sep 2020 10:58 AM | Anonymous

    Reduced emissions during the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed to improvements in air quality in major cities around the world. [Photo @ Pixaby/Pexels]

    More than 20 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported globally to date. There is no overstating of the scope of the pandemic tragedy for humanity.

    However, it is also important to recognize that it has resulted in some unexpected environmental benefits — especially when it comes to air pollution and waste management. 

    The World Health Organization estimates that there are more than six million deaths annually because of outdoor and indoor air pollution. According to the 2019 report on the State of Global Air, air pollution contributed to the loss of 147 million years of healthy life in 2017 alone.

    By obeying stay-at-home directives during the pandemic, people in Canada and beyond have contributed to the reduction of pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, as well as particulate matter in major cities, including Toronto, Montreal and Calgary, which have experienced reductions in nitrogen dioxide levels of between 30 and 40 per cent.

    Some experts argue that the drop in air pollution is short term. Once the global economy recovers, they say, people will return to their usual routines, pollution will return to pre-pandemic levels.

    Hind Al-Abadleh, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Wilfrid Laurier University, was recently awarded a grant from the federal government to conduct a novel air pollution study that involves installing five air monitoring stations near public schools in Kitchener, Ont.

    Al-Abadleh said that while the decline in air pollutant levels may be temporary, it presents a unique opportunity for researchers.

    “The period that we are in right now with COVID-19 lockdown measures … is a natural experiment that will be hard to replicate,” she said, adding the pandemic will provide valuable data so that before school services resume, researchers will learn how to quantify background pollution.

    “We’re hoping that once we collect data for the sites that we chose near schools, we will then take that data to stakeholders in the City of Kitchener, the Waterloo Region and private donors and show them the data and how pollution varies with factors such as human activity and weather patterns,” Al-Abadleh said. 

    “Hopefully, they will be concerned enough to expand this network of air quality sensors and invest in installing more of them near other neighbourhoods.”

    Thus, even if the current reductions in air pollutants are temporary, there can be plenty of long-term benefits. This type of data serves as further proof that humans can have dramatic effects on the environment and climate data.

    It also serves as a wake-up call about the importance of having policies in place that promote air quality in the short and long term, such as creating more green jobs, as well as reducing carbon dioxide emissions.  

    “Society needs to rethink how we can move the economy in a way that will bring people back to work,” Al-Abadleh said, “but at the same time without an impact on the environment.”

    Commercial waste down, medical waste up – and limited markets for recycling

    According to Independent Senator Rosa Galvez (Québec), an expert in pollution control and its effect on human health, there has been a reduction in waste production in certain areas.

    “We are not consuming as we used to,” said Galvez. “Around commercial malls, restaurants and many industrial activities for sure, we are reducing the waste that is associated with that.”

    The production of overall waste has slowed around the world but waste streams — including the collection and processing of recyclable material — have been disrupted during the pandemic. [Photo @ Tom Fisk/Pexels]

    On the other hand, the pandemic has had a negative impact on waste management chains.

    In recent months, cities around the world — including major Chinese urban areas — have reported a massive increase in medical waste. Additionally, countries such as the United Kingdom have reported a rise in domestic waste as a result of lockdowns.

    The acute lack of manpower and the enforcement of measures to prevent infection because of the pandemic compromised how the waste management sector collects and recycles waste. Failure to resolve waste mismanagement issues could lead to an increase, ultimately, in environmental pollution.  

    It doesn’t help that even before the pandemic, Canada was recognized as one of the highest waste-producing countries in the world. It’s estimated that the average Canadian produces more than 670 kilograms of waste a year.

    And while the Global Waste Index reveals that the United States produces more waste than Canada, the U.S. is more efficient in terms of waste management.

    According to Galvez, the per capita production of waste has been increasing across the country, especially in Québec. As the pandemic worsened, the need for improved waste management programs in Canada, such as recycling, has become more essential.

    “We don’t have a market that takes our recyclable materials,” said Galvez. “That’s a major flaw in the legislation.”

    When China implemented the “National Sword” policy in January 2018, it banned the importing of plastic waste. Many businesses — including Canadian ones — rushed to find new markets in the recycling industry.

    Collectively, they exported much of their waste to factories in Southeast Asia, many of which were illegal.

    Canada exported more than 10,000 tons of plastic waste to Malaysia in 2018. Recently, Malaysia closed down 200 illegal factories and is one of many countries that is now sending shipments of waste back to the countries of origin.

    “We cannot have incomplete programs with waste management,” said Galvez. “If we want a strong recyclable industry, we have to provide local domestic markets for that.”

    Pandemic reveals consequences of human encroachment on wild ecosystems

    There is no denying the pandemic has been a major issue for people and societies the world over. However, another silver lining to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, according to Galvez, is that it has revealed “a broken system.”

    “The encroachment of human activities on the natural environment, including the domestication and trade of wild animals and breeding for livestock, is partially responsible for the emergence of COVID-19 and its transmission to humans,” Galvez said in an email.

    According to Galvez, as well as a research article by Dr. Mark Everard et al., the destruction of ecosystems has made it easier for zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19 to transfer from wildlife over to humans. Most scientists believe bats were the vector of transmission to humans.

    “Because we are destroying these barriers, these jumps between animals to humans are becoming more and more facilitated,” said Galvez. “That’s why 75 per cent of emerging infectious diseases are from zoonotic origins.”

    She further stated that going forward, we must decide whether we will continue operating society in the same way or use this learning opportunity to “launch a more just, clean, greener and sustainable economy.”

    “We make mistakes — mistakes are human. But to proceed in the mistake, that is a problem.”

    This article originally appeared in Capital Current.

    By: Matthew Guida

    As a native Montrealer, I graduated from Concordia University with a BA in Anthropology and a minor in Film Studies. I am currently studying for my master’s degree in Journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa.

    My interest in journalism began while attending Concordia. I was a frequent contributor to the university’s independent newspaper, The Concordian. I further honed my skills and experience by working as a List Writer for the entertainment news website Screen Rant.

    Since I started attending Carleton University, I have strived to further improve my skills as a journalist in not only print, but also in the fields of data, investigative and broadcast journalism. In the past year, I have also developed a growing appreciation for radio journalism and podcasts.

    My current interests lie in studying the future of the journalism industry, writing and researching pop culture and social media trends, as well as furthering my career in the field of journalism.

  • 27 Aug 2020 11:47 AM | Anonymous

    Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.

    I've enjoyed running for over a decade. While I'm not among the elite, I did run a half-marathon in 2017. 

    But it was not easy. Running never is for me. 

    I’ve suffered iliotibial band (IT) pain, shin splints, stress fractures, runner’s knee, and sciatic nerve pain—all from running. 

    I’m not alone: 56 per cent of recreational runners will experience a running-related injury, a stat that jumps to 90 per cent with marathon training.

    To keep running, I’ve spent the past decade researching ways to improve my pace and prevent injury. With specialized help and a focus on recovery, I have been able to manage, beginning with my biggest issue: IT band pain.

    The IT band is a strip of connective tissue that runs along the outer leg from the hip to just below the knee. It’s thought to have evolved to facilitate human locomotion, especially running. IT band pain is a common overuse injury for runners and has been associated with excessive hip adduction; that is, when your legs trend towards the midline, as if running on a tightrope. My problem, exactly. 

    Through physiotherapy, I learned to align my hips, knees, and feet while running, creating new muscle memory. To my surprise, my new gait has me taking more steps per minute. 

    Interestingly, increasing step rate by five to 10 per cent has been shown to reduce hip adduction, decrease energy absorbed by hip and knee joints, and reduce overall ground impact. Not only was the new alignment helping my IT band, but my quicker steps were also reducing stress on my joints.

    Progress! But I was still suffering terrible pain from shin splints. These are caused by exercise-induced inflammation of the muscle, tendons, and bone—in this case, the tibia, the larger of the two bones in the lower leg.

    The solution: custom orthotics courtesy of a chiropractor to solve this problem. These custom shoe inserts are moulded to fit the unique shape of an individual’s foot to correct abnormal walking or running patterns. They can help patients return to running after injury, such as Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, heel spurs, and of course, shin splints.

    Orthotics help by improving lower leg alignment to reduce strain, adding cushion to reduce foot strike impact, and decreasing muscle activity to reduce fatigue.

    Within weeks, my tibial pain subsided and has yet to return. My experience was typical judging by the literature, which reports orthotics’ success in reducing running-related pain for 64 per cent to 95 per cent of patients.

    Orthotics have been shown to improve ankle alignment (reducing strain on foot and leg), reduce tibial rotation, and reduce vertical impact while running, which is likely how orthotics resolved my shin splints.

    By supporting the arch and redistributing pressure across the foot, orthotics can also help reduce stress on the plantar fascia, a ligament on the bottom of your foot. This may help prevent plantar fasciitis, another painful injury common to runners.

    So, orthotics: all good? Not quite.

    Orthotics may increase stress on the patellofemoral joint, which is where your kneecap and thigh bone (femur) connect. Pain in this area is called patellofemoral pain syndrome, or runner’s knee. Orthotics might actually make this worse. 

    Study results must be cautiously interpreted. Injuries vary by runner.  Orthotics differ in preparation and customization. And there are confounding factors such as time and other methods of treatment. 

    Although more research is needed, current evidence suggests orthotics may better suit lower leg and foot management because of improved alignment and support in these areas.

    At the other end of the spectrum is no support at all: barefoot running, something my husband is exploring.

    Barefoot running has hype going for it. Claims of improved speed and endurance and reduced injury have hoisted this minimalist approach into the spotlight. But the science is not conclusive.

    The pitch? Running barefoot tends to cause mid- or forefoot strikes. So what?

    Most runners’ first contact the ground with their heels (rearfoot strike). Barefoot running requires flattening the foot, so the runner lands either mid- or forefoot. This has been shown to reduce ground impact force and prevent impact-related injuries. Therefore, barefoot running equals fewer injuries. 

    Barefoot running has also been shown to cause more frequent, but shorter strides, which, if you recall from my IT band experience, decreases overall impact stress.

    But there is a tradeoff. While mid- or forefoot ground impact has been shown to reduce strain on the knee, the impact is shifted to the lower leg, ankle, and foot. This increases injury risk in these other areas. For example, barefoot running was found to increase tibial shock, which may lead to painful stress fractures.

    The dilemma: Barefoot running may help with knee pain but may lead to shin pain. Orthotics may help with shin and foot pain but may lead to knee pain.

    My takeaway? Mindfully running may be the best first step. When I increased my awareness of stride, leg angle, and foot position during gait retraining, my step quickened, my stride length decreased, and ground impact softened—the barefoot claim—but I used regular running shoes. Awareness may be the key to injury prevention.


    • Van Gent, R., Siem, D., Van Middelkoop, M., Van Os, A., Bierma-Zeinstra, S., Koes, B., & Taunton, J. (2007). Incidence and determinants of lower extremity running injuries in long distance runners: A systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 41(8), 469-480.
    • Reuell, P. (2015, August 26). Understanding the IT band. The Harvard Gazette.
    • Heiderscheit, Bryan C., Chumanov, Elizabeth S., Michalski, Max P., Wille, Christa M., & Ryan, Michael B. (2011). Effects of step rate manipulation on joint mechanics during running. (Report). Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 43(2), 296-302.
    • Stefanyshyn, D., & Hettinga, B. (2006). Running injuries and orthotics: Review article. International SportMed Journal, 7(2), 109-119.
    • Mündermann, A., Nigg, B., Neil Humble, R., & Stefanyshyn, D. (2003). Foot orthotics affect lower extremity kinematics and kinetics during running. Clinical Biomechanics, 18(3), 254-262.
    • Hsu, Y., Gung, Y., Shih, S., Feng, C., Wei, S., Yu, C., & Chen, C. (2008). Using an Optimization Approach to Design an Insole for Lowering Plantar Fascia Stress—A Finite Element Study. Annals of Biomedical Engineering, 36(8), 1345-1352.
    • Kadakia, A. R. (2010, June). Plantar Fasciitis and Bone Spurs. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
    • Almonroeder, T., Benson, L., & O'Connor, K. (2015). Changes in Patellofemoral Joint Stress During Running with the Application of a Prefabricated Foot Orthotic. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 10(7), 967-975.
    • Hollander, K., Argubi-Wollesen, A., Reer, R., & Zech, A. (2015). Comparison of minimalist footwear strategies for simulating barefoot running: A randomized crossover study. PloS One, 10(5), E0125880.
    • Alexander, J., Willy, R., Napier, C., Bonanno, D., & Barton, C. (2020). Infographic. Running myth: Switching to a non-rearfoot strike reduces injury risk and improves running economy. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 0, 1-2.
    • Fleming, N., Walters, Grounds, Fife, & Finch. (2015). Acute response to barefoot running in habitually shod males. Human Movement Science, 42, 27-37.

    By: Christina Desnoyers

    Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, Christina is now living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan with her husband and Border Collie. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Toronto and is now working on her Master of Science degree at the University of Saskatchewan, researching a genomics approach to assessing wildlife diets.

  • 25 Aug 2020 9:06 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    How can science writers and communicators cover vaccine science effectively in a climate where more than more than half of Canadians worry about potential side effects of all vaccines and nearly half would hesitate or reject a COVID-19 version even in the midst of a pandemic?

    A roundtable at SWCC 2020 uncovered some insights. It featured science communication researcher Alice Fleerackers, social psychology professor Dr. David Hauser, immunology researcher Dr. Angela Crawley, and visual science communicator Mona Li

    “Vaccine hesitancy” is a global problem, one named in 2019 as one of the top 10 global threats to human health by the World Health Organization. Extensive evidence indicates vaccines are both safe and effective, yet divisions persist internationally among both the public and scientific community. This contributes to decreased vaccination rates and hundreds of thousands of vaccine-preventable deaths every year.

    Jumping to conclusions

    Calls to combat vaccine hesitation often focus on “fake news” and misinformation. But preliminary research by Hauser and master’s student Andrew Hall at Queen’s University suggests these beliefs may have a deeper root: jumping to conclusions cognitive style (JTC). This is the tendency to make judgments with very little information. 

    JTC is usually studied within the context of conditions, such as schizophrenia or panic disorder. But Hauser and Hall’s study—which is yet to be published—examined its connection to vaccine-related beliefs. 

    The duo presented study participants with a fictional scenario about two lakes, each populated with two different kinds of fish, but in each lake, one kind of fish was more common. . Each person received one piece of “evidence” (i.e. a fish that was caught in one of the lakes) and was asked to figure out from which lake it had come. They could either ask to see more evidence (i.e. more fish), or make a decision right away. 

    Most people asked for more evidence, but as many as 40 per cent did not; they needed only one piece of information to “jump” to a conclusion. It turns out those same people were also more likely to be concerned about vaccines having adverse effects or to believe in conspiracy theories about them.

    For Hauser, one of the most interesting takeaways is the disconnect between what vaccine skeptics say and what they do. 

    “People who are skeptical of vaccines often say that… ‘we need to get more information before we can declare them to be safe,’” he says. “But it doesn’t seem like they have a ‘search for all the evidence’ cognitive style—the evidence we have seems to suggest the opposite.” 

    Herein lies a challenge for science communicators, especially in our “post-truth” reality: how to encourage audiences to engage more critically with vaccine (mis)information rather than jumping to conclusions?

    Learning from past media coverage of vaccine science

    In her work as an immunology researcher at the University of Ottawa, Crawley has been closely watching media coverage of the COVID-19 vaccine. In a breakout session at SWCC 2020, she worked with participants to brainstorm strategies to cover COVID-19 vaccine research. They discussed lessons from the past, such as media coverage of the infamous Andrew Wakefield study that (fraudulently) linked the MMR vaccine to autism

    One pain point raised during the discussion was just how hard it is to ensure scientific research is accurate —both for scientists evaluating it and communicators covering it. It’s a challenge amplified for COVID-19, where so much research is only available in preprint—publicly accessible but not yet peer reviewed

    To ensure this preliminary research is accurate and valid, SWCC 2020  participants stressed the importance of collaborating with scientists and being upfront about limitations

    “Work together with experts in the field to interpret [preprint] scientific articles to be conveyed to the public,” suggested one participant. “State that the study has not been vigorously peer reviewed,” offered another. 

    Being explicit about scientific uncertainty isn’t always easy, but researchers believe it can build audiences’ trust in science, help them make better decisions, and engage them more deeply with the scientific process. 

    Communicators may also have to play an educational role here.

     “Add a layer of understanding before sharing new or current research,” one participant offered. “Provide a common language and information that is very foundational.” 

    Crawley agrees, encouraging communicators to include key immunology basics in any COVID-19 vaccine coverage. 

    “Explain how the herd immunity percentage is calculated, and use this as a means to try to encourage as much vaccine uptake as possible,” she says. “Give the public some insight into those processes.” 

    Communicating with compassion

    Building trust is about more than facts. A wealth of research highlights the importance of emotion in decision making, including in parents’ decisions about whether or not to vaccinate their children

    Li, who specializes in biomedical visuals, advocates for an empathetic, user-centred approach. At SWCC 2020, she explained how using visual formats, like comics and  visual narratives, can bring a “human side” to science communication. She also offered advice for getting to know the perspective of the end-user in vaccine communication, such as building personas to get to know your audience. Ask: What do they already know about this topic? What do they value? What are their doubts and fears? Answering these questions is a first step towards effective empathetic communication.

    In Li’s breakout session, participants brainstormed how to apply these strategies in their own work. Key takeaways included the importance of building authentic relationships with people who feel hesitant about vaccination and of sharing personal experiences, rather than facts and statistics. 

    “Large institutions are [often] very disconnected from individuals who they are trying to get to ‘listen,’” one participant said. “Dismissive messaging from experts may further divides.” 

    “We may think we are talking to hypothetical ‘others,’” added another participant, highlighting the importance of understanding the thoughts and feelings of these “others” before attempting to convince them of your own point of view. “People around us probably have all kinds of different beliefs!” 

    Taking the time to understand those beliefs, participants agreed, should be part of any vaccine communication strategy. 

    “We may worry about exposing too many things that the public can critique,” one participant said. But the consensus was that vulnerability could open doors for more effective messaging. 

    “Meet the audience where they are, acknowledge their concerns, feelings, and experiences—as well as your own...Communication should be more of a two-way conversation.” 

    To watch the full session, visit the SWCC Conference Session Recordings.

    By: Alice Fleerackers, with insights from Dr. David Hauser, Dr. Angela Crawley, Mona Li, and participants of the SWCC 2020 Annual Conference.  


P.O. Box 75 Station A

Toronto, ON

M5W 1A2

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software