New research suggests that pollution may be playing a bigger and more ominous role in pushing many of Canada's plants and animals to the brink than earlier thought.
One of the species at risk, the small white lady's slipper, Cypripedium candidum. Photo by Mason Brock.
Habitat loss, climate change and invasive species are often referred to as significant players in Earth's calamitous descent into a sixth Great Extinction. While those factors obviously play a part, this new study better recognizes the magnitude of the role played by yet another culprit in the piece - pollution. The authors of the research label contamination of our air, soil and water as a "pervasive, often invisible threat to biodiversity in Canada." And, up until now, the threat it poses, especially to vascular plants (ones that flower, bear fruit and seed), they suggest, has been underestimated by experts in the field. These include ones who serve on Ottawa's advisory agency, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). And, because so little is known about the subject, they've "frequently identified the threat of pollution as absent or negligible," even for species living within areas affected by it.
In order to design a better way of analyzing these threats, the seven-member team mapped known pollution sources and compared them with known ranges of 488 endangered species in this country. These included mammals, birds, plants, freshwater fish, reptiles, amphibians, arthropods (such as insects and crabs) and molluscs (like slugs and snails). It found that, on average, 57% of the habitat of each species also contained at least one pollution source.
"Our analysis shows that species at risk and pollution sources co-occur at a high rate in Canada. In general, the highest densities (of pollution sources and species-at-risk) are concentrated in the south, where the human population density is also highest. The richness of these creatures overlapped strongly with areas of greatest urbanization and landscape modification, such as Ontario, the Prairies and the Lower Mainland of BC."
Agricultural refuse is burned on a farm on the Prairies. A PinP photo.
Pollution. A challenge of both national and global magnitude
Quoting Government of Canada numbers, the study states: "Tens of thousands of chemicals exist in commerce today and the size of the global chemical industry is set to double by 2030. Contaminants such as flame retardants undergo transformations into more toxic breakdown products in the environment that contribute to heightened environmental effects.
"Each year in Canada, some five million tonnes of pollutants are released from seven thousand facilities. These have included about 700 pipeline spills over the past decade in which natural gas, crude oil and other contaminants have escaped into our environment."
Such spills are capable of either killing species immediately, or dealing "sub-lethal" blows which might sap their fitness, reduce their ability to reproduce or even deprive them of their food.
One of many sloughs in southern Manitoba. It's believed the spreading of livestock manure on farm fields contributes to the "greening" of wetlands such as this. A PinP photo.
"Runoff from urban, agricultural and industrial landscapes contaminates Canada's groundwater and downstream aquatic ecosystems. Finally, over 23 thousand known or suspected contaminated sites have been identified and classified in urban, rural and remote areas of Canada, many of which are contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbons, metals and/or persistent organic pollutants such as PCBs."
Jenny McCune - Ast. Prof. Dept. of Biological Sciences, University of Lethbridge, AB
The lead author of the study, Prof. Jenny McCune (l.) told PinP in an e-mail, "We did not measure the effect of different pollutants on individual species. We need more research to test the effects of specific contaminants on individual species at risk. We simply measured the potential for species to come into contact with different types of pollution based on the geographical overlap between sources of pollution and the known ranges of species at risk.
"The eastern prairies (MB and eastern SK) have sources of all 6 categories of pollution ( as defined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature): household sewage and urban waste water, industrial and agricultural effluents, garbage and solid waste, air-borne pollutants, and excess energy"
The authors of the study, recently published in the journal, Facets, hope this new information will help us better understand just how much endangered wildlife are threatened, and where to go from here.
Other research only confirms the worst fears.
The Bakken formation (above) is a major oil deposit straddling two provinces and two states. US Geological Survey.
A study published last year in "Cogent Science," reminds us that the Bakken oilfield "overlaps with one of the largest areas for grassland birds in North America. Access to the oil is made possible by fracking and horizontal drilling, both controversial techniques which have been banned in other parts of the world. This paper illustrates that oil development is impacting species through habitat destruction, oil and noise pollution, invasive species and road infrastructure. Current wildlife policy in Saskatchewan is insufficient to protect species at risk in the Bakken formation."
The iconic Eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna), a grasslands bird listed by COSEWIC as"threatened" in Canada. A PinP photo.
Grassland birds are said to be the among the group most vulnerable to environmental pressures in all of North America.
Other Stories by Larry Powel:
By: Larry Powell
I’m an eco-journalist living in Shoal Lake, Manitoba. I’m a member of the SWCC and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I’m authorized to receive embargoed material through the Science Media Centre of Canada, the Royal Society and the World Health Organization. This allows me to “get a jump” on important stories by fleshing them out with fact-checks and interviews, in advance. Often, this arms me with a “hot-off-the-press” story that’s ready to go, the moment the embargo is lifted.
I’m prepared to supply interested publications with important stories in the field of the Earth Sciences – stories often stranger than fiction! I publish www.PlanetInPeril.ca (PinP), “Where science gets respect.”
Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash
The year is 2300. You live somewhere in the middle of North America, far from the flooded coastlines. The air is dry, the streets dense with people. You enter a restaurant, and a TV broadcasts the most recent news: New York City has collapsed into the Atlantic Ocean.
This is the future I often imagine when I think about climate change. It’s part of a narrative that has invaded my subconscious; that the future is bleak, and it’s inevitable.
This is the unfortunate bi-product of the moment we’re living in.
If we consider the media as a place that both reflects and shapes our culture, the stories it tells can have a powerful impact on the collective consciousness. Everything we put into it is also pumped out in ways that are impossible to predict.
Lately the trend has been towards stories that reinforce the narrative of the coming apocalypse--“Climate Change: do more now or risk catastrophe,” reads one headline from The Guardian.
But as we continue to think about climate change, and about how we talk about climate change, we have some serious questions to consider. What does it mean for news to cover climate disasters while also holding out hope for a brighter future? How do we ground our stories about climate in a world that is already overloaded with information? How do we engage audiences without losing them in the sheer size of it all?
Maybe we’re not ready to address these questions yet; society needs to enter the realm of action before the conversation can go in any other direction.
But we might get there sooner than we think.
Assuming our institutions respond to the alarm, our conversations could change rather quickly. In as little as 30 years, we could be in a space where we celebrate our climate victories. We could revere green CEOs as much as we do current tech giants; we might compete with our neighbours over who has the biggest solar panel; and we could look back with regret at the time where we barely avoided catastrophe.
This is a version of the future that is not impossible; the world has changed a lot in the past 30 years. The same can happen in the next 30.
It may seem unlikely now. But in the face of catastrophe, we can only hope.
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.
Photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash
As global temperatures rise, we are experiencing increased risks of disease, extreme weather events, and growing uncertainty about the future of our planet. Climate change affects everything from the air we breathe to the water we drink. A warming planet may also mean a change in our diets, according to a new study conducted at the University of Toronto, which found that warmer waters may reduce the quantity of Omega-3s available worldwide.
Omega-3s are fatty acids that play an essential role in our bodies and provide us with numerous health benefits. There are three types of Omega-3s, including ALA, EPA, and DHA. The body uses ALA to create energy. EPA helps reduce inflammation, and DHA is an essential component in our eyes and brains.
Consuming adequate quantities of DHA improves eye health, reducing the chances of macular degeneration. It also decreases the likelihood of depression and plays an essential role in brain functioning and development, especially in unborn babies.
Photo by Kate on Unsplash
The majority of DHA in our diets comes from consuming fish. However, fish acquire DHA from eating algae. This is a problem because as global temperatures rise and the water warms up, algae will produce less DHA, according to a new study conducted at the University of Toronto.
Algae is very sensitive to changes in the water. When water temperatures rise, the cell membranes in algae become too fluid. Therefore, algae stop producing Omega- 3s in warmer water to maintain adequate membrane fluidity, according to the study.
Algae is low on the food chain, which means the less DHA produced by algae, the less DHA consumed by fish and in turn, people.
Photo by Sven Hornburg on Unsplash
The present study used computer modeling to estimate DHA levels in different climate change scenarios developed by the United Nations. Results showed if greenhouse gas emissions continue at current rates over the next 80 years, the amount of available DHA will decrease by 10 percent. This reduction in DHA means that around 96 percent of the population will not have enough Omega-3s in their diet.
Even if we slow the rate of greenhouse gas emissions, the study predicted that the amount of available Omega-3s will still drop significantly.
“Based on the current trajectory of the climate, even the most optimistic projections have us heading towards a pretty alarming loss in human potential,” Tim Rodgers, a co-author of the current study, said in an interview with the University of Toronto.
A lack of DHA is of particular concern for developing babies since this Omega-3 is crucial for brain development. Consuming enough Omega-3 during pregnancy is associated with higher intelligence and lower risk of behavioral and developmental problems in the child.
Evidently, climate change is having a significant impact on all aspects of life. This study highlights the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, demonstrating the detrimental impact climate change may have on future generations.
By: Nicole Babb
Nicole Babb is an aspiring journalist from St. John’s, Newfoundland. She recently graduated from Carleton University with a combined honours degree in journalism and psychology. During her time at Carleton, Nicole wrote articles for the university’s student newspaper and completed a health reporting course which sparked her interest in science journalism and communication. She is passionate about writing and photography, and she also enjoys learning about new scientific research.
Growing up near the ocean, she has always been curious about marine life and she is especially interested in research and reporting concerning the ocean, climate change, and endangered species. In her spare time, Nicole enjoys reading, canoeing, playing basketball and hiking. She also loves animals and spending time with her dog. Nicole is currently residing in Ottawa and she is looking forward to working as a volunteer for Science Writers and Communicators of Canada.
Photo by Enoch Leung on Flickr
In terms of threatening issues affecting our way of life, climate change stands as one of the biggest threats of the modern age. In the last few months, climate change has been attributed to a number of major incidents. These include a series of floods causing widespread devastation across Canada, the Arctic Circle being devastated by its worst wildfire season to date, as well as Greenland losing over 200 billion tons of ice in the span of a month.
In the recent federal election, nearly 30 per cent of Canadians saw climate change as one of the top three most important issues in determining a vote. In terms of the most important reasons to act on climate change, one of the most important reasons that spur adults to actis to ensure a better future for their children.
As it stands youth from all over the globe, have started taking the lead in the fight against climate change. Most recently, young people across the globe took to the streets in protest, demanding that bolder actions be taken to address the issue of climate change. In Canada, it is estimated that over 1 million people across eight major cities, as well as in small towns participated in this climate strike. The city of Montreal had the biggest number of protesters in the country, with the number of protesters reaching over 500,000 people.
The initiatives taken by young people acting against climate change does not stop there. Earlier this week, multiple Canadians youths filed lawsuits against the federal government for failing to take action against climate change and putting their own wellbeing and security at risk.
This represents one of many instances where groups of youths have attempted to file lawsuits their governments for failing to act to prevent climate change, putting their lives, their liberty, as well as their security at risk.
We stand at a critical turning point in history. Thanks to social media, youth possess a powerful tool that allows their voices to be heard. With climate change growing worse each year, it is vital that we listen to the concerned voices of our youth and take immediate action to ensure that we can still provide them with a future worth living. This is the only world we have, and it should be one where our children and their descendants can thrive and grow without fear of worrying about the looming threat of climate change.
Emma Marris (Nov.3 2018). “US Supreme Court allows historic kids’ climate lawsuit to go forward”. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07214-2
Emma Marris (Sept. 18 2019). “Why young climate activists have captured the world’s attention”. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02696-0
Emma Paling. (Sept. 27 2019). “Canadians Prove No Town Is Too Small For A Climate Strike”. Huffington Post. https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/canadian-small-town-climate-strikes_ca_5d8ea09ee4b0ac3cdda8d930?ncid=tweetlnkcahpmg00000002
Erick Lachapelle & James Boothroyd (Sept. 12 2019). “From Fires to Floods, Extreme Weather May Be Shaping Canadians’ Views on Climate Crisis”. The Tyee. https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2019/09/12/Fires-Floods-Canadian-Climate-Crisis/
Floodlist News (July 18 2019). “Canada and USA – Storms Cause Urban Flooding and Traffic Disruption” Flood List. http://floodlist.com/america/canada-usa-storms-flash-flood-july-2019
Ipsos (Oct. 9 2019). “Four Weeks In, Climate Change is Fastest-Moving (29%, +4), but Health Care (35%) Still Top Issue to Make a Difference at the Ballot Box”. https://www.ipsos.com/en-ca/news-polls/Four-Weeks-In-Climate-Change-Fastest-Moving-Health-Care-Still-Top-Issue
Jeff Tollefson (Oct. 25 2019). “Canadian kids sue government over climate change”. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03253-5
Kat Eschner (Apr. 30 2019). “Canada: extreme floods show climate threat as experts warn of further tumult”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/30/canada-flooding-quebec-montreal-justin-trudeau-climate-change
Lisa Belmonte (updated Sept. 28 2019). “More People Attended Climate Strikes In Canada Than Donald Trump's Inauguration”. Narcity. https://www.narcity.com/news/ca/canadas-climate-strike-numbers-show-just-how-big-the-protests-were
Meilan Solly (July 29 2019). “The Arctic Is Experiencing Its Worst Wildfire Season on Record”. Smithsonian. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/arctic-experiencing-its-worst-wildfire-season-record-180972749/
Rafi Letzter (Aug. 1 2019). “Greenland Lost 217 Billion Tons of Ice Last Month”. Live Science. https://www.livescience.com/66082-greenland-dumped-197-billion-tons-of-ice.html
Rhianna Schmunk (Oct. 25 2019). “Young Canadians file lawsuit against government over climate change”. CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/canadian-teens-lawsuit-federal-government-over-climate-change-1.5335349
Somini Sengupta (Updated Sept. 21 2019). “Protesting Climate Change, Young People Take to Streets in a Global Strike”. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/20/climate/global-climate-strike.html
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.
Photo by Levin on Unsplash
Joan Hollobon was born in 1920 at Seaview on the Isle of Wight, the first and only child of Ernest Frederick Hollobon, a career British soldier, and Alice Hollobon. Joan grew up outside Rhyl, Wales where she graduated from high school. During the latter part of World War II, Joan worked as a volunteer administrative and press officer with the British Red Cross and the St. John War organization in Rhyl, Wales.
At the beginning of 1946, Joan moved to Berlin to work for the British Foreign Office and the Allied Control Commission of Germany and Austria in the British sector of the Quadripartite Powers in Allied-occupied Berlin. Joan served as the British secretary covering meetings of the Health and Civil Administration Committees of the Internal Affairs and Communications Directorate, and the various sub-committees of the four wartime Allied Powers. Her position involved working with her French, Russian and American opposites, especially the Americans, with whom the British worked in the closest co-operation in the quadripartite organisation. Joan left Berlin and returned to the United Kingdom in June 1948 because of the deteriorating political situation in Berlin resulting in the Soviet blockade of Berlin. Thereafter, Joan worked for The Reader’s Digest in London, England until the end of March 1952.
Joan decided to emigrate from England to Canada in April 1952. Having a liking for journalism, Joan went to see Ken McTaggart at The Globe and Mail. He counselled her about possible work opportunities and two weeks later, Joan became a reporter at The Northern Daily News in the town of Kirkland Lake in northern Ontario, at the time a booming goldmine centre. Her first job as a journalist in Canada was as the women’s editor for The Northern Daily News at $30 a week, at first covering women’s social news such as weddings, but later she covered many major news assignments.
After working for the The Northern Daily News for 18 months, Joan went to work for The Daily Nugget in North Bay, Ontario in December 1953, where she worked as a general reporter until early October 1956, when Joan was hired as a general reporter for The Globe and Mail in Toronto.
Joan’s first day at The Globe and Mail in Toronto was on Monday, 15 October 1956, assigned as a general reporter to take over the desk of a staff reporter who had left for The People’s Republic of China for a year at the invitation of Chairman Mao Tse Tung, after writing to Mao Tse Tung directly and asking if he could report on the People’s Republic of China. Joan settled into his old oak office chair for the next 29 years, and despite the best efforts of The Globe and Mail to toss the old office furniture when The Globe moved from King Street East to its new building on Front Street West in Toronto, Joan stubbornly held on to that old oak office chair. 2
In 1959 Joan became the medical reporter for The Globe and Mail, a position she held until her retirement at age 65 years old. During that time, she acquired a reputation as a master of the art and science of medical reporting. Joan Hollobon worked her last day as the medical reporter at The Globe and Mail on 31 January 1985, and took her retirement on 1 February 1985, aged 65 years old. A retirement party was held in Joan’s honour at offices of The Globe and Mail and she was presented with her old oak office chair and gifted a trip to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands.
Joan is a founding member and she was elected the first female president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association in 1974 for the 1974-1975 term.
Joan served as the CSWA Chair, Science and Society Journalism Awards Committee from 1985-1999. The Science and Society Journalism Awards were awarded annually by the Canadian Science Writers’ Association in recognition of excellence in science journalism in print, including two book awards, radio, television and electronic media.
In 2010, at the age of 90 years old, Joan Hollobon was awarded the Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA) Lifetime Achievement Award, presented for the first time in the history of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association (established in 1971) by then CSWA president Kathryn O’Hara to Joan Hollobon in recognition of her lifetime contributions to increasing public awareness of science and technology in Canadian culture and her pursuit of excellence in science journalism.
By: Andy F. Visser-de Vries
Tiger salamanders in captivity. A Wikipedia photo.
Just as a multi-million dollar road improvement project was about to begin - between Shoal Lake and Hamiota in July - salamanders were found in the wetlands along the right-of-way. And not just any salamanders. These were the prairie population of tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum), considered a “species of concern” under the Federal Species at Risk Act.
As a result, so-called “turbidity curtains” (above) were strung along the area affected. They prevent sediment in what is considered the “hot zone” of construction, from spreading throughout the entire slough. That meant, salamanders trapped within them, had to be caught and moved.
Luke Roffey (below) works for a company hired by the main highway contractor to make sure provisions of the Act are upheld. He helped with the salvage operation.
He tells PinP it’s going well, with more than 11 hundred salamanders trapped and relocated. At this writing, the rescue operation was continuing.
Photo by Luke Roffey.
Minnow traps baited with “glow-sticks” proved an effective method of capture. But that took longer than expected, delaying the construction project somewhat, but, says Roffey, “not by much.”
He says he got the distinct impression that construction crews would not have “made way” for the salamanders if the federal legislation had not required them to do so. And, he believes, “Many of the 11 hundred would not have survived,” he concludes.
Salamanders are considered a key part of nature’s food web. Before they emerge from the water as larvae, they eat lots of harmful larvae like mosquitoes. And, after they move to their “on-land” (terrestrial) stage, they, themselves become important food for cranes, foxes, pelicans and many other animals.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, which advises government, says the pressure placed on the habitats of this prairie population by farming, oil development and other human activity, is “immense.”
By Larry Powell
I’m an eco-journalist living in Shoal Lake, Manitoba. I’m a member of the SWCC and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I’m authorized to receive embargoed material through the Science Media Centre of Canada, the Royal Society and the World Health Organization. This allows me to “get a jump” on important stories by fleshing them out with fact-checks and interviews, in advance. This arms me with a “hot-off-the-press” story that’s ready to go, the moment the embargo is lifted.
I’m prepared to supply interested publications with important stories in the field of the Earth Sciences – stories often stranger than fiction! I publish www.PlanetInPeril.ca (PinP), “Where science gets respect.”
After interviewing thousands of people and covering an equal number of subjects and miles travelled during her career, Joan Hollobon worked her last day as the medical reporter at The Globe and Mail on 31 January 1985, and took her retirement on 1 February 1985, aged 65 years old.
Joan may have retired from The Globe and Mail at the beginning of 1985, but not from medical journalism. In April 1985 she signed up as a freelance writer and contributing editor to The Journal, the publication of the Addiction Research Foundation of Ontario. At the same time she took on a project with The Wellesley Hospital/ Women’s College Hospital and in 1987 her book was published titled The Lion’s Tale: A History of the Wellesley Hospital 1912-1987 (Toronto, Irwin Publishing, 1987). The book was shortlisted for the 1988 Toronto Book Awards.
That her passion for medical research and healthcare was recognised by community leaders is evident in the number of community service positions she held following her retirement from The Globe and Mail. In 1985, Joan Hollobon was appointed to the Community Advisory Board, Queen Street Mental Health Centre, Toronto, and in 1986 Joan Hollobon was appointed to several committees in the health-care field, including as one of the first persons to serve in the Ontario Public Education Panel on the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). The same year Joan Hollobon was appointed as a Community Representative on the National Advisory Council on Family Medicine Training, and in 1987 she was appointed as a Member of the Public Awareness Advisory Committee of the Royal Society of Canada.
When Joan Hollobon received the Canadian Medical Association Medal of Honour in 1986 for bridging the gap between the medical profession and the general public through her hands-on reporting, she reflected on her retirement and her long career as a medical reporter with these words:
“There is surely no greater good fortune than to be able to earn one’s living doing a fun job that offers unlimited opportunity to learn new things. It seems fainting immoral to receive an award for such good fortune, which included the luck to work for a newspaper that cared about trying to get things right.
I decided I could accept it (the Canadian Medical Association Medal of Honour) gratefully on two counts. First, as a recognition by the medical profession that talking to the public is worth doing. When I began medical reporting for The Globe and Mail in 1959 that view was less prevalent. And second, as an honour to be shared with journalist predecessors and colleagues still out there doing a conscientious job.
While reporting might have seemed awfully trivial, for medicine at its’ best is still considered among the noblest of callings, the best has never been so subject to differing interpretations, and the ordinary patients, the same old human bag of bones lying in a bed, hurting and scared – may have more old-fashioned virtues in mind.
And, of course, taxpayers are entitled to know what is being done with their dollars. The paucity of support for research can be directly linked to ignorance of what is being done or the need for it.
If communication can help bridge the widening gaps in all these area between an increasingly impersonal medicine and the people in the street, then it is worth doing.
So, I’ve had an awfully good time learning about medicine from a lot of terrific people - the many people who I have interviewed, argued with, written about and learned to respect. Thank you – and please go on talking to all those other science writers out there!”
Joan Hollobon not only helped to change the way patients approached their doctors, and how doctors approached their patients, or how Canadians understood healthcare, but she was a mentor and respected by her peers, the general public, and the medical profession.
In 2015, Terry Murray, then a staff reporter for The Medical Post, posted on terrymurray.org/blog, “Joan Hollobon, once the doyenne of Canadian medical writers, celebrated her 95th birthday yesterday.” Thirty years after her retirement, Joan still commanded the respect of her peers.
Peter Calamai (1943-2019), a leading figure in Canadian journalism and a member of the Order of Canada, wrote in his holiday letter to Joan Hollobon in December 2016, “I remember very well the mentoring that I received from Joan Hollobon when I was starting the medical beat. I now try to do some of the same teaching at the School of Journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa.”
By Andy F. Visser-de Vries
This September, I was lucky enough to attend the Reclaiming STEM West Coast workshop in Irvine, California. It was an incredibly impactful experience that is hard to describe. Overall, I was amazed by the work that is being done for inclusion in STEM, but also left wondering whether minorities in STEM must bear the burden of doing this work on our own.
Reclaiming STEM is a workshop created by Evelyn Valdez-Ward and Dr. Linh Anh Cat. The Reclaiming STEM twitter summarizes the event as a diverse and inclusive sci-comm workshop, to empower scientists to use STEM for social justice. They discuss exactly why they created the workshop in this article for Sister STEM.
In attendance were 120 underrepresented minority scientists. These scientists were people of colour, women, Latinx, first-generation graduate students, low-income, undocumented, LGBTQIA+, disabled, and more. There were many speakers and workshops, and the complete program can be found here.
The keynote was given by Laura P. Minero. Laura (She/Her/Ella) is a doctoral candidate in the Counseling Psychology department at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Laura is an undocumented queer woman of colour. She was brought to America when she was a child, and was never able to obtain US citizenship. She spoke on how this has made her academic career challenging- for example, Laura was unable to apply for many scholarships when she started university. She must be careful when travelling, which is difficult as a researcher. Despite these challenges, Laura is an extremely successful researcher, and has even led initiatives to protect undocumented students in the USA. Learn more about Laura here.
Laura also spoke on an issue specific to her field, the WEIRD problem, where up to 80% of clinical research participants are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. This population represents only 12% of the earth’s population. This problem is an example of how the diversity issue in STEM goes beyond minority scientists, and is directly affecting the quality of research.
Other talks highlighted work being done by minority scientists. Dr. Leslie Berntsen (she/her) recounted how twitter bullying led to the creation of the blog Unique Scientists. Allison Mattheis (she/her/hers) and Dr. Jeremy B. Yoder (he/him) gave a joint presentation on the results of their collaborative study, “A model of Queer STEM identity in the workplace”.
For me personally, the most memorable part of the workshop was a group discussion let by Dr. Alberto Soto. Dr. Soto is a Mexican-American scientist from Pomona, California. He described the work of being an underrepresented minority in science as sort of a “Second Job”. As a group, we agreed that some parts of the second job are definitely standard work- such as leading diversity committees, or writing blog posts… but other things not so much.
As minorities, we may find ourselves taking on extra mentees, because we share an identity with them and want to help them. We may spend extra time advocating for our own needs or rights. We take on extra emotional labour, such as explaining our identity to others, or comforting members of our community who have experienced discrimination. We might even spend days creating and running an entire workshop, just to help other minority scientists survive. All this time and energy adds up to the second job.
As a group, we agreed that second job activities are very important to us, but, they cut into time we could be spending on our research. We are often personally asked to participate in second job activities, and feel unable to say no. Also, second job activities take extra energy because they are so deeply personal. I personally feel this way a lot- I would love to put my head down and just focus on my thesis, but when people in my department are being homophobic or transphobic, I can’t just ignore. It’s too personal.
Then we talked about Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (she/her/they), an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy. She is also a Core Faculty Member in Women’s Studies at the University of New Hampshire, and a columnist for New Scientist. On top of all that, she is an incredible advocate for underrepresented minorities in STEM. This quote by them summarized the discussion nicely:
“Maybe it’s true that I would write more papers if I stopped giving Black, Latinx, and Native American students the needed time and love and attention that their departments are too unconcerned and sometimes incompetent to give. But maybe I’d also hate myself so much that I wouldn't’t be able to function anymore. As a Black person, I was raised to value and care for my community, not to turn my back on them for my own gain. And the safe space I seek to create for them? I want that shelter too. This work is for me as well as them, so that when I retire/ leave the field, it looks different and feels different from the one I started in. “
At the end of the day at Reclaiming STEM, I felt deeply inspired by my colleagues, but also incredibly tired. The workshop was only one day (an organizer mentioned that this was a funding issue), so we were there from dawn to dusk. I had spent 12 hours thinking about all the work that still need to be done to make STEM a truly inclusive place. I thought about the people who couldn’t make it to Reclaiming STEM due to financial or physical barriers. I thought about all the potential scientists who aren’t even in STEM fields anymore due to barriers they faced as minorities. I felt the weight of the diversity problem in STEM, and honestly, I had to step out of the workshop during the closing keynote. I was overwhelmed, and sad, and tired. Minority scientists are tired. Diversity and inclusion is everyone’s problem, and it feels unfair that we are doing this work alone.
At the end of the group discussion, Dr. Soto asked us what we want allies to do to support us. Overwhelmingly, the answer was to listen, and take on some of the second job activities work yourself. So reader, if you’ve made it this far, congrats! You’re already doing it. You can do more by following the speakers and organizers of Reclaiming STEM on twitter:
By: Danielle Hoefelle (She/They)
I am a student in the Masters of Pest Management program at Simon Fraser University. I study the foraging and communication of an invasive pest, the European Fire Ant. My science interests include ecology, entomology, animal behavior, and animal/human interaction. My personal interests include biking, drag, feminism, weird art, and cats.
I am currently an outreach facilitator for SFU’s Science in Action, where I create and run programs for children of all ages to learn about insects. I am fascinated about the communication of science to non-experts. I am extremely curious about pseudoscience and misinformation, and how people come to believe in it. I think a lot about how to make science and scientists more approachable.
I am a queer woman in science, something which I have made a point of highlighting in my communication and outreach work. I feel strongly about making science a place where everyone feels welcome, and I think representation is an important part of that.
Statue of Jefferson by Alejandro Mallea (CC BY 2.0)
In November 1963, Joan Hollobon was enrolled in the Advanced Science Writing Program in the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University after winning a Sloan-Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship. As fate would have it, John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States of America at the time, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, and The Globe and Mail needed a reporter in Washington, DC as soon as possible to cover the funeral of John F. Kennedy. Because of her proximity to Washington as a student at Columbia University in New York, The Globe and Mail sent Joan down to the American capitol to cover the unfolding events in Washington DC and the JFK funeral. Joan quickly arrived at the White House and was issued an official White House Press badge “Trip of the President” on 24 November 1963.
During the five cold and wet late November days Joan spent in Washington DC in 1963, not only did she cover the funeral for John F. Kennedy attended by dignitaries and officials from around the globe, but her White House Press Badge gave her access to the new American President Lyndon B. Johnson, HRH Prince Phillip of the United Kingdom, HRH Prince Bernard of the Netherlands, and she was able to interview the recently-elected Prime Minister of Canada, Lester B. Pearson, as well.
In May 1960 Joan Hollobon flew on special assignment for The Globe and Mail in a Sabena Airlines Boeing 707 on its’ inaugural flight from Montreal to Brussels. She then travelled to England where she covered the wedding and honeymoon departure of Princess Margaret and Mr Anthony Armstrong-Jones for The Globe and Mail.
In 1967, Joan Hollobon travelled to Montreal to cover the 1967 International and Universal Exposition or EXPO 67 for The Globe and Mail. Over 7000 media and invited guests attended the opening ceremony on 27 April 1967, which served as a kick-off celebration of Canada’s centennial year. For Joan, who was granted Canadian citizenship in 1960, it was a poignant event to cover as a leading Canadian journalist.
By Andy F. Visser-de Vries
A visualization of the IL-2 structure. Credit: Jawahar Swaminathan and MSD staff at the European Bioinformatics Institute
The most amazing machines in the world live in our bodies and they are called proteins. Proteins are responsible for many important functions in our bodies including food digestion, immune system defense, and muscle contraction. Almost everything that happens in biology, it does because of proteins.
Proteins are molecules composed of amino acids. In nature, there are 20 types of amino acids which are combined to give rise to a protein. Each of the 20 amino acids is chemically different from each other.
Let’s do a simple calculation: considering that we have 20 different types of amino acids and each one can occupy any position in a protein composed of n amino acids, then it is possible to give rise to 20 x 20…x n different possible proteins, which can also be represented as 20n. For example, if a protein is composed of five types of amino acids, it is possible to generate 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 x 20 = 3,2000,000 different combinations of five types of amino acids, or 3,2000,000 different proteins. That number is much more than the total number of proteins that we have in nature!
Scientists are now designing tens of thousands of new proteins on the computer and encoding each one of those in a synthetic gene. This technology has shown great potential to solve health problems such as cancer and infectious diseases. But how is this going to be working?
A group of researchers from The Institute for Protein Design https://www.ipd.uw.edu/at the University of Washington is redesigning an immune protein called interleukin-2 (IL-2), which has been used to treat aggressive types of cancers. They are using computer modeling to design a new IL-2 from scratch with the same immune boosting functions but without its dangerous side effects. The new version of IL-2 shares only 14% of its original amino acid sequence. Lab tests in mouse models of melanoma and colon cancer revealed that the new IL-2 has superior therapeutic activity and reduced toxicity compared to the natural IL-2.
The same group is also working on developing a universal flu vaccine that would be effective no matter the virus mutation, which means that once we are immunized with the new vaccine, we won’t have to be vaccinated every year. They are using the protein design methodology developed in their lab to create a universal vaccine. But what does a flu vaccine need to be universal? The flu virus is covered by proteins called hemagglutinin, which have a “head” and a “stem” part. The head part changes every year, while the stem part remains consistent year after year. For this reason, for a universal protection, the new vaccine will have to promote immune response towards conserved regions of the flu virus, i.e. the stem. So far, the new universal vaccine has been tested with animal models and showed protection against not only the specific flu strains used to develop the vaccine, but also against other strains in the flu family tree, which means a universal immune protection.
Indeed, computation protein design has shown to be a promising tool to solve health problems of the 21st century. This groundbreaking technology can improve not only flu vaccines, but also shed light on developing other vaccines such as HIV, malaria, and hepatitis C. Furthermore, this technology can also facilitate the development of more effective and safer cancer immunotherapies, by designing more specific proteins to boost the immune system without side effects.
Silva et al. De novo design of potent and selective mimics of IL-2 and IL-15. Nature, 2019.
Kanekiyo et al. New Vaccine Design and Delivery Technologies. The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 2019.
Alyne G. Teixeira
Alyne is a PhD Student in Biomedical Engineering and works in the Lab for Tissue Engineering and Microscale Biotechnology at Dalhousie University.
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