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

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

  • 21 Apr 2020 9:53 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Darryl Falzarano at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization - International Vaccine Centre (VIDO InterVac) at the University of Saskatchewan. Photo: Debra Marshall

    If the current pandemic has taught us anything, it is to bring into stark relief just whose work is essential. 

    Around the world, people are coming out to yards and balconies to applaud health care workers. People have new appreciation for oft-ignored sanitation workers and grocery store clerks.

    While we cheer on those who keep the wheels of society turning, let’s also spare a thought and some words of thanks for another overlooked, essential group: scientists.

    Some years ago, while working at the University of Saskatchewan, I wrote a brief profile on a new faculty member, a young researcher named Darryl Falzarano. His chosen subject was an obscure (to me) disease called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS.

    Why, I wondered, was he mucking about with something that, while serious, wasn’t terribly contagious and affected populations on the other side of the world? Plus, the animal reservoir for the MERS virus was the camel – a species not often seen on the Canadian Prairies.

    He explained that MERS was a coronavirus, a close relative of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). SARS I knew: the epidemic had been in the news around the world. People had died; people were afraid. 

    MERS and SARS are zoonotic diseases, that is, they originated in animals. These diseases constitute the majority of emerging threats to human health. Know more about MERS, Falzarano said, and we know more about zoonotic coronaviruses.

    I eventually left the university and lost track of Falzarano until early this March. There was an announcement that VIDO InterVac at the University of Saskatchewan was getting a sudden multi-million-dollar funding infusion from the Canadian government. A new coronavirus had gone pandemic: SARS CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. Once again, people are dying. People are afraid.

    VIDO InterVac, one of the top vaccine development organizations in the country, is tasked with developing a vaccine against the threat. Falzarano leads the team.

    As any emergency preparedness professional knows, when a crisis hits, there is no time to plan. The plan must be in place, the people trained, the facilities ready.

    Most scientists labour in obscurity, making incremental discoveries and publishing them in journals that are largely read only by their peers. But when a crisis comes, when their expertise is needed, they are ready.

    What drives scientists to do what they do? Joy of discovery? Insatiable curiousity? Desire to help society? I suspect the reasons are as varied as the people. Of one thing I am certain: scientists don’t get into it for the money. I remember being shocked to learn that a new assistant professor was being paid slightly less than me, a mere research communications officer. This, for someone who had spent at least eight to 10 years completing undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral education and training.

    Their job was and is much harder than mine. Academic researchers must design and run their research programs, apply for and secure grants, hire and supervise graduate students, write up their research for professional journals, teach classes, and serve on university committees. To get it all done, their work schedule can be brutally long.

    And every once in a while, scientists’ expertise becomes critical to the welfare of us all. Suddenly, money is no object. But no amount of funding can conjure a PhD in virology and a decade of hard-won knowledge and expertise out of thin air. 

    When the call comes, scientists must be ready, and they are. For this, we thank them.

    By: Michael Robin

    In both the telling and the hearing, stories begin with people.

    My passion is taking complex science transforming it into stories that engage and excite. As a strategist, I ask questions. Who are we talking to? Where are they and where do they get their information? What do they believe?

    Over more than 30 years, my work appeared in weekly and national publications, broadcast and online media. For more than a decade at the University of Saskatchewan, I worked to identify and shine a light on the innovative minds and discoveries at one of Canada’s top research universities.

    We live in challenging times, where innovation and knowledge are often met with rejection and disbelief. This has consequences for issues critical to our species and our environment, from vaccines and genetic engineering to energy and climate change. I believe science writers and communicators have a vital role to play.

  • 31 Mar 2020 11:36 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Reposted from CIC News

    Chantal Barriault pictured at RCIScience. Photo credit: Ki-Youn Kim.

    As the ranks of the world’s professional journalists have been decimated over the past few decades, so too has their ability to report the work of science to an audience that extends beyond the scientific community itself. If you are part of that audience, you may not have noticed, because there appears to be more news about science than ever. Now the source is a new cadre of science communicators who are employed not by traditional media organizations but instead by bodies such as research institutes and universities. Yet while the burgeoning field dubbed “scicomm” continues to grow, key questions are beginning to emerge about its lack of diversity and the implications that could have for the way science is being presented to the public.

    Such questions echoed through the themes of SciCommTO, a two-day conference organized by the Royal Canadian Institute for Science, a venerable body with roots that go back to the mid-19th century and some of the earliest scientific work being done in this land. About 120 participants attended this event last month at Ryerson University, where they explored a variety of topics such as how to interview researchers and frame an engaging narrative.

    While much of this content amounted to a kind of vocational training, the exchanges occasionally turned contentious, as happened during a session about the professionalization of scicomm. These interactions spawned discussions offline and online that continued for several days and revealed some key challenges to be confronted.

    Perhaps chief among those challenges is the fact scicomm has become a trend, a hashtag, and a community, all thanks to some savvy scientists on social media. At the same time, science communication qualifies as an academically respected social science discipline with its own research standards and evidence-based best practices.

    That is why the conference, organized in collaboration with Ryerson’s own scicomm initiative SciXChange, was so valuable. It provided a space to learn and discuss evidence-based science communication, an area that currently offers few formal training opportunities in Canada. Laurentian University is the only school in Canada, and one of just a handful around the world, that offers a recognized post-secondary program in science communication.

    Conference delegates, many of whom were women completing or finished their PhDs, shared that their peers outside of the science communication community saw science communication as something to “fall back on” if their academic career in science did not work out. Others, who indicated they already felt excluded from their chosen scientific work, portrayed the science communication community as a “safe space” where they belonged. And there were working scientists who suggested they were there because science communication was something impactful and fun to do in addition to their research.

    There was also a small group of delegates with science communication degrees at the conference who were building careers. They voiced a concern about not being recognized as credible professionals in the field because science communication was being viewed as hobby or lacking legitimacy due to its social science nature. Additionally, one of the biggest challenges this group faces is having their work and expertise constantly undervalued because a lot of science communication hobbyists do work for free.

    These perspectives were reinforced during a panel discussion, called “Canada vs. The World”, where Dominic McDonald, Head of Education at the Royal Institution in the UK, said that the vast majority of the science communicators in the UK were white, middle-class women with PhDs. In Canada, Dr. Chantal Barriault, the Program Director of the Science Communication program at Laurentian University, confirmed that the field is a monoculture reflecting this trend, putting the number of such women at 75%.

    While these observations might be regarded as just one more example of how poorly the scientific community welcomes and supports women, this lack of diversity in science communication may become an even bigger concern. When the topic of professionalizing the field of science communication was brought up by Barriault, it was met with mixed responses. Her argument was that this would provide legitimacy for the work to be taken seriously and provide opportunities for anyone interested to have more training opportunities. She likened the process to the history of nursing, which was not initially regarded as a real career involving specialized skills and training, nor even compensated. It did not take on its modern value in as an esteemed part of the healthcare system until the field was professionalized.

    The same problem applies to scicomm, where many practitioners do not acknowledge the evidence-based strategies that are essential to communicating and debunking myths about contentious issues, such as vaccines, climate change, and viral outbreaks. When these methods are not used, it can worsen a situation by isolating the audience or propagating misinformation.

    Nevertheless, some opposed remain wary of professionalizing as a form of gatekeeping. Many scientists voiced the concerns on Twitter that if science communication is professionalized, it would be no different from how science had excluded them. Yet professionalizing science communication does not mean that scientists cannot continue sharing their research on social media or giving public lectures. In fact, professionalizing science communication would provide more resources and training opportunities for everyone interested. It would also reward both scientists and professional science communicators for their passion and work.

    Currently, science communication will only continue to grow in Canada, as it should, seeing how it bridges sciences and society. To meet this demand, professionalizing the field means that it would lead to more training and projects that bring value for both scientists who want to continue doing science communication as a hobby and for those who are paving the way for a career as a professional science communicator.

    By: Ki-Youn Kim

    Ki-Youn Kim is a science communicator based in Ottawa with a passion for life sciences and misinformation research. She completed her Master’s in Science Communication at Laurentian University and holds two bachelor’s degrees in Neuroscience (Carleton) and Biology (Queen’s). Currently, she works at the Chemical Institute of Canada while pursing side projects. Every Sunday, she shares science communication tips on Twitter (@kiyoun_k) under the hashtag #SciCommSunday.

  • 24 Mar 2020 5:26 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    The Carleton University Centre nearly devoid of students due to COVID-19 concerns with the flags of the world hanging overhead. Photo by Matthew Guida.

    Over the last few months, the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been regularly keeping up-to-date on the latest strain of coronavirus – SARS-CoV-2. The disease it causes, known as COVID-19, has spread around the globe infecting people in countries all over the world including China, Italy, the United States, and Canada.

    Coronaviruses exist in both animals and humans. They are called zoonotic when they transmit between animals and humans. This family of viruses is responsible for causing a variety of diseases including cases of the common cold, as well as more severe ones like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). In 2002-03, the SARS coronavirus transitioned into a large-scale epidemic infecting people in more than two dozen countries, resulting in more than 8,000 cases and nearly 800 deaths. By comparison, COVID-19 has now been reported in more than 100 countries.

    COVID-19 spreads from person to person but can also be transmitted from contacts with contaminated surfaces or objects. Those most at risk include those with weakened immune systems, chronic medical conditions, and the elderly. Symptoms include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. According to a recent study by researchers from the University of Texas in Austin, the new coronavirus spreads so quickly that people who have the virus can spread it before showing symptoms.

    COVID-19 is causing severe social, political, as well as economic repercussions for people all over the world.

    December 2019

    COVID-19 was first reported in December 2019 and was traced to Wuhan, China and the source is believed to be a seafood wholesale market that sold both live and slaughtered livestock.

    By Dec. 31, 2019, 27 infections were reported in Wuhan forcing the Chinese government to respond. At the time, they reported cases involving a viral outbreak of pneumonia – as the exact nature of the virus was still unknown – to the World Health Organization (WHO).

    January 2020

    Within the first two weeks of January, health officials had ruled out the presence of known coronaviruses such as SARS or MERS. Instead, Chinese researchers identified a new strain of coronavirus which would become known as SARS-CoV-2. There was speculation about the source of the outbreak. An article in the Journal of Medical Virology presents evidence that SARS-CoV-2 – or 2019-nCoV as it is referred to in the study –  is a genetic combination of coronaviruses found in bats and another of unknown origin, but which likely resided in snakes, before it was transmitted to humans.  

    Within the next few weeks, the first death of the outbreak of the new COVID-19 disease was reported. It had already begun to spread outside of Wuhan. On Jan. 30 2020, the WHO officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak as an international public health emergency.

    February 2020

    By February 9, the death toll in China had reached 811, exceeding the number of people who died during the SARS epidemic between 2002-2003.

    More countries reported their first confirmed COVID-19 cases. This number continued to rise along with the death toll. The severity of the situation had reached a point where several countries were beginning to close down their borders.

    March 2020

    Within the first two weeks of March, COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic by the WHO. Canada was also one of many new countries to report their first confirmed cases and as of March 20 had nearly 850 confirmed cases – most of which are located in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, and Quebec.

    Europe was also confirmed as being an epicentre of the pandemic with Italy being considered the worst hit by the pandemic, followed by Spain which declared a state of emergency on March 13. According to the most recent WHO report, as of March 19, the number of confirmed cases worldwide exceeds 200,000 and the global death toll has surpassed 8,700 deaths.

    To make matters worse, concerns for COVID-19 have also led to the cancellation of several public events and businesses around the world. This includes colleges and universities which have moved to close down their campuses and are moving classes online.

    Cities around the world that are normally filled with people have had their streets practically emptied as people confine themselves in their homes. As the situation develops, it is important for people to remain calm, ensure they follow proper hygiene guidelines, and avoid public places and large gatherings, especially if they believe they are sick. The Canadian government is posting the latest guidelines and statistics online, updated daily.


    Al Jazeera (Mar. 12 2020). “Timeline: How the new coronavirus spread.”

    Anne Gulland & Sarah Newey (Mar. 13 2020). “What is coronavirus, how did it start and could the outbreak grow bigger?” Telegraph

    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Summary.”

    Mandy Zuo et al. (Dec. 31 2019). “Hong Kong takes emergency measures as mystery ‘pneumonia’ infects dozens in China’s Wuhan city.” South China Morning Post

    Peng, Zhou et al. (Apr. 4 2018). “Fatal swine acute diarrhoea syndrome caused by an HKU2-related coronavirus of bat origin.” Nature

    The Lancet (Jan. 29 2020).  “2019 novel coronavirus is genetically different to human SARS and should be considered a new human-infecting coronavirus.” Eurekalert.

    The Lancet. (Jan. 31 2020). “Modelling study estimates spread of 2019 novel coronavirus.” Eurekalert. 

    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.

  • 20 Mar 2020 6:31 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Social distancing has caused a reduction in commuters on Toronto’s TTC. Photo credit: Natalie Workewych

    As I made my way home today, I watched a woman on the subway platform reprimand another for wearing a surgical mask. “Shame on you,” she said. “There are people who need those. Shame on you.”

    As the mask-wearing woman stumbled away from her aggressor, I couldn’t help but reflect on where we – the global “we” – are right now. Yes, surgical masks are in short supply, and our frontline healthcare workers are those in need. Wearing a mask as prevention against a virus that is not airborne simply serves as a flimsy barrier to keep your hand from reaching two of the three avenues of infection – the mouth and nose – and the general public can remain healthy without them. 

    But now is also not the time to bare our teeth. The present COVID-19 pandemic is a fight – that of microbe against the people. Shame on us, then, to turn it into people against the people.

    As humanity, we are a collective. We have a responsibly to one another to remain a collective through support, through public health education, and imperatively, through access to resources for all.

    On my same trip home, I heard a man tell his friend how in the grocery store a woman took all of the baby formula available and would not share with another costumer, even when begged.

    We’ve fashioned our world into one with near unlimited resources, and near unlimited access to them. What we are now seeing is movement toward survival of those with means. And this reality rears its ugliest head when we act selfishly.

    While we must practice social separation for the sake of our collective health, we must remember not to separate ourselves from the tenets that unite a prosperous humanity – those of promoting the common good, and the betterment of the world through help, especially when times are grim.

    What happens when our crisis invades those of lesser means, of poorer healthcare? If we cannot act with a moral conscience now, then when? Faced with fear, this global pandemic has turned many of us inward. But now is the time where we must act ever more outward.

    The only way to heal our population is with a collective push toward the good of one another, sibling and stranger alike. As more continue to fall ill world-wide, and as over-saturated healthcare systems are forced to prioritize the treatment of one over another, we must lend ourselves to collaborative support, so that the work of the front line is not in vain.

    From simply staying home if we feel ill to washing our hands for the sake of us all, there is no act too small. But in not doing what we can, however little, we neglect our neighbour. And in using aggression, in refusing to share, we fail.

    These are dire times, but we can all play a role in our healing. There is only one humanity. If we let one another fall, we all fall.

    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.

  • 17 Mar 2020 11:59 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    The 2019 novel coronavirus (2019n-CoV), like MERS and SARS, belongs to a family called coronaviruses that may be amenable to an approach to create a single vaccine effective against several infectious diseases.

    Historically, vaccines have been developed by isolating, inactivating, and injecting viruses, bacteria or pieces thereof into the body to stimulate an immune response.

    Recently, a more rational design approach has enabled the design of new candidate vaccines with high precision. It’s a potential game changer in vaccine development.

    A group of researchers in the United States is using synthetic biology tools to develop a universal coronavirus vaccine. Using these tools, scientists redesign and construct artificial organisms to develop new abilities. They manipulate strands of DNA, insert them into an organism's genome, and create a new artificial DNA molecule designed for specific purposes.

    Before they begin working with DNA, scientists at the University of Washington's Institute for Protein Design use a computer program to develop new vaccines against several viruses, including coronavirus. This technology allows them to design new vaccine candidates from scratch, including coronavirus antigens. These antigens are recognized by the human immune system, which then produces antibodies to help the body fight off the invader. When used in a vaccine, these antigens stimulate the body to create immunity to the disease.

    Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large group of viruses that can infect humans and cause respiratory illness with a wide range of symptoms, ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). The 2019 novel coronavirus (2019n-CoV) causes an infectious disease called COVID-19.

    This highly contagious disease has been declared a global pandemic disease by the World Health Organization (WHO). Although COVID-19 has a low mortality rate, meaning that most cases are mild, it spreads easily, so the minority of cases that are severe can still easily overwhelm health care systems.

    To add perspective, the MERS virus has the highest mortality rate. One of three people infected die, typically because of a respiratory illness. However, it has a low transmission rate and since 2012, there have been about 2,500 cases worldwide. It is a lethal virus but doesn’t ostensibly spread to person-to-person. On the other hand, SARS virus is less deadly than MERS with a mortality rate of around 10 per cent, but much more contagious than MERS. Back in 2003, there were about 8,000 cases of SARS and about 800 deaths worldwide.

    One of the worst pandemics in recent history was the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed about two to three per cent of its victims, or at least 50 million people worldwide. COVID-19 mortality has been estimated to be around 1.6 per cent. This disease has many similarities with influenza, since both are contagious diseases with low mortality rates. However, mortality for COVID-19 appears higher than the 2009 H1N1 pandemic that killed around a tenth of a per cent of affected people worldwide.

    One hundred years after the Spanish flu, the world is a much more populous and different place. We are much more prepared for infectious diseases, but we are able to connect to each other around the world within hours via air travel making disease transmission easy and control of these diseases globally challenging.

    The University of Washington researchers believe the new approach combining computational modeling and synthetic biology will help develop effective vaccines against all three coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, and 2019n-CoV.

    Using this strategy, scientists attached coronavirus-specific antigens to a spherical protein nanoparticle that looks like a virus to the body’s immune system, and as such stimulates antibody responses. These nanoparticles are now being tested in mice to evaluate immune responses in vivo.

    The main advantages of having a nanoparticle as the core of a vaccine is that it can be used to boost immune responses and can be designed to include antigens from several viruses. This makes one vaccine capable of fighting multiple infectious diseases. It also makes the vaccine tolerant of heat, reducing the need for refrigeration - a great feature for vaccines that are used in tropical resource-poor countries.

    Synthetic biology may offer a universal coronavirus vaccine that can be quickly modified to combat future mutated strains, but such vaccines remain in the preliminary phases and more traditional vaccines won't be available for months.

    In the meantime, it will be up to us to keep washing our hands, avoiding crowded places, and doing what we can to control COVID-19. More info about the virus and what we can do to protect ourselves can be found here:


    By: Alyne Teixeira

    Alyne Teixeira completed her undergraduate degree in Industrial Pharmacy and her master’s degree in Biosciences and Technology of Bioactive Products in Brazil. She is currently in her last year of her PhD in Biomedical Engineering at Dalhousie University. Her doctoral research consists of developing a new pre-clinical platform to identify potential vaccine formulations. She holds a Scotia Scholars Award and a Nova Scotia Graduate Scholarship from the Nova Scotia Provincial Government. In 2019, she received the Allan Marble Prize for excellence in research in the field of Biomedical Engineering. As a pharmaceutical scientist with 10+ years of experience in both industry and academia, she has conducted many research projects and presented her work at conferences across Canada and abroad. Alyne is passionate about connecting people and science, and she is actively involved in organizing science events and writing research articles to broad audiences.

    For more details, please check her Linkedin profile:

    She also has a Twitter account: @AlyneGTeixeira

  • 10 Mar 2020 9:59 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Reposted from

    The family radiation cookers. This one is a Beaumark purchased in 1985 and uses microwave radiation. The traditional one in the reflection uses infrared radiation.

    Recently, at a meeting in another city, the conversation turned to the example of a new home owner who refused to have a standard appliance installed for fear that it would expose the family to a greater risk of cancer.

    Seriously? This one is still out there?

    More than 50 years ago, in 1967, Amana Corporation introduced the Radarange, and with it, a whole new way of cooking food. Within a few decades, Amana and other companies had made the microwave oven standard equipment in nearly every kitchen in the developed world.

    At the same time, there was unease about the new technology, in no small part because of a single word used to describe it: radiation. 

    ​My mother remembers newspaper advice columns at the time fielding questions from concerned homemakers about the new devices. They were reassured of their safety, but the unease persists to this day. 

    What would have happened, I wonder, if instead of “microwave radiation,” they had called it “microwave light?” Both are equally accurate.

    Microwave light has wavelengths shorter than radio but longer than infrared. The heat you feel of one of those overhead heaters in a garage is infrared light. Another way to think of wavelengths is colour: the wavelengths of red light are longer than violet, for example.

    Microwaves are pretty useful. Some wavelengths resonate with water molecules. That means if you shine microwave light on a water-containing substance, the water molecules start to move faster, or get hot. This is how a microwave oven works. 

    Microwaves are also used extensively in telecommunications - your cell phone uses them, for instance (typically between 900 Mhz and 1,800 Mhz). Microwaves are used because they can carry much higher information density than radio waves. So, when you’re using your cell phone, you’re using a microwave transceiver RIGHT BESIDE YOUR BRAIN (insert terrified scream here, and yes, I’m being sarcastic). 

    Popular phrases such as “nuke some dinner” don’t help. People are afraid of radiation, or at least what they think it radiation is. Light does radiate, even if you can’t see it (as I mentioned with the infrared heater). Incidentally, any incandescent bulb actually gives off much more infrared than visible light, which is why you can use them as a heat source. 

    Also, unless you’ve been very careful or very lucky, we pigment-challenged types have almost certainly had one or more radiation burns in our lives. This is because the shorter the wavelength of the light, the more energy it carries.

    Light starts to get dangerous to us once you get into the ultraviolet range, something our sun is quite good at producing. So public health folks urge us to be careful, wear clothing, put on sunscreen to protect from radiation burns that can increase our risk of skin cancer. But we don’t often think of these as radiation burns; we just lament that we were careless and got a sunburn.

    Words carry both meaning and emotion. “Light” and “radiation” can often be used interchangeably, but they carry much different emotional baggage. “Natural” and “synthetic” can be used to describe the same product, but how do these words make you feel? How about “organic” or “industrial?” “Corporate” vs “co-op?” 

    So, when crafting and consuming messages for ourselves and our clients, let us choose our words carefully – not only for meaning but for emotion.

    By: Michael Robin

    In both the telling and the hearing, stories begin with people.

    My passion is taking complex science transforming it into stories that engage and excite. As a strategist, I ask questions. Who are we talking to? Where are they and where do they get their information? What do they believe?

    Over more than 30 years, my work appeared in weekly and national publications, broadcast and online media. For more than a decade at the University of Saskatchewan, I worked to identify and shine a light on the innovative minds and discoveries at one of Canada’s top research universities.

    We live in challenging times, where innovation and knowledge are often met with rejection and disbelief. This has consequences for issues critical to our species and our environment, from vaccines and genetic engineering to energy and climate change. I believe science writers and communicators have a vital role to play.

  • 28 Jan 2020 5:05 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Reposted from Nov 15, 2017

    Photo by Kevin Jackson on Unsplash

    Part 1: How the Manitoba government’s return to a deregulated hog industry could actually contribute to a world health emergency.

    The Pallister government has just passed its “Red Tape Reduction and Government Efficiency Act.” The bill makes it easier (and cheaper) for pig producers to build new factory barns, expand existing ones, store and dispose of the waste and to even spend less on fire protection. 

    According to the industry group, “Manitoba Pork,” as many as 100 new factory barns may now be built over the next ten years. 

    What the Bill will not do is stop the dangerous overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture. Livestock owners around the world (including Manitoba’s hog producers) have long been giving these medicines to their animals, whether to treat the sick, prevent the healthy from getting sick, or simply to fatten them up for market.

    This is all perfectly legal here and in many other countries.

    While it's true that antibiotics are sometimes used and abused in human medications too, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) estimates “80% of all antibiotic use in Canada occurs in the raising of animals for food.” 

    And, about three out of every four doses given this way, are identical to the drugs you and I need to fend off deadly infections.

    The PHAC goes on, “There is increasing evidence that the use of antimicrobial agents in livestock production is an important contributing factor to the emergence of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in humans.” AMRs are sometimes called “superbugs” which, because of this inappropriate use, have developed a resistance to treatment by most or all of the medicines available today. 

    So scenarios where doctors have to advise their patients that “There’s nothing more I can do for you," are becoming alarmingly more frequent. 

    Three days before the Manitoba bill was approved, the World Health Organization sounded its most urgent alarm yet over the administering of antibiotics to food animals. The WHO says things must change, if we are to preserve the effectiveness of these life-saving medications.The UN agency advised farmers and the food industry everywhere, to simply stop giving animals such medications altogether, whether to promote growth or prevent disease. Healthy animals should only be treated if disease is diagnosed elsewhere in the same herd. And, even while treating animals already sick, only medications not considered critical for the treatment of human infections, should be used. 


    Image credit - OECD

    But data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are even more alarming. Representing 35 developed countries, it notes that AMR is “highly prevalent” in its member countries (including Canada). It estimates the yearly loss of life, worldwide, probably runs into the tens of thousands, already. But current rates of resistance are increasing to the point where ten million people a year could be dying in this way by 2050! This, the OECD notes, would "move the needle" on the human cost of AMRs, from “substantial” to “enormous.” While the bulk of the deaths would be in Africa and Asia (see OECD table), there could still be 700 thousand in North America by that time. (No breakdown is given for Canada.)

    Why, you ask, would an economic organization get involved in a health issue? Because, it expects future increases in health costs to also be enormous; almost $3 trillion by 2050, for OECD countries alone! That's because AMR patients are sick longer, need more (and costly) treatments, more tests and are three times more likely to die.

    With new barns and more hogs now on Manitoba’s horizon, only pro-industry spin-doctors would dare to argue that this won’t mean more antibiotics, as well. (The OECD expects such usage to increase by a staggering two thirds by 2030.) 

    I have e-mailed both Premier Pallister and “Manitoba Pork” to ask them about these concerns. Neither has responded, so far.

    So, if the world pays as little heed to this prevailing medical wisdom as the Pallister government and the industry seem to be doing, for this Manitoban, "optimistic" just got harder to be. 

    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 (PinP), “Where science gets respect.”

  • 07 Jan 2020 12:57 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Reposted from February 4, 2016

    Peach flower, fruit, seed and leaves as illustrated by Otto Wilhelm Thomé (1885) public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

    Peaches and nectarines are the same fruit minus a small genetic variation that makes nectarines hairless. When I first learned this little trivia tidbit I wondered about the difference in flavour. I prefer nectarines to peaches, but wondered if the taste difference was all in my head. Well, it’s not.

    The genetic variation affects flavour, aroma, size, shape and texture. While the rough location of the genetic change has been known for some time, the exact gene and the exact change in the DNA sequence of “nectarineness” has been a mystery. In March, scientists from Italy finally identified a disruption in a “fuzz” gene that is absent in peaches.

    Agriculturists in China gifted fruit lovers with the peach about 4000 to 5000 years ago. At least 2000 years ago, again in China, nectarines burst on to the scene. Charles Darwin pondered about how nectarines popped up on peach trees and vice versa and described the odd finding of one fruit that was half and half. Would we call that a “peacharine?”

    Darwin, and others, deduced that the nectarine was a peach variety. In 1933, scientists determined a recessive gene variant was responsible for the inheritance pattern of the nectarine's hairless (glabrous) skin. The glabrous trait was given the designation G, with big G for the normal fuzzy peach character and little g for the glabrous nectarine character. Each fruit has two copies of this gene. Each parent gives one to the offspring fruit, which can be either GG, Gg, or gg, and only the gg fruits are nectarines.

    The chromosomal location of the G trait was already roughly landmarked but the Italian research team zoomed in on the spot, sort of like how you zoom in to street view with Google maps. Many DNA sequence differences exist between nectarines and peaches that are not located in genes but are useful as landmarks along the chromosomes. These are called genetic markers. To zoom in on the G trait, the researchers crossed peach and nectarine trees and followed the offspring through two generations. The offspring had a mixture of peach and nectarine markers along their chromosomes but certain genetic markers, the ones closest to the G trait location, always went along with the nectarineness. These genetic markers landmarked the region to search for genes with mutations that could explain a nectarine’s fuzz-less-ness.

    Nectarine Fruit Development by jjron - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

    Within the landmarked region, the researchers identified a disrupted gene. The peach to nectarine gene disruption is a genetic modification by the hand of Mother Nature, an insertion of a transposable element. This type of DNA element can move because it contains its own code for the production of an enzyme that can “cut”and “paste” the transposable element to other locations in the genome. Transposable elements can get pasted right in the middle of genes, disrupting the DNA sequence. They are a known cause of genetic variation in plants. If you like chardonnay wine, you can thank a transposable element for disrupting the cabernet grape genome long ago.

    In nectarines the transposable element stuck itself right in the middle of a gene called PpeMYB25. Genes with similarities to PpeMYB25 in other plants are important for making plant hair, called trichome, which can occur on the stem, leaves, flowers and fruit of plants. The PpeMYB25 gene is the recipe for making a protein that is a transcription factor, a type of protein that controls when and how much other genes are turned on, so a mutation in this one gene could explain not just baldness in nectarines but other nectarine characteristics as well, depending on what these other genes are that it controls. In this report the researchers focused on the peach fuzz characteristic. When they looked at flower buds during the period when fuzz or trichome first develops, they found PpeMYB25 to be active in the peach but not the nectarine buds.

    This is the first description of a specific genetic modification that can explain the difference between peaches and nectarines, something that has long been a mystery.

    This research makes a strong case that nectarine lack of fuzz is due to the inability of nectarines to produce the PpeMYB25 protein. How lack of PpeMYB25might lead to the other nectarine characteristics — flavour, for instance — still needs to be worked out.


    Vendramin, E. et al. (2014) A Unique Mutation in a MYB Gene Cosegregates with the Nectarine Phenotype in PeachPLOS ONE. 9: e90574

    Ien-Chi, W. et al. (1995) Comparing Fruit and Tree Characteristics of Two Peaches and Their Nectarine Mutants. J. Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. 120(1):101-106. </a>

    Darwin, C. (1868) The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, Volume 1, pg 363.

    By Meredith Hanel 

    Meredith is a science writer who once enjoyed life in the lab as a biomedical researcher. She blogs at BiologyBizarre and tweets @MeredithHanel

  • 11 Dec 2019 5:39 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Reposted from April 19, 2017

    Photo by Peter Lewicki on Unsplash

    I recently had the privilege of participating in an improvisation course called: Act Your Science.  The aim of the course was to provide the foundational skills for improvisation, which in turn would improve our public speaking and science communication skills. However, it turned out to be so much more!

    Dennis Cahill, the Artictic Director at Loose Moose Theatre, directed each 2 hr. session, which ran for five weeks. Dennis’s directorship was always filled with compassion, clarity and patience.  He shared his extensive improvisation knowledge and experience in such a fun manner we were excited to engage in a learning process that always resulted in full-fledged laugher!

    The following core principles of improv were taught and repeated in each session. As you will see, the fundamental principles of improv can be applied to any relational interaction that one engages in, not just when performing on stage.

    Be Present

    The importance of being present in the moment was a central theme throughout this course.  It is critical that improv participants enter into interactions with pristine active listening, as nothing is rehearsed before the interaction occurs. The interactions that had the greatest impact and resulted in the most laughter occurred during the most authentic moments of exchange.

    “Don’t think. Get Out of Your Head. Stop Planning and Just Go”

    -Amy Poehler-

    Take Chances

    Dennis encouraged participants to say ‘YES’ when called to participate on ‘stage’.  By the end of the five sessions, it seemed that everyone was jumping up to participate! I have to admit that I had to restrain myself to saying YES to allow others the opportunity to say YES!  Dennis made sure to repeat that when we take chances, our learning is expanded.

    “Just say Yes and You’ll Figure it Out Afterwards.”

    -Tina Fey-

    Make Mistakes

    Dennis was commonly heard saying “mistakes are good” and “don’t be afraid to make them!”  We were always encouraged to be okay with making a mistake and to respond in a light-hearted manner when they occur with laughter and ease.  Dennis wanted us to always remember that the audience is on our side and want nothing more than for us to succeed!

    “If You Stumble Make It Part of the Dance”

    The goal of this course was more than achieved! I feel confident in suggesting that all of the participants will be more present, take chances more often and be okay with making mistakes in future speaking opportunities. For myself, this introduction to improv has transformed into ensuring that I make it a life long hobby that I will regularly participate in.  It the meantime, until we connect again, I will end by saying:

    “It is Always Sad When a Good Show Comes to an End!”

    By: Jennifer Bon Bernard

    Jennifer Bon Bernard is a graduate student at University of Calgary in the department of Community Health Sciences. She always enjoys having fun    and exploring her artistic soul whenever the opportunity arises. Improv has brought so much laughter and happiness to her life that she will continue to make this apart of her creative journey forever! Jennifer highly recommends that if you ever the opportunity to enroll in an improv class that you say “YES!”

    Act Your Science is the result of a collaboration between the University of Calgary, the Canadian Science Writers Association and Loose Moose Theatre.  Act Your Science is scheduled to take place again at the University of Calgary in early summer 2017. Fifteen spaces are available for the five two hour sessions. CSWA members as well as University of Calgary science graduate students are invited to participate at no cost. Yes there will be additional field trips to Loose Moose Theater and a few pub nights because the fun just doesn't want to stop once you learn to listen, take chances and laugh together without the fear of making a mistake.

  • 05 Dec 2019 6:12 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    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."

    "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 (PinP), “Where science gets respect.” 


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