Can people really multitask? How do our brains imagine the future? Why do we get so fired up about sports games?
With topics like this under their belt, this year’s Favourite Science Site win is a no-brainer. Minding the Brain, a podcast created and hosted by Dr. Kim Hellemans and Dr. Jim Davies, brings deep yet accessible understanding to complex and varied questions about the mind and brain. The show uniquely combines evidence and ideas from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science, and philosophy – and in this, fills a gap in the science podcast landscape.
Minding the Brain reflects Dr. Hellemans’ and Dr. Davies’ shared passion for teaching, science outreach, and all things mind and brain. So how did it all begin? Appropriately, with a student project. Dr. Hellemans wanted something different to come from one of her students’ independent study courses – something more imaginative and impactful than your typical term paper. Playing to the students’ past experiences in the world of podcasts, the idea for a brain science podcast was born.
Photo by neil godding on Unsplash
But the Minding the Brain story goes back even further. Kim and Jim are long-time teaching colleagues. In fact, this is not the first scicomm project they’ve worked on together. One day, after Dr. Davies sat in on one of Dr. Helleman’s neuroscience classes, the idea for a teaching app on action potentials – basically how neurons, the building blocks of the brain, work- came to him. And so marked one of their first collaborations. Fast forward to Kim sharing the story of her student’s podcast; the project foundations combined with Jim’s long-standing interest in starting a podcast made Minding the Brain the natural next step.
Minding the Brain’s origin story highlights how Dr. Hellemans and Dr. Davies embody science communication in all parts of their professional lives. And the podcast is but one example of their commitment to education and outreach. In a world where many of us can access endless information at our fingertips, what role is there for scicomm? Our winners argue, rightfully, still a big one. In fact, perhaps more now than ever. Sure, we can find information about any scientific topic or field of study – but what does that information mean? Does information equal knowledge, understanding? How can we sift through the nuances and think critically enough to make sense of it all?
In an information rich age, we run the risk of being critical thinking poor. And this is a big part of why the podcast is so important to them – especially for the complex and often misunderstood realm of brain science. As they note, translating science for the public is critical – but scientists haven’t generally done a good job of this.
Minding the Brain is Jim and Kim’s way of helping people better understand the science of the mind and brain – to...
They appreciate the role that good science communication plays in being a trusted source of accurate information that also engages audiences in critical thought.
But talking about science to the public is difficult. Talking about neuroscience and cognitive science in a podcast can be especially challenging given that so much of the learnings are visual in nature - from complex data to literal representations of how brain areas work and connect.
Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash
So what makes Minding the Brain work? For one, the podcast’s multidisciplinary approach: by blending neuroscience with not only a psychology or cognitive science angle, but a philosophical angle too, the podcast doesn’t just share information about the brain, it provides a critical lens on that information. We learn about not only the physical brain and how it works, but the mental capacities and experiences that it gives rise to.
Minding the Brain also strikes that difficult balance between making information accessible and engaging, without oversimplifying content or making it gimmicky. These are complicated topics – and we shouldn’t deny that. Minding the Brain acknowledges that brain science is complex but communicates complex and scientifically accurate content in a casual, conversational way. Kim and Jim’s friendship and recognized histories as educators goes a long way in rounding out the engaging nature of the podcast. Their unique voices and unique perspectives on the mind and brain just make sense. As they say: “the magic is in the conversation”.
Dr. Kim Hellemans is an award-winning university instructor, neuroscientist, and Chair of Neuroscience at Carleton University. Her science story starts with her interest in understanding the causes of addiction. In addition to Minding the Brain and her Post Synaptic Simulator app with Dr. Davies, she helps her students run a campaign that aims to decrease stigmas associated with mental health and substance use and runs workshops on addiction stigma with the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. Her favourite Minding the Brain episode is “#15: Multitasking”
Dr. Jim Davies is an award-winning scientist, artist, playwright, and author. He runs the Science of Imagination Lab at the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton University – the only Cognitive Science department in Canada! He is a long-time member of Science Writers and Communicators of Canada and as a lover of science communication, produces content on how the mind works for a variety of media outlets. His favourite Minding the Brain episode is “#5: Concussions”
They are both always happy to take episode ideas from their listeners!
By: Maria Giammarco
Maria is a Senior Researcher at the Conference Board of Canada where she applies her research skills and background in the behavioural sciences to challenges in education and skills and equity, diversity, and inclusion. On the side She is a Science Borealis co-editor for Science and Society.
Maria holds a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from the University of Guelph; her research focused primarily on understanding the intersection between memory, attention, information processing, and decision-making. She also holds a MSc and HBA from McMaster University where she focused on human psychology and philosophy.
Credit: Michael Soledad
I'm fortunate to work with many students at SWCC, and also in my teaching job at Algonquin College. While our day to day conversations focus on learning about writing, when they get to know me I find there is a lot more on their minds.
Will what I'm learning today actually help me get work?
How am I going to make it -- financially and in terms of opportunity -- once I get my degree?
Is there a place for me long-term when so many jobs are changing quickly and are automating?
I'm a poor futurist. After all, I graduated in 2007 with a shiny journalism degree to a sunny industry. Less than eighteen months later, I struggled to find work in the recession -- along with so many of my older colleagues! So I hesitate to offer them certainty or promises. Except in one matter.
The future of your work life will definitely depend on face time, and I don't mean the app. I mean those small connections that you make as you go through your workplaces. Everybody from the admin assistant to the janitor to your colleagues all have their networks and their connections, and the more people you know, the more likely it is you can weather the storm. So talk to everyone. Take them out for coffee. Help them. Learn what pain points you can ease.
I tell students to focus on doing the thing that will make the lives of their boss and colleagues easier. I tell them to be prepared to shift as the industry shifts, and to remember that "communication" does not always mean putting yourself in the journalist or teaching or communication box. You can do all three. (I know this because I do all three.)
Among the young ones, I can see these boundaries between careers already blurring. In an era where the gig economy is at the forefront of our minds, youngsters pick up contracts and use that to leverage themselves into the next one. And the next. And the next. There's saving furiously in between and certainly some income uncertainty, but there's also an element of "You know what? I can keep changing up my career as much as I like in five years, let alone 50."
In a short blog post, I can't capture the amount of worry and of opportunity in this new economy. Stable jobs definitely have, and had, their benefits. But so does entrepreneurship. And as a person who thinks optimistically, or at least tries to, I try to look for the silver lining. And I can't but think there is some good in reinventing yourself once in a while.
Here at SWCC, we regularly go through this reinvention process, too. We used to be an organization of writers, and now we're a more diverse group of people. And I'm always looking for more help in making our workshops and conferences as agile as possible. In the next few weeks, we will announce a couple of livestreams with examples from people who are making their way in this next generation of communication careers -- and I invite you to join in the conversation. If you know an interesting science Canadian communicator who would be glad to share their expertise with us, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Looking forward to hearing from you online!
Credit: Elizabeth Howell
After I graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota earlier this month, many people asked me: How did you do it?
I was of course very lucky. I received partial tuition support and could afford to support any other fees that were required. I have a moderately flexible work schedule and a supportive family. My supervisor, in a word, was awesome.
But when I dug down into these questions by others, I realized that what they were really asking was how I found the motivation for it, on top of working full-time.
It really came down to doing one thing at a time. Literally. Every evening before a weekday, I'd ask myself, "What is the one thing I need to do tomorrow to push the Ph.D. a little further?" (I tried as best as I could not to work weekends; while my husband can attest to the occasional sulky Saturday where I'd be buried in paperwork, really, it wasn't that often.)
The weekday "one thing" sometimes it meant a call with my supervisor. Sometimes it meant a couple of more hours of "coding", or labelling portions of transcripts, for analysis. Sometimes I'd do research with one question in mind to answer, so that I didn't get overwhelmed by the amount of literature.
It's amazing how far a focused hour or two daily of work gets you, if you're lucky enough to have the time for it. Take that effort over seven years, and you might be able to do something remarkable. Me, that's how long it took to finish a Ph.D. But for you, this might mean something even more meaningful.
Perhaps you have a book in you. Or you'd like to build a website. Or you want to mentor students. It doesn't take a full-time commitment to do any of these things. If you treat your life priorities as a small part-time job, working a few hours every week, over time you will see progress.
We have big goals here at SWCC, as well. We're going to run a conference in Ottawa in 2020 and will soon be asking for volunteers -- keep an eye on our website and social media for more details in the fall. Our committees are ramping up activity to work on our website and values and awards. A group of people are helping me go through several decades' worth of SWCC files to decide how best to preserve everything.
These are all huge projects. They do feel overwhelming at times. But I remind myself -- it just takes one thing every day. One thing, build it up with other things, and progress will happen in a few months or years.
Is there one thing you would like to help us with? Send me a note at email@example.com to ask about volunteer opportunities, which includes things such as blog posts, serving on committees or helping with the conference.
Otherwise, I wish you luck in figuring out your "one thing" for the fall!
Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean stands on the surface of the moon in 1969. Credit: NASA
President's Update: What #Apollo50 means to me
I was a space nerd teen. I saw Apollo 13 (the 1995 movie) one day in class and from that, my life path unfolded. I bought all the space books, I watched all the space movies, I attended every local space event I could. There was no Internet in my house for a while (although we lived in Ottawa, it was the 1990s) so I used the library constantly, breaking many plastic bags in the process as I carried loads of heavy space books out the door. All because I wanted the big picture books. Guess we weren't thinking recyclable back then.
Now, suddenly, it's 2019 and the very program that inspired me reached a big birthday today (July 20): 50 years since Apollo 11 and the first epic moon landing. And what astounds me is not only the astronauts who walked on the moon -- but the networks of people it inspired. The youth of yesterday are now the ones telling their stories to the young generation. And I don't just mean those involved in the space program. Heck, the guy installing my bathroom tub this week remembers the moon landing and to this day, he still shares his love of space.
As for where I, that space-crazy teen, ended up after countless moon dreams? I'm (luckily) a freelance space journalist today, for the most part, but I also teach and do communications and have other income streams coming into my business. And lately I've been asking myself, as new president of SWCC: How can I bring this excitement about science to others? How do I get new voices into the field and increase our inclusion? I think back to the SWCC mentors that guided my early career -- the late great Peter Calamai, the always energetic Tim Lougheed, the ever generous Kathryn O'Hara to name a few -- and I realize that answer is time.
It's being there when the young journalist asks about framing story ideas. It's finding a connection when the communications student is looking for a job. It's checking in regularly, to make sure the young scientist who wants to show their work to the public has the support to take the first few tentative steps.
So I'm shifting much of SWCC's efforts in the coming months to more training and event opportunities for all of our members, but most especially the young ones seeking networks and opportunities. We will have livestreams on our website. We will have occasional live events in major cities. Our annual conference will continue -- in Ottawa in 2020 -- but the hope is that we can see each other more often, and learn from each other. So watch this space. It's going to be active, and hopefully interesting.
I want to be as inclusive as possible in my ideas in connecting people with each other. Our country is filled with people with different backgrounds, different experiences, different languages, and I am trying to give voice to as many perspectives about science as I can. As such, I invite you to contribute to our revitalized blog. Please send your posts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep looking up!
“Be enthusiastic!” and other SciComm highlights from Winnipeg 2019
By: Jay Whetter
Eureka! You just discovered how to clean up the Earth and save lots of lives. But if you speak about the breakthrough in a dull monotone, betraying its value with your lack of emotion, it may not get the attention it deserves. You certainly won’t get a spot on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks. “You have to be enthusiastic!” the radio show host Bob McDonald implored to his audience during his closing keynote address at the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada conference in Winnipeg.
Think about the science conversations you remember. They’re the interviews where the investigators are fired up about their work. You latch on to the rising voice, bright eyes and arm gestures, and you can’t help but engage in the conversation and absorb the message. Enthusiasm is an essential science communication tool.
Bob McDonald’s “Be enthusiastic!” was one of many scicomm tips and tools from the Winnipeg 2019 conference. I gathered another 12:
Some of my most memorable moments from the conference came during the side conversations. This networking is often the best reason to attend a conference in person. I met Meghan Azad, who researches the breast-milk microbiome and mother-to-baby and (surprise!) baby-to-mother sharing of beneficial microbes. She pitched her discovery to Quirks & Quarks and they interviewed her.
Sharon Basaraba, whose questions coaxed a lot of dig-deeper conversations throughout the event, also reminded me that it’s OK to take time to balance work and family.
During our ‘Dine Around’ supper at Peasant Cookery in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, Carolyn Brown, who has done a lot of work in Mexico, shared a few Nahuatl words in common use today. The old Indigenous language of Mexico gave us the words avocado, tomato, coyote, cocoa and more.
As my final example, I present Phil Ferguson, space systems engineer. He explained to me, a farm journalist, how researchers are programming satellites and drones to read large farm-field images and work together to provide targeted useful information without humans having to sort through terabyte-sized files. He also suggested that, when it comes to aerospace research and investment, we might advance more quickly if researchers could take a few more chances and have a little more scope to fail. Ferguson has the most awesome beard and waxed moustache, but what really stood out for me was his enthusiasm. He provided strong supporting evidence that Bob McDonald’s “Be enthusiastic!” advice works to bring your work to a broader audience. I will be talking with Ferguson again.
I’ll close with a paraphrase of another line from Bob McDonald: “Canada needs more science communicators”. I encourage anyone with an interest in science communications to attend the annual Science Writers and Communicators of Canada conference. Being there in person expands your personal and our collective breadth of knowledge, communication skills and community. With colleagues and mentors and friends from across the country improving together, we strengthen the #SciComm community and hopefully create a welcome home for more science communicators. See you in Ottawa in 2020.
Jay Whetter grew up on a farm in Manitoba, attended journalism school and has worked 20 years as a farm journalist. A big part of his job is taking new agriculture science and sharing it with farmers. His Twitter handles are @CanolaWatch and @KenoraJay.
If you have more highlights from Winnipeg 2019 or ideas for Ottawa 2020, share them with the SWCC at email@example.com or on Facebook @SWCCanada.
Please give a warm welcome to this year's Elected Slate of Directors.
Elizabeth Howell - President
Patchen Barss - Director
Aniruddho Chokroborty-Hoque - Director
Carolyn Fell - Director
Julia Krolik - Director
Rhonda Moore - Director
Michelle Riedlinger - Director
Michael Robin - Director
Marg Sheridan - Director
Natasha Waxman - Director
Jay Whetter - Director
Richard Zurawski - Director
Meet our incoming board and read their bios.
We are pleased to announce that after much consideration and deliberation, our Youth and General Audience judging panels have submitted their shortlist of the top 5 books for our 2018 Book Awards. Please see the shortlists below.
Youth Book Shortlist
"Dinosaurs of the Alberta Badlands"
By W. Scott Persons IV, illustrated by Julius T. Csotonyi
"Do Frogs Drink Hot Chocolate?"
By Etta Kaner, illustrated by John Martz
"Explore the Rocky Shore with Sam and Crystal"
By Gloria Snively, illustrated by Karen Gillmore
By Erica Fyvie, illustrated by Bill Slavin
"Wild Buildings and Bridges"
By Etta Kaner, illustrated by Carl Wiens
General Audience Book Shortlist
By Christopher Dewdney
By Nicola Temple
By Dave Williams
“Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance”
By Alex Hutchinson
"The Spinning Magnet”
By Alanna Mitchell
For more information about the judging panels, please visit our awards tab or click this button!
This blog first appeared as part of the Forward Thinking blog series published by the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR), British Columbia’s health research funding agency. It is written by Lori Last, MSFHR’s Director of Marketing & Communications, and Amy Noise, MSFHR’s Manager of Marketing & Communications.
How do you get people excited about the importance of research and research funding? You tell stories.
Since childhood, most of us have loved stories. They not only provide entertainment and an escape from the everyday, they have also played a key role in human cultural development.
Turns out, human brains are wired to process stories. When you are presented with a series of facts, two parts of your brain are activated (Broca's area and Wernicke's area). These areas decode the meaning of the words, so you can understand what you are hearing or reading. But when you read or listen to a story, many different parts of your brain light up. If the story includes a description of a delicious meal, your sensory cortex lights up. If it includes a game of tag, your motor cortex is activated as if you were actually experiencing the event.
Scientists have learned that we process imagined experiences, like stories, in a similar way to how we process real experiences, which explains why stories can stir up genuine emotions and stimulate behavioural responses. This is in part because of the chemicals released when we experience a story - cortisol, which helps us form memories; dopamine, which regulates our emotional responses; and oxytocin, which is connected to feelings of empathy and relationship building.
Our visceral reactions to stories explains their long standing place in human history. From the earliest days, humans told stories to each other to share cultural norms, warn of potential danger or to explain the world around them. Storytelling patterns evolved over time, and we still fall back on those patterns today.
Compared to hearing a list of facts, a story activates our brains as if we are actually experiencing what we are hearing.
What makes a good story?
Whether you’re a fan of comedy, romance or sci-fi, chances are your favourite stories all follow a similar structure: context, struggle, resolution.
Aristotle laid out this broad format over two thousand years ago, and since then many others have expanded on this structure from Joseph Campbell’s 12 step Hero’s Journey to Christopher Booker's Seven Basic Plots. The common theme is a protagonist being shaken out of their day-to-day world and embarking on a journey, overcoming a challenge, and returning triumphant.
We’ve all seen this structure play out again as it is a very common technique used by writers and film-makers, and it is also a technique that can help organizations tell their story.
How to tell your organization’s story
As a health research funder, it is important to us to consider both what we communicate about our organization and the impact we have, and how we communicate.
1. Provide the context
Like most organizations, we share routine information; in our case, information about our funding opportunities, award recipients, and other operational updates through our core communications channels (our website, monthly newsletter and social media). Although these always feature an element of storytelling, they are very closely tied to operational business needs – the context if you will.
2. Share success stories
We also share success stories. We launched Spark, our twice annual digital magazine, to give us a vehicle to tell the story of the broader impact of health research funding. Each issue follows a typical story structure; a research question that needs solving (the context), the researchers we’ve funded who worked to find answers to that question (the protagonist embarking on a struggle/journey), and the impact on British Columbians who are benefiting from this work (the resolution).
In Spark, the protagonists are either researchers or patients. So how do you highlight your organization as a protagonist in its own right? You have to show your own journey.
3. Don’t forget the journey
It’s a trap a lot of organizations fall into. Sharing operational information has to happen for an organization to function, so that gets done. Every organization wants to showcase their value and impact, so success stories get shared. But it is easy to overlook the journey in between.
The trouble with overlooking the journey is that’s where you fall in love with the characters, where you learn about the protagonist (that’s us!), how they work, and their challenges. You need that perspective in order to really care about the resulting success.
This is where our Forward Thinking blog comes in. It’s a way of sharing our journey and helping people understand what we do, and why it matters.
Of course, journeys are not always smooth. So as well as featuring the great work we’re doing, you are just as likely to read a Forward Thinking blog about an initiative we are still working through, the challenges we’ve faced and how we are working around them. Sharing vulnerability in this way can be scary, but it presents a great opportunity to learn.
Growing and learning
At MSFHR we are committed to continuous learning and improvement and feel strongly that removing the mystery of what we do, and sharing our experiences to advance the science and practice of research funding, is a key part of our role as BC’s health research funder.
So, if there are any areas of health research funding that you’re itching to hear more about, leave a comment and let us know!
Written by: Lori Last & Amy Noise via Forward Thinking blog series.
The best of the old school
By Tim Lougheed
Photo: "Calamai, Spurgeon & Laing, 1968." A newspaper science writing award ceremony. At the top left is Peter Calamai.
Photo: "Calamai, Spurgeon & Laing, 1968." A newspaper science writing award ceremony. At the top left is Peter Calamai.
Photo: "Calamai, Spurgeon & Laing, 1968." A newspaper science writing award ceremony. At the top left is Peter Calamai.
In early 2008 Canadians found their collective attention drawn to a nuclear reactor that few of them had probably thought about in a long time, if they even knew it was there. The National Research Universal (NRU) in Chalk River, Ontario, several hours’ drive west of Ottawa, had been shut down for repairs and created an international shortage of Molybdenum-99, an isotope employed in millions of cancer-scanning procedures every year. Since this 50-year-old facility had been turning out close to half the world’s output of this exotic product, its absence left patients with unexpected and often agonizing delays in diagnosis.
It was a story that was bound to confuse many observers, including reporters trying to sort out the intricacies of how an isolated research facility built at the beginning of the cold war wound up as the lynchpin of a medical supply chain for a sophisticated imaging technology used in hospitals all over the world. Peter Calamai, on the other hand, was just getting warmed up. He had been writing about the NRU for 10 years at that point, getting acquainted with dozens of nuclear engineering experts from across the country, religiously attending public meetings of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and making Access-to-Information requests for documents about the reactor’s operator, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. By the time the “isotope crisis” had arrived, no one was better positioned to write detailed, meaningful articles about what was happening, why it was happening, and what it meant to Canadians. And he did just that, exploring the politics, economics, and technical intricacies of the situation in language that was engaging and accessible. ... Read More
Peter Calamai, Mentor of Many Charms
By Margaret Munro
Photo: "Gannets" by Peter Calamai
I met Peter Calamai at Southam News in Ottawa in the early 1980s – me a recently hired young science correspondent; Peter a feted foreign correspondent just back from a posting in Africa.
Our flamboyant boss, Nick Hills, would herd the staff in the bureau overlooking Parliament Hill into a crammed conference room for morning news meetings. Nick would run down the stories expected from Southam’s far-flung international bureaus; national reporters would lay claim to the hot stories of the day; and columnists Charles Lynch and Allen Fotheringham would pontificate for the assembled crew.
The political junkies were kind, but were about as interested in my science and environment stories as I was in their scoops on the inner workings of Pierre Trudeau’s government. ... Read More
The Science Writers & Communicators of Canada will be electing new members to its board at the upcoming Annual General Meeting in May — three directors and the treasurer, vice-president and president. If you have ever wanted to have a hand in the way our organization operates, you are asked to please put your name forward.
Please visit the nominations page and complete your nomination package by March 22, 2019!
#SWCCan2020 - Postponed
New dates TBD
P.O. Box 75 Station A