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Spotlight on Scientists: Sarah Nersesian & Natasha Vitkin

By Andrea Lucy, Experiential Learning Program Lead

Promotional poster for Science Odyssey. The photo depicts a person's head opening to reveal drawn science symbols, such as a rocket ship and atom. The text reads "Science Odyssey. Join the Adventure! May 1-16, 2020" To celebrate this year’s Science Odyssey, Canada’s biggest science and technology festival, we are highlighting amazing scientists from across the country! Young adult staff members at Fresh Roots interviewed inspiring individuals contributing to science, to learn more about their personal and professional journey, career, and what advice they have for youth. These scientists surprise and delight us with their unique topics and backgrounds, and the unexpected ways their work connects back to healthy food systems and a healthy environment. 

 


Interview with Sarah Nersesian & Natasha Vitkin

Headshot of Sarah Nersesian in a lab coat, black shirt, disposable gloves. Behind Sarah is a shelf full of lab equipment, including Erlenmeyer flasks
Sarah Nersesian (she/her) is a passionate researcher who loves to share scientific knowledge through illustrations and other visual communication strategies. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in Bio-Medical Sciences at the University of Guelph before moving to Kingston to obtain a MSc in Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Queen’s University. Sarah is currently completing her PhD in Microbiology and Immunology at Dalhousie University focusing on exploring the impact of immune cells on tumour development and treatment responses. With her unique expertise combining scientific communication strategies with illustration and graphic design, Sarah founded Designs that Cell (DTC) in 2017. DTC has grown to a team of talented post-graduate, graduate and undergraduate students who hold advanced degrees and have experience in graphic design, science communication or illustration.

Headshot of Natasha Vitkin in a black shirt, grey cardigan. She has curly blonde hair and is smiling at the camera. Out of focus in the background is a white building and some deciduous trees.
Natasha Vitkin (she/her) obtained her MSc in cancer immunology at Queen’s University, Kingston in 2018 and completed her MPH at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby in 2020. She is passionate about using visual knowledge translation strategies to promote equity and improve population health. She is an evaluation analyst at Cathexis Consulting and a co-owner and senior communicator at Designs that Cell (DTC).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have a tradition at Fresh Roots of starting our conversations with this question: What vegetable do you feel like today?

Sarah: I feel like I’m just going to say my favourite vegetable, which are brussel sprouts. They’re quite sturdy, and I feel quite stable today.

Natasha: When I used to attend Sunday school, we watched VeggieTales, and I loved Bob the Tomato. I even have a Bob the Tomato bookmark! So, I would say a tomato.

 

Can you describe your work? 

Sarah: We’ll start with the oncoimmunologist. It’s a cross between looking at cancer and looking at how it works with our immune system. My research looks at how a particular immune cell, called a natural killer (NK) cell, functions and helps when our body starts developing cancer. NK cells are one of the very few cells in the immune system that can recognize cancer. Therefore, I think it’s a really promising cell to look at. I’m trying to figure out what features of an NK cell would make it a good immunotherapy. Immunotherapies are different strategies that we can use to activate or enhance a person’s natural immune system. It works differently from traditional chemotherapies which have harmful side effects. I specifically look at ovarian cancer, one of the most deadly cancers in women. The women who get treated for it undergo long chemotherapy treatments that end up being very harsh on their bodies. I’m trying to find an alternate treatment by focusing on the immune system to reduce those side effects so that women can continue living their lives while they’re also getting treatment for their cancers.

Then we’ll flip over and talk about science illustration. As a scientific illustrator, I work on different projects every day. I usually communicate with scientists all over the world, sometimes clinicians, doctors, companies as well. My job is to take complex scientific ideas that they’re trying to communicate and draw it out in a way that is accessible to everybody. It’s a really cool job because I get to essentially learn about all the different types of research that is happening around the globe. It spans from looking at phytoplankton in the sea, to mushrooms and fungi, to illustrating things about cancer and very specific pathways within the cell.

Natasha: I’ll start off with evaluation! In evaluation, our goal is to make other organizations and programs run better so that they can make a difference in the communities they’re serving. I work and consult with different nonprofit organizations and government organizations at all stages of the evaluation process. Sometimes organizations are just starting a new program and they want to see what will make the most impact for their clients. Or they’re applying for funding, and they want to demonstrate the impact they’ve made in peoples’ lives, but this can be hard to do without appropriate data. In that case, I could conduct consultations with program staff and their clients to see what the program’s impacts are. As an evaluator, I’m empowering other organizations to change for the better.

In terms of science communication, I’ve always loved sharing information and giving presentations. When I was in grade six, I volunteered to give a presentation of my report even though it wasn’t a requirement! When I was doing my Master of Science degree in cancer immunology, I was trying to connect two different protein pathways that weren’t traditionally connected. I found it very helpful to have an animated diagram to show the interaction of these pathways. It was then that I started really becoming interested in communicating science. That’s also where I met Sarah. We were doing our Master’s degrees in labs next to each other. I think a diagram, tweet, or Instagram video is an innovative way to communicate science. Through Designs that Cell, I’ve continued developing my illustration and communication skills. Specifically, I focus on communicating information with lay audiences as opposed to scientists.

 

WHAT WAS YOUR PATH TO YOUR CURRENT WORK? 

Sarah: Growing up, I always loved art. I grew up in a conservation area, so I was always in the woods. I ended up focusing a lot of my art on natural things that I saw around me. When I applied for university, I really wanted to apply for painting. However, my parents suggested I should focus on getting a science career, and perhaps I could do painting later on. I am happy it worked out that way because I got into research during my university time. When I was trying to communicate my research to my peers or colleagues, I was able to use my art to engage people and clarify the ideas and those complex scientific concepts. From there, I stuck on that path. During my master’s degree, I started Designs that Cell . It turns out that there are quite a few people who also really have a love and a passion for both art and science, and that is who makes up the Designs that Cell team today.

In terms of my passion for research, I, unfortunately, had to grow up watching some family members deal with women’s cancers and the harsh side effects. So, it’s always been a passion of mine to research women’s cancer. I started in breast cancer and then quickly found that ovarian cancer was a very high-need research area. It has a moniker, which is the “silent killer”. It sounds scary because it is. Women don’t end up actually showing any signs or symptoms until the tumour has already spread in the body. At that point, treatment success is very low. We don’t really have any good screening methods and the treatments that we are using are effective only for a few months. We need new strategies and treatments. Something I personally like is a little bit of a challenge, and ovarian cancer is definitely a challenge.

Natasha: I was always very science-oriented. In my undergraduate program, I specialized in cancer research. But as I was pipetting things on my prostate cancer cells for the umpteenth time during my Master’s of Science, I realized I didn’t see that as a long-term path for me. I didn’t feel like it was satisfying my desire to connect with people and help them in a more direct way. Maybe what I pipette onto my cells will lead to something in 20 years, but not in the immediate future. So that’s what led me to pursue a Master of Public Health degree, which I completed last year.

It was during my Master of Public Health degree that I learned about evaluation and took a course on it. My friends were also participating in the Student Evaluation Case Competition run by the Canadian Evaluation Society, and they asked me to join their team. We won the Canadian competition last year and represented Canada at the World Championships . After I graduated, I was looking for a job and thought maybe I’ll throw my hat in the evaluation ring. My current employer, Cathexis , was one of the sponsors of the Case Competition. I remember when I joined the team, my boss said, “I remember you from your Case Competition presentation!”. So that’s how I started in evaluation.

 

WHAT MOTIVATES YOU TO KEEP DOING WHAT YOU DO?

Sarah: With the science illustration, my motivation is being able to continue with my art in a way that is productive. I think the best example right now is in this public health epidemic where we need science communicators more than ever. Scientific illustration, I think, provides a very unique mode of communication that is a little more accessible than perhaps using some complex scientific terms in the text. When you focus on illustrations, it’s really easy to get a point across in a way that people can see and they can act upon. For example, the infographics talking about vaccine hesitancy or talking about the importance of wearing masks, we can show how that is important. We can show things that are hard to describe. We don’t see viruses travelling through the air, but we can illustrate them.

For my ovarian cancer research, I think an important thing for me is constantly engaging with patients. Engaging in activities of public outreach where I get to talk with patients, and speak to them about their experience is the best motivator for me. But I also just love the science. I love the challenge. I think every scientist says this, but I think personally, I’m working on a therapy for women in the future and I really hope that I get to see it implemented.

Natasha: I always like seeing the endpoint of my work. So for instance, at Designs that Cell, an illustration that we had worked on six months ago got published today. I’m often waiting for our images to finally be shareable and to celebrate the achievements of the author. I always enjoy being a part of that story, because often they’re communicating some really cool research.

In terms of what keeps me going in evaluation, I really enjoy working as a consultant. Number one, because it sounds super fancy. Number two, because I get to work with a variety of clients in different fields. They’re all doing really important work, but really different work and it’s an opportunity to see what’s going on. For example, I’m working on a project about STI testing among queer youth. As a gay woman, this work felt especially meaningful to me. At the same time, I’m working on a large project with a cancer control organization. That’s been interesting because I can use a bit of my cancer background and knowledge to inform my role. As a consultant, I enjoy being able to see what’s happening across Canada at different organizations.

 

HOW DOES YOUR WORK RELATE TO FOOD SYSTEMS OR THE ENVIRONMENT?

Sarah: There are environmental risk factors when we talk about ovarian cancer. There’s also a really strong link between the immune system and what you’re putting into your body and how you treat your body. Something that is always considered in treatment is the state of the patient. We’re not just giving the same treatments to everybody. We have to consider how their body is going to react, how their immune system is.

In terms of scientific illustrations, it always relates to the bigger picture, the environment, and the world we live in. A lot of what we end up illustrating is related to climate change, and the way that the world is changing around us. We’ve done quite a few projects on how climate change is changing the ecosystems that we live in, and how that impacts the organisms that we study. And obviously, that impacts the food we are able to grow, and ultimately affects things like food shortages in the long run. We take this big picture into consideration with our illustrations. Sometimes when we end up focusing on one cell, we forgot that this one cell exists in this much larger environment. The environmental changes can impact that one cell in so many ways.

Natasha: Food systems and the environment connect most directly with my evaluation work. Cathexis has done a lot of evaluations with nonprofits working to improve food security, particularly among low-income people. A project I’m working on now is with a charity that distributes food and harm reduction supplies to people experiencing homelessness. When I work with organizations like these, I’m also indirectly benefiting everyone they serve. My hope is that if I can help organizations gather meaningful data, this will increase their funding and they will be better able to make a difference in the lives of their clients. As well, Cathexis, the evaluation company I work for, is a Certified B Corporation. We’re interested in how our work impacts the environment. Every month as a team, we look at our key performance indicators and one of them is about our environmental impacts. Pre-pandemic, a discussion that we would have is around travel, and whether the pros outweighed the cons of the carbon footprint.

 

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR YOUTH TODAY?

Sarah: I’d just say to follow your passions. Don’t do something because you think it’s going to end up in a career or a job. Just find what interests you, find what you’re passionate about, and find a way to make that into a job. And if it doesn’t exist, then don’t be scared to take a risk and bring it into existence. There was nothing that fit what I wanted to do and so I made a company to do that. Obviously, that’s not something that you might do at a high school level, but eventually, down the road, you could. Follow your passions, take courses and participate in activities that you feel passionate about and that makes you happy.

As a woman in STEM, as a Middle Eastern woman who works in STEM, but also scientific illustrations, there have definitely been some experiences that have made me feel like I’m less than other people who might be sitting at the same table or sitting in the room. Something that I always like to say is that you definitely don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, but you might think of yourself as being just as capable as anyone else who’s there. You might not have the same inherent knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t work towards having that knowledge. That all comes from confidence and understanding your capabilities, which is something that’s hard to have, especially as a woman, but is really important. Women are one group of that, but then of course, there are tons of other underrepresented groups. If you belong to any of those groups and you feel like you don’t belong, know you do. It’s just you might have a little bit of a taller mountain to climb than some others.

Natasha: My advice for today’s youth is to reduce the pressure you put on yourself. When I was younger, I was the kind of person who felt like if I wasn’t getting 100% on a test, then I had failed. While you should always try your best, you shouldn’t base your self-worth on how well you do on a test or an exam. Especially in my undergrad, I felt I had no time to socialize because I was always studying. But once you graduate, your GPA doesn’t matter too much. It’s more about your experiences, your skills, and how you present yourself. I would advise my younger self and other young people to just try and relax and not put too much pressure on themselves to achieve 100% all the time, because it’s not going to happen and it always comes at the expense of something else.

I would also say to be open to new opportunities because you never know what will come your way and who you’ll meet! This time last year, I never expected to be working full-time at an evaluation firm and to own a small business. Sometimes I look in the mirror and remind myself that I am a business owner. I met Sarah for the first time when I came into her lab to borrow supplies for my experiment. I never would have imagined that years later she would ask me to become her business partner! Keep yourself open to opportunities and put your best self forward because you never know what will happen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Click here to see the full list of Science Odyssey activities

Facebook: www.facebook.com/ScienceOdyssey/

Twitter: @Sci_Od

Instagram: @Sci_Od

Hashtag: #OdySci

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Spotlight on Scientists: Dr. Annett Rozek

By Vivian Cheung, Operations Coordinator

Promotional poster for Science Odyssey. The photo depicts a person's head opening to reveal drawn science symbols, such as a rocket ship and atom. The text reads "Science Odyssey. Join the Adventure! May 1-16, 2020" To celebrate this year’s Science Odyssey, Canada’s biggest science and technology festival, we are highlighting amazing scientists from across the country! Young adult staff members at Fresh Roots interviewed inspiring individuals contributing to science, to learn more about their personal and professional journey, career, and what advice they have for youth. These scientists surprise and delight us with their unique topics and backgrounds, and the unexpected ways their work connects back to healthy food systems and a healthy environment. 

 


Interview with Dr. Annett Rozek

Dr. Annett Rozek obtained her degree in chemistry from Humboldt University in Berlin and completed her PhD at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. Her interest in life sciences led her to join the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. In 2003, she started as Senior Scientist at Inimex Pharmaceuticals, leading the Research & Development team in the discovery and development of Innate Defense Regulators. In 2011, she joined Terramera as Chief Scientific Officer, where she leads discovery and Research & Development in the development of Terramera’s Actigate™ Targeted Performance technology. Alongside CEO and Founder Karn Manhas, Annett has launched Proof® and CIRKIL®, Terramera’s initial products.

 

We have a tradition at Fresh Roots of starting our conversations with this question: What vegetable do you feel like today?

I picked lettuce for today. Lettuce is a plant that keeps growing new leaves and becomes more and more complex, and since we’re talking about science, science and industry, and science at Terramera, it seemed fitting! We grow new leaves and layers all the time, and what we’re building becomes more complex and more rounded over time.

 

Can you describe your work chief scientific officer? 

I am leading the scientific part of our Research & Development (R&D) team. I’m also at the management level of the company, focusing on how we work towards our company’s objectives to help change the world. Terramera is very passionate about changing agriculture to be more sustainable and regenerative, and all our different projects in the company flow together towards that goal. 

One of our big goals is to reduce the global synthetic pesticide load by 80% by replacing them with natural products. With our Actigate technology platform, we’ve found a way to reduce the amount of synthetic chemicals in pesticide products which are used to treat pests and disease on plants. Developing that technology is the main thing I do every day. We continually apply Actigate technology to natural active ingredients to make them more effective, robust, and reliable. We also apply it to synthetic active ingredients to reduce the dose needed. We do a lot of experiments to further develop Actigate technology and test our hypothesis that Actigate materials help speed up and increase the transfer of active ingredients through cell membranes. We use machine learning and computational chemistry to understand interactions between molecules to predict what products will work best for an application. Then we continue to test and improve the formulation to perform well in the field

Orchestrating this whole thing is what I do day-to-day. I keep working towards my vision of perfecting the Actigate platform and creating products and applications that really help the farmers out there to do their work more efficiently and with safer materials.

 

What was your path to becoming chief scientific officer?

I was at a pharmaceutical startup company before I came to Terramera. We were designing peptides, the building blocks of protein, very deliberately to fulfill certain functions. Peptides are natural compounds, but similar to synthetic drugs in that they are single molecules. At the time, I’ve always viewed natural products and extracts with a little bit of skepticism because they tend to be complex mixtures of different kinds of things. As I started reading more about natural products, specifically plant extracts, I got really fascinated with what these extracts can do. I was curious about other applications for extracts other than for human medicine. It was at that time that I was starting to think about plant extracts and their use in agriculture. I realized how similar the agricultural field is to the pharmaceutical industry. In some ways, pharmaceutical discoveries foreshadow what is done in agriculture. To this day, I want to make agricultural research and development as sophisticated, effective, and successful as it is in the pharmaceutical industry. I figured out it could be really cool to apply all these fancy things we do in pharmaceuticals towards creating agricultural products. And then Terramera happened. It was almost like it was envisioned, you could say. It crossed my mind first and then I just jumped on the opportunity when I had it.

 

What motivates you to keep doing what you do? 

The most enjoyable part is actually seeing our products work in the field. Once it gets close to making a difference in people’s lives, that’s when it gets really exciting. When the rubber hits the road, that’s rewarding. There’s a scientific curiosity part too. It’s really fun to do all of this and work with our team. 

As I previously mentioned, it’s also very interesting to see all these parallels from different industries and be innovative. We can say, “they’re doing it like this. I’m just going to apply it here like that” and boom, I solved the problem! We can use the techniques and principles and skills of one industry and apply it to another industry very successfully. There are fundamental things that define success, and we can transfer it to our work at Terramera.

 

How does your work relate to food systems or the environment?

I’ve always been really conscious about the environment and how we as humans, as a society, affect the environment. We need to be very aware of what we’re doing and that we are doing it sustainably. We can do a lot of damage when we are not aware. There’s a lot of things that we need to repair or at least allow nature to repair. I’ve always been passionate about that, and it’s great that I can feed that into my work. I want to contribute to growing our food in cleaner ways than what we have been doing because it has left its mark on our environment. I’d like to find changes that promote sustainable agriculture and also regenerate where damage has been done. With my work, my main goal is to reduce synthetic pesticides. 

I have really high respect for growers and farmers. They are scientists and have such a wealth of knowledge. I learn from great growers because they really understand, steward, and care for the land. I think the agricultural technology industry and growers should be partners and work together.

 

What advice would you give to your younger self, or to youth today? 

Advice number one is just finding your passion. If you are aware of what excites you and what keeps you motivated, what’s driving you, or what’s getting you out of bed every morning, then you can always look for ways to work on exactly those things. Invest yourself in that and then life will always be interesting, work will never feel like work. That’s how it is for me. I made that choice early on in my 20s that I will never have a 9-to-5 job that isn’t fun. I said no, it’s 8 hours a day, and I’m going to have fun the whole time. I found what excites me and now work in that area so that I can have fun all day. 

Once you have found that, just keep your eyes on the prize. Sometimes we don’t get to where we envision ourselves right away, especially if we set ourselves big goals. But the road can be rocky, and it may not be a direct path, so don’t be discouraged. Keep your vision and you will find ways. Sometimes you need to take a detour, sometimes there’s a dead end and you have to backtrack, but as long as you keep your vision and your eyes on the prize, you will keep going towards it.

 


Click here to see the full list of Science Odyssey activities

Facebook: www.facebook.com/ScienceOdyssey/

Twitter: @Sci_Od

Instagram: @Sci_Od

Hashtag: #OdySci

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Spotlight on Scientists: Jacelyn Shu

By Vivian Cheung, Operations Coordinator

Promotional poster for Science Odyssey. The photo depicts a person's head opening to reveal drawn science symbols, such as a rocket ship and atom. The text reads "Science Odyssey. Join the Adventure! May 1-16, 2020" To celebrate this year’s Science Odyssey, Canada’s biggest science and technology festival, we are highlighting amazing scientists from across the country! Young adult staff members at Fresh Roots interviewed inspiring individuals contributing to science, to learn more about their personal and professional journey, career, and what advice they have for youth. These scientists surprise and delight us with their unique topics and backgrounds, and the unexpected ways their work connects back to healthy food systems and a healthy environment. 

 


Interview with Jacelyn Shu

Jacelyn is a biologist and scientific illustrator. She completed both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree at the University of British Columbia. She continues to be involved in the Department of Zoology as a lab manager and research technician in the Mank Lab. In addition to her managerial duties to support her lab’s research on guppies and sex chromosomes, her interests in the art and communication side of science has led her to be involved in today’s cutting-edge research through making figures for scientific publications and presentations. For Jacelyn, she enjoys translating complex scientific concepts into simple diagrams and help with turning the gruelling hours of data collection and analysis into a compelling narrative that can be shared with others in a visually appealing manner. See more of her work on her website Jacelyn Designs.

 

 

We have a tradition at Fresh Roots of starting our conversations with this question: What vegetable do you feel like today?

Today I feel like a carrot. Stubby and covered in dirt, but could still be sweet.

Doug Fudge
Gosline Lecture, UBC, 2018

 

Can you describe your work as a biologist and scientific illustrator? 

By day, I wrangle guppies! My lab has about 6,000 fish that I am responsible for taking care of. I also support my labmates in their research, which a lot of the time means helping with their research projects, ordering supplies, doing administrative work, or taking care of the finances.

When all this technical stuff is done, I get to do more of the fun and creative things. I designed my lab’s logo, ran a course on Adobe Illustrator, and produced a bunch of figures for the papers coming out of my lab. I also started freelancing my science illustration services, and have produced figures and illustrations for other scientists as well.

When water contains toxins, these toxins can be taken up by fish at the gills, causing a physiological cascade that results in cardiovascular collapse.
McCormick, S. D., Schultz, E and Brauner, C.J. 2021. Methods in Fish Biology, American Fisheries Society. In Press.

 

What was your path to becoming a biologist and scientific illustrator?

I started becoming involved in research in my third year of my undergraduate degree, and did an Honours research project in a lab that I would later continue to do my Master’s degree in. After my Master’s, I decided that I enjoyed research and wanted to stay involved but, but didn’t think pursuing academia was the right path for me.

I was very fortunate to find a job as a lab manager/research technician with my current lab and Principal Investigator Judith Mank. I’ve always enjoyed the behind-the-scenes roles, and I like being able to support my labmates with their research, watch it unfold and take form, then help to communicate the final result.

My path to being a science illustrator is a bit less straightforward and is still definitely in its earlier stages. Throughout my degrees, especially during guest lectures or research seminars, I would take notes in the form of doodles to keep myself entertained. I also learned how to use Adobe Illustrator in one of my graduate courses, and spent just as much time making my presentation figures for talks and seminars as I did on the content itself. My Master’s supervisor noticed that I enjoyed drawing sciency things, and asked me if I wanted to make some figures for his lecture material and some of his publications. I agreed, and since then, I’ve been drawing people’s science wherever I can.

(1) An experimental setup used by Yvonne Dzal. The divided chamber allows Yvonne to measure whole-body respiration and ventilation in little brown bats, contributing to her research on the effect of white-nose syndrome. This figure was recently published in a review in Conservation Physiology. (2) Another of Yvonne’s experimental setups, this one used to measure whole-body respiration. You can read more about Yvonne’s work here.

 

What motivates you to keep doing what you do? 

I’ve always enjoyed nature and biology, and there’s so much about the world we know, but so much we still don’t know. My favourite thing about my current positions as a lab manager/research technician, as well as a science illustrator is that I get to dip my toes into a bunch of different research areas. It’s inspiring and humbling because there’s so much cool stuff happening on the frontiers of science, and I get to play a small part in investigating the big research questions that are being asked and answered in our current day and age.

As a science illustrator, I also see the importance of what I do. I feel like so much cool and current research goes unnoticed by 99% of the population because most of us are not well-versed enough to understand exactly what it means, and there is often so much jargon and background to wade through. Simplifying and illustrating the research is a great way to make it more appealing and more easily understandable.

Trinidadian guppies (Poecilia reticulata) vary greatly in colour patterns among males. In particular, two main competing selection pressures have resulted in the same colour phenomenon in multiple river systems. Downstream, high predation results in selection against bright colours that are easily seen by predators; as a result, males are duller. Upstream, there are fewer predators, and sexual selection by female choice favours more brightly coloured males. The Mank Lab studies the genetic basis for colour and sexual dimorphism in these guppies.

 

How does your work relate to food systems or the environment?

No obvious, direct link, but everything is connected somehow! My lab does basic research on guppies and sex chromosomes, so that is less applied than some other research like climate change or food availability, but no less important (we can discuss the importance of basic research another day). As an illustrator, I get to work with a whole bunch of different projects, but so far no food system stuff or environmental stuff yet. Would be fun though!

 

What advice would you give to your younger self, or to youth today? 

Success in science doesn’t have to follow the three paths of a doctor, professor, or engineer that are so often preached to budding scientists. These are great professions, but far from the only options. I would say don’t limit yourself, try different things, see what you like, and don’t try to rush the process.

 

from a talk given by Eleanor Caves at Evolution 2019

 


Click here to see the full list of Science Odyssey activities

Facebook: www.facebook.com/ScienceOdyssey/

Twitter: @Sci_Od

Instagram: @Sci_Od

Hashtag: #OdySci

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Spotlight on Scientists: Dr. Susan Gerofsky

By Nicole Bruce, SOYL Lead Facilitator

Promotional poster for Science Odyssey. The photo depicts a person's head opening to reveal drawn science symbols, such as a rocket ship and atom. The text reads "Science Odyssey. Join the Adventure! May 1-16, 2020" To celebrate this year’s Science Odyssey, Canada’s biggest science and technology festival, we are highlighting amazing scientists from across the country! Young adult staff members at Fresh Roots interviewed inspiring individuals contributing to science, to learn more about their personal and professional journey, career, and what advice they have for youth. These scientists surprise and delight us with their unique topics and backgrounds, and the unexpected ways their work connects back to healthy food systems and a healthy environment. 

 


Interview with Dr. Susan Gerofsky

Headshot of Dr. Susan Gerofsky smiling at the camera. Wearing a black shirt, red scarf, red glasses and red headband

Susan Gerofsky is an Associate Professor of Mathematics Education and Environmental Education in the Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Her interdisciplinary research is in embodied, multisensory, multimodal mathematics education through the arts, movement, gesture and voice. She works in curriculum studies, environmental garden-based education, the language and genres of mathematics education, and media theory. Dr. Gerofsky is academic advisor and co-founder of the UBC Orchard Garden, a student-led campus learning garden. She is active as a mathematics educator, poet, playwright, musician and filmmaker, and works with dance and fibre arts. You’ll often find her cycling around town with a baritone horn or an accordion.

 

 

We have a tradition at Fresh Roots of starting our conversations with this question: What vegetable do you feel like today?

I have to say bok choy because I just picked some and they were so fresh. I feel like I grew half an inch being here with the Fresh Roots team in this beautiful place and having this new food springing forth again. There’s so much hope and life there.

 

Can you describe your work as an educator? 

I’m an Associate Professor of Mathematics Education and Environmental Education at the University of British Columbia (UBC), where I’ve been for 16 years now. I teach new teachers in the Bachelor of Education program, specifically secondary math, physics and computer science, as well as graduate students, many of whom have teaching experience and are doing research in education.

 

I’m a co-founder with some graduate students, including Julia Ostertag, of the UBC Orchard Garden. That’s how I came to be an environmental educator. The Orchard Garden, founded around 2010, is a cross-faculty teaching and learning garden on UBC’s central campus, including the Faculties of Education and Land and Food Systems, with participation from Landscape Architecture and Forestry. From the Education side of things, we wanted to make a place where new teachers could experiment with teaching across the curriculum, with the garden as a co-teacher. How can you help students learn in and with the garden in a role as a teacher of history, poetry, math, art, music or any subject? How can you learn outside in a way that helps you and your students be aware of our more-than-human kin: the plants, birds, insects and other critters, rocks, rain and sky? How can we learn together with an understanding that we are part of whole ecosystems and the world? From a Land and Food Systems point of view, many students are longing for hands-on experience to experiment with growing and harvesting food organically and caring for the soil. Landscape Architecture students need opportunities to design with the natural world, and the Forestry students we work with are interested in urban food forests, the mycorrhizal communication systems within forests and other very interesting topics.

 

What was your path to becoming an educator?

As a child growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, I was very connected with the outdoors. My Dad took us for walks and adventures in the woods, bike rides, canoe trips, and all kinds of outdoor experiences. We always had garden beds around the house, and I was very keen to grow vegetables. From the age of about seven or eight, I had my own little garden patch. I would browse through the seed catalogues in the winter, and carefully choose what I was going to plant. I loved growing things that you could eat, and things that were beautiful and fascinating, like sunflowers and morning glories that would respond to the sun. It was just wonderful to have that little garden, and woods, rivers and lakes nearby.

 

Before my current job, I worked as a picture and sound editor in the film industry, and then taught adult education and secondary schools. In my first year of high school teaching at Vancouver Technical Secondary School (which now has another Fresh Roots schoolyard farm), I realized there was nowhere for the kids to be outside, even though the school has a huge campus. There were no rocks, logs, picnic tables or anything for kids to sit on outdoors. When I taught summer school in the stifling July heat, I didn’t want the kids to be inside for a four-hour class every day, but the only place we could use as an outdoor classroom was the very noisy front lawn of the school, facing a busy street. So I started a campaign for a school garden. We had parents, teachers, students, administrators and others all around the neighbourhood coming to weekly meetings to plan this garden. We had science students measuring where the shadow fell on our proposed courtyard garden and mapping where the rain went. We had drafting students creating 3D tours of our potential garden. Many people in the school and neighbourhood were involved.

 

Then they laid off all the new teachers in the district and shuffled them around. I got moved to a different school, which did have a nice school garden. The school garden project at Van Tech was halted when a few of us left the school. We were ready to make this garden, we had raised money for it, we had plans that had been approved by the school board, we had a landscape architect who had helped us draw up the plans — everything was ready to go, but then it got stalled, for 12 years! I live right near the school, and would walk by there every day, glance at this sterile concrete courtyard, and picture it green and leafy. Then, miraculously, some teachers still at the school kept the idea of the garden alive, and new teachers took up the campaign for a Van Tech school garden. They took our plans, refurbished them, and it happened!

 

What’s more, by the time I was at UBC, Mark Schutzbank, who was a graduate student in the Orchard Garden, joined together with Ilana Labow and got the Fresh Roots farm going at Van Tech. Now I get a CSA box from that schoolyard farm. It’s a full circle. There are other Fresh Roots connections: Galen Taylor-Jones was a student working at the UBC Orchard Garden; Tathali Urueta did her doctoral dissertation about the Orchard Garden and the UBC Farm. These gardens have become the basis for a really strong community all over Greater Vancouver and beyond. There has been a wonderful evolution of the whole idea of growing and eating healthy food at school, and learning curriculum outdoors with the living world in a school garden.

 

What motivates you to keep doing what you do? 

For me, the most uplifting experience is being part of an intergenerational community, discovering things about our world and finding joy in being together outdoors, learning together, and making and eating food together. There are all the unexpected things that happen when you have workshops and classes in the garden. All of a sudden there are eagles overhead, hummingbirds diving, a field mouse, an amazing rainbow over the garden [laughs], or it suddenly starts to rain. All the unexpected happenings become part of the learning and part of the curriculum. I remember one student teacher who was really keen to learn gardening, but who described herself growing up as “a Nintendo kid”, letting herself into the apartment with a latchkey on a string around her neck and playing Nintendo until her mom got home. She hadn’t had many opportunities to be outdoors, and couldn’t tell a carrot from lettuce growing in the garden at first, but she learned very quickly. When I see people go through that transformation, from wherever they’re starting from to a much greater degree of familiarity and knowledge, and knowing that they’re going to teach this to their students over the next 25 or 30 years as they teach, it seems to me there is plenty of hope for the world. Something very concrete we do right now may have a beneficial influence years into the future.

 

How does your work relate to food systems or the environment?

I see more and more that people live their lives inside looking at screens, out of touch with the world of living things that we are part of and that we depend on, and that’s all around us. I think if people get too far out of touch with what sustains us, we may start to jeopardize our existence on Earth and the endanger life on the planet. It’s really important that kids grow up with an embodied, sensory, knowledgeable, kinship way of relating to all life on Earth. Knowing where our food comes from, knowing what keeps us healthy and alive, and what keeps all the other beings on earth healthy and alive is so important, and kids only understand that through lots of experiential, outdoor learning.

School gardens are particularly great because you don’t have to rent a bus or buy special gear to get involved, as you might need to do for other kinds of outdoor adventures like camping, mountain climbing and kayaking. Those activities are wonderful and memorable, but they are often a once-a-year kind of experience for kids. The school garden can be there all the way through the year, even in the summertime. It’s right outside the doors of the school. It can bring observation and empathy of the world of living things to kids every day, though all the seasons of the year.

I have the opportunity to work with teachers who, over the course of their careers, reach thousands of students and their families. Everyone in our society cares and is affected by what happens in the schools. I’m really encouraged by the whole worldwide school gardening movement as a way to bring kids into relationship with the world. My own philosophy leans towards permaculture and organic gardening, working without pesticides, herbicides or heavy machinery. We can go with the flow of nature as much as we’re able to and not destroy soil, insects and pollinators. I’m keen to get rid of the concept of ‘weeds’, and to see all plants as potential allies, that generously offer us food, medicine, fibres and more.

 

What advice would you give to your younger self, or to youth today? 

We are living in a time of extremes like the climate crisis and the COVID pandemic. But if you have an awareness of history, most people’s lifetimes do have extreme times in them. I would advise young people to have hope, and to work in small and large ways to make this the world you want to live in. My shorthand motto for this is “Ride bikes, grow food, make music” — though of course, it might be a different configuration for each person (“Swim, storm watch, sketch”? “Sing, cook, go birdwatching”?) Connect with your friends and community and plan for a future of wellbeing, for our society, for individuals and for all our non-human kin. Through your senses, being aware of where you are and beginning to learn, you can have the most amazing moments of wonder and awe and joy, no matter what else is happening. The natural world keeps going and it’s incredibly beautiful and inspiring. So just let yourself be inspired.

 


Click here to see the full list of Science Odyssey activities

Facebook: www.facebook.com/ScienceOdyssey/

Twitter: @Sci_Od

Instagram: @Sci_Od

Hashtag: #OdySci

Sky, Sun, Seasons & Shadows: On May 11th 3:30-4:30pm PST, join Fresh Roots and Susan Gerofsky online to learn how we can use schoolyard farms to promote science education. Register at https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/sky-sun-seasons-shadows-tickets-152781001087

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Spotlight on Scientists: Dr. Hasina Samji

By Andrea Lucy, Experiential Learning Program Lead

Promotional poster for Science Odyssey. The photo depicts a person's head opening to reveal drawn science symbols, such as a rocket ship and atom. The text reads "Science Odyssey. Join the Adventure! May 1-16, 2020" To celebrate this year’s Science Odyssey, Canada’s biggest science and technology festival, we are highlighting amazing scientists from across the country! Young adult staff members at Fresh Roots interviewed inspiring individuals contributing to science, to learn more about their personal and professional journey, career, and what advice they have for youth. These scientists surprise and delight us with their unique topics and backgrounds, and the unexpected ways their work connects back to healthy food systems and a healthy environment. 

 


 Interview with Dr. Hasina Samji

Dr. A headshot of Dr. Hasina Samji posed outside, wearing a suit and smiling at the camera.Hasina Samji (she/her) is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University and a Senior Scientist at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control. She is an epidemiologist trained at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Samji leads the CHART Lab’s Youth Development Instrument (YDI), an interdisciplinary study measuring predictors of positive youth well-being, mental health, and development in high school students in collaboration with the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP-UBC), community, clinical and policy partners, and youth themselves. The YDI will identify skill-development and structural supports for mental illness prevention and positive trajectories for young people. She is also the co-Principal Investigator of the Personal Impacts of COVID-19 Survey (PICS) study in partnership with Anxiety Canada and BC Children’s Hospital to measure the population-level mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The PICS study is currently open to anyone over the age of 8 interested in participating. 

 

We have a tradition at Fresh Roots of starting our conversations with this question: What vegetable do you feel like today?

Well, I feel like today I’m channelling a beet, basically because I’m wearing a bright purple shirt. I chose to wear bright purple today because it’s been a little rainy, and I wanted something bright and fun.

 

Can you describe your work as an epidemiologist? 

[laughs] I laugh because up until last year, I used to get a lot of, “Oh, you’re an epidemiologist, that’s like a skin doctor, right?” I see how you got there, like epidermis? Yeah, okay, close. But now with the COVID pandemic, I don’t have to explain what an epidemiologist is as much. Broadly, it’s a person who looks at the distribution and determinants of disease in a population. What I like about epidemiology is it doesn’t just stop at measuring risk factors for disease, but also what can be done to improve prevention and control of these. This applies to not just diseases, but any kind of health outcomes. 

With the CHART Lab, what we’re looking at primarily is among young people, what are some of the positive factors that promote lifelong health? What are resilience factors for youth which protect against adversity? What are the experiences and resources that we can build upon to help youth thrive? To answer these questions, we look at individual-level factors such as emotional and social intelligence. I’m also very interested in structural factors. I’ve found youth to be quite underserved in services, especially mental health services. We do focus groups with young adults, and they say “We’re basically ignored unless we’re in crisis mode, and then people kind of pay some attention to us”. And I thought that’s really not fair. With the CHART Lab team, we work to improve access to services for young people, earlier in the lifecourse.

 

What was your path to becoming an epidemiologist and working in public health?

Initially, I wanted to work in international health, to go abroad and do international development work. Right after my undergraduate degree, I went to Karachi, Pakistan, where I initially knew no one, to volunteer at the Aga Khan University. One of my projects was to work with a community health center located in an urban slum environment, called a katchi abadi, where we held a cleanliness day. When we visited the slum there were bottles and plastic bags everywhere in the streets, but when you got invited into people’s homes, they were spotless. Keeping your home is important, but you also don’t want your kids playing in the garbage right outside your home. Kids were playing in muddy puddles that were not just mud. So, we held the cleanliness day in partnership with the community and local schools and we walked through the streets and cleaned them up. What was really positive from that experience was the mayor and community organizations were able to come together, not only to clean up the street. They were also able to negotiate a water pipeline that previously hadn’t gone through because it needed cooperation from many different partners. The cleanliness day event helped bring people together at a table and build that kind of community support. My experience in Karachi was really pivotal for learning about community engagement. 

I later did my PhD in infectious disease epidemiology and was really passionate about HIV at that point. I had volunteered after coming back from Karachi to Vancouver, on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside at an organization called Vancouver Native Health Society that provides HIV services for people who are Indigenous. That was incredibly eye-opening. I remember I went to a talk at BC Children’s Hospital about international and global health, and they said, “You want to do international health? You just need to look in your own backyard”. I thought, “Ah, yes, you are absolutely right.” There’s work that has to be done here as well and huge disparities in our local populations. 

There were lots of amazing experiences that shaped my path into working with underserved populations, including people living with HIV, people using drugs, and now with a focus on upstream prevention with children and youth. 

 

What motivates you to keep doing what you do? 

I’m always amazed at how there are such immense health inequities, even here in the context of tremendous wealth in comparison to other places., There still are huge gaps and people whose voices are not being heard. I’m lucky to be in a position where I can work collaboratively to make a difference.

 

How does your work relate to food systems or the environment?

We have a lot of interest in our team in looking at the climate crisis. We started with a paper that was a call to action looking at the mental health impacts of the climate crisis for young people. We followed that up with questions in our survey, the Youth Development Instrument (YDI), asking young people about the impacts of the climate crisis to their mental health. We asked them to rank problems in the world, and in Canada, and certainly, pollution and the climate crisis come out on top for young people. 

We’re also really interested in food security for young people, because no young person should go hungry. No one should go hungry, frankly. We also ask about eating habits, asking about whether they eat breakfast? Do they have five servings of fruits and vegetables daily? We want to know how young people are eating because that is one of the things that really sets people up for success, along with good sleep and positive social connections. It also makes you feel so much better when you’re eating well, exercising, getting outside. Do young people get a chance to go out in nature? Because we know that’s such an important coping mechanism.

 

What advice would you give to your younger self, or to youth today? 

I can answer for both young people and myself. Your job or your career is not going to be linear, and you shouldn’t expect it to be. Imagine you got your dream job right out of undergrad, or high school, or whatever your training may be, would you really want to do that for the next 50 years of your life? No, that would be incredibly boring! Remember, it’s not about getting to the end, it’s about what you learn along the way. When I was doing my undergraduate degree, Ruth Simmons, the first black female President of an Ivy League school, said “learning should be uncomfortable,” and that always stuck with me. If you’re not being challenged, you’re not growing.

I would also highly recommend young people to volunteer in different projects. For me, that was really invaluable in terms of learning what was it that interested me. Which populations do you want to work with? The planet is sort of a population [laughs]. Getting a sense of what motivates you is important to know, and you need to expose yourself to many different avenues. Talk to people. If there’s something that seems of interest to you, most people will be very open to meeting with you for coffee or a quick chat. My advice would be to start thinking about those things earlier. What’s next? What am I interested in? There are so many different career paths out there.

 

Is there anything else you would like to share? 

One of the reasons I’m so excited to work with young people is I’m constantly inspired by young people. We have a Youth Advisory Committee of 15 youth from across the province for the YDI, and I look forward to those meetings more than any other meeting I have. They bring so much energy and they know, in many cases, what challenges there are and how they should be addressed in such a straightforward way. One of the joys of my job now is getting to work directly with young people in our province, and getting to learn from them and collaborate with them.

 


Click here to see the full list of Science Odyssey activities

Facebook: www.facebook.com/ScienceOdyssey/

Twitter: @Sci_Od

Instagram: @Sci_Od

Hashtag: #OdySci

Sky, Sun, Seasons & Shadows: On May 11th 3:30-4:30pm PST, join Fresh Roots and Susan Gerofsky online to learn how we can use schoolyard farms to promote science education. Register at https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/sky-sun-seasons-shadows-tickets-152781001087

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Science Odyssey: Join the Adventure! (May 1 – 16, 2021)

You are invited to join Fresh Roots as we take part in Science Odyssey, a ten-day celebration of discovery and innovation that engages and inspires Canadians of all ages with activities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics!

Sky, Sun, Seasons & Shadows

  • Date: May 11, 2021
  • Time: 3:30 to 4:30 PM (PST)
  • Location: Online via Zoom
  • Description: How can we use schoolyard farms as a space for garden-based learning to promote science education? Susan Gerofsky – an associate professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC) with a background in mathematics and experiential education will walk us through a workshop filmed on one of the Fresh Roots Schoolyard Farms located at David Thompson Secondary School in Vancouver, BC. Targeted at elementary and high school educators, this online event will be recorded and presented over Zoom and hosted by Fresh Roots youth empowerment and experiential learning specialists with plenty of time for questions throughout!
  • Link to Register: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/sky-sun-seasons-shadows-tickets-152781001087

Spotlight on Scientists!

  • Date: May 1-16, 2021
  • Location: Fresh Roots Website
  • Description: To celebrate this year’s Science Odyssey, Canada’s biggest science and technology festival, we are highlighting amazing scientists from across the country! Young adult staff members at Fresh Roots interviewed inspiring individuals contributing to science, to learn more about their personal and professional journey, career, and what advice they have for youth. These scientists surprise and delight us with their unique topics and backgrounds, and the unexpected ways their work connects back to healthy food systems and a healthy environment.
  • Link to View: Spotlight on Scientists!

About Science Odyssey

Led by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Science Odyssey brings together hundreds of fun and engaging activities across the country from Saturday, May 1 to Sunday, May 16, 2021. Events range from science in the streets, visits to labs, science fairs, talks and conferences, school field trips, encounters with scientists and engineers, special exhibits at museums and science centres, scientific events at community organizations, online activities, and much more. 

Consult the full list of Science Odyssey activities.

Social media links:

Facebook: www.facebook.com/ScienceOdyssey/

Twitter: @Sci_Od

Instagram: @Sci_Od

Hashtag: #OdySci