Transcending the Boundaries of Social Distancing

May 2020
| ANDREW CHURCHILL and INGRID CHIRAZ

Macdonald Campus Graduate Students Transcend the Boundaries of Social Distancing Through the Lister Science Chats!

For three years the generous gift of the late E. Edward Lister, BSc(Agr)’55, MSc’57, and his wife, Teresa, has supported over 50 workshops and events offering dynamic science communication training to more than 240 Macdonald Campus students.

The Lister Science Chats were part of an outreach effort to provide an active teaching and learning space for high school students who found themselves out of school and with few live learning opportunities, due to the current COVID-19 crisis. Participation also extended to members of the general public who were interested in the students’ field of research.

The first Lister Science Chats series connected high school students and the general public with Macdonald Campus graduate researchers who animated general science concepts by sharing ongoing research projects on polar bear survival, food waste, sustainable hydroponics and wildfire management.

Throughout the month of April over 70 people attended the Chats, exploring four very different fields of research, but the presenters began their work in January. Under the coaching of Dr. Andrew Churchill, along with the support of the Lister Family Engaged Science Initiative and the Office of Student Academic Services, four graduate students worked on their research narratives and presentation skills. Topics ranged from identifying key takeaways to hone content and focus slide development to developing more effective voice, body language and engagement skills. Highlights from the talks included audience members testing their newly acquired knowledge by answering a series of poll questions on amusing concepts like apex predators and plant care, as well as more multifaceted ones like crispiness and megafires.

Judging from participant feedback, they enjoyed the experience.

  • “That was excellent. Loved every minute of it. Very sleek and professional.”
  • “This can be shared and enjoyed by many people. Loved the quiz questions, keeps the engagement.”
  • Thank you – really enjoyed it and appreciate the effort this series is making to present research to a range of audiences.”

“Why Study the Polar Bear Gut Microbiome?” – Megan Franz, an MSc student from the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, magnified the value of studying microorganisms in the polar bear’s gut to understand the current diet shifts.

“Ears that See: Acoustic Imaging for Food Quality Evaluation” – Jacob Tizhe Liberty, a PhD candidate from the Department of Bioresource Engineering, tapped watermelons to demonstrate the sound of their ripeness and amplified the complexity of crispiness.

“Hydroponics 2.0 for Farmers of Tomorrow” – Vincent Desaulniers Brousseau, a PhD candidate from the Department of Bioresource Engineering, deciphered the coding and technology behind effective hydroponic farming practices that could produce higher yields without increasing fertilizer use.

“Tracking Forest Fires from Space” – Morgan Crowley, a PhD candidate from the Department of Natural Resource Sciences, took a bird’s-eye view from space to map actively burning fires with multiple data sets of satellite imaging to help wildfire planning and response. 


The Lister Science Chats achieved all of its goals: making research accessible to a wide audience, particularly students; providing a forum to motivate graduate researchers to study and practice valuable communication skills; empowering those same students with a platform to bring their research into the homes of participants. We are presently working to develop a year-long series of Lister Science Chats for high school students and are currently searching for collaborations with school boards and their science teachers.

Judging from one high school science teacher participant, we know that we can be successful:

 “First, thanks to you and the team for putting this lecture series into a format that we were able to learn and enjoy. Out of our collective crisis comes a joy. The individuals I saw were excellent. As important, the vision this program has created is powerful.”

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