U of T program provides national leadership on science and engineering engagement

people holding a ring in a team building exercise

This month, 20 top researchers from across Canada get the opportunity to polish their communication and leadership skills at the University of Toronto’s 2015 Science Leadership Program (SLP)—an intensive two-day experience that equips participants with the tools to promote the importance of their research to the public, the media and government decision-makers.

Directed by University of Toronto Professor Molly Shoichet  of chemical engineering and IBBME, senior advisor to the president on Science and Engineering Engagement, the program welcomes invited scientists from research-intensive institutions – including the universities of Calgary, Waterloo, McGill, Ottawa, Manitoba, York, as well as U of T – to take part in a series of hands-on training sessions, discussion panels and interactive opportunities. Now in its third year, the program is sponsored by Science & Engineering Engagement at U of T and the Connaught Fund.

“The program is designed to give professors, in a diversity of science and engineering fields, the opportunity to hone their leadership and communication skills,” says Shoichet, a recipient of this year’s prestigious L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award. “We are bringing in experts from around the world to lead several interactive workshops, while at the same time we’re giving professors the chance to test their skills on expert communicators.”

The program, from April 22-24, is intense. Participants will take part in practical training sessions on outreach, leadership and communications. Nancy Houfek, formerly from the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University, will teach participants how to best use their voice and body. A session by The Barefoot Company will teach them how to articulate ideas most effectively and how to lead a research team of different personalities.

Ivan Semeniuk, a veteran science reporter at the Globe and Mail, will deliver a highly engaging “Science Communications Primer” that examines what makes scientists and journalists the same, yet different, in their quest for truth. His talk will be followed by a panel discussion with leading communicators on effective story-telling and how to keep the message on point when speaking to the public, media and government.

Beginning in 2013, the Science Leadership Program began is part of U of T’s Science and Engineering Engagement program, an initiative that aims to raise awareness of U of T’s teaching and research strength in science and engineering.

The SLP is the only one of its kind in Canada and among a handful throughout North America. Each year, U of T selects 20 applicants to take part in the program who are typically professors in the early- or mid-stage of their careers in science, engineering, social science or medicine.

An impressive roster of participants in the 2015 program

One of this year’s participants, Professor Naomi Matsuura from the U of T Faculty of Medicine, is widely recognized as an expert in cancer nanotechnology. Also cross-appointed to the Department of Materials Science & Engineering, her research explores how medical imaging radiation and new materials can interact and be used to detect and treat cancer.

As a scientist, Matsuura confesses that she has had challenges in trying to explain her complex research to lay people while staying true to its scientific authenticity. But a key motivation for applying to the SLP is her realization that scientists need to help the public understand why research matters, especially in light of recent government cuts to the funding of basic research.

“I applied to this program to learn how to better communicate the expected advances that will arise from publicly-funded research such as my own, so that the general public, who will be the ultimate beneficiaries of our research, will come to appreciate and, hopefully lobby for, continued high-level basic research initiatives in Canada,” she says.

Professor David Cramb, head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Calgary, is a much sought-after lecturer on the study of nanoscience. His research involves using fluorescence and molecular-scale imaging technology to assess the therapeutic potential of nanoparticles and track toxicological risk factors in avian and aquatic species.

Cramb says he applied to the SLP to gain more experience in talking about science policy with the media, politicians and the general public. He is most excited about “meeting like-minded people who are passionate about telling the great stories of Canadian science.”

Professor Edmond Young (MIE), who joined U of T’s Department of Mechanical & Industrial Engineering in January 2013, had heard great things about the program from his colleagues who had taken part in previous years, and he wanted to experience it himself.

“I’m hoping to broaden my horizons beyond the scientific work, and become better at seeing the bigger picture,” says Young, whose award-winning research focuses on creating engineered models that mimic the cell and tissue microenvironments of the body. “It’s very important to engage the public and keep them informed about all the exciting research work that’s being done, and how it can impact their daily lives.”

Shoichet is encouraging all of the invitees to come with “an open mind and soak up as much of the program” as they can.

“This program is designed to enhance our skills, develop our thinking and ultimately give us the tools to be more effective in research and its communication,” she says. “There is a fantastic group coming this year—I’m looking forward to getting to know them all.”

Participants in the 2015 Science Leadership Program include:

  • Morgan Barense, Associate Professor, Psychology & Baycrest RRI; CRC, University of Toronto
  • Xudong Cao, Professor; Assistant Director, Chemical & Biological Engineering, University of Ottawa
  • David Cramb, Professor; Head of Chemistry, University of Calgary
  • Annemieke Farenhorst, Professor, Soil Science; Prairie NSERC Chair for Women in Science & Engineering, University of Manitoba
  • Guy Faulkner, Professor, Kinesiology & Physical Education, University of Toronto
  • Michel Fich, Professor, Physics & Astronomy, University of Waterloo
  • Tara Gomes, Scientist; Assistant Professor, Pharmacy, St. Michaels’ Hospital; University of Toronto
  • Jane Heffernan, Associate Professor, Mathematics & Statistics; York Research Chair, York University
  • Naomi Matsuura, Assistant Professor, Medical Imaging/Materials Science & Engineering, University of Toronto
  • Mandy Meriano, Senior Lecturer, Environmental Science, University of Toronto Scarborough
  • Joshua Milstein, Assistant Professor, Chemical & Physical Sciences, University of Toronto Mississauga
  • Stella Ng, Director, Research & Scientist, Centre for Faculty Development, Medicine, University of Toronto
  • Navindra Persaud, Lecturer, Family & Community Medicine, University of Toronto
  • Mary Pugh, Associate Professor, Mathematics, University of Toronto
  • Nathaniel Quitoriano, Assistant Professor, Materials Engineering , McGill University
  • Tom Schweizer, Director, Neuroscience Research Program; Assistant Professor, Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering and Neurosurgery, St. Michaels’ Hospital; University of Toronto
  • Adam Steinberg, Assistant Professor, Institute for Aerospace Studies, University of Toronto
  • Franco Taverna, Senior Lecturer, Human Biology Program, University of Toronto
  • Derek Wilson, Associate Professor, Chemistry, York University
  • Edmond Young, Associate Professor, Mechanical & Industrial Engineering, University of Toronto
 

Laurie Stephens