Never Leave Canada Without It

In addition to absolute essentials like passport and credit card, there is one thing that I always try to bring with me when I leave Canada. A Canadian five dollar bill.

No, it’s not a universally accepted currency, and no it is not some sort of Get Out of Jail Free card (Monopoly money and a Canadian $5 bill probably have about the same international bribe value). You see, I’m not an overly patriotic person, and I would much rather see a border or a wall come down than see someone celebrate that they are on one side or another. That said, I am very proud of two Canadian symbols/items, including our $5 bill. Why? Take a look at what is on one side:

space canadarm on canadian money

That’s right, the Canadarm2, an astronaut, and SPACE!!!! It’s pretty rare that you see anything space or science related on currency, so I think this is pretty cool. Whenever people ask what Canadian money looks like, which has happened to me a surprising number of times, I show them that yes it has funny colours*, but it also has some science-y stuff on it.

Admittedly, it doesn’t have as much science as it could. Travis Purrington feels the same way about American money, which is why he redesigned all the bills to have science on them for his masters thesis. Check out his re-imagined $5 bill, with neurons on one side and agriculture on the other:


What a simple, beautiful way to sneak science into everyone’s pocket.

While we’re talking (okay, while I’m ranting) about science as a part of national identities: what is the deal with flags? If an alien had to piece together what the abundance and distribution of living species on Earth is like, lets hope they don’t have to base that understanding from what we put on our flags.

Of all of the flags with animals on them, there seem to be a lot of lions, at least 102. Some of those lions even have wings (note: not science). There are flags within Canada that have lions on them, and if you’re wondering, lions are not and never were one of the three wildcat species in Canada. There are at least 94 flags with birds of prey, many of which have two heads. Hell, there are almost as many flags with entirely mythical creatures (33) like unicorns and dragons as there are flags showing off plants in general (42).

Last time I checked, Unicorns and dragons were less common on Earth than fish, but our flags suggest otherwise. Also, I couldn’t even find a single flag with an insect, microbe, or a fungi on it. Maybe that doesn’t surprise you, but our fictional alien spectator would have no idea that microbes are make up the majority of life on earth (by weight and also just by sheer number). She would probably think that Earth was inhabited mostly by lions and eagles.

If I had a country, dont worry – this is also hypothetical, I would love to have a species on my country’s flag, but I would put some scientific thought into it. If leaf cutter ants were local, they would look sweet on my flag, otherwise in a more northern climate, I might chose a lichen. Both cases are really cool examples of symbiosis: different organisms and different species working together to achieve something neither could do on their own. I think that using this sort of symbolism would show the unity of a country more than one of lone predation (RE: eagles). Not saying my country could be communist, just saying that we would have a sweet flag.

No matter how good of a depiction of a lichen that flag would have, it would probably just end up in people asking what a lichen was. This is great! Perhaps those people would even learning something about biology! Objects can be science communication catalysts.

This brings things back around to one other Canadian symbol touch patriotic about. Did I mention I like plants? Wait, is that a leaf?

canadian flag

*In Canada, we spell color with a ‘u’, by the way.

The Power of Plant Farts

Photo Cred: EURAXESS

The videos from last month’s EURAXESS North American Science Slam are now online! The idea of a science slam is to present your research in an entertaining way. Anything goes: singing, dancing, live experiments, whatever you can imagine. You can think of it as more of a performance than a presentation. You can check out my 10-minute talk, titled ‘The Power of Plant Farts’ below, and follow along on the slides here*.

Yeah, my talk has ‘farts’ in the title, and I ask for a volunteer to make some crude estimate involving a balloon, but hey, I had fun. That is what its all about, right? I mean, if we are going to tell our scientific stories in a way that we don’t enjoy telling, then who is going to enjoy listening? Either way, the silliness panned out for me: I won a trip to Europe!

In other news, last week the university I go to published an article about that talk and about my love for science communication. Check it out too!

*Made this into a small file, so things don’t quite show up as they should.. also, I do not claim copyright on any of these images.

Best. Conference. Ever!

I’ve written more than once about the fact that most research isn’t accessible to the majority of people on Earth. It sucks. About 80% of research is funded by the public, and only about 20% is accessible.

Well, last weekend I was able to go and learn a whole lot more about this whole ‘Open’ business/approach/revolution/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. Thanks to support from CARL, I was able to attend OpenCon 2014 in Washington DC, a conference on Open Access, Open Data, and Open Educational Resources. I shot a lot of footage while I was there, so I intend to make those categories clear with a video link as soon as I’ve edited that.

In the meantime, you can take a look at my notes – which I’ve posted as a google doc – and get a bit of a sense of what people were talking about. You can also search twitter for #OpenCon2014, if you have the patience to go through some thousands of excited tweets.

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 8.36.52 PM

We were about 175 early career researchers from 40 countries, brought together to learn about and advocate for openness in academia. We had some incredible talks on the schedule, and we even spent a day meeting with staff members and elected officials of congress and advocating for change. Thanks again to everyone who made this conference happen!

Academia has a long way to go to be open, but this conference was more than a little encouraging. Things are changing fast, and the push for Open is gaining real momentum.

There were many things that set this conference apart from any other I have been to, and I think the general reason became clear to me right in the closing speeches. Mike Carroll of Creative Commons referred to the attendees as ‘OpenCon 2014 Alumni’, and at first I thought this sounded like an awkward and pretentious thing to say, but then it hit me: this conference was much more like a short-course than any other conference I’ve been to. This was certainly one of the differences that made it so particularly delectable.

When they post the videos from the conference, I’ll be sure to scoot back here and post the link, so that everyone will have access.