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Interview with Dawn Bazely

📷 Adventure Canada

Journalist: Romina Mahinpei

Romina: Welcome to SciSection. I'm Romina, your journalist for this week's episode. We are here today with Dr. Dawn Bazely who's a professor of biology at York University and the former director of the Institute of Research Innovation and Sustainability. Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Bazely.

Dawn: Hi Romina, and please call me Dawn because you can do that because. Dr. Bazely is taking up too many syllables and we are going to be colleagues and citizen scientists together. Of course, a lot of your professors are going to want you to call them professor, and that's important too. We have to respect that, but for me, I'm happy for you to just call me Dawn during this interview.

Romina: Alrighty, that's great to know. Thank you Dawn for sharing that. And to start, I do have two rapid fire questions for you. The first question is who is one of your role models in the scientific community?

Dawn: Well, I have so many role models, but it's always good to be pushed to think of one. So, because you're going to UBC, I am going to choose a retired biology professor who wasn't retired when I worked with her. Her name is professor Judy or Judith Myers, and she is an entomologist, that's an insect biologist, who was a professor at UBC for many, many years. And in fact, Judy and I wrote a book together that was published in 2003, but we started writing it when I was a graduate student doing my PhD in Oxford university in the eighties. And it's a book about invasive plants, but we were both interested in plant defenses when she was on sabbatical with her family, in Oxford zoology. And she said to me, one day, you know what, I'm writing a book and maybe you'd like to come work through it with me. And I would have been honestly 26 or 27 at the time and I was so bowled over and we have worked together for decades now. And so, Professor Judy Meyers from UBC is a role model who showed me so many things and mentored me and coached me about so many things. So that is my role model for today.

Romina: That's amazing to hear. And obviously I think for a lot of students, mentors plays such a huge role, and I'm glad to see that you had a mentor through that process as well. And now for our second question, a slightly harder one, what do you think has been one of the most important scientific discoveries?

Dawn: I would like to nominate something that most people don't even think about, but over the decades, has made my life hugely easier as a field biologist. And that is the plain old Ziplock sandwich bag. So yes. So when I was an undergraduate, at the end of my third year, this is going back to the distant past, you know, practically to prehistoric times, but it was actually 1980 and that was my first field season being a student research assistant in the sub-arctic on the shores of Hudson Bay, near East Churchill. I was collecting grass samples and mud samples. And in those days we were digging them up. I was helping, assisting a master's student in a University of Toronto lab, out at a field station, run by Queen's University in Kingston, and we had to dig up these little bits of grass turf. And we had to put them into sandwich bags to bring them back to the lab and wash the grass, cut the grass, wash it and sort it out. And in those days, there were no Ziplocks. So you had to kind of put, and it was really cold and windy and wet, and you had to kind of put these samples into the sandwich bags and get out your twist tie and try to close the bag. Cause you were maybe collecting 12 or 15 of these samples and then they would like leak in your backpack. And when zip hooked bags came along, I'm like, wow, these are amazing. I wish I had these. When I started out being an undergraduate biology field assistant. A close runner up, I would say, would be Velcro, which is of course based on a plant, hooks of seeds, which invented Velcro and post-it notes and post it notes were actually... Cause don't you use post-it notes a lot? I bet you do.

Romina: For sure. Like for reminders and everything all the time.

Dawn: And now there's even giant post-it notes, which are like 12 inches by 12. They're great. I love them. And that was actually a mistake in somebody who was partly trying to invent a glue and they found this glue that just didn't hold for very long. And I think that I read the story. It could be apocryphal. It could be like an urban myth, but I heard that that was what then was used for post-it notes. So there you go. That's my top three discoveries.

Romina: And now, could you tell our audience who might not know, could you give us a summary of your educational path and how it led you to where you are today?

Dawn: Oh, that's a really important question for so many students. So, let me start out by saying that I am the first person in my family and immediate family and extended family to go to university. So that has been interesting. I was born in India. My family is Anglo-Indian, so that is sort of a community that dates back a couple of hundred years at least. And they immigrated, my parents immigrated to England when I was like one and a half and I grew up in London and I went to basically the equivalent of an inner city school. And I always really loved looking at birds and plants, but you know, I was looking at sparrows and weeds. I never really got out into the country much. And then my parents immigrated to Canada and I went to high school in Mississauga, which is a huge city suburb west of Toronto. So again, not super rural or in the middle of nowhere kind of thing or distant. But when I was an undergraduate, I went to the University of Toronto. My parents kind of expected me to either do engineering or be a doctor. And of course that was kind of a problem because I didn't really want to be an engineer and I hated the sight of blood. So when I started out in biology, I very quickly said, I don't think I want to do that. So then I discovered ecology and geography and I loved that. That was fantastic. And I was really fortunate to be invited by a professor in Sergio to go up to the Arctic on the NSERC, that's the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research council of Canada, had instituted their summer undergraduate award. And I was the first cohort to apply for it and receive one. And that helped to fund me to be a field assistant where I grappled with baggies that were not Ziplock bags. And after that I thought, wow, you know, I would love to do more of this research. I discovered that I loved being outdoors, even though my family was not particularly outdoorsy. I'd always been interested in nature. And then I discovered that there were ways of having a job and a career that could allow you to travel and see cool places. So I did my master's of science at the University of Toronto. I had a backup plan. I also wrote my GMAT for my MBA because in case I didn't get in and I always said, well, if I'm going to get scholarships to do this and I'm going to carry on. (But) my parents were saying, what are you doing? How is this a career? I just carried on! Anyway, I just did it, kind of ignored them. And then after, I did my master's of science back in the sub-arctic, so I spent five summers on the Tundra. I was even carrying a gun because there were polar bears eating our experiments. So that was really cool. Then I went to Oxford University. I got scholarships to go to Australia to study grazing animals. I had been working on grasses, grasses eaten by animals like geese, either two legs or four legs. I don't really do animals with more than four legs, but I do a little bit now. And then I went to Oxford University and I studied sheep grazing behaviour, how sheep can tell the difference between different kinds of grasses. And after that, a couple of years, I actually started applying for positions as an assistant professor. And I wanted to come back to Canada, could have stayed in England, but I was really excited to come to York University because York is a very new university, unlike all these super old universities that I'd been at, Oxford and I was at Cambridge for awhile, and I felt that York was somewhere I could make a real difference. So that's me. And I've been there for 30 years.

Romina: Wow. Amazing. Thank you for sharing your fascinating journey as well. And obviously it's very clear that you understand the importance and the value of research. So, why would you say that it's important for students to get involved with research and what are your tips relating to that?

Dawn: So, I think everyone is born a scientist because you're a baby and you grow up and you look at the world and you're all asking questions (for example) when your parents say don't touch the hot stove and you want to go touch it, burn your hand. That's kind of a scientific experiment, right?

Dawn: That's not a good one, but it is. So we're always asking questions. And what the scientific method does is it just gives us a template and a recipe for getting results, doing experiments, and then checking on those experiments again. So everyone can be a scientist and everyone can be a citizen scientist. When we do more formal science like at universities, the traditional western science, we follow a playbook, right? So when you're in high school and you're learning how to do a chemistry experiment and you write it up, you write up your observations, you've collected data and that is learning how to do science in the particular way that we do it in Canadian universities and science departments, but everyone can be an amateur scientist. And I think the important thing is to keep curiosity alive. What I would say about science is the kind of science that we do as science professors, as professional scientists is 1% fun and inspiration and 99% totally boring tedium because you're being really precise in how you collect the data. You want somebody else to repeat your experiments, see if they get the same results or is it different? We're actually seeing a lot of new science being rolled out right now in this pandemic, because this is a novel virus. We've never seen it before. We don't know how it behaves and it's really impacting our lives. So there's this massive scientific research effort that's going on. So we're seeing science unfold in real time, in multiple ways.

Dawn: So, everyone can do science.

Dawn: When you get over into professional science, it becomes just kind of very tedious and we just have to bear with that and be persistent and not give up. And there's a lot of failure and we have to be spurred by failure. And you know what, when you get to a certain point, you learn more from failure than from success, right? You look at your mistakes, you figure out what did I do wrong? How can I do that again? But it's important for the public to understand the scientific process and that science is a process. It's not a factor or a result, and it's a conversation and it's done within a community. So there's really no such thing as this lone scientific genius or even just somebody had this one brilliant idea. You can bet your bottom dollar that person that got the Nobel Prize, somebody else was asking those same questions. And that person happened to be in the right time, the right place to get the right result with the right support. And then they got the Nobel Prize, but it doesn't mean that there weren't a ton of other people doing similar research. So it is super important that we all be part of this process, definitely, especially now with the pandemic.

Romina: Oh, a hundred percent. And I know that you beforehand, you were mentioning a little bit about things that students learn incorrectly in high school. Do you mind sharing just a little bit about that? Because I'm sure that our undergraduate listeners would love to know what they can do that they've been told not to do.

Dawn: Right. So let's start by talking about who controls knowledge and data. I'm sure that sometimes when your listeners were in high school and they were like trying to go above and beyond for their essay for history or chemistry or whatever, and they got into something called Google Scholar, which gives a glimpse into the academic scholarly research literature, and they clicked on a link to take them to a scientific paper. And it says, you need to pay $45 to read this article. Did that ever happen to you?

Romina: Yeah, I've actually have had a few of those situations.

Dawn: You just hit what we call a pay wall. And when you become a science student at a university, of course you get a student number and you get access to the library and your library is paying hundreds and thousands of dollars, a massive budget to get access to these peer review journals. So you can get access to those articles without paying $45 to download it and read it. And of course in Canada, a lot of the research, most of the research, is funded by taxpayer money. So there's this conversation, and I'm part of it, that we should make our research open access and available for people who want to read it, especially the research that has gone through fact checking and peer review and been done really carefully. And, you know, back when there was an Ebola outbreak in Africa, there was a whole bunch of relevant research that was not easily available to our scientific colleagues in Africa because they kept hitting paywalls because their university libraries did not have the budget to pay for these journal subscriptions. So, we need to make good science open access. So how do we actually facilitate that? Well, believe it or not, I'm going to blow all your minds. Now, one way to do that is to read Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia. It is edited by multiple people, including experts like me. We cite the primary literature of those journals. We cite the books about it. You cannot cite, you can't reference Wikipedia in your essay, but you should certainly be starting out in Wikipedia. When you learn to edit Wikipedia, and my biology students actually have assignments where they learned to edit Wikipedia and if they don't reference every single sentence with a correct kind of supporting reference, it will get reverted by some other Wikipedia editor. So, we can make science more accessible and inclusive by participating in Wikipedia and reading and using open access research. And scientists like me are trying to publish our articles in open access format. And your university library that you will become part of has another section of it called an institutional repository where professors and students can put the papers and books and journals that they have authored for which they hold the copyright to make it available. So that is something to think about.

Romina: Oh, a hundred percent. And it really does make science more accessible and inclusive. And obviously with this whole academic year, I know for a lot of students, it is going to be a unique experience and that we are all attempting remote learning and trying to adjust to the online classes and courses. So, what are your top tips for students adjusting to remote learning?

Dawn: So that's a great question. And, what I'm actually gonna do is tell you some of the things that my students who had to switch to complete their winter semester courses online back in March/April told me. This summer I taught a virtual field course because I do teach field courses and we have a lot of field courses in Ontario universities and 30 of them got canceled. 40 students at York who had planned to take field courses basically across the world this summer didn't get to do that. And some of those students actually needed a field course to complete their academic degree. So. I had to come up with this virtual field course experience and you think, wow, you're out in a field, you're in a provincial park or conservation area and you're learning to identify butterflies and plants. You're digging holes to examine the soil. Oh wow. How can you possibly replicate or substitute that when you're all in pandemic lockdown? So what did my students learn? We kind of invented this inexpensive kit with a $3 microscope among other things that we sent out to students. We sent them Ziplock bags with potting soil, and we sent them the seeds of native plants and grasses to grow. And they did a lot of studying their indoor home biome where they didn't have to go outside. They kind of did it and they all met online. So top tips for learning remote learning, I would say an oldie but goodie tip is just take notes, show up to your classes. I always tell my students the most important thing you can do is just show up to every lecture. I did not do that in my first year of university. I skipped most of my classes because I was super intimidated by these massive chemistry classes or biology classes. I had gone to a very small high school and I was just intimidated and overwhelmed. And what I say to students is, I don't care. You can come in that class, you can sit down, you can put your head on the desk and you can go to sleep and it's not going to bother me. Because you're just going to be there. You're going to hear things. I'm going to say that you're not going to get, like in the electronic classroom, whether it's Moodle or Blackboard whatever the platform is that you're learning with. So I always say to people, just show up to the electronic lecture and you know, don't put your video camera on. Most of my students would sometimes be listening through their phones and I am aware that some people are paying for data because there's this issue of the digital divide. Not everyone has great internet access. Half the time my internet wifi is down in Toronto. So I would say that and that kind of gives the student some rest because now we know there's this thing called Zoom fatigue, where you get just totally tired by Zoom, but still show up. And the thing that I did every day was I actually did online dropping hours where it was a regular time on Zoom and they varied according to schedule. And I would just be there online, like basically the help desk and students would come and ask me questions. And you should also ask your course directors to do that kind of thing. What we discovered was that students during the pandemic with online learning need more connectivity, not less connectivity. And so I really strive to do that. I give my students my cell phone number and nobody abuses it. They don't. Everyone's like, you give your students your cell phone number. I'm like, yeah, why not? They don't abuse it. They don't spam me or whatever. So I think students having the feeling that they could connect with a professor is really important or a teaching assistant. So I would say those would be my top tips. And don't be afraid to ask questions because if you're asking a question, you should know that half the students in their mind have the same question.

Romina: Definitely. And that does bring us to the end of the interview. Dawn, thank you once again for joining us today and highlighting the importance of science and giving our students so many great suggestions and tips!


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