Journalist: Malak Al-Hadidi
Malak: Hello and welcome to SciSection! I’m your journalist, Malak Al-Hadidi, for the SciSection radio show broadcasted on CFMU 93.3 FM radio station. We are here today with Dr. Bernier, assistant professor in the teaching stream at the school of Earth, Environment, and Society as well as the School of Interdisciplinary Science. Thank you for taking the time with me Dr. Bernier.
Dr. Bernier: Thank you for having me on your show.
Malak: So could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and what inspired you to take this career path in environmental sciences.
Dr. Bernier: That’s actually a long story.
Malak: Go for it absolutely!
Dr. Bernier: I’m from Montreal, so probably everybody knows from the French accent I have. I did my undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of Montreal and then I went on to do a masters in Microbiology and Immunology and the topic of my thesis were the different genotypes of Hepatitis C virus. At the time when it was more than 25 years ago, it’s a long time ago, Hepatitis C virus had been discovered just a few years prior. It only had been identified through molecular biology techniques, and was shown a bit like what we’re seeing right now with COVID-19 with all the variants, there were multiple variants of Hepatitis C virus and there was concerns that it would lead to different kinds of outcomes in terms of pathologies that the disease would progress at different rates because it’s known to cause people who suffer from it liver cancer. So the outcome of that, potentially, eventually when Herpes would be developed that would have an impact and now we know that it does. Also if a vaccine were to be developed that having different genotypes, as we call them, those different variants of the virus would make things difficult for the vaccine.
Malak: Right, of course.
Dr. Bernier: A bit like what you’re seeing now with COVID-19. So I did that and then I moved on. I started a project that was supposed to be for my PhD on HIV1, the virus that causes AIDS, but eventually I decided to change direction. I was more interested in microbes and the environment. I wanted to save the world! And I came to McMaster because at the time the person who became my thesis supervisor was one of the few people in Canada who was using molecular biology techniques. So visualizing under the microscope microbes based on genetic tags and linking that to environmental processes. In my case, what I was doing, my thesis was about how different types of microbes are linked to acid generations in mine tailing environments. And what became my thesis was about the different types of sulfur compounds that were generated and depending on which sulfur compounds that were generated what was the outcome in terms of acidity. Because those lakes, those environments where acid mines were, the acidity is like maybe, very much below what you would expect from a body of water. So it’s essentially the pH of vinegar, and it’s also an extremely toxic soup of metals, so it’s only microbes that are able to live in these environments. So trying to understand how these develop over time to prevent that from happening. And this, in the course of, during work from my PhD, I became more and more involved with undergraduate teaching, which eventually lead me to the position I occupy now. And then I started to teach multiple courses, as people may now, from introductory climate and water to advanced courses on sustainability.
Malak: So your academic career, and subsequently your field of research kind of swiftly shifted from biology and microbiology to more geology and earth science specialization. Were there any difficulties that you faced, or any changes that you witnessed in your outlook on science or maybe even on life in general?
Dr. Bernier: Well it definitely was an adjustment because when you’ve been immersed in a field of science for so many years when I was doing undergraduate I was mostly taking microbiology courses and then to come into a whole new different field, to go back from the basics. When I started here at McMaster the first few months I had to take a whole series of undergraduate courses in geology because I wasn’t a geologist.
Malak: Well that’s interesting, so you had to start from scratch completely!
Dr. Bernier: Oh yeah, for example I had to take an undergraduate course in structural geology. I had to take a very first year course in geology which is now Earth Science 1G03 that my colleague Dr. Padden teaches. Prior to that was Dr. Carolyn Eyles she was teaching it, so I took the course for first year and she was teaching at the time a level three course on glacial environments. I took that as well, I took structural geology, I took a course on soils, so I took a whole series of undergraduate courses in geology and environment so I could be called an environmental scientist. So that was the big adjustment. Definitely I have seen changes over the years in terms of, well one of the things I’d say the biggest changes I ‘ve seen since I started here because I was initially a TA, a teaching assistant, and then I became an instruction assistant and then eventually I moved into the position I’m in now, technology. When I started here it was 2000, the internet was here, there were computers, but smartphones there weren’t smartphones, there were cellphones but definitely weren’t able to do what they do now. There was no YouTube, there was no TikTok, there was no Instagram, so social media didn't exist the way we understand it now, so we didn't have to integrate it or address it in terms of teaching. So I try now to incorporate a lot of that it in my teaching, for somebody who hasn't taken one of my courses, what I’ve done is I have incorporated a lot of the teaching of my undergraduate courses with YouTubes, videos on YouTubes, some of the courses I’m teaching I’m also asking students to create their own videos. So that’s something that definitely when I was an undergrad student years ago that was completely foreign to us, this idea of media production and different modes of teaching when we were taught with overheads it was like, hooray! And if somebody had the slides, powerpoints, and digital projectors they weren’t there yet, so it was like more often than not it was chalk on the blackboard. Now it’s a completely different experience so to navigate that transition over the years that’s been interesting, it’s been an adjustment.
Malak: I would say even with post-pandemic, things have accelerated exponentially in the way we use technology, the way that you know, the whole dynamic in university of learning or doing anything it’s very incorporated.
Dr. Bernier: The way I was approaching teaching prior to the pandemic and certain changes I have had to do with mostly online teaching and how I have been embedding this now that we are returning back to the classroom it’s been quite profound. My way of teaching has been completely changed I would say in terms of the approach Im taking its been quite a transformation. I might be where things have, how things have turned out and the transition, and besides I would say the students who were more used to the traditional way of approaching things prior to the pandemic and then being thrown into that transition while most of us teachers and instructors and professors were trying to figure out what we’re doing.
Malak: Right, yeah.
Dr. Bernier: Cause some of us had received some training with this but not to the extent of really thinking about how we would kind of enable to meaningfully engage with students at home or wherever they were. Because many of them were not even in Hamilton or Canada, we had many students who were in their home countries and they couldn’t travel so that was quite an adjustment. I think it was a good transition, it had a positive effect but I also recognize that maybe it wasn't easy for everybody, especially students who need that humane contact, being in a classroom with an instructor and engaging and listening, for those students it must have been terrible.
Malak: Well speaking of students, actually my next question is that most of the courses that you teach, if not all of them, have lots to do with communicating the idea of achieving sustainability but also in a balance with economy, policy and people in general. So based on your experience, how do you find that the student engagement is when merging these interdisciplinary fields together?
Dr. Bernier: Far more receptive I would say, than I would have anticipated. The formulation of these questions and how I approach them now in my courses, I would say that’s a very recent evolution where I’ve been able to create this scaffolding of concepts, and evolution of concepts and interlinkages between courses, I’m essentially building a foundation in level one of introductory course in climate and water and environment. Some of those concepts come back in a second course on environmental issues where we talk about the big environmental problems but also the underlying causes which is essentially the very concept of the world. And parallel to this is there’s a course on change and human health where I’m talking about how environmental change leads to a cascade of mental health problems now and in the future. Then from there I’m building in level 2 there’s a course on energy transition and how it’s linked into the model of the economic system that we have now and what this could say for the future. And then there’s a course on economy and sustainability so what is the current economic framework which has in many ways led us to the many issues we are facing today, what are the possible alternatives. Then there’s a course also where I'm talking about this concept of biocides and the environmental catastrophes we are facing, some dangers and it tells us sort of this warning sign for the future and interwoven in there. I'm talking about environmental justice, inequality, and equity. So it's all internally, so there's a scaffolding that takes place there in terms of the different courses, I think the students should decide to engage with the whole suite of courses. They can see all the linkages between them and I'm surprised how many of them have been receptive to follow me on that path.
And I think it's reflects more how we tend to think in real life about these problems instead of sort of silos where you're looking at issues and disconnected from how we live or the economic system in which we live, and how it's linked to issues of environmental justice in terms of a global inequality, equity, I even make references to racism. So in that case, in some cases there's issues there. So all these problems are interlinked. So to try to have define one in a silo. Where you're going to just focus on one question and disconnect it from the other one doesn't really make sense. These are all linked issues and I think the students understand this intuitively. And because of that, many of them are willing to engage and follow me on that path.
Malak: I also think that, you know, for a lot of your courses actually there’s not much requirements in terms of the programs, so I think you get a lot of students from across all programs like life sciences, econ students, they just all, somehow they bring their own knowledge, I believe, into their these types of courses in order to kind of learn more about the environment, how to improve their own careers in a more sustainable way. So yeah.
So my next question is more about environment, actually. So, you know, the earth, as we all know by now is rapidly warming since the late 1800s. And the emissions only continue to rise at this rate, despite the goals and the plans put in place. What do you believe are the kinds of policies that would be the most effective in reducing greenhouse emissions in the next decade at least?
Dr. Bernier: Yeah, that's a tough question and unfortunately I've–
Malak: Definitely open ended!
Dr. Bernier: Yeah. Now like if I look at how I've been engaged with the suite of courses I have, I've been, I was essentially, I think too many people probably thinking that there would be a transition that would come and that maybe with some technological fixes or like having more electric cars on the roads and these kinds of things that would lead the kind of changes that we need.
But I think it's by being immersed in this and looking at how things are evolving or not changing fast enough, unfortunately, I'm starting to think that it’s really a fairly radical transformation of how we live, particularly in North America, even more so in North America than the rest of the Western world, to see changes happening and then being really truly able to address those kinds of elemental changes that we're facing in the future.
Because the reality is we cannot keep living the way we do, and imagine that it's not going to have consequences in the future.
So the amount of resources, the problem is that we've had, we're in a generation, we're in a period where as a collectively, like in the Western world, say from the most many people, we've never had it better than in the history of humanity than we have now. And I think people intuitively, they're cognizant of this, that we're able to go like within five minutes to a store and get pretty much what we want. We have like this area of technology, we have access to, possibly travels that nobody else had before in the history of humanity. This is a lifestyle that is very difficult to give upon and to adopt a new model of living, and make the kind of systemic changes to the economy and the way we live that will not only address climate change, but all the other issues we're facing is a daunting task. Myself, I am like, well look how I live and I try to make some changes. But make those kinds of radical transformation, they're not necessarily easy to do on an individual basis, and I don't think they're necessarily sufficient.
So essentially when we're hearing about that reducing our footprint, it's not just us individuals, it’s our society as a whole, and that's easier than, than done. And the time is starting to run out on some of these things.
Malak: Absolutely. I think, uh, there was this climate change deadline that the United Nations put down back in 2018, outlining how we cannot reverse the damage done by the time it's 2030. Yeah. How do you envision the climate situation by that time? Because right now, given the efforts that are being put in, it's not really doing enough.
Dr. Bernier: I think there are going to be some changes that we didn't want to happen that will happen. I'm deeply skeptical that we'll be able to make that kind of changes, that sort of the climate modelers are saying that we need to do in terms of policy, in terms of structural changes to the economy. There are too many things that are deeply embedded in the way we function. Particularly, in the Western world, the big problems, there's this tiny sliver of the human population that's causing cascading a series of impacts. But we need, even though we may not be able to address some of these changes, we need to do something. And as soon as we start engaging with this, it's still going to minimize some of these impacts, affording us more time to adapt, make changes in terms of adapting.
For example, people living near coastlines, where the sea level are going to be rising, that are going to be exposed to more powerful storms like the hurricanes. We've seen the past few weeks – to give our ourselves a chance, to prepare for this. So there are things where we won't be able to avoid, but still taking action, even if it's too late, it's going to do something and then give chance for future generations to take the situation as it is.
So we can’t just throw our hands in the sky and say, well, we're missing the 2030 deadline, so let's forget about it.
Malak: Let’s just give up, yeah.
Dr. Bernier: Let's give up. It's, we can’t do that like we owe it to future generations to – and also there are people in the world that have absolutely no responsibility in terms of what's going on there.
Like they’ve just been unlucky to live in parts of the world where they’re essentially taken advantage of by people in the global north. Or they're facing the consequences of choices that are being made thousands of kilometers from where they live and have absolutely nothing to do with what's going on.
So we owe all these people to do better. If it's late, it's late, but, at least it's going to be something. Right now, eventually, I imagine, we'll wake up and say, like, we need to do something, or at least future generations, our descendants, the next generations will do so. Like maybe yours, because mine has failed atrociously.
Malak: I mean some global accountability is definitely required. So that's the least that the past generations can do. And for our generation it's gonna have to be a lot of reparations, a lot of, you know, making plans, how to move forward, how to take the next steps.
And so my final question for you is going to be; what kind of advice do you have for students who are basically listening to this show right now and are interested in pursuing the same field that you are in and they just want to contribute to an impactful change regardless of their academic stream of study? They want to get into the environmental sciences, see how they can help, what can they possibly do?
I think the first thing to do is to get informed, so to read, to listen, to watch. To attend events. In my case, the level of awareness about these issues and my ability to teach about them and to talk about them has come from really listening to others, reading on a lot of it, and then the choices we will make, and how we want to embed this in our way of life and make changes, and that makes meaningful changes to address some of these issues is going to be directly from one individual to another.
It's going to depend on what we hear, the people we meet, the opportunity that arises. I've had my career path and where I'm at now. Nobody's going to, it's not necessarily the path I follow is the one that anybody else should follow, because any of those questions, if we look at them, it's everybody's responsibility to address them in whichever capacity they live and what they do. And no step is too small, no change is too small.
So I think, whatever people feel they need to do or which direction they want to take their life, if they add those ideas in mind, I think it's going to be a meaningful change. But I think the first step is to get informed as much as possible to listen, engage, read, view. Cause there's so much out there. There's much, a lot more information than before. So, that's a good starting point.
Malak: Absolutely. Yeah. I definitely think education is key when it comes to learning about these things. Yeah. Thank you so much, Dr. Bernier for taking the time with me.
Dr. Bernier: My pleasure!
Malak: That’s it for this week of SciSection, make sure to check out our podcast available on global platforms and view our latest interviews.