Back into science communication

I signed up for a 1 day science communication training session at UTS last week. With engagement and communication there is no way around practice, so I am thankful to have had an opportunity to revisit tools for science communication formally (quite a bit of time has based since the McGill Liber Ero training). As I am working on a “new” project, I really benefited from a little help developing a clearer story on how to explain what I am doing and why.

The training went through how to structure a media story (need to out all the important info in the 1st sentence or 2), and zoned in on something that had come up in past training as well: write down your 3 “must air” messages and really stick to them. I also got to do a mock radio interview (which I will say was not perfect but better than when I tried a year ago). Right after the training I actually worked on a little story for the institute newsletter, and the piece came out today. What a great opportunity to try and apply what I had just learnt!

In between the P-FUTURES work and my Sydney mapping project, I spent a weekend down south at Jervis Bay. Such beautiful Australian Landscapes!

In between the P-FUTURES work and my Sydney mapping project, I spent a weekend down south at Jervis Bay. Such beautiful Australian Landscapes!

Twitter also brought some resources for science writing (templates), and an interesting article on a legal case arguing, in my very layman’s terms, that previously non-point source pollution can/should be regulated as point-source to reduce downstream nutrient pollution in Iowa.

Sunset at Currarong beach

Sunset at Currarong beach

Today (tomorrow depending on the time zone) our big grant application for the P-FUTURES project is due. It has been quite an adventure to put together such a big (and very international) application. I have not only been learning about proposal writing from a scientific content perspective, but also a lot about the more administrative, legal, and political side of things (in particular spending a lot of time creating a 3 year budget with multiple institutions with different currencies and ways of working). I can’t wait to hit the submit button in a few hours after all of our team’s hard work.

My 1st kangaroo sighting

My 1st kangaroo sighting


Discovering Sydney

Two weeks ago was our big Sydney stakeholder workshop for the P-Futures project. As such we also had field visits to better get to know the Greater Sydney Basin (which has especially nice for me and our Vietnamese colleague who flew in for the workshop as it gave us a chance to tour the city in a very different way).


We visited a few farmers, a wastewater treatment plant, and suburbs of Sydney. The most sticking thing for me was the difficulty of preserving urban and peri-urban agriculture in an urbanizing region and within a global market place. There are so many important services (ecological, social, cultural, and, financial) that agriculture in and around a city can provide and it makes me sad that they are not always highly valued. Decreasing agricultural land decreases resilience of urban food systems, as well as our capacity to recycle P. I hope that our project will help change policies and practices to ensure a vibrant, dynamic, and resilience urban food system.


Most wonderful orchard and owner in the Basin (in my opinion).

workshop presentations!

workshop presentations!

The workshop itself went very well. The 3rd time is a charm! It was still a lot of work to organize it, but running it really came together (we had wonderful people helping us facilitate and I am so thankful for that). One participant even told us it was one of the most professional workshops he had ever attended! In addition to the day going well, I also noticed that we are getting better at identifying what we need to document for ourselves (the nuggets for the proposal or for how to move the project forward).

Here is what I have gleaned from my tweeter feed over the past few weeks:

Although my project has changed to mapping, rather than “full on” computer modeling, a recent future earth post on agent-based models to help urban planners makes me curious about how such systems can help us make different decisions.

Very interesting research, with McGill authors, published showing that high nutrient concentrations are more important that high temperature in the occurrence of cyanobacteria (which are toxic) in Northern lakes. As I will be working on nitrogen when I start a new position in July, I was interested in reading how ground-level ozone peaks may change to winter because of decreased NOx emission in the US (although I do still have to be looking for permanent jobs and think about how to interview). There is also carbon being lost of the atmosphere because of too much N and P pollution in our waterways, while P is sequestered by sponges in reefs (bringing me back to my undergrad love of marine ecosystems!). Although there were data available to do the studies mentioned above, changes in the Canadian census put in peril our capacity to do research now and in the future.

Also a couple of papers in Science, one about the importance of bridging disciplines (and the particular threat or goal examined) to effectively tackle global environmental and sustainability challenges, and another looking at the need to work closely with policy-makers to protect ecosystem function by supporting flexibility in the face of large uncertainty.

Relocated down under

As mentioned in the last post, on December 31st I relocated to Sydney Australia for a 6 month post doc Endeavour fellowship, hosted at the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) University of Technology Sydney (UTS). It has been a little over a month and a half of adjustment; balancing finishing the odds-and-ends of getting the PhD papers published, working on the exciting on-going work of P-Futures, and starting a new 6 month project.

Red Leaf pool in the Sydney area.

Red Leaf pool in the Sydney area.

The P-Futures front has been particularly exciting. We just got back from Blantyre Malawi where we held our second stakeholder workshop, did field trips, and got to know our new local research partners better (see photos below). Learning from Hanoi, we incorporated a lot more small group work and it was a success (we were able to do some great systems mapping and also allow for cross-sectoral learning between the stakeholders). Close collaborator and friend Dr. David Iwaniec also posted on the Hanoi workshop and a Phoenix workshop on futures I participated in, both of which shaped how we tweaked the Blantyre event. Because of the trip timing, we were able to do our field visits before hosting the workshop, and this was quite beneficial for the research team because we had a greater understanding of local context and why people were bringing-up certain goals and concerns in the workshop. The Sydney and Phoenix workshops are coming up in March so we are now busy with inviting those stakeholders and creating even more refined and locally-adapted workshop days. The 3 year proposal deadline is also next month so working in that document is also a big priority.

Creating system map of current priorities and drivers in small groups. Photo credit: David Iwaniec

Creating system map of current priorities and drivers in small groups. Photo credit: David Iwaniec

Maize is the staple crop in Malawi, and it is grown everywhere (really everywhere). You can clearly see however which plots have been fertilized and which ones have not. Photo credit: Genevieve Metson

Maize is the staple crop in Malawi, and it is grown everywhere (really everywhere). You can clearly see however which plots have been fertilized and which ones have not. Photo credit: Genevieve Metson

Last year I had posted a link to a climate change resettlement photo series that I found very moving. Climate change induced resettlement is also “hot” in the scientific literature (e.g. this Nature piece). When visiting Malawi, the effect of extreme weather events, which are indeed increasing in frequency with climate change, hit home. Torrential rain and floods in and around the city were were staying in has left around 200,000 people without homes and destroyed crops.


Chikwawa District just south of Blantyre Malawi which was severely affected by the floods. You can still see some of the standing water. Photo credit: Genevieve Metson

Back in Sydney, one big change has been working in an office environment instead of at home or in cafes (although I have been sure to get some good cafe time in on the weekends!). It is a good thing, especially because everyone in the ISF office does different, but equally exciting, things around sustainability. It is great to get exposure to so many projects, approaches, and great people. Working “regular” business hours however has been challenging as my natural rhythm seems to be working more in the evenings.  I think I am adjusting slowly but surely though.

I am currently working a project to map current and possible future P supply and P demand in the Greater Sydney Basin as a tool to help stakeholders make decisions about how best to manage phosphorus in the city. Getting familiar with data sources in a new country, the local context of a new and exciting city, and learning about spatial modeling and participatory tools in decision-making have been my 1st order of business. It is still on going of course, but I now feel like I have a bit of direction. (I even completed my code academy class on Python coding!) I hope this project can contribute and interface with another exciting project at ISF around food, farming, and resilience in the Sydney Basin. Although I am focusing on Sydney now, the idea is that the methods developed during the 6 month project can then be applied to the other P-Futures cities if local stakeholders feel like a spatial tool would be helpful in moving towards sustainable P goals.

My interest in continuing art-science collaborations has not died down with the move. In fact, I have even started to take dance classes again, and even attending an event at PACT center for emerging artists about unusual art collaborations this weekend. I also just read a feature on  climate change and music, and discovered a UTS based project (which is where I am based at) using art and science around climate change in multiple media that I need to investigate further.

Getting ready for new projects, and advice for grad students starting out

I am leaving for a series of exciting research trips at the end of the week, and I have been preparing intellectually and logistically. I am giving a couple of talks next week, so I am expanding my defence presentation with material about future directions and research questions, and a little bit more nuance on past methods and results. I am then participating in a number of workshops in a different state, but I will wait to prep for that closer to the date.

Preparing for the P-FUTURES work though is by far the most demanding (but also lots of fun because I have amazing collaborators). I am understanding the enormous size of administrative and logistical tasks necessary to conduct large research projects (I knew about it but I had never “done” it except for my Montreal field work ). It was a lot of preparation to write the grant and we planned the timing, tasks, and budget for the project. But, now that we are actually doing the project, lots of little things we hadn’t explicitly mentioned in the proposal are popping up. For example, to do the workshop in Vietnam we hadn’t planned the translators, the ethics approval process for all universities involved, or the process of getting visas for everyone to attend. We are of course managing all these things, but when you add that to the tasks of writing “punchy” invitation letters and “so what” research summaries for stakeholders, and planning the actual workshops, it becomes a lot to handle. Thank god for skype, but collaborating with people on 4 continents and 5 countries means strange working hours.

Although I am moving on from graduate school now, I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to sit on a panel of other fellow finishing grad students to give advice to new grad students in our department. Although all of us had different research foci and experiences, we all had common advice. I would say these were the main points:

  1. Physical and mental health (take care of your self)
  2. Time management (you need to keep yourself accountable, but also remember that you do have time for other things than thesis work, which includes #1)
  3. Communicate and collaborate (including networking)
  4. Ask for help and help others (this includes your advisor, your labmates, and others, you are not in this alone!)
  5. take statistics classes (at McGill, online, or other university, and there are great books)
Bridge on a walk through the forest. I feel like mid-october to mid-december represent a time to bridge the end of the PhD to the beginning of the Post Doc.

Bridge on a walk through the forest. I feel like mid-october to mid-december represent a time to bridge the end of the PhD to the beginning of the Post Doc.

Over the past month I have been gathering a plethora of links and articles that would be interesting to link to my work or the writing/communication process but I will just share two today.

A post-doc in the lab shared this essay on creativity, and it really resonated with me. Trying to balance knowledge and systems thinking with boldness, and balancing working alone and in small groups (which need to be relaxed). There is also a recent PNAS piece on this creative part of the academic process.

Liz Banse shared on twitter a link to a photographer reporting on sea-level rise. I was really moved and deeply scared when viewing the images and explanations. I know I read about climate change, sea-level rise, and flooding in academic papers all the time, I have been reading about it since undergrad. But it is happening now! We need more than indicators and predictive models, we needs ways to cope with this complex issue (both the physical and the social equity components). I feel like these images are powerful communication tools about environmental change for the public, but also really puts into perspective the work we do as academics, and perhaps the need to make stronger links between the social and natural, and between science and policy.

Defence preparation

I will be defending my thesis next Wednesday in front of the panel of examiners as well as the public (mostly made up of friends and labmates which will be nice).

Of course presenting at the conference was a wee bit of practice for the defence, but more was needed. I was actually preparing the defence talk at the same time as my conference one, so I was able to give the defence presentation a couple of times informally when traveling. Upon my return, I gave a practice talk to my labmates, who gave me some helpful pointers (although I must admit I now feel that I am at a point where I want to ignore some suggestions in order to stay true to my own style and the goals I have set out for my presentation). I think the weakest area of my talk, as of last week anyways, are my transitions between chapters (which my lab helped me see of course).

Usually I tend to write out my important talks to practice, even though I don’t read from the script at the actual final presentation. I haven’t written the text for the defence talk, but based on that weak area of transitions, I am thinking that maybe I should. I guess I didn’t want to write a speech because I feel like I have been over this material so often that I want the talk to be more fluid and natural (like a rehearsed conversation). However, with the 20 minute time limit, I need those transitions to be very tight, so I think I need to write a speech to learn those key transition sentences (my plan today and tomorrow). Practice makes perfect so I will try rehearsing in front of the mirror out loud a few times, and maybe to a few more friends. I think now I actually want more help on the question part of the event (which is really the most important part of the defence).

Although the presentation still needs refinement and practice I am proud of 2 parts in particular: the first slide and the last slide. I open with how P is in the news and thus a current concern, not something from the distant past or for the far future. I end my talk about making cities into brightspots of P management instead of simply hotspots of P cycling on the global landscape (which makes me think, I can’t wait to see what the wonderful Future Earth project lead by my advisor on brightspots will find). I feel like I am starting and ending on catchy notes.

I am also reviewing my thesis document as a whole so that I am prepared for questions after the presentation. I am very sad to report that I have found typos…….. After all the work of reading and rereading and getting the computer to read it to me….. still punctuation and missing word typos. It is upsetting but there is nothing I can do about it except correct them for the final version now (I am using track changes as I go through the document now).

Over the past couple of weeks I have also managed to finish (well almost finish) the revisions necessary on 2 of the 3 manuscripts we had sent out before the thesis submission. Although I was a little sluggish starting, the revisions were not that hard, and I think will make both papers stronger. In both cases it was about framing and writing, and not about the data or analysis themselves so it was all doable in a reasonable amount of time.


The trees are changing color as we enter fall in Montreal. A little like the academic transition time I am going through this season.....

The trees are changing colour as we enter fall in Montreal. A little like the academic transition time I am going through this season…..

International conference

At the beginning of September I had a wonderful time at the Sustainable Phosphorus Summit 2014 in Montpellier (and I am now back home, ready to work). It was wonderful reconnecting with people I met at the previous two summits, as well as meeting some wonderful new people (especially some fellow young scientists!).

view of the Place de la Comedie in Montpellier

view of the Place de la Comedie in Montpellier

mapping out the summary of the young scientist day

mapping out the summary of the young scientist day

It was a very busy conference, starting with a full-day workshop with 43 young scientists. I think it was productive, but language barriers always make it challenging for everyone to contribute. Following the workshop were three days of actual conferencing. I presented on the last day, and was also asked to lead and facilitate one of the workshop sessions on that same day; needless to say it was amazing but a lot of work. I also wrote a short commentary on a recently published paper with some other conference attendees. I also got news that a funding proposal a few collaborators and myself put in got funded (we will be comparing Phoenix US, Sydney Australia, Kumasi Ghana, and Hanoi Vietnam looking at P sustainability, links to other urban priorities, and visions for the future). A very excited four days indeed!

From a science communication perspective I must admit I was a little disappointed. I saw a few very good talks, but for the most part, I just felt lucky that I am in a lab that values giving talks and gives me the tools (or opportunities to get tools) to continually improve my presentation skills.

I think attending the conference was in many ways the perfect thing to do between my submission and my defence because it allowed me to see what the “P sustainability” field has been up to these past 2 years and also see where people think its going. It was like a crash course literature review (I must admit that I didn’t really learn many new things during the presentations) and time to think about where my work fits into it all.

I think the two things I thought were interesting, and I knew a little less about were:

  1.  The fact that soil P tests we use in agricultural fields are not always the best in determining plant needs or runoff and erosion risks and there is a lot of work being done on finding something better (depending on the local biogeophysical context of course).
  2. Links between climate change (and other global sustainability challenges) and P sustainability need to be further explored. Links between cause and effects, but also in how they are studied and managed at global and local scales. The P community probably has a lot to learn from the Climate Change community successes and failures.

In other good news: my defence date has been set for October 8th so I must start preparing. In addition, I have another smaller performance of the P dance at the Redpath museum this Friday, and the university has put up a video about the dance (see below, also posted on La Fabrique Culturelle).

Processing qualitative data

Now that all these interviews are recorded they need to be transcribed and coded so that I may use them in my analysis of the Montreal waste management and UA systems. Initially I was going to get a work-study student (who would need to be completely bilingual as I have interviews in english and in french) to transcribe all my interviews because I needed to continue to make progress on writing all my chapters in order to graduate on time. Still, this transcribing was time-sensitive, and the work-study office wasn’t getting back to me. In the end, I bit the bullet and did the transcriptions (and got a little help from a friend).

Although my hands and for-arms were exhausted from the constant typing, the transcribing wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It took me about an hour and a half per 15 minute interview, pausing and rewinder on itunes (from my voice memos on the iphone, as the other digital recorder only worked with a PC). I transcribed each one in a separate word file, indicating when I was talking, and using a line or two of space between each “sentence” for the responses in order to do an initial separation of ideas and make it easier to read ( another friend of mine showed me their transcription files so I was able to mirror the style).

The next step was coding. I talked to my social science friends and they recommended MAXQDA and Dedoose. It seems like people learn MAXQDA in class and is pretty standard (and they have a Mac version now which means I can use it, and they do have a student license price). Dedoose seems to have the same functionality but its an online platform and you pay a monthly subscription.

In the end I went with Dedoose because they had good online tutorial videos, and because I liked the idea of learning how to use something that others could also use in future collaborative work (as it isn’t expensive and online). Coding went pretty well, although the site would often “crash” and ask me to log out and in again. Luckily I never lost any of the coding though, so it didn’t seem like too big of a deal.

I ended up with 27 themes (I didn’t predetermine my themes, I let them emerge from reading all the interviews once, and then coding). I think some of them can probably be combined into larger themes though. I plan on recoding everything and comparing the 1st and 2nd try, but using broader themes on the second round. One code that Dedoose suggested in a tutorial was also quite helpful: the “Great Quotes”. I was able to download the file with the “Great Quotes” (and associated codes for the excerpts), translate them and also note where I think they could fit into the structure of my article. I also downloaded code counts, concurrence, and a word cloud of the code application to help me in my analysis.

I can definitely say, after my 1st analysis of the interview materials, that this line of inquiry has really added a lot of richness to my understanding of the Montreal system and the facilitators and barriers to P recycling through composting. The interviews not only added confirmation to some of the aspects I had previously identified, they gave me additional information about two potential barriers I had not put at the forefront of my analysis previously. They also made me totally rethink about alternative solutions to present in the discussion (because of these barriers).


more views while traveling to interview key participants at their place of buisness

In mainstream news, I was so happy to see National Geographic talking about urine recycling in the US (thus P recycling!!!!).

Planning for more data collection

After reading Ethnography: Principles and Practice and Research Design: Quantitative, Qualitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches, and meeting with a colleague at QCBS, it has become clear that I need to collect some more data to make my “facilitators and barriers” chapter stelar.

Reading the books and meeting with someone who knows about social science methods, but understands the line I walk (looking at socio-ecological systems and thus walking the line between natural and social sciences to try and get a fuller understanding of systems), was helpful, and surprisingly not as discouraging as one might think. I fortunately got confirmation that the way I have been planning and collecting my quantitative and my qualitative data for Montreal is very much in line with the reflexive and iterative principles in the social sciences. I seem to have also done a good job (based on my own assessment of the reading and conversations granted), of following what I had already learnt in the Yin’s Case Study book, and have been following good protocols.

Over the past year and a half of surveys and meetings in the Montreal system, I have been doing participant observation. I have of course also been synthesizing and reviewing the peer-reviewed literature, government reports and policies, news reports and internal and public urban agriculture group documents. As such I have 2 distinct sources of data that complement each other feeding in to my understanding and analysis of the Montreal situation. Although I have talked to a lot of people about their views about composting and P recycling more generally, I need to formalize this into a third source of data, thus triangulating bias. I have thus decided to aim to do 20 semi-structured interviews with key informants in the system.

I have thus applied for an amendment to my research ethics board (for the extra questions and the consensual recording of answers for later transcription and coding for themes and quotes).

It felt good to know that my research process isn’t that a-typical. My barriers and facilitators chapter is so hard in part because I originally put it in the context of a comparative study. Then I decided to focus on just one city, but still combine the quantitative and qualitative sets into the same paper (which I was strongly reminded of when I reviewed my notes and drafts of ethics approval, seeing that intended to asked my barriers and facilitators questions but cut them for time of interview, and to focus at one research question at a time (which makes sense and what a lot of researchers do)). Through the quantitative data collection process I still gained a lot of insight about the qualitative part of my research, and now it is time to formally include the qualitative aspects of my work, and to rigorously do so I need to conduct semi-structured interviews. In sum, it was an evolving path, and I tried to balance time and resource limitations and constantly reassessed the situation and scope of the project to ensure the best data collection.

Also, it was interesting that the ethnography book brought-up issues of gender, class, and race in research in interactions (apparently it is the same thing even with rats! lol), and also latent identity and the importance of settings in interviewing. I am doing my best to minimize bias and taking really careful notes throughout the data collection and analysis process in case I need to go back and reassess any bias that might have been introduced.

On a very exciting note: I will be showing (and performing) an adapted version of my phosphorus dance piece at the Redpath Museum on the evening of Friday September 19th!!!



everything is a draft


La Nuit Blanche is behind us. It was an exhausting but very exciting night! I think it was an overall success, lots of people came, many of them knowing nothing about phosphorus, and lots of people asked questions. The piece seemed well received and the only “criticism” I received that night was that I should have danced. (I haven’t found any reviews yet but I did find an additional piece promoting the dance here) I know I should basque in the happy feeling of a project completed, but I am already thinking of how I can improve sections of it for the next opportunity to present science through dance (I am thinking of 3 minutes to change the world and how I can dance and do the narration, presenting in CEGEPS and contemplating the idea of doing a “pre-presentation” before showing the dance instead of leaving all the talking for the end, and i am thinking of how I could present it at science conferences to start dialogue around new research ideas). It seems to be a delicate balance in feeling satisfaction over ones accomplishments (and accepting things are never perfect), and viewing that small accomplishment as a draft for something better or something different, a stepping stone. 

nuit blanche 2014On sunday, only a few hours after finishing with the dance piece, I visited the Peter Doig exhibit at the Musee des Beaux Arts. I saw some nice parallels between his creative process and those of a scientist, again reminding me that everything can be a draft or part of a larger series of works. In this exhibit we saw not only the large-scale “finished” pieces but sketches and alternative smaller versions of the same paintings. In order to get to a final version, the series of drafts were not just about perfecting something, but really about exploring different parts of the painting and viewing the same landscape from different angles and different scales. I think we go through a similar process when asking questions and writing manuscripts (a whole career can be spent on refining a very small set of questions, exploring, and reexploring a problem). It was nice to be reminded that even in art, where as an spectator it can be easy to forget the work be hind a piece, often requires a lot of planning and exploration before a creation is ready for the world. Now back to my own manuscript that needs some refining and reexploring…..

I finished the other steps for reviewing my article late last week and ended up adding 2 additional steps before sending the manuscript to my advisor. I think that printing, reading, and retyping was a helpful exercise to help me slow down and find mistakes (or suboptimal writing), but it isn’t full proof. I added the following 2 steps to try and help myself a little more:

  • Start from the last sentence of the manuscript and read up. I have a tendency to skip words so I am trying to look at each sentence as a unit and make sure it is properly constructed.
  • Revisit topic sentences.

Warming up

This week I have been working on manuscript editing, but I only got through step 1 and 2 of the plan I put out last week. On the up side though, I have made progress on most of my projects so my progress is not frozen, things are warming up!

Over the past few months, I have had a hard time finding good metaphors about my research (I have tied comparing P to oil, and thought about talking about cities like the human body, but from a science perspective I don’t like how they take the subtle and key differences way); I read a really wonderful blog on the periodic table last week and the post talked about N and P (some of my favorite elements as you might imagine) and I might have found a little way around a metaphor. Starting with the periodic table and working my way up in scale from there (instead of really creating a metaphor that encompasses all of my research) inspired me to alter my 1 minute science speech. In our Liber Ero training we started doing these in the fall, and I have been tweaking mine every since. Actually I submitted my new little speech to “3 minutes to change the world” contest. If I am selected as a finalist I will try and combine my thesis in 1 minute with my narration+dance section of my Nuit Blanche piece.

Speaking of La Nuit Blanche, it is only a few days a way and here is a little teaser of what I will be presenting and a little publicity (and here as well).

The whole team working on the Nuit Blanche piece!!! Photo by Adrienne Surprenant

The whole team working on the Nuit Blanche piece!!! Photo by Adrienne Surprenant

I also came across an article about how good data visualization is essential to communicate to policy-makers and the public (and even ensure that as scientists we fully explore datasets) and we must better use visualization tools to get our message across while minimizing bias that can come with creating visualizations. I know the authors were not talking about dance but I think in some cases it could be an interesting visualization.Video’s are also a good way to explain complex problems (here is an example about local food systems). Science communication at music festivals might also be good.