Written by Alejandro Izquierdo Lopez
Illustrated by Jenny Zhang
Once a year, Toronto and 29 other cities across Canada host a massive science communication fair: Science Rendezvous. This free one-day festival brings science out from the laboratories onto the streets in an entertaining, inspiring format. Trinh Vo and Surath Gomis have been co-chairs of Science Rendezvous in Toronto, one of the most important sites in Canada, for the past three years. Now they are stepping down to pursue new paths. In this interview, Trinh and Surath recount their experiences leading Science Rendezvous in Toronto and explain how this festival illustrates their vision on what science communication should be.
SCC: What do you study and how did you become interested in science communication?
Surath: I’m currently finishing off my PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering and I do biomedical research. For me, my interest in scicomm really started during my undergrad. I was very interested in working with youth and, similarly to Science Rendezvous, guiding the next generation of young scientists—showing that science can be exciting as well as my passion for science. When students are going through school, things are challenging, and I wanted to show that overall, the grander theme of things is very exciting and enjoyable. In my undergrad I worked at summer science camps where I was an instructor for kids, and that led me to Science Rendezvous at the University of Toronto as an avenue to do similar work. We see the state of the world now, and we know how important science and communicating science to the public is. Not to just tell people they are wrong or try to push forward our opinion or concepts, but actually having an open engagement, so people can get excited over science even if they are not in the field.
Trinh: I love Surath’s answer because it ties back to old experiences. I think that whenever one talks about starting science communication, it really comes from an isolated event. If I were to think back on my own experiences, Surath’s camp pops up in my mind too. My first real job was as a camp counsellor, and you meet a lot of parents and kids from many different walks of life and varying backgrounds. Just being with youth, especially in an underprivileged neighbourhood, and seeing the types of opportunities they lacked, whereas what I had, gave me an insight on what I held in terms of power. At that time, I was interested in biology, which led me to my undergrad in genome biology, and I wanted to make sure that whatever I knew, I was sharing it and doing my due diligence as a camp counsellor to pave their way into the future. As simple at it is, it is moments like that which allow us to see what choices we have for the future. When Surath and I got into SR we realized the power science communication has. To me, it starts with having good teachers and being surrounded by good influences…I had very ambitious teachers and without them I wouldn’t have loved science. Also, in my family everyone hated science, so not having that made me want to understand why and change it.
SCC: Both of you have an approach to science communication which relates to bringing knowledge to the younger generation. Why do you think this is such an important approach to scicomm?
Surath: That’s a great question. Fundamentally, passing down knowledge is critical for the sake of human progress and making sure we do not repeat the same mistakes, and starting with youth is very important. This is a point in the life of a human being where you can really pave the path to success, happiness… being able to inspire that ourselves is very rewarding. It is also our obligation as scientists to do it. I don’t think that what we do as scientists should be for personal gain, but is important that whatever we are trying to achieve can be passed down towards the next generation. Start on the shoulders of other people, continue to build progress, and push the boundaries of what is possible. Obviously, it is also very important to focus on the current generation, as well as senior people.
Trinh: Sometimes for me it is not only helping youth, but proving my dad wrong [laughter]. We focus a lot on youth, and that is the priority, because that is where it starts. Your upbringing can really influence what you decide to do because that is all you have ever known. People may not have all resources at home and that is why having additional resources, whether through science communication or something as simple as a newsletter, is so critical. Any spark that shows how science can look like, not as an engineer, but as a science communicator: someone who narrates, draws… Thinking back as a kid, all I wanted to do was draw art, but never about science; now I have a huge interest in using that same art as a means of science communication, explaining science through images or videos… That is why youth are an important target audience to start with, but definitely not where we end. We have to show people not only the information but also how to access it, and make it enjoyable. It all starts with: “Here is a tool. Now you can use it at your disposal”.
SCC: How does Science Rendezvous align with your approach to science communication?
Surath: Science Rendezvous at the University of Toronto has many different facets to it. What we try to do is have different activities that address different aspects of science communication. First and foremost is the public festival, which draws mainly youth, but also includes friends and family. We have demonstrations from all fields at UofT based on their very nuanced research that showcase its most important facet: how things we do at university translate to everyday things. I think it engages youth very well, because it shows that the things you learn at school actually have a lot of relevance in everyday life, and maybe will inspire youth to pursue a scientific career. For parents, it is very interesting to see what is going on in the academic institutions. I think the different portions of the festival are drawing together all these different fields and making people get excited about science, when sometimes all you see are technical papers that you are never going to read… so yeah, it gives an avenue for exploration and excitement.
Trinh: I am not going to add much, that was the perfect goal and pitch of SR. What I am going to add is personal, a very basic answer: it makes science fun. As Surath said, it is a bunch of departments that are studying really insane stuff and bringing this to the streets, and the fact that people are willing to stop by and engage with the science presenter is so awesome. I think that is one thing that sets us apart from any other science convention. It’s not really about just the context of what is being communicated, but about how, whether it is a skit or a presentation… If Science Rendezvous is not fun, it would just be another institutional event that people can just pop by. But that is not our appeal: our appeal is that we bring bits of science out to the streets and are fun. It is good to remember: it’s one thing to know science and it’s another to say, “how can I translate that so that people can understand it and also be open to learning more?”
SCC: As co-chairs of Science Rendezvous in Toronto, what types of duties did you have?
Trinh: Lots of duties…just joking. The year starts out pretty easy. Fall comes in and we either start recruiting new folks or old members come in. It is kind of a family, people generally want to stay committed, and that is a sign we are doing a good job as co-chairs. Once recruitment is done, our next part is a lot of clerical work. Surath and I are against micromanaging; we let the team do what they want and act more as advisors. If there is anything that has to be a final decision or review, that is where we step in for support. But really the core is the team leaders of each of the subgroups. As SR stands, we made it into this huge network of one department that is programming, another that does the science fair…as co-chairs we have the directive to say “this is what we want to do, what do we want to achieve as a team…”, and then each individual will carry out that component for SR. Everyone is doing their own battle and we bring it all together to make SR happen. Honestly, the co-chair role is super easy: there’s lots of work to be done, but really, at the core of it, if you have the heart to be a good leader and you have synergy with your co-chair partner, it brings everyone together. So that is what makes our core team so strong.
Surath: Not much to add on that—that was a great answer. Ultimately as co-chairs we are guiding a very large team. In 2019, in the last in-person festival, we had 50 team members; these are all volunteers, students…As co-chairs, we are guiding these teams in terms of the mission of what SR would be: based on what we have done historically, but also future improvements we want to add in terms of new big ideas. For example, in 2019 we included a 3-minute thesis competition for graduate students as a way to bring in more graduate involvement. We think of the big picture and try new ideas, but overall, we are just overseeing these very strong teams with their own head coordinators and providing as much support as we can to see the missions come true.
SCC: Do you have any advice for students or anyone else who wants to start their own scientific outreach mission and enter the field?
Trinh: The way I would like to answer this question is by saying what I wanted someone to tell me when I was younger: social media is super great. If I had to give advice to someone, it would be to harness social media as a positive power, as a place where you can find so much community. Many of the friends I have met online have been such a positive influence in my life. Use social media to contact science communicators that are popular in the field and ask them: How can I replicate this in my community? How can I do this? That is a start. But not having anyone to reach out to is super scary, though. If you look at the papers you could be, like “eeh, I am not sure I can reach out to this person in an institution…”. You could email them, but they will not answer you. I think it’s great to start with social media—that’s my number one advice.
Surath: That makes a lot of sense. For people who are interested in that route, especially if you are in an academic institution, finding clubs or people with similar mindsets is the way to go. For example, you are a science communication club yourself. That is a great place to start to meet like-minded people: other places are any types of opportunities where you can do tutoring, or leadership opportunities with youth or other students, or even public talks by big scientists in the field. It is great to get inspired by those individuals. Back in my undergrad, one of my biggest inspirations was hearing a CSA astronaut at school talk about his journey and how he was inspired by science. When you are a student doing the nitty-gritty of everyday, it is always good to get reinspired in science by focusing on that bigger picture. Continue finding that inspiration, either from friends or scientific communicators, or groups where you can step back from your everyday work. That is a great way to start thinking about science not from a technical perspective, but from the bigger picture. From there you generate a new mindset of why science is so important to you and why it is important that you communicate it effectively.
SCC: Both of you are currently stepping down as co-chairs, as you have been in this position for several years. Do you guys have any new initiatives related to science outreach? What are your next steps?
Trinh: No idea, truly. I have not had the time to sit down and ask myself what is next, since having a full-time job is intense. It does not stop, is 24/7, and kind of affects your personal life too. Be mindful to yourself that you must have time to devote to science communication: if you do something, you do it with meaning and it has to be meaningful outreach. Whatever you guys [SCC] are doing I find super cool, and I suggest to you: if you are already on Instagram, you can try to reach out to schools in a way that has students interested in what you are doing and try to replicate it.
Surath: I am also finishing my PhD and I am going to be starting work as well. For me what exactly I want to do is also up there, but I definitely want to continue down the science communication path. I kind of want to get into more management roles and even scientific policy roles. Having been co-chair with Trinh for the past three years, we are at a point where we tell people what to do and they interact with the public. I want to take a step back and engage with the public more myself as well. So tutoring or other teaching opportunities. Those are the roles I want to seek out.