Bill F*cking Nye?! Seriously?

Last week, March 6th, Canada’s Liberal Party was out promoting Budget 2018. This budget has Canada’s scientific community pretty excited because of the huge investment that the Canadian government is making in fundamental research. I am no exception. So last week, the Liberal politicians were out making the rounds to promote the budget and its impact on Canadian science: there was Navdeep Bains visiting Memorial University; there was Finance Minister Bill Morneau at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health and Brain Behaviour Laboratory; and there was Science Minister Kristy Duncan was over at the University of Waterloo. But all eyes were on Canada’s mascot, I mean Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. See Trudeau did his post-budget armchair discussion at the University of Ottawa with none other than Canada’s most prominent scientist and science educator…oh no wait, he sat down with Bill Nye. That’s right, American engineer and television host, Bill F*cking Nye. This pissed me off – so much that I actually had a Twitter rant about it. Bill Nye tweet

I am not one who is usually given to ranting my feelings on social media. I don’t feel that 280 characters is enough to fully express nuanced thoughts, and much of the time it feels like I am trying to talk in a room of 1000 other people all talking at the same time. But here’s my top 3 reasons why I am incredibly disappointed in the PM’s choice to have this discussion with Bill Nye:


I don’t think I can stress this enough. Bill Nye isn’t Canadian. He wasn’t born in Canada. He wasn’t educated in Canada. He never worked in Canada. He hasn’t lived in Canada. He has never paid taxes in Canada. Other than clips of Bill Nye the Science Guy showing up in Canadian science classrooms, he doesn’t have a Canadian connection. He is simply not a stakeholder in Canadian federal budgets.

It is deeply disappointing that of the THOUSANDS of Canadian scientists, myself included, that would have happily discussed the benefits of investing in STEM and research, that of the THOUSANDS of Canadian scientists who could have connected to Canadian taxpayers why it is so important for the government to spend their money on research and innovation even if they themselves aren’t scientists, the Canadian Prime Minister chose an American. Trudeau took away an opportunity for a Canadian voice to be on that platform. He allowed an American, someone who doesn’t benefit from the budget, and doesn’t have to answer to the consequences of the budget to speak on behalf of Canada’s scientific community.

That’s the thing about federal budgets: there is only a limited amount of money to spend. I know as a taxpayer that for every dollar the government spends on research and innovation, that is a dollar that isn’t getting spent on health care or infrastructure. Not to mention that with deficit financing, I will also be the one to pay off that debt. For me, that investment is worthwhile. And I am prepared to champion that to my fellow Canadians as to why they should also feel that matters, regardless of whether or not they are a scientist themselves. How can Bill Nye, an American, speak to any of that? He doesn’t qualify for NSERC grants. He doesn’t have to worry about Canada’s deficit. He’s not looking for jobs in Canada’s oil and gas industry. He doesn’t have to worry about under-funding some other Canadian program in order to fund science.

2) Bill Nye is Not the Only Voice

Okay, I know I have come off pretty hard on Bill Nye. I don’t hate Bill Nye. He’s done a lot for promoting STEM. But science has basically had one spokesman (two if you count Neil deGrasse Tyson) for the last 25 years. That’s not a lot of diversity. There are millions of scientific voices out there. I am personally tired of hearing Bill Nye’s perspective on science. I want to hear more of Jillian Buriak’s, Bonnie Schmidt’s, or on the more famous side Jay Ingram‘s. If I am going to hear about science from an American prospective, how about Raychelle Burks? My point here is that there are a lot of different science voices that can offer insight into why investing in STEM is a great choice for Canada. Bill Nye’s isn’t one of them.

Here’s another thing: Bill Nye’s version of science communication has actually done some damage to science itself. His willingness to entertain non-scientific individuals in debates about creationism or climate change, he has given these science deniers an elevated platform that they wouldn’t normally have. It puts creationism and climate change denial on the same level as scientific fact. It suggests that their beliefs they are passing off as fact are on the same level as scientific data. After all, debates are about two perspectives on the same set of facts right? Thanks Bill, but this wasn’t helpful. Actually, it made it harder for every other scientist trying to promote scientific literacy in the fields of climate change and evolution. This Scientific American article basically explains what I am trying to get at here.

3) The Kinder Morgan Thing

Or as Bill Nye called it “Morgan Kinder“. Pipelines and oil – this is contentious. I don’t want to get into all the science about oil or its impact on the environment. Yes, we know it is bad environmentally; yes, we know it is contributing to climate change; yes, we need to regulate and fix this problem. BUT that doesn’t happen by simply turning off the pipes. (Hey Bill, how’d you get to Canada? Did you like that jet fuel keeping the plane in the air? How about that car from the airport to the University of Ottawa? Was that water bottle you were drinking from plastic?) If you’re in Alberta right now, like me, you know that there is a lot going on in respect to the Trans Mountain Pipeline. The fact that this particular issue is so contentious that British Columbia and Alberta are having to go to the federal government to solve the damn issue should probably say to anyone, especially an American outsider, that maybe this wasn’t the best venue for discussing pipelines and what they mean. (Also, where is Bill discussing American shale gas production?) I go back to my point about Bill Nye not being Canadian. The pipeline is more than a scientific issue in Canada, with stakeholders in many sectors of the Canadian economy. Bill Nye is not one of those stakeholders and his woeful ignorance about this issue’s complexity was on display.

Now, I have ranted on Twitter. I have shared my thoughts here. But none of this is really going to create that much action. I am just not that important. But I believe that by taking action we put more meaning into our words. This is why I actually wrote a letter to the Prime Minister. I doubt that I will get a response, but I couldn’t very well complain about his choice on Twitter and not write to him to share my incredible disappointment in his decision to take away a great opportunity for Canadians to meet their amazing scientists and instead give it to the tired voice of science’s mascot, Bill Nye.

*Full disclosure: I have been a supporter of the Liberal Party but my previous political support does not mean an unconditional support of all their choices. That’s the fun part about democracy.


Back from a Break

Ok science friends – it has been a while. A LONG while. But I have a good reason.


Check it out:


That’s the human I made. Cool right?

But now that the baby is a year old, I have the time to put toward writing again. After all, talking about science is my passion and I missed writing about it.

I hope you will follow me on my journey to give a voice to science as I experience it. You don’t have to be a scientist to find science interesting. That’s what Curiosity Science is all about – anyone with a curious mind can learn about science.

ASTech Awards

Hello Alberta Science and Technology Community. Did you know that the deadline to nominate a fellow Albertan for an ASTech Award is quickly approaching? You have until May 31st. Go here to learn more.

For those of you who are not familiar with the ASTech Foundation, let me give you a quick introduction: Alberta Science and Technology Leadership (ASTech) Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation that is committed to showcasing substantial achievements in science and technology in Alberta. Every fall, finalists in the nomination process are honoured at an awards ceremony. I have had the pleasure of attending the awards ceremony for the last 3 years and I can say that it is a great event for anyone interested in innovation. It is tremendously fun to be in a room with so many like-minded individuals.

With all of these great things going for ASTech, I have to say that the awards remain plagued by one key problem: a lack of diversity in their award winners. In 2015, only one of the 15 award winners was female. Further, not a single award presenter was a woman. In a discussion about diversity, I brought this point to the ASTech Foundation. Let’s just say their response wasn’t quite as convicted as “because it’s 2015”:

(I’ve done sales/customer service. “Thanks for your feedback” is right up there with “I’ll take that under advisement” for the polite, if not passive aggressive, dismal.)

I began digging into ASTech’s history a bit: in the last 5 years only 9 women have been named winners of awards, with another 3 women being the representative (CEO/Founder) for companies that have been award winners. This means that less than 20% of the award winners are women.

At the 2015 awards, I discussed it with a couple of individuals on the Board of the ASTech Foundation and they expressed that they get a notable lack of female nominees, making it difficult to ensure that there is equality in award winners. This may explain, at least superficially, why there are so few female award winners, but this hardly does anything to explain why award presenters and evening MCs are all still male.


Here’s the thing, I am not in anyway suggesting that the men who have won an ASTech award are not deserving. In fact, in 2015, TWO members of my PhD committee, Drs. Jonathan Curtis and Todd Lowary, accepted awards. These are two individuals who had a profound effect on my career and I count them among a list of wonderful mentors I have worked with over the last fourteen years.

That being said, I have also worked with an innumerable number of women who have also changed the landscape of science and technology in Alberta. I am currently involved in two Alberta-based start-ups where the Founder/CEO is a woman: Stephanie Hoeppner of Life Science Forensics and Donna Mandau of Graphene Leaders Canada. The scientific leads, operational leads, and other senior management roles in these companies are also dominated by women (myself included). I work with female vice presidents, female lead researchers, and female project managers every day. I DO NOT accept that there are not enough women contributing to science and technology innovation in Alberta as an explanation for the lack of female nominees. I call on my fellow scientists and innovators to no longer accept this either. When you make your nomination for the 2016 ASTech, do not forget about all of the brilliant women you know who are also changing the Alberta science and technology landscape.

The mission of the ASTech Foundation is “To identify and celebrate outstanding achievements in science and technology in Alberta and to inspire the next generation of innovation and leadership.” It is difficult to inspire the next generation of innovation and leadership to embrace diversity and new ideas, if we aren’t demonstrating, and celebrating, diversity today.


Dear Chemists: Please Be Safe

It is no secret that I am a big fan of safety. Ask anyone who has ever worked with me. I had very little compunction telling my PhD supervisor, at the University of Alberta, to put on safety glasses and not to drink coffee in the lab. But I was lucky, my supervisor did take safety seriously. Many of my fellow graduate students worked with HF – something that no one in the group took lightly. We all were aware of the dangers and the first aid measures associated with HF. But there were still overall knowledge gaps in safety. For instance, my supervisor didn’t know that I was regularly working with tert-butyllithium, a compound that was responsible for the death of a research at UCLA. I have already written about my thoughts on this safety incident and my own observations.

But again, I find myself opening up the pages of my Chemical and Engineering News to read again about another tragic accident in another chemistry lab. This time, a post-doctoral researcher was caught in an explosion and she tragically lost her arm. The details of this case make me indescribably sad. This was PREVENTABLE! There were plenty of near misses that were reported earlier, but no corrective action was taken. There was the general understanding that flammable gases create explosive mixtures. But I don’t want to dwell on that. What I want is for academic researchers to change their attitude toward safety. I don’t want it to change because of the fear of punishment (jail time, fines, job loss etc.). I want it to change because it is the right thing to do. Here I write an open letter to my fellow chemists.

Dear Fellow Chemists, Chemists-in-Training, and Other Chemistry Enthusiasts, 

It is time to change our image and I am calling on each of you to make it your mission to do so. I have been to many chemistry demos at science open houses, science centres, and many other events geared toward engaging the public to like chemistry. There always seems to be this view of chemists as the “science clowns” with big explosions and over-the-top reactions. They’re flashy and cool. But what I have learned in studying chemistry over the last 14 years is that flashy reactions are generally a sign of poor, out-of-control chemistry. A good reaction is one where the heat and pressure changes are well controlled and nothing very exciting appears to happen. Somehow though, we all sit around, laughing about all these near misses, each “one-upping” the previous story. Haha, chemistry is so awesome. But here’s the rub: the joke’s on us. 

Chemistry is awesome. But it isn’t loud bangs and big fires that make it awesome. It is being able to sift through a pile of data gas chromatograph data and demonstrate conclusively that the accelerant in a particular arson case was gasoline. It is being able to make a drug that treats HIV and drastically improves the lives of people suffering from the illness. 

PIs: you are the managers in your lab. You have the responsibility to make changes in the attitude of your trainees toward safety. We learn from our mentors. Create a culture of safety and your trainees will take that attitude with them to where ever they go to next. 

Trainees: this is for all of you undergrads, grads, post-docs, and research assistants. You know what you’re working with. Is it safe? Do you feel comfortable doing this work? Do you know what the risks are? Do you have all the safety equipment? Is it in proper working order? Are you sure? If you answered “no” to any of these questions, DON’T DO THE WORK! You have the power to refuse to be unsafe, regardless of whether you are in academia or industry. In industry the phrase “I don’t feel safe doing that” is a magical phrase that will result in immediate action. I know that we often feel that our supervisors in the academy have total control and that to countermand their instructions is to commit career suicide. But ask yourself, would your supervisor really want to let you get hurt? No! It is possible to be safe and still meet your supervisor’s expectations. 

Chemists of all levels: let’s stop demonstrating chemistry as nothing but bangs and explosions. It creates an attitude that those are normal. We are not science clowns. We are changing the world, one molecule at a time. So let’s all be safe. We take our research seriously, let’s take our safety seriously.


Dr. Brenna Brown – an advocate for chemical safety 


What’s the Deal with Climate Change?

Climate change: it has has been all over the news, especially recently with the Paris Climate Change Conference underway.

I just recently had a client of mine ask me my thoughts on climate change because he was unsure that it is as big of a deal as the media is making it seem. I could understand where he was coming from. One of the biggest issues with climate change is that it is obscured by lobbyists, politicians, private corporations, numerous jurisdictions all pushing through their own agendas, making it difficult for others outside that group (i.e., your average citizen) to understand what exactly climate change is and why we should even care.

The first big problem associated with climate change is jargon. I love this article by the BBC because they actually address the jargon issue. Anything that is too heavy in jargon (and that is pretty much all of science) quickly alienates people because they don’t speak “science language”. I am going to address some of the terms to help you through the climate change jargon mess, but also check out the BBC’s climate change glossary for a more complete list of definitions.

The first thing to understand is the greenhouse effect and greenhouse gases. The greenhouse effect is the insulation of the earth by certain gases in the atmosphere. The result is a rising of the earth’s temperature. In order to support life (as we know it) on Earth, we need some of the sun’s heat to stay on our planet and keep us warm. The atmosphere of the earth helps to trap some of the heat from the sun and keep us at an optimal temperature. The general principle of the greenhouse effect is sketched


Comparing the natural greenhouse effect to how human actions are influencing climate. 

out in this diagram I grabbed from Live Science’s explanation of the greenhouse effect. The gases that trap the heat are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), water (H2O). These are natural, but normally present in small amounts.

The atmosphere is comprised of approximately 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% argon, and the rest is every other gas. Carbon dioxide only makes up about 390 ppmv (parts per million). With this composition, everything remains in a nice balance and we live happily ever after.

The problem comes in when we (and yes I do mean human activity) start adding more water, carbon dioxide, and methane into the atmosphere. They start trapping more and more heat, which gradually warms the temperature of the earth, and puts us in the predicament we are currently facing.

Why is it now “climate change” and not “global warming”?

Excellent question. The reason that nomenclature was changed is because “climate change” is a much more accurate picture of what is truly happening world wide. Global warming, the gradual increase of the global temperature as a result of the greenhouse effect, is occurring; however, global warming implies that we should all be expecting balmier winters when the true picture of what is occurring means more erratic weather patterns around the world. Any physical scientist can tell you, temperature is extremely important to how chemistry behaves and even more so in the gas phase. The pressure and the volume of a gas is directly influenced by temperature. Since our atmosphere is made up of gases, changing the temperature means that the movement of the gases in the atmosphere is going change, drastically influencing weather patterns. That is why we are seeing more severe droughts in certain areas of the


The signs of climate change.

world, crazy colder winters in other parts. I grabbed this picture from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It shows some of the ways that we can tell climate change is occurring, and it is more than just a global increase in temperature. Actually, the EPA has a very nice explanation of some of the things going on in climate change.

The biggest issue of climate change is that the Earth exists in balance. Every ecosystem has evolved for specific conditions, conditions that include temperature and weather patterns. The plight of the polar bear and the melting ice caps has become the poster child of climate change, but here is a different example for you: coral reefs. I have had the pleasure of snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. That is an ecosystem that is absolutely breathtaking. From all of the different types of coral to the fish that call that coral home. Coral are actually animals. Their sexual reproduction involves the release of eggs and sperm simultaneously. This release depends on time of year, water temperature, tidal and lunar cycles. The more erratic weather and the increase in water temperature can alter the ability of these animals to reproduce. As they begin to die off, all of the sudden the variety of life that depends on coral reefs as a habitat are now also adversely impacted.

There are many more examples that demonstrate how the Earth has evolved in a balance. Something as seemingly insignificant as an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can have long-lasting impacts on the planet.

Our actions do impact the environment. The solutions are certainly not as simple as some environmental lobbyists might suggest. But it is important that we start changing our lifestyles to be more aware of how our actions adversely impact the environment. We can all be better stewards of the Earth.

What small things can you do to help be more environmentally friendly?

An Africat Honeymoon


This was where I took my morning coffee – often times there would be animals there too.

I have found my happy place! It is at the Okonjima Nature Reserve in Namibia. This is where I spent six nights of my honeymoon. Now you might be wondering who opts for a honeymoon in Namibia and what this has to do with a science blog. Well, the Okonjima Nature Reserve happens to be home to the Africat Foundation, a not for profit organisation committed to the conservation of Namibia’s large carnivores.

Science lovers, animal lovers, and travellers of all kinds NEED to travel here at some point in their lives. First off, the accommodations are top-notch (just check out the Tripadvisor reviews). The staff have to be some of the most helpful and friendly people I have ever met (and I am Canadian; we are proud of our long-standing, widely accepted stereotype as a friendly and helpful culture.) Now, Husband and I were there for 6 nights during our entire time in Namibia. Apparently this is super rare. Most visitors only stay a couple of nights, which is NOT what I would advise. Yes, all of Namibia is beautiful and there is plenty to see, but you are doing yourself a disservice not to spend several days at Okonjima. You have the opportunity to go out tracking the large predators on the reserve, and while the guides (who are just tremendous) will do their absolute best to ensure that you see a leopard (or cheetah, hyaena, or wild dog) there is no guarantee.


But when you see one, they will take your breath away.

Anyone who has ever owned a cat will understand how uncooperative they can be. The more time you spend there, the more chances you have to see a leopard. It was a pleasure to accompany our designated guide,  Richard Zaayman. He worked tirelessly with the rest of the staff to give us the most unforgettable honeymoon. But what his work really did was create two lifelong supporters of Africat.

Conservation: we, as a species, should perhaps see ourselves more as guardians and stewards of the Earth, rather than those exalted and meant to take from the Earth to serve our own needs. As an Albertan working in the environmental field (an environmental chemist specifically), much of my focus is on pollution and the impact that oil mining has on our environment and our health. But we are part of an ecosystem. Other creatures are depending on the environment. We have heard that wolves change rivers, and no doubt so do the cheetahs, leopards, and lions of Namibia. What I love about Africat, and how I know that I found a group of kindred spirits, is that their motto is “conservation through education”. By focusing on educating the next generation on the importance of conservation and why Namibia’s large carnivores play an important role in the ecosystem it is hoped that a sustainable solution for the future can be made. The concept of education and curiosity is why I write this blog. By giving everyone the opportunity to explore science, making it accessible to all, hopefully we can give the next generation the opportunity to explore the mysteries and wonders of nature, whether they are exploring the spaces between atoms, the spaces between continents, or the spaces between planets.

“Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” -Nelson Mandela

Thank you Richard, everyone at Okonjima and Africat for making our honeymoon so perfect!IMG_1353


Dinosaurs! (Or, How to Make a Fossil)

Guess who turns 30 this year? (No not me, that was last year.) It is the Royal Tyrrell Museum. (Pronounced TEER-uhl not tie-RELL) Now, 30 years old might not sound that impressive when you are showcasing exhibits that can boast 30 MILLION years old but none-the-less, still a pretty big deal.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum is nestled down in Alberta’s badlands, in the lovely City of Drumheller. You go from the beautiful canola covered prairies and end up in the desert, where a very different geological landscape awaits you. What makes the Royal Tyrrell Museum one of Canada’s treasures is that it is THE Dinosaur Museum. And who doesn’t love dinosaurs? Seriously, to say you don’t love dinosaurs, weren’t completely fascinated by them as a kid, don’t have a kid that isn’t fascinated by them, and don’t find them remotely interesting now, you are either lying or have no sense of whimsy. Dinosaurs are awesome-that is why Jurassic World it all its terrible-ness still made money hand over fist: dinosaurs are awesome.

And on the other side is a lush prairie field.

And on the other side is a lush prairie field.

For me (and my fiancé), going to the Royal Tyrrell Museum is like being a kid in a proverbial, allbeit science-themed, candy store. Exploring the world, not as we know it, but starting from over 570 million years ago in the precambrian period. What other place can you go where you can you travel in time, going from the Permian, to the Triassic, round a corner, end up in the Jurassic period, walk a little further on and hit the Cretaceous period, see a mass extinction event (one that wasn’t influenced by human activity nor threatens your current safety) and live to see the Rise of the Mammals?


Dimetrodons from the Permian period.

Stegasaurous (my personal favourite) from the Jurassic period.

Stegasaurous (my personal favourite) from the Jurassic period.

Triceratops from the Cretaceous period.

Triceratops from the Cretaceous period.

Just another thing that makes Alberta a pretty special place to live is the fact that it seems the land in which we now call Alberta was once a hot bed (now fossil bed) for dinosaurs. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise, considering that our economy is oil-based. Petroleum hydrocarbons are what happens to plants and animals millions of years and thousands of tonnes of pressure after they die. What is surprising to me is that we are able to find so many dinosaur fossils at all. What we dig out of the ground are not animals that existed 10s to 100s of millions of years ago themselves, but rather pieces of those animals (and plants) that just happened to die under just the right conditions where their decay wasn’t stunted and they were then turned to stone. This becomes even more remarkable when we are able to find evidence of soft tissues.

So let’s take  a look at how to make a fossil:

The first thing that has to happen is that the animal has to die. Now when you die, there are lots of things that happen. There are always scavengers that are looking for a quick meal. There are also bacteria that start breaking down all of the organic matter through a bunch of biochemical reactions. Then there is the environment: wind, rain, fire, it can all affect the body of a decaying organism. But I haven’t told you anything that you didn’t already know: animals die, their bodies decay. That process doesn’t necessarily lead to fossilisation. To make a fossil, the carcass needs to be buried, and pretty quickly, before too many things have eaten it or capricious weather has destroyed the remains. Now, the speed at which an animal needs to be buried depends on environmental factors such as humidity and temperature. The key is for the animal to be buried before too much of the carcass, specifically bone, is destroyed by the natural degradation processes.

The skeleton known as

The skeleton known as “Black Beauty” at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. The bones of this T-rex are a striking black. This is due to manganese being incorporated into the skeleton during fossilisation.

Now that we have buried the carcass, the bacteria, naturally present, get to work. Animal bones are not inert, hard structures that our bodies hang off of. Bones are a matrix of living organic tissue where the mineral hydroxyapatite has been grafted up around it. Hydroxyapatite is a mineral comprised of calcium and phosphate ions. Over time and under pressure, the hydroxyapatite can change, incorporating ions from the surrounding sediment, such as iron, uranium, even (rarely) manganese. The biggest change, however, comes from the bacteria “eating” the organic part of the bone. As these bacteria metabolise the organic material from the bone, the produce mineral by products, depositing these minerals into the spaces of the bones previously occupied by the organic matter. The most common mineral deposited is calcium carbonate. The bacteria use calcium ions from the surrounding water and sediment to capture the carbon dioxide that is produced as waste product of their metabolism. Calcium carbonate is better known as limestone. The bacteria may also incorporate other ions, like iron, into these mineral deposits. After many years, the bacteria will have successfully transformed bone into stone.

2015-07-29 22_29_38

When I think about this process, how an animal has to die, be buried quick enough and deep enough that degradation processes don’t completely destroy the skeleton, I can help but be amazed that we even have fossils, let alone the stunning array of fossils that we do have. We have managed to piece together some pretty amazing details about the life on earth millions of years ago. This has allowed us to take a glimpse into our own evolution. This is what the science of palaeontology gives us: a passport into the past, a pastport if you will. So if you have ever wanted to travel back in time, I encourage you to visit the Royal Tyrrell Museum.