10 Selected Talks from 2015 – Part 2: Communication

In my previous post, I listed five discoveries and inventions from research presentations I encountered in 2015. For the remaining five presentations I cover in this post, I focus on the speakers who provided me with inspiration for communicating and writing about science topics. These speakers include a museum curator, public speaking professional, book author on engineering materials, researcher on atmospheric aerosols, and a game writer.


Ceiling-high black cabinet doors line the aisles of the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. Visitors are peering in through glass windows to see beautifully mounted specimens.

The next aisle down, one of the the black cabinet doors are open with a museum staff standing by it halfway up a ladder. He shuffles through furry animal specimens where squirrels and chipmunks are lined up belly down in perfect rows, showing off their stripes and long tails. Many visitors are surprised to see that what they see in the displays are only part of the two million specimens housed at this museum and the Biodiversity Research Centre.
Each specimen is a piece frozen in time and thus also a gateway to stories that make the animals come alive. Someone who seems to have no end to such stories is Chris Stinson, Assistant Curator of the Beaty Museum’s tetrapod collection. He is a walking encyclopedia of head-turning facts. Follow him through the rodents collection to see a Giant Flying Squirrel with a body as long as your forearm, smaller flying squirrels with the softest fur you can imagine, and pocket gophers with cheeks twice as wide as their face — Chris would be offering fun tidbits and commentary to give character to each type of animal, leaving you curious to delve into more.

Link to original image on flickr
Public speaking. Photo by Pete


You’re standing in front of a microphone and a huge audience. You have a great project idea and you know your research, but you’re unsure whether you’re going to tell that funny joke right, and whether you’d manage to convince people to like you and your idea.

It takes skill and practice to make a convincing and memorable talk. In a recent full day public speaking workshop, Ivan Waniz Ruiz took a group of 15 graduate students through ways to rethink the structure, language, and visuals used in presentations. Many students who were told to explain their research topic started sounding as if they were reciting their thesis title, and this rarely resonated with those outside their field. By the end of the workshop, however, the student speakers were engaging the entire class full of students who had no background in the presentation topic.

Ivan trained students to analyze people’s body language the way police interrogators would analyze a criminal’s lie or lack of confidence. By applying brain hacking tips to public speaking and practicing over and over again, presenters began to notice their own body language and use that to achieve a confident look to grab their audience’s attention and leave a lasting impression.

Ivan does what he preaches–in many past talks, I relied on notes I scribbled to remember what was said, but with Ivan, the take home messages for the students in this workshop have stayed in my head even months afterwards.


It was like going in to read a book for fun and coming out feeling incredibly smart and educated.

In the book Stuff Matters, a single, seemingly serene and plain photo of author Mark Miodownik sitting on the rooftop garden is the basis of his book on the great material inventions in our world. Each chapter picks up an item captured in the picture – steel, paper, concrete, chocolate, foam, plastic, glass, graphite, porcelain, and an implant.

In the very first chapter of the book, a knife stabbing incident throws you into a story of Mark’s fascination with steel, and in another chapter, his creativity flows in explaining plastic through a five-act play script. A dictionary or manual could tell you what each material is and maybe what it is made from, and an encyclopedia may tell you the history. But authors with creative writing like Mark Miodownik shows that truly everything around you has a story to tell.


Link to original image on wikipedia
A U.S. Air Force KC-135E Stratotanker aircraft trailing black smoke from its exhaust, by USAF pilot


Mechanical engineering professor Dr. Steve Rogak faced a mixed audience as he began his seminar talk.

The talk entitled “The Structure of Aerosol Nanoparticles” was of interest not only to his fellow mechanical engineers but also to students and faculty in chemistry, medicine, geography, and resource management. We are surrounded by tiny particles floating in the air which we call atmospheric aerosols, and researchers from various fields study how those aerosols – in the form of smog, engine exhaust, pollen, SO2, and others – affect our climate and health.

A talk full of jargon could have easily lost all the non-engineers, but Steve’s careful language, pace through tables and figures, and strong transitions walked the audience through the stories of his research on the structure of soot particles, which are typically emitted as a product of incomplete engine combustion. By the end of the talk, a non-expert audience like myself was able to appreciate the novel insight on proposing a new model for soot formation and structure.

As demonstrated in this seminar, when a topic like climate change has to be tackled with an understanding of chemical and physical reactions, geographical transport of air and clouds around the globe, health effects, and engineering that help mitigate emissions, many researchers in this field will have to learn how to speak to an interdisciplinary audience.

Link to original image on flickr
Assassin’s Creed IV by Rob Obsidian


Each video game has its own world, set of characters, and narrative that takes you through a story. In the game making industry, all these elements start from a concept developed by a writer.

Take characters: someone telling you to draw “a male character wearing a hooded coat and weapons” likely won’t inspire much creativity, whereas a writer elaborating a concept of “an 18th century pirate in the Caribbean islands who disguises himself as a rogue assassin, using his pistol and dual blades to navigate the islands and fight his way through to an assassin’s guild,” may inspire a character with a hooded coat and weapons, but with a much richer backstory.

Writers develop the backstory, the colors of the world and characters, the features, the clothes, the behaviors, the voice and attitude–everything required to paint a picture in the minds of collaborating concept artists, modelers, animators, sound techs, and directors. Game writer Sean Smillie, in a recent talk at the launch of the Game Academy at UBC, showed how to approach writing from this creative perspective, from a writer’s role to how writers can use the power of their words to communicate ideas that materialize into a visual game.

February 18, 2016Permalink Leave a comment

Dragons and eagles: a close look at claws

The word “dragons” bring to mind images of beastly creatures looming out of a dark cavern, spreading their tough and bulky wings and breathing fire in the air. However, shift your attention from European folklore to Asian historical art, and you’ll have dragons with a more serpentine body gracefully rising into the clouds.

Link to original image on deviantart.
Dragons by Junowski.

Speaking to an artist recently opened my eyes to how using a dragon as a motif may not be that easy when dragons have many regional differences in how they are depicted, and each can speak to a long history of symbolic meaning in a culture. To give an example, Japanese dragons are often depicted with 3 claws, while a Chinese dragon has 4 claws, except the imperial Chinese dragon which has 5 claws (a 5-clawed dragon was long forbidden for use by any other than the imperial family). Among east Asian countries, drawing a dragon accurately requires great attention to detail, even in the dragon’s feet.

Link to original image on wikimedia commons, uploaded by Louis le Grand
Chinese dragons by Chen Rong

Though dragons are a mythical creature, ancient Chinese imperial dragons are said to have claws inspired by an eagle’s talons. Just as the feet can suggest the culture where a dragon originated, an eagle’s feet also tells us a lot about the bird’s evolutionary origin and ecological niche.

Feet of eagles and other birds of prey are given a category of its own in bird feet morphology. These raptors have strong feet with heavy padding and sharp, curved talons on each toe. Eagles use the sharp talons to pierce captured prey or grip tight to carry the prey over long distances. A falcon’s talons would knock a prey out of the air, or clasp down on the prey while the falcon delivers a killing blow with its beak. 

The majority of birds have four toes, though known exceptions are two toes for ostriches, three toes for emus and some aquatic birds, and the slightly less obvious remnant of a fifth toe in the defensive spur of chickens. In eagles and most raptors, the four toes are arranged with three toes in the front and a fourth pointing backwards (anisodactyl toe arrangement). This arrangement is common in perching song birds and birds of prey requiring a firm grip on tree branches or their prey. This is unlike woodpeckers, parrots, and cuckoos that have two toes forwards and two toes backwards (zygodactyl toe arrangement). The origin of zygodactyly is debated, but the extra toe in the back seems to provide stability for perching laterally on a tree surface or allow birds to manipulate different types of prey.

Bird of Prey

Of the raptors, owls and ospreys are quite special. They can move one of their toes to switch from the anisodactyl (3 front, 1 back) to zygodactyl (2 front, 2 back) arrangement and back. This is similar to how we can either put our thumb flat along the other 4 fingers, or rotate it down to get a firm grip on something. Owls and ospreys can rotate one finger, but instead of an opposable thumb it is an opposable pinky finger.

As dragon claws show subtle regional differences, birds of prey show so much diversity in the shape and use of their feet. Next time I see a dragon or a bird, I might be looking at its feet, trying to guess its origin and lifestyle.

December 8, 2015Permalink Leave a comment

Underground World: Cenote Maya

Link to original image on flickr.
Cenote in Riviera Maya. Photo from dMap Travel Guide.

“The cenote is a must-see in Mexico,” said my colleague before my first trip to Mexico. At that time I had no idea what a cenote was, but hearing it is a beautiful cave with water that shines blue-green in the light, I was sold. One of the first things I did after arriving in Mexico was to book an excursion to the Cenote Maya.

On this excursion, our group’s tour guide Olga explained how cenotes formed and how more than 6000 cenotes exist on the Yucatán Peninsula. According to Olga, Continue reading

March 16, 2015Permalink 2 Comments

In Reality TV casting

You turn on CBC, the reporter points to the map saying “beautiful day on the coast, 26 degrees. We see the high pressure area over here but later in the week, perhaps some showers…” We get a fair share of science from the news, including weather reporting. I was intrigued to see Ms. Claire Martin, meteorologist on CBC News, visit Vancouver last week to share what it means to be the voice for our information. On a local level, the daily forecast affects our everyday plans, and on a global
level, our understanding of weather can shape how we contribute to the discussion on climate change.

Coming from a purely science background, Claire captured me right away with her jolly voice and clear speech. Not missing a chance to include humor, she guided us though the key components of how to communicate what she calls “sexy, scintillating and straight forward science.” Continue reading

January 30, 2014Permalink Leave a comment

The Science in Movies

Link to flickr for image of the Avengers
The Avengers by marvelousRoland. Image from flickr.

Superheroes crowded this year’s movie line-up: Batman: The Dark Knight ReturnsIron Man 3Star Trek: Into Darkness, followed by Man of Steel and Thor 2: The Dark World… Behind the exciting action and science fiction, have you ever wondered about the scientists supporting the science of these pop culture icons?

Movie makers may consult an expert to check that their movie scenes are actually realistic. We may be looking for fantasy and incredible action in superhero movies, but if the scene is far too off from reality, many are likely to be turned off with a “What? No way…” Here are some questions a science adviser for the movie might ask: if there were to be an explosion, Continue reading

December 16, 2013Permalink Leave a comment

Sustainable Hollywood

Have you thought about what it takes to make the movies we enjoy? In terms of resources for example, sets require lots of wood, bright lights, and air conditioning to cool them. Sustainability and care for the environment is a hot topic now, but where does the entertainment industry play in this?

Link to flickr photo of stage lights.
Stage lights by Olly Coffey. Photo from flickr.

Recently, I have been intrigued by the idea of biofuels as a new source of energy. The application of tree biochemistry to gain renewable energy is a growing field. This brought up a thought-provoking opinion from a close mentor of mine: he says we must be able to adapt to a lifestyle that does not require more and more energy. He says that we can learn from ancient lifestyles close to nature. But do we sacrifice the comfort of late night movies and dramatic scene play? Continue reading