The Sandford Fleming Medal is awarded annually by the Royal Canadian Institute to a Canadian who has made outstanding contributions to the public understanding of science. Two years ago the award went to Commander Chris Hadfield, maybe you recognize the name. Last year it went to Penny Park, senior producer of CBC’s Quirks and Quarks for 15 years and current Executive Director of the Science Media Centre of Canada.
This year, the award went to Molly Shoichet, Professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto, Laureate of the 2015 L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award, and Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering. Oh, and she happens to be our co-founder as well.
So how did a world-renowned scientist become so involved in science outreach? She went on vacation.
The following are adapted excerpts from Research2Reality’s origin story written by Prof. Molly Shoichet and originally published on Discov’Her earlier this year.
Inspiration while on vacation
Ironically, my mission to use online social media as a platform to build awareness for Canadian research began on a vacation to Greece, where I found myself without an internet connection. I was on the Island of Crete with my husband, Kevin Bartus. We were talking about the Toronto International Film Festival happening back home, which brings celebrities and movie-goers from around the globe to Toronto.
I thought about the Biomedical Communications program at the University of Toronto, where students communicate complex science to the public through animation. I was inspired by the power of visual arts to bring ideas to the masses, and wondered if we could bring these two worlds together – science and film – to engage the public in cutting edge research.
The right film-maker
I knew that the films had to be short and snappy to take advantage of our “snack culture” – an expression that I had heard on national public radio. I wanted them to feel polished and cinematic. To do this, I needed to find a film-maker who shared my passion for research.
Mike MacMillan had filmed a series of commercials for the University of Toronto called “ThisIsUofT.” The videos were short and a little edgy, making them fun and light while also staying on message. I thought that Mike could be the partner that I needed.
We started by making a pilot video, based on work by prominent researchers and colleagues who specialize in heart disease. On a shoe-string budget funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, we produced a one-minute video with a compelling and emotional story, rooted in research. The pilot enabled us to share our vision for what we wanted to do: start a national social media campaign to connect today’s research with tomorrow’s reality.
Luckily, there were a few visionaries who understood that together we could reach more people than we could alone. Paul Young, then Vice President of Research at the University of Toronto, and Amit Chakma, President at Western University were our first backers. With their support, we were able to recruit four other research-intensive universities: Waterloo, McMaster, University of British Columbia, and University of Alberta.
We were thrilled when Discovery Canada and Discovery Science Canada joined as our national media partners. We now have three videos being televised 10-14 times every week – something that we know none of us could have done alone.
Our national launch
We launched Research2Reality on May 11, 2015, and have grown to over 1,000 followers on our social media platforms in just five months. Our launch event, hosted by award-winning science journalist Ivan Semeniuk, brought together researchers from across Canada. Research2Reality continues to grow and evolve. We release new material every day and we continue to welcome new partners in academia, government and industry.
Everyone I met has inspired me. There are so many more great stories being told.
Though this is the end of our origin story, it’s certainly not the end of our story or Prof. Shoichet’s. Congratulations Molly!