The science behind a climate headline

In 4 minutes, atmospheric chemist Rachel Pike provides a glimpse of the massive scientific effort behind the bold headlines on climate change, with her team — one of thousands who contributed — taking a risky flight over the rainforest in pursuit of data on a key molecule.

So, I’m starting a project for one of my courses–namely, Climate Change in the 21st century with Stewart Cohen–and I’m really interested in how media representations of climate change inform (or misinform) the public conversation. This is obviously an overly broad topic at this moment, however, my preliminary research is already turning up some fascinating stuff.

Pike’s brief talk has given me a glimpse at how much work can go into a very specific scientific pursuit. How do you fairly represent this kind of work  in a daily news story? How do you make it interesting and accessible in a feature?

Anyway, as a non-scientist, such a massive concerted effort was beyond the purview of my imagination. This clip helped me put things in perspective. It’s worth a watch.


A Cup of Kava: UBC student gains insight on Fijian culture

Wanying Zhao, MA Candidate at UBC Psychology Department

Wanying Zhao’s lips were itchy, and her tongue felt slightly numb.

In a roomful of Fijians, the young researcher was drinking Kava, a mildly intoxicating beverage that comes from a plant of the same name. Kava, she explained, is the foundation of social activity in the village of Teci, Fiji, where she lived as a cultural researcher in the summer of 2009.

“Kava looks like muddy water and it tastes pretty much the same,” laughed Zhao, who explained that the drink becomes more potent over time, creating a body buzz that makes the drinker feel mellow.

To demonstrate one of kava’s effects, Zhao momentarily closed her eyes, smiled and swayed gently.

Not all ethnographers could describe such details first hand, as some don’t believe outsiders should actively participate in the cultures they study. But Zhao’s team consciously chose participant observation as their research strategy, doing ethnography by conducting experiments and interviews, as well as engaging in day-to-day routines.

“I’m used to living in large cities where people mostly leave each other alone,” said Zhao. She described the strong kinship in the small 26-family village, where it was possible to walk anywhere in 15 minutes or less.

Her team’s interest was in understanding how and why people cooperate, and having intimate access was a very important advantage. Teci is one of more than a dozen field sites, where researchers like Zhao are actively examining human cognition through the Culture & the Mind project to see what people around the world have in common and also how they differ.

Little Sione, the mischievous child featured in Zhao’s audio story (see below).

“Fiji was really good in terms of people being very inclusive, warm and inviting,” said Zhao, who didn’t take the Fijian’s openness for granted, “It’s harder to understand a culture from the outside when you’re being treated with suspicion.”

From a solar-powered bure (Fijian hut), Zhao and her team engaged with tremendous questions, such as “what are norms?” and “what solutions have different cultures evolved to maintain social order?”

While engaging with the villagers, including large groups of enthusiastic children, Zhao gained what she calls an “embodied understanding” of her host community.

“You miss a lot when you don’t engage,” Zhao explained. “It’s only by participating and interacting that you begin to understand what it means to live, think and feel in another cultural world.”

Listen to Wanying Zhao tell a story about the Fijian “Denise the Menace”

“He’d wack the dogs and chase the cats…”


The Deepest Wilderness: UBC student was a ‘missing person’

Originally posted at the blog: Secret Lives of UBC students

Robert Singley, PhD candidate in composition at the UBC School of Music

There’s something wrong with Glastenbury Mountain, at least according to local lore in Bennington, Vermont.

Many people, especially watchers of the paranormal, have ominous theories about that stretch of the Appalachian Trail. A number of people are said to have gone missing there.

But none of this fazed Robert Singley, a PhD candidate at UBC, who used to hike the trail when he lived in Bennington. That is, until the day he too got lost in the woods.

Two years ago, while hiking back to his car, Singley became disoriented.

“I still think I was sucked through some sort of time space continuum,” said the composer, who channels his long hikes into creative impetuses for his music.

“All I know is that it got dark. It got foggy,” he said, adding that head lamp he’d brought with him wasn’t working. “I followed the trail for as long as I could see it, but then I lost the trail and I was totally alone in the woods.”

As his girlfriend worried at home, Singley struggled to find his way out of an area with an eerie reputation.

Some call it Bennington’s triangle, a reference to the mysterious Bermuda triangle. Others tell tales of a Bennington monster. And still others refer to Native American stories of rocks that swallow people up in this place where the four winds meet.

Regardless of which stories Singley believed, if any, there was no doubt he was in for an unusual night.

Robert examines the type of wood that "saved his life." Photo by Frank Singley

Next came the rain. The young American’s attempts to make a fire became futile and he eventually lay down from exhaustion.

“Later I started to shiver and I knew I was starting to get hypothermia,” said Singley. He got back up and started to look for kindling. Instead he was alarmed to find animal bones.

But somehow, in this precarious situation, Singley found a way to calm himself.

Listen to Robert Singley explain what was going through his head that night, and why he turned it into music:
An excerpt of his wilderness-inspired string quartet [audio here]

In the end, Singley managed to survive the night–largely thanks to finding a birch tree with highly flammable bark and coming up with wilderness-inspired musical ideas. In the morning, he ran into police that had been searching for him, and the local newspaper featured his story as an escape from danger.

But Singley heard his experience differently: “It was a magical experience, quite life affirming,” he has written.

In fact, in his work as a composer, he has tapped into the “non-directionality” he felt that night, creating music that is not heading in any direction–as in Escher’s staircase–and that values the journey as a series of individual steps.

“Getting lost really solidified these ideas for me, of just being happy wherever you are.”

Diving among dugongs: UBC student helps protect threatened species in Palau

Originally posted at the blog: Secret Lives of UBC students

Sarah Klain, Grad student at UBC's Institute for Resources, Environment & Sustainability

Sarah Klain had been out swimming when she saw a massive gray shape in the corner of her eye. She almost gagged on her snorkel when she realized what it was.

“It was a dugong. It swam toward me and looked me right in the eye,” said Klain, joking that the large marine mammal had resembled a fat mermaid, smiling at her before swimming away.

“But that’s anthropomorphizing it,” Klain quickly corrected herself.

Her inner scientist appeared in such qualifiers, even as she excitedly told me stories from Palau, a Pacific Island nation where she lived from 2005 to 2007.

Klain currently studies marine resources, including their social dimensions, at UBC–but the young American still has vivid memories of her two years in Palau. She had gone there to work as a Peace Corps volunteer, aiding in the conservation of a special trio of aquatic creatures.

Beside dugongs, Klain was also focused on saltwater crocodiles and sea turtles. She worked very closely with crocodile hunter-turned-conservationist Joshua Eberdong to collect data and talk to Palauans about the protection of those species.

“They just don’t bounce back as quickly,” said Klain. She explained that the rise of industrial fishing and the expansion of the human population has meant that the relationship between people and animals has started to change. And sustainable use, she said, is tricky with species like sea turtles and dugong that take a long time to reach maturity.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Klain

Location matters: In places like Northern Australia, there is a sustainable harvest of dugong due to their healthy numbers–but not in Palau, where the “sea cows” are a threatened species protected by law. When clarifying the island’s unique ecological situation, Klain also explained that she had to navigate the norms of her host community.

“Unfortunately dugongs are really tasty,” explained Klain. “That was a very sensitive complex part of the work that I did. These endangered animals had been food for hundreds of years.”

But Klain learned a lot from such negotations, and she feels lucky to have benefited from what she considers extraordinary local knowledge from islanders like Joshua. She has carefully documented her lessons in pictures, print and in a detailed slide show.

Her concluding words paint an evocative picture: “My thoughts often drift back to my home for two years, where sea turtles crawl ashore on beaches lit only by the moon, crocodiles hunt crabs and fish in the mangroves, and dugongs graze on sea grass.”

Listen to Sarah Klain describe her role in a “sea turtle rodeo
at the end of the original post

Elephant scales Wall: UBC student struggles to keep up with a giant

Originally posted at the blog: Secret Lives of UBC students

Jake Wall PhD Candidate, UBC Department of Geography

Jake Wall jolted awake, struggling to free himself from a nonexistent mosquito net. It was the latest in a series of bizarre dreams, but his reality was no less surreal. He was, after all, in the middle of the Kaisut Desert in Kenya, resting alongside a quintet of stubborn camels.

Back in Vancouver, nearly two years after his journey, I sat down with Wall to find out what had motivated the PhD candidate to cross lava rocks, drink from recycled cooking-oil containers, and risk daily encounters with deadly puff adders.

His reason was simple: It was the only way he, as an elephant conservationist, could see the world from the perspective of his study subject.

It had all started with Shadrak, a solitary bull elephant that was being tracked by Wall and his colleagues at the non-profit group Save the Elephants. Shadrak was special: In 2007, he’d traversed a 208km stretch in five days, thereby completing the longest elephant streak on record. After that, his satellite collar had gone dead and he’d disappeared off the face of Google Earth.

“We thought it would be really cool to follow that path,” said Wall. He wanted to get past the “GPS crumbs” and, on the one-year anniversary of the streak, follow the trail and maybe even find Shadrak. Wall worked with David Daballen, a Samburu researcher with Save the Elephants, to plan a journey of unprecedented scale in the field.

Photo courtesy of Jake Wall.

“As the leader of that trip I was really concerned with safety,” said Wall, who was accompanied by an eight-person motley crew of camel tenders, local guides, security guards and journalists. The group had planned to walk in the elephant’s exact path and at his pace.

What Wall didn’t know was that Shadrak’s five-day journey would end up taking his group nearly two weeks, that their food and water supplies would run dangerously low, and that their four-legged companions wouldn’t always want to stay the course.

“The camels would get spooked at night,” Wall explained, adding that his equipment carriers were prone to both “freaking out” and scheduling their own breaks. The journalists from Adventure Magazine documented such moments in print and photographs as Wall collected detailed and unique scientific data.

Despite the difficulties, Wall believes the trip was worth it. He doesn’t take for granted his ability to walk elephant corridors that may one day cease to exist.

“Elephants in Marsabit number around 350, and it’s looking more and more like their habit will disappear,” Wall said. He explained that human population is quickly expanding and squeezing out the elephant’s migratory routes. Although the challenges continue, researchers like Wall will keep working to make sure the world talks about the elephants in the room.

Listen to Jake Wall describe the day he finally met Shadrak, the bull elephant. Available at the end of the original post.

The Secret Lives of UBC Students

Photo by Flickr user stevendepolo //CC license: BY

A blog about inconspicuously fascinating young people on campus

While reporting at the University of British Columbia, I’ve met many ridiculously accomplished and interesting people—and, no, they aren’t all professors.

Many of my unassuming peers harbour stories that would jump-start your pulse. Take Jake Wall for instance: he has trekked through the Kenyan desert, dodging snakes and herding stubborn camels, all to get an elephant’s eye view. Or consider Sarah Klain, who spent two years on the island nation of Palau, tracking sea turtles, saltwater crocodiles, and dugongs.

Over the next few weeks you can read these stories at but I’ll post excerpts and links to the stories as they go up.

By the way, do you know a fascinating undergrad at UBC? If so, I could sure use the referral! Let me know in the comments below.

A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to Mental Illness

David Granirer’s comedy training for the mentally ill is proving to be a hit.

Granirer with his Stand Up for Mental Health troupe. Photo courtesy Pat Bayes

When David Granirer stood before medical students at the Vancouver General Hospital, explaining his alternative to traditional forms of therapy, his audience laughed at him.

Just as he’d hoped they would.

Granirer has developed a comedy workshop for people living with mental illness, which he’s dubbed Stand Up For Mental Health (SMH).

He runs weekly classes that bring together people with an array of mental health diagnoses such as bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Over the course of a year, he helps his students develop stand-up comedy routines for live audiences.

Six years after thinking this approach might help people better manage mental illness, his program is so popular that he has to turn away aspiring comics.

When he addressed the medical students, who are enrolled at UBC, UVIC and UNBC, Granirer knew there might be skeptics in the crowd. He blended serious and humorous points, screened performance clips, and invited a few comedians to partake in small discussion groups after the lecture. The event was part of a pilot project, which aims to give tomorrow’s doctors a greater understanding of — and empathy for — people with mental illness.

We often say laughter is the best medicine, but nowhere in the system do we say, ‘You’ve got a great sense of humour… let’s see what we can do with that,'” said Granirer, who is experienced at both stand-up comedy and depression.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five Canadians is directly affected by mental illness at some point in their lives. Indirectly, every Canadian is affected through a family member, colleague or friend.

“There are many myths about mental illness. Until people learn the truth, they will continue to deny that mental illness exists or avoid the topic entirely,” states CMHA’s website.

A personal knowledge of depression

Granirer hasn’t always enjoyed visiting hospitals and talking to doctors.

Although his silly facial expressions and lively gestures may not suggest it, Granirer was diagnosed with depression in his mid-thirties. He believes the condition began sometime during his teen years. In those days, he said he felt an incredible sense of shame and worthlessness, and would even cross streets to avoid people he knew.

Full story here