First Conference Experience – Kristine Tells All

From Kristine Hammill, a MSc Candidate in the WilsonToxLab, about her first conference experience at SETAC 2015!

DSCF4006As a Master’s student in the Wilson Lab I’ve been experiencing many of my graduate school firsts. Most recently, this month I attended my first large-scale conference, the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry’s North America 36th Annual Meeting, otherwise known as SETAC Salt Lake City.

Having completed my undergraduate degree in environmental science, SETAC was an acronym I heard a lot, but yet knew very little about. Needless to say, I was stoked to have the opportunity to attend my first SETAC, but extremely nervous for my first significant platform presentation that awaited me in Salt Lake City.

My nerves were quickly calmed upon my arrival as I received a warm welcome into the SETAC family. Throughout the course of the week, I couldn’t help but think of the event as a “Toxicologist’s Christmas” or a “Contiki Tour for Environmental Scientists”. By day you were nerding out with some great environmental tox talks, and by night you were rocking out on the dance floor with your new found friends and the scientists you admire. There was even time in there to explore the city.

I greatly appreciated the opportunity to hear about what else was going on in the world of environmental toxicology outside of my own little niche. Once joining the ranks of grad school it’s easy to get lost in the depth of your project and lose touch with the breadth of knowledge that comes naturally in undergraduate studies. It also provided a peace of mind to my inner environmental scientist: it doesn’t matter if I’m not tackling all the environmental issues, rest assure, there are many individuals out there working on their piece of the puzzle to contribute to the bigger picture.

As for my presentation, it turns out I had nothing to worry about. Before I presented, I was told it was a very forgiving crowd at SETAC, and my experience as both a presenter and audience member reflected that. Above all, I was happy to see that no one was being egotistical with the question period. Intelligent questions were asked with poise, and many questions were backed with their own explanation so it was understood where the asker was coming from.

All in all, it was a wonderful first experience at SETAC. I’m looking to head out into the working world after my Master’s and can’t say when I’ll be back again, but I hope that I’m lucky enough to find an employeer that will support my attendance.

With that, I’ll leave you with my top 5 tips for first-time SETAC attendees:

1. Participate in the buddy program.  My seasoned SETACer showed me the ropes, gave me great tips for the conference, provided insight into the consulting industry and government sector, and was able to introduce me to her network. Added bonus – she had a second first time attendee buddy who was also the only person from her lab attending, so we were able to navigate the waters together.

2. Sign-up for structured activities.  Not only do you benefit from the actual activities, which was my own initial draw, but it’s a great way to meet people. It’s a lot easier to start a conversation with someone when you’re sitting at the same lunch table then when you’re walking into a warehouse sized room with hundreds or thousands of people.

3. Take advantage of the technical content.  It’s great to hear about what else is going on in your particular area of focus, and to pick-up some tips and tricks for your own project, but SETAC is also a chance to explore the other areas of tox that you’ve always been interested in but may not have time for. Some sessions are even recorded and posted online so you can listen to what you missed at your own leisure.

4. Attend meetings/advisory groups.  SETAC is an inclusive group and you don’t need to receive a personal invitation to check out advisory groups or attend meetings (albeit those that are for the executive will be flagged). If you work with pharmaceuticals, go check out the Pharmaceutical Advisory Group. If you work with metals, go check out the Metals Advisory Group. It’s a great way to see how academia, government and industry work together and how research in the field is being shaped. Also be sure to check out the North America Student Advisory Council (NASAC) Open Assembly and hear about what the students of SETAC have going on.

5. Explore the vendors…ALL of them…As a Master’s student looking to graduate in less than a year’s time, I planned to hit up the vendors to network and ask those burning questions to potential employers. I set out to tackle the consulting companies and hadn’t considered exploring the publishers. I’m not getting a PhD – what use would I be to them? Well, after being sent to Wiley’s booth during the Career Navigation event, I learned that there are opportunities for MSc grads with a passion for science communication that sound right up my alley.

Annual Whitefish Meeting

One of the major initiatives in the lab is our work on Lake and round whitefish.  These species are super cool (ha ha) because they are fall spawners.  They don’t spawn until about the middle to end of November, when lake temperatures are dropping and below 10 degrees C.  The Great Lakes are a bit of a beast in late fall, early winter. Strong winds, high waves, rough conditions for a boat.  Both species have short spawns, only about 10-14 days.  If we are lucky, we can get out for about 2 good weather windows for fishing.

The project on whitefish is very collaborative and involves Drs. Chris Somers and Richard Manzon from University of Regina and Dr. Doug Boredom from the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.  Because of the distance and the number of trainees in each of the labs, and a shared field season, we hold an annual two day meeting where all the trainees present their research progress and we discuss our research plans for the next year.  This year we met in Doug’s backyard, at the Vale Centre for Living Lakes in Sudbury.  Next year, we will head to Regina!

What is amazing to me about this collaboration is the cross training our students get.  We talk about development, growth, morphology, cellular responses to stress.  We have lab and field based research.  We have two species.  We focus on temperature, chemicals and radiation.  And when we get through the effects work, we switch gears and talk about the populations of fish we study – the habitats they use and their genetics.  It is a great environment for students.

On top of all that great science, we also have a lot of fun together.  Annual meeting is a chance for out students to hang out, with us and on their own.  I believe science collaborations work best when you really like hanging out together.  And this crew?  They are awesome.  Go Team Whitefish!FullSizeRender 12

Women of Distinction

 

Lana Shaya, PhD candidate in WilsonToxLab, Drs. Rosa da Silva, Joanna Wilson, Juliet Daniel, and Robin Cameron at WOD Hamilton Awards

Lana Shaya, PhD candidate in WilsonToxLab, Drs. Rosa da Silva, Joanna Wilson, Juliet Daniel, and Robin Cameron at WOD Hamilton Awards

Last night, Hamilton held the 2015 YWCA Women of Distinction Awards and I won in the Sciences, Trades and Technology category.  It was totally overwhelming and I feel so grateful to be chosen among some really awesome and inspiring women researchers.  On top of that, the award category was sponsored by McMaster University and so I was presented with my award by Dr. Allison Sekuler, the AVP and Dean of Grad Studies, and a professor in Psychology, Neurosciences and Behaviour, where I am an Associate Member. It was so nice to receive this award from a female researcher that I greatly admire.

I didn’t do a long list of thank you’s in my speech, deciding instead to talk about the lack of recognition of women in STEM fields. The news this week that two leading female researchers resigned from the selection committee for the Hall of Fame at the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology was foremost in my mind.  Two years running and not a single female nominee?  Just ponder that a moment.  The researchers in question have made suggestions for how the process can be changed to encourage female nominees but changes do not appear to have been made.  Indeed, Dr. Judy Illes has been quoted in the CBC as saying “To have zero women two years in a row signifies a failure on our part to really reach out as needed.”  I thank her for these words, for she is correct, we need to urge institutions to be inclusive.   I find it troubling that the museum seems to think that the root cause is too few women in STEM.  I disagree with this idea and firmly believe that if there are women in STEM, there are excellent women to be recognized.

I would like to thank my nominator and colleague, Dr. Robin Cameron, and those that submitted support letters for my nomination.  I appreciate that you spent time nominating me!  Above is a picture of me, with just a few of the amazing women in Biology who shared such a special evening with me!

Science in service of public policy

I had the unusual experience of appearing as an intervenor at a public hearing.  This week many from the Whitefish Project were in Kincardine for a re-licencing hearing for a nuclear generating station.  I always hoped that the data we produced would be useful for setting public policy and could be applied to environmental assessments but this was the first time where our research has been directly relevant and timely to a regulatory decision process and required direct involvement in that process.  Clearly, it is one small piece of the enormous amount of information and data being considered by the Commissioners in this decision, but it is still there.  I think it is important that science informs public policy decisions and was happy to take part.  Participation has surely taught me many things, but foremost is the importance of developing the ability to communicate science to diverse stakeholders.

Science communication is a difficult and challenging thing.  We have technical expertise and are used to speaking to others with a similar knowledge base.  That means that when we speak to each other, scientists use their own language, a high technical language that is difficult for non-scientists to comprehend.  So what happens if you want others to use your data?  Learning to explain your data to people with different technical backgrounds really isn’t enough.  We need to learn how to communicate what we know and what we don’t know in clear and simple language and I can tell you this is not easy.

I will be reflecting on both the written submission, our oral presentation to the commission, and how we answered questions from the commissioners for some time.  I believe that as a researcher, I have much to learn about how to effectively communicate my research to those beyond my discipline and that practice and reflection about what worked and what didn’t is likely the only way to really improve.

Lake Huron Fishing

I’m not sure that November and December on Lake Huron can be considered a good time to go fishing but that is when we head out for whitefish.  This past weekend, weather conditions were finally good enough for gill netting but good conditions they weren’t.  With the boat rocking and rolling, we were able to collect only a few ripe male and females to provide 50 000 embryos for the year’s experiments.  While this may seem like a lot, last year we  had 2 great days on the water giving us 250 000 embryos for the project.   Still, I am rather relieved we got anything at all this year.  With very consistent high winds and high waves, we really haven’t had safe conditions to fish and I was fearing there would be no Lake Whitefish this year.

Sadly, there were no round whitefish collected this year in Lake Huron and we have hit the end of good weather and spawning season for that species.  Our last hope for round whitefish are from Lake Ontario, where spawning continues much later.  Here is hoping that their run has just started and that weather conditions on the lake are as good as can be expected as late fall/early winter allows.

In the meantime, here are a few photos of us and our fish!

 

John Eme and our favourite fish, the Lake Whitefish.

John Eme and our favourite fish, the Lake Whitefish.

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