Why Research Matters

A funny thing happened on my way to becoming an astrophysicist.

In high school, my plan was to do a double PhD in math and physics, and then spend my life studying the cosmos. Then in my final year, at just the time I was charting a university career, I had a truly stellar English teacher and a science teacher who was more like a black hole – no information could escape from his ultra-dense lessons. (That joke kills in astrophysics circles.)

One bachelor of arts later, I had forgotten my earlier ambition. I also managed to pass through my undergrad blissfully unaware that such a thing as research was taking place at my university. I worked at some interesting organizations – a driving school, a cancer charity, an Inuit art gallery. Ultimately, though, I went back to university, getting a graduate diploma in journalism.

As soon as I started writing professionally, I was drawn back into the world of university research and new ideas. In the two decades since, I’ve kept one foot in the newsroom and another on campus. The two are oddly similar, each being a mix of idealism and cynicism, with an overarching skepticism that challenges the status quo and brings new knowledge to light.

I have never had patience for the perceived divide between academia and “real life.” I have experienced prejudices on both sides of that particular chasm – I’ve met more than one researcher who doesn’t care to speak to journalists for fear their research will be chopped up into trivial factoids and sound bites. One the other side, there is no shortage of smart non-academics who are daunted or alienated by university research (or who see it as somehow disconnected from “real life”).

Portrait of a female researcher carrying out research in a chemistry labI’m adamant that the divide between campuses and the rest of the world is based much more on (mis)perception than reality. Over the past two decades, I have chronicled academic research in newspapers and magazines, on television and in documentary films. I have also worked with researchers on public and government outreach on behalf of universities, research institutes and partner organizations like the Council of Ontario Universities.

Among the projects I currently work on is Research Matters – a public outreach program designed to showcase connections between university research and everyday life. The stories that appear on the Research Matters site focus on the human elements of research. There are public events where anyone can discuss topical issues with university researchers – in fact, tomorrow kicks off one of these events in Thunder Bay where researchers from different disciplines will discuss and debate various issues affecting our world. There’s a “Curiosity Shop” that travels around the province to malls and festivals, offering another way for people to have questions on any subject under the sun answered by university researchers.

Research Matters is designed not only to help non-academics understand university research, but also to get them thinking about why it matters to them.

Every so often during the course of this and my other work, I get a chance to speak to an actual astrophysicist. As a group, they are generally passionate, interesting and absolutely love what they do. Occasionally, I feel the pang of not having pursued that line of work myself.

My regrets are few, though – I spend my days learning about the latest ideas in natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, and telling stories about the people who create that knowledge. I get to know about it all, and there couldn’t really be a better place for me.

With so many different pathways that can be taken after graduating from university, I’m grateful that my education helped lead me here.