As graduate students, we spend a lot of time and effort on our graduate work. However, our studies are but one element of our lives – we are more than just students. This academic year, I’ll be releasing a series of interviews with McGill grad students, to showcase some of the diverse and interesting activities that they do out of the library and away from the lab.
This September, I met with Let’s Talk Science McGill coordinators Maxana Weiss and Geneviève Gill to chat about their involvement in science outreach and how graduate students – of any field of study! – can get involved.
First off, let’s talk about what you’re here at McGill for. What are you doing for grad school?
Maxana: I just finished my Master’s in kinesiology and physical education; my focus was on biomechanics, and I looked at how people use their muscles differently as they age. Now, I’m doing my Ph.D. in rehabilitation science, in the department of physical therapy and occupational therapy. I’m looking at interactions between age, sleep, and exercise on the development and maintenance of muscle memory. It’s a lot of late-night work!
Gen: I just started my Master’s in kinesiology, in the occupational biomechanics and ergonomics lab. I’m looking at lifestyle and fatigue, at how working in front of a screen and visual strain can affect muscle fatigue and posture.
Can you tell me a bit about Let’s Talk Science?
Maxana: Let’s Talk Science is a national charitable organization with 48 chapters around Canada. The McGill site has now been active for 20 years. The overall goal of Let’s Talk Science is to help educators and youth prepare for future careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), through online resources, professional learning and in-person experiences. Here at McGill, we do a variety of different programs: in-class presentations for all grade levels, a program called the Let’s Talk Science Challenge (which is a competition with a hands-on engineering challenge and a trivia challenge), and we organize symposiums throughout the year on topics like sustainability, stem cells, women in science and cancer (called Let’s Talk Cancer). Last year, we held 161 different events that reached 6671 kids – or over 9236 people if you include adults.
Gen: We want to engage with people about science in an interactive way, more of a conversation than a lecture.
What are your roles as coordinators? What do you do?
Gen: I’m the activities and volunteer relations coordinator: I’m trying to recruit new volunteers while maintaining and coordinating those we currently have. I am also in charge of the activity kits: we have about 60 different kits in our on-campus storage, but I’m always looking into new ones. I also do a bit of coordinating with the Redpath museum; we run activities there twice a month.
Maxana: I am in charge of finances and symposiums. I get funding for our specific site, set the themes for the symposiums and recruit volunteers to organize and run these larger events.
The other two coordinators are Ethan and Derek. Ethan does our semi-rural and rural outreach; we send volunteers pretty much anywhere we’re invited. Derek is in charge of our indigenous population outreach. He was the best fit for that position since he already had a relationship with the community of Kahnawake, south of Montreal, through his research. We are hoping to build a stronger relationship with this community over the course of this year. We’d like to bring the hands-on activities we usually do, but to make them community events instead of classroom events.
Gen: We want to have more communication with the elders and leaders in the community, so that it’s a respectful sharing of knowledge rather than a teacher-student learning dynamic.
What drew you to Let’s Talk Science?
Maxana: I did science outreach when I did my undergraduate degree in the States; I ran the Brain Awareness Week campaign at Mount Holyoke College for a few years. We went to schools around the 2nd to 4th grade level to do brain-related activities, so I knew that I liked to do that. I am also drawn to science in general and think that science outreach is incredibly important!
I found out about Let’s Talk Science at the PGSS Activities Fair three years ago; I talked to one of the coordinators at the time, went to the training, and started volunteering.
Gen: My ultimate goal is to be a pediatrician – so anything that involves working with kids is my ideal population. I also love to take on leadership roles, so when Maxana asked me in April if I wanted to be a coordinator, that was icing on the cake!
What would you say are some perks of volunteering with Let’s Talk Science? Or of being a coordinator?
Maxana: All our volunteers get the usual benefits of being part of a group, and of interacting with people from different fields; we have volunteers from every single faculty. Our activities also are a great way to practice knowledge translation and communication; being able to share what you’re doing with the general public is an incredibly important skill, and practicing it will make it easier in the long run. And many of our volunteers are interested in being teachers, so in-class activities give them an opportunity to be in front of a class, to get comfortable in that environment and to make contacts within different schools throughout Montreal.
Volunteering with us is a very flexible commitment. We don’t have mandatory weekly meetings or a mandatory commitment of 10 events per semester; many volunteers only do one activity per semester, and that’s fine. We also do many different types of outreach: if you’d like to stand in front of a class, you can do an in-class activity; if you like to work behind the scenes, you can help plan symposiums; if you like doing science fair judging, you can do that. And if you don’t like to do any of those things, we can find something for you to do! We have something for anyone who’s interested in science and in outreach.
Gen: As for the coordinators, we’re the liaison between the volunteers and the teachers and organizations who are reaching out to us and interested in having us. Making sure that we find the right fit between volunteers and activities is very dynamic work, we get to use our judgment a lot.
Maxana: Since Let’s Talk Science is a national organization, we also get resources from national to support us to try to grow our site and make it become the best site it can be, whatever form that takes.
What are some challenges you’ve faced?
Maxana: Funding! We love people who are interested in learning how to fundraise for a national organization – so if that interests you, we need you.
On a more personal level, have you faced any challenges around balancing grad school and Let’s Talk Science?
Gen: I’m just starting, so I will figure that out!
Maxana: For me, doing this is a kind of reprieve. On a day to day basis, I’m focused on one specific project – but with this, I get to talk about space, biology, leaf structure, the plight of the bees, dinosaurs! I get to put my hand in all those different areas of science, to be connected to so many more things. In a lot of ways, the world seems bigger – because if I’m constantly focused on this one project and it’s not going well, and it’s the only science thing I’m involved with, then I might not end up liking science that day. But when I get to have all these other connections to science that I’m excited about and that I’m thrilled to bring to kids, then it lessens that pull.
If people are interested in getting involved with Let’s Talk Science, how can they get started?
Gen: Send us an email to say you’re interested! We will send a welcome email with information about the specific opportunities that we currently have, and about how to sign up to our monthly volunteer newsletter.
Our next volunteer training sessions will happen in mid-October. If people can’t make that date, we can also do the training one-on-one. It will most likely happen at Thomson House, but it could be anywhere we can get the A/V set up!
And how can people contact you?
Header picture from Let’s Talk Science
NOTE: This post was updated to correct the number of Let’s Talk Science sites across Canada