More Than a Student: an Interview with the Science & Policy Exchange VP Member Relations

For this second installment of the More Than a Student series (if you missed the first interview, read it here), I met with Palina Piankova, a Master’s student in Experimental Medicine who studies malnutrition in older cardiac patients and is also the Vice-President Member Relations of the Science & Police Exchange. We had a chat about what the S&PE does, why Palina chose to get involved, and how you (dear reader!) can also volunteer and try your hand at real-world problem-solving.

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Can you tell me a bit about the Science & Policy Exchange?

Palina: We’re an organization run by McGill graduate students and post-doctoral fellows – although right now we’re also trying to expand and get more members from universities outside of McGill.

Our goal is to make the student voice heard in political discussions – to bring the student perspective to the table when talking to policymakers.

As grad students, we are early career scientists and we’re a good fraction of the population; it makes sense for us to have a voice!

In more concrete terms, what does the Science & Policy Exchange do?

Palina: A lot of things! For example, this year we’ve organized S&PE cafés, public forums, a science diplomacy event on the Arctic Council, and right now we are running a student survey.

In 2017 we sent an open letter to Justin Trudeau, to tell him what students wanted when it came to research funding in Canada – the #Students4theReport campaign. It became a nationwide campaign, with over 1000 individual signatures and over 200,000 students represented through their student association’s support of this letter. That’s a lot – and it’s why we have some weight for the next federal budget.

So this Fall we launched a student survey to really pinpoint what graduate students and post-graduate fellows want and need in terms of funding and grants. The survey is now closed; we’re going to compile the results and generate a report by the end of this year, so that we’ll be ready to send it to the federal government before the next federal budget is set in early 2019.

About those scientific cafés you mentioned – what are they? Do you hold them pretty often?

Palina: People pay $5 to go to a café and discuss a topic, a particular problem. It’s a chance for people from different fields with different interests to come together and talk about this problem, discuss it, and come up with potential solutions which we then formulate into a report.

We hold these cafés quite often; they’re easy to organize, and we like to give our volunteers autonomy to organize them around topics and problematics that interest them.

If you have an issue in mind and want to do a scientific café – reach out to us and let’s go for it!

We will decide on the next S&PE café dates in the new year, so people should keep an eye open for that!

How did you get involved with S&PE?

Palina: I was receiving email invitations for events, like the public forums and the science diplomacy event. I think the emails were from Skillsets, they sometimes affiliate with S&PE for workshops. Anyway, I realized that every event that I was interested in was from the Science & Policy Exchange, so it seemed convenient for me to join in and actually get involved in this organization.

Why were you interested in the S&PE events?

Palina: I’m really passionate about science outreach and science communication. In science, I feel like we’re kind of isolated in our university buildings and we don’t know what’s happening out there. So I was trying to find organizations that are a  link between science and society, where there’s a kind of logical followup to what you’re doing with your research and how you can apply it.

What would you say are some of the perks of being involved?

Palina: I would say that the main perk is networking. For example, this year the International Congress of Personalized Healthcare had a Young Investigator Forum. They reached out to the S&PE to ask for a couple of members to join the organizing committee, so a few of us got to attend that forum, be facilitators and introduce the speakers. Even though we weren’t in the field of personalized healthcare, we still got to have a say and bring different kinds of insights, all because people reached out to the S&PE.

Also: it’s a super flexible kind of involvement. We know that graduate life can get kind of tricky – with crunch time, writing, everything. But with S&PE, you can get involved in different events depending on your interest, pick what you want to do and then be done when it’s done.

It’s a good match for the graduate student lifestyle!

Do you find it challenging to balance being involved with the S&PE and also doing all the things you have to do for grad school?

Palina: It can be challenging, but that’s okay; it gives me a sense of direct purpose. I don’t want to be isolated, just keeping to my research within my research centre. S&PE kind gives me a way to do more, give more, and connect people with science in another way that can lead to concrete change.

So for people who are really interested in helping out, or who want to  organize a scientific café about a question they really care about: how can they get involved with S&PE?

Palina: People should email contact@spe-exchange.ca – I’m the VP Member Relations so I’ll be the one answering and adding people to our Slack channel.

We are always looking for new volunteers: right now we’re expanding, and the more volunteers we get, the more ideas and input we get, the better we can make our events!

And in terms of who you’re looking for to volunteer: are you primarily looking for people in science, or are you also looking for non-scientists?

Palina: We do have volunteers who aren’t from the sciences! We need everybody because everybody’s doing such valuable research – and we’re doing this to try and solve problems that are a concern for society. With people coming from different fields, we can get a more well-rounded view of a problem – which is what we’re aiming for, since it’s how problem-solving really works in the real world.

I feel like everybody has a piece to say – so don’t be shy to reach out!

I’ll say it again and again: we’re always looking for volunteers, because the more people we have, the more effective we can be.
You can find the Science & Policy Exchange on Facebook , Twitter and on their website.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Header picture from the Science & Policy Exchange

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