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  • Nathaniel Neil Whelan

Full STEAM for Sustainability: A Writer’s Reflection

Despite being privileged enough to have received a good education and having access to many opportunities, I recently suffered a severe case of imposter syndrome.

It was a bleak Thursday, the temperature teetering around zero, the weather seeming to mirror my anxiety. I had never attended a conference before and didn’t know what to expect. My shirt was tucked in, a tie pinching my neck, but still I didn’t feel professional — I felt like it was a costume helping me blend in. Entering the majestic Canadian Museum of Nature, I asked myself: what business do I have being here?

But something happened between that moment and the end of the day. When I would walk out those same doors nine hours later, I would be feeling something I hadn’t anticipated: valued and welcomed. For me, the Full STEAM for Sustainability conference would be a journey from outsider to insider. Everyone would be willing and eager for me to join in the conversation. It wasn’t to be a scientific smackdown, but an opportunity to encourage dialogue regardless of professional status or experience. And by sharing our collective knowledge, the day would be truly collaborative in spirit.

The day kicked off at 8am with much needed coffee and an assortment of mini-muffins. The room was abuzz with friendly chitchat as those already present waited patiently for the last minute stragglers battling Queensway traffic. Observing from the back, however, my initial impression of feeling like an outsider only grew. As a college co-op student, I felt unqualified to be surrounded by so many esteemed researchers, professors, principals, journalists, organization leaders, and museum representatives.

I thought to myself, these are the appropriate people to be attending the Science & Technology Awareness Network’s (STAN) Full STEAM for Sustainability conference, not a writer with zero professional experience. My closest companion is pen and paper, not beaker and Bunsen burner. What did I know of the efforts Canadians are playing in realizing the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or how science can help provide answers to some of the current challenges we’re facing?

I was approached by Priyam Maini, a volunteer with Let’s Talk Science, who seemed more prepared for the day ahead. “I am excited to see the roles and projects individuals are taking in STEM outreach,” she told me. “As an active volunteer who is pursuing a career in science education, I am hoping to hear fresh ideas and get an idea of what kinds of local and national initiatives are in the works.” But in my mind, these ideas and projects were so far out of my field of expertise, I had no idea if I would be able to contribute.

A giant inflatable jellyfish stood sentinel as we moved upstairs into the conference hall, but despite its weightlessness, it seemed impossibly heavy, threatening to crush me under the pressure of my own insecurities.

After a few introductory speeches, the day officially started with a bang! If the caffeine wasn’t enough to wake everyone up, opening keynote speaker Eden Hennessey was up to the task. A rock-star in social psychology, she brought a contagious energy while showcasing her photo-research exhibit: a series of images and creative hashtags to reveal the gender inequity that exists within STEM. Using art as a method to communicate scientific findings to a wider audience, Hennessey did wonders to ease my initial bout of anxiety. I appreciated her underlying message: that art and science weren’t mutually exclusive, but could in fact co-exist in much the same way that I wasn’t such an outlier in this particular crowd as I might have thought.

Following this revelation, we broke off into groups for breakout sessions — informal chats about STEM-related issues. My chosen group discussed the role of technology in schools. “The breakout session was particularly memorable,” Maini explained. “At first, I felt like I was the most underqualified person in my group, but everyone was so encouraging. I ended up being able to contribute to an informative conversation.” As the two closest to this subject, both Maini and myself were able to provide a lot of insight based on our own recent experiences. What a delightful surprise to have something to share, and suddenly my anxiety was altogether forgotten.

Feeling revitalized, we regrouped in the conference hall where Lisa Glithero of Canadian Ocean Literacy Collation, Meredith Brown of Ottawa Riverkeeper, and Sébastien Sauvé of the University of Montreal discussed the importance of protecting our water sources. Each brought their own perspective to this lively panel, which ultimately culminated in an actionable challenge: think about our water footprint, not just in terms of showers and dishes, but in the amount of water used to manufacture everyday products. I’ve always been aware that water is used to make the most common of objects — cars and clothes, for example — but it’s easy to forget how much water is wasted when the manufacturing process is invisible to the everyday consumer. Since the conference, I’ve been even more invested in doing my part, however small that may be: buying less plastic, always having a reusable cup, seeking better recycling and composting practices. If nothing else, this panel left me with a desire to do what I can in order to have long-lasting positive impacts on the environment.

Following lunch, and with an endless supply of coffee, I was ready for the next talk: Science as a Human Right. Panellists Tracy Ross of Actua, Reni Barlow of Youth Science Canada, and Ivan Semeniuk of the Globe & Mail dove into a myriad of topics, including missions to engage youth in STEM and the current barriers preventing access to opportunities to learn digital skills. To cap off the discussion, Barlow asked: if science is a human right, then what are we protecting? The answer: curiosity. His words struck like lightening. Curiosity is a wonderful thing because it is a universal phenomenon. For me as a storyteller, it fuels my imagination. For someone in STEM, it is the driving force in breaking boundaries. It is what keeps us motivated and willing to better understand our world. In the context of science as a human right, not only does everybody have the right to be curious, but they should have the right to follow it through.

This sentiment wasn’t merely captured in words either, but was reflected in the way people conducted themselves in group discussions. Following the panel came the unconference, a loosely structured talk similar to the breakout session. Conferencegoers gave in to their curiosities, asking questions and actively listening to what others had to say. Not one person seemed to have more expertise than the rest, but given that my group’s topic was science and art, many looked to me as having something of value to contribute. Among other things, I talked about how I was working on Ingenium’s Women in STEM initiative, using my ability as a storyteller to recognize the accomplishments of women both past and present. The groups broke into another networking opportunity, and I felt bolstered in my work and satisfied with our discussion.

The day closed out with keynote speaker Catalina Lopez-Correa. An incredibly accomplished scientist, she was captivating and passionate when talking about the advances in genomic technologies and how her research can contribute to achieving various SDGs such as health, hunger, and clean energy. I felt as though I was in the presence of science royalty. At the beginning of the day this would’ve intimidated me, but at this point it felt more like an honour. What was most remarkable about her address was the accessibility of her overall presentation. She could’ve gone down the rabbit hole and left me in the dark. Instead, she invited us all to follow her, exercising the idea that scientists can’t just talk amongst themselves, but must reach out to others beyond their inner circle in order to affect change.

And thus, with a rousing round of applause, the day came to an end. As I made for the bus stop, I took off my tuque and gloves, the weather much more cooperative than it had been earlier. My expectations regarding the conference had been successfully flipped upside-down. These people weren’t part of a gold-membership club, but rather, belonged to a community of inspired individuals who encourage diversified opinions in the interest of pursuing solutions and innovation. And this, above all else, was what I took away from my day at the museum. Whether you’re an esteemed scientist or a writer, a university professor or a pupil, you too can be a part of the greater STEM conversation.

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