Barmby one of 22 recruited to leadership ‘boot camp’

By Paul Mayne
April 24, 2014

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Western Astronomer Pauline Barmby knows how she presents herself, and her research, outside her lab is just as important as the research itself.

A two-day ‘boot-camp’ at the University of Toronto this week, the Science Leadership Program (SLP), aims to provide some of the country’s most outstanding academic scientists with the skills, approaches and frameworks for engaging more effectively with the media, decision-makers and the public throughout their careers.

“How do scientists relate to the broader community? How do you sell yourself and your message?” Barmby said. “How do we convince funders that our science is worth funding? How do we convince people that what we’re doing is interesting and important?”


For Barmby, while there are a lot of questions, the ‘selling’ is a bit harder in her field. Barmby is an observational astrophysicist who studies nearby galaxies and their associated star clusters. She uses observations with ground – and space-based telescopes – to understand the relationships between stars, gas, dust and the histories of galaxies.

“That’s particularly tough in astronomy, when what you’re doing is not going to make better widgets next week,” she said. “You meet people and you tell them you’re an astronomer and they tend to be very interested in that, they think it’s cool. But there’s cool and then there’s the price tag. You do have to balance those things for sure.”

Designed by professor Ray Jayawardhana, senior advisor on science engagement to the president of the University of Toronto, the SLP, in its second year, is targeted primarily at a select group of early and mid-career faculty members in the sciences, engineering and medicine. Barmby was one of only 22 scientists selected for this program.

The program aims to build a network of top researchers across the U of T and other research-intensive universities in Canada, and connect them with leaders of relevant external organizations, and media, to help foster a culture change.

One of the more interesting presenters Nancy Houfek, is head of voice & speech at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University. She will run a session on the performance art of the science presentation.

“It’s something, as scientists, we do all the time and we get some kind of training, but not from the angle of someone who is a professional performer,” said Barmby, who recently won the 2014 Florence Bucke Science Prize presented annually to a faculty member from any of Western’s Science departments in recognition of her outstanding research record.

Other session topics at SLP include affecting policy, community involvement and team building. In addition, several top journalists will discuss opportunities and challenges of media engagement.

“I’m kind of interested in the area of science and public policy,” added Barmby. “I know the people at Western who are interested in that area, and others in my field who are interested, but I don’t know many scientists from other fields, so this will give me a chance to network with them.”

Plus, it’s great opportunity for Barmby to recharge her scientific batteries.

“After marking 400 first-year exams, you need to be reminded why this stuff is fun,” she said.


8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
(holidays excluded)


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