Live from the BBC
by Matt McGrath
photography by Horst Herget
From January to April of this year, a London-based correspondent for one of the world’s most significant news outlets participated in the Faculty of Science’s inaugural residency program for science journalists. He came away gobsmacked, as he writes here, in his own words.
I am not someone hugely prone to hype or exaggeration. In fact, my ironic outlook is one of my best journalistic shields against the shysters and snake oil sellers of science (and believe me, there are plenty of them). So, when I say that the Science Communicator in Residence program at York University has been truly life-changing for me, it is not just the bleating of a grateful recipient.
Personally, my three months here in the unceasing Toronto winter have seen me lose five kilos in weight, get as fit as I have been in 25 years, become engaged to my longtime, long-suffering girlfriend, and understand the attractions of Timmy Hortons, maple syrup and the Presto card. I’ve also sprouted enough grey facial hair to bring new meaning to the phrase “grizzled veteran.”
Professionally, this has been a real eye-opening experience as well.
As an embed, I’ve seen up close the frustrations of academia as well as the benefits and strengths. Everything is much more formalized in the academic setting than I have been used to as a professional journalist: Appointments take longer to set up, and processes must be followed. Toes can be easily stepped on; noses innocently put out of joint.
But on the plus side, this unique residency has given me the opportunity to sit down with some quite remarkable people at the Faculty of Science, and gain insights into the quality of their work. And, wow, there’s so much good stuff here. One of the most gobsmacking realizations from my time here at York has been this amazing tendency for Canadians to hide their light under a bushel.
Or should I say lights. York has a number of bright ones.
York, right now, may well be showing us the world, as it will be in years to come
They include Professor Chris Bergevin, who helped me understand the complexity of our inner ears and the amazing implications of the discovery that our ears emit their own sounds. Then there’s Professor Amro Zayed, a researcher whose work has achieved something that many would have said was impossible – changing the mind of the British government on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.
Professor Jianhong Wu is a world expert on disease modelling. He’s one of the top global voices on the topic. Yet he’s not been on the BBC’s radar before. Thanks to this residency, that will change. Similarly with Professor Laurence Packer.
I followed this all-action, global giant in entomology as he charged around his lab, chaos and enlightenment emerging in equal measure. He wanted to show me some Irish bees, a small part of his staggering collection, gathered from around the world over decades. This guy is a gem and a gent, as well as a fount of knowledge that should have a wider audience. I shall see to it.
While at York, it was also really useful for me to spend some time with Professor Cora Young. Her work on air pollutants, including fire retardants as well as new studies on emerging threats, is very exciting and will be of global importance when published. She was not alone. Everywhere I turned there was cutting-edge research going on, all very quietly and politely. How very Canadian!
As well as making contacts and generating ideas for future BBC stories, York also pushed me to do new things such as giving talks and hosting seminars that I have tended to shy away from in the past. Despite being well used to broadcasting live on radio and TV, I have always struggled with the confidence to take on such public speaking events. Being at York has given me the chance to do this in a controlled way – and I’ve learned loads from the process, especially how to enjoy these occasions and make them fun for the audience.
Most especially, I loved moderating the York Science Forum panel on neutrinos with Nobel Prize winner Professor Arthur McDonald and Professors Sampa Bhadra and Scott Menary, which took place on the Keele Campus in the spring. Preparing for this evening, where art and science was essentially the same thing, required some rapid reading on my part to get up to speed on the complex world of subatomic particles.
I did some other research besides.
The most useful book I found while at York was one called Neutrino Hunters by some guy called Ray Jayawardhana. Heard of him? If in any way connected to York, of course you have. As many told me since my arrival here, York’s dean of science, a.k.a. Dr. Ray Jay, is destined to go far. As, alas, am I. At least in terms of distance.
Now that the warmer weather has finally hit the Greater Toronto Area, I must return to the U.K., and my job at the BBC. Please allow me to say a heartfelt thank you to Professor Jayawardhana and his team here at York for selecting me for the residency, and supporting me through it. This is a wonderful, beneficial idea, and you should be applauded strongly for promoting it. I have loved living in Toronto, learning about Canada and seeing the qualities and talents at this burgeoning university.
My most abiding memory is of the bustling halls of this campus, filled with energetic young people of all races, reflecting the amazing diversity of York. Those yakking youngsters I’ve passed in the eateries and in the overcrowded gym show how integration and harmony can go hand in hand. York, right now, may well be showing us the world, as it will be in years to come. If so, it is very much a brighter and better future that awaits us all.