These days, science communication, outreach, and engagement are all the rage. But when I joined York University's Biology Department as an assistant professor in 1990, the notion, that part of our responsibility, as taxpayer-funded professors, might include spending valuable time away from research, talking with non-academics, other than our students, was rather a minority opinion amongst many YorkU faculty.
Since I was a teenager, I've believed that publicly-funded science and higher education should be accessible to the public. I'm well aware that science and/or the university can seem inaccessible, and monolithic to non-academics. I firmly believe that being approachable, and willing to engage, is an essential part of building support for research and higher education.
I'm still doing what I've been doing for decades, which is chatting about my research to interested non-scientists and citizen scientists. Sometimes, the pay-off for doing this is entirely unexpected... like when I got the following message (below), that I'd been credited as the Botanical Consultant in Flora, a science-fiction feature film, about to have its world premiere in London, UK!
In the spring, I logged into Skype and noticed a March 18th 2017 message from someone called Sasha. Apparently, we'd talked about fungal endophytes a couple of years ago, for a film script that he was writing. The film was now made!
I duly clicked on the links that Sasha sent, watched the trailer, and read the article in Sound and Picture Magazine, about the filming on Manitoulin Island and in Gatineau. This was all very cool, but I thought, "Whoa there, 'Botanical Consultant' sounds a bit much".
When I checked the dates of our conversation, I discovered that Sasha and I had actually spoken more like 3.5 years ago. Making a movie is clearly like doing graduate research!
In Fall 2013, Sasha had recently graduated from college, and wanted to talk with a botanist about his science fiction film plot, in which the forest fights back. Will Gage, a YorkU professor friend of his family emailed me to ask if I'd be willing to speak with Sasha about the science behind his script ideas. I said "sure, that sounds cool", and we made a time to chat, during which Sasha and I brainstormed for just over an hour.
When I read over my notes from our meeting, which, of course, Skype had saved, I thought, "OK, maybe Botanical Consultant isn't so over-the-top, after all".
As we signed off, I wished Sasha all the best with his script. Then, fast forward to his March 18th 2017 message.
I'm completely blown away by Sasha's accomplishment as both the Director and Original Screenplay Writer of the feature film, Flora, and also, with the accomplishments of his team of actors and fellow film-makers. I hope that the premiere, this past week in London, UK, was a success. I'm looking forward immensely, to seeing the film!
So, there you have it -- a completely unexpected outcome of being a publicly available scientist, and taking the time to talk sci fi, botany and fungal endophytes, with young film-maker, Sasha Vukovic.