How doing public science led to a credit in the "Flora" movie

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 the responsibilities of taxpayer-funded professors, might include spending valuable time away from research, talking with non-academics outside of the university, was most definitely a minority opinion.

In contrast, 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 the university can seem inaccessible and monolithic, because I am among the first generation in my family that has gone to university and the first of my group of 34 first-cousins to have done so. As the result of many family conversations,  I firmly believe that being approachable, and willing to engage, is an essential part of building support for research and higher education.

These days, I'm still doing what I've now been doing for decades, which is being willing to chat about my research to interested non-scientists and citizen scientists. Sometimes, the pay-off is entirely unexpected... like when I got the following Skype message, 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 noticed a March 18th 2017 message from someone called Sasha. Apparently, we'd talked about fungal endophytes a couple of years ago. He was writing a film script for a film that 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 couldn’t help thinking, "a 'Botanical Consultant' credit sounds a bit much".

I duly checked the dates of our conversation and discovered that Sasha and I had actually spoken more like 3.5 years ago. “Wow”, I thought “being a screenwriter and movie director is clearly like doing a doctorate”. Though, in retrospect, I had learned this from watching all of the interviews with Peter Jackson and his team on the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings DVDs.

In Fall 2013, Sasha had recently graduated from college. He wanted to talk with a botanist about his idea for a 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 for a brainstorming chat that lasted for just over an hour.

When I read over my notes from our meeting, which Skype had saved, I thought, "OK, maybe Botanical Consultant isn't so over-the-top, after all".

Here are some of the notes from our conversation, that I'd forgotten about !

We signed off our Skype chat with me wishing 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. The two takeaways here, are: make notes 📝 because you never know where sharing knowledge will lead.