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Archive for the ‘professional development’ Category

In August of 2017, I was contacted via email by a researcher from the United States, Hilary Ament. She was on contract with the producers and production crew of the movie First Mana biopic of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Based on a biography written by James R. Hansen, the movie focuses less on the moon landing and more on Armstrong’s life and relationships and family. Armstrong is portrayed by Hollywood megastar Ryan Gosling, and his wife Janet by the cool beautiful Claire Foy.

One of the storylines, a moment which created a particular sad trajectory in the Armstrong family, was learning that their young daughter Karen had brain cancer. Ever the scientist, Armstrong worked feverishly to find a cure. The movie was set to include a scene where Karen would undergo treatment using the cobalt-60 machine, known as the cobalt ‘bomb.’ Originally developed and designed in Canada, the cobalt machine was the first deep-seated cancer radiation technology designed specifically for clinical application.

Hilary Ament’s email said: “the set designers are building a machine similar to this model, but are having a little bit of trouble understanding the order of the procedure itself, showing what should be on the control panel and dials, and maybe any notes doctors would take.”

Hilary found me via the University of Saskatchewan and the Western Development Museum, where the original Saskatchewan-built cobalt-60 machine is on display. Searching desperately for technical insight, she came to me.

I had been working intermittently on a biography of Saskatchewan physicist Sylvia Fedoruk (of ball, curling, and Lieutenant Governor fame) who had been a graduate student working on the original cobalt bomb project. Syl’s files, along with those of Harold Johns at the University of Saskatchewan Archives and Special Collections, were a treasure trove of information.

I sent a short description, taken from my in-progress manuscript on Sylvia Fedoruk, about cobalt-60 and how radiation works to fight cancer. I also sent along a description of the treatment room constructed at the University of Saskatchewan which housed the original cobalt-60 unit, along with schematics. The original room featured a ten inch thick glass window, where technicians would monitor the patient during radiation.

As well, I passed along descriptions of the way treatment technicians would design special padding or apparatus to hold a patient in place. For a young child like Karen, holding still was paramount, and the technicians would have worked with both Karen and her parents to make the little girl comfortable and at ease.

Of course, Karen would have been given multiple radiation doses, not just one, but a major Hollywood movie has time constraints. All of this work would go into just one scene.

Hilary Ament replied, “This is beyond what we had hoped for. The set designers are very happy with the research that we’ve collected, and are on a solid track now. Between reading the articles you sent, diagrams, and video we’ve been able to get a pretty good idea of how these operated! The scene is fairly short, so they’re thinking they have enough to go on…”

I was thrilled to help, even in this small way for a tiny scene. So of course when First Man hit our little Majestic Theatre in Biggar in the fall of 2018, I was in the audience, bright eyed and ready to see what it all looked like.

There’s nothing like watching a movie in a small, community-owned theatre in rural Saskatchewan. The Majestic is our local site for all things arts. Built in 1909 and rescued from oblivion, it hosts music festivals, live concerts, plays, dance festivals, and musicals, as well as movies on Friday and Saturday night, along with the popular Sunday afternoon matinee. Run by volunteers, it’s one of the focal points and gathering spaces for our community.

In the audience, scattered alongside and all around me, munching popcorn and slurping drinks, were friends, neighbors, and relatives. In the city, a movie experience is rather impersonal. Sure, the audience laughs together in all the right places, but we don’t necessarily know our neighbors or the ones who sold us the ticket or handed us the popcorn or took a quick bathroom break in the stall beside me before the opening credits.

In a small community theatre, the vibe is completely different. We don’t need a lot of previews or games on the screen. We’re busy chatting: do you have enough stuff for the raffle table at the hockey game? Are you hauling wheat this week? Can you curl for me next Wednesday night? Once a movie starts, you recognize the different audience laughs — brother in law Ryan, good friend Tina. We count how many people are there and celebrate a movie that’s going to make a profit. And lots of us have learned to clean up behind ourselves, taking garbage out on our way back through the lobby.

The night I went to see First Man, there were plenty of friends and relatives in the audience, many of whom knew about my encounter with Hollywood, and had almost as much anticipation shivering through them as I did. We could experience it together.

The cobalt-60 scene comes early in the movie, and I sat forward to watch every detail as it shimmered on screen. With Karen’s neck supported, her head exposed and her body gently strapped in place, she looked just as I had imagined. The Eldorado-style machine looked like a miniature version of the space-age rockets Armstrong was working on. The treatment room had no windows, with thick concrete walls lined with lead. Neil and his wife Janet watch from behind the thick glass window helplessly, overcome with hope that the treatment would succeed.

It was an amazing moment as a researcher. I had helped to shape the way a movie looked, the way the actors moved, the set design, and the whole feel of the scene. I was jubilant.

But Hollywood has a way of surprising you. My work, offered to Hilary Ament and to Universal Studios, had not just shaped the visuals. It had actually changed the script in the movie. My mouth dropped in shock at the next scene. In it, Neil Armstrong is on the telephone to the doctors at the hospital. He asks [and this is my memory, not a direct quote], Did you call Dr. Johns? Dr. Harold Johns? The doctor in Saskatchewan who invented the treatment? 

I couldn’t help it. Even though this is a scene of great pathos and sadness, learning that the much-hoped-for treatment didn’t work on his daughter, I was lifted right out of my seat, cheering. My poor husband was hushing and pulling me down, but others were just as jubilant: hey, they said Saskatchewan! Tears leaked out, both for the memory of a little girl full of sunshine whose life was cut short by cancer, and by my own personal victory: I had had an influence on a Hollywood movie script. A whole scene, then another, shaped by my research and insight. And Saskatchewan got a mention.

First Man is up for four Oscars at the 2019 Academy Awards, one of which is production design. I’ll be watching with delight, hoping for a win. After all, I do have a little bit of skin in this game.

I wish I could say that I found my name in the credits. Several of my friends and neighbors, and my brother and sister-in-law, went close to the screen (none of us are youthful) to try and find my name. Nothing. Nonetheless, I have the paper trail and the emails, and the movie scenes themselves to back up my story. Hollywood, if you’re listening, come again. Saskatchewan has a few more hidden stories for you. But next time, I’d like to be in the credits, please.

And yes, I’ll be watching it at The Majestic.

fedoruk.1

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This is a story about aborted academic work. Years ago, I proposed and workshopped a paper. The original call came from fellow environmental history academics, building a curated book on the concept Landscape, Nature and Memory: Tourism History in Canada. We wrote the papers and sent them around for everyone to read before we got together. The workshop was held in Vancouver, and I remember my first introduction to Granville Island and Macleod’s Books. It was an invigorating workshop, with discussants and good conversation. I received good feedback (Ian MacKay liked my paper!) and thought that it would, in time, lead to publication. At the time, I was still occasionally aiming hopefully for an academic position.

 

But it was not to be. When the collection of papers from the workshop went around for external review, mine was deemed not a good fit for the overarching theme. It was too different. In some ways, I think the paper’s exclusion mimicked my own ‘differentness’ and ultimate exclusion from academia. But no matter. I worked on it a little more, and sent it out to Prairie Forum, a scholarly journal based out of Regina. I’d published with them before, and thought the little paper would have a chance to at least be read.

I didn’t hear back. At all. Strange, I thought. I forgot about it for a bit, then (remembering), dusted it off, and sent it to them again. It’s the internet, I decided. It does eat things, on occasion. It gets hungry. No worries. I’ll hear back this time.

Still nothing. No reply, no acknowledgement. So, I may be slow but eventually I get there. This poor little paper doesn’t have a home.

I could go back to it, work on it again, try to figure out where and how to make it academically publishable. Send it out again. And again. But that is no longer my life. Writing for an unpaid academic publication just isn’t an appropriate use of my time. So I won’t.

But it remains there, with many hours of research, and a lot of thought, hiding in a corner of my computer files. There is an old adage that says ‘unread books do no work.’ The same is true for articles. I didn’t manage to get it published (which would have meant external reviews, more work, and no doubt a much better article) but I can share it here, with you.

The article is about building the South Saskatchewan River Project, now known as the Gardiner Dam which created Diefenbaker Lake. It’s about the policy stories we tell, and how Saskatchewan desperately needed to create a story of water and beauty through tourism to counteract the post-Great Depression story of dust, aridity, and flatness.

dam

Gardiner Dam, South Saskatchewan River

Who might want to read it? Anyone who has visited the dam and wants to know a bit more of its history. Academics working on tourism, dam, or general prairie history might find it useful. But if you are not an academic, I warn you: this is filled with references, theory, and a bit of jargon. And a few stories. It might be worth your time.

Still, I’m ready for it to be in the world, with all of its flaws and problems. You can deal with it. I have confidence in you. Click on the PDF below and enjoy your read.

Damming Saskatchewan

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Actually, that’s an arbitrary number. I’m pretty sure that I made more mistakes than that — and I have no doubt that the people who interviewed me saw more than I remember.

But my goal is to help others who might be chasing the academic dream to…reveal…to you what I know for sure that I did wrong during my short-lived time attempting to land an elusive position as a tenure-track faculty member somewhere in Canadian academia.

(more…)

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Steps.Cover.2013

We are so pleased to announce the launch of our new book, 36 Steps on the Road to Medicare: How Saskatchewan Led the Way.

The launch is set for Thursday, December 5, 2013 from 7-9 pm.

McNally Robinson Booksellers, 8th Street, Saskatoon.

Distinguished former premier of Saskatchewan, Mr. Roy Romanow, will be on hand to make introductions and draw a crowd.

See you there!

Houston Massie Romanow DE 05 2013 MRB Saskatoon

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This post was originally published on ActiveHistory.ca 14 May 2013.

Over the past two years, I lurked in the halls and wandered wide-eyed through the conferences of my social and natural science colleagues. An interdisciplinary institutional postdoctoral fellowship, funded by MISTRA (The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research) and routed through the University of Saskatchewan, ensured my place at the lunch table and at the front of the classroom.

So, I’ve spent two years trying to explain how I, as a humanist, conduct my research. More importantly, I’ve noticed, the question is not so much how, but where does that research take place?

Since most of my professional work has focused on the 20th and 21st century, I do (on occasion) conduct interviews and focus groups with living people. I even have a working knowledge of qualitative methods, rigour, and the point of statistical analysis. I parlayed this penchant into the postdoc, with good results. But I remain, at heart, a document hunter/gatherer.

Working with social and natural scientists, I soon learned that research is about data generation. Set up the research parameters/test/study/measurement/focus group/survey/experiment, in order to generate data. Few, if any, ever work with someone else’s data set. The core concern is to generate something new.

That was my first hurdle: what I always thought of as ‘sources,’ now had to become ‘data.’ It’s a bump in the sidewalk that I trip over, every time.

No matter. I forge ahead, explaining gently that although I do sometimes generate new data (using oral interview techniques, statistical analysis, or focus groups), I usually work with sources that already exist. It becomes my job to find those sources, hunt and gather, thinking laterally and strategically, sometimes hitting brick walls or large empty chasms where my ‘data’ (sources) should be but are not. Or I am showered in luck, serendipity, and happenstance and find a treasure trove, an untapped new source waiting for me to harvest, like a new bed of sweet grass, or a docile pod of mule deer.

But, but, where do these sources exist? Are you talking about libraries? Confusion reigns, for libraries, of course, contain outdated data. If it’s in a book, it’s too old. Anything more than five years old is virtually unusable. (Of course, we all recognize the deliberately obtuse generalization here – many social scientists regularly work with similar sources and data sets. Natural scientists, though, perhaps not so much).

No. My data/sources are to be found in archives. Archives? What, exactly, are archives and what kinds of information do you find there?

And that’s how I twigged onto a new way of explaining where I conduct research.

An archive, I now explain, is much like a lab: laboratory space along the lines of the Canadian Light Source Synchrotron at Saskatoon or one of the Toxicology labs or a soil science lab or….  A lab has certain physical requirements that are conducive to research: it requires physical space with heating, light, and custodial services; equipment (shelves, tables, chairs, finding aids and guides, archival quality storage boxes and containers, microfilm readers, lightboxes, cotton gloves, and pencils instead of thermal analyzers or microcalorimeters or…); it needs trained staff (archivists); and it houses raw materials (archival documents, which range from photographs to text to sound recordings, collected over time).

The questions that I, as a researcher, bring to the archive are what guide me through my research process, in the same way that another researcher might ask questions and conduct experiments using the materials/equipment found in a lab. Different researchers posing different questions use different equipment and materials. Each archive is slightly different in its materials and equipment, just like no two labs are exactly the same.

Presto pow! Lights on, understanding, and we’re back on equal footing. (There remain big questions surrounding how I do research and if it is objective, verifiable, and replicate-able, but those are larger questions that might never be solved, as they stand at the dividing line between humanities and natural science research).

Why is this important? I call on all of my fellow humanists and social science researchers who use archives to co-opt this terminology switch, and broadcast it freely. Because I believe that this terminology switch might help save our archives from folding under the collective weight of government and institutional non-support. At a time when investment in science-based laboratory and experimental research is growing (witness the Global Institute for Water Security, and the new Global Institute for Food Security at the U of S), archives funding is cut. We can stop this.

Archives (which collects a record of anthro-centric activity reaching back through time) is the laboratory with which to build research that changes the way our world works and thinks about itself. In fact, I charge you to find another lab that has supported an equal range of research depth and breadth and temporal scope. Where would we be in our knowledge about residential schools, lesbian and gay rights, health geography and poverty, First Nations land claims, war activities, medicare, social protest, and climate change without archives? Accessed by researchers not only in history but in archaeology and anthropology, art, literature, science, technology, sociology, linguistics, education, law, commerce and business, industrial development, mining, resource management, First Nations and Metis studies, institutional foundations, governance and government, medicine and nursing, engineering and agriculture, archives reflect how we as humans make decisions, and what the consequences of those decisions have been.

So let’s make one easy switch: the next time you visit an archive, think of it – and talk about it to interdisciplinary colleagues, institutional leadership, and your MLA and MP – as a laboratory. Co-opt the language that is already implicitly understood – and funded.

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Recently, I was invited to attend the annual meeting of the Yellowhead Flyway Birding Trail Association annual meeting. It will be held April 13 at the Churchbridge Town Hall in Churchbridge, Saskatchewan, from 11 am to 7 pm. Registration is open, and more information can be found at:

http://www.yfbta.com/activities/symposiums/2013/symposium2013.htm

As you can see from the list of presentations below, it promises to be a fantastic day.

Lorne Scott Transfer control of Community Pastures and the environmental impact; closure of the Indian Head Tree Nursery
Alan Smith Birding by Ear
Merle Massey The Great Trek North: Depression Resettlement to the forest fringe in the 1930’s.
Anna Leighton  (Author / Ethno-botanist) What the Cree taught John Richardson in the 1800’s

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Bonfire pit on the shore

[Note: this blog post was published as an opinion piece in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix Friday 23 November 2012. See http://www.thestarphoenix.com/late+save+Kenderdine/7598518/story.html]

I am sad, angry, and confused that the University of Saskatchewan released news Thursday November 15th 2012 that it is suspending operations at Emma Lake Kenderdine Campus, the U of S-owned campus on the shores of Emma Lake, in Saskatchewan’s northern boreal forest. It is shocking news. The timing is particularly strange: just one day after the U of S hosted a major expo to flaunt its support for experiential learning opportunities for students, it moves to close the one campus that offers exactly that.

Such a move, of course, is a sign of the fiscal restraint facing the University. As a campus community member, U of S grad, and a Canadian environmental historian whose research encompassed the beginnings of the Kenderdine campus, I pause to reflect on the irony of this announcement.

Augustus Kenderdine was a painter, trained in Britain, who taught art from his top-floor studio in what is now the Thorvaldsen building – home of chemists, pharmacists, and old memories of turpentine. By the 1920s, as cars brought mobility and better roads led north of Prince Albert, Kenderdine discovered Saskatchewan’s north, and set out to paint its beauty. He took yearly sojourns at Emma Lake.

When southern Saskatchewan fell to its knees amid the dual prongs of drought and economic devastation, Saskatchewan’s mid-north, all along the forest edge, boomed. It is a little-known story. Thousands of prairie refugees fled north to carve a living off a bush homestead. It was a tough life, but it worked. Northern residents required less than one tenth of the aid of their southern kin – in a time when relief money was a loan for which the government expected payment, a place with fuel, game, fish, berries, and a chance to grow a garden and raise a hay crop seemed a Saskatchewan mecca.

Kenderdine convinced President Walter Murray to purchase land at Emma Lake, and build an art school. It was an art school with a purpose: bring teachers from across the southern wasteland north, to the beauty of the boreal forest. Through art, the teachers would know that not all of Saskatchewan was barren and broken. There, they soaked in a landscape of trees, water, and green and took those visions home with them, to bring a sense of hope and renewal to their students and communities squeezed by drought. It was an extraordinary vision of what Emma Lake meant to the U of S – a critical foothold in a Saskatchewan landscape that was decidedly not the prairie.

It was a stretch for the University. In the province that was hardest-hit by the depression, in the middle of endless years of short budgets and constricting choices, Kenderdine convinced the president that this was a worthwhile endeavor. He won, and Saskatchewan artists, biologists, students, writers, ecologists, and many others have been the thankful beneficiaries.

Fast forward to now. This past September, my colleague and I from the School of Environment and Sustainability took 30 graduate students on a field trip to Emma Lake, the Lakeland, the boreal forest, and Prince Albert National Park. Our students come from all over the world. We had two perfect days and nights at Emma Lake Kenderdine Campus, basking in starlit nights, excellent food, a sense of history, all within an ecological experiential learning laboratory of the highest order. We wished, several times, that we had brought our new U of S president, Ilene Busch-Vishniac, along with us. What a jewel in the campus crown – we wanted to show it off.

Fox walk: knowing the ground beneath your feet

Kenderdine campus has an Achilles heel: it is not operational in the winter. So, the peak time is May to September. When are students most active on campus? September to April. That leaves a scant one month crossover. How much money would it take to winterize it? What could that do to create better connections between the facility and the main campus student body? Solutions, I’m sure, abound.

Yes, I understand fiscal constraint. Yes, I believe you when you say it was a difficult decision. But if Kenderdine and Murray could create it during a time when the province of Saskatchewan, and the U of S, were going through their most difficult fiscal times, could we not do the same now? Please, for the sake of student experiential learning, let’s reconsider.

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