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Research2Reality: understanding the ground-breaking work supported by your taxes

U of T science advisor launches national research advocacy program

University Professor Molly Shoichet in conversation with Gary Goodyear, Minister of State (Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario)

When University of Toronto physicist Dick Peltier began researching the interaction between the Earth’s land, atmosphere, water and biosphere, he created mathematical models depicting how climate evolved over 750 million years and how it will change in the future.

That was many years ago. Today, Peltier is considered a pioneer of the field called Earth system science and his research and analytical tools have become essential in some of the globe’s most important climate change mitigation initiatives. His work has won him some of the world’s top honours, such as the Vetlesen Prize, often referred to as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the Earth sciences.

Peltier’s work is at the core of what U of T professor Molly Shoichet – who is also senior advisor to President Meric Gertler on science and engineering engagement – believes is the “tremendous value” of university research to global society.

“Climate change is a phenomenon that is affecting global society and it could have serious consequences for us all,” says Shoichet, an expert in tissue engineering who was named one of five winners of the L’Oreal-UNESCO prize for women in science in 2015

“Dick’s work is a perfect example of how sophisticated university research can have a positive impact on helping us deal with difficult problems.”

The challenge, adds Shoichet, is in helping people outside academia to be aware of the value of university research.

“People are being bombarded with so much information these days, that some of the more important information passes them by. And I think that’s why many people just haven’t been able to see the value in what our scientists are doing.”

That’s why Shoichet began formulating a program two years ago to trumpet the importance of university research.That program, Research2Reality (R2R), launched May 11 at a special event at Toronto’s MaRS Discovery Centre.

R2R is a social media initiative that builds on popular online sites such as How Stuff Works and IFL Science. It includes a video series and website that covers research and development from Canadian scientists such as Peltier. Videos will be shared across Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. (See the video with Peltier below.)

Other U of T scientists profiled in the videos are:

  • U of T Mississauga cancer researcher Patrick Gunning
  • Computer scientist Ron Baecker, director of the Technologies for Aging Gracefully Lab
  • Liat Margolis of the Daniels Faculty of Landscape, Architecture and Design, who specializes in sustainable buildings and architecture
  • Patricia McCarney, director of U of T's Global Cities Institute, who is leading a major international project empowering cities to become smarter and stronger 
  • Physicist Aephraim Steinberg, an expert in quantum computing.

Shoichet and her team have also shot videos of 65 other Canadian university scientists. In addition to being streamed on Research2Reality.com and social media channels, Discovery Science is also launching a complementary website featuring R2R scientists and broadcasting public service announcements on its television channels.

Shoichet believes R2R falls directly in line with her role as U of T’s science advisor. 

“In that role, my goal is to bring people who are curious and engaged in the community into the world of university research. I want people to see the fantastic work being done at U of T and across Canada. I got started on R2R before becoming science advisor, but the two are meshing perfectly.”

She also believes R2R helps to fulfill an important accountability function. 

“Our funding for scientific research comes largely from the people of Canada through their taxes. So, I’ve always felt an obligation to reach out to the public and tell them what we are doing.”

R2R’s partners include U of T, University of Alberta, University of British Columbia, McMaster University, University of Waterloo and Western University, along with the Province of Ontario, Discovery Science and the Globe and Mail.