McGill celebrates media and public engagement

Annual award recognizes the many researchers who share their research and knowledge with the public and media
Principal Suzanne Fortier with the winners of this year’s Principal’s Prize for Public Engagement through Media, PhD candidate José Mauricio Gaona (left) in the category for graduate students and post-doctoral fellow category, and Professor Madhukar Pai (right) in the academic staff category.Neale McDevitt

Prof. Madhukar Pai, Director of the McGill International TB Centre and the McGill Global Health Programs; and Mr. J. Mauricio Gaona, a PhD candidate in Faculty of Law, are the winners of this year’s Principal’s Prize for Public Engagement through Media.

Each year, two prizes worth $5,000 each are given out, one to a graduate student or post-doctoral fellow and the other to a member of the academic staff. This year’s competition attracted sixty applicants. Their numbers were evenly divided between academic staff and graduate students; the latter group included both individual applicants and representatives from a number of student groups who are engaged in direct public outreach.

Principal Suzanne Fortier set the tone for yesterday’s event, which was held in her office, by talking about her great joy in seeing so many people in the room who were making it their mission, despite their many commitments and busy lives, to share their knowledge with a public that was avid for information. “In this age of false news and distorted truths, academics have a great responsibility, a challenging responsibility, to share what we know with generosity. I don’t know of anything that is better to give or to receive than learning.”

Combatting a deadly disease

The jury selected Professor Madhukar Pai, the Director of McGill Global Health Programs and the McGill International TB Centre and a member of the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, as the winner of this year’s prize for academic staff for his role in helping to focus global attention on tuberculosis, the leading infectious killer of humanity.

Through his many opinion pieces, media interviews, and active presence on social media. He also advocated for the Canadian government to invest more to combat the high TB rates in Inuit communities. In 2018, he was the only academic invited to speak on TB at the United Nations. His work with the World Health Organization was highlighted in the New York Times. Thankfully, the world has committed to end the TB epidemic by 2030.

“I am proud to be at a university that values academic engagement with the media, policy makers and the public at large,” said Professor Pai. “As I grew up in my career, I realized that it was not enough to be an academic and publish a paper. If you want to do something about the issues that are important to you, you have to engage with the media and policy-makers. Even if it’s scary.”

Speaking out on critical issues

The winner of this year’s Principal’s Prize for Public Engagement in the category for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows is José Mauricio Gaona, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Law, a Vanier Scholar and an O’Brien Fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism.

Through media interviews in both English and French, he has contributed to public understanding of some of the most critical challenges of our time: global migration, populism, climate change, and artificial intelligence. An accomplished scholar who is rapidly building a reputation as a public intellectual, he has over 2,000 followers on LinkedIn, where he runs a personal blog. He does podcasts in four languages.

In his speech, Mr. Gaona thanked those who had written letters of support for him. The glowing letters of support came from Mr. Gaona’s supervisor Professor François Crépeau, the Director of the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, and the Hans and Tamar Oppenheimer Professor of Public International Law; from Professor Fabien Gélinas, the Sir William C. Macdonald Professor of Law; and from Dean Robert Leckey, the Samuel Gale Chair, who was present for the ceremony. Dean Leckey greeted the announcement of Mr. Gaona’s win with a loud “Bravo” and enthusiastic applause. Mr. Gaona also thanked his brother and mother who were visiting from out of town. The prize-giving ceremony took place on his mother’s birthday.

Sharing with the community – a McGill commitment

This is the competition’s third year, and it is starting to find its feet. The brainchild of Carole Graveline, the former Director of the McGill Media Relations Office, the goal of the Principal’s Prize is to draw attention to the many researchers who actively engage in reaching out to the public and the media to share their knowledge and research, along with the excitement of learning. By doing so, they extend the reach and influence of their scholarship and support McGill’s commitment to engage with the wider community.

The Principal ended the ceremony by proposing a toast to all who share their research and knowledge with media and the public. “I am looking forward to reading about all your work, about the work you do inside academia and the work you do on the outside. I hope many others will follow your lead.”

Full list of winners, runners-up and special recognitions

Winner – academic staff

  • Professor Madhukar Pai, the Director of McGill Global Health Programs and the McGill International TB Centre and a member of the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health

Runners-up – academic staff

  • Prof. Lynn Kozak, Department of History and Classical Studies, for her 29-week performance of installments of her own translation of Homer’s Iliad in a Montreal bar
  • Prof. Audrey Moores, Department of Chemistry, for her many media interviews and long-standing commitment to sharing information about chemistry in general as well as her own work in green chemistry
  • Dr. Samir Shaheen-Hussain, Department of Pediatrics + MUHC, for spearheading the advocacy campaign #aHand2Hold which brought about a change in government policy and ensured that hundreds of First Nations children in Quebec will now be accompanied by their parents when they are flown south for care, rather than travelling alone

Winner – graduate students, research associates & post-doctoral fellows

  • José Mauricio Gaona, PhD candidate, Faculty of Law, a Vanier Scholar and an O’Brien Fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism.

Runners-up – graduate students, research associates & post-doctoral fellows

  • Marianne Falardeau-Côté, PhD candidate, Department of Natural Resource Sciences, for her engagement with both traditional and social media, sharing information about her research on the effects of climate change on the Arctic environment, which is based on close collaboration with the Inuit community of Cambridge Bay.
  • Jay Olson, PhD student, Department of Psychiatry, for his extensive engagement with traditional and social media, and directly with the public, on a range of topics: the placebo effect; hypnosis; jet lag; and the science of magic.
  • Rackeb Tesfaye, PhD candidate, Department of Psychiatry. Rackeb Tesfaye is the Founder, Executive Producer & Host of Broad Science, a podcast based at CKUT that tells science stories in unusual and engaging ways. Its stories look at the intersection of science and society. Broad Science also holds youth workshops and public outreach events.

Special recognition awards for direct public outreach

The jury was impressed by number of groups at McGill engaging directly with public to share knowledge and excitement of learning. Two groups and three individuals attracted special attention this year.

  • Brain Reach and Brain Reach North
    This active volunteer group of graduate students in the Integrated program in Neuroscience reached 1,800 students last year in schools around Montreal and in remote indigenous communities to talk about science and neuroscience in particular. They also created many educational videos and blogs on neuroscience in both French and English
  • STEMM Diversity@McGill
    Although the group is just one year old, it has already been identified as a model for other universities in Quebec, an indication of their success. Their goal is to improve and promote diversity in STEMM subjects. Among their varied activities they have created a colouring book that was distributes through primary schools and libraries in both Quebec and Ontario that includes a “Draw Yourself as a Scientist” page.
  • Kha Han Lisa Dang, PhD student in the Department of Physics, chaired the very popular AstroMcGill public outreach program and was lead organizer of the McGill Physics Hackathon.
  • Alexandra Gellé, PhD student, Department of Chemistry. Alexandra is president of the Canadian branch of Pint of Science, an international festival that brings university scientists out to local pubs to share their work with the public. Through social media, school-outreach, radio and TV interviews, and newspaper op-eds, she has helped promote understanding of chemistry and science in general.
  • Allyson Menzies, PhD student, Department of Natural Resource Sciences. Allyson does research on the Canadian lynx and other animals in the northern boreal forest. She has given talks about her work, in both English and French, in schools, senior homes, and girl-guide meetings – as well as doing radio, TV and magazine interviews.
  • Professor Emeritus David Bird, Department of Natural Resource Sciences has continued to share, generously, his encyclopedic knowledge of the avian world with the public and the media – most notably, weighing in on the debate about whether the grey jay should become Canada’s national bird.