Path to Research

Nearly every day on the news, we hear about world-changing discoveries. ‘Researchers have found...’ is how the story usually begins. But what of the back story? What was the genesis of their discovery? How was it funded? What were the challenges they faced or surprising bends in the road? How did they mobilize their research?

These are some of the questions we asked top researchers at UBC in order to better understand their path to research. From experiments in space to microscopically inspired ball gowns, their answers are explored in this story.

Discover the remarkable paths these UBC researchers have taken to create new knowledge in the world.

The Researchers

  • Andrew Baron is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology.
  • Susan Crichton is the director at the Innovative Learning Centre and associate professor in the Faculty of Education at UBC’s Okanagan campus.
  • Jacqueline Firkins is an assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Film.
  • Bob Hancock is a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
  • Don Mavinic is a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering.
  • Corey Nislow is an associate professor in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of British Columbia.
  • Elizabeth Saewyc is a professor and associate director, Research & Teaching Scholarship, School of Nursing and Division of Adolescent Health and Medicine.

Dr. Andrew Baron | The Genesis of the Project Idea

Andrew Baron - Science World Living Lab

Photo: Science World

Professor Andrew Baron knew he had to visit Vancouver’s Science World the day before his job interview at UBC. Not to see an exhibit but rather to explore a partnership with Science World that would potentially allow him to build his “dream laboratory” and explore the possibilities for bringing his research idea to life.

The vision for his lab was inspired by his previous work at the Boston Museum of Science, where, while still a graduate student at Harvard, Baron helped conceive the museum’s Living Lab. The lab’s research model encouraged researchers to conduct studies on the museum floor and interact with the public — Baron saw it benefitted the public and researchers alike and he wanted to create a similar space at Science World.

His interview was successful; UBC welcomed Baron and the Living Lab concept and the opportunity to create a space where he and other UBC researchers could study how children — from infancy through adolescence — learn and explore their social and moral reasoning.

While the path ahead was clear for Baron, the journey wasn’t easy. Setting up a “research lab of a lifetime” that was also situated off UBC’s campus was a complex and daunting undertaking.

“The lab is open every day of the week,” says Baron. “It was exhausting to staff and maintain.” For his first summer in Vancouver, he had to do everything himself; he was on site every day for the initial three months. Later, as volunteers, undergrads and several paid research assistants and graduate students joined him, the load eventually lightened.

Baron is philosophical about the hard work in building a new lab in a public exhibit space. “It is a lot of work to manage, but,” he says with a small laugh, “we’re young.”

“At the end of the day, it’s the long-term vision that matters. I now have this research facility that is unique in Canada and is creating a great opportunity for me to do my research at a much faster pace than I would have ever had otherwise been able to.”
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The Genesis of the Project Idea

The origin of all research ideas begins with curiosity. It starts with someone making the decision to act, to innovate, test, and ask: What if?

Research also takes perseverance; that appetite for discovery must be coupled with the determination to not give up until he or she has made that discovery.

At UBC, research ideas percolate in labs, but in some cases labs percolate in researchers. Discover two researchers whose big ideas showed up in two very remarkable ways.

Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc | The Genesis of the Project Idea

Elizabeth Saewyc

Discoveries are not predictable. The unexpected often shows up after an idea, sparked by curiosity, is set in motion. Professor Elizabeth Saewyc’s research findings on the sexual exploitation of street-involved youth not only surprised her, it confounded all the community groups with whom she was working.

It also fundamentally changed the questions she was asking, as well as with whom she shared her research and crucially, the invisible youth she would make ‘visible.’

From 2006 to 2007, Saewyc and her team analyzed data drawn from the responses of 1,845 youth who participated in five different youth-health surveys conducted by McCreary Centre Society (Saewyc is the MCS director). The surveys targeted street-involved and marginalized youth in 10 different cities across British Columbia.

The surveys specifically looked at youth (under the age of 19) who were engaged in trading sexual activities for food, money, drugs, clothes or shelter. The study was unique, the first of its kind, and had to overcome a number of challenges, not the least being that sexual exploitation is illegal, carries a deep stigma and the youth who are exploited are often difficult to reach.

The findings astonished Saewyc. On the street, there are no gender boundaries. Equal rates of street-involved and homeless boys and girls reported trading sex for money, drugs, shelter or other necessities.

“We found one in three homeless 12 to 18 [years old] youth were exploited and of those it was equally boys and girls,” explains Saewyc. “What was more remarkable was that the majority of youth [70 percent] had been exploited by males, half of youth [50 percent] had also been exploited by females.”

The stereotype of young girls being exploited by males was shattered.

“We had to look at the results more closely to understand what is happening with boys and how that is different than what us happening with girls. This is so pervasive a notion that sexual exploitation only happens to girls. When we brought the research to community groups, they had a hard time understanding it. We told them: ‘You’re missing half your population’.”

Out of these findings came a sea change in how Saewyc and her team did their research:

“The recognition that perhaps half the population of exploited youth were missing from services, from research, led me and my teams to start always asking: ‘What about the boys?’”

From the discovery, came the action. She began writing grants that focused exclusively on boys and their access to health and social services.

“The team’s most recent grant,” says Saewyc, “is focusing on sexually exploited and sexually abused boys and young men, what their health issues look like, and what supports their resilience, that might be different from exploited girls and young women, or exploited transgender youth.”

Saewyc’s groundbreaking work with street-involved, sexually exploited youth is helping to unmask societal assumptions and in turn, spark necessary change.

“Street-involved youth are asked to cope with some intense stuff when they’re not ready for it. They’re asked to grow up too soon. Our work is really to try to prevent some of this — reaching out to runaways before they are ‘street-entrenched’ and exploited — which can happen very quickly — and reaching out as soon as possible while recognizing that stopping it isn’t going to be enough.”

Saewyc believes that these vulnerable street youth not only need unique supports in the short term, but also help as they return to a healthier environment while overcoming stigma and coping with the challenges of daily life.

“They’re going to need other kinds of support and anticipatory guidance as they’re coping with the trauma to restore that healthy development and get back onto a healthy trajectory.”

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Dr. Andrew Baron | Funding

Andrew Baron Science World

Photo: Science World

Professor Andrew Baron had to innovate. Quickly. His vision for his “ideal lab of a lifetime” — state-of-the art, interactive, with enough space for several researchers and subjects — was that it be located in the heart of Vancouver’s Science World.

Obviously, that meant the lab would have to be a ‘new build’ off campus — versus renovating a space in an existing structure on campus. Beyond the challenge of not being able to rely on the operational infrastructure at UBC, Baron himself was new to Vancouver (having just moved from Boston) and would have to project-manage the complexities of working in a public exhibit space and with an array of private contractors.

It takes money to turn visions into reality. Finding the funds to create what Baron envisioned for the future became a top priority.

Baron learned about the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), an organization whose mission is to help “researchers to push the boundaries of knowledge, explore the unknown and generate exciting outcomes that benefit humankind.” Baron wanted to push boundaries so he began the rigorous process of applying for a CFI grant.

“The process of writing a grant, while onerous and sometimes tedious, I think advances your research.”

“It forces you to think very carefully about the theoretical contributions, the methodological rigour you are employing, the questions that are important to address and so in some ways, writing a research grant is like writing several academic research papers so it a worthwhile endeavor. It becomes part of the discipline.”

Baron successfully secured a CFI grant (the second one awarded at UBC in 27 years for an off-campus project) and combined with start-up funds from the Department of Psychology, his innovative vision began to take physical shape. After the lab was completed, Baron has since received a SSHRC Insight Development Grant for 5yrs (2013-2018) to fund research being conducted in the Living Lab.

Securing funding is a necessary part of the research process, says Baron, and while it may take you away from your research activity and be time consuming, he believes it is crucial: “If you want to be at a top-tier university, then you just do it!”

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Research may begin as an idea, an intellectual seed, perhaps even a hunch — but to be realized and put into action, it requires funding. Funding may come by way of grants, donations, awards but whatever the source, for most researchers finding and applying for funding can be a complex process. Filling out grant applications, ethical reviews and approvals, winning and actually managing the funds, writing progress reports — all of this requires a great deal of time away from the research activity itself.

The UBC Office of Research Services helps researchers at UBC navigate the many stages of applying for research funding which enables the researchers to better focus on their own work. Read about two researchers whose funding helped them build and scale their research, expand their research community and positively influence many lives in the process.   

Jacqueline Firkins | Funding

Jacqueline Firkins Cell

One of the biggest challenges in securing funding for her research, says Professor Jacqueline Firkins, “is articulating that research can, in fact, be about creating art.” Her research isn’t trying to make people know something but rather it is trying to make them feel something: “This is hard to define as a need — and therefore a project worth funding — though it is one of our deepest most human instincts.”

Firkins, an award-winning costume designer, believes that we need stories and beauty in our lives as much as we need invention and information, but she notes, it is difficult to articulate in a grant application why ‘telling a story’ is as important as curing disease or saving the environment:

“A lot of grant applications are about generating a potentially provable thesis that ends with written output. They are framed for scientific research.”

Funding for her research was, at first, elusive. She attended several information sessions at UBC but felt the funding model didn’t necessarily apply to the work she wanted to do as a visual artist. It wasn’t until she approached Dr. Janis Serra (former director for The Peter Wall Institute) and found out about The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies’ Research Mentoring Program that is “aimed at linking Faculty Associates of the Institute with early to mid-career scholars in UBC departments, faculties and research centres to support innovative highly interdisciplinary research collaborations.”

The grant, however, wasn’t an immediate answer to Firkins’s problems: “I spent my first eight months with the Peter Wall grant trying to get collaborators and interest, and found most of my calls and emails unanswered.”

While she had a long list of researchers with whom she could potentially collaborate, it wasn’t until she saw the work of Dr. Christian Naus, the 2013-2014 Peter Wall Distinguished Scholar in Residence and professor in UBC’s Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences, that she had her eureka moment. His images of cancer cells struck her as intensely beautiful.

Firkins used the $10,000 grant money to create a series of ball gowns inspired by the cancer cells from Naus’s lab. Because of the limited budget, she had to make the gowns by hand herself, although students and volunteers pitched in by helping her sew on the dozens of delicate rosettes, sequins, ribbons, and appliqués that adorn the dresses.

The interdisciplinary goal of The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies’ Research Mentoring Program far exceeded Firkins’s hopes: “It created empathy and generated dialogue about disease — all done by creating something that looked subjectively ‘beautiful’ — as opposed to deliberately reflecting the ugly side of disease.”

Learn more about CFI funding »

Learn more about Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council » (SSHR)

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Dr. Bob Hancock | The Research Team

Bob Hancock Research Team

Professor Bob Hancock runs a large, busy lab that is constantly in motion. He simply couldn’t do the work he does without a well-functioning team. From the time he formed the laboratory in 1978 under his own name — R.E.W. Hancock Laboratory in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology — Hancock has seen his teams grow to as large as 40 people but never smaller than 10. It is telling that the lab manager and research associate, Susan Farmer, has stayed on since 1990 and, says Hancock, essentially “runs my life for me.”

Hancock’s team philosophy is based on the belief that, in his lab, on his team, the whole purpose is to become an independent researcher. He says it’s this philosophy that allows him to run a big lab:

“I really believe that a major purpose of a university lab is to train individuals to become independent researchers.”

I ask my technologists, my undergraduate students, graduate students, my post-docs, to strive to become as independent as they can. I like to push them to make decisions, make their own mistakes and I think this has benefitted me tremendously. I run an open-door policy, open calendar and my lab manager and assistant can book anyone in at any time. I have lunch with my students. I don’t force contact.”  

Hancock believes that this type of environment allows project teams to flourish and students are uniquely positioned to succeed: “I think this attracts a certain kind of student. I like to think it attracts world-class students, students who want to become independent researchers and are well-outfitted when they leave my lab to do very well.”

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Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc | The Research Team

Elizabeth Saewyc

In Professor Elizabeth Saewyc’s work, teams take many shapes in many different contexts. As Director and Principal Investigator for the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre (SARAVYC), her work with vulnerable populations of youth, including sexually exploited, street-involved, and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered/transsexual and queer) youth, is both interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary in nature.

In her research, Saewyc brings together people from many disciplines including psychology, criminology, medicine, endocrinology, nursing and law enforcement, along with community partners in order to better understand what is happening at the community level.

In addition to her work with communities across BC, Saewyc has researched and collaborated across the border in Minnesota with the St. Paul’s MN police for whom she developed a series of 10 questions that the police could use to assess and screen young female runaways (aged 10 to 15) who have been, or are at risk of being sexually assaulted or exploited. The questions helped law enforcement identify exactly what kind of support they needed and provide referrals to services for a variety of harms including sexual assault.

Saewyc says the collaboration with nurse practitioners at the Midwest Children’s Resource Center (a child-abuse clinic) of Minnesota Children’s Hospital, police from the St. Paul Police Department, social workers from the Ramsey County Sexual Offense Services (victim-support services) and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office (prosecuting attorneys, equivalent to Crown attorneys in Canada) was necessarily “intersectorial” in order to address the complex issues facing runaways and street involved youth.

Although Saewyc has clearly established a robust network that goes far beyond campus borders, her team at UBC is equally as strong. It currently includes six postdocs, one adolescent medicine fellow, eight graduate students, two undergrads, one recently graduated nursing student, as well as faculty from Educational Psychology, Nursing, Pediatrics (Adolescent Medicine and Pediatric Endocrinology), Psychiatry, Psychology, and Social Work at UBC and graduate students working on research at several Canadian and US universities.

“Research is a team sport,” says Saewyc. “It really creates strengths across so many disciplines which is really quite cool.”  
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The Research Team

An idea may begin with one person but research activities always involve a team of people — dedicated, invested, and willing to do whatever it takes to make a discovery. But research teams are as individual as the discipline that fuels them. 

Discover how these UBC researchers create teams on their paths to research. 

Dr. Corey Nislow | The Research Team

Corey Nislow - Research Team - ISS

Doing yeast experiments in space requires a special kind of team. Namely, astronauts. So just how did UBC Associate Professor Corey Nislow manage to get a team in space?

Nislow was invited by Dr. Timothy Hammond from the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical at Duke Unviversity who had an existing relationship with NASA, to be part of his Hammond’s team. From that point, Nislow then started working closely with a laboratory at the University of Colorado that builds and tests highly specialized equipment used in space.

Nislow flew to Boulder, Colorado (coincidentally, where Nislow went to graduate school) to go over every “excruciating detail” of his yeast experiment and “poke holes in it” with the goal that it be as simple as possible for the astronauts to conduct independently.

One team member from Nislow’s lab went on to meet the NASA astronauts at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas and because the astronauts’ time is so precious, the team member has only four to eight hours to go over the complex hands-on procedures necessary to conduct the experiments in space. As a back up, the session was also videotaped and the crew will watch it multiple times before they go up. Nislow says it’s absolutely critical that the experiments are executed seamlessly, without interruptions or glitches. “Everything about space science teaches you that you have a Plan B, C, D, E, F and so on. Absolutely everything has to be capable of being accomplished independently. We’ve really gained a lot from this collaboration because nothing focuses your students’ minds and your own mind like the requirement of having to load your sample up into the FedEx box and send it to the Kennedy Space Center. It essentially has to go flawlessly.”

When a space mission is about to launch, the excitement in the UBC lab becomes even more infectious. That and the sense of camaraderie:

“Everybody pitches in with these experiments,” says Nislow and this generates even greater team building and general lab cohesion:

“Everyone turns on and watches the launches at three in the morning. There aren’t that many labs that have the privilege of doing this kind of work. We definitely don’t get complacent.”
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Dr. Andrew Baron | Ethics Approval

Andrew Baron - Sciences World

Photo: Science World

Professor Andrew Baron explores the development of social cognition in young children but believes that doing so in a fun, interactive environment is critical to the success of his research. His Living Lab, located at Science World in Vancouver, BC, provides a space where researchers can reach out to the 500,000 visitors Science World sees in a year to better understand cognitive development in children. The lab works with over 6,000 families a year and is uniquely designed for fun, engagement and learning — seven days a week.

Baron and his team work with families and children as young as 6 months old up to 18 years of age as well as their parents. There is, necessarily, stringent and rigourous documentation and ethical considerations as a result:

“We work with thousands of children every year and while ethics in studies with humans is always important, with young children you have an added responsibility to ensure your research won’t inadvertently harm their development. That is, children in many ways are more impressionable and thus more vulnerable than adult populations.”

As an example, Barn explains that when he studies the origins and development of prejudice and discrimination he needs to be “additionally sure that our studies won’t create the very negative biases we are looking to measure and are hoping to help children to abandon.”

As opposed to a controlled laboratory space on campus, he notes that conducting research in a public space like Science World, allows his team and other researchers, to make the “observation of the practice of science an opportunity to invite dialogue with the broader community.”

The complexity of interactions in such a space is what interests Baron and enriches his and his colleague’s research, pushing them to “think differently about our work and challenges us to be able to learn how to properly communicate our science,” says Baron. With a range of perspectives — from children and their parents to daycare workers, teachers and multiple generations and cultures — the Living Lab sees, says Baron, a “much broader representation of the population of British Columbia which allows us to explore some topics around children’s developing conceptions of race, class, and gender that can benefit from the wonderful diversity of people in BC.”

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Ethics Approval

For many researchers, securing ethics approval is a critical part of their research process. Not only does it provide documentation and safeguards for ethical research, it helps researchers assess and carefully think through their research as they undergo the detailed procedures and policies strictly enforced by the UBC Office of Research Ethics.

Discover two researchers who require ethics approval for their work and how their path to research is improved because of it.

Dr. Bob Hancock | Ethics Approval

Bob Hancock Ethics

With 44 patents on the books since 1978, Professor Bob Hancock is someone who has routinely gone through the ethics approval process at UBC. Hancock is a scientist devoted to precision: he uses bioinformacs to analyze data for clues that will unlock the mysteries as to how our immune systems function.

In his lab’s peptide studies, his team tests efficacy in animal models and in human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (white blood cells) for which they get human ethics approval. “Nobody wants to feel that an animal might be utilized in an experiment unless there is a genuinely strong scientific purpose and you can’t publish data unless you do experiments in precisely the right way.”

While the ethics around experimentation with animals and humans is complex, it requires that the researchers prove without a doubt, the veracity of their idea. With an approval from the UBC Clinical Research Ethics Board comes an opportunity, says Hancock, to carefully consider the intent of your research and what it is you hope to achieve.

“The whole ethical process is a way of reflecting on how you would do an experiment and why you would do an experiment.“
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Dr. Corey Nislow | The Research Activity

Corey Nislow Research Activity

Yeast in space. It sounds like an implausible sci-fi experiment and in some senses, it was before Professor Corey Nislow and wife and research partner Professor Guri Giaever, both associate professors in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Science at UBC, jumped at the opportunity to study 6,000 variations of yeast in a micro-gravity environment.

“We can change many aspect of the environment in culture- the pressure, the salt for example,” says Nislow. “There is a long list of things you can change in a culture — but there is simply no good way to simulate micro-gravity. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”

Nislow and his team looked at what “biologically relevant” features in micro-gravity offered real value. There is strong evidence that human physiology is fundamentally changed when it spends a long time in  space — muscles redistribute, massive bone loss is observed, immune systems are compromised and DNA damage from cosmic radiation — are just some of the effects of living in space. Nislow notes that because “approximately seventy percent of the genes in the yeast cell have companion genes in human cells, we are confident we can draw useful conclusions for that seventy percent of the cell.

“There are very few studies of what happens when a cell doesn’t know where its top and bottom and left and right are supposed to be, We are excited to discover basic cell adaptation in a micro-gravity environment.”  

In September 2014, Nislow had the opportunity to send his select thousands of yeast strains into space — with carefully rehearsed directions for conducting the research.

“It’s really important when you do experiments in space that the experiments be bullet proof,” explains Nislow.

“You need a simple way to grow cells in space and yeast are probably the simplest cells to grow. More importantly, crew members can follow the directions to do the experiment without your assistance.”

In other words, there is no room for error. The experiments are rehearsed with the astronauts beforehand and mirror experiments are conducted on the ground in Nislow’s lab. If someone goes “off script”, Nislow’s lab adjusts and mirrors what the space crew has done, to isolate and eliminate that variable. Nislow doesn’t like to call them ‘mistakes’ but rather “protocol modifications.”

Nislow’s yeast experiments will be heading to space on every even-numbered SpaceX mission throughout 2015. Nislow, however, isn’t limiting his future experiments to the frontiers of space: 

“The hardware we’ve built for this project is opening up possibilities of doing experiments in an environment that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, such as experiments in the ocean or harsh terrestrial environments.”

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The Research Activity

The scope of research activities at UBC is only limited by the imaginations and curiosity of faculty and students. In other words, it is unlimited. The range of disciplines, the depth of expertise and the appetite for new frontiers in research, collectively create an environment where the phrase ‘never been done before’ is a catalyst for the bold and curious mind.

Discover two researchers going where no one has before.

Dr. Don Mavinic | The Research Activity

Don Mavinic

As in life, research sometimes takes an entirely different direction than you could ever have anticipated. Don Mavinic, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at UBC, was not thinking about nutrient removal — his work was focused on phosphorous recovery. But back in 2000 when BC Hydro asked him to think about phosphorous removal, Mavinic’s research trajectory changed forever.

BC Hydro was seeking an alternative to the liquid phosphorous fertilizer it was using in some of its reservoirs at a cost of several million dollars a year. While the fertilizer says Mavinic, “helps restore the nutrient balance behind their dams as well as downstream” it wasn’t sustainable. Traditional fertilizers leach nutrients into natural waterways, causing disruption in the existing nutrient balance.

BC Hydro wanted Mavinic and his team to see if they could come up with a replacement fertilizer one could buy at the commercial level.

Serendipitously, Metro Vancouver also approached Mavinic at this time to see if he could do something about the struvite in its treatment plants. Struvite, explains Mavinic, is a combination of “magnesium, phosphate and ammonium and they form a magic bomb that plugs up the pipes in any biological waste treatment plant.”

In 2000, BC Hydro funded Mavinic and his team for $400,000 over three years to do meaningful research on the recovery of phosphorous and nitrogen as a replacement for its costly, controversial fertilizer. Ken Ashley, a Senior Fisheries Scientist for the provincial government at the time, helped facilitate the grant. Mavinic fondly recalls how he received the funds:

“The chairman of BC Hydro board at the time delivered the cheque in person — one of those big cardboard cheques — I always wanted one of those! They landed his helicopter at the back of the campus and he presented the cheque to me. I have that thing pasted on my wall.”

Fast forward to 2013 and Mavinic and fellow researcher Frederic Koch’s discovery that you could turn pipe-clogging and polluting phosphorus compounds in wastewater into environmentally friendly fertilizer.

Things scaled up very quickly. Mavinic and his key business partners created Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies, Inc., a spin-off company that took the technology and created Crystal Green — fertilizer pellets the company claims are the hallmark of the “resource recovery revolution”.

Mavinic, no longer on the board of the company, still enjoys the benefits of the research. “I grow my tomatoes and hanging baskets with it,” he enthuses. “It really is a miracle product and ironically it comes from waste.”

It all started with a research discovery grant from NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada). Mavinic says good funding is critical to good research because it allows you to explore. Or as he tells his students:

“I want you to think outside the box. Ask yourself: ‘Is there a better technology or process that we can apply to this research no else has thought of?’”

To discover more about Professor Mavinic’s revolutionary green technology, watch 2 minutes with Donald Mavinic” produced by NSERC. 

Jacqueline Firkins | Knowledge Mobilization

Jacqueline Firkins

When the photographs of Professor Jacqueline Firkins’ ball gowns began to be shared, she had no idea they would become an international news item. The dresses, inspired by microscopic images of cancer cells she had seen in Dr. Naus’s lab at UBC, were created, explains Firkins, “To engage the community in dialogue about disease and body image, and to encourage cancer survivors and patients to tell their story in order to generate empathy and understanding.”

Firkins first call was from the Globe and Mail and then, two days later, the story of her dresses broke on CNN. From there it sparked an international media coverage across dozens of media outlets including Spain’s El Mundo, NBC, CBC, Buzzfeed, The Lancet, The Daily News — Online UK, Nigeria News,, and Yale’s Alumni Magazine where Firkins, an alumna of the university, was celebrated as “Yalie of the Week.” The story of her ‘cancer dresses’ as they became known, continued to grow and Firkins went from months of trying to explain her research to an overnight sensation, something she had never dreamed could happen.

For Firkins, however, the real reward came in the personal correspondence she received from cancer survivors and their families:

“Sharing stories with women from all walks of life about what they have gone through and truly connecting with strangers has been life changing.”

I tell a lot of stories in my field. I have designed costumes for over 100 theatre productions, but none of them have led to the outpouring of “here’s my story.” I am overwhelmed by the trust people give me with the details of their experiences. “

Fred Lee, Director, Alumni Engagement at UBC, came to see a talk she had given on the project and asked what would become of the dresses? She expressed that she’d like to auction them and Lee took the idea and ran with it. Fashioning Cancer: A night of art and music in support of cancer prevention saw local celebrities come out to support the auction, with Bif Naked — a cancer survivor herself — performing to a sold out crowd. The auction raised $40,000 and was used to support the work of the Cancer Prevention Centre, a partnership between UBC and the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS).

The paradigm shift the dresses encouraged was not lost on her students. Firkins students were able to see first hand the power of art as research and how this in turn can have a profound affect on a community — in this case, a global one.

Despite its humble beginnings, fraught with the uncertainty of how her interdisciplinary research with science might be articulated, understood and shared, the project was an enormous success.

Firkins agrees: “It was the little project that could.”

Flickr gallery of dresses »
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Dr. Andrew Baron | Knowledge Mobilization

Andrew Baron Science World Centre Stage

Photo: Science World

For Professor Andrew Baron, his Living Lab at Vancouver’s Science World is a springboard for a much larger conversation he wants to have with the broader community about his research.

“We’re creating electronic kiosks where people can learn about the research we’re doing as well as participate in certain research that doesn’t require a lot of scaffolding.”

Baron is developing the programming platform so it can be “self-sustaining” and the hope is that it will be up and running by spring of 2015. Given there are half a million visitors a year at Science World, most of whom are children and teens, it is a public that Baron and his fellow researchers at the Living Lab would like to interact with on as many platforms as possible: 

“The idea essentially is to come up with ways to enable visitors to engage with research and scientific discoveries in real-time where through their own self-directed interact have the opportunity to learn more about how research studies in the psychological studies are conducted, from hypothesis formation, to method design, to data and ultimately to the conclusions drawn.”

Baron already uses the lab infrastructure as a conduit for his colleagues in the UBC Psychology Department (and outside the department) who are interested in the developmental origins in children. There are now eight other labs at UBC using the Living Lab as a resource and provides, says Baron, “the public with a broader exposure to research at UBC and for researchers, a deeper understanding of how children process emotion, language development, and social reasoning.” He has plans to expand the lab and is in discussion with Science World because, says Baron, “there’s been a bursting at the seams of interest of colleagues of mine in the department to do more work there.”

While Baron is now working on some new SSHRC grants in order to extend the infrastructure and grow the lab’s capacity, his vision for the Living Lab extends beyond the brick and mortar. His outreach to schools, including programs such as the Future Science Leaders, Science World’s Scientist In Schools, and the Super Science Club underscore his passion for science education. He has hosted the Future Science Leaders at UBC where the students toured research labs and had opportunities to talk and ask questions with researchers in a variety of UBC departments. 

Baron’s hopes that, given his own lab’s success as a model, he can play a role in fostering more university and science centre relationships. He also sees the potential of taking his research kiosk idea across Canada and beyond. He is now well positioned to do so: “I’m in a place now that is really ideal.”

Andrew Baron Science World Centre Stage

Photo: Science World

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Knowledge Mobilization

At long last your research is complete. Your destination explored. Results measured, proven, reported. Now it is time for the world to hear about it.

Knowledge mobilization of any given research project can happen in a variety of ways. Projects may have direct commercial value, enormous scholarly impact, or have artistic or social value that changes how we see society and ourselves within it. One commonality, however, is that all research has the power, when mobilized, to change how we understand our world.

Discover three UBC professors whose work was mobilized in unique ways that resulted in communities, both locally and internationally, learning, feeling and thinking differently about art, life and the possibilities opened to them through research.

Dr. Susan Crichton | Knowledge Mobilization

Susan Cricton Maker Day

On November 2, 2013 the first Maker Day was held in the Faculty of Education’s Innovative Learning Centre (ILC) on UBC’s Okanagan campus. Jointly hosted by the faculty and the Industry Training Authority (ITA), Maker Day was envisioned by Dr. Susan Crichton, director of the ILC and an associate professor in the Faculty of Education, as an immersive, professional development opportunity for educators. 

According to Crichton, from as early as Grade 2, children start opting out of STEMx (science, technology, engineering, math and design) courses and by Grade 8, she says “the die is cast and you can look around and see that a particular demographic goes into STEMx and a particular demographic who doesn’t.

“So what we’re trying to do is step in with initiatives like Maker Day and bringing design thinking into schools by targeting K to 8 [kindergarten to Grade Eight] teachers.”

The ‘maker movement’, also known as the DIY movement, grew out of our natural desire to create, to make things, as opposed to buying them. By regarding design challenges as opportunities for exploration and innovation, the movement bridges disciplines such as engineering and art, craft and manufacturing.

Although the movement has grown around the world over the last decade, it has not translated into school curriculum and yet it is here where it is most critical.

“The youth of today are consumers of technology but not necessarily the makers of technology,” explains Crichton “There is a gap in advanced manufacturing in Canada. We rarely teach coding or computer science in K to 12 and we’re not attracting people into the trades because there is still some stigma around them.”

Conceived and launched just over a year ago (November 2, 2013), the first Maker Day at the UBC Okanagan campus was a huge success. There were 80 educators from districts across the Okanagan Valley, 7 student teachers in our Trades and Technology course within the Bachelor of Ed program along with well-connected local members of the ILC advisory board. Subsequent Maker Days have included teachers from districts across the province including Maple Ridge, Sicamous, and Central Okanagan. Recently, Crichton held a Maker Day in Enderby with the Bachelor of Ed students from UBC Okanagan and has plans to create a Maker Day in 2015, once again funded by ITA, which will teach simple technologies to encourage coding.

Crichton believes that education needs to be re-imagined and incorporating trades at an early level will create new generations of students who are not only better equipped for the future, they will be inspired to create a better one for themselves and the world.

“If you understand design thinking, you really see the world in a different light. You feel empowered that you can make a difference.”

No path to discovery is identical

The thrill, for most researchers, is in forging a new path and going where no one has been before. They are pioneers, explorers, change agents: supporting their work is a critical responsibility of the university and the broader community.

At UBC, advancing research capacity is a top priority — helping researchers realize their ideas, from young scholars to principal investigators, is integral to the university’s overarching commitment to research excellence.

Research changes the way we think, feel and live our lives. If you are considering pursuing research whether as a student, faculty member, or partner, we offer you a place to do so at either one of our campuses, where there is freedom to pursue ideas that can change the world.

Your path

If you are interested in pursuing a path to research, be sure to explore some of the resources below.

Your starting point:

The Office of Vice President Research & International website is a first step for information about research at UBC:

Review UBC’s research strategy

UBC’S SPARC office which connects researchers across disciplines, departments, faculties:

Support Research

Interested in how you can help advance important research? There are a myriad of ways to work with the university to support research at any stage.


If you are already on your path, please share your story with us using #pathtoresearch. Keep an eye on our UBC Facebook page as we share your stories of discovery.

Thank you to the following professors who participated in this story:

Dr. Corey Nislow, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc, Professor, School of Nursing, Dr. Andrew Baron, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Jacqueline Firkins, Assistant Professor, Department of Theatre and Film, Dr. Don Mavinic, Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, Dr. Susan Crichton, Director at the Innovative Learning Centre, Faculty of Education at UBC’s Okanagan campus, and Dr. Bob Hancock, Professor, Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

Special thanks to Jamie Hall, Manager, Communications, Office of the Vice President Research & International, who put us on the right path!

Story team: UBC Communications and Marketing — Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Michael Kam, Web Developer/Coordinator; Adrian Liem, Senior Web Coordinator; Jamil Rhajiak, Communications Coordinator, Digital Information Channels; Matt Warburton, Manager, Graphic Design; Aida Viziru, Web Interaction Designer. Additional research and copywriting — David Leidl, Copy Editor and Researcher.

Published: January 2015