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University of Victoria aims to make its research accessible to all

From timely talks about sports concussions and the effects of e-cigarettes to exploring enormous trees and microscopic biomedical devices, the third annual IdeaFest at the University of Victoria promises to unveil a range of cutting-edge research to

From timely talks about sports concussions and the effects of e-cigarettes to exploring enormous trees and microscopic biomedical devices, the third annual IdeaFest at the University of Victoria promises to unveil a range of cutting-edge research to educate and inspire.

“Universities sometimes get called ivory towers, but our work is very relevant to real-world decisions,” said vice-president research Howard Brunt. “Applied research can turn into public programs and policy, for example.”

Brunt’s office has a mandate to promote and facilitate research and creative activities at the university. IdeaFest was born from brain-storming ways to highlight the breadth of innovative work being cultivated in classrooms, labs and concert halls on campus. It was inspired by movements such as the Technology Entertainment and Design talks and PechaKucha slideshow presentations being shared around the world.

“The whole concept is to make research accessible,” Brunt said.

The first year was small, with mainly faculty talks. The second, last year, spanned two weeks and brought about 10,000 people to more than 50 events. It also happened to be the university’s 50th anniversary celebration.

More than half of the attendees came from the community at large.

“This year, we’re trying to engage students at all levels, from high school to the graduate university level, as well as the community and faculty,” Brunt said. He hopes to entice students to the university and to encourage current students and faculty to collaborate. Raising the public profile of research at UVic can’t hurt either.

“Most research in one way or another is taxpayer-funded,” said Brunt, adding events like IdeaFest let the public in on how the research contributes to society. “Technological and medical breakthroughs can be very challenging, and looking deeper into things like the works of Shakespeare can help us understand humanity.”

Events — most of which are free — include guided walks, panel discussions, musical performances, lectures and film screenings. Last year’s surprise hit, a guided big-tree walk around campus, is back, as well as a focus on interactive and inventive presentations.


Rapid-fire thesis competition

One of the events Brunt is excited about is the three-minute thesis. Master’s and PhD students across disciplines have been training in heats for months for the IdeaFest finals, part of an international competition that started in Australia.

“How do you take your life’s work and distil it into something you can explain in three minutes?” Brunt said.

Biological anthropology master’s candidate Sarah-Louise Decrausaz, 25, signed up for the competition in the fall and said the training experience has been invaluable.

“I was really intrigued by the idea of looking at my thesis in an accessible way,” said Decrausaz, whose thesis argues pelvic scarring is not necessarily an indication of childbirth. The scars have long been a way of identifying female skeletons, but also appear on men with increased weight.

“This has definitely changed how I’ve been talking about it. It’s great for job talks and public outreach,” she said.


The future is here with biomedical breakthroughs

Paul Zehr, the director at the Centre of Biomedical Research, is a firm believer in making even the most complicated research accessible. His department participated in IdeaFest last year and holds regular café-style events to discuss research topics.

“You should be able to explain your work,” he said, acknowledging there are some complexities the everyday person might not get and noting the benefits of things like IdeaFest are not just for the public. “There are lots corollary benefits for faculty. Science can be reduced to one small aspect of something and it’s good to see how that connects to the big picture.”

Members of Zehr’s centre will present their research in a PechaKucha style — 20 slides with 20 seconds each — and poster presentations. Some of the research being presented includes the effects of genetics on the hearts of First Nations peoples, out-of-the-box approaches to stroke recovery and nanotechnology in cancer treatment.

“It’s very interesting to watch things like science fiction from 30 years ago, like the original Star Trek, and see stuff very close to what we’re actually doing now,” Zehr said. “Then to note where we’re going ... and that it’s all done it the spirit of helping the human condition and to improve lives.”


A rare and tactile touch with the past

The public will get a rare and guided look at of one of the most significant and pirated books in western civilization when the university opens the special-collections vault for an IdeaFest event.

Hélène Cazes, director of medieval studies, said participants will be led to a temperature-controlled classroom where several professors have chosen works to speak about, including a 15th-century book of prayers and an early edition of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

“Part of it is to appreciate what will be lost with digitization,” said Cazes, who recently won a leadership award for her work in connecting the community with the many treasures in the special collections.

“The sheer size of a book, the texture of old paper, the smell of the leather-bound and parchment and the art,” are all visceral experiences with books that can’t be rivalled by the digital form, she explained.

Cazes will be presenting the Fabric of the Human Body by Andreas Vesalius from 1555.

She said the early anatomy book is known as one of the most beautiful ever created on the human anatomy and revolutionized medicine as one of the first to feature human dissections.

“They are incredibly accurate and artistic images,” Cazes said. Vesalius was only 28 when he created the first edition of the book in 1543, with the help of an artist friend. This year marks the 500th since Vesalius’s birth.

“In many ways, he’s a model for students, as he stood up to his professors and did something extraordinary,” Cazes said. She hopes the events, more than anything, help the public to feel at home in the library and reflect on the special collections.

“What’s in the vault says a lot about who we are and what we value,” she said. “Knowledge goes in both directions and we’re learning by being a community.”

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