Research Ignites!

Bring a dozen museum scientists together, give them the floor to each talk about their work in only five minutes, and what do you have? A wonderfully geeky, fast-paced event called Ignite that, in this case, was science with ADD!

According to, Ignite events occur in about 100 countries. The motto is “Enlighten us, but make it quick”.

I had the privilege to witness Canadian Museum of Nature scientists accepting the Ignite challenge as they gathered this week in the museum’s theatre to rapidly share their slides and research highlights with the rest of us, their colleagues.

Kieran Shepherd holds a model dinosaur by the tail. A thought bubble says, "Man, I hate dinosaurs".

Fossil curator Kieran Shepherd made the audience laugh during his presentation “Why I Hate Dinosaurs”. Image: Laura Sutin © Canadian Museum of Nature

Kieran Shepherd, who manages the museum’s fossil collection, gave a lively, humorous mini-show on why he hates dinosaurs. “They got what they deserved,” he declares, favouring the “sexier” Tertiary mammals that thrived after the dino extinction.

But resistance is futile as dinosaurs have invaded pop culture. He shudders as he refers to the 1990s mega movie hit Jurassic Park, and that other “weird event” known as Barney. Not surprisingly, one of his slides showed a cartoon of Velociraptors devouring poor old purple Barney—twisted, I know. Kieran also ignited the crowd by tossing gifts of cheese (the wrapped, round Babybel kind) and the odd stuffed dino toy—a neat trick at any time to stir up an audience.

This fun Ignite format was rich with scientific info that even I could absorb. In his cleverly titled talk, “The First to Show any Kind of Backbone Was a Lamprey!”, Claude Renaud, Ph.D., told us that lampreys (with their “circular mouths of Doom”) are jawless and have rudimentary vertebrae. They look similar in body shape to eels, but eels have jaws. They also look similar to hagfishes, but hagfishes don’t have vertebrae. Lampreys have existed on this planet for 360 million years. (I’m learning more and more all the time!)

The Dr. Seuss-inspired title of the talk by mineralogist Paula Piilonen, Ph.D. was “One Rock, Two Rock, Red Rock, Blue Rock”. She even showed a cute slide (à la Seuss) of Mineralogists One and Two, a.k.a. Paula and her colleague, Scott Ercit, Ph.D. (the latter with a moustache and goatee on his cartoon).

Paula Piilonen and Scott Ercit stand together in a pose that mimics the Dr. Seuss illustration.

Museum mineralogists Paula Piilonen and Scott Ercit. Image: Laura Sutin © Canadian Museum of Nature

Paula studies alkaline rocks, which are enriched with sodium and potassium, and very little silicon. Scott studies granitic rocks. He is also working on a Google Earth application with the Smithsonian (although there wasn’t time to elaborate on that cool endeavour) and even boasted a bit of “counter-espionage” in his research, as he shared a slide revealing the richest deposit of cesium in the former Soviet Union.

Jennifer Doubt, Ph.D., who manages the botany collection, devoted her five minutes to extolling the virtues of flat plants. I thought it was neat that the plant-pressing technique used by our botanists on collecting trips hasn’t changed in a century. The National Herbarium of Canada, which is part of our museum, has a million flat plants, some even dating back to the Parry and Franklin expeditions in the early 1800s. And Jennifer stated a great reason why we keep all of these dried botanical specimens: “Flat plants are proof. Things like databases are somebody’s word for it.”

The Canadian flag modified with a flattened, preserved maple leaf.

Time really flew. Jeff Saarela, Ph.D., and Paul Sokoloff co-presented on Arctic flora and their expeditions up North. André Martel, Ph.D., talked about freshwater and marine mussels.

We learned from marine biologist Kathy Conlan, Ph.D., that grey whales have come all the way up to the Beaufort Sea to feed on the benthos (bottom-dwelling organisms).

Alan McDonald shared his work on fossil preparation and that he brushed up on some casting and moulding techniques at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

Paul Hamilton spoke about algae: why they are great indicators of water quality and also major producers of oxygen.

Entomologist Bob Anderson, Ph.D., described 94 species of weevils—in his latest paper alone—and he even cuts these beetles open so he can study their genitalia!

The strict five-minute time allocations meant that all these great sessions were merely the tip of the iceberg. They left us wanting more… which means we’ll be asking the VP of Research, Mark Graham, Ph.D., to be sure to put it on the agenda for next year, so we can happily geek out again (in Ignite fashion).

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5 Responses to Research Ignites!

  1. Hugh Hope says:

    Sounds like a great info session. Do you have a video of it online or on DVD ?


  2. nature says:

    Yes. There will be a video available. We are currently working on editing the video segments and ensuring it is available in both official languages.

  3. Jen says:

    Was the video made available and if so where can it be watched? thanks!

  4. nature says:

    We have the 2012 videos available now.


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