Open Your Mind: A Q&A with biologist Dawn Bazely

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.

Today, in honour of Earth Day, the spotlight is on York biology Professor Dawn Bazely.

Bazely’s work spans many fields and encompasses research into anti-herbivore plant defences, ecology and  sustainability. She is an ardent advocate of women in STEM. She conducts science policy work on human security, invasive species and climate change, and has mastered the use of social media and its power to communicate scientific discoveries.

Dawn Bazely
Dawn Bazely

Q. Please describe your field of current research.

A. My current research spans several fields, from arcane work on anti-herbivore plant defences to interdisciplinary work on the science policy interface where I ask more general questions. My research into microscopic fungal endophytes, which started in 1989, still fascinates me. Found in many grass plants, they manufacture toxic compounds which act as a deterrent to herbivores like locusts and sheep.

My science policy work, on topics such as human security, invasive species and climate change, got revved up in the early 2000s when I had a chance to collaborate with colleagues in the social sciences.

Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?

A. Even though I grew up in London, England, observing what we now call “urban ecologies,” I have always been interested in nature. I was inspired by school trips to Kensington’s Natural History Museum in the 1960s and dreamed of doing fieldwork in Africa – this has not yet happened.

As well, I have been a political junkie since about the age of nine. Consequently, my ecological research has always tended to include an applied focus, even in the days when “pure” ecology research was considered more trendy and prestigious. For 35 years I have done field research on animal and plant species with an agricultural or management aspect, even though I often asked some quite “pure,” non-applied research questions.

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?

A. I’ve done lots of practical research. For example, my research into the impacts of high numbers of white-tailed deer on southern Ontario forests has been used by government agencies deciding how to manage forests and deer herds. This forest research included work on non-native invasive plants, which helps people decide what to plant in their gardens for biodiversity.

At a more abstract level, my science policy work, which came out of my sustainability research, is currently looking at how to make science more accessible through the open access system of publishing. I’m particularly interested in how Open Access can help local communities seeking to increase their resilience and ability to adapt to climate change.

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way? How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?

A. University Affairs magazine recently featured me as an academic who has switched disciplines mid-career, from biology to sustainability and science policy, but strictly speaking this wasn’t really the case. I always had applied research interests in science policy areas. What changed was my ability as a researcher in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) discipline to navigate the science policy interface more effectively.

Leading York University’s pan-university sustainability research institute (IRIS) for seven years (four terms) improved my skills and experience with collaborative team research. I enjoy the interdisciplinary research space and out-of-the-box, innovative, inclusive thinking. I’m comfortable with not being the expert in the room and with learning from diverse colleagues at all ages and career stages. At the same time, I have remained firmly rooted in plant ecology research.

Q. What findings have surprised and excited you (i.e. tell us about the most interesting finding, person and/or place you encountered while pursuing this line of inquiry)?

Moose lying down
In her research, Bazely uncovered some interesting aspects of moose drool

A. This example is from my plant ecology research. Without a doubt, the coolest, most surprising results were published in a 2014 Biology Letters paper with two of my former students: Mark Vicari, currently a contract lecturer at York University, and Andrew Tanentzap, currently a professor at Cambridge University, U.K. We discovered that moose saliva (spit) can detoxify the alkaloids produced by the mutualistic fungus found living inside some grass plants. These toxins function to deter grazing animals from eating the leaves.

This was a classic example of investigator-driven, “what if …” research. We’re now doing more research into saliva in my lab. My current students and I recently showed that there is something unique about herbivore (cow, reindeer etc.) saliva. We seem to have opened up a new field of ecology research that is very interdisciplinary. It will need biochemists and scientists from lots of other fields to get involved in order to figure out exactly what is going on and why. It’s exciting.

Q. Every researcher, from novice to experienced, encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry. Can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. I started fieldwork at the age of 19, running around the tundra, carrying a shotgun for protection from polar bears – which, in 1981, did eat my experiments. My field lab also burned down two weeks into the field season when I was 21, so I learned early on to be flexible and to deal with unexpected crises in isolated places.

These experiences made me more resilient. There will always be setbacks. When life gives you lemons, try to make lemonade from them. I would definitely say that having a mindset of persistence and being open to learning new things is key to overcoming roadblocks.

Q. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?

A. Getting back to interdisciplinary science-policy research: Since the mandate of IRIS was to undertake transdisciplinary, innovative and novel research, I got the opportunity to work with colleagues in the Schulich School of Business to learn about organizational behaviour, leadership and management. Even though IRIS has closed, I continue to bring all of this learning to my research.

Q. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?

A. Everything I do incorporates the interdisciplinary mindset, but then I have always had one. My undergraduate degree was in biogeography and environmental studies. My master’s degree was in botany and my doctorate, a DPhil (an Oxford PhD), was in zoology, looking at sheep behaviour from an economic modelling perspective. I like learning new things and have done fieldwork in grasslands and forests from the Arctic to the temperate zone. In ecology, this alone would be regarded as highly interdisciplinary by more narrowly focused researchers.

I led a team of graduate and undergraduate students at the recent York University Libraries Hackathon. The app that we developed to track new invasive species was rooted in an earlier app developed by Shawn Hao, a student in the School of Art, Media, Performance & Design’s York/Sheridan Program in Design. Shawn did his final-year project in my lab. This work is set to become part of a larger biodiversity project that includes computer science students, environmental NGOs and industry folk, plus some good old ecologists.

Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?

A. If I hadn’t done biology, I would have liked to have been a historian.

Q. Are you teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

A. I taught Plant Biology (BIOL 2010) and Plant Ecology (BIOL 3290) this term. In Plant Biology, we cover all organisms except animals: viruses, bacteria, fungi, seaweed, gingko trees, evergreens and flowering plants. I invited two colleagues who did their PhDs on fungi to give mini guest lectures – one of the reasons is that molecular biology researchers are constantly publishing new information about the evolutionary relationships among organisms. Even though we are using a fairly recent edition of the textbook (2013), some parts are already out of date. I wanted experts in this area, not me, to tell the students about the latest research, people like Professors Priti Mishra and Jennifer McDonald..

Students in Bazely's plant ecology course work in the greenhouse on York U's Keele campus
Students in Bazely’s plant ecology course work in the greenhouse on York U’s Keele campus

In Plant Ecology, students formed research teams where they designed parts of their experiments. They learned that science is a process and that data matters. They got to do a lot of statistics with large amounts of data that they collected themselves.

Q. You are well known on campus and beyond for your expertise both as a biologist and in social media. How are you bringing the two areas together in your research and teaching practice?

A. In my view, it is more essential than ever that all people in STEM, including our undergraduate students, learn to be better science communicators. Despite living in such a technology-heavy world, research shows that many people don’t have a good grasp of basic science.

Science is a process and a conversation. I would like our students to be able to have a conversation about science with their friends and families. One way to encourage this is through exposing them to the use of social media for learning about and communicating about science.

Another benefit of my social media assignments is that they help students to write more succinctly. There’s nothing more frustrating than a run-on sentence. Plant Ecology students also wrote a souped-up version of the letter to the editor assignment I introduced back in 2001 – as a blog. I gave students very specific feedback and they updated their letters. This really helped them improve their writing of well-structured paragraphs with clear topic sentences. I am quite obsessed with the idea that it’s my job to teach science undergrads to write well and to be comfortable around numbers.

Q. Your work is focused on invasive species. How are you bringing your experience in the field into the classroom?

A. Other than through (boring, to me) lectures, I bring my research interests into undergraduate courses mainly via the laboratories. The photo (above) of students is in the greenhouse, doing an experiment comparing flowering phenology (seasonal development) of native and non-native trees and shrubs. I also made a Vine of our seed bank experiment.

Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?

A. Many – I’m an avid reader, and TV and film watcher. I really like “Bones,” which is in its 11th season, because it portrays more than one strong female scientist really well, as well as explaining the science.

Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?

A. Right now, I’m reading Professor Hope Jahren’s new memoir, Lab Girl. She will be here on April 24 and 25 promoting the book. I enjoyed both “Murdoch Mysteries” and “Elementary” (a reimagining of Sherlock Holmes in NYC with Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson) this year because they had some great plant biology-related plots – from ginseng to toxic mushrooms to plant alkaloids. Both of these series also have strong female scientist leads.

Q. What advice would you give to students thinking of pursuing a graduate degree or embarking on a research project for the first time?

A. Do your homework and research. Also remember that life (and research) is one per cent excitement and 99 per cent tedium – persistence is key, as is recovering from failure. And please find as many mentors as possible (I did a Slideshare presentation on this).

Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?

Above: Bazely with her daughters Carrie (left) and Maddy (right) show off their Heddy Lamar T-shirts
Above: Bazely with her daughters Carrie (left) and Maddy (right) show off their Heddy Lamarr Women in STEM T-shirts

A. It’s hard to choose, but after seeing the documentary Calling Hedy Lamarr last weekend, which was followed by a discussion panel with Ryerson’s Dean of Science and former chair of biology at York University, Imogen Coe, it would be Hedy Lamarr. She was a brilliant inventor, the most beautiful woman in the world and also a deeply unhappy person. I wonder if she might have been happier if she had connected with a network of female scientists and engineers.

Mulberries being prepped for jam
Mulberries being prepped for jam

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. Make jam and marmalade – I have located all the Mulberry trees on the streets in my neighbourhood.