March for Science 2018: Q&A with Farah Qaiser

Apr 13, 2018

Farah QaiserGraduate student and March for Science volunteer Farah Qaiser
The second annual March for Science will run tomorrow in hundreds of cities around the world, with a local march in Toronto from Nathan Phillips Square to Queen’s Park. Organizers of the events aim to increase public engagement with science, make science more inclusive and encourage governments to adopt evidence-based policies.

Farah Qaiser is the communications and press director for the Toronto March for Science, and a first-year graduate student in the Department of Molecular Genetics, based in the lab of Professor Ryan Yuen. She spoke with writer Jim Oldfield about her role in the Toronto event, why she got involved and what she hopes the marches will achieve for science and society.

What drew you to volunteer for March for Science?

I took an interest when I saw media coverage of the first event last year, when it was clear that many scientists were worried about the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election. During my undergrad at U of T’s Mississauga campus, where I wrote and edited for The Medium [the campus newspaper], I found myself increasingly drawn to science-related stories and events. After starting grad school, I decided to participate in these events instead of just cover them. 

Because I’d been active in the local science community, I received an email from SciCommTO that said the Toronto March for Science team was looking to fill a communications role. After some uncertainty over whether I could commit to the role, I applied because it was an incredible opportunity to apply what I’ve learned from school, journalism, outreach and volunteer work — for a movement I believe in.

How’s it been going, as a volunteer for this march?

My inbox has definitely been flooded at times, but overall it’s going well. My role has been a mix of internal and external communications, such as creating messaging for social media and the web, coordinating with potential speakers, writing press releases and reaching out to media. We’re in good shape at this point in terms of budget and organization. We just had a sign-making session this week and we’re ready for Saturday.

What are the main goals of the March for Science?

The main goal last year was to show solidarity with the U.S. March for Science. But this year, the U.S. event organizers turned over coordination to national or local organizations. In Canada, Evidence for Democracy is hosting the March for Science, and they then turned to more local groups, like ours in Toronto, to organize events. 

The main goals for Evidence for Democracy are to recognize that science is not accessible for everyone and to advocate for diversity and inclusion in science at all levels, including in leadership roles. Locally, we are emphasizing three other aims: celebrate Canadian scientists and their contributions; advocate for evidence-based decision making in government; and encourage scientific integrity, i.e., ensure that science is free from politically motivated vetting.

What are your hopes for the Toronto event?

I hope that it isn’t just scientists attending, but members of the public too! We really want to drive home the message that science isn’t just for scientists. For an active, democratic government, we all need to participate. 

Beyond that, we want to put science in the centre of the public eye. Too often, people don’t know what’s going on in the labs of their own countries. Their tax dollars make that work happen, and so we as scientists have a duty to engage and inform the public. Moreover, science is an everyday part of life, from smart phones to transit to medicine, but people often forget that. We want to celebrate science, the people who do it and the members of the public who make it possible.

There seems to be a growing unease about the state of the world. Are you optimistic about the future of science?

I’m very optimistic about the future of science — mainly because of the many engaged individuals I’ve met right here in Toronto. These include current graduate students, such as U of T PhD student Samantha Yammine, senior scientists like SickKids’ postdoctoral fellow Dr. Vicky Forster and individuals who are not actively involved in science, such as SciCommTO founder Elliann Fairbairn. In fact, the entire Toronto March for Science has been planned by volunteers. The future of science is clearly in good hands!

Don’t get me wrong: many headlines today concern me, such as funding uncertainty, so-called #AlternativeFacts, and the worrying number of obstacles that women and marginalized communities face in science. But change is coming, just slower than some of us would like — and it seems the incoming generation of scientists are leading the way right now.

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