Category Archives: Graduate students

Science and Health Communication during COVID-19


This post is co-written by Charlotte Armstrong from the Centre for Bioengineering & Biotechnology, who also works with the Royal Canadian Institute for Science (RCI Science), UWaterloo English‘s Devon Moriarty (PhD candidate), Dr. Ashley Mehlenbacher, and Dr. Brad Mehlenbacher, who all specialize in rhetorical theory and science communication.

Prof. Jennifer Harris posed several questions to us and we attempt to answer those questions here. Overall, our sense is that in the midst of this tragic crisis, it is too soon to have a good grasp on the full range of issues we are facing in the communication of science. However, rhetorical studies in science, health, and medicine, and broader studies of science communication and the allied field of technical communication have important lessons for us to consider.

Jennifer Harris asked: We’re in this moment where more people than ever before are trying to parse information about science. Have you noticed trends?

Uncertainty is perhaps the most obvious trend, and although it serves an important function, it can also be deeply discomforting. Consider, for example, the question of whether or not we should wear masks and, if we should, when we should wear a mask and what kind of mask.  The answer is: it’s complicated.

Researchers and media are hurriedly attempting to make sense of this particular moment in history, how we got here, if there have been other moments like this, what mistakes were made and what can we learn from them. The last 25 years have numerous events we can turn to for lessons and guidelines, including the anthrax attacks of 2001, SARS in 2003, and the Ebola epidemic in 2014. In all these cases, we have seen complex interactions between governments, scientific and medical researchers and practitioners, industry and business sectors, and citizens from multiple nations around the globe.

As well, studies of how news organizations and journalists generate health news suggest that it’s a complex process with multiple influences ranging from the sociology of media institutions through to the day-to-day processes of practicing journalists. For instance, we know news organizations report less science- and health-related news if they haven’t devoted specific resources to news coverage in those areas, they tend to publish more personal angles on health news (for example, about spread through religious organizations or through their children’s schools), and importantly, news tends to cover topics of interest to readers based on proximity and geographic relevance, a pattern that appears to have played out in terms of COVID-19, where news stories were reporting on the virus in Wuhan, China, as early as December, 2019, but North Americans were generally seemingly unprepared for its arrival here until mid-March, 2020, even after the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a Pandemic. Conversely, once the virus arrived here, some media content was being collected hurriedly, and this heightens uncertainty, as studies of avian influenza in Australia and studies of Ebola in Guana have shown us.

Finally, a trend we’ve noticed is that scientific information and its complex relationship to society is being discussed. Discussions are especially notable around matters of socioeconomic disparity, for example. What does it mean for essential workers who are paid minimum or near-minimum wage to be risking their lives for the continued functioning of our communities, our economies, etc.? We’re also starting to have important conversations about racism, structural inequality, and the elevated risk that marginalized people face from COVID-19.

JH: There’s a joke circulating online, a graph charting the increase of people consulting graphs. How important has our ability to convey and interpret this information become?

Being able to interpret and, importantly, vet information presented to us in graphs or charts was important before COVID-19 (hence the development of fields that study visual, media, and computational literacies), but the immediacy and proximity of the data to our lives renders that importance more clearly.

Scientific visualizations of data are not just simplified versions of numerical symbols; rather, they are meant to persuade readers to adopt a particular position towards something, often doing so in more vivid and memorable ways than text. In this way, visual representations of data also have the potential to oversimplify, exaggerate, or minimize if they are not viewed in relation to other narrative features such as practices for collecting, representing, and interpreting data, and methods of labelling, captioning, or framing graphics. Thus, it is useful to examine the complexity of visuals. For example, one might note that visualizations of the number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths reported globally are growing both in terms of the exponential spread of the virus and also because of increases in testing.

In addition to static scientific visualizations, animated graphs and videos are being shared widely by social media as well. Many examples of these types of visuals can be found in the news (for example, Forbes), via university institutions (see data collected by Johns Hopkins University and reported by CBC News), on, and on visualization companies’ websites (for example, Flourish Studio’s active cases by country visualization). Notable Canadian science communicators such as Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown of asapSCIENCE have also produced wonderful video material on how COVID-19 works biologically, and Henry Reich of Minute Physics has shown us how we can tell if we’re beating the coronavirus spread.

JH: Where do you think we could be doing better in relation to science communication right now?

There is some incredible science communication happening right now. Ed Yong’s work at The Atlantic has been excellent. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, is regularly sharing updates through Twitter (as @CPHO_Canada). Another outstanding example is Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Health Officer for British Columbia and expert in infectious disease, who has demonstrated such phronesis (moral prudence/practical wisdom), arete (virtue or moral excellence), and eunoia (goodwill toward her audience) that she has a fan club on Twitter (@bonniehenryfans) and her communication approach is much-discussed in the press.

Among research scientists, too, scientific communication has played a central role in the COVID-19 response. These scientists are engaging in rapid and open research and we see an increase in access to COVID-19 related information (see, for example, Taylor & Francis’s COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus Content Online). Advocacy and consideration for research and researchers has generally been high. The research community is under tremendous pressure to provide expertise and media coverage (often on subjects that are not their field), take part in COVID-19 response committees, attend many departmental meetings, adjust curriculums for online platforms, and continue to adapt their research.

They have families at home and are being tasked with a tremendous amount of increased work and responsibility. And, most importantly, they are human and deserve empathy and respect as much as we all do during this difficult time. Experts are being asked to increase their science communication outreach at an extraordinarily difficult time. The stress of being asked to give impossible answers takes its toll.

Part of the difficulty with this pandemic is that there is a lot of good, clearly communicated scientific information out there, but the ways that we engage with media significantly impacts what kinds of science communication we even encounter in the first place, and whether or not we find it credible. Misinformation can circulate rapidly through social media streams, where even discerning users can be fooled or confused. Such was the case with the viral tweet about hand sanitizer (pictured) written by someone claiming to be a scientist; while the claim that hand sanitizer has no impact on the coronavirus was quickly debunked by numerous sources, it’s likely that many individuals continue to be misinformed (not to mention that individuals may have changed their hygiene habits or missed out on buying sanitizer at the store before being corrected). Filter bubbles as designed by our online behavior and social media circles, and our frequenting of comfortable ideological echo chambers, can not only limit the kinds of sources and information that we encounter, but also give us a false sense of confidence as to being accurately informed. Relatedly, Celeste M. Condit has looked at public health officials’ communications during the Ebola crisis, revealing that political orientations can significantly influence how audiences perceive the credibility of public health establishments, their officials, and their claims. This is to say that we all play a role in effective science communication. It is our duty as rhetorical citizens to be critical information consumers and distributors, taking care to check claims and our own biases so that we don’t become unwilling participants in misinformation campaigns.

As communication experts, we can also contribute to good science communication by getting more involved in our own communities. Kirk St. Amant provides an overview of instructional and informational materials that communications professionals can create for the benefit of organizations and individuals navigating the COVID-19 crisis. Producing accessible and accurate local resources might take the form of grocery shopping checklists for stores to distribute that are designed to prepare individuals to stay at home for long periods while preventing empty shelves from bizarre panic-buying (that is, individuals won’t need a stockpile of toilet paper but are likely to need canned foods). Such interventions can cater to the expectations and needs of the local situation and assist in reducing the strain on over-extended essential services.

JH: We talk about teachable moments–what we can and can’t take from particular events. What do you see coming out of this as a teachable moment?

Universities must communicate and collaborate openly so that researchers can connect and communicate their research to colleagues in other disciplines so that everyone can work together. Government officials, scientists and medical experts (both in the lab and on the front lines), media spokespersons and citizens must collaborate in new and creative ways, largely online and under pressure.

To this end, scientists and health experts have been hurriedly working to generate research that answers fundamental questions about how the virus works, spreads, is monitored and tested for, and reported since it first appeared, yet science communication about the disease, its symptoms, characteristics, and strategies for limiting its spread have spilled across communication channels that involve nations, government priorities and political administrations, social practices and definitions of community, socioeconomic issues, healthcare systems and resources, and definitions of individual responsibility and accountability.

Whether this moment in history is ultimately viewed as a series of catastrophic errors and missteps or as a moment when humans rose up collectively, globally, to battle an invisible, deadly enemy has yet to be determined.

PhD student competes in 3MT

Long before we were social distancing, the University of Waterloo held its annual Three-Minute Thesis competition (3MT). English’s first-year PhD candidate Maude Stephany competed in the Faculty of Arts competition (fourth from left in photo above). Maude is working on “The Multiplicity of Transgender Experience,” and will be supervised by Dr. Tristanne Connolly. Their talk is available online.

Celebrating our Students: Awards!

In March, just before the cancellation of on-campus activities, the English awards committee was in full swing preparing for our annual Awards Ceremony. The English Awards are an opportunity to celebrate the outstanding work our undergraduate and graduate students have produced in the previous calendar year (for this cycle, January-December 2019). Certificates are given out, hands are shaken, photographs are taken, poetry is read, and faculty try to describe to the audience, in a few broad brushstrokes, the exceptional qualities of each student’s winning work.  The awards ceremony has always been a highlight of the winter term, celebrating its end in a convivial environment with English students, faculty, and the family and friends of award winners.

While the ceremony has been cancelled, we still wish to celebrate the achievements of our students.  To that end, we would like to take this opportunity to announce the names of the winners with our English community as a small way to ensure that our students’ talents and achievements get the recognition they deserve.

So, without further ado, this year’s award winners are:

Undergraduate Academic Awards
Albert Shaw Poetry Prize: Kurt Dutfield-Hughes
English Society Creative Writing Award for Poetry: Philip Hohol
English Society Creative Writing Award for Prose: Kristie Shannon
Andrew James Dugan Prize in Rhetoric and Professional Writing Award: Sarah Casey
Rhetoric and Digital Design Award: Danielle Griffin
Rhetoric and Professional Writing Award: Jonathon Jackson
Walter R. Martin English 251 Award: Joyce Kung
Diaspora and Transnational Studies Prize: Linhui Luo
Hibbard Prize for Shakespeare Studies: Rachel Zehr
Canadian Literature Prize: Eden McFarlane
Award in American Literature and Culture: Tristan Mills
Andrew James Dugan Prize in Literature Award: Wajiha Parvez
Masternak Foundation Undergraduate Scholarships in English: Philip Hohol and Julianna Suderman

Graduate Awards
Graduate Professional Communication Award: Marion Gruner
Rhetoric Essay Prize, Master of Arts: Jordan Kam
Rhetoric Essay Prize, PhD: Shannon Lodoen
Beltz Essay Prize, Master of Arts: Ryan Van Til
Beltz Essay Prize, PhD: Shannon Lodoen
Graduate Creative Writing Award, Poetry: Masa Torbica
Graduate Creative Writing Award, Prose: Chelsea La Vecchia
Masternak Foundation Graduate Scholarship in English: Jin Sol Kim
Jack Gray Graduate Fellowship Award: Zachary Pearl
David Nimmo English Graduate Scholarship: Lindsay Meaning

Co-op Awards
Undergraduate Co-op Work Report Award: Hanna Colbert
Graduate Co-op Work Report Awards: Carmen Barsomian-Dietrich and Pamela Schmidt

Teaching and Professionalization Awards
Lea Vogel-Nimmo English Graduate Professionalization Awards: Neha Ravella and Jerika Sanderson
TA Award for Excellence in Teaching: Valerie Uher
Independent Graduate Instructor Award for Excellence in Teaching: Hannah Watts

Pictured above: Masa Torbica, Danielle Griffin, Jin Sol Kim. Thank you to Dr. John Savarese and Dr. Andrea Jonahs for facilitating the awards. The awards committee would also like to offer a big thank you to our English office staff—Jenny Conroy, Tina Davidson, Deb Nahlik and Margaret Ulbrick — who do so much work behind the scenes, and all the faculty that served as adjudicators this year.

Alumna Sarasvathi Kannan wins HeForShe Contest

Congratulations to UWaterloo English alumna Sarasvathi Kannan, who participated in the HeForShe writing contest, winning not one but two categories! In Poetry, her piece “The Student and the Goose” was awarded; in fiction, it was “Divine Intervention.” You can read her award-winning pieces on the HeForShe website. The HeForShe competition is open to students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Other English Department people contributed to the anthology this year, from undergraduates Juliana Suderman, Nadia Formisano, and Julia Cowderoy to PhD alumnus Morteza Dehghani.

Alumna Kate Nichols: From Co-op to IBM

Co-op to IBM
Alumna Kate Nichols gives some of the best arguments for co-op I have seen! Her experience clearly led her to where she is today–read on to find out how it happened. –JLH

JLH: Can you tell us a bit about how you came to select UWaterloo English? Was it an obvious choice?
KN: I remember considering several schools. After researching the programs and taking a few campus tours, Waterloo was the top school on my list. I liked the size of the school — not too big, not too small. It felt like a University that was pushing the envelope and doing things a little bit differently with a greater variety of program options than several other schools. I didn’t seek out co-op, but once I became aware of the program and its benefits I was all in. I had a wonderful meeting with an Academic Advisor (thank you, Eric Breugst!) who helped me to select the Honours Arts & Business co-op program. From there, I found that the English Rhetoric and Professional Writing program was perfectly geared to my interest in communication, argumentation, visual design, and semiotics. Ultimately, the choice of Waterloo and English was obvious for me.

JLH: Some admit they found the idea of co-op intimidating. How did you find the transition from classroom to co-op?
KN: Apart from selecting my program, choosing co-op was the best decision I made for my undergrad. I remember the first round of interviews feeling quite stressful as I learned about the process and deadlines. Not to mention feeling a bit intimidated during my first round of interviews! Once I got the hang of it, co-op interview season was much less stressful. I was able to work at several amazing companies: Open Text, CIBC, Slipstream (startup), and IBM. Being able to rotate between school and work helped me to pay for my undergrad degree without going into debt. I was able to apply what I learned at school to work and vise versa. And school in the summer is the best! If you haven’t done it before, trust me, it is awesome.

JLH: What made you decide to pursue a Masters at UWaterloo as well?
KN: During my final semesters at school, I started to seriously consider a Masters. I really enjoyed my courses and felt like I wanted to go deeper. I had also developed connections with several of the amazing professors in the Faculty of English who encouraged me to apply. I ended up starting a full-time job at IBM after completing my undergrad and working for a year before starting a full-time Masters degree. I was able to work part-time at IBM and take on a really interesting Research Assistant position with Professor Randy Harris and Professor Sarah Tolmie. Looking back, I’m not sure how I managed full-time school and two part-time jobs but somehow I made it work and had a really great year. My Major Research Project on multi-touch tabletop computing with Professor Neil Randall was a highlight of the year, as were the connections I made with my classmates.

Like my undergrad, I considered and was accepted to several different MA programs, but Waterloo again felt like the right fit. I did not take co-op during my Masters degree since I already had that experience from undergrad.

JLH: In what ways do you think your career trajectory has been shaped by your UWaterloo experience?
KN: I can’t tell you how often I connect with colleagues at the IBM Canada Lab in Toronto who are fellow UWaterloo grads, several who are also from the English Rhetoric and Professional Writing Program. I think my experience at Waterloo taught me many things that serve me daily in my current role — communications strategies, basic visual design, writing and editing skills, speech communications, to name a few. It also taught me how to collaborate with others, juggle many different priorities (remember co-op season!), ask the right questions, and to be curious about the people and the world around me.

At IBM, I am part of a team of talented Content Designers working on our Data & AI portfolio. We are constantly looking for ways to help our clients use our newest technology to solve problems. This involves writing content, of course, but it also working with the Design team to provide design and content recommendations for the product UI, collaborating with the Development teams to understand what we are building and why, and educating people about the importance and relevance of content for our clients. In 2017, I was able to take on a management role and really enjoy working with my team and am learning how to be a good manager.

Outside of my core role, my passion project at IBM is the IBMSTEM4Girls program. Our mission is to inspire girls who want to make a difference in the world and encourage them to consider opportunities provided by STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers. We hold events throughout the year, with our most significant event being a technology camp we run each summer (2020 will be the 21st year we have run a camp at the IBM Canada Lab in Toronto!). We often have our student interns volunteer for IBMSTEM4Girls — some of them from UWaterloo!

JLH: And finally, the fun question! Can you tell us about your favorite books of the last few years?
KN: From a personal perspective, I could not stop reading North of Normal and Nearly Normal, written by Canadian Cea Sunrise Pearson. From a professional perspective, I have recently started reading Designing Connected Content: Plan and Model Digital Products for Today and Tomorrow, by Carrie Hane and Mike Atherton. I can’t provide a review yet but it looks really interesting. And for reading to my children, I have to give a shout out to fellow grad Laura Baker and her books The Colour of Happy and My Friend Sleep.



What are the grad students doing?

Every year Graduate English Students from UWaterloo, Laurier, and Guelph hold a one-day symposium where they share their research. This year’s event is Friday, January 31st, just down the road at Laurier (Hawk’s Nest, 3rd floor Fred Nichols Campus Centre, beginning at 9:45am). Join our students as they discuss everything from Selfies, Tattoos, and Disability Coverage in mainstream media, to Mira Lee’s acclaimed novel, Everything Here is Beautiful. The overarching theme this year is Medicalized Bodies in the Humanities.

MA Project aims to help New Immigrant Children

Our UWaterloo Masters in English offers multiple options: MA candidate Hasan Ahmet Gokce is pursuing his masters in part through a Major Research Paper which includes creating a magazine to help new immigrant children navigate life in Canada. For more on Hasan’s research, see this one-minute video.