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Taking science out of the box

Bonnie Schmidt, PhD

On any given Friday night during her graduate studies, Bonnie Schmidt, PhD’93, could be found tending bar at an east London establishment. The part-time job not only helped her to make ends meet, but it also served as a platform for her to talk about science and her research.  

Schmidt recalls just how eager the bar patrons were to learn more about science and how engaged they were when she discussed her work. The thirst for knowledge Schmidt witnessed in the bar convinced her that science should never be an elite topic.

Today, Schmidt is the Founder and President of Let’s Talk Science, an award-winning, national, charitable organization focused on science education and outreach to support youth development. She is also among 100 new Order of Canada appointees that were announced on July 1, 2015.

During Homecoming 2015, Schmidt will present “Inspiring Futures” at the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture. During the session, she will talk about the history and impact of Let’s Talk Science, from the program’s conception at Western University to its transformation into a national science literacy movement inspiring youth.

As a young undergraduate student at Western, Schmidt had the good fortune, herself, to be inspired by several researchers including Jane Rylett, PhD’80. “She was a fantastic role model for me,” she said of Rylett who, initially, served as her fourth-year advisor.

Schmidt continued working with Rylett on her master’s degree and when she switched into her PhD, focusing her research on an enzyme that was implicated in Alzheimer’s disease.

It was the early 1990s, and the economic recession was taking hold of the country. Educators at all levels and researchers were faced with increased funding cutbacks. As a result, local elementary and secondary school teachers were reaching out to universities hoping to enrich their programs. An ongoing divide between post-secondary institutions and local educators, and a lack of infrastructure to support these initiatives, meant calls went unanswered.

Schmidt and a small group of graduate students from the Department of Physiology attempted to find a solution. “In the first year, we were an underground movement,” said Schmidt.

Calling themselves Physiology Outreach, the group partnered graduate students with teachers, found resources and cleared the pathways for access to libraries and labs.

By the second year of their program, several other departments at the University joined the physiology students. By the third year, there were over 20 departments across campus wanting to get involved, and soon the University of Ottawa and Queen’s University joined the ranks as a result of a Western alumni and a physiology faculty member at the institutions. As the group diversified they changed their name, and Let’s Talk Science was born in its initial form.

In 1993, Schmidt was putting the finishing touches on her PhD thesis when she received an unexpected invitation from the late Joan Francolini, who was the Executive Director of the Lawson Foundation. Francolini asked Schmidt to put together an application for funding to create her own "post-doctoral position" to stay in Canada and expand Let’s Talk Science.

Twenty-two years later, Let’s Talk Science is a national organization with 41 university and college partners and 3,500 volunteers. Schmidt focuses her time and energy on strategy, funding and the governance of the organization, while a team spread out across the country advances the organization’s mission.

Schmidt believes that Let’s Talk Science is unique because it understands the existing barriers to engaging youth, has access to qualified and enthusiastic educators, uses a skills-based approach, and believes that children and youth are naturally curious and inquisitive.

Like most successful leaders, Schmidt is committed to growing and diversifying the organization. This fall, for example, they will be working with every single grade one teacher in Newfoundland building their science skills. The organization also offers more volunteers than the original outreach program now.

Despite her success, and the award and accolades she has received, Schmidt is quick to acknowledge the many mentors and supporters she has had throughout her career. Mitch Baran, Gordon Osbaldeston, David Colcleugh, Mark Poznansky and many more have been there for her – providing advice, lending their support and inspiring investment in Let’s Talk Science.

In the end, for Schmidt, her work is about taking science out of the box, sharing it and enjoying it with young school children and adults alike – whether it’s in the classroom, around the dinner table or at a local bar.