Embracing wildness: we talk to Jean Fleming23/04/2014
Jean Fleming, reproductive biologist and environmentalist, will be speaking at SciCon 2014.
Jean Fleming has recently retired from her work at Otago University’s Centre for Science Communication, where she developed courses and taught the ‘Popularising Science’ stream of the MSciComm. She is also a biochemist and reproductive biologist and has worked extensively in science outreach projects, particularly for the New Zealand International Science Festival. She has won numerous awards, including an ONZM for services to science in 2002.
Hi Jean, it's great to see that you will be giving a lecture at this year's SciCon: Wild Science. What will your talk focus on?
I want to get across the idea that children need to be freer to explore, discover and “run wild”. I will present the evidence that getting kids outside to play builds stronger, healthier and happier adults, who value the land and its ecology and enjoy being in it. If we fail to give kids a chance to discover the wonders of nature, how on earth can we expect them to treat the environment with love and respect?
(Read a formal description of Jean’s presentation at the end of this interview.)
Can you tell us about your work at the Otago Centre for Science Communication?
I have just retired from the Centre for Science Communication, after six years developing courses to teach postgraduate Master of Science Communication students. The Centre only teaches postgraduate students – as well as between 50 and 60 MSciComm students at any time, we have a handful of PhD students, working on the communication of disaster risk reduction after the Canterbury quakes, communication of the science of wine, and how to use graphic design to improve people’s understanding of environmental and conservation issues. The MSciComm is a two-year course, with streams in natural history and science documentary filmmaking, creative non-fiction writing about science or scientists, and popularising science. This latter stream encompasses everything from media analysis of scientific issues, to website design, app development, or work to evaluate better teaching methods for science in schools. In the first year of the degree, students do courses in film technique, e-book publication, creative and critical thinking, and the art of storytelling. The MSciComm is unique in that it combines the creative with the academic. The Centre aims to get our graduates “walking the talk”, taking science into the community in various ways.
What do you most enjoy about your work as an educator?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata! For me, the students were my reason to be there. Over my 21 years teaching in various parts of academia, I have enjoyed watching young people “find themselves” as they go through their chosen degree. I have to admit to enjoying the process of publishing the findings of my own and student research, as well.
Otago's Centre for Science Communication is the world's largest. Why do you think New Zealand is leading the way in this field?
In May, I am attending the Public Communication of Science & Technology conference in Brazil to talk about the emergence of science communication in New Zealand. I will be one of over a dozen people representing countries from the UK and US, through to Mexico, Estonia, and Finland, all talking about the rise and rise of science communication as a discipline in their countries. Science communication is growing throughout the world, not just in New Zealand, and some European countries have time lines stretching back to the 15th century with regards to organisations and academic institutions working on presenting science to society. On the other hand, New Zealand is a long, thin country, and apparently about the last to be found by humans in the world. Our relative isolation and rugged geography has ensured a culture of exploration, discovery, and communication, in my opinion – the “number 8 wire” phenomenon. We also have an indigenous culture with well-honed communication skills: Māori used chants, whakatauki, and even string “games” (whai) to pass on astronomical, agricultural, and historical knowledge.
The Otago Centre for Science Communication is by no means the first of its kind, though. Many other countries have been teaching undergraduate and postgraduate science communication and effective outreach techniques for many years. The Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, in the Australian National University, Canberra, has run courses for over 20 years and there have been documentary filmmaking courses in the US for ages too. Otago’s Centre is, however, unique in its approach to combining the creative with the academic and the digital with educational approaches, and also in its long-term relationship with NHNZ, the internationally recognised documentary filmmakers, based in Dunedin. The centre attracts many international students to all the streams, making for a rich blend of creative and passionate students with a strong interest in science. The centre is also expanding rapidly, with new staff replacing me in the near future.
You are also a reproductive biologist. What was your path to this discipline?
How long do you have? My career as a reproductive biologist started in the 1980s, concomitant to my having a son. In fact, the two were not related intentionally! My original degree was in biochemistry at Victoria University Wellington, in the early 1970s. I then worked for five years in Cambridge, UK, primarily on human brain biochemistry in Huntington Disease. When I returned to New Zealand, I got a job with an endocrinologist (hormones) in the Wellington Clinical School (Otago Uni), which quickly transmogrified into an MSc. My research was on a new way of isolating the cells in the testes that make testosterone. I went on to do a PhD on the brain peptide that controls reproductive hormone release from the pituitary gland, gonadotrophin-releasing hormone. I was using specific antibodies to try to identify precursor protein forms of this 10 amino acid peptide. Inevitably, on the day I submitted my doorstopper thesis (I always was long-winded), a paper came out on the gene sequence of the GnRH gene.
After that, I worked in AgResearch on the reproductive biology of the super-fertile Booroola sheep, and then later, on the growth of the velvet antler (this was probably the most fascinating of all the projects I’ve worked on). I joined Otago University as a Lecturer in Physiology in 1994, and moved to join the other reproductive biologists in the Department of Anatomy in 1999. For years, I worked on ovulation in mice, observing the “healing” of the ovulation wound, using scanning electron microscopy and looking at the effects of a high total lifetime ovulation number, on ovarian morphology and cyst formation. My later research was centred on trying to understand the cellular basis of epithelial ovarian cancer. I still have a couple of papers to write on that topic – some day …
What would you like to do over the next five or ten years?
Having retired, I am busier than ever! Doors are opening everywhere, and I find myself learning to say “no” at last. I am about to go off on a Heritage Expedition in the Pacific, looking at birds. This is my “retirement treat”. There are conferences to speak at and a whole range of books and papers to write. I have science communication research from at least four students to publish – the proofs are back from the first paper submitted. So while I would like to “do nothing and do it slowly”, to quote an old friend of mine, I don’t think I am cut out for that. I don’t have any real aims. I want to grow my own food more, ride my electric bike more and spend more time with family and friends. I know I will work towards community resilience in the face of climate change and I do have a dream of walking or biking through the country recording people’s personal responses to climate change and evaluating New Zealanders’ ideas to preserving their way of life, as well as their environment. I am Green as Green but actually think I want to avoid politics and politicians as much as possible in this next stage of my life.
Thank you, Jean. We’re looking forward to your presentation at SciCon 2014 in July.
Introduction to Jean’s talk: Growing resilient children – getting kids wild about nature.
Professor Emerita Jean Fleming, recently retired from Otago University’s Centre for Science Communication, thinks kids need to go wild more often. In the Peter Spratt Memorial Lecture, Jean will discuss why it is so important to engage and support children in the natural world. But not just children: to build resilient communities, engaged with the challenges of today’s world, we need the parents and teachers to understand the importance of our relationship with the natural world. Jean believes personal and family resilience leads to strong schools and communities and a population more likely to engage with climate change.
Jean has a long-standing interest in outreach of science into the community and has helped organise both Hands-on Science for secondary school pupils and the New Zealand International Science Festival for over twenty years.
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