Outside the comfort zone

If anyone had told me 20 years ago that I’d be spending much of my time interviewing scientists, I’d have told them to think again.

You see, I was a typical arts student – someone who quit science as soon as possible, right after Grade 10 Physics. Instead of learning the periodic table, I studied French, Spanish, History, Literature and lots and lots of Music.

I only took Grade 13 Calculus because my economist father insisted. For the record, I got an ‘A,’ although I can’t say that it’s ever come in handy!


I got an ‘A’ – but still don’t know what this means!

So I’m pleasantly surprised at how much fun I’ve been having writing stories about some of the cutting-edge research being done at Western University.

In March, I had the opportunity to interview two members of the engineering department – professors Jason Gerhard and Greg Kopp.

Kopp is a wind engineer who works at the Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel Laboratory, where models of some of the world’s most famous skyscrapers and bridges are tested before being built.  I was there to ask him about his research at the “Three Little Pigs” facility – otherwise known as the Insurance Research Lab for Better Homes.

Three Little Pigs

Professor Kopp is working to make sure your home never gets blown down!

In a nutshell, Kopp and his colleagues get to build full-scale houses and then try to blow them down – mimicking and studying the effects of hurricane force winds. The point, of course, is to make recommendations to building code regulations that will make all of our homes safer.

You can read about his work here.

Then, it was time to think about toilets – or the lack of them in most parts of the world.

Professor Jason Gerhard is part of a team that placed third in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. Their mission? To develop a cheap and effective toilet that runs without outside electricity or a sewer connection for the estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide who currently don’t have access to safe sanitation.

Toilet bowl

An estimated 2.5 billion people don’t have access to a toilet.

You can read about Gerhard’s contribution to the project here.

Was it scary to interview people who spend their lives working in disciplines that I have always done my best to avoid? A bit. But I did lots of background reading – on the professors, their projects, and the issues at hand.

It was fascinating to learn about their work, and fun to have the opportunity to ask all the ‘dumb’ questions necessary to write stories for a general audience.

And despite being a science neophyte, I guess I got most of my facts straight, because I’ve already accepted my next assignment!

The moral of this blog? That your comfort zone may be bigger than you think!

What’s the scariest story you’ve ever written?