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Science Rendezvous - 

Research Matters Booth

Research Matters booth and volunteers

Volunteers for the day (L to R): Saba, Chloe, Kelly,, Dr Coughlan,  Melinda, Erin

"The Curious Case of Science Rendezvous" 

by Sharday Mosurinjohn, May 2014

If you could choose one question to have answered by an expert, which of your curiosities would you satisfy? The Curiosity Shop is a travelling venue, supported through the Ontario Council of Universities’ Research Matters project, aiming to offer just that chance. 

Of course the pop-up booth can’t contain an endless supply of experts, but it does offer visitors the opportunity to ask a question they have always been curious about. The latest installment of the Curiosity Shop, held in connection with Kingston’s annual Science Rendezvous, was staffed by three Queen’s graduate volunteers: Saba Farbodkia (PhD, neuroscience), Chloe Hudson (MSc, clinical psychology), and Erin Clow (PhD, political studies).

First, the volunteers would help visitors—mostly school-aged children—frame their question in writing. Next, they would take a picture of the asker holding up their question, and then print it off so the kids could take it home with them. Finally, each of the hundreds of questions were then entered for a chance to be one of ten that will ultimately be answered by subject area experts from across the province.

In the words of volunteer Saba Farbodkia, the Curiosity Shop’s aim is to spread a message about “the importance of university research in producing knowledge and technology that affects our daily lives.” It encourages kids and their parents to channel their “inner scientist” and shows them “how precious their curiosity is in forming even simple questions.” Similarly, the overall aim of the Curiosity Shop’s parent project Research Matters is to explore “how Ontario university research affects everyday life, and improves the ways people live, work and play.” It’s one among a number of public outreach initiatives of the Council of Ontario Universities.

According to Chloe Hudson, the experience was a reminder about just how much we don’t know. “Children would sometimes come up with research questions that we don't have the answers to yet. I hope these kids hold onto their questions and help us find the answers!” Hudson’s enthusiasm has to do not only with the fact that she loves engaging with the community in her hometown, but also that her own research focuses on children—specifically, how bullying in peer interactions for children with autism spectrum disorder can lead to the development of depression and anxiety.

A former recruitment officer for Trent University, Erin Clow emphasizes how the Curiosity Shop makes the research world feel accessible, even to kids. “I had expected we would hear mostly simple questions but we got a huge range. Some kids wanted to know what colour unicorns were. Some wondered about the gender of God. Someone else posed an ethics problem, asking: if you had a cure for cancer would you share it with the world?”

Those involved with the Curiosity Shop recognize that the world of science in particular and the academy in general can seem distant from much of the public. The point behind a resource like this one is “to create a point where these two worlds can intersect,” explains Clow. As a socially engaged researcher (Clow’s work questions how issues of gender and race play out in microfinance organizations) she values this in-between space—increasingly referred to as the “alt-ac” domain. One of the effects of a project like the Curiosity Shop is to show how research both travels and takes place outside of the university.

For Farbodkia, helping out with the Curiosity Shop appealed as a chance to “raise awareness about how research shapes government and organizations' policies.” This effort is near and dear to Farbodkia, who left her native Iran because pursuing doctoral work there was impossible for her as a person of the Baha’i faith, a minority religion which faces systemic discrimination in education and other domains. Her research now looks at issues in how the brain encodes information with the hope of working in the future on cognitive brain-machine interfaces.

For all three graduate volunteers, the Curiosity Shop was a chance to think about their research in relation to the local community and the various groups beyond it who may support, challenge, or benefit from their findings. As university-based researchers used to delivering information at venues such as conferences and in classrooms, the opportunity for one-to-one conversation was one that foregrounded the role of personal curiosity and passion as the ultimate drivers of research. With hundreds of visitors to this year’s Curiosity Shop alone, it’s clear that the format offered something equally exciting for visitors.

If you’re interested in getting involved with the Curiosity Shop, other Research Matters initiatives, or volunteering for the School of Graduate Studies, you can get in touch with the SGS through email (grad.studies@queensu.ca), phone (1-613-533-6100) or in person Gordon Hall Room 425, 74 Union Street (Monday-Friday 8:30am-12pm, 1pm-4:30pm).

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